Stories Strangely Told is a monthly series that explores formal experiment in short-form fiction.
The way we most often talk about desire is an aspect of character. Romeo wants Juliet vis-á-vis Juliet wanting Romeo. The Canterbury knight wants to keep his own life, so gets forced into asking about women. Abraham doesn’t want to sacrifice Isaac but God did give him the kid; plus a certain clarity has been established concerning the disobeying of commands. In craft books on fiction desire often gets lumped into talk of characterization, on par with how someone talks or the clothes he wears to a party. Which is all fine, really, until we slam into those desires so bullish in their insistency that no longer can we play like we own them. Some desires grab the wheel, hit the child safety lock, and next comes the sound of acceleration.
One word that comes to mind here is compulsion, which like many words useful to contemporary fiction, has glanced the edges of Freud. The word, of course, far precedes the twentieth century. From Henry IV’s Falstaff: “What, upon compulsion? Zounds, and I were at the strappado or all the racks of the world, I would not tell you on compulsion.” In 1462 Edward IV uses the word in a letter about his will for England’s enemies: “We desyre nothinge of them by way of ymposition, compulcion..but all onely of theyr humanitie and good wills.” (Humanity and good will having much to do with voluntary taxation.)
But compulsion in these instances is synonymous with obligation and coercion, those things that act against desire. It’s only in the hands of A. A. Brill, Freud’s first English translator, that compulsion bends to new heat, for the word that Freud uses, Zwang—as in Zwangsneurose (compulsion neurosis), or Wiederholungszwang (repetition compulsion)—can mean obligation and constraint, but also the element of force. Force which is the power that overtakes the body. Force being brute strength, or a band of troops with weapons. Force, a la Obi-Wan, being that which surrounds us and penetrates. The rare few might manipulate it, but no one commands it solely.
An old teacher once described compulsion as desire that grows big, then bigger and bigger, until it dwarfs the body and so doesn’t need to follow its rules. I’ve heard compulsion described as unwanted want—which looks back to those older definitions. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that T.S. Eliot scorns compulsion in “Hamlet and His Problems,” claiming that the play loses mooring when Hamlet’s fixation finds no appropriate explanation or image. Compulsion in its modern form involves lack of obvious rationality. With its cousin, obsession, it links addiction to helplessness and shame. What we lock within us bubbles over. The pressure is too great a force to be contained.
When compulsion shows up in contemporary fiction it has the tendency to hold great electricity. In Lore Segal’s “Money, Fame, and Beautiful Women,” Nat Cohn walks into work at the Concordance Institute (a delightful sort of Humanities think-tank) to learn from his colleagues that he’s won the Columbia Prize for Poetry. “Sometimes I think I’m good,” he thinks, “I’m better than anybody. Now the world is saying it. My friends hear the world say it.” Nat’s delight and awe soon turn sour when the listing in the New York Times names not Nathan Cohn but Nathan H. Cones, whom no one has ever heard of. “It’s you!” his friends tell him. It’s just some silly mistake. But when the check arrives with the wrong name he can’t cash it. Nat finds himself calling the prize people in increasing states of panic. The administrative assistants keep switching; they can’t connect him to the director. In a jump of many years Nat is on his deathbed. He’s mumbling something only his wife understands, lamenting about the prize. The not-knowing seems to have hijacked any other accomplishment. The force of his obsession has sped life up too quickly; now he’s on the brink of getting snuffed.
Or take Tessa Hadley’s “The Surrogate,” about a college student with a hefty crush on Patrick Hammett, her literature class lecturer. The setup might sound stale but the twist comes when the narrator, too conservative to flirt with Patrick, leans hard into a man at the pub she tends, who looks so similar to Patrick she initially thinks it’s him. They start having sex but who she really wants is still clear until (second twist) Patrick makes a move on her. We rush into the future. She is married now to Patrick. But her admission is that her fantasies now inexplicably involve this other man. What she can’t stop wanting is less person than idea, an idea so fragile that reality seems to destroy it.
It seems appropriate to end on David Foster Wallace, one of our great thinkers in the realm of compulsion and want. You can pull from almost any story and find hint of the subject: addiction, entertainment, urge, obsession, unbearable impulse. As with Segal and Hadley, Wallace bats at any simple Point-A-to-B narrative. Instead of speeding things up here, compulsion grinds us to a halt. Published first in Ploughshares here’s “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” quoted in full:
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.