|Richard Ford Wins 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Literary Excellence|
In fact, this time through, I went straight to the last line: "Would you think he was anybody like you?"
But before talking about why, I need to mention Alice Munro, who just won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. This wonderful short story author says that she when she reads stories, she dips in and out, entering one way, leaving another, entering again. Originally, she explained this idea in an often-quoted essay: "A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you."
When Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Richard Ford was quoted as saying, "I’m absolutely ecstatic that Alice won; nobody should win if she doesn’t."
Back to Munro's ideas on reading. In an interview with the Atlantic Monthly, she expanded on her idea of the short story as a house: "I thought about the way that I read, which, as I said in that essay is going into the story anywhere. I can tell in a couple of sentences how I feel about a story. Then, I go on reading, and I read frontwards, backwards, all over. It is just like being enclosed in the story and seeing things outside the story in a different way—through the windows of that house. And it's not at all like following a path to see what happens. Quite often, I know what happens as soon as I start reading it. Maybe not the twists the plot will take, but the real story."
Wherever you first started reading "Rock Springs," what happened? Did you feel anything? Did you notice that someone was going on a journey? Did you notice that the first person point of view forced you to identify with a narrator who is, I'll wager, nothing like you? By the end, did you, in Munro's words, see "how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows"? And did "you, the visitor, the reader," become "altered as well by being in this enclosed space"?
There is something that can't be understood about the real story until you get to the change in point of view at the end. When Earl addresses us, the reader, I hear the real challenge: Can we identify and empathize with others' pain? How much can we understand about ourselves by reading fiction? How much can we be altered by writing, reading, and thinking about stories?
Typically, magicians don't ask us to empathize, not really. They want us to marvel, to be amazed. Ford reminds me that literary art is an old, deep magic that goes so much further than what most of us can manage, almost like what might resurrect us from the dead. And by dead I mean stunned, stuck, immobile, pitiless, merciless. Not to go all Aslan on you, but I think that experiencing a new point of view can bring us back to life.