A Reader’s Treasury of Misfortune

Recently I have noticed that my capacity for violence and ugliness in “entertainment” has diminished sharply. A girl who barely flinched when she saw Braveheart in the theater now cannot stay in the room during Pan’s Labyrinth and can barely make it through many of the movie trailers shown during prime time. A distaste for blood and gore isn’t all that surprising, I suppose, but it seems strange when a student of literature finds the typical tragedies of modern prose increasingly unbearable.

Last month I read a novel I wouldn’t usually pick up – Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys – and last night I read an article that I wouldn’t usually come across – “The Man Who Got Away (Thank Goodness!)” by Amy Dickinson. These two pieces have several things in common: both had been acquired in airports; the novel is an “Oprah book” and the article is in this month’s O magazine; both stories are about heartbreak and disintegrating families in upstate New York; and both left me wondering.

What is it about Oprah and airports? It seems that people like me who generally curse glossy magazines with their cover stories about “effortless” exercise plans can reconcile the “guilty” pleasure because the incitement to “Live Your Best Life” is a little less damning than the pointy hips and pouty lips splashed over Cosmo. But is there something about her brand of media that particularly appeals to people in transition? I mean that both in terms of time zones and personal growth. I’m a little hesitant to comment on the whole Oprah industry because I worry about the commodification of quick and easy life changes, but at the same time really respect the way that she has made the spirit a part of public discourse that seems truly inclusive (if consumer driven).

But really, it was not one woman’s empire that concerned me, but the tension I felt between these two narratives. I read most of Oates’s book in one day and in that process recalled why I haven’t read anything by her in years. The novel was like passing a one hundred mile highway pile-up at a snail’s pace except that the tragedies contained within those pages were not the fiery type from which you can distance yourself due to the unimaginable scale of it all. The series of misfortunes in this book were cramped and familial and ridiculous, but compelling and almost believable because human nature can be so tender and fragile and bizarre. Basically it is about the perfect family that falls apart in the aftermath of the only daughter’s rape: the father disowns her, the parents’ marriage dissolves, the brothers plan the perpetrator’s murder.

Dickinson’s article describes her father who walked out on her family and their farm. As the title indicates, she believes it was all for the best and that the rest of the family excelled in his absence; she sees her father’s life as a pitiful cautionary tale. It all seemed a little too pat and moral, but then it cannot be easy to give a complete portrait of one’s father in a few thousand magazine words. What struck me was that even without the salacious elements that are the signature of an Oates novel, there is more than enough drama in this world and there are more than enough readers who want to hear all about it.

I write about all this because I still cannot decide what I think about the validity of the comparison I am attempting to draw. In some ways, Dickinson’s article almost excused Oates’s book for me; it was fictional license that made the pain drag through 400+ pages and hang upon rape and murder, but there might have been a flash of real life at the core that gives the book validity. I am also left to wonder whether The Mulvaneys was really lacking something or whether, as the reader, I was either suffering from compassion fatigue or just a refusal to accept that much misfortune.

Is my withdrawal from what constitutes popular culture with its celebratory brutality and its focus on dissolution a sign of my increasing sensitivity, or a refusal to engage with reality, or the sign of a charmed existence that grants me distance from what I consider unsavory? Where is that line between glorifying suffering and elucidating it so that it can be met with compassion beyond the screen or the page? Is it really as pervasive as I seem to think right now and how on earth do we benefit and grow from this public cult of pain?

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5 thoughts on “A Reader’s Treasury of Misfortune

  1. Ruaidhrí November 20, 2007 / 5:11 am

    “Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed.” – The Buddha

  2. Ruaidhrí November 20, 2007 / 5:17 am

    There was another quote which I wanted to post but I can’t find it, or remember where I heard it. The gist of it was that the denial of suffering is in and of itself a major source of suffering. Mindfully accepting the existence of suffering is the first step in removing it through compassion and loving-kindness. I’m guessing I read this from a buddhist source but can’t remember it right now.

  3. AR November 21, 2007 / 1:52 pm

    I think there’s an unspoken instinct in each of us about how to read a story. There’s a reason trraditional story-telling works the way it does, with beginning, problem, overcoming, climax, denouement…each story is telling in small the story of the world. That’s why the greats took literary license to speak of things that would probably never happen exactly that way in an actual lifetime.

    So I think when we read a story that is merely a recital of pain, something in our brain is being told that this is what the world is about – the meaning of the world is pain. Great stories have suffering in them but they show that the end of the story is significance, meaning, and triumph of good. Not everyone’s individual story ends up that way, but the story of the world does.

    Of course there are also tragedies… but even those are illustrations of why bad things happen. They still speak of the significance of suffering. I think modern writers are subverting an older form and trying to put it to the use of their assumptions about the meaninglessness of life. But the point of a story IS meaning, so there’s conflict there.

  4. girlwhocriedepiphany December 1, 2007 / 9:48 am

    Thank you for elucidating the tension between the tradition of story telling that depends on those basic elements of narrative (in all their pain) and the new move toward a recital of pain. You really helped me understand what I was trying to say and the way that there is something in the new stories that sinks under an excess of pathos.
    What you say about the triumph of good as the story of the world is really brilliant – that is a wonderful way to cling to hope in what so often seems a hopeless world.
    Again, my thanks.

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