Despite my last post, I’ve been doing more reading than writing recently. It began with The Gathering by Anne Enright.
I’ve never been very good at getting reading done for class in a timely manner, so I decided to read it before my graduate program started. While it did have a lot of small bits that seemed to ring with truth in a deep part of me, it was with a sigh of relief that I finished reading and set the book aside. It is a book about loss, but it is not the kind of book that made me feel the sadness you would expect to be provoked by a story focusing on the death of the protagonist’s brother. The loss in The Gathering seems so much more than that, and the experience of reading it was a kind of slow, grating frustration mixed with a loss of hope.
Maybe I read too much into that, but the second book I picked up for class was only a little better.
Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall, focuses on mental healthcare and racism in a London psychiatric hospital. I appreciated the way Penhall flipped ethnocentrism, a concept considered in various anthropological studies in order to rectify early assumptions about the “evolution” of cultures. In the play, instead of using this concept to prevent delusions of cultural superiority, one character suggests that the existing mental healthcare system is ethnocentric, and therefore proposes a change of view that is essentially racist. Parts of this play did make me laugh, but again the overall feeling prompted by reading was not entirely positive.
Not all stories have happy endings, and often happiness is hard to “sell” to the reader. But can’t we, as writers, inspire a little hope?
This has been drilled into me: One of the most essential characteristics of a story is that it contains a dynamic element—something, often in the main character, changes or progresses.
At the end of Blue/Orange, the young, earnest psychiatrist has been made nearly powerless by the actions of his superior, and the patient he has been trying to help will likely not get the aid he needs. He has discovered the racist and skewed ideas of his superior, and while he is prepared to react, bureaucratic elements weigh against his ability to effect real change. While change has occurred, in his occupational situation and judgement of his superior, it seems like Blue/Orange merely brings the reader to the instigation of the real action of the story.
In the conclusion of The Gathering, the protagonist does not seem to have reached any sort of resolution following the death of her brother or in response to the events that occurred during their childhood. Woven throughout the entire novel, between her odd imaginings of the past and real memories, are (1) her conviction that her husband hates her, and (2) the sense that she is entirely unhappy with her life. Imagination and reality can be almost impossible to divide at times in this book, but the protagonist’s perception of her life as frustrating and smothering is tangible. In the closing chapters, by deciding to simply return home after “running away” to the airport, the protagonist seems to have given up and condemned herself to an unhappy existence. She has returned to where she started, one brother short, (spoiler) one nephew more, and no less confused or unhappy.
Now I have moved on to The Guardian Angel’s Journal, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke. Remember my summer reading list? Well, I’m finally getting to this one. (And yes, I realize I talk a lot about CJC, but I enjoy her blog and she was a good creative writing professor.)
What is pulling me quickly through this novel is hope. Although dealing with the supernatural, the characters in CJC’s book feel much more real than the distant ones of Blue/Orange or the grieving, sometimes-insane protagonist of The Gathering. I am encouraged to become invested in the characters, and to hope with the guardian angel protagonist that she can effect a change in the life of her “Protected Being.” Despite all the sadness and obstacles life throws in, there is an ever-coursing stream of hope beneath it all; and even if change cannot be instigated, there is a hope that a deeper understanding of it all will be uncovered.
Perhaps it is just something I need to feel right now with all the depressing reminders I’ve been encountering recently of how difficult writing as a career can be, but I think everyone needs these encounters with hope. Reading is such an immersive experience; anyone who loves to read knows how close you feel to a character after joining them for the journey through a novel.
So even if hope is hard to write, like comedy or happiness, I’d like to try.
“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
If any readers live in the northeast of England, take note that the Durham Book Festival is coming up! I know I’m going to try to make it to a few events.
See a schedule of this year’s events here: