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November 16, 2007

Modernity murdered narrative

One hundred years ago people were concerned about modernity in fiction– I know this. That some considered lightbulbs and radios too plastic for literature, which was made for weightier things. I once read an essay by Woolf about writing and the automobile, and how riding in a car could alter one’s perspective, permanently. Dangerously? Modern life is rubbish, so they say, and so it always has been. But I maintain that it’s never been so rubbish as since the turn of this century, and I mean this narratively speaking.

It’s not modernity I fault, and I don’t even mind plastic; I like Douglas Coupland. I just feel that the last ten years have brought forth too many conveniences in real life which have taken all the fun out of fiction. I’ve written before of my aversion to cellphones and google searches as plot devices, but I can take this much further.

I’m now reading Love Falls by Esther Freud, which takes place in 1981: Lara and her father are taking the train to France. Now I took the train to France once, in 2003. We got on the Eurostar at Waterloo Station, countryside faded away as we disappeared underground, we played travel-scrabble until the pressure of the channel tunnel gave me a migraine, and I spent the rest of the journey staring out the window at nothing. We got to Paris and I took to my bed. Which actually is a marvelous sentence, isn’t it? Though I assure you the whole ordeal was really quite unromantic.

Whereas if we’d taken the train to Dover, taken a boat across the channel… isn’t the journey better already? Aren’t stories better when characters have to search for phone boxes (esp. when the first few they encounter are always out of order) rather than retrieving a mobile from their pocket? Would your rather discover a twist in a tale in a reference library or at an internet terminal? How do you ever get lost with a GPS in your car, and what kind of character never takes a wrong turn? Oh my, what if Lara and her father had made the trek on EasyJet– could you imagine anything worse?

Of course all these things exist, and so we’ll have to learn how to make stories with them. The trick, I think, is not to use them as shortcuts in narrative. But then not such an easy trick, is it, considering how much all these things shortcut our everyday lives.

UPDATE: On how modernity has rendered Jane Eyre impossible.

One thought on “Modernity murdered narrative”

  1. Steven W. Beattie says:

    I love watching horror movies these days because if the screenwriter wants to isolate the film’s characters it’s become essential to devise some reason for why the characters’ cell phones don’t work.

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