The Impossible Situation

My degree is in computer science, but back in the day, I took English classes whenever I could. It was during a Russian literature class that I read the novel Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov.

Oblomov is about a man named (surprise!) Oblomov, who is lazy and fat and weak and never does anything. He lies in bed all day, rarely leaves his room, and almost never leaves his apartment. He seems like a nice man, but he’s utterly passive, utterly unexciting – in other words, exactly the kind of character you’d want to avoid if you’re creating a novel. Right?

Yet I tore through those first hundred pages like the book was on fire.


Believe me, I wondered about this. There was no action in those first hundred pages, nobody shooting, nobody getting angry, no love affairs, just a middle-aged man lounging around his apartment. If the author of this book had found some magic formula for transmuting boredom into suspense, I was very interested in – ahem – getting me some of that.

Here’s what I decided.

The plot begins with Oblomov getting a notice that he’ll soon be evicted. Nobody’s pounding at his door or anything, but he knows that very shortly, he’ll have to leave. He’s hardly left his apartment in the last decade, he’s built his whole identity around laziness and staying still, but his landlord says he will absolutely, definitely, no-questions-asked have to leave.

He’s in an impossible situation. Or, rather, the book is in an impossible situation. There’s simply no way the plot can move forward without something breaking in the status quo. Either the landlord will change his mind about the eviction (and what kind of event would it take to change his mind when he’s so adamant, and doesn’t care about Oblomov at all?) or Oblomov will have to go out into the world (and how can he possibly cope with such a change?).

Something big is coming. There’s a tension inherent in the concept. I kept reading to see how it was resolved.

Just last night I finished reading Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (good book – thanks for the recommendation, Pablo!) and started, finally, on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I was struck by the way Carroll hooked me from the very first scene, even the first paragraph, and I tried to figure out how he did it.

At the start of the book, Alice is sitting around, bored, when a white rabbit runs by, checks his pocket watch, and exclaims that he’s late. She’s curious and runs after him. This, I think, is an even clearer example of an impossible situation. There’s no way the status quo can survive an encounter like this; a rabbit is talking, and Alice knows that’s impossible, and her perception of reality is going to have to shatter. And what on earth will take its place?

I think this concept of “impossible situations” is a bit more complicated than I’m making it sound, and I may go into more depth someday, but I do believe this is a very useful way of thinking about and generating suspense.

Have you encountered any impossible situations lately in your reading (or movie-watching, or TV-watching)? Tell me about it in the comments!

3 responses to “The Impossible Situation

  1. Does trying to make headway on my reading list count?

  2. Yeah, in terms of books you’ve got me beat… not sure about in terms of total content. I’ve got about 20-30 seasons of various shows to get through, plus movies, plus all the various web links I’ve built up, plus the books on my “want to order someday” list…. it’s not a pretty picture

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