Yet another use for books (other than reading them): pile them up and use them as a bar.
Call me Galadriel.
(Also Rosalind, Tyrion Lannister, Remus Lupin, and Fanny Price.)
Do you know me now?
The rash of character personality quizzes that recently popped up on my Facebook was delightful at first. Of course I wanted to know what Harry Potter or Shakespeare character I was. What ’90s rocker, what Downton lady, what David Bowie.
It was fun. I took them too. I am in favor any declaration of readerly passion.
But, as the quizzes multiplied, I started to get an awful, queasy feeling. I was troubled as I saw post after post that read: I am this person in this book. We are the same. This is me.
For a character to feel relatable, of course, is one of the great joys and strengths of fiction, and I myself travel with a posse of characters who have spoken to me as if from inside my own heart: Harriet Welch, Seymour Glass, Fleur Pillager, Joelle Van Dynne, Eugene Henderson, and Mick Kelly, to name a few.
But the most powerful reading experiences I’ve had all happened when I was seduced into the specific and alien lives of characters who are not like me at all. Characters who do things I would never do. Characters with whom I likely do not share common party styles or desired vacation destinations or favorite Beyoncé songs. I’ve gone along for the ride with Úrsula Iguarán’s matriarchal ferocity, Billy Pilgrim’s disorienting despair, Rat Kiley’s misdirected bravado, and Peter Jernigan’s magnificently self-destructive gin drinking. I have loved Lolita with Humbert Humbert and wondered how I felt about myself after. Raskolnikov made me kill an old woman with an axe. I screwed around as Yunior in ways that hurt me more than the girls in question. Jay McInerny told me that YOU, that I, was doing all manner of things I assure you I never had any intention of doing. Hell, Rajesh Parameswaran once showed me what is was like to be a TIGER who brutally mauled person after person in a confused expression of love.
Call it radical empathy, as Colum McCann does. Call it the moral necessity of metaphor, as Cynthia Ozick does. Call it containing multitudes, as Walt Whitman does. Call it anything you like — so long as you think it’s important. So long as you understand that gaining access to identities, consciousness, and experiences different than your own is one of the most powerful and humanizing things a piece of art, particularly a book, can do for you.
This is perhaps never so clear to me as when I am teaching.
When an older, continuing-ed student, so shy she typically blushes when she has to talk, says that she really liked the parts of Persepolis where Marjane was a confident loudmouth who spoke out against the post-war Iranian regime. When a Floridian frat guy says he likes “ghetto-nerd” Oscar Wao and understands how hard it is to not be the person everyone expects you to be. When the orthodox Jewish boy who hadn’t participated all semester was the only one who didn’t think “For Esmé With Love and Squalor” was about a pedophile and defended it to the class by saying: “They’re trying to save each others’ lives.” When the young African-American guy in the nursing school who was only in my class because it was required came to life during our unit on August: Osage County and demanded to read the part of Violet, the cruel Okie-mother. When a kid named Frankie performed the greatest Lear I’ve ever seen in the trailer under the West Side highway that was our classroom with an umbrella for a scepter because it was raining that day…these are the times that I remember why I write and why I teach.
You might point out that there are more important things than a proliferation of online personality quizzes happening in the world this week. There is upheaval in Ukraine. There are protests in Venezuela and Bosnia-Herzegovina. At home, there is Jan Brewer’s terrifying consideration of SB 1062. But I’ll go ahead and say that humans who engage in radical empathy with characters unlike themselves, who experience things beyond the scope of their lives, are more likely to know and care about these events too. Are more likely to do something about them.
So do not ask us which characters we are most like. Forget: “Who Are You?”
Ask us our favorites. Ask us who we love. (And in truth, and in the spirit of February, what says more about a person really, than who they love?)
Because when you list your favorite characters, when you tell us who it is you love, are these the characters and people who are the most like you? I hope not. If you find yourself encouraged to love only characters who are just like you, I want you to worry about that; it means your art isn’t doing its job.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Today in my mailbox, I found a hardcover edition of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I’ve become something of a Bolaño–phile in the last year… in fact, I already read the English translation of 2666, the late Chilean author’s magnum opus, this summer, in galley form. And so the arrival of the finished book was a pleasant surprise.Superficially, I can report that the dustjacket is a little disappointing; its reproduction of Gustave Moreau’s “Jupiter and Semele” appears mildly washed-out to me, and the author’s name gets a bit lost. In all other particulars, though – the wonderful, sea-sponge endpapers, the sturdy cloth binding, the great typefaces – 2666 has the look of a masterpiece. (The three-paperback edition is handsome, too.)That said, looking like a masterpiece is pretty meaningless. How the book reads is what matters. While I plan to write at greater length in the next month about the contents of 2666, I noted with some interest an early review from Kirkus, excerpted in the press materials: “Unquestionably the finest novel of the present century – and we may be saying the same thing 92 years from now.” This is heady stuff, but once you’ve read the novel, it doesn’t seem hyperbolic; rather, it’s an indicator of the high stakes for which Bolaño was playing in this, his last book.Back in May, I wondered if critics were going to recognize the seriousness of the attempt, or whether, Kakutani-like, they would draw an invidious comparison with the more accessible The Savage Detectives. I guess we’ll soon find out.
Gather.com, the folks who put together a chat with Jonathan Safran Foer not too long ago, have announced a new writing contest. Online writing contests are a dime a dozen, but the cool thing about this one is that the four winning short pieces (fiction or non-fiction) will be “published and sold on Amazon Shorts,” which would undoubtedly be a terrific venue for any aspiring writer. In fact, it’s along the lines of what I hoped Amazon would do with its Shorts program.
Coinciding with the start of the PEN World Voices Festival, Tuesday’s installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series in Brooklyn features three internationally acclaimed novelists. Francisco Goldman (The Ordinary Seaman), Anne Landsman (The Rowing Lesson), and Ceridwen Dovey (Blood Kin) will read from works set in Guatemala, South Africa, and an unnamed dictatorship. In honor of Mr. Goldman’s latest, a work of nonfiction, the theme for the evening is “Art, Politics, and Murder.” The event is free. (For more information, see Time Out.)[As Mr. Goldman has blurbed two of The Millions’ favorite books, it seems fitting to offer a bonus link to his fantastic 2003 essay, “In the Shadow of the Patriarch,” featuring cameos from Gabriel García Márquez and Alvaro Mutis, as well as early praise for Roberto Bolaño. ¡Buen apetito!]