We live our lives according to careful, polite convention. We paint our houses white to match the others on the street, and clip our lawns neat and smooth. We say “Bless your heart” instead of “You seem deranged.” When we feel as if the floor has dropped out beneath us and we’re on the verge of rage and tears, we comb our hair, check to be sure we’re wearing matching shoes, and head out the door with a spring in our step and a kind word for everyone we meet. Sometimes, convention is the only thing that gets us through the day.
Days end (hallelujah!), and then comes the night, the hours of dreaming, returning to our deepest nature, wish fulfillments, and abject terrors. And to our curiosity. Why did that celebrity couple divorce? How did that accident happen? She had her blouse on inside out all day—what’s that about?
Time to relax, let go, fall into a story. Perhaps a mystery story: someone has died! Here come the police, the forensic team. In the name of justice, we good people must drop convention, tear off the masks, rifle the drawers, question the motives, peep under the skirt and perhaps even under the skin . . . We’re off, baying and howling! We must follow the blood trail no matter where it leads!
In the act of reading—or watching—a story, we are taken out of ourselves and pulled along a new path, seeing the world we know in a deeper, less conscious way. We don’t have to do as we’re told anymore—we’re free in the world of fiction and can poke and pry, take everything in: the odd bruise on her collarbone, the pants worn through at the knees from days and days of prayer. We hear a note of flirtation in one voice, of craven submission in another . . . we’re putting the pieces together, as we do in real life every day, but now we’re in an alternate reality, free to recognize our instincts. We’re slavering, we must know. Every page we turn leads us deeper into the jungle of human fear and desire. And here, rather than returning to politeness, we are allowed to speculate. What pain or shame or rage are these characters hiding? Is it like the pains and rages and shames we’re hiding? In the privacy of our watching or reading, we’re free to say: Yes, I feel the same anger as that murderer. Yes, I’m too exhausted to really listen to my beloved child. Yes, I lost my job because I wasn’t doing it very well.
Stories don’t lie. They can’t because readers, once they’ve caught the scent, will accept no substitute. We may say to each other, “I have no feelings toward X anymore, we’re just friends,” but we know old loves often fester. When a character’s ex walks in, we watch for the signs. We know how many reasons there are to do badly at a job—it might be arrogance, might be depression, or you might be so obsessed with your new invention that you simply can’t think about counting out the cash register at the end of the night. Now we remember the odd pieces in the story—the cashier’s lower lip trembling as if she was holding back tears, the cruel smile with which the cafeteria monitor refused a hungry child his lunch. Being humans, infinitely tender and therefore militantly self-protective—striving, guilty, heartbroken, demanding of love—we readers are hungry for the messy truths. We feed on truth—it wakes us up, braces us, reminds us of the best and worst in ourselves, and helps us find our way through.
What Happens Next? The story careens around a corner, with the pack of us howling behind. The character was praying, yes, but not for expiation. He was praying for revenge. Oh, we know that feeling, very well. We have to suppress it at least once a day! The woman was bruised not by a violent husband, but by a passerby who saw her about to throw herself off a bridge and grabbed what he could to keep her back. Now she’s alive—does she adore this man for saving her, or despise him for stopping her? There are thousands of shades on the spectrum of human feeling, and we will read to the very end before we sleep, because we need to see, feel, smell every one of them. The story itself—its details—will reveal more than we could ever describe.
And when we close the book or walk out of the movie, we’ll be refreshed and ready to continue our lives, having escaped back into our animal selves for a moment as the stories of other lives streamed through us. There we answered to only the authority of instinct: what looks, smells, feels true? Tomorrow we’ll be back on the beat, doing our very best to be kind and patient, to suppress our wanton hearts another day for the sake of our families, communities, and ourselves, all the while nourished by that story.
The hound in us sleeps again. Our fascination with life, our hunger for more of that life, has been satisfied for the moment, but the stories of the night will weave themselves into the day, as we sneak some extra lunch money into a hungry child’s account, laugh at our own vengeful instincts, and try to forgive or at least understand the cruel smilers we know. What brings a person to such a fate, we wonder idly, waiting for the elevator. Last night’s story is at work in the deepest recess of our consciousness, changing us, bringing us more alive.