Reading Sideways: How Fiction Helps Us Navigate the Maze of Tragedy
Moving through this summer has felt like wandering in a mirrored maze of bad news, with each new turn giving us barely enough time to get our bearings before we have to confront another senseless horror. It’s hard to know how to navigate such a brutal onslaught of tragedy; every time we attempt to move forward, our surroundings tell us that we haven’t made any real progress at all. Instead, what we see insists that grief, terror, violence, and rage are destined to become a part of our cultural fabric.
Some suggest that we should simply adjust to the fact that we are lost, accept that we won’t be leaving anytime soon, and learn to live with where we are. It isn’t pleasant, they agree, but there’s nowhere else to go. Better get used to it, because how can we navigate through the same confusion, the same fear, the same bewilderment over and over again? How can we work our way out of a maze?Fiction does not allow us to ignore reality; rather, it is a tool for the wise, the desperate, and the bewildered.
Maze experts (yes, they really do exist) offer a few solutions for moving through puzzling landscapes. Some suggest marking your progress so that you can mentally work backward to figure out a way forward. Others suggest looking up and attempting to decipher a path based on your physical orientation. Still, there is one strategy that is so simple, so obvious, that it’s easy to overlook: take your right hand, place it on the wall, and walk, allowing your hand to guide you forward until you reach the exit.
In this summer’s labyrinth of disasters, meanwhile, we see similar responses. Some call for us to build memorials, to mark our way with vigils and solemn moments of remembrance that will forever remind us of these moments. Others look back, analyzing the causes that led us to this effect—attempting to rationalize catastrophe.
But there is another way to respond: We can turn the walls into guideposts, looking sideways at fictional stories to see how they run parallel to our own. In reading and studying fiction, we can discover our place within the stories and histories that shape our reality.
Irish poet Seamus Heaney once described the relationship between the world and the writer like this: “… if our given experience is a labyrinth, its impassibility can still be countered by the poet’s imagining some equivalent of the labyrinth and presenting himself and us with a vivid experience of it.” The overwhelming colossus of reality, Heaney explains, can be brought into sharp relief if an artist imitates aspects of the world in a creative work. We understand our own place and direction better by contrasting them with places and directions, both real and fictitious.
We often say that those fictitious places are portals into other worlds—worlds that ostensibly operate in more compact and logical frameworks than the one we actually inhabit. Exchanging our current reality for the simplified imaginings of a bygone artist may seem like a weakness—but fiction is not, at best, an escapist’s modus operandi. Fiction does not allow us to ignore reality; rather, it is a tool for the wise, the desperate, and the bewildered. It gives us a frame of reference beyond what we see directly in front of us, and allows us to connect, to explore solutions safely and hypothetically.
Consider reading’s effects on empathy, for example. Empathy is a way of overcoming barriers; it represents our ability to consider other people, to live their lives for awhile. It’s a disciplined engagement of the imagination. Fiction strengthens our emotional and moral imaginations. Although reading fiction may sometimes seem like a means of escape from our current reality, the truth is that reading focuses our vision, helping us to truly see. It’s a way to reach out—not forward or behind us, but to the side—and collaborate with the greatest minds in human history.
Writers pen tales not only entertain readers, but also as a means of exploring human nature in all its maddening beauty. Often, the issues they investigate are ones that persist to this day.
Take Frankenstein, for instance. This brilliant little story, almost 200 years old, is bursting with important questions that speak directly to the issues we’ve faced this very summer. The middle of the story contains a particularly prophetic passage: Frankenstein’s masterpiece, a living creature, has suffered abandonment and hostile rejection, first by his creator, and then by the first human family he encounters. Despite these awful incidents of contempt and negligence, he bravely attempts social interaction again. Contrary to popular retellings, the creature is intellectually and emotionally advanced, and his sense of moral conviction is sharp and powerful. When he finds a little girl drowning in a river, he immediately saves her life, a feat that could only be accomplished by someone with exceptional strength and courage. As he returns the girl to shore, however, the girl’s father appears, frantically looking for his child. Before the father is able to rationally assess the situation, he assumes—based on appearances—that Frankenstein’s creation is hostile, threatening, and barbaric, and so he responds with deadly force, shooting the creature in the shoulder. This act of nervous aggression, and others like it, turn Frankenstein’s creation angry, bitter, and vengeful.
There’s also Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a 56-year old novel about a black man who is falsely accused of rape and sentenced to prison. Although he and his lawyer plan to appeal the decision, Tom Robinson becomes anxious in jail, and, in a moment of desperation, impulsively attempts an escape. He is shot as he tries to climb over the prison wall; when his body is recovered, however, it’s discovered that he has been shot seventeen times. Atticus, his lawyer, relates this story to his sister, daughter, and maid, saying, “Seventeen bullet holes in him. They didn’t have to shoot him that much.”
Or, in 1984, a dystopian novel published two generations ago, the faithful citizens of Oceania participate in a daily ritual known as the Two Minutes Hate, in which the nation’s political enemies are flashed onto a screen while the citizens hurl insults, rage, and scream. The rite is not so much an act of patriotism as it is emotional catharsis; people who are normally calm and quiet become hysterical, raving at the official enemies of the state. These two minutes are the only outlet for the recurring frustration, anger, and indignation they feel but cannot otherwise express.
Seen that lately?
Finally, what about Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins’s final installment in her series The Hunger Games? This novel places the protagonist in a familiar situation: at the story’s conclusion, Katniss faces down her oldest enemy, President Snow, a cruel tyrant and orchestrator of the Games. But she has also learned of the corruption of Alma Coin, leader of the rebellion and the presumed new president of Panem. Although Coin and Katniss have ostensibly been working for the same cause, Katniss discovers that Coin is responsible for several unethical and reprehensible acts, including a plan to reinstate the Games using Capitol children. When deciding where to invest her loyalties, Katniss is not given the luxury of clear right and wrong options, but is instead forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.
Nearly prescient, isn’t it?
These stories don’t answer our questions directly. They’re not maps to get ourselves out of the maze. And in an age of instant gratification, it can be difficult to understand why we would bother investing time and energy into a strategy that doesn’t spell out, clearly and directly, how to address the problems we face. But the demands for a quick fix won’t solve our problems—perhaps because they ignore the fact that our problems spring from human nature, a topic that has been studied and written about for centuries.
We would do well, then, to consider that the issues we face aren’t new to us, but are as old as people, and have been analyzed for at least as long as we’ve been telling tales. During seasons like this one, when reality seems all too much to bear, fiction offers us a fresh framework, a way to think around our problems with distance, comparison, and critical analysis. Through reading, we inherit the wisdom of the ages—a balm and treasure for our current social ills.
The thing about mazes is that their mirroring doesn’t always have to be grotesque; in fact, they can be illuminating. They can show us how we orient ourselves and challenge our assumptions about where we’re going. They can push us to the edge of our resolve—not because they are chaotic and random, but because they are so precisely complex and ordered. We would do well to remember that the maze we find ourselves in now has a Master, that He designed our path with careful patterns and reiterations of His truths. To engage good and truthful stories about human nature is to engage His good work, to watch His kingdom appear parallel to our own broken world.