Posts Tagged ‘cold war’

A few weeks ago, a very dear friend asked me my opinion of this book – apparently it’s the new big thing among certain gay communities. I must say, since it was copyrighted last year, this is one of the most recent books I’ve ever read in my life. I usually catch the cultural moment ten, fifteen, thirty, sometimes fifty or a hundred years late. Sometimes more.

My first impulse is to talk about the negatives, but that’s because he’s writing about things that are very similar to my experience, but expressed differently than I would, and not exactly my experience. It felt like he was trying to write my story but getting it wrong, as if he were making a collage of my life but mixing it in with stereotypes I don’t fit. I think this is what Rider Haggard must have felt when he read Treasure Island, only I’m not actually planning on writing a response.

I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

This is one of the places where I diverge from him, because even though a good bit of my life has been dominated by inhibition and missed chances (as I think is inevitable when you wait until you’ve passed thirty to admit to yourself that you’re married to someone of the wrong gender), I have not lived my life beneath the pitch of poetry. I have always felt things deeply, and though my life has not always been what I want, my inner life has always been quite intense, and that is where poetry comes from. I don’t share the full force of my emotions with many people, and when I have done over an extended period of time, those people have asked me to please stop. I’m too much, which would make poetry the perfect outlet for me if I took the time for it more often.

Stylistically, all you really need to know is that Greenwell attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It wouldn’t be fair to say that they all speak with the same voice, but they definitely all have the same accent. It’s the type of writing that wins the National Book Award, the highly self-conscious writing of Americans who write Literature (capital L) after around the 1990s. His sentences just keep going on and on. I wanted to break some of them into smaller sentences (comma splices are okay in the UK, but not here), but others I just wanted to cut off the ends because they were unnecessary, the meanings of those last clauses already understood. As I was thinking about why he would keep these obvious redundancies, I thought about what they contribute, and I realized that they were pointing out things that Protagonist doesn’t know, often with the implication that he can’t know, or that he can’t be bothered to find out. Or, you know, since this is supposedly fiction, the author could just make something up. There’s an air of ignorance and apathy that I had a hard time with, considering that this is a love story.

Thematically, all you really need to know is that this is a gay love story, and in our current cultural climate, that means there are three options: pornography, unrealistic stereotypes played for overdone comedy, and Greenwell’s choice, utter tragedy involving isolation and alienation. Seriously, gay writers and filmmakers have got to be the most depressing people in the world. What we need is our own version of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a story of how great it is to be us that doesn’t hide from the times it’s not, where we see someone really learn to love himself and claim his identity as something positive and peaceful rather than defiant and in opposition. Protagonist is an English teacher from Kentucky living in Bulgaria, and I guess he likes it even though he says some unkind things about the cityscape. He doesn’t like the Soviet architecture, but he seems to get on okay with the native stuff that survived World War II and the Cold War. The fact that he’s an English teacher doesn’t impact the story much because we don’t see him in class, but his narration shows that he loves languages and words, and the phrases he says in Bulgarian sound similar enough to the Russian that I remember to pique my interest.

Okay, plot. Mitko is a hustler in Sofia, and First-Person Narrating Protagonist hooks up with him a few times. They start to feel something real for each other, but FPN sort of freaks out and breaks it off. Then, a couple of years later, Mitko shows back up to tell him that he may have given FPN syphilis, and yup, sure enough, he did. The American teacher has enough income to pay for treatment, but the Bulgarian street kid does not, so he ends up most probably dying from it. It’s as simple as La Traviata, but as in that quote up above, he overthinks everything as a way of keeping his emotions in check, so he doesn’t get operatic. He feels this overwhelming attraction for this guy that he doesn’t even seem to like much, but he doesn’t dig into that. He treats his own emotions as something alien to him, along with everything else because he’s living in a foreign country. To some degree, he’s hiding from his anger so that it doesn’t overwhelm him – he’s bought into the lie that he’s monstrous, only capable of hurting the people around him. We see this most strongly when he has syphilis; one of the common themes of the gay tragedy archetype is that our love is paired with disease, as if being gay is inherently unhealthy. Well, his anger isn’t a disease, it’s a response to being rejected by his parents because he’s gay, and to having a pretty shitty dad. In the course of this book, he doesn’t unpack the injustice of his life; he just pushes it down and tries not to deal with his family. Moving to eastern Europe is a convenient way of hiding from his feelings.

Some of the similarities to my life are obvious, as in the whole ESL teacher thing. I came out of the closet and moved to Saudi Arabia, which isn’t that far from Bulgaria. I didn’t go looking for hookups, though, because having gay sex is punishable by beheading there. I know most gay Saudis don’t get their heads chopped off, but we’re all products of our culture, and I didn’t want to get involved with someone who thought what we would be doing was evil or shameful. I cannot deal with that kind of secrecy. I’m just not discreet enough.

I did hook up with a guy I met in Europe, though, and there were some similarities to Mitko. He expected me to be rich, not understanding that I was blowing all my money on a week in Paris. We went to an expensive restaurant and I spent way too much on a lunch, but I also skipped eating a couple of days that week. People don’t often get the way I swing back and forth like that; I’m not sure I understand it myself, but I know that I do, and I love and accept that about myself. Like Mitko, the Algerian boy made sure I knew where I stood in his life – as in, not the center, not even for the three days we spent together. He was also into some BDSM stuff that I am definitely not into, but Mitko doesn’t seem to be into choking. As I’m thinking about it, the Algerian was actually pretty great when his clothes were on; he just went sort of bizarro once the trousers were off. Mitko is pretty consistent, whether his dick is out or not.

When FPN was describing their early encounters, I contrasted them with my singular one-night stand. FPN can’t wait to get down to business, but Mitko puts him off, and actually borrows his computer to set up encounters with other clients. FPN just sort of lets him, staying off to the side, having someone within reach without reaching out to him. With Mr Labor Day, it was very different. I should say, I was very different. FPN is like me in being shy, but he’ll reach out to guys who set up dates in public toilets and I won’t. Then he keeps being shy all the way through. I believe that there is a time and a place for shyness and modesty, and that is in public when my trousers are still on. Once the clothes come off, the time for being shy is over. All I wanted to do with Mr Labor Day was touch him, so I did. There was Round One, then I rubbed his back and shoulders until he was ready for Round Two, and then after we were dressed I held him close and swayed and sang, “Do You Wanna Dance?” And I kept kissing him all the way out of his house and into the driveway. And on his side, he was so gentle. I remember how carefully he used his big rough hands to take my glasses off, fold them, and set them on his nightstand. Sometimes I remember the way that he touched me and my entire body responds, even if I’m driving down the freeway. FPN doesn’t get into the sexy details, at least not many of them, but when I was reading I had to assume that the sex was pretty phenomenal for FPN to put up with being treated with this lack of interest. But then again, maybe it was uninteresting, because he describes everything else in such detail. Or maybe his editors made him take it out. It’s like when people write gay romances but don’t have any experience with gay sex, so they describe in minute detail the furtive glances, the covert touching of hands, the stolen kisses, but when the lovers take it further the authors suddenly have all the prudery of the Hays Committee. Greenwell isn’t that extreme, but it’s clear that his story isn’t there. It’s not his goal to give us a blow-by-blow account of blowing Mitko, so we gloss over that. Oddly enough, we seem to get the most details when they’re in public restrooms, as if the level of privacy of the location is reflected in the way the story is told.

I’ve never been good at concealing anything, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession.

This is true of me as well (check the name of this blog again, if that’s a surprise to you), and I wonder if it’s the author rather than the narrator talking. After all, FPN has a name that’s hard for people who speak European languages to pronounce, as is Garth. What other languages use that dental fricative sound at the end? Arabic, and some Spanish accents. There are probably more; I’m just listing the ones I know from my own experience. He also only gives us the name of the guy who’s dead (probably) – everyone else is referred to by a common noun that indicates their relationship to FPN, or with a first initial. Maybe it’s a tactic to lend authenticity to a fictional narrative; maybe he just isn’t willing to assign fictional names to people who are real, alive, and possibly willing to sue him. In this blog I’ve been avoiding the use of names, but in the past I assigned fictional names to people, sometimes using their middle names, sometimes using names that would be easy for me to remember, like switching Jason and Justin, or renaming Peter Paul. But it seems like a cop-out. Once I was in a church pageant that was structured as a set of songs introduced by monologues, and all the monologues were given by characters named things like First Woman or Third Man. My friends kept saying, “George. Betty. How hard is that? Just give them names!” And really, if he were retelling his actual experience as if it were fictional, he’d be in good company (anything by Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac). I’d just prefer that it be made explicit. I’d like to know, am I identifying with someone who doesn’t exist, or am I making a real emotional connection with someone I have never met and will never meet through the medium of language?

One last complaint, I promise: the structure is weird. Yes, ABA form has been with music for centuries, and sometimes we do it in fiction too (think of Sense and Sensibility – Book 1 divided between two country homes, Book 2 in London, and Book 3 back in the country), but the B section doesn’t seem to fit. It feels like someone told him that he needed to add forty pages before they would publish his book, so he wrote a section on being a gay teenager in Kentucky (it’s only marginally about the present, when he gets news that his father is dying and takes forty pages to decide he’s not going back to the United States for the funeral). I suppose it gives us some motivation for him to have become an ESL teacher and left the country, but since he talks about word etymologies and English-Bulgarian cognates, he has enough of a linguistic interest to make it a reasonable career choice without hearing about how his father threw him out of the house. It would actually make more sense to talk about how he met the guy he actually calls his boyfriend, the Portuguese student named R (which makes me think of the Romeo in Warm Bodies). It might take some focus off of the Mitko stuff, but it’s sort of like in Merry Wives of Windsor, where I don’t care about the Fords’ marriage because I’ve never seen their happiness. I don’t know what his jealousy costs them both, except to recognize that Mrs Ford is completely awesome and his fears are unfounded.

Okay. I’ve talked and talked about the problems and the connections, but as I alluded to earlier, a good part of what I feel about this book is jealousy. Some people have the confidence and determination to make a career of writing, and I blog about them instead of doing it myself. Lately, all my attempts at fiction writing have veered into the pornographic, so I haven’t been sharing them. Much as I would like to write something that people would like to read, I would prefer it didn’t happen through Bad Penny Press. I often also have some envy for people who came out of the closet before marrying someone of the opposite gender, but as I think over my life, I’m actually fairly satisfied. For all that I hate The Ex sometimes, and I hate what I did to her, my life has been amazing, and she was a big part of that. And I would not trade witnessing the births of my children for all the disease-ridden gigolos behind the Iron Curtain. Yes, I spent the part of my life when most people are experimenting being too religious and pretending to be straight, and I’ve had to make up for that lost time in imagination and not in reality (like in Hesse’s Magic Theatre), but in every life there are tradeoffs. Most gay men will never know the feeling of biological fatherhood, of watching a part of you grow inside someone else, mixing with her and becoming an amalgam of you both, and then seeing this new person that is both you and not-you arrive into the world. And for most of the time we were together, The Ex supported and encouraged me to be my best self. If I had a dream, she set about finding a way to make it happen. I’ll probably never know what it’s like to be promiscuous, to know that I have a body that is young and strong and generally lusted after, to feel confident that I could have any person I wanted to be with. I may never know what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who wants to have sex as much as I do. But FPN talks about having a life that’s bearable, and it makes me sad that his expectations are so low. Life isn’t just for enduring; it’s for enjoying. It seems that the gay community as a whole is interested in pleasure without happiness, and I think that tendency is already sufficiently well documented. Let’s start telling the story of our joy as well as the story of our pain. Let’s start believing that joy is possible for us and that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. And when new gays come out, let’s help them work through the rage instead of burying it under a mountain of booze, sex, and pills. What seeds are we planting?

So, yes, I think eight pages of advance praise is a little excessive. I think this book is sad in a way that is becoming trite. But I also think that Greenwell is a talented, thoughtful author, and I’d like to see what he does in the future. It’s a first novel that grew out of a prize-winning story; let’s wait for him to get some more material and show us something really new. Given the title, I suppose I should have written about possession and possessiveness and recognizing what is and isn’t a person’s responsibility, but that’s a strain I wasn’t much interested in. I suppose because I still need to do some work in this area myself. Now that the Midwestern guy and I have separated our daily lives, no longer eating and watching TV together, it’s becoming apparent that we don’t have much to talk about, and talking is sort of the essence of long-distance relationships. I’m not much of a talker (only this verbose when writing); I need someone I can do things with. Surely it can’t be impossible to find a gay man who loves books, music, movies, and the outdoors?

Advertisements

People have been telling me to read Pratchett for quite some time now, but I have not yet succumbed to the attractions of Discworld. I’m a bit nervous that once I get started, it’s going to take over my life, and I don’t really want that. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman, though, and this is sort of what I expect from a combination of the two. You remember the old practical joke, where you balance a bucket of water on top of a half-open door, and then someone walks through the door and gets soaked? Funny, right? Now imagine that the someone walking through the door is one of the Lords of Hell, bent on dragging you down to the Underworld to be punished by Mr Big-and-Scaly himself. And imagine that the bucket is full of holy water, which will dissolve the corporeal manifestations of demons on contact. Imagine further that the you running from this demon is also a demon, albeit of a lesser order, and that sloshing any of the holy water on you will dissolve you just as effectively. What was a funny situation is now a game of life or death with eternal stakes. For me, the life-and-death struggle undercuts the jokes.

What happened to England? At one time they were the mightiest empire on the planet. Then they were the only nation to stand up to Hitler and the Nazis, and through the strength of their endurance they won. But sometime during the second half of the twentieth century the national identity shifted to focus on antisocial, xenophobic, inefficient, and unintelligent behaviour. Somehow they went from Winston Churchill to John Cleese. This is one of the things that I admire about Doctor Who: its insistence that no life is unimportant, and that the British people will continue until the end of the universe. The show is making an attempt to restore English nationalism.

The Antichrist is born on earth. Since this book is a little dated, the Antichrist was born the same year I was, and at the time the story takes place he’s eleven years old. He was accidentally put in a normal British family, so he grows up a fairly normal boy, though with a stronger love of home than I had. When he reaches the age of eleven, the hellhound comes to join him, but the boy’s sense of normal infects the dog, and he becomes a normal dog.

It’s time for the great war between heaven and hell, and all the heavenly and infernal hosts are massing together, ready to strike. Earth is the battlefield, and will likely be annihilated. Well, there’s a demon who doesn’t want this to happen. There’s an angel who feels the same way. Aziraphale tries to avoid heaven, and Crowley hell, in order to reach the Antichrist and save the world. Their jobs have been pretty easy until now, human beings being both worse than demons and better than angels. So they use their earthly tricks to dodge the supernatural and get to the boy. This is the type of antihero, praise-of-mediocrity stuff I was mentioning earlier.

This is all laid out in prophecy, of course. Three hundred years ago Agnes Nutter saw it all and wrote it down, quite literally. But like Cassandra of old, no one understands or believes her. Her book is now in the possession of her descendant Anathema Device. Newt Pulsifer, witch hunter, comes to find her and he falls in love (quite a change from Newt’s ancestor, who led the team that burned Agnes to death). His commander in the Witchfinder Army also gets ensnared by a fortune-teller/aging courtesan. (cf antihero, praise of mediocrity)

And there are the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse: Scarlett, Dr Sable, Mr White, and The Other One. Scarlett bounces around the world bringing armed conflict wherever she goes, which seems to be not-quite-industrial societies; Dr Sable is leading a revolution in nutrition in America, feeding us all on fillers without any actual nutritional value; and Mr White brings trash and oil spills everywhere. War, Famine, and Pollution (Pestilence retired after we scientized medicine in the early twentieth century). Death is always present, following the other three but stronger than them all. And they’re coming to start the war that will end everything.

But that normal boy doesn’t want to end everything. He loves his home. He’s spent eleven years making Tadfield the perfect place for a boy to grow up, and he doesn’t want a bunch of angels and demons ruining it. The two factions are equally indifferent to humanity, each intent on bringing glory to their commander by defeating their opponent. But what would happen after? An eternity of nothing. Heaven and hell are both short-sighted in their ambitions. The real goal is play, an activity that has no other goal but its own perpetuation.

I love moments of convergence, when the disparate strands of a story come together at the climax. All these groups find each other at the Air Base that controls England’s nuclear missiles. The missiles are somewhere else, of course, but all the controls are in Tadfield, and the Four Horsepeople are ready to get things moving.

The ancients were always so convinced that the world was going to end. I’m not. The world continues, and life endures. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s intense; sometimes it’s awful and pointless (full of antiheroes who praise mediocrity), but life goes on. Endings scare us; Death endures when all other spirits have passed. Apocalyptic maunderings are all about the fear of death. When one of us dies, however, the rest go on. The world doesn’t stop for a death. The end of life is natural, mundane. Even if all of humanity died, the world would continue; some forms of life would continue even after a nuclear holocaust. I guess having survived the Cold War gives me a different perspective than people had in 1990.

And I guess that’s what this is really about: heaven and hell and their mutually assured destruction are uncomfortably similar to the United States and the Soviet Union, where ultimately the two sides are working for the same goal, the destruction of everything, and are indifferent to other nations, even their allies. I’ve seldom considered what that would look like to the rest of the world; as an American, I haven’t had to. Sometimes the modern world feels like an old Western movie, and every so-called terrorist organization is waiting to see who’s finally going to kill the aging gunslinger. It may happen soon.

We are a group of former British colonies that were largely settled by Germans, so we have the Nazi viciousness and ravenousness combined with the English endurance and self-control.  No wonder people hate and fear us. For all that Good Omens is billed as a comedy, it’s a Lenny Bruce routine, laughing at what has you scared shitless. Perhaps on subsequent readings I’ll laugh more, but this time I saw this as a book of fear.

The trouble with trying to find a brown-covered book among brown leaves and brown water at the bottom of a ditch of brown earth in the brown, well, grayish light of dawn, was that you couldn’t.

It wasn’t there.

Anathema tried every method of search she could think of. There was the methodical quartering of the ground. There was the slapdash poking at the bracken by the roadside. There was the nonchalant sidling up to it and looking out of the side of her eye. She even tried the one which every romantic nerve in her body insisted should work, which consisted of theatrically giving up, sitting down, and letting her glance fall naturally on a patch of earth which, if she had been in any decent narrative, should have contained the book.

It didn’t.

Which meant, as she had feared all along, that it was probably in the back of a car belonging to two consenting cycle repairmen.

 

 

I love this book. In graduate school I learned that it can be dangerous to write about books I love, because it is difficult to convey those emotions in an academic analysis. The emotion gets in the way of the analysis, just as I lose my good judgment when I feel an emotional connection to the decision to be made. This explains why I’ve asked for a transfer closer to home, even though I’m in a good job and a decent social situation. I have an emotional connection with that landscape, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be content apart from it. My company’s closest location is five hundred miles off, but that’s a lot closer than the thousand miles away I am now.

This book seems to have been conceived as one of a series where our leading authors write about the myths that have shaped their lives and writing. I’m not sure if that series ever took off because I always see this one standing alone or with Byatt’s other work, and since she deals so much with fairy tales and myths anyway, it doesn’t feel out of place in her oeuvre. So yes, as the title implies, this is a book about Norse mythology. But it is also a story about Byatt’s encounter with Norse mythology when she was a girl, The Thin Child in Wartime. The Norse myths make more sense to her than the Christian ones, so while she doesn’t believe in them as a religion, they more adequately express her developing worldview.

The thin child thought that these stories – the sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one, were both human make-ups, like the life of the giants in the Riesengebirge. Neither aspect made her want to write, or fed her imagination. They numbed it. She tried to think she might be wicked for thinking these things. She might be like Ignorance, in Pilgrim’s Progress, who fell into the pit at the gate of heaven. She tried to feel wicked.

But her mind veered away, to where it was alive.

So while the stories take place in Midgard or Asgard, they also always have reference to living in the evacuated-to English countryside during World War II.

Odin was the god of the Wild Hunt. Or of the Raging Host. They rode out through the skies, horses and hounds, hunters and spectral armed men. They never tired and never halted; the horns howled on the wind, the hooves beat, they swirled in dangerous wheeling flocks like monstrous starlings. Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs: his gallop was thundering. At night, in her blacked-out bedroom, the thin child heard sounds in the sky, a distant whine, a churning of propellers, thunder hanging overhead and then going past. She had seen and heard the crash and conflagration when the airfield near her grandparents’ home was bombed. She had cowered in an understairs cupboard as men were taught to cower, flat on the ground, when the Hunt passed by. Odin was the god of death and battle. Not much traffic came through the edges of the small town in which the thin child lived. Most of what there was was referred to as ‘Convoys’, a word that the thin child thought was synonymous with processions of khaki vehicles, juddering and grinding. Some had young men sitting in the back of trucks, smiling out at the waving children, shaking with the rattling motions. They came and they went. No one was told where. They were ‘our boys’. The child thought of her father, burning in the air above North Africa. She did not know where North Africa was. She imagined him with his flaming hair in a flaming black plane, in the racket of propellers. Airmen were the Wild Hunt. They were dangerous. If any hunter dismounted, he crumbled to dust, the child read. It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control.

In the daytime, the bright fields. In the night, doom droning in the sky.

I did not grow up during World War II. My parents weren’t born until afterward. My childhood war was very different. By the 1980s, American society had grown comfortable with the Cold War. The enemy was always there, there was the constant threat of invasion and nuclear holocaust, but this very constancy had inured us to it. The threat of mutually assured destruction kept us pretty much safe. Then, when I was a thin child of nine, the Berlin Wall came down, and a couple of years later the Soviet Union fell apart. There was a sense of relief, but I had never experienced the absence of loved ones as Byatt did, nor was I ever evacuated.

The real war for me was strictly domestic. My father was undiagnosed bipolar; most men self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, but since my father’s religion forbade those, he calmed himself down by hitting his children. I was too young and small to be a target, but I have four older siblings who caught rather a lot of it. I don’t remember much from the early years, but my sister assures me that I had every reason to be perpetually afraid. And I was. Not just of my father, though; I was afraid of everyone. Life is unpredictable, and as a kid that meant that I never knew when someone was going to go from happy to violently angry in less time than it takes to read this sentence. I think this is the key to understanding why I freak out in crowds; that’s a lot of people to keep from punching me in the face. You’re asking, why would anyone punch me in the face to start with? Because life is unpredictable, and my childhood trained me to know that every person is a potential threat. Especially family members who are supposed to love and care for me. These days I have friends that I trust, but they are people who seldom make sudden moves and do not raise their voices when they get heated in a conversation.

My mother had a quick temper too, but she handled her anger by distancing herself from the situation – the situation usually being her children. I don’t remember being hugged or kissed when I was young. The first clear memory I have of getting that sort of affection from my mother is from after I was married and had graduated from college. I remember how awkward she was at it, like this was something she’d seen other people doing and had always wanted to try but was never sure where or how to begin. For most people, hugs are not that complicated.

Shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, my parents separated. I hear multiple stories about it, but the one I remember is coming home from church one Sunday to find him gone. When I was twenty-one I found his nearly-suicide leaving note in my mother’s things; I imagine she still has it. When it first happened, I recognized that my father’s absence represented a new stage of life for me, but I wasn’t shocked. Life is unpredictable, and my brother used to run away with some frequency, and so did the teenagers on all the family-oriented TV programs of the time, so that my dad ran away was no big surprise. It’s what I understood people to do. I suppose this should have made things easier, but I still had nearly a decade of living with an emotionally unavailable parent who projected her own anger onto me and made me doubt my ability to achieve anything I set my hand to, despite all the clear evidence that I’m intelligent and capable.

Like Byatt, I turned to stories. The Norse legends weren’t readily available in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina, so I read the Greek and Roman myths instead. The Egyptian ones didn’t make sense to me, but the Hellenic Pantheon absolutely did. Their characters are driven by human desires, only played out on a larger scale. Unlike the Hebrew God, you can escape them. You may have to be turned into a tree to do it, but you can get away. People can run, hide from, and even occasionally trick the gods. And life is always trembling on the cusp of transformation. In Greek myth, there is always a way out, and I suppose that’s what I needed then.

The thing that always impresses me about Norse myths is the suffix –heim, home. Everyone and everything has a home. Death, evil, frost giants, dark elves, they all have their proper place. There isn’t really an outer darkness where people are cast out for their crimes, as in Christianity. All places can be known, rendered familiar, by describing them as someone’s home. Despite the monsters, there’s nothing so frightening that it can’t be realized in the imagination. In Byatt’s telling, everything also has a name: she names plants and animals and sea creatures and everything that I couldn’t even think to put a name to. The Acknowledgements section shows that she had to do some research, she didn’t have all these names at her fingers’ ends, but I appreciate that. If you’re going to write about the creation and destruction of the world, give things the dignity of their names.

Byatt places at the center of the belief system Loki, the agent of chaos, the force for change. He drives everything, and the others – Thor, Odin, Freya, etc – are all along for the ride. He and his children explain the way the world works, and how the world will eventually end. Order and Chaos will cancel each other out in a furious battle, the likes of which the world will never have seen before.

Everything ends, and everyone dies. Beautiful Baldur may have been the first (and how gorgeous does he have to have been, if already-beautiful Scandinavian men call him more beautiful than they?), but all the gods die. Not the gradual fading into disbelief of the Greeks, but violent sudden death. And then, even war ends. Sorry to be so morbid, but I believe most of the problems of Western civilization come from our inability to face the reality of our own mortality. Even this book ends, far too soon. It is beautiful, and it shows our world to be beautiful and fragile. And temporary. Use your time here well – love often and completely, create beauty where you can, and read this book.

A new kind of novel by Ray Bradbury, master of miracles, fantasy and terror, and the author of THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, A MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.

False advertising. There was nothing new about this sort of novel. Cranford, The Pickwick Papers . . . A group of episodes joined by their common setting and characters. You see, Ray Bradbury grew up in a small town in the Midwest, in town with his enormous, amazing extended family. He wrote a bunch of stories about them, some realistic, some re-imagined with supernatural effects. The realistic ones were gathered with a bit of framing narrative, and became Dandelion Wine. The supernatural ones, when joined with the work of Charles Addams, led to The Addams Family, and then later were collected in their original state as The October Country. But there’s nothing earth-shattering about this book.

That being said, it’s really good.

This is a story of childhood, based on Bradbury’s own, but fictionalized. The detail I’ve been pondering on the most is the timing: summer of 1928. Summer is the most intense experience of childhood; away from school and responsibilities, children are free to be themselves. But the important thing is the year. The next year, the stock market crashed, and the world slid into the Great Depression. The United States got out of the Depression by supplying World War II, and since the introduction of nuclear weapons we haven’t had a moment’s rest. 1928 was the last peaceful time for the United States, when we weren’t afraid. Three generations now, who don’t understand what it was like in 1928, when there was no fear. My grandfather, who was five years old in 1928, died six months ago, and there are not many people of his age left in the world.

I grew up in the 1980s. When my parents were kids, they were taught that they could be safe in a nuclear attack with Duck and Cover, but my generation didn’t have that false hope. We knew that at any moment we could all be killed. Everything we knew and loved could be destroyed by the menacing, somehow simultaneously inept and dangerous enemy, there on the far side of the world. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, we had spread extra nuclear weapons in the Middle East to contain the Soviets, and then those weapons were turned on us. The Clinton years were less fearful, but then there were the September 11th attacks, and we now have a Department of Homeland Security, because even though we put more money into Defense than any nation should require, we still don’t feel safe. I voted for Obama primarily because he promised to get us out of our most dangerous conflicts in the Middle East, and he took his own sweet time doing it. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, my son called me to ask if I was in danger, because he was learning about current events in school. I want my kids to see the world as beautiful and exciting, not scary and war-torn.

This novel is about time. It slips and slides away from us. . .

“John!”

For John was running, and this was terrible. Because if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching!

“John!”

. . . and the timeframes of our lives don’t match up, as when a thirty-year-old man falls in love with a ninety-year-old woman.

“Do you know, it’s lucky we met so late. I wouldn’t have wanted you to meet me when I was twenty-one and full of foolishness.”

“They have special laws for pretty girls twenty-one.”

“So you think I was pretty?”

He nodded good-humoredly.

“But how can you tell?” she asked. “When you meet a dragon that has eaten a swan, do you guess by the few feathers left around the mouth? That’s what it is – a body like this is a dragon, all scales and folds. So the dragon ate the white swan. I haven’t seen her for years. I can’t even remember what she looks like. I feel her, though. She’s safe inside, still alive; the essential swan hasn’t changed a feather. Do you know, there are some mornings in spring or fall, when I wake and think, I’ll run across the fields into the woods and pick wild strawberries! Or I’ll swim in the lake, or I’ll dance all night tonight until dawn! And then, in a rage, discover I’m in this old and ruined dragon. I’m the princess in the crumbled tower, no way out, waiting for her Prince Charming.”

“You should have written books.”

“My dear boy, I have written. What else was there for an old maid? I was a crazy creature with a headful of carnival spangles until I was thirty, and then the only man I ever really cared for stopped waiting and married someone else. So in spite, in anger at myself, I told myself I deserved my fate for not having married when the best chance was at hand. I started traveling. My luggage was snowed under blizzards of travel stickers. I have been alone in Paris, alone in Vienna, alone in London, and, all in all, it is very much like being alone in Green Town, Illinois. It is, in essence, being alone. Oh, you have plenty of time to think, improve your manners, sharpen your conversations. But I sometimes think I could easily trade a verb tense or a curtsy for some company that would stay over for a thirty-year weekend.”

Yeah, I could use a pleasant houseguest who stays for a lifetime. The first time I wanted someone who was beautiful, virtuous, and talented; I found it, but now I want someone who is kind, financially stable, and who loves to have sex with me. And male. The ex was none of those things. The first three qualities are still favorable, but the latter four have become more important.

Bradbury also describes what it’s like to be depressed, in terms intelligible to a twelve-year-old with that mental colour.

“Doug,” he said, “you just lie quiet. You don’t have to say anything or open your eyes. You don’t even have to pretend to listen. But inside there, I know you hear me, and it’s old Jonas, your friend. Your friend,” he repeated and nodded.

He reached up and picked an apple off the tree, turned it round, rook a bite, chewed, and continued.

“Some people turn sad awfully young,” he said. “No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.”

He took another bit of the apple and chewed it.

“Well, now, where are we?” he asked.

He tells this to our protagonist, who had a dangerous fever at the time. He mentions later that this night that Mr Jonas visits, he chooses to live. This is why I’m still here; I have chosen to live. Sometimes this decision is in danger of changing, but I will continue to choose to live. I found a clear medical reason for my recent cloud of gloom, unrelated to my financial, romantic, or spiritual difficulties. I’ve always figured that sushi was safe for someone with coeliac disease, because it’s rice, raw fish, and vegetables. So the local grocery store has a sushi counter – hooray for the randomness of Texas – and I’ve been treating myself to some cheap sushi when I want to comfort-eat. But it turns out that they use fermented wheat protein to bind the rice together; in other words, the part of the plant that is poisonous to me is the part I’ve been eating. Depression and rage are a normal part of my body’s response to gluten. I really need people to start reminding me of that when I get that way.

So, time. When I get depressed, I want time to slow down. I binge-watch TV programs until I fall asleep, or I read in the tub late at night, unwilling to go to bed because that means the day is ending and I’ll have to start the next one. But moments don’t last. I wake up at half past midnight, sweat-stuck to the leather loveseat with a crick in my awkwardly bent neck, or up to my chin in cold water with hands and feet so wrinkled they hurt. I’ve been so unwilling to let time move along that I’ve been putting off my blogwriting – I’ve finished another book since this one, and am nearly half-way through the next. But a good friend once told me of the antidepressant qualities of really strong chili peppers, so I’ve been eating spicy foods and cutting out the sushi and getting better. I’m letting go of my need to control time.

I may have passed my childhood in a time of fear, but I don’t have to stay that way. As I think over the films I love from that time, yes, I see the fear, but I also see the hope. We may have had Red Dawn, but we also had Back to the Future and Footloose, media that remind us we can make positive changes in the world. Even kids can make the world a better place. I may not be Michael J Fox or Kevin Bacon, and I’m certainly not a teenager, but I can give my children a better world than the one I received from my parents. Maybe this is why I’m still teaching; I believe in the ability of teachers to improve worlds, one life at a time. I may find hope by leading others to it.

Bradbury’s stories are not always hopeful. People die, streetcars are replaced by buses, the happiness machine brings unhappiness and is destroyed, eras end. But the eras of happiness and peace existed, and when we’re threatened by poverty and war, we can remember when things were different, and as long as we know that life doesn’t have to be this way, we can change it. Perhaps this piece of nostalgia can benefit our future.

It’s always interesting to find the receipt stuck in the back of a book (I use receipts as bookmarks) and think about my life as it was when I made the purchase. According to the receipt, I bought my copy of Fahrenheit 451 ten years ago in a store that has since closed. It was a chain store in my hometown, so I can picture the huge windows in the front, the regulated stacks, the cheerful signage, the in-house coffee shop. It was a little like the Walmart of bookstores. But the town I grew up in doesn’t have enough readers to support a bookstore, which is one of the reasons I no longer actually call it home. Ten years ago I was a newlywed, and the ex and I went everywhere together. The only memory I have of her in that store was the time we ran into two of my friends from high school. Of the two, she came across as perpetually angry and he as a major stoner, which isn’t how either of them was when we were close. I think that my friend’s anger came from the fact that our friend had become so comfortable with mind-altering substances; we met her again a few years later and she was fairly happy, secure in herself and her life. After the visit, the ex said, “Now I can understand why you were such good friends.” First impressions aren’t generally reliable.

Why am I going on about this? Because I’ve just finished reading a book on the importance of memory.

One of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn’t, certainly. So it looked as if it had to be Montag and the people he had worked with until a few short hours ago. Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people’s heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silverfish, rust and dry-rot, and men with matches. The world was full of burning of all types and sizes. Now the guild of the asbestos weaver must open shop very soon.

Yeah, people say that it’s about books, and in one sense it is, but I think that books are a vehicle to talk about something else.

It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

Montag’s society has lost books, but they’ve also lost the world itself. They flip on the television to distract themselves, and live in a constant state of distraction. They don’t enjoy life. One of the opening scenes involves Montag’s wife accidentally overdosing on sleeping pills and getting her stomach pumped. It happens so frequently the medical technicians come to people’s houses instead of dragging them to the hospital. The techs don’t have any medical training, either; they know where to stick the tubes, they run their machines, then they move on to the next house. Reckless driving and suicide are fairly common. They don’t value their lives.

Bradbury seems to see this as a consequence of their lifestyle. People avoid contact with nonhuman life, and with their own emotions. Television manufactures relationships with the unreal, and if not managed appropriately, those fictive relationships can take the place of real ones. My mom leaves the TV on when she goes out so the cats feel like there is a human presence in the house with them, and I watch an unreasonable amount of television to distract myself from the unbearable loneliness of my real life. Like the other great dystopias of the twentieth century, this book is about the government taking control of our emotional lives. The essential freedom is the freedom to be honest with ourselves and others about our feelings; without that self-awareness and the ability to communicate it, there is no independent identity.

Books tend to fuck with our illusions. Behold, the reaction to a reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

Mrs Phelps was crying.

The others in the middle of the desert watched her crying grow very loud as her face squeezed itself out of shape. They sat, not touching her, bewildered with her display. She sobbed uncontrollably. Montag himself was stunned and shaken.

“Sh, sh,” said Mildred. “You’re all right, Clara, now, Clara, snap out of it! Clara, what’s wrong?”

“I – I,” sobbed Mrs Phelps, “don’t know, don’t know, I just don’t know, oh, oh . . .”

Mrs Bowles stood up and glared at Montag. “You see? I knew it, that’s what I wanted to prove! I knew it would happen! I’ve always said poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I’ve had it proved to me. You’re nasty, Mr Montag, you’re nasty!”

Faber said, “Now. . .”

Montag felt himself turn and walk to the wall slot and drop the book in through the brass notch to the waiting flames.

“Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,” said Mrs Bowles. “Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you got to tease people with stuff like that!”

“Clara, now, Clara,” begged Mildred, pulling her arm. “Come on, let’s be cheery, you turn the ‘family’ on now. Go ahead. Let’s laugh and be happy now, stop crying, we’ll have a party!”

In Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, there’s a moment when one of the bad guys (Anne Wirthlass-Schitt) gets caught in a book of poetry and ends up trying to save someone. When asked to explain, Thursday says that our response to poetry reveals who we really are. The suicide and tears aren’t in the poetry; they’re in the people reading it. To borrow a phrase from Zora Hurston, poetry calls our souls from their hiding places. It reintroduces us to ourselves. One of the products of reading is self-awareness, which I suppose is why reading leads me to write such long articles about myself.

Mrs Phelps has plenty of reason to cry.

“When do you suppose the war will start?” he said. “I notice your husbands aren’t here tonight?”

“Oh, they come and go, come and go,” said Mrs Phelps. “In again out again Finnegan, the Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours, they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be back next week. Quick . . .”

The three women fidgeted and looked nervously at the empty mud-colored walls.

“I’m not worried,” said Mrs Phelps. “I’ll let Pete do all the worrying.” She giggled. “I’ll let old Pete do all the worrying. Not me. I’m not worried.”

“Yes,” said Millie. “Let old Pete do the worrying.”

“It’s always someone else’s husband dies, they say.”

“I’ve heard that, too. I’ve never known any dead man killed in a war. Killed jumping off buildings, yes, like Gloria’s husband last week, but from wars? No.”

This book reminds me so much of my 1980s childhood that the first time I read it, I filtered out all mentions of war until it actually comes to the town at the end of the novel. The Cold War made the threat of mutual destruction normal, banal, uninteresting. The Russians were going to come and either destroy or enslave us all; this was an accepted part of my daily life. Sometimes there were frantic repetitions of the party line, as with Mrs Phelps, but by then they were less frequent. The constantness of the threat had inured the public to its severity. After all, it’s always someone else’s husband who dies. My grandpa made it through World War II; my dad made it through Vietnam; when the Russians come for us, we’ll survive that too. When I was nineteen, I saw Red Dawn, and I thought it was one of the most frightening movies I’d ever seen – not because of the Russian-Cuban invasion of the United States, that part felt familiar and even oddly reassuring, but because the redneck teenagers were so ready to become child soldiers. I don’t want my kids to have that kind of access to weaponry. On rereading Fahrenheit 451, though, I see that it’s a book drenched in the threat of war; it’s just that my childhood was spent blocking out the threat of war, and now I’m really good at it. No one I knew was involved in the first Gulf War, so it was easy to see it as entirely separate from my life.

For everyone nowadays knows, absolutely is certain, that nothing will ever happen to me. Others die, I go on. There are no consequences and no responsibilities. Except that there are. But let’s not talk about them, eh? By the time the consequences catch up with you, it’s too late, isn’t it, Montag?

And that’s still true. September 11, 2001, was such a tragic day because suddenly we had to stop telling ourselves this lie. We’ve lulled ourselves back into a sense of security since then, which seems fairly obvious from the actions of the US Department of Defense. Sure, we can keep supporting Israel while they act like Nazi Germany; that’s never going to come back and bite us in the ass. If they were annexing sections of Czechoslovakia, we’d be losing our shit; but it’s just those little Arab countries that we can’t even identify on a map, so it’s okay. I mean, they’re not even white. I saw a New York Times piece about nuclear disarmament – apparently the Russians are working ahead of schedule and we’re way behind, and I’m really uncomfortable identifying with the country with the most nuclear warheads. Think of it as a neighborhood; we don’t attack the family next door because we like them, not because they have a lot of guns. In fact, when I see a family with a ton of guns, I avoid them whenever possible. Or, in cowboy terms, the most effective way to ensure that people are going to shoot you is to get a reputation as the fastest gun in the West.

But, books.

I spent my early childhood afraid. I wasn’t involved in any physical abuse, but my dad was undiagnosed bipolar and wouldn’t allow himself to use drugs or alcohol, so he self-medicated by hitting his older children. I was too little, but still petrified of him. My parents divorced a year before the Wall fell, so that gave me a different set of things to be afraid of. My mom has spent forty years creating and feeding a sense of insecurity in her children, delighting in their failures, finding the flaws in their successes, sucking the joy out of our lives unless it is a reflection of her own schadenfreude. After all, if you meet your children’s emotional needs, they’ll just be dependent on you for the rest of your life (the exact opposite of all the research in attachment theory, by the way – I showed all the signs of child abuse except poor academic performance). My older siblings seemed to form a clique that I could never belong to, despite occasional forays into togetherness, so I spent most of my time playing alone. I drew pictures of the toys that I wanted, colored them and cut them out, and played with the scraps of paper. I also read. A lot. I learned to read before I went to kindergarten, and reading was my favorite thing. I was more comfortable in the library than I was in my own home. I lived almost entirely in my imagination; I didn’t make close friends until I was eighteen. My social development still feels about ten years behind my peer group; I hit my adolescent rebellion around age thirty, when I was married and had kids. Five years later I’m mostly better, but I never feel quite mature enough. When I was a kid, the world seemed content to leave me out of it, too: once my mother went out with a bunch of her kids, but left my teenage sister home supposedly alone – they had forgotten that I was there too. If my sister hadn’t stayed, I would have been left home alone. A nine-year-old who lives in books is not likely to be a danger to himself or others, but the having been forgotten damages him. But there are the books, right? Books don’t say awful things about you; books have people who are more similar to you than the people you see in your real life; no one expects you to love them because you were born into the same family or attend the same school or church. Books have brighter colors and happier endings than the real world, and more than anything, I needed the hope that they provide. Then I married someone who taught me that my feelings are important, and books have been teaching me about myself ever since.

She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it had to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses, but moving also toward a new sun.

Or in other words, Clarisse had a face like a book. The glowing certainty of books got me through the long night of childhood and has helped me move toward new sources of light.