Works of Palliative Fiction

Let me prescribe a few of these.

Yesterday, we introduced the concept of palliative fiction, stories designed to ease suffering and renew strength. It can be hard, in our contemporary literary marketplace, to find the aisle where these over-the-counter aids are located. Just this morning, in fact, I saw a book praised for being “unsentimental,” a very sad and contemporary trait to celebrate. No, let’s look for some books that are, in fact, sentimental. Books that are motivated by generosity and hope.

Let’s start with an easy one: Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit. Yeah, the Netflix show was great, but you don’t know this story until you get into the weeds of this book. We meet Beth at age eight, when she arrives in the orphanage after her parents are killed in a car accident. Over the next couple of hundred pages, we watch Beth learn her powers at the board, occasionally falling to better players but using her anger at those losses to drive her to greater capability. We watch Beth become addicted to tranquilizers at the orphanage, watch her become more deeply held in their grip, watch her develop strength to resist. We watch her with her aimless adoptive mother, watch her learn some empathy for a woman she disdained. And none of her growth requires sudden superpowers. She has two superpowers right from her first moments at the orphanage: she’s fiercely intelligent, and she notices everything. Those two gifts underlie every action in the book, from sex to friendship to international chess tournaments. It is from front to back a novel with interest in agency, in Beth’s ability to see and then to act. 

How about The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Eugenia Kim. Just an amazing story, so rich, so careful. The Confucian culture of early 20th century Korea comes through in every sentence, every gesture, every refusal to speak. The complications are vast. Tradition and modernity. Confucian and Christian. Brother and sister. Husband and wife. Elite class and servant class. Good child and bad child. Occupier and occupied. Wife and mistress. Teacher and student. At every step, with every person she encounters, Najin has to make choices, and she agonizes over every single one, never certain upon which ground she stands. I increasingly value stories about people who always try to do the right thing, even when they have no idea what the right thing is. I’m tired of cynical, opportunistic, craven stories. Give me a story of someone generous, someone smart, someone intelligent enough to know that they don’t know. The Calligrapher’s Daughter is exactly that.

Or maybe the best novel of the past twenty years that scarcely anyone’s heard of: Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng. Mayumi, the narrator of this story, is a Japanese-British-American librarian who lets us completely, unguardedly, inside her mind as she navigates a web of relationships—family, work, and (most especially) otherwise. She is disgusted and at peace with her husband, loving and exhausted with her daughter, at home and alienated from her work. And she is ashamed and impatient and delighted and brazen with her lover. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is a treasure, a powerful and humbly honest story that defies summarization. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I haven’t read his other books, but I stumbled across Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night, and I was immediately taken. Two small town neighbors, an older widowed man and and older widowed woman, turn to one another from simple loneliness and discover so much more. And together, they take on the project of reclaiming her grandson from his meager, uncaring family. A multidimensional book about the families we inherit and the ones we make.

YA literature is filled with books of hope and discovery. Two of my favorites are Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. Any book where outsiders discover their capabilities, and discover people who can see and love those capabilities, is a win, and YA does that better than any other genre, because teenagers haven’t yet learned that being unsentimental is a good thing. Alexie tells the story of Arnold Spirit Jr., a delightfully profane young man who loves his family and friends but simultaneously wants something undefinably more, and struggles through his time away in a predominantly white high school to reconcile those two dreams. And Rowell puts two kids together who really don’t want to be, the Goth girl and the comic book boy, and lets them discover each other’s strengths.

There’s plenty more, but let’s start with these. I’ll write you another prescription later after you see how these go.