Law of Averages

I hope to find more time to write at length about Charles Baxter’s extraordinary novel, The Soul Thief. Beyond Baxter nailing the relationship of “God Only Knows” to Brian Wilson’s personal development as an artist, one is tempted to read Nathaniel’s relationship with his parents in the context of this interesting essay (in which Baxter’s son offers annotated responses in relation to remembered anecdotes) contained in this month’s issue of The Believer.

There is also this striking passage, to be considered in the same context as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral moment and Richard Russo’s “wrong end of the telescope” speech from Bridge of Sighs:

But sometimes it happens that we enter a public place and find that, for once, the law of averages has broken down. We step gingerly into the darkened movie theater, the film starts, and we are the only ones in attendance, the only spectators to laugh or scream or yawn in the otherwise empty and silent rows of seats. We drive for miles and see no one coming in the other direction, the road for once being ours alone. Our high beams stay on. Where is everybody? The earth has been emptied except for us as we make our stuttering progress through the dark. We take each turn expecting that someone will appear out of nowhere to keep us company for a moment. In the doctor’s anteroom, no one else is waiting and fidgeting with nerves, and the receptionist has vanished; or we find ourselves alone in the fun-house at the seedy carnival, where, because of our solitude, there will be no fun no matter what we do; or we enter the restaurant where no one else is dining, though the candles have all been lit and the place settings have been nicely arranged. The waitstaff has collectively decamped to some other bistro even though they have left the lights on in this one. The water boiling in the kitchen sends up a cloud of steam. The maitre d’ has abandoned his station; we sit anywhere we please. The outward-bound commuter train starts, but no one sits in the car, and no conductor ambles down the aisle to punch a hole in our ticket. In the drugstore no one is behind the cash register, and the druggist has left the prescription medications unmonitored on their assorted shelves. We enter the church for the funeral, and we are the first to arrive, and we must sit without the help of the ushers. Where are they? No sound, not a single note or a chord or a melody line from the organ loft, consoles and sustains us.

Such occasions are so rare that when they occur, we often think I don’t belong here, something is wrong or Why didn’t they inform me? or Let there be someone, anyone, else. But for the duration, when the law of averages no longer applies, we are the sole survivors, the only audience for what reality wishes to show us. This may be what the prophets once felt, this ultimate final aloneness.

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3 Comments

  1. I call them Mary Celeste moments.

  2. A very good passage, that puts the finger on a common everyday, yet sublime and haunting experience.

  3. It’s even creepier once you know the twist, which I won’t give away.

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