Literature is a textual medium.
As opposed to showing us the story, books bring their worlds to life through the power of suggestion; we read the words, and then we create for ourselves an idea of what’s depicted, without the help of other visual aids. Now, certain novels stray into visualization through the formatting and design of the text — or even, in super duper rare instances, actual pictures on the page — in an attempt to utilize the impact of showing amidst all the text’s telling.
But how about when showing nothing constitutes a form of telling??
Enter: the Harper Perennial paperback edition of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 Election, published in the UK circa 2009, which ends with 11 — count ‘em, ELEVEN! — completely and entirely blank pages; they’re nothing but white nothing, adorned with absolutely zero text.
Whether intentional or a purely practical byproduct of the printing process, these empty pages have the effect of making us see — and, thereby, feel — the tragic truth of a seminal event in the plot, one that encapsulates a primary theme at the heart of the book’s conceit.
The final chapter leaps ahead a year in time from the cataclysmic events of the climax. We touch base again with Tracy Flick, who should be capping her triumphant term as school President with celebrations. Instead, she’s plagued by an overwhelming sense of sadness, prompted by the fact that almost none of her classmates wrote meaningful sentiments about their friendship in her yearbook. We, Tracy included, come face to face — literally, by virtue of the blank pages — with what will become (as we learn in the just-released sequel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win) her lasting impression of high school: she’s off to Georgetown, but what else does she have to show for her four years? Well, it sure seems like those yearbook pages full of nothingness are the answer.
The blank pages that conclude the UK paperback not only represent the tragic destination of her arc’s trajectory, they also speak to the tragedy of the human condition that Election revolves around, the foundation upon which the narrative progression is structured.
For guidance on this point, let’s move to the very last moments of Tracy’s tale. She meets back up with her loathed Mr. M, perhaps seeking some closure to their confounding drama. She asks him to scribble any old something in her yearbook. His response:
“Two blank pages stared back at me, a formidable expanse of white…I picked up the pen and stared at the emptiness I was supposed to fill…I had no idea where to start or how to finish. It seemed to me then that I could cover every page of the yearbook with paragraph after paragraph of explanation and apology, and still not be any closer to saying the things that needed to be said.”
And just like that, those empty pages embody the tragedy not only of Election, but also of the triangular relationship between human perception, conception, and communication.
How can Mr. M possibly explain the most seismic stretch of his life, a colossal breakdown that had been brewing since, well, does he even know? Forever? How the hell do you legibly convey that to anyone, even himself?
BUT, if Mr. M doesn’t at least try to fill in Tracy’s gaps, will she ever be able to come to terms with what he did to her?
We’re all aware of how hard it is to spill our guts, to reduce our wayward lives and why we do the things we do and why we are the way we are into an easily-comprehensible summary, especially when delving into our darker sides.
And yet, what other methods do we have to glean the truth? Fittingly, the pursuit of understanding can sometimes feel like a fool’s errand.
We’re all stuck in our heads, with insufficient information to truly understand each other (let alone ourselves). Even so, we still spend our days judging everyone and everything despite — AND BASED ON — these inherent limitations. These intrinsically-shallow judgements can define our worldviews, in spite of their latently imperfect fallibility.
Note the repetition of “stared” in the quote above. Staring is not engagement; it’s inactive observation. A more enlightened and enlightening approach: stop merely staring; start interacting.
Which Mr. M now has the opportunity to achieve, by writing why he so callously mistreated Tracy…but how do you begin to tell a tale that stretches back to birth, and maybe even earlier? Total understanding is predicated on being all-encompassing AND nuanced, a tricky (impossible?) combination to navigate.
Election is steeped in talk talk talk talk talk, yet how many deep, meaningful, open conversations do the talkers have with each other in their actual lives? Do we ever see them hashing out their respective truths? Too often, the human condition is bereft of adequate communication, which leads to the isolation and loneliness that pervades the characters. They’re yearning for connection, yet they can’t get out of their own way, and out of the way of their own instinctual, only-natural assumptions.
And the book’s means of storytelling stands as a constant reminder of this sad fact.
For anyone who’s read it: did you ever wonder who exactly the characters are speaking to throughout? Like, within the reality of the book, who are they telling their stories to? It almost sounds like depositions, but without a court case.
Well, they’re in the court of public opinion, and we the readers are the jury. Literature has the capacity to transcend the bounds of our confined and confining corporeality and cognition, privying us to truths deep within the psyches of others that they’d never dare to share externally. If understanding Election’s story and its characters requires knowing all these nitty gritty details, details the characters either withhold or cannot witness firsthand in real life, then how can any of us real people believe that sufficiently valid opinions are attainable? What’s left unsaid can be the key to comprehending each other and the stories of our lives.
Sadly, those blank pages at the end of the book transition us back to our nonfiction world, one without an author coloring in the unknowable vastness of life off the page.
But all hope is not lost for us perennially lost souls!
By going out of her way to continue the conversation with Mr. M, Tracy is trying to fill in the pages of her life the old-fashioned way: through direct communication. And, at his new job, Mr. M finishes the book with a new resolve to genuinely open up to his co-workers, so they can begin to construct a relationship built on mutual understanding of who they are.
Will Mr. M ultimately show those requested family photos to his co-worker, to start the process of opening up to those around him, to facilitate a profounder intimacy with his proximally and emotionally nearest and dearest?
Or, will he revert to his old ways, the ways of too many humans: living in our own noggins, with nary an effort to reach out to others to fill the pages of our lives with their conflicting truths?
What sounds better? Sorry, let me rephrase that: what looks like a fuller, healthier, more interesting, more productive, and more educated way to fill our lives: with the blank pages at the end, or with the preceding pages jam-packed with the thorny, utterly subjective complexity of existence?
If we stay inside ourselves, then we’re living in the emptiness of those blank pages, which show us the depressing void of a life lived without talking to each other.