Ohio by Stephen Markley Book Review


How to explain that we all show up to this party with no invite and no apparent host, and we can depart from it at any moment for no reason?”

I’ve been away from Ohio for 2.5 years now. For 22 years, Ohio was my home; the rusty, abandoned factories littered across Interstate 77 and Route 30, the smell of ice melting off of car windshields, the supreme darkness of Ohio nights. All of it is so specific, so in my blood that I can barely articulate it- this book, though, does. Ohio by Stephen Markley is one of the most impressive novels I’ve ever read (I know, I’ve said that before). It’s a long book, nearly 500 pages, and yet the story moves. There isn’t a word wasted in this existential journey into addiction, adulthood, death, loss, grief, heartbreak, love… of, in a broad sense, life, punctuated at both ends with the marker of Ohio, not only a setting, but an identity.

To him, downtown New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on a fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn but just before the flames take over. How vibrant and important and tough and exciting this place had seemed through the scrim of boyhood.”

New Canaan exists within 50 minutes of Canton, my hometown. The characters in the novel could be picked out of my yearbooks. Markley focuses on the character’s adult versions of themselves throughout the novel while also peppering in flashbacks to define the story’s direction; by doing this, he creates a sense of repugnant nostalgia for the town of New Canaan, an undeniable love and affection for the city of youth inlaid with an absolute recognition of facade. The sheen of childhood has fallen, and characters wonder how this town of rust and failed dreams and heroin could have once been so magical. It’s a feeling I know well. Where I once traded Pokemon cards on my elementary school playground has become the site of drug deals; my brother’s childhood best friend who chased me through cornfields almost died of an overdose a year ago. There is an inescapable sadness about the place, one I can’t seem to shake when I return, one that the characters of Ohio yearn to define.

Ohio opens with a parade. The somber occasion marks Rick Brinklan’s death while a part of the US Army in Iraq; once a beloved high school quarterback, New Canaan flocks to take part in Rick’s parade, his sheriff father Marty in attendance. Rick’s high school girlfriend Kaylyn Lynn can’t make it to the mic to deliver a speech because of how high she is; one of his best friends, Ben Harrington, now a folk singer, delivers a speech marking his friendship with Rick and Bill Ashcraft, a threesome group of pals that bursted apart because of Rick’s participation in the war that Bill fundamentally disagreed with. “Ben wanted to write a song about Rick, this kind of guy you’d find teeming across the country’s swollen midsection: toggling Budweiser, Camels, and dip, leaning into the bar like he was peering over the edge of a chasm, capable of near philosophy when discussing college football or shotgun gauges, neck on a swivel for any pretty lady but always loyal to his true love, most of his drinking done within a mile or two of where he was born, calloused hands, one finger bent at an odd angle from a break that never healed right, a wildly foul mouth that could employ the word fuck as noun, verb, adjective, or gerund in a way you were sure had never existed before that moment. He had whole oceans inside of him, the wilds of the country, fierce ghosts, and a couple hundred million stars.” I’ve struggled to find words to describe my brother and his friends, but this passage does it well- they’re the Trump voters, the AK-47 holders, the n-word users who possess a kind of charm and genuine love that seems paradoxical. It’s a punch in the gut to know that a man like this died so violently, so bereft of a reason- this, I think, is what launches Bill, his old friend, into a stronger identity of libertarian anti-government fighter. Bill’s story takes us through the first section of this novel: “It’s hard to say where any of this ends of how it ever began, because what you eventually learn is that there is no such thing as linear. There is only this wild, fucked-up flamethrower of a collective dream in which we were all born and traveled and died.”

In 2013, Bill Ashcraft returns to New Canaan, where he hasn’t been for years; he wasn’t even present for Rick’s funeral. Bill speeds through the country, traveling from New Orleans to New Canaan with a mysterious package to be delivered. He’s both high and drunk, tripping on LSD and soon to partake in meth. Ben, we soon realized, has died of a heroin overdose, a traumatic death that resulted in not only his loss of life but two others; his cigarette caught his apartment building on fire. “Whatthefuckever. Tonight the universe was a-humming. He could feel it through his urge to vomit. He didn’t believe in God, fate, or coincidence, but that left precious little to actually explain anything, and sometimes the right asteroid just strikes the right planet so the lizards lose a turn, and the motherfucking monkeys take over.” Bill rides through his memories, thinking of his high school girlfriend Lisa, who has been traveling through the world since graduation, Kaylyn, Rick’s girlfriend and who Bill spent most of high school sleeping with and fantasizing over, and his dead best friends, Rick and Ben. A decade has passed between these memories and the now, and Bill stares at a homecoming photo wishing to remember: “Bill lay beside his girlfriend in the sun, giddily, meltingly drunk. Normally in those days, he felt up to his nostrils in guilt, desire, and self-disgust- disgust with oneself being a thing as cherished and protected as any bit of ego or pleasure. But not that day at Jericho. It was the last time he could really remember when they were all just young, arguments lacking permanence, sins missing any real vital evil. He had lovers, yes, but he loved them. He was hurting his friends, sure, but they were still his childhood brothers. With all that had passed between him and Rick, the friendship felt constantly volatile in his hands, like unstable explosive. Yet even with Kaylyn standing there in the water, looking as gorgeous and iridescent as a dragonfly, he felt a surge of love and regret unlike anything he’d experienced before. Because they were just kids, and that day they drank and they danced and they laughed at the sky-blue heavens, and it really felt like anything could be fixed and anything could be forgiven.” Now, with his best friends dead, Lisa gone,  Kaylyn pregnant, hooked on opiods and possibly heroin, Bill knows that such a forgiveness is only possible as a child. He knows that even then forgiveness was temporary, translucent. Throughout his evening in New Canaan, Bill meets up with old high school characters, Todd Beaufort (the popular football star now turned balding fat ex-addict), Jonah Hansen, the Flood brothers. thinks of Tina Ross, Beaufort’s high school girlfriend, and the hatred he had for her, despite the rumors that Beaufort and his friends took advantage of her. All of it rushes back to Bill, high on the town’s overlook: “He felt the strangeness of being alive and a part of time, the specificity of death and the holy beat it put in your pulse.” In a way, they’ve all died, succumbed to a darkness that may not be death but may, in fact, be worse. Toward the end of Bill’s section, he meets up with Kaylyn, the character of his high school obsession. Although she isn’t as sparkly in perfection as Bill remembered, he still feels a loyalty to Kaylnn, hence his delivery of a mysterious package to her to help her pay off a debt. We learn later that this is a pretty serious, life-threatening debt, and the game Bill has been coerced into is much bigger than him. A small section here is dedicated to Kaylyn, who begins exploring a theme that grows throughout the novel: her cruelty. Kaylyn remembers forcing her childhood best friend, Hailey, to give Curtis Moretti a blowjob in high school, remembers her refusal of Rick’s proposal, her addiction to pills and then to heroin, her abuse of Hailey’s money later in life, and, finally, to here- pregnant and owing a debt to Amos Flood, the powerful and dangerous drug dealer who threatened her with her life if she did not deliver what Bill is helping her deliver. Markley does an astonishing job of employing dramatic irony, giving readers insight into things that the characters don’t have foresight of. Bill, inspired by nostalgia, regret, and love, assists Kaylnn, who is shackled with regret and remorse which we understand a little bit more than Bill (but neither do we know the extent of her doom, we’ll later find out). Bill’s nihilism and fatalistic attitude becomes toxic, and when, at the end of the section, we find him alone in his childhood home reeling from drugs and alcohol, we feel him giving up. And then comes: “Or he could climb out of this abyss. As he slipped into sleep he told himself there was no going back to the slowly drowning swamps of the Mississippi Delta. There was a thousand dollars still in his glove compartment, a thousand more in his back pocket, and another quest, another vision, lying in wait. Even after all this, there was always a reason to stand again.To summon the courage to live and to be alive. To rage against the faceless entropy, the savage logic of accumulation that would return them all to exile, that aimed to strip them bare of everything, every place, and every person they’d ever loved. To find hope in defiance, in the subterranean fire, and to always and forever endure the Truth and struggle to extinction. He stumbled on in his dreams, mourning the rivers and fields of his homeland. He saw it burning in blue fire, and he prayed for the strength to defend it, to fight for it, to bring it back alive.” There is a fight still burning in Bill, even if he denies it; there’s a love here, for what’s been lost.

The second section of the novel comes from Stacey Moore’s perspective. Stacey, Ben’s high school girlfriend, now comfortably identifies as a lesbian, which she has Lisa Han (Bill’s ex-girlfriend) to thank for. In the present moment of the novel, Stacey, too is traveling back to New Canaan, this time to meet with Bethany, Lisa’s mother, who hopes to reconnect with her daughter who seems to favor distance and traveling over connecting with anyone from home. Stacey’s head is a comfortable place to dwell in after Bill’s, a mind still enriched with enchantment: “She squeezed the fistful. Cool and wet, born from the explosions of stars and coalesced into life, it took the shape of her palm. When you’re a child you think nothing of touching dirt, but as an adult, how often do you pick it up and feel it this way? Feel it the way you’d feel a lover, give it the reverence you’d give to a body. She held a solar system of mycelia gnashing away at plant matter, returning it to the cycle, renewing.” Stacey recalls her brothers, Matt and Patrick, and Patrick’s refusal to accept Stacey’s sexuality because of his religious fervor (which is still present in New Canaan as he is the town’s preacher). In New Canaan Stacey is confronted with her brother’s positivity, the incredulous hypocrisy of a man so willing to help out addicts and so unable to love his sister: “Maybe she’d acquired the bad habit of academicizing her memories, of trying to render them inert with the books she read and the theories she considered, but she recalled the days of her early twenties when her faith molted off like the dead skin of a snake. What a mystery everything suddenly seemed now that she was certain her dogma had been bogus. Creation, death? These were now free-floating, oppressively heavy possibilites. Where did one even begin to look? The answers she found were horrible in their lack of poetry.” Stacey thinks of Tina, her childhood best friend who turned into a gorgeous girlfriend of Todd Beaufort, before meeting Bethany, Lisa’s mother, at the local diner. Bethany, the object for which Stacey once expelled all of her hatred on, becomes desperate in her conversation with Stacey. She asks Stacey to reach out to Lisa, to see if she can make contact. And, despite the hurt Bethany inflicted on Lisa and Stacey’s relationship (which she discovered by walking in on and threatened to tell Stacey’s family of), Stacey feels herself loosening. “How quickly contempt can dissipate when faced with the pathetic humanness of another person. You see inside them for even the briefest moment and suddenly empathy blows through. A dark sky cleared by a hard rain.” Stacey reminds me of myself. She’s distanced herself, formed her own identity independent of the faulty, problematic limitations of a small Ohio town, and evolved into a better version of herself. But still, there’s an imposter there. “Hell, her first vote was for the reelection of George W Bush. She could still hear some of the rhetoric coming out of her mouth as a teenager. Not that she went on about it all the time, especially not once she started dating Ben, who was not religious and was the first person she ever heard articulate why he was not.  It’s a strange feeling: to be ashamed and embarrassed of who you used to be. Even with the excuses of youth, inexperience, and influence- her church, her parents, her older brothers, her friends, almost everyone she knew- it still made her deeply uncomfortable to think of herself back then, who she might have hurt without knowing it. You only get one childhood, one change at formation, and Stacey would carry those lessons with her long after she’d ruled their conclusions bogus. Such lessons came conjoined at the heart, Siamese twins, to the dizzying sensation that settles in when a  person of faith comes to understand that, after all this, it’s logical that only darkness awaits.” Stacey finds Jonah at the diner, which leads her to Bill Ashcraft and Dan Eaton, two of her high school friends, a star-aligning feat to have them all back in town at the same time. She marvels at Jonah’s lack of adulthood, his addiction spelled out on his face; she thinks again of Lisa, of the love that was so pure and so young, so long ago. “She wanted badly to write about this. How humanity had created this overflow of prodigious breeders, masters, killers, and artists. How its narcissism could produce deities, literature, destruction, and dogma. How it nevertheless occasionally conjured fierce, unfathomably deep love.” Stacey remembers a conversation with Lisa in regards to Dan Eaton, Lisa’s neighbor and best friend, and his crush Hailey, who fell into the poopular crowd because of Kaylyn’s pressure on Hailey to date Curtis Moretti. In that conversation Lisa revealed to Stacey that Kaylyn was extremely fucked up, alluding to ‘some evidence’ she’d gotten her hands on that proved how problematic the girl was. As the events of the novel unfold, we learn what this evidence is; for now, though, readers sit with unanswered questions, just as Stacey does. She watches Todd Beaufort get into a car with a stranger from outside the bar, watches Dan, still obviously in love with Hailey (who is now married with kids), worries over Bill, thinks of the most meaningful conversation of her life, with Lisa: “‘It’s because you lift my heart. You make me insanely happy to be alive. So I don’t know what happens after this, and I know you still think we’re both going straight to hell, but that’s why you need to know. I’m fucking out-of-my-mind crazy about you.’ There was a period of her life after she graduated from Wittenberg and started traveling in which Stacey tried to render this moment inert with both reason and irony. They were just children, she told herself, imitating emotions they didn’t yet know anything about. That’s why teenagers are in love with pop idols and think it would be fun to shoot bows and arrows in futuristic dystopias. She’d look at pictures of herself in high school- her button-nosed face and bob of blond hair, the way she slouched, perhaps because she subconsciously wanted to be shorter- and think, Look at this awkward teenage baby! She can’t feel anything real yet! If she now heard a woman stammer on like Lisa had, she’d be embarrassed for her. So much Hollywood rom-com drippy bathetic nonsense. Yet the feeling she had back then always returned to her like a ghost; her face would go iron-hot and that pebble in her throat would exert its pressure. Because irony, distance, perspective would all eventually fail her- because that’s the kind of shit you lived a lifetime to hear. And something only a seventeen-year-old actually has the courage to say.” Stacey’s plagued by memories of Lisa, the realness of their love, and the apparent lack of interest on Lisa’s part; why hasn’t Lisa communicated in their adult lives, unbridled by parental restraint? “Now, driving through a dark Ohio night, remembering the collective moan of those cows, she thought of what she might say to LIsa. If she just bought a plane ticket. If she showed upat her door. Not with expectations but just to say thank you for what Lisa had given her. The girl who’d taught her to swear, to drink, to use a condom, to read weird, wild books, to explore this one irreducible unquantifiable life. Without whom she never would have left home, never climbed down to the crater lake of Quilota, never tasted criolla in Argentina with a group of Israeli backpackers, never stayed up all night on the streets of Vilnius with a gorgeous artist who painted only sex zombies, never explored a foreign capital with a woman who could explain to her its opera house and what carbonic acid does to the ocean’s calcifying organisms, never thought to try to scrape her nails against the ceiling of her imagination and then claw past it.” This second section of Ohio ends on a cliffhanger, as Stacey drives upon a woman and a broken-down car, a sense of fate intervening in a drastic and scary way.

“The house sat at the end of the street, forlorn, the lawn browning, a testament to how the world never works out the way you think it will, let alone the way you want it to.”

Next comes Dan Eaton’s chapter. Throughout the section, Dan reminisces on his military friends, especially Greg Coyle, who is expecting a daughter before he’s killed in combat. Dan finds himself in New Canaan visiting his high school love Hailey- his time in the military has cost him an eye, and he avoids long drives/night drives often. “The sky over the place you were born as a familiarity beyond how the clouds roll in or how the stars wink at you at night. The sky over your home behaves like that moment when, as a parachutist, you pull the rip cord and the heavens snatch you back. Even if you’ve traveled the world and seen better sunsets, better dawns, better storms- when you get that remembered glimpse of the fields and forests and rises and rivers of your home meeting the horizon, your jaw will tighten. The rip cord will yank you back from the descent.” Dan plans this visit to see his old history teacher, Mrs. Bingham, who is now in hospice under Hailey’s care; while Hailey lures Dan back with Mrs. Bingham’s impending death, it’s Hailey who Dan wants to see, whom he always wants to see. But, before he can get to Hailey, Dan runs into Bill, still the same anti-war loudmouth Dan remembers from high school. The two visit Rick’s grave together, Bill drunk and high (as we left him), Dan quiet and impassive. Markley describes the landscape of Ohio brilliantly here: “Every place needs fuel to run the engine. Like much of Northeast Ohio, once there had been real industry here. Rubber was king in Akron, Youngstown had steel. Post-World War II, it was the region’s honey, practically dripping from the mills and into the maw of the national economy. Then the rest of the world began to make non-unionized steel. New Canaan was one of the minor places that bore the aftershocks of deindustrialization. Maybe not the way Paul Eaton’s hometown of Youngstown did, but nowhere in the Midwest really escaped. Businesses closed, people left to find jobs at malls and big-box stores. DUIs, teen pregnancies, domestic disturbance calls, suicides, and assaults all spiked.” Together, Bill and Dan suffer through Todd Beaufort and crew’s racist remarks and listen to them debate war, violence, and the ‘curse’ that has befallen their graduating class (ever since Moretti died of an overdose). Dan responds: “Point is, we lack a whole lot of imagination about violence. We want to chalk it up to ‘psychos,’ whatever that means. It’s a notion that feels safe. It’s comforting. But shit like My Lai or Auschwitz or Gnadenhutten- that’s not aberrant. It happens because of what we wall have in common. How frail we are. We’re insecure, we’re greedy, we want a promotion at work, we’re afraid of the guy in charge- that’s the stupid, mundane bullshit that makes people do terrible things to each other.” And Dan, ultimately, is right. The violence hidden beneath this small town, beneath these pages, speaks to Bill, Dan, and Stacey in ways they can’t articulate. “Dan had this furious, forestalled sensation he wanted to be rid of. It was like trying to express the word love in a time before there was speech.” Dan ran into Rick in Iraq, amazed at the chances of finding someone you knew intimately from childhood in such a desolate and lonely place; it’s something that haunts him, just like losing Hailey. And Bill, we know, is haunted too; he admits to Dan during their mini-reunion that he cheated on Lisa with Kaylyn, and that he hated Rick, still hates him. Finally, Dan ends up visiting Hailey and Mrs. Bingham in the hospital, and afterwards, Hailey takes Dan to makeout point to sleep with him. “It was how she’d made him laugh as a thirteen-year-old. It’s why he dreaded the moment when they’d have to get off the bus at Rainrock Road and part ways- because he knew there was a finite number of those bus rides in this one precious life.” The two sleep together, mourning what could have been; we find out that their relationship ultimately dissolved because of Dan’s refusal to quit the military. Then, in a moment of intimate trust, Hailey tells Dan that she’s been just as responsible as Dan in the violence department because of what she’d helped Kaylyn do. Hailey reveals that Kaylyn was molested by her cousin at eight years old, a partial reason for Kaylyn’s cruelty later in life. When Kaylyn dropped out of college, Hailey asserts, she told Todd, her old fuck buddy, that someone had a videotape of Tina’s gangbangs- and, horribly. Todd stabbed the person to death over it. Worst of all, Kaylyn assisted in covering it up. Dan recoils at this admission, knowing that Hailey, too, is implicated. “Yet carrying a secret like this, Dan understood, was like having something alien siphoned into the blood. One learns to live with it in the pulse. Compared to what he’d done, whatever meager bit of violence she’d accomplished felt less than meaningless. She knew he wouldn’t tell because he knew what it was to carry a piece of fixed doom. She knew he’d walk until the earth burnt away for the last moment of her escaping smile. The history had already been written. What is history but an adjudication of memory. And what is memory but a faithless rendering of all sex, death, justice, murder, prayer, greed, hope, mercy, and love. Memory was as molten as the soul.” 

He walked around for weeks thinking of those words, feeling the way you do when you’re outside with your friends and it starts to rain, but you’re too far from home to run for it. So you just get soaked and marvel at why you don’t do such a thing all the time.”

In a surprising change of pace, Markley introduces Tina Ross as the protagonist of the next section of Ohio. Tina, thus far an oscillatory character, becomes more than center in this fourth section. Up until now, Ohio felt like a book about secrets, lost hopes, failed dreams, and unrequited love. With all the clues Markley expertly inserted (almost effortlessly, it feels like), I still didn’t understand the mystery that was unraveling as I read. When I saw Tina’s name, however, I began to realize the severity to what this woman must have gone through- I began to think there was truth to Hailey’s confession, but still expected the unnamed murdered kid to be someone unimportant. Tina starts the section by double-checking that her fiance, Cole, is still breathing and not overdosed; we expect this to be another drug-fueled story of an ex-popular queen from New Canaan, but instead, we learn Tina has done the drugging herself. She drives to New Canaan, which she lives hours away from now in another part of rusted Ohio, thinking of love. She admits to settling for Cole, for his sweet heart, and also admits to Todd Beaufort being the one true love of her life. There’s a sense of immediacy and planning in this section, reminding us that Tina’s night is extremely calculated, hopefully foolproof. Tina reveals the origins of her and Todd’s relationship- his high school allure at her young age, and the desperation she felt to get him to love her. This concept seems so far away now, at 26, but I remember, and can embarrassingly admit, that I wanted this, too. And if I’d been with a man as awful as Todd, I may have ended up like Tina- sad, lonely, uninterested in the love of a good man, plagued by lost love and regret. “She drove Cole out to the park in New Canaan, the town square, the baseball fields, the high school. She was incapable of articulating how alive this place had seemed when she was young, how much energy you could feel here. She could only see it through his eyes now: a dingy town getting dingier. Nostalgia shielding the rest.” Tina remembers, too, her relationship with Kaylyn, the popular older girl who welcomed Tina into the crew. As alluded to in previous sections, we begin seeing abuse at the hands of Todd toward Tina. We see him pressuring her into sex, physically abusing her, and, eventually, raping her along with other football players. As present-day Tina drives into New Canaan, she seduces Todd back into her car, which Stacey witnesses from afar. Tina offers Todd a drink, which, we discover, is laced with the same drug she gave Cole; Todd falls asleep after a half-assed apology for his ‘typical high school boy antics,’ and Tina cries, remembering the box cutter she’d used to rip through her skin, stomach muscle, and even bone (such a gruesome scene) after Todd dumped her. “She’d learned to construct all this as normality. Years would pass before she understood it was not. She was in love. And love made you do things you’d never expect, things so far beyond yourself or who you thought you were that you don’t even recognize the person who does them.” Although Tina hadn’t been attempting suicide, a counselor was assigned to her (until her family could no longer afford it), and the counselor was the first person to alert to Tina that Todd’s behavior was abuse. “Love was what God gave you to make you both unbearably strong and intolerably weak. Love was the ghost of yourself, a mirror image you saw in a crowd- different life, different ideals, different map of the world- but somehow still you.” Tina drives the drugged Todd to the woods of New Canaan, exactly where she planned. And she tells us: “There’d been stars like this on the night it all began, the same stark, clear, cloudless sky. Maybe that was wrong, but it helped her remember why she was here now. Because she owed it to herself to return to all the corners of her memory where she rarely ventured.” Tina remembers the first night ‘it’ happened; led by Kaylyn and told of a ‘ritual,’ Tina follows Kaylyn into a party basement, where Todd and more football players come. Kaylyn eventually appears with a camcorder, and Tina blacks out completely. She wakes up “hurting in ways she’d never experienced and would never forget,” her virginity taken not only by her boyfriend without her consent but by the majority of the football team, now caught on camera. Todd claims Tina ‘wanted it,’ and Kaylyn acts as if it’s normal, as do the men on the team (including Curtis Moretti and Stacey’s seemingly innocent brother Matt). With videotape evidence, Kaylyn threatened Tina, and Tina kept doing the gangbang, 1-2 times a month; she did it, mostly, to insure her relationship with Todd, to make him stick with her out of loyalty once he made it to the NFL. Instead, though, Todd used the gangbangs as an excuse to dump her, claiming he could never love her after the slutty things he’d seen her do. Even in the car in the present tense, Tina looks for affirmation of Todd’s love, to which he only laughs. Everything Tina had given up for a love that was never real- it’s what led her to the woods with duct tape and a drugged man, what’s led her to an engagement that deserves joy but which she has been devoid of, and lastly, horrifically, what’s led her to permanent uterus damage, as she’s now unable to become pregnant. Womanhood itself has been stripped from Tina by this laughing villain- love, motherhood, trust- none of it is real or can be real for Tina. With Todd waking, Tina crawls on top of him, and begins fucking him, telling him, meanwhile, how in love with him she’d been, how she’d pictured their lives together, how fucked it all was now. She tells him she’s engaged before making Todd come. The only thing he can muster is a satisfied grunt, a laugh, calling her a crazy bitch. “She stared at him, tears beginning to cloud her eyes. Twelve years waiting for this moment. ‘You shouldn’t have done that to me. You shouldn’t have left me like that.'” Next, Tina begins to smother Todd, placing a plastic bag over his head. Once he becomes still (not an easy feat as he’s a large and strong man), Tina walks away, only to realize he’s still alive. She’s forced to beat Todd’s head in with the tire iron in Cole’s backseat, and to set his body on fire- again, though, Todd survives, telling Tina to get help. Instead, though, Tina piles gasoline onto Todd’s damaged body, and sets him aflame. Todd burns to death, and Tina looks on. In the end, Tina breaks leftover bone with rocks, and only finds a locket left in the carnage. She knows she’ll get away with the crime, won’t be suspect because of her distance from Todd in the years since high school. She feels a weight lifted and yet a weight put on, remembering the man she loved and realizing he was never the man she thought. The cruelty Todd inflicted upon Tina is hard to stomach. Markley doesn’t shy away from it, and offers an honest timeline for what happens after a person suffers so much. At the end of the section, Tina’s car breaks down, and, picking up from section two, Stacey finds her. At first, Tina attempts to kill Stacey, too, but doesn’t have the will to do it. Instead, Tina admits to the police who eventually show up that she “left him in the woods.” We leave Tina with this last beautiful moment, as the police begin their search for Todd’s body: “The wind blew harder, a staggering blast of air raking across the fields, shrieking like the sharpening of knives and scattering hair into her face. With it came the smell of fire, the acrid scent of char and carbon that tingles the nose. A thunderstorm swept in. Lightning split the night, and the downpour roared, accompanied by the frequent mortar fire of thunder. Rain like shards of glass streaking out of the sky. They took her away. Not that it mattered. Never again would she sleep through a night and not feel the sunburn heat of the fire. A recurring dream, month after month, year after year, always the same raging fire blasting through the fields and towns and forests, searing the night, swallowing the known world, as she struggled for a cool breath at the edge of the woods. The storm descended over the blue-black nighttime hills, threading through her, savage and beautiful, settling in her heart, her home.” 

In the small epilogue to Ohio, we learn of the Flood brother’s plan to bomb a mosque in Columbus with the weapons and money delivered to them vis-a-vis Kaylyn and Bill. It’s this event that fuels Stacey back to New Canaan, back to talking with Bill Ashcraft in 2017. Stacey asks Bill about Lisa, reveals the girl’s relationship, and explains to Bill that her promise to Bethany resulted in social media messages and emails but nothing else, all of which stopped after the events outlined in Tina’s section of the novel. Stacey explains that Kaylyn, too, disappeared after Todd’s death, shows Bill the locket Todd wore when he died, and tells him what she thinks must have happened. Stacey has pieced the puzzle, expertly narrated and constructed by Markley, of the story; Lisa’s disappearance wasmurder, and the person who Todd stabbed to death, as Hailey outlined, was Lisa herself. Kaylyn helped cover it. Again, Markley provides a short bit from Kaylyn’s consciousness- she fled to Alaska with her son, picked up a new identity, and struggled against the nightmares of Todd stabbing Lisa. Stacey’s meeting with Bill concludes with his fatalistic attitude winning: “‘We lose people, Stacey,’ he said carefully. ‘And it’s never fair, and it’s never right, and there’s always something missing about it. Something unexplained.'” And at the end of this beautiful, heartbreaking book, Markley does something unprecedented; he speaks almost from the afterlife, from a place of the beyond, where Lisa now resides. He affirms Stacey’s theory, showcases her final moments in a glorifying tribute to a beautiful life: “So while she was being stabbed to death, Lisa had to laugh because it was so funny how in love she was. How weird. Who the fuck would’ve seen that coming? Her defiant chortling carried a mist of spittle and blood straight up into Todd Beaufort’s panicked mouth.”

How much she still had planned. How eager she was to get started. All the people she would have touched, all the hearts she would have broken. She’d wanted to get strange tattoos and pierce the tops of her ears, her tongue, her nipples; wear garish makeup and collect odd gypsy clothes; travel like a wind-borne petal, fight through the muddy crowds of psychedelic bacchanals; write a deranged novel where a woman’s periods come to life each month and follow her, ghostlike, quipping about dating life and making Marxist critiques of assorted makeup products. She’d wanted to learn to play the guitar like Ben Harrington and take all her wholesome smut poetry and set it to music, to buy a camera and stalk the globe taking pictures of twisted scenes she found beautiful and then render the beautiful vistas with menace, danger, and gore. She wanted to steal unpredictable books from public libraries in Omaha and hostels in Florence and the shelves of her one-night stands, slipping her lovers’ most beloved, dog-eared copies into her bag and vanishing without leaving a phone number. She’d wanted to leap over vast chasms and coax others to follow, find herself and her companions all run out of food, matches, maps, water, and opinions so that they’d have to fashion fire from a glasses lens and arguments from half-remembered philosophies. She’d wanted to lead revolutions with barbaric compassion, face down all immutable phenomena, and charge over the shadowlands between the unknown and the unknowable.”

Lisa leaves us with a remarkable thought: “On the dock, before Todd Beaufort, sweaty and weeping, finished the deed that would follow him till his death, before he sank her into the depths of that man-made lake, down to the flooded ghost town at the bottom where she drifted into the wreckage of a drugstore on a forgotten Main Street, she understood, vividly, that the most astonishing gift of consciousness was also  our tragedy, our cliche, our great curse: Love’s absolute refusal to ever surrender.” It provides some hope, in this grim finale, that Lisa’s death was not in vain- that the addicts, the overdoses, the fucked up situations we find ourselves in too often in these Ohio towns, aren’t nothing. They’re not forgotten.

Whether you face it abruptly or following a long drift into senescence, there’s that eternal moment the prophets all gossip about: when you see the whole span of yourself, how astonishing and alive you were. However, as Lisa discovered, this eternity feels like nothing at all compared to the length and depth of the Night that comes after. When you cruise by fallen stars and far-flung quasars, and impenetrable clouds, cooling lava, black oceans and the rivers that feed them, singing caterpillars and screaming bats, the lonely moan of a whale, endless prairies wrung with wind, purple skies and silver rain, the soil of your strange realm. Even the Night has an end, though beyond which there is only the void, the abyss. It’s the kind of darkness you knew before you feared it. It’s the kind of darkness so inky, oily perfect that even as you stretch your pupils to pull light in, it only grows deeper, and all you can feel is the backward and forward, your voice locked forever in all that dust and collapse and depthless sorrow. But what you can never know, what you could never have believed or hoped to believe on the long staggering journey home, is that this abyss is holy all the same. You understand even the void is impermanent, that nothingness is unstable and bound, practically galloping, toward new creation on foreign shores.”


On Men, and The Emotional Labor Women Do for Them

Last night I watched First Man, Damien Chazelle’s new film starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, a film chronicling the four-five years of Armstrong’s transition from NASA engineer to moon explorer. This is a long movie (2.5 hours), and with a 10:05PM start time, I needed a pre-movie sleep.

Chazelle, whose previous titles include Whiplash and La La Land, takes a distinctly different route in this film, both tonally and in regards to theme. Part of that, I believe, is simply because First Man is a biopic, a historically accurate retelling of a monumentous time in the world’s history. There are no catchy musical numbers, no over-the-top flirtations from Gosling… in fact, Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong was so quiet, so stoic, and so bland that it surprised me. Armstrong appears not only hardworking and determined but also… emotionally vacant. While Whiplash‘s Andrew seeks absolute perfection in his drumming, emotions are the motivator behind his ambitions; likewise, in La La Land‘s Sebastian we see a hopeful dreamer, pushed by his ambitions and adoration for jazz to reach perfection-level success. Armstrong, though, is something different. He (thankfully) isn’t portrayed as an American hero in the film, and nor is he seen as someone providing false hopes on what the Apollo and Gemini missions mean to humankind (as we see Buzz Aldrin doing, almost in an antagonistic way). I still cannot tell you the motivations behind Armstrong’s focus and determination, his unflinching commitment to the space race despite losing friends, physical health, mental health, and relationships to not only his wife but his two sons. And while I admire that Chazelle went there, while I enjoy seeing a non-cliched retelling of man’s first walk on the moon (no patriotic nonsense besides a few scenes of protest and afterward celebrations), something grates me about the emotional depravity of Armstrong’s depiction. There’s a theme in this film that takes the stance, as many, perhaps, men-focused dramas have done, that emotions must be repressed in order to succeed. And I can no longer pretend that this theme is something I respect. It’s not healthy to advance to viewers and, to be completely transparent, it’s simply not true.

Never, in my life, have I been privileged to imagine that it was possible for me to repress my emotions in order to advance my career, my dreams, my ambitions. Women- girls- aren’t told this. When women are portrayed on screen in the stoic nature Gosling was in First Man, they’re cold, bitchy, without a motherly compass… We reel when women deflect, on screen and off, because something in the way patriarchy has wound its teeth into our unborn children tells us that men get the opportunity to suppress and women get to work the emotions out of them. Women get to do the emotional labor. And if a man suppresses? He erupts. And it’s justified. Somehow, the woman becomes the ‘needler,’ the one who has poked and prodded until the rage. How is this fair? A woman, like Claire Foy’s character in First Man, consistently attempts to get her male partner to emote, to show his children (god forbid her) love, compassion… and she almost appears annoying? I felt, somehow, as if this movie wanted me to forgive Armstrong’s emotional immaturity because of the tremendous feat he did for humankind. Chazelle leans on Armstrong’s tragic loss of his three year old daughter, Karen, to show small glimpses of Armstrong’s emotions, as if his suppressed grief makes up for (and enables us to forgive or not even think about questioning) his emotionally unavailable husbandry or fatherhood. But isn’t his wife grieving, too? With two small boys who have internalized their father’s emotionless attitude? Does she get an escape? And if she did, would society grant her such freedom? Or does it have to be as lofty as a space mission? Does it have to be a man?

I digress. The film is beautifully stunning, and Gosling’s performance is stellar. The sound design is great, and I respect what this movie did. I love that it isn’t cliched, that it doesn’t put forth a false sense of patriotism or service. But as I age, I become more selective with what I consume. My book selection, as I’ve written about previously, has dwindled, becoming less and less interested in stories that do not service the human condition. TV too. And now films. The movie is worth watching, but what’s it tell us, at the end? That an emotionally incompetent person gets a nation’s love and admiration without knowing the real him and the grief he’s tormented by? I don’t know. I don’t think the story makes enough of a jump to criticize Armstrong’s mania/repression. In one scene, Armstrong sits his family down (which, by the way, he’s force to by his wife) to admit that he may not return. His eldest son, Ricky, stares at him with what must be contempt for a very long time, and afterwards, as his younger brother hugs his father goodbye, Ricky merely shakes his hand. My eyes almost rolled out of my head. What’s going on here? A gender-roled shifting of ‘head of the household?’ What, a 9 year old is too old to hug his father because he’s now the ‘man of the house?’ This cycle is problematic. It’s repression starting at a young age. Armstrong represses feelings of what I assume have to be regret, fear, and love and that repression causes his son’s repression, a cycle that will surely mount in his future relationships with women and his own children. What the fuck are we doing here?

Perhaps I’m more abrasive with this, more harsh, than might seem reasonable. And I know why. It’s because I’ve been doing what must be emotional heavyweight olympics for a decade. As long as I’ve been dating, my heterosexuality has led me to men of all different emotional intelligences. I’ve been chased around the house with a knife, watched a man punch himself in the face until he bled (multiple times), proposed to in a sudden onslaught of guilt and then promptly told ‘nevermind.’ Impulse ruled this man’s emotions, and his inability to process feelings of sadness or disappointment or shame propelled him to eruptions of rage I’ve never before experienced. I’ve been guilted into sex, propositioned for the same (again, something innate that permits men to overlook the obvious discomfort of the woman for personal affirmation, success). I’ve been raped by someone I thought I loved and then admonished the next day for not turning the heat on when I left (with blood between my legs, by the way). And even in the good instances, with friends and with exes, with my current partner, there’s no denying the emotional unavailability of men. I’ve prodded my friends with questions, adamant on getting them to emote; I’ve even had men tell me: ‘I’ve never thought of that before’ after I ask a simple ‘how do you think she feels?’ It’s exhausting, pulling teeth for emotions, especially when you know if you don’t, they’ll erupt into rage and you’ll feel not only responsible but horrified.

In my own relationship (which I treasure), I’ve poked and prodded, pulled and pushed, to get to the bottom of the quiet, the distance, the anger, the annoyance. When you live with a person, you know when they’re off, and for so long I attempted to beg the offness out of him, a constant refrain of ‘what’s wrong, just tell me, let me help.’ In the best case scenarios he asked me to leave him alone and in the worst he erupted. A series of bad eruptions came this past year, months long, a bleak moment in our growing relationship, and I finally said what I’ve been wanting to say for years: I’m done doing the emotional labor for you. And I meant it. I meant it for him and the countless other men I’ve helped emotionally grow. My partner is a truly amazing man and partner, an obsessively self-aware hard-worker who knows when he’s disappointed me, himself, anyone. He knows what this gender-roled, patriarchy-enforced in all the minute bullshit ways possible, emotional distancing does to those he loves. He knows what it does to himself. And it’s on him to deny the handshake of manliness that this movie seems to esteem. It’s on him to know that success, even landing on the moon, feels empty, just like everything else, when you refuse to feel. I worry I’m being too abrasive, too demanding, when I ask for that but then I ask- when have women ever been granted the opportunity to be anything else but emotionally competent, reliable, and present? It isn’t asking too much. It’s asking to be human.

Fight No More by Lydia Millet Book Review


Two hits, back to back, both by authors with the first name of Lydia. I was biting at the bit to start Millet’s Fight No More collection, and dove in blind, not having read any of Millet’s previous work. The collection surprised me, comforted me, and made me uncomfortable, oftentimes within the breadth of a single story. There’s an eeriness throughout the book, one that indicates you’ve heard something similar before, some kind of foreign familiarity that Millet refuses to make explicit. In order to write this review, I had to physically map out the stories and characters within the book, charts to assist with understanding how they were all connected. Some of the magic exists in graphing that chart and some of it exists in not doing so; the stories lend themselves, in fact, to not being mapped.

The arguable protagonist of the book, Nina, owns a lot of space in the stories. Opening the collection is ‘Libertines,’ a story framed by Nina’s showing of a mansion in Los Angeles to an eccentric musician (Lordy) and his bandmates (Ry and Lynn). As Nina ponders on their lives, contemplating wealth and success, Lordy attempts to drown himself in the house’s pool. “It was hard to let yourself drown, they said: a will to live kicked in. Maybe he had been asking himself, as he stood there at the end of the lap pool, if he could do it. In a way he’d proved he could. Because he hadn’t saved himself, he hadn’t jumped into the pool, sunk down, and then surfaced again spluttering. He’d stayed the course and let the water in. The water had entered his lungs. Someone else had saved him.” Indeed Ry and Lynn do save Lordy, jumping into the pool and necessitating him. Nina looks on, horrified, stupefied, and enamored; “she felt the euphoria drain away. What stayed was almost like grief. It was true someone had been saved, but who was saved and who was left? How many were left sinking under, with no one watching them?” Nina lets readers in on her complicated family story, her mother having overdosed on pills leaving Nina and her younger sister Marnie to care for themselves. Marnie, in her adulthood, distances herself from Nina, which Nina blames herself for. It’s a shame-guilt cloud that stays above her, denying her pleasure in even getting asked out by Lynn, one of Lordy’s bandmates and the savior of the day. “Too often the future was somewhere else, a land where you might find yourself one day. There was no need to travel there on purpose. Easy to tell yourself the future could be staved off and nothing had to change: the present would stretch in a band of gold along the horizon, bright line joining the earth and sky.” This is a great introductory story, framing one of the strongest themes in the book; the normal may be the sublime. What had been a normal day at work for Nina turned into something much, much larger, as often our most poignant and significant life moments do.

The next story, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ pushes Nina to the background. Instead, Jem narrates the scene, masturbating on purpose as his mother’s real estate agent (Nina) attempts (yet again) to sell Jem and his mother’s house to other buyers. Jem, angry at this loss of his home, rebels against his mother’s reality, especially that in which she mourns the loss of her marriage to Jem’s father, who is now married to a much younger and much more pregnant woman. Jem possesses the rage he thinks his mother should have, and refuses to accept that they are leaving his childhood home because of his father. Throughout the story, potential buyers of the home talk with Jem, and one man in particular speaks directly to him, exposing Jem for his facade: “‘You’ll be OK,’ he said. ‘But. You think we’re all assholes. You won’t hear this. I’ll still say it. Hating’s easy. Couldn’t be easier. It’s just a default setting. The easy way out. It’s all the rest that’s actually hard.'” Jem hates that the man can see so through him, but it is accurate, whether Jem will admit it or not. “She showed her sadness like a split bone poking out of her skin. Compound fracture. A form of nakedness that could never be attractive. Well, not him. ‘I show no bones,’ he said aloud. The guy with the beer belly had it wrong. Not hatred, just anger. There was a difference. One was like rock, the other like fire. The ancient elements.” In an attempt to assuage his own rage and make his mother smile, Jem decides to finally listen to his mother’s desire for flowers and runs to the greenhouse where he is unexpectedly confronted with his father’s new wife, who innocently asks Jeremy to help her load plants into her SUV. “Goddamn. Nothing was ever fucking splendid. Never splendid. Goddamn.” This, as I heartbreakingly understood it, was Jem’s one attempt at compassion over hatred, and it backfired, embarrassingly so. The flowers were no longer the magic salve to his mother’s hurt. “Too bad. When you believed, the world was tinted differently… like ‘Magic, mama’ and then she lifted you. Because you were small, you could be held, flown through the air and delighted, like that single moment was the same as forever.” Jeremy wants so badly to hold his mother, to be held by his mother- but he is choked by rage, inconceivable rage, at the fact that the magic he was promised has dissolved. Nina, too, in the previous story marveled over the concept of a single moment- what does time do? It warps. It turns what was once magic (a flower) into disaster. At the end of the story, he admits to his mother who he ran in to, and how he had been invited to a dinner at his father’s new house (which he refuses to go to). His mother lovingly and forlornly tells him to go, and Jem promises he is not on his father’s ‘side,’ silently vowing to never be like his father. In the span of one day, Jem is altered, just as Nina was in ‘Libertines.’ These two stories loosely connect, with promises of future connection later in the book.

In ‘Bird-Head Monster,’ Millet’s third story in the collection, Nina again shows a listing, this time to an unnamed third person narrator. This woman, shopping for her and her boyfriend, revels in her newfound wealth alongside this unnamed partner, even as she thinks of the unhealthy aspects of this man, especially his controlling nature and his refusal to show emotion. “Rand loved her, right?” She’s questioning the relationship even in the third person- probably a bad sign. The woman asks Nina to call Rand, tell him that this is the place, and as Nina talks with Rand, the narrator moves through the house, listening as her world crumbles: Rand will be visiting the home the next day alongside his fiancé, someone different than her. The narrator’s embarrassment is palpable; thankfully, Nina is there to console her, devotedly. Having already experienced a bit of Nina’s psyche, we feel confident in Nina’s generosity in comforting this stranger, and trust that the narrator is in good hands with Nina. At the end of the story, the narrator looks on a Bosch painting, exquisite and expensive, just like the rest of the house she will never live in. She ruins the painting via running a jagged ring down the center of it; “You could hardly tell the bird-head thing had ever had a beak since the tip of it was gone. Because it was in profile, without the beak it had only one big, black eye. It sat in its highchair like a baby. Or not a baby- more like an ancient woman, a hag. A wrinkled witch with a barrel body and skinny chicken legs, dangling. Without the beak it had no weapons. It couldn’t defend itself. It was still ugly, but somehow she felt sorry for it. Stupid. You didn’t feel sorry for monsters.” I love Bosch, and I think it’s the perfect set-piece for this story. I can imagine staring at the hideous imagery throughout one of his paintings and feeling overwhelmed and overcome by despair, gore, and terror. And aren’t these what one becomes overwhelmed by in an abusive relationship? One such as the one she has with Rand? A part of her knows he’s got that beak, but another refuses to see it- another pities it, even, and loves it even more because of that pity. There’s a subtlety to the way this unnamed character (I don’t think she reappears in the story) stays with the rest of the storyline, her presence minuscule yet haunting, ever in the background of Jem’s father and step-mother (I’m assuming Rand/Paul is the same person). There’s a presence Paul won’t be able to see, an awareness of his monstrosity that perhaps he hasn’t even confronted.

Next comes ‘Self-Expression and Leadership,’ a story again from the perspective of our beloved Nina. Here, we see her relationship with Lynn from ‘Libertines’ progress into something substantial. We witness the two’s first date (tacos), their drinking together, and Nina’s thoughts on his bi-racial identity and his refusal to make the first move. We witness, unbeknownst to Nina, the start of falling in love. “Maybe it was just that she felt herself moving through time, for once. You went along at the same pace for so long that it felt like you were standing still; then something shifted and suddenly life was rushing past. Not in the sense of disappearing, but in the sense of happening. She was in her house, and others were in theirs, and now she knew she was one of all of them. She was one bee in one cubby in a honeycomb. Or one star in a constellation. A thousand points of light, someone had said. But there were far more than that. Was it just that when you felt like this, you felt the world wanted you, for once? Was that why everyone was obsessed with it?” There’s a hesitancy, again, in Nina’s joy; while she sees potential in her relationship with Lynn, she’s hyper-aware of the un-magic-ing that happens in relationships (see her relationship with her sister and mother, Jem’s relationships with his family members, etc.). Nina plots to attend the next self-help workshop with Marnie in order to repair what has been broken in the sisters’ relationship, hoping to resolve her misplaced guilt as if that will clear her or make it okay for her to love. “Joy made you look foolish, if you showed it. always she thought of what her mother said- pain brimmed in everything that lived. Hands on her shoulders, fingers pinching hard but not cruelly. She’d understood it back then, even, in her kid’s way that didn’t put words to the feeling: the pinch was not cruel, just desperate. Her mother wanted her to see. Pain was electric, flowing from one to many or many to one, a current that moved among them. But so was joy. Can you feel the pain that resides in all beings? What would she say to her mother now? No, Mama. And neither could you. The pain you felt was all your own. Joy was ambient, a charge in the atmosphere. What you could do was partake. Some people didn’t have a choice, she knew that too well. Some got mostly pain instead. Pretend her mother hadn’t taken the pills. Pretend they hadn’t both failed Marnie, pretend that Marnie cherished her still, looked up to her with the old childlike devotion. Pretend her mother and little sister had stayed at home, taken care of each other while she’d gone off to school. Gotten the education she wanted. Seen the wide world. Pretend all that: who might she be? How different? Who knew? One thing was sure: still electric. Still a pulse in a deep field of stars.” I love this ending. It’s one of my favorite stories in the collection, partly because I’m a sucker for defining the shapes and smells of that first-awareness-of-love bliss but mostly because the story is so fucking good. I, too, know that self-fulfilling prophecy brought on by anxiety- if I accept this joy, will it be taken from me? What pain will I have to endure in order to accept this happiness? It’s a betting game one plays only with oneself, but it can feel truer than almost anything. Nina, though, in her bravery, chooses joy. She recognizes what could have been and waves to it, happily but nostalgically, for she is happy with the light she’s emanating, the light that has grown since meeting Lynn.

‘The Fall of Berlin’ introduces another of my favorite characters of the book, Aleska, the elderly mother of Paul, grandmother of Jeremy. Aleska is, in many ways, a parallel to Nina; the two woman are similar in their aloneness and in their illusionment met with disenchantment. Because of her rapid aging, Aleska is forced to sell her beloved home, to move in with her lackluster son. Aleska’s relationship with her home is a special one: “She loved her home so much, had loved it so deeply for so many years, that when she thought of her death it was the house she felt sorry for.” There lies an elegance in the way Millet captures the hopelessness that is aging; “She wished she could do it herself. Wishes had to be surrendered. Surrender, she thought, give up, these were verbs of defeat.” Within the story, Aleska moves in with Paul and pregnant Lora, surrendering (as she forces herself to do) her lifetime work as a history professor. Aleska thinks again of her hidden Judaism, her identity that was forced to the sides because of a war that feels far away for most of the world’s population. Her widowhood possesses her with an aged and wise look upon monogamy and marriage: “She hoped the new baby was a girl, though, had to admit she hoped she’d have a granddaughter this time around. In the long run, less heartbreak. Because boys, and later men, regardless of their best intentions often seemed to yearn for something they just never succeeded in defining. You pitied them for it, your heart went out to them, but still there was a chronic gap between what they should be and what they were capable of being.” Aleska speaks of an identity that her son and even her grandson possess, one we’ve seen at play in earlier stories already; and Jem seems to know, too, that his grandmother knows more about him than he possibly does. At the end of the story, after an overeager Lora attempts to make Aleska feel more comfortable, and Aleska suffers what could be a mini-stroke. In her deformed and aged state, Aleska is alone in her momentary lapse from reality. “In so many traditions, heaven was in the sky. It made sense- up there where personhood dissolved, dominion of light and ether. Go on, just leave the earth. Your work here is done. Insufficient. But over with. But how much she loved this place. If only she could find someone to live in her home exactly as it was, not with its insides stripped away but with everything still in position, soft and careful, its every corner well-disposed to company. If someone could exist there, on through time, and quietly appreciate the place the way she had- if they could know the small, unsayable beauties of that cherishment. In all their singular detail. If she could hand that down inside her house. I may have failed, but I knew once precious thing: I knew what was beautiful. So take my home, here, take the way I lived, nestled within these rolling hills. Take my view of the sky, and on a clear day the ocean. You too will thank this life. Flooded with gratefulness. Bow your head.”

The strangest story within the collection is ‘The Men,’ an intimate story from the narration of a third person unnamed woman. Alone in her home, this narrator mourns the indefinable and absurd loss of her marriage; one day, as she explains it, he just simply left. How strange is it that one can just choose to go? She discovers, heartbreakingly, that her husband not only left her but left her for another woman. What was comfortable is now foreign, and the woman sits in her home motionless, appalled at the normalcy to which her life adjusted. Inside her home, small men begin repairing rooms, seemingly unwanted. The narrator takes to calling these workers ‘the men,’ and becomes deeply fascinated at their presence. Eventually, as the narrator dives deeper into her existential ruminations on marriage, the men begin taking over, and the narrator becomes a visitor in her own home. The end of the story finds this unnamed narrator evacuating her home, now tainted by men or memories or the stench of a life once lived and now shelled. “Occasionally they’d run an errand together, but even that had started to feel strained. When all you had was trips to Costco it wasn’t a good sign.” This home, a symbol of love that had once come natural to her, becomes infested with strangers; strange memories of a life she inexplicably used to have.

The title story comes next. ‘Fight No More’ speaks from another limited third person narration, this time from Ry, the Australian handmade of Lordy, the musician from the first story. Millet does a wonderful job of showing time in this story; a substantial amount of time has passed since Lordy’s first viewing of Nina’s listing. We learn, from Ry, that Lynn has recently been killed in a motorcycle accident; we also learn, not more than a few sentences later, that Lynn and Nina had a significant relationship before Lynn’s death. Ry attends his friend’s funeral where he knows no one. “Unfair. Unfair. Fucking unfair. But to cling to it was so useless it was borderline stupid. Unfair was what kids whined when they didn’t get what they wanted. When they made that complaint- his six-year-old niece said it constantly- you told them some lazy shit like Well, life isn’t always fair. Lazy shit sure, but true as dirt. You also taught them to believe it should be fair, so they could grow up and be confused forever by the tension between what was and what should be. He wasn’t a father, small mercies. Hoped never to be. He’d seen firsthand how raw it made you. Might as well strip your clothes off and run naked down High Street in a hail of gunfire. That was being a parent.” It’s at the funeral where Ry meets up with Nina, whom we haven’t been with for a few stories, who has changed radically since we last knew her. Nina’s grief overflows, and Ry looks on, helpless. “It was easier to be with someone who didn’t expect him to act at ease, less lonely to stand beside someone sunk into their own well. His well wasn’t far off, and from the bottom of one you couldn’t see into the other, but at least you knew it was there. He’d rather tell her the truth, anyway: a well was deep and true and had its own cylindrical perfection. It gave good shelter because its walls weren’t thin; they were as thick as the earth was round. When you were in a well the walls went on forever. From the solitude of a well, if you were fortunate, you could look up now and then and see a circle of sky. That circle might as well be the world, or the span of a life in it- clouds passed in the blink of an eye, no matter how immense they were. Stars greater than the sun shone down, as small as pins, from infinite remove.” Nina’s well intensifies, as does, by extension, Ry’s, when she reveals that she and Lynn had recently got engaged before his passing. Ry and Nina, strangers, coexist in wells of loss; it’s their togetherness that matters in the end, theirs and Lordy’s- it’s what we can continue to hope for Nina as the book goes on.

In ‘I Knew You In the Dark,’ we return to Nina, directly after Lynn’s funeral. This is a badass story, and the title alone makes me weep. For a moment, Ry and Nina knew one another in their shared and independent darks- it’s as if, in a span of darkness, any human connection feels aflame. In her grief, Nina takes on different clients, including the unnamed narrator’s home from ‘The Men,’ Millet again expertly weaving stories together in minuscule and important ways.

My favorite story in the collection, ‘Stockholm,’ introduces a new major character to the book: Lexie, Jem’s friend, who also becomes au pair to Lora and Paul’s new daughter and Aleska. Jem met Lexie in an online sex chat room, where the two became good friends. Lexie, hyper-aware of the sexuality she possesses, is constantly on guard against Jem and Paul, fully expecting them to use her body or expect her body as many men (including her mother’s long-term boyfriend) have. We learn of Lexie’s troubled relationship with her mother, and feel proud and happy when she talks with Aleska (awesome, badass of a woman) and Aleska’s new realtor, Nina. The three women, three stages of womanhood, sit in their anonymous and relatable femininity and grief, and the interaction leaves Lexie hopeful and mournful, deeply wanting a reconnection with her own mother: “But could you just decide? To make love come back?”

Next comes ‘I Can’t Go On,’ the dreaded story from the perspective of Pete, Lexie’s mothers boyfriend. Distraught at the loss of Lexie, Pete becomes obsessed with finding Lexie for one more fuck. Pete uses blackmail to coerce Lexie into sex, praying on her loyalty to her mother and her desire to resolve her mother’s pain. The end of the story leads to Pete finishing their last round of sex, and seeing some kind of ‘supernova.’

Directly after the events of ‘I Can’t Go On,’ Lexie calls Jem in a panicked state. In ‘God Save the Queen,’ we learn the supernova referenced by Pete was actually his own death. A heart attack led to him dying while inside Lexie, and because she wants no one to know of her relationship with Pete, she asks Jem to help her. Lexie is especially anxious for Roxie, her mother, to find out; in Roxie’s supreme grief, Lexie worries her mother will break if she discovers the truth. Throughout the story, Jem assists Lexie in hiding the details of Pete’s abusive behavior in order to protect Roxie. Jem and his mother invite Lexie and Roxie to dinner in the hopes of alleviating some of their grief; instead, Roxie blames Jem for stealing something out of her purse, and a brief altercation ensues. Jem makes the horrible realization that Roxie knows of Pete’s abuse, has known; he chooses to let Lexie live in her ignorance. “People get caught in their own wars all the time. You never knew what wars they could be fighting. No idea. But when you could, you dragged them off the battlefield. Some were heavier than others. Harder to move. Some were lighter. Some were dead already and others were only dying, but none would ever be the same.” Roxie isn’t the mother Lexie deserves; nor is Paul the son Aleska deserves. Wars rage, quietly, loudly, around us; but again, we come together, protect one another, strangers, lovers, humans.

‘Those Are Pearls’ comes next, another story featuring Nina, this time in the setting of Marnie’s home. After Lynn’s death, Nina again tries making amends with her younger sister and is again disappointed at her sister’s refusal to meet her halfway. The setting and circumstance again prompt Nina to think on Lynn: “Lynn had been the love she chose. That chosen love saved you from the mandatory kind. The ones you had to love. It made the burden of that mandatory love feel light. Without it the duty weighed more.”

Fight No More ends with ‘Oh Child of Earth,’ another story from the perspective of Aleska, the aging and dying grandmother now in the charge of Jeremy and Lexie. Aleska, having protected Lexie from Pete and her brothers, comes to admitting that Paul, her son, is not a good man. She also decides, because of this realization, to leave half of her inheritance to Lexie, hoping to pay her way through college. The book ends with Aleska, near death, walking out of her home and down the street, liberated, momentarily, by this excursion. Paul, driving his SUV, finds his mother on the side of the road and instructs her to get inside. Aleska notes: “‘I only want to keep going.’ Something changed in his expression. Almost softened. ‘Of course you do,’ he said. They looked at each other for another moment, and then his window went up. He pulled away again. She watched his taillights flash on as he stepped on the brakes at the stop sign, turned the corner. And then her son was gone.” Togetherness, aloneness. We don’t fight any longer. We walk and we keep walking, and sometimes we stop, if only for one another.

Adventure Time: You Helped Me Save Myself

I sat in line a few weeks ago in the movie theatre’s lobby at The Grove, a large shopping mall in Los Angeles. I took off work and took a Lyft the 15 minute drive to where Cartoon Network would be screening its finale of Adventure Time, approximately one week before the wide release on September 3. I got there early, unsure of the crowds at something so final, something so beloved; I arrived at 3:30PM, and the line had about 15 people in it (the event started at 7PM). There was a man towards the front of the line with a hand-made Ice King costume, and one behind him in a Finn costume, complete with a Jake-the-dog beard and a Finn sword. Closer to me there was a mother and her son; she was draped in purple, toting Doc Martens printed with Marceline the Vampire Queen holding her bass. Her son, an 18-year-old, wore a Finn cap, blue shirt, and Finn Doc Martens, the two of them making an adorable pair. I admit, at first I didn’t see myself in this group of people. I was alone, and I wasn’t one of the close-to-twenty year olds or one of the parents coming along with their kids. I was a lone 26 year old, 15th in line to watch Adventure Time end. How had I gotten here?


Adventure Time aired on Cartoon Network in 2007, and has been running since. In 2007, I was 14 years old. I was about to enter high school in Ohio. I didn’t know Adventure Time existed; unfortunately, I wasn’t one of the kids who grew up watching Finn and Jake as their primary cartoons. Instead, I belong to the Rocket Power generation, the Ed Edd and Eddy or Powerpuff Girls, depending on my mood. I took to Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, those two offering me a bit more intellectual stimulation than anything else at the time. I found myself drawn to the scale of these shows, their unabashed attempt at defining the cosmos and granting their characters the ability to encounter existential threats. I dressed as Usagi in her Sailor Moon costume for three Halloweens straight, my mother re-stitching the handmade blue skirt/white torso combo onto that obnoxious red bow more than once to fit my growing frame. I loved Sailor Moon, and I didn’t know why at the time- when my parents asked me, I could only say: it’s so important. I think what I meant was that I wanted more than just laughs from my TV shows. I knew, even as a kid, that investing my time in something involved commitment, and in order to give that commitment, I needed connection. I adored the lore behind the show, the ability the animators and writers had to introduce and slowly define a plot line- ‘The Past Returns’ episode of Sailor Moon will forever hold a place in my soul as the first piece of television/film to utterly change me. I watched it so many times that our VHS tape of it burnt out. It’s the first episode that reveals to watchers and to the Sailor Scouts the truth of who they are- it takes us, along with our beloved heroes, back to the Moon Kingdom, during the Silver Millennium, a prosperous time for the peaceful and beautiful Moon Kingdom, governed by a majestic Queen Serenity. Queen Serenity reveals to us, in her elegant and euphonious voice, that Usagi is her daughter, the mysterious Princess of the Moon, and her four assembled friends and scouts are her protectors, each selected from their own home planets. We learn that the Moon Kingdom was reduced to rubble by the evil Queen Beryl, a villain we are familiar with in the current timeline of the show. We learn more about Tuxedo Mask, too, also known as Prince Endymion, a representative from Earth madly in love with the Princess of the Moon. It’s a heartbreaking episode, which ends in Queen Serenity sacrificing herself and sending her daughter, the scouts, and all of the inhabitants of the Moon Kingdom to Earth in order to give them another shot a life. The catch? None of them remember their real identities. It’s a birth story, albeit a destructively depressing one.

I also adored Legend of Zelda. My father purchased ‘Ocarina of Time’ for our N64 when I was young, maybe five years old; it was an odd move for him, since he’d never particularly enjoyed video games or knew anything about the series. But for years (yes, it took him years- he’s still very proud to have made it out of the Water Temple without ever cheating) the game was such a strong bonding agent for my family; as my father fought through temples, I hid behind the couch, watching with fear and astonishment. I’d never fallen so deeply in love with something’s lore. I trusted the genesis story of Nayru, Farore, and Din more than I’d trusted anything before, especially the Christian tenants I’d overheard at school. Born into an agnostic family, I became enthralled and excited at this possible religion, at it providing some kind of identity I’d yet missed out on. And in a way, Zelda has filled that void for me; as I aged, I took the controller, and my father watched. I followed the series but always found my way back to that original experience with ‘Ocarina of Time’ and ‘Majora’s Mask’- I’ve probably played through OoT 12 times by now, and nearly all of it is muscle memory. My anxious mind feels extreme gratitude that a timeline has been released- I love that there are through lines in the series, mementos of games past and future, the story of Link, Zelda, and Ganon one that changes and yet stays the same, forever.

Throughout my adolescence, I continued, quietly, adoring Sailor Moon. I hid my VHS tapes in the recesses of our movie cabinet, hoping no one would find them during slumber parties. While I played Zelda ritually, it felt less cool to like animated TV shows; it felt childish, something I should have grown past. We, as a society, have Adventure Time to thank for blowing that idea up.

I moved to Florida when I was 24. It was a cross-country move, done solo, to a city I’d never stepped foot in. I was fresh out of graduate school, which I entered fresh out of undergrad. I’d never been on my own before, and I was doing it somewhere far away from home, somewhere I knew a total of one person (and that person just barely). I wanted newness, and I was extremely hopeful: I was starting my career, living in a new city, new apartment… and I was positive I’d also find a new partner. It’d been years since anything serious (with mild relationships between), but I was confident that I was old enough, cognizant enough of myself and my needs, that the next one would stick. I did meet someone, someone whom I tried forcing into this idea of completeness and newness ; it backfired, and I was left heartbroken. And this heartbreak was especially painful, what with the new city that I’d come to know through him and the apartment that had once been new but now felt tainted by his potential. Months later, I met someone new, someone I was unsure of at first, someone I got to know without the force and aggression I typically bring to these romantic potentials. Things happened slowly and without much effort on my part, and before I knew it, I was in love with him. He felt not so much like the answer to the question I’d been asking but rather a new question, one I hadn’t even thought to ask. We spent days huddled in the shade of his apartment, protecting ourselves from the Florida heat, from his weird neighbor, and, mostly, from his upcoming move to Los Angeles, an ever-tighter 6 months away.

When he left, my anxiety and depression peaked in ways I’d expected but had no idea how to prepare for. We weren’t sure what was going to happen to our relationship- it was an infant that needed a lot of nourishment, a lot of attention, neither of which were things he wanted to give, both of which were things I was over-giving. I lost fifteen pounds in two months. I cried a lot, especially in the mornings. I went to therapy. I practiced meditation, got back into yoga. It was the most self-aware care I’ve ever given to myself. And it was topped with maybe the best self-care soothe: Adventure Time.

Each day after work, I’d come home, cook myself dinner that I wouldn’t really eat, and turn on Adventure Time. The show had a lengthy 9 seasons available, and I took comfort in something with longevity, especially given my tumultuous and unpredictable relationship. I wanted something far enough away from my reality that it felt like a reprieve but not something so off-the-wall that it felt like escapism. I pined for that same feeling that Sailor Moon used to give me when my parents were fighting or when my dad came home drunk or when I just had a bad day: things would be okay, it was all a learning experience, good or bad, heroism wasn’t always beautiful, courage wasn’t always ineffable.

The first season of Adventure Time introduced some of my now most beloved characters to me- Ice King, Finn, BMO, Jake, Princess Bubblegum, Marceline, Lumpy Space Princess…  I laughed at these wacky adventurers, at the people made of candy, at the penguins quaking at the Ice King. When I heard Jake tell Finn ““Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something,” I felt like I’d gotten ahold of something great. The show hadn’t even gone into its lore yet, and I was hooked. Season two expanded upon many characters, especially Marceline, whose tough exterior and pained interior was something I desperately wanted to console. I noticed the bitter past hinted at between Princess Bubblegum and Marcy. I felt the pain of Finn’s shortcomings when Princess Bubblegum was temporarily infected with The Lich’s evil urges. I saw Finn fail and saw Jake accept him not in spite of but because of his failures, his shortcomings: “I’ll still be here yesterday to high five you tomorrow my friend.” I cried at young Finn, at his desire to be the perfect hero to Princess Bubblegum, the perfect brother to Jake, the perfect savior to everyone in Ooo- because that was me. The desperation to prove himself, the repression of his own demons… it hit home. And I had found, in a way, my Jake, my person to give me that high five yesterday or today or tomorrow. He wasn’t with me physically, but wasn’t he still there mentally? Wasn’t he giving me love? Yes, my anxiety would tell me, but will he be here still tomorrow? Will he be here when you’re not good?


“When bad things happen I know you want to believe they are a joke. But sometimes life is scary and dark. That is why we must find the light.” BMO says this toward the end of Season three to Jake. This quote has become even more important to me now, on the other side of watching the AT finale, when BMO holds a shrunken Jake at the end of the world, and asks Jake to let him be the ‘papa.’ BMO then breaks into song, positioning himself as the light against the darkness. These scenes are nice mirror images of each other, a circle of learning and loving from one another that defines much of BMO and Jake’s relationship. Season three also invests more in the Adventure Time lore, giving Marceline a back-story, explaining more of Ooo’s history, introducing the Cosmic Owl (a prophet who lives in a reality unaltered by time, who serves as a prophet via dreams), introducing Flame Princess and her kingdom, and revealing part of Ice King’s heartbreaking backstory- Simon, the Ice King’s real name, was once a human, before his crown possessed him, causing him to lose his real self (“And so it was decided that once a year, the people of Ooo would get together while wearing really big sweaters and watch videos on the floor next to the fire to celebrate the day when Finn and Jake had a fleeting moment of empathy for the biggest weirdo in Ooo.”). The third season begins the descent into the true lore of AT, and sets us up nicely for what is to come. It helped me breathe, helped me regain faith that the present moment wouldn’t be the forever moment. It told me that loss and failure were parts of life; even death, as Jake tells us: “When I die, my individual earth consciousness is gonna go all over everywhere while Glob tallies my deeds. I’m gonna be all around you! In your nose, in your dreams and your socks. I’ll be a part of you in your Earth mind.”

Finn starts dating Flame Princess in the fourth season; “I think I like you like you. Listen, when I look at you, my brain goes all stupid. I just wanna hug you, and sit on the couch and play BMO with you.” While at first it seems impossible for the two to share any kind of relationship because of FP’s fiery personality as well as her literal physical flame body, the two come to respect one another greatly; I especially love that FP mistakes Finn for a ‘water elemental’ because he cries. FP encourages Finn to cry, labeling his emotions a superpower- what a tremendous gift this is on behalf of Adventure Time, a message to young boys that it’s not only okay to cry but powerful to. The two try throughout the season to find a way to be together, and succeed, Finn eventually breaking down FP’s deep-rooted trust wall. “‘You would defy nature for me?’ ‘Uh yeah, whatevs.’” Another crucial plot-line of AT takes place in Season Four- that of Magic Man and his four-headed brother(s) Grob, Gob, Glob, Grod. While at first Magic Man shows himself to be a nuisance to both the show and Finn and Jake, this episode reveals (as always) that there is more to the character. The four-headed deity from Mars returns to Earth to capture their brother Magic Man, who was sent away to Earth as punishment for being terrible on Mars. With his powers, Magic Man transfers his consciousness into Jake’s body and Jake’s consciousness into Magic Man’s body- it is Jake, then, who stands trial on Mars at the feet of Abe Lincoln, Mars’ King. Finn, absolute in his dedication to save Jake, finds a way to Mars (via a device that will only let the user use it if his intentions/love is pure) and witnesses Abe killing Jake. Abe, regretful of his mistake, volunteers himself to Death (a character throughout the show) in return for allowing Jake to come back. The four-headed brothers, then, take the throne of Mars, and tell Finn and Jake to watch over their brother, indicating that his personality has a lot to do with the loss of his wife, Margles, who has vanished in their efforts to protect Mars. Magic Man became, for me, one of the characters I wanted to know the most about. I felt he had a ton to offer to the series, and would be a main player later on (I was right). Season Four also delivers the wonderful “I Remember You” episode, an episode dearly beloved by all AT fans. In a seemingly unlikely pairing, Ice King and Marceline play music together; I remember feeling shocked at Marcy’s patience with IK during the beginning of this episode, and broken by the end of it. Marceline tries getting Simon to remember his old identity, which, we learn, was her protector; as a young girl, Marceline followed Simon in the desecrated remains of the world after the Great Mushroom War, staying together until the power of his crown and its possession made him abandon her. Together the two sing, Marceline remembering, Ice King not, the moment still so touching and heartbreaking: “Marceline, is it just you and me in the wreckage of the world? That must be so confusing for a little girl. And I know you’re going to need me here with you. But I’m losing myself, and I’m afraid you’re gonna lose me too. This magic keeps me alive, but it’s making me crazy, and I need to save you, but who’s going to save me? Please forgive me for whatever I do, When I don’t remember you…” Marceline weeps as she sings along, the Ice King oblivious. And instead of becoming frustrated with his inability to remember, Marceline takes the moment of sweetness for what it is, and chooses to love and accept Simon in this form as well as his previous one. It’s Marceline that cements the Ice King/Simon as someone to love, especially to Finn and Jake, even to the impatient Princess Bubblegum. Her soft spot for Simon brings me to weep every time I watch them interact. It’s so pure, and teaches us acceptance- as Cheryl Strayed wrote, “acceptance is a small, quiet room.” Acceptance isn’t Simon remembering; it’s Marceline acknowledging he won’t remember, and loving him despite. What comes at the end of Season Four/beginning of Season Five is perhaps my favorite trio of episodes- The Lich, the manifestation of all evil, tricks Jake and Finn to collecting the Enchiridion’s crystals by pretending to be Billy, their old hero. By accessing the crystals, The Lich, Jake, and Finn are transported to Prismo’s Time Room, a cosmic dimension inhabited by the Cosmic Owl and Prismo alone, outside the confines of time and alternate realities. Prismo, one of my favorite characters of the show, grants one wish to those who get access to his time room, no questions asked; since all three made it there, they all get a wish. The Lich wishes for destruction, and Finn, hasty and scared, wishes that The Lich never existed, leaving Jake alone in Prismo’s time room at the end.


Season Five starts with a gut-punch; it hits us with a very real alternate reality, showing a dog-like Jake and a normal boy Finn, complete with his own human parents. Finn, vowing to protect his family, seeks the Destiny Gang, a group of bullies in town who keep stealing from his poor parents. Eventually, Finn finds Marceline, a grotesquely old witch-like woman alone in a cave with Simon’s remains, atop which still sits the Ice King’s crown. We learn that in this alternate world, The Lich, a comet, was contained by Simon taking the Lich’s entire hit, thereby reducing him to staying pinned under a rock for eternity. Although Marceline tries warning Finn against taking Simon’s crown, he does so anyway, thereby becoming the Ice King himself. As Finn loses sanity and attempts to protect his family with his powers, The Lich arrives yet again, since the comet is now free to hit. The Lich, in a missile-like way, destroys the world, leaving Finn and those he froze (his family) to be the only survivors. Back in Prismo’s time room, a terrified Jake watches this alternate reality Finn, and becomes paralyzed by his responsibility of making the best-most-carefully-worded wish possible to right the world. With Prismo’s help, Jake wishes that The Lich had wished for Jake and Finn to be happy on Ooo, thereby sending Finn and Jake back to Ooo and leaving The Lich trapped in Prismo’s time room. Season five welcomes Jake’s fatherhood, as he and Lady Rainicorn give birth to five quick-maturing pups: TV, Viola, Jake JR, Charlie, and Kim Khil Wan. The season also strengthens Prismo and the Cosmic Owl’s space in the series, making them fun recurring characters that Jake seems to adore: “Prismo: Dude, I get out of relationships because I don’t want to have a discussion about what we’re gonna have for dinner every night! Cause when I’m alone I can just sit on the couch and when I’m hungry I can eat whatever I want. It’s not like: [High pitched voice] “What should we eat for breakfast? Wait! We should coordinate!” [Normal voice] That’s a pain. Jake: [Eating sandwich, talking with full mouth.] Mm-mm, man your view of relationships is very bleak, don’t you get lonely? Jake: I gotta get that guy a girlfriend.” We see Magic Man up to more antics, this time in an especially well-crafted episode in which Finn becomes a god-like orchestrator of mini Ooo characters. We learn about BMO’s creation and his human creator, Mo, a touching story that gives us MORE reason to love the already loveable BMO. We see Marceline and Princess Bubblegum together, despite their vast differences and estranged backstory, defeat Maja the Sky Witch together in order to win back Hambo, Marceline’s beloved stuffed animal from Simon. PB has to sacrifice the shirt she sleeps in every night (which is Marceline’s) to Maja, as Maja insists that it’s full of sentimental value. Although I suspected Marceline and PB’s affair from ‘What Was Missing,’ it was this episode that made me feel certain that these two characters had been in love before and were still in the stages of reconciliation after a break-up. The otherwise factual and practical PB wears Marceline’s grungy and dirty t-shirt to bed? It’s got to be love! Next in the season comes the heartbreaking end to Finn and Flame Princess’ relationship, something that started pure and ended… not so pure. Finn, attracted to Flame Princess’ rage and power, continuously pits Ice King and Flame Princess against one another, hoping to satisfy his own odd attraction. His selfishness eventually leads to FP finding out that it was Finn who voiced nasty complaints about her, not Ice King, and her incredible hurt leads her to break things off. Finn remains hopeful for a reconciliation, but FP remains adamant that the two can only be friends. Adventure Time forces Finn to feel the pain of a broken heart, and presents his shame and regret in a very honest way. In one of the best episodes of the series, ‘Puhoy,’ a sad Finn struggles to process the weight of relationships.

“‘Hey, Jake, do you think you should date someone just like you, or someone who’s like… you’re opposite?’ ‘I don’t know. I’m the first come first serve kinda guy.’ ‘So it’s not good to weigh someone’s qualities against your own?’ ‘Well, no. I mean, if you feel something, you feel something. It’s not about personality matrixels and charts, it’s all about the bu-bumos in your heart.’”

Finn then descends into a different universe, that of the pillow fort. He quickly becomes a hero there and, unable to return to Ooo, lives a full life for himself in pillow world, complete with a family and aging. At the end, we watch this Finn die, and young Finn return to Ooo, changed. It’s an episode about family, obligation, love, and heartache, and is so incredibly paced that it makes us heal right alongside Finn; not totally, but a bit. We also meet Finn’s past lives, that of the comet, the butterfly, and Shoko, a one-armed scavenger living long ago, hired to infiltrate PB’s kingdom for pay. PB gave Shoko a mechanical arm, one that Finn will receive later, and the two develop a friendship along with a new guard to defend the kingdom; Shoko, bound by monetary obligations, does betray PB, and as she tries escaping, she dies, resting at the place that will become Finn and Jake’s treehouse. This is a season intent on giving us more, trusting that viewers are emotionally aware enough to understand the significance of Finn’s past and future lives, and how none of them are completely good or completely bad. Finn made a severe mistake with FP, and his heroic persona struggles to accept his fault for the entirety of the season. But his lesson isn’t learned after hurting FP; another long-term problem arises when Finn gets the Grass Sword, a cursed grass extension of Finn’s arm that seems to have a mind of its own. Adventure Time pushes Finn to grapple with changes that are at once at his own making and objectively thrown onto him, much like life makes us do in the transition from child to adult. Simon’s storyline is also furthered by introducing Betty, Simon’s old fiancé; when Wizard City resets all magic, Ice King remembers Betty and Marceline, who assists Simon in opening a portal before he dies (without his magic, he ages rapidly). By sacrificing Hambo, they open a portal to the past, and Simon begins to tell Betty goodbye when she unexpectedly jumps through the portal to Ooo, asserting that she will save Simon and his crown. We also meet Lemonhope, a creature detained by the two Lemongarbs PB created who are no longer at peace with one another. PB, struggling to admit her fault in the matter, bestows hope onto a young Lemonhope, who she frees from prison in the hopes that he will fix the Lemon land. Instead, though, Lemonhope flees, and PB starts to reconcile with her infallible scientific curiosities. Season five also addresses the repressed memory vault of Finn, something he throws his hurts into rather than addressing: “Oh, yeah. The vault. That’s where the stuff I can’t handle goes.” This vault becomes a reoccurring symbol, and has a major place in the finale of the show. At the end of the season, Jake and Finn struggle to accept Billy the Hero’s death, and, in an attempt to send Billy off in a nice light, Finn takes to completing Billy’s bucket list, which includes taking Canyon, his ex-girlfriend, on one last motorcycle ride, telling Finn something, and floating in the ocean, Finn’s number one fear. Finn’s adoration and respect for Billy leads him to conquering his fear, and as Finn floats on his back in the sea, Billy’s voice comes through the clouds, directing Finn: “Tell Canyon I watch her sleep. Man, love is weird, Finn.” And, in the last few seconds of the fifth season, Billy reveals the thing he had to tell Finn: Finn’s father is alive!


Season six, inevitably, belongs to Finn’s search for his human father, Martin. As in Season five,  Season six begins in Prismo’s time room, where Finn and Jake ask Prismo in help finding Martin. Prismo reveals that Martin is a criminal, and in order to get to The Citadel, where Martin is imprisoned, the two must commit a cosmic-level crime. Prismo, in a way, sacrifices himself; he reveals that ‘Prismo’ is really just the subconscious dream of a sleeping old man, and that if Finn and Jake wake him, Prismo as they know him will cease to exist, and they will be sent to the citadel. “What if the whole world was just some goof’s dream? That’d be stupid.”  At the last minute, though, The Lich, still in Prismo’s room, wakes the old man, and gets sent to the Citadel himself, where Finn and Jake follow. The Lich’s evil melts the Citadel prison, and Martin, recognizing Finn, chooses to run away nonetheless, something that disappoints Finn to the point of refusing to let go of Martin’s ship as he flys off, eventually breaking off Finn’s arm. The Lich, meanwhile, dissolves into a sweeter version of himself thanks to the Citadel’s power, and becomes Sweet Pea, the large baby-voiced character that eventually  becomes the adopted son of Tree Trunks and Mr. Pig. Poor Prismo- “Prismo we love you forever in our dreams!” Finn is plagued with disappointment and hurt throughout the sixth season as well, his heartache over Flame Princess compounded with his disappointing reunion with his father. “I’m lost in the darkness,” Finn admits. Prismo comes back, a re-start ignited by he and Jake’s bro-bond that creates multiple options for each being, one of which is Finn existing in his sword. This split creates further division and issues for the show. Princess Bubblegum, like Finn, confronts her own demons and guilt, admitting, finally, that she is too authoritarian in her ruling; ultimately, she destroys her spy equipment, resolving to trust her candy people rather than obsessively watching over them. This season defines the origin of the Ice King’s powers through the Evergreen episode, which takes places centuries before our timeline in Ooo. We meet Evergreen, the ice elemental who resembles Ice King, and his dinosaur assistant Gunter, who idolizes and wants to be his master. We also meet the other three elementals (fire, slime, candy), who disagree with Evergreen’s assertion that they must stop the catalyst comet hurtling toward Earth. The other elementals know the power and danger of wish-magic, and tell him they won’t help; at the end, Evergreen tells his assistant Gunter to make the wish to stop the green comet (which will be The Lich). What results is Ice King. Gunter’s idolization of his master leads him to wishing to be just like him, thus producing a curse for the crown in which everyone will resemble the immortal Evergreen. The twenty-fifth episode of Season six is another one of my all-time favorite AT episodes. ‘Astral Plane’ shows Finn floating, existential and dream-like, over Ooo, other countries, other worlds, and finally, space, contemplating existence, art, friendship, and purpose. Finn asks: “I wonder if being a sad loner gives you more raw materials to form song ideas. Is that where creativity comes from? From sad-bizz?” And then later, in the same astral trip, says “Well, that was creative. And it wasn’t sad either. So maybe birth is the greatest creative statement in the universe.” He furthers this line of questioning as he enters Mars’ orbit, asking “If just being born is the greatest act of creation, then what are you supposed to do after that? Isn’t everything that comes next sort of a disappointment? Slowly entroping until we deflate into a pile of mush?” Finn is answered by Magic Man’s four-headed brother(s), Grob, Gob, Glob, Grod, the new King of Mars after Abe’s death: “Well, it’s not enough to have created something amazing, right? What if I just let my Martian super society go to butt?” And Finn, seeing a comet hurtling toward Mars, says “But what’s it worth if we all gettin blown up right now?” It’s Finn who seems to inspire Grob, Gob, Glob, and Grod to sacrifice themselves, facing the comet head-on, in order for Mars to go on. Finn’s astral body is sent back to his real body, and he tells Jake: “Glob is dead.” This is such an incredible episode, one that is trippy and funny, emotional, and ultimately an exercise in philosophy. It’s an artist’s eternal question- what’s the point of creation? What responsibility do I have toward my creation? It’s a layered episode, and Finn’s inquisition of existence really makes me cry, every time I watch. I’ve looked at the world with that childlike wonder/cynicism/existentialism as long as I can remember, and to watch a hero do so makes me feel less alone. Betty, who time-traveled to Ooo last season, has been MIA the entire sixth season, until Finn and Jake witness Betty scavenging for Grob Gob Glob Grod’s helmet, which she takes to Magic Man’s house, where she has apparently been living. Betty and the viewer learn of a machine called Margles, named after Magic Man’s tragically lost wife. The machine, we learn, was used against a cosmic demon to protect Mars, and resulted in the real Margles being lost forever. Again, my empathy and interest in the character of Magic Man grows; he tells Margles: “I looked everywhere you know. Every dimension, every dead world. I even wished you back in Prismo’s time room. But you were gone. Erased. Only existing here (points to head and heart). For hundreds of years I held that sadness until my magic and science were strong enough to create you from my nightmares.” With this sadness, Magic Man’s full power potential is locked, and he manipulates Betty into helping him free it; instead, the experiment backfires, and Magic Man is deemed Normal Man, absent of powers and his terribleness, and Betty becomes the new Magic Man, haunted by madness. Betty says, before descending into her own madness: “MMS runs through all Magic Users! I hung out with scores of them all displaying various degrees of magic, madness, and sadness. Studying these symptoms could lead me to their underlying cause, and then I’ll control the forces that hold sway over Simon.” She sacrifices herself to save Simon, again, and we are left with a sincerely lost Normal Man. The final two episodes of the season again show the magic of Adventure Time; it’s a hodge-podge of time travel, existential dread, paranoia, art, and hope. King of Ooo, an imposter-like usurper to Princess Bubblegum’s throne, gains popularity, and PB is exposed as a tyrant of the Candy Kingdom, and is expelled from her castle. Alone in a cabin with Peppermint Butler, PB watches as a pink cataclysmic comet (which ends up being Martin) hurtles toward Ooo, and mourns her people, who have elected a sham leader who cannot help them when they need assistance the most. Eventually, we learn that the mysterious purple-cladded wizard who urged the King of Ooo to usurp PB is Gunter, his brain extending out of his body and ultimately transforming him into his true form, the evil alien Orgalorg. Orgalorg grows powerful, consuming the comet and becoming a sentient and divine being who offers Finn freedom from earth and all of his human pain along with complete power over all beings:

Catalyst Comet: Finn, do you remember?

Finn: Yeah- I think so. A long time ago, I was you, sorta. And I crashed on Earth. And became a butterfly or some biz. And I guess- it was just some random, absurd thing. Just a joke I’ve been playing out for centuries.

Catalyst Comet: Who’s creating the joke? Are you? And if so then are you my creator?

Finn: Maybe? I dunno. Probably not.

Catalyst Comet: Probably not, but who knows? I’ve been around forever, and experienced so much impossible junk. I’ve embodied all that is and good- and evil. And now we’re here. It’s unprecedented. And now, I give you a choice. Come with me to the end- and the beginning? Or struggle here a while like a beautiful autumn leaf.

Catalyst Comet: This is your crisis. As you stand on the edge of freedom from: Love. Hate. Friendship. Isolation. Jealousy. Secrets. Violence. Video Games. Ice Cream Waffles. Sadness. Madness. Power. Honor. Loyalty. Saucy. Mothers. Fathers. Scoundrels.

Finn: You keep tellin me to abandon all this stuff- but you’re not really making it sound bad.

Catalyst Comet: It’s not bad. I’m just giving you the choice of a new mode of existence.

Our hero rejects the comet’s offer, choosing a flawed human life with his loved ones over a perfect life alone. Martin, however, takes the comet up on its offer, and abandons Finn again. Finn confronts feelings of abandonment and disenchantment again, Adventure Time forcing him to grow up while still maintaining his beautifully adventurous charisma. The show does this so well as Finn ages- it respects its viewers who have grown up alongside Finn, who may have become less naïve about the world, more wary of its magic; and yet it still gives them hope, still promises us that it’s all worth it.



Season seven of Adventure Time sees the King of Ooo still in charge, and Finn and Jake attempting to be loyal knights of the kingdom. When the King of Ooo demands the two to enter into PB’s hidden secret cave, our heroes discover Neddy, a harmless and frightened piece of gum, PB’s brother. We learn that Neddy’s life-force is what powers the Candy Kingdom, and that his body sprouted the castle. Princess Bubblegum is forced, then, to confront her secrets and her flaws: while the King of Ooo is obviously far less superior of a ruler than PB, he is correct in labeling her as a semi-tyrant who is paranoid and obsessive about her authoritarian hold on her subjects. PB understands her role in subjugating her own brother as well, and flees to her cabin to cry. Her love for Neddy, though, is undeniable. Although he can’t speak and seems mega-afraid of the world, Princess Bubblegum adores him and respects him, telling Finn and Jake: “People get build different. We don’t need to figure it out, we just need to respect it.” ‘Varmints,’ one of the best episodes of the series, occurs in this season, and shows Marceline returning to Ooo to find PB alone in her cabin, distraught and depressed. This strained relationship, full of tension, blossoms a bit more in this episode, as we watch the two of them hunt strange creatures who destroy PB’s garden. Marceline represents adventure and rebellion, something Princess Bubblegum sees as childish and unavailable to her as a responsible ruler; meanwhile, PB represents rigidity and exhaustion, something Marceline sees as uptight and false. The two need one another to exist in a sane and balanced life, something both of them are stubborn to admit. At the end of the episode, PB admits to being exhausted and sad, finally admitting weakness, which Marceline not only accepts but encourages, assuaging Princess Bubblegum that she will protect her as she rests. This season shows compassion and friendship in a more adult format- Adventure Time is courageous enough to show its characters as sometimes weak, thus encouraging its viewers to reach out for help without being ashamed. PB and Marceline are such incredible characters independent of one another, and the care the creators took to establishing their own personalities before bringing them together makes their union feels so earned. Another of my favorite characters, BMO, gets a special episode this season as well: ‘Football,’ episode five. Here, BMO speaks with his reflection, whom he has named Football. The two tell one another how much they love each other, and Football eventually admits that he’s lonely and wishes he could spend one day outside of the mirror-world. BMO kindly trades places with Football for the day, and Football introduces herself to Jake and Finn, who obligingly call Football Football, using pronouns Football indicates. We see Finn and Jake forgetting Football’s preference and slipping up, starting to say BMO or he, but correcting themselves: “Listen BMO- I mean, Football- you seem like you might be feeling a little donked up in your head or in your heart, or both. And that’s okay! Everybody feels that sometimes.” It’s a beautiful nod toward queerness, a kind show that in order to be an ally, one doesn’t need to be perfect but trying. The episode takes a scary turn when Football refuses to switch places with BMO again, and when Football starts seeing BMO in every glass surface, including the pond behind the treehouse. Eventually, Football falls into the pond, and she and BMO switch places again; Football marvels at the beauty of the pond, thanking BMO and apologizing. Is this an episode about a personality disorder? Maybe- more than that, though, I think it’s an episode that encourages exploration of the self, a theme that becomes heavily prevalent the rest of the season. We get our first mini-series in season seven, called ‘Stakes,’ a series that defines Marceline’s history after she makes the decision to not be a vampire anymore with the help of PB’s anti-vamp serum. As Marceline undergoes her transformation, a mob mentality overtakes a farm; the farmspeople are convinced that Marceline has attacked their livestock since their bites are obviously vampire-abled. They take Marceline and plan on killing her via sunlight; as we wait for the sun to rise, we see young Marcy with her human mother, singing ‘Everything Stays,’ a beautiful song that Marceline cherishes the rest of her life. We see her find Simon, lose Simon, and become alone again, taking to hunting vampires (she is not a vampire yet- she is half demon, half human) in order to protect the humans who have survived the Great Mushroom War. We see Marceline make a heartbreaking decision to send her human friends away (to the islands, which we’ll see in future episodes) from Ooo without her; she fights off a vampire horde, ultimately defeating the Vampire King and becoming the Vampire Queen, a curse she’s lived with for thousands of years. In the present timeline, as the sun rises, Marceline does not die- the cure worked! We quickly learn, though, that a new threat is apparent: The Vampire King has been resurrected, and demands the cure from PB. His vampire essence, when he takes the cure, gets released as an evil cloud unto Ooo, which Marceline consumes to save Ooo, thus turning back into the Vampire Queen, an identity she has a newfound pride in. PB is reinstituted as leader of the Candy Kingdom, an old role she takes on, like Marceline, with pride. Another of my personal favorite episodes of season seven is episode fourteen, in which BMO invites Mo, his human creator, to his birthday party. Mo shows up as a computer instructing BMO to return to the MO factory in order to grow up; while BMO sets out on this lonely and existential journey, Mo the computer stays with Finn and Jake, attempting to entertain them but mostly boring them and worrying them. BMO travels, worrying: “Air? Are you there, Air? It’s me, BMO. I know it’s been a long time since we talked. Sorry about that. But, well, maybe if you don’t wanna talk, you could just listen? Moe told me if I do this thing, I’ll be a grown up. And that sounds cool, I guess. Like, if I was grown, I could drive to the playground by myself. And I could buy my own pacifiers at the store, if I was grown. But then… if I change, will Finn and Jake still love me? Will I still love them? Moe changed into a new body and he’s still the same, I guess… sorta. But does growing up just change your body? Or also your soul? Maybe I could just stay the same forever…” He then makes the astute observation, which I have adopted as my own personal mantra: “Maybe the lesson is that when you’re grown you won’t ever be able to tell if everything is going totally haywire or maybe actually everything is perfectly fine.” When BMO arrives at the MO factory, he realizes something is amiss: all of the MOs have been compacted into one giant MO, and Moe himself has passed away- the computer at the treehouse is AMO, BMO’s nemesis. AMO demands Finn and Jake’s love, growing angry and hateful when the two can’t reciprocate. BMO escapes the factory with the help of the compacted MO computers and saves Finn and Jake from AMO, an aggressive character whose composition prompts him to demand received love rather than giving it, which BMO does. BMO is forced to push AMO off of a cliff, and he mourns the death of AMO and Moe: “I do feel a bit more grown. Except that the mission was just a made up lie. So who knows if I will ever grow up at all. And Moe is gone now, so if there is anything he wanted to teach me, it is in me already. I guess all I can do is listen to the heart Moe gave me. Except, that’s what AMO did. And he turned out bad. So what if I turn out bad too? But I’m different! It’s not just Moe up here, it’s me, too! And if I cannot trust in Moe, I can trust in me! Oh boy. It sure is confusing being grown. I miss you, Moe.” At the end of the season, Mad Betty captures Gunter, luring Ice King to her and capturing his crown, which she replaces with a replica that lets him live. Prismo beckons Finn and Jake back to his time room because of the alternate dimension’s Ice Finn, who has grown terrifying with power and has resurrected The Lich via the Enchiridion- the two are nearly able to enter Ooo. Together, Finn and Jake stop Ice Finn, and Finn holds empathy for the life he didn’t live.


At the start of season eight, Ice King’s replacement crown begins malfunctioning. Marcy and PB enter into the crown (thanks to PB’s science), and learn all about the crown’s history, including Evergreen and his dino assistant Gunter. The two also discover Betty, crazed, working to reprogram the crown- although she doesn’t understand her motivations for reprogramming it, her ambition is admirable.  The season expands on the identities of Jake’s children- TV, the sibling who can’t seem to move out, enters into the Crystal Dimension, and discovers her mother’s ex-boyfriend, a dangerous rainicorn set on killing all dogs. In Charlie, another of Jake’s pups, we see Jake reconcile with his past and fleeing youth. Jake notes: “I at least need to unpack the last decade so I can move on with the next. Your 20s are for regretting. 30s are for being dignified. And 40s are older than I ever wanna be.” Charlie agrees to compete in Card Wars with her father, who is hell-bent on revenge toward his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend;  Jake is willing to even cheat to win. Charlie, uninterested in the game, abandons her father to work voodoo- she uses one of Jake’s bones to see herself as she ages. “Is this my 20s? I’ve gotta fix these ‘faults of youth.’ My 30s? I look lost. My 40s. I’m afraid. My 50’s; mid-life crisis. 60’s. I’m unfamiliar with my changing body. My 70’s- I begin to lose people around me. My 80’s- I’m afraid again. My 90’s- I’m content and wise!” Charlie continues on with her life, returning to help her father with the wisdom of a 90-year-old. It’s an admittance that aging happens, that youth is fleeting, but that all of it has something to offer. Finally, Kim Khil Wan’s daughter (Jake’s granddaughter!) Bronwyn, is introduced, a super-cool skater chick who suffers from emotional disconnect with her father. It’s an episode that forces Jake to admit disconnect with his own son, and enables us to see Jake as an imperfect father. We also see the resurgence of Normal Man, formerly known as Magic Man- truly remorseful for his past, Normal Man sends his Tiny Manticore to space to attempt to apologize to his four-headed brother (who erupted and become 4 different planets); instead, though, the Manticore enacts revenge on Normal Man, stealing his brothers and hiding them away on a dangerous mountaintop. Normal Man enlists Finn and Jake to help him, and the unlikely trio set off on a D&D-like adventure to the mountaintop. Normal Man offers to die instead of his brothers, and Tiny Manticore understands that Normal Man has truly changed; while Manticore struggles to make sense of this, Normal Man’s brothers apologize to Normal Man, admitting their fault in their falling out. Normal Man escorts his brothers back to space, hoping he can reinstate them as King of Mars- on the way, the brothers bite Normal Man, sending him alone to rule over Mars- “it’s your turn, brother.” They note that Magic Man is cool now, and Normal Man sets off on a new adventure of forgiveness. The season then introduces Patience St. Pim, the Ice Elemental (also known as sorcerer/power holder), who froze herself in ice when the Great Mushroom War happened. Patience manipulates Ice King into letting him live with her and doing her bidding while she gets to know the other elementals: Slime Princess, Flame Princess, and Princess Bubblegum. When Patience is rejected by the other elementals after Patience asks them to become super-power entities with them, she becomes enraged, and sets out on hatching a plan to ruin them. We meet Music Hole, a sweet singing hole that Finn adores (and that I adore). Jake, Finn, and Susan Strong find an abandoned arcade, remnants of a past human life, and discover Dr. Gross, a human-robot hybrid/doctor who wishes to advance the human species by combining their DNA with others. Her menagerie of creatures scares Susan, and while Dr. Gross convinces Finn and Jake to go along with her, Susan refuses, and saves them. Oddly enough, Susan’s head implant starts blaring an alarm, and she becomes hell-bent on capturing Finn. She loses control and hurts Jake, which prompts an unconscious reaction from Finn’s grass sword, who retaliates against Susan. Finn eventually disconnects his grass arm and Fern is born, a conscious human enveloped in grass who knows himself as Finn. Fern becomes an incredibly important character for the rest of Adventure Time, and he and Finn’s relationship is one of my favorite elements of the last few seasons. Now aware of their elemental statuses, the three princesses interact regarding their magical powers; while Slime Princess shows off her robust powers, Princess Bubblegum grows envious and anxious that her own powers haven’t manifested as powerfully (the most she can do is squirt out one or two jellybeans from her hands). She struggles to reconcile her magical powers with her scientific brain, and rages at having to mitigate the two. A mysterious presence starts attacking the Candy Kingdom, which PB is able to defeat; we learn that the presence is Patience, gathering intel on each princess for her diabolical plan. Then comes another mini-series: ‘Islands.’ When Susan recovers from her odd fight with Finn and Jake, she remembers her mission: to find Finn and return him to the islands, where Susan (and Finn) are from. The opportunity to meet humans, and possibly his mother, attracts Finn, and he sets sail with Susan, Jake, and a hidden BMO to the previously unknown human-habited islands. We meet different islands with varying degrees of population- BMO becomes fixated on the second island, where emaciated humans are asleep in pods as they play a Virtual Reality game their entire lives. In this Virtual Reality world, BMO rules, and he struggles to leave. Finn attempts to convince BMO to leave VR; Finn: “But it’s all fake.” BMO: “What’s real? Your eyeballs think the sky is blue, but that’s just sun rays farting apart through the barf of our atmosphere. The sky is black.” Eventually BMO does come, and they travel to the third and final island, where the majority of the humans are. In a much-anticipated moment, Finn meets his mother, Minerva, a nurse. Sadly, though, it becomes apparent that there are multiple Minervas- they are robots, and Minerva’s consciousness has been spread to them all. Finn meets his real mother via a screen- she tells him that when disease broke out on the islands, she sacrificed her conscious self to be a robot that was immune to disease for the survival of the island. She, like Finn, is a true hero, an empath set on helping. But, Minerva has become paranoid- she refuses to let Finn (or any of the humans) leave the island, pushing a false narrative that the outside world is unnavigable. Susan (whose real name is Kara) also reconciles with her past- as a human educated on the island by Dr. Gross, she grew up believing the philosophy Minerva pushes forward: outside world bad, island safe. Susan is trained to catch humans who are attempting to leave the island; she sees them, because of the brain-washing techniques of Dr. Gross, as confused individuals lured unconsciously off the island. Her own friend, Frida, tried to escape the island, and was caught by Dr. Gross; this, we realize, is Susan’s biggest regret. She finds Frida back on the island and apologizes; she is distraught, though, to discover that Frida has adopted the island’s xenophobic attitude. We get a touching episode detailing Martin and Minerva’s meeting. Martin, a con-artist, made money by helping humans escape from the islands and then ratting to the government on who was leaving. Eventually, he’s thrown into the hospital, where Minerva nurses him back to the health (which he continuously tries to escape). The two fall in an innocent and sweet way; Adventure Time grants Martin some credit, showing him as a family man who willingly abandoned his former life in lieu of love for his family. Sadly, though, this doesn’t last; one of Martin’s former enemies chases Martin and Finn, and he is forced to set sail on a raft, meaning to wait until his enemies leave to return home. Instead, though, Finn and Martin are attacked by the island’s guardian, and Finn is set off on his own to Ooo. This long-awaited reveal shows that although Martin has been mostly a disappointment to Finn, he has lived amongst immense pain and loss; might we understand, now, why Martin would take up the comet’s offer? Minerva, too, grieves in one of the saddest scenes of the show, as she waits for her husband and son to return to her. Distraught, she enlists Dr. Gross, who enlists Susan Strong, to help in finding Finn (hence why Susan was in Ooo in the first place). We know, now, Finn’s true birth story; we know more about Martin, all about Susan; it’s a tremendous unfolding of long-held secrets, and makes Ooo feel closer to home than ever before. At the end of the ‘Islands’ mini-series, Finn convinces Minerva to allow him (and the other humans, if they decide) to return to Ooo. He tells them: Finn: “Don’t you want to be able to choose what you do and where you go?” Citizens: “Sounds hard!” Finn: “Yeah. But it’s also fun. And boring, and good and bad. Life’s never just on thing. We got freedom smushed up inside our guts. We want to explore and have experiences and learn new things. Kingdoms made of candy, beautiful dragons, fire-breathing princess, incredibly sad wizards- it’s all waiting for you.” And while the humans ultimately decide they’re not ready to come, Finn leaves the option open for them, returning home with a deeper awareness of what home really means.


The penultimate season of Adventure Time, opens with another mini-series: ‘Elements.’ Upon Finn and Jake’s return to Ooo, they discover a vastly different land; the land has been split into four dimensions (candy, ice, slime, fire), and has descended into chaos. Each section’s element has taken over; in the treehouse, for example, Neptyr, Fern, and Lemongrab have become candied versions of themselves, overly joyous and simple-minded. Princess Bubblegum herself has become an engorged presence taking over the Candy Kingdom with a marshmellow Marceline standing guard. PB attempts to turn Finn into candy, and he is saved by Ice King, who uses his beloved invention of skyhooks to save himself, his penguins, and his friends by transporting them to the Cloud Kingdom. Ice King tells Finn and Jake what happened to Ooo: Betty took Simon on a date, an attempt by Betty to jog Simon’s memories; when he could not remember, Betty became more frustrated than normal, and Patience, still living in Ice King’s castle, kidnapped Betty and froze her, wanting to use her magical powers in the future. Patience also had the three other elementals frozen and in her possession, attempting to harness their powers into a super-entity; instead, her plan backfired, and each princess became an exaggerated version of herself, creating a disharmonious mess of a world. When Finn, Jake, and Simon visit Patience, it’s evident that she has given up, and become depressed at her second failed attempt at happiness; she barely flinches when they rescue frozen Betty, and re-freezes herself again. Betty, still mad but able to understand the situation, instructs Finn and Jake to find the jewels of each elemental, and to place them in the Enchiridion in order to reset Ooo to its normal state. They set off to each kingdom, meeting troubled rulers at each turn; Patience is isolated and depressed, Slime Princess is fixated on being adored and proud, Flame Princess is full of rage which pours out to her entire kingdom, and PB is gluttonous and dumb. The only resident of Ooo who seems un-phased by the elements is Lumpy Space Princess, who remains herself in all four of the quadrants. She says: “Is this… the end? Will I be the last witness to the glory of this world that I chose above all others?” LSP stays sane when Finn turns angry in the Fire Kingdom, and brings Finn back to sanity; because of LSP’s heroism, Finn retrieves the final jewel, which Betty flies away with, cackling. Later, we learn that with the help of elemental magic, Betty is attempting to reset time to before Simon found the Ice Crown, a selfish act that would harm all of Ooo. Finn, meanwhile, realizes that LSP herself holds a power: she is the anti-elemental, the balance of the four elements. Lumps – the anti-element! By being herself- catty, annoying, sensitive- LSP restores Ooo to the way it was. Again, Adventure Time encourages authenticity, telling us that what we have to offer is not only of value but heroic in ways we never could have imagined. This theme surfaces too in Ice King and Betty’s relationship; while she constantly struggles to get Simon back to his former self, Adventure Time seems to hint that acceptance of the now may be Betty’s best option: “Maybe you’re going after someone who doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe take him as he is. After all, you’ve been through a lot of changes yourself.” Ice King even exerts himself in a rare moment of strength: “Lady, this Simon sounds cool, but I’m Ice King. I guess I’m a special person. And I am worthy of respect.” In the aftermath of Ooo’s resetting, Jake takes on his true form- that of a blue alien with multiple eyes. This serves as the main plot line of the rest of the season, fantastically complementing the already-established themes cultivated via Simon and BMO’s arks: coming to terms with your own identity, an identity equally flawed and perfect. Finn urges a surprisingly chill Jake to come to terms with his new identity, and this push leads to another favorite Adventure Time episode of mine: ‘Abstract.’ In this episode, Jake visits his brother Jermaine in his dream while Jermaine paints. Typically a landscape painter, Jermaine has indulged in abstract paintings, something Jake rails against: Jake: “Jermaine, what’s wrong with you? Who’s taken away your identity as a landscape painter?” Jermaine: “There’s nothing wrong with me, Jake. I just changed a little. You seem like you changed a little, too.” Jake: “No, I just look different.” Jermaine: “That sounds like denial.” This is another trippy Adventure Time dive into the abnormal, a deep exploration of the self what it looks like to flimsily define the self. Jake comes to a special epiphany: “The shapes are always changing. Changing is their normal state, like us. Even if we’re not changing on the outside, we’re changing on the inside constantly. There’s some stuff about me that I’ve been ignoring for a long time. I’m afraid of that stuff. But it’s a part of who I am. As long as I know the shape of my soul, I’ll be alright.” I love this passage, and this, in my opinion, is Jake’s shining moment of the entire series. As the stretching dog, Jake’s known as flexible, not only in appearance but in spirit; he’s a best friend, a father, a father figure, a brother figure, a confidante, an adult, a child, an ex, a partner… and he’s good at them all, but doesn’t admit how he manages to juggle them all. The reset of Ooo gave him a physical manifestation of his chameleon-like abilities to adjust, and forces him to examine his self, independent of all the roles he plays. And the self is pretty abstract, yet it’s worth taking time to inspect and nurture. The season holds two more especially great episodes; ‘Ketchup’ which shows two favorite characters- Marceline and BMO- hanging out alone together, and’ Three Buckets,’ in which Finn and Fern have their inevitable confrontation. Fern, who has been brutally confused and scared throughout his short life, grows jealous of Finn throughout the season, and realizes he will never be adored as Finn is. Succumbing to his negative thoughts, Fern takes Finn to a dungeon where he traps Finn and attempts to steal Finn’s identity. Luckily, Finn’s robotic arm becomes a drill, which saves him from the dungeon. Finn attempts to talk Fern down and out of his anger, but Fern refuses to listen, resulting in Finn’s robotic arm slicing Fern in two. Traumatized, Finn returns home to Jake and BMO, and a mysterious purple-clad wizard collects Fern’s remains in a bucket, hinting at Fern’s eventual return for the final season.

I watched the majority of Adventure Time’s tenth season in my living room with my boyfriend. We’d dragged our mattress out to the floor of the main area so our window unit AC could actually do its work in cooling us, and we binged, half-clothed and snacking constantly. It felt like something was coming to a close- not only this show that I’d grown to love in an incredibly specific way, but something within me. I’d started season one the day my person left for Los Angeles, and I was going to finish it sitting beside him in Los Angeles. During the first few seasons I felt lost, both in the lore of Adventure Time and in my heartache. I was sad, stoic, unhappy. Mostly, though, I was insecure. Lost. If I’d ever been confident before, it was gone, and I was ashamed that it was. Was I really the woman who lost her confidence because of romantic love? Didn’t I vouch for women to be stronger than that? Yes, and also yes. I spent so much time feeling shame alongside sadness that it only exasperated my sadness, made my anxiety spiral into recklessness. There is never, I know, any guarantee; but in those first few months, I needed something concrete. I needed a flawless, unwavering yes. And even when I got those yesses from my partner, they weren’t enough (anxiety isn’t truthful). I still felt abandoned and alone, and there didn’t exist, in my mind, a grace with which to handle whatever was to come. There was, though, Finn, and his growing ability to handle the unknown- or, rather, his inability transformed into a patiently learned ability to exist in the space of the unknown. I wasn’t great at patience, but these Adventure Time characters weren’t necessarily great at existing either: Princess Bubblegum was obviously paranoid and anxiety-riddled, and she had to learn tough lessons throughout multiple seasons (and lifetimes) to cultivate the skill of patience for herself; Lumpy Space Princess, ever the moody, bratty teen, turned herself into an empathetic hero; BMO was first introduced as an emotionally-neutral robot, and then proved himself to be the wisest of all, learning incredibly painful lessons on aging and growing; Jake experiences multiple identities throughout the series, culminating in having to accept his alien identity as a part of him, a part as good or as bad as any other; Marceline the Vampire Queen suppresses difficult emotions with the façade of rebellion but slowly understands that love, while it makes us vulnerable, also makes us whole; Ice King forgoes living in bliss-like ignorance in order to re-teach himself compassion; and, ultimately, Finn is forced to reconcile his child-era romanticization of the human experience with his reality, which has been deeply flawed and confusing. Nothing was automatically given to these characters. They are flawed- they make mistakes. But they possess grace, and humility; they reconcile their past selves with the self they want, and make adjustments, however small or slow, to get there. And at the start of Season 10, I felt thoroughly connected to that journey, which truly has been the ultimate adventure for me.



Finn struggles with PTSD throughout the remaining episodes of Adventure Time; Fern’s death haunts him in ways nothing else has. It’s traumatic, and almost inhibits his ability to keep the Candy Kingdom safe.  Gumbald, the man who took Fern’s remains, works on setting different monsters onto the Candy Kingdom, all of which Finn feels incapacitated to defeat. Huntress Wizard tells Finn: “This is just me talking, but it sounds like Fern was already heading down a dark road. Sounds like he was a bad version of yourself that you had to destroy, in order to become an even tighter version of yourself.” There’s something extremely meta and existential about the Fern/Finn plotline; Fern seems to be the physical manifestation of Finn’s insecurities but I think he’s more than that. Fern becomes more than just a replica of Finn, especially in the finale of the show. The season has a great episode with Ice King and BMO acting as a door-to-door salesman and one that features Flame Princess in a heated rap battle where she exposes her father for the hack he is and takes confident ownership of her kingdom. And PB comes into her own space, too,  when she tells us her long-awaited backstory, and how she created Candy people in her image to keep her company: Uncle Gumbald (the same Gumbald who is causing trouble in present day Ooo), Cousin Chicle, and Aunt Lolly. Gumbald, though, aimed to usurp PB, and planned on using ‘dumb-dumb juice’ on PB to turn her into a docile candy person. Gumbald practices this juice on Chicle and Lolly, turning them into Crunchy the cookie and Manfried the piñata, and accidentally spills the drink on himself, turning into the dancing punch bowl. At Finn’s seventeenth birthday party, the Green Knight attacks, a strong nemesis for the Candy Kingdom that has come out of Fern’s remains. And PB discovers that her family has returned, too; when LSP reset Ooo during the elementals mini-series, she also reset them. While Season 10 does move quickly, AT still makes room for its one-off episodes, the best of this season belonging to Tree Trunks’ ‘Ring of Fire,’ which starts with this gut-punch of a scene between mother and son: Sweet Pea: “I think I must have the most perfect life in the whole world. What about you, mama? Is your life perfect?” Tree Trunks: “Me? Yes, Sweet Pea. I’m the happiest Mama in the whole world.” Sweet Pea: “Oh no, Mama! You’re sad!” Tree Trunks (crying): “No no, sweetie, that’s just something that happens when grown-ups think about their lives for too long.” Tree Trunks then reminisces on her former marriages and lost loves, meeting one of them for lunch and turning him down prematurely before Mr. Pig, Tree Trunks’ current husband, falls through the ceiling, having spied on his wife: Mr Pig: “I’m sorry I didn’t trust you. I just know you’ve had a lot of adventures in the past, and things are kinda boring now.” Tree Trunks: “It’s true, I sometimes miss those wild times, but back then, I couldn’t even tell the difference between a good adventure and a bad one. I was just a leaf in the wind, blown about by my wimbs. But now, I’m on solid ground. You and Sweet Pea are my…” Mr Pig: “You’re greatest adventure?” Tree Trunks: “Yeah!” It’s a beautifully smart and hopeful episode, exposing the monotony of day-to-day motherhood and wifedom while also encouraging the sensational adventure that both of those two identities are. We also get one more Hunson Abadeer episode, this one involving him blessing Finn’s new Night Sword and attending Marceline’s concert, where he embarrasses her via his proud dad antics. We see the two of them reconcile in the most Marceline and Hunson way, ending with Demon papa saying “I’m bad, but I’m not so bad. So, when are ya gonna have some kids?” In ‘The First Investigation,’ Finn and Jake explore their parents old investigation office and encounter a strange time lag/loop which transports them back to the past (and, in a way, to the present). Jake witnesses his own birth, and learns that he came out of his father’s head due to an alien bite. This same alien, Jake’s real dad (Warren), invites him to come back to his home planet and Jake goes, leaving Finn a note that says ‘BRB.’ Jermaine and Finn work on finding Jake with the help of Normal Man and Betty on Mars; while Jermaine, Finn, and Betty go through trials of Normal Man’s creations, Betty is forced to feel empathy for her past self, and is told by Normal Man to accept what is for her own chance at happiness. Normal Man: “And you, Betty. Finally, you’ve learned that most pressing of lessons: that sometimes, for our own good, we must accept the loss of that which we hold most dear.” Betty: “Wrong. I’ve learned that I just gotta work even harder to get it back.” Betty, though, remains adamant in her determination to get Simon back, which we see play out in catastrophic ways in the finale. On another planet, Jake grows close to his dying father Warren, who parades Jake around town, where he is thought of as a hero. Warren asks Jake to use his stretching power to re-energize his father, and Jake eventually realizes that his father is simply draining his lifeblood in order to keep living, as Warren has done with other Ooo inhabitants throughout the ages. Warren even threatens to do so with Jake’s kids, which leads Jake to kicking his father into a blackhole. As tensions rise in Ooo, Finn advocates for diplomacy, and begs both PB and Gumbald to talk rationally to one another instead of insisting on war. Finn: “Hey, this is kind of backwards, right? I used to be all about violence. And now it’s like- I’m different.” Jake: “You’re a beautiful flower, and I love to watch you grow.” When it seems like Finn has succeeded on both sides, we realize Gumbald deceptively doused their hands in dumb-dumb juice, reducing the first candy person to touch them to a silly self. This unfortunate person ends up being Peppermint Butler, who is transformed into a baby, serving as a catalyst for PB to rein in her forces, and Gumbald to do the same (with many fan-favorite baddies in tow). All is set up for the Great Gum War.


I stood in line for hours waiting for the finale. I helped color in a coloring-book-like poster of Adventure Time characters. I won some merchandise. I talked with the Marceline-clad Mom and her Finn-clad son. She told me the two of them had watched Adventure Time for eight years, starting from the time her son was ten until now, on the cusp of his eighteenth birthday. How great is that? To age alongside Finn, to prepare yourself for the pitfalls of humanity via this tremendously accurate and delicate and smart show? I think it’s a great privilege. And, as this woman told me, Adventure Time helped her otherwise shy and socially-anxious son emote with an amount of confidence she’d never seen in him before. He was even confident enough to ask Adam Muto a question after the episode’s screening. I sat in the third row of the theatre, one of the first 30 people inside, and this mother and son sat behind me. My partner sat to my right and I could feel him watching me throughout the episode, could feel his smile at the hot tears on my forever-smiling face. The finale begins with a slightly familiar tune, although a bit different… and as the opening credits finish, we realize it’s completely different- Shermy and Beth? Where are Finn and Jake…? The theatre audibly gasped- we all felt anxious, scared at what had become of our heroes. But Shermy and Beth sure are loveable in themselves.

We realize these new characters are in the land of Ooo when we see one of the Gumball Guardians walking around- as he passes, he leaves behind what we all know to be Finn’s mechanical arm. The next scene shifts to what we know to be Marceline’s house, where Shermy and Beth now live. These new characters appear not to know Finn or Marceline- they reference the King of Ooo, but didn’t he … melt in a past season? The King of Ooo is none other than… BMO! One of the greatest rewards of the finale is BMO, sporting a long white beard, living on top of a mountain with so many easter eggs of AT lore- LSP’s SXYLMP license plate, Marceline’s gross t-shirt that Bonnie slept in, Simon’s glasses, AMO’s carcass, another of PB’s crown, and more. After trashing BMO’s place, BMO tries kicking his visitors out- he is shocked, though, when Beth shows BMO the mechanical arm, which BMO emotionally and nostalgically admits “belonged to my best friend… Fred… No… not Fred… his name was… Phil! He was an amazing hero. And he was there at the end. Do you know about the Great Gum War? Get ready to have your hair blown back!” Shermy and Beth settle in as BMO narrates the story, which appears to have happened decades (maybe centuries) ago. Finn and Jake’s sequence of the episode opens with Finn and Jake seeing Maja the Sky Witch, Normal Man, and Betty chanting some kind of spell over Ooo as PB and Gumbald prepare for war. It’s wonderful seeing PB’s great war outfit (and Marcy’s!) along with Lemongarb and LSP in uniform. Finn again tries convincing PB to be diplomatic, citing Normal Man’s chanting as a bad omen and asking her to call off the battle. PB becomes enraged, however, when she realizes a scout has been spying on her plans. Marceline, too, tries convincing PB not to be headstrong; I love Marcy’s strength here, and the way she gently asks a stressed PB to reconsider. She reminds PB that a war of this magnitude has happened before, and makes a strong case for Bonnie to reconsider. It’s such a tender moment between the two, even though they’re disagreeing. Finn grows even more anxious, telling Jake “She’s wrong. This is all wrong. Even if she wins now, this is never gonna end. I can feel it. It’s like the whole world’s gone crazy. Like we’re living in… one… big… nightmare.”  Finn then remembers the strange tool gifted to him by the orb on his way back from the islands, a sort of nightmare juice. AT shows PB and her battalion of warriors lined up, the banana guards and gumball guardians against Gumbald’s mushroom-like soldiers and giant robot. There’s a hilarious moment when the robot blows up a lemon (which Gumbald mistakes for a banana); seeking to intimidate PB’s banana guards, Gumbald instead scares Lemongarb, who passes a note to PB which says simply: “Unmake me.” PB sounds her war horn and Finn again begs her to reconsider; Finn’s arm reminds PB of her old friend Shoko, and gives in to Finn’s friendship, agreeing once more to diplomatically resolve the battle. When Gumbald calls PB a toddler, PB retaliates, growing more angry and violent, and Jake throws the nightmare potion to the ground, leaving Finn, Jake, Gumbald, PB, and Fern unconscious on the ground- another great moment comes when LSP screams “they’re dead!”


The group wakes up in a dream state, something Finn describes as a last resort. Gumbald and Fern attempt to attack PB, and PB attempts retaliation; a strange black poodle with a blonde wig begins singing, distracting all of them. Gumbald runs, seeking to wake himself up to win, Jake imagines Jermaine into the dream, Fern realizes Gumbald left him like everyone else, and PB chases after Gumbald. Finn cries: “You’re supposed to be having some kind of epiphany!” He then realizes Fern’s roots are growing into the dreamspace, forming a strange cocoon; Jake is suspended in his dream state and unable to help Finn. Fern, refusing Finn’s help, turns into a bat-monster, vowing to wreck things, and Finn, attempting peace, turns into a butterfly to follow him (remember Finn’s first incarnation as a butterfly), PB chases Gumbald into some kind of beast’s mouth, where the two joust with toothbrushes and hit one another, causing their bodies to vibrate and glitch. Finn, meanwhile, attempts convincing Fern that having two Finns is a great thing, which Fern rejects, asking him to fight him, telling Finn “you’ll never understand what it’s like to be me! I’m tormented!” to which Finn replies: “I’m also that sometimes!” Fern asks Finn to prove it, and Jake overhears, knowing what has to be done in order to have this proof. While glitching, PB follows Gumbald in a menacing way, threatening to drop dumb-dumb juice onto him; the juice spills onto dream PB, who turns into a piece of dumb bubble gum. Gumbald takes her crown, and the candy PB cries. Jake and Jermaine ascend into a strange dream underground realm where Lady Rainicorn shows Jake his puppies as dream-monsters with blank eyes; some of them are getting baked into a stew, and one of them says “your farts aren’t funny, Dad!” I laughed so hard at this part, acknowledging that this would indeed be one of Jake’s worst nightmares. As he cries, he discovers Finn’s vault, the abstract memory vault mentioned sporadically throughout the series when Finn can’t handle trauma. PB, as a candy person, watches the Candy Kingdom unfold, and possesses her own intellectual thoughts, which, we realize, she cannot articulate. When she tries articulating, wanting to help Gumbald and the kingdom, the only thing she can do is a stupid taffy dance. It’s a heart-wrenching scene, watching candy PB cry because of her inability to discuss. This, we realize, must have been the prison Gumbald, Lolly, and Chicle were locked in for all those years: they weren’t dumb, they were simply in prisons of their own intelligence. The nightmare potion seems to be swapping their roles in an attempt to get both of them to be empathetic to the other; Gumbald can’t build a candy kingdom without failing, which forces Gumbald to empathize with the difficulties PB has had throughout her life. Next, Fern turns himself into a rabid bear, and Finn transforms into a cuddly one, when Jake comes back from his fart-full plane of nightmares. “What stinks?” “Repressed memories!” Jake yells as he slams Finn’s vault down. Proof comes, then, in the four figures that appear in the vault: Princess Bubblegum, The Lich, Susan Strong, and what appears to be a mutantly-shaped Martin, Finn’s father. Finn tells Fern this is their “shared torment,” and they both realize they must confront their traumas in order to heal. In a trippy sequence, Finn and Fern see the green grass demon that possessed Fern in the sword; Fern’s body (which looks to be Finn’s) has the grass octopus covering it, and tells Finn that without the help of the grass demon, Fern wouldn’t have a body. Fern kills the demon and the two end up on an island where a fish barfs up PB and Gumbald. Jake swims up as well, and when PB tries touching Fern, his body starts deforming. All five characters awake on the battleground to a screaming LSP, where Fern’s body is indeed disintegrating. PB apologizes in a very honest way, and Gumbald goes to hug her, but is tripped by Lolly, who knew he had ulterior motives, holding a vat of dumb dumb juice in his pocket. Gumbald turns into the punch bowl again, and the two sides appear to combine in a happy ending with Aunt Lolly at the head. As the warriors flee from battle, an on-fire Normal Man falls to the ground saying “we donked up for real” before a hole appears in the sky revealing Golb, the evil deity referenced throughout the show. It appears Betty, Normal Man, and Maja conjured him into Ooo in their attempts to rescue Simon. LSP takes a hilarious selfie with the demon, and the rest of the characters are shocked and scared. A confused Ice King, in the ranks of Gumbald, remembers talking with Betty as Simon, and we learn more about Golb, who the two studied extensively. Golb’s dinosaur-looking beings consume the candy people as they start to flee, and PB urges her people to run. Finn, Jake, Lady, Marcy, and Fern all stay, promising to defend Ooo. One of the Gumbald Guardians bursts while defending Ooo, and Normal Man races to Ice King, telling him Betty is trying to harness the power of Golb. LSP offers Lemongarb “the parting gift” of her lips, which he announces as ACCEPTABLE! LSP’s face puckers (what a great ending for these two!). Ice King attempts talking to ‘Weird Lady,’ and Normal Man urges him to find the words to stop Betty, the ultimate struggle for Ice King- can he save himself, bring his memories and identity back? Ice King and Betty are swallowed into Golb and Finn jumps in afterward, his mechanical arm falling in the process, which is later picked up by Shermy and Beth. One of Golb’s monsters attacks PB, and she appears to be squished, unleashing Marceline’s vampire essence and super-power. Marcy turns into the demon-form of herself at the thought of losing PB, and she demolishes the monster. In her outrage, she realizes PB is alive, and rushes to hug her, saying “you scared me! Even back when we weren’t talking, I was so afraid something bad would happen to you and I wouldn’t be there to protect you and… I don’t wanna lose you again.” CRYING, FOREVER. PB tells Marcy, “Nothing never happening to me. Never.” And the two kiss, the best, most long-awaited and forever-hinted-at kiss in history. The entire theatre screamed and clapped and cried. I bawled. Inside Golb, Finn, Simon, and Betty are turned into their essential forms. Simon and Betty finally get a reunion while the walls of Golb close in; Betty realizes that Simon’s crown reset, making the Ice crown virtually useless. Golb’s two monsters prowl through Ooo, and Jake follows, turning into his blue alien form again. The monsters destroy Finn and Jake’s treehouse and Jake wallows, screaming heartbreak that we could all feel. The beloved treehouse! This symbol of friendship and adventure and truth and hurt and pain and love… gone?


Jake tries recovering from the trauma of losing his house and a cracked-face BMO saves him. He tells Jake: “It’s OK Jake, you always try to protect me and Finn, but sometimes, we are going to get hurt. How about today you let me be the papa?” Then starts the most sincerely Adventure Time song possibly in the entire show. The lyrics reminisce and rift about time, calling it an allusion: “time is an illusion that helps things make sense so we are always living in the present tense. It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends, but you and I will always be back then.” Simon and Betty cling to one another inside Golb, candy people watch in horror, and BMO cradles Jake. It’s such a purely honest admittance by the show- it respects the maturity and wisdom of its viewers, and remembers that the kids who started with Finn and Jake in season one are now adults, ebbing and flowing in time, nostalgic and heartbroken, happy and triumphant. Things change, rapidly, and it’s nearly impossible to be mindful without remembering what came before, what can come after. The finale’s protagonists, per the theme song, are no longer Finn and Jake, but they remain- we know them, and we will forever know them. BMO knows them, and will, forever. “You and I will always be back then.” We live on, not only after we die, but after we depart one stage of our life. Who we are changes, sometimes irrevocably, sometimes unpredictably; sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by sheer personal choice. Sweet Pea holds his adoptive mother and father at the end of the world; the whole land of Ooo realizes the importance of the moment in the face of the apocalypse, and they take what comfor they can from BMO’s notion that we, the bonds we create, the love we share, will always exist, because it once existed. It once thrived. PB and Marceline hold BMO and fly towards Golb’s creatures, singing the song together in harmony: PB realizes: “Golb is discord. It’s the harmony- harmony hurts them!” to which the amazing BMO replies: “my art is a weapon!” We see one final glimpse of our beloved side characters singing together, marching toward Golb, toward the unknown chaos, together, standing in the face of time passing. Inside Golb, Betty noticed the crown’s magic reset, and Finn finds a tunnel out of Golb because of Ooo’s songs. Betty stays, sending Simon and Finn away, telling Simon she has to make a wish in order to save Ooo, and apologizes to Simon one last time before putting the crown on herself. In a shrinking box, Betty wishes to kill Golb, but the wishes don’t work; she realizes the sacrifice she has to make and says: “I wish for the power to make Simon safe,” fulling realizing what must happen as she says “whatever it takes.” Simon stays himself on Ooo as Golb transforms into… Betty Golb. Betty, determined to save her beloved Simon, sacrificed herself into chaos to make him whole again. Simon recognizes what Betty has done and cries, remembering everything. Marceline holds a broken Simon and tells him “you’re back! It’s what she wanted more than anything in the world.” Betty Golb goes back into space leaving behind the Ice Crown, which falls to Gunter- instead of becoming his alien form, he wishes to become Ice King, just like the old Gunter. Fern grabs ahold of Finn’s leg and tells him “I wish I could see the tree house one last time. Just promise to plant me there.” With that, he goes, grass flowing in the wind. Jake and Finn bury Fern’s seed at the sight of their treehouse, and immediately a new tree sprouts, with the Finn sword in the trunk. Back in present day, BMO announces the end of his story, and a confused Shermy and Beth ask “but what happened to Finn and Jake and Princess Bubblegum?” To which BMO replies: “Eh, you know, they kept living their lives.” Shermy and Beth leave BMO and we see a giant Sweet Pea roaming Ooo with a long beard and the Night Sword- he looks a lot like Billy the hero! I have hope that this is precisely what Sweet Pea became. Shermy and Beth head off to finding the old tree and we get one last moment between our two heroes, Finn and Jake (and the great music hole). They discuss the importance of music and how a song can describe feelings sometimes better than actual words. Music Hole says: “Actually, I’ve been working on a new song myself. It’s about a really specific feeling that’s hard to describe.” Then starts our beloved ‘Come Along With Me’ song we’re used to hearing at the end of each episode, this time sang amongst backdrops of Alien Jake and Lady Rainicorn flying together, LSP getting crowned, Gunter the Ice King proposing to Turtle Princess and getting married amongst penguins, TV starting her own investigation bureau like Finn and Jake’s parents, Sweet Pea graduating, PB hanging out with Neddy and Aunt Lolly, Simon visiting Prismo asking for what appears to bring Betty back (sadly, Prismo shrugs his shoulders in a helpless way, similar to what he did when Magic Man attempted to find Margles), BMO blasting Mo’s memory into space, Flame Princess rapping, Normal Man sitting in his office on Mars with a framed photo of Margles, Simon popping popcorn with Turtle Princess and Ice Gunter, and the cutest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, Marceline and PB cuddling under a blanket with hot chocolate with a dumb Peppermint Butler baby at their feet. Equally beautiful, we see the humans, led by Minerva Bot, finally coming to Ooo! The final shot is of Shermy lifting the Finn Sword out of the Fern tree, making the same position Finn once did. The adventure lives on.



In my extensive and obsessive research about Adventure Time, I’ve seen a lot of theories about mental illness in regards to AT. I’ve read about BMO representing multiple personality disorder, Flame Princess showing signs of bipolarism, PB being paranoid and anxious, Marceline being depressed… and while I think these comparisons can be helpful, I think defining a character by their alleged metaphor can leave something out of the equation. Adventure Time effortlessly and fearlessly addresses mental illness. It never shies away from showing its characters hurting, especially Finn, and never allows its story to mock or belittle that suffering. Characters help one another heal and encourage each other to look at whatever may be hidden in that secret vault, whenever he or she is ready. The characters of Ooo know each other so intimately- Marceline hates PB’s paranoia, but the long ark of the two’s relationship proves that not only does Marceline accept this quality of Bonnie, she loves it. It’s what makes Bonnibel Bonnibel. Jake gently encourages Finn to confront his hurt about Martin but never pushes him; instead, Jake assures Finn that when he’s ready, Jake will be there to help. Adventure Time advocates for a gentle human empathy, one that is honest about the ugliness of existence but hopeful in the healing. In the finale, Finn and Fern learn to empathize with one another’s shared and individual hurt, as do PB and Gumbald.

The height of my own journey with mental health seized as I started this show. My anxiety twisted into depression, and the two made days feel like months. In the mornings, on the east coast of the US, I waited for my partner to wake up on the west coast. I stared at my phone and willed it to ring, hoped that it would deliver some proof that I was still loved. I slept fitfully, sure that the next morning was the one in which he’d have gone, inexplicably. I wanted a sign, signs, really, that this was unequivocally going to work out. I wanted a guarantee, something my rational mind knew did not and could not exist- anything less than a 150% guarantee felt like a failure.


But what about Finn? He wanted the 150%, too, and he got maybe 25%. He got the reality of his father, disappointing and distant in his own hurt, and his mother, half of what she once was. Finn was forced, throughout the show, to reconcile his childhood imaginings of what a family could be with what the reality was. And he was made to do this in regards to romantic love, too- PB consistently rejected Finn, and while at first he thought he just had to work harder for her to realize her affection for him, Finn came to understand that simply wanting something and willing it into existence did not make the universe owe you anything. He made a dire mistake with Flame Princess which he at first thought he could remedy; Finn grows so incredibly much throughout the show. He transforms from expecting the universe to give him the best to working to make the universe the best. And that’s what I had to do, too. That’s what I have tried to do, quietly, in my own life.

Now, my partner and I are in the same time zone. We’re in the same bed. It’s as much of a guarantee as I could have ever wanted, and yet still sometimes it’s not enough. It’s not 150% because 150% isn’t real. I have to remind myself of that sometimes, and when I really need to, I’ll watch something like AT’s ‘Astral Plane.’ The reality of our togetherness isn’t as romantic or as anxiety-defeating as I once expected it to be; in fact, sometimes togetherness is ugly. There’s fighting and there’s minor cruelties. There’s arguments about the dishwasher and the cat. The gravity of another human consciousness is larger than I ever expected. I often think of the way Marceline and PB used to fight in earlier seasons of AT and smile to myself, seeing so much of those characters in my partner and me (I’m PB, he’s Marceline). It is so unbelievably challenging to recognize one another’s mental health pitfalls, and to respect them at every turn. When my anxiety tells me I need support in the form of reassurance, his depression tells him he needs support in the form of space. We can both feel self-absorbed to the other. We can get into bitter arguments that leave us tired. Why is it so hard to remember gentleness in the midst of this? Adulthood isn’t anything like I thought it would be. It’s exhausting and lonely. My best friends are across the country from me, and my job is often boring. There’s never enough money or time. Disappointment in the self reigns supreme. But there are moments, pure, unaffected by anything negative, that come in a flash, so unexpectedly and so quickly that the second you recognize the goodness, it’s gone. I don’t think we can curate these moments into happening more, but I do think we can remind one another of them more. And we can tell ourselves, tell those we love that they will come around again. Like BMO says, “When bad things happen I know you want to believe they are a joke. But sometimes life is scary and dark. That is why we must find the light.” We can sing together in the face of chaos, big or small. We can let that be enough.


The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling; Book Review


Another Skylight books reading, another favorite novel. Seems to be a theme in my life lately, something I’ve taken as a reassuring constant. Readings in this literary bookstore offer a bit of a reprieve from normal life- time seems to slow down when I’m listening to someone read. The streetlights on my walk back to my parked car seem brighter, and my mind is clear, observant. This past Sunday the reading was complemented with a miniature writing workshop with my friend- we exchanged pieces for the first time, and it felt not only good but full, a plunge back into a consciousness I’d been away from for too long. Recently, I wrote a 23-page (single-spaced… yikes) essay on Adventure Time- now, my obsessive and panicked and anxious brain is giving me the OK to say goodbye to AT for now and to move on, again. I’m always reading, and I hope to always be writing, but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I get high on the couch and the night goes around me while I sit in a stupor. And those nights I love- they, too, are important to my creativity. It’s these relatively small nights that attract me the most, their immediate and hyper-specific settings. It’s what I loved about Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel The Golden State.

This novel, written in first-person present tense, focuses on Daphne, a woman alone in northern California with her 16 month old baby, Honey. Daphne, a middle-class woman, has vacated her home in San Francisco and her job at a university there, in order to check in on her family’s mobile home in a small town home to pro-Trump and pro State of Jefferson people. What starts as a quick trip up north quickly becomes a ten day exploration of a specific isolation- Daphne does not return to work, and instead stays in her grandparent’s (now dead) mobile home. Readers quickly learn that Daphne’s husband, Engin, is in his home country, Turkey, due to an immigration issue, and that he’s been gone for the majority of his daughter’s life. Kiesling frames this story within ten days, each chapter marking a different day of Daphne and Honey’s pseudo-getaway. Isolation, which Daphne has become accustomed to, takes on a new form during these ten days, and transforms into a specific aloneness, one that is not punctuated with work or daycare or even a functioning internet connection. Engin, far away, looks on his wife as concerned as he can be, and Daphne’s first person immediate consciousness constantly provides honest insights into her bitterness, her resentment, sometimes even her hatred, for his missing state. She oscillates between feeling thankful for him, happy to have met by chance in a bar during her work in Turkey, to feeling useless, catatonic with immobility. “I pull on my cigarette and look around at my ceyiz and get the feeling that sometimes comes over me when I think of Engin, one that has nothing to do with Skype, when my brain can manage to slough off the impedimenta of logistics and access, the feeling of whole-body contentment and gratitude and need, the obvious core of everything I feel about him and which I can only hope will continue to be there existing at some unseen level, shaping decisions and material outcomes until we both die.” 

Throughout the novel there are scheduled Skype calls, diaper changes, dinners arranged, cheese sticks given out as snacks and then regretted, playtimes, nausea-inducing difficult naptimes, walks… on the surface, they’re boring tasks, perhaps not warranted of constituting a novel. But it’s for this reason that Kiesling wrote this novel- how dire can packing a diaper bag feel when you’re alone, when your infant is crying, when you only have two hands? Daphne isn’t in a breakdown, she’s in motherhood. Her frustrations double back into a cycle of shame and self-hate; we witness her doubting nearly every decision she makes on behalf of Honey, ones regarding her diet, her naptimes, etc. Daphne struggles to be a mother- what does that mean without the baby’s father? What does it mean to siphon the daily experiences of living into a Skype phone call with a shitty connection? Daphne’s life, what used to be important, falls away with only a shred of guilt. There is enough guilt swirling, after all, in this room with Honey. “Here are the ways I have imagined Honey dying: she stands up on a chair and the chair tips back and crashes through the window and the glass shatters and pierces her throat. She stands up on a chair and the chair tips back and crashes through the window and she falls two stories and shatters on the pavement. She darts out into the street like a panicked cat and gets crushed by a bus. She strangles in the blind cords. We fly to Turkey and someone blows a hole in the fuselage or the pilot reaches the nadir of a years-long spiritual torment and drives the plane into a mountainside of the pitot tubes freeze up and the inexperienced pilot who knows something is wrong is overruled by his imperious boss who was in the bathroom and has no idea what the fuck is going on but always has to have the last word and the place speeds into the ocean. I give her a tortilla and she folds it up and crams it into her mouth all at once and stops breathing. The ceiling fan comes loose from its 1920s moorings and crushes her skull while she eats breakfast. We visit my father-in-law and he doesn’t pay attention and she is swept away by the sea. We go anywhere and I don’t pay attention and someone spirits her away. I go to work and forget to bring her to daycare and she roams the house screaming until she falls down the stairs and breaks her neck. I go to work and the Big One hits and I can’t get home to her and she dies in the wreckage of her daycare with all the other babies. We go to Istanbul and some demented widow from Dagestan blows herself up and Honey is scattered across the pavement. We stay here and she goes to school and some demented teen takes his dipshit mother’s unsecured assault rifle and fires rounds and rounds of bullets into her body and her classmates’ bodies. She rides a bus across Bulgaria and the bus veers off the road and flies into a concrete barrier. Her cells suddenly decide to murder her with mad replication. She gets in a taxi outside of Diyarbakir and a van crosses the median. Why did I have a child? To have a child is to court loss.”

Although this is a novel primarily about motherhood and the shame and darkness intertwined in womanhood holding hands with motherhood, Kiesling also manages to connect issues of politics into the story. It’s a quiet thread, but it’s undeniable; Engin has been separated from his family because of a governmental clerical error, and no amounts of money or paperwork or attorneys help to get him back. In Altavista, where her family’s mobile home is, Daphne is surrounded by people like her neighbor, Cindy, who support the State of Jefferson, a movement that pushes for northern California to be its own state, untethered to cities such as LA and San Francisco, liberal hubs that do not reflect the state’s less populated north. “I see it’s an older woman, classic Altavista, short hair western shirt nice white pants, she could actually be my grandmother back from the dead, except that my grandmother loved being a Californian, loved going down to the cites, loved eating Crab Louie in San Francisco and tacos in San Diego and going to Los Angeles to visit her cowboy friends in the film lots. I can’t in my bones believe that she would support any of this but then again she was a Republican her whole life and maybe this is where that ends up now. I’d also like to think my grandmother wouldn’t say ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ like a curse. I realize it’s a luxury, not to know.” There’s a friction throughout this novel, as Daphne exists in both Altavista and Turkey- two othernesses that she somehow holds in her heart, despite the one’s attempt to cleave her heart in two.

As Daphne explores town with Honey, she meets Alice, a 92 year old woman passing through vis a vis a solo road trip. Alice, nearly immobile, begins spending time with Daphne and Honey, revealing that she’s been widowed for fifty years, that all three of her children died when they were young. This aloneness shocks Daphne- it’s a new specificity, one that may trump even Daphne’s. “I am thinking about how you could have three babies and all of them die and my brain worries the thought a little like a dog with something between its teeth and I have the thought I always have first that there must be something extenuating something that makes it less sad what thing she could have done that made her deserve it what thing could they have done what way could they have died that would make this situation acceptable, but there’s never anything like this and I wonder if that’s the source of all the world’s sorrows, that everyone assumes everyone else did something to deserve it because otherwise the things that happen to people are just too horrible to bear.” When Daphne worries that she may have a concussion, she asks Alice, the only person in town she slightly knows (and trusts), to check on her in the morning. Daphne goes so far as to write directions as to what to do should she die in her sleep, and how to get Honey to Engin despite the immigration issues. Along with her concussion comes a hangover, one ripe with shame and disgust, and Alice volunteers to watch Honey while Daphne recovers. It’s a favor that catapults Daphne and Alice’s friendship, and what leads Daphne to driving Alice into Oregon, to finish her road trip at an old campsite of her husband’s. Alice is a welcome figure in the novel, almost a reflection to Daphne, and the two women offer each other something profound and elemental. They’ve both suffered motherhood, suffered loss, and provide comfort to one another at the crucial stages of their independent transformations. When Alice finally gets to her destination, she begs Daphne to leave her alone in the Oregon woods to say goodbye, again, to her husband; this results, as I expected, in Alice’s death. It’s revealed that Alice had been planning this all along, her medication untouched the entire time she’d been traveling. As Alice warned Daphne, “‘You’re never safe from bad things happening,’ she says. This thought is so profoundly depressing I hope the earth opens and gently swallows everyone on it, right now.”

Kiesling’s awareness of marriage hits me hard. While I’m not married and do not have children, the struggles of shame and resentment that cycle through Daphne are things I’m incredibly wary of as my life progresses. I now have a partner who I’m close enough to to have resentments and regrets. It’s dark to have these thoughts- “Every so often this thought comes and knocks me on my ass, that we’re just building this whole castle on such a flimsy and hastily constructed premise that we love each other and want to be together raise our child together grow old together and how easy- how wrong but how easy nonetheless- it would be to walk away from it all, with nothing changing except I could stop worrying about the progress of a lot of expensive pieces of paper through a vast administrative machine.” This book is such an honest masterpiece of what it means to be human, to be the self when the self doesn’t have room to exist, and what happens to the world when that’s true. 

“I wait for the word that will highlight what a disaster it’s all been. But he just says ‘I love you,’ in English, and I say ‘I love you too’ and I know it will carry us forward another day.”

On the way home from Ohio recently, I watched the film Tully. I cried silently in my seat, processing the movie and processing my trip home, the concept of home, and all of the transformations I’d been through the past year. That week in Ohio was full of family- my grandmother was in the hospital, almost dead, and my mother, nearing 60 herself, weeped into me. My mother consoled herself by telling me stories of my infancy, of how wanted I had been after her three miscarriages, how beatific of a baby I was, quiet and docile and playful. She has a habit of romanticizing, of letting the bad fall away, of delivering slanted evidence in the face of the unpleasant. I watched the events of Tully play out and cried because I knew my mother had been through something similar, that all women who took on motherhood had been through the agonizing and brutal loss of self that comes with giving birth, with raising an infant. Tully doesn’t hold back in the honesty of how dark the menial tasks of motherhood can be, and neither did The Golden State. But neither of these are pessimistic or dismissing of motherhood; in fact, I think both creations show the experience to be undeniably. worthwhile, despite.

During Kiesling’s reading, she mentioned the immediacy of the moment. She reminisced on how quickly things move and grow during a baby’s first few months on earth, and how odd it is to be so intimately acquainted with their antics only to have them change within the week. The pressure to remember, to retell to Engin and to herself later, when lonely and alone with quick memories of the baby Honey used to be, sometimes wants to cripple Daphne. But it doesn’t cripple her. “I am thinking Keep this moment, let’s keep this one and while I am trying to fossilize this moment or X-ray it or photocopy it or do something that will make it stay with me forever she is squirming thrashing rolling and she is off the bed, she is on the move and suddenly I have what I think may be my most important epiphany about motherhood which is that your child is not your property and motherhood is not a house you live in but a warren of beautiful rooms, something like Topkapi, something like the Alhambra on a winter morning, some well-trod but magnificent place you’re only allowed to sit in for a minute and snap a photo of before you are ushered out and you’ll never remember every individual jewel of a room but if you’re lucky you go through another and another and another and another until they finally turn out the lights.”

The Third Hotel by Laura van Den Berg Book Review


I hadn’t read anything by Laura van Den Berg before I went to her reading at Skylight Books here in LA (thank God for Skylight Books). She gave a brief reading of The Third Hotel, and then answered questions posed by Aja Gabel, another author I am thrilled to read soon. The two rallied philosophical and existential questions, volleying questions about marriage and identity and aging and travel for two hours. It was a thrilling conversation to be a part of, and Den Berg’s brief but powerful excerpt led me to opening the cover that very night.

The Third Hotel opens in Havana, Cuba, where a solo woman traveler questions just what she’s doing in this foreign place. We come to understand that Clare, the protagonist, is visiting Cuba for a horror film festival in the absence of her husband, who, we realize at the end of the first chapter, was killed by a hit-and-run accident 5 weeks earlier. Richard, the husband and horror film professor/expert, was scheduled to attend the Cuban Film Festival, and, newly widowed, Clare goes instead, unsure of her motivations for going, sure that solo travel is what makes her feel less afloat, less ‘widowed.’ Despite Richard being dead, she sees him, sure as day, in Havana, an event that mirrors the horror film setting, and one that sets the novel in motion.

Clare, a former sales rep for an elevator company, describes her travels throughout the US midwest, admitting her desire to be alone, to be away from her husband: “She wanted to be married and she wanted to leave; the two did not seem mutually exclusive. She had this second, secret self that she didn’t know how to share with anyone, and when alone, that self came out into the open.” She describes Richard in the last year of his life, admitting that he’d been acting strange, noting that he’d developed a slower pace, wandering aimlessly when he walked, as if just now discovering his own secret self. “Most people found him loose and lighthearted. ‘Easygoing-‘ that was the word people used, and in time she became suspicious of anyone who could be described in such terms. What was so easy about going?”

My favorite aspects of this novel are the bouts of wonderment at the concept of marriage. Van den Berg poses often unanswerable questions via Clare, ultimately delivering a single truth that is hard to swallow: not even in marriage can we know one another’s secret selves. “Who are you? They seemed to always be whispering to each other, in this peculiar middle passage of their lives. Who are you becoming?” After Clare’s first spotting of Richard, she attends more and more film festival events, reflecting on lessons learned from her husband and memories between them. She takes up momentary residence at the Third Hotel, not the actual name, but rather the third hotel she stumbled into, lost, at her arrival. She develops a small friendship with Isa, the receptionist, and a few other film-festival attendees; in all of these relationships, she is struck by her status as a stranger, her ability to invent a new life even newer then her status as widow. Within the few items Clare brought to Havana is a small white box, something that was on Richard when he died, which Clare still hasn’t opened. This item looms large throughout the novel, and operates symbolically as many items in horror films do.

As Clare exists in Havana, living in a room where she found a fingernail in her bedside drawer at the Third Hotel, she keeps asking herself how Richard is here. She attempts to spot him again, purposefully walking past where he was before, spotting nothing. And the nothingness turns up more memories, more thoughts, more questions: “Oh, the thin line between love and exhaustion. The thin line between love and indifference. The thin line between I Am Like a Little Boat Cut Loose in a Storm Without You and You Are Driving Me Rapidly Insane.” Right before her plane takes off, departing from Cuba, Clare decides to stay. She leaves the airport, heads back to the Third Hotel, and again spots Richard, watches him eating a mango, alone. She toys with the idea that this is another Richard life- can/does such a thing exist? Van den Berg never gives us an answer, but she wants us to ask the question.

“Behind every death lay a set of questions. To move on was to agree to not disturb these questions, to let them settle with the body under the earth. Yet some questions so thoroughly dismantled the terms of your own life, turning away was gravitationally impossible. So she would not be moving on. She would keep disturbing and disturbing. She imaged herself standing over a grave with a shovel and hacking away at the soil.”

In the midst of Clare’s existential crisis, her mother suffers one similar: Clare’s father’s dive into dementia. Clare juggles her losses, mourning both her husband and her father, unsure how to do either. “She did not know how to grieve her husband’s death or her father’s decline or the choice each day carried her closer to, the choice she was wholly unprepared to make- or would turn out to be more prepared than any person should be.” The third time she sees Richard is at the film festival- it’s also the first time the two communicate, addressing her by name, asking her what she’s doing in Havana. The interaction produces a vomiting reaction from her, and the two separate again.

“There were three sides to a marriage: public and private and who-fucking-knows, one lived and one performed and one a thundering mystery.”

When the detectives had asked Clare to describe her marriage, she had said that she and Richard were happy, though the truth was that she did not think of her marriage as having been happy or unhappy- she thought of it as unfinished. They had dated for two years and then married on a lark. This experiment in living had given way to a decade of feet brushing together in bed and bloodied dental floss in the trash and coffee mugs left in the sink and fucking spontaneously at dawn and then not fucking for a month and the pinch pot on the kitchen counter where they abandoned spare change, their joke about how every marriage needed a tip jar. Of following each other up and down stairwells and through parking lots and doorways and shoes crooked in the hallway and damp bath towels on the bedroom floor and hair on pillowcases and food poisoning in the middle of the night and stirring a saucepan on the stove while saying Why Must You Live the Way You Do? Or I Would Be Like a Little Boat Cut Loose in a Storm Without You. She knew him as well as she had ever known any other person on earth. She knew all. She knew nothing. Her position depended on the hour or the year or the minute. When he ate green apples, his lips tingled. When distressed, he cleaned with a fervor she found frightening. She could go on for infinity, and yet she understood that knowing another person was not a stable condition. Knowing was kinetic, ineffable, and it had limits, but the precise location of those limits, the moment at which the knowing stopped and the not-knowing began, was invisible. You would know you had reached the border only after you had surpassed it.”

“She could go on into infinity, and yet she understood that knowing another person was not a stable condition. Knowing was kinetic, ineffable, and it had limits, but the precise location of those limits, the moment at which the knowing stopped and the not-knowing began, was invisible. You would know you had reached the border only after you had surpassed it.”

Clare’s curiosity over Richard, Richard’s ghost/Richard’s second life, leads her to consult an expert, a university professor fluent in the paranormal. She tells her: “Death could make a person feel righteous in a way they had no right to be. Nothing in the world was less personal and nothing felt more like a poison arrow sent straight for your heart.” Not even the expert can give Clare an answer (is there an answer?) and the desperate feeling the experience gives her takes her back to childhood, to the Seahorse Inn, a bed and breakfast in Florida her parents owned. Clare remembers one instance when a hurricane hit the area, evacuating the hotel except for her and her father and a female guest by the name of Ellis, someone, Clare realizes later, that is not a guest but rather her father’s mistress. This same helplessness, childishness, desperateness, permeates Clare’s distress in Cuba, especially as she takes a train out to a forest hotel, following Richard, sharing a hotel room with this soulmate-turned-stranger.

She had never been drawn to ritual. She had only attended religious services for weddings and funerals. She had skipped her own graduations. Yet she’d permitted herself to imagine that the particular leap of marriage might bring about a sense of completeness, would perhaps even provide an answer to an invisible question, one that she could sense, could almost taste in the back of her mouth, but could not articulate. Of course, marriage had not led her to a sense of completeness. Rather, it introduced different sets of questions, one after another.”

The two share an intimate night in together, a fierce togetherness punctuated and walled by separateness, by unknowing. Richard references grief, and how wounded she must be, and shocks Clare by noting that it was she who was acting weird for the last year of his life, rather than him. Another discrepancy between two who know all there is to know about the other. Clare follows Richard into the forest the following morning, wondering if they’ll continue sharing intimacies. Instead, Richard vanishes into the water, Clare nearly drowning to keep up with him, asking after her father’s notebook, which ends up being in Richard’s final possessions. She wants to know why Richard kept it from her, what it contained.

“She thought about things she had not thought about in a very long time, like her first memory of wonder, which had occurred in the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the age of five. She was in the car with her parents. They were winding up a mountainous road, in the early morning. She could not remember their exact destination she remembered only the smoky fog nestled in the ridges, as though the mountains were being consumed by their own breath, and the voice of her father telling her that God did not live in the cosmos, like many people thought, but inside of things, inside trees and mountains; it was, as Clare had thought, breath. Her mother, who was driving, pointed out that the fog came from the atmosphere, not from the earth, and then Clare’s father rolled down the window and told his daughter to smell the air and she did; she craned her neck and sniffed that thing people called air- something that no one could see but that everyone felt all the time- like an eager dog. She remembered smelling pine and tar and salt and animal, but the pine was the strongest, the scent that overlay the other scents, and for every year after she would not be able to smell pine without thinking, fleetingly, about the breath of God.”

In the notebook is the final request, the reminder of Ellis- he wishes to see her once more, wants Clare to be the one to orchestrate his secret life’s culmination before he dies. And she feels guilty, angry, hurt, by the request. But still she returns, spending one solo night in the Seahorse Inn before moving in temporarily with her parents: “When her father blinked and asked his daughter to describe this moon, this evil moon, she would take his hands and the air around her would vibrate, and she would go quiet for a moment because he was listening, he was right here, and she knew this was the last time such a miracle might ever occur.”

Clare doesn’t see Richard again, doesn’t get any answers as to what he is, or where their marriage left off. She’s still a widow, still has to grapple with that truth. But she returns to her parents with the sad acceptance that every person has a secret self, some slightly more destructive than others. She returns knowing that living itself is a miracle, and that the effort of noticing more, of being awake and aware, is worth the effort. And so it is.


Tell The Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams Book Review


Novels have been… disappointing me. It’s not that the writing is bad or that the plot is uninteresting; in fact, I find Celeste Ng’s plots fast-paced, unpredictable, and enjoyable. I don’t, however, enjoy her books. Let me rephrase- I won’t reread them. I don’t feel, after I’ve finished books like Little Fires Everywhere or Kushner’s The Mars Room, that I’ve gained anything more about the human condition. I don’t wonder what the novel has taught me, or forced me to reconcile with. I put these books down after and that’s that- I move on to the next. It’s for this reason that lately I’ve been avoiding novels. Short stories and essay collections have been good friends of mine as of late, and I find myself tiring in the midst of novels. Does this really need to be a full length book? Why does this long story need to be told? It’s for this reason too that I gravitate toward writing in short form. But Tell The Machine Goodnight? This is a novel worth being a novel.

Williams’ novel starts with Pearl, the novel’s protagonist, a single mother work-crazed by Apricity, a corporation known for manufacturing happiness machines, products designed to tell users the three things they could do/change in their life to achieve happiness. Pearl operates the Apricity machine, spending time with those who can afford the service, swabbing their cheeks and reading their results back to them. Sometimes these results can seem random and unprecedented, such as one recommendation for a man to cut the tip of his index finger off. Other times, Pearl is forced to lie to users because their happiness has resulted in asterisks, meaning that some kind of violence (which the machine will not repeat) is what will make this particular person happy. Apricity operates as a touchstone throughout the novel, a constant presence that functions on the premise that happiness is the ultimate goal of life. While Pearl assists in facilitating other people’s happiness, she faces her own unhappiness at home. Her son, Rhett, is force-fed protein shakes due to his anorexia, which he has recently been hospitalized for. Pearl encourages Rhett to take the happiness machine test himself but he refuses, mocking the overall premise of Apricity, and calling in to question the main philosophy of the book- is happiness what humans want above all else? Is it what they should want? Eventually, Pearl’s commitment to getting her son healthy leads her to swabbing Rhett’s cheers without his permission in preparation for using Apricity to diagnose what she can do to give him happiness.

This novel is organized into ten long chapters, each in different voices/perspectives. While Pearl remains the protagonist of the novel, Williams gives Rhett, Carter, an executive at Apricity, Elliot, Pearl’s ex-husband and Rhett’s father, Valeria, Elliot’s new wife and past mistress, and Calla, a famous actress who Pearl uses Apricity on, their own voices. Each of them have their own experiences with the happiness machine- while Pearl works with the machine daily, Rhett avoids it, Carter manipulates it to gain power in the company, Elliot uses it for his artwork, Valeria is forced into using it as a sort of therapy, and Calla is asked to be the voice of the machine (which she refuses). This assortment of characters gives life to humanity: Apricity isn’t only a rental service for the wealthy but it is something that has woven itself into the very definition of humanity. It has made what was once ambiguous concrete. Carter, for example, becomes involved with Thomas, a high-level Apricity executive who has assembled a team of engineers to change the happiness machine into the power machine, citing power being the ultimate want of humanity over happiness. While this remains the clearest definition in the novel of what a character’s true motivation is, we can see in each chapter a different motivator outside of the bland word of ‘happiness.’

Because the type of poison doesn’t matter. Not if you already have the antidote.

Rhett’s test results come back with asterisks, something that gives Pearl an unparalleled amount of dread. This seems to be confirmation for what Pearl has always, in a way, known about Rhett: he is inclined to violence. Rather than shrinking away from her son, however, Pearl attempts to give him small accesses to violence. She ultimately decides to buy him a lizard, hoping that feeding the lizard live mice will satisfy whatever ambiguous asterisks are in her son’s consciousness. This is such a strong testament to motherhood- the undying devotion to your child, even in their darkness. Pearl doesn’t give up on her son in the face of this darkness; instead, she embraces it, seeking out small, relatively harmless ways as outlets for Rhett. It’s admirable.

Saff, Rhett’s friend and short-time girlfriend, also experiences trauma due to the happiness machine. When a video surfaces of Saff drugged and eating a bar of soap and then puking with a shaved off eyebrow, Saff recruits Rhett to help her discover who drugged her, and why. At the end of their investigation, the two realize that Saff drugged herself, tested her own cheek swab, and did the opposite of what the machine told her to. Instead of soaking in lemon soap, she ate it; instead of appreciating her beauty, she marred it. And this was an act of retribution, of self-guilt resolution. Saff had bullied a girl relentlessly, and aimed to attack her own happiness in retribution.

Rhett begins gaining weight, begins eating, even during his first year at UC Davis. And the reader isn’t sure if this newfound happiness is due to his mouse-eating lizard or to his new relationship with Saff. Elliot and Pearl, co-parents who remain flirtatious toward one another, revel in their son’s new happiness. Elliot, the charmer, notes: It’s a nice thought, though, isn’t it? That after all we’ve tried, the cure was love.” And Elliot himself had his time with Apricity, with the happiness machine. As an art project, Elliot tested random passerby in the street, noting their results and installing a piece called Midas, which showed Elliot fulfilling these recommendations to their extreme. In one case he ate an exorbitant amount of honey; in another, he wrapped himself insanely in a soft blanket. He seems to be making a strong comment on happiness, on the violent determination to achieve it, despite how senseless it objectively seems. Elliot represents the reported 2% of the population who has blank test results from Apricity, something that never bothers him but which gives readers (and Pearl) insight as to who he is, and what he is motivated by. Do blank results indicate happiness isn’t important? Isn’t possible? Or is it an indication that the happy charisma Elliot surfaces is empty, a blank screen?

Pearl becomes involved with a new project at Apricity, monitoring a famous actress’ happiness recommendations daily. Instead of reporting to Calla, the famous screamer from horror flicks, Pearl is forced to work directly with two of Calla’s managers, who act especially tight-lipped about Calla’s new project. As Pearl lives in Calla’s home, she notices strange behaviors from Calla, including screaming nightmares at night and an overall lack of sleep. Attracted to helping this young woman, as she helped her son, Pearl breaks protocol, following Calla’s team to a shooting location. Although Pearl expects to find another scary movie set, she instead finds Calla being buried alive in a clear coffin by insects. Calla’s screams are palpable, and scientists record her screams from wires coming off her body. The team is now learning to produce the actual adrenaline-like experience of fear- rather than simply watching Calla be afraid, now movie-goers will learn to feel her fear, exactly as she’s experiencing it. Pearl, horrified at what she sees to be a blatant hijacking of a person’s experience, stands to be contradicted; isn’t the company she works for, after all, doing the same thing?

The cover of this novel represents metaphor after metaphor, a beautiful homage to all of the quirky, haunting symbols within the story itself. I love the use of color on the cover, the simplistic lettering and the symmetry of the shapes. It’s a straightforward metaphor, the burning house serving as the physical representation of Valeria’s VR game, a game she and her distant mother played during Valeria’s childhood. In the game, Valeria and her mother discovered a house far away from the main game activity, and here, Valeria’s mother found a sort of peace she didn’t experience in her waking life. While the house blazed in fire, Valeria and her mother smiled at one another in a way they were not able to elsewhere. Later, we find out, Valeria is blamed for her mother actually burning the house down, something Valeria herself can’t remember was suicide or homicide (hence why Valeria serves appointments with the happiness machine). One side of the house is covered in scales, scales that I assume belong to Rhett’s mouse-eating lizard. Rhett and Valeria have a special relationship, one which persists in a mysterious yet worthwhile way after she divorces Elliot, Rhett’s father. The yellow tile of bumblebees represents Elliot’s art project involving puking on too much honey ingestion. Finally, the front-facing side of the burning house is speckled with a blue, cloudy sky. At the end of this novel, Rhett becomes increasingly interested and preoccupied by assisting his college roommate in training for university-level soccer. The two boys use their VR games to train, and Rhett begins eating regularly in order to have the strength to climb VR mountains with his friend. Pearl asks after Rhett’s new peace-laden mountaintop: “‘How’s the view?’ ‘The view from the imaginary mountaintop?’ He was teasing her. ‘Amazing. You can see for imaginary miles and miles.’ He smiled at her. She smiled back. How could she not? ‘And the imaginary sky?’ she asked. ‘Blue.'”

Elliot returns to Pearl after Val leaves him, and even though Pearl is unsure of her ex-husband’s presence, Elliot’s charisma feels unavoidable. Pearl begins talking directly to the machine, though, after Elliot does leave, after Rhett goes to college. It is, she realizes, the first time she’s lived alone. And she takes to talking to her machine, even provides a responsive dialogue in return to her queries. She reasons, though, that her relationship with the machine hasn’t gone overboard- she hasn’t, after all, told the machine goodnight. The machine is so much of a safety blanket that Pearl brings it on a date, the first date she’s been on in years. And there her happiness machine is stolen, hijacked by a man named Mason, who reveals his plans for Apricity: happiness at your fingertips! His idea is even more immediate, even more intrusive than Apricity’s; instead of having a trained employee deliver your test results, Mason’s model inputs the happiness screen into users’ own palms. Pearl doesn’t get her beloved confidante (the machine) back; at work, she offers Carter a contentment report from her broken machine, giving him a different route to happiness than one the machine had been feeding him for years. Pearl’s fabrication seems to make Carter happier, in an ironic twist that was perhaps predictable, but delivered in a perfectly imperfect way, and at the last minute. This isn’t the last image, either; instead, Pearl quits, and finds her son in his VR simulation, a fabrication of happiness itself, but in which still exists blue skies.

“‘Fire was one of the first things.’ ‘We were one of the first things also. Yes?’ ‘Who?’ ‘We. You and me. People. We were one of the first things?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Sure. We were here to say the word.’ ‘We were one of the first things, and we are good, Valeria. We are good.’”