Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Review: Making Sense by Jim Murdoch

Is there any socially redeeming value to “making stuff up” - in other words, writing fiction? And does fiction offer any benefit for a reader beyond entertainment?

Unlikely as it may seem in this clangorous world, there are scientists studying those quiet little questions, and the first, best answer is one word: Empathy.

To my mind, empathy is what Making Sense, Jim Murdoch’s fifth published book, is all about. This book is a showcase of the uniquely human ability to understand the interior life of another conscious being; to transcend the limits of the self.

Making Sense is a slender collection of 19 brief stories, each exploring a different character, who is also usually the narrator. These are not plotted stories, but character vignettes and voice-driven monologues. Nearly half the narrators are women, and the range of ages and types is wide; they are not just thinly disguised versions of the author. All but two of the stories are narrated in first person, but even the third-person omniscient narrator uses a very conversational, first-person-like voice and even addresses the second person (the reader) with lines like, “Do you see that man over there….”

The whole collection is full of a lively energy, like meeting real people. Murdoch has a gift for imagining himself into the minds of others and capturing their ways of speech. The differences in the subjects, in their voices and their lives, is what provides the empathic spine of this collection. All these engaging voices show us that the Other is really just like ourselves, and that is one of the most crucial messages for a divided, brutal world.

George Ovitt explored this subject rather brilliantly in his Atticus Review article “Fiction and Empathy,” which I highly recommend.

And to dig a little deeper (getting back to my earlier statement about scientists): a series of experiments support the fiction/empathy claims above, and show that the empathy effect is strongest with literary fiction as compared to genre fiction, factual non-fiction, or not reading at all. Perhaps the first empirical data on the subject, the studies were recently published in a top journal, Science, and subsequently well covered in Scientific American and the The New York Times. (Thanks to the On Fiction blog for bringing it to my attention.)

So it’s true: stories that delve deeply into characters’ internal worlds, depicting the complexity and unpredictability of real life, effectively teach us how to empathize. Our world leaders desperately need to read more literary fiction!

In the never-ending struggle between dark and light forces, Murdoch’s Making Sense adds to the positive side.

There is just one more aspect to the book I want to address. Murdoch uses a few of these stories to experiment with technique: how to create distinct regional dialects or accents on the page so that they will sound authentic in the reader’s inner ear. While his urge to capture a unique voice is admirable, I found these stories less successful. As I struggled through the altered spellings and syntax for Scots, Cockney, and New York accents, I lost the fluid rhythm of the speech and even the line of the story. A lighter touch, just hinting at the dialects, would have been more to my taste (especially for New York, where I’ve lived for 25 years without hearing an accent like the one depicted here).

In the end, this is a valuable investigation. I respect the care and thoughtfulness with which Murdoch approached his dialect stories, and perhaps the effort serves best to illustrate how thoroughly immersed each of us is in the speech we hear every day. Language is indistinguishable from thought; it’s like the air we breathe.

In other words, there are simple, universal human sensibilities under the complex exterior of such stories, like the root language of which the dialects are just surface variations. This entire book supports the idea that we are One.