I wept. Eventually I sobbed, the book shaking in my hands as I held it over my head.
I wept because of words. “The sky is so big and blue and the trees so green and …. there’s so much wonder to be had.”
There were more words there–words that cut into my chest like a scalpel, somehow. But like the ones I showed you, they weren’t special words. They weren’t even particularly special formulations, really. In fact, they are cliches, the stuff of bad rock songs. “The sky is so big and blue,” “trees so green,” “so much wonder to be had.” I’ve heard each of these phrases, and been unmoved. In fact, literary types like to mock such phrases–they are so blatantly unoriginal, poets say, so why shouldn’t we find new, fresh words.
I wept anyway.
If I think about it more, I realize I wept partially because the words were so refreshing in their dark contrast. The book I was reading, The Knife of Never Letting Go, is often rather grim. I will avoid spoilers, but its dark portrait of a boy and his dog on the run is in many ways reminiscent of Cormack McCarthy’s bleaker-than-bleak The Road, only with more lovable characters who die. In a world full of evils and fear, any expression of hope and beauty would shine brighter, if only by contrast. I wouldn’t ever weep if those words came up in Winnie the Pooh. I might dismiss them as cliches. But to celebrate beauty in a world that grim, well, that is a bit more striking.
But that wasn’t why I wept.
I tend to overthink things, but a part of my brain says there is more to it than that. Plenty of mock-gothic horror films are filled with violence but have characters who talk about hope, so contrast in and of itself is not enough to make me weep. Yet the story did something rather clever in setting up that point. From the first sentence, it has been engaged in introducing a fascinating (and literally wonder-filled, from our perspective) world, from the point of view of a young protagonist who often dismisses things that seem marvelous to us. It begins:
“The first ting you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.”
It continues to show us a marvelous world–and an adventure that demonstrates the power of such wonderful cliches as friendship, life-sacrificing faithfulness, Samaritan-like hospitality to dangerous strangers, and (of course) the joyful companionship of an ever-loyal dog. These things are often overwhelmed by the horrors of the book–external horrors such as death, which takes so many of the best characters, and internal horrors as the protagonist comes to horrific realizations of both his capacity for evil and his ability to accidentally bring destruction upon those he loves. Nor are these horrors “solved.” When reading these words, the main character isn’t feed from his sense of guilt, and the world isn’t made into a utopia–at least not in any literal sense. But while the words are being spoken, they sound “something like a lie but making a new truth, creating a different world.”
I wept, because when I read those cliches I knew, in that moment, what they meant. I was reminded of the wonders that surround us (and “none more wonderful,” as the cynical playwright put it, “than man.”) I was reminded that, in spite of our ability to feel despair when faced with horrors, we can still feel wonder when faced with the world. All of this may be cliched, but I believe it to be true. But while reading the book, I didn’t believe it to be true–I felt it to be true, the way you feel something physical, like a knee to the groin or an elbow to the face. There is a word in Christian theology for unknowable or spiritual things being “made flesh”–it is “incarnation,” the same word used to describe God’s birth as Jesus Christ, a peasant’s son in Roman-occupied Bethlehem.
Of course, “bringing something to life” on the page isn’t the same as bringing God to material life in human history. But it’s close. Close enough to bring tears to my eyes.
So, if you want to submit a story about the “power of love to overcome evil” (or its inverse cliche, “the power of evil to poison good intentions”), go ahead. We don’t look down on stories that end with someone turning and repenting of his evil ways, necessarily, even though many people consider them to be a cliche. We don’t automatically reject “happy-ever-afters” either, though there are a lot of bad endings in that category. But whatever you write, incarnate it–embody it–with as much heart and soul and flesh and body as possible. Convince me that whatever abstract concepts you want to explore are being expressed through living, breathing, hating, loving, mourning, celebrating human beings. Because if you can’t make your ideas fleshy and human, then no one else is ever going to see the point in even giving them a second thought, no more than you would if, on a street corner, someone were to say “the sky is big and blue, isn’t it?”
P.S. The Knife of Never Letting Go is a much more varied and full-bodied book than I have time to describe–it is among the most compulsive page-turners I have ever read, with a uneducated, earnest, nervous, hilarious and ungrammatical narrator who I fell in love with by page 3. It doesn’t deal extensively with exclusive religious themes–though it portrays vividly the horrors of religion mixed with popular fears and hatreds–but it earns our unalloyed recommendation due to its constant concern with those people Jesus associated himself with: children, and those who society wants to dismiss as less-than-human.