Noah’s Ark, Julian Barnes, and Norwegian Cruise Line
by Jonathan Gray — University of Wisconsin - Madison
April 07, 2010 – 23:23
This post is about the odd yet fascinating moments when real life and one’s media consumption seem to be stitched together, one informing the other, the text of life seemingly written in concert with the text at hand.
Last week was Spring Break, and I actually took a vacation, on a cruise ship of all places (no, I’m not 65, but it was cheap, I needed sun, and I needed something that required no energy from me). Which further meant I got to read a novel for the first time in a time span that I won’t mention in case my BA and MA in Lit are recalled. The lucky book: Julian Barnes’s excellent A History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters. I grabbed it off my shelf having only looked at the spine, thinking, “it’s about bloody time I read some Barnes.”
Chapter 1 is set on Noah’s Ark. Chapter 2 involves a terrorist incident on a cruise ship. Chapter 4 sees a woman sail away from an abusive boyfriend and the fear of nuclear war. Chapter 5 is about a shipwreck. And Noah’s Ark and the shipwreck feature in other chapters too. In other words, while I was sitting on a ship, I was reading about a lot of events on ships. When I went to the gym on board one day, they were even playing Titanic on the screens.
The result was a wonderful layering of both experiences, textual and RL. Barnes makes a lot out of the separation of the clean and the unclean for the Ark, and playfully applies it to the cruise patrons in Chapter Two, though not before I’d already amusingly made the connection myself, staring out at the different passengers. As I read that Chapter Two, in which terrorists hijack a cruise ship, I heard a crew member warn a passenger not to venture too far from the pier alone in Guatemala due to local unrest. Titanic played as the ship listed in somewhat rocky seas. The final chapter situates the narrator in a personal heaven that includes the perfect breakfast for every meal, while I enjoyed a buffet breakfast everyday and sat around looking up at the sun and clouds for the rest of the days. And there were countless other small confluences of the world around me and the world(s) in the book, each close enough to one another to make me think more deeply about the unfolding texts, characters, themes, and plots around me.
I love these moments – when real life conspires with fiction to make you think, to add shades of meaning to something that is already demanding reflection. One could see a grander author at work, I suppose, narcissistically (or religiously?) seeing this as some sort of Truman Show scenario in which everything is there for a reason. Instead, I see it as yet more evidence of how much richer any text becomes on the back of other texts and experiences.
We often manage and control such processes, watching specific genres of film or television to match moods or seasons of the year, listening to sad songs after a break-up, etc., using life to fill a text even moreso, or vice versa. But when the moments occur at random, it’s a nice little sign that the chaos that is intertextuality sometimes produces beautiful structures, paths, and meanings.