What are stories supposed to do? I know it sounds like a pedantic point, but stick with me for a moment. Should they provide a thoroughly realistic portrait of the world as it is? Ought they to reveal the historical milieus in which they were composed? Do they show the universal archetypes that buoy human experience? Should they subvert binary heteronormative gender distinctions? Uh, sometimes, often, maybe, and no? All these subjects could prompt long, spiraling conversations best suited for sophomore dorm rooms. Still, the initial question is still worth considering because it not only influences our reading but also our writing. On the most basic level, I’d argue that stories communicate propositions, basic truth claims about the nature of people and the world. Rarely have I seen that supposition so as in “The National Anthem,” the first episode of the British television show Black Mirror.
Critics have compared Black Mirror to The Twilight Zone and for good reason. It has the same high-concept sheen as Rod Sterling’s long-running series, only with a tighter focus on technology. Each episode riffs off of the titular reflective surface. A TV screen. A cell phone’s display. A computer screen. The lens of a video camera. Each of these plays its part in “The National Anthem,” the inaugural episode. A British prime minister gets woken in the middle of the night by a call from his security team. (In a delightful bit of symbolism, the episode opens with the vibrate function of the PM’s cell sending the phone shimmying across a bedside table until it plunges off, thumping on the floor.) Princess Susannah, a social-media savvy royal, has been kidnapped, and footage of her interrogation by an unknown abductor has appeared on YouTube. Copies have sprung up faster than the authorities can take them down. The kidnapping has started trending on Twitter, as have the kidnapper’s demands. The princess will die unless the PM commits bestiality—on live television.
“The National Anthem” is possibly the most painful thing I’ve ever viewed and a great example of how horror can be a conservative genre. Writer/creator Charlie Brooker grounds the story on a remarkably unambiguous propositional foundation. What do the assertions happen to be? Bestiality is bad. (The lengths to which cable-news anchors and their guests go to avoid even naming the act is bleakly humorous.) Social media can be dangerous. (Brooker recreates the comment section on the abductor’s YouTube video with cringe-worthy accuracy.) Politics in the digital-age cares little about anything but popularity. (When polls start plunging lower hour by hour, it’s sickening to watch the PM’s primary advisor put the screws to him.) An audience partakes in the malefactor’s guilt simply by watching. (In the end, there’s … well, I won’t spoil it.)
True, it’s simple to slip assertions into high-concept stories such as this one. But every narrative advances them in some way, shape, or form. When discussing sentences (out of which written stories are naturally formed), University of Iowa’s Brooks Landon says, “The relationship between propositions and sentences is a little hard to pin down since a sentence will always advance or express one or more propositions and a proposition will always be in the form of a sentence. The key here is to think of a sentence as being a visible piece of writing and the propositions its advances as assumptions and ideas not necessarily written out.” Stories do lots of things. We can argue about the specifics, if you’d like. But they never do less than communicate propositions.
(Picture: CC 2014 by Craig Sunter; Hat Tip: David Lanier)