Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Deus ex machina

While we were on holiday, the lifts in the hotel developed a fault and required everyone to swipe their room card before selecting their floor. This usually kicks in at 11pm to deter drunks etc, but for some reason it came on during the day. Cue queues.

We went in after tea and, being male, I didn't read the instructions properly, so swiped my card after I'd selected the floor. The result was that it didn't accept my choice and the lift swept majestically past the second floor, our destination. On it went, this very full lift, disgorging guests at regular intervals all the way up to the seventeenth floor. This took some minutes. It then descended again, gathering up new guests, and finally arrived back where we started, in the lobby, by which time I was naturally in a considerable mood and was prepared to storm out of the lift into town to take my displeasure out on a pint of beer. My partner, however, being from Cumbria, is more phlegmatic and suggested the more practical option of asking for help. This was duly given by the member of staff prowling the lobby, and this time I swiped and pressed in the right order and waited for the lift to ascend once more. It did. And again it swept past the second floor, onwards and upwards, disgorging as it went, towards the seventeenth floor.

By this time we'd been in that bloody lift for a good ten minutes and it appeared there was simply no way out of it. Being America, the hotel had no stairs, and the lift did not seem to acknowledge that the second floor existed, so there seemed to be no way of reaching our room. By now my temper had well and truly blown and as we descended yet again I was adamant that I was headed into town and onwards from there towards oblivion.

And then, joy of joys, as we descended the lift stopped at the second floor without my asking it to. What happened, of course, was that someone waiting at the second floor had hailed it and it was stopping for them, not me. But no matter, we got out and retreated to our room.

And the moral of this story is that although nowadays the deus ex machina is considered bad form in literary stories, actually it can be very useful. Sometimes your characters are just bobbing about, going nowhere, when what they really crave is simply the chance to escape. All those writers who insist on straitjacketing their stories into rigid, regimented structures where no loose ends or coincidences or dei ex machinae are allowed, might well ponder the fact that, but for the unknown guest wanting to go downstairs, I could still be in that lift yet, trying to get out...

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