There should be a genre in fiction that covers what happens when catastrophe hits.
There is, in a sense. I’m thinking of books like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which opens as an environmental crisis forces a guy to confront his mortality, or Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, in which a death in a hot-air balloon accident fuels obsessions for the rest of the novel, or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the classic that imagines how kids grow up after being stranded on an island.
Catastrophe’s attractive because it can seem like a catalyst. We hope that through facing death, people who have been slow to change can suddenly find the fortitude to make clear, strong moral choices, or to become consistently generous with loved ones, or to find bliss. Maybe we want to trust that if an experience is extreme enough, it makes us truly self-determining.
Or, catastrophe might be a potent storytelling device for other reasons: It might present an unusually clear litmus test of moral character. Maybe it takes an encounter with death to know who we really are: Under pressure, the innately kind show their generosity, and the innately evil act badly. The innately resilient respond with energy, and the innately weak tend to crumble. The stress of catastrophe might help us know who we are, providing the boiling point for a good novel.
In any case, I’ve been wondering what sort of rich novels are being written in response to the current mine incident in Chile—what Delillos or McEwans are scribbling in notebooks tonight to find meaning in the drama. There is, in fact, a lot of great drama in Chile now—so many little stories emerging that showcase the detailed differences in the ways people live their lives.
For example, consider Yonni Barrios, the 21st miner freed from the mine, whose sexual recklessness only came to light when he was trying to survive underground. About a month ago, Barrios’s wife of 28 years attended a candlelight vigil for the trapped miners, but she overheard another woman crying Yonni’s name. The wife discovered that this woman at the vigil had been having a 10-year affair with her husband. At first, the wife stood by her man: “Yonni is my husband…. This woman has no legitimacy,” she told the press. But the husband didn’t get the message, and he sent invitations to both his wife and his mistress to attend the rescue operation. His wife, outraged, boycotted it, leaving the miner to his mistress.
Or there’s the drama behind the decision about which miner would “get” to exit the mine last. You can imagine how this might have played out in that underground home of 33 struggling men—some cousins, some childhood friends, some fathers and sons to each other, and some competitors in work. The point was that the man who would surface last would be the man who’d get to claim the title of “man longest stranded underground.” What would it say about a man’s character if he wanted to gamble on a longer stay to win that spot in history? The man who in fact did get to surface last was the supervisor of the shift; he was the same guy who first decided to radically ration their food intake to two spoonfuls of tuna fish and peach each day. I’d like to read about the battle between this man’s commitment to discipline and his budding ego.
And there’s the drama of the 19-year-old, Jimmy Sánchez, the youngest trapped miner, who sent this letter to his sister-in-law when he didn’t yet know his fate:
"Hi Roxana, I'm very good. I'm not nervous yet. I believe that when my turn comes (to get up on the capsule) nerves will attack me badly. But now I'm happy and calm. I have been always this way. And yes, it's been since August the 4th that I have not seen you. That was 2 months and some days ago. But for me it's like it was yesterday that we got caught here. God wanted me to stay here, I don't know, maybe so I change from now on. I have thought and I'll change a lot. I have suffered too much and don't want to suffer any more…. I expect than when my turn arrives everything will be ok…."
Intriguing. I’m wondering if this kid really has been caught up in some sin (drinking? lying?), or if this is just an ordinary diffuse sense of guilt, of missed opportunity. How can you tell if the commitments of the 19-year-old are deep or common?
Then there’s also the wonderful contrast between the first miner rescued, who, when he surfaced, stared into the eyes of his wailing son and quietly cried, himself, calling tragedy tragedy, and the second miner who surfaced, who ran around pumping the air, chanting about victory, and promising TV and book deals. Our defenses do come into relief when we’re dealing with stress.
There was lots of romance to write about, too, about how stress can shift desire: One couple decided to marry while the miner was underground; another resolved to renew their vows; another woman sent down lies to her man, promising him that all debts were all paid, in order to buoy his hopes.
Those are some tales that could be fruitfully fleshed out. Have you heard any other good stories from the Chilean mine? And have you read any satisfying stories that make meaning from the human reaction to catastrophe?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.