Once upon a time, there was a man who was born, who lived, and who died. We could leave the whole story at that, except that it would be misleading to write the sentence only once. He was born, he lived, and he died, was born, lived, died, bornliveddied.
The first few words of a story are a promise. We will have this kind of experience, not that one. Here is a genre, here is a setting, here is a conflict, here is a character. We don’t know what is coming next, but we do know what is coming next; we wonder what is coming next. He was born, he lived, and he died.
To say that this man did nothing would be false. As a child he made up a little game where he moved smooth pebbles between the shade of a tree and earth warmed by the sun, and for a few moments the warmth or coolness of the pebble would stand bravely against the heat or cold of its surroundings, making a little zone that thought it could resist entropy. No one else ever played it, but it occupied him for dozens of happy hours. When he grew older, he forgot all about this game, except that every few years the sight of certain tiny white stones made him want to pick them up, and in his hand they felt heavier than they should. As a man of forty, he regularly walked near a patch of gravel that filled him with inexplicable melancholy.
The stones are not a symbol. The melancholy was nothing more than the distorted lens through which anyone sees his childhood. Lucky people see lost contentment, safety, and endless wonder. Others see the hand raised in anger, feel the ache in the belly, smell the shit or rotten food or sour sweat.
He was lucky. He was educated in the manner befitting a person of his time and station—let’s say it was an English public school of 1840 or so, which would mean that he experienced a certain amount of brutality, a fist raised not in anger but because fists are supposed to be raised. We can pity him for that, if we like. He pitied himself for it.
He fell in love with a young woman whose dark eyes narrowed in concentration when she used two fingers to extract a single seed from a pomegranate. She would hold it between the nail of her first finger and the pad of her second, turning it like a gemstone for perhaps a quarter-hour before she put it in her mouth. By that time its skin had dried, and it must have popped like a tiny balloon when she bit into it.
Characters with even the faintest whiff of humanity make readers reimagine themselves, whether those characters actually do anything or not. A few seconds ago, you put your first and second fingers together and pictured a pomegranate seed between them.
He took up an occupation that interested him—perhaps he was in the military, or a member of the entrepreneurial middle class, a minister of the Gospel. He did his job well, sometimes very well. Those for whom he worked praised him outside of his hearing in smoky clubs, and younger men just learning the trade looked to him for advice and reassurance. In his job he had choices to make, and he made them. At the time those choices seemed important, but they weren’t really. Had he made different choices, or had he refused to make choices at all, the world at large, and even his own life, would have gone on more or less the same.
Passive protagonists are a mistake. The reader wants the main character to do something. He shouldn’t merely experience the world and pass through it, he should act on it, choose paths that have an impact. Especially this is true in a short story, which is supposed to concern the most important moment in the character’s life. Never mind that many people go through their lives more acted upon than acting, that for some, the decisions that make the fundamental differences were never theirs to begin with. What if I had called the protagonist she?
He stood beneath the infinite sky with a chill wind pressing against his face, watched dark trees wrestle and contort, and glimpsed the unbridgeable distance between himself and the heavens, between himself and the past. What is Man that You are mindful of him? He was fortunate: He never had life-and-death decisions thrown in his face by an unfriendly Providence. We all wish we had such lives.
The protagonist should have something at stake, something to gain or lose that’s important to him. If there’s no reason for the protagonist to care about the outcome, then there’s no reason for the reader to care either.
I could tell you things that mattered. I could choose a different main character, a coal miner dying at thirty, or someone enslaved in the American South, or a woman under the dominion of men at any time in the last three thousand years. Then, even if she died a pointless death after struggling without hope for years, you could put down the pages thinking that you’d learned something.
All of those things were going on during this man’s life. The dying coal miners, the abused women, they all suffered then. Our hero knew about them. More than this, he cared, said he cared, wept over them. No Ebenezer Scrooge here, no willfully callous miser shutting himself away from his fellow men. When those conscientious gentlemen with the subscription list knocked on his door, he gave handsomely. He voted for the Liberal candidate and argued with the friends at his club about relief for the poor and home rule for Ireland.
This is where we might expect to read a hint of a tragic flaw, a lack of discipline or failing of courage, a window into a disaster we’re sure will follow, or a challenge to be overcome so that he will find himself elevated and transformed by the end of the story. None of that is going to happen.
The wife whose concentration on a pomegranate seed had once so enchanted him died of a wasting illness, and he walked from one room to another, from one street to another, counting his footsteps and forgetting the number. His son sent him a letter once every few months, and his daughter came to visit every second Sunday, nodding kindly at everything he said and smiling as if she had actually heard him. The powers of his body failed him, slowly because he had a good physician (good for that era, anyhow). He died in the usual mixture of pain, perplexity, and a vague sense of a life well lived that he more or less expected. Less than a mile from that spot, on the same day, a girl of five and a boy of seven coughed out their last breaths on separate filthy street corners, alone and uncomforted, never having met.
If bad things are going to happen, they have to happen to people we know and care about. So the author doesn’t just tell you that a thousand people died; she makes you acquainted with one particular person, whose loves, hates, hopes, and fears you know and understand, and then that person dies, and you weep the way you’d never weep over the mountain of bodies on the floor of a stadium. Sure, one-and-a-half million died at Auschwitz, or maybe it was four million; it’s a number. But show you one pair of baby clothes in the Auschwitz Museum, and you start to sob.
The next time he was born, he grew up in the suburbs with the counter-culture and the civil rights riots and antiwar movements on television, and they frightened him. Late one night he saw a movie about teenagers locking up all the parents in concentration camps, and news anchors told of astronauts screaming on their launch pad, a man shot in a motel, another man who maybe was a president shot in another hotel, and funerals for people killed in riots. It was easy to be scared.
During recess at school, he hid in a brick alcove that housed the huge, warm HVAC unit, humming along with it and listening to the dissonance when he raised or lowered the pitch of his voice. He built little rockets out of cardboard and balsa, sanding the fins and painting them with a sealant that said Dope on the label, and wondered if it was the same dope they meant in the public service ads. The rockets went up with a sound like a garden hose splatting on the pavement, and most of them were lost on their very first flights.
He attended a college full of wealthy campus radicals, where socialist rhetoric, feminist separatism, and critical race theory were thrown about by people who mostly forgot about them by the time they turned thirty. Joining in made him feel popular and loved, which is what he wanted. When he was nineteen, his girlfriend told him she was a feminist, and so he decided to become a feminist, too. It wasn’t as shallow as it sounds; he read a lot, and talked to many people, and really believed the things he said. He donated lots of money to organizations that lobbied and agitated for gender equity and justice. When the two of them got married, they had rings made in which they set semi-precious stones they’d gathered on a vacation together.
The politics felt good, and maybe some of the money helped, and maybe his one phone call to the right state representative was the tipping point. In fact, none of it was. If he’d never donated, never marched, never spoken, things would have worked out pretty much the same. Most of the time he knew this.
He became a loan officer in a bank, and, like George Bailey in the movie, was able to use his authority to nudge things in the direction of women, people of color, gays, trans people, every oppressed and underrepresented category of person he could think of. He was proud of himself. Of course, the bank had its standards, and there was a limit to how much nudging he could do, and he never went so far as to jeopardize his own position.
He pictured what it would be like if he were the one who had to be constantly on guard lest he be molested or killed, the one channeled into a life of poverty, the one whose culture was harvested, homogenized, sugared, and fed back to him in nauseating swallows. These things made him angry, and he protested them, or at least he chimed in when someone else protested them.
Eventually he died, no wiser than he began, as the song goes. And if some prophet out of a novel had been standing over him at that moment, she’d have said, “for all the good or evil, creation or destruction, your living might have accomplished, you might just as well never have lived at all.” He might have protested that that couldn’t be true, because he had children. But they didn’t do anything either.
Now you think this is a story about karma. He keeps getting reborn because he’s failing to learn the lesson he needs, and sooner or later he’ll have an epiphany or redemption or something that will take him one step closer to Nirvana or Enlightenment. That’s not going to happen either. The wheel of fire keeps turning; he never gets any wiser, never becomes more aware, never takes action to do anything. Not in one lifetime, not in thirty. There is no progress, no arc, no satisfying or edifying conclusion.
While repetition can be a powerful device, it’s wasteful and boring unless there is some detectable change between the different instances of the action, theme, or symbol. A piece of short fiction is not a chant; it needs continual development, an evolution or completion of something that appears more than once. We understood it the first time; we don’t need to be told again.
The next time he was born, he was a cyborg. The neural link he shared with his fellow creatures allowed him to access whatever thoughts and feelings they wished to share with him. There was one who was endlessly fascinated by a few grains of sand in the palm of her hand, grains in which she fancied she could see tiny contours, but which would be lost forever if she exhaled near them. Another climbed boulders, gripping the rock with his bare hands, feeling the pressure and pain and knowing for certain he was alive. Our hero saw what they saw, felt what they felt, and believed he had learned something.
These enhancements were available only to that small percentage of the population with the wealth, the technological surroundings, the physical safety to partake of them. Most of the human race was still, even in that advanced time, wrestling with problems of basic nutrition, sanitation, and violence. Of those who did not share his race, his gender, his orientation, his class, his ableness, there were some who did attain the neural links, and they were not shy about uploading experiences for all to understand. They thought that if only others could feel what they felt, the callous indifference of privilege would melt away.
Now you hope for a hand-waving fix for contemporary social problems. This “neural link” thing, which I haven’t explained because I haven’t the first idea how it could work, will magically impose empathy on all its users; the courageous oppressed will, perhaps in some noble act of sacrifice, impart the experience of their oppression to the privileged, and the world will transform.
No. He felt what they felt, certainly. He experienced their pain, their sorrow, their fear, their anger. In his mind, he smiled when she didn’t feel it for fear of what would happen next, always looked over eir shoulder, pressed his belly for the food that was not there. He remembered guarding each word lest e utter the wrong syllable and trigger violence. And each time it was done, he switched off the link and wept for the pain, and sent messages apologizing for living as one of the oppressors, and transferred credit units to the accounts of movements that were trying to make things better.
Eventually he died this time, too, although life extension methods had progressed considerably and it took longer than it would nowadays. He died disappointed, unhappy with the world, wishing he’d had the moral fiber to do something more about it than he did.
The story goes on and on, but you understand how it’s going to go.
Inconclusive endings frustrate and dissatisfy the reader. The author should not shirk his responsibility, but should have the guts to choose what happens at the end. Leaving it up to the reader’s imagination to speculate on a conclusion is a cop-out.
If you’re reading this story in the year 2115, and you’ve made a quick search of my name by flicking a fingernail or thinking the code for your genie, whatever the hell science-fiction sort of thing you do in 2115, you haven’t found anything. No achievements, no accomplishments, no victory for humanity that will make me unashamed to die, as they say. Maybe even the names of my parents, wife, and children aren’t there. Maybe all you’ve found is this story. I haven’t dug in with both feet and both hands, started the revolution, spent my life for the poor, cured the great plague. Maybe nothing I say here matters. You can call me a hypocrite, if that makes you feel any better.
But I’m not really here, am I? These are words on a page, on a screen, on that nifty little implant you’re all using in the twenty-second century. Maybe I lied about myself. After all, I did lie about the protagonist; he’s just made up, all forty-seven of him. Maybe I’m a selfless saint who spends every day trying to better the lot of his fellow creature. Maybe I’m the least privileged person you can imagine, suffering under/within the multidimensional, constricting weight of seven different kinds of oppression. By 2115, I’m dead anyway, so what do you even care? I’m atoms on the wind; maybe I’m the atoms in your fingernail. From where you stand, I am every bit as fictional as the protagonist of this story. He’s not real. I’m not real. Only you are real.