By Laura P. Valtorta
Margaret Atwood, who has written five dystopian novels, starts from a platform of modern civilization in first-world countries (people working, children being educated, women treated as $.68 citizens) before plunging into a future that looks both grim and strange. In the MaddAdam trilogy, her diving board is present-day corporate control from which she plunges into the soup of the future – a world where the environment has collapsed and big companies protect half of the population in sealed communities. She has a platform of values that she respects: love and camaraderie. The healing qualities of hard work such as gardening. But she attacks anyone who can’t think for herself. The books are hilarious.
Franklin Schneider has no such platform. His creative memoir, Canned, how I lost ten jobs in ten years and learned to love unemployment, begins with the premise that life stinks, all of it. He tells the reader why in an entertaining way. The reader may or may not agree, but the quality and funniness of the writing help to deliver his message. Because Schneider rejects everything (except sex and books), his insights are often deeper and more unexpected than those of other writers. He makes the reader question values that western society forces on us as given: family is desirable. Work is always good.
Donna Tartt, in The Secret Friend, starts from the premise that Mississippi life in the 1970s was terrible for everyone because of economic deprivation. Her central character, a young girl, hunts down a supposed killer who has not committed the murder. Nobody understands anybody else in Tartt’s world. The reader can see inside the minds of the main characters, but they hardly ever understand each other. In this way, she attacks some prejudices about the South and reinforces others. She does accept the conventional premise that people need money and ambition to make life work. The book is 95% funny and filled with snakes.
While writing my current novel about the barriers America has built around skin color, I am starting from the traditional notion that family can make a person strong. Friends are important in Doris & Carmen, but Americans, living in compartmentalized worlds, are never free to choose the friends they need. People who can break down the boxes are stronger than others. My main targets are the American legal system, greed, and lawyers.
Humor is what ties these writings together. Nobody wants to depress her readers, and human stupidity is an easy target. Laughter is what makes the message stick.