One self-deficiency of my childhood is that I didn’t believe in the margins of the imagination. I was never, at any point, a Star Wars fan. I was never, at any point, into watching cartoons, on weekend mornings or otherwise. I was never, at any point, a consumer of creations that totally trumped my reality.
I was, at one point, into a couple of little-kid things like Power Rangers and Batman, but only until I grew to an age where I thought too clearly about these things (which didn’t take long). As I grew older, my focus became even more centralized on the tangible and the “real.” I had to really see a movie. I had to really believe a book. If the premise was just too implausible – or if there weren’t visible qualities that related to what I thought was Real Life — my interest could be qualified as “extraordinarily elusive.”
Eventually, when others gravitated toward Harry Potter books and films about robots and animated characters, I read books about Marine snipers. Because, you see, Marine snipers were real. Fairy tales weren’t, animated characters weren’t, wizards weren’t … why do I want to read/watch/consume things that don’t even have a remote possibility of occurring in real life? That was my attitude. That was the attitude I harbored when engaging in thought or discussion about works of fiction.
It’s not even that I didn’t like those things. When a friend said, “Hey, I saw [insert some fantasy movie] this weekend,” I simply responded, “Cool, man.” It wasn’t a snarky or mocking “Cool, man,” either. It was sincere. Cool, man. Just not for me. It was genuine and kind indifference.
I don’t really know why I was this way. My father could sort of be described in this manner, but not really. Between works of history and Greek cookbooks, he’d mix in some fiction, too. My sister isn’t this way – she devours content of multiple forms that’s targeted for the hyper-emotional and naïve years of teenage females (she’ll be 25 soon).
And my mother, well, she is the exact opposite of this way. She loves books, adores them, and even fake-ran away as a child and wheeled a suitcase full of books to the park at the local library and spent hours perched in a tree in her own blissful silence. She used to bring books to baseball games and mix in a few pitches with her chapters (we’ve worked on her – now she’ll read between innings). She could stop reading today – like, this minute — and in my lifetime I wouldn’t equal the volume of words she has consumed on pages.
Her mother was a literary connoisseur and would register library cards for my sister and I during our young summers so we could read at any time. I assume that’s where my mom got the reading bug. I got it too, but just for a very limited selection of things. Even as I insisted on reading nonfiction or watching movies that represented what was actually possible (even if farfetched) in life, I didn’t lack the ability to imagine or to dream. I did those things, too, primarily through sports. I read and watched lots and lots of sports as a kid. I guess that’s a natural thing for a boy to do, and we all find our vehicles for creative thinking.
Those habits stuck with me for quite a while and, in many ways, are still with me. I still read and watch lots and lots of sports. That will always be so. I suspect I will always prefer a movie about drug lords or FBI agents or funny things. When I go searching for a book, I’ll begin in the sports section, peruse the biography/memoir aisles, perhaps stumble into the historical nonfiction part of the story. On my way to the cash register, that’s when I’ll give fiction its due (and I highly doubt three minutes at the storefront tables promoting new releases and on-sale items and young authors and holiday selections actually qualifies as giving a genre “its due,” but whatever).
But I’ve changed a little bit. It’s true. Yes, it took me so many years and discussions about reading and writing and so many late-night hours spent alone thinking about these things to happen, but eventually it did. I don’t need to list ways of how the power of fiction transcends all forms of quality writing – most people have been at this party for a long, long time – but when I came around about fiction as a book genre specifically and a storytelling medium in general, it wasn’t a light-bulb moment or anything like that. It felt like I had always known the value of fiction and just never engaged it.
Suddenly, I saw how fiction delivered me to the depths of a character and a story in ways I had only hoped some nonfiction pieces would have taken me. I saw how fiction is an invaluable resource for learning to read emotions and advancing a narrative with them. There have been other things. So, so many other things that I have been missing.
So now what I would like to do is catch up, or at least try to gain some ground. We’ll use this “Lessons in Fiction” feature as a space to do that, to read and discuss and share. I’ll try to be diligent with it. It’s for my own benefit and enrichment, but if there are others who wish to wade into the unknowns of a genre without any previous idea of where to begin, and want to join the discussion – well, cool, man.
I’d feel like I’m cheating if I said all this and then didn’t actually read any fiction, so let’s end with a few thoughts about a magazine story.
“An Abduction” by Tessa Hadley, The New Yorker (July 9/16, 2012)
In this story, we are introduced to a 15-year-old English girl named Jane Allsop and told that she was abducted in the 1960s and nobody noticed. Her brother was too busy keeping to himself in his room, smoking and studying to get into Oxford. Her mother was too busy tending to her flowers and garden and other things. Her father was too busy being, well, not around or aware.
By the title and the lead, we are lead to believe that – forced to assume, almost – that this “abduction” must be sinister and criminal. Of course, right? What abduction of a teenager would be devoid of those two descriptions? But Jane’s “abduction” turned out to be a byproduct of her own curiousness, rebellious nature and naïveté. Three college boys pull up to the side of the road and simply ask Jane if she would like to go for a ride in their green convertible. Jane puts down her Jokari toy and gets in. No struggle, no threats, she just hops in.
In the car, as the boys examine their new catch, I get this odd sense that Jane is totally in control. I get the sense that the boys also know she’s in control. She doesn’t say much, but she seems relaxed, acutely self-aware of the decision she just made. They end up at one of the boys’ homes, and they hang by the pool and swim. There’s an obvious sexual tension between Jane and a boy named Daniel, and that tension later leads to the deed. Whether Jane is numb or oblivious or drunk or simply choosing to live something of a youthful renegade existence – it’s hard to know. It feels like she is making the decisions here, not her kidnappers. I didn’t know what any of this meant, but it just felt … off. It felt unrealistic.
And that’s when the story accelerates into its core. All in one short period of time, Jane phones home to tell her mother she’ll be staying at a “friend’s” house that evening, she goes to bed with Daniel, wakes up to find Daniel naked in another bed in the house – with Fiona, the 18-year-old sister of one of the other boys – and this unsustainable house of cards, built by misguided desires and lust and probably some resentment and anger, comes crashing down on her. Jane is crushed and betrayed, and she immediately arranges for a ride home (where she, of course, lies about her evening).
The story ends by fast-forwarding about 40 years. Jane never sees those boys she rode off with again. Daniel, her momentary lover, is now a lawyer and married to his second wife in Zurich and seems successful in nearly every way. He’s a good husband, a good father, has grown from his experiences and can hardly separate the deviant days of his youth. His night with Jane is beyond a long-lost memory, no different than another night in another place with another girl. His life is so much different now, so complete.
And then there’s Jane. She’s divorced and her friends urged her to seek counseling. She has never forgotten that time with Daniel, the time when she traded in her youth and innocence and free spirit. She has never gotten over it, never escaped the weight of a teenage decision. Jane confessed that she had always felt as if she were on the wrong side of a barrier, cutting her off from the real life she was meant to be living.
You feel for Jane’s character, because the “abduction” is thrust into its natural light, and we see that it’s far more an emotional and spiritual abduction than a physical one. All these years, Jane has carried this burden, a dark memory that has made her feel like something less. You could say that is has “ruined” her, and maybe it has, but we don’t really know. Too much life has happened in the four decades that go uncovered. I don’t hesitate to call her a victim, but I do hesitate to define the terms.
We can say that Daniel took her an important piece of Jane’s core – her virginity, her fearlessness, her self-confidence. Or we could say that Jane simply handed him those things.
Did Jane abduct herself?
Note: After finishing this post, I read this Q&A with the author and realized that I saw about 50 percent of the story the way she envisioned it, and then I totally went my own direction the rest of the time. I was left with a more solemn feeling than I think the author intended — but I guess that’s all part of this experience.