Larger than Life
I thought the problem was my hometown: thirty-two thousand people, zero bookshops. In the Eighties, Puglia, my corner of Italy, was not the fashionable hotspot it is now. It was a wild canvas of red dirt, blue skies, ochre beaches, green sea, but it was where you end up when you reach the back of nowhere and keep walking. It was too small for me. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
And I did leave, the moment I hit eighteen, ‘just like a bullet leaves the gun’, as the Tom Waits song goes. I dashed to the biggest playground I could think of, Rome, the capital city. Dolce Vita, sweet life, here I come!
At first, it was all but sweet: I missed my friends, my family, and though I had dreamed of meeting strangers in the night, I found out that actual strangers in the actual night scared me. I was not used to strangers at all, coming from a place where everybody was somebody's cousin. I held on only in virtue of that deep craving I had for - something more.
In time, I made new friends, and a life, and I grew up. All was good for a while.
Then I felt the old itch again. I was Luke Skywalker in the trash compactor, and the walls were encroaching on me. Rome, too, was too small. I wondered how was that possible. Was Italy big enough? I didn’t think so. Europe? Only if you ignore the US. The world? Only if you ignore the moon. But big enough for what?
The answer I found was, big enough for life. The problem was not my hometown, Rome, or the world. I was the problem. I was greedy: nothing was ever enough for me. Nothing would ever be enough.
And that is how I came to understand why I love stories. I love them because our world is too small. I don’t mean our physical world: as far as we know the universe could go on for ever. But our personal world, the world of the experiences we might have, gets smaller by the day. You will go to school until a certain point. You will start making some money, for which you will have to work hard, for most of your life. If you are lucky, you might buy a house, even find love. You might have children or not, and then, sorry, you will die. The plot has been written. You get to fluff it up with one connecting scene or two, but it's been written.
Well. Screw the plot.
What good stories do, is make us ask, what if I could change the plot? What if reality was different? After reading The Lord of the Rings, I could never look again at the local cafe's weirdo without thinking that they might be a king. The Bloody Chamber made me think of the sexism inherent in my education. If after watching Sense8 you still have problems with non-binary folks, you must be under some curse.
Good stories are radical, and vice versa, only radical stories have a shot at being good. They are centred on a question, always the same, relentlessly the same: what if reality was different? What if what you take for granted could be questioned? Village no-gooders can slay giants, fancy that. Stories lead us to other worlds, where we can learn one or two things to apply when we come back home.
I am greedy for life, so greedy that one life is not enough for me. I want to fly to other planets and sleep under strange stars, make friends with strangers and try on different ideas of morality, art, law, so to come up with my own. My shelves are bigger on the inside.
People like me - like you, if you are still reading - are sometimes accused of not being fit for the real world. Damn right we aren’t. It’s only when you are not fit for things that you change them. I know the real world and its hard walls; but I won’t just sit down like a good boy and wait for them to crush me.
I live in London now. I love it deeply. It is not big enough for me.
I hope it will never be.