One October morning, Dominick Birdsey's schizophrenic twin, Thomas, chops off his own right hand in the middle of the public library. And this is a good day for Dominick, the hero of Wally Lamb's bestselling novel I Know This Much Is True. He's almost bankrupt, his wife has left him after the crib death of their infant daughter, he's living with a dumb-as-dirt aerobics instructor who just got pregnant by someone else (her uncle, but that's a whole different subplot), his stepfather, Ray, hates him, and his mother is dying of breast cancer. "Closing in on forty," Dominick reflects, "I was wifeless, childless. Now I'd be motherless too. Left with my crazy brother and Ray."
I Know This Much Is True (900 pages of wretchedness, weighing in at $27.50 and three-and-a-half pounds) may seem an unlikely commercial success, but Dominick's misery has plenty of company. A sampling of past Publishers Weekly and New York Times Book Review fiction bestseller lists yields the stories of Beth, who loses her three-year-old son to kidnappers; Ruth, a penniless farm wife whose husband goes insane and beats her mother to death while her three-year-old son watches; Ninah, trapped in an abusive fundamentalist cult founded by her own grandfather; Ellen, whose drunken, violent father abandons her to the care of a cruel and distant grandmother; Ada, dying of AIDS in her decaying hometown; Frannie, the battered wife of a dangerous New York City cop, running away to save her life; and Dolores (in Wally Lamb's previous novel, She's Come Undone), who eats her way up to 257 pounds after a neighbor rapes her and her mother is hit by a truck. At least Job had half a chapter of happiness before his world disintegrated. In these novels, life starts out unbearable and gets rapidly worse.
There's a one-word explanation for their bestseller status: Oprah. Each of these books was selected by Oprah Winfrey's on-air book club. Oprah's chosen authors become instant literary lions; even a hint of interest can make a writer's career. (When the news got out that Oprah saw promise in an unpublished manuscript sent to her by a first-time novelist, a publishers' bidding war erupted.) The Oprah effect—a complex mix of celebrity, media synergy, female buying power, and African-American support—can eclipse the most venerable of literary honors. "On the day that [Toni] Morrison appeared on air with Oprah," writes Paul Gray in the December 2, 1996, issue of Time magazine, "Barnes & Noble sold 16,070 copies of Song of Solomon nationwide. Oprah provided a bigger boost for Morrison's commercial clout than the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature did."
Oprah tends to be evasive about her selection criteria ("I chose these books," she told one interviewer, "because they are readable, poignant, thought-provoking"). But the ongoing popularity of the book club—after 19 picks in two years, the Oprah effect shows no signs of weakening—suggests that Oprah's readers have consistently been satisfied with her choices. These novels resonate with a wide, book-buying American readership. Suffering sells.
The Bible we use begins, chronologically, with the creation of the world and runs in neat, linear fashion to its end. But the oldest book of the Bible is probably Job, not Genesis. The most ancient story of the Christian and Jewish traditions deals, not with origins, but with suffering, that most universal of human experiences. Thematically, Job is the first book of the Bible; Genesis explains our existence, but Job tells us why we started demanding explanations in the first place. Overwhelmed by pain, the sufferer calls up to God: "Who are you?" And God answers, "In the beginning, I made the heaven and the earth."
The Oprah novels are tied together, not merely by the theme of suffering, but by a particular method of depicting all that pain. Like the nineteenth-century sentimental novel, these books intend to connect the reader to the story by appealing to shared emotional experiences. Life with a schizophrenic identical twin is strange territory for most of us, but I Know This Much Is True consistently casts Dominick's anguish as common weariness. "I was just tired," Dominick decides, halfway through his saga, "just wanted to stop fighting and give in." This is an emotion that dates back at least to Job: "I am worn out," laments Job, "I despise my life, I would lie down in the dust, in peace." Beth, the mother of the kidnapped three-year-old in Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean, wishes she could even summon the energy for a suicide attempt: "The best she could summon was a sort of perpetual sluggishness. … She would live her threescore and ten. She was damned if she could see what she would do with it."
Sentimental novels are structured, not around rational and neatly constructed plots, but instead around highly evocative feelings and experiences. A sentimental novel is a journey (in the words of Leo Braudy) into the "tumultuous inner emotional world of the novel's main character"—a journey that pulls the reader along for the roller-coaster ride. To get the reader securely buckled into his seat, sentimental authors of the nineteenth century played relentlessly on common life experiences that evoked strong emotions: illness, separation, death, children in peril. Little Women pokes fun at some of the conventions of sentimentality (purple prose, high-flown diction, and gasping heroism) but falls easily within the category. "Don't weep over me," the dying Beth says, bravely placing her thin white hand on Jo's rough head; but generations of readers have done just that.
The Oprah novels are equally shameless. Illness and the loss of love are givens, but almost every book also involves a dead or abused child. The Deep End of the Ocean is centered on the missing three-year-old, Ben; in Jane Hamilton's The Book of Ruth, the murder of Ruth's mother by her unbalanced husband is built around the trauma done to the watching toddler, Justy; the fundamentalist community in Sheri Reynolds's The Rapture of Canaan takes Ninah's illegitimate baby away from her; I Know This Much Is True returns, over and over again, to the image of Dominick's dead baby, stiff in her crib.
Sentimental novels are traditionally directed toward a female audience, and the Oprah books are no exception. Their preoccupation with dead and missing children, and the continual exploration of difficult family ties (as opposed to job problems, say, or the frustration of ambition, or other more typically "male" concerns) reveals the crowd of women in Oprah's audience. Dreadful marriages abound; the occasional bad wife makes an appearance, but bad husbands are endemic. The wife-beating policeman Bobby Benedetto in Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue is the most obvious, but there's scarcely a healthy marriage to be found anywhere.
In Wally Lamb's two books, bad marriages and children in peril are fused; Dolores's troubles begin with the disintegration of her parents' marriage after the death of her baby brother, and Dominick's schizophrenic twin, Thomas, is driven deeper into his madness by his stepfather's persistent cruelty. His mother, traumatized, refuses to intervene. "Having married Ray Birdsey for better or worse," Dominick remembers, "[Ma] was determined to believe in his jolly good fellowship, no matter what the evidence said. No matter what the feeling in our stomachs." Even the Oprah books with male narrators turn continually to the lives of the female characters as they marry, divorce, bear and lose children.
To characterize the Oprah novels as "sentimental" ought not to denigrate either their power or their importance. The evangelical community—influenced, perhaps, more by the Enlightenment deification of the intellect than we often admit—has tended to scorn emotion, placing it firmly in second place to the mind. (Emotions, Christian counselor Jay Adams sternly reminds us, are "organic bodily responses that are largely involuntary and are triggered by behavior, thoughts, and attitudes.") But an evocative picture of emotion is as powerful as a well-reasoned argument. If the popularity of these books tells us anything, surely it is that a huge segment of American readers longs to hear that others have suffered as well. The Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat, author of the Oprah novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, confirms this: "Oprah says that when she reads about people who are going through similar experiences to her own, she feels less alone. A lot of us share that feeling."
Nineteenth-century sentimental novels were generally written with a cause in mind; the most famous, Uncle Tom's Cabin, used the common emotion of a mother's love for her children as a tool to link upper-class white women to the suffering of slave mothers, attracting them to the abolitionist cause.
The Oprah novels are more than simple exercises in empathy. They too have a cause: to find meaning in suffering. All the books reveal a grasping for certainty, a dogged determination to find reasons for pain. In the words of an Oprah heroine (Ada Johnson in What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day), "Discomfort is always a necessary part of the process of enlightenment." And to that end, each book, somewhere, ends up with an enlightened conclusion: Here is what I have understood through my pain. I know this much is true.
Theology has nothing to do with this enlightenment; traditional Christian answers to pain must be abandoned by all honest thinking people. When these sufferers cry, "Where are you?" to God, a clanging silence ensues. The Book of Ruth's heroine gives us the news, in case we haven't attained enlightenment on our own:
It came upon me suddenly that Jesus was in the same league as the tooth fairy and the Easter rabbit, not to mention Santa himself. But with Jesus, for some mysterious reason, you had all the grownups kneeling down, praying to him. I was furious with the deacons and the Rev and the Sunday school teachers and the imaginary God who made the whole story unfold. I kept getting madder and madder, all the way to Easter. … The whole thing sounded very dumb to me, but mostly I felt sad, because I was sure there was going to be a child who would come to me and make the world light.
In sentimental-novel terms, this sadness is meant to link reader to narrator in common rejection of the Christian fairy tale. In unison, the Oprah novels agree with Ruth's disappointment. It's a beautiful story, but there's no light at the far end of life's tunnel, no merciful Father, no reward after the struggle. "Resurrection," Dolores muses in She's Come Undone. "The word made a pretty sound. … God and the Tooth Fairy and Jiminy Cricket." (There's the Tooth Fairy again.) "Listen to how God up there is supposed to make everything and everybody and everything's due to turn out according to his will and all," snaps Jack in Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman. "And we get the wars and people starving and people hurting people … and I'm supposed to go down there to Ephesus on a Sunday morning and say, 'Thank you, Jesus, thank you for the sunshine and the food on my table and all the birds singing and the likes of Adolf Hitler and Roland Stanley.' No thank you! I'll have no part of it!" Heaven, in Dominick's words, is "a Walt Disney ending." He sums up, near the end of I Know This Much Is True:
There was no God. … Life didn't have to make sense, I'd concluded: that was the big joke. Get it? You could have a brother who stuck metal clips in his hair to deflect enemy signals from Cuba, and a biological father who, in 33 years, had never shown his face, and a baby dead in her bassinet … and none of it meant a [obscenity] thing. Life was a whoopee cushion, a chair yanked away just as you were having a seat.
The bitterness that seethes from these pages comes in part from a conscious rejection of the Creator, but it also reveals an honest loathing of pat solutions. Certainly the Bible does not offer pat solutions; God's appearance to Job in a whirlwind raises more questions than it answers. Yet God's followers have done plenty to minimize suffering's pain, protecting God's reputation by mouthing platitudes. The villains in the Oprah novels are often clergymen who use mysterious truths as clubs to beat the wounded, like the priest who assures Dominick at his brother's funeral that "God was merciful, whether we understood His ways or not." Dominick thinks (not surprisingly), "This is pap. … Hallmark greeting card theology."
Would Oprah pick books that make such consistently hostile statements about Judaism, or Buddhism, or even (for that matter) Scientology? Probably not; but Christianity suffers in part from its position as a dominant cultural force. Exposure to Hallmark-quality Christian theology is, apparently, a common experience that can give rise to the common emotions the genre demands. Presumably, Oprah's viewers have all run across platitude-mouthing preachers at some point. Platitude-mouthing rabbis, or Buddhist priests, or Scientologists are likely scarcer.
But the rejection of all Christian faith is also assumed to be common, shared by reader and narrator alike. The Oprah sufferers call out to God and hear only silence. This silence, they conclude, proves that they are completely alone. In this, they go far beyond Job, who never doubts that God is in the world with him, linking him to some plan he hates and does not understand. Job stands in an incomprehensible universe, but it is full and noisy; God assails him, Satan torments him, his wife won't leave him, and his friends won't go away. "Will your long-winded speeches never end?" he snaps at his companions. "What ails you, that you won't quit arguing with me?"
Contrast this to the intense isolation of Ruth, who sits in church and thinks, "Despite all the talk of God and Jesus, that there's no one looking after us … we are alone, and each of us singular."
Sooner or later, each character comes to the knowledge that she is solitary in her suffering. Dolores of She's Come Undone reaches this epiphany when her neighbor assaults her. "I knew no one was coming for me," she says, "that I was by myself."
Frannie, the abused wife in Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue, acts this out by changing her name, her age, her very identity, concealing her true self even from the man she sleeps with. Dominick is abandoned by his mother, his wife, his baby daughter, his father, and finally his twin brother. He sums up his life, in his final psychotherapy session, in a single word. Fatherless. Alone, without hope and without God in the world. Elie Wiesel said it, in the aftermath of the Holocaust: Intense suffering makes us oblivious to anyone but ourselves. "I was alone," he says, "terribly alone in a world without God and without man. Without love or mercy."
Yet each Oprah novel ends, not with isolation, but with a brave affirmation of solidarity, a glorious decision to find meaning at the brink of the void. These sufferers are on their own, yet they are able to choose significance, to balance themselves between survival and sanity. "If you will only visualize your own beauty, you can make it real," Dolores's psychotherapist promises her. "On a symbolic level, we could say you were midwifing yourself … couldn't we?"
Ninah in The Rapture of Canaan also recreates herself, retelling her own story in her own mind: "I weave in lies, and I weave in love, and in the end, it's hard to know if one keeps me warmer than the other. … It is imperfect, but I could walk on it."
This willingness to connect voluntarily with the lives of others is at the heart of the sentimental novel, with its goal of shared emotions, shared experiences, shared knowledge. The sufferers, in the end, decide (entirely of their own volition) to open themselves to the rest of the human race. In this, they provide comfort for the hundreds of thousands of Oprah readers who are searching for an answer other than the mysterious God of Job.
"And still," Ruth concludes, "all of us are miraculously the same in our aloneness, with our red blood cells streaming through our veins. … The only blessed way there is, I realized, is for all of us to feel deeply with a wounded, or sick, or even dead person. What the Rev meant to say, if he could ever have spoken plainly, without all the paraphernalia of the Gospel, was, 'Each man's struggle is mine.' "
There's a terrible irony in all this, of course; God himself, long before Job (before the foundations of the earth), did make man's struggle his own. The paraphernalia of the gospel makes our suffering part of God's own experience. In I Know This Much Is True, Dominick even calls the Crucifixion to his aid as he tries to describe the agony of watching his brother led away into a mental ward. "That's when I felt it for myself," he says, "the spike against flesh, the hammer's piercing thud."
Yet this is only a fleeting metaphor, and the Incarnation provides the Oprah sufferers only material for creative obscenities. Dominick (aided by psychotherapy) decides to break voluntarily through the isolation caused by his suffering. He agrees to raise his ex-girlfriend's baby, takes his much-hated stepfather out for lunch, and volunteers to help entertain kids at a pediatric cancer ward. He then gets his wife back, finds out that his real father is a Wequonnoc Indian, and suddenly becomes a proud possessor of Native American spirituality: "Wequonnocs pray to roundness. Wholeness. The cycles of the moon, the seasons. We thank the Great Creator for the new life and for the life it sprang from. The past and the future, cinched together."
Conveniently, this new ethnic identity also provides him with gambling revenues. "We 415 members of the Wequonnoc Nation are millionaires," he writes, at the end of his tome. "God—life—can be both merciful and ironic. … The evidence of God exists in the roundness of things. This much, at least, I've figured out. I know this much is true."
It's a neat and happy ending: self-created meaning, self-created prosperity, self-created connections to the rest of humanity, even a self-created divinity. To turn from Dominick's sufferings to the concentration camps described by Elie Wiesel is jarring, but necessary. God died for Dominick when his twin brother disappeared behind the metal doors of a state hospital; Wiesel's God died on the day that a child hung on Nazi gallows:
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?" And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows". … This day I had ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone. … In the depths of my heart, I felt a great void.
Stories of suffering, to be honest, must end with one of two truths: the presence of God, or a void where he should be. God appeared to Job, not with answers, but in the overwhelming reality of his creation. Job, still puzzled, still not understanding, placed his hand over his mouth. Not all suffering will end with the epiphany of the whirlwind; not all sufferers will come face to face with the person of God. Those who do, like Job, will bow their heads and admit a riddle that cannot be solved. Those who do not will live in a world without God.
But this godless world isn't filled with self-sufficiency and self-created meaning. Wiesel ends his chilling memoir Night, not with faith in himself, but with a long look in the mirror. "I had not seen myself since the ghetto," he writes. "From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me." And this is why the Oprah novels are ultimately dishonest, offering false consolation that can only lead to deeper despair. For in the end, without God, the sufferer will not find community, courage, newfound love, and gambling profits. She will find instead a void; not self-renewal, but the empty eyes of a corpse.
Susan Wise Bauer is the author of two novels: The Revolt (Word) and Though the Darkness Hide Thee (Multnomah). She teaches literature at the College of William and Mary.
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