The first time I watched Pulp Fiction and realized the story was being chopped up and fed back to me out of sequence, it felt like my brain was about to fall out of my head. Here was this incredibly visceral (and violent) story playing out and the normal rules of plot – beginning, middle, end, good guys, bad guys, et. al – were all being challenged. It’s been a lot of years since that experience, but I still remember the curiously confused feeling well.
When the world, markets, and the people in my immediate circles of family, co-workers, and friends all get curious and confused at the same time, I can’t help but think we’re all having a Pulp Fiction moment. After the movie ends, you’ll be left piecing everything together, but in the middle of the experience, you are reduced to collecting microscopic details about each passing moment. Think about the most memorable bits: royale with cheese, the foot massage conspiracy, the philosophical diner discussion about the Bible verse – all passing details under the umbrella of the bigger stories.
Some people, I have no doubt, understood everything in Pulp Fiction on the first pass. I was not one of those people. It took me multiple passes and a VHS copy to feel like I “got it.” I bring this up because the COVID-19 outbreak seems to fit the same pattern. We’re all curiously confused right now, listening to every single detail, watching every tick of the news, social media, the market, etc. None of this will help our understanding after the fact, but in the moment it feels like the only way we can stay sane is to keep consuming everything.
In the pre-smartphone era, people used to get lost on long car drives. They’d have to pull over and look at a physical map or ask for directions. The whole world is pulled over and trying to make sense of the map right now. There’s no one to ask for directions that knows exactly where we are headed. We’re all in a state of confusion. We’re all looking for the story or format we recognize, and in its absence, we’re obsessing over the flow of any information whatsoever.
We’ll find the plot again. When this is over it will all make total sense. There will be signs we should have seen coming and other parts we’ll laugh off as inconsequential. The critical part is to watch for consensus to start forming again. In Pulp Fiction, once we know what each character is more or less trying to do, we get a sense of where they are going. A sense of familiarity and understanding will start to set in around COVID-19, quarantines, and policy responses soon enough. In the meantime, it’s up to us to not get too lost in the details and be patient while the plot continues to reveal itself.
These are crazy times. Soon it will be a crazy chapter in world history. Stay safe. Wash your hands. Be kind.
I have to cite a few sources that had me thinking about this over the weekend. Do see
Venkatesh Rao’s “Plot Economics” and Ben Hunt’s “Tick-Tock.” On the quarantined to-do list, rewatch “Pulp Fiction” and reread “Watchmen.”