This week’s recommendations are all about books I have shelved under “sympathy” because of their nuanced appreciation for the essential humanity of all their characters, good and bad; there are other virtues books can have, but this is one of my favorites, and it’s a difficult one to properly achieve. It’s hard to honestly depict the magnitude of damage people can do to one another and still evoke sympathy for everyone involved. I’m leaving out, therefore, any books that gain sympathy for bad behavior at the expense of its victims (so no Talented Mr. Ripley, no matter how much I love it, because it wins readers over to identifying with Ripley by casting Dickie, for example, in a rather boorish light); these books are simply those that understand that the worst of us are as human as the best of us (and sometimes the worst and best are inseparable).
Horror/Dark Fantasy. North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud. Ballingrud deals almost exclusively in broken characters engaged in broken, desperate actions: these are characters who run when they should stay, who get involved in things they shouldn’t, and who make decisions that leave you open-mouthed in horror. But Ballingrud makes you understand cowardice, hatred, desertion, and betrayal from the inside-out, and while you may detest the actions, you come away with a shaken understanding of yourself and a fuller understanding of the people involved. Also, it has an actually interesting vampire story in it: “Sunbleached.”
Realism. The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, by Ann Packer. If Ballingrud is concerned with overt, violent betrayals and breaches in the social contract, Packer is concerned with smaller, intimate, and more “feminine” ones. Carrie Bell is a girl whose long-time relationship with her boyfriend, Mike, has been wavering; when Mike’s impulsive dive into shallow water leaves him paralyzed, she’s trapped by regret, guilt, and a lingering if uncertain love–which she then abandons by leaving him for a new life and a new boyfriend, much to her town’s disapproval. Carrie’s actions are hurtful, but they’re also a natural outgrowth of a young woman feeling suffocated by her life and responsibilities, and we come away from the novel feeling bad for her and Mike both.
Realism/Science Fiction. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. This novel-in-stories (I read a few of them for the first time, before the novel’s publication, in Best American Short Stories) is almost centered around perhaps the main principle of sympathy: the more we know about people, the harder it is to despise them. Egan’s novel begins with a certain set of characters but progressively widens and deepens outward and inward, until almost everyone in the story, however minor, has a distinctive voice and narrative section of their own. Perhaps the main reason, in fiction, to care about everyone is this: everyone has a story. And as readers, stories are what we’re interested in.