I know this hardly makes us unique as married couples go, but my wife Tessa and I rarely agree on what movies to rent from Netflix. Not, as you’re probably thinking, because I like testosterone-driven action flicks and she prefers romantic comedies, but because T has this thing for films that depress the living shit out of me. She’s very much the realist, my wife, so movies that dare to gloss over man’s inhumanity to man strike her as a missed opportunity to be reminded of same. Why settle for the fleeting warmth of a ridiculous fiction like THE EXPENDABLES when you can have your heart ripped out of your chest for days at a time by the gripping authenticity of HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG?
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a well-told story dealing with the darker aspects of this thing we call “life” from time to time. I do. How could any fan of crime fiction do otherwise? But books and films that seem to exist for the sole purpose of basking in the cold, black light of human suffering are a mystery to me, like people who drive nails through their eyebrows for reasons strictly cosmetic. Sure, there’s no law against it, but what exactly is the point?
Some would ask that very same question about noir, I know. Noir is, after all, a genre dedicated to the proposition that losers and criminal types inevitably meet the sad end they so thoroughly deserve. Nobody in their right mind ever picks up a noir novel expecting to feel better about the human condition after having read it (which is why I so rarely dabble in the genre, as I’ve posted previously). And yet, for all its disdain for happy endings, noir is rarely, if ever, sad, because nothing bad ever happens to a noir character that he or she did not have coming. They make their bed and they wind up laying in it, and that’s not heartbreaking, it’s poetic justice.
No, the kind of downer fiction I object to is the kind that features decent people like you and me being dragged through a gauntlet of pain and humiliation just so things in the end can get . . . worse. The end is often just the implied beginnings of more of the same for whatever surviving characters are left behind to pick up the pieces. Because that is the author’s personal world-view, after all, and the only message (such as it is) he or she cares to convey: that life is just a continuum of random, predominantly unpleasant experiences completely out of our control. We suffer through it and then we die. Happiness is an illusion, no more real or long-lasting than a mirage.
Give me a break.
Yes, as a crime writer, I occasionally write about terrible things happening to good people. Innocent blood is spilled, hearts are broken. But these things are never the sole point of the exercise. They are simply the necessary accoutrements to the kind of gritty and suspenseful stories I like to tell. I neither downplay these elements nor glamorize them; I treat them with the respect and level of attention realism demands, and no more.
Some might say my inclinations toward redemption and hope make me soft, and my fiction less than fully hardboiled. But I would disagree. I don’t believe realism and optimism are mutually exclusive. I think it’s possible to end a hard-edged crime novel with at least a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel for one’s characters to see without lapsing into fairy tale, and that doing so is more of a challenge than simply writing everyone off the cliff you’ve propelled them toward from Page One.
In a recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Jacob M. Appel, a literary author who teaches writers workshops in New York City, wound up an article profiling Kevin Brockmeier—who apparently writes beautifully constructed, “heartrending” (of course) stories about people dealing with great adversity—with a few lines about the ways Brockmeier has influenced his own writing and creative ambitions:
“What I will be doing is attempting to conjure up metaphors of my own in a way to capture with precision the poignancy of human suffering.”
Say what? This is the goal to which you will dedicate your life’s work? To “capture with precision the poignancy of human suffering”?
Well, okay. Different strokes, and all that. But I don’t get it. Of all things to set one’s literary sights on, why choose human suffering? Why would anybody consciously decide to make the examination of pain and heartbreak the very focal point of their work?
It beats the hell out of me.
I’m sure I’m oversimplifying both Mr. Brockmeier’s talents and Mr. Appel’s professional ambitions. The former is an O. Henry prize-winner several times over and, based upon his Writer’s Chronicle article alone, the latter seems more than capable of writing “poignantly” about a great many subjects. Still, if “human suffering” is in fact as highly prioritized in their work as Mr. Appel would appear to suggest, I can’t help but wonder why.
And hope to God no work of either gentleman is ever adapted to a film my wife Tessa can come across on Netflix.