I’ve spend several days looking at the list that I put together a few days ago. And as far as I can tell, I’ve basically learned nothing.
I can tell because I actually had an epiphany about my own work the other day. Which is that the works of mine that I enjoy are the ones in which the character strongly wants something and takes an active role in pursuing it: they’re books where the inciting event and subsequent plot complications are mostly things that the character does. Basically, they’re stories in which the character is just as much antagonist as protagonist.
Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, but many of my favorite books are actually not like that. For instance, take Revolutionary Road. Nothing happens in the book. It’s all about this couple wishing they could break free from suburbia and run off to France, but they do basically nothing to further that goal. Or in Buddenbrooks, everything happens in a very stately fashion. The family’s rise and fall has little to do with anyone’s particular talents: it’s all a matter of the operation of fate, and the pleasure of the book comes from watching the operation of different personalities within this milieu. Or take The Privileges. People do things in that novel, but nothing really matters. In fact, that’s a novel that tricks you, because you expect dramatic things to happen. For instance, at one point the husband gets involved in this embezzlement scheme. But it actually works out fine. The novel just skips ahead a few years and he’s suddenly extremely wealthy. That book is more about the experience of living. It’s about what it’s like to exist in these moments. Which is why the most beautiful part of it is the beginning, when this young couple are getting married in hot and sticky and somewhat unpleasant circumstances, and even though you know they’re not comfortable, you can also feel the majesty of the moment. Or what about Things Fall Apart. That’s a novel whose main character is completely satisfied with his life until the village oracle decrees that his son needs to die. Or let’s take The Magicians. The book is basically about how Quentin gets lots of wonderful things, but is perpetually dissatisfied and basically has zero idea about what will make him happy.
And all of those books are excellent! They’re some of the best books I’ve ever read!
But they’re not the kind of books that I enjoy writing.
Instead, I prefer to write books with extremely active protagonists. There, my model would be something more like Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is a novel about two working-class German people who’re sort of cruising along and laying low during the Third Reich, but then suddenly snap (when their son dies) and decide that they’re going to work to overthrow Hitler. Or House of Mirth, where Lily is perpetually given all these wonderful opportunities, but goes out of her way to disdain them. Another example is The Haunting of Hill House, where the action is driven, in my mind, by the way that Eleanor becomes positively obsessed with her fellow Hill House inmate Theodora. Oh, or in Main Street, where Carol Kennicott is living in a perfectly fine town and has a perfectly good husband, but mucks everything up with her constant efforts to improve and civilize the people around here.
That’s the kind of book that I want to write.
Really, it’s not even a question of want. I can’t be satisfied with a work in progress if the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot in that manner. Frequently, that means that my protagonists are either comical or somewhat on the more unpleasant side. Because there’s something unpleasant about a person who just won’t let things rest. There’s something unpleasant about someone who wants something so much that they’re willing to upset a perfectly good situation in order to get it. For instance, the couple in Every Man Dies Alone are embarking upon a praiseworthy course of action, but the way they do it is so foolish and ineffective that you can’t help but feel contempt for them. Or in House of Mirth, you just want to shout at Lily to marry one of these fucking guys already. Carol Kennicott, as well, is a character who reveals an ugly side in the readers of the book. We all think, just like her, that we’re superior to the plebes around us. And we’re all led, by that superiority, to engage in overbearing and arrogant behavior.
In many ways, it’s easier to write a more passive story. For instance, this is not the classic science fiction and fantasy story. In most SF/F, you have a character who is called upon to solve a problem. Luke is told to deliver the message to Obi-Wan. Frodo is told to destroy the ring. They’re given assurance that what they’re doing is important and necessary. And, furthermore, there’s really no turning back point. Once they’re committed to the adventure, all they need to do is struggle to win. Whereas Carol Kennicott’s story is very different. She takes this cause upon herself. And she’s constantly given the chance to back down, but she insists on digging her hole deeper by resorting to increasingly condescending behavior.
But I think these more active characters appeal to me because they’re engaged in the most fundamental human problem: the creation of personal meaning. Luke Skywalker never has to decide what things in life are worth doing. He’s told that he’s important, and he’s told what to do. The guy’s basically handed the answers to all of life’s existential questions on a silver platter.
Whereas a character like Carol Kennicott is heroic, to me, because she’s willing to answer that question herself. She’s willing to say, “I want to dedicate my life to making this town a better place to live.” And she’s willing to constantly reaffirm that statement, because there’s something about it that fills a need within herself.
I constantly wonder whether there’s anything in life that’s worth doing. But when I write a book about a girl who is, for instance, willing to cheat and scheme her way into her school’s valedictorianship, there’s something about that which is, to me, life-affirming. It’s saying, oh hey, I am able to imagine something in the world that’s worth desiring (even though I don’t personally desire it).
So those are all the things that I didn’t learn by staring at that list of books.
Three years ago, I read The Collected Short Stories Of Richard Yates. And I really liked it. And then I got a copy of Revolutionary Road–his novel about the slow decay of a suburban marriage. And I opened it, read the first two paragraphs, and said to myself, “Not yet.”
Ever since then, I’ve periodically harkened back to that book and opened it and read the first two paragraphs and said to myself, “Not yet.”
There’s a trick to reading books like Revolutionary Road. You think that you’re supposed to read them when want you be depressed. But that’s wrong. They’re not tragic or depressing books; they’re pathetic. And no one ever wants to be in a pathetic mood. I’m with Howard Roark: pity is a horrible emotion, and it’s one that’s best avoided.
That’s why I’ve been defeated in all my previous attempts to read a book. But I was recently reading a truly amazing book about suburban angst and despair, when I realized, “No! The time to read a book like this is when you’re in the middle of that mixed-up state that’s characterized mostly by boredom and a vague feeling that one should be doing something.”
Basically, the time to read a book like this is when you need to feel better about your life. In retrospect, that should be obvious. I mean, I have no idea who is meant to be the intended audience of Revolutionary Road, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not meant to be enjoyed by the vaguely artsy, vaguely repressed suburbanites that it’s attempting to portray. I think it’s meant to be read and enjoyed by people, like me, who can pat themselves on the back for avoiding that fate. As such, it’s kind of a mean-spirited book (although I haven’t finished it yet, so I’m not sure whether it breaks open into a kind of understanding). But, you know what? I’m fine with that. It’s beautifully written. I sympathize with and like the characters. But mostly I feel a profound sense of relief that my life will never be like theirs.
Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac – I had to read On The Road for a class in college. It was okay, you know, nothing special. A friend recommended Dharma Bums to me, it was really good. Usually when Americans do Eastern religion, it highly annoys me. But Jack Keroauc’s Buddhism is so simple, so silly, and so stupid that it’s hard to be annoyed. Yes, it is strange that he thinks of himself as a bodhisattva. But it’s incredibly endearing that he also thinks all of the cast-aways, stumblebums, and drop-outs he meets along the way are also bodhisattvas.
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis – Okay, so, like, I read Babbit before I read Main Street. And Babbit was really good. You know, it was all about skewering the pretensions of America’s upper middle classes. So I read this other book by Sinclair Lewis – one written before Babbit, and one which had been his first big success – which supposedly did the same thing but for the small town. And it was nothing like Babbit. It skewered the small town, but it also tried to understand the small town, and it skewered the small-town reformer, but also tried to understand the reformer. And there’s a scene near the end of the book, an interaction between a husband and wife, that surprised me so much that I had to put it down and go walk around the house and try to understand what I was reading before I could come back and finish the book. I have no idea what happened to Sinclair Lewis after he wrote this book. Somehow, in this book kindness and satire are balanced, but somehow each of his books seems to have less and less basic human kindness and more vicious satire until finally one ends up with the unpalatable mess that is Dodsworth (and, I suppose, all the books written after Dodsworth that I didn’t bother to read).
News Of A Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – This is a non-fiction book. A brilliantly written, interestingly structured nonfiction book that is told like a novel. A novel that is not a work of magical realism. It is about the kidnapping of ten journalists by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel in order to force concessions from the Colombian government. It’s a very taut, minute-by-minute account, very thrilleresque, very true-crime-esque. And like most true crime stories, the most interesting thing about it is not the crime itself, but why we bother talking about it. What made this crime so much more important, so much more interesting, than every other kidnapping that has happened in Colombia? Or murder? Or bombing?
Down And Out In London And Paris by George Orwell – When Orwell goes slumming, he really outdoes himself. He really brings the experience of hunger, of vagabondage, of working sixteen hours a day for a pittance, to life. But the thing that one appreciates the most about George Orwell is that he always wraps it up with a truism, like:
“The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, ‘What an overfed lout’; he is thinking, ‘One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man.’ He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day–they work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”
Now, is that true? I have no idea, but it’s truthy. It gives you the feeling that if you were just to open your eyes, you too would be able to generate well-worded truisms. It’s this tendency that I most enjoy in Orwell’s non-fiction, which I began consuming at a rapid pace after reading this book.
Parallel Lives, Vol. I by Plutarch – There was a certain era of British and American history — when Parallel Lives – which is a series of biographies of famous Greeks paired up the biographies of famous Romans, followed by a short comparison of their virtues – formed the cornerstone of a young man’s education. This becomes very clear when one reads, say, Emerson. Every single one of Emerson’s little anecdotes about Roman or Greek history comes from this book. It kind of makes you respect all those jerks a lot less. And then you realize that most of what you know about Greek or Roman history came from this book, in which Plutarch, a 2nd century Greek, basically mashed together every extant source on the lives of 50 totally baller dudes (mostly politicians and conquerors). I read a Project Gutenberg version, translated by George Long, which is one of the better translations I’ve ever read. Also, the biographies are of just the right length and level of detail, perfectly poised somewhere in between a Wikipedia article and a book.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Some seven years ago, a high school teacher of mine gave me a copy of this book, saying that I would enjoy it. Since then, I have made literally ten attempts to read it. I’ve never gotten past page twenty (where the main character’s father looks at three drops of blood from his nose that have fallen on the prayer mat and lay there like jewels). But, when I picked this book up on January 2nd of this year, I raced through it, totally gripped, and finished it at 3 AM on January 4th. I have no idea what was different this time, but I am glad to not have this book hanging over my head. Now I just have to figure out a way to give it back…
Henry IV, Part One by William Shakespeare – Okay, so it’s a little pretentious to read William Shakespeare, but I’ve always wanted to try to understand what the fuss is about. I read a number of his plays this year, and what I found was that there are a lot of good lines and good speeches, but that his plots are generally ridiculously contrived and, dare I say, totally arbitrary, and his characters can often be unpredictable, inconsistent, or just plain opaque. I mean, which is not to say that he’s not great fun, it’s just that I wasn’t really feeling the high emotion. However, that impression was shattered when I read H4P1. I’d seen it performed a few years back, so I was primed to like it, but still, this is an amazing play. It has none of the faults I mentioned before, and it has a number of amazing characters, Prince Hal, Henry IV, Hotspur, and, of course, Falstaff. There were even points when I cried a little. Like when Hotspur died….hey, it was sad. Stupid Bolingbrokes.
Kokoro by Natsume Soeseki – So, my Kindle makes it easy to read electronic files. That means that I spend a lot of time reading various free translations on the internet. Most of the time, this turns out not to be a good idea. Often the translations are from the Victorian era and are utterly antiquated. But the free online translation of Kokoro that I read was not only good, it was totally brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted as many passages in a translated novel before. And believe me, there is no writer who is so good that his words sound good even when they’re being translated badly. So yeah, if you read Kokoro, read this version (translated by Edward McClellan, published 1957). Oh, and the book is stunning too. It’s apparently a big deal in Japan, I had never heard of it or Soeseki before coming across a mention in one of those lists of “Great Books”. But it is great, so great.
Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal – This early 19th century book has an extreme number of amazing and somewhat unique parts. The description of the Battle of the Waterloo is gripping in its utter confusion. The political maneuverings of Gina and her lover, Count Mosca, are really fun, and Gina is probably one of the only non-tragic feminist-type heroines of all of 19th century literature. And the love affair that the hero Fabrice Del Dongo gets involved in is so over the top in its ludicrousness that it’s difficult to describe. He falls in love by communicating with his jailor’s daughter through a series of improvised signals from his window.
What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy – This is the crankiest book I have ever read. Late in life, Tolstoy became a religious nut and started believing: a) that all art should convey moral instruction; b) that the best art should be universally comprehensible; and c) that, hence, 99% of what was commonly termed art (including Tolstoy’s own masterpieces!) was utterly worthless. And then he proceeded to use the full force of his wit, erudition, and genius to try to prove these points, and insist that the highest art is fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and the Bible. For instance, in the course of ten pages, he briefly summarizes and dismisses the writings of about fifty aestheticians on the nature of art and beauty. And by the end of this book, you will be convinced. I mean, a day or so later, you will shake off its mesmerizing effects, but for a day, or maybe for just a few hours, you will be totally convinced.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – When I’d gotten 20% through this novel, I said, “This is the most utterly disagreeable character ever, I can’t believe that I am going to read a novel about him.” By the time I got to the end of the novel, Ignatius hadn’t changed, but I had. I was totally rooting for that jerk.
Candide by Voltaire – Some books are done a real disservice by those who would call them literature. Candide is just straight-up fun. There’s nothing else for it. It’s a romp. It’s a balls-to-the-wall, Jackass-style romp. You can read it in like two hours. I suggest you do. I read the Project Gutenberg version and it was pretty good.
Double Helix by James Watson – Alright, so Watson and Crick discovered DNA and got the Nobel prize. At the time that they did this work, Watson was my age, he was 25. And it shows. Watson tries to pimp his sister out to Crick in order to get the latter to work with him. And at one point they’re trying to get models of the DNA molecule built (like, out of metal, by a tool company), and Watson is like, “Well, we couldn’t do any work, since the models were not built yet.” And I was like, “Umm, really? So your plan is just to play around with these models like Lego blocks and literally construct a model of the DNA molecule? Really?” And then the models get built and that’s what they do. And get Nobel Prizes. Wow.
Bridge Over The San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – So, for a long time I thought that this was a book about a bunch of PoWs who were forced to build a bridge over a river in Indochina by sadistic Japanese wardens. But then I was reading an interview with David Mitchell in the Paris Review, where he cites this novel as one of his favorites, and then I went and looked it up and realized that this novel is not about that. I was thinking of the movie Bridge Over The River Kwai. This novel is about something altogether cooler. It’s so high-concept that I can’t really do it justice. But you should read it.
The Collected Stories by Richard Yates – I blogged about this at exhaustive length
I don’t like bookstores much. I like libraries. I like to check out a dozen books at a time and then read only three of them, and renew the rest again and again and check them out year after year, until I finally (maybe someday) gain the maturity to realize that I will never, ever read Ulysses and release it back into the world to torment other self-conscious bibliophiles. Whereas buying a book is something else. I’m shackled to the books I buy. I’ll probably have to lug them through the rest of my whole damn life. And even when I box books up for sale, or pulping, or just to rot in my parents’ garage – I still have to leave this niggling few out. Because I haven’t read it yet.
But sometimes the library’s closed. And other times I have $150 in fines and a blocked account, and I’m feeling like hell and rooting around for ways to feel better and I know I could just go home and watch Law and Order. But it won’t be comforting this time, it’ll just leave me feeling kind of gorged and sick. And I’ll try to sleep and won’t be able to. And the only thing for situations like this is a really laxative reading experience. But it has to be just right. It has to be just heavy enough that as I get further into the book, I lose more and more of my intellectual and emotional capacity, but not so heavy that I just stop reading and start watching Law and Order. And the problem is that the balance is different each time. I don’t just need a book, I need the right book. Which means browsing. Which means the bookstore.
When you’ve read as little as me — and browsed Wikipedia as much — you’ve already heard of all the authors. You heard of them from book reviews, from the dinnertable chat by the characters in other books you’ve read, from summer reading lists, from the bits of English you didn’t sleep through, from the lips of sophisticated movie characters, from quiz show categories named “famous first lines”, from interviews where hot young authors describe the transformative reading experience they had in the basement of their Brooklyn tenements, from seeing them on the spines of books you checked out of the library months ago and allowed to gather dust and fines, and from the first paragraph of the A- paper you wrote after finally returning the book to the library and pulling the relevant quotes up from Amazon.com text search.
And when you know already know the names of the authors, walking into the bookstore is an adventure. But not the good kind of adventure, the heroic quest through unknown lands. More like the kind where you trudge off into the forbidden forest looking for firewood and wondering whether it’s going to be the centaurs that finally get you, or the griffins.
So there I was, prowling through Barnes and Nobles for a book. I passed over the shelves again and again, letting things catch my eye. I came back to Donald Barthelme’s Forty Stories again and again. Wasn’t he so cynical and amusing with his little vignettes? Wasn’t some postmodernism what I needed right now? On a previous quest I’d been saved when I opened Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Its opening, a second-person narrative about a man in a bookstore looking for a book to buy, had struck me as trite the first time I’d read it, when I fished out my library copy from under my bed in my college dorm (in the Seannune, if that means anything to anyone), and the second-time, standing in my local indie bookstore Politics and Prose. But that latest time, those same few first pages filled me with peace.
Barthelme had been a strong contender that time. I’d clearly known what I wanted was whimsy, and I’d almost bought this collection (which had also bored me when I rented it sophomore year). But now its moment had passed. The first page was just words to me, and I finally put it back. Maybe its time will come again. I don’t know, I’ve never had two peaks of affection for a book. Either my regard increases, or it decreases. I haven’t lived long enough to know if my feelings towards some books might be sine curves, albeit ones with a period of years, that constantly cross the x-axis of personal toleration, plunging into the positive realm of affection or the negative realm of boredom over and over again.
Leaping past the shelves, I headed for my two chick-lit W’s, Weiner and Weisberger. I’d found and rejoiced in Good in Bed some months while moping around my house (I’m pretty sure it belonged to my dad), and dreamt that I might too be a good-looking movie star’s way of keeping it real. And there’s no funny story to go with The Devil Wears Prada…it’s just an awesome book and a better movie. But one look at the sequel to Good in Bed and I put it down. Too cloying. David Foster Wallace was also out. I’d already read everything he ever wrote, except his first novel, and I only had to glance at it to know tonight was not going to be its night.
Keep in mind, this whole process took an hour and a half. The certainty I’ve distilled down to you in a sentence was not certain at all to me at the time. I even took detours into the science fiction section, but was repelled by the massive wall of wrong. I didn’t have the energy to read a once-favorite author’s latest squirt of four books a year drivel (I’m looking at you Orson Scott Card). I even took a detour to Thomas Pynchon who I’ve always hoped I’d someday love and Jane Austen, who wrote the very first assigned-for-class book that I ever stopped reading halfway through (Pride and Prejudice in the 10th grade) and who had kept me up all night reading Emma last summer.
Finally my eyes drifted down from the Ws to Richard Yates – the very epitome of an author I’d only heard of. An author who I’d constantly seen mentioned, usually at the tail end of a list starting with two out of the crew of Carver, Cheever, and Updike, followed by someone marginally less famous but still respected, like Sherwood Anderson or Isaac Bashevis Singer, and then someone totally obscure, like Bernard Malamud or Grace Paley– as if there’s some sort of rhythmic law of name-dropping authors — as one the “great” short story writers, usually accompanied by absolutely no mention of the actual content of his work (or any of their) work.*
And he was the author of Revolutionary Road, too, eck. This is the Leonardo DiCaprio / Kate Winslet film whose trailer I was subjected to at least 13 times in the Fall of 2008, which was accompanied on at least four occasions by me leaning over to my brother and saying, “I am never, ever going to see that movie”.
I stood there, looking at his The Collected Short Stories Of (I wasn’t even going to consider Revolutionary Road), thinking “Dammit, I just read Unaccustomed Earth. Haven’t I totally read enough of these whole suburban-lives-of-quiet-desperation books to last me a year?”
On the other hand, I was standing in a downtown Barnes and Nobles at ten o’clock on a Tuesday wearing a jacket and tie, trying not to catch the eye of the attractive women sitting reading in their haphazardly placed plush chairs as I kept unwittingly circling them on my way from ‘B’ to ‘W’ and back again. I picked up the book, read the first page, bought it, got home at ten o’clock, and went to sleep.
The next day, I’d only gotten to the second story before I realized I’d been taken for a ride. See, I’d recently read my friend [bookelfe’s]** commentary on how much she hated epiphany stories. So epiphanies were clearly on my mind. But let me tell you, I love epiphanies. Epiphanies are the greatest endings ever. James Joyce deserves to be put on currency for having invented the epiphany ending. I want to write a story called “Epiphany” about a man who is addicted to a pill called E, or Epiphany, that only lasts for a few seconds, but each time, he experiences a shattering epiphany. And the story progresses with him having epiphanies about lightbulbs and the elevator and traffic and his secretary’s hair while his life falls completely to pieces around him (Actually, I think they already have that drug. It’s DMT, and the people who are fascinated by it are adorable and terrifying.)
And everything about Yates’ stories screamed out that they were epiphany stories. I mean, the second story, “The Best of Everything” is about a woman getting married to a man she barely knows and she gets all dressed up in her flimsiest, sexiest nightwear and decides to have sex with him for the first time, the night before they’re going to take the train down to her parents’ place for the wedding and her husband walks in, a little drunk, his face all wild and gleamy and tells about how all his friends threw this amazing surprise party for him and isn’t it great they cared and they bought him the suitcase he’d wanted to buy so he’d have something nice to take down but he couldn’t afford it and they bought it for him, except he doesn’t say any of that, he just thinks it. All he says to her is how he promised the guys he’d be right back, real soon, and all she says is “Can’t they wait” and he doesn’t even notice how she’s dressed and he really wants to get back, it’s the best thing he ever wanted in life, it’s the whole reason he’s getting married, and the story closes with:
She smiled tiredly and opened the door for him, “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be there”
Now that is not an epiphany. I mean, at first I thought I might just be confused. That maybe we were just seeing an epiphany from the outside. Like it was a kind of technique, maybe demonstrating the alienation of epiphany. But then I remembered one of my favorite last lines ever, from a story whose title, author, content, and first line I don’t remember. At the end, the family all sits down to dinner, just like they always do, and the narrator says:
And that was the first of our many reunions
And I looked up the last line of one of the Lahiri stories I read last week and really enjoyed. It was:
She clipped the ribbon with scissors and stuffed the whole thing in the garbage, surprised at how easily it fit, thinking of the husband who no longer trusted her, of the son whose cry now interrupted her, of the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other
Now those are arresting images. What possible worth did “The Best of Everything” have if it didn’t end with a nice, crunchy epiphany? Who cares about these character’s banal little lives if they can’t be elevated above them for just one moment by a glorious epiphany, if the story is just “woman with husband she is afraid might be terrible gets a little disappointed when husband turns to be kind of terrible”?
And this happened over and over. Understand, I wasn’t actively made angry by the lack of epiphany. More I was just puzzled. Because the stories were good. Really good. His characters are not people living lives of quiet desperation at all, but faintly ridiculous dreamers. Like a steel worker who quits his wellpaid union job to be a writer at a shitty labor rag because he dreams of having people pay attention to his words. And then he tries to hijack a little gossip column he gets and turn it into this big deal “Musings” column and gets fired by the editor. And then the story just ends. When the protagonist, his former coworker, tries to get him a job at another paper, the dreamer’s wife just brushes him off for condescending to her husband.
Just vivid, beautifully written story after story of cracked dreams that limp into endings. And I loved it. I’ve always kind of distrusted epiphanies. Because epiphanies are a cheap cop-out. Oh, they’re always so sad. And your mind’s eye is panning out over his tear-stained face, out onto the ravaged, rotted trees, and the violin music is playing in the background. But you know what? Violin music is beautiful. And epiphanies are moments of ecstasy.
The gambler who’s just lost all his money, the deed to his house, even the plane ticket home, on a bad roll of dice…in that moment he doesn’t feel sad. He’s ecstatic. He’s just lost everything, sunk lower than even he thought he could ever go. Nothing in his life will ever again be the same. He’s transformed himself through the force of his own will. Every epiphany is beautiful. In a world where we just drift through life, not really feeling or absorbed much (not that it’s the fault of the world, really), that once shocked moment of stillness and understanding transcends tragedy. It doesn’t make the tragedy worthwhile, it makes you feel like you live in a world where tragedy has no meaning. Heaven is an epiphany.
That’s why I’ve never really “gotten” the horror genre. Horror novels always end on a note of sinister malice that is profoundly exhilarating. If I discovered there were secrets that man was not meant to know, I would not be terrified, I’d be relieved. If there was a middle-American town where people were mysteriously, randomly, and methodically stoned to death every year, I’d thank heaven that it existed. And if a girl methodically killed her entire high school class and lit a town on fire with her supernatural powers…well, you get the picture. None of that is scary. Not even living through it would be scary.
For a long time, I wanted to write a bunch of short stories called “After The Epiphany” where the character wakes up the next morning and is like “Now what?” And the answer is…”Then you keep on living and nothing changes at all.” Because you know what would be scary? Having to wake up the day after seeing your colleague at Miskatonic University get blasted into madness by the Necronomicon and seeing the ungraded term papers lying on your desk.
Epiphanies are a cop-out. They capitalize on our distance from the protagonist to leave you standing at that moment of shocked, glorious recognition following a tragedy…but you never have to live the moment after that, or after that. You don’t have to wake up in the morning with that epiphany just a dim hungover memory and say, “Well, what now?” The moments after the epiphany would be the scary part. If Heaven is the ultimate epiphany, then Hell is the moment after it, and the one after that, and after that.
So as I read, I cheered Yates on. I applauded his middlepiphanies. The moment in the middle where his characters are balanced at the apex of their dreaming (no closer to their goal than ever, not really), but the moment when the dream seems most real to them. And then nothing happens. They don’t commit some act of epic hubris. They don’t have a stunning flash of insight. The story just keeps going, and we realize that they never had a shot in the first place. She was never going to become an actress, he was never going to run away and escape from it all. It was all a glorious, flawed delusion. And even that, what does that mean? Nothing! They just keep on living their lives, doing the same thing they always did, only that crazy dream is gone. But the real fool was always the reader, who at the beginning of the story believed, because stories have told us to believe, that this person is important by mere virtue of the fact that they have a dream. And that something will happen, whether it be positive or negative, joyous or sad, in service of that dream.
And we need Richard Yates to puncture that expectation in us, to operate on the needle edge of every story we’ve ever read, and play along so kindly and so deftly until we realize we’ve been had.
Except…I while reading I kept thinking about Gone With The Mind. A novel I loved for many reasons, and a novel that’s also about dreaming big and failing in the end. And one of the things I best remember about Gone With The End is the final page. Two pages earlier she’s told Rhett Butler she loves him, and he’s replied with some version of his famous line. But then she says:
“I won’t think of it now,” she said again, aloud, trying to push her misery to the back of her mind, trying to find some bulwark against the rising tide of pain. “I’ll—why I’ll go back to Tara to-morrow,” and her spirits lifted faintly
She had gone back to Tara once in fear and defeat and she had emerged from its sheltering walls strong and armed for victory. What she had done once – please, God – she could do again! How, she did not know. She did not want to think of that now. All she wanted was a breathing space in which to hurt, a quiet place to lick her wounds, a haven in which to plan her campaign.
And there’s a little voice in me saying, “What are you doing bringing out Gone With The Wind – that’s some consolatory garbage – Richard Yates is just telling it like it is, man! These people aren’t heroes. There’s no Tara for them.”
And maybe he is. But I think that on that morning after the epiphany, or on some morning after that, or maybe a year later or two, there is another peak. There is a lightening of spirits. Maybe nothing is ever the same again, and maybe it’s never as good. But you still need to keep living. There’s still some goal, some dream.
And as I plowed further and further in Yates’ collected stories, I started to hate him a little. Oh, I know it’s wrong to identify an author with his works. Maybe Yates was a sweet, optimistic man who always gave change to panhandlers on the street and made room when people were trying to change lanes in packed traffic. But when you’re reading someone’s collected works, that’s the output of a lifetime spread before you. And it’s hard not see some vast, malevolent intelligence, some guiding impulse behind these stories. So let’s just say that I started to hate that thing in Yates that caused these stories to exist.
And that feeling built and built until it finally came to a head on page 200 or so, with the second story, “A Natural Girl”, of his second collection, “Liars in Love,” which has one of the greatest opening paragraphs I’ve ever read:
[In the spring of her sophomore year when she was twenty, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she did not love him anymore. She regretted it, or at least the tone of it, almost at once, but it was too late: he sat looking stunned for a few seconds and then began to cry, all hunched over to hide his face from her, trying with unsteady hand to get a handkerchief out of his dark suit. He was one of the five or six most respected hematologists in the United States and nothing like this had happened to him for a great many years.]
While the first sentence was great, I loved the sheer fuddled melancholy of the last sentence in the paragraph. The story goes on to paint an engaging portrait of the father, Dr. Andrews and how much he loves his daughters and how bewildered and shattered he was by Susan’s rejection. The daughter, who’s the main focus of the story, goes off and marries her college English professor for whom she totally dissed her dad to get him off her back. And a bunch of stuff happens, and then she leaves the professor, etc, and while she’s taking her kid to their new life in California, she stops by her parents’ house, where Dr. Andrews begins to muse on his aging wife, and I encountered these two sentences:
[There wasn’t much left in her once-lustrous hair except what the hairdresser could salvage and primp; her body was bloated in some places and sagging in others. She looked like what she was: a woman who’d been called Mother in shrill, hungering voices for most of her life.]
And for some reason, upon coming this passage, I took the black ballpoint pen in my hand (yes, I annotate my books now, 7 years too late to get extra credit in high school English), put brackets around those sentences and scratched the word “EVIL” into the margin.
After that, I raced through the remaining two hundred pages of the book without particularly strong emotion. There are good stories in the second half, but by then I felt jaded.
And the next morning, I woke up feeling great.
*Seriously, google three of those names at random. Also, to prove my point re: knowing the names, I have not yet completed a book by any of these authors.
**I know that anonymity is a valuable commodity on the internet (I know I wish some of the UseNet postings I made when I was twelve were slightly more anonymous), but I don’t think I’ll ever get over how ridiculous it feels to call someone by their made-up internet handle.