buckle up

I am reading Blood Meridian, because Guy Gavriel Kay said it was the sort of recommendation he didn’t immediately make; that he was careful doing so; and there is no surer way to get to me to read a book than to imply that I am somehow inadequate to the task, or that you might regret having recommended it to me, or that there must be special circumstances in which the recommendation and subsequent reading of said book is deemed acceptable.

That’s how I ended up reading Gravity’s Rainbow and Remembrances of Things Past and The Possibility of an Island and…you get the idea. And, in the gentlest way possible (because no one making these recommendations was A Bad Person), I’d like to point out that every single book I was recommended with a caveat was recommended thusly by a man. No woman ever told me “maybe you can handle this but…” or “this is a great book but officially I’m not recommending it to you…” or “this was powerful to me when I read it but maybe you should wait.”

Now, to be fair, fewer women than men have ever recommended books to me. But those who did, refrained from making assumptions about my “readiness” for a book. Or tried to scare me off, or protect themselves with disclaimers about not officially making the recommendation. (On the one hand this seems partly a product of a lawsuit-happy culture; in the other, why did those few women recommending books to me feel comfortable dispensing with the screen of demurrals, whereas the men felt the need to impress upon me the degree to which they were not recommending the books? Am I such a liability?)

Anyway. Blood Meridian. Onward.

mindfield

I am very much stricken, for obvious reasons (see: Alzheimer’s), by stories where memory and its loss or deliberate disruption is a centerpiece. Remember Me, Dreamfall, Remembrance of Things Past, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind…and all the memory-centric parts of stories not directly about it, like What Dreams May Come or Life Is Strange or Logan. It’s so predictable that I can see people wince or grow leery, if they’re with me at a movie or during a cutscene in a video game, and content starts turning that direction. Maybe in a few decades we’ll all know better how to deal with this, but right now everyone just gets uncomfortable and doesn’t know what to do when they know stuff that makes me sad is now playing out on-screen, trapping me, and them by association, somewhere none of us wants to be.

Behold, the dream of everyone connected to anyone with dementia: beating the everloving shit out of the destroyer of memories.


Books and comics are easier. Your private pain remains private. No one is there experiencing it with you, forced to either acknowledge or desperately ignore (itself a sad sort of acknowledgment) the anvil that’s sitting on your heart. But these mediums also make it easier for stuff like this to creep up on you. Fewer people read, which means fewer spoilers, and no one’s making trailers for physical comics that I know of. So this bit in the last collected Batgirl of Burnside caught me by surprise. We had already dealt with memory issues several issues ago, so I thought it was past. Nope. 


Look, though, at that beautiful visual rendering of memory disintegration. You know how this would play out in a moving medium. You know how the sound would change, how the screen would distort, how the voices would fade in and out. And here it is done visually, on one still, flat page.

As a grim connoisseur of such portrayals, I gotta say: this is pretty fantastic. You have movement, the notion of a center that’s starting to fray at the edges, and geometric rigidity that suggests a mental stability that turns out to be an illusion. Things are orderly but they’re still falling apart. Sound doesn’t line up with image doesn’t line up with time, even though it should. Even though everyone wants it to, it doesn’t.

Seriously. I love Batgirl of Burnside, but this may be my favorite panel in the whole run.

poetic nationalism

Daufridi said, very softly, “It is unwise to love anyone or anything too greatly, de Talair. People die, things are taken from us. It is the way of our lives in this world.”

“I have reason to know this. I have lived twenty-three years with that truth.”

“And have therefore moderated your passions?”

“And am therefore resolved that I will not live through the death of my country as I endured the death of the woman I loved.”

It would be obtuse to point out how uneasy such sentiments — even by known, loved characters, from stories we remember — make me now, and for good reason. Even before our current state of national affairs, asking us to make the leap from love of people to love of the place they call home, and the customs that shape that place as unique, is…fraught.

But I keep coming back to it. Uneasily, a little sheepishly, I admit that the stories I value most have that strong current of love of (fictional) country in them. Hell, most of them are even named after the countries in question. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Malafrena. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. In each instance, the main characters love people, but more than people they love place. And not just the receding knife-points of mountains, or the mirror of a lake, but the customs of the area that mark that place as different from all others.

Of course though — and I regret that I do this now, take things apart this way now; while necessary it is an unpleasant way to look at literature or media of any form; constantly dissecting — in each instance stated above, the characters embracing these poetically nationalist sentiments were of the aristocracy. Landed gentry, in the case of Piera and Itale of Malafrena, and the prince in the case of Alessan of Tigana. Neither author, I don’t believe, asks us to suspend our knowledge of the limits of such sentiments. Both books feature poorer people saying, essentially, that it doesn’t matter who’s in power, the rivers will still flood and life will still be hard. Etc. But their less poetic realities aren’t allowed to eclipse the flowery, insistent love of the landed aristocracy (dispossessed or otherwise) for the lands they call theirs.

I hate that I see that, as an adult looking back on tales I loved. I hate that I can look on my favorite quote from Malafrena, retrieved again and again with love:

“Is it so easy?” he said after so long that Itale, befogged with exercise, fresh air, beer, and well-being, was not sure what he was talking about. “You set out…you set out to make yourself. To make the world. All the things you must do, and see, and learn, and be, you must go through it all. You leave home, come to the city, travel, miss nothing, experience it all, you make yourself, you fill the world with yourself and your purposes, your ambitions, your desires. Until there’s no room left. No room to turn around.”

“There is, here,” Itale put in. “I told you. I’m as empty as that beer-jug. Air, sunlight, silence, space.”

“That won’t last.”

“It will. It’s we who don’t last.”

Estenskar leaned against the doorway, gazing out into the country darkness.

“Now that I know that I can’t choose,” he said, “now that I’ve finally learned that there are no choices, that I can’t make my way and never could, that it was all deceit and conceit and waste–now that I’ve given up trying to make my way, I can’t find it, I can’t hear the voice. I’m lost. I went too far and there’s no way home.”

–and question whether Estenskar’s idea of home and country remotely lines up with what the uncelebrated, unquoted people of the city think of as home and country. Estenskar, himself as much a poet as Bertran de Talair, and with a similar reputation for moving the masses to action with his words on often political topics, nevertheless speaks — his hard times notwithstanding — from a very different place than most of the populace of Malafrena (which serves as a fictional country straining under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, FYI). The mountain ranges and alpine villages and lakes and quaint country customs he writes of with, yes, love, are as accessible to him as the thronged city streets of pseudo-Vienna. Like Hemingway thumping on about Africa from the north woods of Michigan, it’s easy to sing the praises of Somewhere Else when you can afford to leave, and to pine for Somewhere Else once you have left. Even when your vaunted otherwhere is somewhere you claim, loftily, as home.

For the people who cannot leave, the rose-tinted glasses of distance aren’t a lens through which they get to look. For the people who cannot leave, poems urging them to rise up in the streets and slay those who would rule over them aren’t just words to hoist glasses to in taverns. They’re verses that can and will get them killed. In their homes, sometimes. In front of their families.

When we are asked to believe in the countries of fictional characters, and especially when the vast majority of characters we are shown from the countries in question are appealing and lovable, it can be easy — it feels good — to take them at their word. But when you put the book down and see such sentiments reflected in the real world, about your own country, it doesn’t feel good anymore.

And that sucks. It is a necessary and important resignation to make, I suppose, as someone who lives in the world, but it sucks. We want — I want — to believe in Tigana, in Malafrena, as places as beautiful and deserving of awe and affection as the characters who live there believe them to be. But the characters have time to write about their love of country only because they have the money and leisure with which to do so. And blind flag-waving is dangerous. And you have to be living under a rock not to see the consequences of that playing out today.

It makes the magic on the page less magical, honestly. Necessarily so.

 

what are you a sign for

song

“What are you a sign for?” someone asked me in EverQuest, when I was twelve. I was confused for a moment until I remembered the name I’d chosen for my latest alt — Signe, named for Signe de Barbentain, from A Song for Arbonne, which I was then reading. Here is her introduction:

Some mornings, as today, she woke feeling amazingly young, happy to be alive to see the spring return. It wasn’t altogether a good thing, this brief illusion of youth and vitality, for its passage—and it always passed—made her too achingly aware that she was lying alone in the wide bed. She and Guibor had shared a room and a bed after the older fashion until the very end, a little over a year ago. Arbonne had observed the yearfast for its count and the ceremonies of remembrance scarcely a month past.

A year wasn’t very long at all, really. Not nearly enough time to remember without pain private laughter or public grace, the sound of a voice, resonance of a tread, the keen engagement of a questioning mind or the well-known signs of kindled passion that could spark and court her own.

A passion that had lasted to the end, she thought, lying in bed alone, letting the morning come to her slowly. Even with all their children long since grown or dead, with an entirely new generation of courtiers arising in Barbentain, and younger dukes and barons taking power in strongholds once ruled by the friends—and enemies—of their own youth and prime. With new leaders of the city-states of Portezza, a young, reckless-sounding king in Gorhaut, and an unpredictable one as well, though not young, in Valensa far in the north. All was changing in the world, she thought: the players on the board, the shape of the board itself. Even the rules of the game she and Guibor had played together against them all for so long.

There had been mornings in the year gone by when she had awakened feeling ancient and bone cold, wondering if she had not outlived her time, if she should have died with the husband she’d loved, before the world began to change around her.

Which was weak and unworthy. She knew that, even on the mornings when those chill thoughts came, and she knew it more clearly now, with the birds outside her window singing to welcome the spring back to Arbonne. Change and transience were built into the way Corannos and Rian had made the world. She had accepted and gloried in that truth all her life; it would be shallow and demeaning to lament it now.

 

Before her name even rose on the page, I knew she was the one I’d named my character after, so long ago. I can’t explain — I suppose it has little place, at the moment; we are too concerned with surviving the next few years to even imagine growing old, to have obtained safety and sanity as a planet long enough to get there — how valuable, how much of a blueprint, the women of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books were for me, growing up. But I can recognize them when they appear, even when I haven’t read the book for years; even when I haven’t, as in this case, finished it.*

Of course I gravitated to Signe. She had loved lastingly, and managed to survive even the cavernous loss of that love. She remained capable of recognizing change in the world without balking at it, or blaming it for her own losses.

****

Bertran, too, though — now that I’ve read further and decided, in fact, to post this. It would be disingenuous to parade around Kay’s women as the only or chief reason to read his books. It’s broader than that. Bertran de Talair, like Alessan (and Dianora!) of Tigana, like Crispin of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, like basically everyone in Lions of Al-Rassan, which I will love until I die, Kay’s characters provide roadmaps to (and through) loss. I do not wish to be thought excessively morbid here, but those are rather important. Knowing people can recover (or not); knowing the multitudinous ways in which your courage and self-regard and faith can fracture and dissolve in the face of the absence of what you most loved, and still do: that’s really fucking important. And while that’s not the point of any of these books — of any of these characters — it is what makes them fiercely lovable. Show me how to put yourself back together again. That it can be done. 

They don’t all do it in the same way, of course. That would be trite, boring, and unrealistic. And you’re not always looking at the loss of a romantic partner, either: a country, a kingdom, a child. So many things lost, reflecting so many ways people falter and fail to protect themselves against fate. Against time. 

You can see, can’t you, how important — how valuable — it is, to see such things portrayed? The fact that the world portrayed may or may not have magic in it, or gods who answer, or names of places and people that evoke those of the real world — that’s all dressing on the side. That’s not why I keep Kay’s books on reserve like bottles of wine in a basement, seeking a particular, rare vintage when the occasion calls for it. People misunderstand, I think, when I try to sing his books’ praises to them. “Oh, so you want to read about history without really reading about history,” is the typical response. No, I don’t. I want to see how people grow old and love and die in a world close enough to this one to offer advice. And I want to know that though there are very, very different people marching toward that end down very different paths, they can still get there without breaking along the way. Possibly while happy. Or with the memory of happiness still alive within them.

I named myself after Signe when I was twelve, when my mother and even her own mother were still healthy. I had barely scratched the surface of adolescence, and the only premonition of its moody unwieldiness I’d yet had to suffer was a military brat’s move to a new city. There was no sprawling, neon-lit reason for me to look at someone like Signe and think that I could or should learn from her, become her, in a game or in the world.

No reason, except that even twelve year olds aren’t dumb. You don’t have to see the grasping roots of illness dismantling those you love to know it can happen. You don’t have to have begged the school secretary for quarters to call home and make sure the bombing didn’t take your father, to know it can happen. (For reference, Columbine occurred when I was twelve: even us nostalgic 90s kids knew we could die in an instant.) You know these things happen. That you cannot escape all of them. What you don’t know, as a twelve or a twenty or a thirty year old, is how to deal with them. What you are supposed to do. Who you are supposed to be. More than the jeweled mosaics or mountain town mysticism; more than the palaces and priesthoods and resurrected social strictures of cultures long extinct, this is why you read Guy Gavriel Kay’s books. Because his characters suffer the same wounds we do, and manage, if not always to be better for it, at least to make a kind of sense of the aftermath. To make sense as aftermath.

That is something worth learning. If we are to serve as signs for others, willing or otherwise, let us at least point toward knowledge worth knowing.

*It would make a better story to say I didn’t finish it for the same reason I didn’t finish The Bell Jar — I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle, book in my coat pocket, and never recovered it from the scene of the accident. But A Song for Arbonne disappeared years before that; I don’t know why. My father purged everything in our house, my books included, in a fury over my mother’s decline, so my original copy is long gone. I’ve always remembered to return to it, though. It’s the last of Kay’s alternate histories I’ve not yet read. The real last — in that I haven’t finished it.

all the light we cannot see #4

atlwcs

This book. Oh my god, this book.

I had to stop reading it for awhile. I was reading it as my mom died, though I didn’t know it. And afterwards, reading a letter where a father lied so earnestly to his daughter, saying he was safe when he was in chains, saying he was fed well when he was starving, I burst into tears and set it aside for a time. I am usually, vainly, proud of myself when books make me cry. A kind of triumph over the accusations of heartlessness my mother hurled at me when I was little and stubborn and she was entering menopause and also stubborn. But the accusations lingered long after, I’m sure, she had any recollection of directing them at me, and I am always secretly pleased when a book (or a game, or a movie) moves me to tears. Liquid proof of my humanity, Mom.

Except, she’s dead now, and the tenderness of a father in the book is more than I could bear.

And I still can’t discuss most of it, because every single person I have endeavored to spare any plot line, ever, scoffs at the idea of spoilers. “It’s not about the plot,” they say. “It’s about the prose. Go ahead, spoil me. I don’t mind.” Well, I mind. And you’re wrong. When the construction of a story, the way you find out one piece of information, and the timing of that discovery as it relates to the next piece and the next, does not add up to some orderly chronological march down a straight path but rather builds out in fractals, forward and then back, spiraling, in a complex conflagration of memories that precede, sometimes, the shattering that carved them out, and are followed by the poetic justice that explains why that shattering was necessary — well, then yes. It does matter. And I’m not ruining that for you, any of you. It is important.

Which is frustrating, because I know no one else who has read this book. A guy walked in the other day, laughed at his girlfriend’s suggestion that he read something she recognized — “I’m not really a book kind of guy” — and walked out. People here do not read. And everyone I know who reads elsewhere has not read this. Or is too busy.

No, I’m not putting a spoiler tag in and then talking anyway. Go find it and read it. All the Light We Cannot See. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

I will say, though, that parts of it…were honed-edge ice picks chiseled to just the right length, aimed at just the right angle, to cut my heart wide the fuck open. God. The timing, to have read this book when I did. My mother would have loved this book, had she lived to read it. Not just lived, but had she remained someone capable of reading, of knowing the meaning behind words. She had not been able to for years, by the time she died.

Except for “I’ll meet you across the sea,” which was the last thing she ever read to me, on my shirt as I moved her into a dementia care facility. Her reading of which hurt me more than anything I have experienced in thirty years of life.

Anyway, she would have loved this book. Please read it.

And if you get the version pictured above, understand that every child of someone like my mother lives for a page 523, and we never get it. We never will. The removal of even the delusion that we might get a page 523 is what hits us, when they die. Even though the version of them we knew has already been dead for years. We always, maybe encouraged by media but more because we are human, hope for that.

And now it’s out of reach forever.

Look at how many views that has. He explains, in the book, how it is played. I never knew; I know nothing about music. I know this song is used often for pathos, but I don’t think it’s without reason.

all the light we cannot see #3

The best moments in All the Light We Cannot See are times when he says things he does not have to say. They are like gifts.

“The last technician,” says Neumann one, “didn’t find anything.”

“It’s good equipment,” says Werner. “I should have them both functioning in an hour.”

A gentleness flows into Volkheimer’s eyes and hangs there a moment. “Pfennig,” he says, looking at Werner, “is nothing like our last technician.”

That moment was completely unnecessary. That little bit of description. It’s just a gift. Before this line of work, I for years studied memorials to the dead, built by those who should have stopped them from becoming dead, and didn’t. I kept wondering when a book like this would come along, and how it would be received. There was All Quiet on the Western Front, of course, but that’s the wrong war (though it’s always what people pointed to when I asked about this). And though it starts young, it doesn’t start young enough: it doesn’t humanize children who were taught to dehumanize others from, almost, the cradle. Children who grew up killing, and whose own chlidren, in the 70s and 80s, demanded answers they couldn’t or wouldn’t give for what they did.

We don’t need to know, verbatim, that Volkheimer is still capable of tenderness. We could have guessed it from actions he takes elsewhere. We don’t need to have it spelled out for us like this. But it’s a gift that he does it. It tangles things for us. Werner, we have already been brought to believe, doubts the morality of what he is doing, and the majority of those for whom he does it (though he, like the vast majority of his countrymen, lack the courage to turn that discomfort into subversive action). We are being asked, throughout the pass, to give him a moral pass, for his doubt. But Volkheimer? All the others? What right to our forgiveness have they? Werner is a liability for them at this point: if he can question why they do these things, wage this war, why aren’t they? Would it not be easier to paint them with a red brush of condemnation and dismiss them all as morally bankrupt?

It would be easier. And we still might. But it is going to be messy for us, with moments like this with Volkheimer carved into our brains. That’s why I love these tiny little descriptive gifts. Things should be messy. Moments like this ensure they are.

Also:

His footfalls across the landing. One-pause-two one-pause-two. Wheezing. Climbing again.

If he touches me, she thinks, I will tear out his eyes.

This is coming from a blind girl. Think on that. I missed it at first, riveted and riotously sororal in the face of a sentiment I’d felt myself more than once. But she’s blind. She has not seen since she was six. She can move in the world and has learned to live in it fully, but this is her threat. This, as she is torn asunder, is what she will do to him. If he ends her, he will be forced to live as her. Let him learn how it is. Let him live it.

That is way more powerful than I caught, the first read through.

waffles

I am back in the waffle place where I was a week ago, when my mother died. It’s loud now. Then, it was quiet, and I read this as my mother lay dying thousands of miles away:


I didn’t know she was in the act of dying. I trudged out here because eating proper food was something she would have told me to do, and despite purchasing two huge bottles of Gatorade to try and make up for all the water I lost through crying, I still felt (and looked, I’m sure) like I had a terrible hangover. A server with pink hair tried to flirt with me, missing both my wedding ring and my general misery, but she retreated when persistent questions about my book met only bleak looks, and eventually left me to my reading.

A week later, I read:


And I think of the many posts I’ve written over the years about anger being more productive than despair. That remains true. But it is too hard, maybe, to stay angry the length that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis requires. It can flare up, when petty people luckier than you waste their time and their mental cognizance on stupid shit, right in front of you, where you can see, and seethe. When those they love treat them like they’ll always be there, because they can’t imagine–haven’t been wrenched into imagining and then living–any alternative.

But staying that angry starts wars that can’t be won. At least, I assume that is how you end up with people wanting to cryo-freeze themselves into better times, or re-seat their aging brains in younger bodies, or…all these batshit things you see people do. Take over countries. Launch a bomb at a man who threatened your father once. 

One of the petty people I resent most sent me a long letter. Amid a pile of storebought sympathy cards and watercolor flowers with embossed silver script, she sent me a long letter on notebook paper. I prepared myself for religious bullshit, or affirmations of being there for me to fill a void she’d better not dare even to try. 

Instead, she said what I already knew, and what I so resented her daughters for not seeing: she was in the same place I was. Lost her mom that way and will go out that way. I know for a fact she spent all Mother’s Day sobbing, but here she was writing in ballpoint pen on notebook paper, telling me it would become less shit in time.

Of all the well-meant falsehoods people shower you with when someone dies, hers is the one I’m grateful for. 

Because I know how much it cost her.