Is the Bakery Still Open?
An introduction to No Mercy When We Get There: Stories to Wreck You
There are all kinds of ways I look at fiction and what it is supposed to do, and what it can do, but there’s one idea I return to more than any other.
When I read the fiction that matters most—and this is why I think it matters most—I want to be laid out.
I’m not sure how else to put it. Absolutely flattened. I don’t want to finish what I’ve read and instantly arise and bound off into the night for some plans. There is no, “Time to dance!” that can follow after I’ve read what I’ve read. This is necessarily what happens last.
I want to be stopped. Full-stopped. But so I can start. Better. I want to be in the chair wrecked. I want to have to take time to compose myself, without even knowing that’s what I’m doing. It just happens.
I haven’t read a book or a story. I’ve had a life experience. I’ve been rocked. Worlds have passed through me. I’ve passed through myself into other portions of myself I didn’t know were there. I’ve turned the lights on in rooms inside of who I am that have been dark for ages, maybe since I was born. Maybe before that. Or since I shut the lights off myself for reasons I shouldn’t have.
I am spent but I am stronger. I have more energy, too, though I am sitting there. I’m enthralled.
“Good God,” I might say to myself because the emotion, the experience, is so intense. The light that has been revealed from out of the darkness of the mysteries of how and why we interact as we do. The choices we make. Why we make them. Why we don’t. What we discover at points in life that define us. They’re not the points that you’re going to think they are, if you’re theorizing in advance. That’s not how life works.
I might actually say it aloud without meaning to. I want to think that I should take a walk around the block to regather myself. Then another. Then another. Maybe go to the bakery where I know there will be no customers at that hour, and contemplate buying a slice, then eating and walking some more as I eat, and returning home to return to the book. That’s how great writing should make you feel.
I have all of these new parts and old parts come alive again, and I must regather my regathering, because a work of fiction has absolutely wrecked me. In a good way.
I don’t have to ask what just happened, had been happening, what built to a happening to end all happenings, or how the aggregate of the happenings have sandblasted my soul, polished it, held it before me.
The experience is new and it is total, but I also understand what has occurred. I’m in on it. I’m right there. I’m riding shotgun. And I am so alive in that moment and the sustained period that stems from that moment. And I know it. I know it as much as I have ever known anything. More.
The best fiction should make you want to put it down. Need to put it down. That’s right—I said what everyone the opposite of how it’s supposed to go. “It was a real page-turner!” These ideas are not mutually exclusive.
But a great book, a story, has at you. It shows you what you’ve never seen, and yet, a part of you comes to think you’ve always known what you’re now realizing, if you hadn’t before. Had you? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter. What matters is right now. And going forward.
The book can blaze in the hands so that we jump. That’s the life force.
The value of a work of art and the greatness of a work of art is in direct proportion to how much life that work contains. You cannot fake that life. You always know and feel when it is there, and you always know and feel when it is not.
Do you know what a fluffer is? We don’t have to go into it here. Great fiction doesn’t fluff you. It doesn’t stroke you. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be the the best entertainment ever. A joy to read. To re-read. To buy for friends so that they can have the pleasures you’ve had and pass them on themselves.
It carries no water, but it is a veritable ocean. It is the tide, the life, the flow, the totality that causes us to drop the book, gasp, feel what we feel in the heart, and pick the book up so fast it was like it never left our hands, if it even truly did. The feeling is enough—the hands may remain in perpetual contact with covers and spine. Or the tablet. You follow me.
These works that are the best works, the works that matter and will last, take us places we’ve never been. I don’t mean Alaska. No passport is stamped for the regions and countries and lake districts inside of you, but if there were, it would be caked with ink piled high from reading these works of which speak. Human vistas.
What she said to him, how she said it, when she said, after what had happened, and who he was, and what he knew, and what he didn’t, and what he knew then, and how it debouched a world for him, and for her, and for us. But they were just saying goodbye after dinner. Though not really. They were and they weren’t. And it is what we see and feel in the latter, that pops us. Is the bakery still open?
That’s the only kind of writing I care about. I want my soul to be put on blast. Light it up. Light me up. When I think I can’t take any more, hit me again. Sly Stone talked of wanting to take you higher and higher and higher. Do that. Show me no mercy. In the good way. And keep taking me there.
But you know what? I think that’s the only kind of writing that anyone truly cares about, when you get past lip service, and praising your friend’s book that you didn't read, and “liking” something because you think you have to, or reading a book because everyone else was and you didn’t know any alternatives offhand. Or just reading a book to read a book.
But what you remember is when you’re laid out. When you pushed back from the desk and your body was tingling. You’d seen behind a curtain and knew—or felt—answers to a mystery and the mystery was the big one.
The human why. The “this is the point of it all” one. And you felt so deeply for people. They are characters, but you don’t want to refer to them that way. They are people. They are as real as people as anyone you’ve ever know. Dare we say, more so?
That’s what I mean by no mercy when we get there and the fiction that wrecks us. In a good way. This book is what I mean.