Posts Tagged ‘lesbian’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And lo, from the very beginning, I am in love again.

There is something about this book, this woman, that makes me feel all relaxed and happy, Smollett’s ‘agreeable lassitude.’ I read the first page, the first line, and I am instantly more composed, more reconciled to the world I live in. I’ve been analyzing myself on this reading, trying to figure out why Mrs Dalloway should affect me in this way, and I think it’s her approach to life.

And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park, now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.

Mrs Dalloway enjoys life indiscriminately. Everything and everyone pleases her. Her servants love her because she makes their work easy for them without losing the ineffable sense of glamour that she casts on everything. I find her enthusiasm compelling and irresistible, though not quite infectious. She awakens in me the desire to love the world as she does, but I’m not quite there yet. She has a gift for making things beautiful that I do not possess. She certainly has a way with people that I do not. For all I try, I do not have the manners that make strangers feel comfortable, and that deficiency makes it harder for me to make new friends and enjoy large parties as she does.

Though I suppose that I lack discrimination as well, and this is one of the reasons that I didn’t quite succeed in academia. Edmund Wilson said that the true connoisseur is the one who can distinguish between the various qualities of literature and always prefers the highest; I’m more in love with the B-List. I can read and enjoy Dickens, but I get much more pleasure from Wilkie Collins, who is not quite as reputable. Indeed, I even find my appreciation for George Eliot fading a bit, though my late-20s self thinks it sacrilege to admit the possibility. As you can see from this blog, I mix classics with zombies and sci-fi. I may be able to distinguish between the various cuts of literature, but I don’t insist on the absolute best. The apathy toward discrimination keeps me from being a true literary connoisseur/critic.

And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element. But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves. There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodenness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, take her leave.

Mrs Dalloway as a mermaid here makes me think of that line from Prufrock, and to Peter Walsh she does seem a little inaccessible, uninviting. She and Peter and Sally Seton spent a lot of time together thirty years previously; Peter and Sally were both in love with her, and Clarissa and Sally even shared a kiss that Mrs Dalloway still lingers over in memory. Peter proposed, which she finds much less agreeable. And yet, she chose Richard Dalloway, who seems so much less of a person than the other two. There’s a much clearer portrait of him in The Voyage Out, chapters three through six. It was published ten years earlier, and the Dalloways serve as a type of ideal for the young protagonist. In the earlier novel they travel briefly with a group of academics and/or artists, of that type that you’re not sure if they create art, criticize it, or both. The Dalloways bring a certain elegance to the party, however much the other members may dislike it. But what I really wanted to point out from the earlier story is that Clarissa explains why she chose Richard. He was the first person she felt truly understood her. Despite their devotion, Peter and Sally don’t see to the heart of her. I think that in order to see something in other people, the same quality has to exist in ourselves. Clarissa Dalloway is essentially different from Peter Walsh and Sally Seton. A part of it is class, a larger part is patriotism and duty. It sounds a bit mad to me, but the parties, the clothes, the house in town, the frivolity, all that Peter can’t comprehend, is her responsibility to England. The upper classes have a duty to adorn the nation. The desperate poor need something to hope for, and the wealthy give them that ideal. To many people it seems like selfishness, but Mrs Dalloway sees it as service.

I read The Voyage Out three years ago, and in response I wrote, “I read to escape as most fiction readers do, but I also read for the people. I see patterns of being that I would like to emulate, models of what I could be. Some are happy, some are sad, some are lovable, some are evil, but I see the seeds of them in myself, and I see that it’s possible for me to be other than as I am. Novels serve as a mirror in which I see my own potential.” It continues to hold true. I love Mrs Dalloway because she has a grace and social talent that I don’t have but that I would like to develop. My social anxiety and social position keep me from large parties with the Prime Minister, but the comfort under observation would be a real benefit.

Mrs Dalloway is all light and beauty and elegance, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her dark Other is Septimus Warren Smith, a young man still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of World War I. The officer he loved and served under died in the War, and five years later Septimus is still insane with grief.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

Paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur . . . It’s bad. Many of his symptoms were Woolf’s own, such as the belief that the birds were giving him messages in Greek, which he does not speak. The thing that touches me about the portrayal is not so much him as his wife. He married Lucrezia in Milan before he came back from the war, and she does her best to take care of him. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be afraid of going crazy, and then inventing a character who loves you and takes perfect care of you. And then acknowledging that it isn’t enough. Rezia can’t save him. The doctor comes again, but he just can’t take it any more and escapes.

Even though they never meet, Mrs Dalloway hears about what happened and she understands. She knows that the pressure of doctors could drive someone to suicide, and she doesn’t judge him for it. She knows, and feels sympathy. Between The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway, there was the influenza epidemic, and Clarissa fell deathly ill. She recovered, but with a fresh awareness of death, which follows her throughout the day of this story. Facing the reality of her death takes some of her sweetness away. There is strong rage hiding under the white or red roses and mermaid gowns. Most people see only the surface; Peter and Sally see only the depths; but she is both. Mrs Dalloway is a real human being, which means she has rivals and hatreds and friends and loves and everything that makes a life. She sees all of life, whether good or evil, and values it all. She loves life so much that she loves even the pain. She accepts herself completely.

Last week, when I went back to North Carolina, I was baffled by these last six months. How could I have imagined I could be content in the Midwest, when so much of what I love is hundreds of miles away? My children, the friends who helped me through my divorce and coming-out, so much of what really matters to me, so much of what I consider my life is there. I want to go home. And when I think of Mrs Dalloway, I’ve been realizing that I don’t have faith in myself. I don’t think that I will be able to make it there. The him that I’m with now I think can really help me reconcile myself with my family, as well as give me the courage to go after what I really want in life, even if it’s without him. He can show me the way, but I have to do the work myself. I need to continue to decide that my happiness is worth working toward. That could involve a new life, a new career, all kinds of scary things. But if it gets me home, that will be worth it. I just can’t bear the thought of dying here.

 

This is a piece of teenage escapism. Perfect for that role, actually: fast-moving plot, ineffectual or evil adults, and awkward teen heroes.

Scary.

Especially after Petal, wearing a black skirt and matching lipstick, cornered him at school.

She never wore red skirts. She never wore lipstick.

Nick’s head went blank again, smooth, empty. A flat white glacier of nothingness. Not even a woolly mammoth buried in the permafrost.

“Hi,” she said quietly.

It was a brilliant tactic. Short. Friendly but noncommittal. Giving up no information while still requiring a response.

“Hi,” he answered.

Less brilliant. Somewhat uncreative. Verging on plagiarism.

Oh, and it’s a zombie thriller, too. Like any good zombie apocalypse story, the idea is that a lot of us are pretty much walking dead already, and that a catastrophe would do us all a lot of good. Nick works at a chicken processing plant, and after weeks of overwork he slips and stabs his own hand pretty badly, spewing blood all over the chickens. Instead of using the kill switch to halt production, he pushes over the conveyor belt and ruins who-knows-how-much product. But then, after people start turning into zombies after eating at a fast-food fried chicken joint, he begins to suspect that the company decided not to take a loss after all. Why does his blood turn people into zombies? Well, his dad used to work in the research department at the factory, and he brought home some of his experiments and fed them to his kids. I’ve never liked fast-food fried chicken, but since my primary survival skill is the ability to skip meals without complaining, I’d be zombie food for sure.

It makes me think about the weird situation American teenagers are in. As adults, we romanticize our own pasts and then try to extend our children’s childhoods for as long as possible, because we all hate being grown-ups. But people used to be grown up by the time they were thirteen, working full-time factory jobs and churning out babies for abusive husbands. Teenagers haven’t lost the desire for financial independence and sexual activity, but our culture has convinced us that those things are in some ways unsafe for people younger than eighteen or twenty-one. Remember when you couldn’t send your ne’er-do-well son to sea at the age of sixteen because he was already too old? We establish habits during our teen years that will last our entire lives, yet we don’t really encourage teens to develop healthy lifestyles. “They’re just kids; let them enjoy themselves.” What a load of rubbish. They’re bored; give them satisfying work to do. Or at least something to do other than play violent video games and share STDs. They know how to be good people, so let’s get out of their way and let them be who they are.

“Know what I like about you, Nero?”

“No clue.”

Me neither.

“I could tell right away, even when we were alone, you weren’t going to ask lesbian questions.”

“What questions?”

“You know – how does this feel? How does that feel? Is it just a stage I’m going through? The kinds of things boys always ask to make themselves seem open-minded but are actually just pervy and rude.”

“Oh.”

“It’s cool that you have no idea how cool you are.”

Don’t get me wrong, kids are often brutal, but as long as we keep teenagers isolated (still in the wrapper, like mint-condition action figures) they won’t have any reason not to be.

I regret a lot of things from my teenage years. I regret not figuring out that the reason I wasn’t attracted to the girls at my school was that I’m gay. I regret putting all of my effort into my mind while completely ignoring my body – I’d like to be more fit, but it’s hard to start a habit of exercising after thirty-five years without it. Also, because I didn’t exercise then, I’m at a higher risk for cancer and heart disease now. I regret playing video games in my spare time (almost constantly, from sixteen to nineteen). I regret trying to fit in where I was instead of looking for a more congenial social group. I regret accepting boredom, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness as normal. I regret waiting for my life to start. Sometimes it seems that I’m still waiting. Convincing myself that I was content when I was actually depressed was a bad habit to start, and it’s been one of the toughest to kick.

This is my life. It’s happening now. I’m going to go out and live it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, come on, you remember Robin McKinley. She got Newberys for The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword back in the ‘80s. I loved those books when I was little. Well, that was the beginning of her career. She’s still writing now. Spindle’s End was first published in the year 2000, and these days she has an online serial that she’s doing, alongside other projects for print. Sometimes I reread books from my childhood, and I can’t imagine how I ever got through them, even when I was ten (Roald Dahl, I’m looking at you). Not so here – I was pleased to see that McKinley’s style stands up to the test of adulthood (and a couple of degrees in literature).

We know this story. Not only is Sleeping Beauty one of my favorite Disney cartoons, I just saw Maleficent this summer. But as I’ve mentioned before, we seldom read for plot. An experienced reader knows what’s going to happen pretty early on, no matter what he’s reading; we rely heavily on convention when telling stories. We keep reading because we love the characters and we love the language. But as you would expect from an author who writes about female dragonslayers, the king’s daughter will not wait passively to be rescued.

The first thing McKinley makes clear is that we’re dealing with a place where magic infests everything. It transforms, it binds, it protects, it attacks, it keeps physics from working as it should. As a result, there are fairies, who have the natural ability to work with magic, and magicians, who learned in an academy. [There are also priests and religion, but they’re not very important.] Magic can also have nothing to do with the professionals; a piece of household furniture that is very loved can take on magical properties. She doesn’t make this explicit, but love can be the most powerful form of magic.

Barder’s gift was a little flat medallion of ash, carved, like the plaque over the door of Cairngorm’s pub, in the shape of an egret; but while the pub’s egret stood, gazing over the green marsh at its feet, Barder’s egret curled into the small oval space, its long neck folded gracefully back against its body, its long legs tucked out of sight. Even in so tiny an area Barder had cut the feathers to perfection; Katriona half-expected them to yield under her touch as she stroked them. “A memory charm, eh?” said Aunt, admiring the egret. “He’s given you his own charm, I think, a charm for remembering where to come back to.”

“Barder isn’t – ”

“Not that kind of magic,” said Aunt. “But real for all that.”

And, of course, if there are powerful women and magic, cats won’t be far behind.

Cats were often familiars to workers of magic because to anyone used to wrestling with self-willed, wayward, devious magic – which was what all magic was – it was rather soothing to have all the same qualities wrapped up in a small, furry, generally attractive bundle that looked more or less the same from day to day and might, if it were in a good mood, sit on you knee and purr. Magic never sat on anybody’s knee and purred. Cats were the easiest of the beasts for humans to talk to, if you could call it talking, and most fairies could carry on some kind of colloquy with a cat. But conversations with cats were always more or less riddle games, and if you were getting the answer too quickly, the cat merely changed the ground on you. Katriona’s theory was that cats were one of the few members of the animal kingdom who had a strong artistic sense, and that aggravated chaos was the chief feline art form, but she had never coaxed a straight enough answer out of a cat to be sure. It was the sort of thing a cat would like a human to think, particularly if it weren’t true.

Yeah, sounds right.

We’re just coming out of a spate of gift-giving in this part of the world, and I managed to avoid getting anything but one. Fortunately there weren’t any curses attached. Sleeping Beauty is, after all, a story of gifts going wrong. Normally I’m not into gifts and getting things, but twice a year, birthday and Christmas, the lack of them makes me feel especially lonely. Instead of going to a party New Year’s Eve, I was with a friend whose kids were staying up to midnight for the first time, so I rang in 2015 with a Phineas and Ferb marathon. Nice for a change, fun because I don’t do it often, but if I’m going to spend all year watching cartoons . . . that life isn’t worth living. But anyway, for Christmas my mom gave me my grandfather’s briefcase. I don’t have any specific memories of it, but I love it because it reminds me of him. It’s like when Rosie carves Peony a new spindle end for the princess’s birthday, and she says,

I’m sorry it’s only new.

I think that a gift should bring the giver to mind, so it’s nicer to get things that are either handmade or old. New-bought things are great and all, but there’s very little of the self that the person is giving to you. It gets you the possession you want, but it doesn’t draw your community closer as a gift should.

This last week I went visiting friends and family Down East. One of my friends saw that I was reading this and told me how much she loved it, which told me something I’d already suspected about it: this book is completely kid-friendly. She’s not any younger than I am, but ever since we were teenagers she’s feigned an extreme innocence. The illusions help her square her experience of the real world with her religious conservatism. She wasn’t very supportive when I came out of the closet, but we’re back to being good friends now, probably because I don’t talk with her about my love life. She’s happier putting it out of her mind.

People forgot; it was in the nature of people to forget, to blur boundaries, to retell stories to come out the way they wanted them to come out, to remember things as how they ought to be instead of how they were.

She said there was one moment in the book that struck her as weird and off, but that I hadn’t reached it yet. Later, when Rosie kisses Peony, I knew I had found it. It’s not really weird or out of character, actually, unless you’re a homophobic American. Rosie and Peony meet when Rosie’s family moves from the country into town. Rosie has always been a little butch, wearing trousers, talking to animals, and hanging out in traditionally masculine places like the town forge. She’s the best large-animal veterinarian around because she can ask the horses what their problems are. Peony is the perfect little femme, with all the airs and graces and little household skills you would expect from a princess. Rosie tries to hate her at first, but can’t. Despite the polar opposites of their personalities, they become close friends. Rosie first notices romantic feelings in herself when Peony falls in love with someone else. When Rosie begins to prepare for her twenty-first birthday and final showdown with Pernicia, Peony volunteers to be her stunt double. They tell everyone that Peony is the princess – which is more believable than presenting the kingdom with a short-haired, big-boned, misanthropic horse-girl – and they cover the two of them in binding spells so that even magic spells will confuse the two of them. They breathe in unison and cast only one shadow. So when Peony jabs her finger on that sharp spindle, she doesn’t die because she’s the wrong princess. Rosie goes off on a quest to save her friend (revived by her fairy blacksmith boyfriend performing CPR, not kissing her), which ends in Rosie putting the spindle end that symbolizes their union between Peony’s hands and kissing her. The dramatic moment when Sleeping Beauty is awakened by true love’s kiss, and it’s between two not-quite princesses. They both have heterosexual relationships, but there’s something at least a little lesbian between the two of them. However, as mentioned, the book is kid-friendly so the homosocial content is presented in a world where any sort of sexuality is nearly effaced. You can read it as I do, that there’s an offstage GFY romance, or you can read it as simply two very close friends who spent their teenage years without the company of other girls their age. My religious friend has four sisters, and she’s always been close with at least one or two, so she goes for the second reading, which makes kissing on the lips a little weird, but that interpretation allows her to enjoy the book, so I won’t tell her what I think of it.

Spindle’s End is a good book. It’s especially good for people who like fairy tales, fantasy of the sword-and-sorcery type (but with not many swords or sorcerers, just an everyday sort of magic), coming-of-age stories, and strongly implied feminism. If you need profanity or sex scenes to enjoy a book, you’re better off reading something else.

A few years ago, I had a lot of things going on inside me that no one else knew about. I needed to talk it out, but I didn’t have anyone I saw frequently that I felt comfortable talking with, so I started a blog instead. It was exactly what I needed. Writing for my own benefit helped me to realize what changes were happening in me, and where I was going with them. A few people read it, and we became friends. This past spring I realized that I wasn’t that person any more, and I didn’t want to hang onto a persona that I had outgrown, so I pulled that site down and started writing here instead.

Our protagonist Anton Mallick writes for a similar purpose. He’s writing a journal addressed to his multi-great grandfather, who left Hungary in 1830 and moved to Spain. Vidor Mallick has turned into a family legend, so he seems like a good confidential friend to talk to. Unlike me, though, Anton is not really that open. I’ll talk about anything. I’m trying not to keep a lot of secrets, but even without an intended readership Anton keeps his cards close to his vest. There are hints dropped from time to time, but there are some pretty important life events that he doesn’t mention explicitly until the book is nearly over, like the death of his little brother back when they were toddlers. Sometimes he even laughs at us, telling us that we’ll never know whether he went out to sleep with the blonde dog walker or not.

Our story begins in the middle of a panic attack.

Not for the first time, something happened to me today, something horrible and absurd, something that brought on another of my overwhelming anguish attacks. To begin with I was me but, suddenly, I wasn’t, I was someone else, and ended up in the strangest state of not-being-me and yet still being inside my body – all in the middle of a bookshop jampacked with people. Then, terrified, rooted to the spot, as the cashier stared at me uncomprehendingly, unsure whether she should scream or call security, the thought popped into my head that my Hungarian ancestor’s name meant “happy,” and, on top of that, that he swore he was indeed happy, and then I came back to myself, I was me again, Antón, and it was in that moment that I decided to overturn my woeful destiny.

Enough is enough. I don’t want to be a pessimist, or a victim, any more.

And from there we move forward and backward, as he tells us about the situation that led to the attack and his journey toward happiness, or optimism. I think these are separable states of being, but he spends most of the book treating them as a single goal. Why is he having a panic attack? Well, talking about that would give away a few too many of the secrets that generate the suspense that makes the plot interesting. A small part of it, though, is that he meets a woman he slept with once when he was too drunk and high to remember whom he was with, and there in the line at the bookseller’s she tells him that she’s pregnant with his child. That might seem pretty huge, but the situation is a lot more complex than that.

In order to become an optimist, he sets out reading books. He writes a little about the things that he reads, and after he’s read a book he uses quotations from it as chapter epigraphs. Or at least, he does this with the books he likes. At first he goes to his older brother Zoltan, a psychologist who’s hooked on his patients’ medications. Zoltan tends to lord it over his younger siblings because he was raised in the United States while Bela and Anton spent their childhood in Spain with Uncle Juan, and just because he’s the oldest. He gives Anton a number of insufferable self-help books. Anton reads them all, but hates them.

Fortunately, he mentions the quest for optimism to his sister Bela, and she sends him some much better books. Under Bela’s guidance, Anton makes a survey of Western philosophy on the subject of happiness, starting with the ancient Greeks and Boethius and running through Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Those last two are memorable because he likes them – he tends to hate most books about being happy. As he rightly points out, most philosophers are trapped in binary thinking, so instead of pursuing happiness they’re just trying to avoid sadness. Not-sad and happy aren’t the same thing. There are all sorts of gradations between those two extremes. As it is, most of the philosophy and self-help books promote this vapid sort of quietism, where the person doesn’t really feel much of anything, saving himself from sadness by forfeiting the chance for joy. That’s not happiness, it’s clinical depression.

Strangely, if I go back over what I’ve read up until now, from the pre-Socratics to Russell, the whole idea of happiness or optimism is a way out, a fleeing from reality, a juggling game – interesting or depressing, depending on the person putting it forward. My Annus Horribilis is about to come to an end, and I refuse to hide: I still want TO LIVE.

The Buddhists recommend beginning here, finding the things that make you suffer and eliminating them, but they also go on to recommend that you find the things that make you happy and do them.

What things make me happy, what do I enjoy a lot? Drinking half a liter of orange juice every morning. Putting things in order and throwing them away. Running. Going for a stroll. Cooking. I’ve found that I ought to rediscover my hands again, action, doing things, not just thinking of them. It doesn’t overly matter how well you do them, or if they seem ridiculous when you tell others about them, or they aren’t going to get me anywhere in the long term. It’s about enjoying the immediate experience. Maybe, that way, I’ll find a way (nothing of course definitive, but liberating, refreshing).

Orange juice doesn’t make me that happy. If it’s the cheap stuff, even one small glass can be acidic enough to give me stomach cramps for a few hours. And I hate the kind of running that he does – sprinting is fun, but the distance stuff not so much. I do enjoy putting things in order, which makes me feel effective and in control, and throwing things out, which gives me a clean, renovated feeling.

Nothing in the world makes me feel a charge of optimism like getting rid of a book I can’t bear, and feeling not a jot of guilt, only pleasure. Who ever said we shouldn’t throw books in the trash? Who ever said there’s anything that isn’t better off in the trash?

I like strolls and doing things with my hands. I haven’t ever trashed a dishonest private investigator’s apartment on Christmas Eve, but I can see how I might enjoy it as much as Anton does. Cooking is only enjoyable for me if I’m doing it for someone else. That’s something I run into a lot: I love doing things for people, but people rarely want anything from me. I end up giving lots of unwanted advice because my need to help is unsatisfied.

Along with all the turmoil in his personal life, Anton writes insurance policies, and he spends the duration of the book working on this policy for a satellite. I didn’t know that all the world’s Sputniks were insured, but it makes sense that they would be. This job requires him to travel from his home in Madrid to Paris, London, and New York – I really liked Paris and New York when I was in them. I felt an immediate comfort, a sense of belonging that comes more slowly in small towns. Anton also likes New York, but he gets into a little more detail about why he likes it so much.

To start with, if you’ve been there a few times, you come to believe that you own it. It reveals itself to you immediately, it guides you along her streets, her avenues, her symbols; it makes you believe it’s easy to read. It’s been called the lighthouse of the West. Rather, I think of it as the West’s best work of fiction, the most elaborately wrought. Like a good book, first of all it grabs you and then it deceives you, for your own good, leading you to a place where your horizons will widen and grow. It transmits life, and life just is, it can’t be questioned, much as we try to explain it. It can be read in infinitely different ways, and though it never ceases to transmute, in essence, it’s always the same, there’s no alteration to the text. Hers is the sweetest trap, because she doesn’t claim to provide answers, rather to make you ask yourself better questions. And that’s why, like good books, it can also destroy you if you aren’t ready to be alone, which is the one irrefutable truth. No book will ever make your dreams come true. No city will give you something for free. Not even New York, that work of fiction.

Maybe that line about aloneness can explain the strange contradictions in the New Yorkers’ sense of community. They seem to remain locked within themselves, oblivious of what’s going on around them, unless there’s something important going on. In times of tragedy, there’s no better place to be – all New York will hold you as you all suffer together. That shared identity pulls them through the really bad stuff, but during normal business hours it’s all group isolation, like a hermits’ convention. People just sit quietly, trying not to make eye contact. People talk about the dangers, but I once wandered home on an unfamiliar subway route at two am, drunk off my ass and clutching a paperback copy of Gone with the Wind, and no one messed with me. They actually kept their distance, though I am far from imposing and that high level of drunkenness makes me even less likely to initiate contact with strangers. That experience is probably one of the reasons I disagree with statements like

The world we live in pretends to be better than it really is. Countries, governments, businesses, products, people, everyone and everything only put their best foot forward (and all the same it’s appalling, outrageous, sick). Here on planet earth our prime concern is to sweep the shit under the carpet and carry on regardless. If we explained to future generations what life’s really like and then asked them if they still felt like joining us, none of them would choose to be born, or only the worst kind, the masochists, the dimwits, the scatterbrains, or the saints, who definitely come within this sorry confederation. And? Well might you ask, Vidor. Where’s this little speech of mine headed? I, a twenty-first century individual who’s already here, who was never consulted about wanting to be born, am making an effort to be an optimist, and the point I’m coming to is that maybe that isn’t so strange. It’s the appropriate, the elegant thing to do.

If we all put our best foot forward, isn’t that proof that we want the world to be a good place? And isn’t that enough to make it a good place? Yes, sometimes there are school shootings and suicide bombings, but I think those are aberrations, not the rule. And in all of these tragedies, there is one sick person surrounded by dozens of people who try to minimize the damage and heal the wounded. Even the bad things strengthen my belief that the world is a good place full of good people.

One of the things that I appreciate about Anton Mallick is his attitude toward homosexuals. He learns that someone he’s getting to know is a lesbian, so Bela offers to introduce him to her hot lesbian friend and her partner so that he can get some insight into the concept. He refuses, though. I think he’s right; Bela’s friends are fifteen years older than the girl he’s meeting, and even without the age gap, there’s no guarantee that any two people are going to have similar experiences of homosexuality. Sure, there are probably a few things that all lesbians have in common, but other than a taste for women, I’m not sure what they are. I’m friends with five or six, more if you count the bisexuals, and they’re all individuals who break stereotypes in one or more directions. Asking one about her life will not really give me useful information about another’s. Or, as Anton puts it,

“I find lesbians, as lesbians, neither interesting nor uninteresting,” I said. “I have the same thing with them as with heterosexuals, or with hermaphrodite insects, if you see what I mean. Individuals are what interest me. When it comes to Leia, I’m interested to know what she’s like, to see if we can get on. Full stop. Shall we go and catch a film?”

When I listen to the LGBT community, this seems to be what most of us really want: not to be seen as a label, but as a complete human being. Being gay is only part of that. It’s an important part, but still only a part.

One of the parts of myself that’s claiming more attention lately is the depression. I think that I’ve been thinking about it wrong. I think of myself as a hopeful, optimistic sort of person, just two red pigtails shy of being totally Pollyanna, but then there’s this weird thing with my body chemistry that makes me depressed. The depression feels alien to me, like there’s some large, dark mammal breathing heavily on my thought processes, so they sound like this:

I can’t and don’t want to think. I can’t sleep and I want to. I can take a pill and I don’t want to. I can drink a couple of whiskys and I want to and do. I can leave the house and go to a bar and look at the people and I don’t want to. I can’t run into the plump blonde dog walker and fuck her in the middle of the street and I want to. I can and I don’t want to, I want to and I can’t.

I’ve been thinking of the depression as an animal because I can see it fighting for its right to live. I think that exercise will help me feel better, so the depression keeps me from having that kind of energy for a few months. I think that getting enough sleep will help, so I spend all night dreaming of plane crashes. I try to eat right, but then I seem to be gaining weight, but only on the left side, so I’m all lopsided and weird, so it’s probably better not to eat and see if that evens me out. I try to play the guitar a bit, and I get frustrated with my still-low level of skill. I try to apply for a new job, and the internet crashes for an entire week (I can’t blame that on my depression, but sometimes the universe seems a bit spiteful). Think that getting on some meds might help you? Ha! Now you’re terrified of any (legal) drugs that affect the brain, and a little afraid of all the others for good measure. The more I fight against this mental beast, the stronger it gets.

I think a better solution will be to stop thinking of depression as a foreign element. Okay, so yes I am naturally disposed to optimism and happiness, but if depression is caused by body chemistry, then that’s natural too. Anton eventually finds peace in accepting and integrating the different parts of himself, letting himself grieve for those who are dead, accepting relationships as they present themselves, accepting his own desires instead of feeling guilty for them. He even accepts the fact that he’s a pessimist, and after he finally stops trying to force himself to be optimistic he’s a happy pessimist. I don’t think that we can be happy by partitioning and rejecting various parts of the psyche. I can’t hate the part of me that is depressed and still love myself. I need to accept that my depression is mine, and maybe if I stop attacking it, it won’t fight back so much.

People have been telling stories about vampires for a long time. In the European forests of times past, parents told scary stories to keep their children close to home – there were legitimate dangers in the dark forest, but when you tell a small child about bears, he envisions them as slightly larger versions of squirrels, and accords them the same amount of fear. Friends also told scary stories to each other for entertainment. One of the creatures invented was the vampire, a reanimated corpse that subsists on human blood. Vampire stories come from all over the world, dating back to pre-Christian times, but our modern American vampire seems to have been born in eastern Europe in the early eighteenth century. Many of the conventions that we see as important now were invented in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so they’re really not as essential as they seem. The vital bit is that they survive by taking life from others.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla predates Dracula, so the vampire isn’t quite what we expect. Stoker does steal quite a bit from this much shorter story, though, so she’s not a total surprise.

The features, though a hundred and fifty years had passed since her funeral, were tinted with the warmth of life. Her eyes were open; no cadaverous smell exhaled from the coffin. The two medical men, one officially present, the other on the part of the promoter of the inquiry, attested the marvellous fact that there was a faint but appreciable respiration, and a corresponding action of the heart. The limbs were perfectly flexible, the flesh elastic; and the leaden coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, the body lay immersed. Here then, were all the admitted signs and proofs of vampirism.

At first, it seems like people are being set up for a scam: a fast carriage is upset, the vaguely injured girl is left with wealthy bystanders while the supposed mother jumps back into the quickly repaired carriage and dashes off on a mission of life and death. Really? Moms were willing to ditch their rich daughters with total strangers? This mother figure may have some hypnotic abilities; in one scenario, she meets a guy at a party and convinces him that they’re old friends; it makes the daughter-ditching a little less unbelievable (from her mark’s point of view), but it also makes me think she’s not quite normal.

There follow some classic story elements: children go missing from the woods, or are found dead. The young lady of the house contracts some mysterious wasting illness, to the great concern of her father and friends. The doctor discovers a puncture wound normally hidden by the high collars of the time, and someone calls in a vampire hunter/scholar. There’s a showdown at the crypt and order is restored.

Our characters live in classic Gothic isolation, a nice British family forced abroad because it’s so much cheaper to live in an Austrian castle than an English village. There’s a nameless father and daughter, and the two women hired to attend to the girl’s education. These four seem to have little interaction with the outside world. Then Carmilla gets dumped on them, and the daughter falls in love for the first time.

“How romantic you are, Carmilla,” I said. “Whenever you tell me your story, it will be made up chiefly of some one great romance.”

She kissed me silently.

“I am sure, Carmilla, you have been in love; that there is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on.”

“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”

How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!

Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.

Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”

I started from her.

When viewed in the light of homosexuality, the whole vampire thing becomes much more frightening, to me. A girl gets visits in the night from a female guest, she becomes more and more like this other girl, so her father tracks the foreign element down and kills it. They live in a female-dominated environment, so the lesbian attraction makes perfect sense, but when it comes time to kill the monster, men seem to appear out of nowhere. It’s like patriarchy was waiting, just out of sight, lurking, and when the moment came for a woman to profess her love for another woman, the weight of authority jumped out from behind a tree and crushed her.

I’m reminded of the time I was riding a bus with some coworkers and they started talking about the love scene between Catherine de Neuve and Susan Sarandon in The Hunger. I could hear the drool in their voices. I was really uncomfortable, not at the thought of lesbian sex, but at the way they were discussing it. I had seen that part of the film years earlier with less discomfort than I felt at hearing them talk about it. It was like something precious and sacred was being passed around, handled, profaned by vulgar nonbelievers – pearls before swine. Sexuality is something private; it belongs to the people involved. I do enjoy a good sex scene, but I think that what makes the difference for me is in identification. When I watch people on a screen having (or pretending to have) sex, I can identify with the men involved – I enjoy the sight of a body similar to mine, an example of what I’d like mine to be. I can also identify with the partners of men, though sometimes I get jealous if I have an overwhelming desire to be with the guy (Ewan MacGregor, for example). But in a lesbian love scene, there is no place for a man. We can never enter that narrative. When I hear men trying to, by becoming narrators or observers, it feels like a violation. I don’t want to be part of that.

Being written in 1872, there’s nothing prurient about Le Fanu’s narration; he points us in that direction without dragging us all the way there. The same is true of the violence at the end. Because the story is narrated by the girl, we don’t have to see the staking, beheading, and burning, a great relief to me. I don’t like seeing all that. Without quite meaning to, I always see myself in the victim’s place, imagining the sharp point penetrating my heart, the axe at my neck, my own limbs consumed in the fire. Not as much fun as it sounds, but after thirty-four years of repetition, not as horrific either.

Carmilla is a short book, and a good one, much better than Polidori’s wretched Vampyr. It’s important to people interested in the history of horror or representations of homosexuality. Carmilla herself is fairly sympathetic, if you can overlook that whole vampiric monster thing. But hey, Myrna Loy got her start playing vampiric monsters, and she went on to become Nora Charles, one of the most beloved female film characters from the 1930s. They can’t be all bad.