At dinner last night with a group of our neighbors, the story and joke telling began. We’d already discussed the unsettling state of the country in a time of hatred and intolerance. We’d shaken our heads and sat in silence in recognition of the tremendous feeling of powerlessness that so often steals over us these days. The sole objective now was to make one another laugh, and, lordy, it felt good to laugh during a frightening and unsettling time. We’d just ended a week of pipe bombs addressed to prominent liberal Democrats, and the day had brought the horrific news of a domestic terrorist act in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Sometimes, to quote Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us.” Sometimes, as on this night with these dear neighbors and friends, we close it out; we take a break, and we laugh.
Although comedy has a place in fiction, writers can never close themselves to the world. We have to face it in order to give its chaos a shape and thereby tame it and diminish its power over us, at least for a while. Consider Frank O’Connor’s story, “Guests of the Nation,” a story set during the Irish battle for independence in 1922. O’Connor’s portrait of the Irish soldiers who have become friends with two English prisoners only to be ordered to execute them reminds us of how an intolerance for difference, whatever its source, threatens our common humanity, and leaves us, as the narrator says at the end of the story, feeling “very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow.” Fiction exists to tell the truth and to remind us of the possibilities that exist outside the reach of all that threatens us.
Or consider a more recent story, T.C. Boyle’s “Are We Not Men?,” which examines the dangers of CRISPR technology that may someday allow us to dictate the genetic makeup of our offspring. In the story, the narrator has impregnated his neighbor, “the old-fashioned way,” while his unknowing wife has taken him to GenLab where they choose to have a daughter with emerald eyes and musical ability, “and a subtly cleft chin and breasts that were not too big, but not as small as Connie’s (his wife’s) either.” Toward the end of the story, the narrator sees his neighbor, Allison, out in her yard: “I’m down off the porch now, and I can’t help but smile at the sight of her. She comes up to me, moving with a kind of clumsy grace, if that makes any sense, and I want to take her in my arms but can’t really do that, not under these conditions, so I take both her hands and peck a neighborly kiss to her cheek. For minute, neither of us says anything. . . .” In that moment of pause—before Allison acknowledges the dogcat playing with the genetically altered pit bull in the yard by saying, “Pretty cute, huh?”—the world returns to a more nostalgic time when a man can take in the beauty of a pregnant woman moving with “a kind of clumsy grace” and be delighted by it. Again, we’re reminded of what we may sacrifice for the sake of the advancement of medical science—the imperfection, that clumsy grace, that carries with it its own splendor.
In this way, fiction is necessary. A good story can save us by making us look at what threatens us, whether on a large scale or a small one, while also reminding us of everything we have to lose. As Joan Didion says in The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”