by Thomas Mullen, author of Last Town on Earth (Random House, 2007).
When reading works of fiction, students often think that there’s a right answer for how they’re supposed to respond to the book. Surely (as they’re sometimes taught in high school) there’s a specific meaning F. Scott Fitzgerald had in mind with The Great Gatsby’s “green light,” and therefore there’s a right way to read the book and a wrong way. A novel is a riddle, just a more creative version of a math problem, and students need to figure out the right answer, explain it in a paper, and then they’ll earn their A. At which point they’re free to put the book away and never think about it again.
But English isn’t Algebra, and sometimes there are lots of right answers. Or maybe—gasp—there’s no right answer. Or perhaps it isn’t the answer that’s so important as the journey the reader takes to get there. The travels with the characters, the experience of viewing the world through someone else’s eyes, the various lessons this act imparts—these will all lead different readers to different opinions, emotions, revelations. This is true not only with our interpretations about whether a literary symbol has a certain meaning but also our determination as to whether characters did the “right” thing or not.
This was one of the ideas percolating in my mind as I wrote The Last Town on Earth. I wanted to write a novel in which all the characters believe that they are doing the right thing, that they are good people, that they are motivated by a set of unimpeachable morals. Sound boring? A book needs conflict, you say (correctly), and you can’t have conflict if everyone’s a good guy. You need a villain, right?
Wrong. Our opinions of what’s right are so divergent, and each of us believes in our personal sense of right and wrong so intensely, that conflict will inevitably result. Even without Machiavellian tricksters and nefarious Iagos, people can still manage to do quite a lot of damage when armed with nothing but the best of intentions, and that’s exactly what I wanted to explore with The Last Town on Earth.
Let’s say, as happened in 1918, there was a terrible and extremely contagious influenza, killing millions. No one in your rather isolated town is yet infected, and the townspeople vote to block all roads leading into town and to post armed guards to prevent any outsiders from entering. But one day, while you’re standing guard with your buddy, a starving, freezing, lost traveler wanders in from the woods, begging for food and shelter. What should you do? What’s the right thing: to save his life by granting him sanctuary, even though he may be carrying a disease that could kill your family (and entire town)? Or do you look him in the eye and refuse him entry, protecting your town but damning this poor soul to certain death over the frigid night? What is the right thing to do?
And what if you and your buddy disagreed about what the truly right, moral option is? And you were both holding guns?
When I first conceived the book, I had no idea what I personally would do in such a situation—I could see both sides, understand both arguments. Writing the novel would be a way to engage each viewpoint, to present to readers (and to invite them into the conversation, and to argue with them) the various pro’s and con’s of each perspective. We all like to think that we are guided by a strong moral compass—not just in good times but in bad, in times of stress and danger. In America we’ve created a society based on individual rights, a society that has endured a number of wars—civil and international—and other threats, though never without significant public debate about the justness of the war, the mission of our country, the role of a patriotic citizen. Is shooting a sick stranger to save a whole town justified? Is allowing a sick stranger into a town an act of suicidal treason? Is someone who avoids the draft for a war they consider immoral (as some characters in the book do) a hero for following his conscience or a traitor for putting his nation in jeopardy? Does a town of idealists and free-thinkers have a duty to engage with the larger society, or is it better to create your own utopia and hope the rest of the world follows your example?
Much of politics boils down to the conflict between individual and society. Political leaders—and voters—perform a sort of moral calculus when approaching different issues, seeking to balance the needs of society with their own evolving self-interest. You and I may disagree vehemently about the war in Iraq or the economy or abortion, but we’re both convinced we’re right, that our opinions are moral and are backed by the Constitution. Too often in this polarized age, we rush to the conclusion that the person who disagrees with us is not just wrong, but evil—misguided, selfish, fascist, socialist, insert your own derogatory term here.
One of the many things literature can do is throw the reader into a new world where their moral (and political) compass spins wildly out of control as they attempt to find their bearings. You aren’t seeing the usual world—you aren’t even using your own eyes. You’re in a new place, seeing it through someone else’s perspective, someone who’s lived a very different life than yours, has been shaped by different experiences, losses and victories and loves and tragedies that you can only imagine. And that’s the thing: literature lets you imagine it, forces you to. People you otherwise disagree with and even try to avoid, suddenly you’re living with them, you’re in their head. You realize, after seeing the world from this new angle, that maybe they aren’t as wrong as you thought they were, as you wanted them to be. And you wonder if you were as right.
Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction. The book has also been selected for common reading programs at several colleges and universities nationwide. His latest book, published in January 2010, is The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. Mullen graduated from Oberlin College.