November 4, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

I read Stephen King’s short story “Premium Harmony” in the New Yorker yesterday. It’s fascinating to gauge reader response ~ let’s be honest, my response ~ to it. It’s a wonderful story. On a hot August day, a lower middle class man and his overweight wife are taking a drive in a car, and they aren’t getting along. Her little dog in the back seat is annoying. She coerces him into stopping to buy a pink ball for their niece. She goes in and he stays in the car, and then a store clerk comes out to tell him his wife collapsed. He runs in, leaving the dog in the car, and finds his wife dead. Two hours later, when he comes back out, the dog is roasted to death in the car, but it is a weirdly happy ending ~ in King’s trademark combination of humor and horror. (Have you read “Autopsy Room Four” from Everything’s Eventual? Hilarious.)

What is curious is my reaction to it. The protagonist is reprehensible in a lot of ways. He’s cruel to his wife, and he’s not very likable. But because you’re in his point of view, you’re asked to sympathize with him. An unreliable narrator. But what’s curious is the way I’m able to sympathize with him. The same thing happens in workshops. We’ll all read someone’s story, and others will talk about how there’s nothing likable about a character and condemn that character as horrible. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “Yes, he does some really horrible things, but I understand his motivations. I understand why he does those things.” Like reading Lolita ~ he’s is a horrible child-molester and uses his own desires to justify his actions, yet I understand why he does it and am seduced by his words.

That’s one of the reasons I’m a writer ~ when people do things, there’s always a reason, a motive, even if it’s an emotional one. By labeling them as crazy, you’re dismissing them and not trying to understand why they do the things they do. When someone is a serial killer, it seemed perfectly reasonable and necessary to them for that person to do those things. And that’s why I write ~ to try to figure out why. Someday I’m going to write a story about those kids in Idaho who kept the police at bay for days after both their parents died. I’m going to write a story about a mother having to choose between her children. It’s horrible, but compelling.

So I sometimes wonder if the way my empathy works is uncommon, since others seem to be much more ready to condemn.

And then there’s what I find funny, which is the subject of another post.

And I’m inching forward on writing my story.

What I’m Reading Today: Gina Oschner’s short story collection People I Want to Be. Her style reminds me of Jim Shepard’s. Very interesting.


Pembroke said...

Your empathy is not uncommon; I think it's actually pretty normal. Remember my stories about the Devil? Like you said, it's nice to write things like that because we want to know why, and we don't always get those answers in real life, especially with serial killers (but that is a different discussion!). Plus, the dark side of human nature is what makes for interesting stories.

Tamara said...

Definitely ~ the dark side makes for interesting stories! I'm glad to know that maybe I'm not as odd as I feel sometimes. (Go ahead, say it: you are that odd! hehe).