Living outside of stories, or When does Lennie poop?

There is symbolic value in this photo only if you want there to be symbolic value there.

There is symbolic value in this photo only if you want there to be symbolic value.

Where do literary characters go when they’re not on the page?

When I watch outtakes from a movie, I can see the actors stop being the characters and return to being actors. Of course, they never stopped being the actors; the characters they play are just ideas.

And so are the characters in a fiction or nonfiction narrative. They’re just ideas, which is to say, they aren’t physically real at all. You can’t touch Sherlock Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” you can’t touch Abraham Lincoln in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” and neither you nor I can touch the person who, according to my journal today, got a cavity filled yesterday. Yesterday-me is not who I am now.

When we tell stories, we turn real (nonfiction) or imagined (fiction) experiences into ideas. What one sees as a real person with particular traits (this height, that eye color, a certain laugh, a tone of voice) becomes just “Jim” or “a tall man with blue-green eyes,” etc. We give up particulars, abstracting the experience so we can communicate it. And while we can give in-depth descriptions of particular things, we are at best only specifying an idea, not really conveying the experience itself. To tell a reasonably compact story, we limit our descriptions to just what we think are the most-important things (and, I suggest, choosing what was most-important may not be a conscious, intentional process).

As we tell our own stories and take in others’, we get more efficient at turning experience into stories, so that not only does the process start to seem automatic but we may even start making our stories interesting in themselves, as entertaining abstractions. For instance, if we decide to tell an experience as a comic narrative, we may choose funny words, reveal things in order to create tension or suspense, and even exaggerate certain aspects of the story, all in service of making the story itself into a work of art. Two people who witness the same event may turn it into very different stories.

The broader concept here is that when we turn our experiences into stories (and even as we store our experiences as remembered narratives), we are no longer dealing with physical reality but with ideas. Particularly when we read or listen to others’ stories, we are getting not the experiences that they had but their  interpretations of those experiences into abstractions. This can lead us astray if we take the stories as somehow more real than reality. It has taken me years to learn this.

One issue with making stories is editing — what to leave in and what to crop out. A story is usually organized around around a central theme — say, all the times I went to the E.R. — or around a plot that shows how characters’ actions result in a logical or likely consequence — for instance, in “Of Mice and Men,” how George and Lennie’s choices result in two deaths. The storyteller must include the parts needed to tell a satisfying narrative, and exclude parts would be off-topic or digressive. When information is organized thematically, around a topic or plot, it is not necessarily complete chronologically (or in other ways). (On the other hand, texts that are organized chronologically, like my daily journals, describe all the things in the order they happened (more or less), but these things may not have any connection to each other and may be thematically ordered into several different themes or plots.)

We live chronologically, where a bunch of unrelated stuff happens in one day, but we mostly tell stories thematically, skipping around in time.

When we read a story such as “Of Mice and Men,” which tells about decisions and deaths across three days in the lives of characters George and Lennie in less than 120 pages, chronological time will be skipped. We don’t know what the characters are doing in each moment of the day — for instance, we never see Lennie poop. Not that we need to see Lennie poop — that’s not the organizing theme of the story! But the story we’re told includes only those aspects that lead up to, that contribute to, the murders at the end of the book. It’s a story about murders; it’s a story where the plot is central (more than, say, the characters).

But, back to the original question in this post, where are George and Lennie when they’re not on the page? Perhaps they are occupying entirely different novels, essays, or poems — George’s travel memoir, “Me and Lennie,” Lennie’s Montaigne-style ponderings, “Why I Like to Touch Soft Things,” or Curley’s poem, “Ode to Things I Hate about Guys Bigger Than Me.” And if these characters were real people, they would surely have done things like wiping the sweat off their brows as they did fieldwork, and maybe stopping to appreciate the summer flowers.

In other words, the characters, if they lived like real people, would not have known that they were in a plot at all. They saw things, met people, had various and disparate experiences, and only at what constitutes the end of the story did George decide that he had to kill Lennie. Up until what occupies the last minutes (in story-time) of the book, none of the characters in the book would have had any idea of what the plot was — in our own lives, we can see things like plot (causal relationships) only in retrospect. There’s no such thing as foreshadowing until after the fact (as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20). And in fact, there are no such organizing principles as theme or plot in our lives as we live them. This is to say, theme and plot are aspects only of stories, and not of real life. Of course, if we are interviewed and asked something like, “What was the most important moment in your life,” we may be able to come up with an answer, but of course, this would be an arbitrary choice and an abstraction. One person could write about her own life experiences in many different ways, say, as comedy, as tragedy, etc. — and there’s no one correct story of her life. Perhaps all meaning that is derived from our experiences is exactly that — derived, a result of our interpretation — and there’s no meaning that’s inherent in our experiences.

In a story like “Of Mice and Men,” we see characters on what will probably (hopefully, for their sake) be the worst day of their lives. I feel bad for them — I wouldn’t want to be judged by how I acted on the worst day of my life. I wonder what these characters would’ve been like in other contexts — say, if they were paid for their labor and took the afternoon off to go on a picnic, say. (Or these other possibilities.)

At least, on a picnic, they would’ve been eating not abstractions but particular foods — not “an apple,” but this apple, with its particular shape and spots and taste. I too like to return to particulars, to draw my attention away from the abstractions of words and ideas and toward the particulars around me: this bite of sandwich, this smooth pen, this slanted sidewalk — and all the other things that seem physically real and thus don’t need my (and our) names for them. When my attention is directed toward real, particular, physical things, I am able to live outside of labels and principles and stories myself. I can be undefined, as can everything around me. It’s not a feeling that lasts long, but it’s kinda wonderful to not have to live as if I were a character myself, trapped in some plot, some theme, my life always having to mean something — how tedious that would be!

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