Spurred by logic I couldn’t identify, this week I plucked from my topmost bookshelf a collection of short stories I had purchased and last read over thirty years ago. For a paperback book, it had held up well through the years, stored in a box, displayed on a shelf, and battered by moves among many residences. The small photo of the author I recognized, and the title of one of the stories. But the rest struck my memory with no more than a faint familiarity, and a conviction that it was good.
In the four days since that impulse hit, I have read eight of the eleven stories, and forced myself to slow down to prolong this startling pleasure of re-discovering what I once knew. I dare not rush ahead; there is no more to be had beyond this slim volume. The author died before the book was published; before his twenty-seventh birthday, in fact. The stories he writes are not much happier than his own, each depicting a sadness, frustration, failure, or poverty in exquisite detail.
The prose is taut and powerful, refined but not fancy. The effect is gripping, even consuming. He writes about people in a place not far from where my own dad grew up, at a time not much later. I recognize them, though they are far, far away from where I live now. Perhaps the familiarity and the distance help me enjoy their stories.
Each tale comes inexorably to its end, or at least to the end of its telling; there is no resolution, conclusion, or denouement. With the final lines, the final words, the picture merely snaps into focus, and it is clear that the sadness, frustration, failure, or poverty will continue beyond the page and beyond the view of the reader and the writer. The first effect is something like shock, something like grief, something like horror; the lasting effect is wonder.
Why anybody would spend time reading fiction is difficult enough to convey, but to read fiction this painful is past explaining. Generic fiction, fiction that entertains, fabricates made-up characters in made-up situations who act in made-up ways, all of which is realistic enough to convince the reader to believe it just enough to be informed, amused, and distracted. But good fiction, what is stuffily called literature, fabricates made-up characters, situations, and actions that reveal universal truths about real human character, situation, and action.
These stories that I am reading about another time and another place reveal something these made-up people have in common with everyone I know, and with me. The bright lights and fast pace of prosperity and progress, or even overfamiliarity with our own mundane world, can hide from our eyes human sadness, frustration, failure, and poverty. Why, then, do we feel so much pain; are we the only ones who are sad? A made-up story can reveal how real people are sad and enduring pain; reassure us that our pain, too, is real but does not isolate us; and teach us about the source of human sadness. Made-up people reveal to us the real people around us, and something real about ourselves. The lasting effect is wonder.
We routinely and repeatedly hear stories about people and situations that are far, far away from where and how we are now. Though not made-up, they are strange to us, yet real enough to convince us to believe them just enough to be informed, amused, or distracted. This, however, is not fiction; it is revelation, and the contents of Sacred Scripture are truer than any historical documentary or scientific treatise could ever be. The Author behind the authors is revealing universal truths about real human character, situation, and action, about our character, situation, and action. The Author behind the authors also is revealing His Own character, situation, and action. We return to these stories again and again, but we dare not listen casually, thinking ‘we already know how this one ends.’ Each time for the first time, the picture snaps into focus, and Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing. The lasting effect is wonder.