The best story I ever wrote came about this summer of all summers. It’s called “Animals with Nowhere to Go.” I’m still working on it. This has been a year that makes it nearly impossible for writers to end their stories. I read that compendium of fiction published in the July 12, 2020 New York Times Sunday Magazine section. None of those pieces seemed to end properly. I can only imagine each writer — great writers! great stories! — had to fight hard to stay away from endings that finish with question marks.
I’m having a difficult time figuring out what tense to use as I write this essay because I can’t tell if what we’ve lived through is still being lived or whether we are actually on to something else.
There are things you depend on in order to create fiction that actually means something. Those things had vanished for most of us by the middle of 2020. We were in new territory. This year may well be as close to chaos and Kurtzian horror as we’ve ever been (although I’m beginning to have grave concerns for 2021 as well).
Certainly, trying to write stories about a country you no longer recognize or want to be a part of is a difficult task. Even now, as we close in on what has become a touchstone American election for the ages, I struggle with where we are and where we’ve been since the beginning of the year where we found ourselves with an impeached President and a do-nothing Senate looking the other way. Add the left field, more or less random deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, and everyone else on board that helicopter. It wasn’t even really senseless, just unnecessary.
So maybe of course it’s been rough going all year coming up with stories that might legitimately end in a meaningful way.
By mid-summer I was trying to figure out if other writers were baffled by the same problem I was. We were in a state of limbo — the whole country, and to a certain extent the entire world. It was bad enough we had to deal with the added burden of economic malaise because of the need to shut down so many types of face-to-face businesses due to Covid-19; and that we all had to watch a White House and a Republican Senate completely demonstrate their incompetence as leaders and their bizarre inability to plan anything other than how to cheat and lie in order to control the judicial branch; and that we were forced to confront the problem of unnecessary police violence towards Black and Brown men not once with George Floyd but, it seems now, almost weekly in a sickening and almost ritualistic way of reminding us how far off track the notion of policing actually has become and how truly sad it is that we have fellow citizens convinced that they are fighting a war against those less fortunate than them and that they — the police — are taught that because of the fear every one of us can imagine they feel regularly in doing their jobs, they need to be warriors and fighters and indomitable in order to control that fear and their basic human sense of vulnerability.
All of that was going on for each of us by June. We were, every last one of us, in the shit. Didn’t matter if you were a conservative or a liberal, a reactionary or a revolutionary. Didn’t matter what skin tone you (idiotically) thought you belonged to. Didn’t matter your age, gender, religion, TV watching behavior, or whether you read things off screen/on paper (because you understand the problem with virtual information), we were all at the mercy of a whole bunch of fuck ups — and whether we wanted to admit it or not, most of those fuck ups were caused by all of us together in our own little ways.
Beyond it all was the weird feeling of “how is this going to end?” Also, “when (the fuck!) is it going to end?” From mid-March on, a lot of people had been talking about “things going back to normal.” By June it was pretty clear to most of us with sense that, actually, there had never been a normal, which was partly why we were having so many problems.
But it was still quite reasonable for anyone to wonder when things would become more manageable, predictable, simple, and obvious.
To say we’re in limbo two days before the 2020 national election where the 45th president’s performance as a leader is about to be judged is probably a stupid sounding statement. Simple logic should tell us that once we get through this election we can move to the business of our future. But it’s not really that simple, is it? We all know Trumpism (if that’s anything) is the result of several decades of American economic and psychological history.
And American policing is the result of centuries of the need for social control, especially of all the versions of poor people we’ve come up with and our tragic inability to listen to downtrodden people when they’re in pain and frustrated (as everyone of us would be in a similar situation).
There’s our collective pathetic stupidity as well — and maybe it’s just the human condition — but the “I got mine” mentality each of us is capable of, along with the lethargy that seems to justify all selfishness, is a root cause of so much pain and hostility everywhere — from Woonsocket to Lodi to Fort Yukon.
By mid-summer of 2020 I had no sense of an ending to so much in this human existence. Writing stories — didn’t matter the length — continually forced me to confront a sense that maybe nothing is allowed to have an ending right now. Everything is indefinite.
And the question: Have we entered a new reality where nothing can be manageable, predictable, simple, and obvious ever again? Maybe the answer is too obvious.
When you don’t live in a world where truth and reality are the bedrock of human discourse for half the population, where culture is governed first by lies and myth and loud volumes and force and aggression, where truth and reality require exhausting vigilance, anything goes. All the time. Life becomes less and less manageable and obvious — for everyone. Maybe especially for those who lie and manipulate. They lose sense of what they’re trying to accomplish and why they are so intent on distorting reality for everyone and where they’re trying to take us (recall that these people have no discernible ability to plan anything beyond lying and cheating and duping the dupable).
So here we are. Two days out before the election. I’m up early to write this shiv of a screed. We know that getting rid of Trump and partially muting the Tea Partying Republicans in Washington (and around the country) isn’t going to be the end of Coronavirus or Racism or the idea of Policing in America. I know that it will continue to be difficult to come up with endings to my stories. It’s always difficult. But maybe we’re about to pivot. It may be difficult and painful, but certainly the way things have been going since Republican Americans decided they had an apparently serious problem with a dark-skinned, lovable, talented, intelligent, and admirable family in the White House has to change.
… or maybe it doesn’t. And then the pivot moment, the inflection point, whatever we’ve been hoping would shift our brains away from this sense of limbo and incompetence as a people, becomes something that is, even now, just two days from the election, impossible to conceive of.
Whatever the case, it feels like I may be working a long time to properly finish my story “Animals with Nowhere to Go.” I don’t want it to be pessimistic or negative. But I don’t want it to be dumb and hopeful either. Most certainly, at the moment I don’t have the ability to end it the way someone who actually came through all of 2020 might end something. So, for now, I’m just going to wait and keep plugging away.
Let me leave you this morning with the final words of Joseph Conrad’s great novella:
“The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”– Heart of Darkness