Between the “Dog” and “Chicxulub”

January 19, 2011

I’ve been thinking more and more about stories and how they are often more true than, say, the daily news. Stories define us–a story that gets told, remembered, retold, elaborated, and infused with myth–holy, mundane, slight or legendary myth–becomes a landmark, a signifier, a tie that binds. Stories that grow and stick around can become the basis for a shared history, culture,art, religion, country, and world. Peter Milligan’s been dealing with that in an accessible yet beautifully literate way in his comic series “The Unwritten,” and recent articles by people like Stephen King (who  succinctly presented the idea in the afterword of his latest book), but it’s how this concept has come at me from such various sources in a relatively short amount of time that has made me really ponder it’s deeper meaning.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I believe stories matter.

From obviously separate collections, I recently read “No News, or What Killed the Dog?” by Ray Bradbury and “Chicxulub” by T.C. Boyle. Both stories grapple with what the meaning of life is in their own way. Bradbury is very much a Norman Rockwell of a writer, his work is nice and neat and nostalgic yet Bradbury has a way of sneaking in big ideas or dark murmurs when necessary. “No News” is a bit on the light side and very rooted in a fifties mentality in certain ways, but it presents a look at life that is both optimistic yet just as uncertain today as it likely was then in terms of actuality. In the story, a family awakens one morning to find their family dog (“Dog”) of 20 years has died during the night. The family is devastated, the parents calling the children who have grown up and moved out of the house to come home and be with their younger siblings and parents as they make arrangements. The family contacts a pet cemetery to do a service and burial for the dog, a process that strikes them as being silly if it were only for someone else’s dog and not their own beloved companion.  At the funeral, the father gives a eulogy in which it dawns on him and he relays the realization to the audience that the death of the dog is the worst thing to have yet happened to the family. He invokes a litany of human accomplishments that have made life better in the present age, the “science-fiction” age as he calls it since the things taken for granted are in truth so remarkable (radio, TV, etc. are the big gadgets he invokes which makes the reader wonder what the character would marvel at about today’s technology). Life is easier, much  easier for his children than it was for his generation, he insists–growing up he lost brothers and sisters, classmates and neighbors all at young ages to various illnesses and problems routinely dealt with in modern society, so much so that the death of the dog was the first tragic experience his roughly 7-27 year old children have had to face.

In Boyle’s “Chicxulub,” a couple faces the dreaded late night phone call in which they are asked to come to the hospital because their teenage daughter has been in an accident. The process of nervous fear, hankering numbness and horror at impending tragedy facing the father as narrator is interspersed with his comparisons of life and  the Chicxulub hypothesis of what killed the dinosaurs. The asteroid that theoretically hit the earth was of a size that could hit the earth again at any time–the narrator wonders what to make of life in the face of impending doom, if a “civilization-ender” can remove every trace that not only he existed but that all of humankind ever existed. The couple ultimatley finds out that the victim of the accident at the hospital is not their daughter but a friend of hers whom she loaned her driver’s license so that the younger girl could make it into an R movie. The father concludes that he narrowly avoided his own Chicxulub event but that it was hurtling to that other young girl’s parents even now as they likely slept unaware of the call they were about to receive.

These stories made me wonder–do we live in the science-fiction age? If so, is it “The Jetsons” or is it “The Road?” Obviously neither, we’re not carefree with universal ease and technology for all nor are we in an apocalyptic scavenger hunt for survival, at least not the majority of us. But pose the question, when do you wish you had been born?, to me and I’d shrug my shoulders and be unsure (if the relationships I’ve formed and wish to hold onto were not a factor in such a decision). Many decades or eras look good in hindsight for particular groups of people with the “right” privileges and opportunities, but even then only in hindsight with the knowledge that whatever pressing calamities of that day ultimately didn’t fully come to fruition.

We do live in the “science fiction age” in some positive ways and the points made in Bradbury’s tale are true for a great number of people. Life expectancy has grown in much of the world, infant and child mortality rates have decreased in the same areas of the world, technology is ever-growing and possibilities for medical breakthroughs always loom. The great majority of the industrialized world can count on food, clothing and shelter, etc. Yet Boyle’s story is right too in many regards; the great “civilization ending” meteorite may not hit in any of our lifetimes, but then again it may. It may in many other forms, forms that with our current resources and knowledge as collective humanity we should know better than to be held victim by–global warming, nuclear warfare, prejudice and genocide.

With all of our resources we still seem hellbent on destroying each other over ideology or greed. We have the best and worst possible world as a global people. Ultimately though, if there is something more than what we see and feel on a strictly temporal level–something that the narrator of either story failed to recognize, that the narrator of Boyle’s emphatically denied, then the collective destiny of humankind cannot be eradicated by a chicxulub event on a wide or personal scale, nor can all be made better now by new gadgetry and social progress–something  more is already there if we are receptive to it.

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