Ever since I was small I was fascinated by the big role little things played in people’s lives. Being an argumentative sort I always pitted imaginary battles in my heads: food vs. career; football vs. relationships; mementos vs. ambitions.
Of course now that I’m older and presumably wiser I know it’s not a case of versus but a matter of interactions.
A lot of novels I’ve read, especially more contemporary ones, I’ve found tedious because they go too far on either extremes of the spectrum: they are either too bogged down by metaphysical abstractions or they focus too much on minutiae. As an example: WG Sebald, although a terrifically gifted writer, is too meandering, too deep, dare I say. On the other side of the coin: War and Peace is far too detailed than any novel needs to be (although, somehow, it’s still readable, but only Tolstoy could pull that off).
Writers who find the right kind of balance have a gift; to be observant, pensive and life-hungry at the same time. Think Hemingway, who can go from writing this about daiquiris:
“This frozen daiquiri, so well beaten as it is, looks like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots.”
“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.”
Or, this time from another continent, how Yasunari Kawabata, the Japanese Nobel laureate, could go from waxing lyrical about the game of Go:
“From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system. One conducted the battle only to win, and there was no margin for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of Go as an art. The modern way was to insist upon doing battle under conditions of abstract justice…”
To being so comfortably natural with metaphysics:
“Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”
To further prove my point, and I do this not without an air of disillusionment, I’m trying an experiment. I’m writing this on the 11th November 2017 and I am going to browse through Amazon’s list of fiction bestsellers, take a random sample, and read their synopsis. Here’s some examples of what I found:
The Good Samaritan by John Marrs: She’s a friendly voice on the phone. But can you trust her?
The people who call End of the Line need hope. They need reassurance that life is worth living. But some are unlucky enough to get through to Laura. Laura doesn’t want them to hope. She wants them to die.
Laura hasn’t had it easy: she’s survived sickness and a difficult marriage only to find herself heading for forty, unsettled and angry. She doesn’t love talking to people worse off than she is. She craves it.
The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld: Three years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. She would be eight-years-old now—if she has survived. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as “the Child Finder,” Naomi is their last hope.
The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane by Colin Falconer: When fiery and idealistic Kitty O’Kane escapes the crushing poverty of Dublin’s tenements, she’s determined that no one should ever suffer like she did. As she sets out to save the world, she finds herself at the forefront of events that shaped the early twentieth century. While working as a maid, she survives the sinking of the Titanic. As a suffragette in New York’s Greenwich Village, she’s jailed for breaking storefront windows. And traveling war-torn Europe as a journalist, she’s at the Winter Palace when it’s stormed by the Bolsheviks. Ultimately she returns to her homeland to serve as a nurse in the Irish Civil War.
You get the gist of where I’m going with this by now, I gather. Let’s take this experiment to more high-brow territory. Looking at the list of Booker Prize Winners of the last three years, here they are, with their synopses taken from Amazon.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body…
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality: the black Chinese restaurant…
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: On 3 December 1976, just weeks before the general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert to ease political tensions, seven gunmen from West Kingston stormed his house with machine guns blazing. Marley survived and went on to perform at the free concert, but the next day he left the country, and didn’t return for two years. Not a lot was recorded about the fate of the seven gunmen, but much has been said, whispered and sung about in the streets of West Kingston, with information surfacing at odd times, only to sink into rumour and misinformation.
Now, I have read A Brief History of Seven Killings, mostly because it is set in Jamaica, deals with Bob Marley and is written in a mixture of slang-cum-poetry that Saul Bellow mastered in Chicago. It is a grueling, gruesome, great novel. And I’m sure the others are too. They have to be to win the Booker Prize, right? But why haven’t I read them Lincoln and the Bardo and The Sellout: they feel too politicised, too serious (yes, even though The Sellout is a comic novel), too CNN.
And that is the best way I can put it. CNN is, like most other news agencies, a sensationalist, sensitive, thug-on-your-heartstrings kind of network. It uses current affairs to make your heart bleed, weep and feel hope despite the tragedies. And I find this too up-in-the-clouds.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to have been a black man in segregated America. Nor what it’s like to be Abraham Lincoln’s son or indeed his ghost. And it is a testament to literature to be able to transport me to such un-thought of places. But as a human being I have passions and interests that are not automatically transcendent. I love food, I love poetry, science, and yes, hell, in the same breath I love football, poker, drinks, etc. And god-damn it I want to read about these things!
There seems to be a stigma on a serious writer writing about less serious things. Could a novel about football, for example, ever win the Booker Prize? Let’s imagine a hypothetical novel called War and Football. Imagine Green Street mixed with Tolstoy. There is a very human, touching, empathetic story about, let’s say, a disabled child wanting to be a footballer, being held back, and falling into hooliganism instead. I want to empathise with him, of course I do, but at the same time, I’m enjoying reading (as a football aficionado) about the history of clubs, tactics, legendary players, coaches, firms and techniques. Is it too much to ask to want to have my cake and eat it too?
Now of course, I don’t want to read fifty pages about the history of a single club. A balance has to be found. But I would be really turned on by some poetic riffs on football. Like this absolute, spine-tingling gem from Eduardo Galeano, football’s own man of letters:
“And one fine day the goddess of the wind kisses the foot of man, that mistreated, scorned foot, and from that kiss the soccer idol is born. He is born in a straw crib in a tin-roofed shack and he enters the world clinging to a ball.”
And, as far as I could find, not even Eduardo Galeano has written a full-on work of fiction about football. Why the stigma? (I can’t not insert, in defense of football, a quote by the great Albert Camus: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.”)
You can replace football with any pastime, passion, art, science or whatever you like. Speaking of science, let’s take the monumentally important field of paleoanthropology, the study of human ancestors and their lifestyles. A field which, perhaps more than any other, has shed a numinous light on human nature and origins. Why isn’t there the great paleoanthropological novel? The list of such novels is sparse and unimpressive. William Golding’s The Inheritors is the best of the minimal bunch. But you’d think, given the amazing, existential discoveries made by the likes of Richard Leakey, they would be more Booker-prize winning and Nobel-prize winning novels about paleoanthropology. Instead, CNN novels like The Narrow Road to the Deep North and writers like Kazuo Ishiguro continue to win the major prizes.
Naturally, I do admire Ishiguro and Richard Flanagan, especially Ishiguro who has stuck to his guns so admirably over the years it’s become laudable. But, frankly, I’m getting bored of predictable synopses and plotlines.
The novels I admire most indulge in what I call an Epicurean Realism. They don’t write about the simple ambitions of life as mere props. They realise that human life orbits around its small moons and dwarf planets. When the Chilean miners who spent 69 days trapped underground were about to be saved, they communicated what they wanted their relatives to prepare for when they were freed:
Pablo Rojas Villacorta: “He wants spaghetti with sauce, but the way my mother makes it…”
Ariel Ticona: A “fish fry up” with his friends from the social club where he plays football.
Franklin Lobos: A kickaround with friends from his local Club Commercio. “He is more interested in the beer and barbeque that will come afterwards I’m sure.”
These small, little things, become amplified and life-defining when we are deprived of them. Tragic experiences, the likes of which the Chilean miners went through, teach us of the importance of simple pleasures. And why shouldn’t novels glorify them? Why shy away from them? They are part of what makes us human.