The New Yorker summer fiction issue arrived this week, and since it’s been a busy few days, my husband got to it before I did. He then warned me not to read Aleksander Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium: A Tale of two Daughters.” I should have listened. And ultimately I did. I found Hemon’s account (which, fiction issue aside, is nonfiction) of losing his nine-month-old baby to a fast-growing malignant brain tumor impossible to finish. I started skimming rather than reading, then just allowing my eyes to take a kind of snapshot of the page, and finally had to put the magazine aside. Since becoming a parent a little more than five years ago I have zero ability to handle stories like this. Having baby number two last fall in no way helped. This reaction is a little embarrassing, but it’s so primal, so non-negotiable, that I suspect this is some Darwinian adaptation at work here. That in the interests of remaining sane, and for the furtherance of our species, parents (mothers?) simply cannot dwell too long in thoughts of tragedy, calamity and terrifying loss. This way madness lies. Or maybe it’s just me. In the on-line magazine The Millions, a pregnant Edan Lepucki describes reading any number of books that she’d been warned to avoid. www.themillions.com/2011/05/the-perils-of-reading-pregnant.html.
Before I was a mother, I represented a pediatric emergency room doctor whose stories of the ER were as powerful as they were beautifully written. I could not, however, sell his collection. I’ve since come to understand why. I doubt I could read them myself now. It doesn’t help (and maybe even makes me something of a hypocrite) that I’m the sort of person who believes we ought not shy away from subjects that are “just too hard,” on the grounds that the compassion or awareness we awaken when we read about the awful stuff that happens in this world can sometimes motivate us to ameliorate it, but here’s a place where my logic is overruled by my gut. Am I alone in this? I’ve heard wonderful things about Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir, but I don’t know if I can hack it.