In my review of Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich, a book about the end of the world, which actually felt like a really smart Michael Bay film, I touched on its lack of feeling. Yes, that’s a knock on Michael Bay films. When you leave the theater, if you still go there, you might not feel anything after seeing his films. I’m sure you feel something; perhaps you feel the need to use the bathroom. You might feel entertained. Which begs the question, is being entertained a feeling? Why don’t I feel anything when I read contemporary fiction? To be more precise, why don’t the characters I read about feel anything, and if they do, why don’t I feel it too?
The last time I got actually feeling from a novel, was in David Gilbert’s forthcoming & Sons. A certain something happens to a main character right at the end of the book. I felt sad, the surrounding characters relayed their sadness, and the brothers dropped everything to rush to their fallen sibling. There was suddenly a deep hole where this very exciting character once stood. The characters in the book, and the reader have collective cry. Which begs a second question, don’t writers write about feelings in their books? Let’s drill down even further. What current novels capture emotion; feeling, pain, sorrow, empathy, and horror? Not just yours, but the people you’re reading about. Did you feel something when the father died in The Road, (lets hope you did!) You also felt his horror when he realized that his death was almost assured, he felt it too, and was deeply troubled. He spoke about God, just or unjust, and evil, which is everywhere. When he put the gun in his son’s mouth so his child wouldn’t be eaten alive, you felt a lump in your throat, he felt deep sadness, and you couldn’t take your eyes off the book. He conveyed desperation, true loss, and reeked of empathy. When the son watched his father die, did he feel anything, yes, he felt alone, terrified, until another family came along and made him feel wanted. They probably were planning on eating him, but that comes later. Why doesn’t the main character of The Odds Against Tomorrow feel any of these things? He sees the world end. He loses a loved one, and he describes the end of days like scenes from an upscale picture book created by a group of teenagers that hope to enjoy the benefits of adulthood, while playing video games forty hours a week.
I watched in salivating pleasure as A.M. Homes loaded up her most recent novel, May We Be Forgiven, with one bad thing after the next, like eating French fries, I super sized them, and couldn’t stop. Ms. Homes, who I consider the grand Madame of awesome, writes about two brothers that beat each other over the head, East of Eden style, then one inherits the others life, and he slowly feels like he’s part of something bigger than himself. This is shown to the reader through his slow thawing at the hands of his brother’s children. Everyone around this brother is unknowingly suffering the benefits of modern distractions, cell phones, wireless cable, endless cable channels, downloaded music and close circuit television. Ms. Homes made me feel the tragedy of the everyday life, it’s grinding banality, and these brothers were grist for that mill. She is a professional, so beware. The reader feels something, and I know the characters in that novel felt it too.
I recently tried to figure out what was sad about my own novel in progress. Was it sad to read, or were the characters sad, you know: boo-hoo, weepy? Then I thought, “What do they feel? Are life and the things that happen to them just something that happens, and they experience it and don’t know what to feel? They feel nothing and just move on, until the next shitty thing happens. (I suppose A.M. Homes chooses what happens to them, or they do that and inform the writer? Not comparing myself to her, but I think you catch my drift.) What are my characters overreaching emotions? It should be clear, and it’s not. Or maybe it isn’t sad, and it’s really interesting. Which is different than a feeling.
Frank and April Wheeler of Reservation Road feel something. April wants to move to Paris. She realizes her suburban life is a prison sentence. She wants to drop everything and go, (paraphrasing…) to Frank, “you can write, and I’ll work as a secretary, we’ll finally be able to live our lives. Doesn’t that feel great, we’ll be free.” April waxes the impossible. Does Frank feel sad when April dies from the botched abortion? Yes. Does he exude that on the page? Of course! Then the son of the realtor shows up and nails on the head what everyone feels, hopelessness. Do you feel sad for the main character in the Yates novel, Disturbing the Peace, I would hope so. He is the epitome of desperate, bored, urgently anxious, and the pages drip with those feelings. Or, easier still, the last paragraph of the Richard Ford story “Rock Springs”, do you feel the narrators loneliness? I think you do. That’s the point, and why the story resonates. What happened to him? Where did he go? From a cinematic angle: at the end of Five Easy Pieces, do you feel the main characters sadness when Jack Nicholson’s piano prodigy gets in the truck and leaves Karen Black alone on the highway? You feel sorry for her, but we don’t know what she feels. We imagine it, and that’s supposed to be better, and the end of Brubaker, Robert Redford’s prison drama, where a minor character is murdered for snitching. He hangs from a flagpole, and it turns out he’s should’ve been paroled ten years ago, but he stayed on because he liked prison. You know he’s sad, and so are you.
In Fight Club, the narrator talks about what a man should be. How modern man is raised by a group of women, and taught not to feel by their fathers. You should get married, have kids, and get a job, that’s the stuff of a good life. Don’t you feel that? Fighting is the only solution to express your emotions, according the Tyler Durden. Where have the feelings gone in modern literature? Are we just too distracted to engage and feel what it’s like to be alive? In A.A. speak, “live life on life’s terms”. I’m compelled to read female authors to find these feelings. Take Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, a novel of pure genius. The main character feels trapped, alone, then with too many friends, vulnerable, raped, killed, assuming a new identity and disappearing. A multitude of feelings, she actually feels them and tells the reader about it. She leaves a group of sad little boys behind who grow up in the spooky memory of her. That’s a book where everyone feels something (including the reader, who to be honest is just secondary), it’s real, poignant, and does one thing that you don’t see very often in novels. Pittard’s story realizes nostalgia, does it with such purity, that you will never be the same again. That’s a great feeling.