During my degree I was assigned to read Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight; for those that don’t know it, it is about a woman named Sacha, and her struggle with social rejection and loneliness. Reading this in the week when I, also Sacha, was going through a break up, wasn’t ideal. Turns out it’s never nice to attend a lecture pinpointing why your namesake is unloveable, exactly when you yourself are feeling so.
This experience was a wake up call for me. I’ve always read avariciously, but never before considered myself an ‘escapist’ reader. But, clearly, reading a book that’s a little too close to home isn’t an entirely satisfying pursuit.
I wondered if it was this sense of escape and difference that has always drawn me to books written from the voice of someone totally mentally unstable. My two longstanding favourites are Nabokov’s Lolita and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, narrated by a Paedophile and a gratuitously violent criminal respectively. Yet, rather than abhor me, these two lead characters totally won me over and sent my moral compass into a deeply concerning whirlwind. I would find myself agreeing that the eponymous Lolita was indeed a little bitch and so she kind of had it coming. Without realising I was being manipulated, I had drifted over to the narrator’s own dark side.
Quite differently, A Clockwork Orange draws the reader in by sharing a new language. Without any lessons, I learnt to understand the voice inside the book, thus feeling included in a secret club; this was the literary equivalent of the iconic secret handshake in The Parent Trap. Or, failing that, Burgess’s language enables one to become so engulfed in this alternate universe that it ceases to matter how words are spoken, which way is up or the difference between right and wrong. Beyond this, Burgess welcomes his reader to his side by setting up the establishment as the mutual enemy. The injustice is palpable; that’s one moral code that remains untwisted.
Unfortunately it seems that I’m now of a less impressionable age, or maybe I’ve analysed too many books and become hardened and cynical. I have found myself of late unable to be won over by my formerly favourite villains-come-narrators. Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, voiced by the somewhat autistic Francis and his psychopathic tendencies, left me cold (aside from the black comedy to be drawn from his totally deranged mindset.) Ironically, the mental state of the narrator which drew me to the book, also rendered that same character unable to open up any further than meticulously narrating the minutiae of plotted events. I found the same of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden; the dysfunctional narrators oppose outsiders so deeply within the novella, that their rejection of others extends beyond the confines of the page. Perhaps short novels simply don’t allow the growth necessary to convincingly alter a reader’s psyche. You can’t just be thrown in at the deep end of a fucked-up brain and immediately accept it!
Now that these books failed to offer me my alternate mode of thinking, I began to wonder what it was that we ever seek to gain from them to begin with. Is a reader’s desire to walk a mile in someone’s shoes intended to gain empathy? Or, should we accept this shorter, more shocking novels as fantastical, escapist freakshows?
Maybe, what began to trouble my self-confessed control-freakery, is the possibility that we, as readers, subconsciously really just want to be moulded and manipulated to see where we end up.