THE BLOG

All the Black Swans

03/21/2011 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steven Amsterdam Author, "What the Family Needed", "Things We Didn't See Coming"

Black Swan Theory (named for influential freak events, not Natalie Portman) holds that once we have regained footing in the post-freak event world, it is possible to look back with certitude and be able to identify the relevant forces that got us here. At present though, it seems there are nearly too many dots to connect any of it into a recognizable shape.

Not to take our attention away from the displaced and endangered around the world, please take a moment to notice how days like these underline the limits of fiction. How can novelists hope to compete? When every other news item has to be clicked on, if only for its sheer extremity, the fiction writer's task of engaging a reader is nearly impossible.

You couldn't make this stuff up: A fruit seller in Tunisia altering history? Too saccharine. A sleepy, third-tier city in New Zealand, shaken to rubble in the middle of a workday, followed by a handful of others in Japan washed away two weeks later, not to mention a nuclear reactor near meltdown? Too much, too abrupt. It would feel forced.

Fiction demand structures and recognizable shapes. Big surprises only draw attention to the writer's hand. Exactly one event of note is permitted in a work, and that is only if it comes early or if we are adequately warned. Any sudden jolts in the penultimate chapter and the reader feels ripped off.

No novel that risks such an affront even comes to mind. But here: Imagine going to see Titanic without any historical knowledge. You're cruising along, enjoying a steerage-to-first class romance when all of a sudden they hit this iceberg and you're in a disaster epic. A thoughtful moviegoer would raise their popcorn at the screen and shout out: James Cameron can't play God!

The thing is that God doesn't have to sell popcorn. Writers do. A story is built on characters and reasons. For Things We Didn't See Coming I scooted around the Black Swan rules by creating a rhythm of overkill--I dealt the narrator one calamitous change per chapter (without even employing earthquake, tsunami, or meltdown). His shocks are destabilizing, but ultimately diffused by his continual adaption to the shifting terrain. The process of telling a story seemed to be at odds with large-scale surprise. Even amid my experiment, I found myself obeying fiction's guidelines: the acts of God are noise, the acts of humans are music.

In this moment of tidal change, when our daily worries are looking quite frivolous, for what purpose do we turn to fiction? Does it tell us about other lives so that we enlarge our engagement with the world and our understanding of our own condition? Or is it merely a soothing delusion that paints a false world where cause and effect are comprehensible? Should we demand stories that bring us closer to the randomness of our lives? What would that fiction look like? How would we feel when we finished reading?

This post, by the way, comes to you from Melbourne, Australia, where I've lived for eight years. My father believes that I, a lifetime New Yorker, moved here in response to 9/11. I'm not sure if he's entirely wrong, but if evading outrageous fortune was my motive, it was a bad call. Since my arrival, Australia has endured--in appropriately biblical proportions--droughts, fires, floods, toads, and locusts. This, in a country that likes to think of itself as lucky. One thing we do have though, which stunned explorers on arrival, is a plentitude of black swans. As stately and territorial as their white cousins, their plumage is more ruffled, which gives them the iridescence of charcoal. The birds cluster in park lakes and glide around river bends, keeping watch on the shoreline and gliding through the water with a kind of impatience, as if they were waiting for something to happen.