Posts Tagged ‘romance’

We had a snowstorm here, which seems to have begun early last Friday morning and continued until Saturday afternoon. Saturday I was awakened at 5:30 by the landlady next door, banging on my door and shouting that the power was out. My initial reaction was to wonder rather rudely what concern of mine that was, but I kept my mouth shut and eventually answered the door, simply saying “I don’t understand.” I figured that she might want to go somewhere to plug in her oxygen apparatus, but after I got nearly twelve inches of snow off her car, she didn’t want to go anywhere. After a while I figured out that she had dragged me out of bed simply because she didn’t want to be alone in the cold and the dark. The experience felt surreal, like we were acting in one of those shitty modern plays where everything is hyper-realistic and nothing seems to happen. I could see my own words written on a page in front of me as I was saying them. Once the sun came up she released me from conversation and I went back to bed to finish reading Northanger Abbey.

The last six years have been the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s publishing career, starting with Sense and Sensibility in 1811 and finishing with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together as a four-volume set in December 1817. However, for the other bicentennials, I’ve had things going on – I spent 2011 preparing to come out of the closet and celebrating the birth of my third son, 2013 and 2014 (Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park) in Saudi Arabia working through my identity issues and suicidal tendencies, and 2016 (Emma) dealing with paranoia and post-traumatic stress. I suppose it’s not really paranoia if they really are out to get you, and the Christians really were plotting my downfall, I just didn’t understand the messages my subconscious was sending until it was too late to profit by them. So here I am, just now celebrating an Austen bicentennial at the appropriate time, the release of her posthumous books. NA and P were published in December, but Miss Jane had passed away the previous July.

NORTHANGER ABBEY

nabbey

In the 1790s, Austen wrote three novels: First Impressions, Elinor and Marianne, and Susan. After her father’s retirement the family moved to Bath, and she prepared Susan for publication. It was sold to a publisher in 1803, but he kept it without doing anything with it. Eventually she bought it back, revised it again (changing the protagonist’s name) and published it as Northanger Abbey. This is one of her most intertextual books, with several homages to the Gothic novels of the 1790s – so many, that in the advertisement for the book, she apologized for its being a little dated even before it was published. Since Frankenstein came out in 1818, and Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820, I think she needn’t have worried, but the Gothic craze was dying down a bit. The most important source is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I read thirteen years ago and haven’t felt the need to go back to. It’s a huge book, and Radcliffe holds the audience in suspense a little too long for me. By the time the mystery is solved, three pages before the end of the book, I don’t care any more. I just wanted it to end. I do appreciate Mrs Radcliffe’s rich descriptions of the natural scenery, and I do recommend her other novels to the attention of people who are fond of two-hundred-year-old suspenseful romances (The Italian, The Romance of the Forest), but Udolpho requires a dedication that I’m not ready to give just now. I have the same hesitation for reading other long books as well – I want to be sure that the exchange of time for pleasure will pay off.

Catherine Morland is the protagonist, but hardly a Gothic heroine. Happy home life with three older brothers and six younger siblings, with two living parents who seem intelligent and interested in promoting their children’s welfare. She’s not especially bright, or talented, or beautiful, but she loves reading scary stories, so Gothic novels fill her thoughts. She goes off to Bath with friends of her parents, and she meets a man that she really likes.

She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, – though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character, and truly loved her society, – I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude; or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of a heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

For a clergyman, Henry Tilney is kind of a sarcastic bitch, and it seems that Catherine loves him because he’s the first guy to give her any attention at all. He’s smart enough to see the advantages of loving a seventeen-year-old girl who’s a little more innocent than we expect girls to be in the twenty-first century – Catherine is sweet and kind, always attributing the best possible motives to other people and blaming herself for misunderstanding when they prove to be less perfect than she imagines. Unless the person in question reminds her of the villains in Gothic romances, in which case she assigns the worst possible motives instead.

After meeting Henry, she meets the Thorpes, a brother and sister destined to grieve and perturb.

Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.

At first, Isabella seemed the perfect friend, especially when she gets interested in Catherine’s brother James. John Thorpe then pays his addresses to Catherine, but she finds him very uncongenial from the start. He’s not interested in talking about books, only about carriages and hunting, rather a lot like the straight men I grew up with. The vehicles are a little more modern, and the hunting involves dogs and horses less often, but the dullness of the conversation is unchanged. The panic she feels in a car being driven way too fast and the umbrage she takes at being lied to are also familiar experiences.

Catherine spends Volume II on a visit to the Tilneys’ home, Northanger Abbey.

Her passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney, – and castles and abbeys made usually the charm of those reveries which his image did not fill.

Catherine tries to write herself into a Gothic novel, but real life is set at a lower pitch than a Radcliffe novel, so self-centered men might be a pain to live with, but they don’t lock their wives in towers and starve them to death. A comparison could be drawn to another Austen protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, in the way that they both create stories for their lives and the lives of their friends that have no bearing on the real world, being based on the author’s character and not the character of those friends. Besides, there are always secrets that the protagonist is not privy to, which leads to the surprises in their narratives.

When I first read Austen’s novels, my sister-in-law was reading them too, and I suggested them to the brother who connects us, but he declined, stating that Austen’s characters cared more about the lace on their dresses than the realities of their personalities (or something like that, I’m trying to remember a conversation from fifteen years ago) – which I thought an odd comment for someone who had only ever seen the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, until I was speaking with my mother and she made the same comment in almost exactly the same words. Having attended high school in the 1960s, my mom had had to read many of the books that I read at university, so I knew that she might have some actual Austen experience.

It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biassed by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.

But the excessive attention to lace is a sign of an unsympathetic character, and Austen has quite the same opinion of such people as my mother and brother do. Which I was able to convince my mother of in the following years, as I kept sending her books like Mansfield Park and Persuasion. When I started sending Victorian novels, though, she stopped reading them, and sometimes I have half a mind to take back Villette because people who don’t love that book shouldn’t have access to it.

PERSUASION

persuasion

Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel, and its protagonist is dramatically older than the others – Anne Elliott is a full ten years older than Catherine Morland.

Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long. We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness.

So Anne thinks, but lovers at thirty are not so different from lovers at twenty as she might imagine. There are still all the same emotions, jealousies, and misunderstandings, but she is right that the two of them have much less tolerance for bullshit than they might have had when they were younger. Indeed, Austen herself seems ready to cut the shit and quit being routinely nice to everyone. This is the book where she lets herself get a little nasty.

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son, and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.

And this is the author that once gave Mr Willoughby a reasonably happy ending.

As a skilled and practiced reader, I tend to identify with the protagonist in whatever book I’m reading, and Austen’s are no exception: I feel especially close to Fanny Price and Anne Elliott. It is often harder for me to identify with the men, though, particularly the ones like Colonel Brandon, who falls in love with a girl literally half his age. Thirty-five-year-old men have no business flirting with seventeen-year-olds, a fact that Marianne understands early on in Sense and Sensibility but allows herself to forget. I do feel close to Mr Darcy, with his shyness and overconfidence in his own understanding, and to Henry Crawford, with his short-sightedness and need to make everyone love him, but here in Persuasion there’s a man whose descriptions could more obviously apply to me. These phrases are other characters’ responses to him.

Give him a book, and he will read all day long.

He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or any thing that happens.

He is one of the dullest young men that ever lived. He has walked with me, sometimes, from one end of the sands to the other, without saying a word. He is not at all a well-bred young man.

He considered his disposition as of the sort which must suffer heavily, uniting very strong feelings with quiet, serious, and retiring manners, and a decided taste for reading, and sedentary pursuits.

He had a pleasing face and a melancholy air, just as he ought to have, and drew back from conversation.

Anne points out that while Captain Benwick’s manners aren’t ideal for his society, he has a good mind and is someone whose acquaintance is worth cultivating. I like to think that’s true of me as well; not that I’m ill-mannered, but I have the same habit of silence, particularly with people I don’t know well. I was driving a teenager to school once – when the conversation lapsed, she said, “Awkward silence,” and I replied, “I don’t find silence to be awkward.” I think it’s nice, and often restful. I do not aspire to Benwick’s fate, though, of meeting a girl with an empty head and filling it with my own books and opinions. I’d like to love someone who has his own mind.

Another pleasant singularity is in the way that Austen takes some time to show us a relationship that works, a rarity in her novels. Admiral Croft married a younger woman, to be sure, but she is by far the steadier head of the two, and Austen seems to represent them as a model for connubial bliss:

But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself, they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand, they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the cottage.

Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could; delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little know of the navy, Mrs Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.

While this is definitely complimentary to the pair, I think it’s also a big compliment to Mrs Croft. She lets her husband drive, but also makes sure he does it properly. Instead of getting all put out when they meet her husband’s friends, she participates actively in the conversation, which requires a knowledge of subject and audience that many people do not cultivate. Sometimes I think about the importance of boundaries, and she may cross those at times, but she crosses the stupid boundaries around what their society tells her a woman should know and be interested in. A person of her mental and physical strength would languish in the traditional wifely role, staying in England while her husband goes sailing for a year or more, in what Austen describes as the “the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness” of empty-headed society like Sir Walter and Elizabeth. It seems a real challenge to meet quality people – I don’t mean titled, I mean people of intellectual and moral substance – in any station of life, whether among the Regency gentry or twenty-first century America. In this case, I feel myself to be more blessed than most as regards my friends, and less blessed than most as regards lovers.

My cousin, Anne, shakes her head. She is not satisfied. She is fastidious. My dear cousin, (sitting down by her) you have a better right to be fastidious than almost any other woman I know; but will it answer? Will it make you happy? Will it not be wiser to accept the society of these good ladies in Laura-place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible?

There are influences in my life encouraging me to get out there and find someone to date, and there are a couple of guys that I’ve sort of thought about, but I’m not really that attracted to them (I don’t mean primarily physically). I am questioning the worth of this fastidiousness, this disinclination to kiss frogs in the hope that one might turn into a prince, but still. I don’t want to force myself into a situation that I don’t actually want. I’ve been in a few awkward situations, and right now I seem to be choosing the discomfort of loneliness over the discomfort of a bad relationship. And I know, not every encounter has to turn into a relationship, but there are so few prospects out here that I’m worried that I would force the relationship just to stave off the loneliness.

She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.

I haven’t cast off the habit of prudence, but I want romance too – to feel loved, not just to get fucked. I want someone who will put his arm around me during a movie, who will sing with me in the car or in bed, who will hold me when I cry, who will take my hand and lead me through a crowd, who will love to touch me as much as I love to touch him. I want someone who will make me a priority in his life. When I buy flowers, I want them to be really for him and not actually for myself.

She watched – observed – reflected – and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. – A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

Fortitude, resignation, resolution, patience – these are qualities I can actually do pretty well with, despite my complaining here on the blog. But Persuasion reminds me that these aren’t the way to happiness. Being truly happy comes from within, not from external circumstances. Even if I did have a job that allowed me to pay my bills and a man who loved me, these things would not guarantee my happiness. That can only come from me, from making peace with myself and from loving being who I am.

It’s always a little sad to me that Jane Austen died without having experienced the sort of marital felicity she imagines for her characters, but really, I get sad when I remember that she died at all. And at the end of Persuasion there were some tears, whether for the conversation comparing the strength of men’s and women’s love or for the end of the book or for the end of the career I’ll leave you to decide for yourself. I imagine the world two hundred years from now and wonder whether anyone will remember my name then, or if my memory will last even twenty years after I go. But while some look at Austen’s novels as proof of the oppressive restrictions placed on women in Regency society, her name endures. People are still reading and writing and thinking about her, much more so than any of her brothers, despite their active careers and large families. She may have focused on “a little bit of ivory, two inches wide,” but she created something beautiful, which I truly believe will last as long as civilization endures.

Advertisements

lighthouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I was talking with a professor once about my master’s thesis, and she asked what was going on in the life of the author I was writing about at the time she wrote the novel, and I told her I didn’t know because I had never read any of the biographies. “How can you stop yourself?” she asked. The truth is, I seldom see authors as people. The name Charles Dickens is a tool I can use to group novels with a similar style and thematic interest, but I find myself curiously incurious as to the man himself. Stories stick with me, like the way that he was driven to keep telling the story of Sikes and Nancy until it killed him (check his public performances rather than only what’s in the novels), but dates and events that don’t inform the fiction just bounce straight off of me. The only author I’ve really felt as a living presence breathing through his stories is Ray Bradbury. Until, of course, I met Clive Barker.

I should make it clear that I’m not talking about an actual physical meeting; I mean I started reading his books. There is something about his writing that makes me feel that we share some important ways in which we see the world. That might seem strange for someone who’s stupidly optimistic about people to say about a horror writer, but nevertheless, I find it to be true.

If she said, “It’s all connected . . .” once in her telling she said it a dozen times, though she didn’t always know (in fact seldom) how or why.

It takes a great deal of skill to write a long novel, particularly one that doesn’t waste words. This narrative reaches almost seven hundred pages, yet is as trim as a distance runner in the Olympics. It’s complex, with several different key characters who come and go and wax and wane in importance. In that sense, it’s a bit like Middlemarch or Bleak House. The first time I read Middlemarch, I thought it was all about Dorothea Brooke and her marriage troubles. The second time, it was all Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, and his growing up to become the type of man she can respect. The third time, it was mainly Mr Farebrother and his disappointment in life. I haven’t yet identified closely with Tertius Lydgate, but I suppose his strand will be the next to claim importance. But they’re all here in the book, all at the same time, with separate but intertwining plotlines that could trip someone who isn’t careful.

For me, this book is mainly about Tesla, even though we’re a few hundred pages in before she walks onstage. Tesla writes screenplays, and she is the hero of this book. She’s friends with a journalist, Grillo, whose name distracted me because it means Cricket in Portuguese, and though they’re both writers, Tesla is the better stand-in for the author.

Mary Muralles had asked to be told Tesla’s story before she told her own, and for all her quiet voice she spoke like a woman whose requests were seldom denied. This one certainly wasn’t. Tesla was happy to tell her story, or rather the story (so little of it was hers), as best she could, hoping that Mary would be able to throw some light on its more puzzling details. She held her silence however, until Tesla had finished, which – by the time she’d told what she knew about Fletcher, the Jaff, the children of both, the Nuncio and Kissoon – was close to half an hour. It might have been much longer but that she’d had practice in the craft of concision preparing plot summaries for studios. She’d practiced with Shakespeare (the tragedies were easy, the comedies a bitch) until she’d had the trick of it down pat. But this story was not so easily pigeonholed. When she started to tell the tale it spilled out in all directions. It was a love story and an origin of species. It was about insanity, apathy and a lost ape. When it was tragic, as in Vance’s death, it was also farcical. When its settings were most mundane, as at the Mall, its substance was often visionary. She could find no way to tell all this neatly. It refused. Every time she thought she had a clear line to a point something would intersect.

Her scenario had been a sort of imagined revenge upon the cosy, smug existence of the town. But in retrospect she’d been as smug as the Grove, as certain of her moral superiority as it had been of its invulnerability. There was real pain here. Real loss. The people who’d lived in the Grove, and fled it, had not been cardboard cut-outs. They’d had lives and loves, families, pets; they’d made their homes here thinking they’d found a place in the sun where they’d be safe. She had no right to judge them.

I feel like this is Barker’s description of his own process. He’s really good with the “bait and switch” – you meet a few people, you spend eighty or a hundred pages with them, and you think they’re the main part of the story, then you meet a different group and they’re the most important for a while, then you switch to a third, and they all meet each other and regroup themselves and, as in those Victorian serials, you have to pause and remind yourself who people are every time you see their names in a different context.

Change is a vital element. There’s an Art to transforming matter, there’s a sea of pure thought that one of our bad guys is trying to reach, and when people go there they are changed – the metaphors that we use to describe our personalities become literal. For example, the contract lawyer who fucked hundreds of people with his writing hand? It turns into a dick. The things people don’t talk about or don’t want to admit come to the surface, secrets are revealed, illusions are shattered, and they have to deal with reality as it is rather than as they’ve constructed it.

Despite the extreme transformations wrought upon most of the characters, Tesla’s changes are primarily internal. She doesn’t go to the dream sea, and the magical evolving elixir leaves her healed, but otherwise apparently unchanged. However,

She no longer had to keep her cynicism polished; no longer had to divide her imaginings from moment to moment into the real (solid, sensible) and the fanciful (vaporous, valueless). If (when) she got back to her typewriter she’d begin these tongue-in-cheek screenplays over from the top, telling them with faith in the tale, not because every fantasy was absolutely true but because no reality ever was.

And

For Tesla, leaving Palomo Grove was like waking from sleep in which some dream-tutor had instructed her that all life was dreaming. There would be no simple division from now on between sense and nonsense; no arrogant assumption that this experience was real and this one not. Maybe she was living in a movie, she thought as she drove. Come to think of it that wasn’t a bad idea for a screenplay: the story of a woman who discovered that human history was just one vast family saga, written by that underrated team Gene and Chance, and watched by angels, aliens and folks in Pittsburgh who had tuned in by accident and were hooked. Maybe she’d write that story, once this adventure was over.

Except that it would never be over; not now. That was one of the consequences of seeing the world this way. For better or worse she would spend the rest of her life anticipating the next miracle; and while she waited, inventing it in her fiction, so as to prick herself and her audience into vigilance.

One of the issues the novel raises, both explicitly and implicitly, is that evil is easy and good is hard. We start the novel with two men, Jaffe and Fletcher. Jaffe has discovered the existence of the Art and has this excessive ambition (think Macbeth) to control all of reality. Classic world-domination stuff, easily recognizable as evil. He runs around town pulling people’s fears out of them and shaping that emotion into evil creatures (terata). So, his partner and opponent, the arch-nemesis, must be good. Fletcher is Jaffe’s reflection; he wants to prevent Jaffe or anyone else from controlling reality. In a sublime moment of sacrifice, he fragments himself into a hundred little bits that fly into people and the things or people they desire most appear. These hallucigenia battle the terata, and that seems like it’s going to be the climax of the book, but, just kidding, it’s not. Fletcher clearly has the more difficult task; he has to be passive and inspire others to action, while Jaffe can be active and force others to passivity. Fletcher gives up his life to empower others to defeat the evil, and Jaffe just accumulates endlessly. However, the difficulty is, how do you represent a good man, when he’s not actually in the act of sacrificing himself? As Jaffe’s emotional mirror image, Fletcher has no ambition at all. He wants to just sit still and contemplate the sky. How is this good? In order to be effective, good must be active. I think this is one of the reasons Fletcher has to be replaced by Tesla as the novel’s moral center. His version of good is just as unrealistic as Jaffe’s version of evil.

As we move into the second half of the novel, Jaffe is also replaced by his son, Tommy-Ray. He has an incestuous obsession with his twin sister, and is in love with death. Instead of wanting to control all of time and space, he wants to kill everything. And instead of stopping Jaffe and wondering if people will eventually evolve into sky, Tesla has to save the world. One of the problems with good and evil is that good is absolute while evil has degrees. If someone starts talking about the greater good, you know they’re only talking about what they prefer or what will benefit them personally more. But there’s always a greater evil behind the one you can see, and Jaffe and Tommy-Ray eventually seem weak puppets caught up in someone else’s master plan.

There was a mention of a love story. I didn’t find it very compelling. A boy meets a girl, their fathers are archenemies, her mother and brother hate him, so they cling to each other and eventually prevail, with the strength of their love and the strength of the apathy of the other characters. They’ve got bigger fish to fry, so Howie and what’s-her-name can do as they like.

One of the bits that I really identified with had to do with private viewing.

Of the hundreds of erotic magazines and films which William Witt purchased as he grew to manhood over the next seventeen years, first by mail order and then later taking trips into Los Angeles for that express purpose, his favorites were always those in which he was able to glimpse a life behind the camera. Sometimes the photographer – equipment and all – could be seen reflected in a mirror behind the performers. Sometimes the hand of a technician, or a fluffer – someone hired to keep the stars aroused between shots – would be caught on the edge of the frame, like the limb of a lover just exiled from the bed.

Such obvious errors were relatively rare. More frequent – and to William’s mind far more telling – were subtler signs of the reality behind the scene he was witnessing. The times when a performer, offered a multitude of sins and not certain which hole to pleasure next, glanced off camera for instruction; or when a leg was speedily shifted because the power behind the lens had yelled that it obscured the field of action.

At such times, when the fiction he was aroused by – which was not quite a fiction, because hard was hard, and could not be faked – William felt he understood Palomo Grove better. Something lived behind the life of the town, directing its daily processes with such selflessness no one but he knew it was there. And even he would forget. Months would go by, and he’d go about his business, which was real estate, forgetting the hidden hand. Then, like in the porno, he’d glimpse something. Maybe a look in the eye of one of the older residents, or a crack in the street, or water running down the Hill from an oversprinkled lawn. Any of these were enough to make him remember the lake, and the League, and know that all the town seemed to be was a fiction (not quite a fiction, because flesh was flesh and could not be faked), and he was one of the performers in its strange story.

Like William Witt, I like pornography, though I don’t keep a large collection like he does. Like him, I look for the signs of reality behind the illusion. But for me, it’s not the camera I’m looking for. I’m not looking for when the actors need prompting – I look for when they don’t. I want to believe that the relationship I’m looking at is real, even though the voyeurism is artificially enhanced. Instead of focusing on the genitals (I fast-forward through the anatomical portions of the entertainment), I look at their faces. I look at how the actors look at each other, I look at how they touch each other, I try to get a sense of what their body language tells me about the interaction. It doesn’t matter how attractive two people are, if they’re just going through the motions, I don’t like it. Even in porn, I want them to make me believe it. My fantasy life has started to change: instead of seeing a cute guy and imagining sex, I imagine romance – how his hand will feel in mine, how we’ll dance to the radio after dinner, how we’ll go out to the woods, the loving gestures (apart from sex) that make a life together. Watching porn for romance is a little counterintuitive, but if two people can preserve their internal sense of relationship while they’re surrounded by directors and photographers and fluffers and other actors, it must be very strong indeed. I know, they’re actors, but I want to be fooled. I want to continue to believe in love after watching.

So, what does such foolish optimism do when confronted with a horror novel? I look for the love. Not the repetitive Romeo-and-Juliet straight romance thing, I look for love between friends and family members. I look for all the places where love appears unexpectedly. I look for the way that, when pushed to extremes, most people are basically good. I look for the weakness of evil and the collapse of selfishness. I’m comforted by the continuity of life. Because of my fucked-up childhood, there is something Heimlich about fear. A certain amount of it is comforting because it’s normal. At one point, Tesla has to descend some caves under the city, and she can’t imagine why anyone would go spelunking for fun. Then, when it’s over, she understands.

Vaguely she thought: this is why men go underground. To remember why they live in the sun.

The caves are, of course, the darker sides of the human psyche, the horror genre itself. I enjoy dark books and films because they teach me the value of light, of goodness. They remind me why I hold so tightly to my foolish optimism, despite the clinical depression and abusive childhood. If my life were a horror movie, I’d be the villain. I have the unfortunate background, intense temper, and violent impulses that role requires. But every day I choose goodness. I choose who I am, not my circumstances, and I have decided to be a hero.

O M G. Of all the books in the Simon & Schuster catalog, why, why would you put a reading group guide in the back of this one? It is, first and foremost, a comic novel. We read it because it’s funny, not because it’s thought-provoking. Christopher Moore is my favourite bit of fluff, but then, since I read Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf for fun, I may have skewed definitions. Also, you’d think a house like S&S would be more careful about typos. This one is full of them.

I first read one of Moore’s vampire books around the time that I first read The Waves, so it’s feeling a bit like Old Home Week around here. I kind of need that because I’m in such an upheaval. Two weeks ago I was looking for work, and now I’ve moved halfway across the country and just finished my first week at my new job. I’m going to look at apartments this afternoon, and if that turns out well, I’ll move in on Monday or Tuesday. I’ve also registered on a dating site for the first time in my life, and it’s convinced me that I’m much more attractive than I had ever thought. Not that men are seeking me out, but I’ve seen some of their pictures. I am just not that inbred.

So, the book.

They might have been the Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. If each of them had been a trained professional, a gunfighter with a character flaw, or a broken warrior with a past – or if each had a secret reason for joining a suicide mission, an antihero’s sense of justice, and a burning desire to put things right – they might have become an elite fighting unit whose resourcefulness and courage would lead them to victory over those who would oppose or oppress. But the fact was, they were a disorganized bunch of perpetual adolescents, untrained and unprepared for anything but throwing stock and having fun: the Animals.

We begin by meeting the Emperor of San Francisco, a homeless senior citizen with two dogs. He’s loved and considered crazy by all. He sees a vampire and spends the rest of the book wandering through the city, helping people and hunting evil. He’s based on a real person; there was a homeless man who proclaimed himself Emperor of San Francisco, I think in the late nineteenth century. He even sent diplomatic letters to the heads of actual states. When he died, his funeral was one of the largest the city had ever seen. Moore imagines him forward into the mid-1990s, but I don’t think the Emperor would mind. Despite the fact that we see him pissing in alleys and sleeping on benches, dumpster-diving for dinner, he’s always portrayed as having this incredible sense of dignity and self-worth. He may need to bathe more frequently, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is the only royalty this city will ever have.

And then Jody gets turned into a vampire. She’s a petite redhead with a soulless job at Transamerica who lives with a too-good-for-all-this boyfriend named Kurt. He’s not important. She’s rather attractive but still has low self-esteem. Becoming a vampire is actually really good for her, because it helps her get past a number of mental blocks that had been preventing her from living her life.

Not long ago she would have been terrified if she’d found herself in the Tenderloin at night. She couldn’t even remember coming down here during the day. Where had that fear gone? What had happened to her that she could face off with a vampire, bite off his fingers, and carry a dead body up a flight of stairs and shove it under the bed without even a flinch? Where was the fear and loathing? She didn’t miss it, she just wondered what had happened to it.

It wasn’t as if she were without fear. She was afraid of daylight, afraid of the police discovering her, and of Tommy rejecting her and leaving her alone. New fears and familiar fears, but there was nothing in the dark that frightened her, not the future, not even the old vampire – and she knew now, having tasted his blood, that he was old, very old. She saw him as an enemy, and her mind casted for strategies to defeat him, but she was not really afraid of him anymore: curious, but not afraid.

In some ways, turning into a vampire for her is like getting divorced was for me. Once the worst thing you can imagine happens to you, you’ve nothing left to be frightened of. I’m not afraid of being alone, or of being really really poor, or of being hungry for a few months. I didn’t transition as quickly as she does, but the end result is similar.

And so we meet Tommy. He’s a sweet kid from the Midwest, probably not far from where I’ve just moved to, who wants to become a writer.

Finally Harley said, “Well, if you’re going to be a writer, you can’t stay here.”

“Pardon?” Tommy said.

“You got to go to a city and starve. I don’t know a Kafka from a nuance, but I know that if you’re going to be a writer, you got to starve. You won’t be any damn good if you don’t starve.”

“I don’t know, Harley,” Tom Senior said, not sure that he liked the idea of his skinny son starving.

“Who bowled a three hundred last Wednesday, Tom?”

“You did.”

“And I say the boy’s got to go to the city and starve.”

Tom Flood looked at Tommy as if the boy were standing on the trapdoor of the gallows. “You sure about this writer thing, son?”

Tommy nodded.

“Can I make you a sandwich?”

So, while visions of Kerouac dance in his head, Tommy drives to San Francisco to starve. He ends up sharing a room with five illegal immigrants from China who start leaving him gifts in the hope that he’ll marry them and they can get a green card. He gets a job supervising the night crew at the local Safeway, and meets Jody. She needs someone to handle daytime business transactions, like picking up her last paycheck and finding a new apartment, and he needs someone to rescue him from The Five Wongs. It’s a match made in . . . well, not heaven, but they could each do a lot worse (Kurt, one of the Wongs).

Tommy’s vampire bible is The Vampire Lestat, and apparently there are more subtle references to Anne Rice, including a chapter titled A Nod to The Queen of the Damned, but I’ve never read any of her books so I can’t comment. I haven’t seen any of the movies either. I once read the first chapter of The Witching Hour, but I was still caught up in being the perfect Christian husband and father, and I could tell that if I kept reading this book it’d take over my life and I’d be sucked into the world of horror fiction. I’ve got space in my life now; I suppose I could give her a try. The thing with a character in a book using another book as his vampire bible is that every author changes the rules. Count Dracula could go outside during the day; he was just weakened at sunrise and sunset. True Blood vampires can stay awake, but they start bleeding inconveniently and burst into flame in the sun. Jody burns in the sun, but she dies suddenly whenever the sun rises, and pops awake just as suddenly when it sets. She misses the speech about how to be a vampire, primarily because Elijah isn’t all protective of his progeny like the True Blood guys. He’s intensely lonely, so every now and again he turns someone into a vampire and watches her suffer and die over the first few days or weeks. Jody has to prove that she’s going to survive before he’ll teach her anything. Instead, he keeps leaving dead homeless people outside her apartment.

The murders, of course, lead to the police. Rivera and Cavuto are two of my favourite fictional detectives. Rivera is a little Latin guy, smart, good at his job. Cavuto is big, Italian, and gay; he overcompensates for that last one by being really aggressive. That whole hypermacho closeted thing. They do their job, making trouble for Tommy and Jody, then eventually helping.

The Animals are the stocking crew at Safeway. Most of them are not fully realized as characters – just a quick detail about skin colour or type of hair and a single personality quirk – but that’s what sequels are for. Their leader is Simon Wheeler, a loud cowboy type who can’t read, so probably isn’t qualified for any other sort of work. Simon is kind of like Tommy’s dad’s friend Harley, the Alpha who needs a Beta sidekick. Moore explores the psychology of the Beta male more explicitly in A Dirty Job, but you can see the traces of it in most of his books. Another sterling beta example is the protagonist of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. By the end of the book, though, Tommy doesn’t need Simon’s protection or guidance. He’s still a nineteen-year-old idiot (sorry, folks, it comes with the age. I was one too), but he can stand on his own feet.

It can be easy to disregard subtitles, but I think this one is important. This is a comic novel, yes, the cover art tells us that much. It’s also a vampire story, with some of those tropes thrown in. But the important thing here is that this is a love story. It’s about Tommy and Jody meeting and falling in love. They have some issues that make it complicated, but this is essentially a romantic comedy.

Jody thought, I guess not everything changed when I changed. Without realizing how she got there, Jody found herself at Macy’s in Union Square. It was as if some instinctual navigator, activated by conflict with men, had guided her there. A dozen times in the past she had found herself here, arriving with a purse full of tear-smeared Kleenex and a handful of credit cards tilted toward their limit. It was a common, and very human, response. She spotted other women doing the same thing: flipping through racks, testing fabrics, checking prices, fighting back tears and anger, and actually believing salespeople who told them that they looked stunning.

Jody wondered if department stores knew what percentage of their profits came from domestic unrest. As she passed a display of indecently expensive cosmetics, she spotted a sign that read: “Mélange Youth Cream – Because he’ll never understand why you’re worth it.” Yep, they knew. The righteous and the wronged shall find solace in a sale at Macy’s.

One other important thing to mention, though. We’re in San Francisco in the mid-90s. There are gay men everywhere, selling makeup, waiting tables, and dying of AIDS. It’s just that most of them are not main characters. And one of them proves that Moore, as well as making me laugh all the way through the book, can also bring me to tears.

His name was Philip. His friends called him Philly. He was twenty-three. He had grown up in Georgia and had run away to the City when he was sixteen so he wouldn’t have to pretend to be something he was not. He had run away to the City to find love. After the one-night stands with rich older men, after the bars and the bathhouses, after finding out that he wasn’t a freak, that there were other people just like him, after the last of the confusion and shame had settled like red Georgia dust, he’d found love.

He’d lived with his lover in a studio in the Castro discrict. And in that studio, sitting on the edge of a rented hospital bed, he had filled a syringe with morphine and injected it into his lover and held his hand while he died. Later, he cleared away the bed pans and the IV stand and the machine that he used to suck the fluid out of his lover’s lungs and he threw them in the trash. The doctor said to hold on to them – that he would need them.

They buried Philly’s lover in the morning and they took the embroidered square of fabric that was draped on the casket and folded it and handed it to him like the flag to a war widow. He got to keep it for a while before it was added to the quilt. He had it in his pocket now.

His hair was gone from the chemotherapy. His lungs hurt, and his feet hurt; the sarcomas that spotted his body were worst on his feet and his face. His joints ached and he couldn’t keep his food down, but he could still walk. So he walked.

He walked up Polk Street, head down, at four in the morning, because he could. He could still walk.

When he reached the doorway of a Russian restaurant, Jody stepped out in front of him and he stopped and looked at her.

Somewhere, way down deep, he found that there was a smile left. “Are you the Angel of Death?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“It’s good to see you,” Philly said.

She held her arms out to him.