Narrative Season – on Stories and Stability

PC: psu.edu

By Chris Barton, Staff Writer

Warning: This article contains some spoilers for ‘The Babadook.’

This is the time of year when I rediscover narrative. The magic that comes with autumn (a magic present in my home state of Colorado more than in Arizona) encourages me to stay in, watch movies, and cuddle up with a cup of tea and a book. It’s maybe my favorite time of year, partially because my return to stories brings with it a sense of both escapism and steadiness – the day-to-day disorder of my life becomes merely backdrop to the stories that I read and watch, stories that have a beginning, middle, and end; progression; and meaning.

This is also the time of year when we all are forced to take a hard, long look at our own narratives. Grad school is a step along the way to something – but what? Some of us know more than others – but none of us are certain. Whether we’re looking for jobs or internships, we have to ask ourselves “what comes next? What is the next step, and how do I get there?” Our story isn’t determined, yet we lack the foresight to see how our narrative thread continues into the future. We want our story to be exciting, meaningful, fulfilling. But that’s not a given. Our narrative is as yet undetermined, and application season reminds us of that.

The anxiety that comes from an uncertain story is alleviated by well-crafted fiction. Some stories – horror, for example – we know what is coming next, and it’s the anticipation that keeps our attention. Other stories – drama, much of literary fiction – we don’t know what is coming, but we know that it is coming, on the next page, the next scene, the next episode. We stay engaged because we enjoy being caught up in a dependable narrative. The story is out of our hands – we’re just spectators, along for the ride.

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The family finds in “Mister Babadook” a terrifying but ultimately cathartic narrative – and a new approach to the challenges of their daily lives.

This weekend I watched The Babadook with my girlfriend, Mary. In it, a single mother and her son contend with a monster that invades their house through a children’s book – all while navigating the everyday horrors that come with being a broken family trying to come to terms with the father’s death. As I cowered behind her, anticipating the Babadook’s appearance, Mary teased me: “real life is more terrifying than any Babadook.”

Mary was right. The brilliance of The Babadook is that by banishing the monster the family banishes the real-life horrors of their grief over the father and their frustration with each other. The rise and fall of the Babadook is a narrative that allows the mother and son to move forward with the narratives of their own lives – narratives that remain undefined and obscure, unpredictable and uncertain, but nonetheless hopeful. And their stories let us, the viewers, find a way forward in our own uncertain narratives.

Fall, for me, is when I fight my own Babadook. I engage in stories, dependable narratives, as a way to contend with the uncertainty of my own story. The more I am forced to question and confront my narrative, the more I come to depend on other narratives to help me find continuity and stability. And in these books and movies I find the strength and inspiration to write my story, push forward, and do what it takes to advance my narrative with purpose and confidence. Within narrative is the assurance that there is a way forward; a promise of a story that, despite its ups and downs, will ultimately be fulfilling and meaningful.

So if the uncertainty of application season has got you down, don’t despair. Read a book, watch a movie, fight a Babadook. Engage in a narrative other than your own, and follow it through to the end. There’s inspiration there: continuity, progression, and meaning. Take a detour down someone else’s narrative – you’ll be more prepared to find and express your own.

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