Saturday, April 21, 2012

Peter Pan & The Outsider

The Outsider - cover
Two most recent reads for me: Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, and Albert Camus’ The Outsider. Let me explain.

There are books that I always meant to read and somehow never remembered to. One of those was Peter Pan. I think I thought, I’ve seen the movie. Heck, I’d seen two of them, if you count Hook. If you’ve ever thought that, then listen up: It’s not the same at all. It’s like school pizza vs. NYC pizzeria pizza. Okay, not that bad, but you get the idea.

Camus is, similarly, one of those authors I’d always heard of but never had the pleasure. The Outsider is a slender 120 pages, tops, and reads pretty fast. I figured, What do I have to lose? (My sanity?)

These two books share something else, besides being on a “should read” list: both deal with the expectations society puts on young men when they grow up. The novels do it very differently. In many ways, Peter Pan is much more imaginative. There’s a playfulness toward reality that couldn’t be more different from The Outsider. In Camus’ novel, everything is described in a matter-of-fact tone. The narrator feels almost nothing; he’s detached. In Peter Pan, the story is told in richer detail and imagery, and everybody’s emotions seem to be on the surface.

Except Wendy’s mother. She has this little corner of her smile that no one can get (except, much later, Peter).

But back to the point: While the very modernist, almost absurdly detached Outsider (Meursault is his name) seems not to be imaginative, the novel deals with the problem of social expectations, and how they burden (or maybe destroy) us. Peter Pan, in a very different way, gives us an equally cold picture of growing up as a normal boy. At least Wendy retains some of her childish memories, unlike the “lost boys,” who are more lost (it seems) when they come to England and grow up.

The books solve the problem very differently. Where Peter Pan might be advocating an enduring child-like wonder, an openness to imagination and newness, The Outsider seems to be advocating a full embrace of sober reality. Open your eyes and taste the tang of the salt air. For Camus, in this novel, emotion mostly serves the falsifying and blinding functions of social expectations. Meursault has his eyes open: he knows the sentence of death is upon him. Peter Pan chooses not to grow up. Wendy can’t help feeling some nostalgia for such an idea. Her aging is sweetened by a backward glance.

So what’s the answer, eh? Do you resist the expectations of other people—your parents, your boss, your “reader”—by facing the hard-edged realities of life and death? Or do you do it by nurturing a little childlike wonder, keeping your imaginary life alive?

For me, the two visions are connected to two modes of writing I enjoy. I wouldn’t want to pick between them. I want my fantasy and I want my realism. I don’t know if you can have them both at once. But I refuse to read (or write) only in one.

What about you?

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