The Wall Street Journal has an interview with Jonathan Franzen, who has chosen Kenzaburo Oe’s “A Personal Matter,” a novel published in 1964, for the WSJ Book Club. I particularly enjoyed Franzen’s commentary on the disturbing aspects of the novel, which deals with a new father’s reactions to his son’s severe birth defect. I haven’t yet read the book myself, but the review mentions some of the character’s thoughts and behavior, which might charitably, or euphemistically, be described as “unattractive.”
Here’s what Franzen said:
“Maybe you’ve led a charmed life, and have never been tempted to run from any disagreeable reality you’ve ever encountered. But I think it’s hard to get through life without encountering a really disagreeable reality. You know, the first thought is not always the best thought. The first thought is, ‘How can I get out of this?’ It’s hard for me to characterize that human response as despicable.”
Franzen went on to say
“It’s a funny thing—people go to these Academy award-winning films that feature the most extreme graphic violence. But a book that has someone throwing up and, you know, cheating on his wife? It doesn’t compute that this would be so disturbing, and it tells me that Oe is onto something correct. People don’t want to deal with reality. If that’s not what you look for in a reading experience, I don’t have any advice. You know, whatever. Go find a gentle historical novel to read.”
Having hemmed and hawed a bit on occasions when I’ve been challenged about why on earth I’d want to read a book about awful people doing awful things, I found Franzen’s articulation helpful to clarifying my own feelings. It’s not that we like or approve of the awful behavior, but thinking and behaving imperfectly are part of being human, and reading fiction about imperfect people behaving imperfectly helps us to understand and accept our own imperfect selves.
I wonder how many readers really enjoy a diet of literary sugar–reading nothing but happy stories about nice people who always do the right thing and have good things happen to them. Boring, isn’t it? Just as in real-life legal matters, interesting fictional characters have emotions and passions, exercise poor judgment, often do the wrong thing, have bad luck, misinterpret situations and the motives and behavior of others, and end up with less than optimal outcomes. That’s life, and that’s what makes good fiction interesting.