When I was 13 years old, I fell in love with an imaginary girl. If you suppose this was the low point of my love life, you would be wrong. The low point—points really—involved real people and there was plenty of pain and unhappiness to go around. In the case of that first crush, though, the pain was all mine. She didn’t feel a thing.
The girl’s name was Estella, and she lived with Miss Havisham inside a novel called Great Expectations. Why I fell for someone designed, as she was, to break men’s hearts is a mystery to me still, but she was cold and aloof, and that was something that totally resonated with me so far as girls were concerned in those dark adolescent years. And then there was Pip, the boy in the novel who also falls in love with her. I identified with Pip, and without thinking about it too hard—OK, without thinking about it at all—I decided that together we would chip through the ice, melt her resolve, and win her over.
Now, of course, if you had somehow learned my secret and confronted me, I would have denied everything. Some part of my teenage brain functioned rationally and recognized that fiction is called fiction for a reason, and that the people in novels are no more real than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Certainly what few novels I’d read up to that point had done nothing to persuade me otherwise. So in my own defense, I can only say that I was unprepared for the powers of Charles Dickens, and so I fell under the spell of a girl constructed out of nothing more substantial than the imagination of a man who died almost a century before I was born.
You read Chandler to keep company with Philip Marlowe, the same way you read Rex Stout for the pleasure of hanging out with Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe.
In time I got over Estella (what a tease—Bentley Drummond was welcome to her). But I’m afraid I never kicked the habit of believing that fictional characters were real, or at least as real and sometimes more real than most of the people I call friends (sorry, Facebook).
This is not something I talk about much, since people tend to start edging away, and certainly not anything to boast about. If, like me, you squandered your family’s money on a degree in English, and if you went to college before deconstruction staged its coup, you were probably taught by professors under the spell of art for the sake of art, and books were presented to you as puzzles to be solved. I had precisely one professor who asked the class if they thought that literature has lessons to teach you about life. (The correct answer, in that class at least, was yes.) But even he did not go so far as to talk about the Wife of Bath as though she were flesh and blood.
A little later, I discovered that on this point, novelists did not always agree with professors. Reading The Paris Review interview with William Faulkner, I came across this passage, where he’s asked for his favorite characters in literature:
“My favorite characters are Sarah Gamp—a cruel, ruthless woman, a drunkard, opportunist, unreliable, most of her character was bad, but at least it was character; Mrs. Harris, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Don Quixote, and Sancho of course. Lady Macbeth I always admire. And Bottom, Ophelia, and Mercutio—both he and Mrs. Gamp coped with life, didn’t ask any favors, never whined. Huck Finn, of course, and Jim. Tom Sawyer I never liked much—an awful prig.”
Here was someone who talked my language, and if Faulkner could speak of characters in plays or novels as though they were real, who was I to say otherwise? In the bargain, that Faulkner quote taught me a useful lesson about how to read novels: you don’t have to love the whole thing to love things in it. Martin Chuzzlewit, the Dickens novel in which Mrs. Gamp appears, is not my favorite of his books by any means. I’m not sure I’ve ever finished it. But I know what Faulkner’s talking about: you can like Sarah Gamp, or at least be fascinated by her, without liking the book containing her. Habitual readers take their pleasures where they find them.
Then I discovered detective stories, and my fate was settled. So far as I can tell, most detective fiction is about the characters and little else. Agatha Christie and her ilk, that is writers who make the puzzle paramount, are in the minority. You don’t read Raymond Chandler because you want to know who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur in The Big Sleep (Chandler certainly couldn’t say when asked). You read Chandler to keep company with Philip Marlowe, the same way you read Rex Stout for the pleasure of hanging out with Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. As my friend Annie said by way of defending her addiction to all the iterations of Star Trek: They’re just like family.
My mother talked about TV’s Ben Cartwright and his boys the same way she talked about her neighbors (so I guess the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree). But I could never go that far: I can’t bring myself to think of people in television or movies as real, probably because they’re too real already there on the screen. When I see Philip Marlowe in a movie, I always think, yes, he has some of Marlowe’s qualities, but there’s too much Humphrey Bogart, or Robert Mitchum, or whoever’s playing Marlowe getting in the way. Reading Chandler, I get to decide what Marlowe looks like and how he talks and moves. He’s not someone else’s idea of Marlowe, he’s mine. In a word, it’s personal.
I have spent a lot of my life reading books for a living, but a huge percentage of that time has been spent not excavating for new talent but instead rereading all or parts of old favorites. I’ll miss Gus McCrae and go hunt him up in Lonesome Dove just to watch him making biscuits and cussing the pigs. Or I’ll get reacquainted with Inspector Bucket or Esther Summerson in Bleak House (the first time I read that novel, I got so caught up in the story, was so convinced it was real, that when Esther contracted smallpox, I skipped ahead to find out if she lived or died).
As Faulkner implied, the characters we hold dearest don’t have to be nice or good. I’m equally fascinated by Smallweed and Skimpole in Bleak House, and more odious men you wouldn’t want to meet. The title character in The Real Charlotte by E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross (actually two Anglo-Irish female cousins) is such a terrible force of nature that she literally frightens another character to death. That hasn’t stopped me from urging people to make her acquaintance every chance I get.
Likewise, the stories containing these people don’t have to be happy or end well. Recently I read The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, a dark story about an immigrant running a shabby deli in Washington, D.C. There are numerous scenes where the deli owner hosts two friends, also immigrants, after closing time. They drink, kid each other, and play a game where they try to match the dictator to the appropriate coup in the appropriate year. After making the acquaintance of that trio, I thought, oh yes, I’ll be back here soon.
Is this the correct way to read a novel? Is it right to confuse fiction with reality? I don’t have a straight answer for either question. All I know is that this is the happy habit of my life, and I have more friends than I can count. I may be delusional, but I’ll never be lonely.
Now if you’ll excuse me, Elizabeth Bennet, Nick Carraway, and the Cat in the Hat are coming over tonight, and I have a lot to do to get ready.