Features Essays Published 3 April 2014

The Fictioning of Flight MH370

A.E. Dobson on the application of narrative to human tragedy.
A. E. Dobson

All it took was the threat of a hunger strike. Only then, once the relatives of those lost on MH370 made a demand whose resolution could be expressed in simple causal terms, could their anguish be articulated in a media story that increasingly takes the character of a penny dreadful. Hitherto, their sufferings have been marginalised – written-out or surfacing to provide colour, temporal tension, or a good backstory.

This is not to accuse the media of malice. It is inevitable that cold facts – the altitude of flight corridors, the specifications of radar systems and communications protocols – are fetishised when answers are so few; inevitable that reporters foreground the more mysterious aspects of a case to make their front pages alluring. We recognise that journalism involves a degree of craftsmanship. We even refer to news features as ‘stories’. The hunt for MH370, however, is presenting an extreme example. It is being written and consumed not as news, but as fiction.

Reporting on the incident (or, more appropriately, ‘event’, given that the incident is inseparable from the circus surrounding it) has been scatter-brained and effluent. Those attempting to stamp their authority the morass of data have been hindered both by the trickle of misinformation emerging governments involved in the search and by the expectations of an audience weaned on a 24-hour news culture. Postulations are quickly discredited, overrun by new information or developments. But because each new theory is coherent and unified at birth, the search has been presented less as an accumulation of knowledge than a complete but shifting picture. Because of this – because of the episodic pace of the tale’s unfolding – reporting has so far taken the form of a detective thriller complete with phony leads, unreliable witnesses and ulterior motives.

The effect is heightened by the application of narrative structures not wholly rooted in the evidence they explain. Rather, each represents the application of a previous model of understanding. These may arise from paradigms of previous experience – our psychic encounters with acts of terrorism, piracy, or human or technical failure – or otherwise from the paradigms of fiction: the grand spectacle of television, of cinema.

The most extreme example of this is the ‘hidden island’ theory, which for a moment dragged the world into the opening sequence of a Bond movie. Another is in the media’s reduction of the manifest to a handful of key characters. Here we find the loyal, long-serving pilots with a shady past, one with links to a leading political figure; the flight engineer travelling as a passenger; the young lads seeking a new life on counterfeit passports. The appraisal and reappraisal of these stories gives the illusion of a twisting plot and – taken together – take the flavour of an Agatha Christie novel.

Little wonder the public speculates like crazy. The event formally encourages it. Moreover, the search for the aeroplane invites us to exercise critical skills that the majority of us have only ever honed in the theatre, library, or cinema. These are exercised automatically and with pleasure; water coolers haven’t seen such action since the last series of Homeland. We are responding to it as a text: guessing and second-guessing the next narrative turn; weighing and balancing possible motives and the significance of events; above all, holding an opinion.

But why is the incident receiving this singular treatment? Part of the reason lies in its sheer novelty. The loss is unprecedented and radical; for such an enormous, high-tech object packed with autonomous beings to vanish is unheard of. It poses a peculiar challenge: how to re-present something yet to be presented. Short of inventing ways to transmit this novelty, we can only borrow from our cultural stock – from our imaginary encounters with pirates, villains and disasters. But these models are unable to account for the permutations suggested by an ever-shifting narrative. The information on offer therefore appears to be conformed to generic convention – to have been massaged into categories that pre-existed the event. The story awaited circumstances to flesh it out. So whilst the nature of the incident may initially appear to lend itself to novelistic telling, it is perhaps the case that novelistic form is preceding the incident, even positing content.

This manner of reporting is nothing if not ideological. As well as demanding new forms of expression (or evoking them by their absence), the loss of MH370 challenges the way we comprehend the world. It undermines the overarching narratives of globalisation, leading us to recognise – to be astonished by – the limits of global security, satellite technology, and the potency of international law. It leads us to question mankind’s mastery over nature and the ascent of Good over Evil. Worse yet, it underscores western ignorance – the naïveté implied by our mental homogenisation of South East Asia and our failure to appreciate any regional factors that may impede successful governance and have contributed to the theft or malfunction of the aircraft. These are cornerstone narratives by which we live and plan our lives. It is natural that they are defended when under threat.

Fictionalisation offers us three means of doing so. The first is to circumscribe the rupture, slotting chaotic matter into a three-act structure. Unknowns there may be, but these are in the process of being resolved; if nothing else, this indicates a faith that the mystery will be overcome, bolstering the standing of our discredited assumptions.

A second is to imbue events with a sense of inevitability and impetus. By referring to the strictures of literature, it presupposes a unified plot in the process of unfolding. It erases contingencies in favour of a sense of the sweep of destiny; it denies any possibility of our responsibility or complicity in events – any possibility of our being able to intervene or prevent the eventual outcome.

The third is to impart a sense of profundity, of gravitas; to narrate is to ennoble, to mythologise, to raise to greater significance. This affect underpins the impact of kitchen-sink dramas and the ease with which we sympathise with literature’s antiheroes. Literature’s power is such that the incident, grave as it is, will grow disproportionately in the public psyche; moving closer to the status of myth, it will seem ever less real – ever less threatening.

Ultimately the event will engender books, documentaries and Hollywood blockbusters, not to mention pages of commentary and conspiracy theories online. Here we find the culmination of the process – the point where the event loses its radical edge and is appropriated by the symbolic order. Reduced to mere form, it will serve only to disarm the novelty of similar events should they occur.

There is evidence that such movement is already underway. As the investigation entered its second week, Google listed ‘Bermuda Triangle’ as one of the nation’s top five searches. This fact could easily be discarded as morbid curiosity, but it nonetheless exemplifies two pertinent points. Not only does this demonstrate the probing of our cultural history for precedents, however imaginary, that might plug the gaps in our understanding, but in addition it offers a glimpse of what MH370 may yet become.

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A. E. Dobson is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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