Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Acknowledgement of Squalor

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because
fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.
Mark Twain

Day 3 in Writer’s Workshop we compared three short stories by J.D. Salinger. I’d realized, while pouring through the assigned reading in Salinger’s collection of short stories, that I love his work. It wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t love “Catcher in the Rye” in high school. Like many men, Salinger has aged well, or possibly my perspective has matured. Suddenly, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” caught my attention, and by the time I finished “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” I was hooked.

In this story, an American soldier in England meets a thirteen year old war orphan named Esme in a civilian tearoom on the eve of his deployment to the front. Learning he was an author before the war, she asks him to write a story for her, stating, “I prefer stories about squalor”. She reiterates the request as they part, “Make it extremely squalid and moving,” Esme suggests. “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?” She agrees to write to him and the narrative swiftly takes the sergeant to his post V-E Day living quarters in Bavaria, where he receives Esme’s first letter.

It is the longing to find someone, anyone, who will allow us to display the squalor in which we find ourselves that lures me. Esme shares the protagonist’s need for acknowledgement. With bold trust in illuminating the truth, she opens the door for him.  Esme not only requests a look, she demands a front row view of his war experiences. World War II has immersed both characters unwillingly into horrors they can not relate to in the social circles they exist in. Orphans and soldiers from well bred families weren’t to discuss such things. Yet, with through corresponding with one another, and through the possibility offered by fiction, it was safe and ultimately healing.

It is the rare friend who is willing to see us in our squalor. To sit with us and wallow along side us, to just acknowledge that it happened, that I think is the essence of why I write. In the bible, we learned Job’s friends certainly weren’t up to the task. They wanted to fix it, to clean up the mess, ensuring nothing would tarnish them in the process. That’s the problem, why squalor and friends don’t generally mix. Potentially, squalor could be caught, like the flu, a nasty spring cold, or even spinal meningitis. It could travel in microscopic spores on the wind – we might be inhaling it as we speak. Squalor is too risky. If it could happen to our friends, people who are like us, it could happen to us too.

Squalor, when intermixed with the joy and beauty we experience in life, creates the thread of human existence that literary fiction strives to share. Uniquely individual threads which are woven into the tapestry of a great story; a story that will continue to repeat itself, in slightly altered hues and patterns throughout history. The truth of the experience interspersed with the possibility of fiction. This is where the story of Job intersects our lives, in the truth of the existence of squalor. God allows it. He allows squalor to descend upon the lives of faithful people who love Him and obey His commandments. He allows it without explanation. We are to rest in the knowledge that He, the creator of the universe, is in control of the greater good. “That all things work together for good to those who love Him” Romans 8:28 

We also see a God in the story of Job, who patiently listens as Job demands acknowledgement. He wallows with Job; God is the friend we long for. Demonstrating the possibility of that truth, is the fiction I hope one day to be able to write. In that respect I am grateful to have experienced generous shares of both squalor and joy along the way.

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