My son Simon, who has always been wise beyond his years, has on several occasions reminded me that change is the breath of life.
These are words that he lives by, and the truth of them seems so evident; and yet, I struggle to really make peace with them.
The beginning of each new year sees many of us resolved to make changes in our lives, and this first week of 2014 is no different. But it’s so difficult! We’re creatures of the habits and patterns to which we cling and which so often come to define us.
Maybe literature can inspire us in this quest: after all, novelists and other tellers of tales have been writing transformation fiction—in which transformation is a primary theme or plot development— for centuries.
The most obvious stories of transformation are provided by fairy tales, science-fiction, fantasy and horror: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and “The Wild Swans” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde come to mind, as do a host of werewolf and vampire novels. Stories of profound change and transformation go as far back as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and are as iconic as Kafka’s own Metamorphosis, but these are often cautionary tales—not sources of inspiration!
These days, I’m more interested in the books that describe the more personal, intimate transformative struggles of characters. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious case of Benjamin Button” (published in 1922), the timeline of human life itself is reversed, to both funny and poignant effect. And the constant torment and struggle that Moll Flanders—the eponymous heroine of Daniel Defoe’s novel (1722)—overcomes in order to rise in the world, make for almost unbearable reading.
One of the most beautiful novels of transformation that I have ever read is Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex, the epic story of Calliope/Cal’s struggle to overcome or embrace the vagaries of history, family, genetics, gender, life experience and perhaps even Fate itself, in order to become, fully, Cal.
There are also, in literature, moments of epiphany, when a character achieves a new understanding or awareness and the story from that point on is altered; and there are hundreds of coming-of-age tales…
So we have a deep well from which to draw in weeks to come.
According to Jessamyn West, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” I believe this to be the case, and look forward to discovering, alongside you, what Ken Kesey refers to in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as “[…] the truth even if it didn’t happen”.