Robin Williams, media vultures and the art of fiction

Swamp Rabbit was watching the news on my laptop and feeling blue. The media vultures were picking over details of comedian/actor Robin Williams’ life, as if trying to shed light on why he killed himself.

I tried to help the rabbit feel less grim by talking about fiction. Some fiction writers are like reporters, I told him. They want you to read fast, to hurry up and find out why their characters do what they do. But other writers deliberately avoid explanations and tidy resolutions. They want you to read slow, and they write passages like this, from Denis Johnson’s short story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life — the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms — that I almost crashed the car.

The sun sank behind my shack. I said, “Notice what Johnson does here. He compresses the story’s theme into one sentence that more or less describes the arc of the narrator’s life. A stream of vague regrets collides with a vivid reminder of death’s finality. Why this juxtaposition, rabbit? Doesn’t it make you want to wake up to the mystery of the here and now, like the narrator does?”

The rabbit took a swig of Wild Turkey then ruminated on a carrot. Finally, he said, “It makes me want to go out back and shoot myself.”

He spit into the swamp and added, “I’d think twice about gittin’ into a car with that Johnson fella, especially if he was drivin’.”

I said, “You’re confusing the writer with the first-person narrator, but that’s OK. It’s a common mistake among the unschooled to assume the narrator’s thoughts and feelings are the writer’s.”

‘Phooey! How can you write about somebody’s feelings if you ain’t seein’ through his eyes? And what’s all this got to do with Robin Williams? The guy in that story talks like a failure. Williams weren’t no failure.”

“It’s fiction, you dumb rodent. There are no easy answers in good fiction, just as there are no easy answers in real life. The narrator is a construct, a vehicle that conveys the mystery of human nature. We can only guess why he doesn’t succumb to depression, just as we can only guess why Williams was undone by it.  The narrator is as much a mystery to Johnson as he is to us readers.” 

The rabbit took another drink and said, “Don’t gimme that Roland Barthes-style doubletalk. The writer is the narrator. He knows why his characters do what they do.”

I read Johnson’s entire story to the rabbit and told him my favorite part is where the narrator gets a phone call from his ex-wife Ginny, who is dying and wants to forgive him for being a bad husband. Her voice is weak and distant. He tells her he’s sorry for his various lies and infidelities. He has a panicky moment when he wonders if he had misheard her and is actually speaking to his other ex-wife, Jenny. But then he realizes it doesn’t matter, because “both sets of crimes had been the same.”

“The narrator is learning to accept who he is,” I explained. “A terrific alternative to suicide, but he might feel different tomorrow.”

“Right,” the rabbit said. “I still wouldn’t git in the car with that Johnson fella drivin’.”

Squinting at me, he added, “Or with a driver who likes that de-pressing shit he writes.”

Footnote: The New Yorker is allowing non-subscribers to view its content this summer. Part of an online marketing campaign, I guess… Johnson also wrote the great and greatly influential short story collection Jesus’ Son.

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