January Reading

weekendI read 8.5 new books this month and blogged about . . . none of them? Hmmm. I’m honestly not sure if the fault is mine or theirs. Not one of them lit me up, but that didn’t used to keep me from rambling on about a book! So maybe the problem is what I’m bringing to them as a reader these days—but if so, does that mean my reports on them are unreliable? Who knows? As always, all we can really talk about is our experience of a book.

Here, then, in brief: my January reading.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend. I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It is a story of female friendship—but it is more probing and uncomfortable than that theme might make you expect. I appreciated its focus on older women. They have been through a lot, separately and together, and Wood does a good job exploring the kind of bond the sheer longevity of their relationships creates.

Roy Jacobsen, The Unseen. I was not enthralled by this; I definitely will not be searching out the others in the series. However, the prose has a starkness that suits the bleakness of the landscape and the hardships of the characters’ lives, and sometimes it achieved a resonance that elevated its otherwise rather laborious cadences (perhaps the fault of the translators?) to something almost stirring. kennedy feast

Margaret Kennedy, The Feast. Fun! But not as delightful as I expected. I even started skimming after a while because many of the characters were so annoying that I got impatient for the cliffs to cave in on them. I think I should have been reading it differently to get more out of it—not just more slowly but less for plot and more for ideas about virtue and vice and the meaning of life. One day I’ll read it again and do better.

Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus. The octopus stuff is really cool (for example, did you know that because an octopus’s brains are spread through its arms, a severed octopus arm will just go about its business for a long time as if nothing has happened? even continuing to hunt?!), but after a while I felt as if Montgomery was trying too hard to make more of it than it could bear. Even the title goes a bit far! (I loved My Octopus Teacher, which is a captivating nature documentary and includes thoughtful but not overwrought reflections on how spending time with an octopus can change your perceptions, including of yourself.)

octopusKate Clayborn, Georgie All Along. The long-awaited (well, for at least a year anyway) new romance novel from my favorite contemporary romance author—that is, my favorite author of contemporary romances. I enjoyed it fine but it seemed too much like her other novels and not as good as the earliest ones. They are packed full (almost too full) of details, especially of the kind I learned to call “neepery” (whether it’s metallurgy or home restoration or photography, Clayborn is good at conveying the texture and fascination of people’s interests); they are also quite emotionally intense. This one included some of the same kind of stuff but in a less engrossing way; the characters also seemed too conspicuously constructed, like concepts that didn’t 100% come to life. But I might change my mind on rereading: I had a similar reaction to her previous one, Love At First, but liked it quite a bit more when I went back to it more recently.

god-rabbitSarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit. I happened across this one at a thrift store and grabbed it because I liked Still Life so much. It is not as good as Still Life but it kept my interest from start to finish, which these days is saying something. The narrator’s voice in particular is effective, and I also appreciated the novel’s journey across key events in recent decades, landing on them as events in specific people’s lives. This includes 9/11; I learned from the author’s note that this was a controversial aspect of the novel, which didn’t really make any sense to me.

Elisa Gabbert, The Unreality of Memory. This was a hard one for me in ways that I probably should have expected, or would have, if I’d studied the table of contents more carefully beforehand. I know Elisa (in the internet sense of “know”) from collaborating with her husband John Cotter at Open Letters Monthly, where for a while Elisa wrote a column about perfume. Since then I have read some of her other public writing, but not, that I recall, any of the essays collected here. The hardship was that they are all fairly grim! They deal with hard, scary, or disheartening topics, from natural disasters to the disaster of American politics under Trump. Elisa writes wonderfully, with a poet’s eye for the telling detail at the right moment; as an essayist, she is more associative than argumentative. Sometimes this felt digressive and sometimes as a result I occasionally lost my own focus, but in fact she is always in excellent control; as I kept reading I learned to remind myself to trust her.

rileyGwendoline Riley, My Phantoms. I didn’t enjoy this at all. I could tell it was “well written,” meaning it has crisp, often resonant sentences and is constructed with conspicuous care. The narrator is unpleasant; the relationship she has with her mother is worse than that. I wasn’t sure what the point of the exercise was supposed to be: it takes about 2 pages to get the gist of how uncomfortable it is all going to be and then it’s just discomfort and nastiness, with a bit of pathos thrown in, for another 150 pages. OK, I exaggerate slightly, but I want this post to serve as a cautionary tale for me: beware Twitter enthusiasm! I have learned not to rush off after whatever mid-century middle European novel from NYRB Classics is currently getting all the buzz, because it will probably just sit unread on my shelves along with Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. For people who like these kinds of things, these kinds of things are great! (And it’s true that sometimes, a bit to my own surprise, I like them too.) But cold, clinical, forensically observant narrators are not my thing. Gorgeous cover on this edition, though!

Which brings me to the .5 in my 8.5 books this month: Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. Its narrator is definitely not cold and clinical, but he is also no David Copperfield, and (so far) the novel has none of the warmth or wit of Dickens’s novel. That’s fine! Kingsolver is perfectly free to write her own book. But it is so disorienting to “know” all the details, to recognize everybody as they arrive in their new outfits, ready to play their accustomed parts in David’s (sorry, Demon’s) oh-so-familiar story—but to hear only bitterness and cynicism. A good page of Demon Copperhead might have a bit of wistfulness, maybe even a trace of pathos, but David’s narrative is full of heart, and (again, so far) Kingsolver’s version has none of it, and no humor either. And it’s loooooooong. I’m not giving up: my book club chose it, and the others who have read it pretty much all report having really enjoyed it. It seems likely that knowing David Copperfield as well as I do has actually been a disadvantage for me.kingsolver

I’ve also been reading for work (The MoonstoneThe Hound of the Baskervilles, and selected stories and poems).

All in all, it actually hasn’t been a bad month for reading. Even My Phantoms at least interested me, plus it was too short for me to be really bothered by the things I didn’t like about it. Still, I hope February brings more books that genuinely excite me.

Recently

PPP Blues“Start where you are and see where it takes you” is the wise advice from blogger extraordinaire Kerry Clare for those times when you want to write but don’t know quite what you want to say, so here I am, trying to break through the inertia of not blogging by just blogging.

Sometimes I look back through the Novel Readings archive and wonder at how much blogging I did in periods of my life when I was much busier than I typically am now, when I had two small children who needed attention and care of all kinds, drop-offs and pick-ups at school and daycare, swimming lessons and library visits, homework and piano lessons and chess club, highly particularized meals (allergies, aversions) necessitating frequent shopping and endless packing up of safe snacks, appointments with doctors and dentists and orthodontists; in those years the demands of teaching, too, were greater, because I didn’t have an archive of materials to fall back on, or years of experience to give me trust in myself, belief that if I just showed up I could probably actually do just fine. I took on more then, more committee assignments and supervisions and all the rest of it; I say no a lot more now, partly because after my failed promotion bid I “quiet quit” (a term I hadn’t heard of back then!)—not completely, of course, and I try to still be a good department citizen especially, but it was a good reminder that (another catch-phrase I didn’t know then) the university will not love you back.

Somehow those crazy busy years were also my peak blogging years. Busy people get more done, they say, but I realize now, too, that blogging fed me—gave me nourishment, intellectual and eventually social—in ways my busyness, my business, wasn’t otherwise doing. I came to feel part of something, something I could reach beyond the constraints of my schedule, my remote location, myself. I enjoyed advocating for something I believed in; I could feel parts of myself expanding that had become cramped and anxious after the hard slog through graduate school and which I had not had, or made, time for in the intense early years of my job here, which were equal parts exhilarating, terrifying, and exhausting. Then came Open Letters, which I also somehow made time for in spite of, on top of, everything else (a mistake, perhaps, professionally speaking, but one I can’t regret).

woolf-by-bellThere’s so much emptiness in my life now. It’s not just Owen’s death, although every day I confront the ongoing ache and mystery of his absence. Some of it is the ongoing isolation of our COVID-cautious lifestyle: especially as most of the rest of the world seems to be moving on, it feels worse than it did when we were all in it together. Being back on campus and teaching in person helps with that, but it’s not the same as it was: I’m in my office a lot, but mostly with the door closed, because masks are required in classrooms but not hallways and I like to take my own mask off while I work. It’s winter, so the outdoor visits that sustained me through summer and fall are less appealing, as are my long solo walks in the park, when I was alone but, somehow, never lonely. (I often think of Marianne Moore’s line “the cure for loneliness is solitude.”) I could be busier at / with work than I am. I will be, soon, as assignments start coming in, but even so I don’t expect to be even as busy with teaching as I was last term, just because of the nature of my classes this term, the easy familiarity of one and the high degree of automation in the other. There is other work I could be doing, even a writing commitment I should be doing. I can’t seem to summon up much urgency or energy for it, though, or for the book idea I still sort of believe is worth pursuing. I’m not even reading much. I can’t seem to concentrate on most books I try; I don’t seem to like many of them, and it bothers me, worrying that it’s me, not them, that’s the problem.

“Start where you are and see where it takes you.” I’m not in a great place, I guess, though things aren’t really so bad: another word for emptiness is spaciousness, and maybe that’s what I need right now. There are ways, I realize, in which it is a luxury, a privilege. Something I’ve heard a lot since Owen died was that grieving people should be kind to themselves, so I have been trying not to judge what I’m doing or not doing, or how much I’m doing, or just how I’m doing.

LittTwo things I did recently: a review of Emma Donoghue’s Haven for Canadian Notes and Queries, and a review of Toby Litt’s A Writer’s Diary for The TLS. My editor at the TLS thought of me for Litt’s book because it’s a novel that began as a blog, or at any rate as a Substack (which I realize is not exactly a blog, but Litt also has a WordPress blog). The novel was initially released one day at a time, like a real diary, but has now been released in bound book form: that change in form was really interesting to me, not least because (like many long-time bloggers, I expect) I have often wondered if there is a book here somewhere, and if so, how radical the transformation would have to be for it to succeed in another form. My conclusion about Litt’s experiment:

I wish he had resisted the temptation to republish A Writer’s Diary as a conventional book. He could instead have accepted the ephemerality that is a blog’s most defining quality, letting the posts scroll away as they first appeared, one day at a time.

This Week In My Classes: A Hybrid Experience (For Me)

We’re back at it: our winter term officially began on Monday, meaning today marks the end of the first full week of classes. The very familiarity of it is intensely familiar: that’s how it feels after a long time doing any work that is as cyclical as teaching, I expect. The familiarity of it also continues to be disorienting for me; that too, in its own strange way, is now familiar.

moonstoneThis is my first term teaching both online and in person – not in the same course, but with one of each. So far I like it, actually. My in-person course is an old favorite, Mystery & Detective Fiction. I haven’t taught it in the classroom since Fall 2018, which feels a lot more than four years ago. I taught it online more recently, with some success, measured at least by the number of students who showed up in my Fall 2022 classes at least in part because (according to them) they’d enjoyed it a lot. I’ve remarked here before about the oddity that this has become my most frequently taught course, because it’s such a popular elective. It’s full again this term, at 64. I am grateful for its familiarity: I hope to be able to relax into it. Usually it sparks some of the liveliest discussion of any of my classes, I think because everyone’s there out of interest (it doesn’t fulfill any requirements, so nobody has been coerced into taking it). We warmed up this week with “big picture” stuff about genre fiction, with an overview of the history of detective fiction, and then, today, with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Monday we start The Moonstone, which I omitted, reluctantly, from the online version. I was rereading our first instalment this afternoon and it’s just such a lot of fun. I hope they think so too!

My online course is Literature: How It Works, which is the same first-year writing course I’ve offered online twice before. I am really glad to be getting more use out of the materials I prepared for it, which took hours and hours, first to conceptualize and then to make. Some of them, of course, have already had to be updated, but I’m not changing a lot of the content for each new iteration of the course because I’m still putting  a lot of thought and energy into the specifications grading approach I’m using. I’ve revised the bundles again this year, simplifying and reducing or rationalizing them further based on my previous experience. The second time I taught this course this way it was already an improvement on the first time, so I’m hopeful that I have ironed out more wrinkles and we’ll all—me, my teaching assistants, and the students—have an even smoother term. I don’t want to reduce the students’ workload to the point that it doesn’t have the desired outcome: I do think that forcing them to just keep writing is, overall, an excellent approach for a writing course. The challenge is finding the line between productive work and busy work, or between work they have time to care about and work that is perfunctory because they are scrambling to get the credits they want.1015StartHere-crop

It’s too early in the term in both classes to have much sense of how they’re going, or going to go, but I can say that I don’t hate going to class first thing and getting energized by the in-person session and then having the rest of the day to do everything else, from follow-up and preparation for the next class meeting to all the various tasks for my online course (mostly emails and introductions, so far, but soon to include a steady flow of discussion posts and journal entries). I’m used to recuperating in my office just long enough to head out and teach my second class, and then needing some recovery time after that class (hey, I’m getting old—pacing around and manifesting enthusiasm while talking a lot and fielding students’ comments and questions is tiring for me!) before I can dig in and get more work done. Today I did a couple of reference letters as well as my course-related stuff, and I reread Monday’s portion of The Moonstone, which I almost certainly would have put off until the weekend if I’d had to show up in person for a second class hour. I like the balance, and I’m perfectly happy not to be meeting my big first-year class in person. (Of all the classes I teach, it’s often the least rewarding to be doing face to face, because what I’m often face to face with is indifference.)Rocks and Clouds PPP

Despite the difficulties I still have adjusting to a reality that seems (still) unreal, I’m glad to be back to the routine. I was quite busy until late in December with work from last term; the time in between then and now was restful in some ways but wearing, personally, in others. Work is a good distraction; being with students forces me out of my head and into a more cheerful space; and I honestly do believe in the value of all of this—that it is worth keeping up, keeping at, even if, as today, I have to take a break from it sometimes to grieve the person whose presence is everywhere in my office, just as it is at home.

Novel Readings 2022

The first year after death
is full of stretching, where things

pull so hard your bones
break, because they were never
bones, were always solitude.

Victoria Chang, from “The Trees Witness Everything”

This has been an unusual year for Novel Readings, one in which my reading life was overtaken by my real life—or, since I firmly believe that “the world of books is still the world,” a better way to put it would be that my reading life changed because so did the rest of my life. I read a lot in 2022 about grief, and about suicide; I read a lot of poetry, or at least a lot more than I usually do; and I failed to finish a lot of novels that I started, or at least a lot more than is typical for me.

Mourning

Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow was the most resonant book I read about grief. I didn’t find it so at first, but as the days after Owen’s death turned into weeks and then months, parts of it returned to me over and over, especially her observation about how “the dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind us in their timelessness.” (I feel this very acutely this week, as the calendar turns to the new year, the second year of his absence.) The poems in Say Something Back, in the same slim volume, have also stayed with me. “How should I take in such a bad idea?” Riley demands in “Part Song.” How indeed. William Styron’s Darkness Visible brought me greater understanding of the intensity and suffering of depression; and Kay Redfield Jamison’s Night Falls Fast was difficult but valuable reading about the painful truths and also the mysteries of suicide. I also found new meaning in Margaret Oliphant’s lamentations for her “dear bright child”; and in Virginia Woolf’s mourning for her nephew Julian.

Other Reading

It seemed for a while that this would be my year of Ali Smith, the way last year I went all in on Jo Baker. I read straight through her seasonal quartet at a time when otherwise I could hardly concentrate; I became interested enough to add her to my ongoing book project on women writers and social reform. I went on to read and enjoy Companion Piecebut then I tried How to Be Both and lost my grip.

Some standout experiences from those early months, when to read at all was a success and to read something and love it seemed almost too good to be true: Sarah Winman’s Still Life and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, neither of which got the attentive post it deserved; and Andrew Miller’s The Slowworm’s Song, which was one of the first books I blogged about ‘properly’ (meaning, as I used to do) in 2022. Quite a few other books I read with interest, appreciation, or pleasure ended up mentioned here only in round-up posts, if at all: Monica Ali’s Love Marriage; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years; Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility; Graham Macrea Burnet’s Case Study; and Damian Lanigan’s The Ghost Variations, my last book of the year and a very good one.* I did manage to write up my experience rereading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Both reading and writing about my reading did get gradually easier as time passed, and I had a run of good luck, or good choices, too, towards the end of the year: Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, Ian McEwan’s Lessons, and Richard Powers’ Bewildermentwhich I have since learned got quite a critical drubbing, but which for me stands out as perhaps the best novel I read in 2022.

I managed some formal reviews this year, notably Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, which I thought was smart and powerful and elegant, Emma Donoghue’s taut and graphic Haven (my review at CNQ should be available eventually!), and Sina Queyras’s Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf which gave me a lot to think about, in a good way.

All year I struggled with the possibility that books I disliked or DNF’ed were victims of my circumstancesalthough why I should consider my grieving brain any more unreliable in its criticism than in its praise I don’t know. In any case, with that caveat in mind, the book I liked least this year was Tessa Hadley’s Free Love, which was generally admired both by reviewers and by astute readers in my Twitter circle but which I just could not come to terms with.

On the other hand, a book I stalled out in but fully intend to try again in 2023, because even in the moment I could tell it deserved a better reading than it was getting from me, is Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat. I also already have a tempting stack of new (to me) books I’m looking forward to reading and blogging about in 2023, including Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast, Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen, Niall Williams’s This Is Happiness and The History of Rain, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, and Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. I’ve started the year, though, with Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, lent to me by a dear friend with a note pointing out that it is a novel about female friendship. At about 100 pages in, I’m rather hoping she doesn’t see much of us or our friendship in itbut I’ll have to see how things unfold.

Writing at Novel Readings turned out to be really important to me in 2022. At times I felt self-conscious or uncomfortable about how personal, and how mournful, my posts often were, but the simple fact was that writing themfinding the words to give shape to the ideas and feelings I otherwise found overwhelminghelped me when little else did. So I reassured myself by thinking of how many other writers have put their grief into words, often much more publicly than this, and by remembering that nobody ever has to read anything here that they don’t want to. And some of my happiest times in 2022 were actually those I spent writing here about books: to be immersed in that work always proved both intellectually invigorating and emotionally restorativea reminder, which I sometimes really needed, of why it is I do this in the first place. I am truly grateful to everyone who kept reading and especially to those of you who have showed so much sympathy and kindness in your comments over this long, hard year.


*Lanigan’s pianist protagonist is preoccupied with the slow movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, which I have since been listening to over and over, appreciating its melancholy drifting. Here it is, in case that sounds appealing to you too.

Still the World: This Term In My Classes:

I’ve been reading through my archive of posts about “This Week In My Classes,” which goes back to September 2007, nearly the very beginning of Novel Readings itself. There are some (possibly) practical reasons for doing this, including considering what to say in my contribution for a forum on teaching Victorian literature today that my colleague Tom Ue is organizing for the Victorian Review.

I’ve also been thinking more generally about the unbearable lightness of blogging—the flip side of the immediacy that is such a big part of its appeal as a form is its ephemerality. I have put so much effort, and so much of myself, into writing here at Novel Readings; as it becomes increasingly evident that, however persistently some of us keep up the habit, the ‘Golden Age of Blogging’ is past (something that is clearer to me than ever as I review the vigorous discussions that once happened in my comments sections), I find myself wondering if any of this archive is worth revisiting, revising, repurposing in some way that might be—I don’t want to say “more substantial,” because I fondly believe it is already substantial, if in a diffuse way—so let’s say a bit stickier.

The exercise so far has been at once invigorating and strangely mournful, or maybe not so strangely, given the context. For one thing, it’s not just blogging as a phenomenon that is past its prime but also, perhaps, my teaching career, although in my brighter moments I hope that there is time, and that I will have the energy, to make its last decade meaningful to both me and my students. Another context, of course, is Owen’s death and my continuing sense of disorientation in my own life, a feeling that is somehow harder, more confusing, to deal with when I am in the midst of what used to be normalcy, including especially, this term, on campus. So much is the same, including the work I am doing and (more or less) the person that I am while I’m doing it: how can that be? The discrepancy between my two realities continues to give me emotional vertigo, and rereading my old posts intensifies the effect, because they immerse me, in the moment, in the world before everything split apart. They are full, too, of casual references to my children—to sick days and holidays, to March break camps and Christmas shopping. Many of those years were actually hard times in many ways, both personally and professionally; frank as I have been about some aspects of my life, there’s a lot I’ve never talked about here. Now, though, they seem like such innocent times. Whatever my struggles, whatever I imagined or dreaded about the future, it was never this.

One question in the back of my mind throughout this term was: should I say anything to my classes about Owen’s death? Was there any way in which that recent experience of mine was relevant, not just to me personally but to what we were doing there together? Most of the time the answer pretty clearly seemed to be “no.” I did say, once or twice, that for personal reasons I wasn’t necessarily at my best and they should feel free to remind me or correct me about things if I got muddled. But in general I like fairly clear boundaries with my students (“be friendly, but not their friend” is the advice I got early on, and I still consider it sound); of course I’m always communicating my enthusiasms, interests, and values, just through what I teach and how I teach it, but I’m not a fan of oversharing, on either side. Suicide is also a fraught topic, and it is impossible for me to know how bringing up my own trauma might affect other people in the room. I think some of my students did know—and in fact one or two kindly extended their sympathies to me outside of class, which I appreciated.

I did finally bring it up, though, on the last day of class in 19th-Century Fiction. I usually end that class with a peroration about why I think our work is worthwhile, on what I hope they have learned from our readings and discussions, and, most important, on what I hope they will take away from it all. For many years (and my review of my teaching posts has shown me just how long this has been true) I have thought about my classes as less about conveying specific content than about teaching reading—about training better readers. Always, in these closing remarks,  I note that they will only be assigned “required reading” for a fragment of their reading lives; the rest of the time, what they read and how they read it will be up to them, as will be their relationship with books in other ways, from supporting public libraries to attending book festivals, from joining book clubs to getting involved in debates about the curriculum in the public schools. I do care about their engagement with the particular books I’ve worked on with them; I am always delighted when I hear from a former student who has carried away a love of Victorian novels and continues to seek them out, or who thinks back on our journey through Middlemarch as a highlight of their university years (and some do!). But I also hope that my students carry away a set of habits and skills for reading, and a set of questions to ask of anything they read, questions like the one Booth proposes as fundamental in The Company We Keep:  “Is the pattern of life that this would-be friend offers one that friends might well pursue together?” (The best literary “friends,” he elaborates, are identified by “the irresistible invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own,” which is as good a definition of literary merit as I know.)

In my closing peroration in 19th-Century Fiction this year, I said a lot of the same things, but I also commented on two specific contexts for our work together that really mattered to me this term, both of which had given new urgency, in my mind, to questions about how we all spend our time, not just but especially in the classroom. The first was my return to in-person teaching after two+ years of teaching online, an experience which has prompted a lot of pedagogical reflection for me. Before COVID, I made a lot of assertions about the importance of teaching in person (some of them prompted by MOOCs, which seem to have fizzled out conspicuously as both promise and threat). I have learned a lot in the past three years about online teachingenough not to dismiss it or recoil from it, but also enough to know that I was right that, for me and the kind of teaching I enjoy and value most, being in the room with my students is preferable. I struggled a lot this year because it wasn’t clear that a number of my students thought the same; I hope that this is a lingering effect of the COVID years (not that they are really over, sadly) and that eventually those meetings will hum with their old energy. I didn’t go on and on about this to my class, not least because the ones who were present were the ones who had pretty much always been present, so they had shown their own commitment to what I strongly believe is, at its best, a collaborative venture.

And the second context I brought up was that this had been my first term back in the classroom since my son died. I did not go into any details about his death, but I told them that, inevitably, it had prompted a lot of questions for me about how I spend (and have spent) my life and my work, about what my priorities have been over the years. I have worked hard, I told them, to recover and sustain my conviction that if  teaching was the kind of thing that had been worth doing before Owen died, it was still worth doing, and doing as well as I could manage, after he died as wella principle I have tried to believe in and live up to in other ways as well, including maintaining this blog.  I got a bit choked up talking about this, which I knew was a risk, and maybe it was too personal a thing to say. Rightly or wrongly, though, it really mattered to me to tell themthis group who had stuck it out with me all term in our grim, windowless room, heads up, masks onthat our time together had really meant something to me, that I wasn’t just going through the motions, that teaching might be “just a job” in some respects, but that it is a lot more than that in others. I guess that’s something I hope they will carry away from my class as well, that (as Aurora Leigh tells us), “the world of books is still the world,” and that how we read, and how we think about reading, is inseparable from how we live.

“Otherworldly”: Richard Powers, Bewilderment

bewildermentI twitched in my sleeping bag trying not to wake Robin. A chorus of invertebrates swelled and ebbed. Two barred owls traded their call-and-response: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? Who would ever cook for this boy, aside from me? I couldn’t imagine Robin toughening up enough to survive this Ponzi scheme of a planet. Maybe I didn’t want him to. I liked him otherworldly. I liked having a son so ingenuous that it rattled his smug classmates. I enjoyed being the father of a kid whose favorite animal for three straight years had been the nudibranch. Nudibranchs are underappreciated.

Bewilderment is a heart-rending novel. It is about two failures, or two catastrophes. One is the failure of a father, Theo, to save his beloved, brilliant, difficult son Robin; the other is our collective failure to save our planet and the other creatures for whom it is also the only precious, fragile home. These failures are related: one source of Robin’s baffled fury—his terrifying, exhausting, destructive outbursts of rage—is the devastation he sees around him as some species are driven to extinction and others suffer needlessly because of human greed, selfishness, and callousness.

Theo is a single parent; he and Robin are still grieving for the death of his wife, Robin’s mother, Alyssa in an (apparent) accident, and that emotional struggle gives their close but fraught relationship additional pathos. Theo tries everything to help Robin learn to live in the world, to help him find his balance—everything, that is, except the one thing almost every other authority figure or expert involved in Robin’s life wants Theo to do, which is to medicate him. One source of Theo’s resistance is that he doubts their diagnoses:

When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.

powers2“So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probably OCD, and one possible ADHD,” he tells Martin, a neuroscientist friend of Alyssa’s to whom he eventually turns for help. “Most of the common meds are pretty normalized,” Martin comments, but when Theo insists that he wants “some treatment short of drugs,” Martin proposes that Robbie enter his ongoing trial of a therapy called Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, in which “subjects enter emotional states in response to external prompts,” generating scans that are then used to guide another set of subjects to follow in their mental footsteps. (I don’t pretend to grasp either the nuances or the feasibility of this intervention, or to know how realistic Powers’ evocation of it is.) This is Martin’s explanation of the approach they go on to take with Robin:

The scanning AI would compare the patterns of connectivity inside Robin’s brain—his spontaneous brain activity—to a prerecorded template. “Then we’ll shape that spontaneous activity through visual and auditory cues. We’ll start him on the composite patterns of people who have achieved high levels of composure through years of meditation. Then the AI will coax him with feedback—tell him when he’s close and when he’s farther away.

The treatments are successful from the start (“Brain Boy,” the researchers admiringly nickname Robbie) but they become remarkably so once Martin’s team connect Robin specifically with recordings of his mother’s brain activity from an earlier experiment she and Theo both participated in. Is Robin really reconnecting with his dead mother when he follows her thoughts and feelings in this way? It certainly seems like it, to him and to Theo: ‘It was her, Dad, Robin reports after one of the first of these sessions, and then, hauntingly, Your wife loves you. You know that, right?’

Theo’s hope is that the treatment will enable Robin to stay in and survive at school. It doesn’t work out that way, and so Theo begins home schooling him, with some costs to his own career as an academic astrobiologist. Robin flourishes under their new system:

He had no trouble keeping up with the public curriculum. He polished off his online self-exams with glee. We traveled everywhere that reading, math, science, social studies, and health let us travel. We studied at home, in the car, over meals, and on long walks through the woods. Even shooting penalty kicks against each other in the park became a lesson in physics and statistics.

Every success is precarious, though—the gains of the treatment wear off, even as Robbie becomes something of a celebrity as a case study, and the world around them continues to cause him distress Theo is increasingly unable to mitigate. Robbie finds meaning and motivation in activism, only to be crushed at its inefficacy, and at other people’s indifference (one of many ways in which his struggles reminded me of Owen’s). News of a devastating outbreak of bovine encephalitis necessitating mass killing of the “demented cows” causes a meltdown so self-destructive a worried neighbor calls child services.

powersTheo’s tense, beautiful, heartbreaking account of his life with Robin is intercut with their “visits” to other planets: part of Theo’s work is running simulations of what kind of life might emerge under wildly varying conditions which he and Robbie “explore” with exhilarating curiosity and awe. These sections are weird and wonderful, visions of possible worlds completely unlike our own and yet always imagined as possible points of connection. On the planet Pelagos, for instance,

Life spread through its latitudes from steamy to frozen. Hosts of creatures turned the ocean bottoms into underwater forests. Giant blimps migrated from pole to pole, never stopping, each half of their brains taking turns to sleep. Intelligent kelp hundreds of meters long spelled messages in colors that rippled up the length of their stocks. Annelids practiced agriculture and crustaceans built high-rise cities. . . . Dozens of dispersed intelligent species spoke millions of languages.

‘No telescopes, Dad,’ says Robbie; ‘No rocket ships. No computers. No radios.  . . How many planets are like this one?’ “There might be none,” replies Theo; “They might be everywhere.” ‘Well, we’ll never hear from any of them,’ Robbie concludes, not so much regretfully as with wonder. The planetary excursions reflect Theo and Robbie’s moods and needs: when their own world is too inhospitable—especially for Robbie, who is too sensitive to endure its sorrows, and too intelligent to be placated or distracted from them—they leave it behind. There is no escaping reality, however, and the last planet Theo conjures up is one “that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness. That happened billions of times in our galaxy alone.” His desolation is complete.

powers3I was initially drawn to Bewilderment because of its description as the story of a father and his “rare and troubled boy.” I had a son like that, and while his specific passions and hardships were not the same as Robbie’s, Powers captures a lot of what it was like to try and to fail to know what was right for someone whose gifts and whose difficulties were equally extraordinary, excessive, sometimes exhausting, especially but not only for him. I too liked my son “otherworldly”; his ingenuousness was so precious, even as it made him, sometimes, so vulnerable. “His pronouncements were off-the-wall mysteries to everyone except me,” Theo says of Robin;

He could quote whole scenes from movies, even after a single viewing. He rehearsed memories endlessly, and every repetition of the details made him happier. When he finished a book he liked, he’d start it again immediately, from page one. He melted down and exploded over nothing. But he could just as easily be overcome by joy. . . . Tell me what deficit matched up with that? What disorder explained him?

I think Bewilderment is, in part, about the limits of explanations, which are not, after all, instructions. What lies beyond them, as deep and vast and mysterious as space, is love.

“A Grand Mass of Detail”: Ian McEwan, Lessons

lessonsReading back since 1986 did not bring him any fresh understanding of his life. There were no obvious themes, no undercurrents he had not noticed at the time, nothing learned. A grand mass of detail was what he found and events, conversations, even people that he could not remember. In those sections it was if he was reading of someone else’s past. He disliked himself for complaining onto the page—about living hand to mouth, not having the right kind of work, not making a long and successful marriage. Boring, no insight, passive. He had read many books. His summaries were hasty, without interest.

Ian McEwan’s Lessons is what I think of as a “soup to nuts” novel, one that, like William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, earns our interest in its protagonist just by sticking with him. Like Logan Mountstuart, Roland Baines doesn’t really develop: he acquires no particular wisdom or insight over the years. He just gets older, and as he does, things happen: people come and go, priorities change, happy times give way to sad ones, opportunities are seized or missed, regrets arise then are displaced by more immediate crises or distractions. The novel’s title suggests that these accumulated experiences teach him something, that the Roland on the last page will be knowing in a way that the Roland we meet at the outset of the novel is not. He is, but not because of any grand epiphany, just because he is older and has been through a lot. Roland is not Pip, reflecting on his earlier life from the moral vantage point of the end of his Bildungsroman. When he looks back, as he often does, it’s with the same mixture of speculation, resignation, satisfaction, and self-reproach that probably most of us become familiar with as we pass from youth into middle age:

These days he ate less, drank more and thought a lot. He had a chair, a view, a certain glass he favoured. Among his subjects were other single starting errors that multiplied through time into a fan-shaped array. On close examination the errors dissolved into questions, hypotheticals, even into solid gains. On this last he may have been deluding himself. But in surveying a life it was inadvisable to acknowledge too much defeat. Marrying Alissa? Without [his son] Lawrence there would have been no joy, no Stefanie, Roland’s new best friend. If Alissa [who left him to pursue her writing] had stayed?  . . . Her novel remained exquisite. Leaving school early? If he had stayed, Miriam [his sexually predatory piano teacher], by her own admission, would have hauled him from the classroom and he would have been sunk. . . . Abandoning classical piano and the chance of becoming a concert pianist? Then he would never have discovered jazz, would never have run free in his twenties or learned to respect manual labour or developed a snappy backhand.

And so it goes, on through the many choices that, for better and for worse, have made his life what it was and is.

Following Roland along the journey is consistently interesting, sometimes surprising, occasionally both funny and poignant. There is (unusually for McEwan) no big twist, unless you count that in itself as the trick he pulls on us this time: except for the cuts back and forth between grown Roland and his childhood, the novel is straightforward, chronological, with an almost old-fashioned dedication to exposition, creating a “grand mass of detail” the effect of which is not revelatory but cumulative. At first it takes a bit of patience: where is it all going, you wonder? It’s McEwan, after all, and also right at the beginning Miriam puts her hand on eleven-year-old Roland, where she shouldn’t: surely dark things are in store. But instead time just keeps passing, and though Roland and Miriam’s relationship does turn into something inappropriate and disturbing (how much better is it that at least he’s fourteen by then?), it doesn’t seem, in the end, to be very important. “Were you damaged by it?” a police officer asks Roland, when the possibility arises that Miriam could be held criminally liable for their affair. “No, not at all,” replies Roland promptly, and there really is no evidence in the novel that he was. Should that matter, to the detective, to Roland, to Miriam, to us? Isn’t what she (they) did just wrong? Is the implicit message that there are some wrong things that actually needn’t be a big deal, if we don’t make a big deal of them? Roland is not  haunted or traumatized, although when he finally confronts her many years later he is angry: “It had an effect, do you understand? An effect!” He never does press charges. If hers are the lessons of the title, I ended the book uncertain what they were, or what they meant.*

Roland asks himself those retrospective questions about his life during the pandemic: “His London was of the plague year, 1665,” he thinks, “of the diseased wooden town of 1349.” One of his lockdown projects is to sort and annotate boxes of photographs; like so many projects we all imagined would see us through those long indistinguishable days of anxious yet boring isolation, this one founders. One of the side-effects of reading Lessons for me, as it checks off the world events that affect Roland more or less directly (Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the Thatcher years, 9/11, 7/7, COVID), was remembering where I was when Big Things happened. Usually, like Roland, I was at most a distant witness, and yet when I think of them I have the feeling that I was there, that they happened to me too: I was in northern Italy when news broke of the accident at Chernobyl, for example, and for weeks we wondered (as Roland does) about the safety of the water, and whether we should keep eating local produce; I was nursing Owen late at night when news broke of Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, and nursing Maddie while idly watching morning talk shows when every station broke way from their regular programming because the first plane had hit the Twin Towers. We are always living in history; I enjoyed Roland’s journey through it. McEwan never uses him as a facile device for a “front row seat,” though; except for some idealistic early attempts to do something “meaningful” by smuggling items into East Berlin, Roland’s own story is (as most of ours are) relentlessly personal.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel arises from one of its most personal events: Alissa’s decision to leave her husband and infant son. It isn’t until Roland reads her novel that he comes, not just to understand, but to accept the fierce necessity of her decision, which initially I thought might devolve into a predictably judgmental arc, Kramer vs Kramer style, about the selfishness of women seeking personal fulfilment at their family’s expense. Alissa herself describes her situation in ways much like Meryl Streep’s character does, in fact:

The two of you . . . I was nothing. I had nothing. No thoughts, no personality, no wishes except for sleep. I was sinking. I had to get out. . . . You’re a good father and Larry was tiny and I knew he’d be OK. And that you would be too, sooner or later. I wasn’t OK but I’d made my choice and I did what I had to do.

But unlike that character, she has no regrets. When Larry, grown up, shows up on her doorstep, she basically slams the door in his face: she chose otherwise. And when she tells Roland that she did what she had to do, she adds “This,” and hands him her book, The Journey, and it is a masterpiece, one he knows she never could have written if she had stayed home:

Would she, could she, have written The Journey there? The lapidary prose, the high-flying digressions offered up to the ghost of George Eliot, whom Catherine [the protagonist] admires, the fine painfully attuned consciousness of the heroine, the hovering watchful eye, the ever-generous tolerant narrative self-consciously organising, as if in slow motion right before the reader, the vast body of its material? No, impossible, no one could conceive a book of such ambition and execution in that house.

What is it worth, a book like that? More, Roland acknowledges, than the life she rejected. Yet that life has been his life: in rejecting it, she has declared, perhaps, that his life is not a worthwhile one, or perhaps that he is not capable of a better one, a higher one, because he does not have her talent, or her ambition, or her ruthlessness. The question of what we owe the geniuses among us, or what they owe us, is a perennially interesting one, for Roland and for us (and for Helen DeWitt, whose tart confection The English Understand Wool I also read recently). “I am a male Hardwick,” Roland plans to say when he attends a panel on Robert Lowell that takes up the painful story of The Dolphin, for which Lowell “plundered and plagiarised and reshaped the anguished letters and phone calls” from Hardwick when he left her for another woman. “You have to live it to know it,” he wants to say; “the quality of the work absolutely matters . . . Yes, I forgave her because she was good, even brilliant. To achieve what she did she had to leave us.”

Alissa achieves greatness (and very nearly the Nobel Prize). What does Roland have to show for his life, in his old age? A small hand in his, to lead him across the room. It’s an unexpectedly sentimental ending, from McEwan, another way in which this novel surprised me, but also pleased me. Maybe in his old age, he has tired of acerbity and cynicism, of twists that make us cringe or that shake our faith in each other and in the stories we tell. I have always admired the precision and heft and intelligence of McEwan’s prose; I am a big fan of Atonement (which I really miss teaching!), and also, if a bit more equivocally, of Saturday. I have read nearly all of his novelsbut I hated (hated!) Nutshell and so I passed on Machines Like Me. I’m glad I didn’t skip this one: I thought it was really good, and I’m looking forward to talking it over with my book club soon.

*A brief post-book club meeting update: After our discussion, I ended up thinking I underestimated the influence of Miriam’s assault, the effect of what you might call the residue of its trauma – although I do still think that it ends up absorbed in the larger story of his life. It is significant but not its defining event, which (perhaps – we debated this) is meant to signal something of a corrective to the current trend towards prosecuting “historical” wrongs.

What Am I To Do With These?

‘Jacob! Jacob!’ cried Bonamy, standing by the window. The leaves sank down again.

‘Such confusion everywhere!’ exclaimed Betty Flanders, bursting open the bedroom door.

Bonamy turned away from the window.

‘What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?’

She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.

“To that question,” Winifred Holtby notes in her book on Virginia Woolf, “there is, indeed, no satisfactory answer.” The novel’s final image “leaves an impression of apprehension, of the solicitude of women and of the indifference of fate . . . Its melancholy, its extraordinary desolation, are indefinable.”

The famous six word story (attributed, apocryphally, it seems, to Hemingway) “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is often cited as one of the saddest stories imaginable. I know that grief is not a competition, that there is no hierarchy of loss, and yet I have sometimes thought, since Owen died, that items often worn—like picture books often read—tell a tale every bit as heartbreaking, if not more, because they represent a love and a loss encompassing years. How well Woolf understood: I see myself in Jacob’s bereft mother, baffled, as I have so often been baffled, by the puzzle that completely ordinary things like shoes and clothes remain, even though the person who gave them meaning is gone. For nearly a year now, I have avoided them, but I have not been able to ignore them. Just by being present, by being what is left of him, they have relentlessly demanded my solicitude. But what am I to do with them?

There is, indeed, no satisfactory answer, but in the last few days, with loving help and support, I have at least (at last) done something. His clothes are cleaned, folded, and sorted, some ready to go to others who need them, some saved for our remembrance. I have never done laundry with so much love before: sad as it was, it also felt right, as if I was taking care of him again, as I did for so long. There is desolation in that, but also some comfort.

As always, a poet has shown the way.

“The Sadness of Clothes” by Emily Fragos

When someone dies, the clothes are so sad. They have outlived
their usefulness and cannot get warm and full.
You talk to the clothes and explain that he is not coming back

as when he showed up immaculately dressed in slacks and plaid jacket
and had that beautiful smile on and you’d talk.
You’d go to get something and come back and he’d be gone.

You explain death to the clothes like that dream.
You tell them how much you miss the spouse
and how much you miss the pet with its little winter sweater.

You tell the worn raincoat that if you talk about it,
you will finally let grief out. The ancients etched the words
for battle and victory onto their shields and then they went out

and fought to the last breath. Words have that kind of power
you remind the clothes that remain in the drawer, arms stubbornly
folded across the chest, or slung across the backs of chairs,

or hanging inside the dark closet. Do with us what you will,
they faintly sigh, as you close the door on them.
He is gone and no one can tell us where.

“The Singer Steps Out”: Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land

DoerrWhen the stream of the old Greek picks up, and she climbs into the story, as though climbing the wall of the priory of the rock—handhold here, foothold there—the damp chill of the cell dissipates, and the bright, ridiculous world of Aethon takes its place. . . . Turn a page, walk the lines of sentences: the singer steps out, and conjures a world of color and noise in the space inside your head.

Some novels are exhilarating to read because they are a kind of high-wire act—aspirational, excessive, risky. We are always aware, reading them, that the effort might not work—that they might fail, that their reach might exceed their grasp. Maybe the conceit will end up feeling too labored, or the philosophy too superficial; maybe the sough-after emotion will collapse into melodrama or bathos, or the structure will start to creak or even crack; maybe what’s on offer will prove not a daring exploit but an exploitative gimmick. Cloud AtlasDucks, Newburyport, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Piranesi all come to mind for me as contemporary novels of this kind; two of these I ended up, after some initial hesitation, absolutely loving; one I admired for its virtuosity but found too self-consciously showy for genuine delight; one (regular readers will know which one) I have started and abandoned in annoyance three times so far.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a literary high-wire act of this kind, and for me an unambiguously successful one. The novel is ambitious, capacious, acrobatic, and above all joyful—not in its content, but in its concept, which is celebratory even though many of its stories are tragic. Cloud Cuckoo Land is a paean to reading, but it dramatizes reading’s transformative alchemy rather than lecturing us about it; it enacts through its own readerly pleasures the magic its characters, if they are fortunate, discover for themselves. It is also an elegy for the world in which we read, which—like the precious volumes its characters treasure, decipher, and preserve—is beautiful and nurturing and heart-stoppingly vulnerable.

doerr2I won’t rehearse the details of the novel except to say (for those who haven’t encountered it or anything about it yet) that it follows a cluster of characters widely separated by time and place: in 15th-century Constantinople, a boy and a girl from two different, antagonistic worlds—both in their own way dreamers—cross paths and find fellowship; in 20th-century Idaho, the lives of an angry boy and an old man unexpectedly converge, their two forms of idealism colliding, with unintended consequences; in a remote future, young Konstance lives a surreal existence aboard a hermetically sealed spacecraft. The novel moves each plot forward a step at a time, orchestrating them with delicate precision. The novel overall is organized around fragments of a “lost” ancient text, The Wonders Beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes, which plays a key role in each plot as well as providing imagery and inspiration for the novel as a whole.

Dealing his characters’ stories out piecemeal as Doerr does has its initial risks and disadvantages. At first, the elaborate artifice of Konstance’s world almost lost me. Then Anna and Omeir captured my heart, and my fear for Zeno grew complicated by increasing understanding for Seymour. As the connections between the plots, both literal and thematic, showed themselves more and more clearly, I ceased to find it jarring shifting between them, and the further along I got the more invested I became in everyone’s plight, and especially in the role of books and reading in carrying them through it. Like Doerr’s earlier novel All the Light We Cannot See, it is written in meticulous prose—detailed, tactile, sometimes lyrical. The final revelation about the Argos is perhaps a bit pat (though it certainly surprised me) but that was not enough to detract from the enjoyment I got out of the reading experience. Cloud Cuckoo Land was transporting for me in a way that no other book I’ve read since Owen’s death has been. I finished it with tears in my eyes, in part for the hopeful beauty of the ending and in part for the reminder the novel gave me of what reading can be.doerr

On that note, it did occur to me as I read (maybe without reason) that the biggest risk Doerr takes is that his novel will seem to (or actually) pander to his audience. In celebrating books, the magic of the imagination, the value of libraries, and so on in a big sweeping novel, he is certainly and inevitably preaching to the choir. How could we resist a book that so perfectly reflects our own values? Of course we love it: it is about us and the things we already cherish! But does that mean that the whole project is somehow insincere? I’ve seen in stores (and read, for that matter) plenty of books that do strike me as manipulative in this way, their bookishness really little more than a marketing ploy. (It annoys me a lot when I fall for it!). I don’t think that’s the case with Cloud Cuckoo Land, not just because it is such a rich and demanding blend of erudition and creativity but because the novel itself is not ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’: it depicts a world with as much suffering and hatred in it as love and joy, in which beauty and horror, art and barbarism, coexist. The truth of our lives, as Seymour eventually realizes, “is that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human.”

Reading Week Reflections

Reading

It took some effort and some strategic skimming, but I made it to the end of Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. There’s a lot of it – but that wouldn’t have been a problem if I had felt there was more to it. What was all that accumulated information for, in the end? What comes of it? What are we left thinking about, after wading through so much detail about people who are by and large quite unsympathetic and disappointingly static? I was never exactly bored, but I was also completely unable to get my bearings at anything but the most literal level. But a lot of astute critics loved the novel (that’s one reason I bought it, after not having read anything by Franzen since The Corrections) so as always we are left with the great mystery of reading, the inexplicable idiosyncrasy of it all.

Now I’m reading Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study. I think it first caught my eye because it was on the Booker longlist. Then I read something else about it somewhere – now I can’t remember exactly what or where (typical of me these days, I’m sorry to say) that sharpened my interest enough that I went ahead and procured it. I’m engaged but not engrossed so far; we’ll see how it goes. I reviewed Burnet’s earlier novel His Bloody Project for Open Letters Monthly a few years ago and concluded it was “not wholly satisfying.” It too was a compilation of purported source documents; my main complaint (besides the voices being insufficiently distinct and exciting) was that it lacked a unifying idea about its elements. Maybe this should have discouraged me from trying another novel by the same author in so similar a vein, but Case Study seems tauter so far. I’ll see. If I can just concentrate on it long enough to read to the end, that in itself will be a mark in its favor.

Update: I did read Case Study to the end, and stayed interested in it the whole time. Success, then! I am not sure I read it in a suspicious enough way: I found the ending curiously anticlimactic and it was only on peering at some reviews that I started to think about more layers of unreliability and thus interpretation than had occurred to me on my own. Curiosity, too, rather than emotional engagement, was my main feeling as I read: I wanted to see how the elements were going to come together, and what they were going to mean, but I wasn’t particularly invested in the outcome otherwise. It’s a clever book, maybe too clever for a reader like me whose first instinct, at some level, is to give myself over to the fiction, rather than to mistrust every move.*

Also on my TBR pile are Ian McEwan’s Lessons, which my book club is doing next and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, which a member of my book club talked about in such an interesting way at our last meeting that it inspired me to pick it up. I’m stalled about a third of the way into Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, and keep looking at but not actually starting Nicola Griffith’s Spear. I feel as if I keep picking the wrong books, as if my reading radar is malfunctioning. For this reason I am suppressing my urge to rush out and buy Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, even though everything I’ve heard about it so far makes it sound very tempting. Or maybe my “bandwidth,” as we like to call it nowadays, is just overwhelmed by the combination of work (which of course includes a lot of reading) and grief.

Reflections

Today is exactly one year since Owen moved back in with us, for what was meant to be a restorative stop-gap measure while we sorted out his next steps. The onset of fall weather, with its crisp sunshine and bright colours, has intensified the feeling I’ve talked about before of time coming somehow full circle: the intervening months have been so strange, so foggy and disoriented, and the events of this time last year are still so immediate and vivid in my mind, that it is almost easier to believe I am still there, in November 2021, than here, helplessly reaching back to that hopeful reunion across the unfathomable chasm Owen’s death created in my life and my memories. But I’m not there, of course, but here, and soon there will be other, even harder, markers of the relentless way time puts more and more distance between us. I think often of Denise Riley’s comment that “the dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” Current wisdom is that grief is best treated by finding ways to continue our relationships with those we have lost. It is an ongoing struggle, for me, to understand what that means in practice, although I am learning that it includes grief itself, which for now at least is the truest expression of my ongoing love for my son. Its pain is no less fierce now, but it is at least more familiar.

These lines by Philip Larkin capture so well what it feels like to live with sorrow, sometimes sitting quietly with it but sometimes sensing it stir, or stirring it yourself, so that it flares up once more, rending your heart. I know a lot of you live this way too. 

If grief could burn out
Like a sunken coal,
The heart would rest quiet,
The unrent soul
Be still as a veil;
But I have watched all night

The fire grow silent,
The grey ash soft:
And I stir the stubborn flint
The flames have left,
And grief stirs, and the deft
Heart lies impotent.


* One of the challenges of a novel like Case Study for me is that, deliberately, we are discouraged from accepting any of it as sincere. And yet in the midst of it, there was a passage – narrated by a character we can’t trust, about someone who by the end of the novel I’m not 100% sure ever actually existed within its fictional space – that hit very hard:

Then something else occurred. One evening, as we sat at supper, I turned to the place Veronica had lately occupied and was about to say something to her, before I checked myself. For the first time, I keenly felt her absence. From that moment, I saw her death in a different light. There was a Veronica-sized void in the world. As well as her physical presence, the contents of her mind were gone. The question I had been about to ask would never be answered. Everything she had learned, the memories she had accumulated, her future thoughts and actions had all been snuffed out. The world was diminished by her non-existence.

In the novel, this moment is either poignant autobiography or strategically affecting fantasy (or, perhaps, sadly troubling delusion). Whichever of these it is meant as, it’s also, in its own way, truthful, as are many of Burnet’s remarks – off-hand though they seem – about suicide and “dark thoughts.”