Have Yourself a Fictive Little Christmas

Steve Sanders

Dec 06, 2012

Given the ways in which Christmas has colonized nearly every other aspect of life in the western world during the last six weeks of the year, one would think the world of literature would be no exception. The lifeblood of fiction is conflict, something Christmas delivers as reliably as ugly sweaters, from knife fights in lines on Black Friday to the frantic dash across town for that Elf on the Shelf, to the ways Christmas can allow our best impulses (charity, goodwill) to morph into our worst behavior (greed, keeping up with the Joneses). And yet the stocking is nearly empty of quality fiction. Much Christmas-themed fiction is like unwrapping the Playmobil Security Checkpoint when you were dying for that Lionel Train set. Not surprisingly, the holiday brings out the maudlin in even the best writers. See Dylan Thomas and Truman Capote, who each indulged in their worst sentimental impulses in their respective childhood reminiscences "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and "A Christmas Memory." Charles Dickens bears of lot of the blame since his masterpiece A Christmas Carol remains a near perfect prose poem about the ways in which our regrets feed our fears, and how we find the cures for both in the company of others. It holds up miraculously well, given how it has been reworked to death by movies, sitcoms, and community theaters (my personal favorite being a The Dukes of Hazzard episode with Boss Hogg in the Scrooge role). Few writers in history have had Dickens' gifts and any attempt to have a character realize anything like Scrooge's epiphany on Christmas morning ("I am light as a feather, I am happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man! Merry Christmas to everybody!") will seem overly familiar and hopelessly sentimental. Still, an unscientific survey of my own library and crowdsourcing of friends has revealed enough worthy works to get you through the next week with your sense of perspective and humor intact. "At Christmas Time" by Anton Chekhov One of the last stories written by the master of the short form, it tells of an illiterate woman, Vassalissa, who hires a local man to write a letter to her daughter who married and moved to St. Petersburg four years before. The story is at once heartbreaking and unsentimental in its depiction of the power of the written word and the ways in which miscommunication can so easily undermine the closest relationships. In under six pages, Chekhov sketches a lifetime's worth of love, longing, and loneliness of two characters. "Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor" by John Cheever
Like O. Henry after downing his fifth Old Fashioned (and whatever Hogwarts potion turns a hack writer into a genius). A sad sack named Charlie preys upon the sympathies of the wealthy residents of the Manhattan apartment building where he works as an elevator operator. "It isn't much a holiday for me," goes Charlie's refrain as he first exaggerates the nature of his squalor before fabricating outright four imaginary children ("two in the grave"). The various tenants ply him with an "avalanche of charity," food and fine clothes. He shows up drunk for work on the "dregs of the Manhattans, martinis, Old Fashioneds" which the tenants had given him additionally and, in a spirit of misguided revelry, lets go of the elevator's brake, a prank which gets him fired. It would be unbearably cynical were it not for Cheever's sense of humor, lyricism and the presence of Charlie's unnamed landlady who sees through the holiday's artifice (commercial and emotion) to the ways in which it binds us together--in Cheever's perfect phrasing, "licentious benevolence." Holidays On Ice by David Sedaris I'm guessing that a Venn diagram of readers of this blog and listeners of This American Life would basically be a circle so this one probably doesn't need much talking up. It's Sedaris at his acerbic, hilarious best before success softened his satirical edge and before he began writing his New Yorker essays with a Mad Lib. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen No doubt Franzen can come off like an asshole at times (most times). Or at the very least an embittered crank who seems less than grateful for his success. It's appropriate then that the only great Christmas-themed novel of the 21st century was written by the most Scrooge-like of contemporary authors. A Midwestern matriarch tries to bring her family together one last time amidst "the whole northern religion of things falling apart." For four hundred pages, we see the family members in their undisguised selfishness, greed, self-destructiveness, and entitlement. It would be insufferable if it weren't also psychologically acute and stunningly written (the scene in which the youngest son, Chip, attempts to shoplift a salmon filet from a high-end supermarket is a master class in scene building). When the family finally comes together in the novel's last fifth, it's not as heartwarming as Scrooge's morning with the Cratchits, but is a moving yet unsentimental depiction of a family who don't bring out the best in each other, but at least manage to correct the worst. I'm certain there's more than one classic that I've overlooked. Feel free to let me know in the comments below.