Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Impact of a Novel

Sometimes I find myself wondering why my favorite form of literature to read, above nonfiction, biography, poetry, criticism, plays, and probably even short stories, is and always has been, at least since I've been reading seriously, the novel. I am most attracted the novel as a literary form without any question. And, the truth is, it is the one thing I desire to write the most, although it is a form whose code I have yet to crack in my writing life (I'm trying to change that, as my "journals" on this blog attest to). Early in on graduate school, I tried starting one about 11-year-old twin brothers, but the first chapters got brutalized by my classmates and I couldn't rally the confidence then to persevere. I tried to write another one for my graduate thesis, but I got 300+ pages into it and fizzled out. Later, in 2003-2004, I attempted to write a bunch of stories that would sort of coagulate into one, by some magic that I was waiting for someone other than me to employ, but that never quite happened either, or not to my satisfaction. Now, I am making another attempt, and that, too, is very hard work. If nothing else, I have learned to respect just about anyone who has ever put one together that works, whether the writing is top tier or not.

You'd think this would be frustrating as all hell, and it is. Nonetheless, I continue thinking about writing a novel of my own, as I always have, and I absolutely never waver in my love of the form as a reader. My imagination seems to respond the most to the fictional world, the one that I create in my brain when prompted by the vision of the novelist. In a recent interview I read with the novelist Stephen Wright, whose work I have pumped up here enough times and even reviewed myself, and who also was a mentor of mine in graduate school, he stated his belief that the novel was one of the highest art forms. And anyone who has ever seriously tried to even start one can do nothing but agree. Somehow, the task of creating from nothing an entire world, sometimes similar to our own, sometimes not, and making it first believable; second, consistent to the truth of life as we know it, if not necessarily to the daily substance of life (your novel could be set on Mars); and third, well written, is practically the most daunting task artistically that I can think of attempting. But there are people who can do this, and some who do it extremely well. Yet almost no one thinks of novelists as heroes anymore, capable of changing the world, one reader at a time.

And yet, they are. I was thinking about this recently when I was finishing up a novel which I am now attempting to review, called Seeing by Jose Saramago. Saramago is a Portuguese writer that I have written about on this blog before who is an atheist and a Communist, whose values seem nothing at all like my own and are not in any way consistent with the spirit or the letter of this forum. He’s also a Nobel laureate, having won the literature prize in 1998. He has almost no hope for the future of man, no respect for most of the Western world (particularly the United States), and no faith whatsoever in the Democratic system of government. But he does seem to have a passionate belief in the inherent rights of the common citizen of the world. He made the following remarkable statement in his Nobel lecture, which against all my feelings to the contrary about whether I should respect a guy like this, I could find little to disparage: “We pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.” I do not agree that some unclear ‘universal lie’ has replaced any ultimate Truth, and if I did I would not be a Christian. But it is the authoritative force and intelligence of these words and the powerful human spirit behind them that makes them admirable to me. I am saying that while I doubt if I would agree with Saramago on a lot of things, I would listen to him.

Seeing, his newest novel to be translated into English, is nothing more than a farcical, sometimes hilarious, and also chilling work of fiction. Yet I can honestly say that it has done more to make me think about the democratic system, partisan bickering, the role of governments in the lives of daily citizens of any country and the appalling callousness that some governments sometimes display in employing destructive forces against their perceived enemies than five years of newspaper columns and election stump speeches since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our country have done. In this novel, the electorate of an unnamed city decides to make a statement when 83% of them cast blank votes on Election Day. The government of the nation, democratically elected, literally panics, and enacts a series of progressively more ridiculous measures to deal with this crisis, which the eventually decide can only be the act of ruthless terrorists bent on destroying the ideals their nation was founded upon. Is this starting to sound familiar?

It did for me, and it grew into more and more uncomfortable reading the more extreme and egregious this fictional government’s efforts to deal with the crisis became. Sure, it’s hilarious when Saramago depicts the cabinet in a big room bickering and hollering at each other in futile attempts to understand what is happening. But it becomes less fun when the government starts honing in on certain citizens that it decides must be behind the ‘terrorism’ and begins to use all means necessary to bring them to some sense of highbrow ‘justice’. As the story shifts from the halls of the entrenched government to the investigations of a likeable police inspector and further on to the private lives of the citizens being targeted for reprisal, for causing events that, needless to say, they have nothing to do with, a sense of dread begins to swell up to immeasurable size, and you know a cataclysm is coming. When it does, as accomplished by Saramago with extraordinary timing and effortless novelistic proficiency at the conclusion of this excellent novel, one can only be impressed with not only his accomplishment, but with the overall power of literature.

Novels can make you think – very hard. Fiction can draw your attention into places you don’t really want it to go. True art, of which the novel certainly is a singular and beautiful form, has the power to change people. I don’t know if I have changed as a result of reading the novel Seeing, and I don’t want to embrace the writer’s overall worldview, but I do salute his excellence as an artist. And I can’t say, having finished his newest book, that I feel anything other than further confirmation that I want to somehow and in some way join in the ranks of people like him who can create these extraordinary works.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

This is the kind of post we're proud to feature on TST... excellent job Mutt, on a topic that couldn't more relevant to our concerns here... these reflections got me thinking about the novels that have made the most impact on my own thinking about various topics and issues. For example, Shusaku Endo's Silence got me to think deeply about the cost of faith, and about how far I'd be willing to go to affirm my own belief in Jesus Christ. Ivo Andric's magnificent epic The Bridge on the Drina got me thinking about the nature and value of community, something we tend not to think about very often any more in this culture. And very recently, of course, T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain prompted me to explore my own views on the immigration question, and about social justice in general.

Of course, I could go on and on, as I know Mutt could.

It's always exciting to hear about how a person's thinking, or even their very life, may have been changed through reading a great work of literature. Mutt echoes the work of the great Dr. Robert Coles in these reflections, who has made a name for himself (besides his winning the Pulitzer Prize for his famous books on sociology, the Children of Crisis series) teaching the classics to medical and business students at Harvard. Coles has known for a long time that great literature applies to all walks of life, because it contributes to our understanding of what it means to be human. And profound wisdom and truth can come to us from many sources, not all of which are necessarily expected. To be a serious reader of literature is to be a student of the world. Such an idea may sound lofty, but I believe it is the truth, and that is what I want to be.