What Novels Teach Us About Life

07/24/2015 06:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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It was with an unhealthy mix of exasperation and nausea that I learned Kim Kardashian, capitalist par excellence, was putting out a book of nothing but her Instagram selfies. Appropriately entitled Selfish, the sale of otherwise free photos was classic Kardashian--repackaging, commodifying, and selling another product, the nth addition to her vast collection of mostly useless things. What was most interesting about this stunt, however, was that even Kardashian (or her team of marketers and strategists) recognized the cultural role books still play in society. She effectively transferred the image-on-the-screen to the image-in-a-book--the same 'good,' but represented through two very different media. Despite the hyper-connectivity and uber-hyper-narcissism of our age, the proliferation of social media platforms and the cult of the 'brand,' Kardashian Inc. recognized what many recognized long before her: the staying power of the book.

Of the many different genres and types of books, the one that is perhaps most beloved is the literary novel. These works are fictional stories with made-up characters inhabiting made-up worlds where the stake of the characters is central to the work. You could say that novels are evolved versions of the tales our ancestors once told each other while sitting around cramped camp-fires. To read a literary novel is to suspend time and experience the inner workings of another human. It is a radically subjective experience, but then again, so is life. For the empiricists reading this, research has confirmed that reading fiction increases levels of empathy, but great literature cannot be reduced to its instrumental value, and readers should probably not go in search of books to devour for the sole purpose of becoming more empathetic. (Honourable as that is).

Submerging oneself into a deep novel is both rewarding and amusing--no one would read fiction if it wasn't--but it can also be alienating, perplexing, maddening. How to deal with the "exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark-hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor," the elegant professor and eloquent Central European, Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero of Lolita? He is, after all, in love with a 12 year-old-girl. Novels please, they also wound, and the best novels are axes "for the frozen sea within us," as Kafka memorably put it, the ones which even after being reread tend not to submit to diminishing returns.

The fact that novels are written and read in solitude does not mean that fiction is isolating. Quite the contrary. Fiction is inescapably a collective endeavor. Novels reflect the individuals who constitute a society and their aspiration for some higher feeling of solidarity. When Nick Carraway is narrating his encounters with the tortured Jay Gatsby, or when Meursault is indifferently retelling his murder of an unnamed Arab on an Algerian beach, they are pushing us readers to try and better understand our fellow human beings, who, like us, are imperfect and contradictory creatures. This aspiration for universal understanding is why novels often break loose of their linguistic chains and travel to far-flung territories where they move people of different skin colors and histories. 'Who knows,' asks Ralph Ellison's invisible man in the poignant final line of that timeless novel, 'but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?'

The irony of novels is that they are dressed-up lies with one crucial caveat: Unlike most lies, novels attempt to reach some fundamental truth of the kind our mostly inconsequential and barely-factual newsfeeds could never match. (A modern rephrasing of Mark Twain's famous aphorism might be: There are lies, damned lies, and Facebook statuses). Artists of all types have long debated the essentially unanswerable question of what is the purpose of art. To this amateur reader, the purpose of art is to ask and attempt to answer the question of what it means to be human--a question implanted in our skulls from birth, asked by sages, answered by prophets, and explored by novelists.

Even the holy books take on novelistic forms, filled as they are with stories of men and women wrestling with questions of good, evil, justice, morality. Like novels, holy books inspire and require readers to use their imaginations and interpretive abilities to make intelligible the numinous and transcendental messages they contain. We humans work in stories, and the prophets of the holy books were storytellers communicating their version of the universal in the form of the particular--the parable, the allegory, the epic, the flashback, the prediction, the rise, the fall, the climax, the denouement. Setting aside the merits and demerits of their content, it is worth noting that both the King James Bible and the Qur'an were prodigious literary projects unto themselves, written in the most poetic and lyrical English and Arabic, respectively, of their times (the former apparently by a committee, the latter apparently by God.)

(An objection: The literalists take all verses at their obvious word! Not true. Literalists are also engaged in the individual and subjective project of interpretation, abrogating and annulling some verses in favor of others while claiming, like university professors or Justice Antonin Scalia, to be dispassionate and rigorously objective and true to the letter of the text. Pure applesauce. The contradictions between what the literalists read/interpret and what the text in its social, political, and historical contexts means are varied and many.)

The novel also makes an indelible mark in the realm of secular religion or anti-religion, namely, politics. Literary and political novels allow citizen-readers to reimagine what is possible for their society regardless of what the establishment, the elite, the status quo, the moneyed interests, or the powerful, think. Few art forms could fill a reader with the anxiety of living in a totalitarian outpost under the watchful eye of an all-powerful dictatorship the way Orwell's 1984 does--written, incidentally, the same year Kim il-Sung established his racist party-state of North Korea. To read Toni Morrison is to bear witness to the daily violence (but also the boundless love) of African-American life. Morrison's books force at least this non-black reader to imagine what is impossible even in the abstract--what it would be like to have black skin. What would it be like to live in a society that condemned you before you were born? A society that turned your grandparents into disposable property and your parents into untouchables? And to still find light and warmth between the cracks, how would that feel?

No contemporary awards short-list, including and up to the Man Booker and Nobel Prizes, is complete without the names of dozens of authors who come from the former Third World. From Palestine to India, across Africa and Latin America, authors with last names that might be difficult for the award judges to pronounce fill the roster of the literary elite. The colonial experience suffered by most of humanity--the plunder and theft of other people's land for commercial and imperial gain, justified by ideologies of benevolent domination--has been brought to life through the characters of Salman Rushdie and Chinua Achebe and Roberto Bolano and Arundhati Roy and Nadine Godimer, among many others. In one of the most straightforward statements about the torture and rape of entire countries (also from a novel Achebe excoriated), Conrad in The Heart of Darkness, wrote:

They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force--nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind--as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

Indeed, it is not, and the final sentence and its understatement adds the extra touch of irony to the passage. Postcolonial literature is a field all on its own, painting a picture of the irreducibly complex humanity of characters negotiating between hope and hatred, lust and love, integration and resistance.

Finally, there is something to be said about novels in relation to totalitarianism, an ideology which both in its secular and its religious forms seeks to obliterate the competing narrative and the alternative history. It attempts to vanquish the human experience while trying to resurrect a perfect glory around a weaponized, monopolized Truth. There is a good reason why Sir Thomas More's term, utopia, actually means nowhere. Imagination and memory, and the instinctual desire to find moral lessons in experiences--these are human qualities not even the most repressive state can extinguish, though they try. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia criminalized reminiscing about the past and the Islamic State today executes people for questioning what it considers the official, undiluted, absolute truth. In communist circles not too long ago, to challenge the official consensus of what the past was and what it meant was to be labeled a 'counter-revolutionary.' Yet people resisted and subverted all these injunctions, very often on the threat of death. Why? Because remembering and retelling one's version of events is as natural as breathing, even amidst violence and chaos.

So, what does the novel teach us about life? It teaches us that reality is ambiguous, that human beings are fallible and are guided by basically the same instincts and insecurities. It shows us that we are all capable of depravity but also heroism (even Kim Kardashian). It reminds us that there is always time for humor, and that life is by definition absurd, so we might as well laugh as we go along. Perhaps more than anything else, novels let us escape the prison of our skulls to get inside someone else's head and experience a reality that is, as the name of the form suggests, completely and colorfully, novel.