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The problem was that Mrs. Drax would not make a good character. She was too unlikable, too unsympathetic, to be believed. June’s readers would object that no one so selfish, so cranky, so rude had ever existed or could ever exist! And June felt that they would be right. And yet, nevertheless, the woman did exist. It was a problem.
Perhaps there were some things — some people — who simply did not belong in fiction. But this contradicted June’s faith in the comprehensive inclusiveness of fiction, and of her own fiction in particular. Though she was too modest to put it into words, she felt that one of her great qualities as a novelist was that she included every kind of person in her novels — or would eventually, or could. As it happens, she did not have to put this thought into words: Someone had done it for her. On every edition of every book that she had published since 1990 there appeared the testimony of the Philadelphia Enquirer that June Cottan had a “keenly wide-ranging sympathy.” She did not understand exactly how width of range could be keen, but never mind — the point was that her sympathy was wide-ranging. But now, for the first time, she had begun to doubt her own blurbs. It was a dark night of the soul indeed.
She was brutal with herself: Had she ever written an unsympathetic character? It seemed to her that she had not. When her characters acted meanly or cruelly they always had a good reason or a good excuse. When they suffered they suffered only from misunderstandings or momentary weaknesses, never from malice or hatred. Where, in all her works, was Evil? For surely Evil existed in the world. How else did one explain war? How did one account for the Holocaust? But then where was June Cottan’s war novel, her Holocaust novel? For a time (because it is easier to write ten books than to change the way we act towards even one little old lady) June lost herself in daydreams of the Holocaust novel she would write. In her vision, all the Nazis had different faces, but they all sneered and screeched just like Mrs. Drax.
At last she recollected herself. She was already working on a novel; where were the villains in it? Leora’s parents were not villains, though they forced her to marry rich, old, ugly Mr. Man der Lynn. Poor themselves, they wanted to save their only daughter from poverty; having married for love themselves, they wanted to save her from the disappointments that drudgery and routine bring, as they believed, to all lovers. But they meant well. And Mr. Man der Lynn was not a villain, though he forbade her to see her beloved Alex. He was merely old-fashioned and terrified of scandal; he tried but failed to share her youthful enthusiasms — but he tried; and in the end, when he was made to see her true heart’s desires, he dissolved their marriage readily enough. For he too meant well, and wanted only to do what was right.
Why? Why did all her characters mean well and do right? Why did none of them mean ill or do wrong? Why, oh why, were all her characters so damn spineless?
Because they were sympathetic. But what did that mean? It meant that they were someone you could sympathize with. But shouldn’t a nice person be able to sympathize with anyone, no matter how nasty? Wasn’t that the whole point of literature — that it gave you, the reader, practice in feeling sympathy for people who were different from you? Practice in adopting other people’s points of view?
But if that were so — and June had never questioned it — then it was almost a moral imperative to make one’s characters as different, as alien, as unsympathetic as possible. Otherwise the reader had no gap to cross. June’s characters, it now seemed to her, were wickedly easy to sympathize with; nothing whatsoever prevented the reader from identifying with them. They were generic and inoffensive. They were normal; they were bland. They liked nice things and disliked nasty things. They had only mild quirks and were driven by only the most common motives and desires. They were in fact hollow shells — mere costumes that the reader could comfortably wear, masks through which the reader could comfortably peer. That was what sympathizing with, identifying with, or rooting for a character really was: becoming them! Or rather, making them become you. It was not a way of getting inside another person’s head; it was a way of getting your own head inside another body, and, through that body, of experiencing another world, living another life. Perhaps, after all, literature was not bettering or broadening, but just another means of escape. Perhaps fiction in fact only gave you practice at being yourself in exotic situations. Perhaps, by inviting you to cheer for the good guys and despise the bad guys, fiction only taught you how to better cheer for yourself and despise everyone else. By reinforcing the niceness of nice things and the nastiness of nasty things, perhaps fiction only entrenched you more firmly and inescapably in your own limited self. Perhaps novels were, after all, immoral.
For a long time June stood rigidly over the stove, stirring and staring into the pot of milk as though trying to make it boil by will power alone.
She saw in her mind the startled, shriveled face, and heard again the terrible thud.
“No!” she cried, and threw down the spoon; the dogs started. “Fiction is not immoral,” she muttered. “I am.”
And she resolved to revisit Mrs. Drax — poor, lonely, hurting Mrs. Drax — just as soon as she’d finished the chapter she was working on.
They soon developed a routine. June was permitted to write for two hours in the morning, then she would report to the nursing home to take Mrs. Drax on her daily rounds. Their first stop was the Salvation Army, where Mrs. Drax bought up all the second-hand sweaters, which she unraveled and made into sweaters; she believed this was cheaper than buying yarn. (It was not.) Then they visited the library, where Mrs. Drax traded one Shakespeare for another hopefully less boring one. (She would not let June read to her from anything but Shakespeare, because Shakespeare was the best there was, and he was bad enough.) Next was the bulk department of the grocery store, where Mrs. Drax bought her day’s supply of caraway seeds, which she liked to chew when she was not doing anything else with her mouth. (Fifteen seeds cost her $0.03.) Then came lunch, or rather the argument over where to go for lunch. Mrs. Drax’s method was to insist that she did not care where they went, then to find fault with every one of June’s suggestions until she hit upon the place that Mrs. Drax had had in mind all along. The afternoon was dedicated to Mrs. Drax’s solicitor, whose job it was to amend her will and to subtract from her estate the cost of his services. Surprisingly, Mrs. Drax’s will was only symbolically vindictive. If one of her sons had treated her badly the day before, she lowered his share of the inheritance to forty-eight percent and boosted the other’s to fifty-two; if they had both treated her badly, they split it down the middle. No other scenario ever arose. She sometimes lamented that she could not give the whole shebang away to a charity or church; but charities nowadays were nothing but a tax dodge for sleazy corporations and religion was for dopes. Sometimes she looked pointedly at June and asked the lawyer leading questions which revealed that no one but her sons would ever get any of her money. The bulk of her amendments were not of legal significance, but more in the nature of appeals or advice to the living. She asked the management of Green Oaks to commemorate her by removing the meat loaf from their menu; she urged Mrs. McGillicuddy to finish the blue sweater she was knitting, but, N.B., to use a garter stitch where the pattern recommended a stockinette; she didn’t care who did it, but would someone please check her Sunday crossword answers — she wasn’t too sure about 32 Down being “shotput.” After the solicitor came visits to Mrs. Drax’s sons, one of whom usually gave them supper, if Mrs. Drax denied stridently enough that they were hungry. Then, “as a little treat,” Mrs. Drax was taken to the first thirty minutes of some movie, which, as she explained loudly and patiently to the audience at large, was about all she could handle, movies these days being too fast, too silly, too violent, or too raunchy for her taste. Then June rolled her back to the nursing home for bridge, knitting, Shakespeare, and, ostensibly, death. It was usually ten o’clock by the time June got home to her poor neglected dogs, who had not been out for a walk since dawn.