Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Meaning of Devastation: Chicxulub and T.C. Boyle

Here's why T.Coraghessan Boyle deserves your admiration, nay, your love: because he confronts topics and scenes that scare other writers goofy, and turns them into beautiful little things. He teaches us how to stare into the abyss of melodrama and not be afraid.

"Chicxulub," published in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, is a great example. In this first-person story, the narrator and his wife get a call late at night telling them that their teenage daughter has been in an accident. She was hit by a car, is in surgery, condition unknown. After a frantic rush to the hospital, interminable waiting, stress-induced behavior, etc., they find that the girl is dead.*

As they say, this is every parent's nightmare. If your goal is to write a story that adequately captures this nightmare, that describes how the parents feel, how would you approach it?

Most writers would never try, because moments of extreme emotion are, in reality, all pretty much the same. Weeping, screaming, denial, bargaining, guilt. And some writers who do try something like this wind up with a scene full of obligatory ohmygods. Which might be realistic and gutwrenching, but doesn't really make for good or interesting fiction. So most writers try to deal instead with the aftermath, where the central event is long over, or happens to a minor character, or is wrapped in a frame, or all of the above. (Even Boyle does this sometimes.)

But in this story Mr. Boyle does not resort to aftermath, and other than some stress-induced rudeness as the parents try to find out their daughter's condition, there is no off-the-shelf emoting.

Instead, I imagine ol' T.C. asking himself: what it would feel like? And the simple, everyday answer is this: it would be devastating. But whereas you or I might write, "It was devastating" or "They were devastated", Boyle takes a somewhat more effective approach: he interleaves the story of the girl and her parents with a narrative about asteroids that have struck the earth, including the eponymous Chicxulub, a six-mile wide rock that created a crater 120 miles wide and wiped out 75% of all life on earth. He explains that once in every 300,000 years an asteroid strike will be of a sufficient magnitude to cast the planet into darkness for a year, during which no plants will grow, no crops will be harvested. That, you see, is devastation. And that is how you will feel if your daughter is killed.

*But they also find that the dead girl is not their daughter, but a younger friend to whom their daughter had loaned her driver's license.