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Published: Thu Oct 29 2015
Gerry Bergstein, Sky Writer #2 (detail), 2019, oil on canvas
Narrative Conviction

Last weekend I took my daughter to a play put on by a local children’s theatre. She’s five and claims to like stories “with a lot of drama.” (Yes, she’s the daughter of a fiction writer.) But the truth is, I know that most drama makes her anxious. We’ve had to turn off DVDs and leave movie theaters because she’s afraid Tinker Bell will get into trouble with her fellow fairies or because the penguins of Madagascar will fall prey to the machinations of an evil octopus. So I waited to get tickets until I found a play that looked safe: Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play!, based on Mo Williams’ early reader books about, you guessed it, an elephant and pig who pal around. As far as I could tell, there was little potential for drama. The stories are all about friendship and sharing, and the theatre’s press materials suggested a gentle metafictional framework in which the titular figures realize they are characters in a play. Sesame Street meets Pirandello. Right up my alley.

And for the first twenty minutes it was perfect. My daughter smiled and laughed at Elephant’s and Piggie’s antics, she clapped along with their songs, she waved her hands in the air when they instructed. And though the sound system was too loud for me to sneak in a nap as I’d hoped, I was fairly content to enjoy the show and take pride in my accomplishments as a parent, exposing my kid to culture without suffering any drama of my own. But then, about halfway through the play, Elephant is faced with a predicament. Given an ice cream cone while Piggie is out of the room, he has to decide whether to eat it all himself or to wait for her to return so he can share it. He agonizes over the decision, so much so that he’s soon forced to break into a sing-a-long lamentation. And that’s when my daughter covered her ears, pulled on my sleeve, said, “I don’t like this play. Please, please, can we go?”

At first, her reaction surprised me so thoroughly that I thought she was joking. This was too much drama for her? There were no murderous octopi, no fairies risking exposure to the human world. What was the trouble? But she insisted, and we crept out to the lobby so she could calm down. There I asked what bothered her so much. Was she afraid Elephant was going to keep the ice cream for himself? “No,” she said. “But he thinks he might. And that worries him too much.”

This was a lightbulb moment for me. I finally realized that it isn’t just any drama that makes my daughter cringe. It’s the kind that comes with heightened emotion, especially when a character believes so strongly in that emotion he has to sing about it. It wasn’t the situation of the ice cream cone that upset her but Elephant’s certainty that this is the most important decision he’ll ever have to make, that the wrong choice will cost him dearly. We sat in the lobby for a few minutes and then went back to our seats. Now Piggie was crying over a broken toy, but my daughter wasn’t troubled by this. She knew Elephant was going to comfort her and that they’d soon be back to singing and dancing. There was emotion in Piggie’s tears, but not conviction, and so my daughter could enjoy the drama without anxiety and then clap along with the songs of reconciliation to follow.

I was reminded of this episode a few days later while teaching “In the Penal Colony” to a class of college freshmen. (Yes, I really did just make a leap from Elephant and Piggie to Kafka.) When I asked the students to describe their experience reading the story, they said, as I hoped they would, that they found it “creepy” and “uncomfortable” and “weird” and “disturbing.” Excellent, I said. So glad to hear it. But tell me, what exactly about it disturbed you? It took a while, but eventually they were able to identify the source of their deepest discomfort. It wasn’t just the description of a torture machine, or the impending violence that haunts most of the story, or even the impassive narrator’s alignment with a witness who abhors the injustice but feels powerless to stop it.

No, what troubled them most was the conviction of the officer in charge of the machine, who believes so strongly in the rightness of the colony’s system of justice, and in its architect, the old Commandant, that he can’t understand how anyone could fail to defend it. He is so convinced that his machine, which inscribes the prisoner’s sentence directly onto his body until it kills him, is so precise in its construction, so perfect in its function, so transformative in its execution, that any reasonable man would support its continued use and upkeep, demand that new arm straps be fashioned to hold its victims in place, buck the new Commandment and his “ladies” who want to shut it down.

The students found his conviction particularly unsettling because, misguided as it is, they couldn’t help but admire him for it, recognizing the depth of feeling with which he cares for his machine. Despite their better instincts, they empathized with his growing awareness that the world has changed around him and that he no longer fits into it; they understood how terrible it is for him to lose the only thing that provides him meaning; they recognized that he sees sacrificing himself in the machine as his only choice; and then they felt his ultimate humiliation when the contraption fails, killing him without first granting him the terrible ecstasy of its twelve-hour torture.

What troubled them, in other words, was how a story could make them feel for a person whose ideas they despise, how it could move them to compassion for a torturer and see his fate as equally pitiful as that of the tortured. Like my daughter who wanted to run from Elephant’s agonized choice because the actor made her believe it was truly excruciating, they wanted to turn away from the officer’s disappointment and pain because the story convinced them that it was genuine and heartfelt. And yet they couldn’t turn away. Not only because I’d assigned the story for class and would know if they hadn’t read the whole thing, but because the story also convinced them that it mattered whether or not they stayed to witness the officer’s downfall. Who else but they would know how much the colony’s changes had cost him, who but they would empathize when his glorious machine falls into ruin?

Conviction is what moved my daughter and disturbed my students. It’s what connects us to narrative, what transforms us from passive observers to participants. It’s what I want most from stories, both the ones I read and the ones I write. A character’s conviction that her predicament is crucial, that her emotions are real and heartfelt, that her beliefs and desires are justified. A writer’s conviction that the story she’s telling matters, that the characters she’s created are worthy of our compassion. And finally, a reader’s conviction that to read isn’t to escape from life, but to immerse oneself into it, to struggle with its meaning, to determine whether all the time we spend deciding what to believe in is worth the trouble.

Scott Nadelson is the author of three story collections, most recently Aftermath, and a memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress. He teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University. (updated 10/2015)

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