Unpredictable Future

This past week was very stressful, in large part because of a variety of events I couldn’t have predicted but which took up a great deal of time, emotional energy, and even brain space as I tried to arrive at the best solution for various difficulties.

Kwahe'e Considers

Kwahe’e Considers

By interesting coincidence, my reading matter involved both a memoir (Jill Price’s The Woman Who Can’t Forget: A Memoir) and historical fiction (Patrick O’Brian’s The Hundred Days).  As I read these, once again, I found myself thinking about how much of what creates stress (whether in a piece of fiction or in reality) is not knowing the resolution.

I talked about this a little back in early 2014, in my wandering “Light, Not Necessarily Fluffy,” so you may choose to consider what I have to say an expansion.

Jill Price frames her fascinating memoir with an anecdote about the day she contacted the memory specialist who would help her understand that she wasn’t crazy or maladjusted, that there really was something different about the structure of her brain that contributed to how she retained and processed “autobiographical memory.”

The choice to begin with this piece of information provides a sense of structure to the memoir overall, but it also diminishes the sense of stress.  Even when Ms. Price discusses how at various times in her life her memories would overwhelm her to such a great extent that she couldn’t get out of bed or be supportive of people who needed her, this sense of stress is modified by the reader’s awareness that a time will come where she will get help, will find people who will understand her.

Equally, when Ms. Price talks about her husband, Jim Price, several times she makes statements like “in the short time we would have.”  This warns the reader to expect the tragedy to come, modifying the stress involved in her account of her husband’s death.  It even causes the reader to be more alert to certain biographical elements, such as her mention that Jim Price suffered from type one diabetes.

The Hundred Days provides an interesting expansion on how pre-knowledge of outcomes colors one’s reaction to events.  Many, if not all, readers of these books will immediately catch the reference to Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the short-lived resurgence of French military power.  However, Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, and the rest of the characters have no idea that it will all be “over” in a mere hundred days.  They feel intense excitement and varying degrees of anxiety that the reader cannot fully share.

Interestingly, the title of the novel in the series immediately prior to The Hundred Days intensifies rather than diminishes stress.  The Yellow Admiral may not mean much to most readers.  Indeed, since (at least for Americans) “yellow” is slang for “cowardly,” someone who has not yet read the book might believe it is going to be about an admiral who lets cowardice keep him from fulfilling his duties.  However, within the novel, O’Brian relatively quickly lets the reader know that, in this context, “yellow admiral” is a term used for someone who has been (effectively – I’m not going to get into the complexities here) passed over for promotion

The Yellow Admiral is set in the period following Napoleon’s first surrender, when many ship commanders (including Jack Aubery) are “put on shore” – their reactions to the newly declared peace tainted by their awareness that peace also means an end to active duty and coveted promotion.  By titling the book The Yellow Admiral, O’Brian leads the reader to fear that bold Jack will face this dreaded fate.

I won’t tell you what happens!

Another good example of how foreshadowing can lead to an increased sense of tension occurs in the opening of Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace.  The narrator, an old woman of 93, looks back and (among other things) says, “Fifty years and five it is, since Urdo fell…”  So, from the third paragraph we know when the king will die.  From other things she says, we know who his successor will be.  We know that the culture will change radically.

How a reader will react to such foreknowledge is a gamble the writer takes, but one thing is certain.  No one in “real life” knows how their story will end.  Maybe the sense that someone (if only the author) does is one of the appeals of fiction.


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