Nostalgia is the beginning of the end, thinks Bennie Salazar, one of the protagonists of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I happen to be reading at the moment.
You may have noticed that I’ve been indulging in a bit of nostalgia here on this blog, what with my posts on the first comic I ever bought, my first indie comic, the first one I ever published, and my first superhero death. When I read that line in Egan’s book, I thought, Eek!
Bennie generally reminds me of myself, though I don’t sprinkle gold flakes in my coffee or spray my armpits down with Off! Seeing analogues of our own problems and misadventures played out by characters who resemble us, but are not fully as complex as we are — who are, maybe, a little bit easy to feel superior to — helps clarify our own mistakes. So it is with Bennie, whose mid-life career crisis in the music industry feels a lot like my own, though I don’t work in the music industry. I can see how stupid it is for him to wallow in his own past failures and embarrassments, which helps me realize that I, too, sometimes do that. This is not the reason I’m reading the book. It’s a side effect. I can’t help myself.
This is important to think about. It’s how fiction works as a moral and ethical guide. Now, I don’t want to get into any simplistic arguments with any simplistic people: I do not believe that the author is obliged to try to make his/her readers better people, nor do I believe that readers should read books in an effort to improve themselves. What I believe is that it happens anyway, without anybody trying to make it happen.
The nostalgia line from Goon Squad is a tiny, minor example, and it is meant to be. There are bigger examples. People have re-imagined their entire lives around fictional characters. Go to Comic-Con and look the fuck around, if you doubt me.
Characters aren’t real people, though, and novels, no matter how realistic, do not reflect the real world. The world in a given novel is a closed, contrived system, a stage decorated with everything that can help present a particular story to the reader, and with only those things. If you read fiction, like I do, with one eye toward the story, and the other eye pointed at your own life, you have to be careful. You might run into a writer with an agenda, like, say, Flannery O’Connor (whose stories, believe it or not, were intended to convert readers to the Catholic Faith — and who needs that, I ask you?) Even more likely, you may run into a writer whose worldview is fundamentally incompatible with present-day reality in subtle and tricky ways. Jane Austen’s characters, for example, often reject the mercenary motivations of their peers and parents when it comes to marriage (like we do in present-day society, allegedly), and yet, somehow, the world always works in a way to reward them financially for their marriage choices. Another example: the white man left in the jungle to be raised by monkeys and/or wolves, who ends up ruling all the dark people he meets, because the world just happens to work that way. Or the son of the king, left on the hillside, whose royal qualities and inherent superiority to those around him are recognizable instantly by anybody, because, yeah, the world works that way.
This is one of those things fiction can do that convinces without appearing to try to convince: it can make the world always appear to work in a given way.
But teenage girls modeling their relationship choices after those of Jane Austen’s characters (to ultimately disappointing results, one has to imagine), or white supremacists who seek vindication in the works of Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs, or even guys who dress up like Jedi Knights for Comic-Con, are doing exactly the same thing I did when I decided that Bennie Salazar’s insight about nostalgia would cause me to stop looking backwards in my life. They are taking choices and attitudes that make sense for a character in a fictional world and applying them to the far more complex real world.
For these reasons, and probably more, academics and other intellectuals insist on “proving,” over and over again, that fiction has no ethical or moral role to play in the lives of its writers or readers. I can understand their motivation. They’re right to be concerned. But they’re wrong about the actual “facts on the ground,” as the television commentators from the warzones say. Reading fiction does affect a person’s moral and ethical outlook. It just does, and it can’t help itself, and it always will, and so there.
That’s why fiction — reading it, writing it — is dangerous, and powerful.