Rules of the Road
January 1, 1970I’m a native New Yorker, which means I’m a pedestrian. Not only do I not own a car, I don’t even have a driver’s license. My attitude to cars is Ratso Rizzo’s (Dustin Hoffman’s character in Midnight Cowboy): I’m walkin’ here. We don’t even think of them as drivers—just machines that must be kept in line by displays of human superiority. Don’t look at them when you’re crossing the street, popular wisdom goes, and they won’t hit you. There’s a kernel of truth in there. If the burden of avoiding a collision is shifted to the driver, he’ll make the effort, if only to save on insurance premiums. (It’s a highly risky strategy with taxis, though.)
Back in my college days, I fell in love with a friend when he slammed his hand down hard on the hood of a car stranded in the crosswalk, probably some deluded New Jersey driver who thought he could make a turn on a red light. We passed the car—Bam!—and shared a complicit smile. Like a peacock unfurling its tail or an antlered buck running off the competition, he had flaunted his manhood for my womanly admiration and declared his intention to fight for me, all without interrupting our conversation.
But something weird happens on those rare occasions when I get inside a vehicle: taking a cab from the airport, perhaps, or enjoying a visit from an out-of-town friend. All of sudden I want to mow down those jaywalkers, those morons who step off the curb in mid-block and dart out between cars, those maddening shopping-cart laden slowpokes who start crossing Broadway as the light is blinking red. As for those solid phalanxes of midtown office workers who just take over the entire crosswalk regardless of the lights, I want to plow through them like a Sherman tank barreling toward Berlin in April 1945.
I think of this odd transformation because of having been a reader most of my life and only more recently becoming a writer. There’s that same antagonism of purpose. Readers want happy endings, “role model” characters, and simple, clear plots neatly resolved on the last page. Follow the rules of the road and obey the traffic signals. Writers want…who knows what those maniacs want? We want to make U-turns, run through stop signs, do 100 mph in a school zone. We want to write all the stuff that’s in our head that may not make sense, certainly won’t make readers happy and perhaps shouldn’t even be written down.
Take Maria McCann’s brilliant novel As Meat Loves Salt, set during the English Civil Wars of the mid-17th century and featuring a doomed same-sex love story. The narrator, Jacob Cullen, is a psychopath; I knew from the first paragraph, maybe the first sentence, that he had done bad things and would do a lot more by the end of this long novel. I felt sick to my stomach the entire time I was reading this book, trapped inside this horrible man’s head. But I read it. I read it straight through, then started in again from the beginning, because it’s the kind of story you don’t really get the first time. Then I let a couple of weeks go by and read it a third time. So, yes, I loved it as a writer and I loved it and hated it, both, as a reader. McCann has said in interviews that she deliberately created a monster for her narrator and was surprised when some readers actually liked him. Well, not this reader. But the language, the storytelling, and, most of all, the way she imagined and recreated a whole world of three hundred and fifty years ago, brought it to life and made me feel as if I were living it myself—I was, and still am, in awe. That is art. That is writing.
But I couldn’t read books like this all the time, even assuming there were a lot of them out there. As a reader I need to escape into unthreatening situations with lovable characters. I need genre fiction, the mysteries and romances that give me the simple pleasures I crave. And as a writer? Well, all I’ve published so far is one work of genre fiction, but it was exactly what I wanted to write, and not quite like the others. A “bisexual” Regency romance novel? I didn’t run any red lights, but I may have scared the bejesus out of a pedestrian or two. And with my second novel, a “bisexual” version of a beloved literary classic, I may end up getting a ticket, perhaps even lose my license for a while. Because now that I’ve experienced life behind the wheel, there’s no going back to the speed limit and one-way streets.
Of course, we’re not all crazy New Yorkers. There are many types of readers and writers, just as there are sensible drivers and timid pedestrians. There are novelists who actually prefer research to writing (Jean Auel of The Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequels comes to mind, a memory of a long-ago interview) and writers who just want to make stuff up. There are readers who crave historical details, who pounce on every error of word or fact, and readers who just want a good story. There are writers who want to write tragic stories about flawed individuals and writers who want to put basically good characters through manageable challenges and reward them with a happy ending. There are readers who will embrace a monster like Jacob Cullen as a kindred spirit, others who, like me and McCann herself, will run away if they see him coming down the street.
Perhaps some invisible system keeps us all in line, like the hormones that regulate pregnancy. If the baby were to grow unchecked, it would drain the mother of nutrients and become too big for childbirth. But if the mother’s body had its way, this foreign object inside her womb would be kept to a safe size, ending up stunted and damaged. Somehow the right chemical balance prevails most of the time and a healthy infant is born in nine months. Maybe something like that goes on between readers and writers. Readers find writers that please them and slam the hoods of those that don’t; writers learn what they can get away with or take the chance of getting towed.
Or maybe there are no traffic signals or rules of the road. Maybe we find what we’re looking for like molecules bouncing up against each other in Brownian motion.
Maybe it’s simply about Once Upon a Time…