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Dentistry and the modern novel

William Faulkner said that a writer’s only responsibility is to his art. Mine, unfortunately, is to my dentist. Driven from my bed in the early hours of the morning by a cracked wisdom tooth (how appropriate), I’ve sought relief in the written word and the shot of morphine my manservant has kindly administered.

Pain is, of course, no stranger to the landscape. Fiction is littered with corpses, real and metaphorical. The writer’s perception of the world is nearly always bleak, his characters struggling to overcome dire personal handicaps and unresolved conflict. Transcendence always comes at a cost, often in failed relationships and loss of one sort or another. Our hero gains insight from his shortcomings, not to mention the cracked tooth that kept him up all night.

J.M. Coetzee, the South African novelist and Nobel prize winner, has his critics. Martin Amis claimed recently that he had no talent and that his ‘whole style is predicated on transmitting no pleasure.’ This from a man who suggested euthenasia booths for the elderly! But is there any truth in this accusation? Not only about Coetzee’s work, (which I personally admire), but about novelists in general?

When you think of writers like Tolstoy and Dickens, one word comes to mind – vitality. No matter how dark or oppressive the material, the characters spring to life from the page. There is the sense of life being lived to the fullest. Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov kills an old woman with an axe, and yet we’re there with him in his dusty garret room, hiding from his pursuers and seeking solace in the arms of a young prostitute.

Modern fiction seems plagued with one-dimensional characters who never break out of their shells. In place of a living, breathing entity who thinks and feels as we do, we get a kind of faceless automaton who merely goes through the motions, never indulging his base instincts and never saying anything his creator might have to defend in public.

Perhaps humour has the answer. The most unpalatable subjects of all can be relieved, to some extent, by a subtle comic touch. James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, follows an alcoholic’s attempts to cope with blindness, after being kicked unconscious by policemen. I read it several years ago and laughed long into the night. Humour is intrinsic to life. Why then should it be absent from the novel because of some pompous literary ideal?

Maybe it’s me. I always find the underbelly a much more rewarding place to inhabit – at least for fictional puposes. Detective novels bore me rigid. I’d rather read about the criminals. Or, better still, write about them.

Which brings me to that cracked wisdom tooth. The mind is capable of producing endorphins forty times more powerful than morphine. If I could find a way to harnass such a phenomenon I could dispense with the services of my long-suffering manservant and be one-hundred percent organically free of pain forever. But even that wouldn’t resolve the unbearable torments of the second novel!

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