If a good psychologist is good because she builds realistic, extended theories about your reactions to the world, good novelists are often good psychologists in shorter bursts.
Psychological wisdom in fiction comes through witty description: words that map small feelings or reactions in ways that feel new and true. A psychologically smart description in fiction might describe an object in a room, for instance, so that it unpacks the irony with which we’ve often seen it but not articulated. A good description of a character can explain a push-pull interaction inherent to certain relationships. Psychologically wise sentences are quick revelations, like someone at a party who makes an “aha” comment in passing. (The wit can hit you with envy: You want to follow this person's brain through the party, or wherever it goes.)
Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs is full of such psychological wisdom in bursts: quick blasts of light into the “why”s behind human perspectives and behaviors.
I’ll just list some Lorrie Moore sentences that feel psychologically brilliant to me this week. I don’t need to explain why they feel brilliant: They either pop or they don’t, I think. But if they do pop for you, I’d love to hear how you relate the insight to life outside the book.
I’d like to hear if you think all good fiction is psychologically wise, too. Of course some people love fiction not for its psychology but for its formal qualities (a plot built like a puzzle, a whodunit), or its aesthetic qualities (descriptions of the ocean, say, that help you relax) or its idealisms (romance that’s not true to, but more exciting than, real life). Why do you love the fiction you love?
Lorrie Moore’s Bursts of Light:
“My mother’s capacity for happiness was a small soup bone salting a large pot” (19).
“She had bequeathed me her vibrator, a strange whirling, buzzing thing that when switched to high gyrated in the air like someone’s bored thick finger going whoop-dee-doo” (13).
“I had always felt…as secret and fetal as the curled fortune in a cookie, and such hiddenness was not without its advantages, its egotisms, its grief-fed grandiosities” (11).
“A distant memory flew into my head: a note passed to me by a mean boy in seventh grade. Laugh less, it commanded” (22).
“It had started to worry me that if I wasn’t careful my meekness could become a habit, a tic, something hardwired that my mannerisms would continue to express throughout my life regardless of my efforts—the way a drunk who, though on the wagon, still staggers and slurs like a drunk” (14).
“I had once milked [my father’s cow] Bess [and] the intimate feel of her lavender-veined and hairy breasts had almost made me puke…. I’d leaned my head against Bess’s side to steady myself, and the sudden warmth, along with my own queasiness, made me feel I loved her” (18).
“I feared, as interviews went, I was in freefall. I wasn’t sure why either of us was saying what we were saying” (21). (The narrator is being interviewed for a babysitting job, and because she doesn’t feel the logic of the questions followed by answers, the spontaneity feels wrong to her.)
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.