Posts Tagged ‘life’

I feel like there really isn’t a whole lot to say about this book, except that this is how colonialism works. Or would work under this set of circumstances. In previous readings I’d focused on the first part of the book, all the different initial contacts between America and Mars, but this time I was more interested in what happens to the earth. The stories are placed between 1999 and 2026, so of course his timeline is off (In 2018, the extent of our Martian travel is a droid that sings Happy Birthday to itself once a year), but that is what science fiction is all about – telling us about human nature, revealing the cultural moment, it’s never about A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it’s about the here and now. Bradbury’s here and now is the United States of the late 1940s; several of these stories were published in periodicals in 1948, though the entire collection came out in 1950.

Bradbury’s Martians are telepathic and technologically advanced. Stage One is killed by a jealous husband – his wife connects with the Earth Man in a way she can’t with him, so he meets the man at his landing site and prevents him from stepping foot on Mars. Stage Two is believed to be insane – when you’re telepathic you project your hallucinations onto other people’s minds, so they think the Earth Men are projections and kill them. Stage Three is just trapped – the Martians build a town modeled on Green Town, Illinois (the one from Dandelion Wine) and disguise themselves as beloved relatives, then they kill them all. Stage Four is successful because by this time almost all the Martians have been wiped out by the chicken pox. And thus we see American strategy: just keep throwing men into the meat grinder until you get lucky.

Most of the book happens before the end of 2005, so there’s really just six years of colonization, in which time the Americans manage to kill an entire planet and do their best to recreate their own in its stead. One guy wanders all over the place planting trees, and they grow up unexpectedly quickly, providing the necessary oxygen. The Americans of color (pre-civil rights, if you’ll recall) all band together to leave their center of oppression and create a new community far away from the white men, who seem anxious to perpetuate their privilege at the expense of women and ethnic minorities. I read an article recently that commented on the destructive logic of terms like Third World and developing countries, so it used ‘minority-world’ to describe the United States and other countries whose lifestyle is similar to ours, and ‘majority-world’ to describe those countries that continue to suffer from food insecurity and a less technological standard of medical care. Which makes sense because worldwide they are in the majority and we are the minority. It’s like we stamped out apartheid in South Africa while ignoring the global similarities, a minority of white Europeans running the world at the expense of the numeric majority of darker-skinned peoples. Can we all take a moment to ponder just how Eurocentric the UN is at a structural level?

In “Usher II,” all the conformity of mid-century America comes to Mars. One man combats it by building a house modeled on Poe’s House of Usher, and it’s full of scenes from Poe’s most famous stories, with a bit of Lewis Carroll thrown in for good measure. He kills the rightmindedness committee and replaces them with robots who will keep the heat off. Now that I think of it, it’s sort of astonishing how many of these stories are about murder, but I guess that’s part of The American Way as well. Why else would we need a movement that calls itself Black Lives Matter, and why else would people get angry about it?

Then, in 2005, nuclear war breaks out and all the Americans get called back to Earth to fight in the war. This is an excellent example of Bradbury’s bending the facts to fit his theme – if nuclear war had broken out, we wouldn’t have asked the Mars colonists to come back. Nuclear wars aren’t fought by numbers of men – it only takes one to press a button, and if you took all the button pushers it would require to destroy the entire planet, you could invite them over to your house for a party and still have plenty of room for them each to bring a plus-one. It’s the same meat-grinder mindset that began the colonies, the idea that in order to accomplish anything the United States needs a lot of men who are willing to die for their country. Because they will. Because we can’t imagine any other way to do things. Because human life is not something our culture values. Because we see death as poignant and beautiful as long as it is happening to someone else. Because it’s better that people should die than that we should be inconvenienced or grant the privileges we enjoy to someone who seems different from ourselves. Because the only way to make sure that your life matters is to be exactly like the people in power – conformity saves lives, because white American men need to destroy everything that is different and replace it with themselves.

But wait! I hear you say. Aren’t you a white American man? Indeed I am. You’ll also notice that I’ve spent most of my adult life in areas where the white majority is particularly strong. Now that I’m in a city with a higher concentration of people of color, I am constantly interrogating my attitude toward them because it comes up so much more often than it used to. And I do sometimes have problems with difference, like when I see people blatantly not recycling or wearing lime green T-shirts with khaki slacks or speaking loudly in public. I’m not running around murdering people, but I definitely understand the desire to force the world to conform to my own ideas. I have to concentrate on not judging people for the decisions I don’t agree with, and most people make decisions I don’t agree with, which is why it’s so much more relaxing to hide at home instead of going out. People are hard because they are different, and the difficulty is frustrating, but that doesn’t give me an excuse to wipe them out. Difference is valuable, however difficult. We have to stare that reality in the face, just not all the time. It’s exhausting.

As ever, Bradbury’s stories are worth reading and thinking about. His prose is lucid and unadorned, as people preferred it in 1950. I know that I’ve talked about colonialism without bringing up the colonization of the American continent by European settlers, but the comparison is too obvious and too painful to go into. I’d like to think of my ancestors as having been more peaceful, but we were among the first. It’s not realistic for me to imagine that. Colonists didn’t survive by being peaceful; they survived by being tough and killing people who were different than they were. That’s where I came from; that’s what America means; that’s what we have to be proud of. Murder, conformity, and the ability to endure long enough to reproduce. It’s a wonder anyone lets us near global decision-making processes. But I guess if they stood in the way of our making the world exactly as we want it, we’d kill them too. Sometimes I think that 45 may not be the president we wanted, but he may be the president we deserve.

Oh! And I almost forgot about the body-shaming! The last man on Mars meets the last woman, and she can finally eat as much as she wants without people shaming her for liking sweets. Through the man’s perspective, Bradbury fat-shames this woman like nobody’s business. I was really uncomfortable with this story, both because it makes food seem gross and because the guy would rather never see or speak to another human being for the rest of his life than marry a fat girl. It’s a terrible thing to see. I think some readers would have found this story humorous, but our culture is swinging away from body-shaming now, and I think that’s good. It’s just one more way we have failed to celebrate difference.

This book may have been written seventy years ago, but the themes are still pertinent. It still points out to me the ways that I’m not completely satisfied with myself or the culture I grew up in. It’s worth reading because we haven’t learned our lesson yet. I hope we do. I hope my children are more tolerant of difference than I am. I hope the world is moving toward justice and equity. I hope that I’m part of the solution and not the problem.

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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.

This novel was originally published in 1980, and the quotes on the cover are all about how Graham Swift is the literary novelist of the decade. And to some extent, they’re right. His book fits all the conventions for the literary novel of his time. It felt like something I’d read before, even though I’ve never read anything of his before, because there’s nothing to mark it as different or distinctive. It’s the same literary novel that people have been writing since the mid-1970s.

We meet Willy Chapman on the last day of his life. He knows that it is, and there are almost constant references to this fact, even though it’s never explicitly stated. Because it’s his last day, he tries to make it both completely normal and a form of leave-taking, so of course he fails. People catch on to the fact that something’s weird, but they don’t know what.

But of course this isn’t the real story. The real story is his life, told in a series of flashbacks, sometimes in order, sometimes not.

Past the winning post, round the first bend, the shadows on the grass swivelling round mockingly in front of them. Barely half the race run, but already – you can sense it – they are getting lost in their struggles. A grimness setting in. They don’t notice the wails of the crowd or the encouragement of the figures clustered round the winning post and the judge’s desk – sports masters, house monitors in blazers and flannels, Mr Hill, bending over the track, waving what seems a threatening fist as they approach; the clock-tower, the spire. Don’t they see, the secret is not to think of the race? But they notice only the endless dark circuit of the track. A grimness. The crowd senses it. The cheering changes tone. They like a battle.

This is written close to the end, but it’s from one of the earlier scenes. Chapman was a high-school track star in 1931, where he realized that for most people life becomes a constant struggle, a battle that never ends. Until it does. People like that; they enjoy watching the fight. But that’s not what Chapman lives for. He wins the race by thinking of the encouragement, or the crowd, or anything but the struggle, the difficulty of filling lungs while moving too fast for the air to be drawn in naturally, the ache of tiring muscles, and the inevitable slowing. Chapman hangs back until the last lap, then races past for the win. His primary opponent, Jack Harrison, pushes himself to be faster than everyone else, and finally comes in second.

Irene Harrison is a reasonably nice girl from a wealthy family. They run a chain of laundries, I think all in London. Her parents pick a suitor from a similarly ‘good’ family with a ‘good’ future, so of course he date-rapes her. They insist she go out with him again, and he does it again. The family had drummed her head full of all this nonsense about feminine purity, so premarital sex kind of destroys her. She ends up going to a mental institution for a few weeks, but that only keeps her from acting out. It doesn’t heal anything.

Literature from this time seems to require a rape, or an abortion (either unwanted and forced or wanted and denied), or both. It’s like the fiction of the twentieth century is fueled by trauma inflicted on women. Thinking about it this morning, it’s like the last century went along steadily denying people the comfort of traditional gender definitions. The wars became so obscene that men doubted their masculinity simply because they refused to lose their humanity. I hate the fact that masculinity is so often defined by violence – not only because it destabilizes the gender identity of men who like peace, but mainly because it leads men to perform acts of violence simply to understand who they are. Defining masculinity through violence means that every man needs a victim, usually a woman or a child. Drawing our attention to toxic masculinity is important, but it’s most helpful to pair it with the nontoxic variety. Pointing out toxic masculinity without providing an alternative expression of male gender identity has the tendency to normalize the unhealthy attitudes. “Don’t rape women” is a fantastic rule, but we also need “Do treat women with respect, as you would any other equal.” Provide Do’s for all the Don’t’s to avoid creating a behavior vacuum, that people will then fill with other forms of bad behavior.

Chapman is sort of like the good example – the rapist and the girl’s brothers treat him like a patsy, just like in all those eighteenth-century novels where the cast-off mistress is married to a sidekick or lesser hero. But really, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with marrying a girl whose hymen is already broken, or even understand why everyone is laughing behind their hands at him. She’s pretty, he likes her, she tolerates him, so what else matters?

Throughout the book, they talk about their deal. Irene is marrying Willy because she thinks he’s the only one who will have her. He’s not her equal, either socially or intellectually. Handsome, athletic, and malleable, yes. Willy is marrying her because she’s amazing: beautiful, rich, smart. They never talk about their deal, but it runs something like this. Irene can offer Willy everything he wants except love, so he won’t bother her with that. They’ll go through the forms of marriage without ever offering or eliciting the word Love.

When they marry, he’s a lower employee in a printer’s office. His hands are almost permanently dyed black with newsprint. She buys him a newsstand so that he can own his own business, though he leans more toward offering the candy and marketing to children than focusing on the papers. Eventually he also starts selling toys, and expands to a second location. Professionally, Willy Chapman is very successful. Unfortunately, before he opens for the first time, as he’s hanging the new sign, he falls off the ladder and breaks his leg. Due to the state of medicine in 1938, this is a life-changing accident. Now, a man in his 20s can break a leg and heal without it materially affecting his movements a year later. Chapman gets a permanent limp. You could read the runner’s sudden inability even to walk comfortably as a castration, but again, it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Or at least, his feelings aren’t important enough to dwell on.

There’s a lot of talk about World War II, but they get through it without too much trouble. He works in the quartermaster’s, and she goes to live in the country for a while, but then comes back and gets a job (pointedly not working for her father). It seems to be a theme in the British literature around World War II – just keep buggering on. Irene’s brother, the runner, dies, but she’s not that sorry to have one fewer family member to boss her around, disrespect her husband, and gaslight her.

Then there’s Dorothy. Part of the deal, what Willy and Irene give to each other, is a child. Just one. He loves children, but he’s working all the time, so Dorry is really Irene’s daughter, imbued with all of her mother’s values and faults. She’s the classic baby-boomer, as seen in the early 1970s – entitled, rude, rebellious, ungrateful. So, sort of how the baby-boomers see the millennials. Takes one to know one, I guess. Swift himself was born the same year as his character, so I want to see him identifying with her, but I never found her all that sympathetic. He seems to be celebrating his parents’ generation and partially condemning his own.

I’m tempted to discuss the differences in values in terms of gender, but it is probably more accurate to frame the discussion around class. Willy Chapman has little in common with the family he marries into, and we see it most clearly in his interactions with his wife and daughter. He’s from a working class background, and pushed his way to the lower middle before marrying a girl from the upper middle. This being the twentieth century, there are no titles, but the Harrisons are definitely gentry while Chapman would normally be permitted to shine their shoes for a nickel if he washed his hands first. Remembering the emphasis on feminine purity, Irene inherited a great deal of money from her mother, who got it when her brothers died. It’s sort of like the payment she receives for holding herself together and marrying someone the family can tolerate. She’s being paid for not going too far off the rails – or in other words, for letting her rapist get away with it, for staying silent and accepting injustice. She invests some of the money in dish sets, china that will keep its value (she insists). When she dies, it seems logical that the fifteen thousand pounds should go straight to Dorothy, but the new generation isn’t into purity. She’s been living with a fellow student without marrying him, and the sense of social outrage is too much. No inheritance from her dead mother. She’s furious, of course, and comes around to take the china, which makes Chapman very sad. He hates the idea that his daughter is so obsessed with the money – he’s not seeing it as a symbol of familial acceptance, an acknowledgment of worth. Eventually he does write her the check (it’s not like anyone else in her family is still around to care), even though he doesn’t understand why it’s so important to her. She’s going to inherit when he dies anyway, but I think he wanted her to know that he’s giving it to her of his own free will, not as a default.

Contrast that with Chapman’s work, selling newspapers and candy.

Memorials. They don’t matter. They don’t belong to us. They are only things we leave behind so we can vanish safely. Disguises to set us free. That’s why I built my own memorial so compliantly – the one she allotted me, down there in the High Street. A memorial of trifles, useless things.

Newspapers are, by their very nature, disposable. I’m always sad when I hear of people who hoard the papers, because they lose their value very quickly. I don’t mean their financial value, I mean their use value. What good is last year’s newspaper? If you buy them daily, what use is it to keep one from last month? I’ve heard that one of my father’s sisters (he has two, I’ve never met either) is one of these, and it’s sad. The trajectory of my life has been away from physical possessions, toward finding my sense of permanency within myself. Wandering through a house with floor-to-ceiling stacks of newsprint is not how I want to pass my old age, nor how I think anyone should. For the Harrisons, the newsstand is kind of a Fuck you, you don’t deserve anything permanent; for Chapman, it’s also kind of a Fuck you, I’m devoting my life to the transient, disposable things of life, not your lasting value.

And none of it – that was the beauty of it – was either useful or permanent.

The irony is that in the end, they live on Chapman’s business and not his wife’s family or inheritance. The Harrisons wither and collapse while Willy’s business expands. He assumes that Dorothy will sell the business after he dies, but he’s really built something that the most mercenary of materialists would be proud to have, despite his celebration of the temporary.

The thing that really struck me about this book, aside from seeing a valorization of my own principles, is the way that the world shrinks. He’s in London, one of the most exciting cities on the planet, but his world consists of his house, his shop, and the road he drives to get between them. It’s not even a very long road. There’s a lot more to the city than he ever sees; a lot more to England, a lot more to Planet Earth, but he tightens his gaze to a handful of buildings and a few short streets. Having traveled as much as I have, I don’t understand it. I can’t comprehend the type of fortitude and courage it takes to live according to the same routine in the same narrow orbit for thirty years. I haven’t been able to manage it for three. My life has taken me around a continent and onto three more, but Chapman’s life is circumscribed within a few miles. I’m not even sure I want to understand.

Is Graham Swift going to be studied in literature classes in fifty years as a preeminent British novelist of the late twentieth century? I don’t know. I’m inclined to say not, because there’s nothing really too experimental, nothing to grab the eye. Will I remember this book in six months? I’m not sure. Like Willy Chapman, the book itself is like a small pebble dropped in a large pond, that makes a ripple or two and then is lost. Within reach, but not important enough to retrieve.

 

I’ll call you, and we’ll light a fire, and drink some wine, and recognise each other in the place that is ours. Don’t wait. Don’t tell the story later.

Life is so short. This stretch of sea and sand, this walk on the shore, before the tide covers everything we have done.

I love you.

The three most difficult words in the world.

But what else can I say?

I know, it’s more typical to start reviews with the first few paragraphs of a book, and these are the last. But there is something so gentle and affectionate in these final words that draws me as the moon draws the tides.

As usual, I am a little overwhelmed by how much I love Winterson’s novels. The plot and characters might change, but she seems always to be writing about finding love and freedom in love, a love that doesn’t bind or constrict but fosters growth, comfort, and safety. I don’t know if she’s writing what she has experienced or what she dreams of, but either way, it’s something that I want as well.

Silver is a girl who becomes an orphan and whom no one seems to want. There is very little sense of community in her life, probably because she lives in such isolated places. Her mother raises her in a house built slantingly over a cliff, highly precarious. When the mother dies, Silver gets placed with a lighthouse keeper, so she’s again on the edge of town where no one bothers to go. The keeper, an elderly blind man named Pew, tells stories and cooks sausages and keeps the light going. I think a blind lighthouse keeper is a good symbol for love – he keeps others safe by performing a task that he doesn’t benefit from.

With names like these, you are probably thinking of Long John Silver and Old Blind Pew from Treasure Island, and Winterson does make this connection explicit. The Robert Louis Stevenson connection is an important one, but she spends more time connecting her story to The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as Silver retells the story of Pew’s ancestor, Babel Dark.

Babel Dark was a minister in the small town on the northern Scottish coast where our featured lighthouse is located. He was a handsome young man, and while at college fell in love with a working girl. She got pregnant, but for one reason or another they couldn’t marry, so he went off heartbroken to Scotland. He marries someone else, but when he runs into his true love at the Crystal Palace he ditches his new wife for hours on their honeymoon to spend time with the girl he really loves, and their blind daughter. He spends most of his life with his wife and legitimate children, preaching in a sort of dazed semblance of death, and only comes alive on his trips down south to the not-wife and the illegitimate children. Which of his selves is Dr Jekyll and which is Mr Hyde? Do any of us really have multiple selves? Is Babel Dark good or bad? I think that people, even most characters in books, are more complicated than that. I think that goodness and happiness are inextricably linked – that being happy in general means being happy with ourselves, not being constantly goaded by conscience – and I can see that Dark chooses unhappiness in order to preserve his respectability. It’s not a choice I would make, but I did live in the closet for thirty years, so I can understand how someone else would. And Dark learns the lesson that everyone does who tries to compartmentalize their lives – there’s only one life, one reality, and walls come down. You can’t keep life in little boxes; it grows and stretches and cross-pollinates, so nothing stays apart. I think it’s vitally important to embrace the wholeness of ourselves, to see our lives as single and complete, to welcome the bizarre combinations and mixtures that life presents us with. Henry Jekyll and Babel Dark both had to learn that life is as it is, and no amount of human control is going to change that.

I unlatched the shutters. The light was as intense as a love affair. I was blinded, delighted, not just because it was warm and wonderful, but because nature measures nothing. Nobody needs this much sunlight. Nobody needs droughts, volcanoes, monsoons, tornadoes either, but we get them, because our world is as extravagant as a world can be. We are the ones obsessed by measurement. The world just pours it out.

Toward the end of the book, Silver gets out into the world and finds new places, new people, new animals, and loves them. But she eventually comes back to the lighthouse, even though everything’s been automated and there is no more need for a keeper. I sometimes talk about places I have loved, but I think it’s related to places I have been loved, or felt loved. Love isn’t only romantic, and I heard/felt it this week when my friends told me that my new title is Their Fairy Godbrother. I feel it when my stylist friend gets sick of seeing my DIY haircuts and drags me into her chair at work. I feel and see it when I trade tarot readings with friends, or go for drinks after work, or when someone shares a memory on Facebook of a picture of the two of us. The Troggs were right about love being all around, but it sometimes takes a quick perception to notice it.

I’ve been having a hard time with romantic love this week. Not to bore you with details, but New Guy should have told me something months ago but chose to keep quiet about it, and now I’m questioning our future together. Honestly, I’ve been questioning that future for a few weeks now, but this was the straw that broke my camel’s back and I unloaded a furious barrage of angry texting. He might be older than I am, but age isn’t experience, and experience that hasn’t been reflected on is worth the same as no experience at all. Words, money, and sex are all fantastic things, but I need more than that. A friend of mine has been doing graduate research on the subject of mattering (see Gordon Flett’s new book, The Psychology of Mattering), so that language has been on my mind, and that’s the problem. I don’t feel like I matter to New Guy. Use whichever sensory metaphor you like, seeing or hearing, but I don’t feel like he perceives me as I am. I also question whether he’s ready for the type of relationship I want.

I wish I weren’t attracted to unhappiness. It’s not my job to cheer up handsome men who hate themselves. It feels futile, trying to use my love to fill in the space where his self-love should be. And the more he identifies himself with me, the more our two lives become one, the more he’s going to direct his self-hatred at me.

Winterson’s book isn’t about my relationship problems, which are different than Babel Dark’s, or Silver’s. It is about love, both given and withheld. It’s beautifully written, as her books always are, and there are some specific people I want to recommend it to, but I don’t want to lend it because my lent books so seldom come back to me. This one I want to keep.

 

During the course of his career, Forster published two collections of short stories, and then they were combined to form this volume. There were several other stories that he didn’t publish, and they came out posthumously as The Life to Come and Other Stories. The posthumous volume consists of stories that are overtly gay, and this one contains the stories that aren’t. In many of these stories, the gay content is still there, if you’re willing to look at it that way. I know I am.

My edition has no information about the writing of these stories, but if I remember the introduction to The Life to Come correctly, all of these were written before World War I, even though the second collection came out in 1928. If you’re accustomed to Howards End or A Room with a View, these stories are likely to strike you as strange. Many of them are allegorical fantasies, and while I love those, they don’t seem to be much in vogue at the moment. Critics pounced on Collateral Beauty, for example, because the personifications of Love, Time, and Death are portrayed differently than expected. I’ll admit that I had a hard time with Love the first time I saw it, but then you could argue that love doesn’t come easily to me in real life either. I idealize the concept based on the fictions I’ve read and watched, and then get upset when it doesn’t turn out the way I want. I guess that makes Keira Knightley better than I expect her to be.

THE STORY OF A PANIC

Of the supposedly not-gay stories, this one is probably the gayest. A conventional English family is on holiday in Italy, and during a picnic, everyone feels a rush of panic and runs from the scene, all but the teenage son. He feels a delicious languor and stays, but doesn’t talk about the experience. It seems like they’re running from a suddenly blossoming gayness, and he welcomes it. Their guide warns them to let him stay out at night so that he doesn’t die of unfulfilled longing, but of course they lock him up and he has to escape. His longing is for nature and privacy with a lovely Italian boy, so of course I see it as gay. It’s like he was touched by the god Pan, but it’s traditional society that starts to panic and constrain him. Life and health are to be found in the fulfilling of desire, while following societal conventions leads to illness and death.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HEDGE

Imagine life as a path we’re all walking down, bounded on both sides by thick hedges. We see the dusty road and the hedges look dying and wilted. Protagonist slips to the other side, and sees that reality is wider and more full of life than he had imagined. Of course the hedge is death and he discovers an atheist nature lover’s heaven, with grass and trees and streams. It’s nice.

THE CELESTIAL OMNIBUS

Does this sound like Hawthorne? It should. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a story called “The Celestial Railroad,” a parody of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan, the pilgrim has to travel a long and difficult road full of temptations to reach the Celestial City, the allegorical heaven. Hawthorne’s story is about taking the train instead of walking – you skip all those distractions (temptation, suffering, exertion) and go straight to the gates of the City. However, the train doesn’t go through the gate; it turns sharply down and drags you to hell instead. Hawthorne wanted people to understand that you can’t skip over the hard things in life, and there’s no way to keep someone both sheltered and worthwhile. Truly decent people have enough experience of the world to have compassion for others and the ability to help them in their troubles, so you can’t become decent by shutting yourself up and reading your Bible all day long.

Forster’s omnibus doesn’t go to the Christian Heaven. The boy who rides the bus goes to the place where stories come from and live, so he meets Achilles and Tom Jones and all the other characters from the books he’s read. He tries to take his tutor there, but the older man insists that these stories should be kept separate and that these are good and those are not, so of course he suffers and can’t stay. The story is about leaving children free to find joy in literature where they can instead of telling them which books to appreciate and why. To some extent, this is why I wasn’t so great at teaching literature: I can’t always articulate why I love a book, or why students should. I don’t know how to communicate my own sense of beauty and wonder because I’m so frequently left speechless by them. It’s a bad idea to try to teach a book that leaves you without words. I also share the protagonist’s universal love of literature; I love all the wrong things.

OTHER KINGDOM

It’s a common enough story. A girl who is pretty and imaginative catches the eye of a man who is rich and conventional. He claims to value her for the wildness she brings into his life, but he immediately contains it and forces her into his own conventionality. It was never about valuing her sense of adventure; it was about taming her to prove his own power. It’s a sad story about a woman who wants a place of her own and the husband who ruins it for her.

THE CURATE’S FRIEND

I took myself in, and for a time I certainly took in Emily. I have never known a girl attend so carefully to my sermons, or laugh so heartily at my jokes. It is no wonder that I became engaged. She has made an excellent wife, freely correcting her husband’s absurdities, but allowing no one else to breathe a word against them; able to talk about the sub-conscious self in the drawing-room, and yet have an ear for the children crying in the nursery, or the plates breaking in the scullery. An excellent wife – better than I ever imagined. But she has not married me.

The curate meets a faun in the woods and gets blocked from the heterosexual marriage narrative. He took the girl and a neighbor boy on a picnic, and the faun (invisible to them) got the girl and boy together instead of helping the curate get the girl for himself. There’s a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream in this. In the end, the curate realizes he’s happier without marriage, which has often been the conclusion of homosexuals who strike out with the opposite sex. As with the panic story above, proximity to nature and existence outside the marriage narrative seems to indicate there’s some gayness. Were I directing this as a play, the gayness would be more obvious, but a closeted first-person narrator isn’t going to slip up and reveal anything.

THE ROAD FROM COLONUS

This is the story I’ve seen anthologized the most, but I don’t see it as all that different from the others. I guess someone just picked this one (having an old man who changes might appeal to the old men who made the selections long ago) and then everyone else kept picking it because it was cheaper than asking the printer to set a different story.

Another conventional English family is traveling in Italy when their old man finds a spring of water bubbling up inside a dead tree. He stands inside the tree, in the spring, and feels a sudden restoration of youth and energy. He wants to stay, but his family insists he push on with them. They literally sneak up behind him, pick him up, and place him on the donkey when he tries to stay. With the best intentions, they ruin the end of his life. After they leave, there’s a natural disaster and the area is destroyed. Did nature throw a tantrum because he left, which he could have averted by staying? Did his children steal him from a happy death and force him into a miserable life? However you choose to interpret it, it seems that no one is free from the bonds of society – young and old, male and female, rich and poor, we’re all circumscribed by the people we live among. It seems so necessary to choose carefully whom we live among instead of accepting life’s default by living among our closest blood relations.

THE MACHINE STOPS

This begins the second group of stories, published in 1928. This also seems to be the story with the most scholarly work done on it. This is unusual for the collection because it’s high-concept science fiction, more H. G. Wells than D. H. Lawrence. It’s also very timely; people live in isolated, Matrix-like cells and communicate through the internet, constantly on a version of Facebook where they spend all day sharing their thoughts and watching videos. Forster makes them more like TED talks than like that one of the cat wearing a shark costume and riding a Roomba, but the concept is the same. The Machine feeds them and caters to their physical needs, except exercise and genuine human interaction. People are allowed to go outside, but they are discouraged from wanting to, and the guy who wants out eventually folds to peer pressure. Of course, what happens when the machine breaks down? They have to come up to the surface and try to live in the real world they’ve never seen. There are obvious ties to Huxley’s Brave New World.

THE POINT OF IT

The protagonist ends up in hell because he doesn’t understand the point of it. Forster’s Bloomsbury friends claimed that they didn’t get the point of it either. Scene 1: A sickly boy insists on rowing a boat across a difficult river, even though his companion is much more physically fit than he is. The effort kills him, but he dies happy. The friend doesn’t understand. Scene 2: The friend goes on to live a quietly ordinary life following the path of least resistance that his class privilege lays before him (also race and gender privilege), never making waves, always going along to get along. He never understands the point of doing otherwise. Scene 3: The friend is in hell, a bleak desert of prone figures. He eventually figures out that he can stand up, walk to a river, and cross it into heaven, but he first has to understand what the point of it is. It seems obvious to me, the point is that exertion is its own reward, that resistance is necessary to a life worth living, that we all need to see ourselves as heroes. The path society sets before us leads to complacency, tedium, bleakness, and hell. The Stonewall patrons weren’t trying to make history; they just got sick of being told they couldn’t choose their own identities. The point of it is to resist enslavement by society’s conventions, even if it kills you, because the alternative is a long, slow death and a longer, slower hell.

MR ANDREWS

Mr Andrews has died and is going on up to heaven. He meets a Turkish fellow who is doing the same. They find heaven to be exactly as their religions taught them to imagine it, but with enough space for them both to have the heaven they believe in. They both find it boring after a while, and decide to join the World Soul instead, which is a far more ecstatic experience than they could have dreamed. The forms of organized religion are so limiting, and can’t take us to ultimate happiness. For that, we have to let go of the forms and let reality take us where it wants us to go.

CO-ORDINATION

Protagonist is an unhappy music teacher. She has to teach pairs of girls the same duet all day long. It’s part of the school’s system of coordination, which means that everyone teaches the same topic in their different subjects. So, suppose this month the topic is Napoleon. The kids will read stories about the Wars in literature class, get the real history in their history class, see French armies in their word problems in math class, and study ballistics in science class. Some educators find it to be effective, but the forced conformity is here presented as stifling, and as with The Celestial Omnibus, Forster seems to advocate an educational system based on following the students’ interest, with the chief aim to provoke delight rather than correct test answers. Aesthetic sensibility triumphs over strict regulation, and if the teacher is released from her position, that’s really not such a bad thing.

THE STORY OF THE SIREN

As with many of the stories from the first half, we have a journey to Italy and a classical allusion. It starts with a young man losing his dissertation in the water (a similar thing happened in one of the stories from The Life to Come), and then he meets someone who tells him the story. You remember the sirens from the Odyssey; beautiful women who sing to men and lure them to their deaths. In this telling, you can only hear the song once, and if you’re prevented from following it, you spend your whole life wasting away from desire, likely to drown yourself to be able to hear it again. Being touched by magic unfits you for the life of society, and you have to plunge into nature like the boy who gets fucked by Pan in that Panic story. You don’t plunge, you die; you do plunge, you likely die anyway. Everyone dies; the question is, how? Do you live the life of daring and die reaching for a goal you can’t reach, or do you live a life of quiet desperation and die with the knowledge that your life was wasted? This seems the question the siren asks, as well as Forster, but people are obviously better off if the question never occurs to them. It’s easier to hate your life if everyone else does too; being called into a life of fulfillment is scary and could lead to death, but I think it might be better to taste fulfillment and die young than live to an old age and never feel complete or satisfied. Long and empty, or short and full? Realistically I know those aren’t our only options, but it’s hard to have a life you value if you don’t risk it every now and again.

THE ETERNAL MOMENT

An elderly author comes back to Italy, where she had fallen in love with the young local who inspired her first novel. They each followed the conventional paths society chose for them: she remaining single and virginal, he becoming vulgar and overweight. Athletes who let their figures go can be so disappointing.

For she realized that only now was she not in love with him: that the incident upon the mountain had been one of the great moments of her life – perhaps the greatest, certainly the most enduring: that she had drawn unacknowledged power and inspiration from it, just as trees draw vigour from a subterranean spring. Never again could she think of it as a half-humorous episode in her development. There was more reality in it than in all the years of success and varied achievement which had followed, and which it had rendered possible. For all her correct behaviour and lady-like display, she had been in love with Feo, and she had never loved so greatly again. A presumptuous boy had taken her to the gates of heaven; and, though she would not enter with him, the eternal remembrance of the vision had made life seem endurable and good.

Which is why it’s better to go ahead and enter the gates. A handsome man takes you off into nature and offers a pleasant, consensual experience, I say take it. I don’t regret the sex I’ve had, but I do regret the opportunities I let pass by.

I seriously loved this story collection. It’s weird and different and a little bit gay, and I think it’s great. As I said, not typical of the novels of his I’ve read, but I like them so much more. In a shorter form, he really hits the theme of resisting conventions because society strangles people faster and harder than in the novels. These are good stories, and should be read more often than they are.

 

A few weeks ago, a very dear friend asked me my opinion of this book – apparently it’s the new big thing among certain gay communities. I must say, since it was copyrighted last year, this is one of the most recent books I’ve ever read in my life. I usually catch the cultural moment ten, fifteen, thirty, sometimes fifty or a hundred years late. Sometimes more.

My first impulse is to talk about the negatives, but that’s because he’s writing about things that are very similar to my experience, but expressed differently than I would, and not exactly my experience. It felt like he was trying to write my story but getting it wrong, as if he were making a collage of my life but mixing it in with stereotypes I don’t fit. I think this is what Rider Haggard must have felt when he read Treasure Island, only I’m not actually planning on writing a response.

I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

This is one of the places where I diverge from him, because even though a good bit of my life has been dominated by inhibition and missed chances (as I think is inevitable when you wait until you’ve passed thirty to admit to yourself that you’re married to someone of the wrong gender), I have not lived my life beneath the pitch of poetry. I have always felt things deeply, and though my life has not always been what I want, my inner life has always been quite intense, and that is where poetry comes from. I don’t share the full force of my emotions with many people, and when I have done over an extended period of time, those people have asked me to please stop. I’m too much, which would make poetry the perfect outlet for me if I took the time for it more often.

Stylistically, all you really need to know is that Greenwell attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It wouldn’t be fair to say that they all speak with the same voice, but they definitely all have the same accent. It’s the type of writing that wins the National Book Award, the highly self-conscious writing of Americans who write Literature (capital L) after around the 1990s. His sentences just keep going on and on. I wanted to break some of them into smaller sentences (comma splices are okay in the UK, but not here), but others I just wanted to cut off the ends because they were unnecessary, the meanings of those last clauses already understood. As I was thinking about why he would keep these obvious redundancies, I thought about what they contribute, and I realized that they were pointing out things that Protagonist doesn’t know, often with the implication that he can’t know, or that he can’t be bothered to find out. Or, you know, since this is supposedly fiction, the author could just make something up. There’s an air of ignorance and apathy that I had a hard time with, considering that this is a love story.

Thematically, all you really need to know is that this is a gay love story, and in our current cultural climate, that means there are three options: pornography, unrealistic stereotypes played for overdone comedy, and Greenwell’s choice, utter tragedy involving isolation and alienation. Seriously, gay writers and filmmakers have got to be the most depressing people in the world. What we need is our own version of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a story of how great it is to be us that doesn’t hide from the times it’s not, where we see someone really learn to love himself and claim his identity as something positive and peaceful rather than defiant and in opposition. Protagonist is an English teacher from Kentucky living in Bulgaria, and I guess he likes it even though he says some unkind things about the cityscape. He doesn’t like the Soviet architecture, but he seems to get on okay with the native stuff that survived World War II and the Cold War. The fact that he’s an English teacher doesn’t impact the story much because we don’t see him in class, but his narration shows that he loves languages and words, and the phrases he says in Bulgarian sound similar enough to the Russian that I remember to pique my interest.

Okay, plot. Mitko is a hustler in Sofia, and First-Person Narrating Protagonist hooks up with him a few times. They start to feel something real for each other, but FPN sort of freaks out and breaks it off. Then, a couple of years later, Mitko shows back up to tell him that he may have given FPN syphilis, and yup, sure enough, he did. The American teacher has enough income to pay for treatment, but the Bulgarian street kid does not, so he ends up most probably dying from it. It’s as simple as La Traviata, but as in that quote up above, he overthinks everything as a way of keeping his emotions in check, so he doesn’t get operatic. He feels this overwhelming attraction for this guy that he doesn’t even seem to like much, but he doesn’t dig into that. He treats his own emotions as something alien to him, along with everything else because he’s living in a foreign country. To some degree, he’s hiding from his anger so that it doesn’t overwhelm him – he’s bought into the lie that he’s monstrous, only capable of hurting the people around him. We see this most strongly when he has syphilis; one of the common themes of the gay tragedy archetype is that our love is paired with disease, as if being gay is inherently unhealthy. Well, his anger isn’t a disease, it’s a response to being rejected by his parents because he’s gay, and to having a pretty shitty dad. In the course of this book, he doesn’t unpack the injustice of his life; he just pushes it down and tries not to deal with his family. Moving to eastern Europe is a convenient way of hiding from his feelings.

Some of the similarities to my life are obvious, as in the whole ESL teacher thing. I came out of the closet and moved to Saudi Arabia, which isn’t that far from Bulgaria. I didn’t go looking for hookups, though, because having gay sex is punishable by beheading there. I know most gay Saudis don’t get their heads chopped off, but we’re all products of our culture, and I didn’t want to get involved with someone who thought what we would be doing was evil or shameful. I cannot deal with that kind of secrecy. I’m just not discreet enough.

I did hook up with a guy I met in Europe, though, and there were some similarities to Mitko. He expected me to be rich, not understanding that I was blowing all my money on a week in Paris. We went to an expensive restaurant and I spent way too much on a lunch, but I also skipped eating a couple of days that week. People don’t often get the way I swing back and forth like that; I’m not sure I understand it myself, but I know that I do, and I love and accept that about myself. Like Mitko, the Algerian boy made sure I knew where I stood in his life – as in, not the center, not even for the three days we spent together. He was also into some BDSM stuff that I am definitely not into, but Mitko doesn’t seem to be into choking. As I’m thinking about it, the Algerian was actually pretty great when his clothes were on; he just went sort of bizarro once the trousers were off. Mitko is pretty consistent, whether his dick is out or not.

When FPN was describing their early encounters, I contrasted them with my singular one-night stand. FPN can’t wait to get down to business, but Mitko puts him off, and actually borrows his computer to set up encounters with other clients. FPN just sort of lets him, staying off to the side, having someone within reach without reaching out to him. With Mr Labor Day, it was very different. I should say, I was very different. FPN is like me in being shy, but he’ll reach out to guys who set up dates in public toilets and I won’t. Then he keeps being shy all the way through. I believe that there is a time and a place for shyness and modesty, and that is in public when my trousers are still on. Once the clothes come off, the time for being shy is over. All I wanted to do with Mr Labor Day was touch him, so I did. There was Round One, then I rubbed his back and shoulders until he was ready for Round Two, and then after we were dressed I held him close and swayed and sang, “Do You Wanna Dance?” And I kept kissing him all the way out of his house and into the driveway. And on his side, he was so gentle. I remember how carefully he used his big rough hands to take my glasses off, fold them, and set them on his nightstand. Sometimes I remember the way that he touched me and my entire body responds, even if I’m driving down the freeway. FPN doesn’t get into the sexy details, at least not many of them, but when I was reading I had to assume that the sex was pretty phenomenal for FPN to put up with being treated with this lack of interest. But then again, maybe it was uninteresting, because he describes everything else in such detail. Or maybe his editors made him take it out. It’s like when people write gay romances but don’t have any experience with gay sex, so they describe in minute detail the furtive glances, the covert touching of hands, the stolen kisses, but when the lovers take it further the authors suddenly have all the prudery of the Hays Committee. Greenwell isn’t that extreme, but it’s clear that his story isn’t there. It’s not his goal to give us a blow-by-blow account of blowing Mitko, so we gloss over that. Oddly enough, we seem to get the most details when they’re in public restrooms, as if the level of privacy of the location is reflected in the way the story is told.

I’ve never been good at concealing anything, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession.

This is true of me as well (check the name of this blog again, if that’s a surprise to you), and I wonder if it’s the author rather than the narrator talking. After all, FPN has a name that’s hard for people who speak European languages to pronounce, as is Garth. What other languages use that dental fricative sound at the end? Arabic, and some Spanish accents. There are probably more; I’m just listing the ones I know from my own experience. He also only gives us the name of the guy who’s dead (probably) – everyone else is referred to by a common noun that indicates their relationship to FPN, or with a first initial. Maybe it’s a tactic to lend authenticity to a fictional narrative; maybe he just isn’t willing to assign fictional names to people who are real, alive, and possibly willing to sue him. In this blog I’ve been avoiding the use of names, but in the past I assigned fictional names to people, sometimes using their middle names, sometimes using names that would be easy for me to remember, like switching Jason and Justin, or renaming Peter Paul. But it seems like a cop-out. Once I was in a church pageant that was structured as a set of songs introduced by monologues, and all the monologues were given by characters named things like First Woman or Third Man. My friends kept saying, “George. Betty. How hard is that? Just give them names!” And really, if he were retelling his actual experience as if it were fictional, he’d be in good company (anything by Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac). I’d just prefer that it be made explicit. I’d like to know, am I identifying with someone who doesn’t exist, or am I making a real emotional connection with someone I have never met and will never meet through the medium of language?

One last complaint, I promise: the structure is weird. Yes, ABA form has been with music for centuries, and sometimes we do it in fiction too (think of Sense and Sensibility – Book 1 divided between two country homes, Book 2 in London, and Book 3 back in the country), but the B section doesn’t seem to fit. It feels like someone told him that he needed to add forty pages before they would publish his book, so he wrote a section on being a gay teenager in Kentucky (it’s only marginally about the present, when he gets news that his father is dying and takes forty pages to decide he’s not going back to the United States for the funeral). I suppose it gives us some motivation for him to have become an ESL teacher and left the country, but since he talks about word etymologies and English-Bulgarian cognates, he has enough of a linguistic interest to make it a reasonable career choice without hearing about how his father threw him out of the house. It would actually make more sense to talk about how he met the guy he actually calls his boyfriend, the Portuguese student named R (which makes me think of the Romeo in Warm Bodies). It might take some focus off of the Mitko stuff, but it’s sort of like in Merry Wives of Windsor, where I don’t care about the Fords’ marriage because I’ve never seen their happiness. I don’t know what his jealousy costs them both, except to recognize that Mrs Ford is completely awesome and his fears are unfounded.

Okay. I’ve talked and talked about the problems and the connections, but as I alluded to earlier, a good part of what I feel about this book is jealousy. Some people have the confidence and determination to make a career of writing, and I blog about them instead of doing it myself. Lately, all my attempts at fiction writing have veered into the pornographic, so I haven’t been sharing them. Much as I would like to write something that people would like to read, I would prefer it didn’t happen through Bad Penny Press. I often also have some envy for people who came out of the closet before marrying someone of the opposite gender, but as I think over my life, I’m actually fairly satisfied. For all that I hate The Ex sometimes, and I hate what I did to her, my life has been amazing, and she was a big part of that. And I would not trade witnessing the births of my children for all the disease-ridden gigolos behind the Iron Curtain. Yes, I spent the part of my life when most people are experimenting being too religious and pretending to be straight, and I’ve had to make up for that lost time in imagination and not in reality (like in Hesse’s Magic Theatre), but in every life there are tradeoffs. Most gay men will never know the feeling of biological fatherhood, of watching a part of you grow inside someone else, mixing with her and becoming an amalgam of you both, and then seeing this new person that is both you and not-you arrive into the world. And for most of the time we were together, The Ex supported and encouraged me to be my best self. If I had a dream, she set about finding a way to make it happen. I’ll probably never know what it’s like to be promiscuous, to know that I have a body that is young and strong and generally lusted after, to feel confident that I could have any person I wanted to be with. I may never know what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who wants to have sex as much as I do. But FPN talks about having a life that’s bearable, and it makes me sad that his expectations are so low. Life isn’t just for enduring; it’s for enjoying. It seems that the gay community as a whole is interested in pleasure without happiness, and I think that tendency is already sufficiently well documented. Let’s start telling the story of our joy as well as the story of our pain. Let’s start believing that joy is possible for us and that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. And when new gays come out, let’s help them work through the rage instead of burying it under a mountain of booze, sex, and pills. What seeds are we planting?

So, yes, I think eight pages of advance praise is a little excessive. I think this book is sad in a way that is becoming trite. But I also think that Greenwell is a talented, thoughtful author, and I’d like to see what he does in the future. It’s a first novel that grew out of a prize-winning story; let’s wait for him to get some more material and show us something really new. Given the title, I suppose I should have written about possession and possessiveness and recognizing what is and isn’t a person’s responsibility, but that’s a strain I wasn’t much interested in. I suppose because I still need to do some work in this area myself. Now that the Midwestern guy and I have separated our daily lives, no longer eating and watching TV together, it’s becoming apparent that we don’t have much to talk about, and talking is sort of the essence of long-distance relationships. I’m not much of a talker (only this verbose when writing); I need someone I can do things with. Surely it can’t be impossible to find a gay man who loves books, music, movies, and the outdoors?

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.