Post Road Magazine #15

Long Stories

Kevin Canty

There’s something shady about the art of fiction. Novels, stories, they advertise themselves to be about life itself, to represent us as we are, from the inside out, among others. Yet there are always epiphanies, conflicts, changed characters—these fictional features that crop up everywhere. There’s a plot. Something happens between two characters. Something is finally broken, or finally mended. There is sex and death and sometimes food. Meanwhile, life itself plods along without much shape, without climaxes or punch lines or neat divisions between one story and the next. The only thing you can reasonably say about it is that there is too much of it. Writers come along like magpies and pluck whatever shiny object catches their eye, to take home and weave into a story, a story that—in the end—has little or nothing to do with life itself. Stories are made from experience in the same way that clay turns into teacups.

Or maybe not. I’ve been reconsidering lately, partly because of the Up series of documentary movies. I’d been hearing about them for years, vaguely: seven movies (so far) that revisit the lives of a group of subjects every seven yearsSeven Up!, 7 plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, and now 49 Up. But I had never quite caught up to them until my girlfriend’s mother sent them to us for Christmas last year. We sat down in the depths of January and watched them in a bunch, night after night. And the first suggestion I’m going to make here is that you quit reading and do the same, if you haven’t. It’s impossible to write about these movies without spoiling them, at least a little, and I don’t want to do that to you. The experience of watching a life unfold in this kind of fast-forward is intensely interesting and intensely pleasurable, reality TV except with real reality and real characters.

Yes, that’s right, characters. These people stick in the mind as vivid, stirring individuals. Most of these lives are pretty ordinary, in the end—no soccer stars or polar explorers here—but after our weeklong Up marathon, they felt as big as life, more like friends or even relatives than the strangers they were. There’s Bruce, whose struggles to find a place for himself in the world take him as far afield as India before landing exactly back where he started; Suzy, who seems utterly doomed to unhappiness in the early going, and yet, somehow, recovers herself; Neil, whose slide into mental illness, and slow, partial recovery, form the narrative backbone of the middle part of the story. And always the memory of these same characters at seven, their little faces and strange visions of the world.

Like a lot of other great ideas, this one started out as a mistake. The original Seven Up! was never meant to be a series; when it appeared in 1964, it was a kind of snapshot of the England of its day, through the lens of the seven-year-old eye. There were originally twenty children, deliberately selected from the far ends of the economic scale. The original writers and director had a chip on their shoulders concerning class, a conviction that the advantages of wealth were a determining factor in what each of these children could expect out of life. The story of the first film is this grim determination of their destinies, at such a young age, and the ways these children have already internalized their expectations—the rich kids to their big houses and fancy colleges, and the poor and middle-class kids to their grubbier fates.

But someone had the wit to go back seven years later and check in with these kids again, to see what their lives were like at fourteen, and at that point the story began to outstrip the easy certainties of its origins. These lives were evolving in rich and strange ways that seemed to have nothing to do with their economic background. Who was happy, who was miserable, who seemed to have a grip, and who looked like they might float away, none of this attached itself to any particular class. We would much rather trade places with Tony, who has already quit school to be a groom and apprentice jockey at a famous racing stable, than we would with Suzy, who is fabulously rich and shiningly unhappy. Andrew (rich) is nimble and funny and sharp, while John (also rich) is already sour and angry. The political points of the first film were already fading into the background, and this other, unlooked-for thing—this enormous, complex portrait of people’s lives evolving over time—was overshadowing them.

The series director, Michael Apted, may not have known where he was going when he started out, but at least he had the smarts to recognize a brilliant thing when it dropped into his lap. In fact, Apted was mainly a researcher on that first episode; since then he has come back every seven years to film a new episode. (He lives now in California, where he directs high-end Hollywood product, including one of the recent James Bond movies.) It’s this every-seven-years pace that gives these films their surprise and speed. Nothing from Symon for seven years, nothing much for seven years more, then suddenly he pops up with a mustache, an Afro, and five kids. Nick, the farm kid from the Yorkshire dales, suddenly appears as a nuclear physicist at the University of Wisconsin. And Andrew, sly little Andrew, keeps surprising us with his lack of surprise. I kept expecting the imp in him to surface again; instead, he sort of disappears under the weight of years, like water washing his features away.

Parents die, children are born, marriages start and fade and sometimes end and sometimes endure. Things happen, and characters are changed by these events. The subject matter of life itself, in other words, turns out to be the same subject matter as fiction—just at a slower pace. Plots, conflicts, characters in action, it’s all in there. In one of the late films Tony confesses to adultery in the presence of his wife. Will they stay married? The answer, seven years later, is a wary yes, but the tenor of their life together is changed now, some of the ease and happiness gone. It’s a moment that would fit easily into any number of novels, a profound and nuanced turn of events. Again and again as I was watching these films, especially in the late going, I felt the novelistic moment, the place I recognized from art. Which perversely kind of makes me believe in art, makes me think that serious fiction writing really may be onto something, may be a way to explore the things that matter most. But it also makes me feel something about life itself, about the way that no life is too small to be interesting, no life story without drama, no single person without weight and worth. Everybody’s the star of their own show. And every show’s worth watching. I can’t wait till 56.


Kevin Canty lives in Missoula, Montana, where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Montana. He has written two short story collections and three novels, the most recent of which is the novel Winslow in Love.

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