Why Great Fiction Can Make Us Feel Less Alone
by Taylor Beck
If you are a reader, nothing feels more foreign than not being able to read. I’m not talking about blindness, a busy life, or the time crunch that heaps our bedsides with half-read books and magazines. The place I’m talking about is a headspace: when you can’t think your way out of the skull-shaped cage where each of us is born. If we’re being honest (as we only tend to be when we’re by ourselves or late at night with somebody in a bed) that cage is where all of us, one day, will die. Our only consolation is that we’ve all got the same raw deal. We’re “sick with desire,” as Yeats wrote, “fastened to a dying animal.”
In rural Japan, at the school where I taught years ago, I once cracked open a book and fell back into feudal Japan. “Even in Kyoto,” Basho wrote, “when I hear the cuckoo sing, I long for Kyoto.” The nostalgic words, written in foreign characters by an Edo poet three hundred years ago, made me feel a part of something beyond myself. Across time, age, race, and place, a gap closed: a gap rarely bridged over beers in Brooklyn bars, even among friends, or across candle-lit tables on dates. “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved,” David Foster Wallace once said. “Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know.” Fiction, on the other hand, along with poetry, music and “deep, serious sex,” snubs out the ache. Through reading, “Loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”
Today, a blue-haired girl on the subway asked which was my favorite work by Wallace, nodding at the book in my hand. She said she agreed, Infinite Jest is great, but the stories are the best. I mentioned the one I read today, funny in the darkest possible way, a real wrist-slitter, as its author might have said. As the mystery girl’s F train disappeared into the tunnel, I thought, who are David Foster Wallace readers? What makes us so drawn not just to him but to one another?
To any reader who has ever been so “inbent and self-conscious” as to alienate himself, Wallace is a friend.
“Imagine you’ve gone to a party where you know very few of the people there, and then on your way home afterwards you suddenly realize that you just spent the whole party so concerned about whether the people there seemed to like you or not that you now have absolutely no idea whether you liked any of them or not,” Wallace writes in the story Octet, and once again he tells loners’ feelings in a funny, accessible voice. “Plus of course it almost always turns out that the people at the party actually didn’t like you, for the simple reason that you seemed so inbent and self-conscious the whole time that they got the creepy subliminal feeling that you were using the party merely as some sort of stage to perform on and that you barely even noticed them and probably left without any idea whether you even liked them or not, which hurts their feelings and causes them to dislike you.” To any reader who has ever been so “inbent and self-conscious” as to alienate himself, Wallace is a friend.
Far away was nothing new when I moved back from Japan. I’d also lived in France during college. But nowhere was I ever so far away as when I came back home, unable to read. Sitting on my parents’ screened porch in my mid-twenties, the song of birds at the feeders, my college friends off hustling in New York or Boston to get ahead and launch fancy careers, it all seemed distant, futile. My own post-college path seemed selfish and without aim. Wallace knew this feeling too, at just about the same time in life. “Something happens in your late twenties,” he told David Lipsky on their road trip, “Where you realize that… how other people regard you does not have enough calories in it, to keep you from blowing your brains out.” Trophies won’t save you; you’ve got to find another fix.
In a haze, living in St. Louis months later, I found my way back to books by a writer I’d loved in college. The guy, in his bandana and boots, with his black lab and Alanis Morissette posters on his bedroom wall, was not much older than me when he wrote them. It only took a few lines of that dark, talky, funny voice, as gritty and open as a late-night friend, to see with new eyes. Even here, Wallace made you realize, in a mindset so airtight and closed it seems like a padded cell — especially here, at our most raw, scared and vulnerable — we are not alone.
Taylor Beck is a writer in New York. He has written for The Atlantic,
Fast Company, GQ, The Week and other publications.