The Stockholm Syndrome in Fiction?
May 15, 2012
My alter(ed) ego, as part of his role in hosting a fiction series at Philadelphia’s Musehouse, has been reading new novels by two interesting authors. Liz Moore’s Heft (W. W. Norton) focuses on a housebound ex-professor who weighs more than 500 pounds—a grotesqueness that I thought would put me off. Overall, there are too many characters in contemporary fiction who don’t resemble anyone I know. It turns out, though, that hefty Arthur Opp isn’t grotesque at all, not in ways that count; he’s extremely human and decent and has a fine appreciation for the finer things in life, including but not limited to crab rangoons (“a crunch followed by lush bland creaminess”). He’s a good man whose story of lost love and found friendship grows more fascinating as it proceeds.
Very different but equally entertaining is Marc Schuster’s The Grievers (The Permanent Press), the tale of a prep-school graduate who arranges a memorial event for a classmate who has committed suicide. Marc satirizes every institution in contemporary America from schools to banks to chain restaurants, and his main character, Charley Schwartz, is a smart-ass who never had a good intention he couldn’t undermine with stupid comments. But Charley, like Arthur, grows on the reader, and once he has slashed away everyone’s pretenses, including his own, he finds a way to connect with people at the end.
My alter(ed) ego did an interview with Liz and Marc for the Musehouse blog. You can find it here. They will be reading and schmoozing at Musehouse on May 19 at 7:00.
Among numerous interesting points in the interview, one that jumped out at me was Marc’s comment about the dangers of first-person narration:
The temptation is always there to go into a character’s head and talk about things like guilt and regret. The narrator can do something petty or spiteful, and immediately you can have her turning to the reader with an apology. The real challenge, though, is conveying that kind of information without getting too interior. Ultimately, being in the narrator’s head is a bit like a hostage situation. As a reader, you’re more or less stuck with the character, so it’s only natural to experience a degree of Stockholm syndrome.
The implication that having the narrator express guilt can be the easy way out ties in with my previous post on Jeremy Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. In that Man Booker–winning novel, Barnes does exactly what Marc worries about, and it bothered me so much that I felt the reverse of the Stockholm syndrome—the narrator’s whining about his guilt distanced me rather than increasing my empathy.
I say this as the author of an entire novel, McAllister’s Fall, predicated on a man’s guilt. In that book, the protagonist semiaccidentally kills a guy with a baseball bat and spends the rest of the novel clumsily trying to make up for his action (and perhaps making things worse in the process). Maybe it’s proper that it remain unpublished so that I can criticize others’ treatment of remorse without suffering the inconvenience of that emotion myself.