A few days ago I saw the new Coen brothers' movie, A SERIOUS MAN. Its effect on me was serious: It set me thinking about expectations in fiction plus the experience of reading/viewing it.
A SERIOUS MAN is based on the Bible book of Job, sort of. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Arthur is a nebbish to an extreme degree; he is pushed around by his wife, his wife's lover, his kids, his deadbeat brother, his macho neighbor, and his students at the college where he teaches and is up for tenure. But he tries to do the right thing. A student failing his physics class (the kid can't do mathematics) tries to bribe Arthur to give him a passing grade. When Arthur refuses the bribe, the student threatens him. Then so does the student's father. Arthur does not give in, but in true Job fashion, misfortune after misfortune befalls him anyway, involving all those people and, seemingly, the universe. Arthur continues to struggle on, doing the best he can, and eventually things turn around for him. So far, so good.
But in order to get money for both his brother and his own legal debts, Arthur eventually takes the bribe from the student. This happens during the last five minutes of the movie. Immediately his son is threatened by a tornado and Arthur is diagnosed with cancer. The end.
My problem with this is its unrelenting misery: Arthur is ground down into the dirt when he does good and when he does ill. He never gets a break. This doesn't seem like life as I know it, nor does it seem like rewarding fiction. I don't ask that protagonists be sympathetic (every single person in this movie is both unlikable and unattractive), nor that endings be "happy." But I do ask that fiction illuminate reality in some way that makes sense to me, either as effective mirror of what is or as an ideal of what could be. This movie does neither.