Your Life Is Not a Story

The irresistible fallacy of life-as-narrative

Illustration: oxygen/Getty Images

RRecently I visited some old friends who moved, a few years ago, from New York City to Portland, Oregon. In New York, Brian and Lara had been the staying-at-homest people I knew, which made sense since they also had the nicest home of anyone I knew — a large apartment on the 45th floor in midtown, with a view of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. Our usual routine was: I’d go over to their place, we’d order takeout, have some wine, and watch something like Battlestar Galactica. But since moving to Portland, they have unexpectedly, at age 50, become rave kids. To hear them explain it, it was a natural progression: They realized they really enjoyed dancing at weddings, and it occurred to them that they didn’t need to wait for a wedding to dance, so they started checking out some local clubs, and now they go almost every weekend. But when you only see a snapshot of your friends once every few years, gradual changes look like abrupt, bizarre metamorphoses: when they first sent me photos of themselves in luminescent costumes with goggles, antennae, and diaphanous capes, I felt like a Philip K. Dick character getting a glimpse into an alternate timeline.

“I have often noticed,” writes Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, “that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind.” One of the things I liked about my old friend Skelly was that whenever I saw him he was always so exactly himself, in fact even more himself than I’d remembered; he always borrowed 20 dollars, was always the first to spill a drink, always put on Led Zeppelin before passing out. He was as consistent as a cartoon character, like Wimpy with his hamburgers-on-credit habit. He stayed the same old Skelly right up until he broke character by unexpectedly dropping dead and revealing himself to have been secretly insane, with a house full of nightmarish detritus. It’s easy to forget that we only ever see facets of other people, never the whole (not even in marriage) — and in those facets what we’re mostly seeing is some aspect of ourselves.

More and more I’m simply interested in seeing how everyone else’s choices turned out, what became of us all.

Years ago I wrote an essay called “The Referendum,” about how people eye each other’s differing life choices — about careers, marriage, kids, homes — with envy or disapproval, out of an underlying anxiety about having chosen the wrong life themselves. But by the time you’re past life’s midpoint, and your own life starts to look more like a fait accompli than a work-in-progress, your investment in defending or second-guessing your own decisions ebbs; more and more I’m simply interested in seeing how everyone else’s choices turned out, what became of us all — my own small sample of results in the uncontrolled experiment that is life. I like it, for purely selfish, spectatorial reasons, whenever people do the less conventional, less expected thing in life, the same way I enjoy certain friends who aren’t necessarily “nice” people, because they’re like characters in a book who reliably make any scene they’re in more interesting. My friend Kevin, surely in the running for my most irresponsible friend, a crowded and competitive field — this is a man who gave himself gout with his excess — has fathered a child, and is now, to all appearances, a happy small-town dad. Another friend, Harold, has meanwhile announced his retirement “from public life,” and now dedicates himself to “The Great Work”: reading rare and obscure works of supernatural literature. My friend Diana realized, a few years ago, that she identified as queer: The catalyst for this epiphany was falling in love with a trans partner, which allowed her to embrace aspects of herself she’d always resisted and flout conventions she’d too long felt bound by. When I first met her, she dressed like Nancy Drew — not unfeminine, but more girl-detective than girly-girl. She’s since declared she’s never wearing a goddamn dress again; she wore a dapper pinstriped vest and pants at her wedding. (It’s one of the sillier items in the PRO column in my deciding whether to have children at 50: No one will have seen that coming.) It’s exhilarating to thwart the predictable script, break free of determinism now and then and flex what little free will we have. These twists and reversals remind me that I don’t know people as well as I think I do, and reassure me that we’re all still capable, even in midlife, of surprise.

Surveying this local panorama of human destinies, it’s hard to know what general conclusion they might entail other than: Life is certainly funny.

Not that we’re obliged to make our lives interesting for the amusement of some imaginary reader-God. There’s a difference between what we want to want, or think we ought to want, and what we actually want, and the sooner we recognize which is which, the happier we’ll be. A former student of mine confessed that she felt as though she’d given up, been defeated, when she left New York (a city that makes you look cool but feel miserable), but once she accepted her exile in the Bay Area, she couldn’t believe she was allowed to live a life she enjoyed so much. Brian and Lara’s life in Portland isn’t one I would’ve chosen for myself, but they seem far happier than they were in Manhattan, vegging out on the couch. Harold has renounced the company of womankind, and is drifting contentedly out of touch with humanity in his recliner, reading titles like The Flying Beast, but he is inarguably a happier man than I am; he knows exactly what he wants to do with his remaining time on Earth, and he’s doing it. Surveying this local panorama of human destinies, it’s hard to know what general conclusion they might entail other than: Life is certainly funny.

I write nonfiction because I don’t understand life well enough to make things up. Back when I studied writing in college, even today’s tiny, fragile publishing niche for essay and memoir didn’t exist, so we were taught to write short stories. I had no aptitude for fiction: I could never figure out how to reconcile the demands of Aristotelian dramaturgy with verisimilitude, to construct a satisfying story that resembled anything like real life. The narrative form real life most closely resembles is the soap opera — a long, meandering, pointless story without resolution, in which nothing much happens for long stretches, punctuated by the occasional incredible coincidence or improbable tragedy. It’s what Homer Simpson called “just a bunch of stuff that happened.” Inventing things that might plausibly happen would require a better grasp of life’s basic operating principles than I can pretend to; all I can do is write down what actually happened, and maybe venture some guesses as to why. The best fiction acknowledges that character is too complex to define, destiny unguessable: only bad stock characters are consistent and predictable; great literary characters, like people in real life, remain a little elusive, their motives opaque even to themselves. The novels I reread most often are ones whose characters are credible, familiar, but hover just the other side of comprehensibility; every time I open the book I hope that if only they’d make different decisions at crucial moments, it might all turn out differently.

It’s a mistake to try to force your life to conform to a script. I still have the timeline of my future life that I wrote up in pencil on a piece of college-ruled notebook paper when I was 12. Let’s see: By my present age I was supposed to have already published several science fiction novels and run for President. (You know how it goes; it’s hard to get around to everything. I did write some books, at least.) This is why I have so little helpful advice to give younger colleagues: Unless your life has gone boringly according to plan, it probably isn’t a replicable sequence of intentional steps. It’s less like a pathway — deliberately cut, following the most efficient route — than stepping-stones: a random scattering of happenstance that led you where you are now. It’s also a fallacy, if an irresistible one, to try to interpret life like a text (this is at least one purpose of therapy: to render your life as an intelligible narrative). Beyond a few broad Aesop’s morals — e.g., drugs appear to be bad for you, children seem to make people feel fulfilled, once you have enough money to live on, making more doesn’t make you any happier — we’re all just groping our way through the days, lucky if we get a moment to wonder what life is for. We barely have enough time to collect enough data to draw any conclusions before it’s all over. A recurring religious metaphor is that if we could only step back far enough to view the mosaic whole, it would form a coherent picture — God’s master plan, the grand design — and at last we would understand. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.

I recently saw 63 Up, the latest, and possibly last, installment in director Michael Apted’s Up series of documentaries, a longitudinal study chronicling the lives of a group of English men and women from the ages of seven through 63, checking in once every seven years. Apted began these films with an agenda about the determinism of class, which the films don’t invalidate, but also obviate as less relevant or interesting than the bigger mysteries of personality, life, and time. The Up series is one of the great projects in the history of cinema, an attempt to apprehend a glimpse of life whole. Its cumulative effect is a feeling beyond any emotion we have a word for, a resolution beyond sad or happy endings: It’s a fleeting God’s-eye view of life’s length and brevity, the eerie poignancy of time’s passage. It’s a perspective afforded by very few other works of art I can think of: Eliot’s Middlemarch, John Williams’s Stoner, Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. For an instant we can almost make out the pattern, and in it is not meaning but beauty.

I made the mistake of extrapolating in a straight-line trajectory from the present, failing to account for fortune’s corkscrew tangents.

Once in a while, at weddings, reunions, or funerals, sometimes just at ordinary moments, looking around at the strange and varied fates that have been waiting for us all this time, I get a twinge of this same sensation. I feel as if I’ve traveled into the future. When I was in high school, I once made a minor time-wasting project of drawing a scrapbook from the future, illustrating all my friends’ adult lives. I wasn’t far off in some cases — although, like most people, I made the mistake of extrapolating in a straight-line trajectory from the present, failing to account for fortune’s corkscrew tangents. I imagine traveling back in time now, a visitant from the distant Blade Runner year of 2019, to the eve of high school graduation 1985, to tell my old gang their fortunes: You become an MD/PhD at the National Institute of Health (no surprise there; that’s one life that went according to plan). You’re an architect and a scout leader, with two sons. You’re disabled by depression, but have a loving and supportive wife and you’re a good husband and father. You drift from one job and state to another and die in your forties, an addict. You’ve become a broker and drive a Porsche; little trace remains of the mysterious hero once known as Beetleman. No come to think of it that’s a terrible idea. It’s probably a mercy that our future selves are quarantined off from us, that time’s firewall protects us from spoilers.

One night during that trip to Portland, I got to experience a slice of Brian and Lara’s lives: All their assembled guests dressed up, took molly, and went to a rave. It happened to be Halloween weekend, and Portland enjoys a reputation, among itself, as “weird” — though it’s weird in a very white, distinctively dweeby way — which meant that there were a lot of creative, well-executed costumes on display. I saw a Spandexed fairy and a sexy Loki, a fishbowl-helmeted astronaut and Spider-Man unmasked, a tall, slender girl in a giraffe-patterned onesie and a man who’d encased his whole head in the solemn black rectangle and electronic eye of H.A.L. 9000. I saw couples entwined and undulate on the dance floor, heaps of depleted revelers flopped atop one another on cushioned daises like litters of kittens. One side effect of molly is to make people helplessly grind their teeth, which lent everyone an unfestively grotesque, feral aspect. The drug seemed to have a paradoxical effect on me, whereby rather than making me promiscuously tactile or emotionally incontinent, I became withdrawn and interior: Instead of dancing or drinking or flirting with any of the hundreds of friendly disinhibited enticingly costumed girls there, I wanted only to stand unobtrusively against a wall, observing from behind my kabuki demon mask and letting my thoughts drift around inside my head like a screensaver. I saw a woman whose face was encrusted in a mosaic of tiny mirrored tiles that shifted and flexed with her expressions (I learned it had taken her three hours to apply), each facet reflecting a fragment of the viewer. I watched several people mistake a mirror for a doorway and bonk ignominiously into their own reflections, not realizing the approaching stranger was themselves. For now we bonk into a glass, darkly. I stood there for hours, watching that chimerical crowd endlessly circulating, making grand entries and furtive exits, getting separated and regrouping, pairing up and parting again, the whole motley carnival, all those lovingly cultivated disguises, their true faces hidden, identities unknown.

Tim Kreider is the author of two essay collections, and a frequent contributor to Medium and The New York Times. He lives in NYC and the Chesapeake Bay area.

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