No one knows precisely when human language was invented. Spoken words leave no archaeological trace. As soon as their last echoes die away, they are gone forever. All that remains is guesswork. Scientific advances in the field of human origins have been spectacular, but scientists don’t like to guess.
They agree, however, that explanation is needed of how a weak, vulnerable and not-very-successful protohuman later came to dominate the whole world, and reach outward into the universe. How did that happen?
And they agree that complex, conditional, coherent, syntactic, if-this-then-that language, with a plan B and a plan C, would have required a big brain. Which they’re happy to show us, because that’s right there in the ground: Our brains got big enough less than half a million years ago. We don’t know if language colonized a freak mutation or if the mutation was itself driven by the absolute need for language. But either way, it happened.
And it was crucial. A single human was slow and puny. More likely prey, not predator. But a coordinated tribe of, say, 100 humans — organized, drilled, rehearsed — was suddenly the most powerful animal on earth. Language rescued our species. We survived. Not that the pressures weren’t many and sometimes catastrophic. But we stood a better chance than most. We had meaningful analysis, lengthy discussions, accurate assessments, nuanced recall of past events and realistic projections into the future.
In other words, documentary nonfiction saved the day. Language was a species-saver precisely because it was about truth and reality. At that stage it could have no evolutionary value otherwise. Possibly it stayed that way for hundreds of thousands of years. Then something very strange occurred. We started talking about things that hadn’t happened to people that didn’t exist. We invented fiction.
Why? Not to fill our leisure time. We had none. We were still deep in prehistory, still cognitively pre-modern, still evolving. Everything we did had a singular, fundamental, retrospectively obvious purpose: to make it more likely we would still be alive tomorrow. Any notion or activity that didn’t meet that need died out. How do we square that circle? Reality-based planning and coordination was clearly vital, but how did made-up stories also make it more likely we would survive?
Surely by encouragement, and empowerment, and invigoration, and by boosting morale by imagining difficulties overcome, dangers averted, order restored and justice done. After a rousing tale the night before, we woke to the new and perilous morning with squared shoulders, steady hands and a determined gleam in our eyes. This was the evolutionary value of story.
I have been immersed in such fictions my whole life. I taught myself to read at the age of 3, driven by insane jealousy of my elder brother’s new accomplishments in elementary school. Thereafter I used story to escape my humdrum life amid gray postwar austerity in Britain. I used it to give myself wider horizons, different possibilities, intense experiences and alternative outcomes, where things were accomplished, where things changed for the better. I read dark tales, too, but even the darkest had crumbs of comfort at the end. There was always a redemptive component, always some tiny glint of hope, always some small first step toward healing. Things always looked like they could turn out OK. I internalized that ancient narrative arc, and while understanding it was a construct, I found myself beginning to believe in it, and in the end I found myself trusting it.
My first job was in the theater, where we put that ancient arc on the stage, and then I moved to television, where we put it on the screen. Then I immigrated to New York and became a book writer, and began to send it out into the world myself. Danger, desperation, no hope, no way out, imminent tragedy … all were overcome 400 pages later. Order was restored, and justice was done. I wasn’t really a happy-ending guy as such, but I always included the required crumb of comfort, and I always sketched in the vital first step to a better future, as if to say, See? Things could turn out OK here. It never felt inauthentic. I believed in the arc. I trusted it.
Then came Nov. 4, 2001, a Sunday, 54 days after Sept. 11. Initially I had been as devastated and upset by the attacks as anyone. I hated that my beloved and adopted city had been so cruelly violated and that the American people, whose default goodwill and optimism I admired so much, had been so cruelly disappointed. The first couple of weeks were stunned and miserable.
Then my storytelling brain kicked in, and I found myself writing the ending. Where was the crumb of comfort? What would be the vital first step to the future?
Well, the Yankees were in the postseason. It was obvious to me what should happen. And I guarantee that if every novelist and screenwriter in New York had gathered together for a citywide story conference, we would have all agreed on the same basic arc: Joe Torre’s tough and scrappy dynasty should pick itself up and dust itself off, and carry the city on its back, as scared and numb and nervous and bewildered as we all were, through the first round, through the second and into the World Series.
Then we would get into detailed storyboarding. Obviously the Series would have to be epic. It would need a bad start — our proxies in an immediate hole — and then a solid one-game comeback, and then some kind of truly sensational go-ahead action … maybe a bottom-of-the-ninth last-out, last-strike homer … followed the next night by the exact same thing ! Could we get away with that? We had to — we needed the mystique, the supernatural tinge, the boiling emotion to carry us onward.
Obviously it had to be a seven-game series, so we would lose the sixth to set up the inevitable denouement. The final game would be close and tight, but we would carry a lead into the bottom of the ninth, and we would close it out, and win. Joy and relief would be unbounded. The next morning, a Monday, New Yorkers would stand straighter, heads up, shoulders back, a gleam in their eyes, encouraged, empowered, invigorated.
Which didn’t happen.
A bloop single meant the Arizona Diamondbacks won instead. I was astonished. The ancient narrative arc had let me down. It wasn’t real. I was profoundly affected. For a time I thought story was stupid and pointless. I didn’t write a word for two months. That year’s book was the only one I ever delivered late. I didn’t blame the Yankees or even the Diamondbacks. I blamed myself. I had misinterpreted. Now I learned that story, so often satisfying, is merely compensation for reality, which is so often unsatisfying. Right? Certainly I liked my Game 7 better than the real one.
Episode is a weekly column exploring a moment in a writer’s life. Lee Child is the author of the Jack Reacher series of novels, stories and novellas, and an executive producer of the streaming series “Reacher.” The next Reacher book, co-written with Andrew Child, will be published next month.