When I think about why I like reading—whether I’m directly asked why or I’m trying to justify taking two years out of my life to pay for and complete a graduate degree that doesn’t directly lend itself to a profitable career—I tend to come back to the same thing. It’s certainly fun (and even necessary) to escape reality or manipulate it or pretend that reality is something other than what it is. But that’s not why I read. I love books that tell me the truth. I want a book to help me clarify reality, to illuminate some truth about the world around me and the people in it.
When I read classics, I don’t pay much attention to what others have said. With contemporary fiction, sure, I’ll read the reviews in the front of the book, but with stuff that’s in the canon—well, lots of people must have thought the book had merit for it to survive through the ages so I don’t take reviews that seriously.
After a semester that was pretty heavy on Southern fiction (Lee, McCullers, Capote, and two Faulkners in 15 weeks), I didn’t know if it would be best to start this project with another McCullers. I didn’t love The Member of the Wedding either of the times that I read it. But there was a Borders close-out sale a few weeks ago and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter never made it off the top of my dresser and on to my bookshelf, so I figured what the hell.
That said, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was amazing. I keep coming back to the review on the back cover:
“When one puts [this book] down, it is with…a feeling of having been nourished by the truth.” – May Sarton
I can see where Sarton got that. Heart is about this sense of futility and isolation that seems to be so much a part of our human existence. Even if you’re working towards something, unless you believe in your greater connection to something else, eventually you come to a point where you have to ask yourself: what’s the point?
Singer’s got his own crappy life to deal with, and as a deaf mute, he could easily be the one to feel most alone. But they all come to him to talk, and he listens, seemingly without judgment. He’s like God, or our general conception of God, in that way. He gives the others a sense of connection or purpose; he lessens their feelings of meaninglessness and futility, even though his ability to do so is false. Singer is only human. He’s flawed, and he’s traumatized, and he’s mortal. He’s not absolute, and he’s not God, and when he dies, everyone is as alone as they were before. So what’s the point?
McCullers argues that our connection to a larger purpose or our sense of interconnectedness with other human beings doesn’t have to hold, or even exist. Maybe we’re not in communion with the universe. Maybe we don’t have a bigger purpose.
As much as I liked Singer, if I’m going to remember someone from Heart, it’ll be Mick Kelly. Evidently, this book was an Oprah’s Book Club selection at one point, so at the risk of sounding a bit Oprah-ish, I don’t think a book needs to tell you your truth as you’re experiencing it at the present moment for it to actually be true. Mick says at the beginning of the novel:
“This is a funny thing—the dreams I’ve been having lately. It’s like I’m swimming. But instead of water I’m pushing out my arms and swimming through great big crowds of people. The crowd is a hundred times bigger than in Kresses’ store on Saturday afternoon. The biggest crowd in the world. and sometimes I’m yelling and swimming through people, knocking them all down wherever I go—and other times I’m on the ground and people are trompling all over me and my insides are oozing out on the sidewalk. I guess it’s more a nightmare than a plain dream—”
I’ve felt like Mick Kelly does, and I’m afraid to end up the way she does. I know what it is to tread water and wait, to feel crushed by circumstance. I keep waiting for my real life to start, to become the adult I imagined I would be. Sometimes it feels like I’m making progress and other times, I’m in the crowd like Mick is. I’m just an anonymous, average person who can be trampled because of their everlasting anonymity. I don’t want to be famous or anything, but to feel a sense of control over my life’s trajectory would be nice.
Two years out of college and life is not quite what I thought it would be. I suppose that’s part of growing up—more realistic expectations about the future—but I never thought I’d come of age in this kind of a broken world. I never thought that drive and working hard wouldn’t be enough. I didn’t think that the deck would generally be stacked against me. I realize that thinking this way points to an extremely privileged upbringing; it is a particularly white, middle-class, college-educated kind of concern about life. But it’s a concern nonetheless.
I didn’t think that the novel was going to end on a particularly uplifting note. When Mick ends up working at the department store, giving up on her dream of composing music probably forever, because she has to survive—that’s pretty much my biggest fear. I don’t think I have a particular dream like she does, but I still desire a meaningful life and I don’t want to get bogged down trying to survive, so to speak, that I never actually realize that desire. At the end of the novel, Mick realizes:
“It was like she was mad all the time. Not how a kid gets mad quick so that soon it is all over—but in another way. Only there was nothing to be mad at. Unless the store. But the store hadn’t asked her to take the job. So there was nothing to be mad at. It was like she was cheated. Only nobody had cheated her. So there was nobody to take it out on. However, just the same she had that feeling. Cheated.”
But the good thing about a book is that it helps work against the same human condition that McCullers wrote this novel about in the first place—that we are isolated from one another. Even though Mick Kelly isn’t real, and even though her outcome isn’t what I want for myself, it still feels better to know that I’m not the only one who’s felt this way before.
Next up: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad