Sentences — December 15, 2008, 4:53 pm

Disastrous Fictions

wyattsicyroad

The hum you hear in the background is a propane generator giving me just enough juice to charge a laptop and brew some coffee–day four in life without power in post-ice storm New England; telephone and power poles, power lines, and every other tree, all epically askew, if not exploded altogether. All creepy-pretty, for the first 72 hours, when everything was packed in light-refracting ice. But now the temperature is up and the ice has melted and gone thudding to the ground. Enter the days of mud.

Naturally one’s thoughts turn to fiction, particularly those fictions that put disasters at their center. I do not mean, of course, disaster porn like The Towering Inferno or Titanic. Rather, stories that borrow the power of actuality and loan it to fiction. The external disaster–the flood, the fire, the tsunami, the ice storm–artfully employed, can intensify and clarify a character or characters’ inner misadventures.

Of course, the fiction writer temped to make such a loan puts himself at risk: it’s very easy to overextend the enterprise, to push it or be pushed by it. Imagine a short story called, say, “Powerless”. Would I even need to sketch the plot? Probably not. And yet the temptation to have the outer mirror the inner is old, and its rewards are rich. The Greeks were good at maintaining a balance, keeping the usefully clear from becoming the terribly obvious. Frogs, clouds, plagues: Nature in its varied forms arrived punctually and dramatically to inform the human state of things, to allow the literal to resonate unto the metaphorical.

Such a balance is, I’m sure, a challenge to maintain. Too easily, the weight of the natural can overwhelm the actual, can make fiction merely metaphoric, starved of literality. Less riskily, moments in nature can be used to inform moments in fiction. From Eudora Welty’s story “The Wide Net:”

Then the light changed the water until all about them the woods in the rising wind seemed to grow taller and blow inward together and suddenly turn dark. The rain struck heavily. A huge tail seemed to lash through the air and the river broke in a wound of silver. In silence the party crouched and stooped beside the trunk of the great tree, which in the push of the storm rose full of a fragrance and unyielding weight. Where they all stared, past their tree, was another tree, and beyond that another and another, all the way down the bank of the river, all towering and darkened in the storm.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author
Article
Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If you short-circuit the bottom, you threaten the entire cycle,” Joye told me. “Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.”
Illustration by John Ritter

Length in days of the sentence Russian blogger Alexei Navalny served for leading an opposition rally last year:

15

Israeli researchers developed software that evaluates the depression of bloggers.

A teenager in Singapore was convicted of obscenity for posts critical of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding father, that included an image of Lee having sex with Margaret Thatcher.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today