Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fiction and the Stages of Grief.

Hello again. Sorry for the delay. I do enjoy the writery bit, but it's Second Life that pays the bills, and I've been to a three-day conference in-world and then been doing a little bit of work. Terrible thing is work, but at least I don't have to get off the couch.

On to the writing part. I seem to have survived the online discussion of that vampire book. My explanation that it's not to my taste as I don't care for adjectives, adverbs, twinkly people, 700-year-old high-school students, and the creepy subjugation of women, seems to have gone over well. It's just not on my reading list.

Which made me think about my reading list. Active novels are Roberto Bolaño's 2666, John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River, and Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. So far we have serial killers and literary critics, industrial accidents, and school mass murder. A cheery lot, that. Actually, I'm finding 2666 to be wonderfully funny, but that's probably just me.

So why do I want to read this stuff and not something a bit more escapist? I was pondering, and that's when I thought of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Anybody who ever took Intro Psych in college knows the name. She introduced an orderly chart of the stages of grief. Get a bad diagnosis? You'll first deny it, then get angry, then try bargaining with any available deity or fate, go on to get depressed, and then find acceptance. You may also remember jokes about people jumping off tall buildings and managing to complete all stages in ten seconds. Maybe you don't if you went to college after 9/11.

Moving on. What I have learned from my experiences with real-life grief is that the stages don't actually come in order. You can have all five in less than three minutes. They come at you when you don't want them, and the last one in particular never seems to last very long. The orderly system is chaos, and even Kübler-Ross called bullshit on the whole thing when she herself was dying. Funny thing, perspective.

What has this to do with fiction? Well, not to beat a horse facing a serious diagnosis, but life is full of occasions for grief and suffering. Life is hard. Whether you're a high school student being told that your geometry final will make-or-break your getting into the college of your (parents') choice or an adult who spent the day sorting her taxes and wishing the new roof could be deducted as a medical expense, much of life is, to put it bluntly, a bitch.

Again, what has this to do with fiction? I believe that fiction helps get us through the night. What we're reading can tell us where we stand on the stages of grief. Do you just want to ignore what's flying at your head? A little denial for just a little while? Escapist fiction. Shiny supernatural sophomores. Down the other end of the scale, you might want to see other people struggling, and you're reading literary fiction. You are suffering, but you are not alone. We are billions of Tolstoy's unhappy families in an endless archipelago.

One of the best critiques I've ever read of a novel was for Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron. I think it was from the Chicago Tribune. The reviewer called the novel "a primer for the survival of the human soul."

That's all writing is, folks: the most important thing in the world.

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