Radical vulnerability is one way to confront of the question of protectiveness in fiction. Another method is the brutal compassion displayed by Alice Munro. In her collection Too Much Happiness, the stories are filled with catastrophes and horrible acts. In her excellent story, “Dimension,” Munro writes with an easy fluidity about a woman whose life has been utterly destroyed by her husband. He murdered their children in a rage when she refused to come home because she feared for her safety. It’s a story all about the limits of personal determination and how we can live in the world after the worst possible thing has happened.
Where some writers might have gone up to the point of the murders and stopped (and I count myself among this number), Munro does that thing which makes great writers great, she goes beyond into the after and crafts with the same easy patience the remnants of Doree’s life. And then things get stranger still as Doree begins to visit her estranged husband in the mental hospital where he has been incarcerated since the murders. She’s living a small, anonymous life now. And she’s tried to kill herself twice. And still she visits him in the hospital. When he makes a revelation that he can hear their children talking to him, she is at first startled and then something like relief overtakes her.
I find this story fascinating because it is the kind of story I would find impossible to write. I am so afraid of what comes after catastrophe. Or, in my experience, what comes after catastrophe looks so much like what came before catastrophe that it feels narratively uninteresting. My imagination is wired, it seems, to keep catastrophe at bay. But Munro does not protect her characters. She flings them out into the universe. Or she calls the universe to them, and the results are striking. The story shapeshifts mid-way through and it becomes not a story about a woman to whom horrible things have happened necessarily, but a story about how a person gets on with life. Or how they can’t get on with life. It’s a story about all the ways that our personal geometries align and mis-align in our conceptions of ourselves. Munro utilizes a similar technique to Knausgaard. The matter-of-factness of the disasters:
It was a cold morning in early spring, snow still on the ground, but there was Lloyd sitting on the steps without a jacket on.
“Good morning,” he said, in a loud, sarcastically polite voice. And she said good morning, in a voice that pretended not to notice his.
He did not move aside to let her up the steps.
“You can’t go in there,” he said.
She decided to take this lightly.
“Not even if I say please? Please.”
He looked at her but did not answer. He smiled with his lips held together.
“Lloyd?” she said. “Lloyd?”
“You better not go in.”
“I didn’t tell her anything, Lloyd. I’m sorry I walked out. I just needed a breathing space, I guess.”
“Better not go in.”
“What’s the matter with you? Where are the kids?”
He shook his head, as he did when she said something he didn’t like to hear. Something mildly rude, like “holy shit.”
“Lloyd. Where are the kids?”
He shifted just a little, so that she could pass if she liked.
Dimitri still in his crib, lying sideways. Barbara Ann on the floor beside her bed, as if she’d got out or been pulled out. Sasha by the kitchen door—he had tried to get away. He was the only one with bruises on his throat. The pillow had done for the others.
Some people might call this clinical or cold. They might describe the writing as staccato (a nonsense word) or detached or some other gibberish word like dissociated. But I don’t think it is. What Munro has rendered here, I think, is what it feels like to be jammed so far down inside of yourself that you barely have space for two thoughts and so everything gets elongated, dilated. It’s not a lack of time between moments. It’s too much time between moments. The unreality of life. It is also striking to note how much like previous exchanges between Doree and Lloyd this is. There isn’t some false heightening of rhetoric or a lapse into lyricism. There isn’t a distinct tonal shift. What is so terrifying about this moment is how ordinary it is. How self-same with the rest of their lives this is. Terrifying because the inertia of life will carry them forward into more self-same days and also horrifying because this could have happened at any other time. Doree of course does not have the sense of having escaped disaster, calamity. What she has is a sense that her world has been upended, destroyed. But later in the story, as she’s on the bus going to visit Lloyd in the facility, she has a revelation:
Who but Lloyd would remember the children’s names now, or the color of their eyes? Mrs. Sands, when she had to mention them, did not even call them children, but “your family,” putting them in one clump together.
Here she is thinking about the nature of families and of memory and of loss, and here she is ceding to Lloyd some bit of grace. I would have been tempted to write this line more angrily. More wrenchingly sad. I would have set it aside with tone. I would have embellished. I would have grown lyrical, perhaps. I would have used abstraction. I would have been squeezed to the margins of the story by this feeling, this vast, incomprehensible feeling. But Munro writes—in the rhythm of life as though she were describing polishing a mirror—of how a person could realistically come to miss someone capable of such gross violence.
I am not naïve. I am not stupid. Trauma is complex. Human relationships and histories are complex. We never feel one thing at one time. But writing is sequential. There is an order. I struggle with how to convey the simultaneity of things, the necessary same-time-ness that gets you such gutting revelations.
It’s not a lack of time between moments. It’s too much time between moments. The unreality of life.
Could I have even written a Lloyd? I think I would have failed on several scores. I think my great fault in writing is that I am always trying to couch action in easily discernible motivations because if the motivations are understandable, then the action can also be understood, and if the action can be understood, then it is not so bad. It’s an artifact of workshops, I think. Writing stories to be understood so that the discussion goes smoothly. I am at core a people pleaser because I was raised by brutal people who could not be pleased. It is a strategy.
But Munro writes with the kind of open, clear ambiguity that is so much a part of reality and life. Munro demonstrates that compassion and protectiveness are not the same thing. She does not deprive her characters of whatever strategies they have devised to soothe and comfort themselves. They aren’t furious little trains on plastic tracks or fixed routes. The audacious strokes of Munro’s work are in the subtle maneuvers she depicts as her characters search out their footing, trying to find their way. Her characters feel singular because their positions are hard-won, the result of a lifetime.
Munro can write a murderer and make it seem plausible. I hate this word plausible. Because the world is full of murder. It is full of horrible things and horrible people, and yet this idea of even-handedness has permeated our literary culture to a degree that verges on pathology. Characters are expected to be bad but also good. We are expected to write every character to the full width and breadth of humanity, but humanity in fiction is actually a misnomer, I think. What people call humanity is really just relatability. We think that villains who pet kittens are complex. We create for people who do bad things elaborate back stories in order to make their evil plausible and human because true evil is rare. And so we end up writing minor villains and petty evils.
I worry sometimes that I will always be protective of my characters. That I won’t have the tools to intervene on their behalf, that I’ll always only half-write them because to fully write them would be to subject them to the vagaries and the ambivalence of the universe. It’s not because I write autobiographically. Indeed, my inability to write autobiographically is an extension of my protectiveness. It feels cheap to write about trauma when I have experienced trauma. It feels too readily available. And also, it is difficult work. It is hard to write about people you know, who exist. I always thought it was harder and therefore more worthy to write about things that had not happened to me. I always thought that to be an artist, one had to use one’s experience indirectly, otherwise it was simply tawdry and tacky.
This of course is silly. It is also perhaps the result of being a black person in America. It is not a new idea that the work of black writers is treated as merely sociological, that its value is a direct result of its capacity to teach white people about black pain. The same is true of queer narratives, that our stories must be oriented and evaluated via the rubric of the surveilling culture. In this way, my work is a kind of minor literature. And so I chose to write about other things.
I also couldn’t write about my own pain and my own family and my own self because I didn’t trust myself not to write a screed. Fiction, the complexity of people, the difficulty of writing about those who have harmed you in some way. So I swore it off. I felt a great sense of shame anytime someone read my work as autobiographical, not only because this was untrue but because I felt as though I were being reduced in some way. Either because my work was not good enough or my life was too bad to make the basis of good art.
I am protective of my characters, I think, also in part because no one was protective of me
I am protective of my characters, I think, also in part because no one was protective of me. I try also to make art for people who want a refuge from the inescapable reality of life. I didn’t want my characters to suffer because there has always been such a premium on my suffering. On the suffering of black and brown and queer people and poor people. I didn’t want that. I also didn’t want to contribute to a cheapening of the narratives of black people from the South. I didn’t want to write more cornbread stories about beleaguered grandmothers who sang gospel while they cleaned. I rejected my life. I rejected my stories. I rejected the idea that I had stories. Because how cliché, how boring to become what other people expect you to become.
It seemed important to me that I write from this place of rejection. That I write from a place of pure aesthetic concern. That my characters be free to do what they wanted.
But I had actually reduced their degrees of freedom considerably. I had hollowed them out. I prevented them from engaging. From being in the world. Munro’s capacity to get her characters into trouble without a clear idea of how to get them out—or even caring if they do—is brutal, yes, but her characters are so fully themselves that it never feels like she’s punishing them. Knausgaard’s interior states are laid out with such care and detail that he too is fully rendered. The shame and the beauty go hand-in-hand.
I have been a benevolent dictator. I have ruled over a tiny cosmos of people sealed in perfect bubbles. In thinking about Munro and Knausgaard, I think the idea is that one must be willing to leap and to plunge and not expect to rise, but to find in that great descent if not meaning then at least peace, or joy in the motion. The hardest thing in the world is to begin writing with no clear idea of how you’ll get yourself out. It’s hard to commit to mystery. It’s hard not to expect to rise. It’s hard to let people do what they must, even if that means turning away from us.
When someone raises a fist, we move to protect ourselves. It is an ancient geometry: assault and recoil. But the vertex, the point on which it all swings is personal. The locus is the self. The objective is the self. I must write better, I think. I must write characters who get themselves into things and I must let them. I must let them tear themselves apart trying to do the thing they need most to do to stay alive.
It is difficult.