Friday, October 29, 2010

69 Days

I had forgotten all about the miners. Last I’d heard they were found, trapped but alive in a refuge half a mile down. The multi-million-dollar rescue effort at the San José mine near Copiapó, Chile was gearing up. That was back in August.

Then, a few Tuesdays ago, I stopped for a slice of pizza and saw the live CNN coverage unfolding above the bar, beside a Yankees game. A couple of the kitchen staff were chatting in Spanish as they awaited the first ascent, and at a table next to mine, an older man was having a beer and staring at the screen. Around the time a video feed showed the red-white-and-blue Phoenix capsule hit bottom, I heard a sniff and realized the man was crying. At first he turned away, but then he looked at the TV again with shiny eyes, shaking his head a bit as if in awe, unable not to watch. The beer was maybe a factor, but still, it was touching to see. And pretty soon I was swept back into the epic narrative—the utter darkness, the health concerns, messages passed up and down through the borehole, the Elvis sing-alongs—so that I hardly noticed the long lapse in my attention to the story, which was roughly the entire length of the miners’ ordeal. In that moment, it all felt big, fated, historic. I sat there with my Coke and pizza for a while: me and the teary guy beside me, two Latino line cooks, Anderson Cooper and crowds of joyous, flag-waving Chileans, taking it all in.

The next evening, I heard David Shields read from his new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and talk about, among other things, the failures of conventional (i.e. novelistic) storytelling in the modern world. During the Q&A, the miners inevitably came up. Someone asked Shields what he thought about it all, and he admitted he wasn’t interested. Maybe it was callous, he said, but he didn’t care as much about the fate of the miners as he did about a single photograph he saw in the newspaper (this one, I believe). It shows Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s first right-wing President in decades (who is riding a sudden wave of popularity on account of the rescue operation), embracing the first man to surface, Florencio Ávalos. Partly obscured by Piñera, though, are a woman wiping a tear from her face and a young boy—presumably members of Ávalos’ family who are waiting, as if in an on-deck circle, for the President to finish with his international photo-op so they can greet their loved one. What is wrong with this picture? This, for Shields, is where the real story was. As a critical reader and writer, some part of his brain rejected the pre-packaged narrative that the media was trying to spoon-feed him. He didn’t want a bright, burnished story of deprivation and spirit and triumph, even if it was mostly true. He wanted something else, something deeper: the subtext, the dirt.

Shields wasn’t alone. In the days before and after the subterranean rescue, others seemed to crave a similar kind of subversion. Back in early September, reports were already breaking of clashes at “Camp Hope” between the wives and mistresses of various miners, all of whom were making claims on the buried men’s hearts and, by extension, government compensation. One argument over Yonni Barrios, whose wife overheard his mistress calling out his name at a vigil, nearly came to blows (in the end it was his mistress, not his wife, who met him at the surface). Judging by the number of news outlets covering these above-ground scuffles, the public was almost as rapt by the romantic scandals as by the rescue itself, and even afterward, many articles about the miners’ reception and recovery gave at least a nod to the mistress parade. Other pieces, like this one, used the miners’ circumstances to shed light on widespread safety issues and the death toll in the mining industry as a whole.

What people were looking for, it seems, were cracks in the master narrative, fissures through which we might catch a glimpse of a few unflattering (if not terribly surprising) details about the situations of these 33 men who, through the reductive lenses of patriotism and media, have been cast as national, if not global, heroes. They are heroic, of course. They endured unimaginably stressful conditions in the mine, they struggled and persevered and helped each other, and they deserve all the praise, free merchandise, book deals and charitable stripteases now being lavished upon them. But people tend to frown when they realize that a person who’s been built up as larger-than-life is actually living one. How do we square the will and fortitude these men displayed while underground, the world might as well have been asking, with the ordinary, flawed lives they left up above, before the tunnel collapse and the media crush? How do the sweeping, engineered drama and the messy human drama fit together?

The answer is they don’t, at least not in any obvious way. To tell the 'true' story would have meant painting the miners (and their anxious families, and their lovers, and President Piñera) in something other than the broadest strokes, which the mass media is generally not very good at doing. To capitalize on the Hollywood-ready nature of the tale, the heroes had to be heroes and not much else, their predicament had to seem dire but hopeful, and the ending, if all went as planned, would be blindingly happy. Check, check, and check. And maybe this is what the majority of the public wanted to be shown, in spite of its ever-present lust for shock and scandal. I would never have the heart to devalue the experience of that man sitting next to me, crying in the pizza shop. Was he being manipulated by CNN? Probably a little. So was I. Does that depreciate what he was feeling as the capsule rose? Of course not.

However imperfectly told, the miners’ story is a stirring one and surely worth some of the world’s attention, if only because it’s one of the rare large-scale accidents where the final outcome, unlike some of the survivors, was essentially unblemished. Eventually books will be ghostwritten on behalf of the miners, which might bring anyone who’s interested a touch closer to what actually went on above and beneath that patch of Chilean desert. Still, every narrative has its limits. Aside from the 33, no one will ever know what it was like to ascend, through a narrow shaft from 2,300 feet below the ground, after two months of darkness, up to the terrific glare of those lights.