Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Nihilism and Dystopia

Okay, I guess it was my fault. I chose the book. I fell for the blurb on the back cover and the 80 odd 5* reviews on amazon. And I tried to read it. By the time the book club meeting came around I had ploughed through 450 pages of "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry. The sort of book reading where you have to promise yourself a treat if you make it through another chapter. (In this case said treat was a few more chapters of Haruki Murakami.)

And everyone at the book club loved it. And had finished it.

I'll leave aside the fact that this book has, in effect, no plot - indeed the first half is nothing really more than backstory - and often reads like an Indian party political broadcast, and just focus on what really irked me. And here I'll make another confession. I've no intention of finishing this novel, which is a rare thing for me - I usually feel it's a point of honour to get to the closing pages, even if I'm truly suffering in the process. But in this case I checked out those amazon reviews a little more thoroughly, and found out that the remaining 200 odd pages basically involve one sadistic turn of event after another, until all the characters are all but annihilated. 'Utterly without hope', seems to be the consensus of this work of apparent genuis.

Now, with a tendency towards depression and an overdeveloped capacity for worry, I tend to avoid 'utterly without hope'. And I also happen to believe that it has no place in literature. I loathed Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" for this very reason. I'd throw in Michel Houellebecq's "Atomised" onto that heap, and possibly toss on J G Ballard's "Cocaine Nights" for good measure. Then set light to the lot. Farenheit 451, anyone?

I'm not saying all novels should be uplifting, not at all. But there should be some purpose in all that negativity. Take George Orwell's "1984", which I read at the tender age of 12. Negative, yes. Depressing, perhaps. Nihilistic, no. "1984" was a warning, an intelligent exploration of totalitarianism. There was sense and meaning in the protagonist's suffering. Ditto Kafka or Dostoevsky - they're not exactly giving us a sunny view of the world in their novels, but they are nevertheless truly satisfying reads.

But what point is Rohinton trying to make in so torturing then abandoning his central characters? What message are we supposed to take from McCarthy's relentlessly awful portrayal of the end of the world? It's like watching a slasher movie where everyone winds up dead. You're left wondering what's the point of it all? And in my opinion, that feeling has no place in good literature.

Which forces me to evaluate what I do think is the 'point' of literature. Why are we drawn to fill our lives with stories? What purpose do they serve? And what makes a satisfying story, and transcends it into art? I've concluded that the answer is human nature. Good art, good stories, tell us something about ourselves, about our light and dark sides, about our potential and the pitfalls along the way. If you're at all interested in exploring this further, I can do no better than point you in the direction of Christopher Booker's absorbing opus magnus "The Seven Basic Plots". It sounds reductive. It isn't. It provides one of the most conclusive explanations I've come across as to why art and story is so important to us.

Stories need a beginning, middle and end. They need conflict, and they need resolution. They need a satisfying conclusion, although that doesn't necessarily mean a happy ending. And we need to learn something along the way, or see some part of our basic human psychology reflected in the 'hero's' journey, which is alway, fundamentally, a psychological journey. The protagonist either matures, and is saved - comedy - or fails to mature, and is lost to himself and the world that surrounds him - tragedy. But taking a character or set of characters and throwing impossible circumstances at them is not literature. You may as well just watch a cat torturing a mouse, then biting off its head.

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