When Reality Is Surreal, Only Fiction Can Make Sense of It
Sometimes reality simply sucks. An ugly expression, to be sure, but I don't know of a better way to put it (besides, who doesn't like alliteration?). Are we living in such a time now, a time when reality simply sucks? Multiple crises afflict us, among them pandemic and contagion, concomitant economic disaster, persistent racial injustice, ever-present climate change, and, to top it all off, virulent political divisiveness and disunity. When you're in the midst of trauma, as the nation---indeed, the world---seems to be, it's difficult to know if the present time will lead to utter catastrophe and devastation, or whether we'll somehow muddle through, though partying at bars and other venues during a pandemic seems positively surreal, the 21st century's echo of the danse macabre of the 14th century's Black Death. A Distant Mirror indeed, Ms. Tuchman.
On the other hand, people are resilient---something we often forget---and muddling through shouldn't necessarily be looked down on. At least it's better than catastrophe, though the nihilists among us might argue that.
When reality itself seems surreal, how can we make sense of it? An answer may be, believe it or not, fiction. During the midst of the Black Death of the mid-14th century, Boccaccio writes the Decameron, a frame story in which ten people, seven women and three men, flee the plague-ridden city of Florence. The ten agree to pass the time telling stories, with a different member setting the themes for that day. The stories tend to be, especially at first, according to an introduction by Rivka Galchen, comic and silly. But slowly, over the course of time, their stories change. They become tragic, sad, bring about tears, which may reflect not only the content of the stories but also what the ten have left behind, and what they ultimately go back to. As Galchen states, "Boccaccio writes that during the Black Death the people of Florence stopped mourning or weeping over the dead. After some days away, the young storytellers of his tale are finally able to cry, nominally over imaginary tales of tragic love, but more likely from their own hearts."
Enter The New York Times Magazine. It has given us "The Decameron Project" and published (now available online) twenty-nine stories, by twenty-nine contemporary authors, for this Sunday's edition of the magazine. Margaret Atwood leads off the series in a story entitled "Impatient Griselda." A taste: "No, you are not . . . children, Madam-Sir. You are 42. Among us you would be the children, but you are not from our planet or even our galaxy. Thank you, Sir or Madam." Impatient Griselda is a kind of send-up of Boccaccio's last story of the Decameron, of Patient Griselda, and quite amusing.
These twenty-nine stories may not only entertain us, allowing us the momentary escape from the tragedies we are witness to, but also give us heart. Just possibly, "When reality is surreal, only fiction can make sense of it." And that's no danse macabre.