Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mr. Monk and the Resurrection of Fiction

Once upon a time, I was an English major and I read a lot of fiction. I went to what was a very small, fledgling college at a time when the student/professor ratio was very low, and the work we did was very intense. The two profs in the English department didn't have to worry about having to read 200 papers every turn-in, so we were assigned a LOT of writing and a LOT of novels and plays that we were expected to be able to discuss intelligently. In that regard, and in many others, my college experience was rigorously ideal. I got some award when I graduated for being an exceptional English major. It was kind of fitting that my department was the only one who neglected to make that award something that was actually concrete. Everyone else got a pitiful little dust collector; I just had the satisfaction of being named. Hmmm... hadn't thought about that one in a long time.

Anyway, I loved literature in those days. There was something about discovery every time I opened a book; I've often thought of it as the closest I ever came to dating. In books I met people who helped me figure out who I was and who I did and didn't want to become. I think the first author I really had a thing for was Sinclair Lewis. He was big on the theme of hypocrisy in society and as a teen I guess that appealed to me. (This was in high school still.) Then I really fell hard for the British Romanticist poets. I did so much reading on them that when I took a class on them my first semester of my Sophomore year, with the then-new English prof, I listened to the first few lectures just drinking everything in and not taking a single word as notes. The professor, with a very memorable cautious sarcasm, said to me after one class, "So, Marie, I guess you already know all this about the Romanticists, huh?" And I dorkily but honestly told him, "Yes! I do!" We got along fine later on, but I always had the sense that I made him feel sort of insecure.

Then it was the dark/weird writers I tended to like: Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka, D. H. Lawrence. Such were the days. Responding to these authors' works in writing made me feel very much alive.

But then I suppose it was a combination of college burn-out, a sort of academic dependency, and my pentecostal influence that led me to lay all that aside. Since graduating I've hardly touched any classic literature at all. I was into spiritual reading, and then in grad school I doubled my previous academic burn-out on theology. After getting married, all my attention went to non-fiction and what I like to think of as the beginning of my real-world education. I read a million books on health, infertility, then pregnancy, politics, economics, education, arts, or whatever other facts struck my fancy.

And now I realize I have lost my appreciation for fiction. That might have something to do with reading so much stupid fiction to my children over the years. Actually, come to think of it, I suppose there have been some gems there, too, but somehow I thought of it as for them rather than for me. I guess I'll say I'd lost my appreciation of the power of fiction for me.

Maybe now I am re-thinking the potential because of a TV show! How terribly lowbrow! I have not been a regular watcher of TV since about 1987, so I've missed a lot. Many of those years in there I didn't even own a TV. I never saw a single episode of Seinfeld until it went off the air. You could name some random 90s TV show and I would probably assume it was still on the air.

Some years ago a friend had mentioned the series Monk. Just recently, on a rare solo trip to the library with no one else's desires to consider, I picked up a "best of" Monk DVD, and now I'm hooked. I've watched all of seasons one, two and four so far, so don't leave me any comments with spoilers, please (even though I've already read some on Wikipedia).

There's something about these fictional characters that reminds me of how I used to read novels. The fact that Monk is a detective with OCD makes it easier, I suppose, to write about him as a character than, say, some other run-of-the-mill detective from other crime shows I've watched where who the characters are as people doesn't really enter into the plot line -- no, wait, maybe I've never noticed any ongoing plot lines. It seems that good fiction (and no, please no, I don't want to get into some egghead debate of what makes good fiction) makes you care not only about the story at hand, but the character that presents a human dimension within the unfolding of another story.

And Adrian Monk presents, in my mind, a very touching human dimension. In real life I know at least one someone with full-blown OCD, and it isn't amusing. Certain people, say, with latent, mild OCD tendencies that they are not always comfortable owning up to, can find such people extremely trying. But in fiction, I can spare myself the real-world interaction and therefore grow in my own comfort in owning up to who I am. (Not very subtle, am I?)

Fictional characters need to be somewhat consistent in order to be believable as characters, unlike real people. While I don't relate to Monk's consistent and severe need for visible order, I do relate to some of his modes of social interaction. In fact, it has really been startling to me to realize this. He has a huge list of phobias (of course, again, characters need exaggerations to be interesting), while I have but a few. Telephones, church doors, walking into banquet halls, telephones, initiating conversations, telephones. I, generally, muscle my way through these, as I suppose most of us do with our phobias. But I am always struck by the childlike sort of dependence Monk has on his female sidekick, Sharona or Natalie, depending on the season. He is so open about his need. In one episode, Sharona rips into him for being selfish and heartless because she reveals a phobia she had and he laughs at her and tells her to suck it up. I fear that I have been in that kind of situation in my life, where I have been seen as similarly selfish and unfeeling. But I can feel, inside me, what it takes for a phobic person (any person) to have compassion on someone else: it takes having compassion on oneself first. It requires being able to say (and believe) "Yeah, I have problems, but it's OK." In another episode, someone asks him in an offhand, non-personal way "Aren't you ever ashamed of yourself?" He answers quietly, without missing a beat, "24/7." Many times the characters confesses to his psychiatrist that he is so tired of being different. His struggles with being who he is ("It's a blessing.... and a curse.") have made him humble. In one episode, a young girl he is questioning asks why he is no longer on active duty in the police force, and he responds "I had a breakdown and was nearly catatonic for three and a half years." That kind of direct answer to a complete stranger seemed perfectly normal to me. It was only his sidekick's reaction that clued me in that this was not supposed to be the way people respond to such questions.

Then there's how the memory of his late wife is depicted. To be honest, those fleeting moments at the close of a show or whatever where he is shown remembering her just make me weep. As a literary device I'd say she represents God. She represents a perfect time in his life, but one that is past. He is filled with this painful longing, and all-consuming desire, and in his deepest need, he turns to her, even though we also see in that his deepest frustration with not being able to solve her murder. I do believe that in this character I've found the first instance in which I can see that sorrow is actually beautiful. In what I've seen so far, I don't find a dark sorrow, a hopeless, meaningless sorrow in him. In one episode, a woman impersonates his late wife, and the question is raised about whether she is still alive and has simply not been in touch with him all these years. In his complete turmoil, Monk says "If this is true, then nothing is true." And isn't it the case that if faith in God proves to be a sham, then there is no truth in life at all, no meaning, no purpose, no root, no connection, nothing. The real human sorrow his experience represents, I see it now, has a real and true answer in the reality, presence and compassion of God. It's like my favorite color combination: shimmering, metallic gold on pure black.

This character is given (by the screenwriters) a strength to accept and persevere in who he is, with all his strengths, and despite his weirdnesses that separate him from "normal society." I think this scratches at things everyone deals with to a certain extent. I can laugh at him reading conversation starters off index cards when he needs to strike up a conversation with someone, because I feel like I need to do that, too. When he doesn't "get" cultural references or doesn't know how to use slang properly, I feel for him.

I think I'm fascinated by this show because it sincerely helps me be able to say with my life, You know what? I have problems, too. But it's OK.

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