COLUMN: Facing the wild things

Mostly we read because it pleases us, but sometimes what we read is not “pleasing”, or “enjoyable” but we don’t stop just because the going gets rough. There is some other reward that is not related to our simple understandings of what pleasure might be.

Mostly we read because it pleases us, but sometimes what we read is not “pleasing”, or “enjoyable” but we don’t stop just because the going gets rough. There is some other reward that is not related to our simple understandings of what pleasure might be.

This month I’ve been struggling with what that other reward might be because friends kept asking me what Nadine Gordimer’s new book No Time Like The Present is like.

I don’t have a simple answer. It’s not “excellent” – to be recommended in that serious or breathless voice we save for books that really do sweep us off our feet.

It’s not even really “good” in the usual ways: brilliant writing that shakes itself loose of the page and becomes airborne; unusual concepts approached in new and interesting ways; delightful dialogue that places you directly into someone else’s conversation; a plot you can’t predict.

The fact is, the book is a plodding walk on the steadily increasing incline of South Africa’s of democracy, and it is written so thickly and in such convoluted style – a style that all but disdains the reader – that on a purely aesthetic level it comes across as a chunk of concrete hacked off a modern ruin, rather than a finely moulded piece of clay from the hands of a sensitive ceramicist.

To be brutal, the easy word that comes to mind – the one people would understand most easily in reference to a work of art with a particular effect – is that Gordimer’s new novel is depressing, a word that makes most people turn sharply away. And I don’t want to do that because I think it should be read.

Gordimer is an “important” writer. She is “relevant”. I could use those imperatives, appealing to people’s sense of duty, or interest in the South African situation – even to their own vanity: some readers rate themselves as slightly superior beings for their ability to get through notoriously difficult books.

Really, though, the reason I think we read some books – and Gordimer’s is a case in point – is because it activates our worst fears. And without understanding rationally why that would be desirable, it is a force in us as strong as the desire for pleasure. We want to be scared witless. But as vicariously as possible.

I don’t presume to say something new this matter, but here’s my thinking: if we have our worst fears lead into the light through the once-removed experience of reading about other characters’ experiences, we are finding our way towards a resolution we would not otherwise experience.

The idea, for instance, of being murdered, abducted, tortured and raped is absolutely abhorrent, and yet thrillers and crime fiction easily rate as the most-read fiction books on the planet – other than love stories, which represent their hopeful opposite. Maybe it has to do with facing down a monster. With imagining how we would respond in certain situations. With testing our internal limits through imagination, rather than through – God forbid – direct experience.

Maurice Sendak, the octogenarian writer of the classic Where The Wild Things Are, has always been a strong advocate of scary books for children, postulating that children want to be afraid. Anyone who’s ever been a child – all of us  – know this: how fright – the kind contained in ghost stories, or the peek-a-boo games that give babies such a fright and then make them giggle – is thrilling to the point of inducing visceral anxiety, and how overwhelming its resolution or relief is.

“I refuse to lie to children,” said Sendak in a recent interview. “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

That’s why, I suppose, I am glad that this month I read hard and upsetting stuff like No Time Like the Present and So Much Pretty, an unsettling novel by Cara Hoffmann, and – most depressing and frightening of all – an essay by Arundhati Roy – who wrote the 1997 Booker-prize winning The God of Small Things –  entitled Capitalism: A Ghost Story (the original link on OutlookIndia.com appears to be broken).

Because my horror was being contained and managed for me by writers who have already faced the Wild Things and returned not just safely, but alloyed.

This column can also be read here: Books SA

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