Disaster Narrative

Reading John D’Agata’s lovely essay About A Mountain, I came across this timely passage.

“‘It’s the difference between experiencing a natural disaster and a technical one, which is the difference between having a story that we know how to read, and having one that breaks the rules of narrative.’

In a natural disaster, Peter Van Wyck, a professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University, explained, there is a rapid punctuation of events: a sudden rise of water during a flood, conentionally indicating a ‘beginning,’ then a point at which the water crests in the narrative’s ‘middle,’ and finally a period when the water recedes, which naturally signals an ‘end.’

‘But a technical disaster, like Chernobyl’s meltdown,’ said Van Wyck, ‘is much more difficult to follow because it doesn’t adhere to the conventions of plot. It has a definite beginning, and probably a climax, but its end is indeterminate because it’s hard for us to know when such disasters have concluded….It causes the arc of these tragedies to feel incomplete.  For the residents around Chernobyl, of course, the event that caused their suffering may never significantly end, but for the rest of us something like that is over a soon as we fail to remember it.”

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