If a storyteller is going to take you on a wild adventure that bends literary norms, frightens you, and captivates you, he ought to make you better in the process.
Flannery O’Connor once said, “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
One thing that often strikes me about contemporary writers is the difficulty many seem to have holding things in tension. I encounter many stories on page and screen that I hear described as “dark” or “gritty;” too often a generous phrase for a storyteller with the dubious talent for knowing how to jump into the mud without knowing how to climb out again. And on the other hand, most of us spend money on blockbuster movies or bestselling novels that satiate our desire for action, romance, or a happy ending, without delving deep enough into the realities of life to leave us any better than they found us.
In this context, I appreciate the insight of O’Connor’s words, because in a deft turn of phrase, she challenges the writer to explore humanity in its fullness.
The reason doing so is important is that we do not need stories to tell us life is hard, or that pain exists — we can see these things for ourselves. Neither do we need stories to tell us love comes easily, or that people become heroes just by waving a wand — five minutes in the world are enough to put the lie to such notions. But in the banality of gridlock, chemistry exams, soccer practice, doctor’s appointments, and little material suffering as most of the world knows it, a busy Westerner might just need stories that can show him what it means to be human when life goes off-script.
This is what great art does. It gives us the imagination to see with eyes that are not our own; or to see a situation (or a person) not just as it is, but as it could be. It teaches us to be more human by driving us to ask questions our own experience rarely forces us to ask. Who would I be if everything I had, everything I was planning for, were taken away from me? Is happiness found in living a meaningful life (i.e. doing something significant), or finding meaning in life? What would I do if I discovered my worst enemies were good people — and yet still very much my enemies? Can either fundamentalist dogmas or a rootless cosmopolitanism sustain my identity when confronted with the complexities of real life? What would a person look like whose life had given him the answers to such questions?
For an artist, as for any human, it is easy in the face of such questions to choose one of the poles: to surrender to the chaos, or to deny its existence. But that is not what true artists do — they face the chaos, and in doing so give the blindly groping rest of us an image to latch onto to carry us forward.
I was reminded of what this can look like this past month, as I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of C. D. Baker’s forthcoming novel, The Pursuit of Leviathan. Leviathan is a richly researched work of historical fiction that reveals a side of Europe that mostly got left out of recent tales. It tells the story of a young British aristocrat in the 17th century who falls in love with someone he isn’t supposed to. Just at the point when the reader has been lulled into thinking this is a Jane Austen novel, the protagonist’s whole world is turned upside down . . . and the rest of the story is pirates, wars, suffering, betrayal, and a long journey with the promise of home ever more faint. Leviathan is a costume drama abducted into high adventure, with dramatic tension only matched by emotional depth. It’s as if Downton Abbey were kidnapped by Captain Blood and Ben Hur.
The novel powerfully deals with the kind of questions I asked a moment ago. Good and evil are increasingly blurred; friends and enemies are found in more than one army, country, and religion; hope becomes little more than a memory (but remains one nonetheless). In fact, the book was so skillfully crafted that I found myself giving up long before the hero did, and wanting him to compromise who he was in the most difficult of situations (appropriate that I mentioned Austen, as she is usually the only author I read who can manipulate me like that). Yet despite my instinct to be a bad influence on his protagonist, Baker fashions a character who keeps searching for meaning when it is constantly denied him, and who manages to hold on to his true identity even after most of it (the parts that, it turns out, are extraneous) has been shredded. A character who, unlike the protagonists in even many of my favorite TV shows, manages to remain a hero.
In other words, Baker does what so many contemporary writers struggle with: hold difficult or even paradoxical things in tension. Meaning and emptiness, love and hate, and most centrally, order and Leviathan (or chaos). Baker doesn’t mind getting “dusty,” to use Flannery O’Connor’s term; carving deeper and deeper into the human soul regardless of what ugliness or beauty he finds there. And the result is an unusually striking work of fiction. He is able to show his reader the kinds of traits most people wish they had the strength to exhibit: love, hope, belief, and loyalty when they make no earthly sense whatsoever. And he is able to create truly authentic characters that illuminate the kinds of situations today’s reader knows, while simultaneously putting those situations in greater perspective. If a storyteller is going to take you on a wild adventure that bends literary norms, frightens you, and captivates you, he ought to make you better in the process. Baker does. We need books like this.
It is a terrible irony that we think of imagination as something for children, or at best for a certain kind of person who indulges in that sort of thing — and therefore something to remain disconnected from serious things like this. Imagination is indeed a good deal less threatening if we keep it distinct from the predictability of “life,” confined within sanitized fairy worlds that (we think) won’t follow us home. It seems easier to take life, like our stories, less dusty. But that’s a mirage. And books like Baker’s represent an invasion of the world of strip malls and fluorescent lights, a world of easy but banal fiction, by the world that can help us outlive it. Far from not accepting such an invasion from our artists, we must accept nothing less.
Image: The Turkish Siege of Vienna, by August Querfurt. Via Wikimedia Commons.