Sunday, August 30, 2009

Urban cave death

It's funny that even though there's only one way for human life to begin, there is an almost infinite number of ways for it to end. Disease, homicide, car accident, bears, starvation, drowning, suicide, medical error. Death can be caused by animal, vegetable, mineral, radiation poisoning. It is everywhere, hiding in the margins.

Yet one cause of death rises above all, a cause so physically and psychologically agonizing that it is (I am just assuming here) universally regarded as the most horrific way to go: cave death.

Cave death is death by getting stuck in a cave. Of course, the cave isn't the actual killer - that would be starvation, dehydration or getting mauled by a cave animal, depending on the situation; "cave death" is just a catch-all term for all ways to die after getting trapped in a cave.

And who hasn't constructed elaborate fantasies - or nightmares - about cave death situations one may find oneself in someday? You're stuck between two cave walls in a narrow, sinuous corridor hundreds of meters below ground, and you can hear faint growls in the distance and coming closer; you've lingered too long in a tidal cave, your exit is flooded and you know you don't have the lung capacity to swim to the nearest oxygen; you inch forward on your belly through a tiny twisted crawlspace, no way even to turn around, and suddenly you find yourself inextricably trapped by a bulge in the ceiling. You can move nothing but one leg. You're getting thirsty and there's a tiny pool of water inches from your face, but it might as well be on the other side of the rock wall. You hear nothing and all you have to anticipate, in your last days of feeble life, are your own tormented thoughts bouncing around inside your head. Your flashlight goes out.

These are classic examples of cave death, but the rise of modern civilization has created the potential for a unique variation on the cave death theme. Instead of rocks it involves metal and plastic; oftentimes the torment comes not from solitude but from too much company. The actual danger of death is perhaps slim, but the desperation, the horror remains the same.

It is urban cave death.

Urban cave death is tiny elevators, cramped buses, mazelike hotel corridors. It is carbon-copied classrooms and sprawling malls without directories. Urban cave death is being stuck in a fifteen-person van with thirty Filipinos, rolling with agonizing slowness through the subterranean Gaisano City parking lot packed solid with gibbering thousands of midnight-sale shoppers and vehicular gridlock while sweat pours down your body from the heat and stale unmoving air.

It is a sacrifice to the gods of progress, all the horrors of modernity condensed into a most base terror. It is a primitive fear wrapped in cellophane and slathered with "50% Off" stickers.

2 comments:

jmmurphy said...

You might have overdone it with that last paragraph, Mr. Palahniuk.

Ryan Murphy said...

You can't say that until I've written an entire book about cleaning products.