Virtue & Mischief: The shape of our story


Kurt Vonnegut, the famous novelist (“Slaughterhouse Five,” “Cat’s Cradle” and dozens of others) and essayist, once opined that the arc of all stories, fictional and otherwise, can be depicted accurately on a graph.

The graph’s X axis represents the chronology of events. The Y axis represents Good Fortune (going up) and Bad Fortune (going down). The Y axis intersects the X axis at a neutral (that is to say, neither an objectively positive or negative) Fortune point. He first postulated this thesis when he was a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of Chicago.

“The shape of a society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads,” he later wrote about this concept. Alas, his idea was rejected by his professors “because it was so simple, and looked like too much fun.” He came up with several basic plot-graphs to describe most stories told across all cultures and all ages, including “Man in Hole,” “Boy meets Girl,” “Cinderella,” “Hamlet” and “Franz Kafka.”

I’ll outline just two—“Man in Hole” and “Franz Kafka.”

“Man in Hole” goes like this: The protagonist starts off well, but eventually gets into some sort of trouble. He manages to extricate himself (or is extricated by others, or some combination of the two), and ends up in a better position than he was when the story began. “Franz Kafka?” I’ll allow Vonnegut himself do the honors: “A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach. It’s a pessimistic story.” Indeed.

Vonnegut argued our own lives are necessarily much more mundane, dull and probably irreducible to be subjected to his descriptive system. Most of our real-life profiles would look like lines barely above or below the neutral corridor, with tiny rises and falls along the way. It’s crass and simplistic to reduce one’s actual existence to Vonnegut’s taxonomy, and it’s also subject to all sorts of mischievous biases. Nevertheless, occasionally I find myself thinking something like “Wow, that was a ‘Boy Meets Girl’ week!” or “Today was a total ‘Cinderella’!”

In this little space, I try each week to provide honest, entertaining glimpses of my life and of those in my inner sphere. I attempt to accomplish this while remaining fair to the principals involved—after all, they have no opportunity to offer their sides of the story. I also lean in the direction of imparting accounts that I feel are lighthearted or fun rather than dour, explosive or depressing. This can leave readers with the mistaken impression that my life, and the lives of Mrs. Amigo and our three offspring, is all puppy dogs and cotton candy, to coin a phrase. It is not.

Which brings me to this past Saturday. I pulled into the driveway of our home in the early afternoon after running an hour’s worth of errands. As soon as I opened the door it was clear that a particularly insidious version of Hell had broken loose and there was a lot of emotional (and other) mess to be cleaned up and comprehensively addressed, involving each member of the family and every conceivable subset within it. Two points here: First, while the particulars certainly matter to each family member in different and crucial ways, and are central to a lasting, positive resolution, there’s nothing to be gained by revealing them here for all the reasons articulated above. Second, don’t be deceived by my physical absence during the acute phase of Saturday’s events into thinking I was somehow an innocent party. For myriad reasons, I was every bit as responsible for the rancor, misunderstanding, etc., as anyone present.

It took hours of talking and crying and praying, alone and with the other family members in different combinations, to reach a place within sniffing distance of Vonnegut’s neutral Fortune territory. By 4:30 or so I looked at Krista and said, “Hon, we need to build on this tentative truce we’ve forged. I’m going to take the kids and your mom to dinner and then to the movie like we planned before everything went south. Please come.” To her enduring credit, she deposited her justifiable anger where only God himself can fashion peace, and agreed. So did the amigos.

Time with Grandma Amigo is always a positive influence. Fried chicken and a good movie don’t hurt, either. A few hours later some positive momentum was established, and we each smiled and even laughed again. We received Providence’s grace in the form of domestic tranquility and forgiveness.

I lay my head on the pillow that evening and cradled my better half in my arms. We talked, emotionally, physically, and spiritually spent. Much work remains, and will until the lay us in the ground, whenever that time arrives. Krista eventually kissed me good night and turned to find a more physically comfortable position in which to pursue well-deserved sleep.

I turned, too, and silently thanked God for giving me a “Man in Hole” instead of a “Kafka.”

By Tim Swensen

Virtue & Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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