For over three decades of my life I watched few movies and even less television. I watched so little TV that I told my wife that I had discovered a “new” sitcom called Seinfeld. She just rolled her eyes. Despite the put-downs, it’s fun to have such a trove of undiscovered stuff. I’m also seeing some movies that I saw long ago, including, recently, the Franklin J. Shaffner film Papillon, in which Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman play two French criminals condemned to the penal colony Devil’s Island, off French Guiana. The movie is not just a great acting job by two major American stars but is also richly thematic, playing on the irony and uncertainty of escape. These two prisoners are living in hell, and they survive partly through the effort of planning their great escape. At the end, the McQueen character, Papillon, gets on his hand-made raft of burlap and coconuts, laughing with happiness and release, while knowing, as the audience does, that he may not make it beyond the surf. The Hoffman character, counterfeiter Louis Dega, watches him leave, having helped with the escape. At some point he has realized that he is content with his captivity. Exhilarated by what he cannot bring himself to do, he stands at the precipice of a bluff, delighted by his good friend’s surviving determination.
Escape, or the desire for it, is a classic theme in literature. Perhaps the reason for this can be found by looking at our own lives and recalling how powerful the times of inhibition or entrapment and the yearning for release can be, and how memorable it is when one is lucky enough to [End Page 5] escape, whether in fact or through acceptance. In my own life, the more theatrical “escapes”—for example from a sentence of death by a physician—may be less memorable and finally less important than others that are not so melodramatic or easily described. This makes me wonder if many of the personally important instances of both impasse and escape may seem on the surface to be either so typical or so mundane that they are difficult to dramatize.
Good writers always find ways to make new the old subjects. Alice Munro often writes about the frustrations of mothers and angry daughters and their dreams of liberation. Elena Ferrante’s wonderful novel My Brilliant Friend is the tale, recollected in later life, of one of two girls who grow up as the most promising personalities in the smothering closeness and surprising danger of Italian village life; one of them manages to break away, and the other doesn’t. Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize this year for his fourteenth novel, The Sense of an Ending, a story in the Jamesian tradition about a man in his sixties who has lived a careful and quiet life that is disrupted by a seemingly minor but odd event—receiving a small bequest from a woman, the mother of an old girlfriend, whom he met only once, forty years before. Her gift of five hundred pounds launches him on a quest to understand the meaning and connections of his past and leads to the painful discovery that somewhere along the line his careful, noncommittal behavior became not just a negative force toward others but a self-destructive passivity.
Much of this issue has to do with entrapment and the urge for release. Rachel Yoder’s Jeffrey E. Smith Prize–winning story, “The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear,” portrays a young man who is trying to flee a long-term but oppressive relationship with a needy girlfriend by taking a long bike trip. On the journey, in which he tries to somehow escape from his current dilemma through exhaustion, he has a strange and powerful encounter with an old friend and with nature in sublime and raw form. It is a psychologically deft and elegantly written story.
The narrator of Cara Blue Adams’s “The Sea Latch” takes a family trip, visiting the ocean with her quasi-agoraphobic mother and younger sister. Neither the sister, who is pregnant by...