Alternate Universe

And if Pearl says that it can be, then that’s enough for me.

Sometimes we do read to escape, or find comfort, or to spend time in a world that is a little more fair and a little more kind than the world we inhabit. 

Jennifer Weiner

Nora and I had a long conversation last night, after she finished reading my manuscript for Trailing Spouse. We both agreed that the end was too abrupt, but disagreed about why.

Let me back up for a second. Trailing Spouse bears some family relations to my other books: a young man who wonders how he got to be who he is, and who has to figure out how to recast his life rather than just dashing himself against the same barricades that have closed him away so many times. But I’d gotten tired of my writer friends telling me that my characters have it too easy, that they were dissatisfied by things that worked out well. So I decided in this book to thwart Kurt’s efforts, to have the randomness of the world and the immense powers of habit and structure be forces too great for him to resist. 

It’s a good book. And I hated writing it.

When I’ve written my other novels, I’ve been drawn forward magnetically, every morning demanding that I tell the next stage of my protagonist’s challenges and growth. I want to sit down at the laptop and learn new ways that Clay actively rebuilds his broken self, to see yet another example of how Robert’s patience helps others recover from disrespect and misfortune, to uncover Tim’s neglected capabilities as they’re reignited by a crisis he’d never expected to face. I didn’t want Kurt to repeat his mistakes, don’t want him to move marginally forward only to be pushed back again by the systematic cruelties of his community. But there it was.

Trailing Spouse was instructive for me because it taught me more about why I write. To paraphrase Jennifer Weiner, I write to create a world that’s a little more fair and a little more kind than the one we feel every day. A world in which confusion can be clarified (albeit not in the ways we had expected), in which earnest effort is rewarded (albeit imperfectly). A world in which the things we already know are sufficient to a task we hadn’t expected to take on. A world in which we have allies who make us smarter and stronger and not alone.

The science fiction and fantasy community has a long tradition of alternate or parallel universes, inhabited by people kind of like us but not quite, where the logic system at hand is sort of familiar and sort of not. The construction of an alternate universe allows exploration of counterfactual narratives. What would everyday life be like if we could change physical forms at will? Or relocate ourselves by dematerializing from place A and reassembling in place B? Or if we could cast spells? It’s a literary form that allows us to imagine new ways of living, and also to compare what we’ve read with what we have every day, maybe questioning some of our perceived limitations.

In my alternate universe, the laws of physics or human physiology haven’t changed. No werewolves, no time travel, no magic. What’s changed is that lonely people can find ways to be not lonely. What’s changed is that people who work hard have that work recognized. What’s changed is that there’s almost no room for irony or cynicism.

And for a lot of readers, that form of alternate reality is harder to believe than vampires and dragons. The same people who happily surrender to the logic of superhero movies will say, “Happy endings? Ehh, come on, that never happens.”

In our culture, irony is sophisticated, and earnestness is naive. As the t-shirt in the Mass MoCA gift shop says, Contemporary Art Does Not Love You. There is no related clothing for sale there that uses words like “heartwarming” or “redemptive” or “uplifting.” Those just sound like the Hallmark Channel, sappy and trivial. But really, where do we want to live? We want to live among people who love us. We want pleasure and belonging and fulfillment. We want our labors to be rewarded, our work to matter, our capabilities to be recognized. And my alternate universe is designed to reliably bring those outcomes, to build a world worthy of our aspirations.


So back to Nora’s and my disagreement. She believes that Kurt, having shown himself to be a good father, has discovered new strengths that will allow him to recover some stability in his life. She wants the story to continue so that she can see how he and his daughter move forward.

But I think that his daughter’s departure is the end of Kurt. He’s already had the rupture of a lost career that he’d deeply deserved; now he’s experiencing the rupture of having been a damn good father and having that taken from him as well. This is not an alternate universe story in which good work is recognized and rewarded; this story is in a world that’s all too close to home, and from which recovery is not reliable. I stopped that story early because I couldn’t bear to watch his final collapse. Trailing Spouse taught me more about why I write, about the kinds of stories that I value. It’s a good story—I’m proud of the work—but it costs too much, and doesn’t take me to a place I want to be.

I write, in part, because I want to discover new ways for people to succeed, to thrive. That’s why I’ve written nonfiction for thirty years: to help us see that kids deserve more from their education, to help us see the ways that buildings can make families and communities stronger, to help a new generation of grad students understand the unspoken culture of higher education so that they can navigate the hazards. My goals for fiction are no different. I aspire not to misery but to redemption.