In Which We Realize, in a Blinding Flash, That We Are Full of Crap

I've been reading, as I do, and I came up with a Theory. This Theory, it was impressive. It was going to explain what was wrong with contemporary fiction, and what was right with David Copperfield (which I was reading), and, well, let's just say I was pretty taken with it.

See, I had also read The Goldfinch, which I didn't much like. These things happen, of course. It's no one's fault. But I read that she was inspired by Dickens, which is what reminded me of Dickens (that and my chair's circumstances, which are up by the A through F authors).

And one of the things that bugged me about The Goldfinch was the relentless, reflexive self-loathing of the narrator. The reflexive part was what bothered me most, because it has seemed to me lately that adopting a tone of withering, angry contempt substitutes in for "honesty" and "voice" in too many contemporary novels. As if these are the same things. When they are not.

And I read David Copperfield, which has such a strong, strange focus on how much he loves himself, our narrator. Not, let me hasten to add, as an act of vanity, but particularly when he thinks of his younger self and is moved to pity, to a real and kind sympathy for the poor, storm-tossed child.

It was so wonderful, that rueful fondness. So different from so many first-person narrator tones. So forgiving!

And I thought: THIS is it! This is what I've been missing—the love of a narrator for himself, on some level, or of a writer for his characters! This clear-eyed but loving affection! Love! I've been needing to read about Love!

I really thought I'd done it: figured the whole thing out. And then, on my way to the grocery store, after I'd been putting together my ground-breaking blog post about my revelation in my head for a while, I remembered a terrible novel I read two years ago. Guess what the problem was? That's right: the narrator was too clearly fond of herself.

Oh, I thought to myself. Right: the thing that is necessary for a book to be great? Is that it be great. Rules don't generally work.

That was the blinding flash. Still, it was nice to read Dickens again, even if there are no answers.

6 thoughts on “In Which We Realize, in a Blinding Flash, That We Are Full of Crap

  1. Hmmm… I’m going to say that I still think that you are on to something here – maybe less specific about the main character’s fondness for him or herself but something about novels that have a compassion/fondness for their world and the people in it. I’ve been reading “Oryx and Crake” which I had avoided even though I generally really like Atwood (post-apocalyptic novels tend to give me nightmares). And I recall that what I like about Atwood is that even as she has released all the Pandora’s Box of ills upon her fictional world, she also retains a really deep sense of hope as well – Dickens has that in spades. It makes an enormous difference. To me at least.


  2. Gee, you gave me a frisson there for a moment and then let me down. I think you ARE on to something — and it’s as true for film as it is for literature. I feel the same way as I am not “slogging” through “The GoldFinch.” I’m disappointed and definitely not enraptured. I’m not a Dickens fanatic, but I am thinking of a re-read of “Middlemarch,” perhaps, to restore my faith in LOVE or, at the very least, sustained SOUL.


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