The Communication Narrative

by Kelvin Smith

Stories often hinge on devices of communication: proclamations and posted signs; the arrival of a messenger, a letter; a phone ringing, a stop at a pub or roadside diner to use a payphone; the headline in the newspaper, classified ads that signify betrayal or command; codes hidden in crossword clues, secret ink, numbers and names written in matchbooks. Messages of all sorts drive our narratives and tie together our plots.

Now, as we read and write about humans negotiating the world through digital devices, this may be changing. Communication leads to limited, selected or non-existent communication. Dialogue in novels can rely on neologisms and invented languages, while descriptions of contemporary technology lose currency as media change too fast to provide any long-lasting credibility to contemporary narratives. While people now expect instantaneous and constant communication in their daily lives, fictional narratives are stripped of the tension that comes from not knowing and the surprise that comes from unexpected revelations.

Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung has just published an article by Sandra Kegel about three recent Swiss novels (Schweizer Männer auf der Flucht, 29.03.2017). Each of these books concerns a middle-aged man who makes an escape from his normal life, who just walks away. In each of the stories the mobile telephone has a specific problematic role. Thomas, in Peter Stamm’s Weit über das Land leaves his behind, while the protagonists of Hagard by Lukas Bärfuss and Kraft by Jonas Lüschers struggle with their Handys, their last remaining contact with the former life.

Reaching the other side of communication looks like being a major motif in the narratives of our communication-centred world. New stories may help us to face the reality of the always-on nightmare by showing us that we can pretend that another world is possible, if only we are brave enough to run and to do it now.