By Leah Hager Cohen for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on November 2, 2009
I’ve been asked why I tend to populate my fiction with “nice” characters, rather than “tortured, neurotic types.” The question catches me by surprise. Are they nice, my characters? I’ll allow they’re not villains, but neither (I hope) are they saints or heroes—unless in the most mortal-bound, flawed sense of those words.
The question seems to hinge on the unspoken assumption that “bad” or “troubled” is inherently more interesting—more worthy of our consideration—than “good” or “hale.”
I’ve never held this assumption to be true. I, like most people, come from a happy-unhappy family, and the infinite subtle variations on this theme—the theme of the ordinary, one might call it—excite my interest more profoundly and enduringly than does the theme of extremity.
I bristled the first time I heard someone quote the famous opening of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I must have been ten or eleven, ignorant both of Tolstoy and of heroines throwing themselves before trains, but I knew in my heart the claim was untrue. Perhaps my objection came from a child’s stubborn sense of fairness: why should happy families be thought lacking in interest simply because they were lacking in misery?
But I think it more likely my objection was rooted in skepticism, a deep-seated doubt that such a term held real meaning: how could any but the most reductive thinker believe in an organism called a “happy family”?
It is true that I myself lived, day in and day out, within the architecture of such an organism. Two parents, three kids, roof, beds, books, food. Sunlight on water, walks in woods. Chores and games, popcorn by the fire, watermelon on the stoop. Gifts, secrets, rules, accidents. Slammed doors, broken moldings, red eyes, huffs. Silences, screeching tires, shattered plates, bitten lips. We had our fissures and gashes, our storms and shames. But we were happy, quite happy, at least as happy as any of the families we knew, and surely also as happy as any of the families we didn’t know but who inhabited the houses around ours, houses we passed on foot and into whose windows, at night, we could sometimes peer and see little tableaux lit up as if for our viewing.
I still think of those tableaux vivant, glimpsed within the lit rooms of houses and apartments: apples and pears on a window sill; a laundry basket on a kitchen table; a leg, crossed over a knee, propping up a newspaper; an elbow moving behind a pink curtain. I cannot conceive that the tenderness and wonder I feel in the presence of such humble observations could be surpassed by whatever emotions racier subjects evoke. For me, the riddles and fascinations of everyday life are astonishing enough.
Leah Hager Cohen is the author of three novels and four works of nonfiction. She holds the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross and writes the blog Love As A Found Object.
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