Posts Tagged ‘north carolina’

I’ve been in the mood for this book for a while, and I think it’s because my subconscious has been trying to remind me of this:

I never think those men wise who for any worldly interest forego the greatest happiness of their lives.

And this is precisely what I’ve been doing, accepting the fragments of love from someone who has been financially useful to me, finding jobs far away from my children, seeing my dearest friends on Facebook instead of in real life. Now, my life in the last five years has been amazing – reading Gone with the Wind in a New York subway station at two in the morning, kissing the man I’ve loved since I was nineteen (and watching him run away), flying over the Mediterranean and the Sahara, seeing the Moulin Rouge and the Eiffel Tower with a handsome North African, watching an enormous religious pageant in Nauvoo with a group of gay Mormons, attending The Big Gay Church in Dallas with more than a thousand strangers, playing house with a Midwestern man who is determined to be as conventional as possible – but my happiest times have all been right here in North Carolina. I don’t know if this is the residence I’ll settle down in, but this is clearly the best place for me. As I was looking back through the summer’s entries last week, it struck me that my search for happiness has been a dominant theme these past months, and I hope that I’ve found it. I’m underemployed, and threatened with eviction if I don’t find more work, but I don’t feel nearly as frantic as I should. There is a feeling of deep contentment here, which I have missed. This move may have been foolish from a financial standpoint, but there are other considerations which I hope will prove this to have been a wise decision.

There is nothing more difficult than to lay down any fixed and certain rules for happiness; or indeed to judge with any precision of the happiness of others, from the knowledge of external circumstances. There is sometimes a little speck of black in the brightest and gayest colours of fortune, which contaminates and deadens the whole. On the contrary, when all without looks dark and dismal, there is often a secret ray of light within the mind, which turns every thing to real joy and gladness.

Perhaps some day I will meet a man who will give me such a secret ray of light, but I can assure you he is as yet hypothetical.

Fielding is writing in 1751, which means that while his earlier novels were delightfully bawdy with a few too many lurid details, he is more reserved now. This is after the Fanny Hill trial, which proved that writers can be fined and imprisoned for obscenity. In many ways this story is much more serious than Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews, with more sharply pointed satire. Think of it as a predecessor of Bleak House. Our protagonist, William Booth, is always falling into some legal scrape or another – I think he ends up in jail three times – and his devoted wife Amelia is always (indirectly) rescuing him. Booth’s problems generally come about because he trusts people and institutions, and only in the end do others figure out how to make the system work for him.

Fielding has dropped much of the mock epic from his style, but there are several allusions and quotations to the ancient Latin and Greek authors, and our story is divided into twelve books like the Homeric epics. We also begin in medias res, with Booth being brought before the justice, and we get the backstory later, Books 2, 3, and 7 being taken up with flashbacks. The editor claims to have corrected Fielding’s spelling, or at least modernized, but he changes the spelling of ‘gaol’ to ‘goal,’ which is a very different word and even an indifferent Enlightenment scholar like myself recognizes the mistake. He does, however, preserve the variations on Amelia’s name, which are more due to sound than spelling – she can become Emily at a moment’s notice.

This is a book about sex and money, the different ways that one can be exchanged for the other. As I said, the racy bits are all glossed over in such a way that even the most prim reader would be hard pressed to find something to complain about, though I imagine that if the most prim reader were reading eighteenth-century novels, she actually wouldn’t mind a little hard pressing.

Booth gets locked up in Book 1 because he’s poor. The justice examining his case knows and cares little about the law and always sides with whoever looks richest. There, he runs into an old flame, Miss Matthews. He tells her about his happy marriage with Amelia, despite their difficulties, and Miss decides to sleep with him. Because this preliminary type of jail is co-ed, he spends the better part of a week fucking her while she pays for the room and food. He feels terribly guilty about it, but not guilty enough to stop, and not guilty enough to confess when Amelia finds him and brings him home.

Booth’s major problem is that he’s poor. He was an officer in the army, but a couple of injuries sent him back to London on a fraction of his former salary. He spends this latter two-thirds of the book trying to find favor with powerful friends who can effect a return to gainful employment by using their influence to get him a new commission. While Fielding’s satire is mainly directed against his own profession, the law, this system of patronage comes under close scrutiny as well. Booth doesn’t know how to do anything except be a soldier, but in order to get that sort of job again, he has to bribe the right guy, whether a higher ranking officer like Colonel James or a peer like the unnamed lord, and then hope that his patron’s word is good enough to get him into a good position, or any position at all. As a result, Booth spends most of the book in debt, too afraid of the law to leave the house. He does get arrested for debt twice, but Amelia is keeping a closer eye on him this time, so he doesn’t get to spend his jail time in another woman’s bed.

Booth’s major obstacle to advancement is, unfortunately, his wife’s chastity. These guys keep promising to help Booth get ahead, but once they meet his wife they decide not to move on his case until they can move on her. She’s innocent, but her friend Mrs Bennet gives her a timely warning. Book 7, her backstory, is a rather sad story which feels a little too modern for comfort. The unnamed lord promises to help her poor husband advance, all out of deference to her, then engineers a situation where the husband is out of town and the wife is invited to a masquerade. At the masquerade he slips an Enlightenment Rohypnol into her drink and rapes her while she’s too impaired to resist. Apparently this has been the price of preferment all along. When the husband finds out, the stress kills him and she’s left with nothing. Using this story to demonstrate the evils of patronage seems timely to us, but Fielding does stick with some conventional misogyny, using her learning of the Latin classics in the original language to lampoon the idea of women getting a decent education. This is an eighteenth-century novel, after all, so the castoff mistress gets married to a sidekick, eventually deciding that it is better to have a husband who loves her and has common sense than one who can keep up with her in a literary discussion. Indeed, the men who can match her in learning have so entrenched an idea of women’s inferiority that they spend their time insulting her instead of respecting her.

Well, when Amelia finally figures out what’s been going on, why the peer has been making gifts to her children and promises to her husband, she gets out of that trap right quick. And then the colonel tries the exact same trick, with the exact same success. The last few books involve men tricking Booth into debt so that they can imprison him and try to date-rape his wife. Fortunately for Booth, his wife’s fidelity is stronger than any man who tries to tempt her, even after she knows about the affair with Miss Matthews. As a reader, I feel a little cheated that we don’t get to see her reaction to this, but when Booth finally confesses she tells him that she’s known about it for a while now, and already forgiven him. This seems to be the crux, the issue that proves she’s a perfect wife: quick to forgive her husband for straying, but absolutely determined never to stray herself. The double standard feels outdated to me, but in the twenty-first century we have different expectations for women and chastity.

Another significant character is Doctor Harrison, Amelia’s priest. He’s always hovering around, disapproving of Booth, Mrs Bennet, and nearly everyone except Amelia. He represents the voice of Christian morality and all its weird biases. Booth and Amelia spend a lot of the earlier part of the book laughing at other people, but the longer Doctor Harrison is around the more inclined they are to be serious. Booth spends most of the book as a sort of closet atheist, saying things like,

Compassion, if thoroughly examined, will, I believe, appear to be the fellow-feeling only of men of the same rank and degree of life for one another, on account of the evils to which they themselves are liable. Our sensations are, I am afraid, very cold towards those who are at a great distance from us, and whose calamities can consequently never reach us.

Which Doctor Harrison would be quick to contradict with his words and confirm with his behavior. Personally, I think Booth is right. In my life, I have found that living is more bearable if I limit my awareness of the world’s ills. There is so much wrong with the world and so little I can do about it that I used to get depressed over this all the time. I had to learn to stop caring so much about people I will never meet and can do nothing to assist. I need to focus my emotional life on what’s immediately around me or I will drown in the sea of suffering that is 2017. This may sound cold and selfish, but it’s how I attend to my own survival. Compassion has to have its limits, or the one who lives it will destroy herself.

The ending feels a little tacked-on, as if Fielding knew he had passed five hundred pages and needed to end the book quickly. Booth gets reconverted to Christianity in jail, a minor character from Book 1 reappears with the key to Amelia’s fortune, Doctor Harrison pushes his testimony through the court system and they all end up rich. Except for the bad people, who end up unhappy, dead, or both.

This book is great for people who are into dramatic serials, but aren’t intimidated by eighteenth-century language or excessively frustrated by eighteenth-century gender roles and morality. Betrayals, shifting alliances, and sex, it sounds like an HBO show. There was a BBC serial in the 1960s, but it’s been lost. Maybe now that viewers are demonstrating more interest in this type of story, it’s time for a new film. I know I’d watch it.

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Let’s go ahead and talk about the discomfort straight away. When I was a kid, my mom and church taught me to fear and look down on other religions. I’ve tried to get over this – I even married someone from another faith tradition – but it’s not completely gone, when the religion is something as far removed from conservative American monotheism as Haitian voodoo. Despite the discomfort, I made it through the book and actually found it quite interesting. I can see from the internet that some of the words are being spelled differently these days, but I’m going to stick with Hurston’s spellings because they were right when she was writing, and I’m not going to insist on knowing better than she did.

The subtitle outlines the book in reverse: the part on Jamaica is first, then life in Haiti, and finally the section on Haitian voodoo, which is longer than the other two combined. The book is the result of a grant from the Guggenheim people, who paid for Hurston to travel to the Caribbean to study their societies. It gets a little confusing, though – it’s as if she wrote essays as they came to her and then chose an arrangement later, as if we wandered into the room in the middle of a lecture and missed the introduction that may have explained what all this is about. This is particularly noticeable in the section on voodoo, where unfamiliar vocabulary is used for three or four chapters before it is defined. I suppose the advantage is that any chapter could be excerpted and make the same amount of sense.

In our time, scientists of all types, including anthropologists, insist on objectivity; they take themselves out of the equation and describe what they observe as precisely as possible. Hurston makes no such effort.

It is a curious thing to be a woman in the Caribbean after you have been a woman in these United States. It has been said that the United States is a large collection of little nations, each having its own ways, and that is right. But the thing that binds them all together is the way they look at women, and that is right, too. The majority of men in all the states are pretty much agreed that just for being born a girl-baby you ought to have laws and privileges and pay and perquisites. And so far as being allowed to voice opinions is concerned, why, they consider that you are born with the law in your mouth, and that is not a bad arrangement either. The majority of the solid citizens strain their ears trying to find out what it is that their womenfolk want so they can strain around and try to get it for them, and that is a very good idea and the right way to look at things.

But now Miss America, World’s champion woman, you take your promenading self down into the cobalt blue waters of the Caribbean and see what happens. You meet a lot of darkish men who make vociferous love to you, but otherwise pay you no mind. If you try to talk sense, they look at you right pitifully as if to say, “What a pity! That mouth that was made to supply some man (and why not me) with kisses, is spoiling itself asking stupidities about banana production and wages!” It is not that they try to put you in your place, no. They consider that you never had any. If they think about it at all, they think that they are removing you from MAN’s place and then granting you the privilege of receiving his caresses and otherwise ministering to his comfort when he has time to give you for such matters. Otherwise they flout your God-given right to be the most important item in the universe and assume your prerogatives themselves. The usurpers! Naturally women do not receive the same educational advantages as men.

As you can hear, her style is fairly consistent, whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during this trip to Haiti, so it’s not surprising that the style is so similar. The difference here is that she has no interest in telling a story. She takes her experiences thematically rather than chronologically, which is another way of disorienting the reader, though I suppose it provides focus. How does one then choose which themes are important? I don’t know, but she does. Another thing to point out is the way that, sometimes, sentences are dropped into paragraphs where they don’t seem to belong, like the last sentence of the passage above. Why would you end the paragraph that way? I don’t know. As a writing teacher, I want her to finish the paragraph at the exclamation point and use that last sentence to start a paragraph about female education, but she moves on to another subject, dropping that little ideological bomb in an only-tangentially-related paragraph and wandering away from it to explore something else. It’s weird.

I suppose that for her the entire experience was weird, but she doesn’t much talk about her own sense of culture shock. I guess that part of the reason is her response to voodoo – she saw the rituals, believed, and was converted. Since she had already published essays on similar religions in the American South, it was probably an easy transition for her; people originally from West Africa had been brought to both the United States and Haiti, so the traditions would have grown in different directions, but from the same source.

In fact, some of her statements about religion in general are similar to things that I have thought, in my own private meditations on belief:

Gods always behave like the people who make them.

I like the stories from the ancient Europeans, where their gods are more like supernatural heroes with passions and fallibility. I don’t like the stories from the ancient Middle East, where the god is the destroyer who occasionally loves, but is always singular and alone. Hurston discusses the pantheon a little, but it seems that, as with the Lares of ancient Rome, everyone makes their own deities, so an exhaustive list is impossible. Thinking back over the book, I remember her as being more interested in practice than in theory. During the rituals, the gods possess the bodies of the believers and make them act in strange ways. It’s compared to the way people ride horses, so “Tell my horse” means that the god is giving the people a message they should repeat to the one possessed after the possession has passed. Hurston admits the possibility that this could be a way for people to express ideas that are repressed most of the time, to let the id come out and play while the ego is voluntarily submerged. I think she could be right; throughout the South we have what we call charismatic churches, and this means that they open themselves to a similar possession/id-freeing experience, but they claim to be possessed by The Holy Spirit instead of by one of a number of holy spirits. The names are different, and the people are white instead of black, but the service sounds very similar to ones I have attended in Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a lot of singing and praying, until someone gets possessed and acts in a way that would get them locked in an asylum in any other context.

I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. I am not into the kind of ritual Hurston describes at the sources of rivers, but the fact that people feel at peace with the world around them is much better than the guilt and self-hatred prescribed by the American religious tradition, including the church I grew up in. I don’t think of my hikes as worship, but I know that when I get knocked off balance by life, nothing is so certain to set me right again as spending time with trees. And when the cold and snow make hiking impractical, there is still peace to be found in human love.

In thinking back to my time in southern Brazil, they use different vocabulary, but the religion is very much the same. In Brazil though, people spoke of voodoo as being about malice, casting spells on people you don’t like. There is not much of that in Hurston’s book. She talks about a secret society of cannibals, and she does devote a chapter to zombies (she saw one!), but for her this is not what the whole thing is about. People also told me that there were a lot of homosexuals in voodoo, which makes sense since it allows for men to be possessed by female spirits and vice versa. Hurston also seldom mentions this – she mentions one story where a lesbian was possessed by a god who told people to stop her being homosexual, but that’s the only one. She tells about how some men give up women under the influence of the goddess of love, and she tells about the rituals that they perform to devote their sex lives to a goddess who will admit of no female rival, but she does not tell about how these men have sex with each other, even though that is apparently common. It seems clear to me that she never loses sight of her American Depression-Era audience, and that her goal is to make voodoo understandable and accessible to mainstream America. While this is definitely not a how-to guide, she does include several of the songs in the back, complete with the melodies written on staff paper.

The main feeling that I get from this book is that it’s normal for me to feel uncomfortable with it because it is about discomfort, or fear. Voodoo seems to be a religion based in fear and ways to overcome it by becoming what is feared. People are afraid of being poisoned with grave dust, or of being eaten by cannibals, or of being turned into zombies after they die, or of having malicious magics practiced against them, so they placate the gods and invite them in for a brief possession. It might seem strange to us in the techno-centric West, but it’s no crazier than what we do at Halloween, dressing as monsters and asking for favors. As usual, when I persist in studying another culture, I find the similarities more compelling than the differences.

We had gotten to the place where neither of us lied to each other about our respective countries. I freely admitted gangsters, corrupt political machines, race prejudice and lynchings. She as frankly deplored bad politics, overemphasized class distinctions, lack of public schools and transportation. We neither of us apologized for Voodoo. We both acknowledged it among us, but both of us saw it as a religion no more venal, no more impractical than any other.

No matter where we go, people are the same. They love their families and they want to keep them safe, which usually means having power in the way that their culture defines power. That manifests in different ways, depending on the culture, and when the culture is different it can seem really strange, but the similarities are always there. I’m not saying that we then have to adopt every culture as our own, nor that I find all cultures equally attractive (not interested in living in a place where I could be kidnapped and eaten by a group of people who call themselves Grey Pigs, or murdered because someone needs a field hand but doesn’t want to pay for the labor), but I am saying that it is possible to understand and respect one another. One of the problems my culture has is that we confuse understanding with agreement, but as our conversation on tolerance progresses, I think we’re going to be able to separate the two.

If you’re looking for an objective analysis of the totality of culture in the western Caribbean, this book is not for you. If you’re trying to find a guide on how to start your own hounfort, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for a book of observations on a foreign culture by an intelligent observer with an eye for detail and skill in relating anecdotes, stop looking, you’ve found it. Hurston is a gifted writer with a great talent for using the English language, and her books reward people who can be satisfied with that.

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 the first of a trilogy that people have called The Roads to Freedom, but I don’t think it’s so much about journeying to freedom. At least, the journey isn’t a pleasant one, and freedom is no triumph.

This book is largely about the life of homosexuals in Paris, the summer of 1938, just before the whole Second World War starts. It’s about an era of enforced closets, where even young philosophy students can’t admit it to themselves.

The man was with a pansy who looked rather attractive from a distance, a fair-haired lad with delicate features, devoid of the usual mincing airs, and not without charm. Boris hadn’t much use for homosexuals, because they always were pursuing him, but Ivich rather liked them; she said: “Well, at any rate they’ve got the courage not to be like everybody else.” Boris had great respect for his sister’s opinions, and he made the most conscientious efforts to think well of fairies.

Boris is as gay as any of them, but just won’t face it.

Of course he preferred Mathieu’s company because Mathieu wasn’t a girl: a man was more intriguing all the time. Besides, Mathieu taught him all sorts of tricks. But Boris often found himself wondering whether Mathieu had any real regard for him. Mathieu was casual and brusque, and of course it was right that people of their sort shouldn’t be sentimental when they were together, but there were all sorts of ways in which a fellow could show he liked someone, and Boris felt that Mathieu might well have shown his affection by a word or a gesture now and then. With Ivich, Mathieu was quite different. Boris suddenly recalled Mathieu’s face one day when he was helping Ivich put on her overcoat; he felt an unpleasant shrinking at the heart. Mathieu’s smile: on those sardonic lips that Boris loved so much, that strange, appealing, and affectionate smile. But Boris’s head soon filled with smoke and he thought of nothing at all.

I lived most of my life with that smoke, though I thought of it more as a sharp turning of the head. When there’s something you really don’t want to see – I don’t mean like those church people who see a porn mag in the gutter and can’t stop looking at it, I mean when you really, deeply cannot see it – you always look away, even if it’s right in front of you. It took me seven years to come out because I could not look at it. I kept having near-miss experiences, like this one:

Sereno burst out laughing. He had a warm, attractive laugh, and Boris liked him because he opened his mouth wide when he laughed.

“A man’s man!” said Sereno. “A man’s man! That’s a grand phrase, I must use it whenever I can.”

He replaced the book on the table.

“Are you a man’s man, Serguine?”

“I – ” began Boris, and his breath failed him.

“Don’t blush,” said Sereno – and Boris felt himself becoming scarlet – “and believe me when I tell you that the idea didn’t even enter my head. I know how to recognize a man’s man” – the expression obviously amused him – “there’s a soft rotundity in their movements that is quite unmistakable. Whereas you – I’ve been watching you for a moment or two and was greatly charmed: your movements are quick and graceful, but they are also angular. You must be clever with your hands.”

Boris listened attentively: it is always interesting to hear someone explain his view of you. And Sereno had a very agreeable bass voice. His eyes, indeed, were baffling: at first sight they seemed to be brimming with friendly feeling, but a closer view discovered in them something hard and almost fanatic. “He’s trying to pull my leg,” thought Boris, and remained on the alert. He would have liked to ask Sereno what he meant by “angular movements,” but he did not dare, he thought it would be better to say as little as possible, and then, under that insistent gaze, he felt a strange and bewildered access of sensibility arise within him, and he longed to snort and stamp to dispel that dizzying impulse. He turned his head away and a rather painful silence followed. “He’ll take me for a damn fool,” thought Boris with resignation.

I couldn’t have told you why I liked certain guys so much (that gorgeous blond river guide in my Faulkner class, for example, or the older boy who wandered out of the showers naked at Scout camp), I just did, and I wanted them to like me. I saw in them qualities that I wanted; they were the kind of guys that I wanted to be, confident and muscular and handsome, so I liked being around them. They’re straight, though. I was attracted to them, but there was a strange, different sort of connection with homosexuals. There’s always been a conflict between what I am and what I want to be. Even now that I know I’m gay, I still want to be more confident, more muscular, and more handsome. When I meet men as beautiful as Daniel Sereno, I’m still afraid that they’ll take me for a damn fool.

Boris and Daniel are both quite definitely homosexuals, but they’ve both established relationships with women. Daniel’s been around the gay block a few times and knows the tricks. There are a few places where the gay men hang out, so he meets them and arranges casual hookups. But homosexuality seems more like a compulsion than a desire. It’s not so much what they want or whom they love as what they need, what they can’t stop themselves from doing. Daniel has sex with a guy he finds revolting simply because he can’t stop himself. There are few choices, so he takes the least bad of a bad bunch. With the greater awareness that we have now, eighty years later, I don’t have to resort to this, but I think back to my last closet days, when I knew that this was burning inside me and I couldn’t let it out where people could see it. When sexuality can’t be expressed in healthy ways, it assaults you in unhealthy ways. Daniel knows of two gay men who live together, but they have no sort of social standing and they sleep with other people, possibly for money. And that’s the extent of the courage that Ivich admires so much. I’m not criticizing gay men who lived in less forgiving times, I’m just saying that men who were as open as Oscar Wilde went to jail, so they had to be a lot more careful than I do today. Even in Trump’s America I’m not afraid of the fact that my boss and coworkers know I’m gay, and that one of my coworkers half-outed me to a student. I’m a little irritated at that last, but not afraid.

Since the election people have been writing #gayandscared all over campus, with all sorts of other slogans like #notmypresident and #blacklivesstillmatter, and yes it’s odd to see a hashtag in sidewalk chalk, but I’m not scared. Probably because I grew up in North Carolina, where our state identity is “Just leave me alone.” We pretty much just leave each other alone. HB2 seems to refute that, but if you look at the conservative fear that prompted it, it’s actually just another expression of “Just leave me alone.” They’re afraid of people not being left alone in restrooms. Yes, that fear has led to a law that refuses to just leave a different group of people alone, but it’s the same concept at work. Most transpeople I know identify so strongly with their gender that you can’t tell it’s different from their gender expression at birth, and I can pretty much guarantee that we don’t have police officers stationed at restroom doors, checking genitalia, so “Just leave me alone” also means that the law is largely unenforceable. And now I sound like the gay Arabs who say that it doesn’t matter if the law says they can be beheaded if no one actually reports them to the police. Probably because I’m a white cis-male and I know that the deck is stacked in my favor. I was talking today to someone who’s worried about his friend because, not only is she a single mom, she’s also a Muslim lesbian American citizen.

This paragraph is going to be politically controversial, so skip it if you must. I am very concerned that our country elected an unqualified, repulsive person as president who is putting together a cabinet of equally unqualified, repulsive persons to make the entire country into a scheme for making themselves rich. As such, Trump’s election puts us one step closer to Stalin’s Russia. However, American liberals, you asked for it. Yes, you fucking did. You alienated rural whites while forgetting just how many of them there are. Think about that moment in Ted where Mark Wahlberg reels off a list of all the supposedly trailer-trash female names he can think of – those are the names of almost all the girls I grew up with. Poor rural whites have been the butt of liberal jokes for too long; of course they voted for the candidate who told them it’s okay to be who they are. One of my friends at work has a friend who always looks like she just wandered out of a film about Depression-Era Mississippi, but she can quote every Shakespeare play from memory, in her country-hick accent. Geography does not guarantee level of education, and level of education does not indicate level of intelligence. And even if it did, level of intelligence is no indicator of the worth of a human life. Stop making them the bad guys, and teach them that when we say Black Lives Matter we are not saying that white lives don’t. Women’s rights do not encroach on the rights of men, and gay marriage does not detract from straight marriage. However, you have to show them that, and making memes about how stupid they are is not showing them that you value their lives. If we want to be Stronger Together, we have to make sure that all people feel welcome in our movement, not just the black lesbians. The internet has had a really polarizing effect, which means that we don’t understand people who don’t think like we do any more. We often don’t even respect them. We need to build some bridges, not based on the intersectionality of our own identities (straight white liberals to gay white liberals), but across the wider political divide to the people who are wholly different than we are. If we’re going to value difference, we have to value people who are different, and believe me, my conservative family is very different to me. I’m not saying I’m better than the rest of you, I’m just as ethnocentric as the rest of them. When I read an internet rumor that Kate McKinnon’s character on Ghostbusters is gay, my response was, Of course she is, she’s awesome. Being liberal doesn’t equate to being open-minded. A lot of my friends are sharing articles on facebook written by rabidly fanatic liberals who do not see the value of conservative [poor white Trump-voting] lives, and by devaluing these people they contribute to the divisive atmosphere that led to Trump’s election. We can disagree with their opinions, we can point out how their policies oppress minorities and women, but we cannot make ad hominem arguments that demonize poverty, lack of formal education, whiteness, or men. We cannot tell them that their lives are unimportant. Because it invites them to retaliate and we get Trump as president. It’s like the guys at the beginning of Fight Club who grow breasts after taking testosterone. Quit trying to fight hate with hate. You need love for that.

Political rant over.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), neither Boris nor Daniel is the protagonist. It’s not even Ivich, Boris’s sister. No, it’s Mathieu, whom I find quite unlikable. He’s in his mid-thirties and obsessed with the idea of freedom. By which he doesn’t really mean freedom, he means control over his own life.

“No,” he thought, “no, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.” Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and in despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation; he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.

He is determined not to let fate, destiny, or anyone else control him. But he’s in a bit of a jam, and his style of freedom means that no one will help him. You see, Mathieu has been seeing Marcelle a few times a week for the last seven years. He pursues other women too, of course, like the thing he has for Ivich, who actually seems like a young lesbian. And now Marcelle is pregnant and Mathieu rushes off to find the money for an abortion. He spends the entire book trying to arrange this money, and it’s not until rather late in the day that he stops to wonder whether Marcelle actually wants one. Easy access to abortions does not guarantee that this is the lady’s choice. But the baby represents a significant commitment, and Mathieu isn’t willing to make that commitment. He isn’t really willing to make any commitment, not to her, not to his friends, not to the Communist Party (yes, that comes up – he feels like he should be fighting in Spain instead of dithering in Paris, but he just can’t commit to signing up). And in the end, he realizes that his refusal to commit has made him a nonentity. He sees himself as a vacuum, devoid of personality or ideals or friends or even life. Because he is unwilling to secure himself to anything, he doesn’t have anything.

In many ways, Mathieu reminds me of the qualities that I dislike in myself. Depression and low self-esteem, unwillingness to commit. A tendency to decide which course is best without consulting other people who are involved, and then a blind adherence to that course no matter what difficulties or obstacles present themselves. A habitual lack of funds. I got into a fight with him this week about my level of commitment to his family. I still don’t feel as if he heard what I was saying, that his parents take advantage of people (specifically me), but we’re not fighting anymore, and there will probably come another time for that discussion. He doesn’t see that the concept of taking advantage applies to families, that ‘family’ means they can ask for whatever they want and he has to do it, and now I have to do it too. All I can say is, No. Unfortunately, they literally have no one else in their lives to ask for help, and I’m beginning to think it’s because people don’t like being manipulated or taken advantage of. I’m not even that committed to my own family. Commitment scares me, because (a) circumstances outside my control sometimes prevent my keeping those commitments, (b) committing to someone gives them power to hurt me deeply, like he did this week, and (c) if you commit to one thing, people will take it for granted that you’re committed to other things as well (whether or not they’re directly related), or that it’s okay to expect you to extend a time commitment beyond what you’re really willing to do. Commitment creates the opportunity for rejection and manipulation, and for me, those have been the results. I know that there are also opportunities for love and intimacy and closeness, but I have less experience of those things.

Looking back over the entry I wrote two years ago on Sartre’s philosophy, I think that it’s harder to see existential philosophy in narrative form. Yes, Mathieu comes to see himself as a tabula rasa, existence that has not yet achieved essence, but he’s wrong. He has a personality, it’s just an ineffective one. Personal responsibility, again yes. No one is willing to help Mathieu reach his goal of finding enough money to buy an abortion, so he has to take matters into his own hands. But, and I think this is important, people decide that he’s doing such a wretched job of handling the situation that they take it from him. The solution he works for with his own hands does not solve the problem, and Marcelle makes it clear that it’s not even his problem anymore. He’s not the only string to her bow. But I don’t see anything positive or life-affirming here. Mathieu is more of a cautionary tale; he clings to this idea of freedom so strongly that everyone wishes he would just grow up. Grown-ups recognize that people live in and contribute to communities. Mathieu just takes and takes and takes until he loses it all.

It isn’t that that’s repulsive.

It took me longer to read this than it should have because Mathieu is not a protagonist I want to spend time with. Perspective shifts around a lot, but his friends aren’t really nice people either, except maybe Sarah. This is the type of book that people read to tell themselves that it’s okay not to become an existentialist because they lead wasted lives of self-centered navel-gazing and will probably die alone in a drunken misery.

 

When I try to remember the house where we lived when I was young, the thing I remember most clearly is a picture of a dog with enormous eyes that was hanging high up in the living room. Not big anime eyes, big 1970s eyes, the kind when someone wants to draw a picture of a sad dog that is going to make everyone who sees it just as sad because the dog watches them with a forlornness and a desperation that they can never comfort or heal. The picture always made me feel very small and afraid. But after we moved when I was twelve, I never saw it again. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken to any of my family about it; by now, I’m not even sure if the picture really existed or if I’m superimposing this image of a depressing decoration on my depressing childhood. I’m kind of afraid to bring it up; I’d prefer not to be told I hallucinated the whole thing.

Stephen King’s short stories are what you would expect from reading his novels or watching his films. They’re him in miniature, a workshop where he can see how ideas play out. I’m interested in the number of first-person narrators he uses; like Pamela or Dracula, these stories are interested in their own production; it’s not enough to tell the story, he also has to tell how the story is told. There must be eyewitnesses telling their account.

It’s a great relief to write this down.

And as a writer, sometimes that’s true. But it’s not always a great relief to read what’s been written.

It is not surprising to me that Stephen King originally published some of his stories in the more literary pornographic magazines. I’m not saying that they’re trashy (some porn is actually well-filmed; I like it when the director pays attention to the way light reflects on skin. Light is beautiful); horror and pornography share a common ideology: There are opportunities for the fantastic all around us that most people don’t notice or take advantage of. In pornography, those opportunities are for pleasure; in King’s novels, those opportunities are for terror. But I appreciate the reminder that there are opportunities for a life that is bigger and stranger than the one I habitually lead.

Speaking of the overlap of horror and daily life, King takes a few minutes to explain why people enjoy the stories he writes:

I remembered talking with a writer friend who lived in Otisfield and supported his wife and two kids by raising chickens and turning out one paperback original a year – spy stories. We had gotten talking about the bulge in popularity of books concerning themselves with the supernatural. Gault pointed out that in the forties Weird Tales had only been able to pay a pittance, and that in the fifties it went broke. When the machines fail, he had said (while his wife candled eggs and roosters crowed querulously outside), when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.

Real life has quite a lot of horror in it already. Look at 2016. Artists who make us happy die by the truckload, while the least electable candidates are fighting for an election that a great many Americans just don’t want any part of. A workmate and I were talking about politics, and we agreed that while neither of us likes either of the mainstream candidates, I’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Trump and she’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Hillary. So when you’ve got this going on, a tiger in the kindergarten bathrooms seems familiar and reminds us that things must not be too bad if they could get this much worse.

In King’s stories, and I suspect in his mind, regular society is a pretty awful place.

The third thing that struck me was The Eye. You know about The Eye once you let your hair get down below the lobes of your ears. Right then people know you don’t belong to the Lions, Elks, or the VFW. You know about The Eye, but you never get used to it.

People are pointlessly cruel to each other, and I don’t comprehend it. For example, he tells the story of a 350-pound woman getting married. People laugh at her all the time, as if an obese woman is somehow amusing. I used to be friends with a woman who weighed more than this, but no one ever laughed at her. She always looked nice; the type of girl who never goes out without makeup and seldom wears an outfit twice. And in small-town North Carolina, she was always completely accepted. She even had a pretty busy love life. The United States today is pretty evenly divided into three groups these days: regular weight, overweight, and obese. That wasn’t the case forty years ago. People in the story are also pretty weird about race, which is more obvious to me. That was a struggle I have always been well aware of. This week, I was sitting in the university library and some kid started making Harry Potter jokes in my direction, and I kind of wanted to beat his ass and say, “Harry Potter didn’t wear a bowtie, mother fucker!” but then I remembered that all white people look alike, so he probably couldn’t tell the difference between me and Daniel Radcliffe.

I will say that Stephen King seems to honor and respect women, even though his genre isn’t known for that. For example, here’s a female character explaining the gender divide:

But in her heart what every woman wants to be is some kind of goddess, I think – men pick up a ruined echo of that thought and try to put them on pedestals (a woman, who will pee down her own leg if she does not squat! It’s funny when you stop to think of it) – but what a man senses is not what a woman wants. A woman wants to be in the clear, is all. To stand if she will, or walk . . .’ Her eyes turned toward that little go-devil in the driveway, and narrowed. Then she smiled. ‘Or to drive, Homer. A man will not see that. He thinks a goddess wants to loll on a slope somewhere on the foothills of Olympus and eat fruit, but there is no god or goddess in that. All a woman wants is what a man wants – a woman wants to drive.’

People are people, and are happier when they are treated primarily as a person. Gender is an attribute, it’s often the first one other people notice, but it’s not the most helpful in determining someone’s personality, goals, or desires. One of my sisters wanted to become an astronaut, and the other was a gifted athlete. The astronaut dream didn’t play out, but she’s now studying neurophysics, and the track star trained as a police officer. Either of them would be more handy in a fistfight than I would be, and they’re both more conservative politically. The science genius and I once talked about political labels as working more in a circle – extreme left and extreme right can actually be pretty similar if you let go of the party names. Which is why we get on so well.

That sense of doom had hung about the boy so palpably that there had been times when Richard had wanted to hug him, to tell him to lighten up a little bit, that sometimes there were happy endings and the good didn’t always die young.

The one thing that I differ from Stephen King the most on is the idea of a happy ending. I think that happy endings are much more useful than tragic ones, because I believe so strongly in integrating all elements of a society. People die in real life because they get sick or are in accidents. In real life death is random and unfair and doesn’t make sense. In fiction, people die because at some level the author believes they deserve to. Victims are in some ways as guilty as the murderers; it’s not random, it’s not an accident. The author kills them because he can’t fit them into the reintegrated world at the end of the story. So I think that horror authors must have a lot of people they’d like to kill (or parts of themselves they’d like to kill) because that’s what their imaginations enact when they sit down at the typewriter. In this collection, there are twenty stories and two poems. Happy endings, where I felt good about the story I’d just finished? Three. “Word Processor of the Gods,” which fits my own sense of justice. “Mrs Todd’s Shortcut,” where like-minded people end up together and live in a natural world of speed and divinity. And “The Reach,” where death comes as a big reunion where you sing with all your friends. Saying that the story that is most explicitly about a woman dying has a happy ending may seem odd, but I believe that death can be kind, especially when it comes to the old as a reunion with the lovers and friends they’ve missed.

So if I have such a hard time with tragedies, why do I read horror stories? Fear is familiar to me, as I’ve mentioned. But, aside from his troubles with humanity in general, Stephen King writes for someone that he loves, so when I read his prefaces and consider myself the Constant Reader, I feel that he loves me.

Grab onto my arm, now. Hold tight. We are going into a number of dark places, but I think I know the way. Just don’t let go of my arm. And if I should kiss you in the dark, it’s no big deal; it’s only because you are my love.

The language is often gruesome, but it’s also beautiful. He knows how to catch the light reflecting on skin. The skin more often covers a body that is dying horribly than on one that is fucking mechanically, but beauty is beauty, and it can be found everywhere. Find the awe, the wonderment. The opportunity is there, always. Daily life doesn’t have to be mundane. It can be ecstatic, or horrifying, or peaceful, or whatever you like. So make it what you like.

 

Not exactly what I expected. This is the sequel to The Great and Secret Show, a fact that the cover should have been more forthcoming about (tsk tsk, Harper Collins). Those who survived the disasters at Palomo Grove and Trinity are back, though in a different setting. The biggest difference is that Barker breaks with his customary structure: normally it’s a bit like Fenimore Cooper’s double journeys, where we reach a conflict in the center of the book that seems final, but then there’s a twist and there are still greater evils for the heroes to defeat. In Everville, this doesn’t happen. We still have those greater evils from the previous book, and Barker chooses not to imagine any worse. The book is set up more like The House of the Seven Gables or Wuthering Heights, with their interest in things ending where they begin – we ascend the slope and then descend like in an ancient Hebrew poem, instead of climbing halfway, resting, and then climbing again.

As before, Tesla Bombeck is our protagonist, and as before, she doesn’t appear until nearly a hundred pages. No one from before does. Indeed, most of them aren’t central to the plot. Howie and Jo-Beth, the supernatural Romeo and Juliet, have a baby and are unhappy. She renews her incestuous interest in her twin brother, Tommy-Ray the Death-Boy, and Howie can’t handle it. Their story just doesn’t seem to interest Barker much, and they disappear for hundreds of pages at a time. Tommy-Ray was the counterpart to Tesla, but not any more. He’s still surrounded by the dead, but he’s lost his fascination with death. He’s growing up. Grillo is dying, but while he and Tesla were close in the first book, their journeys are widely disparate here. And then there’s Harry d’Amour, whose name I vaguely recall from the first book, but who takes on a role very similar to Tesla’s in defeating evil. I wanted the two of them to become romantic eventually, but it doesn’t happen. Kissoon, the enemy, also returns, more firmly enmeshed in the plot and the lives of the other characters than is immediately apparent.

Tesla sees America similarly to the way I do:

She had thought about coming back here many times in her five-year journey through what she liked to call the Americas, by which she meant the mainland states. They were not, she had many times insisted to Grillo, one country; not remotely. Just because they served the same Coke in Louisiana as they served in Idaho, and the same sitcoms were playing in New Mexico as were playing in Massachusetts, didn’t mean there was such a thing as America. When presidents and pundits spoke of the voice and will of the American people, she rolled her eyes. That was a fiction; she’d been told so plainly by a yellow dog that had followed her around Arizona for a week and a half during her hallucination period, turning up in diners and motel rooms to chat with her in such a friendly fashion she’d missed him when he disappeared.

These United States are more States than United. Even within a state, there are differences. Radio commercials keep telling me about the unity that comes with being Texan, but I still see snobbery and elitism and intolerance, the us vs them mentality that destroys societies. In my home state, it’s often apparent after a brief conversation whether someone belongs in Asheville or Wilmington or Durham, and there are subtle differences in accent and attitude as you move from Gastonia to Murphy. Americans are raised on a sense of individualism, and we don’t really cohere well. I often think that the idea that we can be governed by a single federal government is ludicrous; while that may make me sound like a Republican, I believe firmly in accepting the world as it’s given to me and making what beauty I can, which in politics means that I think a government’s job is to make people’s lives better, so I support the policies found in the Democratic Party more than the other. I am a Bernie Sanders man, and the label socialist doesn’t scare me the way it does some. Even if we succeed in electing him, though, I will keep my hopes closer to the earth than I did with Obama.

Maybe the messiahs we imagine are more important than the real thing.

It’s not so much the person I’m voting for as it is the ideals he espouses. Every politician compromises, and we all feel a little betrayed by them, but if we have someone who inspires as much cynicism as Hillary Clinton, or as much hatred as Donald Trump, how much further can we sink? It’s the ideals that are important, and the idealists that I will choose, every time.

There had been something to die for in those hard hearts, and that was a greater gift than those blessed with it knew; a gift not granted those who’d come after. They were a prosaic lot, in Owen’s estimations, the builders of suburbs and the founders of committees: men and women who had lost all sense of the tender, terrible holiness of things.

It’s the idealists that build countries, and it takes the prosy committee members to keep things going; but things change, and the builders of suburbs fight against it. As I tell people whenever it’s appropriate, remember your lessons from fourth-grade science class: if it doesn’t move and it doesn’t change, it’s not alive.

And, well, maybe dying isn’t the worst thing either.

Up they went, Norma wrapped in her shawl, onto the roof nine floors above Seventy-Fifth. Dawn was still a while away, but the city was already gearing up for another day. Norma looped her arm through Harry’s, and they stood together in silence for perhaps five minutes, while the traffic murmured below, and sirens wailed, and the wind gusted off the river, grimy and cold. It was Norma who broke the silence.

“We’re so powerful,” Norma said, “and so frail.”

“Us?”

“Everybody. Powerful.”

“I don’t think that’s the way most people feel,” Harry said.

“That’s because they can’t feel the connections. They think they’re alone. In their heads. In the world. I hear them all the time. Spirits come through, carryin’ on about how alone they feel, how terribly alone. And I say to them, let go of what you are – ”

“And they don’t want to do that.”

“Of course not.”

“I don’t like the sound of it either,” Harry said. “I’m all I’ve got. I don’t want to give it up.”

“I said to let go of it, not to give it up,” Norma said. “They’re not the same thing.”

“But when you’re dead – ”

“What’s dead?” Norma shrugged. “Things change but they don’t end. I told you.”

“And I don’t believe you. I want to, but I don’t.”

“Then I can’t convince you,” Norma said. “You’ll have to find out for yourself, one way or another.”

Again, think of science class: The Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, things change shape, but they never begin or end, not really. They’re just reborn in a different form. The frontier spirit is a part of American life, not just the desire to strike off into new territory, but the desire to strike off alone into new territory. We don’t sort well with each other. Tesla and Raul share one brain for most of the book, but they still don’t fit comfortably.

“How come I didn’t see that?” she thought, confounded (as ever) by the fact that she and Raul could look through the same eyes and see the world so differently.

Perhaps it takes a British writer, someone from the outside, to see us as we really are. Someone who wasn’t raised on the shared delusion we call The American Dream.

Okay. New subject.

I once started reading Elizabeth George’s series of mystery novels, the ones with Inspector Lynley. The first one was quite good, and very helpful to me, but in time I saw that she was only looking at the worst side of humanity. Many mystery and horror writers only present us at our worst, which is perhaps why I don’t read extensively in the genres, but Barker doesn’t. He sees people, all the good and bad in them, and continues to love them. He even imagines things that are pure concentrated evil, worse than any real person could ever be, and yet when he sees the world, he sees its beauty and wonder.

As they turned the corner onto Phoebe’s street, out of the blue Harry said, “God, I love the world.”

It was such a simple thing to say, and it was spoken with such easy faith, Tesla could only shake her head.

“You don’t?” Harry said.

“There’s so much shit,” she said.

“Not right this minute. Right this minute it’s as good as it gets.”

“Look up the mountain,” she said.

“I’m not up the mountain,” Harry replied. “I’m here.”

And humanity, even the overly religious, homophobic, self-righteously selfish humanity, can be a source of incredible heartrending beauty.

Caught in the grip of the crowd, unable to entirely control her route, nor entirely concerned to do so, she felt curiously comforted. The touch of flesh on flesh, the stench of sweat and candy-sweetened breath, the sight of oozing skin and glittering eye, all of it was fine, just fine. Yes, these people were vulnerable and ignorant; yes, they were probably crass, most of them, and bigoted and belligerent. But now, right now, they were laughing and cheering and holding their babies high to see the parade, and if she did not love them, she was at least happy to be of their species.

And:

Was there anything more beautiful, Owen wondered as he left the coffee shop, than a sight of yearning on a human face? Not the night sky nor a boy’s buttocks could compare with the glory of June Davenport (Miss) dolled up like a whore and hoping to meet the man of her dreams before time ran out. He’d seen tale enough for a thousand nights of telling there on her painted face. Roads taken, roads despised. Deeds undone, deeds regretted.

And tonight – and every moment between now and tonight – more roads to choose, more deeds to do. She might be turning her head even now, or now, or now, and seeing the face she had longed to love. Or, just as easily, looking the other way.

There is beauty in every life, in every heart. Phoebe Cobb is a doctor’s receptionist in a small town in Oregon, stuck in a marriage she hates, surrounded by people she can’t abide, carrying more weight than Hollywood is comfortable with (I suspect that those of us who see with Southern eyes would describe her as normal, healthy-looking, as we do all women who are only twenty or thirty pounds overweight [But really, the ex had a good friend who was 5’6” and needed two bathroom scales to weigh herself, and she was very pretty and always dressed well, so I think she’s cute as a button]). She meets a housepainter, younger, thin, black, with a criminal record, and they have an affair. But it’s no ordinary fling; she’s not just some vulnerable female he can stick it to, and he’s not just some passing fancy. This is one of those loves that transcend space and time, and they go off to the dream-sea and find each other, even when separated by sleep, death, the earth, and the supernatural forces that exist only in fiction. Love makes her beautiful, and him luminescent. The human capacity to love is often startling in its depth and breadth, shocking in the unpredictability of whom it joins. As in The Scarlet Letter, love spills out of our hearts and makes the world beautiful.

Harmon O’Connell is a visionary Irishman, traveling through the colonization of the American West. A mystical figure gives him a medallion and a dream, a dream of a shining city founded on the spot where he will bury the medallion. He dies before he reaches the spot where Everville will be built, but he passes the medallion and the dream on to his daughter Maeve, in love.

“It was a fine dream I dreamed,” he murmured, raising his trembling hand toward her. She took it. “But you’re finer, child,” he said. “You’re the finest dream I ever had. And it’s not so hard to die, knowing you’re in the world.”

She builds the city on a whorehouse, another type of love, and is eventually driven from it by the intolerant religionists who settle there. But some things don’t die, not right away, and she continues to define herself by her love for her dead supernatural husband. His ghost hangs around, and eventually, at long last, they are reunited. Love brings us all together. Love breeds hope, and hope keeps the world turning, at least the part of the world that concerns human beings. And love and hope keep us alive, even after the body decays and our names are forgotten.

It’s time for us all to put our lives in order, Harry, whether we’re dead, living, or something else entirely. It’s time to make our peace with things, so we’re ready for whatever happens next.

I’ve been working at this, these last several weeks. I’m using some of the techniques I learned after the divorce; I’m sure it was frustrating to my counselor friend just how little I was ready to change then, but things are different now. Back then, I had lost so much that I was afraid to let go of my pain and anger and general fucked-up-ness because I didn’t have anything else, no other foundation on which to build an identity. They were the only things I was sure of, in a world where everything was changing and falling and dying around me. But now, now I know that I won’t be destroyed by any of this. Death is just a change like any other, and when it comes to me it will be as natural and comfortable as walking from one room to the next. The anxiety and depression are dramatically less than they have been for many years, and I’ve even had some episodes of unreasoning manic joy as my brain chemistry rebalances itself.

My tarot cards keep telling me that it’s time to stop resting in solitude and to get involved in life again. Maybe that’s what I’m getting my brain fixed up for; maybe what happens next is that, like Owen’s waitress, I’m going to turn my head and see the man I’ve been longing to love. Texas is just a waystation for me; I’m determined not to end up here, because my end is not here. I am determined not to die in Texas. I think I may be headed for a larger city next; for all I love the woods, I would like to live somewhere I don’t have to drive to work every day, where people are too busy with their own lives to waste time observing mine. And cities are where gay men tend to find each other. I loved New York and Paris, and I won’t be looking for a drunken tourist or a sadistic Algerian this time. My life is amazing, and I want to go live it someplace awesomer than here.

 

I love this book. In graduate school I learned that it can be dangerous to write about books I love, because it is difficult to convey those emotions in an academic analysis. The emotion gets in the way of the analysis, just as I lose my good judgment when I feel an emotional connection to the decision to be made. This explains why I’ve asked for a transfer closer to home, even though I’m in a good job and a decent social situation. I have an emotional connection with that landscape, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be content apart from it. My company’s closest location is five hundred miles off, but that’s a lot closer than the thousand miles away I am now.

This book seems to have been conceived as one of a series where our leading authors write about the myths that have shaped their lives and writing. I’m not sure if that series ever took off because I always see this one standing alone or with Byatt’s other work, and since she deals so much with fairy tales and myths anyway, it doesn’t feel out of place in her oeuvre. So yes, as the title implies, this is a book about Norse mythology. But it is also a story about Byatt’s encounter with Norse mythology when she was a girl, The Thin Child in Wartime. The Norse myths make more sense to her than the Christian ones, so while she doesn’t believe in them as a religion, they more adequately express her developing worldview.

The thin child thought that these stories – the sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one, were both human make-ups, like the life of the giants in the Riesengebirge. Neither aspect made her want to write, or fed her imagination. They numbed it. She tried to think she might be wicked for thinking these things. She might be like Ignorance, in Pilgrim’s Progress, who fell into the pit at the gate of heaven. She tried to feel wicked.

But her mind veered away, to where it was alive.

So while the stories take place in Midgard or Asgard, they also always have reference to living in the evacuated-to English countryside during World War II.

Odin was the god of the Wild Hunt. Or of the Raging Host. They rode out through the skies, horses and hounds, hunters and spectral armed men. They never tired and never halted; the horns howled on the wind, the hooves beat, they swirled in dangerous wheeling flocks like monstrous starlings. Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs: his gallop was thundering. At night, in her blacked-out bedroom, the thin child heard sounds in the sky, a distant whine, a churning of propellers, thunder hanging overhead and then going past. She had seen and heard the crash and conflagration when the airfield near her grandparents’ home was bombed. She had cowered in an understairs cupboard as men were taught to cower, flat on the ground, when the Hunt passed by. Odin was the god of death and battle. Not much traffic came through the edges of the small town in which the thin child lived. Most of what there was was referred to as ‘Convoys’, a word that the thin child thought was synonymous with processions of khaki vehicles, juddering and grinding. Some had young men sitting in the back of trucks, smiling out at the waving children, shaking with the rattling motions. They came and they went. No one was told where. They were ‘our boys’. The child thought of her father, burning in the air above North Africa. She did not know where North Africa was. She imagined him with his flaming hair in a flaming black plane, in the racket of propellers. Airmen were the Wild Hunt. They were dangerous. If any hunter dismounted, he crumbled to dust, the child read. It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control.

In the daytime, the bright fields. In the night, doom droning in the sky.

I did not grow up during World War II. My parents weren’t born until afterward. My childhood war was very different. By the 1980s, American society had grown comfortable with the Cold War. The enemy was always there, there was the constant threat of invasion and nuclear holocaust, but this very constancy had inured us to it. The threat of mutually assured destruction kept us pretty much safe. Then, when I was a thin child of nine, the Berlin Wall came down, and a couple of years later the Soviet Union fell apart. There was a sense of relief, but I had never experienced the absence of loved ones as Byatt did, nor was I ever evacuated.

The real war for me was strictly domestic. My father was undiagnosed bipolar; most men self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, but since my father’s religion forbade those, he calmed himself down by hitting his children. I was too young and small to be a target, but I have four older siblings who caught rather a lot of it. I don’t remember much from the early years, but my sister assures me that I had every reason to be perpetually afraid. And I was. Not just of my father, though; I was afraid of everyone. Life is unpredictable, and as a kid that meant that I never knew when someone was going to go from happy to violently angry in less time than it takes to read this sentence. I think this is the key to understanding why I freak out in crowds; that’s a lot of people to keep from punching me in the face. You’re asking, why would anyone punch me in the face to start with? Because life is unpredictable, and my childhood trained me to know that every person is a potential threat. Especially family members who are supposed to love and care for me. These days I have friends that I trust, but they are people who seldom make sudden moves and do not raise their voices when they get heated in a conversation.

My mother had a quick temper too, but she handled her anger by distancing herself from the situation – the situation usually being her children. I don’t remember being hugged or kissed when I was young. The first clear memory I have of getting that sort of affection from my mother is from after I was married and had graduated from college. I remember how awkward she was at it, like this was something she’d seen other people doing and had always wanted to try but was never sure where or how to begin. For most people, hugs are not that complicated.

Shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, my parents separated. I hear multiple stories about it, but the one I remember is coming home from church one Sunday to find him gone. When I was twenty-one I found his nearly-suicide leaving note in my mother’s things; I imagine she still has it. When it first happened, I recognized that my father’s absence represented a new stage of life for me, but I wasn’t shocked. Life is unpredictable, and my brother used to run away with some frequency, and so did the teenagers on all the family-oriented TV programs of the time, so that my dad ran away was no big surprise. It’s what I understood people to do. I suppose this should have made things easier, but I still had nearly a decade of living with an emotionally unavailable parent who projected her own anger onto me and made me doubt my ability to achieve anything I set my hand to, despite all the clear evidence that I’m intelligent and capable.

Like Byatt, I turned to stories. The Norse legends weren’t readily available in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina, so I read the Greek and Roman myths instead. The Egyptian ones didn’t make sense to me, but the Hellenic Pantheon absolutely did. Their characters are driven by human desires, only played out on a larger scale. Unlike the Hebrew God, you can escape them. You may have to be turned into a tree to do it, but you can get away. People can run, hide from, and even occasionally trick the gods. And life is always trembling on the cusp of transformation. In Greek myth, there is always a way out, and I suppose that’s what I needed then.

The thing that always impresses me about Norse myths is the suffix –heim, home. Everyone and everything has a home. Death, evil, frost giants, dark elves, they all have their proper place. There isn’t really an outer darkness where people are cast out for their crimes, as in Christianity. All places can be known, rendered familiar, by describing them as someone’s home. Despite the monsters, there’s nothing so frightening that it can’t be realized in the imagination. In Byatt’s telling, everything also has a name: she names plants and animals and sea creatures and everything that I couldn’t even think to put a name to. The Acknowledgements section shows that she had to do some research, she didn’t have all these names at her fingers’ ends, but I appreciate that. If you’re going to write about the creation and destruction of the world, give things the dignity of their names.

Byatt places at the center of the belief system Loki, the agent of chaos, the force for change. He drives everything, and the others – Thor, Odin, Freya, etc – are all along for the ride. He and his children explain the way the world works, and how the world will eventually end. Order and Chaos will cancel each other out in a furious battle, the likes of which the world will never have seen before.

Everything ends, and everyone dies. Beautiful Baldur may have been the first (and how gorgeous does he have to have been, if already-beautiful Scandinavian men call him more beautiful than they?), but all the gods die. Not the gradual fading into disbelief of the Greeks, but violent sudden death. And then, even war ends. Sorry to be so morbid, but I believe most of the problems of Western civilization come from our inability to face the reality of our own mortality. Even this book ends, far too soon. It is beautiful, and it shows our world to be beautiful and fragile. And temporary. Use your time here well – love often and completely, create beauty where you can, and read this book.