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 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.
“The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years.”
© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis
Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
Giving Up the Ghost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Stories about past lives help explain this life — they promise a root structure beneath the inexplicable soil of what we see and live and know, what we offer one another.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:

Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today