The sky and air felt charged this week when I walked Hannah and Maggie, the chocolate Labs. The moon was already up while the sun hung low and cool in a fading denim sky. Too early for twilight! The scent of crushed leaves was strong as the dogs hunted in the dry amber mounds out on the trail. “Leave it!” I always call when one or the other starts to burrow, tail a flag of joy, when she finds a nest of mice. “Let them live and be well,” I say, grabbing collars and diverting with treats. We walk on, or I should say I walk and they run, feeling the poignancy of the time change, which in the fall always makes me think about all I cannot keep, although things will hang in the balance a while, Indian summer for a sweet brief interlude, and I’ll pick lettuce and spinach and snap peas from the garden a few last times. I want to hold on, to suck out the elusive sense of the here and now, to pay attention to life as I have it. Yes, I’m thinking metaphorically, with some sharp concrete moments sticking up: my last surviving aunt (of my Dad’s seven siblings), already in a nursing home, fell and broke her hip recently.
I was thinking about all this, and letting it be a lens through which I looked at my work this week. I was affected by Marcus Zucas’ remark when, talking about his novel, The Book Thief, and his new work in progress, he said, “You have to write the best book you possibly can, make it mean something. There are enough books in the world unless this is the one no one else could write.”
That’s why I write literary fiction, even though it seems that what’s selling best these days are books about vampires. In fairness, I have to admit that I have little sense about vampires and the rest of the paranormal world, and were I to try to write in that genre, I’d doubtless stink at it. We write what we’re given to write, for sure. And I can see that there are enough scary demons in life that it can be very attractive to externalize them, to imagine conquering them that way. Maybe in a way, that’s exactly what human beings do when we go to war. But we never kill ideas and beliefs; we just try to kill off enough people who hold them.
For me, the real demons are those inside us all. A shining piece of new fiction that illustrates this is The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, set in the world of college varsity baseball. Like most great fiction, it’s not about its setting but about the fragile humanity of its characters. One of the protagonists, a brilliant, gifted shortstop, is brought low fighting the devil of self-doubt after his first error causes a significant injury to his best friend. He’d previously been an amazement, perfect in his play. Other characters too, are dealing with their demons; the craft and the beauty of the book are not to be missed. Harbach reaches Zusak’s standard: he’s written a book that means something, and he’s written a book that no one else could have. Throughout, people are struggling to hang on, to create and build bridges into the blank mysterious future at the same time what they love dearly is coming to a terrifying end. It’s a book that took ten years to write, and, like warm late sunsets, I didn’t want its pages to end and had a sense of loss when they did.