Posts Tagged ‘history’

I’ve been so angry. I want to talk about du Maurier, because I love her, but I kind of need to desabafar-me about this fight I’m having with the neighbor.

Okay. First off, I think we all need to recognize and agree that I am not for all audiences. The times I’ve lived in close proximity to other people have usually been at least inconvenient, and sometimes downright obnoxious. There was the loud sex couple in Seattle, Sinus Boy in Georgia, the beer-can-throwing all-night partiers in Texas, but at least they sort of let me be. Now I have someone across the street who’s threatening to call the cops on me because it takes me a while to get dressed. Apparently she sits across the street with her binoculars, waiting for me to take my clothes off so she can get offended about my lack of clothing inside my own house.

And this is only the most recent thing. Before I moved in, she had been complaining about the paper on the windows – the landlord covered the panes of glass with newspaper to paint the frames, and it bothered the neighbor so much that he left the paper up for months – and the state of the yard, which I thought was fine when people in the neighborhood didn’t throw trash in it. Another thing that irritates me is that her friends park in front of my house when they come to visit her. It’s a serious enough problem that I’m afraid to move the car on the weekends because sometimes there isn’t space for us at our home. It’s hard to sleep in the front-facing rooms because they leave their porch light on all night long.

I suppose part of the problem is that it’s not my house any more, it’s our house, which means that New Guy can move things around or otherwise change things without checking with me, and I don’t feel as connected with it as I did before he moved in. But I have a room that is mine, where I can set things how I want, and if I don’t want something I can refuse it, and if I want to do something no one can tell me not to.

Except for this old woman across the street who is apparently always watching what I do. I find surveillance oppressive at the best of times, but being watched and judged by someone I don’t know and can’t see when I am in the one place where I can be private is more than I can tolerate. I’m refusing to add more curtains to the window. New Guy was talking about finding something sheer that he thinks won’t block the light, but I’m too angry to consider it. Besides, I feel like I am being victimized in my home again, and I am not willing to appease the neighbor who is abusing me.

Except for potential consequences. New Guy says he’s not going to let me be arrested over this, and nothing raises my eyebrows faster or higher than being told someone’s not going to let me do something. I’m not afraid of jail time over this – I would gladly be incarcerated for the right to be nude in my own home – but they could register me as a sex offender, which could seriously damage my ability to get a job in the future. The universe seems to have decided that all I’m good for is teaching, and no one is going to hire a teacher with a sex offense on his record. Becoming a sex offender could seriously fuck my life up forever. So while I’m not putting up curtains (and I will tear them down if New Guy has put them up while I’m at school), there are other solutions to this problem. Skintight yoga pants the same color as my pasty bare ass come to mind, but I’m also considering posters. There’s that great one of Johnny Cash giving the finger to the camera, or I could also get a pentagram and light candles under it. That ought to freak them out. I’m also considering casual acts of vandalism, because if they’ve already seen me lounging about naked then there’s nothing to stop me from shitting in their grass or on their porch. The intimacy of living in proximity cuts both ways – I may be the one who’s naked, but I’m not the only one who’s vulnerable.

So. Du Maurier and houses on strands. Okay. More popular and better considered than most of her books. Some put it in second place after Rebecca. Late sixties. Drug addiction. Time travel. Awesome.

Dick Young is an aging ne’er-do-well, whose lack of direction as he approaches middle age is something I really identify with. He has found some success recently by marrying a wealthy woman, an American with two children. I don’t see the marriage as a great success, but it’s keeping him going financially. He and Vita might love each other, but loving someone and being good either to or for them are separate things. Dick’s best friend Magnus Lane is a gay scientist, possibly celibate, who has a place down in Cornwall and an experimental drug that he’d like Dick to try. It means some time away from Vita and the boys, so he takes it. The drug is really impressive – it takes the mind back in time to the fourteenth century. Dick sees people who really lived, whom he had never heard of before. One could argue that there’s a connected story in the past, but we only get a few glimpses of it. I found it more useful to focus on Dick’s life in the present. As Vita and the boys arrive at the house and take their rightful place, he starts betraying more and more behaviors of the addict. The longing to be alone, the secrecy, the unreliability as a narrator. I recognize them because this is how I acted when I was married to a woman and confronting the fact that I’m gay. And her behavior is familiar as well: dragging him into social situations he’d rather avoid, demanding a sense of engagement when the feeling is gone, a focus on forcing the external motions of affection rather than trying to attract his waning attention. She knows how to target symptoms, but not the real source of the problem.

Things get worse, he starts having withdrawal symptoms, and the present and the past start blurring together. Eventually he gets a doctor to look at him, and he has to be detoxed a couple of times. Magnus’s drug is pretty heavy-duty stuff, a powerful hallucinogen among other poisonous or medicinal substances. I guess it’s a Derrida thing, that I can never quite tell the difference between weapons and cures. There again, it could stem from a knowledge of rest cures and conversion therapy.

The sense of anticlimax was absolute: the purge had been very thorough. And I still did not know how much I had told him. Doubtless a hotch-potch of everything I had ever thought or done since the age of three, and, like all doctors with leanings towards psychoanalysis, he had put it together and summed me up as the usual sort of misfit with homosexual leanings who had suffered from birth with a mother complex, a step-father complex, an aversion to copulation with my widowed wife, and a repressed desire to hit the hay with a blonde who had never existed except in my own imagination.

I think he’s a bit harsh with the doctor, but I suppose people who don’t want to be helped typically are. The doctor does have some good points, after all.

The world we carry inside us produces answers, sometimes. A way of escape. A flight from reality. You didn’t want to live either in London or in New York. The fourteenth century made an exciting, if somewhat gruesome, antidote to both. The trouble is that daydreams, like hallucinogenic drugs, become addictive; the more we indulge, the deeper we plunge, and then, as I said before, we end in the loony-bin.

I didn’t end in an asylum, or at least I haven’t yet, but stories are still my flight from reality. I just read them in books or watch them on television. I am seeking help, though; I’ve had a couple of sessions with a counselor, and it’s going well. It’s going to take a while, because I am a sweet Vidalia with lots of pungent layers of trauma and suffering, but I have high hopes for myself. Maybe by the time I graduate I’ll be able to approach schoolwork without unraveling.

Another word about Vita. I’m not fond of her, and I don’t think du Maurier makes any effort to make her sympathetic, but she does seem typical. From the films and novels, I’d say that Vita is precisely what an American woman was supposed to be in 1969. Very social, a bit brassy, a bit bossy, always dancing on the line between provoking violence or affection. The men of the time seem to have responded well to this sort of treatment, but I don’t appreciate it.

This drug shows people the past. Dick and Magnus both travel back to the fourteenth century with it and see the same people. But it only takes the mind, not the body. The body stays in the present, acting as if it were in the past. So they wander over hillsides that now have railroads, oblivious of the train whistles, or wander through estuaries that have become fields. So much changes in six hundred years. But they don’t always see the same things. Magnus sees a group of monks having an orgy, but Dick focuses on the interplay of sex and power in the endogamous, vaguely incestuous aristocracy. And where is the power in his marriage? Social traditions say it should be with him, but it’s obviously with her. He barely even has the right to refuse. She’s trying to set him up in a job he doesn’t want, but she wants it for him so badly that she can’t see how unhappy it would make him. I find her a bit short-sighted, but I’m no good at judging how effective his hints are. I know that when I have made what I think are large differences in my facial expression, the mirror shows me that it’s really quite subtle. If I’m not as great a hint-dropper as I think I am, maybe Dick isn’t either. He really doesn’t communicate, so it’s understandable that she doesn’t understand him.

I think next time I read this book, I’ll focus on what the historical parts reveal about Dick’s life with Vita. The first time I read it, I wanted to skip ahead to them because I felt like they were the important thing, but this time I was almost wholly focused on Dick’s real life. The historical sections offer brief snapshots of life with several months or years between, so it’s hard to hold onto the narrative thread. This is a story about drug addiction, not about Cornish history. That being said, du Maurier did her research, so the local history is accurate. Tywardreath is a real place, as are Treesmill and the other places in the book. You can go visit, if you’ve a mind. I’d recommend not taking hallucinogens, though; it’s a modern town like any other, and you could get seriously hurt.

I loved this book, as I do with du Maurier. We could all use a little escape at times, and sometimes we need a dramatic escape to change the course of an unhappy life. Dick’s nervous system may be shot for good, so I think drugs are a dangerous flight to take. Fiction won’t kill you, and there are other safe ways to escape for a bit. And don’t mock me with the line about creating a life that doesn’t require escape – we all need a break from time to time, no matter how happy the course of a life generally is. Don’t deny yourself the thing your heart requires.

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Sometimes reading a book reminds us of a friend so forcibly that we read the whole thing smiling.

Don’t worry that you’ve never heard of this book. It seems few have. The author published it about five years ago, and her only previous publication on Amazon is a book of poems from fifteen years prior. I enjoyed it rather a lot, so the fact that she doesn’t put something out every other year should be no deterrent. I rather like the idea of a novelist who doesn’t approach writing like a nine-to-five job. I’m not opposed to a slow, reticent muse.

This book is very similar to the picaresque adventures of Smollett and Fielding, which I suppose links them to Gil Blas and Don Quixote as well. Gabriella Mondini is a doctor in Venice in 1590. Trained by her father, of course, because how else would a woman get such an education in the sixteenth century? It turns out that many of the women in Venice prefer a woman as a doctor, a preference I fully understand, so she’s actually fairly successful. Unfortunately, the physicians’ guild is a jealous set, and they expel her from their ranks. It’s sort of fortunate, because ten years before her father had gone on a journey, and he recently wrote that he will not return. The Dottoressa’s goal, then is to travel across Europe in search of her father, in an effort to keep him from disappearing from her life.

The other goal is to finish the book. Her father began writing The Book of Diseases, a compendium of his lifetime of learning about medicine, but he is too disorganized to bring it to completion, so Gabriella has taken this task on as well. Many of the diseases sound more poetical or mythical than real, as are the cures, but if you look past the Renaissance point of view, she’s dealing with a variety of mental illnesses that happen in women who are constrained by the Renaissance point of view. The systematic and extreme thwarting of self-direction of half the population is going to throw society out of balance, and the thwarted individuals as well.

But one dank January, she would not return to us. Every afternoon for a month I visited Messalina, spoke to her, touched her arm or hand, but she didn’t respond. Once, in a moment of weakness, I confided to my friend an unforeseen yearning for other parts of the world. I confess that her silence encouraged me, and I began to work out my plans in the presence of her fixed demeanor. Other times I hoped that my schemes would draw her into my own imaginings or that my discontent would distract her from her own. But it became clear that I wasn’t helping her to recover. She was always seated at the window, her chin resting upon one solemn fist, her eyes blankly measuring nothing.

It seems that in literature, journeys always entail loss. This may be an American tradition – I’m thinking of Captain Ahab and the Bundrens – but often, we read about journeys, the characters lose whatever they brought with them. If the journey is a metaphor for life, then I guess we get filled full of garbage as children that we have to get rid of as adults. The journey is about losing tools, losing friends, until all the traveler has is her own body, which she has to disguise as a man to avoid being robbed, raped, or locked in a convent. Sometimes things come back, sometimes lovers come back, but those moments of joy cannot be expected or anticipated. Sometimes reunions are not as sweet as we had hoped.

The state of medicine in sixteenth century Europe is unrecognizable as medicine today. Part of it seems like sadism, forcing the patient to vomit, bleed, or defecate, and another part of it seems like magic, with rituals involving the position of the moon. The third bit is something we can hang onto, plant cures. Roots, herbs, flowers, many of the parts of plants can be used to cure diseases in humans and animals.

Though rue may be employed internally as a remedy for many ailments, among them headache, colic, and women’s lunar pains, and externally for gout, chilblains, and bruises, the water of rue is marvelous for sight and second sight. Writers, engravers, and artists relish the fresh herb with watercress and brown bread. Dabble the water around the eyes to settle murky vision and to summon foreknowledge in all things. The herb of sorrow is thus also the herb of grace, for the future already repents of its errors. Some also claim that rue repels plague, biting chiggers, and curses. The evil eye squints from the scent of rue.

And this is what her father’s ten-year journey was about, as well as her own training: finding a cure for his own mental illness. I’m not qualified to diagnose her father’s trouble, but he eventually lost all sense of his own identity and ended up a raving lunatic locked in a barn in Morocco. If she had known where he was, she could have skipped traveling through northern Europe in the middle of winter and she might have been able to help him before he needed locking up. But there are other things she would have missed, like the conception of her own child with a handsome Scotsman.

It may seem odd that there are no repercussions for conceiving a child out of wedlock, but people were more relaxed about things than they are now. People have become so polarized in their opinions that it’s hard for many to deal with someone whose life looks different than theirs. O’Melveny may be romanticizing or imagining the past differently than it was, but I really don’t have a problem with that. I do it often enough myself.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to going back to school was for the availability of mental health services, but now I have some anxiety about going to set an appointment. But I was meeting with my kids yesterday, and my eldest wanted to show me some of the things he’s learning in a martial arts elective at school, and it threw me off my internal balance like I was going back to PTSD-land, like I was in Texas. Maybe I do need to go looking for a cure to my own madness.

This book isn’t going to set the Thames on fire, but it’s good. There are so many feminist novels these days that it seems another one could get lost in the crowd, and that may be what happened to this one. But the book deserves to be read and loved, and not only by me.

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

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

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a moment to remember what Stevenson has written up until this point: Treasure Island, Prince Otto, and Kidnapped. All three of these were adventure stories, written primarily for a younger, male audience. His style represents a transition from the loquaciousness of his Victorian contemporaries to the bare, “hard boiled” narration of twentieth-century genre fiction. But apparently that style hasn’t suited everyone, and before the story he references specifically “The Critic on the Hearth,” both a play on the Dickens title and an appropriate yet affectionate title for his wife. In The Black Arrow, he claims to be trying to merge his boy adventures with the type of story (and writing) that traditional novel readers enjoy – in other words, he says that he’s going to infuse some Dickens and Brontë into this one. I suppose it’s because he’s finally writing about a young man who is interested in a woman.

As the subtitle suggests, this story takes place during the Wars of the Roses, though Stevenson seems to avoid taking sides in the York/Lancaster debate. His message is at least partly that it doesn’t matter what side of a war you fight on, because in the end war is a way for the rich to get richer and the poor to die. The poor, realizing this, are hesitant to involve themselves. It doesn’t help that in a civil war of this type, the people they are fighting and killing are their friends and neighbors, all hyped up over one cause or the other. It’s not a happy world to drop your characters into. Displacing the characters in time gives Stevenson the chance to use some archaisms, but not enough to make it seem written back in the fifteenth century.

This is the story of Dick Shelton, told in five acts. In Act I, he’s a young teenager who’s more interested in fighting than in girls. In his guardian’s house he meets a young man on the opposite side, and incautiously promises to guide him to Holywood. So they run off on a secret adventure, and it’s all very homosocial and Kidnapped-esque. But this time, lest anyone think Dick is actually gay, Stevenson pulls a Shakespearean stunt and Jack Matcham is really Joan Sedley, so all those jokes that people were making about Jack being a girly boy were quite accurate. And remember, it’s okay to fall in love with someone of the same sex if they turn out to have been lying about their sex all along. They don’t quite make it to Holywood before Dick’s guardian Sir Daniel recaptures them

In Act II, Dick has to face some home truths about Sir Daniel – his guardian killed his father and persuaded him to believe it was someone else. His life and the love of his new father figure is all a lie, so he goes all rampage and joins The Black Arrow, a group of outlaw archers who live in the forest and are bent on killing Sir Daniel for having killed Dick’s father, among others. Sir Daniel has flipped sides in the war a few times, so The Black Arrow is not wedded to a white or a red rose either. They just care about avenging the wrongs of Sir Daniel and his cohorts. Dick decides that he wants to marry Joan, which is a bit of a challenge because Sir Daniel is keeping her captive so he can sell her in marriage to a rich noble. Doesn’t matter which one, so long as he’s rich and is willing to pay for a really young wife.

In Act III, Dick tries to rescue Joan the first time. He and his Arrows steal a ship and try to come around by the shore, the only ingress unguarded. A huge storm blows up and his men are too sick and scared to fight, and they come into conflict with Lord Foxham and his men. Foxham is Joan’s rightful guardian, and he’s also trying to get her back from Sir Daniel. After they end the first battle, Foxham and Dick team up. They try again, and are unsuccessful again. This time Foxham is seriously wounded and has to go recuperate for a long time. The message here? (1) You’re not going to get the girl and resolve the action in Act III of a five-act play, and (2) Stealing boats is not the right way to go about doing anything.

In Act IV, Dick teams up with the only guy who kept his head during the storm at sea. They disguise themselves as friars to sneak into Sir Daniel’s but they just end up captured and needing to break out again. Dick does meet up with Joan for a short time, but they are quickly separated. We also meet her friend Alicia, Lord Risingham’s niece. Both girls are kind of badass, but hindered by the gender roles of their time. It’s hard to run in a medieval princess dress. At least they didn’t have to wear those cone hats with the veils.

Act V. Dick ditches Lawless and becomes an officer under the Duke of Gloucester, he who will become King Richard III. Gloucester is presented as ruthless and efficient, but still young. Reading Shakespeare I always pictured Richard III as an older man, but when he died he was five years younger than I am now, so maybe young and stupid was always part of his problem. He never outgrew the adolescent need to see everything in terms of black and white. Dick does well with a barricade and is knighted, then drops from favor just as quickly when he pisses Richard off. He saves the girl, forgives the bad guy (but in forgiving holds him in one place long enough for the leader of The Black Arrow to shoot him), and they almost all live happily ever after. Well, until their natural deaths. There is no living ever after in a story set four hundred years before it’s written.

If there’s a big lesson here, it’s that Dick has to learn that his actions have consequences. He’s so focused on his goal of saving the girl that he bumbles around doing shitty things to other people and being surprised when they respond negatively, and when they turn back up in town and respond negatively again. The story takes place in and around one town; it’s kind of dumb to think that people are going to just go away. There is a war on, but you can’t expect the people you don’t like to die and the people you do like to live. Life isn’t that tidy.

So. Did Stevenson succeed? Well, he finally does have realistic female characters, and Dick realizes that he’s turned on by a girl who’s going to call him out on his shit, but this is still the same kind of adventure story he’s been writing before. The girls are awesome, but we don’t get to see them much. They’re damsels in distress, but that distress is mainly caused by the fact that they can’t wear trousers or take fencing lessons. Given the chance, I’m sure they could manage their own problems. There’s an independence of mind that Stevenson’s previous novels haven’t afforded women, so in that sense this book is a step forward. People who read novels for psychological studies and mature themes are still going to be disappointed; it’s still aimed at the younger male audience, full of unnecessary violence and idiotic attempts at heroism. I suppose that could be another message, don’t set people up as heroes because they’re as fallible as you and will inevitably let you down. But it’s an early Stevenson novel, fun in a late Victorian sort of a way.

Once upon a time, The Ex thought I should get some counseling to control my same-sex desires. The priest she sent me to said that he didn’t see being gay as anything bad or requiring counseling, so he talked to me about my parents instead. I feel like that’s what’s going on in my life now – I came back to this house, I’m feeling the anger from when I was divorced, but life keeps handing me books about parent-child relationships. Maybe that’s the real problem: I may actually have dealt with my problems with The Ex, but it’s my parents’ homophobia and lack of support that still enrages me.

This is a book about burying one’s parents. Our first-person narrator Jeff is an unemployed, commitment-phobic child in his mid-thirties. His personality isn’t really strong enough to leave a strong impression, especially not in the high-concept science fiction world he wanders into. It seems odd to me that he should be so young when his parents die, but I suppose some people do still die of disease in their sixties. It’s not as common as it once was, but it could happen. His mother died some time before the beginning of the story, and he was there at her bedside when it happened, so the memory of his mother’s death follows him throughout the book. The novel is divided into two parts, one for his stepmother and one for his father.

Part One is called In the Time of Chelyabinsk, after the town where a giant meteor exploded in the sky. Artis is sick and going to die, so she goes to this cult-like cryogenic freezing place in the middle of nowhere, probably in Russia. I like her name; it reminds me of a cross between Artist and Artemis. Of his two surviving parents, Jeff finds Artis easier to love, but he never responds to her in a filial manner. He calls her by her first name and she is who she is, always herself instead of being identified by her relationship to him. People appear and Jeff gives them names in his head, but they seem to prefer anonymity, being submerged in a group identity. We never learn how they identify themselves, or if they identify themselves as separate individuals.

This part takes place almost wholly within The Convergence, a bunker-like structure designed to preserve the dying wealthy for a time when they can be restored to health. Jeff spends a lot of time wandering around the hallways. It seems designed to remove people from all frames of reference; most of the doors in the halls are decorative instead of leading into rooms, and they tend to be nearly identical. Jeff keeps looking for ways to differentiate, but in my head I only saw the same corridor over and over again. As Jeff wanders the halls, they show video footage of natural disasters, tornados and earthquakes and such, to give the impression that life ‘out there’ is chaotic and frightening, but in here everything is safe and controlled. No nature, no disaster. Science is forestalling death, the ultimate natural event.

And yet, the theory behind the design seems to have been that death is not a part of life, that it removes a person from life even if it’s a relative dying and not herself. Initially the focus is on Jeff’s feelings about Artis dying, which he can only process in this isolation from his daily life, but as he keeps learning about this place the atmosphere gets increasingly conspiracy theory/science cult. The final process feels similar to mummification, with the removal of the organs and sometimes the head. The subjects are promised new, better versions when they’re revived in the technologically advanced future, but it’s still a hospice center in a nuclear bomb shelter. They think they’re living on, but it’s death all the same. Between parts one and two we have a brief interlude of Artis’s thought process after being frozen, and it’s a panicked search for memory of who and where she is, but she can’t find the words for it. Just an endless repetition of searching for a lost identity and place in the world.

In Part Two, Jeff’s father Ross is ready to join Artis. He’s not sick or anything, he just doesn’t want to live without her. Part of this section takes place in the Convergence again, but most of it is in New York as Jeff goes about living his real life. There are some echoes of White Noise here, which helped me feel more comfortable in placing this in the same place in my head as DeLillo’s earlier novels. Jeff is seeing Emma, and she has an adopted son from the Ukraine, Stak. Stak usually lives with his father in Denver, but we meet him on a trip to New York. He’s kind of troubled. While Jeff is dealing with his own daddy issues, he makes an effort to not-quite-parent Stak. It’s not enough, but he does his best. When Stak runs off, Emma slowly disappears from Jeff’s life.

It was easy for me to identify with the characters in White Noise, but it’s harder here in Zero K. One of the things that bothers me about him is the fact that he turns down employment for emotional reasons. I understand that this is part of how Baby Boomers perceive Millennials, but I don’t know anyone who does this. Our fathers aren’t rich and supporting us (as Ross does for Jeff), so we will take any job we can get. ‘It just doesn’t feel right’ is no reason to pass on an opportunity to eat and live in your own place, but the dependence doesn’t seem to bother Jeff. Finally he does find suitable employment as an ethics and compliance officer for a university, but he doesn’t seem as identified with his work as I would expect from his making such a big deal about it.

And then, of course, there’s the relationship with the father, which the book seems to be primarily about. Jeff is one of those adult children of divorced parents who can never forgive his father for being his own person. The only thing that matters to Jeff is relationships, and people only matter to him as their relationship to him. To Jeff, Ross’s only identity is his father, as if his own needs for work and love are unimportant. I see a lot of this in my own family, with my siblings refusing to have a relationship with our dad. I won’t say I’m comfortable with him, but he is my dad, and there are no substitutes for that. Half of my raw materials are from him, so he’s an important influence on my body and personality. I can’t hate him without hating myself, and I choose not to hate myself.

Part Two is In the Time of Konstantinovka, and the Convergence has seen a shift in focus. To me, it seems less religious and more business. The screens no longer show natural disasters – they show footage of the fighting in the Ukraine. Nature is no longer the enemy; other people are. Here in small-town USA we’re pretty far removed from events in the Ukraine, but apparently the fighting hasn’t really ever stopped, since a few years ago when Russia pretty much annexed the Crimea, and the rest of the world just let them. Konstantinovka gets a special mention because it’s the town where a tank ran over a little girl. It seems to me like a civil war, and there are some historical parallels to the way we stole Texas from Mexico, but some people are seeing this as evidence that we’re in a second Cold War. I’m not sufficiently involved in the news to have an opinion on that idea, but I think it’s one that a lot of people in this country would welcome. A Cold War gives us an easy target, a clearly defined enemy nation. We haven’t had that in a while.

As a kid, it seemed like we weren’t against individual Russians so much as against Communism and Conformity, which were pretty much the same thing, a lifestyle more than an economic system. In the last twenty-five years, we’ve become more conformist, I think – instead of Weird putting people outside of society like it did when we were kids, Weird has been adopted as a standard model of American behavior. There are set patterns of being weird that people can accept now, so you have to be weird in the right way.

I wanted to see beauty in these stilled figures, an imposing design not of clockwork bodies but of the simple human structure and its extensions, inward and out, each individual implacably unique in touch, taste and spirit. There they stand, not trying to tell us something but suggesting nonetheless the mingled astonishments of our lives, here, on earth.

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

Was there a hollowness in these notions? Maybe they were nothing more than an indication of my eagerness to get home. Do I remember where I live? Do I still have a job? Can I still bum a cigarette from a girlfriend after a movie?

As with most science fiction, DeLillo is asking questions about who we are, and who we are becoming. If there is a Cold War II, are we the conformists this time? Are we allowing ourselves to become standardized people? Am I myself, or am I WeirdBookNerd33459, a specific variation that loves music, movies, and the fiber arts? And why is it that Microsoft Word underlines my last name as if it were a spelling error, but has no problem with the standardized label in the previous sentence?

Sometimes history is single lives in momentary touch.

Actually, I think that’s all history is. It all boils down to individual people making decisions. Those decisions can have far-reaching consequences, and history is usually composed of more weighty decisions than whether I’m going to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast or not, but still, it’s people choosing. The study of history consists of understanding why people choose the things they do and what the consequences of those choices are.

I do realize that the novel that serves as my reference point for DeLillo was written thirty years ago, and this book is his most recent. That’s plenty of time for growth and change. But there are still technicolor sunsets and fractured, oddly international families. There are people trying to figure out who they are in a world that is increasingly hard on individualists. Perhaps our real life is assuming more of an Arthur C. Clarke/Philip K. Dick vibe, which is why we have such a sci-fi book from an otherwise realistic author. And maybe I’m not ready to deal with my feelings about my parents’ eventual demise, which is why I’ve written nearly two thousand words while avoiding that topic.

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.

Four parts.

  1. A young soldier madly in love with Bonaparte. Henri navigates camp life as an assistant to the chef, and he serves Napoleon’s meals. Mainly chicken. His best friends are a dwarf who works with the horses and an Irish ex-priest. He’s reached the age where ideals are more important than women, so he’s not into the (to me) incredible amount of prostitutes who follow the army. I mean seriously – this many women could create their own independent state while the men are led away to die.
  2. A young Venetian madly in love with another woman. Villanelle works in the casino, usually dressed as a boy. She navigates the world of sex and money, but not by selling herself. She runs card games and sometimes sleeps with players. She falls hard for a wealthy woman, and they enjoy a brief but intense affair while the husband is away. Having lost her heart, she marries a chef out of despair. He’s brutal and horrible, and she eventually gets away from him.
  3. They meet in Moscow, while the Russians are scorching the earth and Napoleon is too dumb to retreat. They walk back to Venice, where they discover that his awful boss and her awful husband are really the same chef, who hates them both.
  4. Henri gets sent to a mental ‘hospital’ on the island of the dead. She tries to break him out, but he decides that he likes being surrounded by his beloved departed. It’s not like she loves him anyway.

All of this to talk about passion and what love really means.

I agree that passion is more something that chooses us than something that submits to being chosen. There are people that I wish I had loved more, but I just couldn’t. I can see and agree that love is often revealed through suffering, but I do not believe that love is defined by suffering. If I love someone, yes, I am willing to suffer for them; however, if suffering is the primary feature of the relationship, I love myself enough to get out. It’s not enough to feel love – loving that person needs to make you happy. When love is the source of suffering, focus your love on something else.

I’m telling you stories. Trust me.

This phrase is repeated several times, and it got me thinking about my childhood. In the little town where I grew up, ‘telling stories’ was a synonym for ‘lying.’ At school, angry teachers would say to students, “You’d better not be telling stories,” for example. Being from somewhere else, this didn’t make sense to me. We were always encouraged to read stories, so how could stories be something bad? Why was telling a story something so evil that it demanded punishment? Maybe this is why none of the other kids liked to read, and maybe this is why I take delight in harmless things that people consider evil.

Winterson’s title, of course, makes us think of Jesus and sacrifice, though that isn’t an angle she really pursues. I suppose you could read Henri as a Christ figure, but I don’t really think it’s accurate. Perhaps he is a bit of a lamb, but society doesn’t sacrifice him to pay for its sins. Villanelle even tries to get him out of the asylum, but he insists on staying. To me, it seems more like he found a home, even though there were some punitive measures that put him there. We make choices and we make the best of whatever the consequences are. Or, as she expresses it in a second refrain,

You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.

Love is a risk, and the casino might be a good metaphor for that. If we’re very lucky, we may find someone who gives us the reward we seek, but only if we’re very lucky and don’t give up. And we may lose everything else in the process.

There’s a man in my life now, and I tell him that I love him. Sometimes I worry that I’m being self-centered again, that what I really love is the pedestal he puts me on. But I think of his smile, and how cute he is when he’s excited to be around me, and I remind myself that I would enjoy his company even if he didn’t get quite so intense about me. As for what love is, and what I mean when I say it, and what he means when he says it – all that is stuff I’m working out, and I’m willing to take some time to figure it out.