staying in other people’s houses

I will be doing just that shortly, and I have to go prepared. This means reading material. From childhood slumber parties to interludes at the in-laws’, I have always woken up long before anyone else in the house, leaving me to fill the fuzzy early hours with something quiet and stationary. Hence, a book.

Sometimes I will share these early hours with the father of the house (the working mothers seem always to be able to sleep in, still), whose work-wound body clocks won’t let them stay unconscious. They offer me coffee or juice and I sit across from them as they read their papers or their ipads, an unexpected but (I hope) untaxing addition to their morning scene. I ask little of them. I pride myself on being prepared in these situations; on being the guest who—perhaps in counterpoint to the rest of their day, whether spent at home or at work—will ask nothing of them. I desire no chatter. I can get whatever is necessary from the fridge myself. I have a book. Just pretend I’m not even here.

1Q84, though, wouldn’t do for this upcoming trip because Tokyo upsets me too much to bring it to the peace of a lake. (Sunday night I dreamed of it again and I clenched my jaw so hard that when I woke my whole skull felt beaten, and my jaw popped as I flexed it.) So 1Q84 was out. Cue NPR to save the day with the recommendation of 1987’s Golden Days, by Carolyn See. I’m tired of the apocalypse being in vogue, and would have had no interest were it not for one line of Gabrielle Zevin’s in the book rec blurb. She describes reading the book in college and being floored at the genre transition that (apparently) occurs in the final third of the book. She then rationalizes this by saying that, really, it shouldn’t have surprised her that much because books are like us—“You’re born and you’re bildungsroman, you get cancer and just like that you’re science fiction.”

I have no idea why this line struck me so much. I don’t generally look at books in groups or in genres, I suppose—I only focus on one book at a time. So I was primed to be impressed by any broader comment on books. Maybe. But the casual way everything was lumped together under the banner of genre in that statement kind of seemed…forgiving, I guess, of the grand overblown way in which I tend to look at events in my own life, or in others’. How many people do I know—myself included—who mooned around as a kid, perpetually vacillating between some sort of martyr-y fantasy (so easy, growing up between Columbine and Iraq) and the gratuitously rebellious iconography of whatever YA Holden Caulfields (The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, anyone?) cropped up in our line of sight? “And suddenly, you’re science fiction.” Suddenly you’re filling your head with term care and statistics and clinical trial signup sheets thinking “but maybe they’ll fix it in time; maybe there’s just some magical piece of science they’ll discover, like, tomorrow, and they’ll fix her, poof, like a retuned piano.” Yeah, maybe if you live in Light or Neuromancer or Moxyland, they will. 

Anyway, there are no deep thoughts here. I’ll read Golden Days and hope it’s not On the Beach, which I read as a twelve year old mostly out of a stubborn response to my history teacher’s claim that it was above us. It wasn’t, but in the days where the newspaper advised us to buy bottled water and duct tape and tape up our windows in case of some messy attack [from which duct tape would save us not at all] I began to wish there actually was a government prerogative to provide us with cyanide pills, or whatever those were, to spare us the pain of slow nuclear demise. I only remember the images you’d expect from that book—the sub, the ferrari, the cape—but I also remember (spoilers, if you care) a guy near the end making or buying a giant pile of gourmet sandwiches for him and his wife. Ham and turkey, I think. There’s this big pile of them, and they’re too sick to their stomachs with radiation sickness to each them much, and that is more depressing than the rest of it, for me. He wanted them to have this nice last picnic together, or something, and it’s ruined. They’re too late. It’s like working hard to come up with a great last line and then dying in the middle. They should’ve been able to enjoy their goddamn sandwiches.


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