Friday, January 28, 2011

The Uncomfortable Bits

There’s a scene in my new book, Half Brother, that some people have found very uncomfortable. I won’t tell you what it is; you’ll have to read the book to find out – and maybe you won’t find it uncomfortable at all. But it’s made me think about how differently people can respond to the same material – and most importantly, how much I’ve come to appreciate those moments – in a movie, or a book, or simply watching Ricky Gervais host an awards show – that have pushed me beyond my comfort zone, or violated my expectations in some way.

Because it’s inevitably these moments that stay with me the longest. It might be something as simple as the scenes in the movie Castaway where Tom Hanks names and starts talking to the volleyball – annoyingly absurd I thought at the outset, but then realized how brilliant and moving it was – a man so lonely and desperate to cling to sanity, he finds companionship however he can. Or the scene in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Frankenstein where, having birthed the creature, he’s unable to lift its giant frame from the floor, and staggers and slips about for a prolonged period in a slick of “amniotic” fluid – at first it seemed farcical and gratuitously slimy, but then in my mind it became brilliantly primal, and a metaphorical wrestling with the boundaries of science and morality. Or it might be the literal ringing of bells in heaven when the heroine is “martyred” at the end of Breaking the Waves – a moment which several of my friends said utterly ruined the entire movie for them, but which I think is brilliant.

At their best, uncomfortable moments aren’t just shocking and interesting; they can challenge our convictions. As readers, viewers, citizens, we tend to prefer the same menu. There’s a comfort in it, a sense of security, but sometimes also an almost self-righteous complacency: See, everyone thinks exactly the same thing as me! But what I think is so valuable about a work of art is how it can confront you with a new opinion, a new moral or political idea, that you’d never considered. Novels as disparate as Never Let Me Go, Cider House Rules, Feed, Frankenstein, and Wolf Hall have introduced me to new and uncomfortable ideas, and forced me to think about life in different ways – and while my personal reactions and reflections might not have been those intended by the author –perhaps quite the opposite in some cases – the important thing is the process: an opening to ideas rather than a closing.

So, long live uncomfortable scenes!

By the way, here's some of what Patrick Ness said about Half Brother in his recent review in The Guardian:

"Oppel is pleasingly unafraid to ask awkward questions, often right at the point where readers might have made up their minds. What a particular joy for a teenage reader, to be challenged rather than instructed. Parents might be surprised at the passionate discussions Half Brother ends up inspiring, along with a healthy new respect for our closest genetic cousins." – Patrick Ness in The Guardian, 22.1.11