Saturday, February 28, 2009

Humanist fiction

I realize that humanism is viewed as passe, particularly in any sort of scholarly company. I swallowed enough of the post-structuralist, Foucauldian cool-aid in grad school to know that there are plenty of people who think that humanism is a dirty word when referring to serious literature. Maybe that's why I left grad school! And this is probably also the reason that I enjoy YA fiction which seems to hope for people to treat each other decently more often than its "adult" counterparts.

I admit that I often do enjoy fiction that isn't written from the humanist perspective; David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is one book that comes to mind. But sometimes one just needs a break from irony and anger and narratives that want to mess with your head. In short, sometimes I need to read fiction that is heartily humanist in its perspective.

I'm not sure what took me so long, but I finally got around to reading Anne Patchett's Run. I enjoyed Bel Canto which, despite the subject matter of hostages, terrorism and third world politics, is a startlingly humanist book. People who thought they had nothing in common turned out to find commonalities and connections, to respect and value each other despite their differences. Humanist doesn't mean happy-clappy--there's tragedy and pain, but the underlying sentiment is one that does not invoke despair, at least not in my cynical brain.

Run has a similar feel to it. The book has important things to say about family and love and it never makes them feel simple. If anything, love is treated as a complex and confusing force: respected, longed for, and at times scarily beautiful. I know that there were unbelievable bits: the girl, Kenya, is a bit too good to be true and the events (with the exception of one plot twist that I didn't see coming) are a little predictable. It was clear that Patchett was echoing (and at one time, directly quoting) James Joyce's "The Dead", (which I confess is his one work that has really moved me and made me understand the fuss) and maybe there were a few too many similarities for my taste. But these were really minor issues that didn't hamper my enjoyment.

Technically, the book fascinated me by the author's ability to shift the point of view without any apparent awkwardness or confusion. On one page I counted 8 shifts in point of view! It was lovely to get to hear all these voices, to have a scene rendered kaleidoscopically. I also appreciated the author's judicious use of lyrical language--she doesn't douse the whole book in it, but reserves it for emphasis so that when it is used to describe the beauty of a dead fish floating in a jar, or to describe a girl running, or to render the hallucinations of critical illness, the significance of these moments reaches the readers.

1 comment:

Melanie said...

Great comments. I really enjoyed this book - I think for the things you mention. My book club will be discussing in a couple of weeks. I think I'll take a copy of your thoughts with me to share.