I’ve spent the past couple of weeks joking with my friends that the Japanese are right, the number four actually is bad luck. If you’ve read my 2015 year in review, you already know that I really disliked the fourth book I read last year, and this year’s number four, Eating Mammals, while not quite as hateful, was still pretty bad. Part of this might have something to do with the fact that it’s literary fiction, which is really not my genre. I’ve actually been scouring my shelves recently in an attempt to keep my resolution to read more “grown-up” books this year. I know that’s not all of it, though.
The third book I read this year was Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, which nearly won the National Book Award, and I liked that one just fine. They’re fairly similar books, too; both have a focus on the oddball and mutated, both force you into the heads of disturbed and unreliable narrators, and both, barring the last novella in Eating Mammals, have a strong tragedy element.
Mammals, though, is very much what I think of when I think of lit fic, and is exactly the sort of thing that makes me turn away from the genre. Whereas, again, I really enjoyed Geek Love. So why the drastically different reactions to two books that have so many similarities? I think on some level comes down to how we view tragedy: what we think it means, how we think it should be written, and the place we ascribe to it in the literary hierarchy.
In most arts, we very much place a premium on tragedy, often setting it above the comic, or even just the happy, as more meaningful, more important, and more realistic. It’s fairly easy to understand why this is; it provides pathos and connection to the audience. Intense emotions are easier to access from the dramatic and the tragic side of things. And, after all, the world is often sad and horrible.
Though I’ve come to disagree in recent years that tragedy is the only way to write something important, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this. Tragedy definitely has its place, and what speaks to you as a reader is what speaks to you. What I do resent, in the admittedly small pool of literary fiction that I’ve read, are the works that make everything that happens in a story awful, for seemingly no reason. It always seems forced and try-hard to me, and I’ll even go so far as to say it’s generic. Just like I roll my eyes when the suspiciously well-dressed peasant turns out to secretly be royalty in a fantasy novel, I cringe a little when our jaded narrator turns out to have a druggie father in lit fic.
Eating Mammals has that same feel to me; bad things happen even when they don’t make much sense story-wise, because that’s just how the world works, right? Works that do this aren’t good tragedy, though. They’re actually a fundamental misunderstanding of the form.
It requires more room than I’m willing to take here to sketch the basic form of a classical tragedy. I would, though, like to go into one of its most well-known and most misunderstood elements: the hamartia, or tragic flaw. I think everyone who has ever taken tenth grade English has some idea of what this is. We’ll go with the classic example. Hamlet’s indecision leads to his waffling back and forth on the idea of vengeance, which leads to mistakes in carrying it out, which leads to the bloodbath at the end of the play. Hamlet’s tragic flaw is being indecisive. What most people seem to miss about the idea is also the most important part, though; the tragic flaw is not necessarily, in all cases, a flaw.
Most people would consider not murdering your uncle on the basis of a probable hallucination a good thing, and generally it would be. The key that makes a tragedy is in placing one specific person in the one specific situation where their personality leads them to make all the wrong moves, and their tragic flaw is the personality trait that leads them to those moves. Put a different person in the same situation, and everything goes well. Put that same person in a different situation, and again, things are fine.
When you get right down to it, on some level the key to making a tragedy work is hope. The audience has to be able to hope that our protagonist can overcome their natural instincts to make the right choice, and that when they do things will be different. Any engagement your audience has comes from this, and the emotional power that any story has hangs pretty heavily on audience engagement. So, when you have a story where awful things happen all the time, just as a matter of fact without any input from your characters, it loses its power.
That emotional power, where the situation flows so naturally from the characters that you know what’s coming even as you mentally beg them to make some other choice is at the heart of the problem for me. Put shortly, Geek Love had it and Eating Mammals didn’t.
I’ve already given the book away, so I can’t quote anything from Geek Love, and on some level doing so would be pointless. There’s a striking internal logic to the book that carries through the entire novel and is hard to capture in a single passage. Even without going beyond the main character, Olly, you can see it. You watch her life and upbringing, and see the morals she was raised with and the ones she comes to accept. You see her worries about not being unique enough for her family and her frustration with them, even as her devotion to them never wanes. You see her relationship with her brother, where honest love is mixed with fear and control and worship. And you see the key events in her life that made all these things true for her.
So when, at the end, Olly makes choices that bring the book to a tragic close, it’s a culmination of all of this development that’s come before. While you very much want her to choose differently, you still understand why she does what she does. Without a clean break from everything that came before, the novel could never have ended any differently.
Compare this to a passage from Eating Mammals
“Alice shakes like an epileptic. But Tom in his confusion finds it impossible to blame the cat, for he sees no connection, no culpability. Unlike Alice, who will never recover from that horrendous sight, the horrible vision of wickedness that greeted her as she stepped finally out of childhood; unlike Alice, then, he at first does not understand. But as he grows small inside her, then pulls himself out, he realizes why she is hysterical, their precious moment turned evil.” (pgs. 87-88)
After this Alice goes insane and never recovers, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why this happened in the first place. There is some vague reasoning about the presence of evil at an important, tender moment, but that’s not really enough. Alice was never established as particularly delicate, or religious, or superstitious, or anything that would explain that sort of reaction. The cat is not established as that horrific, even; at best most people see it as a little unsettling.
I understand that a novella has far less room to make its point with than a novel, but the author still needs to work their setup in. Otherwise the audience is left feeling that the only reason things happen is because the plot calls for them, which makes those plot points feel unearned, like they don’t fit into the whole of the story coherently.
The rest of the second novella in Eating Mammals, which this passage comes from, carries on in much the same way, and the first novella in the book also has this same feeling. The only one that doesn’t is the third, and that’s because it’s mostly comic. Because of this overwhelming feeling that bad things are only happening because the author thinks they should, the whole work was a frustrating read for me.
I can only assume authors cram their works full of pointless despair because they think it’s necessary to make a work great, and on some level they’re not entirely wrong. Like I said, tragedy can dig toward deep emotions far more easily than other forms can.
I do think that those writers who do nothing but shove problem after problem at their characters are missing an important point here, though. It’s not the very fact that something sad happens that gives a story its power; it’s the careful crafting of a narrative to make those sad things essential and inevitable.
You can make awful things happen to your characters, but you need to tell a story first. And you need to make sure it functions as a story. Don’t just toss in some madness and murder and assume it will make your readers feel things. That’s the cheap way out.