It’s not as though suspension of disbelief isn’t a thing. In Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, the reader has to believe that three children, whose parents have both died of separate illnesses in quick succession, can live undetected by neighbors, schools, police or social services, for several weeks, even as corpses rot in their home’s basement. In Jaws, that trauma-inducing film of my youth, the viewer must accept (or not think too much about) if wanting an optimal thrill, that sharks might leap across boat decks or swallow gas tanks.
In my novel, Venus Looks Down On A Praise Vole, there are numerous events, plot points and situations that stagger credulity to one degree or another, though none are fantastical in nature. Somewhat mundanely, the reader is meant to believe that my protagonist, Dr. Daniel Pierce, a psychologist, can pursue a career while regularly drinking in between sessions; that he could spend several hours in the company of a transgendered individual (admittedly in a pre-op stage) and not notice the person’s transformation; that he could forget names and patient details, not maintain adequate records, stop listening to people, actively dislike some of his patients, and still be a practicing clinician.
Well, that’s why he’s taking a break from his practice. Daniel Pierce goes on hiatus. That’s the opening plot point: his recognition of his falling apart, his need to stop working and deal with issues, some bad habits, and some losses: the estrangement of his son, the recent passing of his wife. But before he’s even fashioned a plan of restful inaction, his working life pushes back, or rather pulls him back into a working stance, only it will be a much different day on the job, what happens next. It will suspend his disbelief, make him think before the adventure’s done that he’s being seduced, patronized, rescued, recruited, chased…scapegoated.
Perhaps the most difficult event to accept is Pierce’s meeting of a former client in a sober living home. Kirkus reviews made this complaint, thinking it unrealistic that a psychologist would drop out of society, drop into a rehab-like environment, and meet one of his former patients, and even have the man as a roommate. Even if I hadn’t given cursory hints that this might happen—indicating that my unnamed setting is a small town; a hackneyed statement that the world is small—I’d grumble about this critique. After all, what’s so hard to accept? That a mental health professional would have a drug or drinking problem, need treatment or a retreat? That he wouldn’t take special care to avoid contact with his client base? Perhaps my reviewer isn’t aware that certain professionals—doctors and airline pilots, for example—do require or demand segregated, occupation-specific services, precisely because of this concern. It’s actually quite strange that the accommodations that are afforded these professional groups aren’t made for psychologists and other professional counselors.
But for me, this rather ordinary discussion misses an important point: namely, that a strict adherence to what is orthodox or realistic isn’t the most important aspect of a fiction; hence the term fiction. I had Daniel Pierce leave the structure he was in, or the rut he was in, because in order to regain his vitality and sense of mission, he has to leave not only his comfort zone, but almost his entire frame of reference. That’s an equally important axiom of drama, surely. Therefore, he has to perform an impromptu therapy in the most unlikely of circumstances; he has to not conform, challenge authority in ways he never has before. He has to observe ugliness that he’d previously been sheltered from; rethink gender, justice, his oldest notions of fitting in. In being responsible, being anything close to a heroic figure, he must consider that he may be right or wrong about the judgments he ultimately makes, but make his decision anyway.