Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Outrage


  Outrage is not only the last straw, it is an end in itself, a completion, a cross-section of abuses, betrayals, and the smugness born of entitlement, packaged together as though it were a snowball to be thrown, explaining the intent of the original act as though it could not be seen without exegesis from the moral high ground, those cure-all code words, “I only meant—“

Trouble is, “they” are used to speaking in the coded narratives of entitlement, used to meaning what they say in their own private scenarios wherein we few, we precious few, are all but invisible.  So of course, no harm is done.  How can one offend much less harm the invisible?

What a grand strategy, holding “them” or “it, away from “us” beyond the screen of invisibility.  The ‘them” are individuals with cultures differing from “ours,” the “it” is their belief system as it is used to translate reality into art and science.

Into this calculus, the novel marches on stage, as full of itself and edgy as Stephen Colbert, daring us to take it up, give ourselves over to it, take emotional sides in the one or more conflicts waging within its pages to the point where we have seen what many of us begin to see in our twenties and thirties—connections between ourselves and the characters in novels, judging our reading experiences more through the connections we make than any particular stylistic skills of the author.  Yes, M. Flaubert had a gift for le mot juste, Mrs. Woolf and Mr. Joyce turned stream of conscience ass-over-tea-kettle.  Nevertheless, the connections we made with Emma and Charles, Mrs. Dalloway, and Leopold Bloom and Molly (fucking Odysseus and Penelope) trumped all stylistic niceties.

We are in effect nudged in the ribs by a spectrum of characters who are as different from us as the reality that evolved them and us.

Your own choices are clear:  You can hold off these “them” and ”it” at amusement level, or you can lower yourself into them with the anticipation of reaching outrage.

To be memorable in the first place, then to remain there, the novel must somehow move the reader beyond amusement to the point of concern for the consequences exacted on us as readers.  With a final shove, the delightful state of outrage can be presented as though it were business as usual.

You do not read for business as usual even when you are pointedly thinking to escape novels that outrage.  For one thing, even if you pick up a particular author who stands out in your mind for a particular technical quality—Harlan Coben comes to mind as someone whose plots seem as exquisite as furniture constructed without the use of a single nail—you find you cannot finish the work unless something about it triggers the outrage response.

Another example that comes to mind is how Dan Brown managed to outrage you serially with The Da Vinci Code.  You continually reached places where you told yourself you could put the book down.  You did no such thing.  You read all the way through.  There is a kind of art in that.  You respect it, wonder about ways to apply it to your own work because you have illusions about readership.

You in fact wish to be read.  You write to be read, aware, well aware you are somewhere between an acquired taste and an accidental discovery, your salvation residing in the fact that you get enormous satisfaction writing for yourself.

You are often moved to write by some sense of outrage.  This inner roil and fury is not the same as, say Upton Sinclair, writing as a muckraker.  You do admire muckrakers.  To an extent, you are a muckraker of the emotions, but you will have to spend more time thinking that awareness through to something more useful than a mere descriptive title.

Many of the novels you admire, Huckleberry Finn, Catch-22, The Ambassadors, The Plague of Doves, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, My Antonia, among them are novels where characters are so pinned against so many different walls that the only possible payoffs seem forced, arbitrary, technical impossibilities.  Even Karen Russell’s remarkable Swamplandia and Jim Harrison’s A Return to Earth had troubles toward the end, where dramatic conventions still require some knotting together of loose ends that reality does not always afford.

Nothing for it but to keep trying—with the writing and the reading.

Be sure to pack some outrage.  Never tell when it will come in handy.  Pays to have enough to go around.


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