Over the weekend I went to The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. On the train on the way there I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour — on my Kindle, for easy transport. It was grim. He write the way he talks, but of course, now, what came off before as a cynicism if not conjured from the ether than certainly heavily enhanced for entertainment purposes. The darkness hinted at therein (and then, in chapter three, the darkness described in detail) lurked, more, now, than anyone would have been willing to see before, I suppose. In chapter three he and his brother took off on the fool’s quest of resurrecting the joy of their youth in the place of their youth, in the winter cold and without their loved ones, many of whom had since died. Again and again, that “you can’t go back” thread that was the whole reason I went to graduate school shows up…but here it wasn’t even beautiful. Just sad.
Carrying that with me, though, carefully tucked away in my purse into a self-described last bastion of physical book commerce, I found myself a reading an oddly uplifting counterpoint, there amongst so many discarded volumes bearing inscriptions for people who’d long since gotten rid of them. (I would be a terrible estate sale thrifter; the gifts given in love and now long abandoned never fail to bring me down.)
I felt sick; the store ran no AC and I’d not had enough to eat or drink; if you weren’t standing in front of a fan you were sweating. I prowled the shelves and prowled them again and felt like I was in a loop; I’d loved doing this for decades but now everything I picked up felt like the wrong person telling the wrong story. A man talking about women in love. A man talking about women in pain. A woman, at last, but telling that same tired old story of a bunch of women of different generations stuck together in one place where they have to Deal With Things. I hate that story. It’s made for TV.
At last I found the stairs up out of the broiling cesspool of People I Used To Be (see: the philosophy and film and literary critique sections, populated by various versions of my college cohort, surly and judgy to a T) and breathed a sigh of relief so heavy I got a pair of raised eyebrows from the person reading at the top of the stairs. Fantasy — at last! But I still felt sick, and — barring staff recommendations, which I always like to read but which were strangely lacking in that section — I took the obligatory picture of the book tunnel and fled with a book whose title and cover I liked to a flaking leather chair and sweet, sweet fan proximity.
The book was The End of the Day, by Claire North. And this was the counterpoint I hadn’t realized I’d been looking for, to Bourdain. To Bourdain viewed through the lens of his loss. It began with a level of self-conscious quirkiness that would have made me put it down immediately if it had been written by, say, Neil Gaiman. I don’t know how to explain my sudden refusal to listen to yet another man tell me a story, except that again, typically that’s all I read, and here I’d been reading Bourdain, whom I admired and missed and who had seemed like he had overcome the darkness that lurks even at the corners of people who don’t ever engage with it directly, but he hadn’t and he’d died and I didn’t want to hear any other old man’s reassurances that he understood anything anymore, when a year or two later it would turn out he was wrong and he’d kill himself instead of figuring it out.
Whatever it was, I flipped to the flyleaf immediately to see the author. A thing I never do. Would it be another Vanna White look-alike, who might as well have her carefully-coiffed picture on every ball of yarn I’ve ever bought? No. Claire North is a pseudonym, but it still stands for a women, younger than me, unmade-up in a flannel shirt and hair short enough to encourage cautious flirting. Ahhhh. Not someone trying to tell me how it is, then. Or to tell themselves. Someone trying to be magical. And largely succeeding, if the flyleaf extolling her first book at 14 years old held true. I wasn’t even jealous of this — I would not want to be in the headspace, I now realized, for that to have been possible. I flipped back to the front and read on.
Bourdain on the train pulled me down because it was now, of course in hindsight, so obvious, the wild swings from elation to despair. No good thing could simply be observed as such, no bad thing could simply be bad: they were either devastatingly bad and devastatingly good, as exhausting to read about as it is to hear, in person. No equilibrium, no “okay.” And “okay” is everything the Harbinger of Death, Charlie, is, in The End of the Day. And that should — would have, I’m sure, to my teenage through my college self — have sounded self-explanatory, equilibrium, the median and anything in between extremes being pedestrian, and worthy of avoidance, dismissal. (I am hardly alone in this. For better or worse — mostly worse — the same people telling you art, literature and music matter are also telling you, in those years in particular, that only the extremes are worthy of artistic expression, and so what you understand is that you must reject all the in-betweens, and be either all this or all that, or else not be worth bothering with. It’s stupid and negligent and maybe unavoiable, given the artistic landscape of the world. But people should still think before they light these fires in others’ hearts.) Charlie, though, isn’t just some mediocre humdrum office zombie, a fixture of the 20th century pitying glance. He is no Walter Mitty.
From his job interview:
“Associations. I say a word, You say the first thing that comes to your mind.”
“Really? Isn’t that a little–”
“…People. Sorry, that’s just the first thing that…”
That’s when I decided to buy the book.
Charlie lapses into ellipses a lot. When he becomes the narrator the dots sprinkle across the page like rain. Maybe that bothers some people, I don’t know. It might. But he’s a fictional character travelling the world and seeing difficult things, and maybe the ellipses make that possible for him in a way that it wasn’t, for Bourdain, a real person with declarative sentences and exclamation marks. Single periods. Finished thoughts. Maybe the need to put a cap on each thought doomed it to that darkness, that cynicism that everyone learns is to some extent desired of us, but which can, like a scab you pick at too much, start to bleed you out if you’re not careful. The highest highs: tie them off, cement them in place on paper with an exclamation mark. The lowest lows: anchor them there, down at the bottom, moored by period after period after period. He never lapses into the possibility of the ellipse. That forgiving uncertainty.
A comfort with uncertainty is surely required, for any kind of equilibrium. The bitterest people I know are full of certainties. They don’t allow for the possibility of any but their darkest truths. (And here my boss chided me for refusing to take the test to see whether or not I had the gene that gives you Alzheimer’s.) Maybe it feels anchoring at first, these certainties, your conviction that you know what shape the world, your life, will take, and that it’s the worst one. But such convictions weigh you down after a time, I would think. At which point you can’t even undo the knots anymore; you’re anchored down in the darkness as surely as are your sentences.
I bought the book: large, hardback, expensive and uncomfortable to carry. I wanted to support the physicality of the bookstore, its self-described labyrinth, even though its maze bristled with people I didn’t want to be anymore. Even though the terse signage and unapologetic classifications advertised, very much, a mode of being that no longer synced with me. Even though I carried hidden in my purse a Kindle, one of so many devices set to make physical places like The Last Bookstore live up to their names. I didn’t and don’t want to be certain of such things. Books were supposed to be gone a decade ago anyway, right? And yet here I was among them.
Far be it from me to pronounce their end.