We’re all flapping salmon dry-heaving around on the vast saltine of life
“Dwight wasn’t good with people. Being in a room with others made him want to bolt.”
—from “Among the Gaytys” by Walter Cummins
I think it’s to Stephen King that I usually misattribute the quote that Tom Clancy appropriated from Mark Twain, who wasn’t Mark Twain at all but actually Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a river boat pilot. Whoever it was never spoke a truer word than when he said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” But considering that Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, a.k.a. Victor Hugo’s Zombie (not really—I made that one up), has a history of making quotes famous when they were said by other people first, it’s entirely possible that he never said the thing about fiction being strange but only overheard someone else say it and it looked a lot better in the newspaper article to attribute the quote to him rather than what he actually said, which was no doubt, “Dude! Totally stealing that!” otherwise known as the Author’s Credo.
Which is a good sampling of the he-said-she-said plotting of the real world. Life begins with a mad-scrabbling search for identity, it goes a little wobbly in the middle area, and then ends when you thought you were paying attention to something else.
Everything in real life is a bit of a mess, to put it in mild terms. And somehow, in the churning meat and vegetable stew that we call life, our species has somehow decided that there is such a thing as “organization.”
In other words, we invented fiction. The world doesn’t make sense, according to us anyway. But something had to make sense. So we made that sensible thing, to explain what we mean by “sense” since we have so much trouble finding any of it outside of us.
One of the most satisfying examples of fiction bringing sense to the human condition is the fish out of water story. Or as I like to call it, the Animal Endowed with Regret Trying to Find Its Place in an Inescapable Web of Biology That It’s Been Trying to Deny Any Relationship to for Years story. Because that’s the ultimate fish out of water story.
So if a fish out of water story is a story about a character trying to come to terms with an uncomfortable environment, then it’s the perfect kind of story to describe the human condition, by my eyes. Humans are a species of reasoning animals, constantly trying to figure out where we fit into this otherwise balanced system.
Human beings have put themselves at odds with what served as a perfectly supportive environment—if you put aside hurricanes, bears, and tetanus. And ever since we cast ourselves out of our garden of innocence—infer whatever reference you want—we’ve been trying to reconcile our instinct to pick each other’s lice for a snack with our need to see what happens on the next episode of The Good Wife. We’ve somehow got it into our heads that we can’t both live as natural creatures and uphold the tenets of civilized behavior.
For some reason, I feel like I know that embracing my baser instincts is somehow backsliding into a less human state.
That leaves me in a bit of a bind, because now I feel the need to justify the claim that I am somehow not like all those other animals, even though I have no chemical justification for the claim. The only thing that sets me apart from other animals, aside from an overdeveloped sense of paranoia, is a whole lot of rearranged rocks and ninety thousand recipes for sandwiches.
I feel at odds with the natural world, even though it’s literally inescapable, due to the fact that I need it to survive.
And that does not make a lot of sense.
I feel a particular affinity for fish out of water stories, since they’re stories that begin with a character placed in their own personal purgatory so that they can grow as a person. Which is what they do, if the story follows a sensible route. And it’s going to be sensible, since this is fiction we’re talking about. Or it’s going to be more sensible than most days in the life of your average muckity-muck, scraping through the urban jungle from falling asleep in a bowl of corn flakes to falling asleep in front of Six Million Dollar Man reruns—insert “beginning of day” and “end of day” into that visual at your own discretion.
So I love fish out of water stories, because I always feel a bit like a salmon dry-heaving around, trying to find something to ease a chestful of burning. And the promise in a fictional fish out of water story is a promise of reconciliation between the out-of-place character and the purgatory where they find themselves when the story begins. That sense of order gives me a little hope.
Or, if not hope, some determination, if, for example, the fish out of water story ends in a heart-breaking way.
This story brought to you by “Among the Gaytys” by Walter Cummins
Image: kazuend | Unsplash
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