Novelist Claire Messud was in the news recently when her testy reply to an interviewer from Publisher’s Weekly provoked some debate among the literati. The interviewer commented something to the effect that she “wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora (the main character in Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs) because her “outlook was unbearably grim.” Messud’s response was thought provoking: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” she told the interviewer. “We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”
The question seems to have taken Messud aback, but I know where the interviewer was coming from. I recently finished this novel which I found quite brilliant. I actually could see myself being friends- or at least friendly – with Nora. Most women I know can relate to Messud’s concept of the The Woman Upstairs – the one who quietly takes care of others, follows the rules, puts her own needs on hold for the greater good of her family, her colleagues, her friends. Nora is angry about the way her life has turned out, and she is very outspoken about her anger. “My anger is prodigious,” she says in the last pages of the book. “My anger is a colossus. I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough … before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.”
So while I don’t read to find friends per se, I do want to find someone in every book with whom I can be sympathetic, someone I understand on some level, someone who is relatable enough that I can picture myself sharing coffee and conversation with them on some imaginary occasion. Perhaps that part of what Messud was trying to get across? If an author can make their characters come alive, make them three-dimensional so that the reader relates to them on a myriad of life levels, then the relationship between writer-character-reader is much more complete.
I wonder if this isn’t all part of a necessary schism between writer and reader. The writer wants to create characters with something to say, with something to demonstrate about life; while the reader tends to gravitate toward characters with whom they can relate, that make them feel – if not comfortable – than at least comparable.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – the writer and reader have separate roles in this thing we call The Reading LIfe, and they usually join together quite nicely for a satisfactory experience all round.