I have a friend who doesn’t want to read books or watch shows or movies that are sad or involve tragic circumstances. It’s a form of curation: she doesn’t need that negativity in her life, doesn’t want to be exposed to those feelings because it interferes with her happiness.
I’m the opposite. I find sad, depressing, painful, tragic stories to be essential to my own quest for well-being. These types of stories enable us to experience and process complex emotions in a safe environment. They provide us with clues and tools on how to confront our own grief or tragedies. And most of all, stories that explore human suffering and adversity help to enhance our empathy for others, which seems in short supply these days.
Which brings me to The Sweet Hereafter, by the award-winning novelist Russell Banks, who died this past year. It’s the second time I’ve read this novel and it’s fair to ask the question: Why would you want to read a novel that centers on a tragic school bus accident where many children are killed? For one, see the above paragraph regarding empathy. For two, it’s a brilliant and essential work of fiction.
The novel takes place in a small, tight-knit, economically struggling community in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Everyone knows everyone else. On a winter day, while operating the morning school bus, driver Dolores Driscoll swerves because she thinks she sees a dog in the road and she loses control of the bus, which crashes through a guardrail, plunges down a ravine, and breaks through the ice of a water-filled sandpit.
Banks structures the novel using four points of view. Dolores, the driver, opens and closes the narrative. In between, we hear from a widower whose two children were killed, a liability lawyer up from New York City trying to drum up clients to represent in a lawsuit while managing a loss of his own, and one of the children who survived the accident but is now confined to a wheelchair.
For the town and these characters, grief is piled upon tragedy upon the vagaries of fate, but Banks is such a skilled writer that the narrative never turns maudlin and we never get a sense that we are reading tragedy porn. Instead, we are given windows into the deepest of human feelings and emotions.
It’s a powerful novel, relatively short, and well worth reading.
If you really need to up your empathy game you could go one step further and try A Little Life, a monster of a novel by Hanya Yanagihara. I read it a few years ago on a recommendation from my sister, and Julia just finished reading it, coming away stunned and moved. She refreshed my memory about this compelling and devastating narrative of four college friends who must contend with heartache, misfortune, abuse, addiction, and death over a period of decades.
But why? Why put yourself through this? One of my early inspirations for becoming a writer—the great short story writer Tobias Wolff—said it well:
“I have never been able to understand the complaint that a story is ‘depressing’ because of its subject matter. What depresses me are stories that don’t seem to know these things go on, or hide them in resolute chipperness; ‘witty stories,’ in which every problem is the occasion for a joke; ‘upbeat’ stories that flog you with transcendence. Please. We’re grown-ups now, we get to stay in the kitchen while the other grown-ups talk.”Tobias Wolff