2017: A Year in Books

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The year that surpassed 2016 (possibly) in its horrendous-ness has finally come to a close! 2017 was, as always, a year of transition for me. It incorporated a tremendous amount of growth that was long overdue- my heart expanded, my hair grew longer, my patience increased (however minutely). If you were to take a journey throughout this blog, you’d see the transitions incorporated into 2017. Change plagued my year- books anchored me. Despite the changes around me- my boyfriend’s cross-country move (and subsequently mine- I’m writing from LA!), the ending of a close friendship, my work on my own mental health- books were always my confidante. Reading has been a constant for me my entire life, and 2017 has been especially poignant in its delivery of books to me. My 2017 reading list incorporated fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and more. Each reading experience felt crafted especially for me at that time.

Here’s my 2017 reading list:

  • The Dream of A Common Language: Adrienne Rich
  • Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: Carrie Brownstein
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Miserable Mill
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy
  • Dubliners: James Joyce
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: James Joyce
  • Ulysses: James Joyce
  • The Fate of the Tearling: Erika Johannsen
  • A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles
  • The Sirens of Titan: Kurt Vonnegut
  • No One Belongs Here More Than You: Miranda July
  • The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood
  • Fates and Furies: Lauren Groff
  • The Secret History: Donna Tartt
  • The Vegetarian: Han Kang
  • Men Without Women: Haruki Murakami
  • Young Goodman Brown: Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Nest: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
  • Caballero: Jovita Gonzalez
  • Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude: Ross Gay
  • Bartleby and Benito Cereno: Herman Melville
  • The Mysteries of New Orleans: Ludwig von Reizenstein
  • The Sunshine State: Sarah Gerard
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Mark Twain
  • The Girls: Emma Cline
  • The Clansman: Thomas Dixon JR
  • The Best American Short Stories (2013): Elizabeth Strout
  • The Dinner: Herman Koch
  • Everyone’s A Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: Johnny Sun
  • The Gunslinger (Dark Tower 1): Stephen King
  • The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower 2): Stephen King
  • The Waste Lands (Dark Tower 3): Stephen King
  • Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower 4): Stephen King
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole (Dark Tower 4.5): Stephen King
  • Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower 5): Stephen King
  • Songs of Susannah (Dark Tower 6): Stephen King
  • The Dark Tower (Dark Tower 7): Stephen King
  • Sour Heart: Jenny Zhang
  • Moby Dick: Herman Melville
  • Homegoing: Yaa Gyasi
  • Birthday Letters: Ted Hughes
  • The Best American Short Stories (2010): Richard Russo
  • Human Acts: Han Kang
  • Annihilation: Jeff Vandermeer
  • Authority: Jeff Vandermeer
  • Acceptance: Jeff Vandermeer
  • Delicate Edible Birds: Lauren Groff
  • Turtles All The Way Down: John Green
  • The Best American Essays (2017): Leslie Jamison
  • It Devours!: Jeffrey Cranor & Joseph Fink
  • The Best American Non-required Reading (2016): Rachel Kushner
  • Too Far to Go: John Updike
  • The Marriage Plot: Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Best American Short Stories (2017): Meg Wolitzer
  • On Such a Full Sea: Chang-Rae Lee
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Empathy Exams: Leslie Jamison
  • The Best American Non-required Reading (2017): Sarah Vowell

Initial thoughts on this list: damn, I read A LOT of anthologies. In my opinion, few things are better in the literary world than an excellently organized anthology/collection. Shorter pieces that fit nicely together speak more creatively to me; I take great pleasure in deriving meaning out of an anthology or collection, to investigate what exactly connects each piece into its ultimate cohesion. I tend to stick with anthologies/collections once I read one great one, and it becomes difficult to transition back to longer works after. I’ve always been a fan of The Best American series, and was lucky enough to find my own 25 cent copies at a huge warehouse sale in Gainesville, Florida! The Best American Essays and Short Stories have been favorites of mine since I was introduced my first year of undergrad. Luckily, 2017 introduced me to another Best American anthology that I’m confident I’ll keep reading: The Best American Non-required Reading. These anthologies include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, interviews, and more; the collection is put together by high school students in California, and edited by a well-established writer. I love the medley of all genres thrown together, and was especially impressed by the 2016 collection.

2017 also gave room to an incredible new fiction writer: Jenny Zhang. I regret not including the image for Sour Heart, Zhang’s short story collection, on my above collage because it truly was one of the best books of the year for me. Sour Heart is a collection of stories from different narrators, all of whom are either Chinese immigrant girls or the daughters of Chinese immigrants. The stories vary in narration (some girls are very young while others are well into adulthood), but mainly take place in New York City. Zhang’s storytelling feels fresh; she speaks of a girlhood I cannot recognize as a white girl, but writes common unifying threads of girlhood that feel achingly familiar and sad. This collection does what I love best: effortlessly collides stories together to make an incredibly moving and powerful larger story. Zhang’s characters and stories all speak to one another, and ultimately explore what it means to be a girl still having fun (as insecurely or securely as one can be) in the world of toxic xenophobia and sexism.

The three other short story collections I read this year include Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami, Too Far to Go by John Updike, and No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. Each of these also represents strong collections, and each writer expertly maneuvered the unique art of the short story. I remember reading and finishing Murakami’s short story collection in the mountains of Blue Ridge, Georgia- I sat on our AirBnB’s deck and shedded my early-morning coat to feel the sun on my skin and I cried. I cried for the men in the story, each of whom lost and/or rejected a woman’s love, and I cried for myself, a woman loving a man. It was a tumultuous time emotionally, and Murakami’s collection helped make my pain universal- my heartache almost felt trite compared with that of Murakami’s characters. He writes such exquisite sadness. I came to Updike’s collection by way of The New Yorker: Fiction podcast- it was an episode featuring Matthew Klam reading Twin Beds in Rome. I fell absolutely in love with the Maples, the couple starring in this story, and eagerly ordered Too Far to Go: The Maple Stories afterward. This collection centers around the story of a married couple, The Maples, and follows them from newlyweds to divorcees. Updike unleashes the ugly truths that accompany long-term monogamy; the two characters spit vile at one another in the form of terrifyingly cold arguments that arise from the simplest of moments. Updike expertly narrates the tumultuous nature of marriage- the power that a partner has, and should choose not to use. If marriage were reducible to a course, Updike’s Too Far to Go would be required reading. Miranda July was on my reading list in 2016 for The First Bad Man, her novel. I was struck by July’s quirky and fresh storytelling, and her ability to craft incredibly unique characters that were still somehow personable. I LOVED July’s short story collection, and felt incredibly compelled by a few in the collection so much that I reread the collection a total of FOUR times before setting it aside for something else. Leaving July’s world felt inopportune and sad- I wanted to bask in the fantasy worlds of her characters for as long as I could.

Some solid, 4-star books I read this year include: It Devours! (I am truly obsessed with Welcome to Nightvale, and will purchase any merchandise associated, but this was a cool story), Turtles All the Way Down (a simple and very real portrayal of anxiety), One Hundred Years of Solitude (how did it take me so long to read this?!), Human Acts, Homegoing (SO good), The Sirens of Titan (I think 1-2 Vonnegut reads a year is a great thing), The Handmaid’s Tale (a must read), The Marriage Plot (Eugenides is just so good) and more. I really didn’t dislike anything I read (although I did detest some- I’ll get to that below…); a ton of solid 3-4 star choices. My two Masters courses led me to some on this list- I took a James Joyce seminar and read most of Joyce’s work. I could read Dubliners forever, and Ulysses was a once in a lifetime experience. I loved meeting Molly and Leopold Bloom, and my heart echoed that final, resilient yes at the end of the book. I then took an Early American Lit course and read some familiar titles (Melville, Twain, Hawthorne) along with some very off-the-wall reads (Mysteries of New Orleans, Caballero). I loved that course, especially for the New Mexican cowboy professor I had and the ways he challenged me. I can’t wait to be taking graduate English courses again!

Everyone’s a Aliebn When You’re a Aliebn Too by Johnny Sun is arguably the cutest book I’ve ever read. Sun’s comics of an aliebn navigating earth’s surface via relationships with earth’s creatures (bees, bears, etc.). Sun’s aliebn adventures with the curiosity I’ve had navigating foreign cities, and the aliebn’s sincere desire to connect with beings really inspired me. The book is an honest and sweet examination of how to best explore this confusing and sad reality, and encourages us to try our best. It’s a great reminder, especially in 2017.

Okay, here it is. The negative part of the post.
I’ve been waiting to read The Dark Tower series by Stephen King for YEARS. A very trusted book friend of mine adores the series, and a few more of my trusted book friends have recommended it as well. The movie’s release (the movie, by the way, is so horrendously bad) pushed me to buying the series. I read all of them- all eight books, thousands of pages… and I… hated… it.
After finishing the first novel, The Gunslinger, my boyfriend said ‘how’d you like the first and best book of the series?’ I looked at him as if I’d been stupefied. Getting through The Gunslinger was NOT a fun experience for me- I persevered because I hoped the rest of the series would get better. I did the same throughout the second book, and the third, and the sixth… and before I knew it, the books were over, and I was left full of a disappointed rage. King writes from four(ish?) different perspectives throughout the books, and one of those perspectives irked me so bad that I had to stop reading the series for a bit. King writes as Susannah, a black disabled schizophrenic woman from 1960’s NYC. This character felt so rehearsed and so unbelievable- each time King wrote ‘you honky!’ from Susannah’s voice, I cringed. It’s as if King wanted to include more than just a white male perspective, which I can respect, but instead of creating a fully-formed human being, he thrust each minoritized population into one being who quickly turned into a caricature. This alone made The Dark Tower painfully hard to read for me. On top of that major criticism, King’s fantasy throughout the books felt too Deux Es Machina- his attempt to be meta fell to pieces and the entire plot felt strung together with paper clips (writing himself into the story- WHAT?!). I was so far removed from the plot that I honestly don’t even think I could summarize how the story ended. I’ve never regretted reading something more. I so wanted to like King (I’ve never read any other King-related work), and I felt ready to love the Dark Tower. I was sourly disappointed.

And, as for my favorites of 2017? It’s a hard choice, but I’ve narrowed it down to the following: The Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. The majority of these choices have their own blog posts (see earlier posts for details on them), but I never got around to writing a blog post for The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, an incredible science-fiction work that absolutely blew me away. I’m usually not a science-fiction reader, but the beautiful cover art of this trilogy pulled me in, and the pacing of Vandermeer’s writing made it impossible for me not to finish these three books at an alarming speed (all in 1.5 days!). The books are an original take on a post-apocalyptic/alien invasion (maybe? still trying to decide what the fuck is actually going on in these books, to be honest), and involve plot lines of romance, parenthood, and more. After I finished Acceptance, I spent HOURS reading reddit theory threads trying to piece together what I’d read. Vandermeer doesn’t give a lot of answers, but somehow the mystery of his storytelling does not feel frustrating. The unknowns are unknowns I’m comfortable with; in fact, I think they make the story stronger. I really recommend this trilogy- it was an exhilarating read, and I’m excited to see the film soon!

Thanks, 2017, for one of the most pleasant reading years I’ve ever had. I made it to 61 total books (I set a goal of 75) this year and plan on getting to the same in 2018. Let me know what I missed out on and what you recommend for 2018!


There is Never an After

This week my therapist asked me what I would say to a younger me. I referenced the blog post I wrote a few years back, the letter I wrote to my 14-year-old Xanga photo, the way I pitied her in a warm, friendly way. ‘But what did you feel towards her,’ my therapist asked, reaching for more in the way she always does. ‘What is your relationship to her? Have you accepted her?’ Yes, I wanted to say, yes of course. But the truth was, I’m not sure if I had or if I have. The lighthearted pity in that letter wasn’t a tone of acceptance; in fact, it was barely a tone of empathy. That young girl was not someone I accepted or even respected. She’s someone I barely know. I can only recognize her in her report cards and obsessively-organized school planners, in old time cards from her multiple jobs and in her oddly-angled myspace photos.

I’m working on a move to Los Angeles. I suffer from bouts of extreme anxiety about this move, bouts that have been quiet recently but flared up again this week. I was waiting to hear back from a hopeful job opportunity (which I didn’t get) and something about the waiting triggered the spiral. What ifs piled up and overflowed, each panicked thought drowning itself over and over again for more space in my brainwaves. ‘Where is the anxiety about the move coming from?’ Fuck if I know, therapist.

But I’m trying to know. And the therapist’s push to get me to dive deeper into the girl I used to be might be a part of the answer. I grew up in a low-income family in the rural Midwest, a first-generation college student who would have laughed at the thought of living in California. I simultaneously pushed to distance myself away from this town and pressured myself to abide by its rules, its limitations, its stereotypes. High school existed as a starter to my real life, as a preparatory period that didn’t matter. I excelled in my coursework, in my solo preparation for college, in anything that would push me beyond 44707. ‘Can you tell me about a day you remember in detail from high school?’ No, I can’t. I remember studying. I remember waking up at 4AM thinking I was late for school and panicking, getting dressed and heading out to the bus stop before I realized it wasn’t time. I remember the loneliness I felt at football games, the existential thoughts I had as my friends painted my face red for Friday nights (what’s the fucking point? when will any of this matter?). I remember a brief day of mindfulness- I won an award, a scholarship, and finally exhaled at the realization that I had worked hard to be what I now was. I stared at that award a lot that day, and it’s one of the only times I can remember being present during those four years. I had paused and reflected and congratulated myself. I allowed myself to feel pride, a notion I hadn’t indulged in due to an inexplicable fear that if I acknowledged my success, it’d somehow be taken away from me. I’m still not over this superstitious notion. It’s what wakes me up at 4AM some nights still, what leads me to the insane ultimatums I sometimes give myself- if a bird flies overhead within the next minute, you’ll be OK. These superstitions forego control, alleviate the pressure I put on myself to make things work. But they’re not the truth.

I had this notion in high school that if I worked hard enough, if I lived with this constant pressure and tight-chestedness, there would come a day when it paid off. I’d forfeited mindfulness throughout my teenage years because I thought it would lead to a long exhale, a tranquil life in which I’d be far away from my hometown, in love with a partner I believed in, pursuing education, writing (check, check, check, and check). But perhaps the biggest thing I’d thought such hardwork would get me, the inspiration for As and college applications? ‘What about that girl haven’t you accepted yet?’ I expected there’d come an after. I expected I’d reach all the goals and a sigh of relief would filter out the drowning thoughts in my mind. I thought that because I’d danced with anxiety so much in high school, a graceful partner, it’d vacate once I’d achieved.

But- and here’s the sad, epic truth- the bucket list has been reconciled. The goals have been met, have been exceeded. I’ve been to 15 countries. I’ve gotten a master’s degree. I’ve lived out of state. I’ve published a work of fiction. I’ve fallen in love with someone I’m confident in. But that sigh of relief never comes. And it never will. The high school girl still knows the pattern of the dance, still opts out of mindfulness, still wonders what the fucking catch is to all the goodness that doesn’t feel like hers to take.

There are no signs. A bird flying overhead is just a fucking bird. It can’t decide for you. You can decide, even when your thoughts tell you you cannot. The truth is there. What you want, what you truly truly want, is there, sometimes buried in the deep and protective and annoying membrane of anxiety. A friend told me yesterday- “this isn’t a house of cards. It’s a house with an actual foundation. You built this. Over time. With lots of work and screwing up some corners and rebuilding them. But it’s here and you’re working on things. Painting, maybe. The point is, it isn’t going to blow over or shatter or disappear. It’s here. So step into it. Live there. Trust it’s going to keep you dry when it rains. You don’t have to ask the house if there is a hole in the roof. You’ll find out and you fix it when there is.”

There is never an after. There’s only a now, and a now after that. And now is good. Now is good because I made it that way.

Love in the Time of Anxiety

I didn’t know what anxiety was in high school. People used the word interchangeably for crazy or stressed or sad. And I guess at times anxiety can be all of those things. Can probably be more. But there were things missing from this definition that were crucial to me understanding anxiety in any real way.

At that time grades were important to me. I made a 4.0 GPA in high school and took as many courses as I could. I started prepping for college, something no one in my family had done before me. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, but I started making a plan. Plans. To-do lists cluttered my desk and my school calendar; there were evenings I forgot to eat because I was too busy updating my planner, too busy crossing things off of my lists- this, I thought, was how I nourished myself: writing down the steps to get me where I thought I wanted. There were times (and still, confessedly, are) in which I’d add things I’d already done to the end of my to-do list just to see another black line. This, intentionally completing things, was how I’d get to the land beyond the to-do lists, that fictional terrain where I’d be able to breathe without writing it down, without writing a check-mark beside the simple act of breathing to know that I’d done it.

And finally at age 25 I’ve come to the truth of anxiety- this destination, the place I thought planning and over-analyzing and check-marking would get me to, does not exist. The to-do lists have only led to more sticky-notes, to color-coded keys for my calendars, to two majors and three minors. Worse than any of that, though, it’s led to an inability to love. Or, maybe closer to truth, an inability to let myself be loved. Anxiety makes you believe that if you try hard enough, if you make enough lists and stretch yourself thin enough, your happiness will exceed any boundaries you thought this world put on you. I never imagined that anxiety was something that could not be defeated, that a world without the constant treadmill of useless, unnecessary, harmful thoughts and emotions was not accessible to me. And I’ve lived for 25 years awaiting the year in which the anxious thoughts would leave; in which I’d succeed and feel complete, in which I’d open my heart and have a relationship free of anything but confidence and contentment. I guess, in a way, this is the year I’ve been waiting for. It just doesn’t look the way I expected it to.

I’ve been in love a handful of times, and each time has felt like a failure. I know now that I have always leaned too heavily on the men I’ve loved, always expected too much out of them and blamed them for the emptiness I felt when they did not (could not) deliver. The false control I thought I’d had over my own life- the sense of control that endless to-do lists and pressure can give- led me to believe I could find this same control in a partner. I mistakenly thought that if I could not find such an organized, controlled atmosphere in a relationship, it wasn’t the right one. It gave me an out anytime a man left. ‘He didn’t try hard enough’ was my defense. And this defense did its job; it protected my heart. It left me to my to-do’s and my endless quest for happiness. I taught myself that love wasn’t for me, that my heart couldn’t be matched. My romantic idea of ‘the one’ fell away and left me with a wall, one larger than I then recognized. The heartbreak of my early twenties left me scarred and broken, and the only thing I knew to do was to nurture myself. Anxiety is funny in that way- at times, it feels like a friend.

When I moved a year and a half ago, I met someone. I wrote about him on the blog, wrote about him after the breakup. My anxiety spiraled after he left; I felt alone, unsure of this new city and my new life. I felt inadequate at my job, uncomfortable in my apartment. I hadn’t done yoga in months, had only read a few books in a number of weeks, hadn’t written a word in verse. I’d lost control because I’d tried so fucking hard to maintain control of a relationship I didn’t even truthfully want to be in. But the illusion of control was enough- the thought that I had someone’s apartment to fall asleep in, someone’s coffee breath to wake up to- that was enough. I clung hard. Ironically, though, I pushed away harder. I questioned a lot. I felt a wave of doubt pass through me nearly every day, heavy and murky and powerful. Oftentimes it’d lead me to crying, to him asking what he did and becoming frustrated at my apparent ‘craziness over nothing.’ There were multiple days in which he wouldn’t answer my messages for 24 hours, and I’d hyperventilate until I got home and could sob and scream into my pillow. Anxiety told me that loving someone was dangerous, that letting someone love me signified a loss of control. But it also told me that losing this love was a failure larger than I could stand. I thought that he was my entryway into the land of no anxiety. I lost him (not too much of a loss, in the grand scheme of things). But what I gained was larger: a need to dissect my anxiety, to stare at its ugliness and say ‘I accept you, but you are no longer going to win.’ I finally learned that living without anxiety was never going to happen for me, and that the land of happiness was not one in which anxiety did not exist but one in which it coexisted with the larger, friendlier parts of me.

I sought therapy for the first time in my life. The therapist wasn’t the best fit, but it felt good to cry once a week to someone who didn’t know me. It felt good to admit the things that lurked deep in my brain, to say things aloud that I hadn’t thought about for years. I was scared by how much I didn’t know about my own thought processes, horrified at the havoc my own brain had caused in the name of self protection. I made progress. I recognized that what I thought was a healthy independence had actually been an unhealthy aversion to romantic love, a distrust in the things I most wanted: long-term monogamy, the concept of ‘the one.’ But I did not think I was ready for love; I wasn’t sure I was as good of a partner as I’d always thought myself to be, and I thought I needed to do more work alone before I could do it with someone. But I met him anyway. The one. Even writing those two words takes a little bit of deep breathing, a willing abandoning of protective cynicism. But I’ll write them again and again because I believe them: the one. I still don’t know if I believe in the concept of ‘the one,’ but I do believe in the partnership he and I have cultivated. I do believe that this is the biggest love I will ever have. And I know that recognizing it as such is important to my ongoing acceptance of it.

I pushed him away for months. I denied and questioned every romantic impulse I had towards him, expressed that we were just friends. I spoke to him constantly, found myself yearning for his witty text response or invitation to go to the movies. Other people began to bore me, and I started wishing he was with me when I did certain things I enjoyed doing (the bookstore, mostly- I really, really wanted him to watch me trapeze through the aisles of Chamblin’s, wanted to feel his eyes and his smile on me as I pretended not to notice). I knew from the beginning that he was leaving. He’d told me via text message that he was moving to LA and I cried silently throughout my night class. We’d agreed from the beginning to not do distance, recognizing the pressure and the absurdity that would be commitment at so early a stage in a relationship. We had six months before he left- we could make the most of that time together and part as friends- that felt like control. That, in the beginning, was something my anxiety smiled upon.

Eventually and inevitably, I realize now, we came together, falling in a quiet, ground-breaking kind of love over inhales of cigarette smoke and the sounds of Frank Ocean, Blind Pilot, and Father John Misty. We went to museums and movies, leaning into one another shyly at first, learning the curves of one another’s body, eventually melting into one another effortlessly. We drove in his car and listened to podcasts, ate terrible food on the floor of his studio apartment and woke up hazily wrapped in naked limbs. My best friend turned everything.

The first time I mentioned wanting to do distance was in his bed late at night. I’d been wanting to say it for weeks, and spent time trying to figure out whether or not my anxiety was controlling the decision- was I, like I had previously, clinging too hard out of fear to lose what felt like control? Did I want him simply because being in a relationship felt like success? The answer to both of these questions was a loud and defiant no. I wanted to be with him because I believed him when he laughed.

I sobbed until my eyes couldn’t open when he told me no. Weeks later I tried again, and then traveled to China for work. He took care of my apartment and my cat while I was gone, 12 hours of time difference between us and barely functioning wifi. I felt, especially when we were apart, the crushing wave of anxiety welcome me back. I felt its blackness, the way it entered into my bloodstream like an anesthetic, its sharp and unavoidable insistence that you have no control, that you are destined to fail, seep into my heart. I thought of him and thought only of what I was to lose. Every conversation I began to look for the holes, the defining lines which proved that I was not enough for him. Anxiety convinces you that it is right, assures you beyond a doubt that the thought it has produced reigns supreme. And once I believed that he was not willing to do distance with me because he did not love me enough, nothing he said could convince me otherwise. I was back to the mantra ‘he isn’t trying hard enough.’ I came home to a man who greeted me at the airport with taco bell, who stayed awake when I couldn’t beat my jet lag and who rubbed my back until I fell asleep. He’d washed my car and fed my cat, took out the trash and made sure I had a cold coke can waiting for me in the fridge. All logical signs pointed to the truth: this incredible man loved me so much. But my anxiety insisted that he did not. Even when, a few days later, I accidentally let slip ‘I love you’ and he returned it with a serious ‘I love you too,’ even when he pulled me into my kitchen and revealed a note he wrote with my fridge magnets that said ‘I love you,’ revealing that he indeed loved me, had known it before I’d said it, had written it while I was in China listing in my mind all of the reasons he did not love me- even then I doubted it. I doubted him. And most of all, I doubted that I was worth loving.

We went on like this for a few long months. I started agonizingly long conversations that had no ending, just an endless loop of buts and what ifs. I went to LA for a work conference and got to see his new apartment; while I felt an other-worldly sense of happiness for him and the life he was about to begin (I knew how big he’d make his life), I felt a panic so severe that I couldn’t sleep. Each day I woke at 5AM wanting to call him like some kind of addict looking for the hit of ‘I love you.’ At that point I needed him to tell me he loved me every hour else I’d begin to doubt it, to spiral into the abyss of convincing myself I was unworthy of a lasting love. The patience this man displayed during those months was close to heroic, and if there is ever any need for me to seek validation in his love for me (which, unfortunately, there still sometimes is), I only have to look at what he was willing to do for me then: comfort me every hour while he prepared to move his entire life across the country. I was unbelievably selfish but I didn’t realize it. The anxiety made me feel justified. It smiled deep in the darkness of my brain and awaited the completion of the self-fulfilling prophecy (tell yourself you are unlovable and that is indeed what you become).

I wish I could say that all of this changed. That I defeated all of this on that work trip and I handled the rest of our relationship (which is, I’m so happy to say, still happily going!) with grace. But the truth is those feelings only became more rampant and uncontrollable. In the face of losing him I became irrational, I became pathetic. And the worst part was I knew it. I could feel the anxiety take over, but I felt helpless at its feet. I whispered no and it happened anyway. I felt helpless, which only fed in to my suspicions that I was unlovable. I lost 15 pounds. I checked his social media endlessly and began telling myself that it meant something if I was not on his story or his feed. I sought out signs that would prove my anxiety was right because it was safe. Settling into the familiarity of these anxious thoughts was safer than letting myself be loved with the possibility of being hurt. I could control this hurt, and wasn’t that better than the unexpected heartbreak that might come from love?

The answer, of course, was no. It was sadder. Lonelier. More of a heartbreak than anything else ever could be. I used to want to yell at myself for ever pushing away what I have most wanted but now I only ever want to cradle that part of me, the one who fears loss and heartbreak and abandonment so much that she abandons her confidence and herself before someone else can. I’m on the road to loving that part of myself, and understanding that she is just one of the myriad of parts that make up my whole. She has tended to amplify herself in my romantic relationships, has engorged herself and become too big to be healthy.  But whereas I used to see this part of myself as far away, as if on an insurmountable mountaintop, I now can beckon her down to the summit, look her in the eye, and say ‘no.’

Sometimes she doesn’t listen. Sometimes still I have these conversations with my partner who has been long distance from me for more than two months now. I still, of course, dread them when they happen. But I feel that chill, that diabolic urge to question my worthiness, my relationship, less and less. It wields so much less power. I’m going to therapy with a new therapist and I’m taking medication for the first time ever. This combination enables me to pause the rapid assembly line of thoughts in my mind, lets me sit in child’s pose for 15 minutes at a time with a mostly empty space. At other times it lets me laugh at all the extra work my brain is doing and has done- sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and remind myself: ‘you are fighting battles that do not even exist.’ I have a partner states away who decided, after all, to stay in this. We have a plan for me to move in with him soon and we talk all the time. For awhile I struggled with accepting that he actually wanted to be with me until I realized- why else would he be doing this? The ability to rationalize my thoughts against my anxiety felt revolutionary. Together now he and I are able to laugh at my need for him to respond to my snapchats or tell me he loves me multiple times before I fall asleep. There are times when I do indeed still need these things, weak moments when the loneliness and missing him gets to be too much and I start delving into the thoughts of ‘what if I’m not enough for this to last?’ The anxiety can still turn me selfish. It can still make me feel as if I’m a bad partner. But now I only have to look at his short (I love his easy, quiet love) response of I’m not going anywhere to feel re-energized; and when it feels like it’s too much, when it begins to feel insurmountable again, I’m able to at least have faith that the feeling will pass. I can call her down from the mountaintop and tell her no until she dissolves into the background, never gone, but less present.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang Book Review


The Vegetarian, a book about a woman who never herself gets to speak from the main narration, tells the story of Yeong-hye, a woman first described as plain and not difficult, as ordinary. This plainness becomes quietly disrupted when Yeong-hye decides to adopt a vegetarian diet due to a nightmare, something we get brief depictions of as violent, bloody, and mysterious. Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian seems to be quiet at first, but it grows ever louder, impacting her and her family’s lives irrevocably.

This story happens in Seoul, South Korea, and explains the importance of familial and marital dynamics in Korean culture. The narrator of section 1 is Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Chan. From his first-person narration, readers come to view Yeong-hye as a plain, ordinary Korean woman, apparently subservient to her husband and easy to manipulate. But Mr. Chan’s narration also serves as a red flag; what is he leaving out of these descriptions? It’s obvious there is something in his wife that he doesn’t see or understand, and this inability to truly see her comes to a head when Yeong-hye strongly delves into her vegetarian diet. Her need for vegetarianism stretches not only into her diet but also into her husband’s diet; she refuses to cook meat for him, and eventually decides to stop sleeping with him because of how much his skin smells like meat (Mr. Chan ignores her, however, and begins to rape Yeong-hye). Mr. Chan’s frustration with his wife’s vegetarianism drives him to contacting her family, and staging a sort of intervention. Power dynamics are at major play at this dinner; the women of Yeong-hye’s family attempt persuading her to eat meat at first, and when this fails, her (somewhat abusive) father steps in, slapping Yeong-hye and literally forcing a piece of meat into her mouth. The meeting is uncomfortable and sad, something Mr. Chan watches in disgust and we watch in pity and horror. Yeong-hye ends the meeting with something even more unpredictable than her sudden change in diet: she cuts her wrists using a kitchen knife, resorting to harming herself in lieu of eating meat. It is only then that her family, Mr. Chan included, seem to take her vegetarianism for something more than a stubborn phase.

Yeong-hye’s family sends her to a mental institution. Mr. Chan’s embarrassment at his wife’s behavior and status at the mental institution creates even more of a bitterness that can only come from an unhappy marriage. Yeong-hye’s family begs Mr. Chan not to divorce Yeong-hye, and his first-person arrogance explains how benevolent it is that he still visits his wife in the hospital, despite all she’s done to embarrass him. He still discredits her behavior, vegetarianism included, as something silly, something trivial; she has lost the need to save face, and this rather than worrying him, insults him. At the end of this first section, Mr. Chan finds Yeong-hye escaped from the hospital holding a dead bird. Bitemarks are visible on the bird, and the reader is left to wonder if Yeong-hye killed the bird by biting it, her violent dreams coming to fruition. Or, perhaps Yeong-hye is so haunted by the dream, any dead meat holds weighty significance. The first section of the novel felt obsessively incomplete, a disrespectful and shallow description of a woman who never got to describe herself. If we believed Mr. Chan’s description of Yeong-hye, we severely underestimate the multitudes that exist inside of her.

The second section of the novel, The Mongolian Mark, switches from Mr. Chan’s first-person perspective to a third person narration from Yeong-ho, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. Although Yeong-ho’s perspectives on Yeong-hye are much more favorable than that of Mr. Chan’s, his perspective is also absent of real presence; whereas Mr. Chan downplayed Yeong-hye’s humanity, Yeong-ho romanticizes it. Yeong-hye isn’t the plain woman Mr. Chan had us believe but is instead a mysterious, alluring presence, something not quite understandable and irresistible in that lack of understanding. Yeong-ho’s attraction toward Yeong-hye began the day of her self-harm attack in her family’s kitchen; Yeong-ho was the one to carry a bleeding Yeong-hye to the hospital, her blood saturating his clothes in an almost sexual way. The second section of the novel reads as a ballad of sorts; an effort for a man to create art he deems valuable, and an insatiable thought that this art needs this woman. Yeong-ho, a cynical and disheartened documentarian, becomes suddenly inspired, something he hasn’t felt in years, when he imagines creating a work of art depicting Yeong-hye’s Mongolian Mark. Yeong-ho learns from his wife, In-hye, that her sister has a bright blue birth mark on her butt, a Mongolian Mark from childhood that has never disappeared. A fire erupts within his brain, and an entire idea is formed in an instant: a film of this women, naked, with painted flowers all over her, originating from her Mongolian mark. Yeong-ho’s artistic need coincides with his intense sexual attraction to Yeong-hye (and, I would argue, his sexual attraction to his own creative work– the male ego!); he begins devising ways to visit Yeong-hye away from his wife and their infant son, and eventually gets the courage to ask Yeong-hye to model for him. “He was living with a new intensity. It seemed the happiness that had enabled him to feel that quiet peace was now lost to him forever. And yet he found himself unable to think of this as a loss.” Yeong-ho completely gives in to his desire- he feeds himself on it.

Interestingly enough, Yeong-hye agrees. She tells Yeong-ho “I didn’t want the flowers to come off, so I haven’t washed my body. It’s stopping the dreams from coming. If it comes off later I hope you’ll paint it on for me again.” The vegetarianism again- everything, for Yeong-hye, revolves around her dreams and her life now far removed from eating meat. Eventually the two sleep together, Yeong-ho’s obsessions fulfilled: “I want to swallow you, have you melt into me and flow through my veins.” Yeong-hye’s response to their sex is much more heartbreaking: “will the dreams stop now?”

From the first two sections of the novel, we don’t know much about Yeong-hye. What the novel shows us is that one person can be many things to many different people; the same Mongolian mark can serve as a source of disgust for one man and one of extreme desire for another; one woman can appear plain while in a different bedroom appear exquisite; can any one perspective get the whole picture? Can we as readers really know The Vegetarian by reading about her instead of hearing from her?

In-hye walks in on her husband and her sister the morning after their sleeping together. The novel has introduced readers to In-hye as well, giving Mr. Cheong’s opinion on In-hye (very positive- she’s hardworking, a great mother, sexually appealing, a good wife) and Yeong-ho’s opinion on her (much the same as Mr. Cheong’s, with the added acknowledgement that she is too good for Yeong-ho). Readers can see how strong In-hye is, how much of a master she is at controlling her extremely heavy emotions. She tells her husband that she is disgusted, that there is something wrong with him for taking advantage of her mentally weak sister. Yeong-ho attempts to throw himself from Yeong-hye’s balcony before he’s taken into hospital custody along with Yeong-hye.

The third section of the novel, ‘Flaming Trees,’ switches to In-hye’s third person point of view, the wronged sister of Yeong-hye suffering heartbreak at her husband’s infidelity, at her sister’s apparent psychotic break. In-hye remains a loyal sister to Yeong-hye, visiting her in the hospital and aiding in the search when Yeong-hye goes missing. In-hye’s life combines single motherhood, owning a business, and faithfully attending to her sister; it’s a life that seems full but proves to leave time for contemplative, deep thinking. Thoughts in this section alternate between her failed marriage, her spritely son, her sister’s strange condition, and her own misery. We see that Yeong-hye has lost significant weight and is refusing to eat anything at all, claiming that she will soon turn into a tree. In-hye at first feels disgusted by this behavior, but Yeong-hye’s intense belief in it leads her sister into feeling pity, and, by the end, a bit of understanding.

“Usually, when she has given up on trying to wring any more sleep out of the night, it is around three in the morning. She washes her face, brushes her teeth, prepares some side dishes, cleans and tidies every corner of the house, and still the clock goes as slow as ever, the shifting of the hands like the almost comically suspended movements of some ponderous dance. In the end she goes into his room and listens to some of the records that he left behind, or puts her hand on her back and spins herself around the room as he once had. ‘When did all of this begin?’ she sometimes asked herself in such moments. ‘No-when did it all begin to fall apart?'”

The third section of the novel punctuates the ultimate theme: we really can’t know everything about a person; and even if we do think we know, so much can change. Your husband can become a stranger. Your self can become less familiar than anyone. “The lives of all the people around her had tumbled down like a house of cards- was there really nothing else she could have done?” In-hye reflects that despite how careful she’s lived, the worst has still happened: “time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart. Even as a child, In-hye had possessed the innate strength of character necessary to make one’s own way in life. As a daughter, as an older sister, as a wife and as a mother, as the owner of a shop, even as an underground passenger on the briefest of journeys, she had always done her best. Through the sheer inertia of a live lived in this way, she would have been able to conquer everything, even time.” This sentiment speaks strongly to me- the false control we think we have when we plan- the sense of comfort we get from the A on the test, from the ‘congratulations’ when we secure that job, from the I DO we hear him say at the altar. It’s nice to comfort ourselves in such milestones, to keep the paranoia of life unlived, of life unknown, at bay. But it’s never at bay. And we never have total control.

Yeong-hye continues believing she will soon turn into a tree, explaining to In-hye that soon emotions and words will cease to exist within her. She seems unafraid to die, and In-hye’s incessant worrying, her constant prod to her sister to eat, seems to loosen. She thinks of her own immortality, contemplates what she can do to live a more present life.

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her success had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely.” In-hye contemplates suicide, utterly annihilated with the truth that her life is not one she envisioned. And she thinks of her sister, Yeong-hye, dying because she believes in death she will become a peaceful tree; no longer is Yeong-hye the insane sister. She may be, instead, the wiser one: “Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread that had kept her connected with everyday life. During the past insomniac months, In-hye had sometimes felt as though she were living in a state of total chaos. If it hadn’t been for Ji-woo- if it hadn’t been for the sense of responsibility she felt toward him- perhaps she too might have relinquished her grip on that thread.”

“The only times when the pain simply, miraculously ceases, are those moments just after she laughs. Something Ji-woo says or does makes her laugh, and then immediately afterward she is left blank, empty even of pain. At such times, the sheer fact of her having laughed seems unbelievable, and makes her laugh again. Admittedly, this laughter always seems more manic than happy, but Ji-woo loves to see it all the same. ‘Was this it, Mum? Was this what made you laugh?’ Then Ji-woo will repeat whatever it is he’d just been doing, such as pursing his lips and using his hands to mimic a horn growing out of his forehead, or else making a clattering sound, sticking his head between his legs and calling out Mum! Mum! in a silly voice. The more she laughs, the more he ups the ante with his clowning. By the time he finishes he will have run though all the secret mysteries of laughter that human beings have ever understood, mobilizing everything at his disposal. There is no way for him to know how guilty it makes his mother feel, seeing such a young child go to such lengths just to wring a bit of apparent happiness from her, or that her laughter will all eventually run out. Life is such a strange thing, she thinks, once she has stopped laughing. Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet and washing themselves- living, in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud. And they probably have these same thoughts, too, and when they do it must make them cheerlessly recall all the sadness they’d briefly managed to forget.”

As Yeong-hye inches closer to death, In-hye reflects more on her life. She comes to realize that her sister’s break from reality may be closer to a true life than her own. And instead of seeing sadness in her sister’s passing, in the way her sister has lived her remaining life, In-hye tells her dying sister: “What I’m trying to say… Perhaps this is all a kind of dream. I have dreams too, you know. Dreams… and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over… but surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because… because then…”

The novel ends with In-hye staring out Yeong-hye’s window at the trees, the very thing her sister has wanted to become. There seems to be a determination renewed in In-hye, a will to live or to be honest with herself that was not present before Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism. What Yeong-hye becomes is so much more than a vegetarian; she unearths a truth(s) about humanity, about existence, that is too much to bear while also being nothing to fear. It reminds me a lot of The Awakening- a character learns something deep and dark and can never, ever return to a normal reality. The Vegetarian, from this third section, is no longer romanticized or put down; instead, she is exposed in her truths, and is seen as her dying wish: flaming trees.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt Book Review


I introduced myself to Donna Tartt late in 2016 with The Goldfinch, a tiring and stunning book that showed Tartt’s writing to be worthwhile. The Secret History continues this legacy of Tartt’s (this was written before The Goldfinch, but in my reading itinerary, it came after).

In the same style as The Goldfinch, The Secret History tells an incredibly personal story via mystery, intrigue, lengthy and poetic sentences, and twists that make one pause, sometimes for days, to get their bearings. The novel begins in prologue, a retrospective narrator revealing the entire twisted plot within the first paragraph: a man named Bunny dead after a fall, his body waiting to be found in a ravine, the fault of which belongs to the narrator and a few other unnamed friends (“us”). I love that Tartt began the novel this way, revealing the crux of the plot right away before we are even introduced to Bunny, to the narrator. Despite the prologue, despite the warning of what’s to come, readers forget; they develop a love for Bunny anyway, ignore the thought that Richard, our narrator, and his group of quirky, intelligent friends are murderers. Tartt, in The Secret History, shows how confusing one human being can be- so much darkness, so much light, no real room for making a judgment.

“But walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another, and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure.”

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will be able to tell.”

Our narrator, Richard Papen, explains his humble origins (from a middle-class town in California, bored with his domestic life alongside his boring family, seeks solace in college in New England, where he must pretend to be from money and intellect). Richard’s fears are palpable; I felt myself in his descriptions, his ruminations on what it meant to be an academic. The Imposter Syndrome he describes is something I think any middle-class young adult who moves across the country into an intellectual pursuit feels. Although he deserves to be on campus, in classes, although he makes the grades sometimes above all others, something in him tells him ‘you do not belong.’ That in juxtaposition with the deeper desire to belong makes for a dangerous combination, ripe with chances of despair.

At the beginning of his college career, Richard debates on what to study. He has taken Greek language courses previously, but is told at his arrival to Hampden that the Greek program is not open to him, as admission is incredibly selective, and the professor (Julian Moore) and his pupils are not looking for another member. Richard takes notice of this group, sees them on campus together often, and understands them at once to be unreachable yet longs, again, to be a part of them. The Imposter, trying to make friends. Richard’s determination to enter into the Greek program forces Julian to accept him, and soon Richard finds himself amongst the people he has admired from afar. Richard’s first Julian class is full of philosophical tangents, unanswerable questions somehow met with ripe answers:

“Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so? Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls- which, after all, w are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable an any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no one person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us.”

This language is glorious, inspires me to go back to philosophy and literature until the end of time. But what also comes from this lecture is a slightly alarming conversation, one that now, in hindsight, feels especially concerning: “’And if beauty is terror, then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?’ ‘To live,’ said Camilla. ‘To live forever,’ said Bunny.”

There is a definite cult-following surrounding Julian; Camilla, Charles, Frances, Bunny, and Henry all seem to trust and believe in Julian’s lessons, viewing his word as the ultimate truth. Such adoration, such searches for absolute morality and truth, are so, so dangerous. Can young people really afford to be this smart? To question such things as Julian is asking them to? Can such smart people exist without becoming completely absorbed in discovering what no one, not even the ancient philosophers, have discovered? And, what may be the most important question of all, if such a truth is discovered, can human beings handle it?

Richard grows closer to each member of this group, feeling more a part of it each day. He takes up drinking and smoking regularly, finds it easier to excel at the part of the Imposter without feeling completely drowned by the role- “I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden.”

Although Richard enjoys his blossoming friendship with the Greek class, he also begins picking up on questionable behavior: overheard snippets of conversation that are hushed when he walks into the room, mentions of blood-soaked, muddy clothes, and finally distance from the group, an effort on their part to ignore Richard’s phone calls. “It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days; a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together- my future, my past, the whole of my life- and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! Oh! Oh!”

This feeling is another that I recognize, that I can pin-point on the map of my young life, one that I could find the exact coordinates of (Ashland, Ohio, where a part of my young, vibrant, eager soul, lived entirely, and, I think, died). Anything feels possible when you’re young and half in love (he with Camilla), and with a group of people you finally feel like you deserve. Richard believes he has finally found his place, his people, his values; why take heed of the warnings? Even the negative feels like a high, impossible to comprehend as an Imposter who may no longer be an imposter. Richard spends time describing the places the group spent time in and came to love one another, especially the country house of Frances’ parents: “if I had grown up in that house I couldn’t have loved it more, couldn’t have been more familiar with the creak of the swing, or the pattern of the clematis vine on the trellis, or the velvety swell of land as it faded to gray on the horizon, and the strip of the highway visible- just barely- in the hills, beyond the trees. The very color of the place had seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolors, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects: the house, the sky, the maple trees. But even that day, there on the porch, with Charles beside me and the smell of wood smoke in the air, it had the quality of a memory; there it was, before my eyes, and yet too beautiful to believe. The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant- the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it could ever really happen.” I felt this way with my own college friends; a tremendously strong and harsh awareness that the loveliness I’d come to know, to sit comfortably in, was ending, combined with a mystifying air that felt as if an end could never come. It’s a special time, this. But it’s also tragic. It took me years to realize that the tragic feeling, albeit terrible and destructive and at times romanticized, is worth it. I think Richard comes to learn this too, despite.

The next section of the book describes Richard navigating Hampden separated from his Greek classmates. As they distance themselves, Richard meets others- he has a one night stand, flirts with the next door neighbor girl, participates in the drug and alcohol scene, etc. He always, though, questions why the group has abandoned him. That is until one night in which he breaks into Henry’s apartment, and finds receipts for four tickets to Argentina. Confused, Richard stops communicating with the group, aware that something is awry. Eventually, Henry approaches Richard, and reveals the truth, a dark truth scarier and more grotesque than any reader would expect. The four tried to escape but soon realized they didn’t have enough money, mostly due to Bunny’s incessant borrowing habits; they sought to escape, to be on the run, away from Bunny and Hampden. The group had committed murder (Camilla, Charles, Francis, Henry)- an accidental occurrence, a farmer who had stumbled upon the four students as they were at peak levels of tripping, crazed by visions of Dionysus and the beyond. As Henry explains to Richard, they were trying to achieve Bakcheia, a concept Julian had taught them in class- Dionysiac frenzy. Henry wanted to reach this, as no one had for thousands of years. The group tried and failed multiple times with alcohol, drugs, etc, but nothing got them there. As they got closer, Bunny began to doubt; the group pushed him out and committed themselves to fasting, to praying, to taking drugs. Eventually, the group succeeds- they see Dionysus, they reach Bakcheia. As they reach it, however, a farmer arrives. The group, dazed and drugged, barely remembers his arrival, and eventually, his dead body lies beneath them. As Henry notes, the murder helped their goal: “it was heart-shaking. Glorious.” Although Bunny did not participate in the event, due to the group snubbing him, when the news breaks that the farmer was murdered, Bunny indicates that he knows the truth. He begins asking for more and more money, and begins to, as Henry suspects, blackmail them. The group becomes incessantly paranoid, afraid that if they don’t give to Bunny, he’ll rat.  Henry mentions that he can rid the group of this nagging worry, if everyone is willing. Richard notes: “it’s funny, but thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point n time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do. Instead, I only yawned, and shook myself from the momentary daze that had come upon me, and went on my way.” Again, Richard recognizes the sense of wrongness, but his desire to win out over his Imposter syndrome wins again; it is so hard, maybe impossible, to give up that which has made us feel at home.

As disturbing as the first murder was to read about (we eventually discover that the farmer was murdered brutally, with his intestines pulled out and blood everywhere), the next section of the novel reads as even more so. Bunny, aware that the group is no longer his, becomes dangerous. He drinks often, spends much of Henry’s money, and skips class. He flirts with the death of the farmer, taunting the group with what he knows in front of anyone, even Julian. “Bunny is a problem,” Henry notes, and reveals to Richard and the reader his intention: murder Bunny to hide themselves from their first murder. At first, Richard is appalled by this idea- he’s far away from it, wasn’t involved in the first; but, yet again, Richard’s love for these people wins out. As disturbed as he is, disgusted even, it is he who leads the group to the act itself. It’s he who tells them which direction Bunny will be walking and when. The group waits for Bunny at his walking path, and when Bunny sees them, he again pokes fun at what they’ve done, calling them deerslayers. Henry steps toward Bunny, and pushes him. Bunny falls to his death, an act of fulfillment that the prologue introduced. It still shocks the reader, no matter the forewarning; that a group of intelligent people would murder their best friend, quickly and assuredly. The darkness eclipsing all of the light- and yet still, there is light, Still, we love Frances for his anxious empathy, we love Henry for his stoic curiosity, we love Charles for his charm, we love Camilla for her mystery, and we love Richard for all of the things he cannot see about himself. So much light, so much dark.

After Bunny’s death, days pass before police start looking for his body. It’s a disastrous period marked by the group drinking and smoking excessively, blacking out at odd hours and skipping class. Finally, search partiers all around Vermont are deployed to find the missing boy. And still it drags on, the body still missing, Bunny’s ghost already starting to haunt them. Each group member struggles in a different way; Francis in the hospital, Charles with alcohol, Camilla withdrawing, Henry taking the leadership role and planning strategy to avoid police questioning, Richard a mixture of all. In the midst, Richard falls more in love with Camilla, and grows more paranoid by the day that they will be found out, charged with murder. Eventually the body is found and a funeral is held, an awkward and painful affair that involves Bunny’s hysterical father, awkward conversations with Marion (Bunny’s girlfriend), and stealing Bunny’s mother’s drugs. Of the service, Richard remarks: “Somehow I had thought there would be more than this. This is stupid, I thought, with a sudden rush of panic. How did this happen? Bun, oh Bun, I’m sorry.” He also remembers his friend: “he hadn’t seen it coming at all. He hadn’t even understood, there wasn’t time. Teetering back as if on the edge of the swimming pool; comic yodel, windmilling arms. Then the surprised nightmare of falling. Someone who didn’t know there was such a thing in the world as death; who couldn’t believe it even when he saw it; had never dreamed it would come to him.”

After the funeral, discord mounts. The twins get into some kind of mysterious argument and eventually, Camilla moves out into a hotel room. Charles starts to drink even more than normal, eventually arrested on DUI charges for which Henry’s money has to bail him out. The group becomes reckless, and Henry stresses, copes with the encroaching police attention and general paranoia of the group. He keeps Richard mostly in the dark about this, until Francis reveals to Richard what has happened amongst the group: Charles hit Camilla due to jealousy, for the twins have slept together repeatedly for years. More than that, his jealousy was because of Henry, and the hidden romance the two shared. In her hotel room (which Henry paid for), Camilla quietly fell harder for Henry, as her brother starved himself in a hospital bed. Richard begins abusing drugs, feeling the incredible pressure and paranoia coming to a head. He is positive the group will be discovered. Henry admits during this period of discord that committing the first murder was beneficial for him: “it enabled me o do what I’ve always wanted most. To live without thinking.”

The group’s relationship with Julian also becomes at risk; he asks Francis, Henry, and Richard to lunch, where Julian shows them a letter from Bunny that showed up in his mailbox randomly, a letter which he believes is a cruel prank. The letter details that the group is dangerous and that Bunny himself is in danger of being murdered. Julian disbelieves this letter entirely; but to Richard’s horror, the letter is written on stationery from the Italian hotel Bunny stayed in with Henry. He does his best to hide this post mark from Julian, but he sees it anyway, realizing the diabolical and sinister truth of the letter. After this, the group’s relationship with Julian falters- he goes missing, resigns from his post at Hampden, and vanishes. Henry remains confident in Julian’s trust, sure he’ll remain silent. Richard, however, remains broken, scarred by his realization that yet another person knows of his lack of goodness. Richard remembers his professor in this way: “It’s funny. In retelling these events, I have fought against a tendency to sentimentalize Julian to make him seem very saintly- basically to falsify him- in order to make our venerations of him seem more explicable; to make it seem something more, in short, than my own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good. And I know I said earlier that he was perfect but he wasn’t perfect, far from it; he could be silly and vain and remote and often cruel and still we loved him, in spite of, because.” And this is the conundrum of the novel itself; you love in spite of and because. Always.

The novel comes to a dramatic finale in the midst of Richard’s panic, Charles’ depression and rage. Frances and Richard visit Henry and Camilla in her hotel room, where Henry alarmingly references killing Charles as a way to rid the threat (Charles, in his anger and jealousy, has become more of a threat to their secrecy than Bunny perhaps ever was). As Henry makes this remark, Charles himself steps into the room, holding a gun at the group. Charles announced to the group, gun ready, that they should have never listened to Henry, that he is the downfall of the group and their secret. He gives the indication that keeping the secret is no longer a priority; that Henry has ruined his life so severely that not a thing matters anymore, especially remaining/feigning his own innocence. The gun fires four rapid shots, one of which hits Richard in the stomach. The group anticipates the inn-keepers arrival, knows that their facade is over, that they must answer to all of their crimes. Henry calls Camilla to his side, Charles’ gun in his hand. He kisses her twice, tells her he loves her, and shoots himself, just as the door opens.

The Secret History’s epilogue is just as mysterious and beautiful as the prologue. The language is poetic and dark, just as heart-wrenching and tragic as the prologue and epilogue that I remember from The Goldfinch. I love Tartt’s usage of heartache, how every word throughout the epilogue seeps of nostalgia and what ifs. Henry dies in the hospital not long afterward, and Richard ruminates on what he views as Henry’s unnecessary sacrifice: “it wasn’t from desperation that he did it. Nor, I think, was it fear. The business with Julian was heavy on his mind; it had impressed him deeply. I think he felt the need to make a noble gesture, something to prove to us and to himself that it was in fact possible to put those high cold principles which Julian taught us to use. Duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice. I remember his reflection in the mirror as he raised the pistol to his head. His expression was one of rapt concentration, of triumph, almost, a high diver rushing to the end of the board; eyes tight, joyous, waiting for the big splash. I think about it quite a bit, actually, that look on his face. I think about a lot of things. I think about the first time I ever saw a birch tree; about the last time I saw Julian; about the first sentence that I ever learned in Greek: Beauty is harsh.” The epilogue is fast-paced afterwards, explaining Richard’s hasty graduation from Hampden and his move to California with Sophie, a girl he almost married. He lost touch with Francis and the twins, until years later when Francis sent a suicide letter. Richard travels to Boston to visit Francis, whose suicide failed; also there is Camilla, the faraway love of Richard’s life. As Camilla readies herself to leave, Richard finally admits his love: “I love you. Don’t leave. Let’s get married.” to which Camilla responds: “I can’t marry you. Because I love Henry.” Desperate and confused, ashamed that a ghost has more power than he does, Richard says: “I loved him, too,” to which Camilla closes the circle: “I know you did. But it’s not enough.”

“The rain stayed with me all the way back to California. An abrupt departure, I knew, would be too much; if I was to leave the East at all, I could do so only gradually and so I rented a car, and drove and drove until finally the landscape changed, and I was in the Midwest, and the rain was all I had left of Camilla’s goodbye kiss. Raindrops on the windshield, radio stations fading in and out. Cornfields bleak in all those gray, wide-open reaches. I had said goodbye to her once before, but it took everything I had to say goodbye to her then, again, for the last time, like poor Orpheus turning for a last backwards glance at the ghost of his only love and in the same heartbeat losing her forever; hence those tears.”

Richard wraps up the novel by explaining what each character has done since. He ends with explaining a dream he had in which he again met Henry. In Henry fashion he notes: “I’m not dead, I’m only having a bit of trouble with my passport.”

This ending surprised me. Richard remains hypnotized with the past, unhappy and stuck. His loneliness is something that even Henry’s ghost recognizes. And dream-Henry provides no escape from this, offers no answer- he notes his friend’s unhappiness, and excuses himself from the dream. The novel leaves us with no answer- just a secret history, a dark and brutal tale that alters everyone involved, forever.

And perhaps that’s all that any of us ever have- stories, both dark and light. Stories that change us, that impact our lives and enable to us to live in a more beautiful, more severe, more twisted way.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff book review

Only Lauren Groff could tell a successful story using character names such as Mathilde, Chollie, and Lancelot (Lotto). Her ability to pace a story is reminiscent of Hawthorne- slow, abrupt, pointed. My favorite thing about this novel is the foresight Groff gave herself from page one. The bigger story, the twists along with the coming to terms with the twists, existed close behind the rest (the furies, it seems, sat alongside the fates, patiently, knowing they’d get their turn).

“The world revealed itself as it was. Threatened from below with darkness.”

The story is divided into two parts: fates and furies. Lancelot Satterwhite (Lotto) waltzes us through the first part of the story, beautiful and charismatic, a boy from wealth struggling (but smiling) to find his place. Lotto’s father died at a young age, and his mother, Antoinette, became increasingly withdrawn and religious. Lotto’s loneliness in his youth is not helped by his infant sister Rachel, nor his loving aunt Sallie; instead it is a group of rebellious teenagers he finds solace in. Chollie and Gwennie, a set of twins, and Michael, a boy with a crush on Lotto. “Four troubled kids in early October, through twilight deep into the dark. Moon rose blowsily, pissing white on water. Forces of nature, perfect in beauty, perfectly ephemeral, they guessed.” Invincible, they thought themselves, and who didn’t at that age, especially in the midst of exploration, of realizing that the scale of good and bad you’ve been spoon-fed may be incorrect? What can harm you? The group experiments with drugs and alochol, spending a hot Florida summer on the beach getting burnt and poisoned until Lotto finds himself at a party, having sex for the first time with Gwennie, the act only just being finished as the house catches on fire, both Lotto and Gwennie jumping out of the window half-naked. Groff uses bracket marks to interject omniscient narration throughout the novel, and she does so about this night with Gwennie: “[This day would bend back and shine itself into everything.]” She’s an expert handler, professional at telling readers what we need to pay attention to. It is this event which prompts Lotto’s family to send him away- he is forced to go to boarding school in Maine, a cold and desolate brick building in which Lotto does not fit in. He struggles the hardest he will ever struggle at this time of his life: Lotto contemplates and attempts to follow through with suicide, walking to the Dean’s office late at night (he intended to steal the Dean’s hand gun). Instead, he finds another student his age, nicknamed Jelly Roll, hanging from the chandelier. Lotto’s own suicide thwarted by another, haunting and permanent in his memory. During his supreme grief, Lotto’s English/Drama teacher (Denton Thrasher) molests Lotto, taking advantage of the boy’s extreme loneliness and vulnerability. Groff does not talk much about this scene, and a reader can in fact easily miss it. Thrasher does, interestingly enough, reappear later in the novel, and Lotto’s discomfort in talking with the old teacher is something Mathilde notices too, noting his shortness and desire to get away from the man as quickly as possible (something that is very un-Lotto-like). Lotto reaches out of this darkness by meeting Samuel, a soon to be lifelong friend who helps Lotto reach the personhood all have come to know as Lotto: sleeping around, everyone admiring him, charisma pounding out of his thin, muscled body, sweet, even in the way he rejected you, impossible to ignore and/or dislike. “The world was precarious, Lotto had learned. People could be subtracted from it with swift bad math. If one might die at any moment, one must live!” This philosophy pushes Lotto onward into himself, into the Lotto we and everyone know him to be. He and Samuel find themselves in college together, where this cycle of Lotto sleeping around continues and expands. Chollie, Lotto’s friend from the summer of debauchery in Florida, also reunites with Lotto, sleeping in he and Samuel’s dormitory throughout college. During their last year of college, Lotto meets Mathilde, a figure of grace and mysterious beauty of which he had taken notice of before. He sees her, half-drunk, above a crowd of people at his feet, locks eyes with her across a party, and sprints to her, knowing. “Already he loved the laugh she held in her, which nobody else would see.” Lotto notices a joy, a loveliness, within Mathilde that she herself does not believe exists (in fact, as we will see later, Mathilde believes only evil lives deep within her). The first interaction the two of them have is Lotto proposing to her; he crawls to her across the floor, looks into her eyes, and asks: “will you marry me?” And Lotto believes her reply is “Yes, sure”- Mathilde lets him believe this their entire relationship (which turns out to be a marriage, an incredibly good one). The two elope after 5 weeks of knowing one another, not knowing much about the other- we do not get much of Mathilde’s perspective in the ‘Fates’ section of the novel (which is arguably the happier/more naive half of the story), but we do get small things, sentences that deliver a heaviness that surrounds Mathilde the way her demeanor surrounds her in college: “When she was small, isolated in the country, she’d been so lonely that she let a leech live on her inner thigh for a week.” The first year of their marriage is a cheap apartment, lack of work for Lotto (who at this point is struggling to become a successful actor), and endless parties with the group of friends from college, all of whom exchange rumors about the couple, expecting their inevitable collapse into one another and therefore away. Mathilde grows increasingly bothered by Lotto’s lack of ambition, and secretly, we find out later, pulls money and struggles to keep the couple afloat. Lotto’s inheritance and allowance from his mother stopped the day he married Mathilde, an element of the story we get more of later as well. Eventually the parties become less attended: “Up there rose the ghosts of parties, of themselves when they were younger, too dumb to understand that they were ecstatic.” One night, while drunk, Lotto writes a play, and it is then he finds his passion: writing. Mathilde takes on the role of manager/editor, secretly editing his plays after he has passed out from drink. We see Lotto’s success with his plays, the many different actors and theatre owners surrounding the couple like a fan club.“‘He’s so clownish on the surface. All joke and dazzle. How in the world could you have seen it?’ ‘But I did. The moment I met him. A fucking supernova. Every day since.’ She thought but did not say almost.” The two do have an astoundingly successful marriage despite the every day bullshit of not really knowing another human being in their entirety. The word ‘almost’ should follow everything we do in marriage. It should follow anything we think we know about the person we love. Lotto desperately wants children with Mathile, dreams of the way the kids will look and act, the way Mathilde will mother them. At every mention, however, Mathilde recoils. Amidst this success, Lotto becomes injured in an accident, nearly losing half of the movement in his body. This spell of brokenness leads to an intense depression, the like of which Mathilde herself is almost unable to break. It is finally an artist’s retreat that inspires Lotto, and the thought of meeting acclaimed Opera writer Leo. Lotto becomes increasingly transfixed with Leo, the two men sharing a relationship based on art, solitude, intrigue. The relationship with Leo almost usurps Lotto’s marriage (briefly), and only comes to a finish when Lotto does not like Leo’s composition for their joint Opera. Hurt Leo runs away, abandoning the artist’s retreat, and Lotto is forced to return to his marriage bed which he has left in an extremely irresponsible and selfish way. Toward the end of the Fates section, Groff takes us to an art gallery with Lotto and Mathilde. Lotto meets a man by the name of Ariel, who reveals to Lotto that he and Mathilde once had a relationship. Lotto, who naively believed that he was Mathilde’s first, becomes paranoid and heartbroken at the thought that his wife had an affair early on in the happiest days of their marriage. Finally, Lotto returns home to Florida after the death of Antoinette (his mother), estranged from his wife and utterly changed after the revelation of Mathilde’s lie. He speaks with Sallie, his aunt, about it and she replies: “Please. Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste. She never lied. Just never said.” And then Lotto’s own revelation: “Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely, you do know someone entirely.” The Fates section of the novel ends with Lotto looking out into the ocean, seeing a mirage of his younger self with his wife’s younger self, a beautiful last scene:

“Look, now. In the distance, a person. Closer, it’s two people, hand in hand, ankle deep in the froth. Sunrise in hair. Blond, green bikini; tall, shining. They kiss, handsy things happening under his trunks, her top. Who wouldn’t envy such youth, who wouldn’t grieve what has been lost, in watching. They come up to the dune, she pushing him backward, up. Study them from the balcony, holding your breath, while the couple stops in a smooth bowl of sand, protected by dunes. She pushes down his trunks; he takes off her bathing suit, top and bottom. Oh, yes, you’d return to your wife on hands and knees, crawl the distance of the Eastern Seaboard to feel her fingers once more in your hair. You’re unworthy of her. [Yes. [No.]] Even as you think of flight, you’re transfixed by the lovers, wouldn’t dare move for the fear of making them flap like birds into the blistered sky. They step into each other and it’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends: hands in hair and warmth on warmth, into the sand, her red knees raised, his body moving. It is time. Something odd happening though you are not ready for it; there is an overlap; you have seen this before, felt her breath on your nape, the heat of her beneath and the cold damp of day on your back, the helpless overwhelm, a sense of crossing, the sex reaching its culmination [come!]. Lip bitten to blood and finish with a roar and birds shoot up and crumbles in the pink folds of an ear. Serrated coin of sun on water. Face turned skyward: is this drizzle? [It is.] Sound of small shears closing. Barely time to register the staggering beauty, and here it is. The separation.”

I love Groff’s use of omniscient narration throughout the novel- she is unafraid to insert what she knows into the brackets- above, when she notes [Yes [No]], we see that the narrator understands what Lotto himself does not (or perhaps retrospective Lotto is coming to find out): all of marriage, all of committing to another, is paradox. Lotto cannot accept the bad, terribly bad, facts of marriage- for him, any negative, any unknown, breaches the goodness of their togetherness. The purity becomes tainted, and this somehow ruins, in a way, their love. In Furies, Mathilde’s section of the novel, we realize that this unequivocally perfect view of marriage is not one that she herself holds; for Mathilde, a person can both be perfect and incredibly flawed. You can at the same time know someone entirely and not know them at all. And the love is still there. The love is still undeniable.

Furies tells the story of Mathilde, the grieving widow, the small, lonely child, and the canniving, insecure woman she has been her entire life (while still being the elegantly smart and loving women Lotto knew her to be). The first few pages of the section show Mathilde and Chollie talking, and Chollie reveals that Gwennie, his twin who had been Lotto’s first, killed herself via an overdose. Like Mathilde, we will come to find out, Chollie hid the negatives from Lotto, neither of them wanting to damage the goodness he possessed. Mathilde folds in on her grief, denying old friends, denying Rachel, denying food. She thinks back to her childhood, to the girl named Aurelie growing up in a small French village. It is here that Mathilde may have been the happiest, the life before the guilt, before she deemed herself angry or evil, before she held furies within her. At four years old she pushed her infant brother down the stairs, breaking his neck and killing him. “She forgot the smell of the farmhouse where she’d been born, the crunch of gravel under her shoes, the perpetual twilight in the kitchen even when the lights were on. The wolf spun, settled in her chest, snored there.” Here begins Mathilde’s quest inward, into the evil she comes to believe she embodies. Her parents see it too, send her permanently away from them to live with her grandmother in Paris (a whore); here Mathilde becomes increasingly ‘demented,’ giving credence to the reputation fate has seemed to place upon her. She is sent away again, this time to an uncle in the USA, where she stays until college, and then Lotto. Whereas Lotto believed in possibility, in goodness, in complacent sureness, Mathilde knows better: “Even then, she knew that there is no such thing as sure. There is no absolute anything.” Mathilde loves Lotto because he is the first person who has looked at her since she was four and did not deem her mysteriously mean/menacing or beautiful but cold. He sees a goodness in her, a definite warmth, that she cannot see or feel within herself. “I love you beyond love.” “Even if she dreamt of him, she couldn’t have come up with him.” After the loss of Lotto, Mathilde becomes again the evil the world told her she had to be. “A force field of fury so thick nobody was going to get in.” Mathilde takes to sleeping with random men after Lotto’s death, recklessly finding strangers in bars, shops, on the street. We also learn that while Lotto was at the art retreat, Mathilde was incredibly unhappy, so dissatisfied in her marriage that she left, a sudden retreat to Thailand. She wanted Lotto to come home and find her gone, find the house a mess, worry, for the first time. She wanted him to realize all was not perfect. Instead, she got too burnt and came home early, arriving an hour before him. He did not realize her grief, her sadness, how much she needed him; instead, she was the one to pull him into her, giving and giving again to this man who was too good to realize any wrong. “How such small things can decide one’s fate.” Mathilde meets Ariel, an art gallery owner, at age 17. She is in desperate need of money for college tuition, and this man, a predator, offers her a way: endless sex for four years, until she graduates. Their arrangement is not terribly unhappy, but at times is incredibly degrading and filthy for Mathilde. It is because of him that she does not sleep with anyone else, why when she meets Lotto she must wait a few weeks until she is able to sleep with him. She moves away from her uncle, who notes: “I am curious to see how you change. I predict either something ferocious or something thoroughly bourgeois. You will be a world-eater or a mother of eight.” And Mathilde responds: “I won’t be a mother of eight.”

“Look at them together. The height of them, the shine on them. Her pale and wounded face, a face that had watched and never smiled now never stopped smiling. It was as if she lived all her life in the chilly shadows and someone had led her out into the sun.” Lotto never believed in Mathilde’s badness, and Mathilde did just as much for him: “she sharpened something that threatened to go diffuse in him.” “They could have lived on happiness alone.” It is at this point in the novel that we learn a deep secret: Chollie, Lotto’s best friend, knew of Mathilde’s arrangement with Ariel. It is because of Chollie that Ariel spoke to Lotto at the art gallery in Fates, toward the latter part of Lotto’s life. It is because of Chollie that Lotto knew of Ariel at all. Chollie had watched Mathilde and Ariel from afar back in college, and swore then to dismantle Mathilde at the very worst moment, to keep the secret until he knew it would hurt her the most- a fury, indeed. “[Grief is pain internalized, abscess of the soul. Anger is pain as energy, sudden explosion.]” Chollie tells Mathilde, ruthlessly, of what he has done, smiles at her shock and hurt. And Mathilde swears to injure Chollie as he has done her, swears it into the wolf sleeping in her chest, awakening the evil part of herself she has forgiven, has let rest, for decades. She hires a private investigator to take Chollie down in an unforgivable way, hoping to damage him as he has done her, as he did Lotto. Mathilde reveals two more deep, hidden secrets: her abortion of Lotto’s baby, in the early years of their marriage, and her subsequent decision to sterilize herself, also in the early years. It was not a decision she regretted, yet another factor that leads Mathilde to believe herself evil, to believe herself less than the loveliness Lotto asserts her to: “She would do it again. To save herself. She would do it again and again and again and again and again and again and again, if she had to.” 

One man Mathilde sleeps with after Lotto’s death is a young actor, someone who adores and respects Lotto, who is clumsy in his introduction and unsure of what he wants from Mathilde. She takes him to bed, has a moment of acute attraction that she has not yet felt from the other men she’s slept with, and wakes up to his absence. He left a note for her, one she refuses to read for most of the novel. His tenderness, his face- they remind her of Lotto. When the boy leaves Mathilde recalls a memory of she and her husband star-gazing: “‘Did you know,’ he said, ‘they found out just a little while ago that there are billions of worlds that can support life in our galaxy alone?’ She felt a sting behind her eyes, but couldn’t say why this thought touched her. He saw clear through and understood. [He knew her; the things he didn’t know about her would sink an ocean liner; he knew her.] ‘We’re lonely down here, it’s true. But we’re not alone.'”

Mathilde thinks back to her first meeting of Lotto, regrets having made him a part of her darkness, adores having done so, too: “But she made a promise that he would never know the scope of her darkness, that she would never show him the evil that lived in her, that he would know of her only a great love and light. And she wanted to believe that their whole life together he did.” In the midst of these touching proclomations, these moments in which we want to hug Mathilde and tell her she is not the evil she and others have manifested within her, more secrets emerge, as if she is telling us ‘but wait, you don’t know it all yet, soon you will see…’ We discover that she and Antoinette, Lotto’s mother, kept in touch via letters, malicious letters on both ends, full of hate. Mathilde kept Lotto from her, relished in the shared secret hatred of the two women. And she relished in bringing Chollie down, too, enjoyed his wife leaving him, took glee in the multitude of things the investigator found. In a twist, Rachel and Sallie reveal to Mathilde that Antoinette too had hired a private investigator: for Mathilde herself. The biggest evils are missing from the file (Ariel, sterilization, the killing of her baby brother), but the largest surprise is not: a file on a human being, a face familiar to Mathilde- adoption papers for a Roland Satterwhite, mother Gwendolyn Watson, father Lancelot Satterwhite.

The last chapters of the novel include Mathilde imagining what happened between Gwennie and Lotto, and what happened after Gwennie found out she was pregnant. She envisions Antoinette offering her money to give the baby up for adoption, to never let her son know, a tactic she tried and failed at with Mathilde but which a naive 17 year old took, fatally. “The lives of others come together in fragments. A light shining off a separate story can illuminate what had remained dark. Brains are miraculous; humans storytelling creatures. The shards draw themselves together and make something whole.” After Lotto not knowing so much about Mathilde, it is now Mathilde who did not know Lotto. Mathilde finishes the file of the boy turned man, the one she recently had in her own bed, her deceased husband’s son he never knew. “Mathilde’s heart was a bitter one, vengeful and quick. [True.] Mathilde’s heart was a kindly one. [True.]” Upon her learning of Roland, she buries the hatchet in a way with Chollie- she writes him a letter, introducing Roland. The two share a future. “That’s not nothing,” Mathilde notes. It is not.

In the final chapters, Mathilde thinks back again to the moment that defined her life- her brother’s death. And she remembers a new detail: her cousin pushing her brother instead of her. A reality, that if it had been believed, would have changed everything. That would have made her believe in her worth, believe herself deserving of a love like Lotto’s. And yet, she had the love anyway:

“It was mathematical, marriage. Not, as one might expect, additional. It was exponential. This one man nervous in a suit a size too small for his long, lean self. This woman in a green lace dress cut to the upper thigh with a white rose behind her ear. Christ, so young. A shine in everyone’s eye. One could taste the love in the air. Or maybe that was the sex. Or maybe it was all the same then. ‘I do’ she said. ‘I do’ he said. They did; they would. Our children will be so fucking beautiful, he thought, looking at her. Home, she thought, looking at him. ‘You may kiss,’ said the officiant. They did; would. 
Her life. In the window the parakeet. Scrap of blue midday in the London dusk. Ages away from what had been most deeply lived. Day on a rocky beach, creatures in the tide pool. All those ordinary afternoons, listening to footsteps in the beams of the house and knowing the feeling behind them. Because it’s true: more than the highlights, the bright events, it was in the small and the daily where she’d found life. The hundreds of times she’d dug in the soil of her garden, each time the satisfying chew of spade through soil. Or this: every day they woke in the same place, her husband waking her with a cup of coffee, the cream still swirling into the black. Almost unremarked upon, this kindness. He would kiss her on the crown of her head before leaving, and she’d feel something in her rising through her body to meet him. These silent intimacies made their marriage, not the ceremonies or the parties or opening nights or spectacular fucks. Anyway, that part was finished. A pity. Enough decades and a body slowly twists into one great cramp. But there was a time, once, when she had been sexy, and if not sexy, at least odd-looking enough to compel. Through this clear window, she could see how good it had all been. She had no regrets. [That’s not true, Mathilde; the whisper in her ear.] Oh, Christ. Yes, there was one. Solitary, gleaming. A regret. It was that, all her life, she had said no. From the beginning, she had let so few people in. That first night, his young face glowing up at hers in the black light, bodies beating the air around them, and inside her there was the unexpected sharp recognition; oh, this, a sudden peace arriving for her, she who hadn’t been at peace since she was so little. Out of nowhere. Out of this surprising night with its shatters of lightning in the stormy black campus outside, with the heat and song and sex and animal fear inside. He had seen her and made the leap and swum through the crowd and had taken her hand, this bright boy who was giving her a place to rest. He offered not only his whole laughing self, the past that built him and the warm beating body that moved her with its beauty and the future she felt compressed and waiting, but also the torch he carried before him in the dark, his understanding, dazzling, instant, that there was goodness at her core. With this gift came the bitter seed of regret, the unbridgeable gap between the Mathilde she was and the Mathilde he had seen her to be. A question, in the end, of vision. She wished she’d been the kind Mathilde, the good one. His idea of her. She would have looked smiling down at him; she would have heard beyond Marry Me to the world that spun behind the words. There would have been no pause, no hesitation. She would have laughed, touched his face for the first time. Felt his warmth in the palm of her hand. Yes, she would have said. Sure.”

She hadn’t said yes. She hadn’t said sure. And yet he had believed she did, despite. They had loved, really really loved, despite.


One day, impossibly, you’re in the work bathroom squinting and pinching your inner thigh, in a slight agony over the throbbing pain near your vagina. Somehow you’re 25, you have your own apartment that you have to clean and lock when you leave (sometimes you forget)- you feel tired constantly, and play a tug-of-war game with your eating disorder from the past (say ‘fuck it’ one week and eat all the cheesy gordita crunches possible, cry and grip your stomach the next with promises to only eat grapefruits for the next few days, which you sometimes do and sometimes don’t). It’s easy for you to follow the body positive heroes on Instagram, easier still for you to send your friends body positive posts and remind them how bullshit body expectations are, but you still can’t seem to break out of the idea that you must exist in a realm of perfection, of clear skin and only eating berries, of yoga headstands and flat stomachs. You’re 25 with your first UTI (from too much sex? too rough of sex? not peeing enough afterwards? all of the above?). A few weeks back you took a pregnancy test in the bathroom of a Chipotle, your hands shaking as you peaked into your purse while in line for a chicken burrito. 25 is nothing like you’d thought it would be- you’re by no means comfortable (at work, in romance, in anything). The Imposter Syndrome you thought would surely have faded by now exists unforgivably, and you’ve had that dream of being on stage without knowing your lines twice in the past month. It’s the Canton in you, rearing its hideous, on fire head- it’s the voice in your head, the one that nearly led you out of graduate school, that spoke to you of your incompetence, of your ‘place’ in the world (married unhappily, stuck, children by 23). When you reach for more, when you move across the country for a job you are more than qualified for, Canton laughs, delivers you relentless dreams, whispers sensually into your ear ‘you will fail.’ You dared to ask for more, to wring out the possibilities of life, to squeeze harder than Cantonians are told to, and because of that you’ve seen fifteen countries, you’ve read thousands of books, you’ve achieved multiple degrees. It doesn’t go away, though, this feeling of inadequacy- there are days you stare languidly out of your car window, thinking of how impossible it is that those trees are palm trees, that the 76 degree wind blowing in through that door is your home, that it’s blowing through your door. You’re always laughing it off, this feeling of incompetence and not-belonging; you use that strong feminist voice you’ve managed to find to battle the feeling of playing dress-up across your entire life, use it to say ‘fuck you’ as you put on your Express dress (you bought it at a resale shop- 25 hasn’t given you the ability to confidently walk into clothing stores you could never afford before, some of which you’d never even heard of before moving to Florida). And you use that same feminist, fuck-you voice on dates, the many first dates you’ve had since moving- the ones that left you feeling lonelier than before, crying into your pillow, longing for home and the familiar combination of melancholy and nostalgia, challenging yourself to remember what it smelled like when you dad came home from work before he retired (Busch beer and Nickles Bakery bread), to remember the first time you felt romantic love (Sandy Valley pool, being held, fingertips that felt coated with lightning, all the power in the world held in a 12 year old boy and the way he looked at me at lunch), to remember your favorite thing about the boy who proposed to you at age eighteen (I still can’t think of one thing I loved about him, and I almost married him). There have been minor successes, minor failures, lots of free food and drinks, plenty of unanswered text messages (on their end but mostly on mine).  There have been two relationships in a year, much more than your normal disinterest; there have, as well, been two heartbreaks, different in their modes of delivery, their hurt, their reason for existing. Such different men- the first an instant connection, an overwhelming fluttering in the chest, a quick and dizzy descent into hungry love, the kind that has been dormant for years within your chest, a predator, existing only to feast on your own heart. You anticipated that heartbreak, felt his escape, wrote poem after poem trying not to forget things you’ve now forgotten (his wink, the pattern of scars on his stomach, haphazard and jagged, Migos playing through his speakers riding through the rich parts of the city). You tried bargaining with him as he left, tried propositioning yourself and offering to change. Even in the moment you cringed at your own desperation, this pathetic desire to have found the one, to make it work at any cost. You promised yourself years ago you’d never convince anyone to stay again (you can’t forget, no matter how badly you want to, the way you stretched your body across your dormitory door, arms and legs spread, a crucifixion of pathetic proportions), but you do it again and again, your cynical-made mind still reaching for the ‘what if,’ still offering the romantic route solutions. How is your anxious mind, the uber romantic, crazy cynical loophole, something that attracts people to you? What is it about you that permits them to a few months of fun or rebellion or magnificence but nothing more? That allows them to, afterwards, discuss philosophy and religion and the big questions of life with you, to compliment your instagram picture or your brain, or tell you how much they value your presence in their life? How is this always your role, coming so often into your life it seems destined for you, makes any other romantic role seem fake, temporary, fatal? Your second heartbreak of the year comes from a different relationship entirely; there was no instant connection, no absolute certainty that this person would be something, no hungry insistence that it work. Instead, unlike any relationship before, it was slow, a few dates that left you feeling confused, unsure. And then came a friendship, constant text messages and FB messages while working, making fun of one another, eating dinner, hearing about one another’s weekends. You faded out of other first dates, stopped searching. He was it, had somehow become the person you were looking for. And so you went a step further, giving a part of yourself to him, a small part, an unsure part, a part that didn’t anticipate a real love but rather a temporary partner, something fun and inconsequential. You believed this, even when he came over to your apartment and swam in your pool (freezing) and got you high and had a two hour long conversation about him moving to California in five months and he warned you (and himself) not to get too attached, not to let expectations grow. You nodded along, agreeing (at the time) that long distance wouldn’t be worth it, that the two of you, if you tried distance, would learn to hate one another for not being able to give what the other needed. The entire time you smiled, guffawed at his thought that you would need to be warned of such a thing- he was the one who’d liked you this entire time, after all- of course you wouldn’t be asking for more when the time came. And here you are, two months before he leaves, asking for more. You’re accustomed to sleeping next to him now, have learned the sounds of his asleep-breathing, can anticipate the shape of his hands reaching to your chest around 6:30AM. You know the way he drives and the way he smokes, the sad look he gets in his eyes that he won’t mention. You know him now, and the agreement you quickly agreed to earlier feels incorrect. It feels wrong, suffocating. And you feel, again, somehow, alone in your desire to try. You’re reminded again that men have not found you worth it- have looked at you with love in their eyes but have left anyway. How weak you are, to again be the vulnerable one, to time and time again throw your body against that door screaming ‘stay.’ He gently tells you why, explains with logic, blames himself, his neediness, his impossibility- but still he tells you no. It does not matter that he whispers it into your ear or that he’s holding you tightly when he says it, he still tells you no. He still does not want you. And this is what you keep coming back to, moment after painful moment, tears welling in and out as if on command, one mountain of intense, improbable heartbreak and then another. You’re 25 and running to the bathroom to simultaneously cry and pee, your ongoing UTI violent even in the face of severe sadness. You’re 25 and you have a full time job that you have to walk out on because you cannot hold back the tears. It’s not where you thought you’d be. Not anywhere close.

How tired I am of heartbreak. It has lost the romanticism I at one time carried it around in. There is no longer an artistic goodness to this pain, especially this specific pain, the one that has come not from any clear reason (not because the two of you wouldn’t work or are not working but because instead of circumstance, of miles and miles of distance). I feel the heaviness that is 25, the desire to have my person, to remain with my person, to reach that supreme good point of connection (brushing our teeth together, being naked in unflattering angles, telling one another to fuck off in jest and in seriousness, knowing you have that person’s chest to fall back on, their voice to tell you ‘it’s okay,’ waking up after surgery to his face, concerned and eager), the point of weirdness that equals out to love (the angles of our limbs intertwined at impossible angles, Zelda and scaring one another with the monsters in the dungeons, eating icecream three days in a row, getting too high or too drunk and laughing until you cry). I just want it to stay. I want to be worthy of that staying. To be the one convinced, perhaps. I want for someone to look at me and say ‘yes;’ not for there to necessarily not be any doubts (I get off on the doubting), but for there to be assurance despite. Or at least an effort despite. I never again want to feel naivety, embarrassment, for trying to love.


Life is nothing like I thought it would be. I haven’t yet felt a sigh of relief, that ever-anticipated moment of exhalation and release. It’s mostly sad with moments of purity, moments of light so bright it hurts, so tragic in their brevity and their inability to remain.

I want to take myself into my own arms, cradle my heart like the naive, foolish infant it is. Here I am, again, telling myself I’m okay until I am.

A poem

I’m Writing This after the Weekend of April 7, And You Know Why


There is a newness now,

A light, kaleidoscopic haze around ordinary existence;

The melody of the Blind Pilot song now that I’ve heard you sing it in the shower,

The sight of palm trees near the beach now that I’ve seen them from your passenger side window,

The taste of Starbucks coffee now that I’ve sipped it from your unmade morning bed.

Even the sound of Link rolling across Hyrule Field (I’ve heard it for years) is new again,

Beautiful and better, somehow, because your hands are on the controller.


Will we really make a mess of it?


This newness, this learning. This could-be love.


Start of an essay- Chronic Illness

Just started an essay about my experience dealing with a recently diagnosed chronic illness. It’s by no means finished, but it is a start ~

I’ve been sick for some time now. My first doctor’s appointment was in November, but you know as well as I do that the first doctor’s appointment comes only after months of not feeling well, of complaining to your dad on the phone an hearing him say it’s ‘just a bad headache’ or it’s ‘allergy season.’ I fear that these past five months have turned me into a bit of a hypochondriac. Perhaps that’s better than the alternative.

In my nonfiction writing workshops during undergrad, it was hard to imagine writing about anything other than the men I’d loved, wanted to love, or hated that I did love. My professor once laughed and said ‘write about something other than these idiots I see walking around campus with skateboards and cigarettes.’ He was right, of course- way too many pages of my thesis, way too much of my computer’s hard drive, are taken up with words dedicated to boys; metaphors about the way they sleep, stanzas about what it meant when he winked before leaving my dorm in the morning. Even when I tried to write about other things, it would circle back to them- the essay about my dad? Somehow it transformed into an essay about Trevor. The essay I started about my first cat dying? I saw a connection between that experience and a recent breakup so clearly that I couldn’t help but write it. Even when I’m not writing about actions of the heart, love finds its way in between the paragraphs, messying up the cracks.

And maybe that’s my warning here. Maybe I’m admitting that I can’t help but to write about love, even when I’m not in it (even when I’m months, years, away from it). And maybe I’m saying that even though this essay is meant to be about my chronic illness, it may turn into something else. An ex boyfriend may find his way in here, tied inevitably into the threads of my memory. Raymond Carver once wrote “It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.”  I won’t claim to know what I’m talking about when I talk about love. But I’ll no longer deny that I can’t resist talking about love.


‘It feels like a cave where someone died,’ my brother once said to me. We were young, 6 and 4 maybe. My mother had been in her room alone for two days straight, blankets covering her two windows and the space under the door. There was a constant humming noise we could hear in the walls, her industrial-sized fan spinning on an endless loop in the darkness. We’d slipped into her room to check on her- the air smelled stagnant. Her body barely moved to acknowledge us.
This wasn’t the first time we’d seen her like this- often, maybe once every few months, she’d close the door and not come out for days. My dad told us she was sick, told us not to bother her. I remember thinking that this was a normal sickness, that being a weak heartbeat away from death was feeling under the weather. Eventually, my mom would reappear in the kitchen, grey-faced and emaciated from lack of food, lack of light. When I’d see her at the counter leaning over the toaster for her first meal in days, I breathed a sigh of relief. There were many, many times it felt like I may never see her again, and even if she and my father and even my brother laughed my fears of her impeding death off, I felt anxious at the supreme darkness that hit her so often. ‘They’re just headaches,’ my dad used to say. And when she’d reemerge from her dark room I’d ask her ‘how are your headaches?’ I knew even then it had to be more than a headache to do this to her- to rid her room of the purple-smelling perfume she used to wear, to leave her out of the butterfly catching competition in the woods behind our house. There was once that Ethan and I had the idea to bake her favorite pie- to coax her out of her room and her sickness via blackberry pie. We’d picked the berries all day long, our bodies sweaty and sticky as they arranged the berries into a pre-made crust from Save-a-Lot. We put the pie into the oven, exhausted but committed, convinced that this simple and pure act could resuscitate her. My dad looked on, proud, humored, wiping his forehead on the kitchen towel, bringing a cold beer to his lips. The smell was hot and rich, covering every inch of the house, following me even to the front yard where I sought the coolness of dusk. But still her door did not open. Still she chose to sit in the darkness. I knew then that it was something more than a sickness that did this to her- it was an evil, an unrelenting and faceless evil who laughed in the face of children baking blackberry pie.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (Book Review)


I apologize for my lack of posts lately- I started taking classes part time at the university I am no working at, and find myself quite busy with the reading load (a James Joyce seminar in which I’m reading the entirety of Ulysses definitely keeps me busy). I’ve also been dealing with severe and chronic sinusitis, which has been the most soul-crushing experience I’ve ever had. The headaches I’ve experienced leave me sweating and naked, puking for hours although I hadn’t eaten anything for days. I got sinus surgery yesterday, the invasive and painful kind. Recovery is lousy, but better than anticipated. My current nausea is not fun, but I’m doing okay, and hoping for the best. Dealing with a chronic illness, even if it’s ‘just sinuses’ has led me to a new empathy. There were so many dark days (that I hope have now passed) full of questioning. I don’t ever want to be there again.

The Sirens of Titan is my second Vonnegut novel after Slaughterhouse Five. I see his colorful books on every book store shelf, notice his capitalized and bolded name and asterisk as I’m perusing. He’s still a bit unknown to me, an enigma of humor and other-worldiness and existential fear. I’m curious about him and want more- after this book ended I wanted to read on, and I remember feeling that way with Slaughterhouse Five as well. Vonnegut creates these worlds and these plots, invites you in and tells a story whether you’re ready for it or not. Within the first few pages of the novel, Vonnegut introduces the reader to a world in which human beings “now know how to find the meaning of life within themselves.” And for the first quarter of the novel I’m enthralled, mystified, curious about this world, the one in which Mars and even a moon of Saturn is possible. Vonnegut blinds the reader with existence, doesn’t let him/her get their bearings. But midway through it felt familiar, as if I too had lived in this world all along (and maybe I do?). That’s the magic of Vonnegut, I guess- that’s what attracts us all to his lengthy section of the bookstore, what encourages us all to pick up the neon-colored books and say ‘I think it’s time for another Vonnegut.’

“The town was Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A., Earth, Solar System, Milky Way.” In Newport, crowds gather to see a materialization of Mr. Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak. In the past, Rumfoord was a rich space explorer who entered the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, a place where many truths can exist together at once (thus enabling these so-called materializations): “you can say that your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree. There are places in the universe, though, where each Daddy could finally catch on to what the other Daddy was talking about. These places are where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch. We call these places chrono-synclastic infundibula.” Because of entering this dimension, Rumfoord becomes aware of all past, present, and future; thus, he materializes on Earth to address Malachi Constant, the wealthiest man in America. Rumfoord wishes to address his wife Beatrice as well as Malachi Constant, and in this address he tells both of them their fate: one day, the two of them will end up on Titan, a moon of Saturn, together and happy. Beatrice and Malachi do not believe Rumfoord, especially because neither of them have been to space, and laugh off his suggestions. Beatrice even feels angry towards her husband due to his predicting her ending up with another man. Rumfoord and Malachi reflect on Malachi’s good fortune on earth- Malachi notes “I guess somebody up there likes me” to which Rumfoord responds “What a charming concept- someone’s liking you up there. You’re not a bad sort, you know- particularly when you forget who you are.” Rumfoord explains to Malachi that fate will take him to Mars, then Mercury, then Earth again, then Titan, and reflects on the negative nature of knowing the future. He claims it is a thankless job, especially when Beatrice becomes exceedingly angry with him and asks why he cannot help her avoid her fate with Malachi: “All kinds of things are going to happen to you! Sure, I can see the whole roller coaster you’re on. And sure- I could give you a piece of paper that would tell you about every dip and turn, warn you about every bogeyman that was going to pop out at you in the tunnels. But that wouldn’t help you any.” “I don’t see why not.” “Because you’d still have to take the roller-coaster ride.” At this point in the novel, Rumfoord seems sweet, even somewhat of a tragic character- he’s wishing his wife well with another man, something he seemingly cannot help. “Look forward to really being in love for the first time, Bea.”

Malachi Constant is brainwashed into fleeing Earth for Mars after he faces financial ruin. So is Beatrice Rumfoord. Unbeknownst to either of them, the two of them are on the same ship destined to Mars, showing part of the prophecy Rumfoord indicated coming true. Malachi fulfills the next part of the prophecy as well when he violently rapes a woman in the dark (only afterwards finding out the person is Beatrice). The novel then takes us to a military base and introduces us to Unk, a soldier who has his brain controlled by higher ranking military men. We watch Unk struggle with his memories, simultaneously remembering things and knowing he cannot remember them: “Life was like that, Unk told himself tentatively- blanks and glimpses, and now and then maybe that awful flash of pain for doing something wrong.” We horrifically watch as Unk strangles Stony Stevenson to death at the command of Boaz, another army official who controls Unk’s memory and clearing-of-memory. Unk seems to be one of the most difficult men to clear his memory, and it takes Boaz many attempts when he tries. Unk keeps remembering a letter and forces himself to remember it and to find it- eventually, he does: “I am a thing called alive. I am in a place called Mars. I am in a part of a thing called an army. The army plans to kill other things called alive on a place called earth.” The letter goes on to tell Unk that he has a wife named Bee, a son named Chrono, and a best friend named Stony: “and when you get settled down, all of you spend a lot of time trying to figure out why whoever made everything went and made it.” The letter is signed by UNK, proving that his memory prevails even in the face of painful memory retraction. And here is when I realized that Unk may not be Unk but may rather be Malachi, re-programmed as a Mars militant. Bee- Beatrice. Chrono- their son, prophetized into existence by Rumfoord.

As Unk tries to escape Mars with Bee and Chrono, Rumfoord materializes again. He sends Bee and Chrono on a separate ship with other women- it ends up in the Amazon rainforest. No one else survives the crash but them, something Chrono attributes to his good luck piece, a slab of metal he wears around his neck. Unk, on a ship with Boaz for Earth, was kept away from Earth by Rumfoord; instead, he was sent to Mercury- “Rumfoord was preserving Unk for a major part in a pageant Rumfoord wanted to stage for his new religion.” Perhaps Rumfoord isn’t as innocent in dealings with fate as we’d originally anticipated. After Earth crushes Mars in battle, Rumfoord introduces a new religion to the world: “the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.”

Unk and Boaz are trapped in the caves of Mercury with nothing but harmoniums, creatures that glow and sing: “they have weak powers of telepathy. The messages they are capable of transmitting and receiving are almost as monotonous as the song of Mercury. They have only two possible messages. The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first. The first is. ‘here I am, here I am, here I am.’ The second is ‘so glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.'” Unk tries hard to find a way off of the isolated planet, distancing himself from Boaz who has taken a liking to living with the harmoniums: “Not to be lonely, not to be scared- he’d decided that those were the important things in life.” “I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm.” Poor Boaz- a preference of living with harmoniums rather than other human beings out of fear that he may hurt them again. Boaz creates a phrase “Don’t truth me,” which means that if Unk doesn’t tell Boaz the truth about their current living condition, Boaz won’t tell Unk the truth about Unk killing his own best friend (Stony) back on Mars). “Don’t truth me, Unk, and I won’t truth you.” A beautiful sentiment of survival. As Unk leaves, Boaz decides to stay: “And when I die down here some day, I’m going to be able to say to myself, ‘Boaz, you made millions of lives worth living. Ain’t nobody ever spread more joy. You ain’t got an enemy in the Universe.'”

“What happened to you?”
“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

On Earth, Unk’s arrival is expected- when Rumfoord created his new religion, he prophetized the return of Unk to Earth (convenient, since Rumfoord was the one who let Unk away from Earth in the first place). Unk is renamed the ‘Space Wanderer,’ and is made an example to the followers of Rumfoord’s new religion- Unk/Malachi/Space Wanderer is what happens when you believe in luck and fortune rather than the indifferent God- you end up with a wife and a son you don’t know. Rumfoord humiliates the three of them and forces them onto a space ship together bound for Titan, the last spot Rumfoord predicted Malachi and Beatrice would go. Bee questions Rumfoord’s manipulation, asking: “Could we have done any better if he’d left us in charge of our own lives? Would we have become any more- or any less?”

Rumfoord and Kazak’s real materializations have also ended up on a palace in Titan. Another creature also lives on Titan, a creature named Salo from a different galaxy known as the Small Megnallic Cloud. Salo, a machine, was sent by his fellow Tralfamadorians to deliver a message to Earth. Although Salo is a machine, he has come to love Rumfoord and sees him as a friend. We also find out that with Salo’s help, Rumfoord took over control of the Martians, and created his religion. As Rumfoord weakens, Salo becomes increasingly depressed, calling Rumfoord his friend and companion (which Rumfoord heartbreakingly shrugs off). Rumfoord tells Salo that he and the other Tralfamadorians have used Rumfoord for one thing only: to get a missing metal piece back to Tralfamadoria, the same metal piece arriving on Titan via Chrono’s good luck piece. Salo dismantles himself in grief. Rumfoord begins to materialize elsewhere, saying: “I am not dying. I am merely taking my leave of the Solar System. And I am not even doing that. In the grand, in the timeless, in the chrono-synclastic infundibulated way of looking at things, I shall always be here. I shall always be wherever I’ve been.”

As the only three human beings on Titan, Beatrice moves into Rumfoord’s palace and writes. Chrono lives with Titan’s birds. Malachi lives peacefully on Titan, occasionally visiting Beatrice who reads her manuscripts aloud to him. The two have found, despite it all, some kind of love: “The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.” This is Beatrice’s dying thought. She dies, and Malachi speaks to a reassembled Salo about her: “‘You finally fell in love, I see.’ ‘Only an Earthling year ago. It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.'”

The novel ends with Salo offering to take Malachi back to earth. Malachi accepts, and is dropped off in snowy Indianapolis. Malachi dies at a bus station, but dies with the illusion that his best friend, Stony, picks him up (lovely Salo made this illusion possible). Stony tells Malachi: “‘Get in.’ ‘And go where?’ ‘Paradise.’ ‘What’s Paradise like?’ ‘Everybody’s happy there forever, or as long as the bloody Universe holds together. Get in, Unk. Beatrice is already there, waiting for you.’ ‘I-I’m gong to get into Paradise?’ ‘Don’t ask me why, old sport, but somebody up there likes you.'” The novel ends on that sentiment, an echo of the past conversation Malachi had with Rumfoord in which Rumfoord laughed at the idea of luck or a sentient God who cared. In the end it was Malachi who was right, who in death was greeted by his best friend and brought into Paradise. Even after a life of manipulation, a lack of free will, he dies in the snow with the promise of Paradise.

“It was all so sad. But it was all so beautiful, too.”