What is it about reading a novel that draws us to a story? The standard list would include: the characterization, the voice, the setting, or the suspense and thrills. I’d like to add to the list: the way the story illustrates the psychological state of fear, the choices made under duress of that emotion, and the consequences of the choice made and the choices that weren’t made.
Fear elongates as faith in the security and the protection of the authorities erodes. We live in an age of heightened fear. Partially authorities use fear to grab votes, and to curtail civil liberties. We are pushed in two separate directions: distrust of what the authorities can do to protect us and the willingness to allow the authorities to play to our fears for their own benefit.
We are a product of our times, our age and our culture. The occasional book spans time, the age it was written and the cultural distortions in which the author worked. Would George Orwell have written different kinds of books with a different mindset if instead of being a colonial police official in Burma, he had gone to live in Thailand or Singapore or Saigon and worked as a journalist for twenty-five years? Or Graham Greene who traveled extensively, one wonders a counterfactual life where he stayed in Saigon for years. Or if Nelson Algren had been raised on a farm in Kansas rather than Chicago and his father had been the local mayor and his mother the country judge.
I have lived for 25 years in a political system where officials have fewer restraints on the exercise of their power, fewer inquiries, questioning and criticisms–a soft police state. I thought of this, as once again I was on the back of a motorcycle taxi, which was flagged down and stopped by the police at a two-man ambush T-intersection where Soi 16 and Soi Paisinghtoh meet. The police were interested in the driver. I was the person of interest. I got off the back of the motorcycle, showed a copy of my passport. I was physically searched, made to empty my pockets andsubmit to a pat down. Next the cops opened each compartment of backpack, opening the plastic bag containing my freshly used gym clothes. This happened at 1.45 p.m. in the afternoon.
The police questions: “Do you speak Thai?” (Of course not.) “What your name?” (I give my name.) “Where you go?” (Home—one hundred meters from your ambush point.) “What you do in Thailand?” (I am a retired lawyer (never be a writer)). “Where you live?” (I point up the road.) “Show me your wallet.” (I show him my wallet.)
Finally one of the cops asked the motorcycle taxi driver if he knew me. The driver gave a reference: “He live in Thailand a long-time.” I’d never seen this driver before but he seemed to know who I was. Based on the testimony of the motorcycle driver I was allowed to leave.
There would have been a time where I found such an arbitrary stop, search and questioning unsettling, upsetting and annoying. After third such incident in less in a year, it has become an ordinary feature of life.
Show me your papers. Right out of an old Bogart movie on the tarmac of some remote airport in North Africa. Police roadblocks are small change in the scheme of things. They are a kind of theatre where the actors know the drama is about fear and money and power.
I’ve learned a thing or two about all three having survived coups, street fighting and violence, and walked through minefields where villagers had erected bamboo huts. I’ve seen the aftermath of war in Cambodia and Vietnam not long after the guns had gone silent. I know many others who’ve seen much, much more than me. But I saw enough to learn a couple of lessons about myself. What I am capable to feeling when fear and power and money rollerblade straight for me. I don’t like it. I don’t like being afraid. But I put myself in a position where that would inevitably happen.
If I’d stayed a law professor at the University of British Columbia, walking the beaches, skiing at Whistler, buying salmon at Granville Island market, my life and what I wrote about would have gone in a different direction. In the multiverse there is a version of me who never left Vancouver and is still teaching law. That version also writes. But I doubt he writes books set in Southeast Asia, or if he does, they would be very different books from the ones I’ve written.
The stuff of writing that is worth a second read, I believe comes from writers who have felt the bone chilling sound of gunfire, seen ordinary people panic, wounded, suffering, people without jobs, connections, hungry and homeless people. This is where the rubber connects with the road of life. Not in the office towers or exclusive clubs or shopping malls. Those illusions take away the fear that power and money, our natural enemy, should instinctively make us weary. We believe that we can reach out and cuddle the cute lion. The lesson of literature is a warning that anyone who has been in this context never forgets what emotions flood through the mind.
Nelson Algren was a writer I discovered when I was very young, and like Orwell and Koestler had an influence on the kind of books I read (and ultimately wanted to write). Colin Asher has written an insightful essay “Never a Lovely so Real” about Algren:
(Algren) pressed that refrain throughout his life, at every opportunity he found. The formulation that best captures his intention and method is: ‘The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.’ After his first book, Algren never traded in the idea that the poor are purely victims. Sometimes the accused were guilty, he believed, sometimes innocent, either way their perspective deserved consideration.
Algren like Orwell never sentimentalized the poor. He never looked down on them. He understood how money and power circled around them, caging them, controlling and fearing them at the same time.
The book I remember I read when I was fifteen was The Man with the Golden Arm. Asher nailed that novel in this passage:
If Golden Arm had a purpose, it was to challenge the idea, then congealing into ideology, that an individual’s social value is related to his or her wealth. Its message is that lives lived in the twilight hours, after swing shifts, in the shadows of newly erected towers, or beneath the tracks of the El, are as passionate, as meaningful, as funny and pointless, and as much a part of the American story as any.
What was congealing into ideology has long since dried into hard stone. Where is there a place left where social value isn’t calculated in terms of wealth and influence? Those who have no wealth are left out of the story of our time. Algren, Orwell, Koestler and Greene threw a literary lifeline to these people. We live in a time where cutting that lifeline is the business of government, and writing has become an entertainment business. Walking away from a secure university professorship was something a foolish fifteen-year-old boy who’d read The Man with the Golden Arm would do; but not a grown man. At any stage, things could have gone very wrong.
But if I’d stayed in my university office, something I needed to see and do and think about would have never come alive. The theory of the multiverse says we are one among an infinite number of universes, and all possibilities are a reality. That’s too much like magical thinking for me to take seriously. False comfort is no comfort. Making a choice in this life means taking a hard look at the cards you hold and then making a bet on yourself. If you are a writer, you shuffle the deck, and deal the hand your characters will hold. Every book is a new game of poker.
But before you write that first sentence you must find the interiority of the main characters. I find my characters in the most unlikely places and most of them live off the radar screen for most people. The best characters in novels are the ones society judge as having no value—and that allows us to put society in the dock to judge it. I am drawn to characters who push beyond the rejection society brings to their every day life, and like characters who face the high wall behind which an army of money and power pulls up the drawbridge. I like characters who don’t feel sorry because others regard them as worthless, who don’t give up, who keep advancing against the forces assembled to destroy them. I like them because they have more natural dignity and grace than any university professor could ever imagine.