I tend to love my crazy. Whether it’s obsession over invisible bedbugs we don’t have or certainty that it’s my attention alone that’s keeping the plane I’m riding aloft, I view my neuroses affectionately. What’s the alternative? Hating them, hating myself?
Similarly, in novels, it’s the oddball I enjoy. Think Flannery O’Connor’s wannabe Messiah in Wise Blood or Ignatius O’Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces. I’m safely distanced enough to enjoy the ride, despite the fact that, in real life, I’d never in a million years stop along the side of the road to offer either of these unwashed protagonists a lift.
They’re crazy but harmless. Not Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates’ kind of crazy. Those madmen drive a whole different genre, the crime novels I haven’t allowed myself to read for decades. Scary-crazy is too much like the headlines, it’s too much like the worst nightmare that we understand can happen to anyone. This is a recognition that most of us might face, but only in bits and pieces before tucking it away and whistling in the dark.
The older I get, the more I seek diversion, not doom, in my entertainment. And I try to write what I wish to read.
My first novel, Diana Lively is Falling Down, is packed with quirky characters, only one of whom is evil. The rest, from the lovely Diana, whose fear of insects mirrors my own, to Wally, a widower certain his dead wife is sending him “signs,” has something she or he does which distinguishes them from the completely stable unimaginative mass of humans we call “normal.” Humphrey, a strapping seventeen year old is an unlikely domestic diva, nurturing his mother through a bad marriage. Eleanor, his half-sister, is four years old and a talented kleptomaniac. Her mischief will eventually cause her all-too-arrogant father to rue his haste in dismissing the intelligence of his wife and children. Audrey, Humphrey’s love interest, is Wally the widower’s blond-haired blue-eyed adopted daughter, out to save the planet on behalf of the Native Americans she’s convinced were her birth parents. It’s a bit of a lunatic asylum, when you take the ensemble apart, but such is the stuff of comedy. It is also the stuff of real life.
No one goes to her grave without having had a time in which she’s seemed to others -- well, let’s just say – just a bit off. It might be the confusing roller coaster of falling in love, be it with your soul mate or your newborn child. It might be the madness of grief, with its necessary delusions: denial, bargaining, all those “unreasonable” behaviors.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” is not limited to epic battles or intercontinental pestilence and plague. We will, each of us, find ourselves tested, and this is the “stuff” of drama. We might be perfectly sane until we’re derailed by enormous sadness or exhilarating affection. All stories focus on a time in characters’ lives when they’re drawn out of their stable existence and driven to the edge. To their wit’s end. Their last nerve. Their crazy.
In comedy, we have the pleasure of watching our protagonist adapt and learn and grow and heal. In tragedy, well, not so much. Too little, too late, or with the opposite effect he or she was seeking. For eons now, the happy ending has been deplored by so-called ‘serious’ writers and reviewers. Aristotle branded the comedic characters as less noble, less virtuous. Shakespeare turned everything on its head, combining the two forms to great effect. Even so, in his own day, the bard was considered vulgar, a playwright who pandered to the masses. Jane Austen was dismissed as frivolous and Trollope was thought too concerned with drawing rooms and manners. Oscar Wilde, too, caught his own share of “shite” for being too playful, too much fun, to be taken seriously.
I can’t help but notice the similarity between these elevated critiques from centuries past and current literary trends, when women’s fiction is derided for the inevitable happy ending, for the comfort readers take in the cushy world of fanciful shoes and pretty wallpapers.
I would argue that women – far from being the naïve idiots these critiques imply – are all too familiar with death and decay, with poverty and loss. Whether its nursing our failing parents, a frighteningly sick child, or suffering the blindsiding loss of a sibling or good friend, we’ve weathered the front lines of our emotional Waterloos, thank you very much. We’re well aware that the nightmare scenarios will – like taxes – inevitably arrive at our doorstep. Until then, or after the fact, we prefer to escape to a place in which the world is filled with laughter and forgiveness and, yes, even fashion. Crazy? Perhaps. Delusional? Absolutely. Otherwise known as suspension of disbelief, a.k.a. willingly entering what John Gardener calls “the fictional dream.” The point is, we’ll take what “she’s having,” in that famous line of Norah Ephron’s. To choose pleasure over pain, diversion over doom, it’s the opposite of naïve. We know what’s serious. Serious is a heart attack, it’s cancer. Perhaps those of us who write about other things do so not from ignorance about such matters but from a profound knowledge we keep tucked inside. Let us amble down the garden path and whistle when its dark; all around us there are others who will hear and take heart. They might even laugh, a sound which can, to the untutored, sound a lot like crying turned inside out. A lot like crazy, just not the kind that kills you for the sheer mastery of it.