When the narrative just won’t evolve

They say art reflects life, and the older I get, the more I turn to it and see within the very same lessons that I’ve learned, or am grappling with myself.

I realized recently that there’s a reason why two of my favorite books are The Great Gatsby and Love in the Time of Cholera. They’re very different stories, but are united by one thing: A character who idealizes a love narrative, to the point of it becoming a lifelong obsession that never waivers.

I’m hardly a muse in the artistic sense of the word – I’m a fairly ordinary person, and quite proud of the fact. But even those of us who revel in their ordinariness can become someone else’s hinge. I was once a young person with rather literary sensibilities, and the youthful idea that I was going to be different. I wasn’t going to succumb to the quotidian world – I was going to rise above it. So when I encountered people with similar convictions, I tended to gravitate toward them – and the more outlandish their convictions, the more fascinated I became.

I smile at my younger self now. I understand why she felt that way, why many young people feel that way. But with experience comes evolution, and like many people, I evolved into the early middle ager that I am today. I have no particular regrets about giving up on those romantic sensibilities – as I have said to more than one person, there are certain things that interest me in art, but would repel me in real life.

One of those things is that person who becomes so attached to a youthful narrative that they aren’t able to let it go.

[Warning: Spoilers]

I’m old enough now that I’ve watched various acquaintances struggle to let go of narratives that they attached themselves to in their youth. In one case, I became the face of such a narrative. Or, I suppose, the stand in. The actual origin of his narrative was another girl, who immediately dismissed him, so he shifted his focus to me. I was a bit more…fanciful in those days, which is to say I was screwed up enough that I mistook a toxic attachment for something with an authenticity that I once thought transcended the ordinary.

It’s a bit silly to say that now, but I was nineteen at the time. The person was my Gatsby. Don’t worry, no one shot him and left him dead in a pool anywhere – or, at least I didn’t – I have no idea where he is today, nor do I particularly care. Like the Gatsby in the novel, his ability to hold onto an idealized version of a person and the outcome of the story he thought he was living out was astounding in how completely unrealistic it was. As we aged, I felt like I was moving into adulthood, while he was still holding on to a moment – a literal moment that happened while we were still of an age that ended in ‘teen’ – and centered everything around it.

The novel Gatsby is driven to win back his first love, Daisy, who marries another man – a much wealthier one. In order to be competitive, Gatsby devotes his life to the accumulation of wealth, and through the novel, we learn that his methods are…less that legal and certainly unsavory. And it works – for a while. Daisy, bored with her life and disenchanted with her husband, gladly enters into an affair.

But in the end, Daisy is not harboring any illusions. She could certainly choose to leave her husband, but she doesn’t. Though she may not be completely happy, Daisy has accepted the realities of her life. Gatsby never does – to the very end, he believes that he can steal her away. His confidence in his narrative is unshakable – he truly believes that Daisy will eventually choose him. Not based on any evidence of her love of him, but purely based in his conviction that this is the way the narrative is supposed to go.

Gatsby’s narrative is so grandiose that he even becomes prey to it himself – he becomes a character within it. He’s both mythic and hard to see; you don’t really know who the real Gatsby is until the end. Daisy is put on a pedestal, idealized and imbued with qualities that she doesn’t possess, and can’t hope to attain. She is what she is – a product of her time and her wealth.

Eventually she chooses her husband, and still Gatsby seems unable to put her completely behind him. I think, at the very end, he has a moment of self-awareness in that he expresses to the narrator of the story how and why he became infatuated with Daisy to begin with. He also seems to understand the difference between himself, born poor, and people like Daisy and her husband, who were born to wealth and privilege. But still, he clings to the narrative.

The last line of the novel is pretty brilliant, in that it sums up the main idea of the story in one gorgeous and heartbreaking line:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Gatsby was never moving forward – he was also looking back, attempting to recapture the love of his youth, desperately trying to fulfill that early promise that never materialized.

I’ve seen that behavior in my own life, as I traversed young adulthood. Most people will evolve over time, but there are those who just get stuck. Sometimes that lack of movement isn’t conscious, but sometimes you find people who choose to cling to a narrative. Sometimes, a person becomes the center of the narrative, but it’s never really about them. Gatsby never really wanted Daisy – he wanted the wealth and glamour that he associated with her – he doesn’t necessarily distinguish between the two. She’s one more possession that he intends to require – the crown jewel of his collection, in a manner of speaking.

Daisy isn’t someone to sympathize with, but having been in that position, it’s maddening when you want someone to appreciate you, but all they can see is their narrative. Daisy’s marriage might not have been ideal, it was at least authentic in a way that her relationship with Gatsby wasn’t. At the end, thought he’s definitely taken a bit of a blow, Gatsby is still waiting for Daisy and still holding on to his narrative.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a more complex book than The Great Gatsby, in my opinion. In part that’s because Gatsby is a somewhat sympathetic character – his faults and less savory deeds are forgivable because he is, as the narrator points out, different from the people he aspires to be like.

Cholera’s Florentino isn’t so likable. He gets hung up on a youthful passion with Fermina – like star-crossed lovers, they’re separated by distance and Fermina’s disapproving father. But when Fermina returns, a few years older and wiser, she realizes the moment she sees Florentino that their love had all been an illusion. It had carried on through letters and the telegrams – the epistolary nature of their passion allowed each of them to make it be exactly what they wanted and needed. It’s highly idealized. Once Fermina returns to her life, she casts off this illusion and embraces reality.

Which is to say, she’s matured, accepted what is expected of her by her father and society, and chooses to embrace it. She and her eventual husband harbor no illusions about each other – there’s affection but no passion. Their relationship, chronicled over a 50ish year span, has the same ups and downs as many long-term relationships.

Florentino spends that 50-year span chronicling over 600 conquests, which he keeps a list of, and does so with such secrecy that no one knows he does it. Some conquests aren’t fully consensual; two women end up dead as an indirect result of his actions; near the end, he grooms then seduces a teenager. He’s problematic – though set up in the role of romantic hero, he wreaks havoc. He’s manipulative and selfish, and like Gatsby, pursues fortune so that when Fermina is again available (he assumes she will eventually be a widow), he can swoop in and be worthy of her attention.

And that’s very much how it goes. Florentino announces his continued love for Fermina right after her husband’s death, offending his former love with his indelicacy. Reading that scene underscores the depths of his selfishness, and how he’s less concerned about Fermina as he is about controlling the narrative. He finally has the opening he’s been waiting for for half a century, and he doesn’t intend to let things like propriety or a widow’s grief stand in his way.

The end of the narrative devolves from there. Fermina does eventually give in to him, but she does so because she can. As a widow, she has more freedom to indulge herself, and (by my reading, anyway) she chooses to do just that.

But Garcia Marquez makes it clear that Florentino is still clinging to the narrative – to the illusion that Fermina cast off many years earlier. While she’s making a choice, he’s stumbling blindly into wish fulfillment, and even his few moments of clarity end up being pushed aside as he clings to his narrative. They sail off together into muddy waters in a bleak setting, cholera flag flying from their boat. This is not exactly a happy ending.

The book ends on what could be read as a romantic note, but when I read it now, what I see is a narrative that’s about to fall apart. You don’t have to see it on the page to know what’s coming. This can’t be sustained, even away from the world. The reason why is that it was never based on reality.

I had a Florentino, too – someone who was really good at shoving back reality and holding onto a narrative. She was also a bit manipulative and had the same shadowy depths to her that Florentino possesses. Like Florentino, I’ve watched her over the years move toward the resolution of a narrative that gripped her at a very young age, even to the point of ignoring reality to do so. And her narrative, which I’m fairly intimate with, is not sustainable.

I’ve reread these books in quarantine – both from the world and the particular disease plaguing us all, and a sort of self-imposed quarantine from narrative-builders. It’s exhausting to get caught up in someone else’s obsession, and realize that you’re a prop. You’re a screen, there to reflect whatever they decide to project onto you. I’m fascinated by that sort of personality, but they’re better from afar; it’s difficult to be in their orbit.

You will never matter as much as the narrative does. You will never be a real person. To acknowledge you as a person, they would have to let go of control, and accept that you’re an autonomous individual rather than a character in their story. Narrative builders aren’t good at that. I’ve watched them shut down, and been shut down by them when I contradicted them in some way – I’ve seen them dismiss evidence when it conflicts with their desires – and I’ve seen the level of hostility that can emerge when you indicate that you don’t want to play out the role they’ve put you in.

I’m drawn to books that give me insight into people who seem to be drawn to me. I grew up with a furious narrative builder, so the fact that I managed to attract two in my younger days is hardly surprising. We tend to magnetize to the things we understand, even if the circumstances are less than idea.

Now that I’m older, I prefer authenticity. I’m not interested in being tangled up in someone else’s narrative or pushed down the path of their wish fulfillment. I no longer find that sort of thing flattering – it’s the unfortunate side effect of too much self-esteem.

It’s tragic, I think, to watch someone investing so much in what they think is the future, something that is in front of them, without realizing that it’s actually the past that they’re they’ve moving toward. Fitzgerald’s closing line is one of the most brilliant I’ve ever read for that reason, because encapsulates what it’s like to be that person, or be near that person – to feel like you’re struggling to row forward, but keep getting pulled back.

We learn from art, and not only have a I learned a lot about narrative builders, but I’ve learned to distinguish between what I actually want, and ghosts of the past. Sometimes instead of a plan, what you really need is an exorcism.

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