The Vegetarian by Han Kang Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret History by Donna Tartt Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

again.

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

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

 

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

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

A poem

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

 

There is a newness now,

A light, kaleidoscopic haze around ordinary existence;

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

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

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

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

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

 

Will we really make a mess of it?

Or…

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

 

Start of an essay- Chronic Illness

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


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

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

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

 

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

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (Book Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In This Blanket There’s A Memory

In this blanket there’s a memory,
A grass stain that I can’t wash out.

I take it with me now, throw it into the backseat of my car;
A blanket, a book, a beach- Sunday ritual in my new city.
Sometimes the sand finds its way deep into the striped threads,
Littering my car, my shoes, my bedroom floor.
There are times the sand shows up, days later- an unrelenting presence
Like the sound of his voice saying ‘here’s your key back-‘
Let it go, let it dissolve or vanish or-
Shake the blanket out again.

The sand will disintigrate, gone until another Sunday.

Years ago there was Midwest-green grass instead of sand;
A girl sitting on a blanket reading Woolf, absorbed.
Reverie, literary escapism, broken by noise-
A skateboard nearly running over the pages of Mrs. Dalloway.
My look up, angry, pinched, met with his look over the shoulder.
Oh-
An exhale.
A beginning.

Days of climbing trees and rolling down hills,
Pointing at patterns in the clouds, swinging competitions at the park,
Bike rides, licking melted ice-cream off of each other’s fingers,
Climbing to the top of the Arts building and watching the stars dance,
Angus and Julia Stone duets in the morning;
Somewhere along the way the blanket got dirty,
A green stain from the days that I loved.

Can’t wash it out now-
The sand vanishes, the green never does.
-And why would I want to?

I am thinking of all the hands I’ve held since I last held yours.
Which is to say, I am thinking of nothing but you.

 

February 2017

La La Land: Movie Review

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My goal for 2017 is to write more- write on this blog, in my journal, in my iPhone notes, in my half-written chapbook/short story collection/essay collection. And I want to blog about my New Year, about the 2 weeks I spent at home, even about the panic-inducing dream I had a few nights ago that had me sweating at 4AM, calling my mom. Hell, I even want to tell you all about my terrible sinus problems (if you follow me on any other social media, I’m sure you’ve heard too much about it already). But I really can’t write about anything before I gush about La La Land, my new obsession. This movie had me dazzled for 2 entire hours, enthralled and curious and fearful. After I watched it, I felt as if I had no choice but to immediately journal every feeling it made me feel. This was such a tremendous piece of art that I didn’t want to lose any of it- I didn’t want to forget the way it felt to see this for the first time. Nothing feels as urgent right now as writing about this, before I awake out of the magical sphere of just experiencing something artistically brilliant for the first time.

La La Land. Two artists; ambitious, hopeful, on the verge of losing hope. A love that arrives clumsily, that strikes immediately. The whimsical nature of a musical is contrasted severely by the somber, lonely nature of both Sebastien and Mya. They each push onward after rejection on rejection, one with music, one with acting, believing that if they pretend hard enough, give off vibes of ‘I’m okay with my lonely self,’ they can combat what is a painfully obvious truth, which Mya eventually reveals, quietly, “love is the dream.” Both of them want a dream fulfilled, never realizing until meeting one another how large the dream of love looms, how competitive the dreams of love and art can be.

The movie is chaptered by seasons, winter, spring, summer, and fall, each season progressing their relationship and their dream-achieving. Chaptering the movie this way immediately gave me a sense of of dread: when would the end arrive? When would the inevitable doom come? I felt such blissful hope for the two of them in Spring and Summer, flowers blooming, sun shining, the two of them falling gently and quickly into a life-changing love, smiling, dancing, loving. The over-the-top first dance together exemplified the flighty feeling os the first indication that the person across from you may be more than just a person. It’s a tap=dance of what ifs and stubborn ‘save yourself the troubles.’ And their next dance, in the observatory- the two fly into the stars, reaching for one another. It truly is a la la land, an impossibly beautiful feeling of wholeness that is only possible through true love. I’ve felt this way: floating, dreamlike above the ordinary, my love so great and crushing, so clearly and magnificently reciprocated that nothing here on this plane of existence could understand.

Their summer together feels that way: high, impossible, right. The stars stay, for awhile, and they dance and smile, somehow believing, again, despite how much they know the truth of improbability, that true love could be enough, that no other force could be so cataclysmic. In the audience, I wept. There always comes the truth, usually brought about in an ugly way so contrary to the beauty of the love, an earth-shattering disruption in the relationship, a chasm into which the magic falls-the la la land of love must always end up here, in the tragic chasm of ‘what if’ and ‘if only.’

‘I’m always going to love you.’ An undeniable truth. In ways, the la la land lives on. But perhaps the brevity of their time together, the tragedy of breaking, the feeling of deep injustice that they did not make it, is what made the love so big, so great. Perhaps the big loves are always the ones that end too soon.

Each artist here reaches their dream, Sebastien with his own Jazz cafe, Mya with a movie-star life. But neither reach the dream with the other person; their artistic dreams do not hold hands with their love dreams. The artistic dreams won out- perhaps the love dream was too all-encompassing. Mya unknowingly walks into Sebastien’s cafe with her husband (who is so sadly not him), and when she and Seb meet eyes, my chest weakened. Why, why, why! Why wasn’t love, true, paramount love, enough?! How could it not be enough? How could things so small as timing and place and circumstance defeat them?

Humans are proud, stubborn creatures. We feign disinterest, worry we’re more vulnerable than the other, all of it hidden in attempts to save face. How can it happen?! And yet it happens every day. We choose because we fear pain, we fear vulnerability. We fear the all-encompassing because what if it does engulf us? What then? Once the chasm opens, we doubt it all, worry over the compatibility of a la la land once shared together. We begin to disbelieve.

But even after the choices are made, la la land still breaks through at times. And in special moments, it takes us so far back, so far into the ‘what could have been’- like when Seb plays the sad, slow song for Mya the night in his cafe, the same song he was playing when he first saw her. Within the notes is their story, the lives they could have lived and loved- an ongoing la la land, both mystical and tangible, so improbable, but what was once so close, so very possible. It hurt so badly to see what could have been- a love like that must be fantasy- and yet, it’s there. And yet, it’s something they both know. It’s la la land, unbelievable, and yet it’s real. It’s love.

The last smile the two of them share haunts me- a thank you, an acknowledgment of ‘I still love you,’ a nod to seeing one another again in la la land, and a passing, coy smile of ‘how the fuck did we mess it up this bad?’

None of us know what the fuck we’re doing, with our dreams or our love. Maybe the best we can hope for is this last smile, this last loving nod toward la la land, where a part of us will live, forever.

 

 

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

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One of the things about my time as an undergraduate student that I am most grateful for- creative nonfiction. By studying Creative Writing and Literature, I came to a genre of art that I had never before recognized. Joe, my professor and North Star, slowly edged me towards writing about myself: the experiences that shaped me, the small moments that have stuck with me like some frail, never-ending metaphors. He gave me copies of his favorite Fitzgerald and EB White essays, read aloud from Cheryl Strayed’s essay ‘Heroin/e’ before her memoir was published. I can’t put words on what these essays did for me, what Joe did for me. The revelation hit me that I could tell my own story, that it was okay and more than that, that it might resonate, echo within people more than any fiction creation I could make.

Patti Smith’s Just Kids is an exquisite example of creative nonfiction at its absolute best. I started reading this book on my way to Ireland for the first time and finished it in one sitting- it was something I couldn’t get enough of, couldn’t put down in favor of sleep or music or conversation. I needed this story in this moment- I was on my way to a country I’d planned on going to with a man, one who bought a trip with me and broke up with me only a month later. I was going with a friend, someone I barely knew. I was facing the would-have-been romance in each place by myself, with only a ghost of his memory to commiserate with. Patti and Robert’s romance provided me not only with a nice escape from my own failed/beautiful/heartbreaking bout of love, but also provided me with some enlightenment on the mystery of falling in love and staying in love.

Just Kids tells the story of Patti Smith’s voyage to New York City where she quickly met with Robert Mapplethorpe. The two erupted into love, facing challenges of poverty and recognition via their artwork together: “I understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust.” Patti, coming from a rural town and a traumatic pregnancy/adoption, faced the daunting city with aspirations of artistry. Robert, coming from a strict Catholic household and the desire to appease his father, felt an undeniable urge to create. Patti explains to the readers how she came to know Robert’s childhood: “We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to bad. Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again, until we came to accept our dual natures.” Patti learns a lot from her relationship with Robert, but perhaps the clearest lesson is this duality she mentions here- she learns that not everything, as she originally assumed, is easily predictable. Everything changes in unforeseen ways- “I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.”

Patti and Robert spent a few precious years together, broke and struggling to keep the heat on but in love and hopeful. Each of them produced art, endless drawings amidst the day-to-day work grind at restaurants and museums and bookshops. They came home always to one another, and this thrill of another human being waiting at home was enough to survive, to thrive, happily. Patti reflects on this time, this doomed, ill-fated time: “Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”

The innocence of the love between Patti and Robert soon dissolves. The two share hateful words, Robert dissatisfied with the attention he has gotten from his art, Patti frustrated that Robert no longer brings in sufficient money. But still they have one another, despite the looming thought Patti feels that the two of them will eventually cease: “I knew one day he and I would break. I would stop and he would keep on going. But until then nothing could tear us apart.” This was an epiphany for me while also being a sentiment I already knew deep within myself. Each relationship, for me, feels impregnable, until suddenly it’s not. I recognize Patti’s awareness here, the absolute certainty that the love will change, end. I’ve felt this myself. What I haven’t been able to feel, to master, however, is Patti’s recognition that ‘until then, nothing could tear us apart.’ I have never been strong enough to accept the finality, to live and love in the ‘until then.’ Perhaps next time I will be better equipped to do so.

Robert and Patti move apart from one another. Robert sleeps with his first man, Patti recognizes her sheltered, small sexuality. Robert finds photography, the medium that eventually gives him stardom. Patti writes poems, the first step to her huge music career. The two remain friends, always together in a way via art and their memories. They come back together and fall away again and again, eventually ending up living in the Chelsea Hotel, one of the most famous spots for aspiring artists to be. Here Patti and Robert meet Janet Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, even Salvador Dali. They become modern-day fan-girls of Andy Warhol. I loved reading about Patti’s experiences at the Chelsea Hotel, the decadence, the hope, the ambition that plagued the place. I smiled at the thought of so many creative, desperate people in one place and felt surprised that the place didn’t burst into flames from too-muchness.

Robert and Patti break again and again. Throughout it all, they support one another’s art and love, endlessly. I am amazed at the human love the two shared; there were faults, yes, but overwhelmingly there was pure appreciation, respect, and adoration. Patti and Robert are two people who the universe conspired to connect. Patti tells us that “He was the artist of my life,” and I feel confident that if Robert had been granted the chance, he’d say the same about her.

Patti makes it big. Her songs and her band and her voice and her poetry. Even as the fame happens, she cannot believe that she is the one who made it while so many she’d known had been lost to suicide, drugs, alcohol, or normalcy. It’s a real humility that I respect. The last portion of the book describes this time of Patti’s life and the ways in which she and Robert still kept in touch. “As I traveled the world I had time to reflect that Robert and I had never traveled together. We never saw beyond New York. Yet Robert and I had explored the frontier of our work and created space for each other. When I walked on the stages of the world without him I would close my eyes and picture him taking off his jacket, entering with me the infinite land of a thousand dances.” Robert never leaves Patti despite the other loves the two have. It is he she brings with her on stage, he who is nearly visible behind each lyric. And here’s another epiphany: multiple loves. That one can be entirely in love with and present with their current partner, but can also bring a past one with them wherever they go. I’m not humble or confident or zen enough to imagine this actually playing out with me and my partner, but I do recognize truth in it. I recognize strength and honesty. I recognize the desire I always have within me to immortalize my past lovers, to preserve their memory and the moments we shared; the sadness and absolute heartbreak I feel when a past lover rejects me from his life, the emptiness I feel when they transition from lover to stranger. This love that Patti and Robert stay in throughout their lives is something I’ve tried to force into each of my failed relationships- it never works. But that’s not due to me being undeserving of it- what Patti and Robert had and were able to cultivate in their lives both together and separate was something truly unique and transcendent. It was a blue star (their symbol for one another) in a vast sea of blackness- “Robert was ever in my consciousness, the blue star in the constellation of m personal cosmology.”

Robert becomes sick with HIV/AIDS as Patti settles into her life of marriage and motherhood. She takes time off from her tour, pregnant, and spends time with Robert in his hospital room. Her husband is there with them, supportive, creating art beside them. Patti reflects on their relationship and on their successes: “I knew I would one day see a sky drawn by Robert’s hand.” As he’s dying Robert attempts to make amends with Patti, amends that are unnecessary in her eyes. He laments that the two of them do not have children, that they haven’t lived together in years, to which Patti replies “our work was our children.” And this is true- together they made art and inspired one another to do so. If Patti wouldn’t have spoken to the boy in the park, would we have Robert’s photographs, Patti’s songs? That a human love can produce such everlasting and immortal work…

“Laughter. An essential ingredient for survival. And we laughed a lot.”