Thursday, January 26, 2012

The fiction that reflects our troubled times

Is there a more disturbing line in Shakespeare than the one in which Shylock promises to Solanio in the Merchant of Venice when he says:

"If you prick us do we not bleed...and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

It is a promise, delivered via monologue, that Shylock shall stop at nothing, even if it means to sink to the level of those that wronged him. In my reading of the December issue of The New Yorker, I thought of this line.  It happened when I came across a remarkable story written by Margaret Atwood called "Stone Mattress" which is part of what I see as a new surge or re-invention in crime fiction. I'm going to say that this genre caught fire with Stieg Larson and the publishing of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

If you think about the plot, you know it already. A man terribly wrongs a woman via a brutal rape. The wrong that is done to the protagonist of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the same thing that is done to Atwood's Verna in Stone Mattress. A few generations ago, or even on Law & Order, this kind of story would focus on how terrible the villain is and then follow some law enforcement agent to tracking down the villain and bringing him to justice. Usually there would be some moral authority present to assuage the woman's anger at being brutally violated.

Well this story is cliche and has been reinvented. Now it's all about revenge. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo empowers herself over her rapist and effectively castrates him (if you consider that rape is not a sexual crime but one of power). Atwood takes this a step further in the Stone Mattress and makes a life-long female serial killer out of Verna. Many of the men that Verna kills are actually innocent of any wrong-doing toward her. Yet she destroys them anyway, because well...she was wronged.

At first upon finishing this story, I wondered if the writer took some sick pleasure in living within the skin of a protagonist in order to experience a complete evacuation of character and complexity. It's a touchstone of moral ugliness the same as a scene from American History X where Edward Norton curb stomps and kills some black gang members when he finds them breaking into a truck left to him by his father. In this case, the justice DID NOT fit the crime. But you can't help but watch because you realize, yes...humans are capable of such things. And therein is the horror. Anger, rage, and hatred that are allowed to flow so unchecked that there is nothing that we can recognize left behind, yet to which any number of us can relate. Is that ironic? That in a state of pure hatred we are perhaps at our most human?

Margaret Atwood
So why are these stories so popular? I would never classify The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Stone Mattress as dystopian because I feel that definition applies to "setting" and not "character". Both literary works take place in settings that are no different from what we see every day. If anything, they are stories of an internal dystopian that takes place in the latticework of the human soul. If you were to go into the dreams of these people, would you experience the empty, urban, and utterly Escher-like metropolis that Leonardo di Caprio built in the deepest layer of his subconscious in the movie Inception? Is it because the idea of an "eye for an eye" is no longer acceptable? The United States is a pretty divided place right now. The country has a lot of anger, and based off of the riots that we witnessed in London and the Arab Spring that took place in 2011, I think it's safe to say that the whole world is also pretty angry.

There is no question that rape has a life-altering effect on its victims. But I can't help but wonder if the rise of these kinds of stories are a temperature gauge for the anger felt by men and women the world over who are sick and tired of being exploited, economically raped, and who long for a better life because people finally feel that they can rise up and be successful against brutal oppression. So my question to you is, do you think there is any merit to this hypothesis? And when you write, do you use your writing as a catharsis for the expulsion of feelings and frustrations that you may live with and can find no other outlet?


  1. Hmm, really interesting stuff. A couple of relevant fact about my opinion: I haven't read either the Atwood story of the Dragon Tattoo book, and my manuscript is about a woman who was raped. In my story, she doesn't go after revenge, at least not on her rapist. Instead, she takes her shame and guilt out on herself.

    I can't remember the exact quote, but there was something about how you're never the same person going into a book as you are when it's finished. I think that is definitely true, and that's part of why authors will continue to riff on the same themes. Whether from our past experiences or just our interests, certain topics demand our attention and beg to be explored. I'm not sure I have consciously used my writing to expel frustrations, but the deeper understanding I've gained along the way probably helps.

  2. Oh yeah, what I feel finds its way into my writing almost immediately. If I'm sad, I'll sit down and write it out. I'll invent a situation, a character or two and roll with it. Same goes for rage. I seldom use these scenes in my stories, it's something I just do. Writer's therapy.

    My painful experiences are recurring themes in my writing as well. (And some nice ones) I would imagine they would have to be. We're shaped emotionally through such ordeals and we view life through our individual prisms.

  3. I haven’t read the those books, but I do watch Law and Order and I have to say that the stories on that show are excellent and I don’t normally even like shows like that. Usually I can’t stand movies or TV shows about rapists, serial killers, pedophiles, etc. I especially hate stories where you have a victim (usually a child or a woman) that is so inept and weak they are completely helpless while the hero is under all kinds of stress trying to save them. I just hate to see that. But Law and Order is different. It has a lot of twists and you find out how the killer became that way, so it’s layered that way. It all comes down to great characterization.

    Also I think whatever type of story you like to write shows some of what is inside the author. This is just because for good writing the author has to be inspired in some way.

  4. It's an interesting idea. Perhaps there is some sort of psychology behind it. That people want to escape the boundaries that normal life places on them when sometimes people suspect that their normal lives start to look like they suck.

  5. you are very right, Michael. Everybody knows that I have a huge problem with books and films which are overly obssessed with aggression and violence in the way that actually inspires new violence, revenge, fighting instead of calming and soothing and giving hope to people.
    It's no wonder world is on the brink of something very nasty when little kids are raised today reading YA books in which kids kill, fight and assassinate or in which kids listen to that horrid tart Rihanna singing how she killed a man, killed a man, tra la la la .... horrid horrid horrid!

  6. Everything's been getting more and more violent. A lot of movies now days that get a PG-13 rating 20 years ago would have gotten an R and movies from 20 years ago that were PG-13 would be PG by today's standards. The reality is that violence, like sex, sells. Which is also why football surpassed baseball as "America's pastime." (That and gambling.)

  7. I confess that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was too disturbing for me to continue the series. I've yet to see the movie, as I'm not sure I will enjoy it.

  8. I had never thought of it this way, but what an interesting hypothesis. I think so many across the world are feeling a sense of impotence and frustration, and rising anger, that you could definitely be on to something. Fascinating post!

  9. Great post! I just found your blog today--strange because I wrote about something similar on my blog today. Yes, I think what we're seeing in literature (and other art/entertainment forms) mirrors what society as a whole is feeling. There's a lot of anger in this country and that concerns me.

    As a writer, of course we need to present things in a fresh way, but I wonder if this anger is productive?

  10. David Morrell (author of First Blood that launched the Rambo movies) spoke at a conference I attended this year. He spoke about writers subconsciously revealing their personal demons. I believe he said that ALL writers do.

  11. I'm an escape artist...I write humorous women's fiction. While I know rape and other violence exists, I can only take so much. I did however read and enjoy The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. I guess I focused more on the mystery in the stories.

  12. Great post. I do love the idea of victims becoming empowered. That's the attraction of this kind of story for me.

  13. The taking of "a pound of flesh" line from Merchant of Venice was a little more chilling for me, knowing it was meant literally. Yikes.

    Atwood's novel sounds a lot like the movie Monster.

  14. What I'm wondering is if we're heading toward a full scale class revolt sort of like the French Revolution.

  15. @A Daft: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? You probably can get it at any library if you don't want to buy it.

    @Amber: The Atwood story is online. I put the link in the post.

    @Charlie: Good to know!

    @Cindy: I don't like Law & Order all that much. They all seem to be the same.

    @Misha: You may be right.

    @Dezmond: LOL oh poor Rihanna. She gets no love from the Hollywood Spy.

    @Grumpy: I don't think people like football because of the violence. It's a great spectator sport. Things are easily explained. There's enough halting in the action to allow for commercial breaks. And the score keeps going up unlike hockey (where four points is a lot).

    @Ciara: It's pretty gritty.

    @Julie: That was my point.

    @Stephanie: Oh great minds think alike.

    @Brinda: That's probably the evidence I was looking for.

    @Em-Musing: Good to know.

    @L.G.: Atwood's "short story" not novel. It's in the New Yorker and is complete. Takes about 20-minutes to read.

  16. I think these types of stories are popular because we always love to play what-if: What would I do if I'd been wronged in a horrible way and had the power/resolve to fight back? Would I fight back in the worst way if I could?

    The average person living in the USA isn't going to face that decision in their lives (thankfully), so it's an exercise in fantasy. In horrible frame-by-frame recounts, we all see the news stories about horrible crimes. We rarely get to live out the counter: a step-by-step account of the victim getting even. Truthfully, true justice is an elusive thing.

    Just my thoughts.


  17. I think you have a really great point. Part of its rise I think is catharsis, both on the parts of the authors and on the audience's part. Both are agents living in the current economically chaotic climate this world finds itself in. We're all humans. When we have an inability to effect change in our lives, we can at least feel vicarious satisfaction in fictive justice being served.

    I believe that creative arts simultaneously are impacted by the world in which they arise and also impact that world. The movie Wag the Dog I think is a good example of that. I remember seeing placards with "Wag the Dog" in protests around the world during the initial Afghanistan invasion in 2003. It became shorthand for the belief in illegitimate war. But, as well, the 1993 book on which the movie was based came out of the disillusionment with Papa Bush's Desert Storm escapade. The circle was thus complete (insert Darth Vader joke here).

    The danger in this is that we can start to confuse art and reality, thinking that a measure of justice served in fiction equates to actuated justice in real life. That is just not so. But with the increasing wave of fear-based media, fewer and fewer people are willing to take the risks to enact real change, and instead bask in the virtual change these kinds of stories offer.

    A very thought-provoking post.

  18. Like any artist, I use experiences to create an art that uplifts or entertains people. Actually, I'm pleased if I make people feel or think anything at all. I can't say I feel better afterwards; this is just who I am.

  19. Writing is absolutely cathartic for me! Good and bad feelings just spill onto the page. In fact I find I do my best writing when I'm in some kind of high or low :)

  20. I believe in method writing - kind of like method acting - where I do my best to think and feel like my pov characters as I write. So if I wrote a tale from a victims pov then I would probably feel the things my character felt.

  21. strong supposition. personally i write & read as an escape, to entertain and mostly for a appy ending that real life & drama dont always bring... but it doesnt mean i ignore the bad parts, just need a break from them sometimes. especially when i feel helpless in wanting to do something.

  22. I haven't read this book, but it's being talked about everywhere.

    I usually read and write to relate a world of possibility on the more positive side of things. Of course, bad things have to happen, but I like to see the protagonist win in the end.

    I do think things like this can be interesting to show people "hey- there's a lot of crap out here." I think people do write to share opinions and feelings about certain things and I find that interesting and understandable. However - if it were me, I'd hesitate before I filled the world with more negativity.

  23. To answer your questions. Yes and yes. There is a sense of compressed rage building up within this country and it definitely finds its way into our writing. I write escapes from reality for the same reason many people are writing these vengence and internal dystopia stories.

  24. Excellent thoughts, Michael. And I think there's a lot of merit to what you've said. I wouldn't be surprised if that is accurate. Stories are popping up everywhere where woman are taking revenge on men. Heck, I'm even reading one right now from a CP. So, yeah. I sense a new trend. :)

  25. You've got a point there, but Atwood has leaned that way all along. It's why I stopped reading her.

  26. You ask two questions of your followers and as such, my answers are:

    No and no.

  27. I saw the Swedish movies of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Very good & on Netflix.

    I think it may reflect a very human need to rise up and fight back. Many of my characters are dealt lousy hands and find a way to overcome. Sometimes they go about it wrong.

    I think that's very human. I think these stories can be a catharsis and show us how to channel that energy more productively.

    I want to read Stone Mattress now. I enjoy Ms. Atwood.

  28. What a thought-provoking post. I've considered that questions a lot and in some ways, used the same plot lines in my book. Why? I also don't know. In one of my stories, I wife kills her husband because he continually rapes her.

    As to your questions: So my question to you is, do you think there is any merit to this hypothesis?

    I think yes. Of course. Especially because we see it happen all the time.

    And when you write, do you use your writing as a catharsis for the expulsion of feelings and frustrations that you may live with and can find no other outlet?

    Yes. Sometimes I do. I write mysteries with killing in it. Would I ever kill someone? No. But, I do take out some of the anger against those who perpetrate harm talked about in the media, in my books. Is that right? Good question.

  29. I think so. Writing, and other art forms, are some of the few outlets were people can express their feelings uninhibited; the shift toward "internal dystopian" seems like a reflection of what's happening around the world right now.

  30. Fascinating post, and I want to read that story about Verna! Sounds compelling.

    I think that's the case with a lot of serial killers though - they will punish people who did nothing wrong, because of one person in the past who did do something terribly wrong.

  31. maggie's story is far from original, i read at least two such, years ago, one in graphic novel form

    as for stieg larsson's millennium trilogy, of which the girl with the dragon tattoo is the first, it's a very good read...

    his common-law wife is writing something that may be a fourth in the series, because she co-wrote the trilogy with him and knows the characters intimately

    unfortunately swedish law prohibits her from getting a cent from the trilogy, since they were not wed... despite having lived together for about half their lives... so all $$$ go to larsson's dad and brother, who reluctantly returned copyright of the characters to her, still without giving her a nickle....

  32. I have to say yes, and yes to both your questions Mike.

    And, its peculiar that my 13 year old son and I had a conversating tonight that embodied the concept "justice did not fit the crime". He was in the wrong for his aggressive actions, and duly punished; but I truly wanted him to understand why he should not have punched one kid for hitting his friend. I know; sounds justified. But . .

    Today's morality does not fit what I was taught 30 years ago. The world is such a different place. But sometimes - like the with the snyopisis of Girl - justice needs to be dealt out by the victim in order not to be "raped" a second time by the judicial system. Victims seem to have to become perpetrators to feel vindicated.

    Hmm, this is not where I intended this comment to go when I started.

    You've stirred up quite a controversy in my Mike. I'll have to do some more thinking on this. Thanks for the interesting food for thought.


  33. I think humanity as a whole is shifting from a hederitary form of power (kings and queens, family dynasties etc) to a more merit based one, but a lot slower than people would like, and often fake advancements (choose who you like, as long as it's one of these old white guys we'v'e already selected).

    The problem is when one group has all the power in order for a fairer system only that group has the vote, and why would they give it up? And the people without the power can't do anything about it.

    As ever, violence seems to be the go to solution.


  34. i love themes like this, kind of a "who actually is the monster?" Theme. I'll have to check this out

  35. I can't read books about rape.

    I'm not sure what the trend means. Your post is eloquently written and explores some valid theories. Our media has gotten violent. It's out there, everywhere, if we want exposure to it. Books are reflecting this trend.

  36. Some merit, yes. Their popularity could certainly be linked to the current times. And yet it could also be argued that they are well-written, engaging stories. I believe there's always been an allure for an eye for an eye.

    As far as my writing, I suppose it depends on the story I'm writing.

    Great post!

  37. That;s a very insightful way of looking at it. While I enjoyed Larsson's stories, I have a problem with Atwood - I don't empathise with her characters at all, and find her writing style much to dry for me. So while I can empathise with Lisbeth - especially because her own moral code means she doesn't hurt the innocent (and feels guilty when they're hurt by accident, for having come into contact with Lisbeth) - I have a hard time relating to any of Atwood's characters. I like the idea of dystopians because it implies that the world has gone wrong and vigilantes within are working to restore it. But when it's a case of individuals hurting each other in an endless cycle of violence... I don't have much patience for it.

  38. I can't read those stories. Too dark.

    Your hypothesis might be correct. People feel anger and they need to direct it somewhere. The art of an era is related to the mood of its people.