Who needs motive?

Between the paperback release of KOH, family visits, minor crises at work, holidays, and slowly inching toward a readable draft of my new novel, the last few weeks have gone by in a kind of frantic blur. Of course, one of the things that the internet is best for is providing bite-sized morsels of distraction that fit into the busy-ness of life so in my spare moments I’ve been reading the fascinating journal of two Belgians who decided to drive across the Congo.

From their travelogue:

It would soon become clear that very little information was available. We did not know of a single traveler that did this in the last 20 years. We knew of two who tried (both on motorbikes) in recent years. One crashed after a few days and got evacuated. The other got arrested and deported….

A major showstopper for our trip was a Permit to travel through Congo. Nobody really knows what kind of permit one needs, let alone where to apply for it. But everybody agrees that a permit is required….

Our Belgian Consulate really tried hard to get this stupid little piece of paper for us, but to no avail. They even managed to get us invited with the governor of Katanga, but he too could not give it to us. After many days of trying we asked the consulate to give us some sort of official looking letter with an official looking stamp. We would chance it without the permit!

From Josephine and Frederik’s journal

In addition to being a fascinating informal glimpse into one of the most troubled and often-overlooked places on the planet, one of the things that struck me about this narrative is how little it relies on the idea of “motive.”

In the literary world, people tend to get very excited about the idea of character motivation — the dark secret, or hidden yearning, or lifelong dream, or etc., that compels X to depart on whatever quest or journey lies ahead. In this journal, by contrast, we hear that Josephine and Frederik “decided to drive across the Congo” — and then we’re off. Yet despite this, it’s an amazingly good story.

And the fact is, it seems to me that most real stories don’t rely much on the notion of motive. For example, when I was in college I decided to buy an ancient, rusted-out, dangerously unreliable Cadillac hearse and proceeded to drive it all over New England, getting into various kinds of legal and interpersonal trouble along the way. Sure, if I dug deep enough I could probably scrape up some childhood moment that led to an adolescent yearning that led to my forking over $1,500 cash to a hunchback in a backwoods garage in Massachusetts, but that would be artificial. Instead, it was more or less a whim that led to my decision — and the real story isn’t the why of what made me do it, but the what of what happened afterward.

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