The short story collection Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins has gotten quite a bit of attention in the past few months and it was one of the books on my holiday list that showed up under the tree. (Yea for books for Christmas!) There are several very powerful stories in this collection, most notably "Ghost, Cowboys" about her father's membership in the Manson Family, but the overriding theme is that of disappointment. A lot of people die in Watkins's world, a lot have horrible relationships, a lot find only dead ends personally and professionally and pretty much overall every single story in this collection ends with a whimper of grimness.
It's not exactly a vision of a bold new day in America.
Please don't think I'm picking on Battleborn however, because there is nothing different in this book then a lot of others I've read lately. Heck, I'm the person who wrote a book with "Dead" in the title, so I'm as guilty of pessimism as the next person. (Though writing about aviation without writing about crashes is pretty much impossible.) What struck me about Battleborn though was that the unhappiness is not due to a sudden change in circumstance - an accident or unplanned twist of misfortune - but rather to the choices made by the characters and their unwillingness to make other choices then to change the situation.
You have a young man who visits a bordello in Nevada and falls for a prostitute, foolishly thinking he is in love. The story is about how she is willfully manipulating him in the hope of financial gain and how the manager of the facility is horribly lonely. No one is happy in this story and no one knows how to be happy.
In another a woman breaks up with her unpleasant boyfriend only to discover she is pregnant and then meets her former boyfriend (the nice guy whose baby she aborted) and thinks about having this new baby. No one is happy in this story either. (Except maybe her sister but she's not the point.)
There is a couple who goes camping and the wife is trying to figure out if she is happy as a wife and mother, the pregnant teenage girl who is discovered in the wild after a drunken party and might be impregnated by her father (I really wasn't sure) but goes back with him anyway and obviously is not happy. (I really couldn't figure out why the cops weren't called on this one but I was too busy being glad the dog didn't die to dwell on it.) And there's the woman who tells her lover about how she peer pressured a friend into having sex with multiple guys they did not know when they were in high school and how the two of them stopped being friends afterwards and the other girl ended up in an abusive relationship and clearly did not live happily ever after. (This was probably the saddest story ever because the whole thing happened out of manipulation bred by boredom - they could have gone to a damn movie instead.)
The story I had the most trouble with was a historic one about gold mining brothers. One plans to get rich and return to marry his girl, who will wait for him - of course. They nearly die getting to the gold fields, lose all their equipment, struggle to find any gold, the girl doesn't write, the brother goes mad, innocent people are killed (bonus - they are Chinese killed due to their ethnicity!) and the sane brother flees without ever knowing what happens to the crazed sibling he left behind. Jack London and everybody else did this already and better, but the point is clear - no one got happy trying to get rich in the gold fields and the girl will never wait for you. (Really - is there a story where the girl EVER waits like she promises?)
Again, in all these stories the writing is powerful, the characters well drawn, the sentences elegant. It's all the good stuff you expect in literary fiction. But honestly, when I was done reading this book I couldn't reach for a fluffy romance novel fast enough. I was tired of all the negativity and it was really wearing me down. I needed something hopeful stat.
What bothers me about so much contemporary literature is that it seems that serious work has to mean unhappiness. We have turned so hard against unearned happy endings (the princess model) that to get respect you have to show the failures of the American dream - the ways in which life beats us up again and again and again. No one just meets the person of their dreams and buys a nice little house and loves their job and enjoys themselves. Can you think of a non-genre title where this happens? Can you think of something lauded as serious literature where just nice pleasant things happen to the characters*? Are we so jaded we don't even want make believe people to be happy?
Am I the only one who wonders about this or still believes that happily-ever-after is an okay thing to think about?
*The only one that comes to mind for me right away is Glaciers by Alexis Smith, the wonderful novella from Tin House. It's thoughtful and written with great care but contains a definite measure of happiness that really makes it heartwarming.