In the column Inside Story, parents share the books they are reading with their children to get through these times.
It’s unnerving how books mutate. You look up from your life—from these weeks of homey terror—and find a cherished old novel transformed into a bulletin from the front.
I have twin sons. They’re twelve years old and identical. When the crisis started, their school hadn’t done enough; my wife and I needed to fill the day, an Ozarks of empty time. We’d start a family book club.
My own seventy-five-ish mother—a lady you might see lugging Judith Krantz paperbacks from an exurban library—agreed to join. That made five of us. Different ages, tastes, places to shelter in.
I pushed for Orwell. Or David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green; the boys came back with Lord of the Flies. This may be hard to believe, but the pick didn’t seem so fraught then.
A bookshelf is a photoshopped self-portrait. The novels people exhibit are there to portray us as we hope to be seen. Hip, smart, wide ranging. All I’ve got are books I’ve loved or books I think I will. And books I incorrectly remember having loved. But such memories can be the prosthetic noses and spirit gum of the reading racket.
As soon as I pulled down Lord of the Flies I realized I’d forgotten it. “Oh yeah,” I’d said when we made the choice, “good novel.” Now my earlier opinions flowed back; in junior high I’d kind of hated the thing.
My sons’ complaints were echoes, I realized, of my own: The book never says what happened to the adults. It’s very coincidental that it is only kids who survived. The crash is too expedient. All this seemed like a flaw, at first.
I assume you’re familiar with the basic material. At the start of the twenty-first century, Lev Grossman described the book in Time—when it made the magazine’s best-of-the-century list, and the BBC’s, also the Modern Library’s—“A planeload of young boys is marooned on a nameless tropical island and are forced to fend for themselves.”
After this longline, Grossman continues:
If the novel had been written in the 19th century it would have been about the cheery, whimsical never-neverland the boys created. But in Golding’s version, the veneer of childish purity wears away quickly in the absence of adults, and the boys become two warring tribes.
In fact, Golding was parodying a particular nineteenth-century kids’ novel: R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. But then Golding’s bull’s-eye grew wider; Lord of the Flies ended up parodying all of us. There’s a Lord of the Flies island in all our heads. That was the news Golding brought. And we’d all go lawless in under a month, were we to find ourselves in the wrong circumstances.
But, again, Lord of the Flies has its problems: it’s too schematic; it reads, at times, like an outline for a longer, more spontaneous work. In the exactness of its implementation it can make you feel the writer is trapped on an island, too.
Which is to say, as with certain short running tracks, the end is always in sight. Not that we know, for sure, the precise details—but the ironic reversal, the Hobbesian epiphany, the (for us enlightenment fans) dramatic comeuppance. All of that arrives, as expected.
The problem with schematic stories isn’t that they aren’t well carried off; it’s that they feel preordained. The strong authorial hand inhibits energy. Irving Howe called this “the clarity of limitation.” (Though I think a better term would have been “the limitation of clarity.”) George Saunders likes a quote from the poet Gerald Stern. Stern: “If you set out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and hit the target, then you’ve succeeded only in writing a poem about two dogs fucking.”
In a way, Lord of the Flies is a two-dogs-fucking kind of book.
And yet, it has lasted. A classic: it must have something else to it, and does.
“This book, I don’t know,” my son Beau said. He didn’t say anything else. But his face and his voice also spoke—and they said the novel had made him anxious.
“What do you mean?” my wife asked. One way Susannah shows love is getting the boys to express themselves.
We were sitting in the living room with the blinds up; April sunlight, the couch, a typical setting. Our books and Kindles were open; my mom’s Judith Kranz–loving face smiled to us from a MacBook screen. Meeting no. 3 of the Strauss Family Lord of the Flies Book Club. We were deep into the novel now.
“I don’t like reading it,” Beau said. At twelve he has light eyes and what Saul Bellow, in More Die of Heartbreak, calls “the magics,” compassion, naïveté, an appealing soul. Softness, most of all. He wouldn’t have lasted three days on the island.
We had reached the part where ‘The Beast’ (an aviator’s corpse still wearing a parachute) appears: a representative image. The true “beast” in this story is actually—dun dun dun—the boys themselves. The evil latent in our nature. You know, a symbol.
“It’s kind of—boring,” my other son, Shepherd, said. “Yes!” his brother yelped.
“Boring?” Susannah and I said.
The book, like this sudden era, shows that the laminate of society is disconcertingly thin. After a couple of days, the kids on Golding’s island worship and make sacrifices to a beast; they start killing one another. Boring was a big misread.
And yet I’d found Lord of the Flies kind of boring, too, at the beginning—until it got terrifying. Maybe my kids were stuck thinking about the sunny parts? It seemed they didn’t get the punch line. They’d grabbed only the setup.
Still, there was a nagging fact. While finding the novel a drag, my son Beau was also really disturbed by it. And I think I’ve figured out why.
The opening is what I keep coming back to. Those plane-crash kids, the tropical light spanking off the waves, kids in the briny ocean—that is evocative. There’s a joy in all this. The mango-and-unsupervised days. This joy, if we remember how much these characters have uncaringly lost, discomfits.
Boring? There are times when a misread can turn out to reveal a profound truth. Beau’s take matched his experience—the experience of so many in this crisis. He’d stumbled onto what’s ominous in how those with luck or privilege are living through this.
For so many now—and the numbers say that, so far, most of us have been lucky—the lockdown has been, embarrassing as it is to disclose, actually kind of uneventful. People I’ve spoken to have talked about feeling a bit heartless. Blockaded, in this unusual adjournment of the everyday, some of us actually feel untouched. Or, touched only hypothetically. (This will change, of course. Maybe even by the time you read this.)
“It’s too normal,” my son said about the opening of the book. “They’re just having a good time. It doesn’t feel like anything bad just happened.” The people trapped on that island should be taking the state of affairs seriously, and aren’t.
I live in New York; I just saw pictures of a mass grave on Hart Island. And then I went on YouTube and watched a Key and Peele skit. And then I wrote this essay. I’ve lost no one yet.
Lord of the Flies has a very odd power. The scenes from the book that I dream about are those pacific ones: laughing, swimming, palm trees, jokes. And I slam awake, with my heart going very fast in my throat.
Darin Strauss will publish The Queen of Tuesday— his sixth book and the follow-up to his best-selling, NBCC-winning Half a Life—in August with Random House. He is a clinical professor for the NYU creative writing program.