When I sat down recently to start a short story, I wondered what kind of stuff I was bringing to the creation. Maybe I was over-analyzing my thought process, but I already had these images, ideas, and tones and had yet to create even a single character. If our stories are to have life-giving meaning and value, what do we start with? My hunch borders on love: love for our readers, love for our characters, love for language.
I started reading this idea into the novels and movies I enjoy the most. I see this love in Marilynne Robinson’s characters in her fictional Gilead. So much so she’s written three novels about them. It’s not a love that gives everyone a happy ending or a success story. It’s an authorial love for complexity and conflict, for tragedy and new ways of seeing the world.
In John William’s novel Stoner, it’s about a love of language. This is an inclusive love, which is why the divine can be so powerful and evident in Ian McEwan’s Atonement or J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, where atheist novelists give us language for forgiveness and praise. I feel this love, overwhelmingly, in Terrence Malick’s films. More so in character’s whispered meditations and the captivating images.
Love can also be a missing piece, even in stories about love. The plot of Interstellar hinges on love transcending the laws of physics as we know them, allowing Cooper to exist outside of three-dimension space-time and manipulate the past through gravity. All because the connection he has with his daughter (whom he abandons to save mankind) allows him to communicate with her from the future. If Christ's love can transcend time and be our lone saving grace forever, then why do I harp on such a small plot piece in an epic movie, a love that transcends? It's because love in Interstellar is cheap, just one of those givens. Cooper abandons his family to save earth, but he still really wants to return to them because he loves them. I don’t buy it. It's not earned. We have to accept it, regardless of how it appears for the sake of the plot.
David Brooks would disagree with me: “‘Interstellar’ will leave many people with a radical openness to strange truth just below and above the realm of the everyday. That makes it something of a cultural event.”
But I want something more. For a movie that says a lot about science and mankind, it doesn't say enough about humanity. It’s not based in a love for characters as it is in love for ideas about relativity and a post-earth mankind. It has all the furniture and tools, but that doesn’t make a home. We can have stories full of stuff, but we also need them rich in truth, not just strange truth, but truth that speaks to us from the past into the future. There’s a certain kind of work that crafts characters and narrative that’s more than epic. It’s a sublime labor based in love. We need to point to that kind of work; keep striving for that kind of love to truly transcend time.