It took me a while to figure out why. In fact, it took another book, this one so unrelentingly bleak I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. (I did skip ahead to the final chapter – I was not wrong in my assessment; it never got any better.) But I’ll focus on the first novel I mentioned.
It was so relentlessly optimistic, and having heard the writer talk about it, deliberately so, that its brightness washed out all the shades and shadows fiction needs to function effectively. Even the antagonists weren’t evil, merely misguided, and there was no problem, no matter how serious, that couldn’t be solved by rational discourse.
At first, I thought the problem lay in my own perceptions and biases. Perhaps I take too dark a view of human nature to be able to enjoy the pleasure of these characters as they inexorably ‘made the world a better place.’ Trouble is – I’m not what most people would call a pessimist. Quite the opposite, in fact. I really believe that love conquers all, that adversity brings out our best qualities and the highest human virtue – kindness – is also the one most frequently expressed.
Yet, stories need a degree of darkness if only to provide contrast to the light. Take ‘Twelfth Night,’ arguably one of Shakespeare’s best comedies (okay, it’s mostly me who argues that). The play begins with a devastating shipwreck – there is apparently only a single survivor, a young woman cast up on the shore of a foreign land. Her last memory is of watching her twin brother drown. For her own protection she disguises herself as a young man and soon falls in love with a man who has become so cynical about romance that he has rejected love as foolishness. Not exactly a great start for the inevitable happy ending (Aside: A Shakespearean comedy ends in a wedding; a tragedy, in a funeral). It is only Viola’s struggle against adversity – callow servants, double dealing officers, spiteful lovers, death itself – that makes her final triumph so satisfying.
Fiction is neither real life nor is it life as we would wish it. Fiction is both a distillation, and therefore concentration, of life and at the same time, a simplification of how life really happens. Oh, sure, there are lots of post-modern novels that try to replicate the ordinary – with all of its inconsistencies, ambiguities and lack of resolution – but who wants to read that crap anyway.
In the past, I’ve mentioned Italo Calvino’s unfinished “Memos for the Next Millenium,” which outlined the values in literature for the 21st Century. They were: Lightness (as opposed to heaviness, rather than darkness); Quickness; Exactitude; Visibility; Multiplicity and Consistency. He believed good literature contained all of these and great literature balanced all of them. To those values, I would humbly add – Brightness and Shadow.