Posts Tagged ‘divorce’

There are few American authors of her time who write about divorce as much as Edith Wharton. I guess she wrote about it so much because she had one; also, it was a major subject of debate in the conversations about women’s rights. So of course I’ve been thinking about mine. It was the most emotionally difficult part of my life, particularly with all of the people assuming I wouldn’t care. It’s a complicated thing, being a gay man who loves his wife, because love is even more complex than sexuality. One more reason for me to have run off to the Middle East.

The stories in this volume are arranged according to length rather than publishing date or theme or any other logical system. All were originally published between 1900 and 1914.

ETHAN FROME

Like me, Ethan Frome is a man who got married in a hurry and ran into trouble because of it. He got a little bit of education and dreamed of living in a city, but then his father got sick and he had to come take care of the family farm, and then after his father died his mother got sick too. His family arranged for a distant cousin Zenobia to come take care of his mother and the house. When you see a woman named Zenobia in a book written in the nineteenth century or the first couple of decades of the twentieth, she’s probably dangerous. It’s like how we don’t trust Victorian Lydias. Zeena cared for Ethan’s mother through her final illness, and then he had this weird emotional spasm where he couldn’t lose anyone else, so he married her.

Fast forward six or seven years. Zeena has become a hypochondriac invalid, and Ethan has realized that he’s never moving to a city while he’s stuck with her. Besides, at thirty-five she’s starting to age badly (rural Massachusetts winters are rough), and he’s still twenty-eight and in his youth and vigor. Zeena has taken on Mattie Silver, another distant cousin with no place to go. Mattie’s young and exciting, and draws Ethan into the life of the town because she enjoys being with people and he has to escort her. Ethan and Mattie are in love, but at a distance in the same house. When he feels affectionate, he shortens her name further to just Matt, so I derived a lot of enjoyment from picturing Matt as a man.

Zeena’s concocted a plot to get rid of Matt, even though she literally has no one to take her in. Her only hope is to get a job in a shop somewhere and earn her own living, which isn’t easy for a twenty-one-year-old girl in Massachusetts in the 18-somethings. Ethan goes through an intense time – he wants to run off with Matt and go live out West somewhere, but he doesn’t have the money to go anywhere. As with me, poverty keeps him from divorcing when and how he wants. He doesn’t have anything worth selling, in the middle of winter, not even his house or farm. No one would buy them.

As Ethan is taking Matt to the train station for the last time, they talk about how they never went sledding in town like they had wanted to (‘coasting’ in the vernacular of the time), so they stop for a bit of a sled. There’s a large elm tree that they have to dodge, but Ethan’s good at steering so they miss it. But what if they didn’t? They can get up to speed, charge straight into the tree, and dying together they would foil Zenobia’s plan and solve all their problems. But they don’t, die, they just get severely injured. Being forced into a sedentary life, Mattie becomes every bit as querulous as Zeena, and being forced to take care of someone again cures Zeena’s imaginary ailments. The three of them get along miserably for what seems the rest of their lives.

In many ways I am a lucky person, though I’ve been told that it has more to do with making good decisions than with luck. My decisions have worked out better than I deserve, I think. If I had to marry a woman, then The Ex was the right one; she wouldn’t put up with an Ethan Frome situation. I told her I was gay and she moved out. There was a short time that I wanted her back, but she held firm. She feels shame very acutely, and in her mind there’s less shame in divorcing a gay husband than in living with one. Of course, my being gay means that she had a good excuse, and that she can blame me into perpetuity without ever having to confront her own issues. I’m not saying that she will; I’m just saying that she still hates and distrusts me.

THE TOUCHSTONE

This was the most suspenseful of the stories, so I enjoyed it the most. Glennard is poor and in love, so he needs to find some way to get the money to marry. Years earlier, a famous novelist had fallen in love with him and wrote him some passionate letters from Paris; she died before the story begins, but he still has the letters. He sells them to a publisher to get the money to invest in a good company and make the money requisite to marry his great love.

But those letters were so very personal that his wife would see it as a violation of the soul to have made them public, so he has to try to keep the secret, even after the volume of letters becomes a bestseller. He goes full-on Raskolnikov about it.

The next morning he invented an excuse for leaving the house without seeing her, and when he returned, just before dinner, he found a visitor’s hat and stick in the hall. The visitor was Flamel, who was just taking his leave.

He had risen, but Alexa remained seated; and their attitude gave the impression of a colloquy that had prolonged itself beyond the limits of speech. Both turned a surprised eye on Glennard, and he had the sense of walking into a room grown suddenly empty, as though their thoughts were conspirators dispersed by his approach. He felt the clutch of his old fear. What if his wife had already sorted the papers and had told Flamel of her discovery? Well, it was no news to Flamel that Glennard was in receipt of a royalty on the Aubyn Letters.

A sudden resolve to know the worst made him lift his eyes to his wife as the door closed on Flamel. But Alexa had risen also, and bending over her writing-table, with her back to Glennard, was beginning to speak precipitately.

“I’m dining out tonight – you don’t mind my deserting you? Julia Armiger sent me word just now that she had an extra ticket for the last Ambrose concert. She told me to say how sorry she was that she hadn’t two, but I knew you wouldn’t be sorry!” She ended with a laugh that had the effect of being a strayed echo of Mrs Armiger’s; and before Glennard could speak she had added, with her hand on the door, “Mr Flamel stayed so late that I’ve hardly time to dress. The concert begins ridiculously early, and Julia dines at half-past seven.”

Glennard stood alone in the empty room that seemed somehow full of an ironical consciousness of what was happening. “She hates me,” he murmured. “She hates me . . .”

THE LAST ASSET

Mrs Newell is a resourceful sort of woman. She works her way up in society by dating rich men, having lost sight of her husband long ago. Now that she’s arranged a marriage between her daughter and a French count, she has to produce the husband to prove that she’s not divorced. She hires a reporter to find him, and he turns out to be one of those familiar strangers, people you talk to in a restaurant when you’re both the only Americans but never bother to learn their names. Notice I said ‘you’ – I wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, no matter how many times we ate breakfast in the same place, no matter how much his accent would remind me of home. No, the only place I enter into conversation with strangers is in an establishment dedicated to serving alcohol to homosexual men.

As with Ethan Frome, there’s a lot of sadness in this story, even though it’s about reunion.

XINGU

This one was just funny. There’s a snobby literary society up in New England somewhere, and they’ve invited a successful author to come join them. They want to impress her, but she’s not that interested in politics, design, or food, or any of the other subjects they bring up in order to awe her into confirming their sense of their own worth. Then, a member they’ve all been planning to vote out, suddenly asks her about Xingu, and everyone is convinced it’s a new philosophy that they haven’t heard of but are willing to pretend to know in order to put this author in her place. The author goes off with the savior of the group, and then everyone else looks it up – it’s a river in Brazil. She was speaking in double entendres the entire time, and they laugh and are embarrassed by their ignorance.

THE OTHER TWO

This one is frequently anthologized, so I’ve taught it a few times. It’s not as useful as “Roman Fever,” which I have more to say about so I wish academic publishers would use it instead. This story presents divorce not in its spiritual or political aspect but in its social – the awkwardness is more significant than the sin or the women’s rights. Mr Waythorn is Alice’s third husband; because of a child, he runs into the first, and because of his business he runs into the second. Divorce doesn’t necessarily remove the offending partner from one’s life completely, after all. He starts to get used to the ex-husbands, until eventually through one of those coincidental tricks of fate all three of them are in a room together, with her serving them tea.

What I find fascinating about this collection is the perspective Wharton chooses to tell the stories from. Except for “Xingu,” with its entirely female cast, Wharton always chooses the perspective of the man, not the woman. She employs the female perspective in The House of Mirth to great success, so I’m not certain why. I mean, these stories are just as emotionally complex for the women as they are for the men. I guess it gives her a chance to explore the idea that women are mysterious to men while men are completely transparent to women. Or maybe straight men like to imagine the world this way. I have a friend who described his wife as mysterious because he was always finding out new things to love about her (after more than ten years), but I always found her remarkably open, honest, and straightforward. Maybe some men need the exotic, something they don’t understand, so they project that quality onto the women they love. Love itself is often the only mystery – does she love me, and why?

I do enjoy Edith Wharton, even though there’s usually not much to make me happy in her stories. Her syntax demands to be taken slowly; it requires attention; as an author, she insists on her leisure. We must take the story at the pace she gives it to us, and there is something appealing about someone who will not be hurried. I suppose there may also be an appeal to reading a story about New England winters when I’m in the middle of a hot Southern summer, adjusting the emotional temperature to find greater comfort. This was an odd little collection of stories; I don’t know why these were chosen and not others, but I do love something strange.

Looking back over Stevenson’s previous novels, the predominant feeling I get about this one is, What the fuck? Picaresque boys’ adventure stories are done. Instead, we get a philosophical allegory out of nowhere. Maybe his short stories prepared readers for this, but even though I’d read it before, I was completely taken aback. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Prince Otto, and The Black Arrow did not make me think this was coming.

Of course, a lifetime of watching this theme being played out in movies and television shows didn’t really prepare me for the book either. If I think of it, I can name five or six other important characters, but they’re almost completely forgettable, even the narrator. There are no female characters of any consequence, and surprisingly little action. There’s just the mystery, Why does your friend have friends that you don’t like?

First of all, let me say that Dr Jekyll is not the good side.

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.

Most stories begin with problems or needs that have to be fixed or fulfilled, and Jekyll’s problem is that he wants to look more pious than anyone else. Note the emphasis on the external – he doesn’t actually want to be a good person, he wants everyone to think he’s a good person. There’s actually a big difference. The typical spiritual disciplines don’t help Jekyll be the man he wants people to think he is, though I don’t think he actually tried fasting and prayer to overcome temptation. He relies on science instead; he devises a medicine that will suppress the parts of his personality he doesn’t approve of. He relies on the drug more and more often, but it has a side effect he wasn’t prepared for: it periodically releases the evil parts of himself that he’s been afraid to reveal. His evil is personified in Mr Hyde, and Mr Hyde starts taking over more often so that Jekyll has to keep overdosing. Eventually he realizes that he can’t control Hyde and commits suicide to save the world from the two of them.

These days Mr Hyde’s portrayal is radically different from what Stevenson imagined. His Hyde is little, being only a small part of Dr Jekyll, and by ‘evil’ Stevenson means physically violent. He hits people, sometimes to the point of killing them. These days there are things that we consider much worse, but Hyde’s evil is only in physical violence, most of it not sexual. Hyde was ugly, and people thought of him as having some kind of birth defect but they were unable to say what it was. This is part of what I find interesting in the story – people lose their ability to speak and describe Hyde. It’s like Stevenson’s time didn’t have vocabulary for the type of evil he imagined, so he couldn’t represent it on the page. But in films, nothing exists if we don’t see it. There are two ways of portraying Hyde. In the first, he’s a monster, generally larger with scoliosis and other malformed joints. He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk. In the second, he’s kind of smooth and sexy, so still taller with a deeper voice. This Hyde isn’t an animal; he’s a more pronounced version of stereotypical masculinity. Evil no longer shrinks and tramples little girls in the street; it seduces, it overshadows, it is strength. Hyde is so successful that some directors give him the nobility and strength of character as well as the muscles. Evil is a more nuanced, complicated, difficult problem than it seems to have been for a Victorian writer of children’s stories.

I feel more connections with Dr Jekyll’s story than are perhaps complimentary. I’ve never wanted to seem better than others, but I like being the best I can be, and when I was a religious person I wanted to be the best religious person possible. I tried really hard, and I was good at it. I became an expert in self-denial because that’s what my deity expected (in this sentence, ‘my deity’ is a set of cultural constructs that is pretty close to an amalgamation of my perceptions of my parents – my dad’s physical distance, my mom’s emotional distance and judgmentalism). Unfortunately, being religious creates this internal divide – like Dr Jekyll, I labeled some parts of myself as evil and crushed or ignored them. But, as in the Langston Hughes poem, parts of the self that are denied don’t just dry up like a raisin in the sun, they explode.

Six or seven years ago, my entire life collapsed. The first part was losing the religion. I was a good and faithful member of that church for more than thirty years; it was the most important part of my cultural identity. I had given everything I had to them, until something in me just broke and I couldn’t do it any more. I was severely depressed and no amount of service was changing that (they tell you to forget about yourself and work for others and you’ll find peace, but it’s a lie). I thought God hated me, and when I tried communing with him he was sort of unfeeling and cruel about the whole thing, which I now take as evidence that the voice in my head was just me. As they say, you know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do. My wife was a big help and support during this time. She had always seen my church as pulling us apart, so when I got rid of it she thought we were growing closer. She had reached a relationship goal, and we started going to churches together, with her settling on Catholicism. I guess she didn’t notice how often I used the baby as an excuse to leave Mass.

A few months later, I told my wife that I’m gay and she left me. She insists that she had no idea it was coming; I insist that she must have been willfully blind. If I had been looking for evidence that I was evil, this was it: not the whole gay thing, the fact that I broke the heart of the only person I felt truly loved me. I suppose I did have some self-hatred for being gay, but the way that the fact I’m gay hurt her is the thing I hated. If I could have taken a pill that would force me to be straight, I would have done it, for her. We had the kind of codependent relationship where each only exists as an extension of the other – I didn’t know who I was in isolation, or whether I existed at all. I had lost my self.

There are those who say suicide is never an option. That’s dumb; suicide is always an option. It’s not a good option, but it’s there. I actively wanted to die for a long time. I had several lengthy, detailed fantasies about killing myself. Most involved cutting, a few were burning, drowning, or hanging. When a friend gave me some sleeping pills, I couldn’t take any because I knew I’d overdose. There were some times the only reason I left the house was to get away from all the kitchen knives. I used to walk around the city at night trying to get up the nerve to jump in front of a truck. Fortunately, I’m also lazy, and the idea that suicide is always an option was really helpful. Because it was always there, there was no rush. I can live through today and try it tomorrow. I’m alive now because I kept procrastinating suicide until I didn’t want to do it any more. Some people say that suicide is selfish and we shouldn’t do it because of the pain it will bring to others; that seems like another dumb thing to say. Living my life for other people is what drove me to suicidal depression, so it wasn’t going to help me get out of it.

Counseling helped. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy wasn’t the path for me – it felt like I was Jekyll-and-Hyding again, naming a part of myself as evil and containing it, partitioning my self like a hard drive. The Emotional Freedom Techniques of Henry Grayson were better, but the most useful idea of his was the warm-up, where I say out loud that I love and accept myself even if I still think I’m not that great. I started visualizing myself as having separate people who live inside me, like The Ego Pirate or The Crying Boy. I stopped trying to correct any of these weird partial selves I have and just focused on loving them as they were, loving myself as I was. I started treating myself as I would my kids, with the same patience for my own vulnerability that I have with theirs. The little boy in me cried all he needed to and then stopped, my ego stopped trying to kill off the parts of me that were hurting, and I stopped feeling so fractured. I don’t need the visualizations any more.

I still get depressed sometimes, but it’s not constant. It’s been a long time since I thought about killing myself. With all the high-profile suicides, the thing that people seem not to be talking about is the fact that suicidal ideation isn’t a constant thing. It hits like a thunderstorm; sometimes it lasts for days, but sometimes only for a few minutes. Sometimes there are triggers, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes memories are the trigger, and it can take a while for them to surface. For example. When I first came out, my brother called me on the phone, already a drastic step because he only has about a third of his hearing. He yelled at me for twenty minutes and threatened to kill me, and we haven’t spoken since. While that memory hurts, he’s not the one that’s bothering me right now. It’s my mom. When I told her about this, she didn’t react. She still tells me about what’s going on in his life as if nothing happened. No one else in my family responded either, except to agree that he’s an asshole and to say there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Not that anyone’s tried.

The Mom thing brings up a couple of important habits of hers that contribute to my depression. The first is her habit of ignoring everything she doesn’t like or approve of. She doesn’t have any photographs of my adolescence because I was weird and awkward-looking. This is where the partitioning began; to get parental approval, I had to lock away the aspects of myself that my mom didn’t like. “Don’t walk like that – you look like a fairy.” The second thing is the way that she blamed me for everything that happened to me. If I had a problem, it was always my fault, and usually my responsibility to get out of it myself. I can understand the desire to teach her kids to be independent and to think critically, but sometimes a kid needs a hug and to hear that everything is going to be okay. We need to feel that our mother is on our side, but I rarely felt like she was biased in my favor. More often, it went the other way. “And what did you do to deserve it?” Why do you assume that I always deserve it? She got a little hurt a few years ago because I never take my problems to her now, but she is the least sympathetic person I know. Why would I take her anything? With these attitudes growing up, of course I ended up feeling like there was an evil inside me that was going to consume the entire earth, and that it was my duty to protect everyone from me. Of course I wanted to commit suicide like Dr Jekyll.

I’m not evil. I’m gay and angry, but I don’t damage or poison people just by being in the same room with them. I’m fairly quiet with people I don’t trust, so most people (including my family) see me as a mirror of themselves – they’re shocked when I suddenly have different opinions than they do, but that’s not my fault, and it’s not proof of hidden evil. The more I embrace the parts of me that my mom doesn’t like or see, the more I like myself, and the more my real friends like me too. Even the worst parts of me can be loved.

So, if Stevenson’s story is about good and evil, what is evil? And what is good? Dr Jekyll’s evil is rejecting himself. His locked-up desires get stronger and stronger and burst out in violent and unexpected ways, but those desires didn’t start out as evil. His vices are initially so mild that other people brag about them. Evil is naming part of yourself evil and hating yourself because of it. And good? Well, like so many stories that people say are about good and evil, this isn’t a story about good. People talk of Hyde as the evil and Jekyll as the good, but he’s only one person, and Jekyll isn’t that great.

This book is short and strange, but not David Lynch strange, it’s what-does-Stevenson-think-he’s-doing strange. He’s writing something different than his usual books, and the result is weird, like he doesn’t know how to write this kind of story. Worth reading, but don’t assume you’re going to know anything useful about the author’s style or habits of storytelling. Obviously it’s helped me articulate things I’m experiencing, but that’s more to do with my response and less with the book itself. He’s tapped into something universal and collective, much more than ever before, but he doesn’t handle it with the skill that he did earlier novels. With all the retellings, I feel like I shouldn’t be surprised, especially since I’ve read this before, but it’s still unexpected and weird, every time.

At work, I’m working on creating a dedicated biography collection, which means that for the last several weeks I’ve been reading a few random paragraphs from each of hundreds of biographies, so I suppose it’s inevitable that I would eventually read one all the way through. This is not my normal genre – I even avoid movies that are based on true stories – but I’m glad I read this one. Our experiences and voices are rather different, but I found enough commonality with Alan Cumming that I’d very much like to know him better.

I suppose something that helps is that he doesn’t try to narrate his entire life, from birth to imagined death. That type of story makes life seem predestined, and Cumming’s story is about taking command of his own life instead of letting his history determine his future. I also appreciate the fact that this isn’t a coming-out story. Yes, he is one of our LGBT heroes, but that’s not the story he’s telling. At one point in the book he has a wife, and at another he has a husband, but there are no tales of homophobic violence or family disapproval, no explanation in between. That story has been told a million times, which is probably why I haven’t felt any urgency about writing up my experience of it. There are only so many times we can observe and internalize those messages – Cumming insists on his husband’s unrelenting kindness, but it’s not a story about being gay, or about being rejected for being gay. This is also not a story about ‘making it’ and becoming famous. There’s one brief scene where he’s standing on a stage with Patti Smith, but there is no other name-dropping or celebrity gossip. He refers to his friends, and I’m willing to believe that most of his friends are entertainers like he is (we tend to socialize with the people we work with), but he doesn’t stress their identities because this isn’t a book about them. It’s an intensely personal story about Alan Cumming and his family.

The bulk of this story is about a short time in his life – during the time that he was filming an episode of a television series where they track down the solutions to mysteries in the families of celebrities. His mother’s father never really came back after World War II, so the TV crew takes him through the journey of finding out what happened. He sees war records and talks with men who served with him during the first week, and then he takes some time away to fulfill other commitments. The war stuff is upsetting, as war should be. Cumming’s grandfather was a bike messenger during the war, riding motorcycles across the European countryside. The actor decides the soldier was a daredevil, and there’s a certain disregard for his own life that could be bravery or a drive to suicide. He had the traditional war hero experiences about killing enemies and carrying comrades to safety. The survivor who tells Cumming about this part was kind of creepy, like he enjoyed the war. Some people never feel so alive as they do when killing others. My own grandfather was a hero to me, but not in the traditional war sense. He never killed anyone, so he avoided most of the trauma that soldiers go through. He was a radio guy; he and one other Ally would be the last two in a city, keeping on the radio, inventing troop maneuvers in order to confuse the Germans. I like to think that his role was to stand between two larger belligerents and keep them from fighting by holding each at arm’s length. Instead of fighting valiantly in battle, he stopped battles from happening. It may have been less personal than lifting someone bodily and removing him from a battlefield, but it is literally impossible to calculate how many lives he saved by keeping the Germans away from the Americans. It could have been in the hundreds or thousands – think about how many fewer people would have died at Stalingrad if the Germans didn’t know how important the town was.

During the week of filming, Cumming is also facing issues with his father. Right before the taping started, his dad calls him up and tells him that there’s another family secret he shouldn’t learn from strangers. He’s the product of an affair, so quite literally Not His Father’s Son. He takes advantage of this part of it to reflect on his childhood and his relationship with his father. Cumming Sr was abusive and terrible to his children, and paraded his affairs openly in front of his wife. They stayed together in order to raise Cumming and his elder brother, but ‘raise’ in this situation means beat, devalue, and humiliate.

Memory is so subjective. We all remember in a visceral, emotional way, and so even if we agree on the facts – what was said, what happened where and when – what we take away and store from a moment, what we feel about it, can vary radically.

I really wanted to show that it wasn’t all bad in my family. I tried so hard to think of happy times we all had together, times when we had fun, when we laughed. In the interests of balance, I even wanted to be able to describe some instances of kindness and tenderness involving us all. But I just couldn’t.

I spoke to my brother about this. He drew a blank, too.

We remember happy times with our mum. Safe, quiet times. But as a whole family? Honestly there is not one memory from our childhoods that is not clouded by fear or humiliation or pain. And that’s not to say that moments of happiness did not exist, it’s just that cumulatively they have been erased by the dominant feelings that color all of our childhood recollections.

And this is true of my childhood as well. My father has bipolar disorder, but he wasn’t diagnosed and medicated until after his second marriage. He seems so harmless now, sadly affectionate and blaming everyone for his problems but himself. I feel a wave of pity pressing inside my throat when I watch him eating, seeing how he’s losing his fine motor control so that his hands shake when doing something that requires precision, like moving a fork to his mouth. I know that he’s changed, partially through getting good brain drugs and partially through the suffering of being rejected by his own children, so I have a cautious relationship with him. He seldom raises his voice, but when he does, it clutches my heart and I freeze in place. I talked with my big sister a few years ago and she assured me that it really was as bad as I remember, and that I was right to be afraid of him. That helps remove some of the subjectivity from my memories, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. Unlike Cumming, though, I was generally too small to be a target, and I had four older siblings to keep my dad distracted from me.

The biggest difference between me and Cumming here is in our mothers. His seems to have been just fantastic. Mine had overwhelming anger issues, just like my dad. She was relatively safer, though, because instead of yelling and hitting she withdrew most of the time. I can remember being spanked by my mother one time, but that one time was so disturbing to me that I vowed never to do anything to make her hit me again. I’ve been pretty successful, though these days it means that I withdraw from her as much as she withdrew from me.

My parents split up instead of sticking it out ‘for the children’, as if we would have derived any benefit from that, which I think was a good choice. But, as I’ve been thinking of what to talk about as I write this entry, I don’t want to dredge up specific memories of the horrible times – I want to discuss how having been in an emotionally abusive home continues to affect me now. If someone raises their arm close to me, even if it’s just to adjust their hair, I duck a little. If anyone, in any context, gets angry with me, I panic. I can’t live in that moment and hear what they’re saying, no matter how reasonable (I’m human; I can’t keep everyone happy all the time). Fear blanks out my mind and all I can do is either run or grope for some way to reassure them or make them happy. There’s a running narrative voice in my head that constantly justifies my choices and actions to a nonexistent third party who might disagree. I’ve gotten my mom’s voice of disapproval to be quiet, but I’m still responding to it. I still expect my endeavors to fail. I’m grateful for supervisors like the one I have at the library, who train me well and provide the scaffolding that I need to be successful, but when something I do turns out well I’m more surprised than anyone else, even after twenty years away. I remind myself that I’m intelligent and capable, but those words aren’t an instinctive part of my self-image. More than in any other area, I expect myself to fail financially, and am astonished when I have more than ten dollars at the end of a month. My family used to tell me, “In the olden times, if you didn’t work you didn’t eat,” so when I’m underemployed I starve myself in order to live within my income. I’m doing better about asking for help when I need it, and I’m mostly finished with the anorexia, but it’s easier for me to turn to friends than to family. I don’t expect my family to do anything for me that doesn’t directly benefit themselves. I sometimes remind myself that I don’t have to earn every second of continued life, but that work ethic is so ingrained that poverty is something I reproach myself with when I hate myself. I don’t hate myself as much as I used to. When I was a kid, the only real safety was in silence and solitude, and I still have a preference for these. I also developed the habit of remaining very still and staying at the edges of rooms. I like sitting close to walls, and I am very uncomfortable with people walking behind me. I also sit near exits, and keep my eye on points of ingress so I know where people are around me. I spend a lot of time looking out of windows. When I go to a house I’ve never been before, it takes a couple of hours for me to become comfortable with the space. Or, comfortable enough to participate actively in the conversation. I’m uncomfortable meeting new people because I don’t know what will make them angry, and the distinction between what will offend and what won’t is never clear to me. Strangers are often loud, which bothers me. Loud noises bother me, so I hate fireworks and parades. Crowds also bother me because there are too many people to separate the crowd into individual people and assess the threat level each one embodies. I have to know someone before I assume they do not want to harm me. Not having grown up with a sense that the world is safe, I withdraw from it as much as I can.

I’m living in the same space I was six years ago when I first came out and got divorced, so all the anger and depression of that time is coming back, like it was lurking in a corner and waiting for me. I looked back at my blog posts from that time, and I’m surprised at how dishonest I was. I was trying to be truthful about myself and what I was experiencing, but the writing is all about hope that I didn’t actually feel. Hope was an intellectual exercise, a fantasy to keep me from hurting myself. When I look back, I remember driving down the street and imagining car wrecks; everything that happened was an opportunity for me to die. Freud theorized that there are two impulses, one toward life (Eros) and one toward death (Thanatos). When I think back over my childhood and my desire for stillness, and then my adult life and the suicidal ideation, I believe that Thanatos has been the most important driving force in my life. Not as a return to the womb, but as an escape from a life that has never seemed to want me in it. I do pretty well at resisting thoughts of physical self-harm, but not financial. I overspend as a way of hurting myself, sometimes with the same level of compulsion as people who cut tiny little maps in their skin, the streets going this way and that. I can stop myself, but it requires a level of self-control and self-denial that I’m not entirely comfortable with. To be clear, I’m much healthier than I was six years ago, but I’m not perfectly adjusted, and the darkness in me is often more palpable than the light.

There was a defining moment in Cumming’s youth, and I wish I had experienced something similar. At the age that young men discover the joys their own bodies provide, he was spending his alone time out in the woods, and once someone from town saw him.

I lie there for a while in the dusk, then make a decision, little knowing how it will affect every facet of my life and fiber of my being for the rest of my life: I say no to shame. This man was the one in the wrong. He was the voyeur, however accidental.

But I didn’t wish him ill. I would have done the same. I actually even thought my father would be glad to learn that some progress was being made in the faltering journey to my manhood. So I rejected shame.

I started rejecting shame much later, and it’s harder when shame has become an established habit. I suppose it’s also harder when your family responds to you with shame – I have been making my family, especially my mother, ashamed of me for most of my life. At times I embraced that as an identity and shamed them on purpose. Now, I tell myself that this is their problem and gives me no truthful information about myself, but when I was a kid I just accepted it. It’s still hard for me to feel and express anger, because when I was a kid everything was my fault. If I got angry, no one ever validated that emotion – I was always treated as the one being unreasonable because I was too sensitive. If someone got angry at me, then I was again unreasonable for causing it. I can’t remember ever being vindicated by an outside source. My pain was unimportant at best, inconvenient and obnoxious if I made others aware of it. The best I could hope for was being ignored, because all I could expect from my parents was shame, anger, and fear.

Typically I’m attracted to people who occupy a similar world, which is why I date (and once married) people who are so unsuitable. I think I have a good one now, but it’s hard for me to trust that he is different, and I look for reasons to be on my guard.

So, this part of it takes up three-fourths of Cumming’s book. The English teacher in me wants him to change the balance of things – if Part One of four is 75% of your project, you might want to subdivide differently – but for this story, it’s right. Part One ends with the DNA test that tells him whether his father’s story is true, and that’s the end of that part of his life. Part Two is about the rest of his grandfather’s story, when he went to Malaysia as part of the colonial police force after the war. He was loved but still recklessly depressed, and died during a game of Russian roulette. Later, Cumming’s father dies, and he uses his inheritance to take his mother to Malaysia to meet the people who knew her father, to see the park and the street named after him, and to see his grave.

In the end, he breaks free of his father’s negative influence and it really does become his past. These things are still very present for me – I’ve been so starved for affection that I’ll take the diseased version of love that my family offers me, better than nothing. Yet, I don’t go building a new chosen family around me. There are people in my life that I love in less complicated ways, which seems to be what people mean when they talk about family, but I don’t apply that vocabulary to them. The word family to me means something weird and toxic and inescapable, a horror that has become internalized. A monster that speaks to me in my own voice and stares back at me from the mirror. And yet, that I love and condemn as I love and condemn myself. I don’t have Cumming’s defiance.

Read this book. It’s not always easy, but it leads toward hope. People with happy childhoods may have a hard time relating, but I felt very close to the author and identified with his struggles. As I said, he’s very different from me, much more extraverted, less willfully unobserved, but still. If he writes more, I’ll be interested to read it.

 

house of the dead

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

Another atypical novel. There’s nothing Gothic or weird about this; it’s depressingly real. It begins with The Hon. Charles Wyndham calling his wife and her family a bunch of parasites, and then they spend most of the rest of the novel remembering their lives together.

Maria and Niall are not actually brother and sister; her father married his mother when they were both infants, and produced the third child, Celia. Maria and Niall are sometimes like two halves of a single person, they rely on each other so much, but at other times not.

The tunes he had written for this tiresome revue were maddening, insistent; you could not forget them for one single moment. Once you heard them, you went on humming them all the time, throughout the day, until they nearly drove you crazy. The trouble was, thought Maria, that when the time came to dance to them, she would be dancing with Charles. And Charles was a stolid, safe dancer, steering you rather as he might steer a little ship through shoal water, an anxious eye to the bumps of other dancers. Whereas Niall . . . Dancing with Niall had always been like dancing with yourself. You moved, and he followed. Or rather, he moved and you followed. Or was it that you both thought of the same moves at precisely the same moment? And anyway, why think about Niall?

Their parents were performers, so the children grew up in theatres, even when they were very young children who really needed the attention of their parents. Pappy was effusive but careless, and Mama was cold and distant. She began to connect with Niall when he showed a gift for music, but she died so shortly afterward that it couldn’t make up for all the time she didn’t care for him. Niall is the only one to go away to school, and he hates it, running away all the time, usually to go find Maria. She went upon the stage at the same time he went to school. Maria is always dogged by her father’s spectre; people assume that she gets roles because she’s his daughter, not because she has any talent of her own. By the time it’s clear that she is a good actress, her fears of inadequacy are too deeply ingrained to be easily overcome. Niall leaves school shortly before graduation, to run away to Paris with a friend of his parents. Pappy always talks about his French blood, saying that all his vagaries are due to the unknown biological father. He never learns discipline, and it takes decades for him to learn to write down music himself. There are times he reminds me of myself. Discipline has never been easy for me; I believe that I write well, but I never work at the craft, and rarely write anything original. If I were dedicated to writing, I’d do it more often, and think more about my sentences, and chart plots in my head, and listen for characters’ voices. Niall cranks out popular songs of the Irving Berlin/Cole Porter variety, good for revues, but he wishes he could write concertos, something that he perceives as worthwhile and lasting.

Celia’s problem would be a different one. People, finding her more sympathetic than either Niall or Maria, would pour out to her the story of their lives. “You have no idea what he does to me,” and she would find herself involved in another person’s troubles, her advice sought, her co-operation demanded, and it would be like a net closing round her from which there was no escape.

Celia, the youngest, product of both famous parents, the only legitimate child of the three, yet has no desire to follow them. She always wanted a family, so she spends her youth taking care of Pappy, as he declines into alcoholic old age. Her attention is always on other people; she draws well, and writes children’s stories to accompany the pictures. Her drawings capture her mother’s grace and her father’s emotive range, but without their drive to pursue Art. She has more pressing matters to attend to. Of the three, I find Celia the easiest to like, because she does care for ordinary people. Maria and Niall are too full of The Artist’s Vocation to notice or care about other people. I suppose they learned that from their parents.

And yet, whom do I identify with the most? The antagonist, the angry husband from the first chapter.

The movement from the armchair, as Charles changed his position and straightened out the sports page of the Sunday Times, should have warned them of irritation, but they took no notice.

This is me all over. If an actor is supposed to be so attuned to the use of the body and how it reveals character, why would they then ignore me, when my body language speaks so loudly? It was true with The Ex, and true with the guy I was seeing at the holidays. I guess they look long enough to figure out who I am, and then they stop. I’m not exactly mercurial, but nor is my interior life placid. I’m layered, like an onion, and I show more and more of myself as I build trust. Once you get past that first layer of silence, you can’t assume that you know me well enough to stop paying attention. Not if you want me to stick around.

“I will tell you what matters,” said Charles; “it matters to have principles, to have standards, to have ideals. It matters to have faith, and a belief. It matters very much if you love a woman, and a woman loves a man, and you marry, and you breed children, and you share each other’s lives, and you grow old together, and you lie buried in the same grave. It matters even more if the man loves the wrong woman, and the woman loves the wrong man, and the two come from different worlds that just won’t mix, that won’t turn into one world, belonging to both. Because when that happens, a man goes adrift and is lost, and his ideals and illusions and traditions get lost too. There is nothing much to live for any more. So he chucks his hand in. He says to himself: Why bother? The woman I love does not believe in any of the things that I believe in. Therefore, I may as well stop believing in them too. I also can lower standards.”

I’ve felt like this about the Midwest, including Texas. Texas and Illinois are not so different as Texans would have you think. I’m an East Coast guy; over there, I feel free, like it’s easy to find friends I have things in common with, like everything is possible. Here, I feel confined by the expectations of others. Back home, there are lots of different kinds of people, but here there are only two: Normal, which means moderately conservative straight-ticket Republican Christian; and Weird, which is everyone else. But while at my high school Goths and cowboys could be friends, here the Weird make the Normal really uncomfortable. I’d say this isn’t so much a Midwestern thing as a not-academia thing, but even when I was at the university in Illinois I had a hard time fitting in. My friends were a guy from Scranton PA and the local girl who had lived in Paris for several years. The Middies do their best to be kind, but I feel like I’m visiting a foreign country where they happen to speak the same language I do. You know, like Canada, but without the tundra.

To some extent, we create the world we live in; I’ve made some good connections here, primarily with students, but I’m thinking about The Ex. When we first got together, we seemed to inhabit the same world, but in time we built up in opposite directions. And this is where I feel like Charles; we both married the wrong woman. I shouldn’t have married a woman at all, honestly, but it was necessary for me to figure out that I’m not attracted to them. I went adrift and was lost, for what feels like a long time. I also lost the ideals and illusions and traditions, and now I’m working toward new ones. Charles goes directly toward another relationship, but I’ve been learning to do things alone. A month or two ago my son and I were both sick, and I told him how fortunate he was to have his mother to take care of him while I didn’t have anyone to do that, and he said, “Yes, you do, Dad. You have yourself.” And I’ve been pondering that, the fact that I complain about having no one to love and be loved by, but I have myself. And valuing myself and taking care of myself is important right now, because I don’t have anyone else. One day he will come, and I’ll stop singing “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along,” and I’ll enjoy the fact that he has. And this man I hope to meet deserves to be with a guy who has his shit together. So I’ll keep learning to be the guy that the guy I’ll love will love.

This thought isn’t really related to anything, and I don’t have anything really to say about it, but it struck me as beautiful:

They say that when we sleep our subconscious selves are revealed, our hidden thoughts and desires are written plain upon our features and our bodies like the tracings of rivers on a map; and no one reads them but the darkness.

As we near the end, as their memories catch up to the present moment, Charles confronts them with the question of whether they are or are not parasites. They evade the question, but I think it’s important to say it outright: No, they are not. Artists are not parasites (and the idea of Celia as a parasite doesn’t even bear considering – cf the Surplus Woman Question of the nineteenth century). The word parasites assumes that they feed on us, that without our applause they would die. It’s just not like that. These artists create for the sake of the Art itself. Niall despises the people who whistle his songs, and Maria only notices the audience as a collective entity. Ordinary people like Charles are just not interesting to them. If anyone matters, it’s the other artists. She acts to prove that she can, both to herself and to the other actors. He writes music because he must, and to please his lover and his sister. There are rare occasions when a story will affect me that way, but when you work sixty hours a week and have a tiny apartment full of children and a talkative wife, as I did for several years, you learn to block it out. But if The Words are coming back, I want to welcome them. I want to make time to write; I want to have the energy and attention to get things down in the evenings. If I can use words well, I want to use them to make my friends’ hearts glad, to make the world beautiful. There’s nothing parasitic about that.

I dreamed I had finally become the person I wished to be all these years. I was sleeping with the weariness of sorrow in the middle of the journey of our life we call a dream, rüya, in a dark wood of high-rises in a muddy city where the faces are even gloomier than the gloomy streets, when I came upon you. For the duration of this dream, or some other story, it seemed as if you’d love me even if I didn’t manage becoming someone else; it seemed as if it was necessary that I accept myself just as I am with the same resignation I feel looking at my passport picture; it seemed like it was useless struggling to be in someone else’s shoes. It seemed as if the dark streets and terrifying buildings which stooped over us parted as we walked by, that our passage gave meaning to shops and sidewalks along our way.

It has taken me far too long to read this book. Part of this is because I met someone and I don’t seem able to manage a blog and a relationship at the same time (though at this point, if I had to choose, I’d choose the blog), and part of this is because the book reminds me of a very painful part of my life, so it was difficult for me to get through, even though it’s interesting and well-written.

Galip’s wife leaves him in the first chapter; she spends the novel as a memory or a dream, so it is appropriate that her name is Rüya, the Turkish word for dream. She spent a great deal of time reading detective novels, and Galip turns his life into one, searching for the missing woman, so urgently and ardently that she begins to seem like a metaphor rather than an actual presence in his life. He covers for her, concealing her flight from their family, so that no one knows what he’s lost.

My wife left me four years ago. Galip doesn’t learn the reasons for his wife’s leaving, but mine made it clear. She refuses to be the wife of a gay man. The mixed-orientation marriage involves too much insecurity for her and too much dissatisfaction for the husband. But even though people tend to assume I didn’t care too much, I felt all the same panic and despair that Galip and other straight men feel when their marriages collapse. I spent the nights wandering around Asheville, too agitated to stay at home, trying not to throw my pedestrian self into oncoming traffic. A few months ago, I stopped calling and talking to my kids because it involved talking to her, and I felt like I was finally moving on, but my son’s therapist intervened and now the ex and I are talking more than ever. I’m not happy with the situation, but I do love and miss my children, so maybe I can get closer to them.

As Galip’s search progresses, he loses track of himself. Rüya has been a part of every aspect of his life since he was ten years old, and without her, he doesn’t know who he is. I had this same trouble; I built my entire life and sense of identity around her, and without her, I didn’t know anything about myself. Galip and I both watched our selves fragment, and I’ve been working at building myself back from the pieces ever since. The book focuses on the first week of Rüya’s disappearance, so it’s too soon to really see Galip come back to himself.

Galip decides that Rüya must be holed up with Jelal somewhere. Jelal is her older brother, the enigmatic anti-example of Galip’s childhood and a famous newspaper columnist. He disappears around the same time she does, but since he does that periodically anyway, the family doesn’t notice. In some ways, Galip’s search for Jelal is what the book is really about, as if the complacency engendered by his relationship with Rüya is the obstacle that keeps him from really knowing himself and realizing his potential, happiness being the enemy of progress.

Galip eventually finds that Jelal has purchased the apartment they grew up in, but while he’s kept the furniture almost identical, he’s also filled it with his own interests and projects. The ones that impact Galip the most are the ones that inform Jelal’s writing, the teachings of Hurufism. The Hurufis are a part of the Sufis, who are Shi’a Muslims. The Hurufis are really involved with the study of letters, finding hidden meanings in words and their arrangements, as well as finding letters (and therefore meaning) in people’s faces. This emphasis on language makes me feel like we’re losing a lot in translation; Pamuk talks about the Turkish language and its Roman/Arabic/Persian influences, so reading it in English feels a little like looking in a store window when you know you can’t afford even to walk in the door.

The fourth main character (second one actually present) is the city itself, Istanbul. Galip’s search takes him all over the city, to the caves beneath which are full of realistic mannequins, through several different neighborhoods, from the dried-up Bosphorus to Beyoglu, which is apparently full of organized crime. Galip works at finding the letters on the face of the city, and he discusses the city’s identity crises as he experiences his own. A friend of mine once described Istanbul as indicative of Turkey itself: about a third of it mostly European, and the rest completely Middle Eastern. It makes more sense for Turkey to belong to the GCC than to the EU, according to him.

Eventually Galip loses track of himself so much that he starts writing Jelal’s column for him, and even the most dedicated/obsessed fans don’t notice the difference. Jelal was signalling rebel forces with his columns, using the Hurufi codes, and Galip works it out and tries to take his place, but it doesn’t really work.

When I came unhinged after the ex left me, I didn’t absorb another person’s identity. I started writing a blog, and I made that identity the part of me that couldn’t speak in my real life. Those two parts of me are mostly reintegrated by now, but they were always aspects of my own personality, not a favorite family member that I wanted to emulate.

I keep thinking that it must be possible to be in a relationship without losing my identity, but I don’t seem able to manage it. I may have been able to make it work with Mr Labor Day (he seemed pretty close to perfect to me, but then I only knew him for a few hours), but not now. The guy I’m seeing is . . . not really suitable. He has no talent for silence. He’ll run on for hours, and if I try to interrupt his monologue, I get run over. I sometimes feel that he’s less interested in a lover than in an audience. He’s an actor, so that may actually be how he sees people. The result is that I feel undervalued and ignored, and those assertive parts of me are going into hiding. He also doesn’t know how to help me. I get easily overstimulated in public, and it often looks like I have a serious social anxiety problem. Instead of helping me away from the crowd, he keeps mingling with the expectation that I’m going to look after myself. I think he doesn’t understand that I don’t really talk with strangers, so mingling in a crowd is neither fun nor productive for me. With the anxiety, I need help getting through without screaming “Get the fuck away from me!” at the entire room. Since overstimulation is part of the problem, holding my hand is not comforting. I need a quiet place where nothing is moving and no one is touching me. A third problem I have is with his ED. I understand that at a certain age, a man’s body doesn’t work the way it once did, and my silence on the subject has been a gift I can give him, but again, the end result is to lower my self-esteem. The fact that I need more sex than he is able to give makes me feel like a giant slut, as does the fact that being with him hasn’t slowed down my lusting after handsome strangers. I guess monogamy isn’t as strong a component of my character as I thought. And, of course, the more I think of myself as a whore, the more I’m going to act like one.

Throughout the book, Galip’s story alternates with Jelal’s columns, which Galip’s narrator then refers to. And eventually, those become Galip’s columns written under Jelal’s name. His fans interpret them differently than he intends, and the decoding of signs becomes a life-or-death situation. It’s a great book, one that will go more quickly if you don’t have my emotional issues. In some ways, his description of Jelal’s columns is true of the entire book: self-consciously artistic, longer than expected, and deeply meaningful.

Oh! and, I’ve been writing shorter pieces for a new blog. Check the link above.

UPDATE: Sorry the comment “Check the link above” was insufficiently specific. Right next to the link to the page Spoiler Policy, in the menu at the top of the site immediately above the banner, you see the words The Other Blog. That page contains a link to halfatheist.wordpress.com. <– or click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O M G. Of all the books in the Simon & Schuster catalog, why, why would you put a reading group guide in the back of this one? It is, first and foremost, a comic novel. We read it because it’s funny, not because it’s thought-provoking. Christopher Moore is my favourite bit of fluff, but then, since I read Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf for fun, I may have skewed definitions. Also, you’d think a house like S&S would be more careful about typos. This one is full of them.

I first read one of Moore’s vampire books around the time that I first read The Waves, so it’s feeling a bit like Old Home Week around here. I kind of need that because I’m in such an upheaval. Two weeks ago I was looking for work, and now I’ve moved halfway across the country and just finished my first week at my new job. I’m going to look at apartments this afternoon, and if that turns out well, I’ll move in on Monday or Tuesday. I’ve also registered on a dating site for the first time in my life, and it’s convinced me that I’m much more attractive than I had ever thought. Not that men are seeking me out, but I’ve seen some of their pictures. I am just not that inbred.

So, the book.

They might have been the Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. If each of them had been a trained professional, a gunfighter with a character flaw, or a broken warrior with a past – or if each had a secret reason for joining a suicide mission, an antihero’s sense of justice, and a burning desire to put things right – they might have become an elite fighting unit whose resourcefulness and courage would lead them to victory over those who would oppose or oppress. But the fact was, they were a disorganized bunch of perpetual adolescents, untrained and unprepared for anything but throwing stock and having fun: the Animals.

We begin by meeting the Emperor of San Francisco, a homeless senior citizen with two dogs. He’s loved and considered crazy by all. He sees a vampire and spends the rest of the book wandering through the city, helping people and hunting evil. He’s based on a real person; there was a homeless man who proclaimed himself Emperor of San Francisco, I think in the late nineteenth century. He even sent diplomatic letters to the heads of actual states. When he died, his funeral was one of the largest the city had ever seen. Moore imagines him forward into the mid-1990s, but I don’t think the Emperor would mind. Despite the fact that we see him pissing in alleys and sleeping on benches, dumpster-diving for dinner, he’s always portrayed as having this incredible sense of dignity and self-worth. He may need to bathe more frequently, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is the only royalty this city will ever have.

And then Jody gets turned into a vampire. She’s a petite redhead with a soulless job at Transamerica who lives with a too-good-for-all-this boyfriend named Kurt. He’s not important. She’s rather attractive but still has low self-esteem. Becoming a vampire is actually really good for her, because it helps her get past a number of mental blocks that had been preventing her from living her life.

Not long ago she would have been terrified if she’d found herself in the Tenderloin at night. She couldn’t even remember coming down here during the day. Where had that fear gone? What had happened to her that she could face off with a vampire, bite off his fingers, and carry a dead body up a flight of stairs and shove it under the bed without even a flinch? Where was the fear and loathing? She didn’t miss it, she just wondered what had happened to it.

It wasn’t as if she were without fear. She was afraid of daylight, afraid of the police discovering her, and of Tommy rejecting her and leaving her alone. New fears and familiar fears, but there was nothing in the dark that frightened her, not the future, not even the old vampire – and she knew now, having tasted his blood, that he was old, very old. She saw him as an enemy, and her mind casted for strategies to defeat him, but she was not really afraid of him anymore: curious, but not afraid.

In some ways, turning into a vampire for her is like getting divorced was for me. Once the worst thing you can imagine happens to you, you’ve nothing left to be frightened of. I’m not afraid of being alone, or of being really really poor, or of being hungry for a few months. I didn’t transition as quickly as she does, but the end result is similar.

And so we meet Tommy. He’s a sweet kid from the Midwest, probably not far from where I’ve just moved to, who wants to become a writer.

Finally Harley said, “Well, if you’re going to be a writer, you can’t stay here.”

“Pardon?” Tommy said.

“You got to go to a city and starve. I don’t know a Kafka from a nuance, but I know that if you’re going to be a writer, you got to starve. You won’t be any damn good if you don’t starve.”

“I don’t know, Harley,” Tom Senior said, not sure that he liked the idea of his skinny son starving.

“Who bowled a three hundred last Wednesday, Tom?”

“You did.”

“And I say the boy’s got to go to the city and starve.”

Tom Flood looked at Tommy as if the boy were standing on the trapdoor of the gallows. “You sure about this writer thing, son?”

Tommy nodded.

“Can I make you a sandwich?”

So, while visions of Kerouac dance in his head, Tommy drives to San Francisco to starve. He ends up sharing a room with five illegal immigrants from China who start leaving him gifts in the hope that he’ll marry them and they can get a green card. He gets a job supervising the night crew at the local Safeway, and meets Jody. She needs someone to handle daytime business transactions, like picking up her last paycheck and finding a new apartment, and he needs someone to rescue him from The Five Wongs. It’s a match made in . . . well, not heaven, but they could each do a lot worse (Kurt, one of the Wongs).

Tommy’s vampire bible is The Vampire Lestat, and apparently there are more subtle references to Anne Rice, including a chapter titled A Nod to The Queen of the Damned, but I’ve never read any of her books so I can’t comment. I haven’t seen any of the movies either. I once read the first chapter of The Witching Hour, but I was still caught up in being the perfect Christian husband and father, and I could tell that if I kept reading this book it’d take over my life and I’d be sucked into the world of horror fiction. I’ve got space in my life now; I suppose I could give her a try. The thing with a character in a book using another book as his vampire bible is that every author changes the rules. Count Dracula could go outside during the day; he was just weakened at sunrise and sunset. True Blood vampires can stay awake, but they start bleeding inconveniently and burst into flame in the sun. Jody burns in the sun, but she dies suddenly whenever the sun rises, and pops awake just as suddenly when it sets. She misses the speech about how to be a vampire, primarily because Elijah isn’t all protective of his progeny like the True Blood guys. He’s intensely lonely, so every now and again he turns someone into a vampire and watches her suffer and die over the first few days or weeks. Jody has to prove that she’s going to survive before he’ll teach her anything. Instead, he keeps leaving dead homeless people outside her apartment.

The murders, of course, lead to the police. Rivera and Cavuto are two of my favourite fictional detectives. Rivera is a little Latin guy, smart, good at his job. Cavuto is big, Italian, and gay; he overcompensates for that last one by being really aggressive. That whole hypermacho closeted thing. They do their job, making trouble for Tommy and Jody, then eventually helping.

The Animals are the stocking crew at Safeway. Most of them are not fully realized as characters – just a quick detail about skin colour or type of hair and a single personality quirk – but that’s what sequels are for. Their leader is Simon Wheeler, a loud cowboy type who can’t read, so probably isn’t qualified for any other sort of work. Simon is kind of like Tommy’s dad’s friend Harley, the Alpha who needs a Beta sidekick. Moore explores the psychology of the Beta male more explicitly in A Dirty Job, but you can see the traces of it in most of his books. Another sterling beta example is the protagonist of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. By the end of the book, though, Tommy doesn’t need Simon’s protection or guidance. He’s still a nineteen-year-old idiot (sorry, folks, it comes with the age. I was one too), but he can stand on his own feet.

It can be easy to disregard subtitles, but I think this one is important. This is a comic novel, yes, the cover art tells us that much. It’s also a vampire story, with some of those tropes thrown in. But the important thing here is that this is a love story. It’s about Tommy and Jody meeting and falling in love. They have some issues that make it complicated, but this is essentially a romantic comedy.

Jody thought, I guess not everything changed when I changed. Without realizing how she got there, Jody found herself at Macy’s in Union Square. It was as if some instinctual navigator, activated by conflict with men, had guided her there. A dozen times in the past she had found herself here, arriving with a purse full of tear-smeared Kleenex and a handful of credit cards tilted toward their limit. It was a common, and very human, response. She spotted other women doing the same thing: flipping through racks, testing fabrics, checking prices, fighting back tears and anger, and actually believing salespeople who told them that they looked stunning.

Jody wondered if department stores knew what percentage of their profits came from domestic unrest. As she passed a display of indecently expensive cosmetics, she spotted a sign that read: “Mélange Youth Cream – Because he’ll never understand why you’re worth it.” Yep, they knew. The righteous and the wronged shall find solace in a sale at Macy’s.

One other important thing to mention, though. We’re in San Francisco in the mid-90s. There are gay men everywhere, selling makeup, waiting tables, and dying of AIDS. It’s just that most of them are not main characters. And one of them proves that Moore, as well as making me laugh all the way through the book, can also bring me to tears.

His name was Philip. His friends called him Philly. He was twenty-three. He had grown up in Georgia and had run away to the City when he was sixteen so he wouldn’t have to pretend to be something he was not. He had run away to the City to find love. After the one-night stands with rich older men, after the bars and the bathhouses, after finding out that he wasn’t a freak, that there were other people just like him, after the last of the confusion and shame had settled like red Georgia dust, he’d found love.

He’d lived with his lover in a studio in the Castro discrict. And in that studio, sitting on the edge of a rented hospital bed, he had filled a syringe with morphine and injected it into his lover and held his hand while he died. Later, he cleared away the bed pans and the IV stand and the machine that he used to suck the fluid out of his lover’s lungs and he threw them in the trash. The doctor said to hold on to them – that he would need them.

They buried Philly’s lover in the morning and they took the embroidered square of fabric that was draped on the casket and folded it and handed it to him like the flag to a war widow. He got to keep it for a while before it was added to the quilt. He had it in his pocket now.

His hair was gone from the chemotherapy. His lungs hurt, and his feet hurt; the sarcomas that spotted his body were worst on his feet and his face. His joints ached and he couldn’t keep his food down, but he could still walk. So he walked.

He walked up Polk Street, head down, at four in the morning, because he could. He could still walk.

When he reached the doorway of a Russian restaurant, Jody stepped out in front of him and he stopped and looked at her.

Somewhere, way down deep, he found that there was a smile left. “Are you the Angel of Death?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“It’s good to see you,” Philly said.

She held her arms out to him.

This novel is a fairly straightforward adventure story for children. It reads very quickly, and seems to have affected the people at Walt Disney to an extraordinary extent. Their Pirates franchise draws a lot from this book. It’s been memorialized in films more frequently than that, though; there have been a number of adaptations. Despite its great popularity, when it first came out, someone bet H Rider Haggard that he could write a better novel without much effort, and because of that we now have King Solomon’s Mines and the other Allan Quatermain novels.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I couldn’t remember my childhood. I hadn’t thought of it in years. The ex had had a very happy childhood, despite the drawbacks of loneliness and poor income, so she kept asking me about when I was a child, and I started to remember things, and after a short time she asked me to stop telling her about my childhood. Apparently, it’s rather depressing, no matter how normal I find it to be. [Of course I think it’s normal; it’s the only childhood I’ve got.]

My parents split up when I was eight years old. Nowadays I think it was a very good idea; my mom likes babies and my dad likes sex, which seems like a good fit, but my mom didn’t like having sex and my dad didn’t like having quite so many babies. He tried talking her into various methods of birth control, but after conceiving the seventh time he got a vasectomy. My mom started sleeping on the couch, because there’s no point sleeping together if you’re not going to get pregnant. They never had much in common, and neither was having their needs met in the relationship. My dad also had bipolar disorder without having that word for it, so he was depressed almost all the time. When he realized that he was faced with either divorce or suicide, he chose life separated over faking a car accident so we could get the life insurance money.

What I remember is that my dad worked all the time; when he came home, he went out to his shed and worked on cars. We saw him very little, and when I did see him, I was petrified. I spent most of my childhood afraid. My mother had her own anger management issues, which she dealt with by emotionally distancing herself from her children. She only ever disciplined me herself once, and it was so horrifying that I resolved never to give her reason to spank me again. Never is always a strong word, but in the heart of a five-year-old it can set the course of his entire life. As for my siblings, I don’t know if there was a reason for it or not, but we were never kind to each other. We were never united against common obstacles. We suffered alone, in close proximity.

The divorce was not the big shock that these things sometimes are, even to a kid who didn’t see his parents fight. My dad faded slowly until he vanished completely. I understood it as running away; my oldest brother had already done that several times, as had the protagonist of nearly every sitcom we watched regularly. So it was completely normal to me, though perhaps my idea of normal isn’t quite standard.

As I think on it, I think that I must have read Treasure Island shortly after the divorce. [As mentioned, this period of my life is a little hazy.] I read it a few more times over the next couple of years, until I got out of elementary school. I hadn’t read it again until this week. Analyzing it as an adult/teacher/father, I can see the appeal for a kid in the situation I was in. Jim Hawkins, the first-person narrator, is growing up in his parents’ pub, when this pirate guy shows up. Hawkins Senior dies, pirate gets killed, and Mrs Hawkins digs through the pirate’s stuff to get the payment due to her when she finds a treasure map. Jim takes the map to the local squire and doctor/magistrate, and they decide to sail on off to find all that money. Unfortunately, the dumbass squire hires a huge gang of pirates to man the ship. They get to the island and somehow the pirates are even dumber than the squire and just about everyone dies.

The point is, Jim is unrealistically badass. He doesn’t kill everyone, but the adults place undue emphasis on keeping him alive. How is this kid so valuable? It doesn’t make sense. Also, he kills a pirate. Yeah, the guy is really old and drunk, but why have the little kid kill him at all? And how is he not traumatized after killing someone? It’s a kids’ book because no one else would believe it. On the other hand, for a kid, it’s really empowering. Jim Hawkins can be a badass almost-pirate, being brave and clever and all, so maybe I can too. I understand a lot of kids had this reaction to The Parent Trap. Not the Lindsay Lohan, the Hayley Mills – apparently kids’ movies in the ‘50s involved submission, obedience, and Father Knowing Best.

So maybe when I was reading Jim Hawkins, I could be him for a little while. I didn’t have to be stuck in this weird and awkward family situation where I didn’t feel that people cared about me; they kept leaving me instead. I mean, I lived with my mom, but she’d . . . forget me. Sometimes at home. Sometimes in public. She’d start counting kids in the rearview mirror when she was halfway home, then turn the van around. Así es la vida. These days she doesn’t forget me in public any more, but she still reminds me that the cats live at her house and I don’t. [Some people have sibling rivalry; I’m more jealous of the pets. I’d be happy if my mom could express affection for human beings.]

What I do remember about reading Treasure Island is that it made me feel grownup. It was a big fat book (by nine-year-old standards), with big words and long sentences and it includes real danger. It’s not the fluff that was targeted to my age group and gender in the 1980s; now I know it’s the fluff targeted to my age group and gender in the 1880s. I think the age of the book fed the mystique of maturity I was trying to access by reading it. In the years after the divorce, some of us went drinking, some of us dove into work or college, and I drowned myself in the library. I got to be all sorts of people; as long as I was reading, I didn’t have to be myself. I hid in books for a long time. A very long time. Eventually it was books that got me out of hiding – they helped me label my childhood as abusive (from neglect, not violence), and they helped me realize that I’m gay. They’ve helped me work though a lot of issues. They protected me when I needed it, and they brought me out when I needed it. I still feel safest with a book in my hand.

I’ve been taking stock of my life lately; not only am I quitting my job and moving to a different country, I’ve also very recently turned thirty-five. Back when I was young, thirty-five was the age limit after which I thought a person was no longer young. Now that I’m there, I’m not sure if that’s true. I always thought that when I grew up, I would be taller, balder, more responsible. Instead, most days I still feel like an emotionally tempestuous teenager with inexplicably grey hair and child support payments. I thought I’d be better at being a grownup. But then, when I hear people describe what they think youth is for, I wasn’t that good at being a kid. I wasted my salad days being overly religious (ploy for my mother’s approval; worked for a while, until I realized I was lying about having faith in all that), so maybe I’ll carry on feeling young until I do ‘being young’ correctly. Or maybe approaching middle age really is about being a little kid whose face is finally getting stuck being all liney. I knew I shouldn’t have made so many faces in the mirror, all these years. Oh well; too late to stop now.

Last weekend I found myself at one of the local bookstores, where I had a gift certificate from buying electronics a year ago. Their English-language selection is rather small, and last year was dominated by the works of Paulo Coelho. This year, Coelho is out and the battle for supremacy is being decided between Nora Roberts and Jude Devereaux. Neither of them writes books I care much for, so it’s a good thing I’m moving in a few weeks. I ended up with the only copy of the only book in the store I wanted to read, a recent Stephen King novel. When I was about two-thirds in, I was moving the book from the couch to the nightstand and took a good look at the cover. It’s not of a girl in a modest green-and-black dress; it’s of a girl in a low-cut short green dress after the censors saw it. It feels strange to own a book that has been thus altered.

Stephen King is famous for writing horror, which is a bit of a shame because I believe he is one of the best writers of our time, full stop. And, he doesn’t write just horror. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” for instance, the one about the banker (Tim Robbins) and the Irishman (Morgan Freeman) breaking out of prison, is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. As his career progresses, King seems to write more and more about the fact that the world doesn’t need imaginary monsters like It or The Tommyknockers; real people are monstrous enough.

Joyland is a coming-of-age murder mystery. Yeah, there are a couple of ghosts and a couple of psychics, but that doesn’t make it horror. Our first-person narrator, Devin Jones, is spending the summer he’s twenty-one working at an amusement park on the coast of North Carolina. There is no mention of the fact that we were called The Graveyard of the Atlantic (the shore was a bit too tricky for early sixteenth-century mariners). He makes new friends, gets over getting dumped by his first love, saves a few lives, and finds a real sense of identity wearing a big furry dog suit in the unreasonable heat. He stays on after summer’s end, makes friends with a terminally ill ten-year-old, and loses his virginity to an older woman. The murder mystery works its way in and out; people keep seeing the ghost of a girl who was killed in the haunted house four years previously, so Devin sets out to solve the murder as part of his growing-up process.

One of the things that sets this novel apart from the typical story of its type is that Devin is narrating from 2013 the events of 1973. This gives him the chance to drop wise commentary into the novel in a realistic fashion; it also means that he keeps interpolating epilogues. No sooner do we see Tom and Erin move closer together than Devin tells us about how long and happy their marriage was, how it lasted until death parted them more than twenty years after the story. It’s sweet, and pulls the emphasis off of the suspenseful murder-ghost part of things. I know that these people are going to survive, and even though he makes comments like

When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.

Devin Jones is a fairly reliable narrator. As you would expect from someone telling a forty-year-old story, he’s also a little nostalgic.

We could see other fires – great leaping bonfires as well as cooking fires – all the way down the beach to the twinkling metropolis of Joyland. They made a lovely chain of burning jewelry. Such fires are probably illegal in the twenty-first century; the powers that be have a way of outlawing many beautiful things made by ordinary people. I don’t know why that should be, I only know it is.

I’m not 61 yet, but I watch enough old movies and read enough old books to believe that this is true. I think it’s part of the paradoxical nature of the internet – everyone has a chance to make some art and get it out into the public, but so many people are doing it that no one becomes famous. Besides, most people use the internet to make the world uglier, by leaving unkind comments or spreading bad news. Some days, the time I spend on facebook is even more depressing than staring at the four blank walls of the studio apartment.

The day that Mike spends in Joyland is a really emotional section of the book for me. How can it not be? The kid is dying of multiple sclerosis, will be cremated in a few months, so Devin gets his friends to reopen Joyland for an afternoon. Mike rides all the rides (that his mother will let him) and wins all the prizes. I was also a rather unhappy child, growing up with a single mother, and while I’m still alive at very nearly thirty-five, I can understand what it’s like for someone who never gets to do anything to finally have the same kind of fun that everyone else takes for granted.

All I can say is what you already know: some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few. That was one of mine, and when I’m blue – when life comes down on me and everything looks tawdry and cheap, the way Joyland Avenue did on a rainy day – I go back to it, if only to remind myself that life isn’t always a butcher’s game. Sometimes the prizes are real. Sometimes they’re precious.

I also identify with Devin, in the big breakup with Wendy. Well, it was big to him, even though she dumped him by letter and just stopped taking his calls. I was married for eight years; it was the first time I really loved someone, and we were fairly determined to make it last forever. There were problems and we started pulling apart, but when I told her I could no longer pretend to be straight she was done. Like Devin Jones, I was depressed with suicidal ideation, and the only thing I had going on in my life was my job. He falls in love with his job and stays in North Carolina; I felt that my job was futile and moved to Saudi Arabia. Someone who had lived through a similar situation once called me brave for leaving; I think I was too cowardly to stay. I can’t imagine his bravery in staying in the same place to date guys where he had lived with his wife. Devin deals with the breakup in a few months; it took me about a year and a half.

I knew it was true, and part of me was sorry. It’s hard to let go. Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.

At twenty-one, I wanted someone who was beautiful, virtuous, and talented. I found her, we got married. I held on too long, long after my hand was clutching thorns and bleeding constantly. After the divorce, though my list of qualifications is still short, it has become rather different. I want a man who is kind, willing to forget offenses, and able to set boundaries.

This summer, I had an experience like this:

Ten years after the events I’m telling you about, I was (for my sins, maybe) a staff writer on Cleveland magazine. I used to do most of my first-draft writing on yellow legal pads in a coffee shop on West Third Street, near Lakefront Stadium, which was the Indians’ stomping grounds back then. Every day at ten, this young woman would come in and get four or five coffees, then take them back to the real estate office next door. I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw her, either. All I know is that one day I saw her, and realized that she sometimes glanced at me as she went out. The day came when I returned that glance, and when she smiled, I did, too. Eight months later we were married.

Something about this passage feels absolutely perfect. But the guy I saw – he’s in a town I’ve been moving in and out of for sixteen years; I’m sure I’d seen him before. But in July I saw him, for the first time with all the force of Devin Jones’s italics. There wasn’t time to do much before heading back into the desert, but I’m hoping to rectify that situation in the next few weeks.

In relation to sex, most horror films are as prudish as Chick tracts. If anyone has sex, he or she must die. Jason Voorhees once impaled two people right in the middle of it; in The Cabin in the Woods, the girl who has sex has to die first. The same thing happens in LGBT films before around 2010; the sex scenes are designed to make the audience uncomfortable, as if they’re horrific (pay attention to the music, lighting, and situation – you’ll see it).  Joyland’s attitude is different.

 “You better go now, Dev. And thank you. It was lovely. We saved the best ride for last, didn’t we?”

That was true. Not a dark ride but a bright one.

Sex can be horrific, no doubt. Chokers, rapists, and such. But it can also be bright, beautiful, joyful. Lovely. And even in a Stephen King novel, it’s not a one-way ticket to the death-house.

Usually in a murder mystery I can sit back and go along for the ride. This is the first time in a long time that I’ve given any thought to who the killer might be. I was right, but I figured it out by looking at the constraints of the narrative instead of the clues presented. The killer has to be a character in the story, not some random person off the street who hasn’t been involved in the action, and it has to be someone the audience cares about, preferably because of a charming personality trait or habitual gesture. For me, it’s usually the character I feel most strongly attracted to; I don’t actually think murder is sexy, but maybe my subconscious does.

So, it’s a cheap mystery paperback. Checking with the exchange rate, I got mine new for about $8.50. But it’s a very good mystery novel, one worth reading a second time. It’s a brilliant study in effective foreshadowing, for those of you writing your NaNoWriMo novels who want to get that technique down. I do hope that fifty years from now, when we’re studying the novels of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, Stephen King gets a good representation in the academy. He richly deserves it, more than many an author with an NBA or Pulitzer.