When I was little, I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes. It’s tempting to say that I suspect many autistic kids do – but maybe they don’t. I might be extrapolating from insufficient data. That’s a thing I do, and a thing I’m trying *not* to do, since no matter how attractive the Encyclopedia Brown books made it look, the inevitable actual result of my personal extrapolation would be to center my experience rather than to make a reasonable sampling of ways people encounter the world.
One of the things that used to madden me about reading the Holmes books was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s utter disregard for continuity. How many wives did Watson have, anyway? But even more maddening were Watson’s careful and veiled references to “the affair of the black lily” and so forth.
I made that one up. But it’s plausible.
Rex Stout does it to: Archie often implies a world outside the expansive canon of his chronicle of Nero Wolfe’s cases. “We’d just resolved…” he says, as though that set the story in time for the reader.
The thing is, as I age it’s gone from irritating to a really relatable narrative technique. I notice myself doing the same thing at parties: “It was the year after the Booze, Broads, and Bacon party we threw…” or “I know I was older than the year we went camping in the old blue Ford…”
I get it, Watson. Something happened during that story. Something that makes it safer to reduce it to a one-liner, a source of amusement for your friends after which you can just move on with your life. And now they think they know, don’t they? They know you married Mary Marsten – or did you? Was the engagement broken off? You mention a wife, but not by name, and surely we know Mary’s name. I understand, Archie. It’s sensitive. An unnamed government official – or maybe just your good friend Lily – would prefer that we not know.
We exert so much narrative control over our own lives, even if we can’t control the events. Whether it’s on social media, presenting the best picture, or at a party, glossing over the way a parent hurt us to tell the story of a time that they threw a party or made a dress. Stories that are safe, but also stories that mark us as part of an in group. We do this: I am like you, those stories say, but in an even funnier way.
The downside of being an editor, of course, is that you know all the narrative tricks. That means being able to see what’s edited out. To read a story about a young man whose boss buys him a car after he walks ten miles to work and say “the thing left out is that nobody should have to walk ten miles to work in the hope of a benevolent boss.” To read a story about a homeless man who is given shoes and not think “I’m glad he has shoes” but “where are the systemic supports that would have supplied him and everyone like him with shoes?” To read a story about… you get the picture.
Am I a downer at parties? Well. Sometimes. I’ll crush your inspiration porn under my heel. I’ll point out that people shouldn’t have to hope for random charity to cancel their school lunch debt. Just feed the damn kids, we can afford it. I’ll point out that if you can shoot a car into space you can also fix a hell of a lot of infrastructure problems – and NOT with a single-use tunnel.
But I can also tell you the possum story.