Loneliness and Fiction

I woke up on a Monday with the feelings I get too often: feelings of wrongness and sadness and fear. The ones that tell me I am quite alone because such a feeling is too cruel to be human and therefore, I am the only alien on earth who can feel it at all. I went through the motions of the morning, brushing my teeth, getting dressed, reminding myself to inhale and exhale, eating. And then, I sat down to read.

It was a story by Haruki Murakami, the one of the latest ones in the New Yorker, titled “With the Beatles.” It begins with an older narrator reflecting on the process of growing into an adult. It begins like this:

“What I find strange about growing old isn’t that I’ve got older. Not that the youthful me from the past has, without my realizing it, aged. What catches me off guard is, rather, how people from the same generation as me have become elderly, how all the pretty, vivacious girls I used to know are now old enough to have a couple of grandkids. It’s a little disconcerting—sad, even. Though I never feel sad at the fact that I have similarly aged.

I think what makes me feel sad about the girls I knew growing old is that it forces me to admit, all over again, that my youthful dreams are gone forever. The death of a dream can be, in a way, sadder than that of a living being.”

“How funny,” I thought, “I think about growing in a similar way.” What seemed an abnormal and neurotic viewpoint became normalized in the opening paragraphs of “With the Beatles.” The story follows the narrator in his youth as he becomes enamored with a beautiful girl he sees once in the hallways of his high school and then gets into a relationship with another girl. For me, the story is about the awkwardness of first love, how foreign caring for another human can be. The story explains the pain and confusion of being loved more than you realize, more than you may be capable of reciprocating. It is about how there are repercussions to intimacy. 

Midway through the story, the narrator discusses his first interactions with erotic intimacy, noting that his girlfriend was “the first person who taught me about the female body” and “the formidable feel of her wire bra.” These moments felt similar to my own encounters with intimacy, as I am just beginning to become comfortable with naked bodies and removing undergarments. I realized the normalcy of the strangeness of it all, bodies, bras, romantic feelings. 

When I finished the story, it was still Monday morning, and though those feelings still clung to me, the story calmed me. If a story exists in the world, it is a world that I am less alone in. This is what fiction does for me. I get overwhelmed in my head, I trick myself into thinking that I am alone in my experiences, and then a story comes along and reminds me that the world exists beyond myself, that the cruelness of my brain is not isolated to me. 

During the first semester of my freshman year of college, I did not know how I could continue existing so far away from home. I missed the familiarity of my bedroom and my brothers and friends, I missed the lake, I missed knowing the names of streets and the ways they intersected with one another, I missed the dour gothic greyness of the University campus I grew up on. 

In my short fiction workshop, we were assigned a piece by Stuart Dybek titled “We Didn’t.” 

I found two lines describing the city we both came from, and I repeated them in my head over, and over again:

“Remember that night becalmed by heat, and the two of us, fused by sweat, trembling as if a wind from outer space that only we could feel was gusting across Oak Street Beach?” 

“Along the Gold Coast, high-rises began to glow, window added to window, against the dark.”

I knew by these two passages that this was a story about Chicago. Dybek describes our city in great detail, interweaving vignettes of what my home looks like with broken attempts at sex between two lovers who are never able to “do it.” There is no distinct line between the physical love between Dybek’s couple and Dybek’s own love for Chicago. Every location the couple attempts to “do it” is described with careful detail, and it seems as if the whole city is having sex, every couple having sex with one another, with the city itself. 

Home, I realized, was just a story away. My deep love for home was shared with Dybek and his couple. Dybek writes lyrically about our home. And as I read their story, I joined them briefly; I was home again, and I knew that I would be alright.  

   

The green world exists as a space in Shakespearean drama where the protagonists turn when the strict and (often) patriarchal laws of the city become too oppressive. The green world becomes a place of refuge, lawlessness, imagination, pranks, and love. Shakespearean characters retreat to the green world and emerge from it, back into the city changed, taking with them what they have learned on their excursions in hopes of making their lives in reality more habitable. 

I find a green world in fiction. Fiction becomes a place I  can retreat to when I cannot exist comfortably in reality. In stories, I learn about characters and places, experiences and adventures that I could never know in my own world. In fiction, I find empathy for my experiences and explanations for the unexplainable. I cannot live within fiction forever, but I can return to it whenever I want. In fiction, I am given the tools with which I can navigate social, educational, and political realities. 

My great-grandmother told my grandmother who told me, “you are never alone with a good book,” and I hold this to be the deepest truth I know. Fiction is my companion. More than anything else, fiction alleviates the burden of experiencing the world alone. For this, I am truly grateful.

Elizabeth Meyer is a sophomore at Barnard College studying English. She loves reading, writing, and film. She hopes everyone is staying safe, healthy, and doing what they can to take care of themselves and others.

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