Not long ago a friend asked me what the best book I’d ever read was. Not my favorite, he specified – the best. I’m not sure that’s any easier a question to answer for an English major. But a book popped into my head: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I don’t know if it’s the best book I’ve ever read, but it is uniquely memorable. It does interesting things with language and voice, and the way it builds setting is breathtaking. What I remember most about it, though, is that it’s the only book I’ve read – for that matter, the only work of fiction I’ve ever encountered in any form – in which I was continually, genuinely surprised that the main characters were still alive.
It sounds strange, doesn’t it? We usually expect main characters to live. It’s the default assumption. Yet in this one book, I found it surprising. It felt like going straight through suspension of disbelief and out the other side.
Which got me thinking about the concept of suspension of disbelief. Some basic internet research shows that there are a lot of ideas about it out there, but most modern understandings of it seem to boil down to a bargain between authors and readers: the author provides a good story, and the reader temporarily accepts the plausibility of secret societies, superpowers, apocalypses, etc. That may be why it’s called willing suspension of disbelief. The bargain is voluntary, so readers can back out whenever they please. That means, according to most perspectives, that readers shoulder the primary responsibility for suspending their own disbelief.
Samuel Coleridge, however, who coined the term, seems to have placed the emphasis more on the author’s part in the bargain than the reader’s. He felt that it was the author’s responsibility to write well enough to create suspension of disbelief. In that case, willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t seem like quite the right phrase. It’s more like unwilling suspension of disbelief: if an author writes a story well enough, the reader can’t help but believe.
And that brings me back around to The Road, and Cormac McCarthy. Maybe all that’s going on with my strange surprise at characters going on living is unwilling suspension of disbelief. Maybe the book is simply so well-written that it pushes past the normal limits on suspension of disbelief, at least for me. If so, well done, Cormac McCarthy. I’m sure Coleridge would be impressed. I certainly am.