Friday, September 9, 2016

Why stories matter

My reading and thinking lately has explored that which is common to us all - that our experiences in childhood  lead us to behave in certain maladaptive ways in adulthood. Alain de Botton's 'The Course of Love' explores this in novel form, though for many readers the philosophy was too preachy and/or interrupted the text in a way that was not to their liking. Don't let that put you off. There is enlightening material there and characters with specificity, even if de Botton's inclination is to 'tell us' rather than 'show us'.

Tim Parks' 'Tom and Mary: A Love Story' explores the breakdown of a marriage in what I call true novel form, and how one thing leads to the other. Small incremental missteps or misunderstandings eventually makes for the disintegration of the union. "If he is going to work all night, I may as well go to bed" thinks Mary. Mary takes the dog out for a late walk. "I may as well go to bed," thinks Thomas and by the time she joins him he is "sound asleep, face to the wall." And so it goes on every night, harder and harder to break the cycle.

The truth is that there are precious few happy long marriages in novels. It could be argued that a happy marriage makes for boring reading but fascinating, I think, that so few novelists have even attempted this scenario; quite the opposite in fact. Romances don't count because most romances end with the marriage ceremony itself or some early part of the union. I'm talking about a marriage going the distance and being fundamentally happy. That doesn't happen in novels hardly at all.

Relatedness is so fundamental to the human psyche that as people we try hard to get this right, often with little understanding as to what might be wrong. For some people, this pulls them back inside themselves which can have them unravelling the damage, perhaps with positive outcome, or to a marriage councillor. Or, as my Indian friend said to me yesterday we learn that 'what cannot be cured, must be endured'. My point is that in the process of relating to others we are finding out about ourselves and that's a preoccupation for some novelists because novelists are, I think, simply trying to work things out in the same way as non-writers, but for writers they do that with ink or the keyboard.

Many relationship therapists focus on the well being of the individual and couples emphasizing that bodily contact - sex - is the answer in the end. If you don't feel like sex, try it anyway because often arousal comes before desire, they say. In this way, we are reminded all over again that touch is a lovely thing. We have connected; related. We feel more human. We feel more alive and at peace.

Fundamentally, novelists explore in various ways the universal themes of being human, why humans do what they do, what they do, and how or what might make for some change/improvement. I truly believe that we read stories because we want to believe that people are capable of change; of being better. Maybe that is not a conscious thought but in a novel of several hundred pages there is the opportunity for a character to grow, to adapt, to endure, to survive, to transform and to transcend. Even if it is just two sentences of hope at the end of a 800 page novel, we hold out for it; relish it.

My audience here is not Australian but I am Australian and I was reminded this morning what makes that matter; what being Australian means. I have only read one of Richard Flanagan's novels, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Set in WW2 in a POW camp on the Thai Burma death railway, this brilliant novel lays before the reader scenes where we see what happens when people are pushed to their limits. It took me weeks to think about food in the same way again. How does one eat a plate of healthy food knowing what these men have been through; how malnourished and dehumanized they were? I'm not good reading about or watching brutality and yet the exemplary writing demanded that I go on.

Richard was a keynote speaker at the most recent Melbourne Writers Festival. I caught the talk on podcast this morning and was reminded that what is particular to a character in an Australian novel or to a person in an Australian scenario is not the end of the story. He told the audience a bit of his school life in Tasmania. He talked of a school bully going up to a boy sitting quietly eating his lunch and bashing his head back against a brick wall, not once but three times. As the bully walked off the boy sitting beside the victim called out, "Why?" and the bully replied "Because I can." The school was so rough that staff were less interested in consequences as they were in keeping the peace, Richard explained. It was an experience that has never left him.

He then went on to talk about Australian stories and that none resonated so much with him as the stories of recent times. In fact, he was talking about the recording of incidents in detention centres for immigrants who had entered  Australia illegally, or were in process. (I am not entirely sure who can be detained in this way.) The little 'stories' told of people in complete despair, people who weren't expressing themselves with a keyboard but with thread when they sewed their mouths shut or with flame when they set themselves on fire; people who had lost hope in life.

Richard's brief for the lecture was to try to answer the question why writing matters. This is what I took from it: that we write to explore that which is more important than our individual souls; because things matter; because it is a way to assert freedom and to find meaning. So fascinating, yes, that we write about individual souls to explore that which is more important than our individual souls?!

"Cruel is cruel", said Richard. "Evil is evil", he said. If a Government behaves in a certain way "because it can" is that not enough reason to use the keyboard to remind the reader of what it is to be human? "Australia has lost its way," he said. It sent a chill down my spine. Has Australia lost its way or have we collectively, universally, forgotten what's right and decent?

In my thinking day by day I do tend to focus on the individual and how he interacts with those closest to him or her. I do that because I've had this feeling for a long time that if we look after those in our family and everyone looks after those in their family, those they love, that's maybe the best that most people can do. But, it's not the whole story at all. The Australian ethos for as long as I can remember has been 'a fair go' and if that's in peril, that needs to be expressed loud and clear. Cruelty is cruelty. Evil is evil.

Perhaps what is common to the interaction between a couple or a much bigger story such as immigration detention is for each and every individual to take a moment to walk in the other's shoes. No matter what the issue or situation, that can't possibly hurt. From the smallest to the largest of stories, they are all about the human experience and what it means to be human; that although we are perfectly imperfect we need to hold ourselves to high account.

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