Posts Tagged ‘self-awareness’

Coldheart Canyon (Clive Barker)

Barker has generally used a two-part structure in his books – you sort of defeat the bad guy halfway through, but then you realize that either it was much bigger and badder than you had imagined or there’s another much worse bad guy waiting behind the one you were after. In this one, though, he moves away from that into a much more unified plot. There’s still the magical world that exists parallel to ours, and the wide cast of characters so you don’t know who’s going to make it through and who won’t.

A famous actor gets plastic surgery, but has a bad reaction to it and goes into hiding in a secluded neighborhood off Sunset Boulevard. There he meets some sex-crazed ghosts (and people who should really be ghosts by now) and enters the basement room that becomes The Devil’s Country. The obsessive president of his fan club tracks him down and has her own, very different experience.

There’s a section of about twenty-five pages where the author retells the story of how his own much-beloved dog died, and it’s not really essential to the plot, but it was essential to his grieving process and really, with almost seven hundred pages, it’s not long enough to feel like we’re completely sidetracked.

I love every Clive Barker book I read.

 

Gut Symmetries (Jeanette Winterson)

Sometimes I think that if people had a vocabulary for what they’re doing, they’d be more comfortable with it. These days we’d call this a polyamorous relationship and leave them in peace.

A young scientist has an affair with an older, married colleague. She feels guilty, so she talks to the wife about it. The wife is angry, of course, but also unexpectedly young and beautiful and artistic, so the women have an affair as well. Then there’s some trading around among the three.

What’s really interesting, though, is the intersection of different types of knowledge. Theories of gravity and attraction among subatomic particles and celestial bodies collide with poetry and attraction between lovers of various sexes. There’s only one world, and a Grand Unified Theory would have to encompass every mode of being, not just at a particle level but in all the ways we know ourselves. The book is full of synchronicities and parallels and connections, so many that I’d like to read it again so that I can see more of them and understand them when I see them.

I love every Jeanette Winterson book I read, and I’ve needed to read books I’m going to love.

 

Veronika Decides to Die (Paulo Coelho)

The first few times I read this book I loved it, but this time I was a lot less enthusiastic. It’s still an interesting story about a woman who learns to live well from the inmates of an insane asylum, but the discourse about mental illness is much more troubling to me now than it was before.

Coelho’s idea seems to be that mental illness is cultural and all you really have to do is learn to reject society and embrace who you really are in order to be healthy. There’s some value to that for some problems, but I don’t think schizophrenia can be cured with self-love, or that astral travel solves depression. He makes the chemical explanations sound equally as faith-based as the metaphysical ones, so serotonin and dopamine seem to exist on the same plane as the third eye and the soul. There may be value in both the mechanistic view of the body and the four-humors spiritual view, but it’s important to interact with those ideas on their own terms. Cortisol isn’t the same thing as black bile.

 

The Beauty of Men (Andrew Holleran)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this depressing. It’s about a gay man who survives the AIDS crisis but can’t handle middle age. It was like listening to that guy I dated briefly in Texas all over again – no life in the present, just a constant remembering of those who’ve died while taking care of an aging parent who is also going to die soon. There’s some cruising, but he pines for a man who doesn’t love him, which keeps him from being happy. Twenty years later, life for gay men in rural areas isn’t this bleak. I understand the importance of having recorded this moment in time, but I don’t live in that moment, and things are better now.

Protagonist lives in the same area of Florida that my dad does, so I did spend some time wondering where that boat ramp is. Not that he makes casual sex seem anything other than futile and depressing. Holleran writes well, but the world he creates is dark and empty and desperate, as if AIDS kills some men’s bodies but robs others of their souls.

 

The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

This is a Harry Potter-Narnia mashup for grown-ups, with a little Dungeons and Dragons mixed in.

Quentin Coldwater gets pulled from his elite private school for teenage geniuses to attend a magical college. He gets through all four years in a little more than half the book, wanders around adulthood miserable and high until the two-thirds point, then he and his friends go off to Fillory, a magical land from a series of children’s fantasy books Quentin is obsessed with.

This is a book about what it’s like to grow up. Quentin is really bad at it. He can’t handle real-life adult problems, even after four years of school and comparative independence, so he turns to addictions for a while, then retreats into his childhood fantasy world only to discover that it’s full of adult problems too. Education, sex, and drugs haven’t prepared him to face the fact that he has to deal with the mess of who he is instead of hiding from it. In the end, he gets one of those mindless office jobs as another way of hiding from himself. There are two more books, so I hope he gets some self-awareness eventually.

There’s a television series based on these books that I rather enjoy, but it’s dramatically darker and more violent than the book. The book focuses exclusively on Quentin instead of tracking Julia’s parallel but more traumatic experience. Another important difference is time. The book encompasses five or six years (probably, maybe more), from when Quentin is seventeen until he’s in his early twenties. The series changes Brakebills to a post-graduate program and compresses everything from this book into a year or so. The compression of time makes sense with the actors not aging quickly and the fast-paced world we expect from entertainment, and the delay makes the sex more palatable I guess, because no one wants to watch twenty-two-year-olds having a threesome? (Poor Alice.)

 

The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King)

The intended audience of this book is dramatically younger than it is for any other Stephen King book I’ve read. It’s about a sword-and-sorcery fantasy land, with a prince locked in a tower and an evil magician who secretly runs the kingdom. Instead of going chronologically, there’s this circularity of the narrative, edging the plot forward a bit then running back to explain the backstory or to catch us up with a different character in a different location. It’s exciting and all, Stephen King deserves absolutely all the praise he gets, but the ending was rather dissonant with the rest of the book. Despite the fact that there’s a severely alcoholic teenager, most of the tone is light and kid-friendly, so when the magician grabs an axe and comes charging up the steps of the tower, it’s scary in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Besides, he can do magic and he poisons the king. Why is he charging around waving an axe over his head at all? Did he suddenly forget all his magical abilities in the overwhelming hatred for the prince? Yes, he’s one of those villains who wants to see the world burn, but he does everything else so quietly and intuitively that the eruption of physical fury at the end is really out of character.

 

Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

There was a recent movie, but I haven’t seen it.

The thing that strikes me about this one most strongly is how important it is to stay current with the news if you’re going to solve crimes, and how much easier it was to stay current with the news a hundred years ago. Hercule Poirot is less tired than he is in books written thirty years after this one, both literally and as a character. It’s a very well-ordered story: events unfold until the murder, then the detective examines the crime scene and interviews the witnesses and suspects, then he brings them all together and explains how the murder was done and by whom. There are no surprises, no desperate turn of events, and very little violence. The lack of action makes me wonder why this one is so popular and why it is so often considered the representative, exemplary Agatha Christie novel. Maybe people like the combination of simplicity and intellection. I enjoyed it, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

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At work, I’m working on creating a dedicated biography collection, which means that for the last several weeks I’ve been reading a few random paragraphs from each of hundreds of biographies, so I suppose it’s inevitable that I would eventually read one all the way through. This is not my normal genre – I even avoid movies that are based on true stories – but I’m glad I read this one. Our experiences and voices are rather different, but I found enough commonality with Alan Cumming that I’d very much like to know him better.

I suppose something that helps is that he doesn’t try to narrate his entire life, from birth to imagined death. That type of story makes life seem predestined, and Cumming’s story is about taking command of his own life instead of letting his history determine his future. I also appreciate the fact that this isn’t a coming-out story. Yes, he is one of our LGBT heroes, but that’s not the story he’s telling. At one point in the book he has a wife, and at another he has a husband, but there are no tales of homophobic violence or family disapproval, no explanation in between. That story has been told a million times, which is probably why I haven’t felt any urgency about writing up my experience of it. There are only so many times we can observe and internalize those messages – Cumming insists on his husband’s unrelenting kindness, but it’s not a story about being gay, or about being rejected for being gay. This is also not a story about ‘making it’ and becoming famous. There’s one brief scene where he’s standing on a stage with Patti Smith, but there is no other name-dropping or celebrity gossip. He refers to his friends, and I’m willing to believe that most of his friends are entertainers like he is (we tend to socialize with the people we work with), but he doesn’t stress their identities because this isn’t a book about them. It’s an intensely personal story about Alan Cumming and his family.

The bulk of this story is about a short time in his life – during the time that he was filming an episode of a television series where they track down the solutions to mysteries in the families of celebrities. His mother’s father never really came back after World War II, so the TV crew takes him through the journey of finding out what happened. He sees war records and talks with men who served with him during the first week, and then he takes some time away to fulfill other commitments. The war stuff is upsetting, as war should be. Cumming’s grandfather was a bike messenger during the war, riding motorcycles across the European countryside. The actor decides the soldier was a daredevil, and there’s a certain disregard for his own life that could be bravery or a drive to suicide. He had the traditional war hero experiences about killing enemies and carrying comrades to safety. The survivor who tells Cumming about this part was kind of creepy, like he enjoyed the war. Some people never feel so alive as they do when killing others. My own grandfather was a hero to me, but not in the traditional war sense. He never killed anyone, so he avoided most of the trauma that soldiers go through. He was a radio guy; he and one other Ally would be the last two in a city, keeping on the radio, inventing troop maneuvers in order to confuse the Germans. I like to think that his role was to stand between two larger belligerents and keep them from fighting by holding each at arm’s length. Instead of fighting valiantly in battle, he stopped battles from happening. It may have been less personal than lifting someone bodily and removing him from a battlefield, but it is literally impossible to calculate how many lives he saved by keeping the Germans away from the Americans. It could have been in the hundreds or thousands – think about how many fewer people would have died at Stalingrad if the Germans didn’t know how important the town was.

During the week of filming, Cumming is also facing issues with his father. Right before the taping started, his dad calls him up and tells him that there’s another family secret he shouldn’t learn from strangers. He’s the product of an affair, so quite literally Not His Father’s Son. He takes advantage of this part of it to reflect on his childhood and his relationship with his father. Cumming Sr was abusive and terrible to his children, and paraded his affairs openly in front of his wife. They stayed together in order to raise Cumming and his elder brother, but ‘raise’ in this situation means beat, devalue, and humiliate.

Memory is so subjective. We all remember in a visceral, emotional way, and so even if we agree on the facts – what was said, what happened where and when – what we take away and store from a moment, what we feel about it, can vary radically.

I really wanted to show that it wasn’t all bad in my family. I tried so hard to think of happy times we all had together, times when we had fun, when we laughed. In the interests of balance, I even wanted to be able to describe some instances of kindness and tenderness involving us all. But I just couldn’t.

I spoke to my brother about this. He drew a blank, too.

We remember happy times with our mum. Safe, quiet times. But as a whole family? Honestly there is not one memory from our childhoods that is not clouded by fear or humiliation or pain. And that’s not to say that moments of happiness did not exist, it’s just that cumulatively they have been erased by the dominant feelings that color all of our childhood recollections.

And this is true of my childhood as well. My father has bipolar disorder, but he wasn’t diagnosed and medicated until after his second marriage. He seems so harmless now, sadly affectionate and blaming everyone for his problems but himself. I feel a wave of pity pressing inside my throat when I watch him eating, seeing how he’s losing his fine motor control so that his hands shake when doing something that requires precision, like moving a fork to his mouth. I know that he’s changed, partially through getting good brain drugs and partially through the suffering of being rejected by his own children, so I have a cautious relationship with him. He seldom raises his voice, but when he does, it clutches my heart and I freeze in place. I talked with my big sister a few years ago and she assured me that it really was as bad as I remember, and that I was right to be afraid of him. That helps remove some of the subjectivity from my memories, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. Unlike Cumming, though, I was generally too small to be a target, and I had four older siblings to keep my dad distracted from me.

The biggest difference between me and Cumming here is in our mothers. His seems to have been just fantastic. Mine had overwhelming anger issues, just like my dad. She was relatively safer, though, because instead of yelling and hitting she withdrew most of the time. I can remember being spanked by my mother one time, but that one time was so disturbing to me that I vowed never to do anything to make her hit me again. I’ve been pretty successful, though these days it means that I withdraw from her as much as she withdrew from me.

My parents split up instead of sticking it out ‘for the children’, as if we would have derived any benefit from that, which I think was a good choice. But, as I’ve been thinking of what to talk about as I write this entry, I don’t want to dredge up specific memories of the horrible times – I want to discuss how having been in an emotionally abusive home continues to affect me now. If someone raises their arm close to me, even if it’s just to adjust their hair, I duck a little. If anyone, in any context, gets angry with me, I panic. I can’t live in that moment and hear what they’re saying, no matter how reasonable (I’m human; I can’t keep everyone happy all the time). Fear blanks out my mind and all I can do is either run or grope for some way to reassure them or make them happy. There’s a running narrative voice in my head that constantly justifies my choices and actions to a nonexistent third party who might disagree. I’ve gotten my mom’s voice of disapproval to be quiet, but I’m still responding to it. I still expect my endeavors to fail. I’m grateful for supervisors like the one I have at the library, who train me well and provide the scaffolding that I need to be successful, but when something I do turns out well I’m more surprised than anyone else, even after twenty years away. I remind myself that I’m intelligent and capable, but those words aren’t an instinctive part of my self-image. More than in any other area, I expect myself to fail financially, and am astonished when I have more than ten dollars at the end of a month. My family used to tell me, “In the olden times, if you didn’t work you didn’t eat,” so when I’m underemployed I starve myself in order to live within my income. I’m doing better about asking for help when I need it, and I’m mostly finished with the anorexia, but it’s easier for me to turn to friends than to family. I don’t expect my family to do anything for me that doesn’t directly benefit themselves. I sometimes remind myself that I don’t have to earn every second of continued life, but that work ethic is so ingrained that poverty is something I reproach myself with when I hate myself. I don’t hate myself as much as I used to. When I was a kid, the only real safety was in silence and solitude, and I still have a preference for these. I also developed the habit of remaining very still and staying at the edges of rooms. I like sitting close to walls, and I am very uncomfortable with people walking behind me. I also sit near exits, and keep my eye on points of ingress so I know where people are around me. I spend a lot of time looking out of windows. When I go to a house I’ve never been before, it takes a couple of hours for me to become comfortable with the space. Or, comfortable enough to participate actively in the conversation. I’m uncomfortable meeting new people because I don’t know what will make them angry, and the distinction between what will offend and what won’t is never clear to me. Strangers are often loud, which bothers me. Loud noises bother me, so I hate fireworks and parades. Crowds also bother me because there are too many people to separate the crowd into individual people and assess the threat level each one embodies. I have to know someone before I assume they do not want to harm me. Not having grown up with a sense that the world is safe, I withdraw from it as much as I can.

I’m living in the same space I was six years ago when I first came out and got divorced, so all the anger and depression of that time is coming back, like it was lurking in a corner and waiting for me. I looked back at my blog posts from that time, and I’m surprised at how dishonest I was. I was trying to be truthful about myself and what I was experiencing, but the writing is all about hope that I didn’t actually feel. Hope was an intellectual exercise, a fantasy to keep me from hurting myself. When I look back, I remember driving down the street and imagining car wrecks; everything that happened was an opportunity for me to die. Freud theorized that there are two impulses, one toward life (Eros) and one toward death (Thanatos). When I think back over my childhood and my desire for stillness, and then my adult life and the suicidal ideation, I believe that Thanatos has been the most important driving force in my life. Not as a return to the womb, but as an escape from a life that has never seemed to want me in it. I do pretty well at resisting thoughts of physical self-harm, but not financial. I overspend as a way of hurting myself, sometimes with the same level of compulsion as people who cut tiny little maps in their skin, the streets going this way and that. I can stop myself, but it requires a level of self-control and self-denial that I’m not entirely comfortable with. To be clear, I’m much healthier than I was six years ago, but I’m not perfectly adjusted, and the darkness in me is often more palpable than the light.

There was a defining moment in Cumming’s youth, and I wish I had experienced something similar. At the age that young men discover the joys their own bodies provide, he was spending his alone time out in the woods, and once someone from town saw him.

I lie there for a while in the dusk, then make a decision, little knowing how it will affect every facet of my life and fiber of my being for the rest of my life: I say no to shame. This man was the one in the wrong. He was the voyeur, however accidental.

But I didn’t wish him ill. I would have done the same. I actually even thought my father would be glad to learn that some progress was being made in the faltering journey to my manhood. So I rejected shame.

I started rejecting shame much later, and it’s harder when shame has become an established habit. I suppose it’s also harder when your family responds to you with shame – I have been making my family, especially my mother, ashamed of me for most of my life. At times I embraced that as an identity and shamed them on purpose. Now, I tell myself that this is their problem and gives me no truthful information about myself, but when I was a kid I just accepted it. It’s still hard for me to feel and express anger, because when I was a kid everything was my fault. If I got angry, no one ever validated that emotion – I was always treated as the one being unreasonable because I was too sensitive. If someone got angry at me, then I was again unreasonable for causing it. I can’t remember ever being vindicated by an outside source. My pain was unimportant at best, inconvenient and obnoxious if I made others aware of it. The best I could hope for was being ignored, because all I could expect from my parents was shame, anger, and fear.

Typically I’m attracted to people who occupy a similar world, which is why I date (and once married) people who are so unsuitable. I think I have a good one now, but it’s hard for me to trust that he is different, and I look for reasons to be on my guard.

So, this part of it takes up three-fourths of Cumming’s book. The English teacher in me wants him to change the balance of things – if Part One of four is 75% of your project, you might want to subdivide differently – but for this story, it’s right. Part One ends with the DNA test that tells him whether his father’s story is true, and that’s the end of that part of his life. Part Two is about the rest of his grandfather’s story, when he went to Malaysia as part of the colonial police force after the war. He was loved but still recklessly depressed, and died during a game of Russian roulette. Later, Cumming’s father dies, and he uses his inheritance to take his mother to Malaysia to meet the people who knew her father, to see the park and the street named after him, and to see his grave.

In the end, he breaks free of his father’s negative influence and it really does become his past. These things are still very present for me – I’ve been so starved for affection that I’ll take the diseased version of love that my family offers me, better than nothing. Yet, I don’t go building a new chosen family around me. There are people in my life that I love in less complicated ways, which seems to be what people mean when they talk about family, but I don’t apply that vocabulary to them. The word family to me means something weird and toxic and inescapable, a horror that has become internalized. A monster that speaks to me in my own voice and stares back at me from the mirror. And yet, that I love and condemn as I love and condemn myself. I don’t have Cumming’s defiance.

Read this book. It’s not always easy, but it leads toward hope. People with happy childhoods may have a hard time relating, but I felt very close to the author and identified with his struggles. As I said, he’s very different from me, much more extraverted, less willfully unobserved, but still. If he writes more, I’ll be interested to read it.

This book was prepared as two separate volumes, but Buber was later persuaded to publish them together. In honor of the author’s original intent, I’m going to read and write about these book at different times – meaning, the second part of this entry will probably be written a week or so later than the first, and a lot can happen in a week. [It only ended up being two days. I didn’t want to wait to finish reading.]

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RIGHT AND WRONG

This book is an interpretation of five Psalms: 12, 14, 82, 73, and 1. In that sense, it felt very familiar to me as textual commentary, both as a literary critic and as a former believer. Buber has the erudition of an academic combined with the closedness of a religious adherent. It’s a little like reading while walking through a very large room – you’re moving in a straight line, but every now and again you bump into the wall of “But God can’t possibly desire to harm anyone,” so you strike off in a different direction. These bumps are rare, but they do happen. It makes me think of what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë, the sudden jerks of the narrative when her need to express the injustices of society on Victorian women overcomes her desire to tell the story of plain Jane Eyre and short-but-hunky Mr Rochester. [Much as I’d like to see Hugh Jackman as Edward Fairfax Rochester, he’s far too tall and good-looking for Brontë’s description. In my imaginary film starring him, Kelly MacDonald plays Jane.]

In the preface Buber speaks of these psalms as representing a progression, the path a person takes to reaching true goodness. However, he offers very little in the way of transitional material or conclusion, so it feels more like five disparate essays instead of a single unit. Another disconnect has to do with the translation. Buber doesn’t list the full text of the Psalms, so I pulled out the Authorized King James Version to read along, but the translations are very different. Buber implies strongly that he is reading in German with some knowledge of the original language (Hebrew?), and I think that our translator from German to English stayed with the literal translation of the German translation instead of looking back at commonly used English translations of the original text – my opinion here is based on the fact that the book was published in the early 1950s, and I believe that the Authorized King James Version was the most common English translation in use at that time. I’m happy to be corrected on that point. What I’m saying here is that reading your KJV Psalms won’t be all that helpful in understanding Buber’s interpretation of the text.

As I understand things, for Buber, evil comes from being divided against oneself. Psalm 12 introduces the idea of the doubled heart, where we create a second heart in order to interact with the world in dishonest ways. It feels similar to the idea of the social self, or Freud’s ego – to protect ourselves, we only show the rest of the world one part of ourselves, a part that can sometimes contradict or betray the rest of the self. [I’m thinking of the French nihilist in I Heart Huckabees.] The source of evil then is hiding who we are from the rest of the world, living in a closet.

A late interpreter of the Psalms like myself cannot be satisfied, as the Psalmist was, with a simple division of Israel, just as I could not be satisfied with such a division of the human world. We see the rift between those who do violence and those to whom violence is done, the rift between those who are true to God and the apostate element, running not merely through every nation, but also through every group in a nation, and even through every soul. Only in times of great crisis does the hidden rift in a people become apparent.

I still have the rift. When I came out, I was trying to reconcile the two hearts, the hidden part of me and the social self. But looking back, it didn’t feel like healing, and in many ways I’m still wounded. Coming out felt like it created more rifts instead. I watched 50/50 yesterday, and I realized just how angry I am at my mother, still. When I told her about my great crisis, it created so much of a crisis for her that she couldn’t help or support me. She was too busy tending her own wounds to help me with mine. Which is sort of what happened when she got divorced, too – her emotions overpowered her and she couldn’t guide her children through the experience. Or even provide basic emotional support. If I did get cancer like the guy in the film, I’d chase my mom away too. I suppose I don’t yet have the empathy to understand people when they are hurting me that deeply. I felt abandoned by all my family and friends, and while I know that that feeling wasn’t true, it was real, and in some ways still is. Just to be clear, none of the people I felt close to during the last year of my marriage continued to feel close during the first year of my separation; I became much closer to friends I had known before, and to some I hadn’t known that well, so I was never as alone as I felt. But six years later it’s still hard to feel close to people who responded to my coming out with shock and dismay.

While coming out blurred the line between inner and outer selves, it created new divisions between past and present, between skepticism and belief. For the last six years I’ve been denying the part of myself that loves faith. For a long time I even insisted to myself that mystical experiences were a sign of mental illness, and while I’m not saying I’ve always been healthy, I don’t think that skepticizing all of my religious experience is healthy either. If I want to heal my divided self, I have to embrace the part of me that believes in the unseen. Christianity is probably not a good fit for me right now, theistic religions as a whole may not work for me, but whether I like it or not I am a person who believes. I’ve been nearing this through the occult, so that may end up being what makes sense to me. The transfer and sharing of emotional energies matches up with my experience better than deity belief. I’m seeing this as a process of discovering what resonates with me rather than of choosing what to believe, because I tried choosing what I believed for thirty years and it didn’t work. It created that divided heart, the source of evil.

It may seem odd that I would talk about opposition to myself as one who believes, given my temptations toward Islam in Saudi Arabia and toward inclusive evangelicalism in Texas, but in both those faith communities I was looking for community, not faith. At least, not consciously. Men in the closet are better at hiding from themselves than from others.

In a few other passages Buber says that evil is denying one’s own existence. I spent thirty years denying the part of me that loves; I don’t want to spend the next thirty denying the part that believes.

In the verse of the Psalm of which I am speaking [1:6], however, there is something particular added, which is said only here, and it is this. The Psalm does not say that God knows the proven ones, the pious, but that He knows their way. The way, the way of life of these men is so created that at each of its stages they experience the divine contact afresh. And they experience it as befits a real way, at each stage they experience it in the manner specifically appropriate to the stage. Their experience of the divine ‘knowing’ is not like any experience of nature, it is a genuinely biographical experience, that is, what is experienced in this manner is experienced in the course of one’s own personal life, in destiny as it is lived through in each particular occasion. However cruel and contrary this destiny might appear when viewed apart from intercourse with God, when it is irradiated by His ‘knowing’ it is ‘success’, just as every action of this man, his disappointments and even his failures, are success. O the happiness of the man who goes the way which is shown and ‘known’ by God!

The way that Buber is talking about, is the same thing that I mean when I talk about story, stories being a more meaningful metaphor for me than paths. My story is generally about wandering off the path. But it reminds me of the time when I kept a God-journal: you write a conversation between you and God, being honest about what you hear being said to you. I got really angry and stopped because the God-voice told me that he loved my story, and at that time I hated everything about my life. Now that I have a different perspective, I’m okay with that. My story is still on its way out of the dark, but I’m close enough to light to appreciate the dark days I’ve been through. Stories are parabolas, and the only way to get to a happy ending is to hit the bottom halfway through.

Another important aspect of evil Buber discusses is in one’s attitude. Evil is refusing to see the good in our lives. As in Persuasion, the elasticity of mind, the disposition to be comforted, the willingness to be happy, is Good. I haven’t always seen silver linings, but I’m going to be more careful to look for them. The universe is here for my good, and if I can’t see the good, I shouldn’t blame the universe for that. It’s doing the best it can.

IMAGES OF GOOD AND EVIL

In the first two parts of this book, Buber discusses Hebrew and Iranian myths about the creation of evil, or at least about humanity’s descent into evil (I’m not wholly allied to the spatial metaphor here, but Buber likes it). In the third, he synthesizes the two and sets forth his idea about the nature of good and evil. As with many literature students, I think he loses clarity when he gets farther from the text, but taken as a whole, I find the book to be comprehensible.

According to Buber, the different groups of myth are sequential in our lives, though they were probably contemporaneous in their telling. Hebrew first. We remember the story of two people in a garden, with a snake who deceives the woman. Many people have tried to argue that the Fall had nothing to do with food, but with sex. Buber explicitly disagrees; he’s remarkably sex-positive in his description of Eden. He sees the story about humanity’s shift in perception – before the Fall, things just were as they were, and after, we learned to see the world in terms of binary opposites, with of course one side being privileged. Does this imply that intersex and genderqueer individuals represent a prelapsarian innocence, and that they remind us how far we have fallen from nature? Yes, it could. Into this newly binary world we introduce Kain, the first man to choose evil. Adam and Eve couldn’t choose evil because it didn’t exist until after they’d eaten the fruit. Kain makes an offering that God denies, and then he murders his brother, who was accepted. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario: Did Kain kill his brother because God refused to accept his offering, or did God refuse to accept Kain’s offering because He knew he was going to kill his brother? Then there’s the story of the flood, where the imagery of people’s hearts have become evil. We learn evil, then we choose it, then we imagine it continually.

I wasn’t clear where he was going with this until he started synthesizing, so I’m skipping around a bit in my explanation. The Hebrew phase represents the evil of indecision. We’re born, we start to grow up, and around our teenage years the world seems full of possibility, and while to me that sounds exciting, to Buber it’s terrifying. He sees us caught up in a tornado of options with no idea which is the right or natural course of action for ourselves.

The soul driven round in the dizzy whirl cannot remain fixed within it; it strives to escape. If the ebb that leads back to familiar normality does not make its appearance, there exist for it two issues [possible results]. One is repeatedly offered it: it can clutch at any object, past which the vortex happens to carry it, and cast its passion upon it; or else, in response to a prompting that is still incomprehensible to itself, it can set about the audacious work of self-unification. In the former case, it exchanges an undirected possibility for an undirected reality, in which it does what it wills not to do, what is preposterous to it, the alien, the ‘evil’; in the latter, if the work meets with success, the soul has given up undirected plenitude in favour of the one taut string, the one stretched beam of direction. If the work is not successful, which is no wonder with such an unfathomable undertaking, the soul has nevertheless gained an inkling of what direction, or rather the direction is – for in the strict sense there is only one. To the extent to which the soul achieves unification it becomes aware of direction, becomes aware of itself as sent in quest of it. It comes into the service of good or into service for good.

So, in other words, in this tornado of options there are really only two: do what is natural and right for you to do, or do something else. Kain chose to do something else. In the story, God sees the doubleness inside Kain; he’s offering his work to God, but not for the stated motive of glorifying God. Kain has the double heart that leads to evil, the division between his interior and exterior selves. God’s not going to support that. Good comes from a unified psyche, a singleness of character that makes one’s course of action clear. This is what makes life so terrifying: if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know what course is our good, so we will inevitably choose evil. To make another film allusion, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, someone asks Dorian Grey what he is, and he answers, “I’m complicated.” This complication is both evidence and source of Dorian’s evil, and he does turn out to be one of the villains of the piece. Both here and in Wilde’s story, Dorian Grey is evil because he chooses to live in that whirlwind of choices, grabbing at every thing presented to him instead of accepting himself and the limitations of being human. Of course he has to put half of himself into something external, like a portrait; from the time Basil paints the picture, Dorian rejects his true human self.

A quick word on nature and multiplicity: Buber doesn’t equate ‘natural’ and ‘good’ the way that I’m doing here. That’s all my own interpretation. He situates our origin in the divine story, created by God, and I situate our origin in the more mundane mechanics of sexual reproduction, created by nature. But I think for the purposes of this discussion the result is the same: Buber and I both find good in being who we were created to be, and evil in denying the person we naturally are. The thing is, moving onto the next topic, that every one of us is created differently, so we each have different goods and evils. It would be evil in me to eat a piece of wheat toast because I would be denying my identity as a person with coeliac disease, but it’s a good decision for people who don’t have my autoimmune response to gluten. It was evil of me to marry a woman because I wasn’t being the gay man that I am, but there are many heterosexual and lesbian marriages that are rooted in good because they are the true expression of the identities of the couple involved. I’m not embracing moral relativism completely – I don’t think the true expression of any person’s identity is to hurt someone else, which is to say that I don’t think there are natural born killers – but I don’t think that any one path, any one faith, any one story, is right for all of humanity. As I say to religious people, If there were only one path to God, we’d all start from the same place. And while Buber is Jewish and speaking from that perspective, he leaves room for other gods and other narratives.

The Iranian myths represent the evil of decision. Remember, we’re speaking of a pre-Islamic Iran, so think of Zoroastrianism. Once upon a time, the highest god, the Wise Lord, began to have doubts, and in his doubt he conceived two primal forces: the one that says Yes, and the one that says No. As before, evil is a turning against oneself. Here, good and evil are equally balanced opposite forces, both of which are contained in or encompassed by the Wise Lord. The second story is of an ancient king, who sought the gods for all sorts of benefits for his kingdom – immortality, prosperity, power to control demons, the standard sort of wish-fulfillment Garden-of-Eden stuff. But after a few hundred years, he forgets the gods’ place in his happiness and he tells himself that he did all this by himself, without divine help. Immediately his power leaves him and he starts a gradual process of isolating himself in evil and eventually being consumed by the demons he had once ruled.

The identical term lie is used in the Vedas, at times, to designate the uncanny game of hide-and-seek in the obscurity of the soul, in which it, the single human soul, evades itself, avoids itself, hides from itself. […] Being-true, however, ultimately signifies: strengthening, covering and confirming being at the point of one’s own existence, and being-false ultimately signifies: weakening, desecrating and dispossessing being at the point of one’s own existence. He who prefers the lie to the truth and chooses it instead of truth, intervenes directly with his decision into the decisions of the world-conflict. But this takes effect in the very first instance at just his point of being: since he gave himself over to the being-lie, that is to non-being, which passes itself off as being, he falls victim to it.

Circling back to my own identity issues, all evil is a form of closet. It’s based in lying to yourself about who you are, rejecting yourself, trying to destroy the person you were made to be (Dorian stabbing his portrait). Because it consists of self-destruction, evil is choosing not to exist. And the evil in me echoes out into the world around me, like ripples in a pond. The good in me also spreads itself around me, which is what makes the world such an interesting compound of good and bad.

What is essential in this second phase is that we aren’t flailing in the vortex of option any more. This sort of evil is related to preference and choice. The question isn’t, Are you living a lie? like it was with the Hebrew myths. The question is, Do you like living a lie? Once you find yourself in a closet, repressing and denying aspects of your real self, do you stay there? Do you hate yourself so much that you prefer living as someone else?

I believe that creation is continuous. We weren’t born fully formed, and we continue to grow and change, to shape our creation, until the day we die. And possibly beyond that. Humans are not static beings; we are in a constant state of becoming. Two good friends of mine have spent this last year splitting up, and as I was talking with one about the decisions the other is making, I mentioned this idea that I don’t think our friend is being careful about who she is becoming. The one present asked why I would phrase it that way, and I couched it in terms of science fiction, multiple dimensions of reality, and Douglas Adams’s Probability Axis, but it comes just as much from my belief of what it means to be human, rooted in philosophy and religion.

I want to create wholeness in my life. I want healing between the parts of me that have been in conflict. I want to be good. I think Buber’s right; goodness starts with a person’s relationship with herself. Buber describes the process of unifying one’s psyche as conversion, and that section about the first book that I wrote on Sunday felt like that type of transformation, as dramatic as coming out of the closet as a gay man. As at any moment when a new field of living opens itself, there’s the vortex of indecision again, but I have a little more self-knowledge than I did as a teenager, so I’m considering fewer options. And I’ve learned how to tell when something is right for me and when it isn’t. Moving forward, I expect to read more religious and philosophical ideas, as I try to understand the shape of my own belief. I may end up worshipping the elephant-faced Ganesh, or I may call down the moon with a local coven, or I may just decide that my religion is kissing trees. But whatever it is, it’s going to be mine, and it’s going to be good for me. I’m not going to internally mock or belittle myself or call myself crazy for believing, and I’m going to do my best to love the me who loves faith.

In education, we talk about the ‘affective filter,’ which refers to the fact that when a person is in a heightened emotional state it is difficult for that person to learn or produce evidence of learning. A student who is experiencing anxiety or depression has a much more pressing need to deal with those emotions than to learn that the capital of Spain is Madrid, or to take your stupid math test. My affective filter has been up for a while now, so while I’m enjoying reading, it’s a little more difficult for me to sit down and write. I finished this book nearly a week ago, and it’s taken this long for me to give myself the space to begin to write. [And it took more than a week to finish this.]

Ozeki is part Japanese, part North American, and her novel celebrates this style of cultural blending. There are two parallel narratives in the book, one about a girl in Japan writing a diary and one about a fictionalized Ozeki living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia. To be clear, the real Ozeki has a husband with the same name and similar academic background as the one in the book, and they have a house in the same area as the one in the book, so the portrayal may not be all that fictional. She alludes heavily to a Japanese genre of confessional novels popular in the 1920s, and this narrative is probably strongly influenced by them.

Ruth finds a diary washed up on the beach and immediately recognizes markers of suicidal tendencies in the writer, so she enlists the aid of several friends and colleagues to find out more about the girl writing in an effort to save her. One of the things that impressed me about Ruth and her friends is the way that people interested in intellectual things seem to find each other. Most of the people I meet outside of work (and in some settings, even at work) have very different interests than I do. They don’t seem to enjoy reading books and talking about them. Ruth’s community on the island seems a collection of Best Possible Helpers who still have individual quirkiness. For example, the guy who runs the recycling center is a native French speaker and reads philosophy.

The other thing that impresses me, both in the book and from my own observations, is just how much academic people care. Most of my non-academic acquaintance is concerned primarily with comfort and helping people they love, but academics are more likely to believe that ideas are important and to let their principles dictate their daily habits. Once there was a large group of us helping someone move into a new house, and halfway through one couple said, “Well, we have to go protest the war now. We’ll see you later.” Protesting the Iraq War wasn’t an option they would get to if they had time; it was a necessity which all other activities had to bend to. Ruth’s friends are similar, though their activities are more concerned with climate change and the health of the Pacific. Oliver, Ruth’s husband, is planting species of trees that were native to the area in the earliest times we can imagine, pre-dinosaur even. That’s a conflict because the island authorities want only native species, meaning currently native species, so Oliver’s trees are seen as invasive. Both he and they are trying to preserve the area; they just have different ideas about the best way to do it.

There are a lot of storms in Ruth’s narrative, because there are a lot of storms in this area at this time of the year, but they also provide narrative tension and delay.

Ruth also spends a lot of time remembering her mother, who died a few years earlier from Alzheimer’s. Her mother is Japanese, so Ruth feels a close connection with this culture even though she seems to have spent her life in North America. I mean, she doesn’t have any linguistic or cultural markers that differentiate her from the academic subculture of the United States. Everyone on the island seems to have loved Ruth’s mother, and she seems to have been more popular than Ruth herself – definitely more engaged, more active in doing community things. Ruth seems a little less social than the people around her. When she finds the diary, it is difficult for her to share it with anyone. She doesn’t even want people to know she has it. It is her special project, and no one else can know about it. Except that they have to so that she can get more information about Naoko and her family. In this sense, I identify with Ruth a lot. It is proving very difficult for me to be in a relationship with someone who is more social; he’s accepted the fact that I’m not going to talk much, so he only turns to me in his quiet times, which are not that lengthy or frequent. This means that I feel like I have to fight to spend time with him, and we’re only alone at night. I feel like he’s losing interest. The relationship between Ruth and Oliver works because he’s only slightly more social than she is, and he takes an interest in her normally quiet activities, like reading. [I’m thinking of the Zone of Proximal Development.] And part of the distance between me and him is my fault, as I’m becoming more hermit-y toward him as he focuses his attention in other places. It’s a spiral of apart-ness.

One of the important historical events in this part of the book is the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in 2011. The internet has several different opinions on how much the nuclear fallout in Fukushima affects the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States today, but Ruth and her family/friends are concerned about it. The tsunami brought several items from Japan to North America, which is their explanation for how Naoko’s diary reached Ruth. They’re concerned with the health of the Pacific generally, as in understanding the size and scope of the garbage patches and how they will break down over time and poison us all, especially in light of the killer radiation.

Naoko’s story deals a lot with her family as well, but the narrative is about her learning about her family instead of hiding from her community like Ruth. Let’s start at the beginning.

Jiko Yasutani is over a hundred years old. She was a feminist anarchist novelist, until her son died. After that, she devoted her life to Zen Buddhism in an attempt to forgive the individuals and institutions that led to his death. She seems to have succeeded. Sixty years of meditation and gratitude have created mental habits that do not support vengeance or bitterness. Nao says that she has superpowers because her capacity to accept and respect others inspires quiet respect from everyone, even from strangers. She walks into a room and her presence is felt; the room is better for her being there. Aside from the son, she has two daughters, but they don’t occupy a big place in the story. They are loved, and one of them has a son, and that’s all there really is to know. Jiko sees the problems in the lives of her grandson and great-granddaughter and takes steps to help. I admire the way that her respect and acceptance of all things includes herself. She recognizes her competence and uses it; she recognizes her weakness and asks for help. There’s a simplicity, a lack of self-consciousness that I would like to have in my own life. I worry that achieving it would twist me out of shape, because self-consciousness is such a large part of my personality, but there is a serenity that I admire and would like to achieve.

Haruki #1 is her son, and makes the third narrator (after Nao and the third-person who narrates Ruth’s story). He was a philosophy student, the type who is so dedicated that he learns German and French so that he can read European philosophers in the original languages. Partway through his university studies, he is drafted into the army. His entire unit is composed of students, and the drill sergeant and other trainers are merciless in the hazing. He eventually learns that it is easier to take upon himself the punishments directed at his friends than watch the authorities abuse them. It is easier to forgive wrongs done to the self than wrongs done to people we love. He accepts the fact of his imminent death, so when they ask for volunteers to join the kamikaze squad, he raises his hand. He decides to crash into the sea rather than a battleship so that he won’t have to kill Americans. His narration comes through his letters to his mother, but he also keeps a secret diary in French. These writings get stuffed into a lunchbox and taken by the sea, along with Nao’s diary and his watch. How these things get passed around is a little vague, and there’s a little magical realism in it. Since the rest of the book is so thoroughly realistic, this felt like a bit of a flaw, but it makes sense if you accept the Zen philosophy. But if you don’t, you can just assume people look for meaning in things they don’t understand and leave it at that.

Haruki #2 is Haruki’s nephew. He’s gifted in programming, so he moves his family to California and has quite a successful career for ten or twelve years. But the dot-com bubble breaks, and they have to return to Japan. He spends the book in an extreme depression, and attempts suicide twice. It turns out that the bubble popped early for him because he refused to obey orders due to his ethical code, so he’s not really that different from his uncle the pacifist hero, though he slices pages out of Haruki #1’s beloved Heidegger to make complex origami insects. When he realizes his daughter is being cyberbullied, he finds the project that gets him back into a paycheck and a good state of mind – a thing (I don’t know if you’d call it an app or a virus or a bot or what) that, whenever someone looks for you online, deletes the search results. It’s a way of bringing anonymity to the accidentally notorious. This is what makes it so hard for Ruth to find any corroborating evidence that Nao’s diary is real.

Naoko is Haruki #2’s daughter. She starts a diary to honor her old Jiko’s life, but it really ends up being about her. She spent most of her childhood in California, so when they have to move back to Japan, it’s the opposite of coming home. The other kids hate her for being “fat and stupid,” though here in the United States she’s probably pretty normal. Her academic Japanese language skills don’t match her grade level, though, and American kids aren’t expected to look like anorexic anime characters. The other kids hold a funeral for her and post it to youtube, and there’s a scene that reminds me of Carrie, but with a souvenir being sold on eBay. It’s horrible. She stops going to school and spends more and more time with the sex workers in the neighborhood, so her parents send her to spend the summer at a temple with her great-grandmother. She loves it, she loves her grandmother, she is happy. But when she goes back to school, nothing’s changed. She fails her high school entrance exams and joins the sex workers. This isn’t the type of thing where she’s wandering the streets – she sits in a café until one of the guys wants her, then they go to a hotel. Her first guy reminds me a bit of the first guy in Fanny Hill – he’s handsome and really sweet, if you ignore the fact that he’s paying to have sex with a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. The second guy she’s forced to go with, and she realizes that she really does care about herself enough to get out. There’s a happy ending, but most of the book is dominated by the sense that she’s going to kill herself. I’m glad she doesn’t.

Ruth going online and looking for these people inspired me to do a little of my own. My uncle died when I was young, but he had an ex-wife and a few daughters, so I thought I’d dig around a bit and find out who they were, hoping that these cousins of mine were happy and successful women. But I didn’t find them, because all the internet has to say about my uncle is about his killer, the most recent person to have been executed in that state. The articles talk about how my uncle served in Vietnam without firing his weapon (or even learning to – he was a pacifist), how most of the law cases he worked on were pro bono, and how he donated the produce of his garden to feed the homeless. He seems like the world’s nicest guy, and I never knew him because he died when I was five. My family argued against capital punishment at every appeal, but the killer had other victims whose families had other ideas about things, so the state killed him. One of the papers even interviewed my sister (I saw it on Murderpedia, a website I’m appalled by the existence of), I guess because she was the geographically closest family member to the place of execution.

The whole situation has me really angry and really sad, and the fact that my relationship is fading out means that I don’t feel like I have anyone to talk to about it. The relationship also makes me feel angry and sad, and I get kind of overwhelmed by all the things that feel terrible in my life right now. I don’t feel close to my friends or family – I just feel alone, sort of used, and not strongly wanted. I am not falling into suicidal ideation, though; I’ve realized that I like being alive too much to let it go. But it’s time for the next new thing to start. I need another chapter.

 

The promotion for this book (at least the copy I have) seems to be, “If you loved Possession, you’ll like this.” Yet it was published twelve years earlier, and the author seems to be at a different stage in her thinking and writing. Like Possession, it deals with the private lives of people who give their lives to literature; unlike Possession, these people are not career scholars, they’re teachers at a little school in Yorkshire. Stylistically, she’s writing as an academic instead of as someone who wants people to read her sentences.

He did not look, as she had supposed, perhaps feared, he might, silly.

Do not separate the predicate adjective from a linking verb with a long subordinate clause (and a second clause embedded in the first! Oh my).

This book draws a lot from D. H. Lawrence, explicitly from The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There are also a lot of parallels with The Virgin and the Gipsy. Two sisters growing up and learning about life and love, the older more serious, the younger a bit of a firecracker. Unfortunately, Stephanie and Frederica are being raised by Bill Potter, a verbally abusive, frustrated academic. He’s replaced the Bible and Christianity with Lawrence and the Romantics. It’s a curious trade, and one that leads to results he himself does not condone.

Good teaching is a mystery and takes many forms. Stephanie’s idea of good teaching was simple and limited: it was the induced, shared, contemplation of a work, an object, an artefact. It was not the encouragement of self-expression, self-analysis, or what were to be called interpersonal relations. Indeed, she saw a good reading of the Ode on a Grecian Urn as a welcome chance to avoid these activities.

I agree with Byatt’s comment on the mystery of being a good teacher, but I’m not sure if Stephanie goes about it correctly. Her method was highly valued in the early 1950s, when we were trying to make the study of literature dispassionate and scientific, but my experience with literature professors is that they generally want students to connect with the poem, or with the poet through the poem, or with themselves through the poem. Self-expression, self-analysis, and interpersonal relations are desirable and indeed necessary aspects of today’s classroom, like the time I wrote to my professor that I was having a hard time relating to Shakespeare’s sonnets because I had never been in love. [I glance backward at my twenty-three-year-old self and shake a fist, shouting “Come out of the closet! You’re gay! Pay attention to your crushes on men!”]

Stephanie is the older, steadier sister, and as such, is the one I’m more interested in. She rebels against her father, first by leaving Cambridge and teaching in the same middle-of-nowhere town she was raised in, and then by marrying the curate. Wasting her intellectual talents is one thing, but allying herself so strongly to a professional Christian is just too much. Daniel isn’t actually that great of a Christian; he doesn’t believe or care about the dogma. His interest is in social justice, so instead of spending a lot of time studying and writing sermons, he goes around finding ways to help people. This is a mission Stephanie can agree with. Her feelings don’t seem to heat up that much; he wants her, he’s a logical choice, and he represents a way to escape her father. A common sad story.

Frederica is the titular virgin, an unpopular seventeen-year-old anxious to lose her virginity. It’s the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation, so the local artsy people are doing a celebration of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Apparently there are numerous parallels between the life of Elizabeth and Frederica’s story, but I am no Renaissance scholar. Alexander Wedderburn, her father’s younger colleague at school, has written a play about the queen that will serve as the centerpiece to the Elizabethan festivities. They hire a few professional actors, but Frederica is chosen to act the part of the teenaged Elizabeth. The play gives her license to find someone to have sex with, and by the two-thirds point this is the primary element of suspense. Who? When? Where?

He produced a macintosh and laid it out under a somewhat Wordsworthian thorn bush. Frederica sat stiffly on the edge of it, telling herself that there were certain things that when she knew them would not bother her in the same way any more. She had read Lady Chatterley, true, and The Rainbow too, and Women in Love, but it cannot be said that she expected a revelation from the traveller in dolls. She wished her ignorance, part of it, to be dispelled. She wished to become knowledgeable. She wished to be able to pinpoint the sources of her discontent.

She’s not discontented because she’s a virgin. If she were, she wouldn’t have so many near-misses. There are a few times she has the opportunity to have sex but backs out at the last minute. She gets called a cock-tease, but I don’t think it’s intentional. She means to have sex, but gets disgusted with the men. There are a lot of disgusting men out there, and those who want to sleep with a teenager (after they’ve passed into their legal majority) are among them. Austen heroes, I’m looking at you – Colonel Brandon and Mr Knightley, especially. They are both my age when they marry, but Marianne Dashwood is only nineteen and Emma Woodhouse twenty-one. I have no business running after little boys like that. Frederica’s discontentment comes from her social isolation and her volatile father.

When she finally creates the right mixture of partner, place, and time, she finds that sex is different from what she had expected.

She had learned something. She had learned that you could do – that – in a reasonably companionable and courteous way with no invasion of your privacy, no shift in your solitude. You could sleep all night, with a strange man, and see the back only of his head, and be more self-contained than anywhere else. This was a useful thing to know. It removed the awful either/or from the condition of women as she had seen it. Either love, passion, sex and those things, or the life of the mind, ambition, solitude, the others. There was a third way: you could be alone and not alone in a bed, if you made no fuss. She too would turn away and go to sleep.

I found that out too, but since my first time was on my wedding night, it wasn’t immediately. At first it was this cosmic force binding us together, but in time I could also see it driving us apart. I had to learn to accept love without a physical component – love and sex became divided for me because I got love without sex, not sex without love the way most people seem to.

I suppose the reason I don’t find Frederica very interesting is that different versions of her story get told over and over and over again. Bookish teenage outcast finds her place in society? How many times have we told that story?

I identified more with their brother Marcus. He’s sixteen, but I kept visualizing him as younger. Like me, he has family-trauma-induced mental problems, including hallucinations and sporadic extreme sensitivity to light. I pushed it all into religion, where you can pass that kind of stuff off as proof of divine favor (or at least attention – Old Testament prophets did not lead peaceful lives). Marcus’s father doesn’t allow of religion, so he pairs up with a teacher who has some weird beliefs about the natural and supernatural worlds. In another time, Lucas Simmonds would have been a ghostbuster or an internet conspiracy theorist, tracking ley lines and all that good stuff, but in the 1950s the information isn’t available to him. He keeps trying to make something happen, find some proof that the supernatural is real (The Truth Is Out There), and in the process lose himself. There’s something suicidal about his desire to vanish into the air, cast off this mortal flesh and join the elementals or whatever he wants to do. Marcus isn’t really into this like Lucas is, and the self-dissolution aspect of it worries him, but Lucas has answers (however wonky) and gives him time and attention, which no one else is willing to do. It seems like Lucas’s biggest problem is one he won’t face: he’s gay. His flight from the body is really a flight from his own sexuality. If chemical castration were offered to him, I think he would take it. Instead he ends up really going off the deep end. Marcus ends the book in a bad place too, primarily because he feels responsible for Lucas. Lucas’s insanity isn’t Marcus’s fault though; you can blame society for denying the viability of homosexuality as a mode of existence, you can blame Lucas for refusing to accept himself, but none of this can be traced to Marcus. He got to the party too late to be responsible for it. I do wish that Lucas could have danced by the pond with flowers twined through all the hair on his body without being crazy – if I ever have a nervous breakdown, I hope it’s beautiful like that.

I’ve been visiting my kids this week, and I first saw them on a playground. My oldest ran up to me and commented on how many children were there and how scary crowds are, and I thought, “Oh good, you’ve inherited my social anxiety.” I’m happy for any connection with my kids. He unwrapped the book I got him and was really excited – The Ex and I both enjoyed Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence when we were his age, so Over Sea, Under Stone was a good choice – so excited, in fact, that by the time I left the next day he had finished the entire book. It’s sometimes harder to see similarities with my middle boy – he’s more Emilio Estevez than Anthony Michael Hall – but he has my preference for showing love through physical contact and my impatience with unnecessary conversation. The youngest is still sort of a mystery to me; it’s like he’s a batch of muffins that have only been cooking for seven minutes. Just not done yet. He’s sensitive and affectionate, and likes whatever his brothers are into.

I saw my dad a few weeks ago, and I’ve been crying ever since. It’s not that I miss him, though I did, it’s that my parents are kind of horrible. In the course of one evening he pointed out that even though I’ve lived in the Midwest/Southwest for two years, he’s the first one to come visit me [subtext: I’m the only one who loves you and you can’t trust anyone else], AND that he had way too many kids and he jokingly/not-jokingly wishes abortion had been more socially and morally acceptable back in the 1970s [subtext: I wish you were never born]. He tried to give me a handshake instead of a hug [subtext: You’re a stranger to me, stay out of my personal space, keep your gay filth to yourself]. This whole love/rejection thing is toxic and hard and makes the concept of family very difficult for me, so I’m not participating in my guy’s holiday family get-togethers the way he’d like me to. I’m not sure what he wants, maybe another version of his brother’s partner, but my relationships with my family (or The Ex’s family) have not prepared me for the kind of interactions he wants me to have with his parents and extended family.

I worry about my family life. I don’t know how to do any of this, being a good son or a good father or a good partner to someone who is close to his family. I try to be myself and act in ways that are natural to me, and show love whenever I can, but lately I’ve been feeling like it’s not enough. The collapse of the Potter family feels like a warning, but I don’t know how to profit from it. There must be a way to hang onto love without losing the self, there must be a way to reach out to loved ones without hurting them, and there ought to be a way to interact with my parents that doesn’t leave me sobbing for months afterward. But twentieth-century literature may be the wrong place to look for them.

It’s Christmas Eve. John Rivers, a grandfather in his late fifties, is talking with a novelist friend about the night he lost his virginity. No section breaks anywhere, just a hundred and fifty pages of that.

At the age of twenty-eight, Rivers was a moralistic mama’s boy. He finally broke from his mother and went to work in a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist’s laboratory. The Genius is famous all over the world for his brilliant mind, but Huxley is more interested in showing his physical side. He has frequent asthma attacks, which his family ignores. His children are little more than short people whom he acknowledges to live in the same house. And his wife is everything to him – a weird mix of mother and . . . I really want to say whore, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Probably because I’m uncomfortable with the word. It feels disrespectful, and those women deserve much more respect than they get. Anyway, the Genius has a safe in his bedroom where he keeps his gun, some money, the current draft of his next book, and his Victorian pornography. Rivers has a hard time understanding how Miss Floggy’s School for Finishing Girls can coexist with physics research, but it makes sense to me. People are a balance; strength is counterweighted with weakness, and being brilliant as a scientist is, in this case, placed against a certain sexual infantilism.

Rivers is invited to live with the Genius, and he gets on well with the family. The teenaged daughter has a crush on him, because he’s a handsome older man living in her house and she’s fully prepared to be fallen in love with. She writes poetry and wears too much makeup. There’s a little brother, but he’s hardly significant. The maid is a racial stereotype – I keep expecting her to scold Clark Gable for not being nice to Scarlett. But the mother is a Goddess. Rivers is completely in love with her, but too priggish to do anything about it. By Goddess, of course, I mean she’s a woman with gumption. She keeps the house running in order, despite the absent-minded professor and the overly romantic daughter. Despite the amount of work she puts in, she retains her beauty and inner light, the spiritual heart of her home.

Then the Goddess’s mother gets sick and she has to go away for a while. The daughter really starts in on her campaign for Rivers, having read too much Wilde and Swinburne without having any experience of love or sex to give meaning to their words. [Jack White: If you think a kiss is all in the lips, you got it all wrong. If you think a dance is all in the hips, go on then and do the twist.] Ruth does the work of sexualizing Rivers for the reader, though he won’t take advantage of a girl half his age. I don’t know what the age of consent was in St Louis in 1923, but no matter the legality. It would just have been wrong. Then Genius Henry sexualizes Goddess Katy – he convinces himself that she’s sleeping with her mother’s young doctor, and describes all the crazy shit she’s done with him. Poor Rivers has to face the idea that his Goddess could also be a wild animal between the sheets.

Henry’s bonkers enough to make himself sick from a few weeks of jealous celibacy, so when he’s at death’s door they call Katy away from the bed of her dying mother to come sit at the bed of her dying husband. When she gets back, the light’s gone out of her. All this care of others is wiping her out, erasing/effacing her. When she gets the phone call telling her that her mother’s finally dead, she comes to Rivers’s room.

Shaken by sobs and trembling, she pressed herself against me. The clock had struck, time was bleeding away and even the living are utterly alone. Our only advantage over the dead woman up there in Chicago, over the dying man at the other end of the house, consisted in the fact that we could be alone in company, could juxtapose our solitudes and pretend that we had fused them into a community. But these, of course, were not the thoughts I was thinking then.

And the handsome young assistant has sex for the first time. In some ways it’s kind of sweet, but in others not. His fifty-something self sees the event gently, as something nice that two people did for each other. His younger self was too religious to be anything other than nauseated. He keeps saying that it has to stop, but they keep doing it until the Genius heals up. Every time he says that it’s wrong, Katy shushes him. It’s not that she feels guilty or uncomfortable, it’s that she thinks his religion is immature and uninteresting. She takes the lead throughout the affair, and it doesn’t end until she’s ready for it to. Which is when the spurned poetess starts to make references to adulterers burning in hell forever.

I think it’s unfortunate that something as nice as sex has to be surrounded by so many cultural prohibitions. Katy seems innocent, and sleeping with Rivers turns her inner light back on. She’s full of grace again; she gets the strength to take care of her sick husband by fucking the lodger. It’s healthy. Then Rivers makes it less than it could be by going on about the wrongness of it, then the daughter becomes threatening, and it’s like an overripe fruit rotting from its own sweetness. What was beautiful becomes tragic.

“And to think,” said Rivers, “to think that once we were all like that. You start as a lump of protoplasm, a machine for eating and excreting. You grow into this sort of thing. Something almost supernaturally pure and beautiful.” He laid his cheek once more against the child’s head. “Then comes a bad time with pimples and puberty. After which you have a year or two, in your twenties, of being Praxiteles. But Praxiteles soon puts on weight and starts to lose his hair, and for the next forty years you degenerate into one or other of the varieties of the human gorilla. The spindly gorilla – that’s you. Or the leather-faced variety – that’s me. Or else it’s the successful businessman type of gorilla – you know, the kind that looks like a baby’s bottom with false teeth. As for the female gorillas, the poor old things with paint on their cheeks and orchids at the prow . . . No, let’s not talk about them, let’s not even think.”

Yes, let’s ignore the attitudes that keep women imprisoned. Katy is a goddess like Hera, or a bitch in heat, but never a human equal. Both Henry and Rivers either keep her on a pedestal or in a ditch, but neither of them really treats her like a partner. She has a specific function, and God help us all if she has to do something else, like attend to a dying woman in a distant city. I’m sure that part of the reason for the affair is that she needs a sense of freedom, a feeling of control over her own life and choices. She needs a connection with life, not death. So of course the novelist kills her. No other satisfactory way out of the situation. And thirty years later John Rivers (I wonder if he’s named after Jane Eyre’s cousin) reminisces about her and his summer of love. I feel like there must have been more to her than Huxley shows us. But no. We only see her through an aging man’s memory, with its necessary distortions. With all the tragedy of this short book, this one feels like the most egregious: we miss the chance to know a truly extraordinary woman, a human being whose intelligence and devotion live inside her beauty and sexuality, someone complex and wonderful but who sees life as simple and acts simply, a person too natural for 1920s American society. I suppose a happy ending was too much to hope for.

I know, I know. I just finished one of the masterpieces of the (Middle) English language, and now I’m back to reading zombie books. A feminist zombie book about complex identity issues, but it’s still a zombie book.

Misgivings are crowding in on her. She’s in uncharted territory, and she fears the blank, inscrutable future into which she’s being rushed before she’s ready. She wants her future to be like her past, but knows it won’t be. The knowledge sits like a stone in her stomach.

Melanie is a nice little girl in a prison school. Initially the book is about her and told primarily from her perspective, but as we shift into the middle of the book, things become a little more balanced. Sergeant Parks is in charge of security; he has a red-headed teenaged underling named Private Gallagher. Melanie’s teacher is a developmental psychologist named Miss Justineau, and the real authority at the base is a scientist, Dr Caroline Caldwell.

If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children – which at some times and in some places it has been – she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road.

Because what are the ethics of a zombie apocalypse?

Back in the days of I Walked With a Zombie, the deficiently dead were a product of racial stereotypes and misogyny; this made them fairly easy to contain and defeat. Now, during the time of World War Z, they’re a product of natural phenomena, and science cannot be stopped. Now the zedheads take over the entire world.

In this version of zombies, it’s not a virus – it’s a fungus. It’s based on fungi that really do exist in nature – they infect an insect, eat out its inside and take over its motor control, then drive it to high ground so the fungus can erupt out of the bug and cast its spores to the wind. It’s horrible. These zombies either stand still or run, none of the shambling exploration of AMC’s zombies, who give the human characters time to argue for four episodes before taking any action at all (dullest horror series ever).

When dealing with a new world, authors tend to take a Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis approach: think about Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or The Hunger Games. Carey’s Thesis is inside the base, which is part prison, part school, and part scientific research facility, where Dr Caldwell cuts up children’s brains. Melanie becomes the star pupil and develops a mommy-substitute crush on Miss Justineau, which is all fairly normal. But as the star pupil, Melanie is also Dr Caldwell’s prize specimen, so she needs some protecting.

Some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl “I’m here for you”, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment.

And Miss Justineau is the one to do it.

I’ve often wondered what the lives of British black people are like. I mean, the English don’t have Americans’ squeamishness about interracial dating, which makes it seem like race is less of an issue, but at the same time the English are known for being sort of xenophobic. They think of Europe as another place because they’re insulated on their little island; they fought a Hundred Years’ War with the white people on the other side of the Channel, and then they kept fighting them over and over again. That seems to have stopped since the two World Wars, when they banded together against another, different group of white people. How do black people fit into all this? They were kept as slaves in the British Empire, but unlike Americans, slavery was kept distant from most British subjects. They didn’t bring it home; it was an unfortunate occurrence that happened Out There, in the Colonies. I know that some immigrant communities remain isolated because they’re never quite accepted as being British. Is race an important thing to British blacks? Do they have a separate subculture? [I don’t understand why we’ve taken to calling them “urban” in America. I grew up in a tiny hicktown in the South with more blacks than whites, so there are plenty of rural blacks, and cities still have tons of white people.]

All of that to say, I don’t know why Carey chose to make Miss Justineau black, but it feel purposeful, as if someone who has been oppressed would automatically feel the need to protect other marginalized people, and dark-skinned femininity is shorthand for victim of oppression.

At the end of Act One, the zombies overrun the base and the group comes together and escapes. They travel across the post-apocalyptic countryside, idyllic as England would become if you killed all the humans and left nature alone for twenty years. It would be really lovely if there weren’t zombies lurking out there.

Melanie builds the world around her as she goes.

This is mostly countryside, with fields on all sides. Rectangular fields, mostly, or at least with roughly squared-off edges. But they’re overgrown with weeds to the grown-ups’ shoulder height, whatever crops they were once planted with swallowed up long ago. Where the fields meet the road, there are ragged hedges or crumbling walls, and the surface they’re walking on is a faded black carpet pitted with holes, some of them big enough for her to fall into.

A landscape of decay – but still gloriously and heart-stoppingly beautiful. The sky overhead is a bright blue bowl of almost infinite size, given depth by a massive bank of pure white cloud at the limit of vision that goes up and up and up like a tower. Birds and insects are everywhere, some of them familiar to her now from the field where they stopped that morning. The sun warms her skin, pouring energy down on to the world out of that upturned bowl – it makes flowers grow on the land, Melanie knows, and algae in the sea; starts food chains all over the place.

A million smells freight the complicated air.

The few houses they see are far off, but even at this distance Melanie observes the signs of ruin. Windows broken, or boarded up. Doors hanging off their hinges. One big farmhouse has its roof all fallen in, the spine of the roof making a perfect downward-pointing parabola.

She remembers Mr Whitaker’s lesson, which feels like a very long time ago now. The population of Birmingham is zero . . . This world she’s seeing was built by people, to meet their needs, but it’s not meeting their needs any more. It’s all changed. And it’s changed because they’ve retreated from it. They’ve left it to the hungries.

Melanie realises now that she’s been told all this already. She just ignored it, ignored the self-evident logic of her world, and believed – out of the many conflicting stories she was given – only the parts she wanted to believe.

Despite Gallagher’s abused childhood, I find Melanie the easiest to relate to. Her experience of the world seems most similar to mine; she’s a person who thinks a lot, has been told a lot from radically different sources, and now that she’s been thrust into the real world, she has to make sense of it. Which is hard, because it’s never quite what she imagines it to be. It’s more beautiful, more complicated, and more threatening. But mostly more beautiful.

Zombie movies seem to play on a fear most of us experience: that we’ve become slaves to routine, that we are in fact dead already. [Shaun of the Dead expresses this particularly well in the opening bit, I think.] Zombies are a teenager’s vague fear and a thirty-something’s nightmare; we’re locked into a routine that we can’t escape from, and we need something drastic to shake things up. Routines are comfortable; we wander into adulthood feeling inadequate, so we build a life of things we can do, that make us feel safe and competent and normal.

The houses all seem the same to Gallagher. Dark. Musty-smelling with squishy carpets underfoot, mouldering curtains and sprays of black mildew up interior walls. Cluttered up with millions of things that don’t do anything except get in your way and almost trip you over. It’s like before the Breakdown people used to spend their whole lives making cocoons for themselves out of furniture and ornaments and books and toys and pictures and any kind of shit they could find. As though they hoped they’d be born out of the cocoon as something else.

But there’s so little change that the life gets sucked out of our lives, and for some reason I’m thinking of Joe vs the Volcano, which doesn’t have any zombies in it. Consumption makes us feel big and important and worthwhile, but it doesn’t satisfy. Consumerism takes the place of nourishment, and we come to be defined by our lack, the void we’re trying to fill but just can’t because our culture only gives us a choice between praying and buying shit, and for some of us neither is effective. Sometimes there’s a happy ending; sometimes there isn’t. I like it when characters can find a new sort of normal, a life that has both comfort and meaning. Typically this has to do with love, as in Warm Bodies where love heals zombies and turns them back into people. That’s not quite Carey’s response, but the books still ends well.

Growing up and growing old. Playing. Exploring. Like Pooh and Piglet. And then like the Famous Five. And then like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables. And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both.

But you have to open it to find that out.

The title of the book is a reference to Pandora, and that idea is important to the book. But it’s not just the world that Melanie opens to find hope amid the evils; it’s also herself. She’s at a prison school because she’s a zombie child. She doesn’t know that at first – she has to realize it and figure out what that means for her life. She has to face and accept her identity as something different from those around her, possibly dangerous to the one person she loves most. Some of the children can still think and act without the external stimuli necessary to move an adult zombie; some of the adult zombies carry on some normal activity as their brains fight back against the fungus, but nothing like the children, who can be completely normal right up until they smell a human being, a food source.

Something opens inside her, like a mouth opening wider and wider and wider and screaming all the time – not from fear, but from need. Melanie thinks she has a word for it now, although it still isn’t anything she’s felt before. It’s hunger. When the children eat, hunger doesn’t factor into it. The grubs are poured into your bowl, and you shovel them into your mouth. But in stories that she’s heard, it’s different. The people in the stories want and need to eat, and then when they do eat they feel themselves fill up with something. It gives them a satisfaction nothing else can give them. Melanie thinks of a song the children learned and sang one time: You’re my bread when I’m hungry. Hunger is bending Melanie’s spine like Achilles bending his bow. And Miss Justineau will be her bread.

And this is a more specific fear that comes on teachers and parents: that eventually the little maggots will consume us completely. They will demand and we will give until there is literally nothing left, just a bone husk as the miniature undead rip our flesh out with their teeth, devouring our essential bits and leaving the shell. I’ve got some students who talk and talk and talk nonstop (in Chinese), and I can feel their indifference sucking my life and willpower. My existence is draining away, a little every day. Teaching students who want to learn is invigorating and exciting; teaching students who don’t feels like dying slowly, consumptive and consumed, unnoticed and alone. In some ways I envy Miss Justineau; her children all pay attention and learn, like a bunch of little zombie geniuses. I could be okay with that.

I know, most of you who talk to me here are not really interested in zombies, but it’s a metaphor. And this is a really good and interesting book, regardless of the vehicle.