Oh boy. On the heels of an especially dreary fall, I had to watch "Manchester by the Sea," and that while I was in the middle of reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Thank God I'm a naturally optimistic person, one of the lucky ones who is not easily depressed. Even so, I was sad for hours after seeing "Manchester..." At a time of year when people talk about renewal and hope, the main character seems about as far from those possibilities as fire is from water, two elements that dominate the picture.
As for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by the wonderful writer Richard Flanagan, while I knew in general about the horrors the Japanese Imperial Army wrought in forcing through the Siam-Burma railway late in WW2, Flanagan's descriptions of the privations suffered by a group of Australians are so good that empathetic readers can't help but feel the pain. Not the writer, though. In a Guernica interview Flanagan said:
"An interviewer told me once that I was very empathetic, and I said I hope not. I think empathy’s a terrible danger for a writer. A writer has to stand outside the page. It’s not for the writer to shed tears onto the pages for these characters. It’s not for him to suffer or to laugh or to experience ecstasy or agony in the manner of the characters on the pages. It’s to find the words to convey ecstasy or agony in a way that’s true."
If it is true that art is uplifting, in the case of these two works, it is the artfulness that uplifts more than the subjects. The movie impressed me with its structure and characterization. The novel for both those reasons, and also because of the sheer power of Flanagan's prose. Despite what else may be looming, art has once again delivered on its promise to lift me up, given me a reason to greet the coming year with cheer.