With adoration and gratitude for Jose Saramago (November16, 1922–June 18, 2010), on his birthday.
Sometimes, when I’m reading a really, really good book and I get to that part where plotlines converge or characters come together and all the emotions hit the fan, suddenly I’m sobbing out loud, blinking through tears to find out what happens next. When that happens, when I hear that horrible high-pitched, wavery whine issue from my own ugly clown mouth, I am simultaneously impressed and amazed: impressed by the author’s talent, amazed that a black font on a white page could make me feel so blasted, so unhinged. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I never forget.
First I should mention that I’m really not a crier. Even the sappiest ads (usually aired around Christmas or Valentine’s Day, probably because some ad exec discovered that tears make people spend more money) don’t impress me and if you look at my shelf or my queue, you won’t find anything that could be characterized as a tearjerker. I’m not really drawn toward things—or people, for that matter—that want to make me cry. Why would I be? Crying is uncomfortable, messy, incapacitating, and nothing to feel proud of. Crying does not prove that my feelings are any more real or refined than the next guy’s, and tears don’t make me a better person.
Most of my favorite books made me think or laugh or dream instead of cry. I’d move south if it meant I could be closer to McCullers and Welty and Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston. I’m crazy about Toni Morrison, who could make a shopping list sound like poetry. Vladimir Nabokov makes me feel like a genius, and Ian McEwan makes me wish I could play chess better. Reading Philip K Dick makes me want to swallow some pills to see what might happen; with Ray Carver, I get thirsty for gin, and with Kesey, I want to commit myself to a nutbin, while Charlaine Harris makes me want to have sex with a dead man. With all these inspiring options, why should I choose to cry?
Nevertheless, if you look at my copy of Blindess by Jose Saramago, one of my favorite books, all-time, you will find several tear-warped pages. The story is about a city hit by an epidemic of viral blindness and the chaos that ensues. Only one woman is immune and we witness the madness through her eyes. Over the course of the narrative some really nasty things happen, as bad as you can imagine (or as bad as a spectacular storyteller who has lived, observed, and dreamed enough to see it all might imagine), and the horror ratchets up until you think you can’t take it anymore. More than once I had to put the book down and back out of the room, go pet my cat or take a hot shower or pull a swig of something strong straight from the bottle, before I could go on.
If it was just a nauseating portrait of society’s sins, I never would have finished. But while things go bad, some of the characters’ beauty, kindness and dignity expand, offering a counterpoint to the nihilism.
So some bad people commit acts of grace and some good guys fall apart under pressure and Saramago reserves judgment. He is an omniscient Buddha, a jolly old elf—he knows precisely who’s been bad and good, but still, he’s not crossing anyone’s name off the list quite yet. There’s something very big about his perspective that I find quite comforting–the illusion of an unblinking eye in the sky who’s seen it all before and will see it all again.
I probably enjoy a mixture of acute awareness and magnanimity in my narrator for the same reason I like to believe that judges really do listen to the very end before making any decisions and why, in school, I liked the teachers who liked me, but I loved the ones who recognized every student’s uniqueness and who seemed to like everyone. When I read the newspaper, the op-eds are fun but a carefully researched, in-depth, unbiased report will always feel like the real thing. My closest friends are the ones who see all my defects and still think I’m great; after twenty years of seeing me first thing in the morning, my husband says he’d marry me all over again. It’s the opposite of blind faith; it’s an intimate appreciation, and it’s what really gets me.
The scene in Blindness I remember most vividly came near the end, when three women we have followed since the start of the epidemic (through filth, terror, and deprivation) finally find a safe haven and get to take a shower. It starts to rain and they take off their clothes and go out on the rooftop. Suddenly, they feel worried about what they look like, which seems rather silly considering what they’ve been through and the fact that no one can see them, but it rings true, too, because old habits die hard and because at this point, everyone—characters and readers alike—is starving for a little beauty. The two younger blind women want to know what they look like: the older woman who can see tells them they are beautiful, far more beautiful than she, but one of the blind women assures her, “You were never more beautiful,” and Saramago goes off on a riff:
Words are like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, […] sometimes the nerves that cannot bear it any longer, they put up with a great deal, they put up with everything, it was as if they were wearing armour, we might say. The doctor’s wife has nerves of steel, and yet the doctor’s wife is reduced to tears because of a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, mere grammatical categories, mere labels, just like the two women, the others, indefinite pronouns, they too are crying, they embrace the woman of the whole sentence, three graces beneath the falling rain.
As they all cry and hug, and the scene is awash in beauty and gratitude and grace, and it feels like all the ugliness in the world is cleansed and love will prevail. Even rereading this passage out of context makes me teary.
I guess I’m crying partly because I want to do that, too. I want to write a scene that could make a grown woman cry. Now that I’ve finished my second novel and realize that neither of them turned out quite as well as I’d hoped, I’m ready to try to learn a thing or two from writers like Saramago. Because face it: sooner or later, probably next year when my youngest starts kindergarten, I’m going to have to get a job. I can’t just sit around cooking and cleaning house forever, can I? Unless I get paid, I’m only amusing myself (and perhaps a handful of lovely friends), so I might as well use the time I have left to do a little market research just like those tear-jerking, money-grubbing advertisers did. If I want to write something commercially viable, I’ll need to discover the secret. So even though it feels a bit callous and reductionistic to dissect something so lovely, I’ve gotta get serious: What makes Saramago so effective? What can I borrow from him?
Perhaps it has something to do with the characters’ vulnerability. When people need something, we want to rise to the occasion, like for those Christian ads they run during the holidays, the ones with big-eyed baby skeletons covered with flies looking desperately into your living room: the bigger the eye-to-face ratio, the larger the impact, it seems. Crying might also help because the sight of tears probably triggers the empathetic release of some fabulous neurochemical cocktail. Also, in Saramago’s scene, the women’s nakedness definitely augments the pathos. (Mental note: More naked people; bigger eyes.)
It must also help to have a narrator who sounds like Saramago’s, one with such a hypnotic voice. His rooftop scene inhabits one paragraph of his book, one paragraph that stretches for almost five pages without pausing for much punctuation. His narrator croons like an old lover; he teases and chides but he also seems like he’s deeply in love with his characters. He’s like a horse whisperer, except he’s taming my cynicism. (Go to Wikipedia; look up hypnosis, empathy, and rhetorical devices.)
Then there’s the requisite element of surprise; either the reader or a main character should be completely astonished by a sudden turn of events. Remember in Pulp Fiction? When the kid in the back seat got shot? I was so surprised that my heart felt bruised from banging against my ribs. Many popular filmmakers are savvy to the element of surprise; they use it so much that by the end of the film you feel whipped and whiplashed. After movies like that I walk out through the theater lobby with my chest puffed out, giving fellow moviegoers a macho nod that says, Nah, it didn’t hurt that bad. I could take it! But Saramago showed me that the surprise doesn’t have to be violent—it can be a simple thing, like rain, and if it ties into the character’s greatest need (for a bath, a friend, a safe place to exist) and is expressed with tenderness, then you’ve discovered how to reach into my chest, grip my heart, pull it out my throat, take a big bite, and leave me scarred forever, nevermind if that’s not anatomically possible because it’s exactly how it feels. (Remember: Surprise+Need+Emotion=Wow.)
I want to make you cry—the good kind of cry—not because I value emotions over ideas, but because I don’t know how to do that kind of thing quite yet. In my writing, the places where my own bias and criticism show through are the places where I suspect I need to grow. Even in this essay, I can’t seem to resist a little sarcasm. My narratorial voice is still a teenager—sophomoric, eye-rolling, mired in the moment, overly concerned with appearances, worried about what you think, and prone to fits of giggles. Hopefully she’ll grow up some day—I’m waiting as patiently as I can—and in the meantime, it’s my job to point her in the right direction.
So I read Saramago (or Michael Cunningham or Nicole Krauss or Marilynn Robinson) and cry. And when I cry, I feel just a little bit proud of myself for understanding, and just a tad virtuous for allowing myself to be swayed. Even though it’s illogical, when I cry, I imagine my tears are teaching me how to be a better person.
Questions: In terms of literature, who or what makes you cry? What written moments have stayed with you over the years?