We tend to like art that is compact. We want stories in tidy packages. I’m no different—I think if a movie needs to be over two hours (especially over 2.5 hours), then that movie isn’t done yet. It’s also exponentially harder to write a tight 3-minute pop song than to freeform jam for two full hours. Anyone can noodle, but structure is hard.
That said, within a decently structured story, I love nothing more than divergence. That is life, no? You may set out with seven things on your checklist for this week, and though you may accomplish all seven things (but let’s face it, probably three at best), along the way you’ll encounter a new leak in the bathroom, wonder how to keep your kids safe in a pandemic, and, since most of us live in Farmington/Farmington Hills, probably deal with a power outage after the latest “once-in-a-century” storm. Divergence is life.
And those are the obvious kind, the divergences that thrust themselves upon you. I like art that includes those, of course, but I love art that includes the minor daily side trips our minds make.
Accepting multiple possible right answers has never been our strong suit.
One of my favorite writers was a Michigan son: Jim Harrison grew up in Haslett and lived near Traverse before finally relocating west for the last years before his death. His most famous book is probably Legends of the Fall, which is ultimately because anything turned into a Brad Pitt movie is famous by default. I love his poetry and prose for many reasons, but his fiction is masterful at capturing the minor divergences. His characters (most often an older, white, male doofus of one kind or another) digress repeatedly in his novellas and novels.
Some of his characters would get (deservedly) taken down in a #MeToo movement, but I don’t always go to art for moral guidance. Sometimes I want it to acknowledge and explore the bizarre workings of the human mind. Harrison was expert at that, and when most of his characters ultimately made moral choices, they dallied in their thoughts first.
Good art reflects life, and we struggle in America to acknowledge that our thoughts are messy, and that it’s okay for thoughts to be messy. We are a nation founded by Puritans, the same people who burned divergent thought at the stake. Accepting multiple possible right answers has never been our strong suit.
So I hope more art begins to embrace the minor divergence. Sure, your hero is on a quest, but no quest goes straight from point A to point B without pausing to order a reuben at some point, and during the eating of said reuben, pondering what it’s all about anyway, what happens when we’re gone, why the universe expands and how we figured out that it does but we never really talk about it at all let alone all the dark matter and what exactly is a black hole anyway and why won’t the sink in the upstairs bathroom drain?
If we let our art wander—especially our mega-popular art, the stuff that millions see—maybe we’ll get better at seeing how life can go more than one way, how when you set out with one goal, life does its thing and leads you somewhere else, and how even when that doesn’t happen, we daydream repeatedly wondering what would happen if it did?
Art should make us wonder What would happen? It’s okay to swim in the questions, and thanks to Jim Harrison for helping me see that.
Addendum: If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a solid guide to where to start with Harrison’s books.