Thrown Out of the Story

You're reading along in a book you enjoy, when suddenly you notice something wrong. Maybe it's a fantasy story in a medieval setting and somebody refers to "oxygen." Maybe an awkward description makes you think a woman is dangling backwards to the floor instead of being carried romantically across a threshold. Maybe it's The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon) , and you notice a character is on the wrong side of the Seine.

Anachronisms, sloppy writing, and sloppy research. It's a writerly flaw called being "thrown out of the story." Because instead of remaining in the world the writer has created, you back up, scratch your head, and say, huh? WTF?

Lately it occurs to me that it's also a good metaphor for our national narrative. I think a lot of people feel that they have been thrown out of the story. They're scratching their heads saying, "Huh? WTF?"

For generations, it seems, our national narrative has been one of inclusion, of progress, of fulfilling promise, of doing better for ourselves. Today it seems as if the combination of recession and globalization have turned our worlds upside down. American jobs in India? Not in the story we thought we were reading. Our children moving back home unable to pay their student loans? That wasn't what the blurb on the book promised. A country where half of us look at the other half in fear and loathing? We didn't think we had picked this story from the horror section.

Sometimes in a written story it is possible to go back, to insert the word "aether" for "oxygen." Sometimes it's a little more complicated. Rearranging the choreography might get these characters over that threshold without damaging each other. Sometimes it requires an entire rewrite. Getting the character to the right side of the Seine may mean changing the trajectory of the story itself.

A new narrative for our country might have to include new terms to define the future. New ways to work together with less harm. A new plot that includes the people who live beyond our borders. All of which will have to write us into a new story, one in which we can see ourselves living well and purposefully.

That narrative may be being written as I write this, but I'm afraid there are lots of plot lines yet to be resolved. We are at this point a country of characters in search of a story.