The writer must face the fact that ordinary lives are what most people live most of the time, and that the novel as a narration of the fantastic and the adventurous is really an escapist plot; that aesthetically, the ordinary, the banal, is what you must deal with. — John Updike
By PJ Parrish
The first time I tried it I was five. I didn’t get very far, just up to the shopping center where a nice sales lady gave me a lollipop and called the cops. They stuck me in the cruiser and we drove around until I recognized our house. My mom didn’t even realize I was gone. Such dangerous times back in the Fifties…
The second time I tried it was about two years later. I was mad about something, so I took the jar of peanut butter and crawled out the milk chute. But it was really cold and I couldn’t get back in, so I sat on the swing set in the backyard until my mom saw me and let me back in.
I am a wanderer by nature. Luckily, I am now married to a man who loves to travel as much as I do. But he still gets upset when I wander too far ahead down the hiking trail.
I am going nuts staying put. Which is why I seem to be gravitating right now to books and movies about trapped people who run away. I am re-reading one of my favorite books right now — Madame Bovary. It’s beautiful and great for many reasons, but I am particularly drawn to the idea that Emma Rouault , before she became Madame Bovary, had possibilities. But she married a Dick Decent, and now she’s imprisoned by the walls of her house and she’s bored stiff. Her only outlets are shopping and affairs. She tries to run away. Things don’t end well.
Books about women who run away (usually to find a better version of themselves) have always appealed to me. I loved Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, about her 1,000-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. (made into a decent movie starring Reese Witherspoon). Then there was Richard Yate’s novel Revolutionary Road, a devastating story about a couple trapped in a suburban hell. The tragic character is poor deluded April, who fails as an actress, marries for security, and dreams of running away to Paris:
“Sometimes I can feel as if I were sparkling all over,” she was saying, “and I want to go out and do something that’s absolutely crazy, and marvelous…”
Which reminds me of the line from one of the most famous runaway novels, On The Road:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who …burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
The main character Sal is depressed after his divorce and wants to run away. (Men running away in stories are seldom seen as neurotic. They are just…adventurous!) So Sal takes off with his friend Dean on a cross-country journey with the hope of finding…something:
“Somewhere along the line I knew there would be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”
The trapped character who runs away to find the pearl is a classic fictional archetype/trope. I created one myself in my stand alone She’s Not There, an amnesiac who, thinking her husband is trying to kill her, takes off on a cross-country run and eventually finds the truth. And herself, of course.
These characters can be really attractive in normal times. Right now, when we all feel so confined and isolated, they might speak to us in especially powerful ways.
I’ve been watching a lot of old movies lately. I doubt the programmers at TCM realize it, but they’ve been scheduling a lot of runaway movies lately. In just one week, I have watched Kramer vs Kramer, Under The Tuscan Sun and Shirley Valentine.
Tuscan Sun has Diane Lane, freshly divorced and pathetic, taking off on a friend’s ticket to a “Gay And Away” bus tour of Italy. There, on a “bad idea” whim, she buys a broken down villa and tries to unblock herself enough to work on her novel, which she abandoned when she got married, — even as she takes up with the juicy Marcello.
Shirley Valentine is an English matron who was a firebrand in school but life intruded. Now she’s married to a schlub workaholic husband and making cocoa for her ungrateful daughter. She spends her days in her tiny kitchen talking to the walls and staring at a travel poster of Greece. A friend drags her along on a holiday, where she meets Costas and…well, it doesn’t end the way you’d expect.
And then there’s poor Joanna Kramer. She gave up a promising career to marry and have a child. But she snaps one day and leaves them both, disappearing into the feminist ether until she realizes she needs her boy — but not her man.
On my last plane ride, I watched Where’d You Go Bernadette? It’s about a self-involved neurotic architect who has lost her creative heart. She hates pretty much everyone because she hates herself. Or the version of herself she has become. Bernadette is really an unlikeable character and after the first half hour, I was ready to give up and watch ESPN, but the story got better. And then really good. And the ending is terrific.
But for women on the run stories, you can’t beat the golden oldie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Anyone who says Martin Scorsese doesn’t get women needs to see this. Newly widowed Ellen Burnstyn packs up her surly pre-teen and heads west, hoping to make it to Monterey Calif where she will go back to the singing career she abandoned when she got married. Marooned in Arizona, she becomes a waitress and finds love in the arms of a hunky woke rancher Kris Kristofferson. But after she tells him to kiss her grits, things don’t turn out like you’d expect.
Okay, to be fair, not every great runaway story stars a woman. Remember the ending of Mad Men? Poor tortured Don Draper, drummed out of the ad biz, escapes from New York and goes west of course. In an Eselen therapy session, listening to someone describe himself as food in the refrigerator that nobody wants, Don breaks down. The last image is Don seating in a lotus, smiling. Cue the music: the groundbreaking 1971 TV ad for Coca-Cola, implying that Don will probably not escape after all.
I’d like to buy the poor tired world a Coke right now.
Any favorite runaway books or movies?