Posts Tagged ‘film’

After reading a few literary novels and the memoir, I have to admit that I was ready for some brain candy, and the skeleton hand clawing the gravestone on the cover promised that this would be just the ticket. And of course, the tagline

To possess the amulet is to be possessed by evil beyond imagining

meant that this book was going to be way too lurid to be thought-intensive. And man, were my preconceived notions justified. I know that old adage about judging a book by its cover, but in this modern world of marketing and maximizing customer experiences, I feel like book covers can be pretty reliable.

I’m not sure if they ever use the word, but this is a book about a zombie attack in a small village in the UK. There are some aspects of this town that are strange to start with – both the head librarian and the police inspector are far too young to occupy such roles of authority. Maybe that wasn’t such a big deal in the 1980s, but these days we don’t expect a twenty-two-year-old man and a twenty-one-year-old woman to do that sort of job. We value age and maturity, which these two lack. They’re a married couple, so I suppose that most readers would rather read a sex scene between two people young enough to have strong metabolisms. I mean, I’m in my late thirties and my new guy is nine years older, but the sexual experience is just as intense for me now as it was back in my newlywed days. In writing, we describe sex as the characters perceive it, so they don’t have to be porn stars like Neville’s protagonist and his wife, the Lamberts.

You know, it’s a trope of horror stories that people who have sex end up dead, and that’s seen as proof that the writers/directors/producers need to punish the beautiful fuckers, but this book made me doubt that interpretation. Yes, the teenagers who engage in premarital intercourse get zombified immediately, but the married couple are fairly sex-positive and have quite a few graphic scenes without getting killed. You could argue that they survive because they’re married, but I think there are two strains converging: (1) nearly everyone dies in these stories, so whether a person has had sex on camera or not isn’t really the best way to differentiate, and (2) guys like sex just as much as women do, but most of your sexually graphic material is contained in romance novels and directed at women. A book like this gives men a chance to read some juicy bits in a story where they can recognize themselves as the obvious hero, where the emotions are simple and not harped on about.

So, the action starts with a grave digger finding a magic amulet on a corpse buried outside the cemetery. I think they were preparing the ground for consecration or some such. The amulet turns him into our Zombie Zero, the origin of the plague. From there, things progress as they do in zombie pictures – people disappear while the undead take over the streets at night. The amulet provides the opportunity for some anti-occultism, because this was the ‘80s. I think there’s some social commentary going on here as well; the prevailing narrative seems to be that the British lower classes are only waiting for a tiny spark to turn on each other in heartless violence, and that it’s necessary to preserve the aristocracy to protect them from themselves. While the police inspector and his wife have personalities, most of the characters are fairly unimportant and flimsy. This is the story of an entire community, so the individual faces aren’t often significant. Zombie stories are, after all, about losing a sense of individual identity, and it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether a person is alive or undead, they’re all part of the mass.

I’m an American, but I consume a lot of British media, so English ways don’t always seem foreign to me. However. I had forgotten that the British police don’t carry guns on a regular basis. I know that there’s the stereotype of the gun-crazy American, and I don’t usually fit that, but during a zombie outbreak you need some guns because cricket bats just don’t have enough range to keep you safe. So when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost run to the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead, it’s because the rifle over the bar is the only gun they’re aware of in town. Lambert and his officers have to go to Nottingham to get some guns, and then they have to train with them because none of them are any good at shooting. As an American, this seems appalling. Our law enforcement officials are prepared for zombie outbreaks at all times. Or, you know, outbreaks of normal peaceful living by people of color.

The gun thing doesn’t seem like a big deal in the long run, because most of the zombies are killed when Lambert burns down the cinema. George Romero’s zombies congregated in a shopping mall because conspicuous consumption was the cultural attitude he was protesting; I guess Neville feels that the English are obsessed with American media (sorry, we make more movies than you do) and thus losing their individuality.

The ending sort of displays some of the plotting issues Neville had with the novel as a whole. We spend most of the book thinking of Zombie Zero as the principal antagonist, and he does lead the zombie recruitment brigade, but Lambert shoots him as part of a crowd of zombies. There’s no big emotional death match. But then there’s Mathias, the medieval wizard who created the magic amulet. A minor zombie escapes and places the amulet around the dead wizard’s neck, resurrecting him for a big one-on-one battle in an ancient church. But the thing is, Mathias only appears here in the final battle. Debbie Lambert, the porn star head librarian, spends a good part of the book translating a Latin text about him, which shows the problem of fighting zombies before the internet, but we get so few details about him that it’s hard to generate the kind of feelings that we want in a final battle. Tom Lambert is supposed to be redeeming himself – he was driving drunk and wrecked his car, killing his brother in the process – but fictional emotional catharsis follows the same law as homeopathy: like cures like. Defeating Mathias and saving the town isn’t similar enough to the car accident to make it feel like it should cancel the preceding guilt. The bait-and-switch takes place at the wrong moment – it would have been better if Mathias had arisen at the beginning of Act III instead of at the end. And, the Lamberts aren’t smart enough to destroy the amulet, so the epilogue implies that the whole story will begin again years later. He’s such an idiot he can’t even save the town right, guns or not.

Amazon doesn’t have any other titles for this author, so it may be a pseudonym, or the contemporary reviewers may have been unwarrantedly harsh and crushed his career. Either way it’s unfortunate, because it’s really not a bad little book. It was precisely what I wanted when I picked it up, and while I am planning to give it away at my earliest convenience, I don’t think of it as a waste. We need pleasant little interludes, a break from the heavily literary diet.

 

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In this book, Lawrence finally addresses directly some tendencies I’ve been noticing in his career after World War I. For example, the lack of action:

Chapter follows chapter, and nothing doing. But man is a thought-adventurer, and he falls into the Charybdis of ointment, and his shipwrecks on the rocks of ages, and his kisses across chasms, and his silhouette on a minaret: surely these are as thrilling as most things.

To be brief, there was a Harriet, a Kangaroo, a Jack and a Jaz and a Vicky, let alone a number of mere Australians. But you know as well as I do that Harriet is quite happy rubbing her hair with hair-wash and brushing it over her forehead in the sun and looking at the threads of gold and gun-metal, and the few threads, alas, of silver and tin, with admiration. And Kangaroo has just got a very serious brief, with thousands and thousands of pounds at stake in it. Of course he is fully occupied keeping them at stake, till some of them wander into his pocket. And Jack and Vicky have gone down to her father’s for the week-end, and he’s out fishing, and has already landed a rock-cod, a leather-jacket, a large schnapper, a rainbow-fish, seven black-fish, and a cuttlefish. So what’s wrong with him? While she is trotting over on a pony to have a look at an old sweetheart who is much too young to be neglected. And Jaz is arguing with a man about the freight rates. And all the scattered Australians are just having a bet on something or other. So what’s wrong with Richard’s climbing a mental minaret or two in the interim? Of course there isn’t any interim. But you know that Harriet is brushing her hair in the sun, and Kangaroo looking at huge sums of money on paper, and Jack fishing, and Vicky flirting, and Jaz bargaining, so what more do you want to know? We can’t be at a stretch of tension all the time, like the E string on a fiddle. If you don’t like the novel, don’t read it. If the pudding doesn’t please you, leave it, I don’t mind your saucy plate. I know too well that you can bring an ass to water, etc.

So, if you’re not fond of books with a lot of ideas and very little action, Lawrence says that that is not his fault, and you’re welcome to run off and do something else. This very polite Fuck You to his critics comes at the end of a lengthy comparison of himself to a fly in the ointment – he’s somehow gotten himself stuck in the sticky mass of humanity, but being there only highlights how unfit for the location he is, how disagreeable to all of humanity he feels himself to be.

The key to his elitism, as I’ve called it before, is in his treatment during World War I. This section of the book is considered autobiographical, so let’s consider it as such, assuming that his protagonist R. L. Somers is a stand-in for himself, D. H. Lawrence. Before the war began, he married a woman of German parentage, so perhaps the government was already a little distrustful of him. They were living in Cornwall the first time he was called in to the draft board; he was weighed and measured and found wanting. I assume this to mean that they pulled out their calipers and measured his muscles and bones, especially since he spends some time talking about his skinny little legs. In any event, he was rejected by the army as physically unfit. However, they sort of assumed he was a spy, and the local constabulary kept a harrassful eye on him and his friends. After a while the army was getting desperate and called him in again, this time labeling him a C3, which is not quite rejected but still not good enough for active service. The harassment continued, so he left Cornwall and moved to Derbyshire. His examination by the war office here was even more demeaning – one of the doctors literally pulled the conscripts’ cheeks apart to stare into their buttholes. As I consider this action, the only purpose I can come up with is that they were checking for homosexual activity (or at least trying to). I mean, actual health problems almost always have some other, easier means of verification than a visual inspection of the anus. For Somers, though, this is the last straw, especially since this inspection only moves him up to C2, noncombat duty. So, he spent four years being told that he wasn’t good enough for his own country, while at the same time being hounded for alleged spywork for the enemy. It’s a weird stance, because if his own government considers him unfit, why would a foreign government see him any differently?

So, overwhelmed by rejection, he flees humanity. Like Lawrence, Somers spends some time in Europe before going to Australia, to get away from all these people. For Lawrence, World War I was the time when the lower classes upended society and bullied the educated and the wealthy simply because they finally could. He may have had some sympathy for the coalminers he grew up among before the War, but afterward, he has no fellow feeling for anyone. Humanity as a mass is malignant and unpredictable – the only safety is in very small numbers, and even individuals can be shockingly frightening.

The first third of the book is about Somers’ growing friendship with Jack Callcott, a white supremacist. From the moment of Somers’ arrival in Australia, Jack befriends him and grooms him for joining the Diggers’ Club he’s a part of. There’s something very Fight Club about all this, sports clubs as a front for political maneuvering, possibly leading to violent revolution. Somers thinks that the government needs to be run by ‘responsible’ people, which in his British mind originally meant the aristocracy and the educated, but given traveling experience, it now seems to mean white people. As if persons of any other race, African or aboriginal Australian or Indian or Mediterranean or Russian, are incapable of caring sufficiently about government to do it properly. Those of us raised in the American South are probably thinking about the Ku Klux Klan at the moment, and there are strong parallels. There’s a strain of suppressed eroticism in their friendship, as if all this political business is really just a sublimation of their desire to fuck each other. After all, they keep their women out of it.

This scene was too much for Jack Callcott. Somers or no Somers, he must be there. So there he stood, in his best clothes and a cream velour hat and a short pipe, staring with his long, naked, Australian face, impassive. On the field the blues and the reds darted madly about, like strange bird-creatures rather than men. They were mostly blond, with hefty legs, and with prominent round buttocks that worked madly inside the little white cotton shorts. And Jack, with his dark eyes, watched as if it was doomsday. Occasionally the tail-end of a smile would cross his face, occasionally he would take his pipe-stem from his mouth and gave a bright look into vacancy and say, “See that!”

Even watching a football match, maybe especially while watching a football match, the homoerotic desire keeps peeking out, only to be forced back in. Somers even thinks of sleeping with Jack’s wife because he thinks Jack won’t really mind, though I think he would. He might not supervise her every move, but he does seem possessive.

Act One culminates in Somers meeting Kangaroo, the secret leader of all these alt-right revolutionary clubs. He wants Somers to join their cause and write for their publications, but Somers won’t do it. For one thing, Kangaroo is Jewish, and that’s a problem for racist Somers. For another, Kangaroo talks explicitly in terms of love: like many right-wing leaders, he sees political activity as an act of paternal love for the poor innocents who can’t manage their own communities. He’s less explicitly racist than Callcott, but doesn’t correct the racism of others. I guess he recognizes that he’s not as white as the others, and his position is therefore a bit precarious. Another reason for Somers’ resistance is his decision about what his relationship with Callcott ought to be. What kind of mate does he want to be? Is it possible for someone like Somers to have friends, or to belong to groups at all? He feels so far outside of humanity that it’s hard for him to join in, even when he has such a clear invitation.

Act Two deals with Somers’ decisions as to Kangaroo and Callcott, but Callcott has also introduced him to Jaz, an unsocial little Cornish guy. His lack of outward friendliness makes him a better fit for Somers, and he introduces Somers to Kangaroo’s archrival, Willie Struthers. Struthers is trying to lead Australia into Communism (remember, this was the 1920s, and the arguments in favor were very strong. In my opinion, they still are). Somers is just as incapable of joining the far left as he was the far right, even though they seem equally assured that he belongs to their side. I suppose, when you hold yourself aloof from all groups, each group sees you as potentially one of theirs simply because you are clearly not on of their opponents’.

Act Two climaxes with the story about Somers’ life in World War I, explained above. It’s like a Gothic novel, only instead of having a mysterious house and a conspiracy plot, the only mystery is why Somers is so antisocial. Like a good dialectical novel, Act Three shows what happens when the Diggers show up at a Communist rally, with the appropriate explosions and violence. Callcott accuses Somers of being a spy, which is what people seem always to say when you investigate their group and then decide it’s not for you. Some people just don’t understand informed decision-making.

While all of this political stuff creates some intense drama, there are two other important things going on in Somers’s life. The first is his relationship with his wife. Their marriage suffers when he has too much “boy time”, ignoring her to go to political meetings and such. Callcott’s wife doesn’t seem interested, but Harriet Somers has the intellect and the interest to engage in politics, but the misogynistic prejudices of the men keep her from her natural success in that arena. She’s strong and capable, but limited by her society. Lawrence seems fully aware of the restrictions laid on women, but Somers doesn’t fight against them. I guess if you see all society as stupid and unjust, then more specific injustices don’t bother you as much. Or in other words, he identifies himself as a victim and is uninterested in ending the victimization of anyone else. Society doesn’t want him, so he’s not going to solve its problems.

The other strain in the book is travel writing. This is, after all, a book about two people who come to a new country. He portrays the land and sea as congenial (we’re talking about Sydney and its environs), and the people as unusually friendly and informal. That being said, there are occasional storms, so life in Australia is not as safe as it seems.

It was a clear and very starry night. He took the tramcar away from the centre of the town, then walked. As was always the case with him, in this country, the land and the world disappeared as night fell, as if the day had been an illusion, and the sky came bending down. There was the Milky Way, in the clouds of star-fume, bending down right in front of him, right down till it seemed as if he would walk on to it, if he kept going. The pale, fumy drift of the Milky Way drooped down and seemed so near, straight in front, that it seemed the obvious road to take. And one would avoid the strange dark gaps, gulfs, in the way overhead. And one would look across to the floating isles of star-fume, to the south, across the gulfs where the sharp stars flashed like lighthouses, and one would be in a new way denizen of a new plane, walking by oneself. There would be a real new way to take. And the mechanical earth quite obliterated, sunk out.

He also mentions the accent a few times. It’s sometimes hard for me – there are some pieces of dialogue in Strictly Ballroom that it took a few viewings for me to understand, and I actually do better with the Spanish than I do with some of the English. I once had a coworker from Australia, and he was telling me someone’s name that was unfamiliar, and I just couldn’t understand the vowel, not even when he spelled it aloud. It could have been A, E, or I, and I’m still not sure which was correct. Logically, that part should have been easier for me than it was because I grew up in a place that tends to conflate the pronunciation of the same vowels, but my Southern childhood confusions over pin and pen did not prepare me for the Australian confusion between Liz and Les.

In some ways, this is a clearer novel than Aaron’s Rod or The Lost Girl. It’s still a bit elitist, but the elitism is explained in a way that makes sense to me. I know that my experiences in Saudi Arabia and Texas do not really compare with Lawrence’s during the War, but I recognize the PTSD and the inability to join groups from my own experience. I finally understood him, and saw in him a mirror of my own life. Lawrence/Somers doesn’t see healing as an option, but I do. I’d like to be able to walk through a crowd without panicking one day, and I don’t think it’s an unreasonable goal to strive for. I hope one day to trust the world like I used to. I believe I can be free from the trauma and fear that holds me back, that keeps me from the full unfolding of my personality. I don’t think it’s necessary to stay on the defensive all the time, and I believe it’s possible to work past it.

 

I do love my dystopian fiction, perhaps a little more than most. This novel is different than your classic dystopias because instead of presenting us with a new dystopian world, Eggers starts with a world very similar to ours and shows us how dystopia develops, or how it could develop from where we are now.

The basis of society’s transformation is The Circle. It starts with electronic health records, which we’re already moving toward in the United States, and joins them with banking and credit card information. Thus, each person has an online identity for purchases and prescriptions, a TruYou, which sounds sort of convenient in a creepy way. Now, imagine that all of this information is linked to Facebook, so your friends can Like and Comment on your dental cleanings and physical examinations.

The next step is SeeChange, a system of cameras placed everywhere. It’s sort of like the CCTV in London and other major cities, but the live feeds are broadcast on Facebook, with facial recognition software that automatically tags you so that people can watch you, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. Also, it’s not the government posting cameras, it’s regular people. Imagine that you’re a regular customer at a kayak rental. You’re there enough that you have a fairly close relationship with the owner. You have a really hard day and need some serious paddle time, but it’s late at night and the shop is closed. You know the owner won’t mind if you borrow a boat, so you jump the fence and take one out. The time on the water does you a lot of good, but by the time you get back to shore the police are waiting to arrest you. You have them call the owner and she tells the police to let you go; she’s not going to press charges even though it is technically a theft. When you get to work in the morning, everyone is talking about your near-arrest, including your immediate supervisor and the president of the company. A number of coworkers don’t care about the crime but are hurt that you haven’t joined their kayaking groups on Facebook.

The kayak incident is the climax that drives us into the second half of the book, about transparency. The classic dystopian formula is in three parts, Thesis Antithesis Synthesis, but because Eggers’s story is not a classic dystopia, his book works differently. It is divided into three books, but the third is more of an epilogue. Transparency joins the ideas of TruYou and SeeChange – you wear a camera around your neck that broadcasts everything you see, say, and do, all the time. You can turn the sound off in the bathroom and you can take it off when you’re asleep, but otherwise your life is a reality show where friends and strangers can watch you at any time. There is one level of embarrassment at walking in on your parents having sex; there is a whole other level where you walk in on your parents having sex and accidentally broadcast that to forty thousand people on Twitter, where people comment on how great it is for two people at their ages and with their medical backgrounds to continue being interested in sexual activity. Politicians pick up on transparency and use it to virtue-signal to their constituents; it’s a snowball where once one representative goes transparent, they all have to or they look untrustworthy. There’s also a movement to move voting online and to make it mandatory, the sort of direct democracy a lot of people think they want to live in. It’s actually pretty horrible. I mean, politicians are people that we choose to make decisions for us – there are too many issues in this country for each citizen to inform themselves fully on each issue and make an intelligent decision. This is what representative government is all about. In the end, transparency alienates our protagonist because her friends and family can’t act naturally when everything they say becomes so very public.

So, let’s talk characters. Our protagonist is Mae, a bright young recruit at The Circle. She doesn’t immediately get into the idea that the company wants to own her entire life, but she eventually gets into it. She becomes the public face of The Circle, the first average citizen to go transparent. We’re told that she’s smart at the beginning of the book, but in time it becomes clear that she’s a pawn in bigger schemes. Supervisors keep manipulating her into having epiphanies about the everyone-together-all-the-time corporate culture, until she distills that culture into a few Orwellian sound bites. Her ending is totally 1984.

Mae turned to look at the three lines together. She blinked back tears, seeing it all there. Had she really thought of all that herself?
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
Mae’s throat was tight, dry. She knew she couldn’t speak, so she hoped Bailey wouldn’t ask her to. As if sensing how she felt, that she was overcome, he winked at her and turned to the audience.

“Let’s thank Mae for her candor, her brilliance, and her consummate humanity, can we please?”

She can seem inconsistent, but I kind of understand her. A lot of her decisions are based on expediency – her dad will die without her company’s insurance, so she will do pretty much anything to keep the job. Add to that social pressure to go with the group and her capacity to commit to a decision even if she thinks it’s a bad one and kind of forced on her. She’s also controlled by her need for public approval, as manifested by Likes on her posts. So I think it’s understandable that she makes short-sighted decisions that seem random and inconsistent – she’s being indoctrinated in a cult-like atmosphere, so think of her more as a cult follower than a normal employee.

Mae’s best friend Annie got her the job at The Circle. Annie spends most of her time doing higher-level work with foreign governments while Mae is stuck in customer service. Annie’s life is ruined when she gets tapped as the pilot for PastPerfect, The Circle’s extension into family history. When people find out her British ancestors had Irish slaves, it’s pretty bad. When people find out her American ancestors had African slaves, it’s even worse. When a video surfaces of her parents watching someone die, it’s the end. Privilege has become a terrible word in American society, and it defines her family for thousands of years.

Mae has three boyfriends to deal with. Mercer is the ex that her parents still love. He hides from the spread of technology and has a John the Savage ending, though it’s not the climax like it was in Brave New World. Francis is the kind of supernerd who makes sense in a tech company but would have a hard time in the real world. Mae gets frustrated with his persistently premature ejaculations. Kalden is secret and shadowy, somehow inside The Circle but without espousing any of its ideals. He’s the kind of well-endowed lover that leaves Mae daydreaming, but it’s hard for her to trust him.

There are three heads of The Circle, and at one point they bring in three marine animals that sort of represent them. The seahorse is Ty – he hides at the bottom, guarding his children, which in this case are his ideas and inventions. He has very little contact with the public. The octopus is Eamon Bailey – he stretches out his tentacles in an effort to know and understand the world around him. He’s the warm fuzzy that people see – he wants to know people, and don’t we all want to be known? The shark is Stenton. He controls the money and therefore more than anyone else really understands or admits to themselves. Like Google and Apple, The Circle presents this image of a company that likes learning and exploring ways of connecting people to each other in an effort to mask the fact that they are profit-based institutions. Stenton is kept in the background as a sort of necessary evil, but he’s a shark. When they put all three animals in a tank together, the shark eats the other two. That’s what sharks do.

Whenever I see a group of three like this, I try to fit it into the Mind-Body-Soul symbolism, but these seem to be working in opposite directions. With the boyfriends, Mae rejects Mercer/Body, betrays Kalden/Soul, and ends up with Francis/Mind, which is disappointing. With the executives, Stenton/Body and Bailey/Soul make Ty/Mind unimportant, but the implication is that eventually Body will overpower Soul and reign supreme. Either way, a balance is impossible to sustain.

There was a film last year, with a lot of really big names like Emma Watson, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Glenne Headley. But even though Eggers was working on it, it seems to have fared much worse than the book. I think the movie’s failure has to do with the very ideas the story addresses: the ending was changed to make it more marketable, and they had to reshoot several scenes because test audiences didn’t find the protagonist to be very likable. Since my theory is that Mae was chosen for her malleability and need for external approbation more than for her intelligence, I think Emma Watson might be too smart to play the character. I find it interesting that a film based on a book that is against crowd mentalities ruined the message by trying to appease the crowd mentality. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m not fond of faithless adaptations, and I’m not so in love with the book that I’m ready to see the story as plastic.

The recent news about Facebook makes this book all the more timely. It seems that four or five years ago, a company called Cambridge Analytica stole data from thousands of Facebook profiles and used it to manipulate people’s ideas, pushing for unnecessarily conservative events like Brexit and the Trump election. Facebook is backpedalling as much as it can, but the information gathering was allowed under the privacy policies in place at the time. In related news, Facebook has been experiencing a decline in usage figures, so maybe this is the beginning of the end. Personally, I like the interface and the fact that most of my friends and family members are there – it’s a low-effort way for an introvert to maintain relationships. That being said, I don’t think it’s perfect either, and I have complicated feelings about putting personal information on my profile. I am curious, though – if Facebook falls, what will rise to take its place?

Above all, this is a book about privacy and the difference between our real selves and our public personas. I believe that all people need times and places where they are unobserved, where we can rest from the need to perform for others. We need a break from all that approval. The Circle presents us with a quick and easy path from where we are now to a world with no privacy, no relaxation, no disconnecting. For an introvert like me, this world is a nightmare. I’ve heard that this is a generational difference, that people of my generation are more individualistic while the kids born in the late 1990s and early 2000s are more communal, and if that’s true then many of them wouldn’t see the problem this book presents. And I suppose part of the problem with both book and film is that this is Generation X’s perception of what Millennials believe, which may not be accurate. But it’s interesting to explore these ideas and decide whether privacy is a big deal, and how important it is to us.

As a final note, I’d like to point out that in this book no one’s identity is stolen. A lot of us think that the main problem with online identities is that they can be falsified and the information used fraudulently, but that’s not the big problem for Eggers. It’s the ideas inherent in social media that are the problem, the Ding an sich and not the abuse of it.

This book was prepared as two separate volumes, but Buber was later persuaded to publish them together. In honor of the author’s original intent, I’m going to read and write about these book at different times – meaning, the second part of this entry will probably be written a week or so later than the first, and a lot can happen in a week. [It only ended up being two days. I didn’t want to wait to finish reading.]

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RIGHT AND WRONG

This book is an interpretation of five Psalms: 12, 14, 82, 73, and 1. In that sense, it felt very familiar to me as textual commentary, both as a literary critic and as a former believer. Buber has the erudition of an academic combined with the closedness of a religious adherent. It’s a little like reading while walking through a very large room – you’re moving in a straight line, but every now and again you bump into the wall of “But God can’t possibly desire to harm anyone,” so you strike off in a different direction. These bumps are rare, but they do happen. It makes me think of what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë, the sudden jerks of the narrative when her need to express the injustices of society on Victorian women overcomes her desire to tell the story of plain Jane Eyre and short-but-hunky Mr Rochester. [Much as I’d like to see Hugh Jackman as Edward Fairfax Rochester, he’s far too tall and good-looking for Brontë’s description. In my imaginary film starring him, Kelly MacDonald plays Jane.]

In the preface Buber speaks of these psalms as representing a progression, the path a person takes to reaching true goodness. However, he offers very little in the way of transitional material or conclusion, so it feels more like five disparate essays instead of a single unit. Another disconnect has to do with the translation. Buber doesn’t list the full text of the Psalms, so I pulled out the Authorized King James Version to read along, but the translations are very different. Buber implies strongly that he is reading in German with some knowledge of the original language (Hebrew?), and I think that our translator from German to English stayed with the literal translation of the German translation instead of looking back at commonly used English translations of the original text – my opinion here is based on the fact that the book was published in the early 1950s, and I believe that the Authorized King James Version was the most common English translation in use at that time. I’m happy to be corrected on that point. What I’m saying here is that reading your KJV Psalms won’t be all that helpful in understanding Buber’s interpretation of the text.

As I understand things, for Buber, evil comes from being divided against oneself. Psalm 12 introduces the idea of the doubled heart, where we create a second heart in order to interact with the world in dishonest ways. It feels similar to the idea of the social self, or Freud’s ego – to protect ourselves, we only show the rest of the world one part of ourselves, a part that can sometimes contradict or betray the rest of the self. [I’m thinking of the French nihilist in I Heart Huckabees.] The source of evil then is hiding who we are from the rest of the world, living in a closet.

A late interpreter of the Psalms like myself cannot be satisfied, as the Psalmist was, with a simple division of Israel, just as I could not be satisfied with such a division of the human world. We see the rift between those who do violence and those to whom violence is done, the rift between those who are true to God and the apostate element, running not merely through every nation, but also through every group in a nation, and even through every soul. Only in times of great crisis does the hidden rift in a people become apparent.

I still have the rift. When I came out, I was trying to reconcile the two hearts, the hidden part of me and the social self. But looking back, it didn’t feel like healing, and in many ways I’m still wounded. Coming out felt like it created more rifts instead. I watched 50/50 yesterday, and I realized just how angry I am at my mother, still. When I told her about my great crisis, it created so much of a crisis for her that she couldn’t help or support me. She was too busy tending her own wounds to help me with mine. Which is sort of what happened when she got divorced, too – her emotions overpowered her and she couldn’t guide her children through the experience. Or even provide basic emotional support. If I did get cancer like the guy in the film, I’d chase my mom away too. I suppose I don’t yet have the empathy to understand people when they are hurting me that deeply. I felt abandoned by all my family and friends, and while I know that that feeling wasn’t true, it was real, and in some ways still is. Just to be clear, none of the people I felt close to during the last year of my marriage continued to feel close during the first year of my separation; I became much closer to friends I had known before, and to some I hadn’t known that well, so I was never as alone as I felt. But six years later it’s still hard to feel close to people who responded to my coming out with shock and dismay.

While coming out blurred the line between inner and outer selves, it created new divisions between past and present, between skepticism and belief. For the last six years I’ve been denying the part of myself that loves faith. For a long time I even insisted to myself that mystical experiences were a sign of mental illness, and while I’m not saying I’ve always been healthy, I don’t think that skepticizing all of my religious experience is healthy either. If I want to heal my divided self, I have to embrace the part of me that believes in the unseen. Christianity is probably not a good fit for me right now, theistic religions as a whole may not work for me, but whether I like it or not I am a person who believes. I’ve been nearing this through the occult, so that may end up being what makes sense to me. The transfer and sharing of emotional energies matches up with my experience better than deity belief. I’m seeing this as a process of discovering what resonates with me rather than of choosing what to believe, because I tried choosing what I believed for thirty years and it didn’t work. It created that divided heart, the source of evil.

It may seem odd that I would talk about opposition to myself as one who believes, given my temptations toward Islam in Saudi Arabia and toward inclusive evangelicalism in Texas, but in both those faith communities I was looking for community, not faith. At least, not consciously. Men in the closet are better at hiding from themselves than from others.

In a few other passages Buber says that evil is denying one’s own existence. I spent thirty years denying the part of me that loves; I don’t want to spend the next thirty denying the part that believes.

In the verse of the Psalm of which I am speaking [1:6], however, there is something particular added, which is said only here, and it is this. The Psalm does not say that God knows the proven ones, the pious, but that He knows their way. The way, the way of life of these men is so created that at each of its stages they experience the divine contact afresh. And they experience it as befits a real way, at each stage they experience it in the manner specifically appropriate to the stage. Their experience of the divine ‘knowing’ is not like any experience of nature, it is a genuinely biographical experience, that is, what is experienced in this manner is experienced in the course of one’s own personal life, in destiny as it is lived through in each particular occasion. However cruel and contrary this destiny might appear when viewed apart from intercourse with God, when it is irradiated by His ‘knowing’ it is ‘success’, just as every action of this man, his disappointments and even his failures, are success. O the happiness of the man who goes the way which is shown and ‘known’ by God!

The way that Buber is talking about, is the same thing that I mean when I talk about story, stories being a more meaningful metaphor for me than paths. My story is generally about wandering off the path. But it reminds me of the time when I kept a God-journal: you write a conversation between you and God, being honest about what you hear being said to you. I got really angry and stopped because the God-voice told me that he loved my story, and at that time I hated everything about my life. Now that I have a different perspective, I’m okay with that. My story is still on its way out of the dark, but I’m close enough to light to appreciate the dark days I’ve been through. Stories are parabolas, and the only way to get to a happy ending is to hit the bottom halfway through.

Another important aspect of evil Buber discusses is in one’s attitude. Evil is refusing to see the good in our lives. As in Persuasion, the elasticity of mind, the disposition to be comforted, the willingness to be happy, is Good. I haven’t always seen silver linings, but I’m going to be more careful to look for them. The universe is here for my good, and if I can’t see the good, I shouldn’t blame the universe for that. It’s doing the best it can.

IMAGES OF GOOD AND EVIL

In the first two parts of this book, Buber discusses Hebrew and Iranian myths about the creation of evil, or at least about humanity’s descent into evil (I’m not wholly allied to the spatial metaphor here, but Buber likes it). In the third, he synthesizes the two and sets forth his idea about the nature of good and evil. As with many literature students, I think he loses clarity when he gets farther from the text, but taken as a whole, I find the book to be comprehensible.

According to Buber, the different groups of myth are sequential in our lives, though they were probably contemporaneous in their telling. Hebrew first. We remember the story of two people in a garden, with a snake who deceives the woman. Many people have tried to argue that the Fall had nothing to do with food, but with sex. Buber explicitly disagrees; he’s remarkably sex-positive in his description of Eden. He sees the story about humanity’s shift in perception – before the Fall, things just were as they were, and after, we learned to see the world in terms of binary opposites, with of course one side being privileged. Does this imply that intersex and genderqueer individuals represent a prelapsarian innocence, and that they remind us how far we have fallen from nature? Yes, it could. Into this newly binary world we introduce Kain, the first man to choose evil. Adam and Eve couldn’t choose evil because it didn’t exist until after they’d eaten the fruit. Kain makes an offering that God denies, and then he murders his brother, who was accepted. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario: Did Kain kill his brother because God refused to accept his offering, or did God refuse to accept Kain’s offering because He knew he was going to kill his brother? Then there’s the story of the flood, where the imagery of people’s hearts have become evil. We learn evil, then we choose it, then we imagine it continually.

I wasn’t clear where he was going with this until he started synthesizing, so I’m skipping around a bit in my explanation. The Hebrew phase represents the evil of indecision. We’re born, we start to grow up, and around our teenage years the world seems full of possibility, and while to me that sounds exciting, to Buber it’s terrifying. He sees us caught up in a tornado of options with no idea which is the right or natural course of action for ourselves.

The soul driven round in the dizzy whirl cannot remain fixed within it; it strives to escape. If the ebb that leads back to familiar normality does not make its appearance, there exist for it two issues [possible results]. One is repeatedly offered it: it can clutch at any object, past which the vortex happens to carry it, and cast its passion upon it; or else, in response to a prompting that is still incomprehensible to itself, it can set about the audacious work of self-unification. In the former case, it exchanges an undirected possibility for an undirected reality, in which it does what it wills not to do, what is preposterous to it, the alien, the ‘evil’; in the latter, if the work meets with success, the soul has given up undirected plenitude in favour of the one taut string, the one stretched beam of direction. If the work is not successful, which is no wonder with such an unfathomable undertaking, the soul has nevertheless gained an inkling of what direction, or rather the direction is – for in the strict sense there is only one. To the extent to which the soul achieves unification it becomes aware of direction, becomes aware of itself as sent in quest of it. It comes into the service of good or into service for good.

So, in other words, in this tornado of options there are really only two: do what is natural and right for you to do, or do something else. Kain chose to do something else. In the story, God sees the doubleness inside Kain; he’s offering his work to God, but not for the stated motive of glorifying God. Kain has the double heart that leads to evil, the division between his interior and exterior selves. God’s not going to support that. Good comes from a unified psyche, a singleness of character that makes one’s course of action clear. This is what makes life so terrifying: if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know what course is our good, so we will inevitably choose evil. To make another film allusion, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, someone asks Dorian Grey what he is, and he answers, “I’m complicated.” This complication is both evidence and source of Dorian’s evil, and he does turn out to be one of the villains of the piece. Both here and in Wilde’s story, Dorian Grey is evil because he chooses to live in that whirlwind of choices, grabbing at every thing presented to him instead of accepting himself and the limitations of being human. Of course he has to put half of himself into something external, like a portrait; from the time Basil paints the picture, Dorian rejects his true human self.

A quick word on nature and multiplicity: Buber doesn’t equate ‘natural’ and ‘good’ the way that I’m doing here. That’s all my own interpretation. He situates our origin in the divine story, created by God, and I situate our origin in the more mundane mechanics of sexual reproduction, created by nature. But I think for the purposes of this discussion the result is the same: Buber and I both find good in being who we were created to be, and evil in denying the person we naturally are. The thing is, moving onto the next topic, that every one of us is created differently, so we each have different goods and evils. It would be evil in me to eat a piece of wheat toast because I would be denying my identity as a person with coeliac disease, but it’s a good decision for people who don’t have my autoimmune response to gluten. It was evil of me to marry a woman because I wasn’t being the gay man that I am, but there are many heterosexual and lesbian marriages that are rooted in good because they are the true expression of the identities of the couple involved. I’m not embracing moral relativism completely – I don’t think the true expression of any person’s identity is to hurt someone else, which is to say that I don’t think there are natural born killers – but I don’t think that any one path, any one faith, any one story, is right for all of humanity. As I say to religious people, If there were only one path to God, we’d all start from the same place. And while Buber is Jewish and speaking from that perspective, he leaves room for other gods and other narratives.

The Iranian myths represent the evil of decision. Remember, we’re speaking of a pre-Islamic Iran, so think of Zoroastrianism. Once upon a time, the highest god, the Wise Lord, began to have doubts, and in his doubt he conceived two primal forces: the one that says Yes, and the one that says No. As before, evil is a turning against oneself. Here, good and evil are equally balanced opposite forces, both of which are contained in or encompassed by the Wise Lord. The second story is of an ancient king, who sought the gods for all sorts of benefits for his kingdom – immortality, prosperity, power to control demons, the standard sort of wish-fulfillment Garden-of-Eden stuff. But after a few hundred years, he forgets the gods’ place in his happiness and he tells himself that he did all this by himself, without divine help. Immediately his power leaves him and he starts a gradual process of isolating himself in evil and eventually being consumed by the demons he had once ruled.

The identical term lie is used in the Vedas, at times, to designate the uncanny game of hide-and-seek in the obscurity of the soul, in which it, the single human soul, evades itself, avoids itself, hides from itself. […] Being-true, however, ultimately signifies: strengthening, covering and confirming being at the point of one’s own existence, and being-false ultimately signifies: weakening, desecrating and dispossessing being at the point of one’s own existence. He who prefers the lie to the truth and chooses it instead of truth, intervenes directly with his decision into the decisions of the world-conflict. But this takes effect in the very first instance at just his point of being: since he gave himself over to the being-lie, that is to non-being, which passes itself off as being, he falls victim to it.

Circling back to my own identity issues, all evil is a form of closet. It’s based in lying to yourself about who you are, rejecting yourself, trying to destroy the person you were made to be (Dorian stabbing his portrait). Because it consists of self-destruction, evil is choosing not to exist. And the evil in me echoes out into the world around me, like ripples in a pond. The good in me also spreads itself around me, which is what makes the world such an interesting compound of good and bad.

What is essential in this second phase is that we aren’t flailing in the vortex of option any more. This sort of evil is related to preference and choice. The question isn’t, Are you living a lie? like it was with the Hebrew myths. The question is, Do you like living a lie? Once you find yourself in a closet, repressing and denying aspects of your real self, do you stay there? Do you hate yourself so much that you prefer living as someone else?

I believe that creation is continuous. We weren’t born fully formed, and we continue to grow and change, to shape our creation, until the day we die. And possibly beyond that. Humans are not static beings; we are in a constant state of becoming. Two good friends of mine have spent this last year splitting up, and as I was talking with one about the decisions the other is making, I mentioned this idea that I don’t think our friend is being careful about who she is becoming. The one present asked why I would phrase it that way, and I couched it in terms of science fiction, multiple dimensions of reality, and Douglas Adams’s Probability Axis, but it comes just as much from my belief of what it means to be human, rooted in philosophy and religion.

I want to create wholeness in my life. I want healing between the parts of me that have been in conflict. I want to be good. I think Buber’s right; goodness starts with a person’s relationship with herself. Buber describes the process of unifying one’s psyche as conversion, and that section about the first book that I wrote on Sunday felt like that type of transformation, as dramatic as coming out of the closet as a gay man. As at any moment when a new field of living opens itself, there’s the vortex of indecision again, but I have a little more self-knowledge than I did as a teenager, so I’m considering fewer options. And I’ve learned how to tell when something is right for me and when it isn’t. Moving forward, I expect to read more religious and philosophical ideas, as I try to understand the shape of my own belief. I may end up worshipping the elephant-faced Ganesh, or I may call down the moon with a local coven, or I may just decide that my religion is kissing trees. But whatever it is, it’s going to be mine, and it’s going to be good for me. I’m not going to internally mock or belittle myself or call myself crazy for believing, and I’m going to do my best to love the me who loves faith.

lighthouse

This weekend I went Down East to see my family, and on Friday afternoon it struck me that it was precisely the sort of experience that Virginia Woolf would write about.

In spring the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.

After having spent so much time away, I was a little apprehensive about seeing them all again: my oldest brother, who is getting ready to go back to school for a degree in divinity; the older brother I was very close to fifteen or twenty years ago, but whom I now seldom think about from one year to the next; the younger sister who has been reaching out to me more in the last year or so; and my mother, whose affection is linked to how much we fit her ideals for us. I got a flat tire Friday morning, so the public interactions of going to three different tire places (one closed for renovation, one made me wait an hour before discovering they didn’t carry the right size of tire, the third was great) and delaying my trip for a few hours would be a better fit for Mrs Dalloway than To the Lighthouse, but put me in the proper Woolf frame of mind nonetheless. The way I get self-conscious about how others perceive me, whether strangers or family members, and analyze past interactions to prepare me for the evening, is all very similar to one of her characters. To the Lighthouse is about a gathering of academics and artists, staying with the Ramsays in Scotland for the summer. I forget which island group, Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, one of those.

At last they had shoved her off, they had launched the lifeboat, and they had got her out past the point – Macalister told the story; and though they only caught a word here and there, they were conscious all the time of their father – how he leant forward, how he brought his voice into tune with Macalister’s voice; how, puffing at his pipe, and looking there and there where Macalister pointed, he relished the thought of the storm and the dark night and the fishermen striving there. He liked that men should labour and sweat on the windy beach at night; pitting muscle and brain against the waves and the wind; he liked men to work like that, and women to keep house, and sit beside sleeping children indoors, while men were drowned, out there in a storm. So James could tell, so Cam could tell (they looked at him, they looked at each other), from his toss and his vigilance and the ring in his voice, and the little tinge of Scottish accent which came into his voice, making him seem like a peasant himself, as he questioned Macalister about the eleven ships that had been driven into the bay in a storm. Three had sunk.

I do get irritated with the archetype of the Angry Academic. Mr Ramsay is insecure about his professional success, so he’s overly critical of his children. Byatt picks up this archetype as well, which got me thinking that there must be something wrong with British academics, but then I remembered Albee as well, and then I thought that since his play is called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’s probably influenced by her, as I’m sure Byatt is as well. The thing that bothers me about it is that I have spent most of my life around academics without finding these Angry White Men. In thinking about this anger, it seems like these men question their masculinity because they work with the mind instead of the hand. The men I’ve met feel no such contradiction. They don’t seem bothered with the question of whether teaching is a gendered activity or whether reading in a library is less inherently masculine than shooting rabbits or repairing cars. I’m not saying we don’t have sexism in academia, but the friends I’ve made are comfortable being who they are and not haunted by their perceived inadequacies. Which frees them up to be genuinely kind to their partners and children, unlike Mr Ramsay.

The first part of this book focuses a lot on the relationship between the Ramsays, and what they mean when they think that they love each other. It makes me think about that idea of chivalry that so many people claim to feel the lack of in our modern society, and the way that chivalry is a two-way street. These days people discuss it as a condescending attitude that men used to have for women, but this separateness goes both ways. Chivalry demands that each person have an ideal for the opposite sex, and that when persons of opposite sexes interact they each treat the other as if they see the ideal inside of them. It was a matter of kindness and respecting femininity and masculinity as concepts, doing honour to the Goddess in every woman and the God in every man. Of course there were abuses, on both sides, and even in Woolf’s novel we can see that traditional pattern of etiquette breaking down. Seven-year-old Cam dashes about and never sits still in a “properly feminine” way; Lily Briscoe doesn’t marry and feels no shame or lack in this; Charles Tansley openly expresses his belief in women’s inferiority because as a poor man he needs to put down someone to make himself seem higher and there is no racial diversity to give the opportunity for racism. Chivalry breaks down because people don’t live up to each other’s ideals, and we lose the sense that other people’s ideals matter. In the twentieth century we learned to embrace our own ideals – I live according to my own sense of what it means to be a man, not my mother’s or my ex-wife’s or my sisters’ or any of my female friends’. Chivalry seems to have been about this shared construction of gender identity, and it passed away because we stopped sharing in identity construction. After all, this is in many ways a book about the inability to communicate.

But nevertheless, the fact remained, it was almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them.

My two oldest brothers have never much liked each other, so it was genuinely odd to see them talking and laughing apart from everyone else. I joined them (all the men in one group together, women in the other room), and they were bonding over videos of standup comedians they both enjoy. I did my best to participate, but not enjoying videos of standup comedians, I didn’t have much to say. It was strange to see how little my brother and I have in common now, when we once shared so much that we even took the same classes at uni. He studied English alongside me, but now he speaks disparagingly of working in a library, as if what I find exciting would bore him to death. I was always the most serious of us, but in isolation I have become more so, and he (who was once enraptured with reading Thucydides and Beowulf) has joined the mass culture in devaluing academic pursuits. There was some overlap in his behavior throughout the weekend – a discomfort with silence, a compulsion to keep everyone laughing and happy, as if he were carefully avoiding talking about something and equally carefully avoiding letting anyone know there was a topic to be avoided. While he was there in front of me, I was glad to see him, but on reflection I’m concerned. He and I have never even mentioned the fact of my being gay, so I wonder if that’s what he can’t talk about, but it could also be something in his home life that isn’t what it could be. Both of my brothers were performing The Hen-Pecked Husband, which is a posture that always makes me uneasy but enabled them to bond with each other (while excluding me, the no-longer-hen-pecked). I didn’t get to talk with the oldest, but the other one and I got to spend some time watching The Crimson Pirate and laughing at the poor costume choices and other ludicrosities. I sent him home with a flash drive of older movies that he and his wife could enjoy, because at least we have that one interest still in common.

Somewhere in the annals of my family history, I have an Uncle Wirt. This is about a hundred years ago, the time that Woolf set the earlier part of the novel. Wirt took himself very seriously, while all his brothers were fond of joking and playing and taking life easily. As a result, Wirt was the butt of all the jokes, and he never really got on with his brothers. When it came to courting, Wirt found it easier to make love in writing than in speaking, so he corresponded with an English girl and eventually invited her out to the Finger Lakes to marry him. When he introduced her to his brothers, they could not stop laughing they thought she was so ugly. He quietly and seriously cut them out of his life. In this iteration of those genetics, I’m Uncle Wirt, but I don’t get picked on like I used to. When our parents split up, my older siblings lost interest in casual cruelty, and as adults most of us try to be kind to each other.

Always, Mrs Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd or end, some sound, some sight. She listened, but it was all very still; cricket was over; the children were in their baths; there was only the sound of the sea. She stopped knitting; she held the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands a moment. She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much to her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!

Sunday morning I woke up early and came downstairs, and read my book until I was sleepy again. I nodded off for half an hour or so, and in that time I saw/felt someone come over and kiss me on the cheek. I reached up and pulled him in closer, for a real kiss, the type that tells the other just how much I care about him, but it was just a dream. It’s like when I’m dancing to the music in the kitchen and I wrap my arm around No One’s waist and pull him close and rest my head on the air where his shoulder would be. It seems sometimes like life is preparing me for this great romance that hasn’t happened yet, and other times it seems like life is teaching me to be content with fantasy because I’m never going to have a love that satisfies me.

She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself – struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.

Typically when I read this book I see it as being primarily about Mrs Ramsay, what she means to the people around her, how they react when they lose her. This time I think that the protagonist is actually Lily Briscoe, the marriage-resisting painter. The difficulty she has with her art feels a bit like Woolf peeking out through the character and talking about writing. It does seem indicative of what happens to me when I sit down to write.

The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have – to want and want – how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs Ramsay! she called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again. It had seemed so safe, thinking of her. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus. Suddenly, the empty drawing-room steps, the frill of the chair inside, the puppy tumbling on the terrace, the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flouring round a centre of complete emptiness.

In thinking about this loss, I don’t really have this continuity of memory and essence of the dead. The people I miss are still alive, but far away, and no longer the people I knew. Seeing my brother makes me wonder if I had been lying to myself before, if he had always been this frantic entertainer hiding ‘a centre of complete emptiness,’ but that thought goes against one of my most important beliefs, in the mutability of mankind. People grow and change; he and I grew in opposite directions. I saw some other friends this weekend too – in Brazil, I would call her my concunhada, but in English we don’t have a good word for the friend whose sister is married to my brother – but without this sense of loss. The things I have always loved about them are still true, even after three kids and thyroid cancer. Yes, they grow and change, but I guess we’re moving in a similar direction. Whatever the cause of it, I can return to them after years away and feel as natural as if I had seen them last week. I always feel loved and welcomed, even though they still embrace that church that denies my right to a romantic relationship. [I was looking through the hymnal and realized that with their emphasis on right behavior and embracing truth, a great many of their hymns are still meaningful to me.] I may get back to them in a few weeks, or it may be a few years, but no matter how we grow, I am certain that they will always love me.

I love this book. I will be the first to admit that nothing happens, that this book takes place inside the mind and not in the outward world, but it is no less beautiful for all that. I love my family too, not for their beauty or poetry, but because they are mine, including the fact that I don’t get close because I know the ways their love falls short. I also love my friends, the family I choose, because their love never does.

 

misery

This is the last of the books that I was reading for Halloween. Yes, I finished it nearly a week late, but real life got busy for a while. I haven’t read On Writing in a few years, but one of the impressions I got from that book is that Carrie and Misery were two of the most important books of his pre-1999 career. I loved Carrie, so reading Misery was a good next step. I have to admit that I didn’t love it quite as much, probably for a variety of reasons.

This is a retelling of the old Scheherazade myth. The sultan is Annie Wilkes, a serial killer who one day finds her favorite author in a wrecked car on the side of the road. Paul Sheldon is one of those writers who keeps a clear mental division between the books he writes for himself (or his Art) and the books he writes for the public. He’s carrying a manuscript of one of the arty books, Fast Cars, which is full of profanity and grit and the worst of mundane humanity; the popular books are all about Misery Chastain, a vaguely Victorian sensation novel heroine. Imagine that East Lynne and Lady Audley’s Secret had a grandchild, set in their time but told in late Twentieth Century language. Paul hates Misery so much that he killed her at the end of the last book. Frankly, I was intrigued at the thought of her husband and her lover raising her child together, with no one to rely on but each other in pants-less isolation, but Paul being straight, Ian and Geoffrey do not get any sexy time. So, Annie makes Paul write a new Misery book, resurrecting her favorite character, and his writing keeps him alive from one day to the next.

The thing is, that this American male Scheherazade gives up. It may seem odd to specify gender and nationality here, but to be unpleasantly honest, have you ever met an Arab woman? They are tough and resourceful and they get what they want. Paul Sheldon just loses and loses and loses. The story gives him a reason to live long enough to see how it ends. He tells the story to keep himself from suicide. I was glancing through my journal the other day and saw how close I had come to dying, and I agree in the power of writing and story. For me, it wasn’t fiction writing – it was my own story. Those of you who were reading my Saudi Arabia blog may remember how dark those days were for me; I got through by telling myself a story, the story of my future. Sure, it may never come true the way I imagined it, but my ability to believe in that story saved my life.

What gets to me about Misery’s Return is that Paul Sheldon finally achieves what he thought was impossible: a book that was both artsy enough to satisfy him, but with enough popular Rider Haggard appeal to sell. It always bothers me, the way people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries act like Good and Popular are mutually exclusive categories, as if people can’t tell or don’t like what’s good. Culture is culture, whether any one person calls it high or low, and what’s popular defines the culture we live in. It’s a better thing to embrace reality than to hide from the aspects of culture that a person doesn’t like or agree with. The best music, the best art, the best literature, is what survives; if people are still reading Stephen King horror novels in a hundred years, then that makes him better than the Writers’ Workshop novelists who can’t get a readership.

I like the three-act structure; King knows his storytelling. Act One establishes what is normal in the created world, which is that Paul has a downstairs bedroom in Annie’s house and she manipulates him by controlling his access to painkillers. His legs are splinted, but they’re healing in all sorts of bad ways, but there’s nothing he can do about it because he’s been kidnapped. Annie is a bit bipolar, but that doesn’t account for the murderousness. She has a puritanical streak, and won’t say anything stronger than ‘Cockadoodie brats,’ which I find odd. I’ve never really had much use for euphemism; words are powerful, but only in that they are containers for feelings and ideas. A word like Fuck is only horrible when it holds hatred and rage. As a representation of sexual activity, it’s an innocent sign, labiodental fricative moving to a vowel somewhere in the middle of the chart (if you’re American; Londoners seem to go with a much higher, frontal vowel) and finishing with a plosive at the back of the mouth. There’s something in the mouthfeel of the word that gives me a feeling of satisfaction and comfort. Act One leads to the burning of the manuscript and the agreement to bring Misery back from the grave.

Act Two deals primarily with the writing of the book and Paul’s attempts to escape. He is given a typewriter and paper, and gets back into the challenge of writing a story that his audience, one insane kidnapper/murderer, will accept and enjoy. He describes it as seeing a hole in the paper, which he tips himself into as if he were Alice following a white rabbit. He also finds and reads through Annie’s murder scrapbook; I never understand why criminals need to hold onto mementos of their crimes, as if they somehow become separated from their own pasts and need tangible reminders of what happened, as if without the proof they will forget their own actions. If you killed someone, how could you possibly forget him? And if you did forget that you were a murderer, why would you want to remember? To ensure Paul’s compliance, Annie concludes Act Two by amputating one of his feet. With an axe.

Act Three starts off farther ahead in time, but flashing back to what we missed, recreating the trauma victim’s perception of time as disjointed and fragmentary. Paul’s lost a thumb by now, but he still finishes the book. The way Paul loses things – his legs, his freedom, his manuscript, his will to live, his limbs – reminds me of Captain Ahab, who loses various navigational aids and personal comforts in his pursuit of the white whale that took his leg. When he loses his pipe, I just know he’s going to lose any sense of sanity. Paul pushes through and completes his journey (to the end of Misery’s Return) just as Ahab completes his (to the final confrontation with the whale, and death).

Think about the film Stranger than Fiction for a minute. We spend most of the movie waiting for Karen Eiffel, the writer, to figure out a way to kill Harold Crick, her character. She knows the book will end with his death, but she can’t quite figure out how to do it. Then, at the last minute, she can’t write that he is dead, and finds a way to bring him back. I feel like something similar happened to King in writing this book. Paul knows he’s going to die, and I fully expect it. A passage that I remember from On Writing that I can’t locate at the moment indicates that in his mind, Paul wasn’t going to make it. Annie Wilkes was going to win. He was literally going to be consumed by the character he hated but everyone else loved, in the form of Annie’s pig that she named Misery, and the singular Annie Wilkes edition of Misery’s Return was going to be bound in his own skin, as if this book were his organs, as if the story were himself. The writing led me to believe that this ending was going to happen, but at the last minute King saves Paul. He fights back and lives, though his mind will never really get away from Annie Wilkes, even after she’s dead. Now, why did he do that?

It would be fair enough to ask, I suppose, if Paul Sheldon in Misery is me. Certainly parts of him are . . . but I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you. When you ask yourself what a certain character will do given a certain set of circumstances, you’re making the decision based on what you yourself would (or, in the case of a bad guy, wouldn’t) do. Added to these versions of yourself are the character traits, both lovely and unlovely, which you observe in others (a guy who picks his nose when he thinks no one is looking, for instance). There is also a wonderful third element: pure blue-sky imagination. This is the part which allowed me to be a psychotic nurse for a little while when I was writing Misery. And being Annie was not, by and large, hard at all. In fact, it was sort of fun. I think being Paul was harder. He was sane, I’m sane, no four days at Disneyland there.

Perhaps there’s a certain sense of justice. Annie deserves to die, Paul doesn’t. She herself reminds us that the author is like God and He Only decides who lives or dies, so every time a fictional character dies the author killed her on purpose. And every author is in truth all his characters. The Ex used to read a lot of Diana Gabaldon, and in one passage she tells the story of sitting with some fans who were praising the hero to the skies but trashing the villain, and she thought about how foolish they were not to realize that Black Jack Randall was sitting at the table with them. King had a choice about which part of him to lose, what deserved to die. He chose to keep the writer and dispense with the kidnapping murderer.

There was a distance here between author and reader that I didn’t feel with Carrie – I think it’s related to the drugs. By the middle of the 1980s, he had become a substance abuser, which he was not when he wrote his first novel. And this is the book that helped him turn it around.

I did think, though – as well as I could in my addled state – and what finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided (again, as far as I was able to decide anything in my distraught and depressed state of mind) that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that.

It was the drugs taking away his freedom, his art, his body, himself. Which is why Annie Wilkes could not win at the end of the book – Paul Sheldon may have given up, but Stephen King had not. Because the book ends in a different place than it began, I want him to go back and change some details so that I can accept the ending more easily, but at the same time I get it. When I think about the real life and the real person behind the book, when I read his story between the lines, I can take Misery as it is. King survived because he had people in his life that he loved; Paul doesn’t. All he has is the story, and if you’re a fictional character, the story has to be enough. Or, if you’re a suicidal English teacher in the Middle East and you feel cut off from all the people who love you, the story of your future has to be enough. Sometimes stories are all we have.

witches of eastwick

Continuing to celebrate Halloween, here’s one of those novels whose title has gotten stuck in my head somehow and is as closely associated with October as Frosty the Snowman is with December, but is quite different from the Mitchell novel I read earlier in the week.

The first question is one of style. I tried to sit down and read it all at once, but Updike’s sentences resist being read quickly. Halloween being the season of personifying the inanimate, one could argue that they don’t like to be read at all. There is a profusion of detail that can seem ponderous, all those subordinate clauses pushing their way in so that it is sometimes hard to see what the subject and verb are, or maybe that heart of the sentence is intentionally hiding, enfolding itself in the extraneous as a means of self-preservation. Which sounds ridiculous, because the only life words have is when someone reads them. Stories are a complex act of shared creation between a writer and a reader – he suggests a shape, and I breathe life into it with my imagination, a complex, unique spiraling shape of personal experience and genetic memory. But Updike is seldom content to suggest; his riotous excess of description leaves little for the imagination, and since the imagination works more quickly than the reading eye, the process is slower. It was very challenging for me to take Updike’s mind into my own, and his style is very indicative of the Literary Novel of his time, the 1980s, and I’d say that it continues to influence the self-consciously literary writers of today.

Another issue is that of subject. Witches? In New England? How original. Updike is a man writing about women’s lives from women’s perspectives, which always seems highly suspect to me. It’s in many ways a book of all the things men accuse women of doing, like the way that most of the book is a transcription of gossipy phone calls. Some of it also seems like men’s fantasies of what women do, like the unspoken bisexuality of the witches, where it seems that every woman is trembling on the cusp of lesbian porn. The climax of Act One is a hot tub orgy with one man and three women (we know Updike is a heterosexual man because he never mentions the size of the penis with such power).

Maybe it was modish in the 1980s to refer to homosexuality a lot in your book, but the way his characters talk about it pushes men like me away. That word for us that I find the most upsetting, a British cigarette, gets tossed about like it’s as normal and inoffensive as iron or book. I’m not sure why I find this word so much more upsetting than all the other ways people describe me, nor why the shorter version is so much more upsetting than the word that means a bundle of sticks, but I’m apparently having a rainbow snowflake moment and I’ll thank you to respect my feelings, Mr Updike. The reviewers talk about his great sympathy for his characters, but as a homosexual male I felt outside the realm of his empathy. It seems natural for me to be angry at being the only one included in the book but excluded from sympathetic treatment, so maybe the rest of you (meaning women or heterosexuals) won’t feel the same way that I do. This book is about as pro-gay as the Christopher Reeve film Deathtrap.

But then again, maybe what seemed like sympathetic treatment in 1984 won’t seem sympathetic today. I believe that many women of my acquaintance would take umbrage at the idea that femininity requires taking the place of a man’s mother, just as I find it offensive that many people even today believe that men are perpetual children in need of mothering. For an example, watch the later seasons of Arrow. In the first season The Green Arrow is very Batmannish, but by season four he’s surrounded by women, a little sister and a few friends, and one of them takes over as CEO of his family business and they all boss him around as if he were a child, despite being younger than he. They all talk about how dumb and helpless he is, despite the fact that they know he’s a fucking superhero. He might be a filthy rich masked vigilante with serious top-shelf hand-to-hand combat skills and an amazing body, but he’s still ‘just a man.’

Healing belonged to their natures, and if the world accused them of coming between men and wives, of tying the disruptive ligature, of knotting the aiguillette that places the kink of impotence or emotional coldness in the entrails of a marriage seemingly secure in its snugly roofed and darkened house, and if the world not merely accused but burned them alive in the tongues of indignant opinion, that was the price they must pay. It was fundamental and instinctive, it was womanly, to want to heal – to apply the poultice of acquiescent flesh to the wound of a man’s desire, to give his closeted spirit the exaltation of seeing a witch slip out of her clothes and go skyclad in a room of tawdry motel furniture.

Our witches are three divorced women in their thirties, which was quite shocking in the late 1960s, when the book is set (distanced from author and reader in either time or space, as a Gothic novel should be). And yes, they set about having affairs with married men, and frankly it seems that everyone in town is having an affair with someone else and they all whisper about it but no one does anything about it but talk. When another woman in town gets left, they remark on the fact that she’s now gained the power if she’ll do anything with it, but they don’t make any effort to invite her to the coven. Sukie is the youngest, a bright redhead who writes for the local paper; Jane is the angry one, a cellist who also teaches piano; and Alexandra is the leader, being the oldest and most powerful.

The portrayal of Alexandra got on my nerves, too. This is entirely personal: she’s my age, height, and weight, and she thinks of herself as old and fat, and no one disagrees with her. I’m actually not sure how much I weigh – I haven’t weighed myself since I dated that guy in Texas, when I gained twelve pounds during a two-month relationship – but Lexa is the weight at which I no longer feel like I need to lose weight. He of the Midwest asked me the other day how much weight I’ve lost in North Carolina, and again I have no way of knowing, but I will say this. I can no longer grab an entire handful of excess at my side, and the tendons in my hands and feet are showing themselves again. I don’t have one of those sexual foot fetishes, but a man’s feet can be a pretty good indicator of how much body fat he’s carrying, and when I lived out there I had these thick pads of fat on top of my feet, and now they’re almost completely gone. My belt is getting loose, and when I put on my trousers yesterday I just pulled them up and fastened them without holding my breath or lying down or trying to stretch the waistband an extra inch or two. In Illinois I thought my trouser zippers were going to kill me, and now I don’t think of them at all.

On the first page they’re talking about a new man who’s moving to town, and while you may remember this as the same beginning to Pride and Prejudice, it’s not really anything like. At first they think he must be gay because he’s from Manhattan and has never been married, but once he gets there they all fall for him and he encourages all three. It’s never made explicit, but he’s very much a Satanic figure, and the name Darryl van Horne does sound a bit devilish. He fills in the wetlands, displacing the egrets that nest there; Alexandra doesn’t always see his aura when she’s surrounded by the peacock tails of color that other people’s emotions manifest; at one point his legs seem to be jointed the other way, as if he had goat legs; his face always seems cobbled from disparate pieces that don’t belong together; and he takes charge of their art and ends up controlling the witches. They eventually suspect that they’ve been serving him all along, but with no proof, they drift away from each other. There’s also all the magic going on that they’re not doing, and the way that their lovers end up dead. I also think it’s weird that his hot tub room and bedroom are both completely black. I suppose this draws more attention to the white bodies on display in those rooms, but it’s a little strange.

I don’t remember what gender politics were like in 1984; I was still too young to attend school back then. Maybe this sort of portrayal was normal or enlightened back then, but it’s not any more. It’s a book about women’s power, but the power comes from ceasing to have loved a man, so it’s still very anti-Bechdel. They may be empowered to the point that they have uncoupled copulation from procreation, but they freely admit to neglecting their children, and while the witches all have progeny, none of those children are main characters. Their pets are more important to the book than the children are. Their power makes them independent, outsiders in their own families and community, reliant on each other and no one else. It’s as if being a feminist requires (or induces) social isolation.

I suppose part of this review should mention love as the binding between the sexes, but I don’t see much of it in this book. I see desire and attraction, control and power and a lot of things that have nothing to do with love but get substituted for it. I think the lack of love is part of my trouble with the book. People are selfish and isolated and horrible to each other. In the beginning, Alexandra reminds herself that magic always has a price, a sacrifice necessary to maintain the balance of nature, and it bothers me that as we roll along they forget that. Maybe the dissolution of the coven is a result of their lack of sacrifice, their desire to get something for nothing, but Updike doesn’t address that explicitly.

He does address suicide. The only time we see something from a man’s perspective is when a guy kills his wife and then hangs himself. If this is a trigger, be ready to skip ten pages or so from the middle of Act Two.

I keep trying to wrap this up in a nice summative fashion – a story that builds and builds but doesn’t go anywhere, no Act Three climactic finish, the worst kind of realism – but all I can think of are more things to disagree with. I wonder how much of it is the book and how much is me. Recently someone told me that I’ve been saying No too much lately, so the other night I decided to say Yes to the drag show in a neighboring town. I had only been to one other drag show, and while the entertainment hadn’t been very interesting to me, the man I’d met there was amazing. So I tidied my apartment and cleaned myself up and went, only to find a crowd of around twenty people loosely centered around the door to the club. I walked through and stood for a moment directly in front of the door, cocking my head inquisitively at the handsome man stationed there. He told me that they couldn’t admit any more people, and I heard some of the students around me muttering about how shocked they were that any place in this town would be full, so I nodded at the handsome man and walked on down the street. I decided to find something else I could say Yes to, but there’s not much in that town, and I didn’t feel like drinking with a lot of straight college students (I wasn’t in a talkative mood), so I drove back to this place where I live, but I don’t know this town well – I’ve been in and out of the area for almost twenty years now, but I’ve never spent much time in this town – so I got lost and didn’t find downtown and eventually just came back home, thinking, This is why I keep saying No to the world. I did say Yes to the deer wandering in the road, meaning I didn’t hit her, and when I got home I looked up at the stars and said Yes. They’re always so amazing, out here away from streetlights, and I saw one suddenly rush to the ground, and I made a wish. The same wish I always make: Love.