Posted by: M.C. | 3 September 2010

We Are History

     In Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderful, three-ring-circus of a film, one of the characters says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” That would serve well as an encapsulation of what got me started on the newest piece of fiction I’m working on. This sense that the past hasn’t let go of me works on two levels: First, writing a story set in the past means that I’m literally not through with the relevant time period. I have to revisit it, rethink it, reimagine it constantly. Second, as in any story, the past of the characters is always present in the struggles they undergo and the decisions they make.
     My previous (attempts at) fiction has all been set more or less contemporaneously: The time was roughly “now,” or the specific time didn’t really matter. Maybe it’s a sign of aging that I’ve become more interested in anchoring my stories in particular historical moments. I haven’t suddenly become an historical novelist (though I find myself thinking often about Esther Forbes classic historical novel of the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain, a book I loved as a boy). I always felt that doing “real” historical novels, especially those set in the distant past, would be more work than interests me. I am, when all is said and done, a fairly lazy writer.
     The new historical turn, though, has something to do with my sense that every moment—whether a more literal and transitory “moment” or a more extended “age” or “era”—has its own kind of consciousness, and it is this consciousness that marks it. People in the past didn’t just have different clothes and political leaders and technology; they had a different sense of what life was essentially “about” in their current time and what it would be “about” in the future. That is, they took different things for granted and considered different things possible and different things intractable from what we now consider possible and intractable.
     Something in me feels a ripening desire to note those differences, to render those frames of mind and ways of being. Or at least to suggest what they might have been. I suppose it’s something like a child who grows up and becomes a parent and reaches an age where she realizes that her preoccupations are no longer the world’s (if they ever were), and so wants her children to have some glimpse of these preoccupations before they disappear entirely.
     In a way, we each stand against history, which will, in all likelihood, erase us. Most of us take no note of this (or pretend not to), but I’m writing about a boy who feels that wind blowing against him and wants to lean into it, to assert himself against oblivion or see if that’s possible. It will be interesting to discover what he finds out.

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