The Truth Behind Fictional Realities:
Creating “Smith Experience”
Part I – Ideas
I. If it Looks and Smells Like an Introduction, Then it Must be One
Jorge Luis Borges, in his 1946 fable “On Exactitude in Science,” relates to it as a map the size of the territory it represents: a fiction so intent on recreating reality point-for-point that it surpasses the boundaries of falsehood and consumes the former entirely. Later, in Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 essay “The Precession of Simulacra,” the author probes the machinations behind Disneyland for late twentieth-century proof of a reality so adept at simulating a more exciting, more perfect version of itself that the inauthentic becomes preferable to the “real” world outside its constructed borders. “Fake,” within Disneyland, puts “real” to shame. The next logical step in this process, then, might go something like this: A new amusement park has opened up next door to Walt Disney’s idealistic darling. But it doesn’t amuse attendees so much as impress them with its exact re-creations of reality. Perhaps the term “Reality Park” is more appropriate.
At any rate, one of the latest, multi-million dollar attractions to open to the public is “Airplane.” This attraction is immense in size and lasts roughly five hours. After paying admission in the form of purchasing an “airplane ticket” online – and well in advance of attendance – guests then wake up early, drive to the reality park’s sprawling parking lot, catch a shuttle to the “airport” – itself an elaborately decorated queue complete with “ticket counters,” “baggage checks,” and the much-dreaded (and highly realistic) “security search” – before waiting for their “flight.” What happens next is a voyage so real it might as well be happening: state-of-the-art special effects simultaneously adjust the airplane’s “cabin pressure,” aggravate the ears of crying infants, and deliver breathtakingly authentic panoramic views of the passing terrain. When it’s all over, children unloading from the “flight” can be heard extolling its realism to their haggard parents, neither of whom seem to remember where they parked the car.
Soon, though, Airplane is old hat. It’s not quite exciting enough, and park attendance is suffering. After all, since when has it been “fun” to fly? In an attempt to further heighten the attraction’s sensationalism, then, its creators implement even more fantastical elements of realism. Passengers sometimes lose their checked baggage (admittedly, mostly purses and strollers). “Inept” Transport Security Administration agents cause queue congestion, and flights are missed. Thousands of paid extras flood the airport during peak “traveling seasons,” and “blizzards” cause random lockdowns once or twice a year. There’s also the occasional suicide bomber who – rumor has it – might actually make it through security in conjunction with the attraction’s ten-millionth visitor. And who doesn’t want to witness that?
This is, by and large, how most novels (or short stories/creative essays/ novellas) attempt to function: by creating a reality so authentic the reader loses himself in its map. Its fantasy world. Its Airplane. There’s nothing especially “modern” about it – except for the (relatively) recently added function of technology, which has allowed media consumers to devour the entertainment they so crave with less effort. Humans no longer have to read to experience fiction. The advent of film and, later, television in the first half of the Twentieth Century created more accessible mediums through which viewers could witness drama. But none of this timeline stuff is very interesting, and since even a thesis paper should entertain in some small manner, it’s now going to fast-forward to the point in time where the Accelerating Rate of Technology [A] combined with the Increasing Rate of Reality’s Artificiality [B] lent itself to Reality as Entertainment [C].
So, A + B = C, an equation that at once isn’t as clean-cut as it appears. For clarity’s sake, presented below is a flow chart marking the logical path that true fiction, modern or otherwise, should cohere to:
Truth → Reality → Technology → Entertainment.
Truth governs reality, and the progress of reality (which includes humankind’s beliefs, societies, perceptions of the extant universe, etc.) determines what level of technology produces what type of entertainment in a manner detailed by Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In 1850, for example, the written word was the only extant mode for relaying drama. Whether read, spoken aloud, or enacted, the human/fiction link couldn’t extend beyond spoken language and its transcribed equivalent.
Again, now, fast-forward to 2010. How might the above logical path disrupt itself?
Reality television shows burst onto the media scene around 2000, and for the past decade the world has grown increasingly accustomed to entertainment that employs technology to literally render reality a compelling fiction. “Truth” is removed from the equation, because how can anything – or anyone – that’s knowingly being observed react honestly to any given stimuli? And, when provoking under the intense stare of a camera lens, how can the stimuli themselves be genuine? A conundrum like this might be well and good if confined to the realm of shoddy reality television, but 2000 was, like, so ten years ago. The decade has come and gone, its major contribution to American society the reflective realm of social media. That’s right: being social is now a new media form. People blog. They maintain Facebook profiles with the goal of keeping their best foot – or their most attractive foot – in the spotlight. They tweet clever diatribes that allow devoted followers access to their every move. And, when something truly outrageous happens, its filmic counterpart pops up on Youtube in as little time as a minute. People are on display as much as they want to be, and they’re shaping their lives accordingly. The logical path of fiction for 2010, then, might now look like this:
Reality → Technology → Entertainment → Reality → Entertainment → Reality…
And so on and so forth, until the (increasingly) fine line dividing “reality” and “entertainment” becomes virtually imperceptible.
Again, refer to Disneyland versus Reality Park. The key difference between the two – and which Eco, even if disparagingly, acknowledges – is that there’s still some visible distinction between Disneyland and its external society. Even if the industrial squalor of Los Angeles “knowingly” plays off the perfect plasticity of Main Street, U.S.A. in order for the latter to shine all the brighter, there’s still some amount of contrast present in the equation. Humans can distinguish external from internal, despite both realms working together to form the great irony of the twenty-first century. Reality Park, though, is reality, to the extent that Airplane would be absolutely no fun for anyone who wasn’t both completely aware and appreciative of its resounding falseness. And to live in a world where Disneyland has been abandoned in favor of Reality Park – where packaged entertainment is being usurped by today’s younger generation of tech-savvy, reflection-happy scenesters – is frightening. Because when people start looking to themselves for amusement, and those same people become aware of that self-imposed gaze, then they begin both acting for and responding to an audience; an audience that includes themselves. And it’s at this point, I believe, that something crucial to a meaningful existence is lost.
II. From the Fiction, A Fiction
Fortunately, the real world’s current circumstances aren’t as dire as all this might indicate: theory has a way of extrapolating upon left-field scenarios until any tangible evidence has long been abandoned in favor of postulated extremes. Such an approach, however, is helpful from a creative perspective, as doom and gloom provides remarkably provoking material with which to work.
What I have attempted to create with Smith Experience, then, is a “reality” for entertainment’s sake. A “reality” whose fictional and authentic borders (or the edges of the map, or the entrance and exit of Airplane) have no definitive dividing point. If the story’s central characters – the five members of the Smith family – exist in a place and a time where Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Blogger already prevail, then creating a work of fiction in which their acted lives are “realistically” mandated by these technologies wouldn’t be too exciting. In other words, since everyone suffers daily the implications of social media, the Smith Family needs to have it worse; otherwise, their experience (and the title does indicate an experience) would be no more fantastic than yours or mine, and much possibility for sensational commentary would have been lost among everyday melodrama. To render my analogy more relevant, then, Smith Experience is the collective nightmare of a family who thinks they live in a world where Disneyland still reigns, though in actuality their entire unwitting existence serves as the first ambiguous signpost for Reality Park’s looming presence.
Or does it?
Modern society is really all about sensationalism. Everything needs to be bigger, better, more X-treme. Entertainment follows this trend to an almost embarrassing degree: if the world isn’t in danger of being blown up either by terrorists or aliens, then earthquakes will surely do the trick – both options in 3D, of course. Everything functions first and foremost as spectacle, and I know I’m not the only one who’s catching onto a purpose for the CGI, the mindless stunts that render everything exponentially more important than it should be: America is pro at polishing whatever veneer it can in an attempt to smother the emptiness that now lies below its shiny surface. We can’t much connect with each other any more than we can really connect with ourselves, so why not keep slapping on the paint? Why not place greater and greater magnitudes of false importance on a social structure that was never intended to bear this kind of weight? “Our actions have meaning,” we type on our iPads. “Don’t believe us? Just look at all the comments they’ve garnered on our Facebook pages.” Activities are no longer enjoyed for their own sake: they have to serve a greater, more relevant (read: bombastic and more visible) purpose for Americans to consider them worthwhile.
The story’s setting, then, is a modern American household in July/August 2009, a place and a time in which reality and entertainment (a.k.a., non-reality) have bled together such that everyone is – to varying degrees – conscious of themselves as a character. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind slightly to the part in which reality and entertainment have bled together, a concept the previous five pages attempted negotiating. In a fictional world such as this (and I use the term “fictional” lightly, here, because who are we kidding?), certain necessary story elements are going to need to be in place for the full impact of these concepts to reach the reader. I believe the most provoking questions that respond to this line of thought stem from the impacts of such a blurred reality on individuals and their relationships to one another.
David Foster Wallace, a contemporary author whose epic portraits of modern American families gone absurdly wrong provided no small inspiration in my creative process, delivered in an interview for his novel Infinite Jest the following sterling quote regarding twenty-first century personal and interpersonal dynamics: “If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be” (Wallace). I agree with Wallace’s position to an extent, though I’d like to submit a more hyper-realized, thesis-relevant interpretation.
III. The Importance of Being Aware of Oneself as a Character
I believe by now I’ve established an appropriately extensive personal version of what Wallace described as the “things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being.” Where my vision of his assertion differs is that, while Wallace thinks fiction’s job is to dramatize “the other half… the fact that we still are human beings,” what I attempted with Smith Experience was the progression of this statement from “humans acknowledging their humanity” to “humans acknowledging their humanity to the extent that they recognize they’re characters playing out roles on a vast cosmic canvas, and that they react accordingly.” We can observe concrete examples of this idea in our own daily existences (even if it may initially sound like a concept that would really only play out in a fictional story constructed for the exclusive purpose of ideas like this functioning in a metafictional, knowing, semi-ironic sense). Let’s say, for example, that you live in Eugene, Oregon, and that your temperament depends largely on whether or not it’s sunny out. Forget the necessity of Vitamin D; you believe you need sunny weather because a lifetime’s worth of media – and upbeat Facebook statuses, and beautiful tan people, and rainy breakup scenes in RomComs – dictate that sun = happiness. Because of these stimuli, your outlook on the rest of your day via the weather presented to you upon waking up automatically indicates it may well be less stellar than a sunny one. Major bummer.
But wait – there’s more! You’re a twenty-first century American human being, damn it, and you’re armed 24/7 with an array of devices that aid in your quest for happiness. Rainy out? No problem! Just crank up the happy music on your iPod – it’s as if life’s great soundtrack is all of a sudden catering to your exact desired temperament (keyword here: desired). So, bad weather + happy music = a combined external influence that averages back out to zero, the rest of the day once again free to become what you make of it. The inverse, of course, also holds true: your dog died yesterday, you’ve lost your job, and that strange freckle on your neck is malignant. It’s a rainy day out, damn it, and only Amy Winehouse’s agonized croons can render your pathetic little existence even gloomier.
As if some amount of control over the set direction of your life wasn’t enough, there’s also the subtler, more intimate mise-en-scène to consider; personalized props that help you navigate life in a way that screams [your name here]! It may be rainy, but you’ve an English class to get to – the one with that attractive individual you’ve been making eyes with for the past three weeks. Happy music? Check. Lucky shoelaces? Check. Americano? Soon-to-be checked. You’ve everything in place for an encounter that’s now designed to tip in your favor. Or, you’re curled up, fetal-style, on your dirty shag rug as the rain outside cries down the windowpane. Either way, you’ve identified a character agenda and you’re sticking with it. Happy goes with happy, sad with sad, and everything in between isn’t distinctive enough of your character to be significant.
“Now just hold on a second,” – I assume you’re saying – “can you really jump to the conclusion that all these little character traits we exhibit in our daily lives mean we see ourselves as actual characters in some sort of falsified, surface-deep media reality? Because I don’t think I’m that shallow.”
“No, no, of course not,” – I imagine I’d reply – “you’re not a one-dimensional cardboard cutout who just happens to fit the role of [insert your role here]. It’s everyone else, you see, who fill those superfluous slots in your own personal [insert preferred entertainment genre here].
And it’s here that we’ve breached the real difference between pre and post-social media America: people don’t care about any deeper facets of an individual than the ones fit for observing, interpreting, and classifying another human being. That we’re now able to maintain an idealistic, 24/7 online avatar version of ourselves where only what we perceive others want from us is what makes it onscreen has made us all hyper-aware of the truth that we are all, in fact, characters. We no longer have to submit to the occasional, embarrassing lapse in demeanor that an accidental run-in at the mall (1997’s archaic form of interaction) might provide for because we have total control of our better, sleeker selves. (Unless, of course, a 2010 run-in at the mall occurs, in which case: ‘OMG, never going 2 the mall again! U wouldn’t believe what happened…’) The difference between the poor guy four paragraphs up who was curled into a ball, sobbing over Amy’s lyrics, and that same poor guy in the here and now is that, even if he was initially playing a part for his own pathetic sake, he’s now doing it because he’s recognized himself as that guy and knows people expect a congruent status update/tweet/blog post: “Rain again today :( Sometimes I feel like Amy’s the only one left who understands :( .” And then maybe a few sudden and curious additions under his Facebook’s “Interests” category: Sylvia Plath, 2012, and, let’s say, 1,000,000 Strong to Stop Genocide in Darfur. Plus who doesn’t want to see a Photo Booth snapshot of him looking particularly pale and tragic as his new Primary Profile Picture?
But I digress. The important concept to grasp from this section and carry into the next is that men and women across the globe have enthusiastically taken to ordering their existences in a manner more similar to the structured creation of fictional characters than was allowed during society’s former, more organic nature of being. This structuring has, in turn, fed modern entertainment via social media to the extent that the similarities between an ordered, real existence and a structured, fictional character really only end at some point far below surface level. But how far is too far? And what’s going on up top, then, anyway?
IV. For the Character, an Appropriate Setting
By now I’ve established 2010’s generation of twenty-somethings (as well as its ‘hip’ outliers) as one that prefers navigating only the external referents we provide for each other, because who has time for what lies deeper? In order to explore the implications of this line of thought through fiction, a suitable, equally fabricated reality must be constructed; one that recognizes its place in a world dominated by Reality Parks brought about by the perpetual mirroring between life and entertainment. If, as I’ve postulated, reality is being increasingly structured by superficial referents, then how does one re-create this “real world” using the tools of a modern realist writing form that aims to generate as authentic a fictional world as possible? Again refer to my proposed logical path of modern fiction for 2010:
Reality → Technology → [Entertainment → Reality → Entertainment → Reality…]
The problem, now, seems to lie in the fact that the re-creation of reality is actually a version thrice removed from anything 100% authentic. That is, entertainment has begun spawning more entertainment, each subsequent iteration rendering the ordering of description’s referents further from anything that isn’t itself already the ordering of descriptive referents. Before applying all this theory to my own work, though, let’s take a look at the nature of referents as they’re intended to function: minus all the self-reflective implications brought about by social media.
Roland Barthes addresses the traditional role of referents in an essay titled “The Reality Effect,” where he explains the structure of micro-details modern authors employ to create a sense of reality within their fiction. When descriptions are confined to presenting an exact referent and nothing more – a mountain is a mountain, a steeple a steeple – such a stark approach, he argues, carries with it an organic aesthetic all its own. Accordingly, authors of realist fiction find this strategy appealing for the clear, accurate presentation of the world that it affords. Furthermore, limiting the amount of descriptive words allowed to paint a cohesive image of a single object renders navigable the infinite possibilities of accurate description in a manner congruent to what is being described. Although ‘anecdotes’ – as opposed to single, concise words – are helpful in that they provide a logical structure for the tangential nature of descriptive phrasing, the very nature of their construction renders them just as limiting to the needs of description. When said description, then, is supposed to convey realism by means of appearing completely insignificant, purpose gleaned from anecdotal order in realism is irrelevant for the very fact that it’s purposeful. Yikes!
Alternately – and rather paradoxically – stark referential description alone has no limits. Were it not for some greater organizational structure, there would be no effective manner of deciding when not to describe something, or when to start describing something, or even what elements out of the infinite possible options of any given scene even should be tackled through description in the first place. For an author to approach writing from the vantage point of realism, then, they must trust that referential description has an inherent organic aesthetic that, because of its ability to pinpoint what’s real, will guide them through a scene and provide the necessary fodder for capturing true detail.
Barthes’ stance, while heady, relates to an individual’s daily public performance via social media through fairly evident parallels. The sad man we visited six paragraphs ago has his referents down to a tee: the fetal position, the rain, the Amy Winehouse, the sad status update, the gloomy Profile Picture. What might not fit into this structure are the details of the room that have no apparent relation to his temperament: the beige wall paint, the sack of bagels on the kitchen counter, the cat purring on the heating vent. People wouldn’t share these details because they’re irrelevant to the image of themselves that they’re constantly conveying, digressions that further neither their agenda nor the agendas of the other people who depend on others to provide them entertainment. There’s nothing sensational about a detail that doesn’t further amusement, which is why the very structure of the society that would knowingly create Reality Park is a worrisome concept. Where do we go from the point in time when referents cease adhering to a natural organic aesthetic, when all we want is more, more, more, and for each ‘more’ to be bigger, better, more exciting? What are we willing to put ourselves through to please the system?
For my own sanity, I ended up mostly adhering to Barthes’ system of structuring referents; they render chaos navigable, and even if Smith Experience’s setting dictates that navigation to be knowing and ironic, it’s a process guaranteed to both set the story in motion and keep it moving. I did, though, allow myself some leeway for fun in regards to the coherency of imagery and its subsequent intended meaning. In an interview for director David Lynch’s latest film, Inland Empire, Lynch described his process for maintaining rationale between scenes in a manner quite the opposite of what Barthes proposes, and his approach inspired some amount of creative slant on my own part regarding otherwise stale imagery. Lynch stated: “I write the thing [Inland Empire] scene by scene and much of it is shot and I don’t have much of a clue where it will end. It’s a risk, but I have this feeling that because all things are unified, this idea over here in that room will somehow relate to that idea over there in the pink room.”
Now, you might think finding inspiration from a quote like this is equivalent to literary suicide, but I’d argue the opposite: contrary to the ideals pushed by social media mandates, it’s in the small, seemingly irreverent details that interest is garnered. Fossils of fish on a boulder’s craggy hide; the magnified, almost slow-motion inspection of syrup dripping from a forked bit of waffle; the fact that every time a character acts in a manner requiring either a ‘left’ or a ‘right’ descriptor, it’s always a ‘left’: these elements do allude to some greater thematic resonance, even if at first they may pass unnoticed. Indeed, their placement is intentionally both arbitrary and at odds with the proposed organic structure of Barthes’ Reality Effect, with the reasoning that, by creating a surreal setting for the characters to inhabit, their living, breathing reality is already subject to an illusory atmosphere. And atmosphere is important.
Part II – Pen to Paper
V. How the Character then Navigates Fiction’s “Reality” (Or, Reality’s “Fiction”)
I’ve begun “Part II” about a dozen times over now, because I have little idea how to say what it is I think I want to say without jumping around far too much and really just trying to fit a camel’s worth of information through a needle’s eye of a research paper. I suppose, in a very broad sense, what I’ve tried to accomplish with Smith Experience is a work wherein the characters recognize they’re confined to the limitations of a story – in the sense that America in 2009 is a messy, complex, utterly contemptuous story in its own right (see the above fourteen pages).
For this to register on the page, though, a few necessities immediately became apparent. First, although much of Smith Experience is intended to function as a commentary on the effects of social media, I felt removing as many direct references to Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Youtube and Skype as possible was necessary because I wanted the story’s observing media to function as a more domineering presence than would be possible if the characters themselves had to take the time / exert the free will to access them. Although social media functions largely as an omniscient spectator in modern America, it’s still not quite to the point of cameras being positioned on every wall of every house in the country, and this was the big idea I wanted to run with. Choice, in other words, had to be removed from the story’s equation as far as continuous observation is concerned.
Furthermore, certain characters needed to be opposed to the concept that they’re characters, otherwise the ground situation would fall flat. A story wouldn’t be too compelling if everyone was on board with its perturbations; some amount of resistance has to be involved. Resistance equals growth, and growth equals compelling characters, especially if a character isn’t too hip to the idea that all of a sudden in the matter of an opening sentence he can go from sitting guiltily at his window to having to actively figure himself out, all because of the unwanted presence of a spectator. With a modern society such as ours, though (and for the sake of compelling fiction), what might be the expected traits of personalities opposed to subjecting themselves to social media’s lens? Would those individuals be viewed as unstable? Or repressed? Or controlling? And what might they have to lose when thrust into the realm of fiction?
In this regard, an author – and, eventually, the reader – functions on a similar level as the cameras: just selecting a story’s worth of characters to discover, examine, and then bend the will of is a tremendously loaded responsibility. These people, and especially the fictional ones, didn’t necessarily ask for anything. An author makes for his characters the decision of their becoming characters, the very act of which renders them people with problems that must be avoided, then confronted, and finally solved. If any character were eager to be a character, he or she probably wouldn’t make a good one unless deeper subtext was at play (which, to an extent, is what I attempted exploring through Amy).
The whole concept of a character becoming a character in fiction at the whim of an author begs a discussion of free will, which is another one of the concepts I tried unpacking with Smith Experience. To what extent is a character responsible for his own actions, and when might he be able to play them off as the machinations of that all-seeing, all-knowing authorial presence of a man in the sky (or, in this case, men in the sky)? Wyatt opens the story deluding himself into thinking he should feel guilt for the inconveniences he’s caused his family, though his cancer is arguably the one trait he had no control over. Eventually, then, he has to realize that the responsibility of a character isn’t to dwell on what can’t be fixed, but to accept what can and then grow by actively pursuing that change. He must also avoid the sneaking suspicion that his acceptance doesn’t matter, that everything has already been decided for him by abstract forces he couldn’t possibly make sense of. I’m saving my discussion of each chapter’s “mysterious” end clips for a future paragraph, but I will say here that this intuition on Wyatt’s part – one he may well be correct about – bleeds into the story proper through the occasional use of colons to denote dialogue. Is Wyatt’s life happening live, or is it scripted? And if it’s scripted, what the hell does that imply?
On a more superficial level, though, how would the sudden knowledge that one’s actions are on display 24/7 for a viewing audience impact these decisions? If the cameras’ presence has already made a character realize his necessary path of growth, then it’s alternately (and, again, much like an author) also going to make that path more difficult to navigate. There’s an incredible amount of self-reflective self-consciousness involved, here, which is material I didn’t think I’d be able to work with if I’d also incorporated Facebook and Twitter (etc.) – another reason for their absence. At any rate, a concern of almost equal importance to some of the characters is their superficial appearance in light of their being observed. Melanie – who, by the way, already never dresses like a slob – begins wearing heels around the house. Amy makes even sleepwear fashionable, and Wyatt avoids nudity at all costs until the reader hears secondhand from another Smith Experience watcher that this phobia of his has been tackled and beaten in a moment of spectacular clarity.
In regards to his nude scene, I wanted Wyatt’s acceptance of his cancer, his scar, his “damaged” sexuality to play out on the far side of an intermediary. Because it’s the last place Wyatt as a character would ever want to be positioned, it needed to happen before story’s end. That the reader experiences this character’s most profound moment so vicariously also tries to incorporate the story’s second focus: how, and why, we knowingly function as entertainment for one another, and the effect technological barriers have on intimacy. Is there room for intimacy in an America where it’s all about superficial flash – the top eight referents that scream who we are and what we want? Under these circumstances, does the potential for human connection still exist? Can entertainment and empathy – or even sympathy – maintain a symbiotic relationship? Though Smith Experience doesn’t necessarily answer any of these questions, their lingering presence contributes significantly to the atmosphere of the world I tried to reflect within the story.
Furthermore, Wyatt stripping down in front of a camera is one of the most sensational choices made by any of Smith Experience’s characters, and if a social media user / popular entertainment consumer has learned anything in the past decade, it’s that sensationalism both makes friends and brings in the Big Bucks. Finding and maintaining a proper balance between realistic scenarios and envelope-pushing plot devices constituted a significant challenge in my creative process. Two drafts prior to this “final” one, that ratio was out of whack because I wasn’t being sensational enough, then I was too sensational, and now I like to think I’ve found the proper place to toe the line, with 55% of the story’s developments stemming from an urge to advance the characters organically and 45% bursting forth through sex, drugs, and videotape. As the story progresses, though, this ratio begins to shift in (what I’d like to think is) a manner indicative of the way popular entertainment (and, in turn, society’s presentation of itself to itself through social media) now perceives the needs of its audience. That is to say, feasibility as a concept begins to waver, and from that semi-illusory state where suspension of disbelief is stretched to its breaking point, spectacle emerges. Or, Disneyland regains some of the turf stolen by Reality Park.
It’s an exciting notion: that pure spectacle can exist in an age when everything functions as spectacle on at least one or two base levels. Would I be calling attention to questionable elements of my own story by providing examples? Yes. Am I still going to? Yes. Everybody likes explosions, so halfway through Smith Experience, and just as Wyatt’s on the brink of a possible revelation, his room bursts into flame. Though the scene does contribute to Wyatt’s growth as a character – he’s forced out of his last sanctuary and subjected to taking up residence in the public sphere of the living room, for crying out loud – it’s a moment that also just as much exists for the viewer’s/reader’s eyes to twinkle in the firelight; to bask in the warmth of flames and stand, open-armed, beneath a shower of blown-out window glass. This is senseless, unprecedented destruction, the viewer thinks. This is fun!
But it wouldn’t be fair to not provide some similar delight for the characters themselves. They are, after all, experiencing a lot. And if spectacle for the viewer/reader is obtained vicariously through the actions of the Smith family, it makes sense that their lives are going to need to spiral into a series of fantastical happenings for the viewer/reader (who, remember, has been trained as an entertainment consumer by contemporary US culture) to feel satisfied – that their time was sufficiently spent here rather than over there, where God only knows what’s happening. As the story proper leaves him, Emmett is still obsessed with contacting “aliens,” only to reappear more than twenty years later as the possible sole survivor of the Smith family. Amy’s penchant for acting leads her to a rabbit hole of an opportunity: to mesh her “real” life with a sensationalized false one as provided by Dynamo, and, in turn, the mysterious individuals who seem all too bent on tracking the moves of each and every family member. Wyatt’s saved from his increasingly apparent sexual confusion by a modern-day knight in shining armor: Brett Hudson, a man whose every action is both cheeky and vivid to the point of caricature.
That the two end up together, watching an alternate version of Wyatt’s life, is no mistake: by this point, Wyatt has extricated himself from the confine of his previous existence, and is now free to join the ranks of the viewers for an “objective” look at the way society’s lens has rendered his actions. Another way to perceive these moves is to view the individual characters as escaping from a fiction’s fiction into an even deeper fiction – which, as Michel Foucault’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” discusses, might be neither ethical nor responsible of the characters in question. And it’s at this point that I’d like to distance myself from their decisions and assert I had no influence in Wyatt literally abandoning the story that mandated his creation.
Sensationalism also goes hand-in-hand with that “shiny veneer” concept our modern dependence on model referents employs to hide the fact that there’s really not much at play beneath any of the entertainment we’re so hooked on consuming. Our actions have become so hollow, so driven by external factors that have little, if anything, to do with our own personal desires, that we now find the need to place a great sense of false importance on all this meaningless action so as not to just shut down. After all, why would anyone keep going if they weren’t even keeping going for themselves? Under these circumstances, false importance isn’t just necessary: it’s everything. My attempt to address this concept – as big of a downer as it might be – manifested itself through the presence of the men in the craft, perpetually hovering on the fringes of Smith Experience. There’s also the KPA, a story device provided to suggest every action of each character is fraught with a meaning more profound than any of them could possibly imagine. Otherwise, what the hell would be the point?
The end-of-segment clips in which the narrative addresses these elements are referentially ambiguous. The reader isn’t presented with much description of the scenes outside of dialogue and some immediate props, and it’s because of these craft choices that the fictional reality you/I/the Smith family try so hard to maintain, in all our distinct existences, finally breaks down. When factors so sensational, so absurd, are the ones that prove themselves to be authentic beyond all the carefully constructed ornamentality of this fiction, of my Facebook page, of a person becoming a character and a character trying so hard to become a person, we should know something strange is happening: in fiction, in real life, in the ambiguous, ever-widening grey area between the two. I’m not certain the proper emotion to feel in response to this idea, but what I do know is that, unless I got something totally wrong, we’re all headed for a humdinger of a next chapter.
VI. Closing Remarks
I get really excited when I type paragraphs as feverishly as I did that last one, so it’s always a bit of a disappointment when I pause to take a deep breath and then realize, again, that all this talk revolves around a story still in need of much, much work (and then there’s the talk itself to consider…). Because I spent August – December retooling its first thirty pages over and over and over again (and abandoning an entire lengthy middle section in early January), Smith Experience as it exists now has only undergone two drafts. I know what I want to focus on for the third, and I can see how that focus might lead to more changes for the fourth, but I really view what I’m turning in now as a completed “Phase One” of a much lengthier creative process. Simply put, there’s a lot of story I’d like to flesh out. Still, that I can legitimately look at what I have and see something really exciting just beginning to emerge makes me consider Phase One a success. I believe in what I’ve created, and I stand resolute behind its ideas.
I view this entire experience – flaws included – as quintessential of my single great lesson learned in college. I’ve conducted more critical thought than ever before just in trying to craft a narrative that’s as coherent as it is complex, as entertaining as it is contemplative, and the extents to which I may or may not have succeeded only enthuse me more. To create anything is a lot of hard work. That I can type the previous sentence and feel like it’s not the most obvious statement ever means, in my opinion, I’ve discovered a truth worth its weight in gold. The ramifications of this project on my approach to My Own Personal Future are immense. I may not have any complete understanding of who I am or what I want (which, by the way, aren’t those the questions every Honors College thesis is supposed to answer?), but I am filled, at this very moment, with a sense that something meaningful is possible. And that’s a good place to end up.
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