The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud
The Comatose Kids
Fiction is full of exiles from ordinary life: stranded, marginal, baffled, sulking, deluded, or violent creatures. Indeed, some sort of snag or hitch or resistance, some lapse from expectations, is probably necessary to get any story started. If Odysseus had stayed at home, there would have been no Odyssey. This is obvious enough, but it does mean that fiction, and perhaps even narrative, can have very little hold on ordinary life, since ordinary life, like Ithaca, is what has to be abandoned at the outset. Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, for example, is a rather bland and far from ironic novel, yet its title hints at a complicated irony. On the one hand, the book suggests, there are no ordinary people; people are all extraordinary in their way, both finer and feebler than we think. And on the other hand, ordinary people are what we may become, if we can conquer our fear of being extraordinary. In a novel, that fear has to be acted out. In Ordinary People, it is the novel, the trace of a season of exile.
The source of the fear is an attempted suicide and an earlier accidental death. There is an actual suicide in The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud, there is insanity and multiple death in The Comatose Kids, and there is a descent into hideous humiliation in The Geek. I don’t take all this violence and deviation as a sign of our troubled times, or even as a sign of troubled writing minds. But I do take it as a cry for attention, a message from these writers as writers. There is a story here, the message says, watch us leave ordinary life behind. The message may reflect the youth or relative inexperience of the writers, an assumed or feared deafness in American publishers, creating the need for narrative shouts, or a more generally embattled quality in contemporary fiction, fighting off the claims of biography and transcendental meditation. Perhaps it reflects all three in different proportions in different cases. What interests me is the noise the message makes, the worry about normality that it implies.
This worry, as I have said, is the overt subject of Ordinary People. Conrad Jarrett, almost eighteen, has tried to kill himself, and has been in the hospital: The novel recounts his readjustment to school, friends, girls, father, mother, himself. He sheds a lot of his anxiety, weathers the suicide of a girl who was released from the hospital along with him, and comes to terms with his brother’s death by drowning, which led him to the attempt on his own life. How could he, the second, less perfect brother, go on living when the paragon had given up, lost his will to live, and let go of the boat they were both hanging on to in the stormy lake? Above all, he comes to accept his mother’s apparent failure to forgive him for slashing his wrists, and his own failure to forgive her …