I recall years ago reading about the success formula for television sitcoms: the plots can, and often should, be completely implausible, but they must be probable. In other words, the situation and actions can be as weird as you like—the weirder, the funnier—but the sequence of events has to make sense within that weird context. Lucy wandering lost in the New York City subway with her head stuck in a mammoth loving cup was perfectly acceptable, and hilarious, so long as Ricky didn’t suddenly materialize inexplicably out of nowhere to rescue her.
This formula makes me think of my favorite movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. To me, it represents the culmination of Hitchcock’s genius: a realism so rarified that it presents completely unbelievable situations in ways that make them seem perfectly natural. Hitchcock’s talent for the weird generates anxiety and horror rather than laughs (though sometimes both), but the amalgam is the same as with Oppenheimer, Pugh and Carroll, I Love Lucy’s principal writers. North by Northwest distills this genius to perfection. Every single engrossing scene transfixes with its crystalline reality. Cary Grant holding a warm, bleeding corpse in the middle of a crowded U.N. reception hall; trying to flee from a murderous crop duster in a deserted Illinois cornfield; and, of course, evading men with pistols by clambering over George Washington’s nose with Eva Marie Saint (in heels!) on Mount Rushmore. It all seems so real at the same time that we know it is all so impossible.
Hitchcock did not invent this technique. In fact, it predates cinema. He simply understood, better than anyone, how to transpose the tricks of literary realism to film. (It is no coincidence that one of his favorite writers was Daphne du Maurier, one of the greatest authors of realist weirdness. In addition to Rebecca, she wrote the short story that inspired The Birds.) The amazing thing about realism is that it comes in such a huge range of tenors, from the cozily humorous to the horrendously bizarre. Even more amazing is the fact some of the most talented realist authors wrote works across this entire range. How did the same Shirley Jackson (one of America’s most underappreciated writers) who wrote delightful domestic accounts (Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons) published in Good Housekeeping, also write her infamous “The Lottery,” plus The Haunting of Hill House, the novel that founded the modern horror genre in both print and film? How did Horacio Quiroga, the Uruguayan author I have spent way too much time studying, manage to mix stories of undying love and unhinged bloodletting in the same volume? (The one volume of his stories available in English, The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories is definitely worth seeking out.)
Realism works, enduring all manner of assaults and insults, because it succeeds in highlighting the weird and incoherent and a world that humans insist on perceiving as natural and coherent. The world is a terrifying, unpredictable, freaky place, realist writers tell us, but we can still rest assured that there is a comforting, orderly, familiar way to look at it. In other words, we can try to make sense of it all. When I look at the realist technique threaded through contemporary works that ostensibly resist realism—modernist fragmentation, paranormal subversion, fantastic delirium—I am impressed with the persistence of that impulse to make sense of it all. Human beings are built to see planet earth as a place that accommodates humans, just as each species perceives the world as its own domain. Realism, amazingly, tells us that we can regard the world this way and at the same time understand that we are alone and lost in a universe that is distinctly not ours.