The scariest and most gruesome books I’ve ever read were written by Justin Cronin. He came up with the concept of his trilogy after going on a bike ride with his young daughter, who, when asked what he should write about next said, “Write a story about a girl who saves the world.”
My writer friend April sent the first book to me, and I cringe recalling that I devoured it, given the content, but I could not put it down, and finished it early in the summer. I texted another writer friend, Aaron, and told him he had to read this book, and thus began a long distance book club reacting to and trying to make sense of a story about a virus that had gotten totally out of hand.
This was a few years ago, but the story stayed with the three of us, and we’d often text each other little things we saw in the world that resemble what Cronin wrote about. I admit I did it for a comforting laugh. “Hahaha,” I’d text my friends. “Isn’t that creepy? But it won’t really happen. Good thing this is just fiction,” was always my sentiment.
Then, in January of this year, I texted Aaron and said, “You think it’s too early to start building a boat?” I was referring to Cronin’s stories where, in an effort to carry on civilization, a few remaining humans built a boat and tried to sail away. It was very Noah’s Ark.
I was also referring to COVID-19.
“OK, so Jesse can build the boat, given his profession,” I said. Aaron’s wife is a doctor, so we had that covered. “You and I are writers, though,” Aaron said. “All we can do is document it.”
The girl who saves the world, Amy, does not have a happy life. There are moments when she experiences love and joy and peace from living out the wonderful Buechner quote on vocation: “The place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” But Amy’s life is filled with sorrow, like that of a wave so large there is nothing to do but let it encompass you.
The anti-hero, the one that begins as a victim, as Amy did, does what he does because his heart is broken. Causing pain and destruction is the only thing he knows to do in order to manage his own pain and brokenness. However, it is when he tells his story of how he came to be the monster he is, that he begins to come to terms with what he’s done. Sharing his story (almost) makes him human again. At least, we can see the humanity that still lives within him.
I think in stories well-told, the line between anti-hero and hero is so fine—often seemingly invisible—we readers can see ourselves in both.
Things have moved fast since that text exchange between Aaron and me. Now, Aaron’s comment seems less a joke and more a call. It is the responsibility of the artist, the poet, the writer, the singer, to take these days and create with them. I am thinking now that perhaps documentation—and telling of it—might be quite a heroic thing to do. Perhaps it’ll be the thing that brings our humanity back.
Photo by Patrick Emerson, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Callie Feyen.
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