December 21, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Pain

In this week’s New Yorker, David Denby reviews three of this season’s Oscar-baiting features, including “Revolutionary Road.” In his review, Denby indicates the film suffers “from the illusion that pain and art are the same thing.”

This observation reminded me of the very first argument I ever had about books. At age 17, I read Their Eyes Were Watching God alongside the biography of its author, and I asserted that only people who suffered could shape worthwhile narratives. My roommate reminded me that Jane Austen didn’t suffer in the same way Zora Neale Hurston suffered, and I made the mistake of admitting that I didn’t think Austen’s work was worthwhile.

I cringe at that argument now.

I read Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road as a first-year MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Though I inched closer to my mid-20s, I still had a juvenile sense of tragedy. I wrote stories about tremendous loss–the death of a mother or the destruction of a house. In my first apartment, I slept on an air mattress and ate ramen noodles for dinner while I searched want ads for part-time work to supplement my stipend. This was my brand of pain, and I didn’t think I would become a better writer until I felt more serious and obvious pain. In books like Desperate Characters and Revolutionary Road, I had to wrestle with a different kind of discomfort. I couldn’t understand how these characters with plenty of food and furniture could be in any sort of real pain. What kinds of tensions do their stories have?

I still struggle with separating pain from art. I have to re-read stories about moments of realization, about growing up. Yet, pain can be overdone. I’ve been wincing at some of the lines in Augusten Burroughs’ Dry and wondering which painful moments should be hidden from the audience. Suffering is the human rule, and pain–the reckless, violent, everyday kind–doesn’t necessarily make a story.

I think I should re-read Revolutionary Road now that it’s winter and I’m no longer living in student-poverty. I remember envying the suburban life these characters want to escape while I opened another can of soup. (I could still go for a taste of suburban life.) Now, I’m ready to get beyond the search for pain and find the tragedy.