I Can't Believe It's Not Tragic

Published by Palimpsest in the blog Palimpsest's blog. Views: 157

I'm rediscovering books outside the fantasy genre. Well, okay, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club has a few mystic elements. So does Ruby, by Ann Hood (but that doesn't mean I like it.) The Other Side of Silence by Andre Brink is grounded yet so deliriously poetic that I don't suppose it counts.

Second Helpings, by Megan McCafferty, was the most mundane and candid of my stack, and the main character gets slammed for it at her writer's workshop, which got me blogging.

Actually, I thought Jessica's Top Trauma List was right for the setting and plot: her best and only real friend, Hope, moved away after the above-mentioned death; her classmates were total airheads she could never find any real connection to; and her parents, too used to (and apparently preferring) their other daughter's age-appropriate vapidity and uncomplicated ease with getting over things, told her she was overreacting and refused to "enable" her angst until her sleep and menstrual cycles went haywire.
Those physical manifestations of stress might have even been pushing it, but her emotional core shone through so honestly and clearly.

I know, conflict is necessary, excitement in a plot is good... but I've been seeing a trend lately in gratuitous tragedy. A tragedy used to be the development of a character with a fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. Now it's just "random bad things that happen."

From J.K. Rowling to Joss Whedon, creators seemingly pull character casualties and such events out of a hat, because it makes the piece "dark" and... what, automatically brilliant? So we're expected to be moved?

Well, I'm not. It's not deep, it's not an indicator of tortured genius, it's just random bad things that happen! It's all angst, no aesthetics.

Why is that? To make it "realistic"? Or for drama, to make it "fantastic"? Does our relatively paradise-polarized civilization push us to seek outrage and trauma for its own sake, or something? Why force a Candide-like series of events onto a piece to make it ...valid?

Who's to say what suffering is valid, anyway? I thought of this verse:


I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand--
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep--while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?



The speaker seems to be having an anxiety attack while making mud-pies at the beach. Childish. Shallow. Tch. Bad writer, Edgar Allan Poe! Bad! Now go sit in the corner until you can write something properly miserable!

No. I thought this verse was beautiful-- clear, honest but poetic. The emotion shines through; so the subject doesn't matter. Take that, Noir Bard.

If we want to get apagogical, I recognize that the trauma of battling in the trenches is hardly the same as the inconvenience of clipping off a hangnail. I doubt an ode to a hangnail would seriously capture my sympathy. But, I don't know-- neither do a lot of the things that should, somehow.

I recently read an account of domestic violence where the narrator described the inward sound of her cheekbone cracking against the tiles, as somehow the same pain as the earth ripped by an atomic bomb.

On the first read, I thought, okay, her point was that all sorrows are spiritually connected.

On the second read, I thought, Excuse me, is she putting her singular suffering on par with a geographically-sized trauma and that of thousands of people dying of radiation? What a selfish loss of perspective! What a way to cheapen lives, to put them down to enrich your own! Even given that she was abused, which didn't need hyperbole. No suffering does, no suffering should.

Maybe it's all in the execution, for a good reason it's becoming popular to just throw something obviously tragic in there, let it speak for itself-- and save us the work of having to speak for it. Showing, not telling (as every writer ought to know to do.)

Bah, I've given up looking for the cause, and only deal with what I see:

Good-bye, compassion.
Farewell, insight.
So long, true character-driven tragedy.

Hello, random bad things that happen -- I love your costume, you know, you almost look like art.
You need to be logged in to comment