I’m thinking here of Daisy crying stormily over the shirts that Gatsby tosses onto a table in a soft rich heap. These are shirts, Nick tells us, with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue. “They’re such beautiful shirts,” Daisy says, sobbing into their thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.” The scene connects a rich guy’s wardrobe and turbulent emotion—beauty and sadness—in a surprising (but not inexplicable or mysterious) causal relationship. Like most literary surprises, Daisy’s reaction to what Nick calls the many-colored disarray seems correct, even inevitable. If Gatsby’s shirts made Daisy speak in tongues or punch Carraway in the gut, we would be surprised, all right, but not convinced or moved. Or consider Isaac Babel’s “First Love,” a story that conjoins delirious desire and genocide, and that contains this sentence: “For five of my ten years I had dreamed with all the fervor of my soul about having doves, and then, when I finally managed to buy them, Makarenko the cripple smashed the doves against the side of my face.” Bird and face, peace and violence, passion and pogrom—juxtaposed, smashed, improbably but credibly. Surprises are, in their effect and regardless of content, instruments of wonder and spirit. A surprise lifts aliveness toward consciousness, where it does not (and cannot) permanently reside. There are many reasons to read literature, of course. One very good reason to read literature is to be surprised. In reading, we perform the nearly oxymoronic feat of seeking surprise.

more from Chris Bachelder at The Believer here.