Claire Messud on Philsophy, Tragicomedy, and Dog Indigestion
A Q&A Inspired by Messud's Essay "Going to the Dogs"
Claire Messud is an American novelist and creative writing professor at Harvard University. Her works include, The Woman Upstairs (Knopf, 2013) and The Emperor’s Children (Knopf, 2006), the latter of which was included on the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year in 2006. She has received an Addison Metcalf Award and Strauss Living Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was also the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, US & Canada. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family.
Her latest essau, “Going to the Dogs,” a nonfiction humor piece for Freeman’s, is an exasperated love letter of sorts to her dogs, Myshkin and Bear, who have big challenges and even bigger personalities.
Paige Jarvis: You’ve, perhaps rather unfairly, dealt with many questions about your character Nora’s (The Woman Upstairs) likability. In “Going to the Dogs” the reader is presented with Myshkin and Bear, whose likability, from an outside perspective, is certainly challenged to humorous effect. I’ve always thought that those critics have it backwards, that it’s a character’s quirks and flaws that draw the reader to them. How much of that do you consider from a craft perspective while writing? Does a character’s off-putting antics or likability have any importance at all in the narrative?
Claire Messud: I’m with you on this one. I think that in life—and hence in literature (for me at least)—it’s a person’s, or a character’s, vulnerabilities and foibles that really make us care for them. It’s certainly what we notice and remember about people (or dogs). If you drew the Venn diagram of what we can all agree is “likable,” you’d end up with a pretty small set of traits, and not very interesting ones.
When writing, I want to portray life, to capture people’s complexities and idiosyncrasies and limitations in the ways that I experience them. As a writer, my obligation is to human truth—that’s the first consideration, and the last.
PJ: “Going to the Dogs” includes a tragic twist and some fairly bleak consequences, but you also find the humor and love in those situations. Humor is often said to promote healing, but what kind of role do you think tragedy has in humor writing? The line between the two is certainly thin in this piece. What do you think it is about unfortunate circumstances and their consequences that produces such ripe material for humor?
CM: For me as a reader, tragicomedy is, I think, the highest form. Life is absurd, hilarious and also very dark. Suffering can seem unendurable; but humor is one of humanity’s most powerful ways to face the darkness—you see it in Chekhov, or Beckett, or Thomas Bernhard, or Philip Roth. Or Kenneth Lonergan. Humor is about communion, communication. It’s about seeing things from a different point of view: it’s harder to laugh when you’re on your own. So communication enables humor, maybe even creates it. When you’re with someone else, funeral homes are funny. Slapstick is funny, but not unless it’s shared. And when you’re beyond tragicomedy, you’re in serious trouble.
PJ: While your Freeman’s essay is about your dogs, it does become almost philosophical at times: how Bear deals with his challenges, why we show love and mercy, controlling our destiny, etc. The piece seems to suggest a higher emphasis on what we make of what we’re given in life rather than trying to control our destiny. Which do you find more interesting, or empowering, from a character and narrative perspective, a person who fights to control their destiny or one who reacts based on things outside their control?
CM: That’s a good question. I don’t have a simple answer. Both stances are interesting to me, and seem to me equally narratively interesting. I reread Oedipus Rex the other day (my daughter’s in 10th grade and doing it at school): you’ll recall that poor Oedipus has the illusion of agency wrested from him—he thinks he’s been controlling his destiny but alas, it brutally controls him. It’s absolutely agonizing to read. In reality, each of us shifts back and forth between one understanding and the other in our own lives. Of course, in this country we like to believe that our individual destinies are in our control; but that faith, like characters being likable, is mere pretense, a blinkered illusion. As writers, we have to try to see the world as it is, not as we wish it were.
PJ: Despite their flaws and challenges, or maybe in part because of them, Myshkin and Bear do come across as loving animals. If you could take one quality of theirs and give it to more people in the world, what would it be?
CM: That’s tough. Forgiveness, I think. They’re endlessly forgiving. It goes along with generosity, tolerance and kindness. And optimism. Unclear whether extreme halitosis is a necessary concomitant trait—I hope not.
PJ: One final question. Every parent has likely had that moment, at least once, exhausted and frustrated with their wayward children, in which they threatened to ship them off to their grandparents or run away. Given Myshkin and Bear’s, shall we say, spirited personalities, I have to ask, what’s the closest you’ve come? What’s the worst thing Myshkin and Bear have ever done?
CM: Probably the closest we’ve come is to leave them in the kennel an extra day when we come back from a trip. My mother adored Myshkin, and when my parents were alive, before we had Bear, we’d occasionally send Myshkin to them for extended holidays—it was a win-win, literally like sending the kids off to the grandparents. As for the worst things they’ve done? There are so many! Probably high on the list was Myshkin having diarrhea on the dining room floor during a dinner party with guests we didn’t know well. The stench was atrocious, and lingering. A multi-sensory atrocity. We had to laugh.