Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why We Read Fiction

This past weekend, we adopted a dog from the SPCA of Delaware. The dog has a beautiful lab head but a narrow body, possibly greyhound. When we viewed her in the pen at the shelter, we saw that she had a problem with her right rear leg. She was also suffering hair loss from a flea allergy. She’d been picked up in the city of Wilmington as a stray.

We were told not to call a dog by its shelter name (Sallie, in this case), which may have bad associations for the animal, so we renamed her Cue — short for Rescue. What exactly we rescued her from we’ll never know, but it wasn’t good.

At some point this dog seems to have had a normal life. While exuberant, she obeys basic commands, is properly house trained, and aims to please. But at some later point, it all went to hell for her.

Cue had her first visit to the vet on Monday. The fleas are gone, but she still has a skin problem that we’re working on. She also has early-stage heartworm (curable) and a tumor that needs removal. The problem with her rear leg is the result probably of having been hit by a car and never treated, which permanently affected her hip and gait. The vet also found evidence that someone had shot Cue multiple times with a BB gun.

Think about that. A stray dog in distress shot with a BB gun. There’s a word for that kind of behavior. It’s called inhumanity.

That is the story of Cue. A true story that we hope will have that all-too-rare real-life thing, a happy ending.

It has been said that humans must have stories. But every life is a story already. With so many stories everywhere, why do we feel that we have to make up other stories?

I think it’s because fiction can give us what we too infrequently get from life: moral clarity. In real life, people often get away with cruelty. When even many murders go unsolved, who’s going to track down the person who wields a BB gun on a sweet-tempered dog?

But in fiction, more often than not, moral order gets restored. The bad guy dies or goes to jail or sees the error of his ways. The lonely person finds love or discovers the ability to live alone. Epiphanies happen.

Cynics deride the happy endings of Hollywood and commercial fiction, but we deeply need happy endings. They give us something we rarely get from life, the satisfaction of seeing rightness prevail.