Horror and Compassion: Paul Luikart on 'Animal Heart'

Good fiction tells the truth of the world to the people who inhabit it, whether those people care to know the truth or not. And, of course, the truth stays true in all kinds of weather, even for the person who walks in the rain and claims that it’s sunny. Now, the John Keats people might say that it’s beauty enough for truth to be truth. “In fact,” I can hear them saying, “there cannot be more beauty than truth.” I’m not sure that’s true. The John Keats opposition, as if there were such thing as a codified group of anti-John Keats people, might say that in order for truth to be beautiful, it also has to be actionable. It’s not enough to simply be true, but beauty is truth and truth is beauty, in both of their brightest forms, when truth and beauty lead to action that opposes the ugly, the hideous, and the detestable. Even if that action is internal. To think differently, for example. Or even to consider thinking differently. If truth, though, in and of itself, is not inherently beautiful, then it is inherently redemptive. This can and should be found in good fiction. When fiction is written well, it provides a view not only to humanity’s bloody past and present, but also to the possibility of a peaceful future for all people.

Writing that is visceral, confrontational, immediate, and graphic (non-gratuitously so, of course) is therefore vital to telling the tale of human beings. (And, by the way, writing that doesn’t primarily tell the tale of human beings cannot be literary.) When I was in middle school and high school, I was in the Boy Scouts. We did a lot of backpacking and the mantra was always, “Never hike faster than your slowest hiker.” It’s more important to get someplace together than to get there quickly, in other words. “We” is more important than “there.” Certainly the same notion applies to the purpose and function of good fiction. The Leo Tolstoy people would go so far as to say that if a piece of fiction (or any other kind of art) doesn’t serve to elevate humanity above its base circumstances and unite its disparate factions in some way, then it’s not actually art. As to what the anti-Leo Tolstoy people would say about what good fiction and art are, well, it’s tough to tell, but it would probably be a lot of different things. To which the Leo Tolstoy people would respond, “See! You’ve proved our point!” I digress, but only slightly. The point is that good fiction cannot exist if it doesn’t, in some way, consider those among us who are, for whatever reason, at their worst. Even if the consideration of them is in what the Ernest Hemingway people might call the part of the iceberg that’s submerged. Please don’t ask me what the anti-Ernest Hemingway people might say. Damn them.

Once, when I lived in Chicago, I was going for a run on the Lakefront Path, a long, asphalt-covered trail along the shore of Lake Michigan. It’s very popular and is typically used by walkers, urban hikers, runners, and cyclists. About a quarter of the way through my run, I came across the scene of a recent bike wreck. A small group of people huddled around a cyclist who was sprawled on the ground unconscious, with blood pooling under his head. I was instantly and thoroughly repulsed. I wanted nothing more than to un-see and somehow un-exist the scene. But in the next split second I was nearly washed away by compassion. Will he be okay? What if he’s not okay? How can I help him? What can I do? I have to do something. I have to help.

On one level, the stories in Animal Heart are not for the squeamish. There’s a lot of blood and death and cussing. But what I’ve attempted to do with each story is to provoke readerly reactions of both repulsion and compassion. If repulsion is born from “I” as a force that drives one away from a particular person or circumstance for the presumed preservation of the self, then compassion is nothing more than a force of attraction in which the “I” is subjugate to the “you.” “You” as greater than “I.” As an author, and as a human being, I’m fascinated by this. How can two emotional forces that are seemingly opposite—one of repulsion and one of compassion—occupy the same space in my heart and mind? In your heart and mind? In our collective hearts and minds? Animal Heart delivers no answers (mostly because I have none), but, if I’ve done my work correctly, you’ll ponder those questions too.

—Paul Luikart, author of Animal Heart