When the News is Bad, Writing is Sometimes Good

One of Denise’s family members recently got hit with a terrible medical diagnosis, which has thrown our lives into turmoil only weeks into the new year, and has ensured that Denise and I will be acting as caregivers in the coming weeks or months. I don’t mean to be coy but I hope to be able to share more soon. I can, however, share with you an interesting book-related thing that happened to me that is tied to this family news.

I had been struggling for weeks to finish Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and not really loving it. I had enjoyed The Secret History, which I’d read years ago in paperback. Since Goldfinch was on so many peoples’ Best Of lists for 2013, I figured I had to bite the bullet and dig into this 775-page monster. But I was disappointed. I like a lot of books I read, probably because I’m so selective. But there’s a certain subspecies of bestseller—the big book everyone’s talking about—that always disappoints me. I liked some of Tartt’s new book. I admired her obvious research and the finely drawn characters, but it was not the life-changer so many people claimed it to be.

And then one Monday a few weeks ago, I was sitting in a hospital waiting room after just hearing the bad news from the doctor. Denise and I were waiting for our loved one to wake after surgery so we could go in and break the news to her. To clear my head, I thought I’d finish the last few pages of Tartt’s book. And I hit this passage, which spoke to me. That’s the cool thing about fiction. It helps you grapple with the real world. I still don’t love Goldfinch, but I’m never going to forget the day I hit this passage, spoken by Tartt’s first-person narrator:

And I feel that I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel that I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.