Sunday, February 16, 2014

The People vs. Epiphany

I can get a little ticked off sometimes.  Sometimes, I'm not very patient with other people.  Mostly it's because I sense the presence of intellectual cowards.

Those who anger me the most are people who take the easy way out when they react to a work of fiction, whether it be a book, a TV show, a movie.  They anger me because they end up walking the fine line between narrative and epiphany.  Narrative is what most people want from a story.  They want a beginning, a middle, and an end.  They want, in short, a story about a complete journey, and the reason they want it is because they believe that every story has that, and not just every story but every person.  We're told constantly that we must become something.  If we're not something then we're nothing.  The more something we are, the more important we are.  The less something we are the more we allow ourselves to be labeled as insignificant, both by others and even by ourselves.

And to a certain extent, that's both a healthy and natural reaction to living.  That's why it's entirely common for stories to feature narratives with those definite beginnings and endings.

But it's the middle where the interesting things happen.  The middle is the epiphany.  It's okay to mistake the beginning as the epiphany, but the beginning is really just an imperative.  The imperative means nothing without resulting in something.  Where I disagree with people is that the result is the conclusion.  No, the result is the epiphany.

The epiphany of a journey is the defining moment of a person's life, when they realize the journey they're on.  If you think about it, the journey itself has so many starting points that to pick one at all is to pick at random, because the starting point you identify still needed to have conditions necessary to allow it to happen, and those conditions are already present well before you're born, and involve people you will never know, even from your own times.

The epiphany isn't the ending, either, because there never is an ending, but rather an arbitrary conclusion that satisfies the arbitrary beginning, if the story is a good one an exact mirror.

But without the beginning or the ending, what is the point of the epiphany?

The point is everything.  The point is, without the epiphany a person is meaningless.  Without the epiphany the story is meaningless.  It's a random series of events that have no personal attachments.  It's all the network TV shows everyone claims they don't take seriously, so that all the cable TV shows that in fact focus heavily on narrative are all the ones people respect.  Yet these cable shows are equally meaningless without the epiphany.  I consider the critical darling Breaking Bad to be meaningless without Walter White having ever confronted the journey he undertook.  The decision to deal meth was not an epiphany.  It was merely a beginning, and not a very good one.  One doesn't decide to radically change one's life merely on the diagnosis of a terminal illness.

The epiphany is something that in a honest story, or an honest life, may not be properly understood by the individual in question.  This is keenly evident in recent films like Saving Mr. Banks and Winter's Tale (if both happen to feature the actor Colin Farrell, it's because he's the rare actor who has realized the importance of such an element to the roles he chooses).  Saving Mr. Banks might be construed as a movie about making the good guy look like the bad guy (as I saw it described recently).  Or it might more accurately be described as an epiphany perhaps only the audience is best suited to comprehend (I wrote a great deal about this movie here).  Winter's Tale cleverly suggests the whole narrative is really an equally challenging example of epiphany for its audience.

Ambitious TV shows are often challenges like that.  The ones I admire are the ones that remain true to this exploration.  Lost is the perfect example, and one of the many reasons fans eventually became disillusioned with it might be this disconnect.  On the surface it would seem obvious the whole point of the show was to figure out how the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 would get off the mysterious island, with or without discerning its secrets.  But it was really about characters whose lives had already passed the point of epiphany, and these experiences the series chronicles were ways for them to process the epiphany, certainly not the epiphany itself.

Other shows challenged the relationship between epiphany and narrative.  The whole first season of Heroes was about epiphany.  The rest of the series took epiphany as an ongoing narrative.  When most fans assumed the characters had reached their cathartic, definitive (or, concluding) moment at the end of the first season, the series continued for three more seasons, continuing to explore the matter of epiphany, where the characters came from and where they were going.  The whole series was already a challenge to the traditional notion of what a superhero is supposed to be.  There were never any costumes.  Even the last episode, which reached an appropriate echo from the start of the series, didn't reach an ending, but rather another epiphany.

Prison Break was the same way.  The whole series challenged the notion that a defining event, or epiphany, was the only thing to explore about its characters.  The first season was the prison break.  But that was hardly the end of the story.  If the end occurred somewhere near the beginning, then it was indeed a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

I've tried to write like this even when I didn't realize I was doing it.  Maybe that's why I've had such a hard time convincing other people to take my writing seriously.  Actually, the whole of my short fiction collection Monorama is about this, and I didn't realize that when I was writing any of that material, either.  My WIP has reached the part where I'll be writing about a life in transition.  If people crave narrative, they crave definition most of all.  They don't want to be told there isn't an ending.  They want the complete arc explained right away.  They think that something that doesn't have a definition attached means nothing.

Maybe they're right.  As for me, the meaning isn't in the definition, but how it's used.  An epiphany is something in motion.  It's on the move.  In the Land of Pangaea is a story of three lives, the first two being dramatic examples of traditional narrative, the third an exploration of a story with no ending.  I've long struggled with another manuscript, which I have finally decided to release on my own, which I now call Pale Moonlight but has previously been entitled Modern Ark and Finnegan, which began as an idea about vampires, but became something else.  It became more ambiguous.  It in fact because my first study of epiphany, when I discovered that the characters I was writing didn't have traditional narratives attached to them.  It takes the shape of narrative, but it breaks all the rules.  I don't have the arc of the main character explained at all.  The epiphany is something in the eye of the observers, and perhaps of the reader as well.

And for this, I look around and see how uncommon this is, to write like this, to think like this.  And, yes, it causes me anger.  I'm not really angry with other people.  I'm angry that when anyone tries to explore this idea of the epiphany, it doesn't really help others.  And really, it shouldn't.  You can't force an epiphany.  All you can do is provide the opportunity.

And perhaps that's why I write.


  1. Of course, if we all wrote epiphanies, we'd long for a good narrative. What would be better is a balance.
    You prefer the characters' journey and development over the story. And if you write those well, then do so.

    1. Oh, I believe a balance is possible, but I think most people vastly underestimate or don't even consider the idea of the epiphany, and so I'm not discounting the traditional notion of narrative by any means. I'm just trying to make the concept a little clearer.


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