I attended a workshop a few months ago conducted by the playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah. Kwei-Armah is an unabashedly political writer with a social agenda and he spent a considerable amount of time discussing the idea that writers are the mirrors of society. I like this idea and agree with it. But I also think that if its true, it makes writing a very difficult exercise indeed.
I like the idea because so much of what I enjoy in fiction is having the world thrown back at me in a way I wouldn’t have formulated myself. I love it when a piece of fiction shows me something about the world that I instantly recognize as “true” but that I hadn’t managed to discover on my own, or understand in exactly the same way. Good fiction reveals. Good writers capture the play between the light and darkness of reflection.
It’s this tension that makes writing so difficult. How do we create something unique out of something that is essentially a revelation of things as they actually are? In this sense, good fiction creates something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I don’t mean we have to recognize ourselves in each character we read, but often, it is only through a recognition of our shared humanity with a character that a story becomes meaningful.
From Birds of America, “People Like That Are the Only People Here”, Lorrie Moore: What words can be uttered? You turn just slightly and there it is: the death of your child. It is part symbol, part devil, and in your blind spot all along, until, if you are unlucky, it is upon you. Then it is a fierce little country abducting you; it holds you squarely inside itself like a cellar room – the best boundaries of you are the boundaries of it. Are there windows? Sometimes aren’t there windows?
From That Night, Alice McDermott: For after this, after the cars and the sudden spinning onto her lawn, the boys with their chains and the fight and the chilling sound of her boyfriend’s cry, after this, no small scenes could satisfy us, no muffled arguments, no dinner-at-eight celebrations, no sweet, damaged child, could make us believe we were living a vibrant life, that we had ever known anything about love.
From The Echo Maker, Richard Powers: What did it feel like to be Mark Schluter? To live in this town, work in a slaughterhouse, then have the world fracture from one moment to the next. The raw chaos, the absolute bewilderment of the Capgras state twisted Weber’s gut. To see the person closest to you in this world, and feel nothing. But that was the astonishment: nothing inside Mark felt changed. Improvising consciousness saw to that. Mark still felt familiar; only the world had gone strange. He needed his delusions, in order to close that gap. The self’s whole end was self-continuation.
From Occasion for Loving, Nadine Gordimer: He stretched himself out on the sofa, and when Tom finished his work he saw that he was asleep. His head was flung back on a raised arm behind his head. The fingers of the hand moved like tendrils in an effort against cramp that did not break through to consciousness; on the blank face of sleep traces of bewilderment and disgust were not quite erased round the mouth. Tom looked at him for a moment with the curiosity that is always aroused by the opportunity to contemplate suffering without having to respond to the sufferer, and then decided to leave him there, and turned out the light.
The narrators of each of these passages exposes something recognizable about the human condition. I’ve never had any first hand experience with Capgras syndrome yet Powers’s description of the splicing of the psyche after trauma feels horribly familiar, I’ve never experienced anything having to do with pediatric cancer but the desire for denial that Moore presents speaks to me because that is something that humans do – we deny, we rant and rave, we even tell jokes in the dark moments. These passages are all so affecting because they show us who we are, they reflect something particular and it becomes something shared.
These novels are constructed out of a web of these moments, groups of sentences put together by the narrator and wedged in between the dialogue and the action to ensure the novel functions on two levels at all times – The Echo Maker isn’t just about Mark Schluter’s car accident and his sister’s attempt to rehabilitate him, it is also a novel about us and how fragile our minds and identity really are. Nadine Gordimer isn’t just writing about a woman’s love affair with a black man in apartheid South Africa, she is also revealing how we negotiate social inequality in its myriad forms.