June 21's presentations by short story writer Jason Ockert and novelist Benjamin Percy struck a chord with me because they both touched upon trying to find yourself. For me, Ockert did this while reading "Everyday Murders" from his short story collection Neighbors of Nothing. The story follows Grumman, a young transient, who discovers an entrepreneur is making a fortune by producing sports jerseys memorializing serial killers and the number of lives they've ended. Having witnessed his family slaughtered by a killer years ago, he travels to the businessman's home to confront him but doesn't get the chance he hopes for.
"Everyday Murders" isn't a tale of retribution, but one about people searching for purpose in their lives and the extents they go towards achieving it. Ockert peppers it with glimmers of humor to lighten the mood. While surfing the Web, Grumman discovers that a viral feed he used to watch of a Nepalese boy meditating in the jungle is no longer running. After musing how this boy cultivated a "blissful peace" he can't himself, Grumman wonders if www.buddhaboy.com went offline to pave way for www.buddhayoungman.com, or if the boy disappeared via levitation or vaporization into "a million particles of light." Perhaps Ockert inserts this absurd humor to contrast the difficulties people face on their personal journeys. Not everyone realizes their cause or purpose, and they don't always react and deal with that fact well. By the end of the story, Ockert describes Grumman while "[h]e succeeds in feeling nothing at all until his chest glows with warmth," which was my favorite line of the story and a beautifully worded way to conclude Grumman's quest.
I ended up grabbing a copy of Neighbors of Nothing after being awed by "Everyday Murders" and intrigued by the book's dust jacket sleeve. It cited that each short story's characters were "searching for new identities in worlds they no longer recognize." As a Millenial questioning what and where I'm going to be when I "grow up," narratives about characters in a meandering state appeal to me. I look forward to starting the book.
He then explained how he returned to genre fiction by making an analogy to understanding music. The first level to experiencing a song is sensual, hearing it on the radio or in the background at a coffee shop. The next is explanatory, in which a person tries to figure out what the lyrics mean. The last and topmost level is composition, and by then the person can write out a song's sheet music or play it by ear. When aspiring writers get to the point where they're dissecting their reading material in search of a symbolic meaning, Percy asserted, they forget how to appreciate a story for its pure, narrative experience. It's valid to enjoy a piece of writing at face value and its higher interpretation.
I remember in college a friend complained that she couldn't write genre fiction in her classes. At the time, I felt bad for her but couldn't relate because I preferred literary works. Percy recounting his journey away and back to writing about werewolves and other fantastical themes helped me understand why being denied from penning the stories my friend wanted to was difficult for her to accept. Hearing him speak also made me realize my error in thinking those of us favoring literary fiction as "higher rung" readers and writers. Genre authors are as capable of crafting smart narratives just as literary ones can bore people with their ingeniously worded, navel-gazing stories about nothing. There's value in enjoying either or both types of fiction. I thanked Percy for his speech afterward on my friend's behalf.
Unfortunately, this was the only Lectores reading I was able attend this season, but I learned a lot just from this session. Through their presentations, Jason Ockert and Benjamin Percy proposed that we're compelled to and should remain true to ourselves. How we handle detours along the way determines where we'll end up as we seek our personal place.