As a literary scholar, Andrew H. Miller is deeply immersed in the worlds created by authors. Fictitious worlds, and the people who populate them, often reflect the lives of their authors. Yet, Miller draws from a different idea: authors often create characters whose experiences resemble lives they wish to have led. In other instances, the characters themselves are defined by the lives the writer may have led if they had made different choices. With many possible constructs for considering possibilities in our lives, Miller immediately sets his stakes in his newest work, On Not Being Someone Else: “Psychologists and philosophers have studied unled lives, but creative writers know them best.”
To establish his terrain, Miller begins by noting that when he has explained the premise of his book, a typical response is to call to mind Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken“. After devoting a few pages to a quick interpretation of the poem, Miller asks, “What’s the relation between unrealized possibilities and the stories we tell?” This question becomes the guiding theme of his study.
Miller effectively positions this argument as simultaneously literary and personal, as he finds himself inspired to reflect on his own unled life through the frequency with which this theme arises in the poetry and fiction he encounters. One theme argued here is that we don’t turn to stories of lives unlead to escape from the shortcomings of our own lives: rather, contemplating other possibilities is a way of creating meaning in the lives we do lead.
Another significant theme is that of that singularity. Miller says, “When I feel myself to be only one person and only this person, other people seem set apart from me. Among others, my singularity becomes separateness.” This theme is used to consider Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, W. H. Auden’s “Musée de Beaux Arts“, and the perspective of Robert Browning, who manages to sustain contradictory positions of a man enmeshed in a society along with another who lives a deeply interior life. From this view, Miller argues that the common ground that all humans share is a singularity: we are joined to one another in the fact that we can only remain separate. Certainly, singularity is a basic theme of literature and life.
That Miller is a literary critic should not be forgotten. His extensive discussion of Ian McEwan‘s Atonement unfolds on two fronts. First, he explains how the novel’s narrative raises questions about the lives the characters may have lived had they made different choices in pivotal moments. Second, he shows how the novel succeeds in crafting a story around those choices. Despite giving away key aspects of the plot in order to critique the narrative, Miller’s take on Atonement affirms its reputation as an excellent work of fiction.
Like most contemporary literary critics, Miller addresses all narrative art forms, including film. After all, it’s hard to imagine a broad critique of lives unled that does not include It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Like “The Road Not Taken”, Capra’s film is readily the first that comes to mind. Miller’s analysis of it shows how it fits well with the theme of singularity, the loneliness of its solitude, and the opportunities to escape that solitude by becoming two through a meaningful partnership with another person.
In an interesting turn in his discussion of choice and regret with regard to lives unled, Miller turns to market capitalism as the main drive behind the modern experience of identity and possibility. Advertising tempts consumers with the idea that particular choices – and purchases – will improve one’s satisfaction and social capital. The choice not to indulge in that product, then, is positioned as regrettable. From this immersion in capitalist culture, we are constantly confronted by lives unled.
Miller maintains his role as an active character in his own story. A discussion of a story of lives unled from Ira Glass’ This American Life begins with the author listening to NPR on the radio in his kitchen fixing lunch during a break from editing this book. On Not Being Someone Else is like a living, breathing document, creating a presence for the author that strengthens his arguments. Miller is right there, having a conversation with you. He shows that the idea of lives unled is stitched into works of art across genres and centuries, making clear that the stories we tell are often rooted in considering alternatives to our choices.