Sunday, September 29, 2013

An interesting question to consider

In today's New York Times Sunday Book Review, Mohsin Hamid (a new favorite writer of mine) and Zoe Heller tackle the question: "Are we too concerned that characters be likeable?" Here is the link to the article, but I'll give you a snippet (okay, more than a snippet - see italics below) of Hamid's answer. In some ways his response answers a question I've been pondering the last six months: Why do we read? What is it that compels us to read away a day or a week or a summer, if we are lucky? Back in April I read an article by a cutting-edge educational expert who suggested that those who spend their time reading fiction are simply trying to escape present reality. Disturbed, I nonetheless spent my summer reading and thinking about an alternate answer. I now think the answer is love. Love of an art form. Love of a voice. Love of an imaginative turn for the character and ourselves that we did not see coming.

In fiction, as in my nonreading life, someone didn’t necessarily have to be likable to be lovable. Was Anna Karenina likable? Maybe not. Did part of me fall in love with her when I cracked open a secondhand hardcover of Tolstoy’s novel, purchased in a bookshop in Princeton, N.J., the day before I headed home to Pakistan for a hot, slow summer? Absolutely. 
What about Humbert Humbert? A pedophile. A snob. A dangerous madman. The main character of Nabokov’s “Lolita” wasn’t very likable. But that voice. Ah. That voice had me at “fire of my loins.” 
So I discovered I could fall in love with a voice. And I could fall in love with form, with the dramatic monologue of Camus’s “Fall,” or, more recently, the first-person plural of Julie Otsuka’s “Buddha in the Attic,” or the restless, centerless perspective of Jennifer Egan’s “Visit From the Goon Squad.” And I’d always been able to fall in love with plot, with the story of a story. 
Is all this the same as saying I fall in love with writers through their writing? I don’t think so, even though I do use the term that way. I’ll say I love Morrison, I love Oates. Both are former teachers of mine, so they’re writers I’ve met off the page. But still, what I mean is I love their writing. Or something about their writing. 
Among the quotes I keep taped to the printer on my writing desk is this one, from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”:   
 “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” 
I wonder if reading, for me, is an attempt to recognize who and what are not inferno, and if the love I sometimes feel is the glimmer of this recognition. 
 I wonder if that is the case for many of us. Perhaps, in the widespread longing for likable characters, there is this: a desire, through fiction, for contact with what we’ve armored ourselves against in the rest of our lives, a desire to be reminded that it’s possible to open our eyes, to see, to recognize our solitude — and at the same time to not be entirely alone.

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