Thursday, January 16, 2014

Fiction vs. Reality

Everyone wants their life to be a story. We want to think that we're the main character of the universe. That everyone else we know is either destined to befriend us, die at the end, or fade into the background. We want to think our lives are fascinating enough to captivate an audience.
But the truth? They aren't. The only person who's interested in your life is you. And you only enjoy it because you have to live through it. There's really no other choice.
Unless you escape into fiction.
I think the biggest difference between life and fiction is that the later ends. In reality, you may meet your true love, but then you've got to buy a home and pay utilities and learn how to work through petty arguments. You will win something at some point. A fistfight. A competition. The lottery. But the high of success will run out after a while and you have to find new ways to bring yourself joy. You'll go on an adventure. You'll save someone's life. But after that you have to go home to yours.
Some people tell me they read light, funny books for escape. They can step out of their dreary lives and into someone else's. I don't do that. I like reading about characters who get malaria and fall off cliffs and watch their villages destroyed before their eyes. Their problems are so much more real than my life of piano practice and chemistry homework.
This has been on my mind ever since I saw Austenland a few months ago. It's the story of a woman named Jane who learned how to love from Jane Austen novels. She can't have a normal relationship with a flesh-and-blood man because he won't measure up to Mr. Darcy. So she travels to Pembrooke Park, a vacation resort where women can live like the heroines in Austen's book. But she comes to realize that she can never be an Austen heroine, no matter how many times she reads the books, watches the movies, and tries and fails to fall in love. So she learns to find love in reality.
Two weeks ago I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Walter's life isn't much to look at. He's got a mildly interesting office job (prepping photos for magazine covers) and a pending midlife crisis. Sure, he's not dealing with poverty or disease or the like, but his life sucks. So he escapes into fantasies. While everyone else around him is busy waiting for a train, he's saving a three legged dog from an exploding building and thrusting it into the arms of a beautiful woman.
Then one of the photos gets lost. Walter sets off to find it. In the process he has to jump from a helicopter into shark-infested waters, longboard towards a volcano eruption, and bribe an Afghan warlord with cake. Unlike Jane, he doesn't become content with reality. He makes his own story.
Jane and Walter are self aware. They want to be fictional characters. They want to fall in love and save the world. And sometimes, it's not enough to watch a character do that. We want to watch a character want to be that. Because then they remind us of ourselves.
In my English class, we read the short story Walter Mitty is based on. The textbook has a Peanuts comic on the opposite page of the story. It called Snoopy "Mittyesque."

Is there anything more fun than an imaginative character? We like these guys because they prove we're not crazy. That daydreaming isn't a sure sign we're stuck in reality. Maybe we can live in stories after all.

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