Sunday, June 29, 2008

Curiosity

Have you ever met someone who was completely without curiosity?

I have. I just met a whole book full of them.

All right, maybe it's not a fair answer: these were fictional characters, after all. But it does make you wonder about the author. Why would he go to the trouble of creating a whole book full of otherwise normal characters all of whom, when confronted with the fantastic, respond completely without curiosity? Is that normal human behavior?

Let me admit my bias: I'm a fairly inquisitive person, though less so than many of my acquaintances. I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction. These are genres in which curiosity-- and its concomitants, innovativeness, the urge to explore, the lust for pure knowledge-- are not so much presented as positive as they are assumed. Of course everyone wants to know. Don't they?

This book was mainstream fiction, which admittedly I don't read a lot of. We're dealing with a different community of readers/writers (most good writers are also avid readers). So it's possible that there's a completely different set of values at work, a standard by which curiosity is so unusual that its absence is considered the norm. I find that a prettry scary idea: incurious people develop into ignorant people, and ignorance is one of the great threats to the world's continued existence. Supply your own examples.

If you've read this book, you'll recognize it. The main character is a private investigator who gets hired by an acquaintance to investigate a rather startling possibility: namely, that the gods of the enemies of the Israelites, mentioned in various places in the Torah, were or are real entities of some power in the world, even if not what we could call "gods". The investigator ventures into the supernaturalist/paranormal/psychic community of his city, and soon finds his life entangled with that of a teenaged boy and his parents, all of whom go missing from one another under odd circumstances. It becomes clear that someone or something else is pulling the strings.

Our hero begins to have dreams of a dark figure searching for him, and experiences apparitions of his dead wife, who has important but cryptic information. And here's the point: He never really asks himself why that's happening, or what it might mean to his model of reality. Even though it's been made clear that he's not the kind of person who would take such occurrences as a part of the natural order of things. His wonderings are pretty much limited to how these events relate to the disappearances of the boy's parents and the motivations of those responsible. There's a remarkable absence of "what does this mean" in his reactions.

Wouldn't you be curious?

Pretty much all of the characters in the book share this disinterest in the big picture. It turns out that the investigator's employer is dying of cancer and is searching out the old "gods" in the hope of a curative miracle: no desire for abstract knowledge there. The boy's father, who begins the whole train of events by walking out on family, job and life, seems to know or guess that there are greater meanings in the unfolding events, but he proves incapable of grasping them, or even of being shown. The boy and his mother are understandably preoccupied with reuniting their scattered family, and are enough at the mercy of events that one doesn't expect them to find much time for introspection-- but still, it gets to the point where the reader suspects wilful blindness on the part of the characters.

There's a lot else that could be said about this book. I'll sum it up by saying that, to me, it seemed to promise a great deal and delivered nothing. Partly it's because I really am used to fiction that contains a great deal more of the fantastic, the imaginative, and the flat-out impossible. Partly it's because the book wraps itself in the trappings of mysticism, but proves to be almost completely devoid of the numinous. One of the big problems with it is that the teenager, who is both one of the viewpoint characters and in a sense the McGuffin of the plot, is written as being mostly passive and completely without personality. As an teenager he's just not convincing.

Back to the question of curiosity. How on earth do people get by without it? Mind you, no-one has the time or the energy to pursue every tantalizing idea or inexplicable fact that passes by in the course of a day. But when you're being smacked around the head with mysterious happenings, wouldn't it behoove you to wonder about them in a more than strictly practical sense? It would be disappointing to get a "no" answer, but it's even more discouraging to see the question not even get raised.

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1 comment:

Greyscale Territory said...

If I had read your book, I certainly would notice if curiosity is neglected when it should be explored. It is a natural, human reaction.

Curiosity is the doorway to adventure and knowledge. What a staid life we would live without it.

Great post!