When a sequel comes out, it’s new but it’s not: The Mercury Waltz introduces different characters, but its heart still belongs to the duo first met in Under the Poppy, characters in whose company I’ve now spent, wow, years. So I’m reminded, once again, of that book club lady.
She was older, stylish, friendly; she seemed to enjoy my visit to her daughter’s living room book club, liked my reading from Poppy—she smiled in the right places, anyway—and afterward, met me at the cheese table to grab a glass of wine, and offer her thoughts on the novel.
She said she was an avid reader, and a special fan of love stories. She had been pleasantly titillated by Poppy’s brothel setting, its seediness and glamour—and that opening scene, was it even physically possible, for a woman and a puppet …? Most of all, she was intrigued by the story’s central love triangle: making a brother and sister romantic rivals for the same man, how had I ever come up with that idea?
I told her truthfully that I hadn’t actually “come up” with it at all: that the action between those characters, their loves, likes, dislikes, hates, and whatever behavior emerged from them, was intrinsic, not part of any plan or outline. Then I offered a brief (I tried to be brief) explanation of that sister, brother, and lover, how they’d grown up together in mingled poverty and play, how their receptors for each other had either flowered or contracted as a result of their inner needs or greeds – But by then she was nodding, a clarifying kind of nod and “Sure,” she said. “It’s like they’re real.”
I nodded too. “Otherwise they’re just pieces on a game board, or paper dolls. Otherwise they—”
“Real to you,” she said; now she was smiling, amused. “The way kids have imaginary friends, right? Is it always like that when you write a book?”
I’m not sure what my face was doing, but as soon as her Gouda was gone, she excused herself for a chat on the other side of the room.
Imaginary friends … It does sound mildly crazy, doesn’t it. Like those writers who trill that their characters just take the story and run away with it. Was I a crazy triller? Were they really real to me, those Victorian people?
Yes, they were, yes they are; they have to be. The ability to create that story, or any other, is grounded in the deep bedrock of the way actual breathing people act and love and betray and flee—the “bad” characters as well as the good, since no one is the villain in her own story, everyone believes himself the hero, no matter what the circumstances. And that underlying reality is what’s meant to speak to the reader’s heart, as one authentic person speaks to another.
Surely it’s so in the books that I love, we love, the ones that last through time, whose created life is so intense that, interrupted in our reading, we look up wide-eyed and dazed, unsure which world is actually which. And it’s why the deepest fictional relationships, the characters we react to most strongly and know most intimately, call into question our most personal behaviors and desires, open a door into the self: Was Faustus wrong to give all he had for a dream of mastery? Would you turn in Jean Valjean to keep Javert off your own back? Could you put the moves on Heathcliff, or Mdame Bovary? (Forget for a minute whether either would be a good idea.) Or Harriet the Spy—a friend of mine was convinced that she and Harriet could have been besties in school, then gone on to a fine and hilarious life together as a couple.
But if the books we read don’t offer that level of true reality, if their people are just characters seen through a scrim of words, put through their paces to serve a plot—are we reading the wrong books? Or are we reading books wrong?
The reality, “real” or not, is what gives any fictional experience its weight and pleasure, even if that pleasure is ultimately a sad one. Otherwise we might as well keep choosing books that neither challenge nor fully engage us, might as well sit down to a meal of nicely-molded Styrofoam food, because that’s what it means to settle for that scrim, while real life is pulsing, shining, beckoning back behind it.
We have to up our game. We have to open to the story. We have to be real.
Flannery O’Connor, who knew something about reality, wrote that “The lady who only read books that improved her mind was taking a safe course – and a hopeless one. She’ll never know whether her mind is improved or not, but should she ever, by some mistake, read a great novel, she’ll know mighty well that something is happening to her.”
Book club lady, if you’re out there, so are all the real books: full of people living their passionately-imagined lives, lives that we may live again and again beside them, taking from them deeper realities every time, and so improve our own day-to-day existence. My books may not speak to you that way; doesn’t matter, there are plenty others that will, if you open yourself to their depths and passions, and let them happen to you, exhilarate you, test you. So go crazy, go make some imaginary friends.
[Image: Detail from Red Riding Hood, Su Blackwell.]