Smile for the camera

A few months back, I read some Globe & Mail thing about an army captain whose job it is to arrange for the return and funerals of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and I found myself reaching for my notebook, thinking, there’s some kind of story in that.

Then I snatched my hand back, walked down the hall to the bathroom, splashed cold water in my face and looked up, my hands shaking, at the frightened visage staring back from my mirror.

“Man,” said I, “you sure dodged a bullet on that one.”

I had realized, as my hand hovered over my notebook, that 10,000 others were reaching for their own notebooks, all of them preparing to write thick, humourless novels with titles like The Temporary Vault or The Maker of Arrangements, written in hushed and “poetic” prose of the sort that one intones seriously, drawing out the wooooords so that their meaning sinks into one’s sooooul, and that no-one in any of these books would ever smile, or laugh, least of all the reader.

As should be clear from the foregoing, I hate books like that.

I hate books like that because they are so busy being hushed and respectful that they forget the real world. In the real world, people in difficult situations make jokes, and laugh, and smile. Humour is often absent in novels that beg to be taken seriously, as if anyone who smiles can’t possibly be dealing in weighty matters. But humour is often very serious.

Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.

Yesterday, a single sentence in a comment left by Benjamin Chesterton stopped me in my tracks: “As one observer pointed out in Nachtweys pictures you never see a patient smile.”

Whoever that observer was, he sure was perceptive. I stopped to think: can I remember a single Nachtwey photo in which someone is smiling?

Yes. I remember one. No; two.

The question arises: why do dour, humourless novels annoy me as misrepresentations, while Nachtwey’s relentlessly negative photography does not?

I could chew on that for some time without finding the answer. Perhaps it’s because of the difference in the media: photographs are inherently superficial, are bounded by their frames and restricted to the single moment of their capture, while long fiction has room to (and should) expand, reach out and drag in all kinds of contradictory nuance. The frames in fiction are entirely artificial and self-imposed.

There is also the question of interpretation. A photograph of a doctor laughing, in Nachtwey’s essay, would suggest callousness rather than humanity.

But does no patient ever smile at the doctor? Perhaps not the far-gone cases, but surely this happens. So what we have are photographs of a disease, and of people dying of a disease, but no photographs of people living with a disease.

A point to Mr. Chesterton, then.

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