Monday, December 29, 2014

Three Micro-Moments In 2014 Literature

Woman Reading, By Mary Cassatt, via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe you don't remember the interview from the mid-nineties where David Foster Wallace talks about the magic of fiction. I do, because I think about it all the time. He said:

"There's a kind of Ah-ha! ... It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art."

I get this feeling from literature as well. This explains why, while I can't bear to see sad movies because they just make me sad, I can and do read sad books. Because there's something about the internality of reading that for me that I can share the sadness, or put it into context, or feel it as a way of being human rather than as a crushing pointlessness.

So, here at the end of 2014, a pretty bad year for humanity overall, I thought I'd mention just a few things I read this year that I can't stop thinking about.

1. I just finished reading Akhil Sharma's new book, Family Life: A Novel, which is about a boy whose older brother becomes severely brain damaged when he hits his head on the bottom of a pool, shortly after the family has immigrated to the US from India.

Over time, their father develops a terrible drinking habit. Later he tells his family how awful it is to be hungover all the time:

"He said that in the morning he would be in his car driving to the train station and, when he heard people on the radio, it was as if they were broadcasting from another country, that he was in a country where there was a war going on and these people were broadcasting from a nation that was a peace."

I love that so much.

2. In the middle of the year I read Roz Chast's amazing graphic novel Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant. It's about her experience with her parents aging and dying. At one point her mother has been so seriously in decline that Chast has mentally prepared herself for her mother's continued weakening followed by death.

You can tell she wants it to be painless. You get the impression that after months and months of the process, she's looking forward to that process winding down and finally coming to an end somehow.

But then she comes by for a visit, and there's a new nurse, and Chast's mother is up and dressed and sitting on the sofa eating lunch. And she's a little shocked, and she says,

"Where in the five Stages of Death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?"


3. This year I also read Miriam Towes's recent book All My Puny Sorrows. It's about a woman dealing with her suicidal sister. Her sister is a perfectionist, and at one point the narrator explodes with frustration over her sister's whole world view.

And she says,

"Stop being perfect! That doesn't mean you have to die, you moron. Can't you just be like the rest of us, normal and sad and fucked up and alive and remorseful? Get fat and start smoking and play the piano badly. Whatever!"

When I feel down on myself for not meeting some stupid life goal or whatever this passage occasionally pops unbidden into my mind. It's a good reminder that a lot of what people need from one another has very little to do with being brilliant and accomplished, and much more to do with just being around, sharing a meal, cracking an occasional joke, you know.

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