Waiting for the Deus ex Machina
With the inauguration tomorrow, a lot of people are hoping for a last-minute miracle, something that will return to normal a government that promises to be anything but normal. We have exhausted the possibility of other miracles — faithless electors, a refusal by Congress to certify the electoral victory of a candidate who came in second in the popular vote by almost three million votes (and with strong evidence of illegal collusion by Russia and the FBI). We care because the stakes are so high: millions of people losing access to health care; restrictions on women’s reproductive rights; restrictions on who can vote in future elections; a reversal of initiatives to combat destructive climate change; an end to protections for racial, ethnic and religious minorities; egregious ethical violations and upending of the rule of law; press censorship and censorship of the internet.
High stakes and almost-insurmountable obstacles to the protagonist are essential for compelling fiction. A professor in my MFA program said, “Drive your protagonist to the top of the tree…and then throw rocks at her.” But there is a danger in this strategy. You can throw so many high-stakes obstacles at your protagonist that she has no logical way of overcoming them. You then turn to the deus ex machina. The last-minute miracle of a force beyond everyone’s control.
From the Latin “God in the machine,” deus ex machina is defined as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about one of the most famous deus ex machina endings in recent literary fiction, that of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Roth has written a masterful (and eerily prophetic) counterfactual history of a United States that instead of re-electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a third term in 1940 elects the Nazi sympathizing demagogue and face of the “America First” movement, aviator Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh quickly moves to abolish civil liberties, turn U.S.’s industrial capacity in support of Hitler, and restrict Jews like the family of Roth’s seven-year-old protagonist living in Newark, New Jersey. Gradually, the net closes around the Roth family. Young Philip’s older brother, Sandy, is sent to live with a Christian family and turns against everything Jewish. The family visits Washington, D.C., where they’re thrown out of their hotel and threatened by pro-Lindbergh diners at a cafeteria. A favorite journalist is assassinated, and when the mayor of New York City blames the Lindbergh government for his death, the mayor is arrested along with Jewish leaders. Many of Philip’s neighbors flee to Canada, which is fighting on the side of Britain. Philip’s Uncle Alvin volunteers for the Canadian army, loses a leg, and is ostracized upon his return to the United States. Philip’s best friend, Seldon, and his mother are among the first Jewish families from Newark relocated to Kentucky, whereupon the Ku Klux Klan murders Seldon’s mother and Philip’s father takes a perilous journey to rescue the terrorized child. As the deportation of more Jews to the heartland is about to begin, Lindbergh’s place suddenly disappears and his vice-president lacks the political skills to keep the regime going. Roosevelt returns and the old order is restored. Lindbergh’s disappearance serves as the deus ex machina, an outside force saving Philip and his family from destruction.
In books for children and teens, adult intervention to save the day is a form of the deus ex machina. In my second semester at Vermont College for Fine Arts, I wrote a paper on Gloria Whelan’s The Disappeared, a YA novel set during the Dirty War in Argentina. When 15-year-old Silvia’s older brother is arrested and slated for execution or “disappearance” (killed but his body never found), she caves in to entreaties from the selfish and abusive son of a high-ranking military official in order to free her brother. But when he attempts to rape her, it crosses the line and she knocks him unconscious with one of his sports trophies. At that moment, his mother returns — with a mysterious letter, which she gives Silvia. Later, when she is arrested and in the same desperate straits as her brother, with her parents in danger from this totalitarian regime as well, the letter from the boy’s mother leads to a “palace coup” that saves Silvia and her family. The teens are mere witnesses to the machinations of the adults that ultimately protect them. The deus ex machina is not an random event out of the blue such as a plane crash, but a cabal of powerful outsiders.
Faced with totalitarian circumstances, people call out for miracles, for the deus ex machina. We nurture false hopes of escape and restoration when we perceive ourselves to be trapped. When writers trap their beloved protagonists, without introducing any form of escape beforehand, the temptation to use the deus ex machina increases. But what if we follow our narrative course to its logical end? The protagonist dies. Or they lose everything of value to them, with the reader’s only solace the fact that the protagonist lives to fight another day. Or not fight another day, because it’s hopeless, but simply knuckle under and find a bit of happiness in new friends and small personal pleasures. Yes, in real life, sometimes evil wins and we writers have to reflect that reality if the story takes us there.