Fiction as Bête Noire

Last night in diegetic time I watched A Place in the Sun, a 1951 melodrama that gets star billing in Steve Erickson’s 2007 novel Zeroville. Montgomery Clift may be poor and uneducated, but he is an ambitious and handsome and earnest young man. He finagles an entry-level job with his rich industrialist uncle, woos naïve but down-to-earth coworker Shelley Winters, gets promoted to management, wins the heart of the beautiful socialite Elizabeth Taylor. But there’s a hitch: Shelley discovers she’s pregnant, and she threatens to expose Monty if he doesn’t make an honest woman of her… Unintended consequences: it’s not until things go off the rails that Hollywood stories start building a head of steam. In the opening credits A Place in the Sun informs the viewer that the story is based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. And now I’ve started reading Satin Island, a 2015 novel by Tom McCarthy in which the narrator, watching on Turin airport TV screens the video images of an oil spill while waiting for his flight to board, is engaged in conversation by a fellow passenger. It’s a tragedy, the other man tells the narrator, referring to the oil spill.

I didn’t answer at first. When I did, I told him that the word tragedy derived from the ancient Greek custom of driving out a sheep, or tragos – usually a black one – in a bid to expiate a city’s crimes.

In tragedy even the dirty unintended consequences wash us clean. Maybe that’s part of the division of labor between fabricators of reality and creators of fiction, between the industrialists and the Hollywood movies about industrialists: the reality engineers work with intent and purpose, while the crafters of fictional narratives redeem the engineers’ mistakes. Looking up “tragedy” in the Online Etymology Dictionary I find that tragos doesn’t mean sheep; it means goat. And in the etymological exposition no reference is made to the expiatory function of Greek tragedy invoked by McCarthy’s narrator. Wasn’t that, after all, an ancient Hebrew scheme: the azazel, the scapegoat onto whose head the high priest placed the sins of the people before releasing it into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement? In his story Erickson tattoos onto the head of Vikar, his main character in Zeroville, images of Monty and Liz, the tragic couple from A Day in the Sun, before sending him into the wilderness of Hollywood, perhaps to expiate that city’s sins, the most grievous of which might be the premise of societal redemption through melodramatic tragedy.

It’s not fiction’s job to be the scapegoat, reconciling society to its own unintended consequences, to the collateral damage it inflicts on the innocent and the guilty alike while trying to engineer a better world through goal-setting and action plans. Neither is it fiction’s job to entertain the reality engineers when they’re taking a break. It’s not fiction’s job to instruct its readers in how to be more successful reality engineers by illustrating what can go right or wrong in various hypothetical scenarios. It’s not fiction’s job to redeem the facts of the world.

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