mothering sunday

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There are these occasional stab in Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift, that are just beautiful. They are why I decided to buy the book, not entirely sober and tilting through the stacks in the last few minutes before the bookshop closed.

“…because there was anyway such an intensity and strange gravity to their experimentation, such a consciousness at least that they were doing something wrong (the whole world was in mourning all around them), it had needed some compensating element of levity: giggling.”

And I bought it.

It is absolutely unforgivable and unpitiable, this ownership I feel for sorrow, national sorrow even; this dogged refusal to account for others’ lack of understanding of how it feels. (In the midwest and even more so on the west coast, they do not know, it was a show for them, not and never a loss or a real fear.) This attraction to books, songs, people who do know. I who am no veteran’s widow; who do not wake in the night wracked with PTSD dreams. I am the last person who should counsel anyone on loss; when I found myself in the necessary position of doing so, I panicked at how utterly unequipped I was in the face of a woman who’d lost her daughter, who desperately hoped I could make social media stop rubbing her daughter’s death in her face.

But that’s why I bought this book. All the empty rooms. The strange neighborliness that results, the boundaries that are erased, by such vast and shared understanding of a vicious, echoing absence.

And I bought it because they giggled.

“Yes, it was tragic,” she said, with a voice like flint. And didn’t say, as she might have done–at eighty she could be oracular: We are all fuel. We are born, and we burn, some of us more quickly than others. There are different kinds of combustion. But not to burn, never to catch fire at all, that would be the sad life, wouldn’t it?”

and

“And if you had yourself been comprehensively bereaved at birth–and that was her situation, wasn’t it?–how could you share in all that stuff, how could you have anything left over for it? The war wasn’t her fault, was it?”

and

You could hardly allow her to borrow books and then not allow her at least some time to read them. And the house was not any more, let’s face it, as in the old days, a firmly governed, a strictly regimented house. Look where regimentation had got the world.

This from the otherwise self-possessed and entirely unsentimental lord of a house. Seemingly on top of and in control of himself despite the loss of his sons years (and everyone else’s sons) years, years ago, in the First World War. And from the mind of one presented to us as so contained, so in control, just that little unfurling of grief, that baring of a stark distrust, disillusionment in what he was in all likelihood brought up putting his faith in without question: order, command, the way of doing things. Regimentation. And it took his sons from him, and revealed itself not to be the keeper or restorer of anything. And he allows it to slacken and fall away.

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blech

See, this though, this is bad. I hate when people do this. Don’t try to be cute. Be honest or hurt or defiantly sardonic but for god sake stop trying to be cute.

the last bookstore and the end of the world

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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–”
“Home.”
“Family?”
“Child.”
“Happy.”
“Sky.”
“Blue.”
“Sea.”
“Blue.”
“Travel.”
“Adventure.”
“Work.”
“Interesting.”
“Rest.”
“Sleep.”
“Dreams.”
“Flying.”
“Nightmares.”
“Falling.”
“Love.”
“Music.”
“People.”
“…People. Sorry, that’s just the first thing that…”
“Death.”
“Life.”
“Life.”
“Living.”

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.

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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.

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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.

*record scratch*

It is the threat of miscarriage that brought me up short here but the line that preceded it, echoing most of what I studied happily and all of what I loved most in books: Wild, Malafrena, Tigana, All the Light We Cannot See.

This, though, was maybe the greatest and heaviest gift of adulthood, that I recognize here too: that having been surrounded by, having read so much and I guess written a fair amount about people who could unanchor, for whom boundaries would in fact dissolve in the most trying of circumstances, to find that I wasn’t one of them, for good or ill: that my feet would remain on the earth and if the torrent of my sorrow or fury tugged someone else along with it, it would eventually be me standing grimly in the rapids, against the current, waiting to catch them and drag them back to shore. How many moments of my despair turn into me then having to become practical, to remind whoever is there agreeing that actually, no, it isn’t the end of the fucking world, drink some water and sleep and it will be better?

It’s fantastically selfish to even for a moment lament that solidity, I know, and I’m not trying to do that here. But this is the last book in the series and my resentment of Lenu’s writerly narcissism has waxed and waned and waxed again, and right after this passage it spiked because she, too, congratulates herself on remaining stable, anchored, when the “friend” she had foolishly competed with her whole damn life turns out to be clinging to her like flotsam in a flood. It’s shitty.

But it’s also what I saw in my mother, when her friends washed up against her, adrift in their own lives, and it’s a gift to be that person for a little while. Even if it’s a gift that I know will be taken away, as hers was.

“striking lavender orbs”

Okay, hold up.

My DnD group encouraged me to familiarize myself with the lore of the Forgotten Realms, since we’re running our campaign in Faerun. I always saw the books on the shelves, growing up, but I confess I’d only read one of them — Dragons of Autumn Twilight — and that only as part of a calculated wooing initiative. But my character, as a multiclassing bard, ought to know, I was told, something about Drizzt Do’Urden. So I picked up the first of his backstory trilogy.

Only to encounter, from the self-proclaimed god of DnD lore, no less, terrible writing, laughably sexist fantasy norms, and this in a world where women who write consistently better fiction are derided as sex-crazed whore posting lewd fanfic on the internet, whereas auteurs like R.A. Salvatore get to pen gems like this:

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Let’s review:

1.) “striking lavender orbs”

2.) Drow are evil because they’re dark (…) but also, hurr hurr, because their society is matriarchal and women who don’t like men or who fuck who they want are evil, duh. But of course they have to assert their matriarchal power with whips that end in snake heads because Penises Ueber Alles amiright?

3.) “striking lavender orbs”

4.) Obviously sexually free women are estrogen-crazed harlots capable of finding infants attractive (?!?!?!?!) or of forecasting the development of said attraction in the future. Because you know. Harlots.

5.) Striking. Lavender. Orbs.

There is a certain amount of sexism in my DnD group anyway, I know. Half of them are ex-military. I expect that from them, even if I’m disappointed by it. I pick my battles. And it’s true that my own childhood favorites wouldn’t hold up too well under a modern gaze, either — I’m looking at you, Wheel of Time, which I end up miserably defending more often than I like to note. But still.

Striking lavender orbs?!

 I care little for the desultory dismissal by most of the internet of women who are out there writing well. I know how most of the internet works. But it’s the desultory dismissal by men I know, supposedly progressive, who have daughters, who act like they are somehow paving the way, with their own behavior, to make the world a better place for said daughters when they come of age into it, that bug me. These same people hold male writers like this up as shimmering beacons of fantasy writing achievement, while simultaneously shitting on women writing more and better, for free.

That nettles me to no end.

You want to be some judgey douchebag on the internet, fine. Join the club. But don’t strut around pretending you care about women, about your precious daughters, when you promote dross like this as the best fantasy has to offer, and dismiss “those internet sexpots” as just that.

Because I mean. We are completely capable of smashing your orbs until they are well and truly lavender, my dudes. And most of you wouldn’t particularly enjoy the experience.

a dented bowl

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So I went on and got the next Neapolitan novel even though I complained loudly through the first one. Not because of any real deficiency in it, but more because of the way people talk about these books. As though the kind of relationship they portray is, through its realness, somehow something to be celebrated.

It ain’t.

And I kept wondering why it nettled me so; to hear people I respected sing the praises, not just of the books, but specifically of the relationship central to the story. That is what makes a growl rise in the back of my throat. On the one hand, I suppose, hooray: people are finally celebrating and recognizing prose that treats the female childhood experience in the the way the male childhood experience has been eulogized for as long as there have been novels.

On the other hand: that’s a pretty fucking low bar.

And again, this friendship isn’t healthy. Even if it is real. Even if it is relatable. It’s not anything anyone should gravitate toward and say “ah HA! me too!” You don’t want to be a me too on this one folks. This is like the relationship between the narrator and Phineas in A Separate Peace. That constant, anxiety-ridden comparison. It’s awful. It may be relatable but it’s awful. Consider this passage (spoilers for book one):

“For her whole life she would sacrifice to him every quality of her own, and he wouldn’t even be aware of the sacrifice, he would be surrounded by the wealth of feeling, intelligence, imagination that were hers, without knowing what to do with them, he would ruin them. I, I thought, am not capable of loving anyone like that, not even Nino, all I know is how to get along with books. And for a fraction of a second I saw myself identical to a dented bowl in which my sister Elisa used to feed a stray cat, until he disappeared, and the bowl stood empty, gathering dust on the landing. At that point, with a sharp sense of anguish, I felt sure that I had ventured too far. I must go back, I said to myself, I should be like Carmela, Ada, Gigliola, Lila herself. Accept the neighborhood, expel pride, punish presumption, stop humiliating the people who love me. ”

As I said, this is relatable, without a doubt. Everyone whose friend was the pretty one, the complimented one, the one who started fucking first — you know how this feels. But…that grim familiarity doesn’t make it a thing worth celebrating.

For a long time, the full length of the first book, I worried that what I was balking at here was the ugly mirror the text presented me with. But that would be terribly, laughably simple, and anyway it’s not as though I go around pretending to be a saint, or to have been one, ever. I freely dispense the anecdote about how my best friend’s boyfriend suggested his dog fuck me, since no one else would. I dispense that anecdote so people understand how hideous some kinds of female friendship can be, and how desperate we are to hang onto it, still, when that’s all we have.

But I have the self-respect now to realize what a total waste of time preserving that friendship was, and I look at Lenu’s obsession with Lina and want to scream at her. Move on, cut her off, let her fuck up her life on her own terms and stop competing with her for godsake. Do what I couldn’t, for crying out loud. Live your life somewhere else and don’t let it get bogged down by this constant, unnecessary comparison. This competition.

There is also some frustration with the datedness of the sexual repression: the pre-marital bathing scene, for example. In 2018 you can just admit to yourself that you’re attracted to her, okay? Just do it and let it go. You don’t need to label it; you don’t need to wave a flag, or have a crisis; just out and out admit to yourself that hey, it’s not just her acumen and wit that demands your attention; her body demands it too. And poof, there goes the need for all these circuitous explanations, to yourself and to us. It is so much easier, in prose and in life, to just own up to your attraction to someone, rather than to wax poetic on all the reasons it’s just their mind/writing/joie de vivre whatever that moves you, rather than the whole, ah, package. It’s just so much easier to be honest with yourself.

But I get it, this was 1950s Italy. Fine. Writing about 1950s Italy in the 2000s though…just let it go. Especially having begun as, and striven to continue as, Anonymous. Just let it go. As a teenager I used to return again and again to a line of Alice Munro in The Beggar Maid, speaking of a girl’s fixation on her female teacher: “sexual attraction that had no idea what to do with itself.” Aha, I thought, foolishly. This is what I feel, this is who I am! When in fact, all that is is an elaborate falsehood designed to make oneself compatible with what one feels is expected of one. A terrible waste of time. Even if you never look at another woman like that again; even if no one else moves you like that; even if you have no interest in joining any movement, ever: it is so much more beneficial to you, the observer, to acknowledge that you are moved by all of a person, rather than having to twist your way through these elaborate hoops to explain yourself, to yourself. You’ve got better shit to do. See what you are and carry on, girl. Stumbling around with your hands over your eyes, you’re going to get hurt.

Anyway, I’m continuing on in this series, despite annoyance with the women who sing praises of the friendship depicted therein (this is not what healthy friendship looks like, hello!) and outright disgust for the men who do the same. (“Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” is quite possibly the most inaccurate and inane pull-quote on any book cover I own, John Freeman, you patronizing prick.) I hate to think that I’m continuing in the vain hope that Lenu moves beyond her obsessive competition and comes to find value in her awkward, bookish self, beyond that which Lina ascribes to her — but I suppose that’s a possibility. There’s still that marked difference between us, though: every girl I realized I hung my heart on like that, who exhibited an obsessive and desperate need to be deemed better than, I broke from, resolutely. This despite the disparaging observations of those close to me who find themselves unable to tear themselves away from any relationship, damaging or otherwise. You cannot spend your life like this:

“I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worst off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.”

No. No no no no no. You have got to do better for yourself. If you find this depiction of a friendship relatable, fine, own that — but then, don’t go on and on about how great it was. If you can relate to it then you know it sucks. So hard. For everyone. And what bothers me about what people say about this series is that they skip over that. “Yay truth!” they proclaim, without acknowledging that the truths they resonate with are hideous and awful and indicative of a gross and violent need for change. It can’t be nostalgia — I refuse to believe that of anyone whom I’ve yet seen or read praising these books. It can’t. You can’t think so little of yourself that constantly being the lower tier of a competing pair of adolescents holds any kind of attraction for you. You can’t think that kind of daily competition feels good, surely. You can’t think so little of yourself, now.

I hope, for everyone’s sake, that these books whose friendship they keep praising reach a point, in the characters’ thirties or forties maybe, where they realize they’ve been digging their own graves with this pointless rivalry. Where they set about burying said rivalry. But given the opening to the first book, this may never happen. That lurking comparison may persist throughout their lives — and that is such a sorrow, to me. Both of them have so much more worth doing, and being, than each other’s rivals. This isn’t friendship. Not as it ought to feel. If someone drains you so much, avoid them. If you have to lie to yourself to explain away your obsession with someone, stop lying. You’ve only got so much time to go around. Why waste it on constantly measuring yourself against someone who is supposed to be your companion, your confidante, your sister in arms? (And if you realize you want her to be more than your sister in arms…go find someone who is willing to be more. Do it.)

If there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women; if we all cultivate friendships like this…then we’re all doomed. Because we’ve all been there, and we ought to grow enough to realize that it’s not a place we should ever long for again.

“everything is this, now”

“Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us. When you haven’t been in the world long, it’s hard to comprehend what disasters are at the origin of a sense of disaster: maybe you don’t even feel the need to. Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night.”

Ehhh. This book is touted as a good example of the messiness yet meaningfulness of female friendships but man, if this dynamic between these two is a standard blueprint for fem friendship, that does not say great things about us. I mean, I read about the silence and the dares peppered with occasional bizzare kindnesses and I think oh yeah, sure, I knew that girl. She would beg me to come over and then would attack me and beg me not to leave until finally one day I walked back home bleeding from a slash in my cheek and my mother stood horrified in the kitchen wondering what had happened. To my immense relief I never had to hang out with the girl again, and was no longer chastised for hoping she got stung by bees. But man, I’ve had friendships like that, and they suck. Is there going to be an unguarded moment of genuine empathy in here somewhere?

I know you’re not supposed to call out your fellow women as people you don’t want to be friends with — it marks you as not that great a lady, for reasons I accept — but man, when these are the kind of fem friendships I look back on, it shouldn’t be a wonder that I’m suuuuper hesitant to get all chummy with my fellows.

Also — having just finished in audiobook form far more Jane Austen than is good for anyone, amongst whose words lives the quivering and constantly quaking-from-fear Fanny of Mansfield Park — this dynamic, the kid who’s scared of everything, dragged along by the kid who is not, just sucks. Give me a bildungsroman not written by the scared kid. And not a bully either — just the stalwart kid who goddamn survived. Because when the only stories you’re circulating are either about bullies or the scared kids that alternately cling to them or flee their shadows, how many options are you really offering? Your first decade and a half of culturally conscious life should not be able to be determined by picking the petals of a daisy. Those are terrible odds. Show people they can be something else.