Archive for August, 2015

Jackaby (William Ritter)

Posted: August 22, 2015 in fiction
Tags: , , , ,

Well. Somebody got his start writing fan fic. I can’t really judge, not having gotten a good start to writing fiction at all. I started with literary criticism, switched to journal writing, and have now melded the two together. But once I got used to the idea of reading fan fic, I adjusted my expectations and really enjoyed the book.

One of the hallmarks of fan fic is that, no matter where or when the story takes place, the protagonist will sound exactly like a teenage girl from the early twenty-first century. Perhaps if they would all accept the head canon that all the Mary Sues of our time have a device that allows them to travel through all of fictional time and space, their stories would become more plausible. I mean, it’s not like Abigail Rook has an important backstory. Her father was an archaeologist who never gave her credit for her intellect, so she swiped her college money and went on a dinosaur dig in southeastern Europe somewhere. The dig failed in only a few months, so she used the last of her cash to sail to America, the Land of Opportunity and Second Chances. But she doesn’t use any British speech patterns, and really, lots of Americans like tea. That can’t be your character’s only British trait. And, there is a wealth of writing from New England in the 1890s; there’s no need to use contemporary interjections. Do your research, and write like Oscar Wilde or Max Beerbohm, or hell, Henry James would do, but if you want to write a non-fan-fic novel, make your protagonist sound like she’s from the right time and place.

And, if you’re going to give her an amazing backstory like an Edwardian dinosaur dig, use it. Any other backstory would have done equally well without altering the plot in the slightest. Miss Rook could have been brought up to service, but when her master tried to rape her she ran off, didn’t stop till she reached the docks, stowed away on the Lady Charlotte, stole a minimal amount of food to stay alive during the passage, and then mingled with the crowds to get off ship when they arrived in New Fiddleham. Or. Miss Rook could have been raised on a farm in Yorkshire, with her parents saving their sixpences to send her to finishing school so she can train to be a governess. She knows that it won’t be enough to pay for school, but she doesn’t want to hurt their feelings, so she takes the money and buys a ticket to America instead. She can actually only afford half the ticket, so she works in the kitchen to pay for the rest of her fare. Or. Miss Rook’s father died in a Welsh mining accident when she was young, so her mother raised her as a single parent in Cardiff. She fell in love with a local baker’s apprentice, and they ran off to the New World together. He contracted some sort of terrible disease from the other working class emigrants and died on-ship. Or, if we scrap the British thing, Miss Rook was raised in post-Reconstruction South Carolina. Unable to cope with her repressive family and harsh economic conditions, she runs off to the North, envisioning a utopia of freedom and useful work. All of these are equally if not more plausible than Ritter’s dinosaurs, and switching to any one of them would not change anything that happens in the book.

So, what does happen? A nice, somewhat anachronistic girl gets off a boat in a fictional New England town in the early 1890s. No one wants to employ her, and she eventually finds a notice for a detective’s assistant. This detective sees supernatural creatures that no one else can, so it’s all fairies and werewolves and redcaps and trolls and banshees and ghosts and this frog that emits poisonous gas if you stare at his cage and a duck that used to be a man but who refuses to change back. Jackaby is modeled on Sherlock Holmes, the one that exasperates Rupert Graves in contemporary London. Given this much information, you can probably predict with some accuracy what’s going to happen. Murder mystery, coverup of magical elements, repressed love, Mary Sue being a handy target but otherwise kind of useless but everyone inexplicably takes care of her anyway, that sort of thing.

And yet. Despite all this bitching about things that don’t work, Jackaby is a genuinely enjoyable novel. It’s a fast-paced, undemanding text, and if you let go of the expectation that it’s going to be the next Great Expectations, you can easily get caught up in it. Suspend your disbelief and get swept away by the current. In comparing Ritter to, say, Cassandra Clare, I prefer Ritter. She aims high and misses widely; he lowers his sights and hits the target.

I object to purity, as a concept. It’s an ideal that cannot, should not be reached. It’s the most unnatural idea people have invented, and it’s shocking that it’s hung on for thousands of years. Whenever people go on about it, I think about their need to control their environment as a way of controlling themselves. Clegg connects this concept to closeted guys, which is also what I think about.

Owen Crites, protagonist, introduces himself as a sociopath, but he’s not one of those nice sociopaths like Sherlock Holmes or Gregory House. He’s like Christian Bale in American Psycho. He spends his life trying to gain control over other people; since he’s poor, he focuses on making himself attractive, and gaining what advantage he can from proximity to the very rich. There’s especially Jenna, the girl he grew up with, but only during the summer. His dad is her dad’s gardener at the summer home in Rhode Island. She becomes his ideal of purity, until the time of our story, the summer after they graduate high school.

Enter Jimmy, Jenna’s boyfriend. It’s obvious that Jenna’s not pure any more. But when Owen spies on them at night, he watches Jimmy, not her. She’s merely the occasion for Owen to watch Jimmy in action. So he develops this brilliant plan to split the couple up by fucking Jimmy during Jenna’s birthday party. Because this will make Jenna want him. Both boys insist that they’re straight, but they still want to sleep with each other. So Owen sows the seeds of murder, but even though he’s consciously all about Jenna, he also swears his love and confusion to Jimmy, so what does he really want?

Part of Owen’s madness is his relationship to a small statue of a fish that he found washed up on the beach. He associates it with the Palestinian fish-god Dagon, sacrifices to it, bleeds on it, prays to it. When things start moving and he (and others) acts in ways he didn’t expect, he attributes all this revelation of subconscious desire to Dagon. It’s not my fault, God made me seduce your boyfriend. There’s always a scapegoat.

This is a short novella; since I read it on the Kobo, I can’t give you an accurate page count. It’s a thriller, and the first-person narrator makes me uncomfortable. There are sections narrated by other characters, which is nice. This is the sort of story that makes me think, yes, religious people are nuts, closeted people are nuts, and it’s best to stay away from both types, especially when they converge in one intelligent but insane young man.

I don’t know how long ago it was that I bought this book. It was an impulse buy, because I had read another of the author’s books and remembered it as being well written. Afterward, though, as I remembered The Time Traveler’s Wife more specifically, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. TTW is a soul-crushing book. Niffenegger introduces you to some nice, lovely people, gives you half a book to fall completely in love, and then she spends the second half destroying them. Everything Henry and Claire love is taken from them, and then they die.

Fortunately, Her Fearful Symmetry doesn’t follow the same trajectory. It’s essentially a Victorian ghost story, but up to date. Think back to Sense and Sensibility and Bleak House – you know how social roles are more important than individual identity? How people are easily replaced by others, whether because there’s a physical resemblance or a role in the family? Niffenegger makes that even more intense by using twins. Not secret hidden twins ala Little Dorrit, these are the upfront, can never be separated twins. The author even blames their virginity at 21 on the twinness:

And they would each have to pick different guys, and these guys, these potential boyfriends, would want to spend time alone with one or the other; they would want to be the important person in Julia or Valentina’s life. Each boyfriend would be a crowbar, and soon there would be a gap; there would be hours in the day when Julia wouldn’t even know where Valentina was, or what she was doing, and Valentina would turn to tell Julia something and instead there would be the boyfriend, waiting to hear what she was about to say although only Julia would have understood it.

Of course, this comes directly after Valentina meets Robert and Julia meets Martin. Not that they’re very skilled in starting relationships.

She was used to the profound intimacy of her life with Julia, and she did not know that a cloud of hope and wild illusion is required to begin a relationship. Valentina was like the veteran of a long marriage who has forgotten how to flirt.

It seems a bit odd to me that the author insists that the twins can’t have sex with each other. Women have sex in pairs without men all the time. The comment seems outdated and inaccurate, but it’s just a little speed bump. I may only think so because I’m not a lesbian; I don’t get angry with Mary Wollstonecraft for saying that male homosexuality doesn’t exist, but she was writing more than two hundred years ago, so that’s a pretty good excuse.

I am an expert in building a cloud of hope and wild illusion; beginning a relationship, finding someone suitable to join me in a relationship, not so much. I don’t have a twin to blame, just my own awkwardness and lack of experience. But I know what Robert means when he grieves:

Robert was struck once again by the finality of it all, summed up and presented to him as the silence in the little room behind him. I have things to tell you. Are you listening? He had never realised, while Elspeth was alive, the extent to which a thing had not completely happened until he told her about it.

After the ex and I split, everyone tends to assume that, because I’m gay, I don’t really care about the breakup. They’re wrong. She left a gap in my existence that I have not grown to fill. In my imagination, that space is supplied by my oldest son. Every time I see something new, or that he would have liked when he was three or four, my brain calls his name and goes, “Hey, look!” When I was in New York, I used to extend my hand to hold his. I wonder about getting him to attend a boarding school close to where I live now, but I doubt the ex would put up with that. It could be a school that places every child in an Ivy League school with a full scholarship and she wouldn’t allow it. The feeling of powerlessness brings on a bout of depression, and nothing makes me feel more powerless than having her take my children away from me by making me walk away, again and again and again.

So I look for a relationship to occupy the empty spaces, because I don’t understand the value of my experience until it’s shared. I need time alone to recover from time spent with people, but while I’m forced to stay alone I’m only half alive. I have an apartment rented, but I just keep staying in someone’s guest bedroom to stave off the isolation.

Jessica and James watched Robert walk stiffly across the terrace and into the house. “I’m really worried about him,” Jessica said. “He’s lost the plot, a bit.”

James said, “She’s only been dead eight months. Give him some time.”

“Ye-es. I don’t know. He seems to have stopped – that is, he’s doing all the things one does, but there’s no heart in him. I don’t think he’s even working on his thesis. He’s just not getting over her.”

James met his wife’s anxious eyes. He smiled. “How long would it take you to get over me?”

She held out her bent hand, and he took it in his. She said, “Dear James. I don’t imagine I would ever get over you.”

“Well, Jessica,” said her husband, “there’s your answer.”

But, I said something about ghosts, and then got distracted. One of the things that makes this book less devastating than its predecessor is the fact that death is not the end. Death is change, but it’s not the end. Existence continues, though you tend to get stuck in your flat. A flat next to Highgate Cemetery is pretty amazing, but you’re still stuck in your flat. And to some extent, the cemetery is the point of the book. It’s like in No Name, when Wilkie Collins over-describes everything, and you start thinking that he’s being paid by a tourist commission. Niffenegger puts in an appeal after the story for us to donate to the upkeep of the cemetery, because it’s full of famous dead people and beautiful monuments and it costs a thousand pounds a day to keep it in good repair, yet it relies almost entirely on donations and (cheap) tour fees. If you’re looking for some organization worthy of your donation, look no farther. You can use their website to give them money, either through check, PayPal, or bequest. There is a lengthy explanation of how to leave money to them in your will, but just sending them money now is much simpler (see the grey box on the right side of the page).

Whether you donate or not, read the book. It’s beautiful and satisfying, but not destructive.

I first knew the name Stefan Zweig when I saw his bust in a park in Paris. It was raining that day, so the statue looked like it was crying, and the idea of a face cast in bronze, weeping and ignored, moved me profoundly. The name seemed familiar, so I started looking for it. When Joan Fontaine died, I watched several of her films and saw Zweig’s name on Letter from an Unknown Woman. I don’t think it’s Ms Fontaine’s best work, but it’s a good role for the star of Rebecca and Suspicion. Then I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Zweig is listed as the screenwriter’s inspiration. So I’ve been meaning to read some Zweig, and one afternoon I was rebelling against the unrelenting sameness of Midwestern life so I was looking for new books to download and saw this one. The subtitle is what really did it for me, being full of longing and looking for liberation.

IMG_0103

“Letter from an Unknown Woman” is in this collection, and if you’ve seen the picture, it’s a much better representation of what Zweig’s stories are like than The Grand Budapest Hotel. The more recent film is all about daring and bravery in the face of adverse circumstances, but the black-and-white is about desire that is unrequited and unfulfilled, suffering that is only resolved through death. The Grand Budapest does prepare you for Zweig’s style – never use one word when you can use twenty, never use twenty when you can use two thousand, be as romantic and Goethe-esque as possible – but the themes are off. For example, “Fantastic Night” gives one of the most beautiful and realistic descriptions of clinical depression I’ve ever seen:

At that moment I was fully aware for the first time how far advanced the process of paralysis already was in me – it was as if I were moving through flowing, bright water without being halted or taking root anywhere, and I knew very well that this chill was something dead and corpse-like, not yet surrounded by the foul breath of decomposition but already numbed beyond recovery, a grimly cold lack of emotion. It was the moment that precedes real, physical death and outwardly visible decay.

After that episode I began carefully observing myself and this curious paralysis of my feelings, as a sick man observes his sickness. When, shortly afterwards, a friend of mine died and I followed his coffin to the grave, I listened to myself to see if I did not feel grief, if some emotion did not move in me at the knowledge that this man, who had been close to me since our childhood, was now lost to me for ever. But nothing stirred, I felt as if I were made of glass, with the world outside shining straight through me and never lingering within, and hard as I attempted on this and many similar occasions to feel something, however much I tried, through reasonable argument, to make myself feel emotion, no response came from my rigid state of mind. People parted from me, women came and went, and I felt much like a man sitting in a room with rain beating on the window panes; there was a kind of sheet of glass between me and my immediate surroundings, and my will was not strong enough to break it.

Although I felt this clearly, the realisation caused me no real uneasiness, for as I have said, I took even what affected myself with indifference. I no longer had feeling enough to suffer. It was enough for me that this internal flaw was hardly perceptible from the outside, in the same way as a man’s physical impotence becomes obvious only at the moment of intimacy, and in company I often put on a certain elaborate show, employing artificially passionate admiration and spontaneous exaggeration to hide the extent to which I knew I was dead and unfeeling inside. Outwardly I continued my old comfortable, unconstrained way of life without any change of direction; weeks, months passed easily by and slowly, gathering darkly into years. One morning when I looked in the glass I saw a streak of grey at my temple, and felt that my youth was slowly departing. But what others call youth had long ago ended in me, so taking leave of it did not hurt very much, since I did not love even my own youth enough for that. My refractory emotions preserved their silence even to me.

This inner rigidity made my days more and more similar, despite all the varied occupations and events that filled them, they ranged themselves side by side without emphasis, they grew and faded like the leaves of a tree. And the single day I am about to describe for my own benefit began in a perfectly ordinary way too, without anything odd to mark it, without any internal premonition.

 

So, protagonist learns how to feel alive again by giving money to the poor, but this newfound life is cut short because his drive to charity leads him to enlist during World War I. Most of these stories take place in Vienna, and they were written at several different stages of Zweig’s career, but most of them do seem to group themselves around WWI. Zweig hates war, by the way. “Compulsion” is about a draft-dodger who gets away. The author paints this as a victory, but I felt like instead of being pacifist, he was just passive. He had to choose whom to obey, the government or his wife, and he eventually chooses to submit to her instead of the state.

Zweig spends a lot of time describing things, and he does it very well:

The villa lay close to the sea.

The quiet avenues, lined with pine trees, breathed out the rich strength of salty sea air, and a slight breeze constantly played around the orange trees, now and then removing a colourful bloom from flowering shrubs as if with careful fingers. The sunlit distance, where attractive houses built on hillsides gleamed like white pearls, a lighthouse miles away rose steeply and straight as a candle – the whole scene shone, its contours sharp and clearly outlined, and was set in the deep azure of the sky like a bright mosaic. The waves of the sea, marked by only the few white specks that were the distant sails of isolated ships, lapped against the tiered terrace on which the villa stood; the ground then rose on and on to the green of a broad, shady garden and merged with the rest of the park, a scene drowsy and still, as if under some fairy-tale enchantment.

Outside the sleeping house on which the morning heat lay heavily, a narrow gravel path ran like a white line to the cool viewing point. The waves tossed wildly beneath it, and here and there shimmering spray rose, sparkling in rainbow colours as brightly as diamonds in the strong sunlight. There the shining rays of the sun broke on the small groups of Vistulian pines standing close together, as if in intimate conversation, they also fell on a Japanese parasol with amusing pictures on it in bright, glaring colours, now open wide.

A woman was leaning back in a soft basket chair in the shade of this parasol, her beautiful form comfortably lounging in the yielding weave of the wicker. One slender hand, wearing no rings, dangled down as if forgotten, petting the gleaming, silky coat of a dog with gentle, pleasing movements, while the other hand held a book on which her dark eyes, with their black lashes and the suggestion of a smile in them, were concentrating. They were large and restless eyes, their beauty enhanced by a dark, veiled glow. Altogether the strong, attractive effect of the oval, sharply outlined face did not give the natural impression of simple beauty, but expressed the refinement of certain details tended with careful, delicate coquetry. The apparently unruly confusion of her fragrant, shining curls was the careful construction of an artist, and in the same way the slight smile that hovered around her lips as she read, revealing her white teeth, was the result of many years of practice in front of the mirror, but had already become a firmly established part of the whole design and could not be laid aside now.

 

And so you think know everything that is necessary to know about this woman, but of course you don’t. Like most good characters, she’s an iceberg, or an onion. There are layers and layers. People don’t become famous fiction writers without knowing something of layered characters.

I had an experience over the last few weeks that reminds me of a Zweig story, so I’ll share it, minus the detailed descriptions of scenery. A couple of months ago I started working in the evening on the freight crew at a big-box retailer. The crew was bigger than I expected, and they interact more aggressively than I do, which turned me off of them. They spend a lot of time ridiculing the gay guy, even when he’s not around to hear it. Because this is the freight crew, and our job involves a lot of heavy lifting, some of them are rather attractive physically. The combination of all this generally led me to work as independently as I could. One guy, Trent, started blaming me for things that went wrong, but in a joking fashion, so I always just agreed. “Sure, it’s my fault. Yeah, I should have done that differently. No, I don’t seem to care much. I know, I’m a heartless bitch.” Agreeing with these people is the best strategy for me, because they’re looking for something that bothers me, so I don’t give them anything. Once they find a button that gets a response, they keep pushing it until they go too far.

Well, one night a woman came in and asked me for some house wash, so I started walking her over to Paint and we ran into Trent. He greeted her with, “Hey, Nana,” and told me, “OccMan, I got this. No, I got this.” Meaning, get the hell away from my grandmother. Apparently the product she uses is in Garden (I don’t understand why some house and deck wash is in Paint and some in Garden. It doesn’t make sense), not far from where I had been unloading freight, so our way lay together for a short time. Not knowing what else to say, I congratulated her on having a fine grandson and went off on my way. After she had made her purchase, Trent came and found me and thanked me for saying that about him. It seems that he’s known as the family fuck-up, and having someone from outside the family remind them of his intrinsic worth was welcome, needed, and unexpected. Of course, if I had said anything different, we would have had to meet by appointment, “so thanks for not making me kick your ass.” I’m no expert in heterosexual male interactions, but I do know enough of The Bro Code to know that there is only one way to interact with the aged relatives of your colleagues: extremely polite with a side helping of slightly hyperbolical compliment. There is no way I could say what I really thought of him: Ma’am, your grandson has a lovely body and a pretty face, but the person inside them is such an asshole that he puts people off. I mean, he can’t even say thanks without implying a threat.

So I watched him over the next few weeks, and I realized that this deal with being treated like the family fuck-up explained pretty much all his behavior. He puts up a big show of braggadocio, but he’s using that to overcompensate for his low self-esteem. He doesn’t always work hard, because (like all the rest of us) his brain will keep him repeating the behaviors that match his self-image. Other members of the crew were annoyed by the braggadocio and either tried to knock him down a bit, thus making the problem worse, or grumbling about him when he wasn’t around. [Just as a sidenote, I don’t know who came up with this idea that gossiping is a female activity. When placed in a single-sex environment, men are just as bad, possibly worse.] But after the grandmother incident, he was a little nicer to me. You can tell when aggressive men are teasing you as they would a friend (instead of as they would a target) because they smile when they do it and they keep their voices light.

Then, a week or two ago, he asked me if I was single. For a very brief instant I wondered if he had realized that I’m gay and was finally ready to see if the grass really is greener on my side of the fence, but then he explained that he knows this girl. Apparently her and my personalities are very similar, she’s a very pretty girl, and he knows that she’s a good person. As he was trying to convince me to go out with her, it became clear that he himself really loves her, but she knocked him back. I just kept thinking of Mr Jason’s conversation with Quentin in Absalom! Absalom! – the one about how the real incest is a man’s attempt to control his sister’s choice of a suitor, so that he can use the future brother-in-law as a substitute for himself, fucking the sister by proxy. But I think it can also work the other way, controlling the sister’s choice of a suitor so that he can use the sister as a surrogate for himself, forming a successful sexual relationship with the other guy where social pressures prevent him from acting for himself, fucking the boyfriend by proxy. I took it as such a strong sign of fellowship and homosocial affection that I didn’t have the heart to share with him my three very good reasons not to go out with her: (1) She wants to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m already supporting three other people (my children); the next person I date had damn well better have a job. (2) When Trent suggested he be the one to provide for her, she told him that she didn’t want him to feel like he owned her. So she wants to have another person meet her financial needs while still remaining independent of him? It sounds like someone who hasn’t thought through what she wants, and I don’t need that kind of drama in my life. (3) I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay. I don’t date women. Fortunately, I was able to give him a fourth unanswerable reason: I’m moving out of the state in three days.

If this was really a Stefan Zweig story, there’d be some sort of closure, months or years after this last incident. Trent would have resolved his situation in some way that is realistic, dramatically appropriate without being too happy or too sad. When people write about depression the way that Zweig does, I believe they’re describing themselves. If you’re familiar with The Grand Budapest, Jude Law’s writer character and Ralph Fiennes’s protagonist are modelled not on Zweig’s characters, but on Zweig himself. A bit extreme in action, a bit understated in emotional response, valuing people above ideas or behaviors. A man I’d like to know and be loved by, but whom I would not like to be.

So, a little confession to make. It’s been so long since I read The Second Sex that I don’t remember much about the style it’s written in. But, I have read Sartre lately, and I have a general idea of the type of writing done by the French feminists, and this book wasn’t what I was expecting. It is a deeply personal, extremely intimate relation of de Beauvoir’s experience of her mother’s death. And it is beautiful.

Amazement. When my father died I did not cry at all. I had said to my sister, “It will be the same for Maman.” I had understood all my sorrows until that night: even when they flowed over my head I recognized myself in them. This time my despair escaped from my control: someone other than myself was weeping in me. I talked to Sartre about my mother’s mouth as I had seen it that morning and about everything I had interpreted in it – greediness refused, an almost servile humility, hope, distress, loneliness – the loneliness of her death and of her life – that did not want to admit its existence. And he told me that my own mouth was not obeying me any more. I had put Maman’s mouth on my own face and in spite of myself, I copied its movements. Her whole person, her whole being, was concentrated there, and compassion wrung my heart.

Mme de Beauvoir broke her leg, and when she went to the hospital they found a tumor. There was an operation, but she lived in the hospital for four weeks before dying. She loved life, quite passionately, and despite her devotion to religion she dreaded the idea of death. No one tells her that she had cancer; they focus on how her leg is healing. But when the ship of life drifts gradually into death’s harbor, the passengers aren’t fooled. She knows, and she relies on her daughters to protect her, but they can’t save her life.

The issues that de Beauvoir raises about the medical profession seem to me to continue to be in effect here in the United States, fifty years later. Doctors do whatever the hell they want, without any attention to the patient’s wishes. She doesn’t want to suffer? Well, we can keep her alive for a few more weeks, so we’re going to. They spend so much time in contact with other people’s sufferings that they don’t feel for them anymore. And if a patient is terminal and wants to just go ahead and die, they will hold the struggler in this life no matter what she wants. It reminds me a bit of the mother at the end of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” the one who is deleted in some versions of the poem:

Like those, my babe! which ere tomorrow’s warmth

Have capp’d their sharp keen points with pendulous drops,

Will catch thine eye, and with their novelty

Suspend thy little soul; then make thee shout,

And stretch and flutter from thy mother’s arms

As thou wouldst fly for very eagerness.

Coleridge’s son wants to leap at the icicles and catch their lucent beauty, but his mother holds onto the child, protecting him from a fall but keeping him from flying. I’m not saying that six-month-olds can fly; I’m saying their mothers won’t let them try.

My infrequent contact with Western medicine leads me to believe that things haven’t changed much. The ex and I spent some good time talking through a birth plan with the midwife, who then ignored the whole thing when the birth happened, to the point that she used a lubricant that the ex was allergic to. There are some areas of the body where no one wants an allergic reaction, particularly when that part has just been stretched to expel a larger-than-average head. But doctors don’t care. I think that, instead of healing people, their mission is to avoid malpractice suits. They’re good at that, but it means that the healing can become less important than the procedures.

Mme de Beauvoir completely loses herself, clinging to life at the doctor’s behest. She defined herself by her religion, but she stopped praying and refused to see priests for her last rites. She was too modest to be comfortable with her daughter living in sin with a philosopher, but when the nurses turned her to prevent bedsores, she flashed her genitals at the entire room without a thought. She said that she’d rather die early than suffer long, but she was still in pain while on the maximum dose of morphine yet refusing to die. To give an indication of her suffering, her body was excreting urea through her pores because she had ceased to function properly, and it was getting into and infecting her bedsores. Her life became awful, her daughter saw her as a living corpse, but no one had the courage to defy the medical institution. We are trained to knuckle under to authority, so we do.

I worry about my mother sometimes. A while back she said that she felt that all she had left to do was make sure her children were taken care of, by which she meant married. At the time, only my youngest brother was single, so I was worried that she was ready to pop off at any time. Now my sister and I are both divorced, so I guess my mother will live until we remarry. I don’t imagine she’ll recognize any gay marriage, so if that’s her criteria, I can keep my mother alive forever. And I didn’t realize until I wrote that sentence how much I believe my mother’s life and happiness depend on me.

De Beauvoir had a troubled relationship with her mother. She inherited all her mother’s vitality, but she didn’t have the childhood that continually beat her down and made her dependent on others, so she became a famous writer, even though everyone knew that she was living in sin. Her mother was proud of her success and ashamed of the scandal that made it possible. My relationship with my mother is hardly straightforward (click on the word mom in the tag cloud on the left there to read more), and she also loves me and is proud of my professional success even though she can’t stomach my private life. And de Beauvoir and I both love our irritating mothers. We don’t want them to die, but we don’t want them to suffer either, and if I am ever faced with this decision, I will probably freeze up too. The difference is, I’m the fifth of seven children, so when it comes time to decide things, my opinion will hardly matter. I doubt it will be asked for or listened to.

I am tempted to send this book to my mother, but I fear it would be misunderstood. Would she hear that this is a book about filial regret? I’d like to have a closer relationship with my mother, but so much about her puts me off – her politics, her religion, her voracious consumption of her children’s love, her need to be needed by us, her way of making me feel like her cats are more important to her than I am – that it’s hard for me to reach out more than I do. I let her know when there are major changes in my life, such as moving to a new state or starting a new job, but otherwise, we talk once or twice a year, which is plenty enough for me. Few people enjoy bad news so much; her excitement in relating family tragedies gets me depressed. And yet, my mother loves her life in a way that she never did when I was young. It started when she quit teaching and worked as a hospital secretary instead, and now since her retirement, it’s only getting stronger. This were rough for a while, as she battled with feeling useless without her job, but now she spends so much time with her sister and her grandchildren that she’s happy most of the time. And if my cousins can produce another interracial illegitimate child, that’ll feed her sense of moral superiority and make everything just that little bit better. Besides, it looks like my baby brother may actually be getting married soon. A marriage for each of seven children is no small accomplishment (not that she did anything to produce these marriages, and a third of them have failed, but I won’t remind her of that).

I’m knitting my mother a winter hat, at her request, but I wish there were more ways that I could show her that I love her that don’t make me depressed. Maybe if I see her dying I’ll react as de Beauvoir does, I’ll discover a desire for closeness that overrides the personality issues that keep us apart. Maybe I don’t have to wait that long.