always the wrong reaction

What am I supposed to do with the ending of Gilead?

Because whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it.

Ames gave the fuck up. I’m sorry, but he gave up. He didn’t say a damn word to Boughton, didn’t ask even himself if young Boughton’s plan would have worked out in this town. He didn’t say a word. And that’s…it’s giving up. I don’t care if he’s dying. I don’t care if he’s tired. He doesn’t even ask himself. If he did, he’d say it in this, his last text before his death. And he doesn’t even ask himself. How disingenuous. How disloyal. To young Boughton, sure, but more relevantly, to his cause, and to himself.

I’ve been thinking about this for days. I kept returning to pages I had marked, trying to make something of them:

img_5183

–because, yeah, I loved Ames, and identified (narcissistically at times, grossly indulgently so, I know, I get it) the hell out of myself, with him. But that doesn’t say a whole lot of good about me, now, does it, when at the end all you’ve got is a bunch of pretty ruminations but no action taken — one of the few powers left to the old man, and he takes no action. He says not a word. How could he do nothing? He and we spend the whole second half of the book in a sneaking, sinking dread of how he is about to be hurt worse, at the very last. A life spent mostly in mourning and then the brilliance of love and now that will be dimmed and dulled and taken from him, we think. He tries to prepare himself for this. We (I) beseech him not to. To say any damn thing, instead of just sitting there in his chair writing about how terrible it will all be.

But he’s wrong! And we’re wrong! And it’s something else entirely that drives that asshat young Boughton to his doorstep day after day! It’s something Ames has the power, if not to fix, at least to pave the way forward for. Say a word. To the community (which holds him in esteem!), to old Boughton. Say something. Is his silence his lack of forgiveness? He said he never could forgive young Boughton for the fatherhood he squandered the first time. Is this that grudge still held? Because I get the sense that we are supposed to look at Ames’ last words, and his sorry-ass farewell and blessing (right, because that helps anyone but himself) and think “ah well, he tried, and now he’ll say some pretty things and go off and die peacefully now,” and well, no. The hell will I clap you on the back for doing exactly nothing, buddy. You bothered to pursue the issue far enough to figure out what it was, now at least make an effort to help this guy. Not because he deserves it, necessarily, because he’s kind of an ass. But is your grudge against this man going to damn his family too? If yes, is this supposed to be our lesson here? “The people who could fix things in America won’t, so we’re all fucked forever, amen.” Great. Awesome. Thanks.

If I wanted to hear that I’d, you know, be living my life in the world, not reading a damn book.

This is what that ending could have said: both Ames and young Boughton grew up in the shadows of great men, men lauded by their communities. Ames had his grandfather, whose unrelenting vision of divine justice both built him into the towering figure he was, and destroyed him when the world failed to follow him into the flames. Boughton had his dad, who people keep calling a saint so, okay, I guess he must be a good guy, though we don’t see much of his tenderness the way we see Ames’. (Except maybe when he trots the name of the child out, surprising Ames. Maybe there.) But Ames was able to deal with growing up in that shadow because, maybe, he saw what it cost the generation between them to reject it. He saw how it wrecked his father to see how much he had harmed his grandfather. Boughton doesn’t have that space, sure — it’s only him and then his dad, and it’s the son doing the wrecking — but Ames could have helped. He’s seen all sides of this; he could have helped. Tried to. Said something.

Here is another thing that ending could have said: Ames held the power he did, both in his community and, via word of mouth, as far away as Memphis, because of his grandfather. His grandfather who, while clear of mind in his younger days, descended, visibly (and so infuriatingly to me, upon encountering it) into a kind of feverish religious dementia that nevertheless strengthened his image and fed into it the kind of reverence that made the Ames name recognizable as a bulwark of the abolitionist movement, years after its end. What I’m saying is that the very disease that made me fling the book down in frustration is what enabled the youngest Ames to occupy the spot in the world he did. The last gift, of sorts, of his grandfather.

And he wastes it. You don’t waste that, fuckwit. You loved him. He’s dead. He gave you his name and, thanks to him, your name means something to people you’ve never even met. And you wasted that gift.

And now, then, what is the point of my marking all those beautiful passages of his, of mourning him, when he just kind of shrugged and rolled over and died in the end? You had one job. And you could have laid it aside but no, no, you insisted on continuing to do your work, to try and lead people toward something like a better understanding of the world and their place in it. But when, admittedly, an asshole comes to you in his hour of need, you mumble about not knowing, and then, without even asking yourself if it would have worked out, you let him go. Send him off into misery. Congrats! That one job you had? You blew it.

I don’t think I’m supposed to be having this reaction. I think we are supposed to consider Ames as having made the best of a bad situation. But that’s settling. This is all he said:

“But I can’t give you any assurances about this, one way or the other. I’d hate to be wrong. You’ll have to let me reflect on it.”

and

“He said, “You have influence here.”

I said that might be true, but I couldn’t promise to live long enough to make much use of it. I mentioned my heart.

Oh come on. You could have at least tried.

Then, while preaching, Ames finds himself thinking:

The fact was, standing there, I wished there were grounds for my old dread. That amazed me. I felt as if I’d have bequeathed him wife and child if I could to supply the loss of his own.

This too-late regret is not enough. It does nothing. It helps no one, not even Ames. And he doesn’t writhe in it long enough for poetic justice, either, since shortly thereafter he goes home and dies. This guy, then, whom we (I) have been brought to love over some 200 pages, throws in the towel and goes back on every beautiful thing he said. What a waste.

If we were meant to over-identify with him, and then to feel slapped in the face by his impotence and thus moved to be move active in the world in precisely the way he was not, that would be one thing. But I kind of feel like that’s just me. That I willfully smudged the lines between myself and this guy because it felt good and eloquent, and like I could imagine being able to say things I won’t be able to, when I’m old. But that most people won’t have had cause to slam the book down in fury when dementia raises its head within its pages, or to feel chastened by the tenderness Ames brings to the observation of his grandfather that was, perhaps, lacking in the reader.

You might wonder about my pastoral discretion, writing all this out. Well, on one hand it is the way I have of considering things. On the other hand, he is a man about whom you may never hear one good word, and I just don’t know another way to let you see the beauty there is in him.

That’s about Young Boughton. But it’s not enough. Sure, huzzah, it turns out Young Boughton is still a jackass but was not, in fact, trying to replace you as husband and father. But you calling him beautiful, in thought or in deed, is not enough. When would it ever be enough? You acknowledging to yourself to this person you’ve disliked his entire life — “that is not my child!” — is not in fact all bad, is not enough.

And I think we’re supposed to feel like it is. Or like “welp, the world didn’t allow interracial marriage back then so, tough luck, I guess it was out of his hands.” Fuck that. He didn’t say one damn word. He knew he was respected enough for his words to matter and he said nothing. That’s not beautiful, or grand. That’s cowardice. Not even that — he was too secure in his position even to have cause for fear. He was just plain lazy.

How are we supposed to applaud that? Or not look at everything we applauded earlier, and bookmarked and underlined, and think “well, fuck?”

justice

How will you ever find justice if you won’t get off your ass and look for it?

And is he saying he outlasted his sense of grievance? Because if he is, he’s lying. If he really forgave that boy he would have done something. Anything. And he didn’t. Not one thing.

Edit: Yes, I am aware of the hypocrisy in lambasting a guy for doing nothing when more or less implying that the whole reason I was sitting reading this book was to look away from the ugliness of the world for a minute (versus, say, trying to fix anything). And that someone’s well-meant “yes but you’re allowed that” is no less applicable to Ames.

And also that apparently Jack Boughton is an alcoholic? Which is written in the advertisement for Home on that last page, which advertisement I never read despite noting all those page numbers around it. So, okay, if that’s true then maybe that’s why Ames didn’t do anything to help him? Because Della and their son would be better off without him? But if that was Ames’ thinking, shouldn’t he have noted as much in this letter to his own son? Because without clarifying that it still just looks like he didn’t bother helping because, like he said in a passage I took a picture of a few posts back, he can’t imagine how he’d ever forgive young Boughton. And that’s so frustrating, because as baleful as I am when wronged, I blurred the lines between myself and this character because I thought he was better than me, and he’s being just as selfish here as I would be, and that sucks.

Be better, dammit.

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double-take

Holy shit, he trips up onto the source of his anger so effortlessly. It’s like when I realized why I became so instantly furious when ever someone starts whining about their mom calling or texting or being, you know, cognizant and alive. In retrospect it’s as obvious to me now as it is to Ames here. But it’s such a parochial kind of fury, the kind that belongs in character backstories and not in life, that you don’t always expect it. I am more sensible than that, you think.

But you aren’t.

well hell

Seriously? Does dementia have to be in this too? Can I not enjoy one damn thing out of its shadow?

If you have ever wanted to tell me to shut up about it, and I never do, this is why. It’s everygoddamnwhere.

Fuck.

*nodnod*

I swear half this book leaves my head dizzy from nodding agreement, and the rest twists my heart in recognition.

How many parents have fucked this up? (Spoiler: lots. The answer is lots.)

And:

And:

I wonder if people grow tired of the random odes to benign things that strike him as beautiful. If that is a criticism leveled at the book. Are we supposed to be tired of this? Because I’m not. Even when they lead us smack-dab into a sermon-y bit, I don’t mind. I can’t imagine this needs reiteration, but I am no Christian. But you don’t need to give two figs about a dead guy in a toga to recognize the fleeting nature of things and thus the necessity of your awe. You don’t need any religion to see that.

According to all the blurbs all over this book though, it was very well-received. Where are people who did so? Where is the world that praised this? What happened to it?

it seemed to me to be half sadness and half fury

I bought this book while shopping with other people, but though I’d finished another book and could have started it then, I didn’t, laying it aside. I’d picked it up and read the first few pages and wanted it immediately (and I didn’t even love Housekeeping, which I bought years ago for its American paperback cover, which I still wish I could find in a print form and hang on my wall), but I wanted to wait until I was completely alone to read it. Where no one could stop me and ask why I was pausing or looking thoughtful or whatever. Your choice then is either to demurr, which can be off-putting, or give up your thoughts half-formed, and in doing that you mangle them. Good luck sorting it out later, once you’ve already exported your muddled musings as something finite and solid. It’s like concrete; once you’ve poured it there’s no re-forming it, barring a jackhammer.

But now I’m alone and can read this. I know there is always some resentment about the Iowa school (vs New York) and I don’t care. I am only interested in what this books says to me…what this old man advises me, as his son, to whom he writes this letter. Because in life people don’t do this. I tried to get my grandfather to do it before I was old enough to realize how rude it was to ask. And my mother too, though it wasn’t rude then, because she asked if there was anything I wanted from her before she lost her mind, and I said if she could write to any unborn children I might have, I would be grateful, because I loved her and they’d never get to know her.

I don’t think she managed it, and that’s okay. Even if she had, my father threw away so many of her things in a fury over her illness that I don’t think it would have survived anyway.

But I will take the imagined advice of a fictional old man invented by a real woman hailing from the broader world of academia for which I hold little love, because I will take such kind words where I can. It’s not that I don’t think people mean to tell their loved ones these things, usually. They do. But they wait too long, or become too shy, or convince themselves that what is unsaid is understood. Never assume that. When I do something or doubt something and wonder what my mom would think or do, I know the answer because she talked to me. Not just about her hopes that panned out but those that didn’t, and her fears. If you don’t say anything, your ghost will be frail and silent in your absence. And whatever you think of yourself — maybe you think that’s for the best — the people you leave will miss you all the more, for having so little to cling to.

Anyway. Gilead. Given how much better The Finishing School was than all Gail Godwin’s endless minister books, I had laid aside Reverend So-and-So Talks About Life-type books for a long time (~20 years). I don’t know why I’m drawn so immediately to this one. Maybe because he’s dying. Or because he hasn’t yet turned his regrets into a sermon. Or because he’s stuck at an observational distance from everyone around him — “they want you to be a little apart” — and, like with Amergin in Morgan Llywellyn’s Bard, I’m embarrassingly attracted to that, because the description of that kind of a life reads to me as a kind of forgiveness. Even if I somewhat obviously am neither of those things.

circles and lines

paris

I have always enjoyed Edward Rutherfurd. When I was younger it was because I most preferred history in novel form (and this is still the case, it’s true). When I grew older it became a relief to dispense with the haughty idea of objectivity — a relief from the lordly claims of nonfiction writers seeking to convince you they know The Truth Of The Matter. Recognizing that The Truth is goddamn malleable is, at least, one thing I’m grateful to have gained from schooling.

Another affectation thrust upon us, though, that I humored for the sake of my grade but which was a more difficult sell to friends and family, was a rejection of the notion of linear time. Taken further, the argument became that linear time was a colonialist construction, which became more problematic to scoff at — and with good reason. Our skepticism (for I was by no means alone here) with the notion was not a rejection of pre-modern peoples’ non-linear conceptions of time, destiny or fate. Our skepticism was the pragmatic distrust of a worldview that contested the fact that yesterday came before, tomorrow comes tomorrow, and never the twain shall meet. I find cyclical or spiraling notions of time as interesting as the next scientific layperson, but only as exercises in thought. And all the thought exercises in the world can’t restore yesterday to me. You can’t go back, remember? (Sidenote: I think Thomas Wolfe must have been required reading, for my parents’ generation, given the degree to which  boomers — even those not much given to reading — quote him.)

I’m intrigued, then, by Rutherfurd’s new organizational structure for Paris. I’ve only read London and The Forest before, it’s true. But in both of those books, we start in the distant past and move forward, pretty steadily. Paris does not. We circle around and around, from the 1800s to the 1400s and back, one family’s circumstances hastening another’s 400 year-earlier exposition, the ripples echoing backwards and forwards through the centuries. It’s that backward echo that interests me so much; the deliberate withholding of information that explains the present, until the next chapter where we step back into the past and see why things are the way they are (or, conversely, how terribly different things in fact should be; how desperately later generations rewrote their own history, to try and understand themselves better).

It reminds me more of Ursula, Under than Rutherfurd’s other novels, given its willingness to abandon that linear march driven by the calendar in favor of ever-tightening circles, honing in on the summit of the present. I wonder, though, if the focus on bloodlines and family heritage doesn’t distract from the more progressive goals set forth by non-linear construction. If history is malleable, after all, your own bloodline sure as hell is — and that pompous pride you take in your supposed relation to this or that esteemed personage is just one roll in the hay, one smudge on the family tree away from complete fiction. And yet I consistently hear people say things like “Welp, I recognize that this group I’m a member of is bullshit, but my family has been taking part in its bullshit for generations, and it makes me feel good to be a part of that,” and I want to slap them. Your blood is nothing. It’s not a blessing; it does not forgive you, by its mere existence in your veins, for idiocies endemic either to your ancestors or to you. Your family is who you know and love; not who you can exchange kidneys with. Everyone else, those far-off people with whom you want to feel a kinship? They’re just stories. Do not invest them with power they have not earned. Do not perpetuate their mistakes in an effort to feel closer to them. They’re dead, for fucksake, and they never even knew you. Be a little more circumspect in your loyalties, please.

Anyway. Ursula, Under grew mawkish in its continual assertion that miracle after miracle had to happen on down through the ages to result in the little girl the book was named after. The underlying conviction is that of course, of course this little girl must be okay and turn out all right, because look at all the trouble her ancestors went through to keep on fucking through the ages and produce her! And, while I apologize (a bit) for the crudeness, that’s exactly my point: it was just fucking, folks. The various triumphs and travails of her ancestors do not make a stronger case for her survival of a freak accident. That’s not how life — how biology — works. And if the goal was to make us feel more for her, because of the view we are now granted, as readers, of the bloodlines that led to her…man, that is fucked up. She’s three! One three year-old does not matter more than another three year-old just because Kid A’s ancestors found love in the time of leprosy, and all Kid B’s ancestors did was fuck. I mean, seriously. Who makes that argument?

Paris, though, seems so far to be avoiding both the tiresome tale of redemption-through-generations, and the equally predictable fixation on the decline of a family name from illustriousness to poetically-deserved ruin. Nor, to my relief, are we going the Ursula, Under route of Isn’t-It-All-Just-Such-A-Blessed-Miracle. What passes between generations, so far anyway, are only names, and rumors of rumors of habits that paint the foggiest pictures of distant relatives.

And that, frankly, is as it should be. Barring clinical curses, like a predisposition to addiction or depression, or my own family’s permanent date with dementia, these stories that pin red letters onto people and force their kin to wear those letters generations later are, well…old, and not in a good way. I likely sound insufferably American here, but still. It’s 2017. You’re writing in 2017, regardless of when your characters are living. A lasting societal regard attached to a bloodline due to past actions is one thing, but shaping a story to morally reward or punish people based on the perceived moral uprightness or lack thereof, of their ancestors, is bullshit. You should know better, even if a great many people do not. Be better, goddammit. And if you have to chop up the usual chronological march of linear time in order to wean people from this comforting-but-in-no-way-benign falsehood that goodness will be rewarded and badness will be punished, well. Do it. Chop up that line, twist it in circles. Just don’t forget to shape each character as an individual, rather than as a product of much-vaunted family histories. Histories whose reliability resembles less an oak tree in the back of a gilded bible and more a party tray of Jell-O. You think that’s a chunk of lime in there, but it could be a goddamn green marshmallow for all you know.

And, spoilers: you’re never going to know.

mysteryjello

the sun and her flowers


So I don’t post much on poetry because I’m not as well-trained in its appreciation as I am in other things, but I know people who are, and I don’t like to disappoint.

But I looked at this because I remembered Ashley Johnson recommending it on Signal Boost, and between this and what she said about Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, I remember thinking how brave it seemed, to have feelings about something as a woman and to share them as such, when you still had ties to a community (see: gamers) that would cheerfully eviscerate you online and otherwise if they decided they didn’t like what you said. Because what she said about both books was that she admired what was written as a woman, reading women. And it’s stupid that it has to be brave to express that, now, but it is.

That’s why I picked the book up. But I bought it because, while you can go one poem at a time, linearly, and receive a tale of relationship heartbreak, you don’t have to. And if you break it up, flipping here and then there, it becomes more universally applicable across a wide spectrum of loss — furthering my earlier convictions about relationship songs and how the meaning doesn’t have to end there (and certainly wasn’t thought to by any number of movie soundtrack selectors).

I decided to post about it, though, because of this line:

love is understanding

we have the power to hurt one another

but we are going to do everything in our power

to make sure we don’t

I dunno. I love that. My heart isn’t broken in the way these poems are meant to address. But there’s more than one way to crack an egg.

Also:

the next time i go to school

and the boys hoot at my backside

i push them down

foot over their necks

and defiantly say

boobs

and the look in their eyes is priceless

That’s fucking awesome.