Do characters in literature recognize when their chapter has come to an end? Once upon a time I thought I wanted to tell stories.
This morning I sit looking out my window at rain-slick Troost Avenue cutting northward through the city, slicing like a two-edged sword, severing Kansas City by class and by race and yes that happened a long time ago, but the wounds are bleeding still. It’s springtime, and my apartment sits up above a retail space so the canopy of an ash splay light-green leaves outside my window. The tree is bursting through a patch of ground between the sidewalk and the street where it was long ago planted to shade the walkways now buckling above its roots.
That may be the end of a sentence. That may be the end of a page.
At Langley we learned that all stories had a beginning, and a middle, and an end.
That’s Samuel Pierpont Langley Elementary School. Not Langley, Virginia, of spy thriller fame. I am no more former CIA than Chuck Barris was.
Those early lessons in literary structure might well have been learned at Benjamin Syms Junior High or Poquoson High School, and I am certain literature classes reiterated those lessons at each step along the way: stories need exposition and conflict and resolution. That conflict might be with the environment, other people, or even one’s self, but the whole point of Story was ever and always the protagonist’s triumph over the object of conflict.
Story can be inspiration for mere mortals or cautionary tales for the overly adventurous.
Whether novels, short stories, epic poetry, folk tales, or Mythology, the narrative arc is the normative reality. Stories lend a sense of meaning to a meaningless universe. Stories erect order upon the quicksand of chaos.
We see it through ten thousand years of potshards and tablets and crumbling scrolls. Every encounter we moderns have with preliterate cultures suggests that stories conforming to this pattern are established at the essence of our being.
This is why I sit at my window, ransacking a collection of literary metaphors for the newest twist in this tale told by an idiot.
Turning over a new leaf? Writing a new chapter? Turn the page? (Oh, God, no.)
Everything I try to say comes out hackneyed, trite, cliché.
At an age most men are approaching retirement and others are wondering how they will possibly scrape by on the crumbs that fall through the security net, I am taking my very first apartment. After a life living with roommates and spouses and family and friends I have a copy of a lease where the only name is mine. It feels like a big thing. Like the start of an adventure.
It has been my experience it is a mistake to try grafting a narrative arc over one’s own life. Besides, from Beowulf to Willie Loman, guys my age tend to make their literary mark by dying in an unpleasant fashion.
There is a passage in Breakfast of Champions where Vonnegut indicts “old-fashioned storytellers” for “mak(ing) people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.” He diagnoses contemporary angst as stemming from the public’s efforts to live like fictional protagonists.
So maybe it’s not a new chapter, not a new page, not the start of a new adventure. Maybe it’s just a little plot of chaos where I can kick around for a while.