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.

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