Why Fiction Is So Much Better Than Real Life

This morning I was listening to a recording of Adam Schiff's closing arguments from 1/23, about right and wrong and trust and destruction, after which a small cluster of intelligent people assembled on the Rachel Maddow show analyzed it, all doing what they do, that is: trying to be smart about what was and is happening.

And I was reminded (painfully) of why I am so drawn to fiction. Some context: I was listening to all this on my way back from the gym, where I had sweated away to the middle 2/5 (approximately) of Snowpiercer, a crazy, beautiful, heavy-handed movie that is, among other things, about class inequity. (We'd watched the first part of the movie at home, but because I am something of a coward about violence, turned it off before the end.) I was rooting for a side, but aware that in this metaphorical world, I am if not one of the actively bad guys, one of the ones in the first class cars, benefitting from the destruction of the world all the time.

When I write fiction, I am always trying to show the weird, painful complexity of human beings. And of course, always failing to do so. I mean, if we can't bear to look with clear eyes at our own souls, how can we ever see another person, real or fictional, clearly? And I've always thought that nonetheless I should try, because even if I couldn't get there, that was the goal of fiction, that Tolstoy-like ability to show people as they are and (somehow) to love them anyway.

But when I was listening to the Schiff speech (which boils down to, essentially: You know what is right and wrong, and it's important to try to do the right thing) and the people analyzing it, I was struck by that inclination to "be realistic." As in, "Well, Schiff can say whatever he wants but you know at the end of the day they're not going to vote against…." And, "Well, what he's doing here is strategic…." And, as a devoted fiction reader, I can tell you: this is all so much worse than fiction. In fiction you are allowed—encouraged!—to believe in something may not be possible. In real life, it is naive to do so.

I know this is not news to anyone. After all, this is how we talk about naïveté, "You think life is some fairytale," etc etc. But I guess the thing is: I don't think life is a fairy tale, I wish life were a fairy tale. I understand that cynicism is almost required in the present moment. And I guess I always thought that fiction was trying to get close enough to real life to punch a hole in your heart. But instead now I want fiction to run the other way to put more and more distance between it and real life. It's too painful for us, or for me anyway, to see us as we are right now.

I think about Obama's speech at the memorial for the victims of the person who attacked Gabrielle Giffords, when he talked about the youngest victim: Christina Taylor, who was 9.

She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

In a book this would have happened. In a movie, too. Sort of anyway. But we all know: this is not what happened. 

I am sorry to be such a colossal bummer. And I know that there is (allegedly) some distance between cynicism and realism. I know, too, (somewhere) that this painful lurching towards trying to be good is probably as much as we can hope for. And that we humans were ever thus. 

I will try to shake this off. And I will tell you that a really smart take on the Meanness (and a cheerful, smart, humane look at books) is to be found by subscribing to Ron Charles's newsletter. See? Something sort of positive. I'll work on bringing joy next time. There must be some somewhere.

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