You might have already heard the assertion that we — Americans, specifically — choose to spend most of our leisure time “participating in experiences we know are not real.” (I read it here, in Paul Bloom’s essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education.) Reading is part of that, but movies, video games, and daydreaming are included as well. Still, the author insists, these various media indicate an addiction to fiction, a pleasure in “playing pretend” that extends well beyond our childhood years. Bloom offers three reasons that people may find imaginative experiences more pleasurable or moving than than real ones — the ability to acquaint oneself with a colorful range of characters, the distillation of experience, and the “technologies of the imagination” — the ability to rapidly shift in time, or read another person’s thoughts — that stimulate the mind in a way that is impossible in reality.
Even our fictional characters crave fiction. Other Lives, a graphic novel recently reviewed in The Boston Globe, explores this dynamic by following several characters — among them, a conspiracy theorist specializing in web surveillance — as they mingle and sort out their real personalities and Second Life alter egos. The protagonist of 45, another graphic novel, interviews forty-five people who, like his future son possess the “Super S-gene,” in an effort to anticipate — or vicariously experience? — his future experiences.
The appeal of fiction is both speculative and defensive. We use it to explore strange, new worlds in a safe environment — and, as I mentioned to a frustrated, creative friend the other day, every modern invention was a “fiction” until someone made it tangible — but it also keeps chaos, amorality, and the ennui that feeds anxiety, man’s “quiet desperation” at bay. Narrative, specifically, lets us believe that there is a structure, a direction, and a message, a significance, to the stimuli that we find on the page, and in the world.
If the “everything is [existentially] fine” mantra becomes attached to a real world object, we risk having to address the narrative, and the experience, in all of its complexity. Consider Meghan Daum, author of Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House. She wrote, “I knew it wasn’t just a house I was after but, rather, proof of my existence. The house was . . . an ID badge for adulthood, for personhood, even. It was the only thing that would make me desirable, credible, even human.” When she finds a house — not the house, which is, like the job or the One, a fiction — “a peculiar darkness” sets in. “It was as if my mood had been goaded away from situational discontentedness into a dysthymia that seemed now to be heading into full-fledged depression,” she wrote.
The house didn’t get her through that. The story, at least, helps the reader out.