A few days ago, one of my favorite library patrons told me her deepest, darkest secret. (One of the unknown truths of being a librarian? We are sort of like bartenders. People start talking about books, and as our reactions to stories make us angry, exhilarated, terrified, thrilled, annoyed—make us feel, in other words—they also make us vulnerable and open, and so we turn from novels to our own stories.)
I can't tell it here because it is not my story to tell, but parts of it, involving the secret use of a garbage can, made me laugh along with her because I know exactly how that feels.
She is going through a rough time, so I told her that she shouldn't feel so guilty about this deep, dark secret because she needs to take care of herself and treat herself kindly. And plus, we all have our deep dark secrets.
Our garbage can far away from our house where we hide the evidence.
One of my current deep, dark secrets?
I am a fan of the TV show Game of Thrones.
Why should that be a secret? Well, it's hardly PG-13. We watch it after the kids have gone to bed, with all the lights turned off and the volume down low, and then immediately delete it. It's violent and sensual. It is a dark, hard, grueling story, where you can't trust that good will triumph over evil or that who you think is good really is, or even that who you think is bad won't surprise you.
It is an unreliable, untrustworthy, violent place.
I read the first book in the series before the TV show existed, because I'd read about it so many times; it came up in random and yet persistent waves. I have a theory that books are to individual readers sort of like that saying about butterflies:
If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.
(Actually, now that I think about it, that saying isn't really about butterflies. It just seems to always come with a butterfly image attached.) What I'm getting at is that I read a lot about books. Sometimes, a book will grab me immediately and I will know in a second that I need to read it and, without delay, I either put myself on the hold list, or request that my library acquires it, or actually, you know, buy it myself.
However, this doesn't happen very often, because there are so many books I want to read. Sometimes I feel like I'm carrying around an extra weight in my psyche that is labeled "books I want to read," and the contrast between wanting to read them and having the time to read them is stressful, so I try as hard as I can not to add to the list. (I'm not super-successful at this not-adding thing.)
But like that returning butterfly, if I come across an interesting book three or four times, in different sources and research projects and formats, then I'll start paying attention. If it keeps coming back to me, I'll add it to my list.
The Game of Thrones came to me multiple times before I finally checked it out. Many more times than perhaps any other book. My reluctance mostly had to do with how I don't want to tie myself to long fantasy series. It just gets so...burdensome, somehow. There are so many worlds one can visit by reading, that spending months in the same literary creation sometimes feels wasteful.
But it kept coming back to me, and I kept being intrigued by this land that could be winter for years, or summer for years (does that mean a years-long autumn? I'd like to live there, please.) And by the direwolves. Dragons, and the wall made of ice, and what might be beyond it. Plus, I tend to like stories with families that follow the members to different places.
So finally, I read it, in the fall of 2010.
It's a long book—about 700 pages. And it does quite a few things that I love. I know not all readers like a fragmented story, wherein one chapter tells of one character's adventures and another follows someone else entirely, but it is a structure I like. At first it does cause quite a bit of flipping from your spot in the book to the genealogies in the front but eventually you get it all straight in your head.
All of those pages 700 pages are filled with story. It creates a fantasy world that feels fresh (instead of a Tolkien knock off) but not too magicky. (Magicky=when magic is used as a gimmick instead of a seemingly-real aspect of a fantasy world.) But what really stands out in The Game of Thrones are the characters. They are vibrant and unique and unforgettable. Tortured and torturers—quite often at the same time.
And listen: you know me. I don't need a happy ending. I don't need a book to be composed of lightness and sunshine and gamboling unicorns. In fact, I'm consistently drawn to darker stories.
But even I need some hope in my (literary) worlds.
Because here's the thing. Those characters, so vibrant and real, who I fell in love with? Good things do not happen to good people in the land of Westeros. Noble intentions get you nowhere. Those malevolent Lannisters are serious in their malice. And the darkness feels absolutely unrelenting. It isn't a gloomy darkness. It isn't really the melodramatic type that makes you want to turn into a cutter-Sylvia-Plath-Bauhaus-blaring amalgamation of a person. It is the darkness of humanity, and when the story tries to hold it up to the light it finds that there really isn't much to illuminate.
Maybe I am somewhat of a connoisseur of depressing novels. It's not really that they feed something within me. Not exactly. It is more a sort of self-protection: if I read about dark things, they seem less likely to happen in my life or, alternately, at least I'll know what to do when I find myself within a dark place. They remind me that suffering is real and, quite often, far larger than my own. They are a way of holding my fears up to the light.
But I seriously cannot think of another book I have read that is so consistently dark. In fact, the small light places in all other dark stories are quite often the scenes or plot points I remember most, because they are (also) true to life. There are always light moments.
Except in Martin's world.
And yet? Despite the fact that reading it sort of made me feel the utter despair of being a human in the fallen world, I couldn't stop reading. I needed to find out what happened to these characters I had grown attached to, even if it couldn't be anything good.
Then I finished the book and I couldn't decide: read the next one? Immerse myself for many more months on end, or just watch the TV show?
I opted for the TV show.
And here we are, the fourth season about to begin, and I have to confess: I think I have The Game of Thrones PTSD. Because so many more characters have gained my affection (even, dare I confess, the perturbing Jamie Lannister, whom at least I understand a little bit better), but not all of them have survived. Jon Snow and Araya, my two favorites, are still alive. But for how long? And the Red Wedding at the end of season three?
Well, if you watched it, you know what I mean.
Part of me wishes I'd skipped the TV show and stuck with the book. I think we are missing vast portions of story. Who really is Lady Melisandre? and the Lord of Light? And I am unsure as to the politics of what happened with Jon when he went beyond the Wall. I think I would understand the characters better if I were reading about them instead of watching.
But it is easier to see the story play out on TV because it is less torturous. There is less immersion, less swimming in the darkness.
Several of my friends at the library are also fans, and we've talked about this: how traumatic the story is and yet how it tugs you right back in. Partly I think it is that we continue hoping to see bad things happen to the bad characters: That Joffrey, for example. I'm not sure I've hated a literary character this much since the Prentisstown mayor in The Knife of Never Letting Go (incidentally, a dark book which perfectly manages a few exquisite, light-filled moments). It is a story that is mainly built upon unbearable moments and I have to watch it with only one eye, less I get too involved and forget: it's only a story.
Maybe there is already enough darkness in the world. In my life, some of it in the form of secrets. Probably I am foolish to continue this experiment in exploring what too dark might look like. But I keep thinking of my library friend who, after she found a few books to take home, came back to my desk and told me something. "I don't know when I'll be able to quit," she said of her deep, dark secret. "But I feel better just knowing that someone else knows. Lighter." Will watching The Game of Thrones bring me light and knowledge? Probably no light, but maybe some knowledge about myself—and maybe not. I can't really explain, yet, why I am so drawn (but honestly: reluctantly drawn) to it.
Except that it has something to do with being human (as all good stories do), and how, when faced with trials, we either fall or rise. How our decisions shape not just our lives but the life of everyone we know, how cruelty and honor battle each other. In Westeros the battle plays out perhaps more fiercely than in real life—but perhaps not. And maybe, for me, that is the thing, relentless darkness withstanding: we all battle the same things, and are faced with impossible choices, and as I watch I am always thinking what would I do, and I hope the choice would be a good one.
So, tell me: Do you watch (or read) The Game of Thrones?