Tuesday, October 16, 2012

When We Talk About Mental Disorders in Fiction

When I listen to music, I've found, I alternate between two kinds of favorite musicians. I love bands with multiple voices, who alternate the lead, who create music with tight harmonies- Barenaked Ladies, the Weepies, Slow Club. Or I love male singers who who are better writers than singers: Bruce Springsteen, James McMurtry, to a lesser extent Jackson Browne.

It's my preference, and it leaves me blind to the value of plenty of other performers. Most female soloists, especially pop singers who hit the high notes, do nothing for me. I'm sure it's often pretty, but if I can't sing along, I'm just not that interested in sitting through more than a song or two.

So when I read, I'm usually on the lookout for a few things. In one of the books I'm reading now, Adam Haslett's You Are Not a Stranger Here, I get many of the things I most enjoy- short stories, deftly drawn people, a variety of settings.

What I'm missing- what has me stalled about 30 pages from the end- is a variety of characters pressing against the boundaries of themselves. Haslett's characters are all pressed against the same boundary; they are a slew of people in the midst of mental health crises, and we either learn that nothing can be done to help this person, or we learn that the one in crisis is really the sane one.

Here's the thing about mental disorders- I don't understand them. Sure, I joke about my quirks- ADD with workaholic OCD, but I know (or I think I know) that I am painfully normal. The challenge of great art is to take us to a place that we can hardly imagine and make it understandable- Lolita, Lord of the Flies, As I Lay Dying. And as much as Haslett captures the tone of mania and the tone of depression (I recognize those people, those voices), he does not bring me to a point of understanding, beyond the certainty that something is wrong. Maybe that's the point and I'm missing it, but I remain uncompelled by all be the best stories of unstoppable forces and immovable objects.

It's interesting how much how I read influences my enjoyment. I started Stranger months ago, reading a few pages in bed each night. Then, because I was finally hooked enough to not be able to put it down, the lack of variety sapped my enthusiasm. I kept waiting for another change of pace, like the story "Divination," a blend of magical realism and parental shame that felt like an homage to the JD Salinger story "Teddy."

Book 37 of my book-a-week challenge.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Formulas of Fiction

I think about formulas a lot.

I don't think we live in an era of more formulas than the past. When I talked to my grandmother, when she was still alive, she would talk about going to see movies with her friends, and the terribleness of them. She didn't think of them as terrible, though. She knew: this one is a pirate movie, this one is a love story, this one is a western.

In the formula is comfort, routine, a series of rules that order the universe and define our place in it.

Most of television works within formulas: sit-coms, reality shows, contests, game shows, even the nightly news. If you watch regularly enough you can say: Oh, this is my favorite segment.

Games work the same way. Chess is a game of pattern recognition. Even games of luck, Samurai Swords or Settlers of Catan, depend on pattern recognition, weighing the odds, choosing when to play defensively or when to try your chances.

Books, I think, depend on this most of all. The genres, of course, sci fi and mysteries and romances all use a short hand in their settings and characters to define their places and people. Even when an elf is not a Tolkien elf, the author either defines the difference clearly or doesn't call the creature an elf, because he has to let us know he's changed the formula.

I love things that break patterns. A brilliant move in chess, a great episode of Doctor Who or How I Met Your Mother, the twist of a good book. But I love to fall into my routine as well, playing a stupid game for hours as a way to keep busy without engaging. It satisfies some very basic need. I'd call it relaxing, if not quite fun.