Thursday, July 21, 2005

Trouble in Paradise

I keep getting distracted by work. Not the good kind of distracted, either, where things get done. The cruddy kind where I'm worried about things that are my fault but mostly out of my control. I am a worrier, and mostly not in a constructive way.

But the topic of the day is Literary Fiction: Why? Why? Why? And the answer, I often find, is simply, "For no reason but that the world is a bleak and uncaring void."

First, let's look at what set me off. Alice Munro's Runaway, which is the one I made Brenda lend me, when she would have started me off with a different Alice Munro book. I will first off say that it is extremely well-executed, only rarely falling into what I consider to be the pitfall of literary fiction, which is not being about anything particular. By this I suppose I mean bad LF, although it's also possible that I'm not perceptive enough to get it (this is ENTIRELY possible). But often, I find that these tiny slices of average life in which nothing particular happens are supposed to lead me to a deep understanding of something that I'm not sure even the author knows what. It's like abstract art; Jackson Pollack clearly knew what he was doing, but there are a lot of people out there who took that to mean they could make squiggles and people would buy it.

But Alice Munro is clearly getting at something, and although the actual events in her stories are often very small (even when they could have been made large, like the story of a woman who spent most of her life committed to an institution she should not have been in, she tells them as small and personal), they are interesting and clearly important. There is definitely a density to her stories, and a sense that the entire story is a heavy velvet curtain--there is probably something behind it, but even if there wasn't, the curtain is thick and rich and has a gravity of its own.

She wrote lovely, rich stories with characters who make you feel like you're learning about humanity as you read about them. So why is everything we learn so tragic? Why is it about betrayal, failure, pain, and fate kicking people when they're down? I really can't understand why nothing good ever happens to any of these people. A woman gets married--that's happy, right? But there's no sense of joy in it; it's 1927 and someone has finally asked her. She has a friend with a special gift, but she likes showing it off, and are they really friends?

Every story in this anthology, and, I often feel, most literary fiction, is an exploration of unhappiness, disappointment, and the ways in which unease can creep in where you're expecting small joys. I don't find this useful. Though I know I tend to be a cheerful sort of person, I'm not even asking for all cheer (I've read that book, it was called Three Wishes by Barbara Delinksy, and it was HORRIBLE), but life is a balance of tragedy and joy, of disappointment and pleasure. The pleasure is not made less real or sweet by the joy, anymore than pain is alleviated by the fact that you were once happy.

Katie's observation is that writers fear sentiment, and the positive often smacks of sentiment, so they shy away. This is why I have a philosopy called the New Sincerity, in which irony and cynicism are banished as old-fashioned, and it's once again "cool" to care about things, to love in a sensible and reasonable way (not just passionately and destructively), and to be interested in and pleased by the world around you. I don't always live it, but I'm fond of this philosophy.

In conclusion, I will reluctantly mention Mike's point that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers is literary fiction with a downer of a topic, but an upbeat tone--striking the balance I'm looking for. I begrudge him this point, true or not, because 1) I don't like that book, and 2) I found it sad, in the manner of something cheerful that has become grimy--a child's favorite toy trampled on in a muddy front yard.

That is all.

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