I often worry at how often my writing students seem focused on misery and pain. As if literature were a Victorian curio cabinet of suffering and the point of writing was to find the most interesting pain.
Ayana Mathis wrote beautifully on joy over at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s new website. I’m now going to just send students with this problem this link.
Suffering and bewilderment are great levelers, shared human experience to which we all are drawn. Isn’t anguish a part of our fascination with Crime and Punishment’sRaskolnikov, or with those beautifully rendered souls in Adam Haslett’s You Are Not A Stranger Here? We want the gory details, we want an apotheosis of pain. In fiction, torment elevates characters to a higher plane; it makes them legitimate as subjects. I’m all for a good dose of literary misery, but I can’t help wonder if there aren’t additional meaningful, and dramatically potent, channels into the heart of the human experience, another way to infuse cells. What about joy?
I am thinking of Dmitri Fyodorovich’s last hours of freedom in The Brothers Karamozov. He gallops off to a country inn in pursuit of his love Grushenka with all of the makings of an orgy in tow: fiddlers, crates of champagne and caviar, dancing gypsy girls dressed in bear suits. During the pandemonium, Dmitri and Grushenka confess their love and both are quietly transformed. I am talking about the kind of joy that mounts sentence by sentence in Stuart Dybek’s story “Pet Milk,” which begins with the narrator’s tender recollection of his grandmother’s evaporated milk swirling into a cup of hot coffee and ends with his ecstatic coupling with an ex-girlfriend in the conductor’s cab of an elevated train speeding over Chicago. “Pet Milk’s” version of joy is a dramatic crescendo, it is nostalgic without being maudlin and it is the engine propelling the story forward.
In his book, Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter calls joy “transfigurative.” Bliss might seem the most uncomplicated of emotions, but joy is complex and made more profound because it is often preceded by pain or, at the very least, by a melancholy against which it flashes like a bolt of lightning across a dark sky.
Last spring at Iowa, Ayana was one of my favorite students there. She was writing the novel she sold to Knopf shortly after we left at the end of the semester, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, due out next year around this time. Keep your eyes peeled for her, she’s amazing.