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the zhivago effect
time for a hundred visions and revisions
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

I keep trying to rent Dr. Zhivago. I really want to see it. I keep renting it and just not having three hours to set aside. I've read the book, you see, and I want to see the movie. Or, as I once heard it described at a balalaika concert: "The quintessential Russian movie. Starring an Egyptian, written and directed by Englishmen, scored by a Frenchman, filmed mostly in Spain, and the snow was fake."

Anyway, the movie is not the point. The book is the point. Pasternak does something in the book that Lean couldn't possibly do in the movie. He paints scenes with loving detail, describing the words and actions of people in a scene, and then makes a revelation at the end. He points out a dying soldier, the captain commanding him, the nurse who tends him, and the doctor who passes by. You see them clearly. You know exactly where one person stands in relation to another, who speaks, who hears, who acts, who reacts. You think you are seeing the whole scene.

And then the bombshell at the end of the scene: you know who the people are.

Pasternak brings these characters together – fate? accident? – and in this particular scene, shows you that they don't know each other. But they all meet, again and again, over the course of the book. (There is time for lots of meetings. It is a rather long book.)

For example, in the scene painted above, the nurse is Lara and the doctor is Zhivago. Lara and Zhivago were once in the same room as children, later are introduced at a party, pass through the forest scene above during the war, meet again in a small town, and on and on. They drift, and again and again their drifting brings them to the same places.

And this is my question: is it fate, or accident? Some combination of the two? How and why do people drift apart and come together?

I've had occasion to think about this lately for several reasons. Here is one. I have a former friend. We'll call him... well, we won't call him anything, because I won't be going into that much detail. Suffice to say I do not use the word ‘former' lightly. We had a fight several years ago and have not spoken since.

Anyway, he now seems to live about three blocks away from me.

So I see him about once every two weeks, because we ride the Metro to the same stop and walk the same few blocks home. I had not thought about him in years; and now, on a semi-regular basis, I look up from a book or out from under an umbrella, and I see his face.

I think he knows who I am. I think this because he once found himself standing next to me on the train, got off at the next stop and switched to a different car, but still got off the train at Van Ness. And maybe he just found the car too crowded and wanted to stand in one that was a little emptier. But I'm more inclined to believe this: he knows who I am, and he doesn't want to talk to me.

(Which is fine, by the way, in case you're wondering.)

I'm not content just to say, Hey, it's a small world. Even though it is.

I often wonder what I would do if I weren't a writer. How do normal people think through things? I write through them. In columns like this one, or journals, or poetry, but most often in the form of fiction. My characters stand in for me. Usually they take more extreme positions than I would or do. I am a very mainstream, middle-of-the-road-ish person. Middle-of-the-road people are boring.

Anyway, this drifting, this quasi-Fate, this Random Hearts approach to life (movie tagline: "In a perfect world, they would never have met") has bothered me for a while. I'm still not quite sure what I'm trying to say about it. This is how I expressed this same Zhivago-inspired musing through the eyes of a character named Sully:

Every person you know, every connection you make, is the result of a person known by or a connection made by someone else. You're not even in control.

Let's say that, like a friend of a friend from college, you fall in love with your college roommate's ex-boyfriend. You met at the roommate's engagement party. This never would've happened, obviously, if the roommate weren't getting engaged, which was precipitated by the roommate's fiance's impending move to Miami, which was the result of his getting the second-choice, not first-choice, match of residency programs. But not just this. You only went to that party because you thought you might see that cute guy from English class, which would never have happened if you hadn't needed an easy A to raise your GPA, and if he hadn't declared English as a second major to please his mother, who was a frustrated novelist. If any of these things had been in the slightest different, you would not have been there.

And the ex-boyfriend only went to that party because the date he'd planned, dinner with a girl from down the hall, had been canceled when the girl's best friend from prep school swung into town unexpectedly. And the coincidences that brought both of you to the party wouldn't even have been an issue if the roommate and the ex-boyfriend hadn't broken up in the first place, which would never have happened if the roommate hadn't had too much punch at a ZBT party (which was a reaction to her depression at failing her Stats test) and passed out in the arms of a frat brother who took advantage of the situation, and who then conveyed the news of it to the ex-boyfriend without giving a true accounting of the degree of consent involved.

And their breakup, too, would have been a non-issue if you two hadn't been roommates in the first place, which wouldn't have happened if the housing clerk responsible for matches hadn't thought it would be funny to put together two women with the same last name, which wouldn't even have mattered if you hadn't both decided to attend this particular school, which wouldn't have been an issue if you hadn't both been admitted to said school (dependent on grades, quotas, extra-curriculars, admissions counselor whims) or even applied there (dependent on everything from the Petersen's Guide to your guidance counselor's mood swings to the weather on the day you took the campus tour.) And so on, and so forth. The whole thing is a mishmash of coincidences, connections, and dependencies.

For want of a nail, etc.

Yep. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. And Sully, the narrator speaking above, says, "You're not even in control."

But you are.

Aren't you?


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


the debut author's planifesto
sanity and sense for your first book and you
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 5.4.11

help, i need somebody
ain't too proud to beg
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 8.30.00


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