Thursday, September 8, 2016

Living in a Fictional World: Themes of the Past Year in my Reading

One of the realizations that I've come to recently is that I spend almost as much time in the fictional world as I spend in the real world. That's kinda scary, isn't it? Between reading regular ol' books, my Kindle, and audiobooks I spend a good 2-3 hours of my waking hours each day reading and thinking (I think I spend the rest of my time cooking, eating, and thinking about food). OK, that's when I'm not working at one thing or another. This might be a little bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but there is some small bit of truth in it. 

And I've come to wonder if I am trying to escape the present larger reality of our world (with a capital R), or the reality of my soon-to-be-totally-empty-nest life, or if somehow the fictional world is just a lot easier to understand. I don't know.

Of the books I've read in the last year or so, I think I could probably characterize them into several broad groups: Straight Fiction; Humorous or Humorously-toned Fiction; Satire; Dystopia; and Non-Fiction.

Those straight fictional worlds exist in the world as I know it and are not meant to be a wink-wink comment on the absurdity of life. These books range from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (which I finally got to read during our trip to Israel in February—that was a strange juxtaposition) to Sue Miller's The Lake Shore Limited, Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone, and recent stunners like The Nix (Nathan Hill) and Swing Time (Zadie Smith).

(The example of Swing Time reminds me of a tangential theme in my reading in the last year—that of the difficulties of race and class and our understanding of those topics. I read a lot of books this year that explored those dimensions in the fictional universe—Whitehead, Saunders, McBride, Beatty, and Hamid among others)

Those books I thought of as Humorously-Toned featured a narrative voice that often stood off to the side, winking at the reader, sending us a message that s/he was dealing with real world issues but with an ironic distance that, as a reader, beckoned me to join in with them.  Some of the books in this vein that I read this year included: Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen.

But when "this old world" kept getting me down, I retreated to the rooftop to read my satire. It was definitely here that I felt the most...unburdened. Satire was my sweet spot. There was the utter levity and ridiculousness of David Duchovny's Holy Cow; David Grossman's ironically- and other-worldly-set A Horse Walks into a Bar; Paul Beatty's masterfully-funny The Sellout; and the absolute tours-de-force of Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo). What these books all had in common was that they existed in alternate universes, realities similar to but different from the world as we commonly know it. Whether told from the perspective of cows (!), ego-obsessed, twisted, damaged, and dying Israelis (Grossman), Lincoln and many other contemporaneous ghosts (Saunders), escaped slaves in alternate realities along stops on a very real underground railroad (Whitehead), or a world where the lines of the map are literally redrawn (Beatty), all of these authors approached their characters and the situations they were describing with biting wit and a mirror so strange but so true. This was definitely where I lived this year—in the satiric world. Feel free to analyze at will.

Similarly, I roamed freely among several dystopian worlds this year, including Sinclair Lewis's alternate reality of a demagogue-in-chief (I read both the book and the play, perhaps with an eye to produce the latter someday) in It Can't Happen Here—perhaps a phrase many of us spoke more than a few times in the last eight months or so, and Philip K. Dick's dated but scary The Man in the High Castle.

In many ways, my non-fiction reading reflected what I was reading in fiction, too, leaving me with much head-shaking and many a sad smile. Maureen Dowd's collection of essays The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics was a mirror back on the past year in politics in the US; Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock was an incredible look at a Trump-like film-flam artist, a real-life success story who made millions off of monkey testicles (honest). I read William Safire's Scandalmonger to learn more about the scandal highlighted in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton and came away with an appreciation of the complexity of the political world and the downright mean and nasty side of manipulation and truth-distorting that comes about when warring interests do battle in the public arena.

Is reading an escape? For me it is. But it is also a microscope, or maybe a pair of reading glasses. There's so much fuzziness out there, so much I don't understand. I use books and my forays into the fictional world as a way of sharpening what I see and what I am thinking about. Yes, to some extent, that means I am reading to only confirm my opinions. Perhaps I need to broaden what I read, learn to challenge those opinions and worldviews. But then again, everyday life does that, with every ridiculous tweet and attempt at manipulating reality. Truth is under attack. What better way to combat that than to retreat into fiction?

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