On Fiction: The Delicate Balance of Comfort & Surprise

A lot of the pleasure we find in music comes from the interplay between comfort and surprise. Most mainstream songs use any of a handful of basic patterns and chord progressions, be it verse-chorus-verse, 12 bar blues, AAAB, etc. We hear that familiarity and we warm to it. From the midst of one of Coltrane’s most hypnotizing solo emerges the familiar strains of My Favorite Things. Radiohead, for all their ingenuity and chaos, still land back on the one. It’s comforting – we have a sense of where we’re being taken. But then, we are fickle: we don’t want to be bored. Total predictability is a lose too. We crave some surprise. Something to make us go hmm long after the song’s done.

Greatness lies in the harmonizing of those two divergent pleasures.

I find this to be true in literature as well. A great book holds me close, employs all those familiar elements of story that griots and bards have been using since the before the written word. But then there’s a divergence: an element of discomfort or uncertainty that reminds me everything might not be alright after all, that the stakes are a little higher this time, that I need to watch every word to not miss some blistering truth laced within the prose. That’s what makes the shit worth reading, remembering, savoring.

The Hunger Games is a very typical story: the single tribute raging against an unfair regime with the help of gifts from the sky theme can be traced back at least to Theseus and I’m sure much deeper. The hero quest is as old as they come and dystopias pop up everywhere we look in modern YA lit. There’s even a love triangle. So we’re on home territory. But The HG uses a sparse, urgent tone and brutal, unromanticized violence to let us know that it will be a raw, relentless ride; that it won’t shy away from ugly truths about rebellion and survival. And indeed it doesn’t: Katniss navigates a morally ambiguous political landscape full of treachery and false heroes. We don’t know which love interest to root for, we’re not sure if the rebels are who they say they are, it’s not even totally clear what ‘winning’ means by the last book.

The HG trilogy isn’t the first to employ moral ambiguity, but it’s a refreshing change from the throngs of good vs evil YA/fantasy stories out there. Refreshing in that it’s uncomfortable: as the grittiness becomes clear, you form a trust with the book: on some level, you feel, this story will tell it like it is. It won’t shy away from things we know to be true but don’t like to speak about. The best books are never Yes Men; they are wake up calls.

… Click the pic for Favorite Things…


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