Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Happy New Year, friends. Let’s talk for a minute about damaged people, our fascination with them, and why emotionally-scarred protagonists move us so much.
What was it, a couple of years ago now, when the actor Owen Wilson tried to kill himself? I don’t know all the particulars, nor do I really care that much, but I do recall a brief flurry of media attention about it that died away as quickly as it started. Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky character actor, seemingly without a care in the world, gets depressed over a girlfriend or some-such and tries to top himself… well, I’m not without compassion, even though I never gave Owen Wilson much thought before that. I silently wished him well and went on with things.
But I learned something interesting about my wife then. Like me, she’d never been particularly interested in Owen Wilson. But after his failed attempt at suicide, he was suddenly… intriguing. We watched a flurry of his movies, some good, some bad, and I got a sense that Kim was searching for something inside the actor, some indication of the turbulent waters that roiled under the surface of his easy grin.
Her fascination with him came and went pretty quickly, but I found it all quite telling. She, like almost all of us, is compassionate about the emotional pain that other people carry. But more than that, she—and we—find it… interesting.
While Wilson’s personal anguish was well-disguised until then, the writers we tend to deify wore their pain and discontent on their sleeves. I doubt anyone was surprised that day in ’61 when Hemingway topped himself. And who can say they were thrown for a loop when Hunter Thompson did the same thing? Edgar Allan Poe, Robert E. Howard, David Goodis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Highsmith, Dashiell Hammett, Kurt Vonnegut… our personal pantheons are crowded with writers who seemed driven by pain. Even the Patron Saint of American Writers, Mark Twain himself, was, in his later years, fueled by misery.
And the stories they wrote reflected it. The protagonists of their stories were, usually, not heroic in the traditional sense—they were desperate for… something. A sense of accomplishment, or closure, or self-worth. And more often than not, none of those things came by the end of the story.
There’s a looming sense of unresolved, open-endedness to the best stories from those writers, an absolute refusal to sugar-coat their fictional worlds. They were bitter reflections of the universe in the writer’s minds. Dark, unforgiving places where nothing pure could really take root and flourish.
Why do so many of us respond to that? Why do we find it so… satisfying?
Do we recognize that world?
Granted, there are many readers (maybe even the majority of them) who don’t want to linger there. They want real heroes to identify with, they want healthy relationships played out on the page, they want resolution, and to see the bad guys lose and the universe set right. Who can blame them for wanting that? And maybe those readers are mentally healthier than the rest of us.
Or maybe, just maybe, those readers are afraid of something. I don’t know.
As for me, I’ll take the damaged protagonist, and the ambiguous ending and the universe askew. I know that place and am comfortable there.