Posts Tagged ‘texas’

This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.

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Another atypical novel. There’s nothing Gothic or weird about this; it’s depressingly real. It begins with The Hon. Charles Wyndham calling his wife and her family a bunch of parasites, and then they spend most of the rest of the novel remembering their lives together.

Maria and Niall are not actually brother and sister; her father married his mother when they were both infants, and produced the third child, Celia. Maria and Niall are sometimes like two halves of a single person, they rely on each other so much, but at other times not.

The tunes he had written for this tiresome revue were maddening, insistent; you could not forget them for one single moment. Once you heard them, you went on humming them all the time, throughout the day, until they nearly drove you crazy. The trouble was, thought Maria, that when the time came to dance to them, she would be dancing with Charles. And Charles was a stolid, safe dancer, steering you rather as he might steer a little ship through shoal water, an anxious eye to the bumps of other dancers. Whereas Niall . . . Dancing with Niall had always been like dancing with yourself. You moved, and he followed. Or rather, he moved and you followed. Or was it that you both thought of the same moves at precisely the same moment? And anyway, why think about Niall?

Their parents were performers, so the children grew up in theatres, even when they were very young children who really needed the attention of their parents. Pappy was effusive but careless, and Mama was cold and distant. She began to connect with Niall when he showed a gift for music, but she died so shortly afterward that it couldn’t make up for all the time she didn’t care for him. Niall is the only one to go away to school, and he hates it, running away all the time, usually to go find Maria. She went upon the stage at the same time he went to school. Maria is always dogged by her father’s spectre; people assume that she gets roles because she’s his daughter, not because she has any talent of her own. By the time it’s clear that she is a good actress, her fears of inadequacy are too deeply ingrained to be easily overcome. Niall leaves school shortly before graduation, to run away to Paris with a friend of his parents. Pappy always talks about his French blood, saying that all his vagaries are due to the unknown biological father. He never learns discipline, and it takes decades for him to learn to write down music himself. There are times he reminds me of myself. Discipline has never been easy for me; I believe that I write well, but I never work at the craft, and rarely write anything original. If I were dedicated to writing, I’d do it more often, and think more about my sentences, and chart plots in my head, and listen for characters’ voices. Niall cranks out popular songs of the Irving Berlin/Cole Porter variety, good for revues, but he wishes he could write concertos, something that he perceives as worthwhile and lasting.

Celia’s problem would be a different one. People, finding her more sympathetic than either Niall or Maria, would pour out to her the story of their lives. “You have no idea what he does to me,” and she would find herself involved in another person’s troubles, her advice sought, her co-operation demanded, and it would be like a net closing round her from which there was no escape.

Celia, the youngest, product of both famous parents, the only legitimate child of the three, yet has no desire to follow them. She always wanted a family, so she spends her youth taking care of Pappy, as he declines into alcoholic old age. Her attention is always on other people; she draws well, and writes children’s stories to accompany the pictures. Her drawings capture her mother’s grace and her father’s emotive range, but without their drive to pursue Art. She has more pressing matters to attend to. Of the three, I find Celia the easiest to like, because she does care for ordinary people. Maria and Niall are too full of The Artist’s Vocation to notice or care about other people. I suppose they learned that from their parents.

And yet, whom do I identify with the most? The antagonist, the angry husband from the first chapter.

The movement from the armchair, as Charles changed his position and straightened out the sports page of the Sunday Times, should have warned them of irritation, but they took no notice.

This is me all over. If an actor is supposed to be so attuned to the use of the body and how it reveals character, why would they then ignore me, when my body language speaks so loudly? It was true with The Ex, and true with the guy I was seeing at the holidays. I guess they look long enough to figure out who I am, and then they stop. I’m not exactly mercurial, but nor is my interior life placid. I’m layered, like an onion, and I show more and more of myself as I build trust. Once you get past that first layer of silence, you can’t assume that you know me well enough to stop paying attention. Not if you want me to stick around.

“I will tell you what matters,” said Charles; “it matters to have principles, to have standards, to have ideals. It matters to have faith, and a belief. It matters very much if you love a woman, and a woman loves a man, and you marry, and you breed children, and you share each other’s lives, and you grow old together, and you lie buried in the same grave. It matters even more if the man loves the wrong woman, and the woman loves the wrong man, and the two come from different worlds that just won’t mix, that won’t turn into one world, belonging to both. Because when that happens, a man goes adrift and is lost, and his ideals and illusions and traditions get lost too. There is nothing much to live for any more. So he chucks his hand in. He says to himself: Why bother? The woman I love does not believe in any of the things that I believe in. Therefore, I may as well stop believing in them too. I also can lower standards.”

I’ve felt like this about the Midwest, including Texas. Texas and Illinois are not so different as Texans would have you think. I’m an East Coast guy; over there, I feel free, like it’s easy to find friends I have things in common with, like everything is possible. Here, I feel confined by the expectations of others. Back home, there are lots of different kinds of people, but here there are only two: Normal, which means moderately conservative straight-ticket Republican Christian; and Weird, which is everyone else. But while at my high school Goths and cowboys could be friends, here the Weird make the Normal really uncomfortable. I’d say this isn’t so much a Midwestern thing as a not-academia thing, but even when I was at the university in Illinois I had a hard time fitting in. My friends were a guy from Scranton PA and the local girl who had lived in Paris for several years. The Middies do their best to be kind, but I feel like I’m visiting a foreign country where they happen to speak the same language I do. You know, like Canada, but without the tundra.

To some extent, we create the world we live in; I’ve made some good connections here, primarily with students, but I’m thinking about The Ex. When we first got together, we seemed to inhabit the same world, but in time we built up in opposite directions. And this is where I feel like Charles; we both married the wrong woman. I shouldn’t have married a woman at all, honestly, but it was necessary for me to figure out that I’m not attracted to them. I went adrift and was lost, for what feels like a long time. I also lost the ideals and illusions and traditions, and now I’m working toward new ones. Charles goes directly toward another relationship, but I’ve been learning to do things alone. A month or two ago my son and I were both sick, and I told him how fortunate he was to have his mother to take care of him while I didn’t have anyone to do that, and he said, “Yes, you do, Dad. You have yourself.” And I’ve been pondering that, the fact that I complain about having no one to love and be loved by, but I have myself. And valuing myself and taking care of myself is important right now, because I don’t have anyone else. One day he will come, and I’ll stop singing “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along,” and I’ll enjoy the fact that he has. And this man I hope to meet deserves to be with a guy who has his shit together. So I’ll keep learning to be the guy that the guy I’ll love will love.

This thought isn’t really related to anything, and I don’t have anything really to say about it, but it struck me as beautiful:

They say that when we sleep our subconscious selves are revealed, our hidden thoughts and desires are written plain upon our features and our bodies like the tracings of rivers on a map; and no one reads them but the darkness.

As we near the end, as their memories catch up to the present moment, Charles confronts them with the question of whether they are or are not parasites. They evade the question, but I think it’s important to say it outright: No, they are not. Artists are not parasites (and the idea of Celia as a parasite doesn’t even bear considering – cf the Surplus Woman Question of the nineteenth century). The word parasites assumes that they feed on us, that without our applause they would die. It’s just not like that. These artists create for the sake of the Art itself. Niall despises the people who whistle his songs, and Maria only notices the audience as a collective entity. Ordinary people like Charles are just not interesting to them. If anyone matters, it’s the other artists. She acts to prove that she can, both to herself and to the other actors. He writes music because he must, and to please his lover and his sister. There are rare occasions when a story will affect me that way, but when you work sixty hours a week and have a tiny apartment full of children and a talkative wife, as I did for several years, you learn to block it out. But if The Words are coming back, I want to welcome them. I want to make time to write; I want to have the energy and attention to get things down in the evenings. If I can use words well, I want to use them to make my friends’ hearts glad, to make the world beautiful. There’s nothing parasitic about that.

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

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

Tesla sees America similarly to the way I do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us?”

“Everybody. Powerful.”

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

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

“And they don’t want to do that.”

“Of course not.”

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

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

“But when you’re dead – ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. New subject.

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

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

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

“You don’t?” Harry said.

“There’s so much shit,” she said.

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

“Look up the mountain,” she said.

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This volume has three short pieces, each fifty or sixty pages in length, so they fall right on that line between short story and novel. Maybe they’re short novels, maybe novellas, maybe there’s no need to classify them based on length. It also reminded me of the buyer-beware aspect of used bookshops, since every page from 137 to 162 is torn neatly across from the edge into the binding [proof that it didn’t come from my two favourite shops, since they have such high standards that they always refuse around half the books I try to trade in]. The tears start close to the bottom of the page and move progressively upward, as if someone was trying to rip the book in frustration but got a bit twisted up. But nothing is missing, so after reading, I don’t think there’s any reason to be so angry at this little book. Porter’s delightful.

OLD MORTALITY

The story begins with a portrait of an ideal, Aunt Amy, and the two little girls who grow up in her shadow. Throughout their lives, everyone is compared unfavourably with the deceased Aunt Amy, who was apparently more beautiful, more charming, and more daring than any other woman anyone had ever known. In an era when women’s actions were carefully guarded, Amy did whatever she liked, bugger the consequences. She could bat her eyelashes and smile her way through nearly any situation, and when her brother shot at (or possibly just shot) a man to protect her honour and had to move to Mexico for a year, he was happy to go on an adventure for her. There are worse places than Mexico during the Old West for a Texan who’s just committed a violent crime on his sister’s behalf. There are some people who can get away with stuff and become legend while the rest of us learn to behave. My older sister was one, and I suspect that my middle son is becoming one. I was not – too much conscience, too little popularity. Examples: as a teenager, my sister once locked all of the adults at her summer camp in their cabin, and my son sang several verses of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” in McDonald’s when he was three years old.

And what happens when we meet the stuff of legend?

They had just turned their dollars over to the bookmaker for the fourth race when a vast bulging man with a red face and immense tan ragged mustaches fading into gray hailed them from a lower level of the grandstand, over the heads of the crowd, “Hey, there, Harry?” Father said, “Bless my soul, there’s Gabriel.” He motioned to the man, who came pushing his way heavily up the shallow steps. Maria and Miranda stared, first at him, then at each other. “Can that be our Uncle Gabriel?” their eyes asked. “Is that Aunt Amy’s handsome romantic beau? Is that the man who wrote the poem about our Aunt Amy?” Oh, what did grown-up people mean when they talked, anyway?

He was a shabby fat man with bloodshot blue eyes, sad beaten eyes, and a big melancholy laugh, like a groan. […] Miranda and Maria, disheartened by the odds, by their first sight of their romantic Uncle Gabriel, whose language was so coarse, sat listlessly without watching, their chances missed, their dollars gone, their hearts sore.

Like so many stories from the 1930s, this is a story of losing faith in ideals. We build up hopes and dreams, a Technicolor Oz of the imagination, only to wake up in gray Kansas. When Miranda follows in Amy’s footsteps, the family that laughed over the aunt condemns the niece. So. Not so ideal after all.

NOON WINE

I find I don’t have much to say on this story, probably because it addresses one of the issues that is most emotionally laden for me – mental illness. There are aberrations on both sides of my family, and one of my deepest fears is that I’m going to stop perceiving reality accurately. When I was religious, I was into mystic experiences, seeing visions, hearing voices, and so forth. When I think of my life then, I’m relieved that I don’t hallucinate any more, and that I no longer feel like I ought to. Leaving off the delusions of grandeur relieves a lot of pressure, too. But if I were to have a traumatic experience like that of Mr Thompson, I wonder even now if I would do any better at keeping track of what is happening, whose hands are doing what, and what degree of responsibility I have for actions that turn out to be mine.

And what clue do we have of insanity? Silence. Mr Helton doesn’t say much. I don’t say much. The extreme verbosity on this blog is a way of compensating for the extreme silence in my non-virtual life. I seldom talk much, unless I am (a) in front of a classroom, (b) drunk, or (c) with people I know well, or more accurately, with people whom I feel know me well. Mr Helton’s silence seems perfectly natural to me without explaining it with madness; indeed, the behaviour of most mad characters in literature seems normal to me until the author tells me they are mad. Which is one of the reasons that I worry.

PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER

Whenever I realize that a story is set in 1918 and a character begins to catch a cold, my heart quails within me. There are some implications that this is our old friend Miranda from Old Mortality, now in her mid-20s and surrounded by bored soldiers and busy newspapermen. This is primarily the story of Miranda’s delirium, with some moments of lucidity. It reminds me of the Porter story I used to teach, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” though the titular Granny declines steadily instead of by fits and starts. She also doesn’t seem to realize how quickly she’s dying, while Miranda expects and welcomes death. An influenza patient in love with a soldier during a war; of course she’s reconciled herself to the coming death.

Miranda sighed, and lay back on the pillow and thought, I must give up, I can’t hold out any longer. There was only that pain, only that room, and only Adam. There were no longer any multiple planes of living, no tough filaments of memory and hope pulling taut backwards and forwards holding her upright between them. There was only this one moment and it was a dream of time, and Adam’s face, very near hers, eyes still and intent, was a shadow, and there was to be nothing more. . . .

“Adam,” she said out of the heavy soft darkness that drew her down, down, “I love you, and I was hoping you would say that to me, too.”

He lay down beside her with his arm under her shoulder, and pressed his smooth face against hers, his mouth moved towards her mouth and stopped. “Can you hear what I am saying? . . . What do you think I have been trying to tell you all this time?”

For Porter, illness and death isolate us slowly, putting a gradual yet firm distance between the sufferer and humanity. It’s like when you’re trying desperately to stay awake but not quite succeeding, so bits of current sensory information mix with the coinages of the unconscious mind, all in a briary tangle of reality and dream-logic. Disorienting because you don’t know you’re dreaming and it’s just real enough to be utterly convincing.

I once asked a class if they didn’t think Granny Weatherall was a hoot, and they looked back at me in gaping silence until someone said, “But she dies at the end.” I replied, “Yes, but before that?” A story is more than its ending. The end can give a clue to an overall meaning, but the joy of the story is seldom concentrated there (it is in Catch-22, a few hundred pages of stagnation followed by five pages of unbridled joy, but that book is hardly representative). The joy is in the telling; it’s in the language, the moments, everything that makes up the middle. That’s where the important stuff is. That’s why there’s more of it.

So, to me, it doesn’t matter so much if Miranda lives or dies of influenza, if Adam survives the war or gets blown up by a mine, or even if he snatches Miranda’s influenza death from her like the sacrificial lamb she compares him to. For me, it’s a story of hating the war and narrating delirium in a stream of consciousness like Esther Summerson or Quentin Compson. People called it The Great War, but it’s not like it solved that much. This story is set in 1918 at the end of the war, first published in 1939 as the world was moving into the next great war, and this paperback was published in 1962, around the time we were not starting a great war over Cuba.

My grandfather did some very brave things in World War II, but without killing anyone, so he feels a little effete when his friends in the nursing home talk about their experiences. My father spent his war in Thailand, working on the radio most of the time and spending the rest of the war hauling his fellow soldiers out of prostitutes’ beds so they could do their work. After seeing a touring production of Miss Saigon, he spent the rest of the night in tears. And me? I don’t have a war. I don’t feel the lack of one either. I don’t doubt the possibility of there being another world war in my lifetime, I could be around for another forty years, but I’m far too much of a pacifist actually to get involved. And when I hear my students tell me about how they can’t quite get their brains to work right ever since they drove over that IED in Fallujah, I’m grateful that I have a disposition for peace. I also don’t mind having a president whose war record consists of caring for those who survived. I’d rather have someone leading a war who has a clear memory of lost limbs and fractured minds than someone whose mind was fractured and is still caught up in jingoistic rhetoric about the glory of war. There’s no glory. Just confusion, a fog of delirium in which people die. Kind of like an influenza epidemic.

So, three little stories about death, disillusionment, conflicts that cannot be resolved, and being Texan between 1885 and 1919. I suppose the volume is rather sad, but this too is life. None of us can expect an unbroken chain of affirmations; sometimes we have to let the ideal die and accept the world as it is, in which forces beyond our control shatter our dreams and leave us abandoned and dispossessed. But life is still worth living, and hope still flutters its fragile wings. I believe there are bright futures and new dreams to be had, despite the passing crepuscular present.