historical fiction

Everyone I know has a story about where they were for the 2016 election results. These stories are well-rehearsed and everybody hates them. The person telling the story hates it and the people listening hate it and we all tell them to each other anyway, as though it were some grim compulsion mandated by a misery-fed demon. Whether I stayed home or went to a party, if I cried or didn’t, whether I expected it or didn’t expect it, went to sleep or couldn’t sleep—every single one of these anecdotes is the worst, and a bunch of people telling them to each other is the worst thing that ever happens in any social situation, and it keeps on happening anyway. I have a story; I’m good at telling it; I rarely despise myself more than when I am two sentences into it, grinding the key in the ignition of the worst car in the world, ready to go on the same drive that everyone hates. 

A few weeks ago, while discussing the upcoming election, a few friends and I told our stories of other election nights: where were you in 2012, in 2008, in 2000. When people tell these kinds of stories, pitting the small events of our lives against the big events of history, we pretend that the recollection of the large event itself is the point. But really, the big events are an excuse; it is the small and inconsequential ones that drive the storytelling and engage the listening. I already know Obama was elected; I want to know who you loved and what mistakes you made, whose house you went to went to and why you left, what bar you were in and why the bar was good or bad, what other things were taking place at the time that felt more important than any of it.

What happened in 2012 is that Obama was reelected but really what happened in 2012 was that not even two weeks before, an ex and I had broken up in a horrible, drunken, stupid way and I hadn’t heard from him since. My ex didn’t text me when Obama won, and it began to sink in that he wasn’t ever going to text me again. What happened in 2008 is that I was in a bar in Chicago and strangers all hugged and kissed each other and cried and Obama told his daughters they were going to get the puppy he had promised them; what really happened was that a different ex and I had exactly one good day at the beginning of a visit when I should have left him, and almost did, packed my suitcase and everything, and then didn’t, and sometimes I still blame that one good day for a long chain of misery that followed. What happened in 2000 was that it was almost the last year in the old house before my family fell apart there, and when I recall that election night, I think mostly about the couch in the kitchen where the TV was, and how I miss it with a stupid and inarticulate longing, the way we can only long for the things we once took for granted.

I have by this point learned how to make these stories charming, even though they were not charming at the time. My stories about both of Obama’s elections are about bad relationships — bad in a way that isn’t funny, and isn’t a good story to tell at a party, bad in a way that nobody would enjoy to hear about if I hadn’t taught myself to tell them in a way that renders them nearly fictional— because bad relationships were what I cared about in those years.

The further away I get from any large historical event I have lived through, the more I remember the big stuff that everybody remembers, and not the small, stabbing pains of the intricate and the personal. Events change size in memory. They fade out of the picture until I can barely see them at all, so those nights are painted bright and simple long after the fact. It becomes possible to believe that I cared more about a globally consequential event than I did about who I loved and whether they loved me back, what my phone said and what bad choices I was in the middle of making. But of course, at the time, the opposite was true. My small, frivolous life felt vivid and painful, and the large events of history distant and unreal.

I started thinking a lot more about those “where were you when” conversation starters when I realized with certainty that I was never going to have kids. People often phrase their stories about big moments in history as “one day I’ll tell my kids that this is where I was when this happened.” On Saturday, when all of New York City was a block party, it felt like the stories that people tell their kids. It was easy to imagine near-future depictions and reenactments of this day— from big, paving-stone novels with the moment of Trump’s loss as their opening set piece, to prestige television, the genre of which is almost always historical fiction, to personal myths passed down through friends and family, repeated over and over, polished by repetition—and how they would turn it almost immediately into something mythic, and therefore not quite true. 

Already, in the moment, the golden haze of fiction settled over the whole day, when the party went on all night, everybody spraying champagne on strangers, everybody wearing their masks for the most part but giving ourselves day of from fear, from the grim, grinding facts of the world in which we very much still live. Saturday was a holiday, and one of the defining features of a holiday is that it is static, separate from any real doing. The presents, and blessings, and notions of forgiveness and rebirth, built into many major religious holidays, the days that we get off from work for somebody else’s religion or our own or because a famous person was born or died, all of these are at best the thing that comes after the action, and not the action itself. Holidays are things that happen to us. The giddy and nauseous holiday sense of history says here we are, standing in the middle of it, doing nothing, as the storm bursts around our head. It is easy to love spectacle; it is easy to want to drown in a thing larger than oneself, to surrender to the tide and feel that the tide itself has meaning.

All year I’ve thought about what it means to be living through history. It has rarely seemed so starkly obvious that we are inhabiting in real and dynamic time the thing that kids will one day study in history books. A friend jokes that decades from now, students who haven’t studied for tests will write “2020” down for the year for every answer they don’t know. Sam wrote in 2017 “you do not want to live in a year that students will have to memorize decades from now; these years are almost uniformly slaughterhouses.” We talk about the “may you live in interesting times,” curse, a phrase that has been misattributed so much and so long that its provenance is largely unknown.

If nothing else, 2020 has certainly made it clear that to live through history is mainly a curse. Nobody wants to live in interesting times. The holiday version of history, the thing I felt on Saturday, that sense of posing for the photos in future history books, is horribly akin to what I have felt all year, living through an at-once lightning-speed and slow-motion disaster. One was joy, and one was tragedy, and yet somehow they share an uncomfortable amount of emotional DNA. I got on a plane on March 16th, coming home from a suddenly abbreviated trip out of town. I spent the rest of March not leaving my house, listening to the wails of ambulances print against the silence. In April, I walked through Times Square when it was empty of everyone except the perennial End of Days preacher, who was all alone and thriving, his time come at last. 

I watched the city empty, and then fill up again; I watched the streets populate with desperate outdoor parties, and I watched the numbers go up, and go down, and go up again. In my mind, I ran the data on the age and health of the people I love; I learned about sick friends only after the fact, once they were recovering. I tried to explain to my oldest family friend, whose health has deteriorated from lack of social contact, why we can’t hug anymore. Every part of living in interesting times is a curse, but in the hideous center of it it also feels like a holiday, in that a holiday is a time when normal rules don’t apply, when we are removed from the mundane and the familiar, when something large happened to us that we neither worked for nor deserve. 

On those long nights in the spring, on those walks through an empty city, I felt a lot of the same things I felt on Saturday: That this was already the movie, even as it was also the present moment, that I was already living in the story, situated in the immediate fiction that history creates, the space between the living and telling of it collapsed entirely. This lack of distinction between the feeling of historical tragedy and what passes for triumph might serve as a warning. Once in a great while the tide of history does carry us forward to something that feels like justice, but the years schoolchildren have to memorize are still near-uniformly slaughterhouses. 

The confusion of the large and the small is not just about the way an essentially frivolous person like me collides with newspaper headline events; it is also the frequent and fundamental misunderstanding of how change actually works. There’s that Bruegel painting where Icarus is crashing into the ocean in the background while in the foreground villagers obliviously go about their lives. Icarus, the famous and immortal myth, is a distant speck; the villagers, who will live and die and not be remembered, who are doing nothing of note to anyone but themselves, take up most of the canvas, looming large. The all-day block party on Saturday was joyous, but it was a spectacle in the way all of retold history is a spectacle; the actual story of it, the things that really matter, didn’t happen on Saturday, but both before and after it, phone calls and car rides and emails, stop-and-start conversations, meeting in rooms without windows. 

The fractionated story of this exhausting year, when it is so clear we are living at the seam of things, living in interesting times, will be told in grand and horrifying images; ambulances, bodies, numbers, cops in riot gear like a pestilence, and parties in the streets like a holiday. The consequences of the history-book events filter down into the stories of human lives; the brutalities and losses of this year exist on the scale of headlines, and on the scale of two people having a conversation in a room. The violence done by governments also happens on the same unseen, human, gut-punch level as text messages and breakups. The small story, where people lose loved ones or homes or manage the triumphs that allow life to go on for another day, is in fact what is large; and the large story, where we feel like we are living through history, is really so tiny in comparison. It takes me a minute to even find Icarus in the painting at all, so much else is going on. Change rarely happens in the moments that feel like change; the things that matter are often the story underneath the story, nearly silent and not famous.

The stories we tell often elide the ways we got there, the small, grinding, daily doing that is the place where our lives reside, from which both horrors and celebrations burst forth, all the work and choices of hands and days, soft and constant as a murmur, folding into the false image of the big events, unrecorded. I get up and go to work and have the hard conversations or don’t; some days I go outside and some days I don’t manage it. A universe of these choices adds up over time. The stories people tell their children run parallel with how the events in the story came to happen, two trains whispering at each other in the night but never meeting. 

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