Well, “It doesn’t matter, does it?” That is a pivotal and oft-repeated line in Pulitzer Prize winning novelist J. P. Marquand’s Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936), the aforementioned thriller I finally put down tonight. Does it matter? The novel, I mean. Was it just a way of passing some dull hours before, in a few minutes from now, the Death of a President—the assassination of George W. Bush, no less—is being televised here in Britain, a media event you may look at as just another opportunity to “kill time”? I have always been revolted by the phrase “killing time.” Sure, I take in plenty of popular culture; but I do not consider my engagement with such alleged trifles to be quite so destructive. Instead of getting away with murder, I try to come away with something rather more meaningful and life affirming.
Last night, after watching another instalment of the four-part adaptation of Jane Eyre, one more glossy take on the classic novel (previously reviewed here) to which I am warming against my better judgment of the original, I had a glance at Reader, I Married Him. It is a documentary that borrows its title from the most famous line of Jane Eyre—the very line denied me by this latest adaptation, since those at work on visualizing the novel decided to drop the first-person narration that served actresses like Ingrid Bergman, Madeleine Carroll, or Deborah Kerr so well in radio versions of this bold if bogus autobiography.
Now, the common argument for (or against) pageturners like Jane Eyre—and the lesser works inspired by or ransacking it—is that they provide vicarious relief. They allow those reading (or viewing or listening) to leave their restricting bodies and circumstances and become fictional characters who are daring and courageous despite the recognizable shortcomings that enable us to identify with them in the first place.
Escapism is often thought of as beneficial or at any rate innocuous. It gives hope to those who deem themselves beyond escaping, those swallowed up by the mundane and too feeble or frightened to realize that the everyday is all we’ve got. Others contend that this losing oneself in make-believe mainly serves the interests of those who would rather preserve the status quo and encourage alternate realities where everyday life ought to be.
What use is any novel, any film or play, if it only leads away from the present like a cul-de-sac littered with dreams deferred? What can we take away from novels before we put them away to grab another? Is a novel or film or radio play worth our while if it does nothing but help us to while away the hours?
Luckily, I am not the kind of person who is ever bored, even though I might spend an entire day doing what many would think of as nothing at all. Early in adulthood I decided that killing time is a deadly pursuit. I left behind my former self, my miserable nine-to-five job, and turned my back on my native country because such a lethal rejection of life began to disturb and depress me. It roused me to move to the United States, where I learned in time to live for the day rather than wait for a presumably better tomorrow, a period consumed by watching diverting films and reading distracting books.
No, I did not gain this courage from reading any piece of fiction; but since escaping home I have stopped perceiving any work of fiction as being escapist. Unless I put it aside as something not worth my while, I generally manage to find something in cultural pop, however devoid of fizz, that reflects or refreshes me. Making time for such works is no longer a fast getaway but a gradual getting at something. Weaving myself in and out of fictions, I no longer find myself sneaking out of what I think of as my own life.
Now, before I witness the assassination of George W. Bush—which I will not accept as wishful thinking—I am going to share a few lines that I took away from Thank You, Mr. Moto, words be thought of long after the plot and characters have become a blur in the vapor of experience pulverized by time. The first lines are uttered by the American narrator, the second by the one who makes him change his “it doesn’t really matter” attitude toward life:
I could see myself as others may have seen me [. . .] a stranger in a strange country, living in a fool’s Paradise; and I could see myself as something uglier than that. I could see myself as one of those misfits who cumber the earth, like spoiled children, incapable of adjustment to the life where they were placed and indulging instead in illusory futilities of existence which certainly were no part of life. I could see myself as one of those unfortunates, unable to face incontrovertible fact, constantly escaping from reality, and at the same time endeavouring to gain applause. That vision of myself made me lonely, empty. More than that, it filled me with distaste.
You can be as much of a fatalist as you like, but don’t forget there are times when you can do something. There are times when anyone can make fate change a little [. . .]. People may be altered by circumstances but they can alter circumstances too. At any rate I’ve taught you that.
The novel hasn’t exactly taught me anything; but the relevance of these lines, so obviously designed to validate the novel as something other than a time-waster, has not escaped me. They have returned me to my own story, my inescapable past, my retreat abroad, and my current remoteness from much that I once believed to be giving life meaning. You’ve got to be prepared to sustain a few injuries when handling such loaded trifles.