Escapes to Fiction

Now, more than any time in perhaps 5 years, I have been reading a lot more fiction.

I’ve been pretty cliche as a man in his thirties, reading all sorts of non-fiction, in the typical areas of economics. But I also had a stint of reading about consciousness, neuroscience, and some elements of modern philosophy.

I’m sure that in my fifties I will go back to history and biographies, as is usual in my demographic.

But for now it is fiction.

For years, I suppose ever since I finished several larger works of fiction, including the Rabbit tetralogy by John Updike and Infinite Jest by you-know-who, it was difficult to get back to fiction as the method for explaining the mystery that surrounded me. In other words, fiction no longer held the high ground as the informative and explanatory field it used to.

This is only natural. Young adults inhale fiction as they are young and need so many stories to compare to their own in identity formation. But that implies that identity is some static thing, that once you have it, it does not change.

And let me tell you that I would slap myself a decade ago for how stupidly I behaved.

Yet another decade from now, I guarantee the thought will have crossed my mind once more.

I suppose I am reading fiction as a way to get out of the current news cycle, which is turning out to be a painful staring contest indeed.

But even as I read fiction, the old problems of what fiction is doing seem here to stay.

The best way I can describe it is for me to borrow Karl Ove Knausgaard from his second book in the My Struggle series.

“Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought, this is something someone has made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. It had got out of hand. Wherever you turned you saw fiction. All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs, and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world. And news in the press, TV news, and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories, and it made no difference whether what they told had actually happened or not. It was a crisis, I felt it in every fiber of my body, something saturating was spreading through my consciousness like lard, not the least because the nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant. In other words, it saw the same. This sameness, which was our world, was being mass-produced. The uniqueness, which they all talked about, was thereby invalidated, it didn’t exist, it was a lie. Living like this, with the certainty that everything could equally well have been different, drove you to despair.”

Yet here I am reading fiction, and plenty of it takes this idea and internalizes it. Michel Houellebecq takes this premise seriously, and even in the short reading I have done with Serotonin and Submission, he shows promise for putting the perspective first and allowing the fiction to arrive second. Rachel Cusk and her recent Outline trilogy have proven to me that fiction can be stronger than my lamentations on the subject. They start with characters, and they address key insights into what fiction is designed to do, and they are the better for it.

That does not mean all fiction gets a pass, however. In listening to an audiobook version of The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, which claims to be a #1 bestseller on the New York Times list, we have some obvious examples of plot-heavy turns that do not feel as though it has any bearing on reality. Not to say that reality is exactly the point, but we have to feel as though there is a space created for truth to take place. The book centers around a mental patient who supposedly killed her husband who she claimed to love, shot him in the face with a handgun, then proceeded to take a vow of silence for years, instead painting a portrait. A young therapist named Theo will surely uncover the dastardly workings of The Grove, the facility the young painter finds herself in.

Her husband was a highly successful photographer, while she was a painter of some repute, which must be so rare at this stage of neoliberal capitalism that one could put it in an I-Spy book. The court proceedings are wholly glossed over, despite the fact that key information could have been given. Theo has a love-interest he describes as a “Greek goddess.” And the book gives itself over to many of the obvious realizations about mental health, which is that the definition of crazy leaves many on the “outside” just as culpable as those on the “inside.”

I wish I was not such a party pooper. Clearly anyone who reads this post could just as easily say, “Well then do not read this. You go read your pretentious French literature, and I will read my psychological thriller, and we can agree to disagree,” and that person would be totally right. But I think the bigger question concerns the following: at what threshold can an author suspend disbelief? And if they decide to willingly break it: how can an author break it and still continue to captivate?

Haruki Murakami does it with style, and once the magic begins to happen, you feel yourself carried along like a calm river.

Anyone who writes in the 21st century needs to ask his or herself these questions.

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