Posts Tagged ‘the ex’

There are few American authors of her time who write about divorce as much as Edith Wharton. I guess she wrote about it so much because she had one; also, it was a major subject of debate in the conversations about women’s rights. So of course I’ve been thinking about mine. It was the most emotionally difficult part of my life, particularly with all of the people assuming I wouldn’t care. It’s a complicated thing, being a gay man who loves his wife, because love is even more complex than sexuality. One more reason for me to have run off to the Middle East.

The stories in this volume are arranged according to length rather than publishing date or theme or any other logical system. All were originally published between 1900 and 1914.

ETHAN FROME

Like me, Ethan Frome is a man who got married in a hurry and ran into trouble because of it. He got a little bit of education and dreamed of living in a city, but then his father got sick and he had to come take care of the family farm, and then after his father died his mother got sick too. His family arranged for a distant cousin Zenobia to come take care of his mother and the house. When you see a woman named Zenobia in a book written in the nineteenth century or the first couple of decades of the twentieth, she’s probably dangerous. It’s like how we don’t trust Victorian Lydias. Zeena cared for Ethan’s mother through her final illness, and then he had this weird emotional spasm where he couldn’t lose anyone else, so he married her.

Fast forward six or seven years. Zeena has become a hypochondriac invalid, and Ethan has realized that he’s never moving to a city while he’s stuck with her. Besides, at thirty-five she’s starting to age badly (rural Massachusetts winters are rough), and he’s still twenty-eight and in his youth and vigor. Zeena has taken on Mattie Silver, another distant cousin with no place to go. Mattie’s young and exciting, and draws Ethan into the life of the town because she enjoys being with people and he has to escort her. Ethan and Mattie are in love, but at a distance in the same house. When he feels affectionate, he shortens her name further to just Matt, so I derived a lot of enjoyment from picturing Matt as a man.

Zeena’s concocted a plot to get rid of Matt, even though she literally has no one to take her in. Her only hope is to get a job in a shop somewhere and earn her own living, which isn’t easy for a twenty-one-year-old girl in Massachusetts in the 18-somethings. Ethan goes through an intense time – he wants to run off with Matt and go live out West somewhere, but he doesn’t have the money to go anywhere. As with me, poverty keeps him from divorcing when and how he wants. He doesn’t have anything worth selling, in the middle of winter, not even his house or farm. No one would buy them.

As Ethan is taking Matt to the train station for the last time, they talk about how they never went sledding in town like they had wanted to (‘coasting’ in the vernacular of the time), so they stop for a bit of a sled. There’s a large elm tree that they have to dodge, but Ethan’s good at steering so they miss it. But what if they didn’t? They can get up to speed, charge straight into the tree, and dying together they would foil Zenobia’s plan and solve all their problems. But they don’t, die, they just get severely injured. Being forced into a sedentary life, Mattie becomes every bit as querulous as Zeena, and being forced to take care of someone again cures Zeena’s imaginary ailments. The three of them get along miserably for what seems the rest of their lives.

In many ways I am a lucky person, though I’ve been told that it has more to do with making good decisions than with luck. My decisions have worked out better than I deserve, I think. If I had to marry a woman, then The Ex was the right one; she wouldn’t put up with an Ethan Frome situation. I told her I was gay and she moved out. There was a short time that I wanted her back, but she held firm. She feels shame very acutely, and in her mind there’s less shame in divorcing a gay husband than in living with one. Of course, my being gay means that she had a good excuse, and that she can blame me into perpetuity without ever having to confront her own issues. I’m not saying that she will; I’m just saying that she still hates and distrusts me.

THE TOUCHSTONE

This was the most suspenseful of the stories, so I enjoyed it the most. Glennard is poor and in love, so he needs to find some way to get the money to marry. Years earlier, a famous novelist had fallen in love with him and wrote him some passionate letters from Paris; she died before the story begins, but he still has the letters. He sells them to a publisher to get the money to invest in a good company and make the money requisite to marry his great love.

But those letters were so very personal that his wife would see it as a violation of the soul to have made them public, so he has to try to keep the secret, even after the volume of letters becomes a bestseller. He goes full-on Raskolnikov about it.

The next morning he invented an excuse for leaving the house without seeing her, and when he returned, just before dinner, he found a visitor’s hat and stick in the hall. The visitor was Flamel, who was just taking his leave.

He had risen, but Alexa remained seated; and their attitude gave the impression of a colloquy that had prolonged itself beyond the limits of speech. Both turned a surprised eye on Glennard, and he had the sense of walking into a room grown suddenly empty, as though their thoughts were conspirators dispersed by his approach. He felt the clutch of his old fear. What if his wife had already sorted the papers and had told Flamel of her discovery? Well, it was no news to Flamel that Glennard was in receipt of a royalty on the Aubyn Letters.

A sudden resolve to know the worst made him lift his eyes to his wife as the door closed on Flamel. But Alexa had risen also, and bending over her writing-table, with her back to Glennard, was beginning to speak precipitately.

“I’m dining out tonight – you don’t mind my deserting you? Julia Armiger sent me word just now that she had an extra ticket for the last Ambrose concert. She told me to say how sorry she was that she hadn’t two, but I knew you wouldn’t be sorry!” She ended with a laugh that had the effect of being a strayed echo of Mrs Armiger’s; and before Glennard could speak she had added, with her hand on the door, “Mr Flamel stayed so late that I’ve hardly time to dress. The concert begins ridiculously early, and Julia dines at half-past seven.”

Glennard stood alone in the empty room that seemed somehow full of an ironical consciousness of what was happening. “She hates me,” he murmured. “She hates me . . .”

THE LAST ASSET

Mrs Newell is a resourceful sort of woman. She works her way up in society by dating rich men, having lost sight of her husband long ago. Now that she’s arranged a marriage between her daughter and a French count, she has to produce the husband to prove that she’s not divorced. She hires a reporter to find him, and he turns out to be one of those familiar strangers, people you talk to in a restaurant when you’re both the only Americans but never bother to learn their names. Notice I said ‘you’ – I wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, no matter how many times we ate breakfast in the same place, no matter how much his accent would remind me of home. No, the only place I enter into conversation with strangers is in an establishment dedicated to serving alcohol to homosexual men.

As with Ethan Frome, there’s a lot of sadness in this story, even though it’s about reunion.

XINGU

This one was just funny. There’s a snobby literary society up in New England somewhere, and they’ve invited a successful author to come join them. They want to impress her, but she’s not that interested in politics, design, or food, or any of the other subjects they bring up in order to awe her into confirming their sense of their own worth. Then, a member they’ve all been planning to vote out, suddenly asks her about Xingu, and everyone is convinced it’s a new philosophy that they haven’t heard of but are willing to pretend to know in order to put this author in her place. The author goes off with the savior of the group, and then everyone else looks it up – it’s a river in Brazil. She was speaking in double entendres the entire time, and they laugh and are embarrassed by their ignorance.

THE OTHER TWO

This one is frequently anthologized, so I’ve taught it a few times. It’s not as useful as “Roman Fever,” which I have more to say about so I wish academic publishers would use it instead. This story presents divorce not in its spiritual or political aspect but in its social – the awkwardness is more significant than the sin or the women’s rights. Mr Waythorn is Alice’s third husband; because of a child, he runs into the first, and because of his business he runs into the second. Divorce doesn’t necessarily remove the offending partner from one’s life completely, after all. He starts to get used to the ex-husbands, until eventually through one of those coincidental tricks of fate all three of them are in a room together, with her serving them tea.

What I find fascinating about this collection is the perspective Wharton chooses to tell the stories from. Except for “Xingu,” with its entirely female cast, Wharton always chooses the perspective of the man, not the woman. She employs the female perspective in The House of Mirth to great success, so I’m not certain why. I mean, these stories are just as emotionally complex for the women as they are for the men. I guess it gives her a chance to explore the idea that women are mysterious to men while men are completely transparent to women. Or maybe straight men like to imagine the world this way. I have a friend who described his wife as mysterious because he was always finding out new things to love about her (after more than ten years), but I always found her remarkably open, honest, and straightforward. Maybe some men need the exotic, something they don’t understand, so they project that quality onto the women they love. Love itself is often the only mystery – does she love me, and why?

I do enjoy Edith Wharton, even though there’s usually not much to make me happy in her stories. Her syntax demands to be taken slowly; it requires attention; as an author, she insists on her leisure. We must take the story at the pace she gives it to us, and there is something appealing about someone who will not be hurried. I suppose there may also be an appeal to reading a story about New England winters when I’m in the middle of a hot Southern summer, adjusting the emotional temperature to find greater comfort. This was an odd little collection of stories; I don’t know why these were chosen and not others, but I do love something strange.

Advertisements

Looking back over Stevenson’s previous novels, the predominant feeling I get about this one is, What the fuck? Picaresque boys’ adventure stories are done. Instead, we get a philosophical allegory out of nowhere. Maybe his short stories prepared readers for this, but even though I’d read it before, I was completely taken aback. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Prince Otto, and The Black Arrow did not make me think this was coming.

Of course, a lifetime of watching this theme being played out in movies and television shows didn’t really prepare me for the book either. If I think of it, I can name five or six other important characters, but they’re almost completely forgettable, even the narrator. There are no female characters of any consequence, and surprisingly little action. There’s just the mystery, Why does your friend have friends that you don’t like?

First of all, let me say that Dr Jekyll is not the good side.

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.

Most stories begin with problems or needs that have to be fixed or fulfilled, and Jekyll’s problem is that he wants to look more pious than anyone else. Note the emphasis on the external – he doesn’t actually want to be a good person, he wants everyone to think he’s a good person. There’s actually a big difference. The typical spiritual disciplines don’t help Jekyll be the man he wants people to think he is, though I don’t think he actually tried fasting and prayer to overcome temptation. He relies on science instead; he devises a medicine that will suppress the parts of his personality he doesn’t approve of. He relies on the drug more and more often, but it has a side effect he wasn’t prepared for: it periodically releases the evil parts of himself that he’s been afraid to reveal. His evil is personified in Mr Hyde, and Mr Hyde starts taking over more often so that Jekyll has to keep overdosing. Eventually he realizes that he can’t control Hyde and commits suicide to save the world from the two of them.

These days Mr Hyde’s portrayal is radically different from what Stevenson imagined. His Hyde is little, being only a small part of Dr Jekyll, and by ‘evil’ Stevenson means physically violent. He hits people, sometimes to the point of killing them. These days there are things that we consider much worse, but Hyde’s evil is only in physical violence, most of it not sexual. Hyde was ugly, and people thought of him as having some kind of birth defect but they were unable to say what it was. This is part of what I find interesting in the story – people lose their ability to speak and describe Hyde. It’s like Stevenson’s time didn’t have vocabulary for the type of evil he imagined, so he couldn’t represent it on the page. But in films, nothing exists if we don’t see it. There are two ways of portraying Hyde. In the first, he’s a monster, generally larger with scoliosis and other malformed joints. He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk. In the second, he’s kind of smooth and sexy, so still taller with a deeper voice. This Hyde isn’t an animal; he’s a more pronounced version of stereotypical masculinity. Evil no longer shrinks and tramples little girls in the street; it seduces, it overshadows, it is strength. Hyde is so successful that some directors give him the nobility and strength of character as well as the muscles. Evil is a more nuanced, complicated, difficult problem than it seems to have been for a Victorian writer of children’s stories.

I feel more connections with Dr Jekyll’s story than are perhaps complimentary. I’ve never wanted to seem better than others, but I like being the best I can be, and when I was a religious person I wanted to be the best religious person possible. I tried really hard, and I was good at it. I became an expert in self-denial because that’s what my deity expected (in this sentence, ‘my deity’ is a set of cultural constructs that is pretty close to an amalgamation of my perceptions of my parents – my dad’s physical distance, my mom’s emotional distance and judgmentalism). Unfortunately, being religious creates this internal divide – like Dr Jekyll, I labeled some parts of myself as evil and crushed or ignored them. But, as in the Langston Hughes poem, parts of the self that are denied don’t just dry up like a raisin in the sun, they explode.

Six or seven years ago, my entire life collapsed. The first part was losing the religion. I was a good and faithful member of that church for more than thirty years; it was the most important part of my cultural identity. I had given everything I had to them, until something in me just broke and I couldn’t do it any more. I was severely depressed and no amount of service was changing that (they tell you to forget about yourself and work for others and you’ll find peace, but it’s a lie). I thought God hated me, and when I tried communing with him he was sort of unfeeling and cruel about the whole thing, which I now take as evidence that the voice in my head was just me. As they say, you know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do. My wife was a big help and support during this time. She had always seen my church as pulling us apart, so when I got rid of it she thought we were growing closer. She had reached a relationship goal, and we started going to churches together, with her settling on Catholicism. I guess she didn’t notice how often I used the baby as an excuse to leave Mass.

A few months later, I told my wife that I’m gay and she left me. She insists that she had no idea it was coming; I insist that she must have been willfully blind. If I had been looking for evidence that I was evil, this was it: not the whole gay thing, the fact that I broke the heart of the only person I felt truly loved me. I suppose I did have some self-hatred for being gay, but the way that the fact I’m gay hurt her is the thing I hated. If I could have taken a pill that would force me to be straight, I would have done it, for her. We had the kind of codependent relationship where each only exists as an extension of the other – I didn’t know who I was in isolation, or whether I existed at all. I had lost my self.

There are those who say suicide is never an option. That’s dumb; suicide is always an option. It’s not a good option, but it’s there. I actively wanted to die for a long time. I had several lengthy, detailed fantasies about killing myself. Most involved cutting, a few were burning, drowning, or hanging. When a friend gave me some sleeping pills, I couldn’t take any because I knew I’d overdose. There were some times the only reason I left the house was to get away from all the kitchen knives. I used to walk around the city at night trying to get up the nerve to jump in front of a truck. Fortunately, I’m also lazy, and the idea that suicide is always an option was really helpful. Because it was always there, there was no rush. I can live through today and try it tomorrow. I’m alive now because I kept procrastinating suicide until I didn’t want to do it any more. Some people say that suicide is selfish and we shouldn’t do it because of the pain it will bring to others; that seems like another dumb thing to say. Living my life for other people is what drove me to suicidal depression, so it wasn’t going to help me get out of it.

Counseling helped. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy wasn’t the path for me – it felt like I was Jekyll-and-Hyding again, naming a part of myself as evil and containing it, partitioning my self like a hard drive. The Emotional Freedom Techniques of Henry Grayson were better, but the most useful idea of his was the warm-up, where I say out loud that I love and accept myself even if I still think I’m not that great. I started visualizing myself as having separate people who live inside me, like The Ego Pirate or The Crying Boy. I stopped trying to correct any of these weird partial selves I have and just focused on loving them as they were, loving myself as I was. I started treating myself as I would my kids, with the same patience for my own vulnerability that I have with theirs. The little boy in me cried all he needed to and then stopped, my ego stopped trying to kill off the parts of me that were hurting, and I stopped feeling so fractured. I don’t need the visualizations any more.

I still get depressed sometimes, but it’s not constant. It’s been a long time since I thought about killing myself. With all the high-profile suicides, the thing that people seem not to be talking about is the fact that suicidal ideation isn’t a constant thing. It hits like a thunderstorm; sometimes it lasts for days, but sometimes only for a few minutes. Sometimes there are triggers, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes memories are the trigger, and it can take a while for them to surface. For example. When I first came out, my brother called me on the phone, already a drastic step because he only has about a third of his hearing. He yelled at me for twenty minutes and threatened to kill me, and we haven’t spoken since. While that memory hurts, he’s not the one that’s bothering me right now. It’s my mom. When I told her about this, she didn’t react. She still tells me about what’s going on in his life as if nothing happened. No one else in my family responded either, except to agree that he’s an asshole and to say there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Not that anyone’s tried.

The Mom thing brings up a couple of important habits of hers that contribute to my depression. The first is her habit of ignoring everything she doesn’t like or approve of. She doesn’t have any photographs of my adolescence because I was weird and awkward-looking. This is where the partitioning began; to get parental approval, I had to lock away the aspects of myself that my mom didn’t like. “Don’t walk like that – you look like a fairy.” The second thing is the way that she blamed me for everything that happened to me. If I had a problem, it was always my fault, and usually my responsibility to get out of it myself. I can understand the desire to teach her kids to be independent and to think critically, but sometimes a kid needs a hug and to hear that everything is going to be okay. We need to feel that our mother is on our side, but I rarely felt like she was biased in my favor. More often, it went the other way. “And what did you do to deserve it?” Why do you assume that I always deserve it? She got a little hurt a few years ago because I never take my problems to her now, but she is the least sympathetic person I know. Why would I take her anything? With these attitudes growing up, of course I ended up feeling like there was an evil inside me that was going to consume the entire earth, and that it was my duty to protect everyone from me. Of course I wanted to commit suicide like Dr Jekyll.

I’m not evil. I’m gay and angry, but I don’t damage or poison people just by being in the same room with them. I’m fairly quiet with people I don’t trust, so most people (including my family) see me as a mirror of themselves – they’re shocked when I suddenly have different opinions than they do, but that’s not my fault, and it’s not proof of hidden evil. The more I embrace the parts of me that my mom doesn’t like or see, the more I like myself, and the more my real friends like me too. Even the worst parts of me can be loved.

So, if Stevenson’s story is about good and evil, what is evil? And what is good? Dr Jekyll’s evil is rejecting himself. His locked-up desires get stronger and stronger and burst out in violent and unexpected ways, but those desires didn’t start out as evil. His vices are initially so mild that other people brag about them. Evil is naming part of yourself evil and hating yourself because of it. And good? Well, like so many stories that people say are about good and evil, this isn’t a story about good. People talk of Hyde as the evil and Jekyll as the good, but he’s only one person, and Jekyll isn’t that great.

This book is short and strange, but not David Lynch strange, it’s what-does-Stevenson-think-he’s-doing strange. He’s writing something different than his usual books, and the result is weird, like he doesn’t know how to write this kind of story. Worth reading, but don’t assume you’re going to know anything useful about the author’s style or habits of storytelling. Obviously it’s helped me articulate things I’m experiencing, but that’s more to do with my response and less with the book itself. He’s tapped into something universal and collective, much more than ever before, but he doesn’t handle it with the skill that he did earlier novels. With all the retellings, I feel like I shouldn’t be surprised, especially since I’ve read this before, but it’s still unexpected and weird, every time.

Last week I read my first-ever Agatha Christie novel. I quite enjoyed it, and I can understand her continued appeal. Her style is charming, in the style of popular novels of the early twentieth century. The content also relies on her readership having grown up in the early twentieth century – the plot seems to indicate a fear of the younger generation, kids my parents’ age.

You know how it was when the war broke out. None of us knew whether we were on our head or on our heels. One war we’re pals with the Italians, next war we’re enemies. I don’t know which of them all was the worst. First war the Japanese were our dear allies, and the next war there they are blowing up Pearl Harbor! Never knew where you were! Start one way with the Russians, and finish the opposite way. I tell you, Poirot, nothing’s more difficult nowadays than the question of allies. They can change overnight.

For a military man, the twentieth century was a confusing, messed-up time. I imagine it was for civilians as well, but they seem more capable of focusing on their daily lives instead of international politics.

As you can see from the quotation above, I’ve finally met the inimitable Hercule Poirot. He’s a fussy little Belgian living in London, and by this point in his career he seems to avoid all the action. He reminds me of several of the older gay men I’ve known. His mustache is described as distinctive, but never actually described, so we are free to imagine as odd a mustache as we desire.

Perhaps it was true. He’d looked at her through the eyes of someone old, without admiration, to him just a girl without apparently will to please, without coquetry – a girl without any sense of her own femininity – no charm or mystery or enticement, who had nothing to offer, perhaps, but plain biological sex. So it may be that she was right in her condemnation of him. He could not help her because he did not understand her, because it was not even possible for him to appreciate her.

It seems that Christie was rather uncertain about young people herself, and by the late 1960s she had been sick of Poirot for three decades, so it’s not entirely clear why she would write this story, except that she felt an obligation to give the public what she thought they wanted. I suppose as people grow older it is inevitable that they begin to feel anachronistic, and Poirot certainly is that. Most of his clues are gathered by Mr Goby, who operates off-screen.

To my mind, the real hero here is Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer in her sixties. She’s the one who gets out and does some sleuthing, finds the missing girl, and helps Poirot to the solution. All he does is lie to people and lock someone up in a mental hospital.

Looking back at the title, a ‘third girl’ is the third roommate in an apartment. What typically happens is a young lady gets a job and an apartment, but wants a little help paying rent, so she gets a friend to take the second bedroom. When they want a little extra cash, they advertise in the paper for a third girl, the title itself indicating that she may end up in a closet or entryway rather than in a proper bedroom. But for her it’s a cheap place to live in an expensive city, so Third Girl adverts are fairly popular. Some even advertise for a Fourth Girl. What a single person needs with that much space is beyond me, so I question the logic of First Girls who get such a big place, but it’s really none of my business.

So in Chapter One Poirot is hanging out and doing nothing in particular, when a girl pops in and asks for help solving a crime she may or may not have committed. She’s not sure whether she’s killed someone or not. But before she gets far, she decides he’s too old to help her and pops back out again. He proceeds to backseat-drive the investigation of a murder that most people don’t believe ever took place. There’s no body, no motive, and the only witness/suspect doesn’t know what happened or what she herself has done. It’s almost like he’s creating the crime as he’s solving it. The book is nearly finished before we get the second murder, immediately after which Poirot solves the mystery by blaming the drug culture of young people. Stupid baby boomers.

It bothers me that Poirot and others define femininity as a desire to please men. Our maybe-murderer is seen as a deficient woman because she doesn’t dress a certain way or flirt with a man old enough to be her father (or grandfather). Living where I do, this is a big issue. Young women are expected to make old men feel good about themselves – The Ex was so successful at this that she got fifty dollars knocked off our rent once. She saw it as a game where men are idiots that can be easily manipulated by a girl who seems helpless and grateful for masculine protection. I don’t like that game, so when I caught her doing it to me I dug in my heels and refused to do whatever she wasn’t asking me to do. I think that if a person wants something from me, she can ask me directly. But frankly, I don’t see women as a decorative gender. They have the same intellectual range as men and in nearly every profession they have an equal ability to earn a living (though they are generally paid less than men doing the same job – I’m talking about whether they can do the job as well, which they can). Most of my supervisors at work have been women; I can’t think of a man who is qualified to give me a professional reference, at this point. Women are amazing, and they deserve better than to be judged by idiots like Poirot who think that their mission in life is to serve man.

So, Agatha Christie is a delight, but rooted in the prejudices and politics of her time. Poirot is the sort of person that can be fun to read but would be incredibly annoying in real life. Highly recommended for the reader who likes mysteries but doesn’t like gore.

Once upon a time, The Ex thought I should get some counseling to control my same-sex desires. The priest she sent me to said that he didn’t see being gay as anything bad or requiring counseling, so he talked to me about my parents instead. I feel like that’s what’s going on in my life now – I came back to this house, I’m feeling the anger from when I was divorced, but life keeps handing me books about parent-child relationships. Maybe that’s the real problem: I may actually have dealt with my problems with The Ex, but it’s my parents’ homophobia and lack of support that still enrages me.

This is a book about burying one’s parents. Our first-person narrator Jeff is an unemployed, commitment-phobic child in his mid-thirties. His personality isn’t really strong enough to leave a strong impression, especially not in the high-concept science fiction world he wanders into. It seems odd to me that he should be so young when his parents die, but I suppose some people do still die of disease in their sixties. It’s not as common as it once was, but it could happen. His mother died some time before the beginning of the story, and he was there at her bedside when it happened, so the memory of his mother’s death follows him throughout the book. The novel is divided into two parts, one for his stepmother and one for his father.

Part One is called In the Time of Chelyabinsk, after the town where a giant meteor exploded in the sky. Artis is sick and going to die, so she goes to this cult-like cryogenic freezing place in the middle of nowhere, probably in Russia. I like her name; it reminds me of a cross between Artist and Artemis. Of his two surviving parents, Jeff finds Artis easier to love, but he never responds to her in a filial manner. He calls her by her first name and she is who she is, always herself instead of being identified by her relationship to him. People appear and Jeff gives them names in his head, but they seem to prefer anonymity, being submerged in a group identity. We never learn how they identify themselves, or if they identify themselves as separate individuals.

This part takes place almost wholly within The Convergence, a bunker-like structure designed to preserve the dying wealthy for a time when they can be restored to health. Jeff spends a lot of time wandering around the hallways. It seems designed to remove people from all frames of reference; most of the doors in the halls are decorative instead of leading into rooms, and they tend to be nearly identical. Jeff keeps looking for ways to differentiate, but in my head I only saw the same corridor over and over again. As Jeff wanders the halls, they show video footage of natural disasters, tornados and earthquakes and such, to give the impression that life ‘out there’ is chaotic and frightening, but in here everything is safe and controlled. No nature, no disaster. Science is forestalling death, the ultimate natural event.

And yet, the theory behind the design seems to have been that death is not a part of life, that it removes a person from life even if it’s a relative dying and not herself. Initially the focus is on Jeff’s feelings about Artis dying, which he can only process in this isolation from his daily life, but as he keeps learning about this place the atmosphere gets increasingly conspiracy theory/science cult. The final process feels similar to mummification, with the removal of the organs and sometimes the head. The subjects are promised new, better versions when they’re revived in the technologically advanced future, but it’s still a hospice center in a nuclear bomb shelter. They think they’re living on, but it’s death all the same. Between parts one and two we have a brief interlude of Artis’s thought process after being frozen, and it’s a panicked search for memory of who and where she is, but she can’t find the words for it. Just an endless repetition of searching for a lost identity and place in the world.

In Part Two, Jeff’s father Ross is ready to join Artis. He’s not sick or anything, he just doesn’t want to live without her. Part of this section takes place in the Convergence again, but most of it is in New York as Jeff goes about living his real life. There are some echoes of White Noise here, which helped me feel more comfortable in placing this in the same place in my head as DeLillo’s earlier novels. Jeff is seeing Emma, and she has an adopted son from the Ukraine, Stak. Stak usually lives with his father in Denver, but we meet him on a trip to New York. He’s kind of troubled. While Jeff is dealing with his own daddy issues, he makes an effort to not-quite-parent Stak. It’s not enough, but he does his best. When Stak runs off, Emma slowly disappears from Jeff’s life.

It was easy for me to identify with the characters in White Noise, but it’s harder here in Zero K. One of the things that bothers me about him is the fact that he turns down employment for emotional reasons. I understand that this is part of how Baby Boomers perceive Millennials, but I don’t know anyone who does this. Our fathers aren’t rich and supporting us (as Ross does for Jeff), so we will take any job we can get. ‘It just doesn’t feel right’ is no reason to pass on an opportunity to eat and live in your own place, but the dependence doesn’t seem to bother Jeff. Finally he does find suitable employment as an ethics and compliance officer for a university, but he doesn’t seem as identified with his work as I would expect from his making such a big deal about it.

And then, of course, there’s the relationship with the father, which the book seems to be primarily about. Jeff is one of those adult children of divorced parents who can never forgive his father for being his own person. The only thing that matters to Jeff is relationships, and people only matter to him as their relationship to him. To Jeff, Ross’s only identity is his father, as if his own needs for work and love are unimportant. I see a lot of this in my own family, with my siblings refusing to have a relationship with our dad. I won’t say I’m comfortable with him, but he is my dad, and there are no substitutes for that. Half of my raw materials are from him, so he’s an important influence on my body and personality. I can’t hate him without hating myself, and I choose not to hate myself.

Part Two is In the Time of Konstantinovka, and the Convergence has seen a shift in focus. To me, it seems less religious and more business. The screens no longer show natural disasters – they show footage of the fighting in the Ukraine. Nature is no longer the enemy; other people are. Here in small-town USA we’re pretty far removed from events in the Ukraine, but apparently the fighting hasn’t really ever stopped, since a few years ago when Russia pretty much annexed the Crimea, and the rest of the world just let them. Konstantinovka gets a special mention because it’s the town where a tank ran over a little girl. It seems to me like a civil war, and there are some historical parallels to the way we stole Texas from Mexico, but some people are seeing this as evidence that we’re in a second Cold War. I’m not sufficiently involved in the news to have an opinion on that idea, but I think it’s one that a lot of people in this country would welcome. A Cold War gives us an easy target, a clearly defined enemy nation. We haven’t had that in a while.

As a kid, it seemed like we weren’t against individual Russians so much as against Communism and Conformity, which were pretty much the same thing, a lifestyle more than an economic system. In the last twenty-five years, we’ve become more conformist, I think – instead of Weird putting people outside of society like it did when we were kids, Weird has been adopted as a standard model of American behavior. There are set patterns of being weird that people can accept now, so you have to be weird in the right way.

I wanted to see beauty in these stilled figures, an imposing design not of clockwork bodies but of the simple human structure and its extensions, inward and out, each individual implacably unique in touch, taste and spirit. There they stand, not trying to tell us something but suggesting nonetheless the mingled astonishments of our lives, here, on earth.

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

Was there a hollowness in these notions? Maybe they were nothing more than an indication of my eagerness to get home. Do I remember where I live? Do I still have a job? Can I still bum a cigarette from a girlfriend after a movie?

As with most science fiction, DeLillo is asking questions about who we are, and who we are becoming. If there is a Cold War II, are we the conformists this time? Are we allowing ourselves to become standardized people? Am I myself, or am I WeirdBookNerd33459, a specific variation that loves music, movies, and the fiber arts? And why is it that Microsoft Word underlines my last name as if it were a spelling error, but has no problem with the standardized label in the previous sentence?

Sometimes history is single lives in momentary touch.

Actually, I think that’s all history is. It all boils down to individual people making decisions. Those decisions can have far-reaching consequences, and history is usually composed of more weighty decisions than whether I’m going to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast or not, but still, it’s people choosing. The study of history consists of understanding why people choose the things they do and what the consequences of those choices are.

I do realize that the novel that serves as my reference point for DeLillo was written thirty years ago, and this book is his most recent. That’s plenty of time for growth and change. But there are still technicolor sunsets and fractured, oddly international families. There are people trying to figure out who they are in a world that is increasingly hard on individualists. Perhaps our real life is assuming more of an Arthur C. Clarke/Philip K. Dick vibe, which is why we have such a sci-fi book from an otherwise realistic author. And maybe I’m not ready to deal with my feelings about my parents’ eventual demise, which is why I’ve written nearly two thousand words while avoiding that topic.

As I was looking around one of the local bookstores for books about Wicca, the selections seemed nauseatingly self-promotional: Let me enthrall you with the story of how I abandoned corporate America to become High Priestess of my own coven, moving effortlessly between privileged positions in two very different societies. That is not my kind of story, so I left the store without buying anything. A few days later, I looked up the Wicca books at the library where I work, and there was exactly one. This one.

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends – several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers – who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me, it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe – communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I’ll come to understand what I’ve been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened this book, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find myself. Alex Mar is a very different person from me, with a radically different background, but this approach to belief is very similar to what I’ve been feeling. As I read the book and followed her journey through American Paganism, there’s a formlessness to her spirituality that I relate to very powerfully.

I want to stop sublimating this religious drive and instead embrace it, pitch forward into it, see how it might better serve me. Stop being this spiritual dilettante, a professional “seeker.” If I have a natural talent for belief, I must be a natural fit for something to believe in – some system somebody has laid out somewhere. I imagine a near future in which all my parts might align. For the first time, I find myself surrounded by people who assume just such a thing is possible.

I keep getting Poison’s song stuck in my head, asking the world to “give me something to believe in,” and I’m still working toward that. I’m figuring things out, a little at a time, and there are traditions in this book that seem appealing and others that don’t. Part of this is Mar’s own story, but she also explains the origins of the most common pagan traditions, and these stories all seem to revolve around a single charismatic leader, as I imagine most stories about the origin of belief systems do.

Gerald Gardner is the first of these leaders; he started Wicca in England sometime in the last century. He seems to have traveled around the world and cobbled together a practice, a lot of stuff from the Freemasons and traditional religions from Southeast Asia and Africa, and some of his own inspiration. There’s nudity and sadism and the kind of stuff Christians like to spread rumors about, but for most of the followers it’s about believing in power and accessing it through ritual, and some of those rituals involve sex and violence. His ideas spread around, and eventually led to the type of earth-loving mother-goddess worship we think of today.

Victor Anderson is another important leader, this one from the Pacific Northwest – you know, suicide country. He brought forth the Feri strand of Wicca, something more primal and less old-man-sex-fetish. There is sex involved, but there’s a stronger element of consent, and you can complete that part of the ritual with your regular partner in the privacy of your own home. The name hints of the old-world traditions about Little People, but the connection there is more related to the sense that nature is wise and magical and unforgiving, not so much to tiny people with wings. When I first came out six years ago, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) suggested I go to a retreat, and I think it was Faerie rather than Feri, but they both presented it as a weeklong gay orgy in the woods. As if I have ever had the money for a weeklong retreat of any type. I’ve often marveled at the fact that people think they know me and yet think I’d be okay with that, as if I would be comfortable having several partners in a single day, as if it doesn’t take me a great deal of contemplation to move from one to the next. Yes, there’s a lot of power in sexual energy, and I do enjoy it rather a lot, but I think I’d be too easily overstimulated. It’s an intense experience, so it takes time for me to assimilate it. I’m just not promiscuous. And while I enjoy going skyclad in the privacy of my own home, I don’t think I’d like it in public. I feel a little outré just taking my shirt off at a public swimming pool.

The chapter about Dianic Wicca, the part that grew out of the feminism of the 1960s, feels less strongly dominated by a single overwhelming personality, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In our culture, we’re taught that women are more communal and less ego-driven than men, so a religion born in our culture that doesn’t focus on men logically should reflect those values. Notable names include Zsuzsanna Budapest, Selena Fox, and Ruth Barrett. As one of them remarked, this movement isn’t anti-men, it’s just not about us. There’s a little blip of a hetero wedding ceremony in this chapter, so men aren’t excluded, and even those few lines had me in tears. If I ever get married again, I want it to be like that.

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

There are some areas of the faith that make space for men, but there are others that don’t. I agree that it’s important for women to create their own spaces where they can feel comfortable without any men around. I taught a class a few years ago where all the students were female, and it had a dramatically different feeling than my classes usually have. I try to treat my students as equals, because that creates a camaraderie that I respond well to. It sometimes involves swearing in front of the class (informal language creates a sense of intimacy) and giving the “tough love” that tells them that I have confidence they can do more and be better than they are. But with the class of women, there was no question of equality. It was more like having a non-sexual harem – there was an element of submission before authority that I am unused to, and it evoked a much gentler response from me. As the only man and the teacher, they all looked to me to lead the discussion and make pronouncements from on high – there’s nothing natural about this. What I’m saying is, even one man in the room can disrupt the sense of community and produce a strong sense of conformity to gender roles, no matter how gay he is. There’s a freedom that can only be found in single-gender environments.

The last of the big names from the past is Aleister Crowley (of course). I’d heard his name in literary criticism – late Victorian authors were really into the paranormal, and Crowley dated a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and joined the same order as W. B. Yeats. He quickly spun off and started his own thing, though; his order is a very explicit reaction against Christianity, much more directly than the others. It is anti-Christianity, with the parody of the Mass and the liturgy, flipping it into a worship of gods Christians would consider demonic. Crowley was also really involved with the tarot, and it sounds like some elements of his Mass are living representations of the pictures on the card set he designed. This chapter was the most troubling for me – reading it felt a bit like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, the electric charge and the sense that something is wrong – which either means (a) it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll never join this group, or (b) I’m not ready for it, and now is not the time. The thing that bothers me most is the way that it defines itself in opposition. The description of the Mass felt like enacted hatred. I understand that all of these groups were started in supposedly Christian countries, and so to some extent they’re all at least slightly reacting against Christianity, but Crowley’s crowd were the only ones I thought were nasty about it. When she describes the people she meets there, they do seem like nice people, but that service is clearly meant as a Fuck-You-Jesus in a way the others are not. It’s presented as much more temple-oriented, less natural.

Throughout the book, the most important figure (beside the author) is Morpheus, a priestess from California. She’s in the now, not the historical parts of the book. Over the course of their friendship, Morpheus goes from a more nature-centered approach (she built her own henge) to focusing primarily on one of the ancient Irish Goddesses, the Morrigan. As she’s described here, I do not connect with the Morrigan at all. She’s a warrior queen, and I have no ambitions to be either a warrior or a queen. I’m much more likely to follow a wise woman gathering herbs than a sword-wielding shield-maiden, despite my near-total ignorance of botany. While I don’t identify with Morpheus’s journey, I do think that she gives Mar excellent advice:

I also don’t think everyone’s experience is the same or should be. Just because you may not have had a dramatic moment of being chosen by the Goddess doesn’t mean the Gods don’t want you, if you know what I mean. […] So I think it isn’t always helpful to look for a dramatic “calling” or marking experience . . . If the tradition speaks to you in a meaningful way, that is a good place to start.

Which is important to me, because I don’t have a strong sense of vocation right now. I’m looking for starting points.

Skepticism can be really toxic, because it makes you not trust your own lived experiences, the evidence of your senses, without outside verification.

Which is also important to me, because I’m coming out of a time of skepticism back into belief, and trusting myself is an important part of that.

There’s a footnote that I’d like to comment on:

It’s unclear how a graphic book on the Craft made it into the library of a very Christian town – though I’ve heard similar stories from a few people around the country.

It’s because librarians are magic. Even those operating in the Christian tradition seem to have something witchy about them. There’s something about libraries that seems to promote free thinking and a distance from societal expectations, which creates a space for witchcraft even in the rural South.

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

I don’t feel converted to the types of paganism I saw in this book, except maybe that early bit about the henge. Looking in the spaces between, though, I think there would be room for me in that community, if I chose it. I have a friend who describes herself as a “kitchen witch,” and that phrase makes a lot of sense to me. If there’s magic in the world, isn’t it a more worthwhile practice to pour love into the food you feed your family and friends than to hex the bitch who is trying to steal your man? Obviously, one practitioner can do both, but I disagree with the metaphors people use to justify cruelty. Frankly, it seems like many people get into witchery for the sake of doing spells, accessing power for its own sake rather than for the purpose of doing good. Magic represents a bending of natural laws, and that’s not something I want to do. I want to feel whole, to understand my place in the Web of Wyrd instead of trembling it. The emotional cleansing that is deemed necessary before training really appeals to me – I want to feel connected to the earth and to myself; joining soul to ground by means of the body may be more of a martial-arts thing than a Pagan thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I want to spread beauty and make the world a better place; I believe evil has to be healed, not punished or destroyed.

I also believe very strongly that dead people should be left alone. Don’t bother them with your problems; being dead doesn’t make them smarter than you. And if it’s someone you love, then let them go. Don’t bind them to earth with your pain. That’s not a kindness to them. There’s a guy she meets that goes around robbing graves – decapitating the body and turning the heads into oracles – and I know he’s probably not using those skulls for sexual purposes, but it still feels like he’s raping corpses. One more reason to be cremated and use the ashes as fertilizer. After I’m gone, I want my body to rise up as a tree.

I think this is a great book as an introduction to Paganism in contemporary America. Many of the experienced practitioners, on the other hand, were rather angry about it. They felt it was exploitative, like she was an identity tourist who betrayed them by only pretending to be sincere. I didn’t get that feeling, though. She threw herself into the Craft as much as she could, and I don’t blame her for not finding an identity there. Five years is a good length of time; if she didn’t find her niche, maybe she doesn’t have one in that community. Some others complained that the historical sections weren’t academic enough, but I don’t think that was really her goal. This is a deeply personal book, so she tells the history the way she understands it. I have the same response to those people who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the book – other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, they see us through the lens of their own experiences and emotions. So when someone tells a story about me, I don’t always recognize myself in the depiction (Early on, The Ex used to say, But it makes a better story this way). If you didn’t write the book, if it’s not your journey, then of course you look like just a flat character in someone else’s story. That person only saw a small part of you, so they can’t write you the way you really are, in your fullness. For that, you’d need to write your own story. Think back to what she learned about faith: you have to be true to your own experience, and I think Alex Mar was that. The problem people have with her book is that her experience doesn’t match theirs, and I think it’s unfortunate that they would expect it to. How can we see things the same way when the lenses of our experience are different?

In the end, she’s still an outsider. She hasn’t found a shape for her belief yet, which is something else that makes me feel close to her. I think I’m not the only one that this formlessness would appeal to; when you’re on the outside of a tradition, it can be hard to read a book about it by someone who’s on the inside. Authors writing about their own religious beliefs are usually writing for their own community; there’s something incommunicable and unapproachable about spiritual experiences that we as readers have not experienced, kind of like how hard it is to carry on a conversation about Saudi Arabia with someone who’s never left the South. How can I describe air that is so dry it has no life in it, when you live so much with humidity that you don’t notice how nourishing your breath is? How can I share the feeling that my value in the world was reduced to a single activity, one which I valued less and less?  How can I make you see the discomfort of living in a society that rejects you without repelling you so much you end the discussion? How can I give you a flavor of the foreign that is still real enough to you that you can understand it? So yes, in some ways the book ends up being reductive because it’s intended for a specific audience, one that doesn’t have experience with the rituals and magic of modern American Paganism.

There’s a lot of conflict and competition in the occult subculture. They’re still just people, so they think that what’s right for them is right for everyone. Many of them also make their living through teaching or practicing, so they become defensive and protective of their livelihoods, just like traditional priests and pastors. I’m not jumping straight onto the Wicca bandwagon just yet; I’m trying to be deliberate and understand what I believe before I take any initiations or that sort of thing. This isn’t an energy I want to take lightly.

Clive Barker writes such beautiful horror.

Weaveworld

Even this, one of his earliest novel-length stories, moves me to tears.

Nothing ever begins.

There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that; though as the narrator’s voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys.

Nothing is fixed. In and out the shuttle goes, fact and fiction, mind and matter woven into patterns that may have only this in common: that hidden among them is a filigree that will with time become a world.

This book was written a little before The Great and Secret Show, and has a lot of similarities to it. There’s a magical world bordering on ours, which people can access at rare times, but which is normally hidden and forgotten. Instead of existing outside, though, the secret magic is woven into a carpet, hidden in plain sight. And instead of having the two-journey structure, this book is in three volumes, and those volumes are subdivided into thirteen books. It brings to mind the twelve-part epics (plus one, to evoke the number of horror) as well as the Victorian three-deckers. Also like TGSS, there’s this amazingly powerful heroine.

“You’re a strange woman,” he said as they parted, apropos of nothing in particular.

She took the remark as flattery.

Suzanna is a regular person, in this book called Cuckoos, but when she faces a magical antagonist she gets access to the power of the menstruum, and while that word isn’t always associated with power, in this book it is. The menstruum is the source of magic, and when used appropriately, can give a woman so much power she becomes revered as a goddess. She has the task of protecting the Fugue, the magical place hidden in the weave, and the people who live there. She is assisted in this task by a lovable not-quite-hero, a cute boy who seems sort of worthless until he’s inspired by love to do incredible things.

And what lesson could he learn from the mad poet, now that they were fellow spirits? What would Mad Mooney do, were he in Cal’s shoes?

He’d play whatever game was necessary, came the answer, and then, when the world turned its back he’d search, search until he found the place he’d seen, and not care that in doing so he was inviting delirium. He’d find his dream and hold on to it and never let it go.

Cal is sort of like Christopher Moore’s Beta Males, more secondary protagonist than hero, but he loves the Fugue and will do anything to preserve it.

True joy is a profound remembering; and true grief the same.

Thus it was, when the dust storm that had snatched Cal up finally died, and he opened his eyes to see the Fugue spread before him, he felt as though the few fragile moments of epiphany he’d tasted in his twenty-six years – tasted but always lost – were here redeemed and wed. He’d grasped fragments of this delight before. Heard rumor of it in the womb-dream and the dream of love; seen its consequence in sudden good and sudden laughter; known it in lullabies. But never, until now, the whole, the thing entire.

It would be, he idly thought, a fine time to die.

And a finer time still to live, with so much laid out before him.

As with many other novels I love, this one follows the natural cycles: events usually slow down in the winter, as the British retreat to their fireplaces and let the snows rage around them, and then things pick back up in the spring and get really intense in the summer. The Fugue is a place of creation, so it is often allied with the spring.

Of course, there are antagonists. Immacolata wants to unleash the Scourge and destroy the Fugue, and Shadwell her minion wants to take over. I once read that the protagonist is often considered the character who changes the most, and Shadwell changes a lot over the course of the book, so maybe it’s his story and not so much Suzanna’s and Cal’s. In the first part he’s a salesman, in the second he’s a prophet, and in the third he’s a destroyer, but it is sort of implied that the three roles are all the same, really. He has a magic jacket that shows people the thing they want most and gives them the illusion of attaining it – as I reflected on this and the fact that the thing I want most is love and a man to share it with, I wondered what Shadwell’s jacket would show me. After all, the first time we see it, Shadwell just opens his coat and asks Cal, “See something you like?” as if he were displaying his body and inviting Cal to touch him, but with that slightly menacing tone that says that if he takes the bait he’s going to get beat up for it. The Scourge itself is amazingly powerful, like the dragons of ancient stories, and has lost sight of who he is because of those ancient stories. At one point it’s said that he’s been corrupted by loneliness, and I wonder how much loneliness it takes to turn someone’s mind like that. And I wonder how much time I have left, before I decide that romance is unattainable in this life and that I need to get on without it. Like in Moana, the danger has to be healed instead of destroyed, so this is ultimately a hopeful book, despite all the death and destruction and loss that comes before the end. Which you would sort of expect in a book that I feel with enough intensity to cry at the end.

The thing I wasn’t expecting from this book was racism. The term Negress is outdated, but can be read as descriptive and not pejorative, but there are other words for persons of African descent that are unequivocally used to denigrate (a word which means, to make blacker). I know that word was only used by a bad guy, but even when racism is only used to mark unsympathetic characters it still bothers me. There is also a random offensive comment on the Cherokee, in the narrator’s voice and serving no purpose but to dehumanize a nation whose roots extend beyond our human understanding of history. And another thing: what is this thing that British authors have with writing about gay Arabs? (Neil Gaiman, I’m looking at you and your American Gods.) Does this go back to Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, or did T. E. Lawrence depict the Middle East as some sort of nonstop gay sex party? If so, then there’s no reason for Lawrence of Arabia to be such a dull film (I’ve heard; I’ve never actually seen it). In this book, the homosexual desire is acknowledged, but not celebrated – that will come later in Barker’s career, after he comes out publicly.

The other day I drove back through the old neighborhood in Asheville where The Ex and I used to live, and it was strange and different. On a Saturday in December, there should have been endless traffic, but it was just like a Saturday in any other month – I guess the new outlet shops at Biltmore Square have finally succeeded in diverting holiday drivers away from downtown and the mall area. Less traffic is welcome, but the other changes were less so. I lived in the Charlotte Street area for a year, and I heard more angry honking in half an hour in 2017 than in all of 2009. I commented on this to The Ex, and she agreed that Asheville’s energy has gotten really angry in the last few years, so much so that she doesn’t enjoy coming into town as she used to. In my memory, Asheville is preserved as a magical place where people are kind and mindful of the life around them; the city may still recycle, but they’ve lost their attention to each other. It’s become crowded and distressing, the city’s music transformed into noise. Perhaps there are still oases of comfort, but the city itself is not the oasis it once was. I remember people worrying about gentrification and what would happen when artists and the poor could no longer afford to live downtown, and now we’re seeing it. The problem isn’t with public art or community events (Bel Chere is privatized, but not dead) – the problem is with the people. I wonder if it’s all newcomers; I’ve been getting intensely angry with the world lately, and a lot of it has to do with the way the American government is turning the country to shit and how powerless I feel to do anything about it. I would guess that’s a big part of Asheville’s problem right now too.

But, much like the Fugue, my communities can be saved. Suzanna’s grandmother leaves her a book of German fairy tales, with the inscription:

Das, was man sich vorstellt, braucht man nie zu verlieren.

Which Barker translates as:

That which is imagined need never be lost.

But looking back at the German, I appreciate the fact that it uses indefinite pronouns and active verbs, so that a more literal translation could be: That which one imagines, she never needs to lose, or One never need shed what she imagines. Despite all my anger at how very disappointing life in the United States has been the last few years, I still hope for something better. I’m still imagining the life I want, and trusting the stories that tell me that if I can dream it, I need not lose it. Nothing that we imagine can be lost forever.

 “It’s all the same story.”

“What story?” Cal said.

We live it and they live it,” she said, looking at de Bono. “It’s about being born, and being afraid of dying, and how love saves us.” This she said with great certainty, as though it had taken her a good time to reach this conclusion and she was unshakeable on it.

It silenced the opposition awhile. All three walked on without further word for two minutes or more, until de Bono said, “I agree.”

She looked up at him.

“You do?” she said, plainly surprised.

He nodded. “One story?” he said. “Yes, that makes sense to me. Finally, it’s the same for you as it is for us, raptures or no raptures. Like you say. Being born, dying: and love between.”

 

misery

This is the last of the books that I was reading for Halloween. Yes, I finished it nearly a week late, but real life got busy for a while. I haven’t read On Writing in a few years, but one of the impressions I got from that book is that Carrie and Misery were two of the most important books of his pre-1999 career. I loved Carrie, so reading Misery was a good next step. I have to admit that I didn’t love it quite as much, probably for a variety of reasons.

This is a retelling of the old Scheherazade myth. The sultan is Annie Wilkes, a serial killer who one day finds her favorite author in a wrecked car on the side of the road. Paul Sheldon is one of those writers who keeps a clear mental division between the books he writes for himself (or his Art) and the books he writes for the public. He’s carrying a manuscript of one of the arty books, Fast Cars, which is full of profanity and grit and the worst of mundane humanity; the popular books are all about Misery Chastain, a vaguely Victorian sensation novel heroine. Imagine that East Lynne and Lady Audley’s Secret had a grandchild, set in their time but told in late Twentieth Century language. Paul hates Misery so much that he killed her at the end of the last book. Frankly, I was intrigued at the thought of her husband and her lover raising her child together, with no one to rely on but each other in pants-less isolation, but Paul being straight, Ian and Geoffrey do not get any sexy time. So, Annie makes Paul write a new Misery book, resurrecting her favorite character, and his writing keeps him alive from one day to the next.

The thing is, that this American male Scheherazade gives up. It may seem odd to specify gender and nationality here, but to be unpleasantly honest, have you ever met an Arab woman? They are tough and resourceful and they get what they want. Paul Sheldon just loses and loses and loses. The story gives him a reason to live long enough to see how it ends. He tells the story to keep himself from suicide. I was glancing through my journal the other day and saw how close I had come to dying, and I agree in the power of writing and story. For me, it wasn’t fiction writing – it was my own story. Those of you who were reading my Saudi Arabia blog may remember how dark those days were for me; I got through by telling myself a story, the story of my future. Sure, it may never come true the way I imagined it, but my ability to believe in that story saved my life.

What gets to me about Misery’s Return is that Paul Sheldon finally achieves what he thought was impossible: a book that was both artsy enough to satisfy him, but with enough popular Rider Haggard appeal to sell. It always bothers me, the way people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries act like Good and Popular are mutually exclusive categories, as if people can’t tell or don’t like what’s good. Culture is culture, whether any one person calls it high or low, and what’s popular defines the culture we live in. It’s a better thing to embrace reality than to hide from the aspects of culture that a person doesn’t like or agree with. The best music, the best art, the best literature, is what survives; if people are still reading Stephen King horror novels in a hundred years, then that makes him better than the Writers’ Workshop novelists who can’t get a readership.

I like the three-act structure; King knows his storytelling. Act One establishes what is normal in the created world, which is that Paul has a downstairs bedroom in Annie’s house and she manipulates him by controlling his access to painkillers. His legs are splinted, but they’re healing in all sorts of bad ways, but there’s nothing he can do about it because he’s been kidnapped. Annie is a bit bipolar, but that doesn’t account for the murderousness. She has a puritanical streak, and won’t say anything stronger than ‘Cockadoodie brats,’ which I find odd. I’ve never really had much use for euphemism; words are powerful, but only in that they are containers for feelings and ideas. A word like Fuck is only horrible when it holds hatred and rage. As a representation of sexual activity, it’s an innocent sign, labiodental fricative moving to a vowel somewhere in the middle of the chart (if you’re American; Londoners seem to go with a much higher, frontal vowel) and finishing with a plosive at the back of the mouth. There’s something in the mouthfeel of the word that gives me a feeling of satisfaction and comfort. Act One leads to the burning of the manuscript and the agreement to bring Misery back from the grave.

Act Two deals primarily with the writing of the book and Paul’s attempts to escape. He is given a typewriter and paper, and gets back into the challenge of writing a story that his audience, one insane kidnapper/murderer, will accept and enjoy. He describes it as seeing a hole in the paper, which he tips himself into as if he were Alice following a white rabbit. He also finds and reads through Annie’s murder scrapbook; I never understand why criminals need to hold onto mementos of their crimes, as if they somehow become separated from their own pasts and need tangible reminders of what happened, as if without the proof they will forget their own actions. If you killed someone, how could you possibly forget him? And if you did forget that you were a murderer, why would you want to remember? To ensure Paul’s compliance, Annie concludes Act Two by amputating one of his feet. With an axe.

Act Three starts off farther ahead in time, but flashing back to what we missed, recreating the trauma victim’s perception of time as disjointed and fragmentary. Paul’s lost a thumb by now, but he still finishes the book. The way Paul loses things – his legs, his freedom, his manuscript, his will to live, his limbs – reminds me of Captain Ahab, who loses various navigational aids and personal comforts in his pursuit of the white whale that took his leg. When he loses his pipe, I just know he’s going to lose any sense of sanity. Paul pushes through and completes his journey (to the end of Misery’s Return) just as Ahab completes his (to the final confrontation with the whale, and death).

Think about the film Stranger than Fiction for a minute. We spend most of the movie waiting for Karen Eiffel, the writer, to figure out a way to kill Harold Crick, her character. She knows the book will end with his death, but she can’t quite figure out how to do it. Then, at the last minute, she can’t write that he is dead, and finds a way to bring him back. I feel like something similar happened to King in writing this book. Paul knows he’s going to die, and I fully expect it. A passage that I remember from On Writing that I can’t locate at the moment indicates that in his mind, Paul wasn’t going to make it. Annie Wilkes was going to win. He was literally going to be consumed by the character he hated but everyone else loved, in the form of Annie’s pig that she named Misery, and the singular Annie Wilkes edition of Misery’s Return was going to be bound in his own skin, as if this book were his organs, as if the story were himself. The writing led me to believe that this ending was going to happen, but at the last minute King saves Paul. He fights back and lives, though his mind will never really get away from Annie Wilkes, even after she’s dead. Now, why did he do that?

It would be fair enough to ask, I suppose, if Paul Sheldon in Misery is me. Certainly parts of him are . . . but I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you. When you ask yourself what a certain character will do given a certain set of circumstances, you’re making the decision based on what you yourself would (or, in the case of a bad guy, wouldn’t) do. Added to these versions of yourself are the character traits, both lovely and unlovely, which you observe in others (a guy who picks his nose when he thinks no one is looking, for instance). There is also a wonderful third element: pure blue-sky imagination. This is the part which allowed me to be a psychotic nurse for a little while when I was writing Misery. And being Annie was not, by and large, hard at all. In fact, it was sort of fun. I think being Paul was harder. He was sane, I’m sane, no four days at Disneyland there.

Perhaps there’s a certain sense of justice. Annie deserves to die, Paul doesn’t. She herself reminds us that the author is like God and He Only decides who lives or dies, so every time a fictional character dies the author killed her on purpose. And every author is in truth all his characters. The Ex used to read a lot of Diana Gabaldon, and in one passage she tells the story of sitting with some fans who were praising the hero to the skies but trashing the villain, and she thought about how foolish they were not to realize that Black Jack Randall was sitting at the table with them. King had a choice about which part of him to lose, what deserved to die. He chose to keep the writer and dispense with the kidnapping murderer.

There was a distance here between author and reader that I didn’t feel with Carrie – I think it’s related to the drugs. By the middle of the 1980s, he had become a substance abuser, which he was not when he wrote his first novel. And this is the book that helped him turn it around.

I did think, though – as well as I could in my addled state – and what finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided (again, as far as I was able to decide anything in my distraught and depressed state of mind) that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that.

It was the drugs taking away his freedom, his art, his body, himself. Which is why Annie Wilkes could not win at the end of the book – Paul Sheldon may have given up, but Stephen King had not. Because the book ends in a different place than it began, I want him to go back and change some details so that I can accept the ending more easily, but at the same time I get it. When I think about the real life and the real person behind the book, when I read his story between the lines, I can take Misery as it is. King survived because he had people in his life that he loved; Paul doesn’t. All he has is the story, and if you’re a fictional character, the story has to be enough. Or, if you’re a suicidal English teacher in the Middle East and you feel cut off from all the people who love you, the story of your future has to be enough. Sometimes stories are all we have.