Miri and I were discussing A Complicated Kindness- a novel that we both just finished reading and both really enjoyed (the former hardly a coincidence- it was recommended by a common friend and also there aren't all that many books around the dorms, so any book that she gets her hands on will be mine pretty soon). It's really a very good book, of the angsty disillusioned rebellious intellectual teenager sort, but the girl has more of a right to be angsty, disillusioned and rebellious than the average teenager, so you had to forgive her for it. We were wondering whether it's possible to write a good novel about a community without it being a scathingly disillusioned and bitter indictment. That is, whether one could write a book about the Jewish community that would both be decent and not a 'look at me, I'm airing dirty laundry and exposing the corroded infrastructure of the so-called moral authority' sort of thing.
Here's my theory. Every good novel- community specific or not- must be disillusioned. Because illusions simply don't work in a novel. Those that share the illusion will be bored and unchallenged; those that don't will think that you're a naive idiot and be entirely unable to relate to you or your little narrative. In fact, a possible definition of the greatness of a novel could be having the fewest illusions possible. If a novel is measured by how much it resembles reality or by how much it reveals about the world and the human condition, then it can't really afford to have any illusions at all.
But the thing is this. These illusions aren't just the ones that sneering black-bereted intellectuals like to be disillusioned with, like the morality of authority figures, the efficacy of the system, or the perfection and happiness of everybody in the community. A real novel can't afford to have illusions like that the sneering intellectuals have any answers, that everybody is miserable, that there's no truth or beauty or love or honesty in the system. Illusions like that the author is better or wiser or more honest than everybody else. A good novel has to be painfully truthful, but I don't know that truth is necessarily bitter or angsty.