EVERYONE LOVES A STORY, right? Homer sang of windy Troy to eager listeners, New York crowds awaited the ship from England that brought installments of Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop, people still line up for hours to catch the latest Bergman film. Novels and movies are repeatedly, if somewhat tiredly, described as compelling, gripping, sexy, heart-rending and tragic. The trouble is: they are.
When I was a boy I read constantly, sometimes as many as three books a day. I also loved to watch television movies -- I'd get so carried away that I'd fidget during the suspenseful scenes, shout a warning to Bogart when he was about to be bopped from behind, weep with the Grandfather as he desperately wailed "Heidi, Heidi," while she was off being sold to the gypsies. There could hardly have been a more responsive, enthralled reader and spectator than I was at 13. But gradually, since then, I've felt myself shying away from novels, hesitating before going to a serious film, resisting nearly all forms of storytelling.
Peculiarly, my hesitation extends solely to narrative works of art. There's no problem with nonfiction. I eagerly whip through biographies and collections of essays, marvel at the rococo sentences of William Gass, admire the similes of Wilfrid Sheed. But when a new novel comes out, The World According to Garp, say, or King of the Jews, others rush to enjoy these dazzling books, while I drag my feet, steeling myself for what I know will be a grand, moving and yet painful experience.
Painful. This reaction used to puzzle me, but I think I've finally figured it out. The explanation has to do with the nature of narrative in general and reader response in particular.
Among the transcendent experiences of my reading life have been novels like All the King's Men and Tender is the Night. Yet in the course of ascending these mountain peaks of American fiction I used to agonize before picking up my ragged paperback and continuing the story. uThe characters, their worlds, the cross-purposes of men and women seeking or destroying themselves, the heartbreaking lives of human beings -- for I saw the characters as human beings, not puppets -- would be too much. I simply could not look on coolly as Jack Burden ached over the unredeemed past and Anne Stanton gave herself to Willy Stark, as Dick Diver descended into alcoholism and Nicole turned nickel-hard.
The artist hopes -- in part -- to affect his reader, to create pity and terror, mystery and bewilderment, to make the reader submit to the charisma of a character who never existed except in words on a page, ultimately to take your heart and break it. Consequently, when the last page of a novel is turned, one feels drained, exalted and just a bit relieved. Profound emotion is upsetting, it overturns our lives, uses up our psychic energies and defenses, leaving us vulnerable, more tenderly sensitive to the shocks of life. Well, almost no one enjoys feeling as though he's just been battered around like a tether ball.
The rapport between a reader and his book is almost like that between lovers. The relationship grows, envelops a life, opens new prospects and ways of seeing oneself and the future, is filled with moments of joy and sorrow; when over, even its memory enriches as few exerpeicnes can. (It is perhaps no accident that the arc of the well-made movie, play or novel -- introduction, complication, tension, crisis, denouement -- tends to follow that of love-making.) But just as one cannot psychically afford to fall in love too many times, cannot suffer the gauntlet of emotions too often and still remain whole, so too the novel-reader cannot read too many or too often books of high purpose and harrowing dimension. One simply cannot respond continually to literature at the intensity it deserves and not in some sense burn oiut. As from a love affair, one needs time to recover from a good novel.
Fortunately, as someone said, it doesn't matter how many books you get through, but how many get through you. Naturally, I wonder if people who seem able to read a serious novel every few days are truly responding to it, whether their attitude isn't somewhat cool and distant, regarding the book with a connoisseur's eye more than feeling with the heart, turning pages as though they were eating bridge mix. Books, Thoreau said, should be read as deliberately as they are written.
Still, there is another way to look at a novel, one that circumvents much of this emotional tension -- and that's to read the book not as its reader, but as its author. This is the way critics read, and that most of us re-read books, avoiding the confusion and sap flow of the new, content to folow the action with tenderness and interest, all passion spent. Rather than surrender to the adventure or the story of the characters -- as a good first reader should -- one looks at how the book works, not responding to it as to a love affair, but taking it apart like a machine. Why does it start at this particular point? Why these relations? This detail? Everything must be accounted for: Checkhov once wrote that if a pistol is mentioned at the beginning of a story or a play, someone must fire that pistol by the end.
When you re-read a book you are able to examine it as the artist-craftsman examines his handiwork. Dostoevsky must have been thrilled after writing about the murder of Lisaveta by Raskolnikov: look, how well done it is, how all the parts come neatly together. Writers are jubilant when their villains are most villainous. They can delight in the rape of an innocent girl, smile when her father allows the rapist to stay for supper (notice all the ironic detail, they whisper), revel in his agony when he learns the truth. W. H. Auden said that we are put on this earth to make things, and the artist-maker takes pleasure in his contraptions. The effects must come off, but he himself is most interested in the means used to produce them. The emotions of the enthralled or horrified reader are not his. The artist is, as James Joyce reminded us, "like the God of the creation . . . within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, parring his fingernails."
Happily, for people like myself who find reading a dangerous emotional experience, much modern fiction can hardly be read, only re-read. Barth and Barthelme, and other cool, ironic fictioneers demand that the reader take the form and let the content go. Their verbal arabesques and pirouettes, their parodies of older tones, styles, genres, allow a calm apreciation of their artistry. No human story blemishes their filigree of style. Thus, almost as in Brecht's theater of alienation, one is not drawn into any action, but rather remains outside, judging the author's skill, evaluating the ideas. Similary, the popularity of "light" reading -- the classic mystery, above all -- in part derives from its highly stylized nature, one which glories in the rational.
Back in my schooldays, in a time when the "new criticism" still had a dewy freshness, only the text mattered -- "the poem itself," as a celebrated phrase had it. Since then revisionist Freudians have found new critical interest in the author. But what about the poor reader? What about me and my problem with novels? Well, it seems that the notions I've been mulling over -- the ways people react to what they read -- could be the next rage in criticism. Think of -- don't shudder -- the late Roland Barthes dissecting his own sensual, textual pleasures, of Brigid Brophy revealing the dark psychology of the novel-reader, of a whole school of German researchers that has recently begun a systematic analysis of audience response. The reader may finally be coming into his own.
In the meantime, though, I think it's time to curl up with a good book this Sunday afternoon. Perhaps, if I can bear it, even a novel.