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Marginal Notes

Displeasure Reading

Not long ago, a friend who has been reading literary novels for years recommended one to me – Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – and gave me the Kindle version. Murakami is award-winning and well-reviewed, so I launched into the book with considerable hope.

I immediately met a protagonist who didn’t care much about his own life and whose memories were dominated by a love affair with a woman who barely registered as a character. I got thirty pages into it before I decided I didn’t care enough about either of them to keep reading.

I should have known better. Years ago, before the advent of Kindle, I brought home a few promising-looking books from the library for Ruth, a voracious reader. Ruth glanced through them and rejected one out of hand. “It’s won awards,” she said.<>/p>

I’ve written before about my frustration with modern literary stories where nothing happens – stories that are beautifully, skillfully written, but ultimately pointless. But there’s more going on in Murakami’s book than artful stagnation -- I’ve read the summary of the plot on Norwegian Wood’s Wikipedia page, and it confirmed my decision to abandon the book. His characters are in a desperate search for meaning while being driven by forces beyond their control through an uncaring world. It’s a dark vision of what it means to be human.

Murakami is not the only one who shares this vision. I got about halfway through Cormack McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, another recommendation from a literary friend, before I realized that I didn’t care enough about Grady’s increasingly painful and meaningless life to wade through the unconventional punctuation. My interest in English history was the only thing that got me to the end of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where I watched another honorable man slowly flattened by forces beyond his control.

The problem may be getting worse. Back in the eighties, I read and enjoyed E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. It was a beautifully-written and fast-paced coming of age story, with an engaging protagonist and an intriguing supporting cast. A couple years ago, I tried Doctorow’s more recent Andrew’s Brain, and while I found parts of it technically interesting, I was once again faced with a character about whom I didn’t care very much, a story that required considerable effort to follow, and an ending where the protagonist is simply ground down by life.

Why are so many gifted writers drawn to the dark side of life? Why are they driven to present characters who are hard to love or lovable characters in situations that are either hard to follow or hard to endure? Why does it feel like work to read them? And why are they winning awards for this?

Before I go any further, a major caveat -- Taste plays a part in my feelings about these books. I’m inherently sunny by disposition and don’t enjoy watching people crushed by life. A lot of you may love Murakami or McCarthy or Mantel or the later Doctorow, and that’s fine. Still, I suspect that most readers aren’t hungry for stories that leave them wanting to slash their wrists.

I also realize that the best writers can challenge you to expand your thinking. Doris Lessing’s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five opened my mind in a lot of ways. I cried at the end of John Crowley’s Engine Summer when I first read it. The best books can transform your life, and that kind of transformation is never easy. But most of the books I’ve left unfinished have asked me to transform my life by resigning myself to the fact that life is a hollow void in which I should just try to grab what happiness I can before it grinds me into the dirt. Thanks, but no thanks.

I think this attitude has legitimate roots in history. WWI undermined faith in the hereditary aristocracy that had run Europe for centuries. A lot of crowned heads were involved in the pointless march to war, and it was clueless aristocrats who ordered the lower classes over the top in the face of machine gun fire. Afterwards, many people replaced their faith in authority with faith in technology – in the power of science to create a brighter future for mankind. WWII put an end to that, between the industrial efficiency of the death camps and the massive carpet-bombing campaigns culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the aftermath of these blows to society, good writers could rightly help readers face hard truths about the new world with courage and grace.

Things have changed. Yes, there are still major problems in the world -- I’m as frightened by global warming as anyone. But there is far less reason for despair than there was in the wake of the world wars. I don’t think we need writers to wake us up to the dark side of humanity or stand next to us and compel us to stare into the void. There is less reason to believe in the void, and much of the relentless bleakness of modern literary writing seems more like an affectation.

This habitual literary bleakness also put readers off of genuine literature. Our great-niece just started ninth grade and encountered Mark Twain for the first time. She was shocked to find that she not only identified with Tom Sawyer, but that his adventures could make her laugh out loud. I remember having the same reaction when I first read Candide in college. For both of us, great literature was supposed to be dry and bleak – work to get through. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be fun.

There’s no reason it couldn’t be. Yes, there was a time when an optimistic outlook on life seemed naïve or willfully blind. But we’ve survived those dark times, and now there’s no reason a penetrating insight into the human condition couldn’t lead you to think that, yeah, there’s meaning there after all.

It certainly would make reading for pleasure more enjoyable.