I started reading Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones on Saturday - and, of course, though I'd promised myself that I'd only read a couple of chapters, a brief detour from my schedule of proper (work-related) reading, I'd promised myself with my fingers in a twist behind my back. These are the first sentences: "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." It was clear, from this point at least, that I wasn't going to get back to my essay until the book was over.
I loathe the way I'm attracted to narratives about trauma. I sat last week poring over the bushfire news footage, knowing before I clicked my way to the papers that I would be crying within minutes. I empathise for as long as I'm reading, or watching, and when the story's over I empathise a bit more, and then I get back to my life, it's 6 o'clock and all's well. Sometimes the empathy prompts me to do something, something helpful, or something that I hope will be helpful, but sometimes there's nothing to do, there's no remedy or gesture towards remedy within my reach, or, though I feel deeply for a moment, the moment passes. I go to these stories, not because encountering them will enable me to help, but for the pleasure of emoting. It's a kind of pornography, the trauma narrative, a depiction of suffering intended to excite a visceral, pleasurable response. (Or perhaps more accurate to say that in having this response, I pornographise such stories.) Last week I was anguished - as we all still are - to think of the people who have died, and whose family have died, and of the dogs trapped in sheds, and the cows burnt to death in their paddocks, and of losing homes, and of forests incinerated (even writing these words, I'm lathering up my own horror). One thing to be deeply saddened and to do what you can to help, but I kept going back again and again to those stories, needing to read more of them, as if my ongoing reading did anyone any good. I went back to them and I kept on crying, for a suffering that isn't mine, indulging and exalting in my tremendous capacity for fellow-feeling. If anyone can come up with a more ennobling explanation for my fascination, please send it this way.
Sebold's novel is about how Susie lives in heaven with the memory of her rape and murder, and with her ongoing surveillance of her old, changed world and of the man who killed her. It's an exhilarating story. Its exploration of what it would be like to be dead, to watch the living, to long for revenge, memorialisation, life, is a way of making literal the idea that certain experiences change a person so fundamentally, deprive them of so much that they valued, it is as if their life is over.
At lunchtime on Monday I went to the library and borrowed Sebold's memoir, Lucky, a tale, so the blurb tells me, of "what it's like to go through a particular kind of nightmare" and "what it's like - slowly, bumpily, triumphantly - to heal." A man raped and beat Sebold in a park when she was eighteen; she prosecuted, successfully. It's hard to tell where the triumph fits into all this, or the healing. Perhaps the fact that there is a memoir at all is meant to be proof that Sebold is now triumphantly healed: there certainly isn't a lot of triumph within its pages, where the central act of violence is compounded by what comes after, a father who asks Sebold how she could have been raped if the attacker didn't have a knife, etc, etc. Etc. It's not as crafted a book as The Lovely Bones, but I've been wondering if some memoirists cultivate a deliberately anti-literary quality, because literariness, associated with fiction, might be construed (questionably) as the opposite of truthfulness. So it's not apparently as crafted a book, but - maybe because I read it so quickly after her other - it has crawled into me. I am full of the horror of violence. I am sad, sad, sad at the thought that a person can deliberately do so much hurt.
Not that sad does any good. I'm suspicious of what draws me to the stories that I know are going to bring me here. I can imagine the need to tell or have one's story of suffering told. I can imagine wanting it to be read, and wanting the reader to feel angry, sad, indignant, maybe even vengeful, on my behalf. But my reading isn't to oblige this want in the writer. It's for my pleasure, masochistic though that pleasure seems to be.