Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

October Books

Wormwood (Poppy Z. Brite)

This collection of horror stories was originally titled Swamp Foetus. Brite now identifies as male and goes by Billy Martin. The naming can be a bit confusing. These stories were written by someone who has spent a lot of time in North Carolina but has since fallen in love with New Orleans, and also thoroughly enjoys modern witchcraft. As ever, some selections are better than others, but in general I don’t much care for this collection. It revealed to me why I like some horror stories and not others. Barker’s stories celebrate life because it is fragile and precious; Brite’s stories celebrate death because it is strong and inexorable. While there is a lot of homosexual male love, it’s generally sidelined by the overwhelming fascination with death. Hooray for the representation for gay goths, but maybe there are some guys in the world who like wearing black and listening to heavy metal who don’t want to kill themselves or anyone else. In this book, if there are, they are likely to fall for a murderer or someone with a terminal illness. I had a professor once who told us that you can tell the implicit values of an author by seeing who the murderers and the victims are – they are the ones the author is punishing. If all your gay men kill or are killed, is that really positive representation?

The Longest Journey (E. M. Forster)

Really? A Forster novel that doesn’t go to Italy? Yup. We do still have the critique of mainstream British middle class, but they stay in Britain this time. A young man has a lot of revolutionary friends in college, but then he graduates and gets a job at a boys’ school and his ideas change. It’s about the confrontation of ideals with real life, particularly as it regards the educational system. I have a lot of experience with this conflict myself, which is why I am no longer a teacher. I also wanted Protagonist to admit his love for his former classmate, but Forster’s explicitly gay stories weren’t published during his lifetime. The longest journey of the title is the one that we all take, through life into death. It’s one that we all ultimately take alone because of the difficulties in communicating our ideas and experiences. This is a book of isolation.

The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker)

This was a fantastic story. In the late nineteenth century, there were several communities of immigrants living in New York, and the European Jews and the Syrians didn’t really have much communication between them. The golem was built to be someone’s perfect wife, but he dies on the crossing and she has to figure out what to do with herself now that she’s freed from building her life around this one man. She develops skills, gets a job, and ultimately builds a community of friends. The jinni was trapped in a bottle for twelve centuries until a metalsmith accidentally frees him. He also works on getting a job and developing skills, adapting to the new culture and nourishing his memories so that he can figure out how he got stuck. They both distrust humans and feel confined because they can’t share their true identities with the world at large. Of course, the woman made of earth and the man made of fire meet each other. I was very pleased to see, though, that they don’t fall in love with each other. I’m pretty sure the golem is asexual, though that word is never brought up, and the jinni is very sexual, which gets him into trouble. It is possible to have a book about two people who don’t get all romantic. Despite the setting, the writing is of our own time, the firm, focused prose that we favor in both popular and literary novels. Recommended for most adult audiences of readers.

 

November Books

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (Yukio Mishima)

There’s a thirteen-year-old boy trying to navigate early adolescence. His friends are sort of terrifying, identifying themselves by numbers instead of names (Chief, One, Two, Three . . .); it’s more of an intellectual, anti-sentimental cult than a group of friends. He learns about sexuality by watching his mother through a knothole in the wall between their bedrooms: first he spies on her masturbating, then continues when she meets a man to bring home. The romance between the sailor and the business owner is sweet and a little Hallmark-ish: they meet when he’s on shore for a few days; they fuck immediately, fall in love, and write each other letters while he’s gone for six months; and then they marry. Moderately wealthy career woman, lower-class hunk with a connection to nature – it’s the stuff American movies are made of. For the first half of the book. After the marriage, the sailor tries to learn business and stepfatherhood and life on land in general, and loses the kid’s respect in the attempt. But as it turns out, the Japanese law at the time determined that no one younger than fourteen could be tried for any crime, so the Chief reminds them that they can do anything they want in these short remaining months before their birthdays. Even murder.

The Mabinogion (Trans. Sioned Davies)

It took me quite a long time to read this book. It’s a group of fragments of Welsh epics, around a thousand years old. There was a specific story that I was looking for, the one about Cerridwen and her cauldron of inspiration, but it’s not here. It’s part of the Tale of Taliesin, because of course they treat a woman as a supporting character in a tale about a man, and the commonly known version of Taliesin has been determined to be mostly spurious, written in the nineteenth century I think. So I missed that one and got instead the authentic, traditional Welsh stories. There are eleven divisions or manuscripts, but don’t let that fool you. There are dozens of stories in this book, and they come so quickly that I could never read very much at a go. I need processing time. I care about understanding what happened, which takes a little digestion, and I also read to share in the emotional experiences of the characters, which just were not explored with the level of detail I (as a twenty-first century reader) prefer. If you’re looking for Arthurian chivalric tales, then this is the right place. Forget Lancelot and Galahad, and read up on the other knights, the ones that get left out of the modern tellings, like Geraint and Culhwch. It’s like we only care about Arthur as a cuckold, because watching Lancelot have sex with Guinevere allows us to vicariously defy authority and we like that. Here, her name is Gwenhwyfar, and women aren’t simply pawns in conflicts between men. The attitude toward sex is remarkably un-Victorian. There aren’t really any deities – maybe a little light Christianity every now and again, but these myths are about people, and sometimes giants and magic-users. My edition is heavily footnoted, maybe a little too much. The writing style is abrupt and forceful, and there’s a little too much Might Makes Right for my tastes. I do like the way that people refer to others as “the man/woman I love best”; it feels beautiful and right. It acknowledges other loves and other types of love while also recognizing the primacy of this individual, and it separates all that from titles and formally recognized relationships. It’s a weird and complex group of stories.

Dead Man’s Quill (Jordan Castillo Price)

The final novella in the series. Dixon and Yuri meet Dixon’s missing uncle who’s been causing havoc and together they resolve all the problems. I don’t think they manage a sex scene, which is a little disappointing, but it wrapped up the series perfectly. The author implied in a postscript that there will be more stories, but I’m satisfied with the closure I got here. I will probably reread all four stories again, as if they were a single book, but I don’t think I need anything more. They’re cute, yes, both the stories and the characters, but I like closure and don’t want any sequels.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino)

I liked this book a lot. There are ten first chapters of novels, tied together with a frame about you, the Reader. It is assumed that you, the Reader, are a white European heterosexual man, which I find unfortunate but inevitable in a novel written by an Italian man in the 1970s. The Reader enjoys all of these separate books, but runs into trouble finding the rest of the books, whether through printer errors, sudden interruptions, or the incompletion of manuscripts. He finds a young woman, the Other Reader, and they try to hunt down the books they’re reading, to no avail. Because they are separate human beings with different attitudes and experiences, they can never quite agree on the nature of the books they read, and we only see things through his perspective. The stories start off a little paranoid and Hitchcock-y, then around chapter seven things get very sexual indeed, and finally we drift into death and the dismantling of the story. The last few pages involve a discussion of why and how we read, which explains why we can never quite read the same book – even if the text doesn’t change, we do, so the experience is always different, from one reader to another, from one reading to the next. Great for people interested in exploring the nature of reading as they do it, but the metafictional elements both explain why critics love it and why it seems to have passed mostly out of the United States’ cultural consciousness.

The Body in the Library (Agatha Christie)

This is my first Miss Marple book, and technically it’s a December book because I read the last third on Dec 1. I was surprised at how little she actually does; the story focuses primarily on the police officers investigating the murder. She solves it, of course, but the clue-gathering is seldom in her hands. A body appears in the library of a country estate, and the owner’s wife is friends with Miss Marple, so of course they work the case together. Very little action as clues are revealed mostly through dialogue. Positive representation of the disabled, less positive representation of the working class, no representation of ethnic minorities. But she’s writing for a specific audience in a specific time and place, so these things are to be expected. I appreciate the community-based approach to solving the crimes, even though I am uncomfortable with just how narrow and homogeneous the community is.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)

A little girl starts to taste people’s emotions in the food they make. She is exposed to a lot of adult emotion at a young age, particularly her mother’s depression. I was really interested in reading a kid trying to describe what anxiety tastes like. It’s a hard childhood, particularly with her brother melting into the furniture, but she seems to become a functioning adult with a strong sense of self-care. I liked this one a lot – a model for growing up to be healthy even with a childhood full of trauma.

The Long Walk (Stephen King)

This one was hard to read. At one point, a character feels like he’s in a Shirley Jackson story, and there are some parallels to make with “The Lottery.” Teenage dystopias have become quite popular, though, so I’d be more likely to connect it with The Hunger Games. Every year, one hundred teenage boys are selected to walk through Maine. If they stop moving, they get killed. There is, of course, one winner. I wonder if any of the winners survive; it is not good for the health to walk continuously for four or five days, especially not with Maine weather. It works as a sort-of allegory for the human condition and our walk through life, with the relentless grind of daily activity and a not-really-benevolent Major watching over you, ready to reward you if you win. The outlook is intensely bleak, as Ray Garraty makes friends and watches them all die. The only way this makes sense is as a form of population control, but really, there are more efficient and private ways of getting rid of ninety-nine teenagers. That’s not quite two per state per year; I’m sure more die from influenza or leukemia. A sad, sad book that grinds you down.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J. K. Rowling)

Note the title – this is the original text, before it was Americanized as The Sorcerer’s Stone. The publishers thought that American kids wouldn’t know what the philosopher’s stone was, or maybe that they wouldn’t be able to pronounce philosopher. I think that changing it was insulting to the kids and dumb of the publishers, because it’s not like sorcerer is any clearer.

I think the plot is fairly familiar by now – Act I, emotionally abused child discovers he’s a wizard and prepares to go to a magical school; Act II, he makes friends with this year’s Weasley and gets through Christmas; Act III, he makes friends with Hermione and the three of them stop the most evil wizard ever from granting himself eternal life, just in time for summer break.

People talk about how revolutionary this story was, for a lot of different reasons, but I find revolutionary the treatment of Harry. He is essentially a dumb jock (excuse me, an athlete of moderate academic ability), which usually means he’d be the villain of the piece. Instead, Rowling puts him at the center – the protagonist of a book aimed at children is a child who doesn’t read for fun, which was really rare when I was a kid.

There are details that I didn’t notice when this was the only book I had read in the series – Bathilda Bagshot has been writing Harry’s textbooks since Year One, and he goes to visit her in Godric’s Hollow in Book Seven. Sirius Black is an important character in books three through five, but here he’s just that guy who lent Hagrid a flying motorcycle to bring Harry Potter to the Dursleys. I’m impressed with the way Rowling plants seeds for herself, in this book that was written before the others were conceived, and then she waters those seeds and they become fully realized characters and change the course of the series. I know that I’m going to forget the centaurs again – so many of the minor characters blur into the background for me – but maybe I’ll remember better this time. Even if I don’t, I know that I’ll enjoy continuing to read this story.

Raving Fans (Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles)

I hated this book so much. This is an essay on customer relations that could fit into fifteen pages at the most, but Blanchard dresses it up in the guise of poorly written fiction with an angelic fairy godmother (male) obsessed with golf and an unnamed protagonist called simply the Area Manager who seems most competent at avoiding work so he can spend time shopping and hanging out with his imaginary friend. There are some good points to be made, but if the TLDR version can be put on a one-page handout, I’d rather have the handout. Instead, my professor made me read a 130-page narrative that tries to be an allegory but doesn’t understand how.

Night Shift (Charlaine Harris)

I love Charlaine Harris. I really appreciate her portrayal of life in the South – her books seem natural, as if the characters live just down the street. This is the last of the Midnight, Texas books, and its storyline is covered in Season One of the television series. Fiji is back to her central role, and she’s great. She spends the book with her body image issues in the front of her mind, as a demon bent on taking her spreads death throughout the town. She’s a virgin, which supposedly makes her an incredibly powerful witch, and I have a hard time with the idea of sex weakening a woman’s power, but the townies hold a ritual where she loses her virginity with someone who isn’t a demon and drives the evil back to hell. When they decide on this, just about every guy in town offers himself. Several of them are genuinely excited about her, and even the two gay guys would consider it an honor. The only ones who don’t volunteer are the town priest and that one guy who’s married. In the end, it’s the guy she’s always loved who gets to fuck her in the town square while everyone else watches. The town secrets are all out, at least to the reader, and there are no plot hooks for a sequel. It’s a book with closure, which is another thing I admire. I had a writing instructor in undergrad who said that it takes talent to know where to begin, but I think it takes just as much talent for a writer of popular genre fiction to know where to end. These series tend to go on forever.

The World and Other Places (Jeanette Winterson)

This would be a fantastic introduction to Winterson for someone who isn’t familiar with her work. It hits all the right themes without taking the time for much other than theme, except maybe character. The writing is beautiful, as ever, but there isn’t time for a lot of world-building in a short story collection. I think that I’d read “The Three Friends” in one of the earlier novels, but I can’t say for sure. Love. Loss. Imagination. Dogs. Gender. Lesbians and other women. Winterson’s writing always makes me feel full, nourished, alive (while insisting that nothing alive is simple). Her books are always worth reading.

I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I love this book. Love is so hard to quantify, and a look through my posting history ought to tell you that this is precisely the sort of book that I value highly. I know that some people see it primarily as a book about adultery, but that’s hardly the point. There’s an incident before the book begins, but there are no sexual acts performed by the characters during the course of the book. This is a book about justice and rehabilitation, not crime.

We begin with Hester Prynne. Back in early seventeenth-century England, she grew up in the country and was married to an old scholar. He decided to relocate to Boston, so he sent her on ahead. After two years without seeing or hearing from him, she started to give him up for dead. And then she becomes pregnant, and her troubles really begin. She has some jail time, and some public shaming on the scaffold where the stocks are kept. Then, for the rest of her life, she has to wear a red A on her chest as a constant reminder of her sin and shame. Well. We call it a red A, and Hawthorne calls it the scarlet letter, but the background fabric is red and the letter itself is in gold thread. It’s so beautiful that strangers sometimes mistake it for a badge of honor, and Hester’s artistic skill with the needle is so intense that no one can recreate what she’s done, not even by backing the thread out and tracing backwards. She takes her daughter to live in an abandoned house on the edge of town, and unleashes her artistic revolutionary soul in solitude. Hester has an acute awareness of the injustices of society against women, and dreams of being a prophet of the new age, proclaiming the equality and rights of women. Which leads to what I find to be one of the creepiest lines in the book:

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

From our position in the twenty-first century, it’s expected that we’ll admire Hester’s rebellious spirit – because she’s right. But Hawthorne is writing in the nineteenth century, when women were valued for their inactivity and endurance, and his story is set farther back still, two hundred years before his own time, when according to Virginia Woolf women were beaten and flung about the room with impunity. Besides, Hester’s rebellion drove her to break the law, and sending the attitude underground is no guarantee that she won’t break the law again. Outwardly she is a model citizen while inwardly she longs to burn the world down and start over. The town elders even begin to discuss allowing her to remove the scarlet letter, but she won’t let them take it from her. I don’t blame her – if I had a free pass out of social obligations, I would hang on to it too. The scarlet letter holds her outside of society, which helps her to have such a different perspective. She doesn’t want to be just like everybody else.

The letter represents human justice and all its inadequacies. The idea behind it is that forced suffering will teach criminals to value society and its laws, a sort of Stockholm syndrome hope. Divine justice, based on the idea that love heals and unites us, gives Hester a daughter, Pearl. Pearl is a weird kid, in a city full of weird kids. She’s light and graceful and dances all over the place, imaginative and artistic like her mother. Seeing these qualities in children often upsets adults because society trains us to pour our imagination into prescribed channels, but kids don’t know the prescribed channels, so it’s more like a flood that pours over everything. Nothing is off limits, no thought too strange, no subject too holy. She has a natural irreverence that seems to come with youth and intelligence. Hester traces all her iconoclasm to the crime that conceived her, but that’s Puritan values. Does anyone really want Pearl to be like other kids, who say things like:

Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!

Kids are jerks. But the town leaders worry about this one, and discuss taking Pearl away from Hester for the sake of her soul. They think Pearl will grow up better without being raised by the town harlot. But Hester argues passionately for her right to keep her child, and they relent. As the book progresses, Pearl drifts closer and closer to revealing her father’s secret, which is after all a major part of the real justice Hawthorne is portraying. And through the love of Pearl, Hester really does calm down and rehabilitate. She still sees the injustice, but she gives up the idea of changing things by herself. For Hawthorne, criminals have no place in the revolution. Women’s rights have to be won by blameless women. I understand his point, that in order for changes to happen at the top of society they need to be championed by people that society’s leaders will listen to, and it’s hard to get people to listen to a single mom with a criminal record. But if no one breaks laws, no one will realize the laws are unfair. If no one breaks taboos, society doesn’t change.

Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. He didn’t die on the crossing from Amsterdam; he had been living among the Native Americans, learning their systems of healing. At the time we meet him, he’s skilled in four-humors medicine, alchemy, and homeopathy, which is the highest we could say for a doctor in the seventeenth century. He sees Hester’s public shame and convinces her to conceal his identity so he can search for the man who cuckolded him and drive him to confession. When he finds his target, he psychologically tortures him while tending to his illnesses – Chillingworth’s alchemy leads the man’s body to produce a scarlet letter on his chest, red on pale skin, the visible sign pushed out from the adulterous heart. Chillingworth frames this to himself as a quest for justice, but he’s really only interested in punishment and revenge. It reminds me a bit of the television program Lucifer, where the title character is constantly pointing out that the devil doesn’t take pleasure in sin – it’s his job to punish it, that’s all. TV Lucifer likes joy and tries to convince people to have a good time, so long as it remains innocent and consensual. I don’t mean devoid of alcohol, drugs, and sex; by innocent, I mean there is no malice. But as Chillingworth dives deeper into his vengeance, he takes joy in his victim’s suffering. For Hawthorne, this is worse than the adultery. Chillingworth learns to love malice; it becomes the only important feature of his character. By focusing exclusively on one goal, and that goal being to cause pain, Chillingworth becomes an evil caricature of his former self, twisted psychologically as much as he has scoliosis physically.

The fourth principal character is Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who fucked Hester, both literally because he loves her and figuratively because he’s too afraid of losing his position to stand with her. Because of his fear, she has to go through all of this alone. While Hester is on the path of healing and Chillingworth is on the path of vengeance, Dimmesdale shows us the effect of hidden sin, crimes unconfessed. This theme gets a much more careful representation in Crime and Punishment, where Dostoevsky demonstrates the extreme stress of feeling guilty and holding it inside. Dimmesdale’s poor mental health affects his physical health as well, and he wastes away from the constant stress of seeming the opposite of what he feels himself to be. In many ways he’s like a closeted gay man – being gay isn’t sinful, but staying in the closet involves the same type of duplicity and vigilance. He has a secret that no one must infer; he must hide the core of who he is from everyone he meets. There is no relaxation, only self-hatred and lies. Even when alone, he just punishes himself. It’s no wonder he goes crazy and dies. The relief of confessing the reality of his soul is so intense, and the required change in his lifestyle is so extreme, that he collapses on the spot. But his confession is necessary for the closure in all the other stories as well – Chillingworth’s vengeance, Hester’s rehabilitation, and Pearl’s socialization all require it. Dimmesdale’s refusal to confess doesn’t just hurt him; it retards everyone’s progress. Secrets are poisonous, and there are very few that I find myself willing or able to keep. Those few are related to situations that I didn’t create and are none of my business, and the people I keep them for are very special to me indeed.

It is hard to calculate the impact of this book. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has been called the first British novel because it was the first piece of extended prose fiction that delved heavily into the psychology of its protagonist; The Scarlet Letter holds a similar position in American literary history. I don’t mean to imply a bad opinion of Irving or Cooper; it’s just that Hawthorne popularized the inward look in a way that they didn’t. Charlotte Temple and Hope Leslie aren’t quite as meditative either, but the critics who defined The First Great American Novel would never have ascribed that title to one written by a woman, even though Charlotte Temple was the first American bestseller and Hope Leslie has an exploding pirate ship.

It’s fairly well-known that The Scarlet Letter changed the course of Melville’s career – he seems to have had a bit of a crush on Hawthorne, from the extreme praise he printed of Mosses from an Old Manse and Hawthorne’s discomfort on meeting him in person. People hear that he read The Scarlet Letter while writing Moby-Dick and then blame Hawthorne for all the cetology, but have you ever looked at White-Jacket? It’s the book before Moby-Dick, and it’s all about describing the mundanities of life on a man-of-war and drawing parallels to life in general. Hawthorne didn’t teach Melville to do allegory; he showed him that it’s possible to combine allegory with a good story. There doesn’t have to be a separation between the two. And, of course, critics at the time hated Moby-Dick, so The Scarlet Letter led to the bitterness that flowers so uncomfortably in Pierre and the later works.

It also had a strong effect on George Eliot. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter in a Hardy-esque Wessex. Arthur Dimmesdale becomes Arthur Donnithorne, Hester Prynne becomes Hester Sorrel, and Roger Chillingworth becomes Adam Bede. Eliot focuses on the suffering rather than the justice, because she’s writing a tragedy rather than a journey. When I think of Adam Bede, though, I tend to focus on Dinah Morris’s story, the young woman preacher who marries Adam in the end. She reminds us that Eliot’s previous fiction is the Scenes from Clerical Life. Dinah shows us graphically that a woman can be a prophet, though she is the type of ‘pure’ woman that Hawthorne imagines central to gaining respect for women’s issues. In her own life as mistress to an unhappily married man, Eliot must have had a lot of sympathy for Hester Prynne, more than I could muster for Hettie Sorrel back when I read Adam Bede for the first time. Hester is intelligent and artistic, two qualities I value, but Hettie’s just a pretty face masking a pile of discontent. I never understood what Adam Bede saw in her.

The biggest effect, though, is in the way Hawthorne taught us to think about the Puritans. By all accounts they were never as ugly, joyless, and strict as he represents them. But The Scarlet Letter is more often and less critically read than historical documents, so people assume Hawthorne knew what he was talking about. He was closer to us in time than to his subject. It’s like the whole Jonathan Edwards thing. In school, we read “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and assume that he and all the other Puritans were obsessed with hell and believed in a God of hate, disappointed in our goodness because he longs to throw us into the fire like unwanted spiders. But if you read Edwards’s journals, you find that he was a mostly happy guy who loved nature, God, and the people around him. He was a lot closer to modern evangelicals than people think when they only read the one revival sermon. In fact, we’re so similar that a few years ago someone made a movie of Emma Stone as Hester Prynne in a modern California high school.

Of course, with me being who I am, I see it as a story of two people who fall in love in a society that tells them that they can’t. And despite all of the bullshit, Hester and Arthur really do love each other.

And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.

Such was the sympathy of Nature – that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth – with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!

Love is love. Hester’s marriage to Chillingworth, which even he admits was a mistake, creates some legal troubles, but her love with Arthur is as real and intense as anyone else’s. Hidden, but real. It draws my attention back to my own situation, of being in an affair with a man who is still legally married to his wife. I’ll admit that I don’t completely understand why he lives as he does, especially when I see how little happiness it brings him. I guess Norman Bates is right, that some people get stuck in traps and can’t get out of them. I’m doing my best to motivate him, but he has to get out of this on his own. I can’t do it for him.

I read this book during my transition to a new house in a new town. I’ve been having to take a lot of self-care time these last few weeks, but hopefully I’ll be able to put more time and attention into being a student and less into being a ball of anxiety. Getting my financial aid check will help – food insecurity makes everything else seem unimportant.

Speaking of perceived unimportance, I want to put in a good word for “The Custom House.” A lot of people skip it, but I find it a delight. Hawthorne describes his time working for the government as a customs agent and a few of the incredibly aged people who work there with him. He stresses the importance of paying attention to daily life, which is a skill I don’t always have.

The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

It’s hard to understand what’s important as we’re going through the daily round. When do changes take place inside us? How do our desires and needs change? Why is literature so interested in moments of change rather than moments of stasis? When it comes to life, I’m better at the big picture, the broad strokes. Other people are good at the diurnal continuity. I think that a life well lived needs both; I value the part that I’m good at because I value myself, and people who are good at the everyday stuff should do the same.

I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, like Everyone should read this book, but everyone should really read this book. It’s about justice, forgiveness, and living openly and honestly without fear. We all make mistakes, so it’s important to learn how to restore our sense of ourselves when we’ve violated our internal laws. None of us lives up to our own standards all the time, so we have to forgive ourselves and press forward. It’s a book about how to go on living when you start to hate yourself, as well as how to stop hating yourself once you start. It also stresses the importance of gender equality, and we’re still working on that nearly two hundred years later. The long sentences and advanced vocabulary can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.

The first thing to understand about this book is that D. H. Lawrence had no more credentials in this area than I have, and that his grasp of science is not always firm. I’m not sure if anyone has ever taken this book seriously, except as a window into Lawrence’s theory of people, a making-explicit of the ideas he implies in his novels.

Please. Please, do not read this book as containing absolute scientific fact or good advice about interhuman relationships. In this regard, much of it is shocking and horrible.

So. In 1921, after those horrible experiences he had during World War I, after all the difficulty of finding a publisher for Women in Love, Lawrence writes this little fifty-page book about psychoanalysis, presenting an alternate theory for those who are skeptical of the Oedipus complex. In Lawrence’s construction of the identity, the first center is the solar plexus, where the umbilical cord connects us to our food supply. This is where all those “gut instincts” come from. Our experience of the self at this point is one of unity with our environment. The second center becomes active when the child starts to kick and arch her back, which Lawrence associates with a bundle of nerves called the lumbar ganglion. She is asserting her independence, her separateness from the environment. In some ways these two urges are mirror images of each other – being at one with everything, being one apart from everything. Lawrence also calls these subjective poles, because they deal with how we experience ourselves.

The third center develops in the heart region, the cardiac plexus. The child sees its mother and realizes that she is not the self; the child starts to experience a more objective world where there is more than Me and Not-Me. The Not-Me starts to differentiate; the mother is an object in the world, not the entire world. As with the solar plexus, the cardiac plexus draws the child toward what is outside herself, this time in love. Solar plexus and cardiac plexus are called the sympathetic centers because they draw us into the world around us. There’s also a corresponding thoracic ganglion, a pulling-away where the child sees the world not in terms of love, but in curiosity, an emotionally indifferent state of scientific observation. The two ganglia are the voluntary centers; they pull the identity into the self and establish differences. These four poles constitute the child’s subconscious mind. Ideally, energy should move freely between them, subjective and objective, sympathetic and voluntary. The first book only goes this far, though it does imply that these four are part of a system of seven chakras. The chakra-system gets dropped in the second book; he never even mentions it again.

So. In 1922, people had responded to Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, and the response was mostly negative. Critics found his ideas too esoteric, too little grounded in observed reality. Lawrence replies by writing it all again, expanded, with more explanation. He also occasionally uses language that is far more colloquial than I’ve ever seen him use, before or since. The beginning is with the idea of conception. Yes, we all start off as the union of a sperm and an egg, but he says there’s a third something there as well, which he compares to the Holy Spirit of the Christian trinity. Each of us is more than simply a combination of traits from our parents; there’s a part of our identity that is only us. This bit of uniqueness is what people talk about when they use the word soul. From there he talks about those four poles of the childhood subconscious again.

But none of us stays in childhood forever. If we live long enough, we go through puberty and develop additional poles. The first Lawrence calls the hypogastric plexus, I suppose so that he doesn’t have to call it genital or pubic or anything too obvious. This is the sympathetic center that draws us toward other people in sexual desire. There’s also the sacral ganglion that draws us away; the interplay between these two centers of consciousness explains why sex involves a rhythm of toward and away from the partner. In discussing sex, Lawrence is extremely conservative in this book, with essentialist constructs of gender and heteronormative, misogynistic views of gender roles. Homosexuality and androgyny do not exist in the schema he creates. A man and a woman represent opposite energies that attract like the positive and negative poles of a magnet, and while a man may be attracted to more than one woman, he thinks a woman is only ever attracted to one man. He treats his cultural narrative as biologically predestined.

Puberty also activates upper centers of consciousness in the neck and throat, but those get kind of glossed over. The schema demands symmetry so we get it, even if he doesn’t really have a lot of evidence to support it. This symmetry explains the abandoning of the seven chakra system; Lawrence needs eight points.

And then there’s the head. The head is full of ideas and ideals, which as the source of mechanism, automatism, and industrialization are largely anathema. Lawrence claims that only a few elite people need ideas and ideals, and that society would work better if the mass of humanity were uneducated. For him, children should spend their time learning how to live healthily from their unconscious centers instead of learning how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. He thinks that giving children ideas too soon will overbalance their personalities – the problem with the world of his day is that people live too much in their heads and not enough from all the rest of it.

Speaking of horrifying educational theories, Lawrence encourages domestic violence, as long as the violence is sincere. He thinks a man should beat his wife and children, so long as he is honestly angry. I cannot agree with him. In my experience, this type of violence creates fear and subservience. It’s the most effective way to stunt the psychological growth of the wife and children. The home becomes a place where every choice is made to placate one person at the expense of all the others. As a child, I ended up obsessing over the consequences of my behavior on other people’s emotions, but at the same time I was expected never to let their behavior affect me. If other people were angry, it was my fault, and if I was angry, it was still my fault. It’s taken my entire adult life to embrace the fact that my childhood makes me incredibly angry, and that the problem is with other people and not with me. I’m sure that eventually I will get over it, but right now I’m enjoying the fact that it’s okay to be angry. The fact that it’s okay to forgive will come later.

Lawrence has some thoughts on what creates the Oedipal complex, though he doesn’t call it that, and it does fit into his system. He says that the problem comes from leaving the children too much with adults. Parents have developed that higher form of loving from whatever plexus is associated with the pituitary gland, and so they extend the adult form of love and expect the same in response, when the child isn’t ready for it. We’re not talking about sex here; love in children is generally straightforward, while love in adults is all complicated and mixed up with other feelings. Introducing children to the complexity of adult love prematurely activates the throat plexus, which in turn prematurely activates the genital poles as well. There’s a graphic representation of this in Sons and Lovers, where the mother is disappointed in her husband and sinks all of her love energy into her child, only to have him pull away and start experimenting with girls before marriage. Let kids love as they should, as they are ready to, and things will turn out healthier.

From here, the rubbish gets rubbisher. He has an earth-centric idea of the cosmos; the sun and moon are actually created and sustained by life on earth. Our energy feeds them, and when we die, our energy rises and is absorbed by one or the other. Drifting back to the whole essentialist gender thing, he thinks that men are affected by the sun, so our energies rise from the lower poles to the upper, while women are affected by the moon, so their energies sink from the upper poles to the lower. As such, men need some kind of greater purpose to be real men, while women need to have their physical needs met to be real women. The misogyny gets really intense here. For Lawrence, the act of sex is the ultimate goal of women, because it happens under the moon (I like it during the day too, which must be proof that I’m not female). But for men, pursuing sex as the ultimate good leads to enervation and a waste of life. Men have to work, because that happens under the sun (because no real man works at night). Men have to give their lives to some greater ideal, like Progress or Jesus or Science or Society or Art or Empire or whatever. It’s a tricky thing, keeping the ideal in mind while living from the unconscious as well, maintaining a 51/49 balance between them, working during the day (time of man) and eating and fucking at night (time of woman). I guess it would be easier if days and nights were of equal length.

And, I ask you, what good will psychoanalysis do you in this state of affairs? Introduce an extra sex-motive to excite you for a bit and make you feel how thrillingly immoral things really are. And then – it all goes flat again. Father complex, mother complex, incest dreams: pah, when we’ve had the little excitement out of them we shall forget them as we have forgotten so many other catch-words. And we shall be just where we were before: unless we are worse, with more sex in the head, and more introversion, only more brazen.

Yes, even being an introvert is a problem for Lawrence. He sees it as living too much in the head, ideas having taken the place of physical necessities. Or in other words, he doesn’t really understand what it means to be an introvert. It means that I get my energy from the voluntary centers, from pulling away from others and being alone. Yes, intellectual endeavors are important to me, but that’s not what introversion is really about. I suppose he’d see introversion as feminine, because he sees women’s fulfillment in the isolation of the home. He says that men have to belong to a body of men fighting for a common cause, which sounds like rubbish to me. More specifically, it sounds like a sublimation of homosexual desire; he doesn’t think he wants the man, he wants to be a part of the cause the man is fighting for. There’s nothing wrong with preferring the company of one’s own sex, sexually or otherwise – as long as equal respect is afforded the other genders, such a preference requires no justification. But the idea that extraversion is a requirement for masculinity is stupid. It even seems to contradict his main point, that we should all hold our own souls/selves apart and in peace, which seems like a terribly introverted goal to me.

This book presents an interesting theory of the unconscious and its relation to the body, but that theory is extended to terrible places and misapplied in horrible ways. Misogyny, homophobia, classism, and even anti-Semitism. Lawrence throws shade at Einstein for being Jewish, and the man who can do that has a level of ethnocentric elitism that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Part of me wants to say that Lawrence is a product of his time and place, and that it’s unfair of me to expect him to rise above his cultural milieu. But I’ve seen his characters and read his stories, so another part of me wonders if he really believes all this as much as he says he does. In his fiction, he actually does a good job of demonstrating how destructive these attitudes are toward women, and how undeveloped and unhappy they can be when they’re expected to restrict their attention to the home. But that’s not here. There is so much to resist in the reading of this book, so much that seems contradictory and is offensive. I kind of wonder how Lawrence was doing, whether he wouldn’t like a hug and a cup of tea to give him a more positive view of the world.

As an undergraduate, I found writing feminist literary criticism to be incredibly simple. You begin with the assumption that somewhere in this text, a man is oppressing a woman, and then you look for the evidence to support that fact. There’s always evidence. I think I would have been a better thinker if I had trained myself to examine the text for what’s there before imposing my narrative on it, but I was more concerned with reading than with writing intelligently. I’m not saying that every feminist literary critic did that, but I know that I sure did. Whenever you start with a narrative and then impose it on the world, you really will find evidence to support your narrative. It’s called confirmation bias.

Martin Grotjahn was a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s. Freud applied a narrative to human development, and his followers kept telling the same story over and over again, as if all human beings were the same. Boys (the significant gender) are born and derive nourishment from their mothers. Their fathers intervene at some point and the boys are weaned. This creates hostility between the child and his father and strengthens the boy’s desire for his mother, while at the same time also creating hostility for the mother as well. The mother is simultaneously loved and hated, while the father is merely hated. As the child grows, all desire is merged with the desire for the mother, so when we call someone a mother fucker we’re merely saying that he’s accomplished what we all want to do. In the mind of the growing child, all authority is merged with the father, whether religious, political, or professional. We men rebel against authority in order to kill the father (symbolically) and thus enjoy the satisfaction of our desires, permanent access to our mothers’ breasts. They call this narrative the Oedipal complex, because of that Greek myth where the guy accidentally killed his father and married his mother.

How is this related to humor? I’m glad you asked. As you can tell from their story, we all hate everyone all the time, but we can’t all live in isolated cells, so we mask our hostility in wordplay and veil our insults in wit. Jokes are a disguised form of aggression. We laugh because of the frisson between the hostility and the playful disguise. Sometimes the hostility is itself a mask for attraction (see above for why we hate and love the same person), as in the cases of Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Britta Perry and Jeff Winger. The quality of the disguise determines the quality of the humor.

Grotjahn does acknowledge that this style of wit is masculine in our culture, and that women can joke without hating each other – cross reference that to Deborah Tannen’s comments on gendered forms of workplace communication – but women are different to men. According to the Freudians, men are afraid not only that their fathers are going to make them starve to death, but that their fathers are going to cut their penises and/or testicles off. A girl looks down at herself, sees that she has no penis or testicles, and assumes that the worst thing that could happen to her has already happened, so there’s no use fussing about it. The Freudian woman can thus accept the world as a terrible place where incredible violence is being done to women without complaining. I think that Freud followed this interpretation by shouting, “Bitch, make me a pie!” Seriously? Grotjahn doesn’t see women as rebelling?

I find it unfortunate that our ancestors didn’t think to define ‘man’ as ‘a human being lacking a vagina.’ I don’t have one, but society doesn’t see that lack as anything to be lamented. Why is penis the default? According to Grotjahn, men are seriously envious of women’s ability to bear children. Creativity comes from the uterus, which means that as men we can only embody destructive impulses. As I said, we hate everyone and everything. Men who create art are really only expressing their jealousy that we can’t get pregnant. Grotjahn takes some time here to make sure we understand the difference between art and entertainment: art helps us to deal with our hostilities in a disguised fashion, while entertainment only distracts us from our hostilities. With this simple formula, it should be easy to confront your video collection and divide them into movies that are art and movies that are entertainment. Try it; you’ll see how easy it is.

A complication of the Oedipal narrative is ‘the primal scene,’ meaning that at some point every boy watches his parents having sex. I never did, but that’s probably because I’m not European (we all know that Freud was Austrian, and with a name like Grotjahn, he has to be Dutch). The mother’s cries are interpreted as pain rather than pleasure, so the child believes the mother is being attacked or killed. This is yet another reason not to use the missionary position. The child believes that the father is murdering the mother at night, but then she’s awake and happy in the morning, which is incomprehensible (see Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Every crime, every mystery, every murder is a return to the primal scene. Murder mysteries and westerns are apparently our attempts to understand the fact that fathers fuck mothers, which sort of explains rape culture as well. If little boys see consensual sex and confuse it with rape, then of course they’ll stay confused about the importance of consent unless someone talks to them about it. In the United States, parents seem to have decided that talking about sex with their children is too uncomfortable, so every group of teenagers has to reinvent the wheel, making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes over and over again.

What’s that you say? You know a man whose life and psyche don’t fit this narrative? Well, he’s probably gay. Homosexuality gives the Freudians an out, a reason for data points that don’t conform to their line. Grotjahn says that gay men are helpless in the face of their own perversion, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against. It sounds sort of advanced for the 1950s, but in today’s terms it’s not. This is why I don’t get excited about Pope Francis arguing that discrimination is bad – he still thinks we’re freaks, his church still teaches that we need to stay celibate or burn in hell, he just thinks it’s important to love the hellbound aberrations. For the Freudian, gay men are as incomprehensible as women.

Okay, so how much of this shit do I actually believe? Not a whole lot. I think of children as pre-sexual, so I don’t think infants are having Oedipal fantasies of mother fucking. I can agree that a lot of wit is inspired by hostility, whether directed at the self or others, but I don’t think that’s the only source of humor or enjoyment. If there’s a song that I like, not because it helps me deal with my deep-seated issues but because I like the melody, does that mean it isn’t art? Of course not. Psychology and psychiatry, as professions, have moved beyond Freud. His ideas started the modern form of these professions, but now we also think of Freud as someone with a screwy childhood who became famous by trying to convince women they weren’t being raped by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, or cousins. Freudianism explains male objectification of women, but doesn’t fight against the objectification. It treats objectification as the normal state of things, as if it’s natural to see the penis as the source of all power in the universe.

Obviously I have many problems with Freud’s theories, and Grotjahn’s book reminds me of most of them. For students of Freud, this is a great introduction to his ideas. Grotjahn was writing for a general audience, so the style is very approachable and he seldom uses phrases like ‘penis envy.’ And, he’s analyzing jokes, and humor makes everything better. He does spend a lot of time talking about Jewish jokes, which can seem a little racist – frankly, every minority I know of tells self-deprecatory jokes that highlight society’s injustices toward them, so singling out Jews is a little weird to me. I guess this is the minority community he had the most access to. So, this book is interesting, dated in offensive ways, and not to be read uncritically. For instance, have you considered the fact that the God of the Bible does not laugh, and have you wondered why that is? Might explain why so many conservative Christians have a hard time with humor. After all, people in the Bible who laugh are generally punished for it. Now, measure that statement against your own experience and beliefs. You’re saying that there are people who believe that someone created a duck-billed platypus without laughing during the process?

Platypus mothers have little channels built into their bodies. They lie back and excrete their milk into the channels and the babies lap it up, because you can’t nurse with a duck bill. Tell me, Freud, what do you make of that?

Lately it seems that I’ll do anything other than what will conduce to my mental, physical, or financial health.

So. We’re all familiar with the stereotypes of the Irishman – a drunken idiot more interested in carousing than in learning how to do anything the right way, a ready victim for its more self-controlled neighbors. FitzPatrick’s stories do nothing to change this perception. The constant perpetuation of negative stereotypes really turned me off to her writing. I suppose that without conflict there is no story, but there are ways of being Irish that are healthy and constructive. Any people who have maintained a sense of distinct identity and ethnic pride over thousands of years deserve a little more respect, even if you are one of them.

The other stereotype at play here is one I’ve contended with more directly, the one about how people who are good at school are terrible at everything else. Smart people in these stories go crazy, poison the world, die strange deaths, get raped, and are marginalized by a society that refuses to accept them. So. Let’s talk about what a pain in the ass it is to be smart.

When I was in high school, I had a series of seizures which I believe left me less intelligent than I was before. People remark on my brains now, but back then I was brilliant. It was hard for me to relate to other people because my mind worked so much faster than theirs, and could hold more information in short-term memory. This sort of mind represents power, and adults find power in children to be threatening. I spent my childhood being told that I couldn’t do things when all I really needed was a few more tries to get it right. I got locked into this habit of dropping activities that I didn’t excel at initially because people were so happy with my failures, and I was so ashamed. This is what makes people become supervillains, by the way – the keen sense that humanity rejoices in our pain.

There were times that my intelligence was useful, though – administrators liked the fact that I made their schools look good with very little effort on their part. Or mine either, I suppose. When they’d talk about school statistics, I felt used.

Being smart meant that I was isolated from my peers, who laughed if I got any questions wrong. I don’t mean quiet snickering; I mean, a full-class disruption that lasted for several minutes. I suppose I talk less than most people because I had to be right the first time, or suffer the disproportionate response of my classmates. I just couldn’t communicate on their level. I’m sorry, that sounds elitist; it would be more accurate to say that communication was difficult because I had dramatically different interests and a wider vocabulary. Later on, I would meet people who were equally as intelligent, but it was still hard to talk to them because I didn’t have the social skills they developed by having friends.

My younger sister used to warn her teachers at the beginning of the year not to expect her to be like me, because she wasn’t. She was equally exceptional, but in athletics instead of academics. She has always had a facility for being happy that I have never had, and I’ve been envious for most of my life. If intelligence is supposed to be its own reward, it ought to translate into something more positive than a bullet point on your resume, ten years in the future. When she’d joke at home about these conversations with her teachers, I felt rejected. I was busy being rejected by nearly everyone in my life at the time, so I had more urgent pain to deal with, but looking back on that now, it hurts.

Being a smart kid for me meant being alone, unhappy, and unwanted. And sometimes forgotten. I suppose I can’t blame all of this on intelligence – it probably also has to do with manner. I wasn’t reticent about my intelligence, and maybe people would have been different if I had been more patient and more kind. Then again, maybe being friends with me would have been just too much work, and they had their own stuff to go through. There’s a girl that I went through school with, and we reconnected on facebook a few years ago. But it took me a while to recognize her because she’s so happy now. She grins from ear to ear in every photograph she takes, and I have no memories of her smiling as a child. When I mentioned this, she agreed that none of us had much to be happy about back then. Life was so Faulknerian back then – not cheerful, Cash talks Darl into going to Jackson Faulkner, I mean Quentin Compson getting his head dumped full of incestuous revenge tragedies and going to the watch shop before drowning himself Faulkner. Like Quentin, being smart was just depressing, and adding up the pieces of our lives and synthesizing them leads to adult forms of truth we’re not ready for. Being smart was a bit like a disease, and no one wanted to catch it from me.

I’ve passed it on to my kids, though. When I went to college, I met someone who was also smart and felt as rejected as I did, so of course we got married and reproduced. My children seem happier and more socially adjusted than I was, but that could just be me projecting my desires onto them. My youngest seems to have absorbed my childhood habit of saying things that are true and unpleasant, like the fact that he is less drawn to me than his brothers are because he was still just a baby when we got divorced. The fact that he said it so plainly to me makes me think that some adult said this when they thought he wasn’t listening, and he’s been trying to use this fact to make sense of who he is. I worry sometimes that he doesn’t like me the way the other two do, but that might be related to the fact that he’s right, we don’t connect as easily. But maybe I was hard to connect with at that age too.

It’s like the whole teacher thing. A lot of people think that smart people become teachers, but that’s a load of bollocks. People become teachers because they had positive experiences in school, which is why cheerleaders and football players teach high school and late-blooming misfits teach at colleges and universities. I was really unhappy as a child, so now it’s hard for me to relate to children, even my own. I didn’t have any really close friends until I was eighteen, and that’s about the age of students that I can start connecting with. I do better with adults. Even as a kid, I was more drawn to grown-ups than to people my own age.

So, wrapping up. Society seldom values intelligence unless it’s partnered with common interests and emotional accessibility. FitzPatrick’s book was five dollars at a used shop, but you can buy it new on Amazon for only $4.50. There are some funny moments, but I found the cumulative effect depressing, which is sort of to be expected from a self-consciously literary book from the 1990s. Unhealthy stereotypes of Irish people and intelligent people, and putting them together you get characters who are just not suited to the real world.

When I try to remember the house where we lived when I was young, the thing I remember most clearly is a picture of a dog with enormous eyes that was hanging high up in the living room. Not big anime eyes, big 1970s eyes, the kind when someone wants to draw a picture of a sad dog that is going to make everyone who sees it just as sad because the dog watches them with a forlornness and a desperation that they can never comfort or heal. The picture always made me feel very small and afraid. But after we moved when I was twelve, I never saw it again. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken to any of my family about it; by now, I’m not even sure if the picture really existed or if I’m superimposing this image of a depressing decoration on my depressing childhood. I’m kind of afraid to bring it up; I’d prefer not to be told I hallucinated the whole thing.

Stephen King’s short stories are what you would expect from reading his novels or watching his films. They’re him in miniature, a workshop where he can see how ideas play out. I’m interested in the number of first-person narrators he uses; like Pamela or Dracula, these stories are interested in their own production; it’s not enough to tell the story, he also has to tell how the story is told. There must be eyewitnesses telling their account.

It’s a great relief to write this down.

And as a writer, sometimes that’s true. But it’s not always a great relief to read what’s been written.

It is not surprising to me that Stephen King originally published some of his stories in the more literary pornographic magazines. I’m not saying that they’re trashy (some porn is actually well-filmed; I like it when the director pays attention to the way light reflects on skin. Light is beautiful); horror and pornography share a common ideology: There are opportunities for the fantastic all around us that most people don’t notice or take advantage of. In pornography, those opportunities are for pleasure; in King’s novels, those opportunities are for terror. But I appreciate the reminder that there are opportunities for a life that is bigger and stranger than the one I habitually lead.

Speaking of the overlap of horror and daily life, King takes a few minutes to explain why people enjoy the stories he writes:

I remembered talking with a writer friend who lived in Otisfield and supported his wife and two kids by raising chickens and turning out one paperback original a year – spy stories. We had gotten talking about the bulge in popularity of books concerning themselves with the supernatural. Gault pointed out that in the forties Weird Tales had only been able to pay a pittance, and that in the fifties it went broke. When the machines fail, he had said (while his wife candled eggs and roosters crowed querulously outside), when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.

Real life has quite a lot of horror in it already. Look at 2016. Artists who make us happy die by the truckload, while the least electable candidates are fighting for an election that a great many Americans just don’t want any part of. A workmate and I were talking about politics, and we agreed that while neither of us likes either of the mainstream candidates, I’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Trump and she’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Hillary. So when you’ve got this going on, a tiger in the kindergarten bathrooms seems familiar and reminds us that things must not be too bad if they could get this much worse.

In King’s stories, and I suspect in his mind, regular society is a pretty awful place.

The third thing that struck me was The Eye. You know about The Eye once you let your hair get down below the lobes of your ears. Right then people know you don’t belong to the Lions, Elks, or the VFW. You know about The Eye, but you never get used to it.

People are pointlessly cruel to each other, and I don’t comprehend it. For example, he tells the story of a 350-pound woman getting married. People laugh at her all the time, as if an obese woman is somehow amusing. I used to be friends with a woman who weighed more than this, but no one ever laughed at her. She always looked nice; the type of girl who never goes out without makeup and seldom wears an outfit twice. And in small-town North Carolina, she was always completely accepted. She even had a pretty busy love life. The United States today is pretty evenly divided into three groups these days: regular weight, overweight, and obese. That wasn’t the case forty years ago. People in the story are also pretty weird about race, which is more obvious to me. That was a struggle I have always been well aware of. This week, I was sitting in the university library and some kid started making Harry Potter jokes in my direction, and I kind of wanted to beat his ass and say, “Harry Potter didn’t wear a bowtie, mother fucker!” but then I remembered that all white people look alike, so he probably couldn’t tell the difference between me and Daniel Radcliffe.

I will say that Stephen King seems to honor and respect women, even though his genre isn’t known for that. For example, here’s a female character explaining the gender divide:

But in her heart what every woman wants to be is some kind of goddess, I think – men pick up a ruined echo of that thought and try to put them on pedestals (a woman, who will pee down her own leg if she does not squat! It’s funny when you stop to think of it) – but what a man senses is not what a woman wants. A woman wants to be in the clear, is all. To stand if she will, or walk . . .’ Her eyes turned toward that little go-devil in the driveway, and narrowed. Then she smiled. ‘Or to drive, Homer. A man will not see that. He thinks a goddess wants to loll on a slope somewhere on the foothills of Olympus and eat fruit, but there is no god or goddess in that. All a woman wants is what a man wants – a woman wants to drive.’

People are people, and are happier when they are treated primarily as a person. Gender is an attribute, it’s often the first one other people notice, but it’s not the most helpful in determining someone’s personality, goals, or desires. One of my sisters wanted to become an astronaut, and the other was a gifted athlete. The astronaut dream didn’t play out, but she’s now studying neurophysics, and the track star trained as a police officer. Either of them would be more handy in a fistfight than I would be, and they’re both more conservative politically. The science genius and I once talked about political labels as working more in a circle – extreme left and extreme right can actually be pretty similar if you let go of the party names. Which is why we get on so well.

That sense of doom had hung about the boy so palpably that there had been times when Richard had wanted to hug him, to tell him to lighten up a little bit, that sometimes there were happy endings and the good didn’t always die young.

The one thing that I differ from Stephen King the most on is the idea of a happy ending. I think that happy endings are much more useful than tragic ones, because I believe so strongly in integrating all elements of a society. People die in real life because they get sick or are in accidents. In real life death is random and unfair and doesn’t make sense. In fiction, people die because at some level the author believes they deserve to. Victims are in some ways as guilty as the murderers; it’s not random, it’s not an accident. The author kills them because he can’t fit them into the reintegrated world at the end of the story. So I think that horror authors must have a lot of people they’d like to kill (or parts of themselves they’d like to kill) because that’s what their imaginations enact when they sit down at the typewriter. In this collection, there are twenty stories and two poems. Happy endings, where I felt good about the story I’d just finished? Three. “Word Processor of the Gods,” which fits my own sense of justice. “Mrs Todd’s Shortcut,” where like-minded people end up together and live in a natural world of speed and divinity. And “The Reach,” where death comes as a big reunion where you sing with all your friends. Saying that the story that is most explicitly about a woman dying has a happy ending may seem odd, but I believe that death can be kind, especially when it comes to the old as a reunion with the lovers and friends they’ve missed.

So if I have such a hard time with tragedies, why do I read horror stories? Fear is familiar to me, as I’ve mentioned. But, aside from his troubles with humanity in general, Stephen King writes for someone that he loves, so when I read his prefaces and consider myself the Constant Reader, I feel that he loves me.

Grab onto my arm, now. Hold tight. We are going into a number of dark places, but I think I know the way. Just don’t let go of my arm. And if I should kiss you in the dark, it’s no big deal; it’s only because you are my love.

The language is often gruesome, but it’s also beautiful. He knows how to catch the light reflecting on skin. The skin more often covers a body that is dying horribly than on one that is fucking mechanically, but beauty is beauty, and it can be found everywhere. Find the awe, the wonderment. The opportunity is there, always. Daily life doesn’t have to be mundane. It can be ecstatic, or horrifying, or peaceful, or whatever you like. So make it what you like.

 

Sometimes there are books we meet unexpectedly, which we read though we never planned to or even wanted to. This week I’ve been substituting in a class reading this book, and I’d never even opened it. I’ve heard of it for years, of course, but somehow I never felt any internal motivation to go read it. Even at the height of my interest in Toni Morrison, I didn’t read Cisneros. And Morrison is a good comparison.

Cisneros’s book is a little circular, with short little chapters, many of four paragraphs or less. The first chapter is strongly echoed in the last, too. Characters keep coming back and back. She presents us with a community, and it can be easy to lose the threads since people can disappear for fifty pages in a book that’s only about 110 pages long. Angel Vargas is only briefly mentioned twice, poor boy, with no other connection between those two sections of the book. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and I dozed for twenty or thirty minutes in the middle.

Several of the reviewers remarked on the humor of the book, but I must confess I missed that part. There are jokes that bite, and I feel the teeth but miss the laugh. Having grown up poor, I don’t find jokes about poverty funny. Having a conscience, I don’t find jokes about the trials of women in a patriarchal society funny. I found the book to be absolutely fucking depressing. Women are raped, imprisoned, and married as children. The only protection is to hide in childhood for as long as possible, though that’s no guarantee. Rafaela may be compared to Rapunzel, locked in a tower, but no prince is going to rescue her.

The narrator is a girl named Esperanza, which usually translates to Hope, but also contains the ideas of expectation, waiting, and longing. It’s not a happy name, and she thinks it’s too long and full of consonants. She’s trying to navigate the odd world of preteen girls, where she’s perceived as a child right up until the time she puts on high heels, when she is suddenly treated to the lust-filled stares and catcalls that adult women have to put up with all the time. She and her friends “are tired of being beautiful” and get rid of the shoes. The cultural idea is that if a girl is old enough to be interested in men, she’s old enough to be married to one. So Esperanza hangs onto her girlishness so that she can be single long enough to finish junior high. People tell her to get an education, to get out of their insular community, and she is determined to hold onto her power.

Women do not have power in this book. They are controlled by their fathers until they get married, when they’re controlled by their husbands. Too afraid to leave the apartment, or just locked in. There’s a brief interval when they’re brave enough to defy their fathers’ rule before they marry, and that is the only time that a woman is free to do what she likes.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.

The book did show me how great life is outside of Christian education. We came to a section where Esperanza goes to visit an oddly normal fortune-teller, and I pulled my tarot cards out of my bag (like the poor, they’re with me always), and since the students were interested, we had tarot readings all round. I expected the quiet Afghan boy to refuse, but he went along with it. He seemed a little uncomfortable with how accurate the reading was, and he’s not the first person to feel that my reading was closer to the truth than is strictly necessary. As I tell people, there’s no magic in it, the querent provides the interpretation, but still. Take a concept like Temperance or Balance and tell people it’s important to them, and of course you’ll be right because those concepts are important in every life. Anyway, the students were cool with it, I told the story to the supervisor and she thought it was great – secular academics make me feel good about myself because they don’t criticize me for being gay or interested in alternative spiritualities.

Women are not safe. In one section, Cisneros doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure Esperanza gets raped at a carnival. She goes with a friend, and the friend ditches her, and there’s a white man who starts talking about how pretty she is, and suddenly she’s talking about how people have lied to her about how great The Unnamed It is. In that context, she’s right. Sex can be beautiful and special and fun and wonderful, but it can also be terrifying and invasive and traumatizing. It can be the best or the worst thing that ever happened to someone. Or neither, it’s possible to have completely mediocre sexual experiences. But either way, why would someone teach a book with such an upsetting section to children? The first time I read the Red Clowns part I got so agitated that I felt physically ill. And then I had to teach it; I didn’t realize how emotional I get on the topic of rape. But I made it through, and the students were respectful, so our experience could have been much worse. I don’t know how Esperanza’s could have been. Some women have said that they’d rather have been killed, and some kill themselves to get away from the memory. Rape is an awful, evil thing. No one chooses it, and no one should have to experience it.

I suppose I should say something about the fact that this is a Latina community. But honestly, gender seems significantly more important than ethnicity in determining the lives of the characters. And poverty is poverty, no matter what your skin color is. I don’t belong to a recently immigrated community, but I know that my first name refers to a geographical term, a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. I’ve even seen some on maps. Names having meaning is not specific to Spanish speakers. Religion as a tool of social control is not specific to Catholicism. Their community is insular, but she doesn’t present the uniquenesses of being Latina. Being a woman who’s poor is description enough, I guess.

As mentioned, I didn’t go looking for this book. I read it as a duty, so that I could do my job to the best of my ability. I found it horridly depressing, but I think it’s going to stay with me. The starkness of the writing lends a magical realism effect when she uses metaphors, but . . .

No wonder everybody gave up. Just stopped looking out when little Efren chipped his buck tooth on a parking meter and didn’t even stop Refugia from getting her head stuck between two slats in the back gate and nobody even looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an “Oh.”

What a sad little book.

This should hardly be a surprise; Hesse generally writes sad little books, and this one came out before he got into psychoanalysis. But even here, in his comparative youth, Hesse is one of the writers who can most clearly articulate the experience of depression, and while it can evoke painful memories for me, there is a reward greater than the pain: the knowledge that I am not alone in my suffering.

“Do you think so?”

“Yes. You are suffering from a sickness, one that is fashionable, unfortunately, and that one comes across every day among sensitive people. It is related to moral insanity and can also be called individualism or imaginary loneliness. Modern books are full of it. It has insinuated itself into your imagination; you are isolated; no one troubles about you and no one understands you. Am I right?”

“Almost,” I admitted with surprise.

“Listen. Those who suffer from this illness need only a couple of disappointments to make them believe that there is no link between them and other people, that all people go about in a state of complete loneliness, that they never really understand each other, share anything or have anything in common. It also happens that people who suffer from this sickness become arrogant and regard all other healthy people who can understand and love each other as flocks of sheep. If this sickness were general, the human race would die out, but it is only found among the upper classes in Central Europe. It can be cured in young people and it is, indeed, part of the inevitable period of development.”

I don’t believe everything about depression that Mr Lohe says here, and I don’t think Hesse does either. First, there is nothing imaginary about feeling lonely. The people I love live hundreds of miles away, and the best friend I’ve made here is a student who is graduating in a week. He’s going to school in the Pacific Northwest next year, so I may never see him again. This thought makes me sad. Second, depression would not stop the entire human race. Depressed people are capable of having sex, and many try to use that to treat their depression. And even without that, we don’t all kill ourselves. Thirdly, what do you mean, it’s confined to rich Europeans? Have you ever met someone outside the upper classes of Central Europe? We’re all the same; human nature is a constant, and the same types of personality exist in all strata and in all places.

In other ways, of course, Mr Lohe is completely right. Our society values the mental habit of finding patterns and formulating general theories from a few pieces of evidence. This is what is measured on IQ tests, and I do it well, so people think I’m smart. But people with this habit, people with high IQs who are considered intelligent, will draw huge overarching conclusions about the entire world based on the flimsiest evidence. This is where stereotypes come from. When I was young I thought the world was cold and indifferent because I could not mix with the people around me; now, I think that the people in the town I grew up in are weird and that I was suffering from my family situation without acknowledging the suffering or its cause, which kept me from interacting well with people. I think that my current living situation is temporary, but I still have to fight against the temptation to believe that I will always be alone and that while I may move from one place to another, nothing important will ever change.

When music stirred my being, I understood everything without the aid of words. I was then aware of pure harmony in the essence of life and felt that there must be a meaning and a just law behind everything that happened. Even if this was an illusion, it helped me to live and was a comfort to me.

This week I’ve been grateful for a key to the practice rooms at school. I’ve found it useful to have a language without words; I’m playing Mozart on the piano again. [I wish I still had my Debussy music.] Sunday was Mothers’ Day, and I had been planning to be a good and dutiful son, but when the day arrived I just couldn’t. I went to church as usual, but all I wanted to do was run away and scream. The reverend had a word or two to say to me after the service, and he had to hold me in place to keep me from running. [I crocheted him a blanket for a housewarming gift and he wanted to thank me; it wasn’t anything threatening.] I did scream some in the car later. After church I get a latte and use the free internet to check facebook and wordpress, and my friends were all grateful about their mothers and posting happy pictures – I honored the day by posting Joan Jett singing “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” So I’ve pinpointed my mom as some source of past trauma and present stress, but I don’t know how to deal with it. The music helps, but it doesn’t heal.

I soon realized that these teachings could only be of solace and value to those who could accept them literally, and sincerely believe them to be true. If, as it seemed to me, they were partly beautiful literature, partly intricate symbols, an attempt at a mythological explanation of the world, one could be instructed by them and hold them in esteem, but one could not learn how to live and gain strength from them. One could perhaps be a worthy and religious theosophist, but the final solace beckoned only to those who accepted simple beliefs without too much questioning. In the meantime, it was not for me.

Religion is not the answer. I convinced myself for a long time that it could solve my troubles, but for all my heroic efforts, I just can’t believe in it. I don’t think that stories have to be literally true in order to be powerful, but the Hebrew mythology is not as useful for me as it once was. I just can’t accept things without interrogating them. No idea really stands up under a steady stream of questions. I think this is part of my attraction to academia; it’s a subculture that doesn’t expect (or fully value) definitive answers. Only the questions matter; answers are necessarily provisional and incomplete, so life is about learning to ask the right questions. I can accept that, though I can’t often come up with the right questions on my own. I have a strong value for and feel a profound connection with those friends who ask me good questions.

Anyway, the book. Our first-person narrator/protagonist is a crippled composer whose ideal woman (Gertrude) falls for his best friend, a depressed but talented singer who drinks too much and beats his girlfriends. There’s another girl who loves him but whom he does not love in return. So for all his teacher’s comments on how wrongly people with depression view the world, in Hesse’s world everyone falls in love with the wrong person, and some of them die.

I think one can draw quite a distinct division between youth and maturity. Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others. That is what I mean. Young people have many pleasures and many sorrows, because they have only themselves to think of, so every wish and every notion assumes importance; every pleasure is tasted to the full but also every sorrow, and many who find that their wishes cannot be fulfilled, put an end immediately to their lives. That is being young. To most people, however, there comes a time when the situation changes, when they live more for others, not for any virtuous reasons, but quite naturally. A family is the reason with most people. One thinks less about oneself and one’s wishes when one has a family. Others lose their egotism in a responsible position, in politics, in art or in science. Young people want to play; mature people want to work. A man does not marry just to have children, but if he has them they change him, and finally he sees that everything has happened just for them. That links up with the fact that young people like to talk about death but do not really think about it. It is just the other way round with old people. Life seems long to young people and they can therefore concentrate all their wishes and thoughts on themselves. Old people are conscious of an approaching end, and that everything one has and does solely for oneself finally falls short and lacks value. Therefore a man requires a different kind of continuity and faith; he does not work just for the worms. That is why one has a wife and children, business and responsibility, so that one knows for whom one endures the daily toil. In that respect your friend is quite right, a man is happier when he lives for others than when he lives just for himself, but old people should not make it out to be such an act of heroism, because it isn’t one really. In any case, the most lively young people become the best old people, not those who pretend to be as wise as grandfathers while they are still at school.

I find much of this to be true. Having children and family can give a meaning to an otherwise purposeless existence; the trick is to find the right people to devote one’s life to. Kuhn latches onto his mother (his father dies shortly after giving this speech), even though they’ve never understood or even liked each other. At first it’s a bad situation, but it gets better with time. They learn to respect each other, and perhaps love too. I spent eight years living for my wife and children, and it just made things worse in the end. She didn’t respect my work (reading Wuthering Heights is not playing when you’re taking a degree in British literature), and in the end she didn’t trust or value me for myself. I was useful to her when I could be controlled, but I hate feeling controlled. She encouraged me to examine my emotions critically, but when I did the result was not complimentary to her. My children are as independently minded as I am, so it was hard to base my emotional life in them because children don’t reciprocate well. They’re excessively pragmatic, in a short-sighted way. But at least their machinations and motivations are obvious. I love my sons and miss them horribly, but I’m so glad to be away from their mother that it’s not often apparent.

So, it’s a book about famous people and the reality of being around them:

Gradually the walk in the night cooled me down, and although my own wound was still open and needed healing, I was induced to think more and more about what Marian had said and about my stupid behavior that evening. I felt that I was a miserable creature who really owed an apology. Now that the courage the wine had given me had worn off, I was seized by an unpleasantly sentimental mood against which I fought. I did not say much more to the pretty woman, who now seemed agitated and moody herself as she walked beside me along the dark streets where, here and there, the light of a lamp was suddenly reflected on the dark surface of the wet ground. It occurred to me that I had left my violin in Muoth’s house; in the meantime I was again filled with astonishment and alarm at everything. The evening had turned out to be so different from what I had anticipated. Heinrich Muoth and Kranzl the violinist, and also the radiant Marian, who played the role of queen, had all climbed down from their pedestals. They were not gods or saints who dwelt on Olympian heights, but mere mortals; one was small and droll, another was oppressed and conceited, Muoth was wretched and self-tormented, the charming woman was pathetic and miserable as the lady friend of a restless sensualist who knew no joy, and yet she was good and kind and acquainted with suffering. I, myself, felt changed. I was no longer a single person but a part of all people, seeing good and bad in all. I felt I could not love a person here and hate another person there. I was ashamed of my lack of understanding and saw clearly for the first time in my young life that one could not go through life and among people so simply, hating one person and loving another, respecting one person and despising another, but all these emotions were closely tied up, scarcely separable and at times scarcely distinguishable. I looked at the woman walking by my side who was now also silent as if she too realized that the nature of many things was different from what she had thought and said.

And about the nature of creative work:

Then my work appeared before me, so familiar and yet so alien, which no longer needed me and had a life of its own. The pleasures and troubles of past days, the hopes and sleepless nights, the passion and longing of that period confronted me, detached and transformed. Emotions experienced in secret were transmitted clearly and movingly to a thousand unknown people in the theatre. Muoth appeared and began singing with some reserve. Then his voice grew stronger; he let himself go and sang in his deeply passionate manner; the soprano responded in a high, sweet voice. Then came the part which I could so well remember hearing Gertrude sing, which expressed my admiration for her and was a quiet confession of my love. I averted my glance and looked into her bright eyes, which acknowledged me and greeted me warmly, and for a moment the memory of my whole youth was like the sweet fragrance of a ripe fruit.

But the depression covers it all.

If you’re not comfortable with reading about depression, stay away from Hermann Hesse. If you’re suffering from it, he can help you feel like someone understands, even if it’s a German who’s been dead for fifty years. I think that the solutions Hesse finds later in his career are more helpful: think Steppenwolf, for example. It’s a good book – Hesse writes beautifully, and his translators do too – but sad. I should go look for something cheerful to read next.

I know, I know. I just finished one of the masterpieces of the (Middle) English language, and now I’m back to reading zombie books. A feminist zombie book about complex identity issues, but it’s still a zombie book.

Misgivings are crowding in on her. She’s in uncharted territory, and she fears the blank, inscrutable future into which she’s being rushed before she’s ready. She wants her future to be like her past, but knows it won’t be. The knowledge sits like a stone in her stomach.

Melanie is a nice little girl in a prison school. Initially the book is about her and told primarily from her perspective, but as we shift into the middle of the book, things become a little more balanced. Sergeant Parks is in charge of security; he has a red-headed teenaged underling named Private Gallagher. Melanie’s teacher is a developmental psychologist named Miss Justineau, and the real authority at the base is a scientist, Dr Caroline Caldwell.

If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children – which at some times and in some places it has been – she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road.

Because what are the ethics of a zombie apocalypse?

Back in the days of I Walked With a Zombie, the deficiently dead were a product of racial stereotypes and misogyny; this made them fairly easy to contain and defeat. Now, during the time of World War Z, they’re a product of natural phenomena, and science cannot be stopped. Now the zedheads take over the entire world.

In this version of zombies, it’s not a virus – it’s a fungus. It’s based on fungi that really do exist in nature – they infect an insect, eat out its inside and take over its motor control, then drive it to high ground so the fungus can erupt out of the bug and cast its spores to the wind. It’s horrible. These zombies either stand still or run, none of the shambling exploration of AMC’s zombies, who give the human characters time to argue for four episodes before taking any action at all (dullest horror series ever).

When dealing with a new world, authors tend to take a Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis approach: think about Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or The Hunger Games. Carey’s Thesis is inside the base, which is part prison, part school, and part scientific research facility, where Dr Caldwell cuts up children’s brains. Melanie becomes the star pupil and develops a mommy-substitute crush on Miss Justineau, which is all fairly normal. But as the star pupil, Melanie is also Dr Caldwell’s prize specimen, so she needs some protecting.

Some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl “I’m here for you”, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment.

And Miss Justineau is the one to do it.

I’ve often wondered what the lives of British black people are like. I mean, the English don’t have Americans’ squeamishness about interracial dating, which makes it seem like race is less of an issue, but at the same time the English are known for being sort of xenophobic. They think of Europe as another place because they’re insulated on their little island; they fought a Hundred Years’ War with the white people on the other side of the Channel, and then they kept fighting them over and over again. That seems to have stopped since the two World Wars, when they banded together against another, different group of white people. How do black people fit into all this? They were kept as slaves in the British Empire, but unlike Americans, slavery was kept distant from most British subjects. They didn’t bring it home; it was an unfortunate occurrence that happened Out There, in the Colonies. I know that some immigrant communities remain isolated because they’re never quite accepted as being British. Is race an important thing to British blacks? Do they have a separate subculture? [I don’t understand why we’ve taken to calling them “urban” in America. I grew up in a tiny hicktown in the South with more blacks than whites, so there are plenty of rural blacks, and cities still have tons of white people.]

All of that to say, I don’t know why Carey chose to make Miss Justineau black, but it feel purposeful, as if someone who has been oppressed would automatically feel the need to protect other marginalized people, and dark-skinned femininity is shorthand for victim of oppression.

At the end of Act One, the zombies overrun the base and the group comes together and escapes. They travel across the post-apocalyptic countryside, idyllic as England would become if you killed all the humans and left nature alone for twenty years. It would be really lovely if there weren’t zombies lurking out there.

Melanie builds the world around her as she goes.

This is mostly countryside, with fields on all sides. Rectangular fields, mostly, or at least with roughly squared-off edges. But they’re overgrown with weeds to the grown-ups’ shoulder height, whatever crops they were once planted with swallowed up long ago. Where the fields meet the road, there are ragged hedges or crumbling walls, and the surface they’re walking on is a faded black carpet pitted with holes, some of them big enough for her to fall into.

A landscape of decay – but still gloriously and heart-stoppingly beautiful. The sky overhead is a bright blue bowl of almost infinite size, given depth by a massive bank of pure white cloud at the limit of vision that goes up and up and up like a tower. Birds and insects are everywhere, some of them familiar to her now from the field where they stopped that morning. The sun warms her skin, pouring energy down on to the world out of that upturned bowl – it makes flowers grow on the land, Melanie knows, and algae in the sea; starts food chains all over the place.

A million smells freight the complicated air.

The few houses they see are far off, but even at this distance Melanie observes the signs of ruin. Windows broken, or boarded up. Doors hanging off their hinges. One big farmhouse has its roof all fallen in, the spine of the roof making a perfect downward-pointing parabola.

She remembers Mr Whitaker’s lesson, which feels like a very long time ago now. The population of Birmingham is zero . . . This world she’s seeing was built by people, to meet their needs, but it’s not meeting their needs any more. It’s all changed. And it’s changed because they’ve retreated from it. They’ve left it to the hungries.

Melanie realises now that she’s been told all this already. She just ignored it, ignored the self-evident logic of her world, and believed – out of the many conflicting stories she was given – only the parts she wanted to believe.

Despite Gallagher’s abused childhood, I find Melanie the easiest to relate to. Her experience of the world seems most similar to mine; she’s a person who thinks a lot, has been told a lot from radically different sources, and now that she’s been thrust into the real world, she has to make sense of it. Which is hard, because it’s never quite what she imagines it to be. It’s more beautiful, more complicated, and more threatening. But mostly more beautiful.

Zombie movies seem to play on a fear most of us experience: that we’ve become slaves to routine, that we are in fact dead already. [Shaun of the Dead expresses this particularly well in the opening bit, I think.] Zombies are a teenager’s vague fear and a thirty-something’s nightmare; we’re locked into a routine that we can’t escape from, and we need something drastic to shake things up. Routines are comfortable; we wander into adulthood feeling inadequate, so we build a life of things we can do, that make us feel safe and competent and normal.

The houses all seem the same to Gallagher. Dark. Musty-smelling with squishy carpets underfoot, mouldering curtains and sprays of black mildew up interior walls. Cluttered up with millions of things that don’t do anything except get in your way and almost trip you over. It’s like before the Breakdown people used to spend their whole lives making cocoons for themselves out of furniture and ornaments and books and toys and pictures and any kind of shit they could find. As though they hoped they’d be born out of the cocoon as something else.

But there’s so little change that the life gets sucked out of our lives, and for some reason I’m thinking of Joe vs the Volcano, which doesn’t have any zombies in it. Consumption makes us feel big and important and worthwhile, but it doesn’t satisfy. Consumerism takes the place of nourishment, and we come to be defined by our lack, the void we’re trying to fill but just can’t because our culture only gives us a choice between praying and buying shit, and for some of us neither is effective. Sometimes there’s a happy ending; sometimes there isn’t. I like it when characters can find a new sort of normal, a life that has both comfort and meaning. Typically this has to do with love, as in Warm Bodies where love heals zombies and turns them back into people. That’s not quite Carey’s response, but the books still ends well.

Growing up and growing old. Playing. Exploring. Like Pooh and Piglet. And then like the Famous Five. And then like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables. And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both.

But you have to open it to find that out.

The title of the book is a reference to Pandora, and that idea is important to the book. But it’s not just the world that Melanie opens to find hope amid the evils; it’s also herself. She’s at a prison school because she’s a zombie child. She doesn’t know that at first – she has to realize it and figure out what that means for her life. She has to face and accept her identity as something different from those around her, possibly dangerous to the one person she loves most. Some of the children can still think and act without the external stimuli necessary to move an adult zombie; some of the adult zombies carry on some normal activity as their brains fight back against the fungus, but nothing like the children, who can be completely normal right up until they smell a human being, a food source.

Something opens inside her, like a mouth opening wider and wider and wider and screaming all the time – not from fear, but from need. Melanie thinks she has a word for it now, although it still isn’t anything she’s felt before. It’s hunger. When the children eat, hunger doesn’t factor into it. The grubs are poured into your bowl, and you shovel them into your mouth. But in stories that she’s heard, it’s different. The people in the stories want and need to eat, and then when they do eat they feel themselves fill up with something. It gives them a satisfaction nothing else can give them. Melanie thinks of a song the children learned and sang one time: You’re my bread when I’m hungry. Hunger is bending Melanie’s spine like Achilles bending his bow. And Miss Justineau will be her bread.

And this is a more specific fear that comes on teachers and parents: that eventually the little maggots will consume us completely. They will demand and we will give until there is literally nothing left, just a bone husk as the miniature undead rip our flesh out with their teeth, devouring our essential bits and leaving the shell. I’ve got some students who talk and talk and talk nonstop (in Chinese), and I can feel their indifference sucking my life and willpower. My existence is draining away, a little every day. Teaching students who want to learn is invigorating and exciting; teaching students who don’t feels like dying slowly, consumptive and consumed, unnoticed and alone. In some ways I envy Miss Justineau; her children all pay attention and learn, like a bunch of little zombie geniuses. I could be okay with that.

I know, most of you who talk to me here are not really interested in zombies, but it’s a metaphor. And this is a really good and interesting book, regardless of the vehicle.