Posts Tagged ‘family’

This was originally published as Volume IV of Barker’s Books of Blood, but here in the U. S. it was given its own title as an independent story collection. Of the five stories here, four are about the same length as Gilgamesh, so I don’t know if I should call them short stories or novellas. This is why I generally borrow a term from music and call them ‘pieces.’

The Inhuman Condition

Karney finds a piece of string with three knots. As he unties them, monsters appear and do horrible things. The idea here is that we are an amalgam of the three: as humans, we are part reptile, part ape, and part child. It’s a karma story: bad things happen to bad people, while less-bad people are witnesses. The word condition echoes on in the other stories, which keeps pulling me back to this question, What is the human condition? What does it mean to be what we are? This story also introduces the idea of liberation; indeed, all these stories can be seen as breaking free.

The Body Politic

Hands revolt against the rest of the body. Protagonist glances down in an elevator to find himself holding hands with his boss. Eventually the hands start cutting themselves off to lead independent lives, leaving their humans to die of blood loss. The fear we’re playing on here is the idea that our bodies betray us, and don’t actually do what we want. It’s a rational fear; life is like when I (an unskilled player) try to play the guitar while drinking – I know where my hands go, but my fingers refuse to cooperate.

Dr Jeudwine came down the stairs of the George house wondering (just wondering) if maybe the grandpappy of his sacred profession, Freud, had been wrong. The paradoxical facts of human behavior didn’t seem to fit into those neat classical compartments he’d allotted them to. Perhaps attempting to be rational about the human mind was a contradiction in terms.

Freud claimed that there weren’t any accidents, that the subconscious mind always knows what it’s doing and acts on purpose, sometimes at cross purposes with the conscious part of our minds. Dr Jeudwine lives (briefly) in a world where the hands are no longer at the will of either conscious or subconscious; they have their own thoughts and their own wills. So I guess sometimes Freud was wrong. Now, that’s sort of a commonplace suggestion, and we talk more of his shortcomings than credit him for his good ideas.

Revelations

This story felt deeply meaningful to me, surprisingly powerful. It’s about the unhappy wife of a traveling evangelist, and the ghosts she encounters at a motel. Thinking back over it, I can’t put my finger on why this story felt so significant to me, but it really did. The ghosts are here on a quest for reconciliation: thirty years ago, she shot him in the chest at this motel and went to the electric chair for it. But the thing is, she’s still not sorry she shot him, and he’s still not sorry he cheated on her. People are themselves, and that doesn’t really change. Sometimes breaking up is the right thing to do. It’s unfortunate when murder is the only way to do say good-bye.

Everybody leaves something behind, you know.

I thought that I’d brought everything with me when I came back to North Carolina, but apparently I left most of my summer wardrobe in the Midwest, along with my winter coat and winter hats. It’s got me a little upset, not having the hat my best friend got me for Christmas eight months ago, or my favorite camouflage Superman T-shirt, but I think he’s going to bring them down, or possibly mail them. My car’s been acting up, so I only get out to see my friends on the three days that I work, which means that I’m quite sufficiently lonely to miss him and hope to see him again. The longer we’re apart the more those feelings will fade. I can recognize the fact that he isn’t good for me and still care about him; I guess that makes me strange in some ways. Then again, I’m on High Alert for other possibilities, so maybe it’s not him specifically that I miss.

Down, Satan!

This is the short one, only a sixth the length of the others. The title makes me think of some of the research I did into pre-Adamite religious groups in the Middle Ages, which sort of led into my briefly researching Medieval pornography (I was still a good Mormon back then, so I swear it was an accident, Mr Freud). But that’s not actually connected with the story. A man wants to have some sign from God, some personal communication, but feels ignored. He’s rich, so he donates a lot of money to charity, thinking that the visible signs of piety will attract God’s notice. It doesn’t work, so, after glancing back at his Old Testament, he decides to induce a divine intervention by flirting with the devil. Not just flirting, I suppose. He tries to build a replica of hell, and traps people there to torture them. Moral of the story: supernatural stuff is imagination, and nothing is more frightening than real people.

The Age of Desire

Scientists finally create an aphrodisiac that works, but it’s too strong. Their test subject was only interested in sex a couple of times a month, but after the injection it’s the only thing that exists for him. He attacks everyone he meets at first, even a cop who’s trying to arrest him. The cop enjoys it more than he’ll admit out loud, but the women end up dead. It’s sad. When he’s not having sex, he does enjoy the beauty of the world more than he ever had before, as if sexual desire amplifies aesthetic appreciation. But you can’t just rape women to death, so he eventually gets tracked down. During the chase, one of the law enforcement goes by a cinema, with the posters for a horror film in the windows:

What trivial images the populists conjured to stir some fear in their audiences. The walking dead; nature grown vast and rampant in a miniature world; blood drinkers, omens, fire walkers, thunderstorms and all the other foolishness the public cowered before. It was all so laughably trite. Among that catalogue of penny dreadfuls there wasn’t one that equaled the banality of human appetite, which horror (or the consequences of same) he saw every week of his working life. Thinking of it, his mind thumbed through a dozen snapshots: the dead by torchlight, face down and thrashed to oblivion; and the living too, meeting his mind’s eye with hunger in theirs – for sex, for narcotics, for others’ pain. Why didn’t they put that on the posters?

While it is true that I’m a good reader, so I react the way I should, and there were parts of the book that were really creepy, none of this made me as uncomfortable and disturbed as an utterly realistic film I watched the other night. One of my friends whom I met in Saudi Arabia told me that I couldn’t really be a Licensed Homosexual Male until I’d seen What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I reacted the way I always do when someone else tells me I must do something – I agreed outwardly, but it’s taken me four years to getting around to watching the film. It bothered me much more than any of Barker’s fantasies. I guess it speaks to things that actually worry me: being dependent on my family, which is also a web of unwilling obligations, and being destroyed by them. I was too uncomfortable to go to sleep afterward, so I stayed up watching Community, but I started to hear this heavy breathing, as if some large animal were in the room where I thought I was alone, and I got myself good and scared until I realized that I had dozed off and it was my own breathing that was scaring me.

If you like horror, this is a good little collection. It’s got blood and guts, supernatural weirdness, and monsters, and what else do you need? There are also places where you stop and think, about what is really frightening and what isn’t. If you know these stories were written by a man who wasn’t yet public about being gay, then you see the evidence: emphasis on liberation, the reversals of what is monstrous and what is safe, the interest in male bodies, the unwelcome pleasure of touching and being touched. But you can ignore all that and just see it as mainstream horror, and that’s fine too. It was a good way to pass a Sunday afternoon, waiting for the laundry machines to do their work.

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I’ve mentioned before that I love du Maurier’s awareness of the literary tradition, which she shows by telling updated versions of stories from the past – for example, many critics have pointed out the similarities between Rebecca and Jane Eyre. This time she does it again, but the story she’s retelling is by Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper. While Twain used the story to ruminate on social class and equality, du Maurier uses the same vehicle to describe something completely different.

One had no right to play about with people’s lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other.

Du Maurier’s novel is about personal responsibility, especially as it relates to family dynamics. The prince is the Comte Jean de Gué, who has recently failed to renew a contract and has thus ruined his family’s finances. The pauper is John, a historian from London who lectures at one of the universities. John spends all of his vacations in France, so his language ability is quite good. On one such vacation, he runs into Jean in Le Mans, and Jean drugs him and takes his place. John thus becomes a contemporary (1957) French aristocrat for a week. Until this point, John’s life has been mostly empty, without family, lovers, or close friends. When he is thrust into a family, with mother, sister, brother, wife, and daughter, it’s overwhelming for him. He spends the first half of the book trying to understand his place in this family, how they expect him to act, what actions of affection are considered normal in this family. As the first-person narrator, he tells us all about the changes in his personality, as he moves through shock and overconfidence to love. He makes all sorts of mistakes along the way – for a historian, he’s really slow about picking up on which girls Jean is sleeping with – but he comes through all right.

For me, there was a real shock and disappointment at the end. John is a little distant with the family and he makes some serious mistakes, but as Americans say, his heart is in the right place. He is figuring out what it means to love, and how to do it effectively. In the end, he finds a way to make each member of his new family happy, useful, and independent, or possibly interdependent. My shock was when the real comte returns, and he sees John as having dismantled his entire life. The comte is a cruel, power-addicted sadist – he likes his family to feel their dependence on him; he likes to feel them squirming under his thumb. John’s biggest blunder of all is assuming that Jean’s life is about love. To some extent, Jean has done the same thing to him: after living in John’s shoes for a week, he quits his job at the university, gives notice on his lonely apartment, and goes on permanent vacation. Everything is dismantled, but John’s life didn’t have people in it. There’s a strong implication that no one will miss him, or even much notice that he’s gone. But when I look at the life they’ve each lived in the de Gué family, I have very firm opinions on whose life is worthwhile and whose isn’t. John may not have attracted people to him, but when they are there, he does his best to treat everyone with love and respect. Jean is connected to many people in a tight web of mutual responsibility, but he has no interest in that responsibility. Everyone else has to dance to his tune, while he insists on playing whatever tune he likes.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I know what the title means, and John uses this word to describe himself. It’s commonly understood that the scapegoat is made to carry guilt that isn’t his, but consider the Jewish ritual. The animal is healthy and whole, and the priest heaps all the sins of the people on his head. These are the intentional sins, the unintentional ones having been atoned for by killing a bull. Then they beat the goat and chase it out of the community. If John is the scapegoat, it is essential that he be expelled. No matter how much he loves and is loved, no matter how better fitted he is for the position than Jean, he cannot stay. Cynics will find this ending more realistic than the one I was hoping for, but optimists will be as upset as I was.

I was quick to assign one character to the role of prince and the other to pauper, but the actual financial situation seems to indicate the reverse. Jean has an uncertain income based on a failing glassworks while most of the family fortune is entailed on an as-yet hypothetical male heir (I’m guessing the estate doesn’t bring in anything, or not enough to speak of); John has a steady job, and even if he is unemployed at the end, his habits of saving and living quietly mean that he is in no hurry to find work. Jean accuses him of loving the luxury of his house, but John doesn’t notice it. I think this could be indicative of the aristocracy in general after World War II – old family fortunes on the wane, being replaced by the middle class who works for their money and husbands it well.

The historical moment is very important in this story. During World War II, we know that France was occupied by Germany, but despite having read other books set in this time (I’m thinking specifically of Five Quarters of the Orange), I hadn’t much considered the conflict between the Resistance and the others, largely seen as collaborators or appeasers. Twelve years after the end of the war, these divisions are still significant, and John’s drunken jokes about shooting people at the big annual hunt are a little too on target. In the United States we talk about polarization, and people’s political opinions are becoming more vehement (or I’m becoming more aware of the vehemence they’ve always had), but few people are being killed because of them. After the election the university campus was covered with the hashtag gayandscared, but I never really was. I rely strongly on people’s combination of kindness to strangers and apathy on political matters in daily life. This part of France at this time in history doesn’t have that mix.

The thing that John understands that Jean doesn’t care about is the fact that we have a responsibility to ease the suffering of the people around us. In pursuit of relieving suffering, John causes some, but in the end he hits on a plan where each member of the family can live with the least possible amount of pain. I realize that reducing life to an analysis of quantifiable suffering is a very utilitarian Buddhist thing to do, but in the context of this book it makes sense. The principal difference between John and Jean is their approach to other people’s pain, whether they seek to increase or relieve it. When I think about my own family behavior, I know that I’m often careless of other people’s pain, but at least I don’t try to increase it.

My big struggle right now is figuring out how to explain to him that I’m moving to North Carolina in a way that will cause the least pain. I realize that enough time has passed since I made the decision that that ship has probably already sailed, but still. I don’t like to see him suffering, and he’s doing a lot of that right now on issues that are unrelated to me. I feel bad about taking his last support from him, but I also have my own suffering to attend to, and I know that in the long run, he won’t be happy if I keep increasing my unhappiness. And the longer I stay away from my kids and the place I think of as home, the greater my suffering becomes.

So, fellow du Maurier fans, I’d say that this is a good one. I don’t always connect well with her stories, but this one I really did. The last twenty pages or so are hard, but the rest is fantastic.

This book glories in the use of pronouns. So much so, that at the beginning of a chapter it can be difficult to know whose perspective we are reading from. So much so, that the main character in the book is never named, but we have enough clues to deduce that he is Sherlock Holmes, nearly ninety, living in the country during World War II, keeping bees.

Holmes enters our story as a crazy old man yelling at children. More specifically, at a young German Jew who’s been evacuated to the English countryside to avoid the concentration camps. The boy is about to piss on the third rail that carries electricity to the train cars and the aged detective is trying to save his life, but since the boy rarely speaks and rarely understands English, all he sees is the crazy old man. The boy is always accompanied by a parrot who repeats strings of numbers. British spies keep trying to figure out the secret of these numbers, believing them to be a kind of code. This book even becomes a murder mystery because of the bird and his numbers. But Holmes is more interested in finding the kidnapped bird than the killer. I suppose retirement gives people a different perspective.

Throughout the story, people react to Holmes in different ways, but they seem to regard him as a relic of the past, a Victorian curiosity to have survived almost into the Postmodern Era. Yet, at the end, he comes to a very Modern, very un-Victorian conclusion:

The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings – the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted – had he not? – by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might so conclude, really, he thought, one might.

There were a few Victorian writers and thinkers who saw the lack of meaning in the world around them, who understood that human meaning is a human construction, but they were largely disreputable (which is not to say that their books didn’t sell). Dickens was so successful because you could read his books aloud to your children without the fear of any unchristian ideas entering their heads. He was a social reformer, it’s true, but he always approached his unpalatable subject matter with circumspection. He wouldn’t have made his doubts so explicit.

Much as I find the Victorian novels’ certainty about the world so comforting, in my own mind I side with Chabon’s Holmes. We have the inborn need to bring order to chaos – part of my discomfort with children is their apparent comfort with chaos – but the order is essentially manmade, not intrinsic to the things we arrange. Why do I fold towels the way that I do, or keep them in the places where I do? It doesn’t matter to the towels. Left to themselves, they’d end up on the floor in a heap. They want to become an undifferentiated mass of terrycloth, and I’m standing very firmly in the way. One of the things that I find difficult about living with a family is that my ordering hand is not master here.

For all that this book is a mystery, and the subtitle links it to detection, it is not so much a story about finding as it is a story about losing. The boy loses his parrot. The minister loses his faith, and his son. Holmes walks into a clearing and for a few seconds cannot bring meaning to the shapes he sees – he loses his ability to interpret optical data. I suppose this could be my own sense to the book, since some of the lost things are found, but most of them are not. The numbers are a secret between the boy and the parrot, and not even Holmes discovers their sense. Life seems to be unravelling, which is not a sensation I particularly enjoy. And indeed, there’s some of that in my life – sleep is not knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care – I’d like to be able to bring the issues to a swift decisive conclusion, but that is not really realistic. By summer’s end, things will be done.

Written in the late 1990s, this is a novel about Taiwanese homosexual men. In many ways, the story was really depressing, not just because the first-person narrator writes as a way of coping with his grief after his friend dies.

I boarded the first plane to Tokyo, then took the Ome Line train to Fussa. At the Fussa Clinic I saw Ah Yao, sunk into the hollow of his bedding, and spent his last five days with him. I can still say that AIDS is horrifying, but the price of loneliness is higher.

No, the much more depressing fact about the book is just how little of it is uniquely Taiwanese. With different names, this could have been about gay men in the United States. They follow the same culturally approved pattern that gay men in the west do: they accept their sexuality sometime in their teens or early twenties, then they run after sex like they have to meet a quota – like if they don’t sleep with a thousand different men before the age of twenty-eight, they have to give up being gay and marry a woman – and then they die of AIDS. Thanks to advances in technology, the dying-of-AIDS part is happening a lot less now than it used to, but this book is set during the 1990s, so the gay community is more strongly marked by absence and loss.

But even though the loss is devastating, I have to come back to this cultural question. Why are gay Asian men so similar to gay North American men? Is Taiwan so invested in American culture that some people are losing their connection to their own traditions? Ah Yao runs off to live in San Francisco and New York, just like any other gay man of the time, but the narrator lives primarily in Taipei. Is it true what I read in that homophobic French book about masculinity a while back, that there are noticeable cultural similarities among all gay men, no matter what their culture of origin? Or is it as the narrator thinks, that being gay necessarily separates us from the culture of our country, and that without procreation we have no place in normal society?

This last question I must answer with an emphatic No. I admit that the world has changed in the last twenty years, so I may not be reacting to the same world that these characters are, but I do not see any great separation between Us and Them. Thinking of my own experience, Dallas has a Gayborhood, but we’re not required to live and work there. Two of my friends got together because they taught in the same school, and the students encouraged them to get together – at a time when I would have been in middle school. Most of my gay male friends have close relationships with heterosexual women. And, oddly enough, a lot of gay people seem to be closer to their parents than straight people. Because we have fewer responsibilities with spouses and children, it is easier for aging parents to rely on us to fulfill their needs. That doesn’t really apply to me, since I have six siblings who are all more willing to care for our mother than I am, and a couple of them could be coaxed into caring for our father. Also, I’ve spent more than thirty years cultivating the image among my family that I’m useless in practical concerns, so I doubt they actually expect much from me.

But from what I can see, gay people are actually quite interested in whatever culture is happening around them. Maybe they’re in local theatre companies, or attending local art exhibitions, or reciting a liturgy in some High Church service, but we’re pretty deeply involved in local culture. The specifically gay aspects of our lives we save for the people who care about them, just like Christians who don’t talk about their religion at work. For example, I’m interested in my family history, which is one of my mother’s big interests, encouraged by her religious beliefs. I don’t have to believe that they’re converting to my way of thinking in the afterlife to want to learn who they were and how they lived.

We do see a hint of this with Ah Yao, who lives with his mother and tortures her by bringing his boys home to have really loud sex while she tries to turn the television loud enough to cover the noise. It’s one thing to say that your parents have to accept who you are, but being rude about it is something else. I mean, straight people don’t shove their sex lives in their parents’ faces; there’s no need for us to do that.

But I suppose the cultural similarities make the book easier to relate to. It seems to have been one of a short series of Taiwanese novels to be translated; I think the translation process is difficult because so few works make it across the Pacific. And really, find a forty-year-old gay man who can’t identify with this:

Eventually we had to admit to ourselves that there was no true hair restorer anywhere, just as there was no elixir of immortality. We admitted that our youth was gone and that we were paying the price for exhausting our energy and vitality as young men. We aged earlier, developed addictions, were afflicted with hidden illnesses, and died young.

I take issue with the idea here that aging prematurely is the result of too much gay sex, as if they’re being punished for having enjoyed their youth. I was celibate until marriage (age 24), completely faithful to my wife for eight years, and didn’t have gay sex until I was 34. Still, at 37, my hair is getting thin enough that I’ve nearly got a bald spot in the back, it’s greyer than that of people fifteen years older than I am, and I have to work hard to keep my weight reasonable. Age happens to us all; it’s not a punishment. And even if it were, it would be happening to everyone, regardless of their sexual habits or orientation. The signs of aging are much more likely to be caused by stress, or in other words, not enjoying life enough. Being happy in a way that doesn’t make you feel guilty seems key.

Paradoxically, Narrator and I seem to have reached the same conclusion by taking opposite paths:

My greatest consolation was to be alone with words in a clean house.

Eventually he finds someone like himself, who enjoys quiet activities and great sex, and they’re very happy together. I keep hoping that someday I’ll find my Yongjie, but I haven’t yet. I meet people (and hear stories of them) who realize that they’re happier without trying to find someone, so they live their lives alone. I’m not there yet, and I don’t think I ever will be. As I described myself to one such friend, when I’m eighty-five and living in a nursing home I’ll be flirting with the hot young seventy-year-olds. I don’t believe that I’ll ever stop looking for love. Now that I’m certain that it won’t happen with my current him, I keep looking outward, hoping one day to meet someone who likes reading and hiking and being quiet as much as I do. I’m not quite ready to leave him yet, but I’m gearing myself up for it.

Narrator gives his memories in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, so sometimes it’s hard to know what the timeframe is. I’m not sure it’s all that significant, anyway.

While I’m on the subject of gay culture, I want to mention a couple of other things. Yes, it’s great that we have the right to marry (in the United States) and there’s a general degree of acceptance. However. We’ve accomplished this by pushing the idea that ‘We’re just like you,’ which means that whatever truly unique aspects our community had are passing away. My friends are skipping the Columbus Pride parade because “it’s too family-friendly.” Gay is the culturally approved method of being edgy and cool, so we’re targets for hipsters who don’t want to try too hard. Sometimes I feel like we’re pit bulls who have had our teeth pulled. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the concept of the Gay Best Friend. To see this in action, watch the gritty reboot of the Archie comics, Riverdale. Now, most of this I thoroughly enjoyed, but I seriously object to the way that Veronica treats Kevin. When she first arrives in Riverdale, she’s happy that she can have a GBF, but she basically treats him like an adorable accessory instead of a human being. Most of the time she ignores him, but when she wants to rebel she takes him out for the evening. It’s odd because the writers try so hard to humanize and soften her in every other respect. I guess it’s still cool to Other gays as long as you do it in the same way you shave your poodle. Betty just treats him like her best friend, where being gay is about as significant as having brown hair, which I take as a sign of sincerity and moral value. I was a little worried about the series because I don’t have a lot of patience for high school drama, but this first season at least is a murder mystery, which I love. Riverdale isn’t as good as How to Get Away with Murder, but it held my attention. The series I’m enjoying with (I think) a healthy attitude toward sexuality is Sense8. It’s about eight people whose minds are linked, so as they share ideas and experiences, the sexuality becomes more fluid. The gangster and the cop, tough as they are, get mentally linked into the gay sex and participate, but it doesn’t diminish any of their stereotypically masculine qualities or behaviors. It’s like in Penny Dreadful when Ethan Chandler has a night with Dorian Grey without compromising his identity.

Anyway, back to Taiwan. This book was short and kept me reading, but it’s not happy. It’s one of those stories where being gay is a tragedy and leads to death, and even when Narrator finds his husband and settles down, he tells us of his insecurity and unhappiness rather than his joy. There are so many great things in the lives of gay men; I don’t want to spend all my time with this kind of depressing material. Maybe back then people weren’t talking about our joy, but we are now. Let’s tell happy stories; after all, Ginsberg’s line in “Howl” is about screaming with joy, not pain. Let’s spread the joy – the world has enough of the other stuff.

There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.

A friend of mine was asking about this book a few weeks ago, and I’d never read it, or anything by Lewis, so I gave it a go. I studied literature because I wanted to read books and talk about them with intelligent people, so the emailed conversation we’ve been having has been a rare joy. And I’ve realized that I’ve been conflating Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, which sort of happens when you’ve never really read anything by either.

George F. Babbitt, as my friend pointed out, is the classic Trump supporter, only back in 1920. He’s solid middle class, at a time when that was possible. His is the America that people look back to as being great, prosperous and conformist and sexist and anti-immigration and would probably be racist if there were any other races represented.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. It if was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it.

The people in Babbitt’s life are all pretty much the same. Their god is named Pep, and they all go around “boosting” each other, which I take to mean they advertise each other’s businesses in a loudly jovial fashion. Even their poetry sounds like an ad campaign. Relationships are kind of weird. He never really wanted to marry his wife, he never even asked – one night she was crying on his shoulder and he kissed her and she assumed that meant marriage, so he never contradicted her.

And the strange thing is that the longer one knew the women, the less alike they seemed; while the longer one knew the men, the more alike their bold patterns appeared.

I’d like to talk about gender, because that is one of those things I habitually do, but there’s not a whole lot here. Babbitt tries to avoid spaces that are coded feminine; he doesn’t even sleep in the bedroom, but on a sleeping-porch. He flees his house to get back to masculine spaces, like his real estate office.

The novel is organized as a three-act tragedy. The first part establishes Babbitt’s normal life, with his iron-clad habits and habitual dissatisfaction. The blurbs keep saying this is a book about complacency, but I don’t see the joint pleasure that word implies. His phonograph needle is stuck in this one groove, but he doesn’t like it.

He was conscious of life, and a little sad. With no Vergil Gunches before whom to set his face in resolute optimism, he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business – a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion – a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical gold and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships – back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.

He turned uneasily in bed.

He saw the years, the brilliant winter days and all the long sweet afternoons which were meant for summery meadows, lost in such brittle pretentiousness. He thought of telephoning about leases, of cajoling men he hated, of making business calls and waiting in dirty anterooms – hat on knee, yawning at fly-specked calendars, being polite to office-boys.

“I don’t hardly want to go back to work,” he prayed. “I’d like to – I don’t know.”

But he was back next day, busy and of doubtful temper.

Paul Riesling is important – he and Babbitt complain about their mutual unhappiness, and that releases the pressure so Babbitt can go back to his boringly successful existence. This is the part where I usually speculate on the possibility of their being gay, but no. There are opportunities for that, but I don’t think they go there. It is possible for two heterosexual men to enjoy each other’s company without either of them secretly wanting to have sex.

Act Two describes Babbitt’s rise to power. Lewis always points out the ways that Babbitt is successful, but not the most successful. He belongs to the second-best clubs – nothing is ever quite of the best. But then he starts getting a reputation for being an orator, and makes some well-received public speeches (that to me sound like meaningless jingoism), and he starts climbing the social ladder. In this part of the book, Babbitt is frequently reminded of the fact that there is a pecking order and what his place is in that order – knocked down by those above, slavishly adored by those below.

Frankly, this first two-thirds was sort of dull to me. Conspicuous consumption and the expected indiscretions, like having whisky at a dinner party during Prohibition. His neighbors on either side represent his superego and his id, and it’s all sort of predictable and episodic and boring. Babbitt’s life is boring. It’s hard for me because I see so much of this in my family; they follow the round of business and church and the collective life. There’s a certain degree of comfort in all of it, but it feels like a hairshirt to me. The thing is, that life in gay land isn’t much different. The gay men I’ve met are just as conformist as everyone else, and the cultural push to marriage equality celebrated this fact. Look at us, we’re just as boring as straight people. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like some more prosperity in my life, but I’d prefer a home life with fewer possessions and organizations. Frequent moving has made my life fairly Spartan, both in design choices and social activities. Home is where I go to relax, not to be overstimulated by a lot of people who need attention and a mountain of stuff that needs to be cleaned.

Babbitt’s story gets interesting (to me) when he starts to fall. It starts with Paul Riesling shooting his (own) wife and going to jail. Without that safety valve to release the pressure, Babbitt goes off the rails. His wife goes off for a visit to her sick sister, and he starts going out with a lovely widow who was a lot of young scandalous friends. But as he gets farther and farther into this group, they demand an equal amount of conformity, just of a different variety. They’re just as involved in every aspect of each other’s lives, they just prefer a different sort of life. It’s kind of sad. He learns to hold his liquor and dance the latest steps, but he’s not actually more independent than he was before. His rebellion is as neatly prescribed as his previous life. But then the old crowd cuts him, and he pulls himself out of the new crowd, and he sinks to the bottom. Unlike a good many tragedies, though, he rights himself. His wife gets appendicitis and spends two or three weeks in the hospital. It may seem like the crowning tragedy, but the sympathy generated brings him back into the fold of conservative, right-thinking people. He ends where he began, but with a little less rigidity.

As he began to drift away he also began to see her as a human being, to like and dislike her instead of accepting her as a comparatively movable part of the furniture, and he compassionated that husband-and-wife relation which, in twenty-five years of married life, had become a separate and real entity.

The whole thing does improve his relationship with his wife; at least, he has more respect and consideration, and I guess that can take the place of love. I want to live with someone who is kind, and that seems the most important quality to me these days. My current he is kind to me, and good to his family and friends generally. We have some cultural differences that may be irreconcilable – he doesn’t find the strange to be beautiful – but it works for right now.

This week I read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” with my advanced class, and Babbitt is the sort of person the essay decries. He flies from one conformity to another, and never really settles into living by his own values and opinions. His independent thoughts are only for private time and aren’t permitted to dictate changes to his public life. I’m not saying that I never do this. It’s not like Emersonian self-reliance is easy, and I don’t think an extreme devotion to it is healthy because we do need to live in communities. But living according to one’s own opinions and values is important; it’s a vital part of what being American means to a lot of us. Maybe twenty-first century mobility and communication have been necessary to both embrace one’s own priorities and still live in a community. If so, the internet is a great gift to the world.

Sinclair Lewis’s style matches his subject matter. It’s clear and impartial, occasionally descriptive but never really effusive. The book is a good one for people who are interested in the daily lives of the Midwestern middle-class in 1920, but my final evaluation is pretty much the same as my evaluation of the protagonist: not bad, but not interesting enough to keep my attention.

Before I get into Shen Fu, I have a confession to make. Because I love The Woman Warrior, I’ve been trying to read Maxine Hong Kingston’s fiction, but it’s been killing my motivation pretty quickly. This is the second time it’s happened, so I checked something. Tripmaster Monkey, the one I was reading last week, features a character named Wittman Ah Singh, and I find him thoroughly unlikable (in the first chapter, which I didn’t finish). I looked back at The Fifth Book of Peace, which I’d started a few years ago – the first section, the one on the San Francisco Fire, is great, but then she starts telling a story about that same guy, Wittman Ah Singh! I couldn’t stand him then either! Maybe I need to find a book of hers that isn’t about him.

Shen Fu lived in the later part of the Eighteenth Century, in China. Some things were weird and foreign, yes, but what surprised me is just how similar he is to British authors writing around the same time, like Coleridge, Blake, and Wordsworth. Lavish descriptions of nature, interest in ruins and other picturesque features of the landscape, travel, and fragmented narrative. Each of these six records shows a different side of his life, but they don’t follow each other chronologically.

First, he talks about the happiness of his marriage. He marries a girl who seems like his intellectual (but not social) equal, so they make jokes about literature and laugh all the time. He and Yün are very happy and love each other very much. Yeah, sometimes they leave a party drunk and he sends her on ahead so he can have sex with a stranger, but attraction to third parties doesn’t change their feelings for each other. They live in beautiful places and find joy in their everyday lives. Besides, in China at the time lesbianism was kind of a normal thing that didn’t upset straight marriages. His wife has a couple of very dear friends, and whenever they come over the three women get the bed and he gets the couch, which he accepts with the same good cheer that men in my society accept “Girls’ Night Out.” In their early thirties, she starts looking for a concubine for him, but she’s really looking for a woman she can love too. When they find one, she falls hard for her, but it doesn’t work out and she becomes seriously depressed.

But later Han-yüan was taken off by a powerful man, and all the plans came to nothing. In fact, it was because of this that Yün died.

Ending the chapter like this, it seems like we’ve started a murder mystery, but there is no mystery. Grief and stress rob Yün of her health and kill her at the age of forty.

The second part is about his hobbies, so there’s a two-page section on flower arranging. He likes entertaining and landscaping. He is quite the aesthete.

Third, we have the story of his sorrows. Life with Yün isn’t a bed of roses, like it may have seemed in the first part. His parents don’t really like her, which makes for some serious problems. He’s not that great with money, or holding down a job, so they’re always poor and relying on friends for help. His parents also don’t like Han-yüan, so they’re part of the plot to prevent the concubine thing from working out. Nevertheless, he takes his father’s death pretty hard, as well as his younger brother’s attempt to take over as head of the family. He talks about his children here, but not in the first part, and I take that to be a little odd since my children were the happiest part of my marriage, but he is separated from them and his son dies in childhood, so it makes sense.

The fourth story is about his traveling. Up until now, Yün has seemed like the protagonist of this story because everything he talks about involves her. But he spends a lot of time away from her, following the demands of his changing professions, and maybe she really was happier living with a girlfriend than with him. This is the longest section of the book, so I think that spending time away from each other must have been critical to maintaining the happiness that was so strong in the first chapter. When he goes to the Land of the Floating Whorehouses (my title, not his), he looks for a girl who reminds him of his wife, and even though there are several girls living in the houseboat he sticks with the one he likes. His friend makes the rounds, though. He’s always traveling with some close male friend, so maybe there’s some male homosexual behavior going on too, but he never alludes to the possibility of that. The closest we come is when he talks about being in a room with a few friends and all their rented girls and being teased for wanting a private room. I’ve never been in a room with people who are having sex when I’m not involved, so I think it must be very awkward, but I suppose in a society that’s less puritanical it’s like watching a porn video. Except that it features your friends and coworkers. Even when I was in an all-male workplace, I still wouldn’t want to see my coworkers naked. I would be really uncomfortable.

Hsin-yüeh had a son named Chu-heng who was quiet and well bred. We never quarreled, and he was the second close friend I have had in this life. The pity is that we only met like bits of duckweed drifting on the water, and were not together for long.

This is why I hang onto Facebook, even when it’s full of sad news about world events. My entire life has been drifting along a stream, and I meet many interesting and lovely people, but then I move away, or they do, and we are never together for long.

I know it’s called the Six Floating Records, but today there are only these four. The other two have been lost to time. People have claimed to find them, but so far all “recovered chapters” have been forgeries. Some scholars think he may not have finished writing them, like one of those verse dramas by the English Romantics that are only ever published in fragments. He gets to the end of his travels, especially the traveling he does to recover from his wife’s death, and the book just ends with no real conclusion.

I felt very close to Shen Fu while I was reading his book, like he’s telling the story of my hypothetical life in China two hundred years ago, being bad at business but interested in art and literature and history and making everyday life beautiful. The Chinese astrologers would say that this makes sense, because we’re both born in the year of the Goat. Goat babies are unlucky, vain, unable to save money, and very proud of their homes. We like our lives to be nicer than we can afford on our own.

Normally this would be the part where I talk about him and how great it is that I live with someone who has a job and likes to take care of me, but he’s been out of work for the last six weeks and it’s given me a lot of stress because I don’t make enough money to support my kids and myself, much less another person. But he’s being trained in a new position this weekend, so I’m hoping that our financial situation will improve very soon.

Hope is so very important. Shen Fu and Yün are always hoping something will turn up, and it always does. There’s a certain amount of drift involved in living by hope, the Floating from the title. After she dies he loses his hope that anything good will happen again. I’ve heard depression defined as the inability to see a future, and that is his problem not just in his widowerhood but throughout his life. He doesn’t plan specifics – there’s only the vague hope that things will work out. It’s like when The Ex got pregnant for the first time, and we went to the midwife and she asked, “What form of birth control were you using? Hope?” Hope is not an effective method of preventing pregnancy, nor is it an effective tool for taking control of your own life. Relying only on hope means that your life will be determined by external events; it keeps the locus of control outside of yourself. However, for those of us who frequently feel that our life is in fact controlled more strongly by sinister outside forces than by our own will, hope is also the only thing we have to hold on to. Hope gives us a way out, a light in the darkness. Hope is our escape. Hope gives us the ability to sketch a vague plan that can keep us from dying from depression. Yün loses hope and dies. Shen Fu’s friends keep supplementing his hope with their own, keeping him alive long enough to find goodness in the world again.

This is a short and beautiful book, and it apparently gives us the most detailed look into private life in this period of Chinese history. I enjoyed it thoroughly. When I first came out a lot of people were after me to tell my story, but the task always seemed too big. This may be a good approach, though, taking just one element at a time. It could be a way for me to get a handle on it.