5 min read.Updated: 04 Oct 2021, 01:20 AM ISTManu Joseph
Assumptions made by pulp fiction of what people want are often more interesting than the tales told
In the end, James Bond will not die. That is the understanding between you and the creators of Bond. What is the point then of all the expensive dangers in his way? Where is the thrill if you know the eventual outcome? The promise of a Bond film is not thrill, it is familiarity. Like the sacred bond between NASA and aliens. A decent alien should be carbon-based, depend on water, send radio signals and do other things familiar to Americans as life, but with an extra limb so that it is more quaint than immigrants. NASA’s alien, which is part science, part fiction, and Bond and hundreds of other such characters in storytelling are consecrated by familiarity. Some details change only to help storytellers retell the same story.
The familiarity here is not only about your expectations of the story, but also the story’s expectations from you. Stories know a lot about you. They know you talk a lot about change and new things, but you actually don’t want that. What you want is what you are familiar with, but with an extra limb. We are suckers for home, and home is everything that is familiar. Stories know this.
Not all mainstream stories are about familiarity. In the medieval-fantasy series Game of Thrones, you can never be sure which ‘central’ character will be killed. That series knows the true meaning of violence, whose force does not lie in gore, but in bereaving you. It raises the stakes for you, and a story can then achieve thrill in an inexpensive way. This, too, stories know.
Every story that is told is a sum of stories told before it. And an analysis of you and every person before you. Here are some things stories know about you, or think they know about you:
You want stories to be moral. If an animal knew us only through our stories, it might think we are a very moral species. Even criminals do not want criminals to win in stories. In the 90s, when the underworld was still powerful in Mumbai, some dons fancied themselves as writers and would discuss scripts with top filmmakers. I gathered that all those stories were moral—good always triumphed, and the gangsters had compelling reasons to do bad things, for which they always had a price to pay at the end.
The heroes and villains today are not as farcically good or bad as they were even a decade ago. There is a bit of darkness in heroes, and a righteous mind in villains. But this ‘greyness’ is merely that extra limb. Nothing much has changed. A reason for the endurance of this moral direction is that stories have not invented an alternative. Even web series that claim to defy conventional storytelling do not dare defy this requirement of stories—that they be better than how you lead your life. The arc of the web-universe might be long, across many seasons, but it always bends towards justice.
In the Marvel farce called Infinity War, many superheroes die and a population-control activist named Thanos triumphs by killing half the life in the universe. But you might have accepted this ending only because you knew one more instalment was coming, in which you knew Thanos would be defeated. I had predicted in this very space months before Endgame that the studio would lean on the nonsense of time-travel. Time-travel is today a lazy piece of writing and the most unremarkable strand of a genre of fantasy that is wrongly called science-fiction. But it knows that you find it fun.
The triumph of good in all our commercial stories does say something about your inherent need to be good, the default human condition that may have given us an edge over other species, but it is also a result of a practical matter—the moral story is yet another old invention that is so perfect that its evolution can only be incremental (like an umbrella, a physical book or the iPhone 12).
Stories also know that your life is probably so happy that you think ‘darkness’ is a billionaire dressed like a bat going about the poorly-lit sets of a Hollywood person called Christopher Nolan. And that if a story gets one thing right, like a city’s depiction, it can convince you that everything else, too, is authentic.
Above all, stories know you are a probable megalomaniac. Full of yourself, you search for your biography in all things. Even your privacy anxiety is only a tribute you pay yourself because no one else does. But stories are where you look first. And in the ones you like, you ‘identify’ with the characters.
Pulp fiction knows you better than art. Art does not try to reach out to you, so it has no need to second-guess you. Art does what it needs to; it is more pure than humble. So even though it wants your appreciation at times, it has the courage not to care about what you are. But pulp fiction is a democracy and you are the voter. It has to gather data on you. This is mostly useless, but the genre’s best proponents have an ingenious talent: They can guess what you want even if you yourself don’t.
A story knows it is an idea-delivery device. Any complex thought can be delivered to a wide audience if it’s hidden in an entertaining story. Look at what Matrix did—it conveyed the idea that the material world is an illusion; and that if most people were shown the truth, they would still wish to go back to the lie; that there are no rewards to finding the truth beyond knowing its bleak existence.
Indian stories, especially, know that you need to know what qualities a young woman must possess for a young man to adore her. It’s usually her looks, wit and a certain sweet delinquency. But you rarely ask what the woman found in the fellow.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’
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