My son and husband made these drawings together while we were on a family vacation in the mountains. We were staying at a remote lodge that had very long dinners and we needed something to do to keep sane. I drew the frames, and my daughter and I contributed the titling.
(Publication news: a new portal story in The Sun(perhaps my last portal story for awhile – I am finally taking a break from them!); and a teen anti-hero fantasy story in the November issue of Cicada)
I’ve been thinking about this question lately–about this impulse we have, to turn really good books into TV shows or movies–as I’m rereading The Handmaid’s Tale after flying through the Hulu series. The TV show was good, the acting really good. But the book is so, so, so much better.
My main qualm with the TV show is the impulse to simplify June/Offred’s character into someone who hates Gilead with all her heart and is also a hero in making. June, in the TV show, protested the government takeover with other women at first. She dropped the stone that she was supposed to use to kill Janine. She struts with the handmaids in a visual display of (perhaps misguided) power. She seems a little special, maybe a little extraordinary. While in the book, she is much more complacent (and more complicit?) and complex (Atwood has described the character as “an ordinary, more-or-less cowardly woman (rather than a heroine.)” June/Offred hates the Commander but also seems to have pity for him or claims to. She doesn’t imagine herself saving anybody. She simply wants to stay alive. Her daughter is a distant memory, not an actual child she can save. Sometimes she even seems to buy into Gilead’s guarantee of safety and security for women. It’s not like things were perfect before power was seized. “Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
June’s complacency seems in reaction to, and contrasts from, the political feminism of her mother, which is not applauded or found effective in the novel.
In the book, I was shocked to find June/Offred praying, maybe untraditionally, but it’s still a prayer to God, the same God that Gilead’s powerful is praying to (though June doesn’t think God intended what is going on: “I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me to get through it, please. Though maybe it’s not Your doing; I don’t believe for an instant that what’s going on out there is what You meant.”) Note that June/Offred’s daughter does not appear in her prayers. And the book has additional layers of complexity from the narrative frame: June is very conscious that her story is a reconstruction, and she admits she it is impossible to capture the actual event as it was: “It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.” Occasionally she tells us a detail, then revises her story, saying that’s not really what she did, or what happened.
And the style of the book! It’s breathtaking: dreamy, beautifully written, at times a little surreal. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, which I have read and reread so many times–Atwood is such an expert at flow and the pacing of a sentence, at breathless run-on sentences but also making metaphoric jumps that capture a character’s emotional state.
“I pull her to the ground and roll on top of her to cover her, shield her. Quiet, I say again, my face is wet, sweat or tears, I feel calm and floating, as if I’m no longer in my body; close to my eyes there’s a leaf, red, turned early, I can see every bright vein. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I ease off, I don’t want to smother her, instead I curl myself around her, keeping my hand over her mouth. There’s breath and the knocking of my heart, like pounding, at the door of a house at night, where you thought you would be safe. It’s all right, I’m here, I say, whisper, Please be quiet, but how can she? She’s too young, it’s too late, we come apart, my arms are held, and the edges go dark and nothing is left but a little window, a very little window, like the wrong end of a telescope, like the window on a Christmas card, an old one, night and ice outside, and within a candle, a shining tree, a family, I can hear the bells even, sleigh bells, from the radio, old music, but through this window I can see, small but very clear, I can see her, going away from me, through the trees which are already turning, red and yellow, holding out her arms to me, being carried away.”
One struggle I had with the TV show–something I struggle often with narratives on the screen–is the format doesn’t seem to fit. The smooth panning camera shots, a soundtrack, the orchestrated walks of the Handmaid’s–it feels too polished. Some kind of rougher (documentary?) style seems called for. I wanted it to feel real rather than to feel like I was watching a larger budget TV show. And in the show, despite the voiceover in Offred/June’s voice, we are forced to become observers of Offred/June, rather than her confidant. How could it have been otherwise? Perhaps never showing us Offred’s face, but only showing what she sees (but then to not show the emotion on Elizabeth Moss’s face!). My final peeve with the show: why cast beautiful actors and actresses as non-beautiful characters? In the novel, Serena Joy and the Commander are oldish. Neither are remotely beautiful or handsome. Serena Joy’s nose “must once have been what was called cute but now was too small for her face. Her face was not fat but it was large.” She walks with a limp and needs a cane. The Commander is described as looking like “a retired museum guard.” Why turn Serena Joy into someone who looks like a young model, and have the Commander played by Joseph Fiennes? It could have been too easy to dislike them otherwise, I suppose.
Other movies or TV shows I crankily feel did not improve on the book: any of the Harry Potter movies (I thought Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them was way better than any of the movies based on the original HP books); The Road (I only made it halfway through this film); Wolf Hall (made it through 2 episodes); Arrival (based on the short story “The Story Of Your Life”)(though the movie Arrival is good, the short story is nearly perfect).
Still, I’m grateful that The Handmaid’s Tale show came out this year, if only because it got me, and apparently a lot of other people, to return to the book, which is now up there as one of my favorite novels.
Writing on antidepressants update: for my depression I have moved on from Lexapro to….Prozac (read initial write-up here). I did get up the courage to ask my new psychiatrist what about Wellbutrin (Lev Grossman’s anti-depressant of choice), though I realize that probably is one of the worst reasons to think a drug is good for you (because you like the author). But due to my past history with eating disorders, Wellbutrin is countraindicted for me, says my psychiatrist, which means….no. I was bummed, as Lev Grossman doesn’t take Prozac, and Prozac does not exactly have a great reputation in the media–in my mind, it is kind of the poster child of anti-depressant overuse or the numbing effect you hear stories about. But it is also supposed to be the most activating (I love this use of the word) of the SSRI’s. So far, after ditching Lexapro and taking a week of very low dose Prozac, I’ve noticed it’s harder to fall asleep at night, but at the same time I am no longer falling asleep at the computer while I write. Whoo-hoo! Or needing 2-3 crazy long naps during the day!! This is a very exciting development. Lexapro works great for a lot of people, my psychiatrist explained, but other people experience sedation/drowsiness as a side effect, and I happened to be one of those folks.
As with Lexapro, there is still a kind of muting of strong emotions with Prozac. I don’t find this necessarily an awful thing, as my personal life is a bit crazy right now, and staying calm or unbothered helps keep my depression from spiraling downward. Though I do miss having this urgent need to process and write about the shitty stuff that happens in my life. Before meds, after some huge family blow-up, I’d race to the computer and just plow out pages of pure grit and emotion that would usually end up being very dark but also very interesting to me. I find it a lot harder to channel that emotion now or to even want to record my crazy last week for a future story idea. On the good side, that distance is helping keep me functional. And also it’s easier to imagine writing about something other than myself. Downside: those emotions are what fueled my writing for the past few years. Maybe it will just require some extra effort. Suicidal ideation: even on meds, I’m still struggling with this, though to a slightly lesser degree. My therapist thinks a higher dosage might help. But higher dosages worry me, as already I’m aware of that distancing/muting effect. What’s helped this week is trying to clear my mind of all the repetitive thoughts and worry and negative stuff, and forcing myself instead to think of 1 small thing I want to do that will happen in the next few hours. For example, I want to work on revising a story I am almost done with. Or, I want to use my arm bike and watch Stranger Things this evening. I want to bake an apple cake with my son! Etc. Then I tell myself I am going to be here until I do that thing, because that thing sounds nice. And I just really focus on how that one thing is going to happen and I want it to happen. Once that thing happens, I pick the next small thing. Then, repeat. Still an experiment in progress.
Reading: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. An amazing book and ideal for insomaniacs as it is very long (1,000+ pages) and not available as an audiobook. So I would never have the time to read it were it not for my sleepless nights. But man, the ending is so beautiful, and also so bleak. The book is a masterpiece in its ability to make every one of its characters human and relatable, including Gary Gilmore (check out a fascinating photo of him here), the convict who murdered two people and ended up being executed by the state of Utah. Also Lincoln in the Bardo. An almost perfect book. Daring, heartfelt, moving, funny…and the audio book rocks. Also my kids have insisted I read the Mighty Jack series as well as all three Zita the Spacegirl graphic novels (all of these books by Ben Hatke). I really loved the first Mighty Jack, where a boy gives away his mom’s car in exchange for some magical seeds. He does this because his assumedly autistic sister speaks about the seeds. That’s a great set-up for a story.
Watching: I’ve gotten kind of tired of movies this past year–something artificial or forced about having to wrap things up in about 2 hours. Instead, I’ve been watching more TV shows, Just finished The Bridge (Bron / Broen – the Nordic version), season 3. Heartbroken that season is over. I am in love with the two detectives in that show. I’ll write more about it later. Also loving Lady Dynamite, Maria Bamford’s Netflix series. It’s a great funny smart show about mental illness that has kept my spirits up during broken leg recovery. And Stranger Things. I love so many things about this show, but most of all for the character of Will’s mom, a mom who believes her missing son is still alive, even if such belief makes her appear insane. She toes the line between insanity and other worldly stuff, which is a fascinating and complex line that fantasy or horror tends to ignore.
Leg update: I told my husband, people ask me what happened, and I tell them I have a broken leg, and then they get really quiet. He informed me it is obvious I have a broken leg, and maybe instead I should try saying, “I had a hiking accident.” This has turned out to be a much better answer and generally has made for longer conversations. Though I still struggle with talking about the whole incident casually, and turning it into a neat little story with a happy ending — look, I’m healing! etc. That somehow seems to do a disservice to the violence of the whole incident. I miss my surgeon in Saranac Lake. It’s weird thinking that my leg is just one of many legs that he has operated on and will continue to operate on. He does appear to have a LinkedIn page but I am guessing that is creepy, when your patients want to be a contact. Being a surgeon must be an amazing job. You are putting people back together, and you get to see parts of them that they themselves will never get to see.
The language of surgeons: I received a record of the postoperative report, dictated at either 1:40 a.m. or 2:23 a.m. on August 22. I find the language fascinating and oddly moving (maybe because it’s about me?). But there are also these lovely turns of phrases – my leg was “draped in a standard fashion” and how my patellar tendon was “carefully retracted medially, ” and how “across the fracture site held a nice position.” I wish I knew where my surgeon was, what kind of room he was in, when he recorded this and how soon after the actual surgery. I think judging by the time it was fairly immediate. Still, how could someone remember all these details? This is as close as I can get to the iphone photo I wish someone took of my surgery, which is a weird impulse that kind of disturbs me, but I want to see a photo of it anyway. What was the expression on my face? I find it fascinating and odd that I have no memory of the time, and this surgeon, and all the people who participated in the surgery, know more about what was happening then to my body than I did or do. Anyhow, here it the report:
The patient was placed on the operating table in the spine position, placed under general anesthesia, and the leg was prepped with triple prep and draped in a standard fashion. The leg was exsanguinated with elevation only, no Esmarch bandage was used, and tourniquet was inflated to 250 mmHg. A closed reduction of the fracture was obtained and the fracture was held with traction and on the radiolucent triangles. A longitudinal incision over the patellar tendon was made through the skin and subcutaneous tissue and a longitudinal incision in the patellar tendon was performed and it was carefully retracted medially and laterally giving access to the proximal tibia. The guide pin was advanced under fluoroscopic evaluation and found intraosseous. Then reamed over that with a 8-mm reamer and then used the beaded guidewire to advance it to the proximal aspect of the tibia mid shaft across the fracture side into the distal tibia. It was noted to be a nondisplaced posterior malleolar fracture. We then began serial reaming the tibia and decided that a size 9.3 nail would be the appropriate size, so we did ream to 10.5 5 and then 11.5 proximally. With the fracture in a reduced fashion, we advanced the 9.3 x 34 mm nail proximally across the diaphysis of the tibia across the fracture site and into the distal tibia in appropriate position. The fracture was well reduced in the AP lateral projection. we then did a static locking screw proximally, drilled off the guide itself medially medial to lateral, drilled both cortices and then placed in the 3.5 cortical screw. We then went to the distal aspect and did a medial to lateral screw using the perfect circle technique and a 3.5 screw was used there and then with the foot in a dorsiflexion position to keep the posterior malleolar fracture reduced, we did an anterior posterior 3.5 locking screw with perfect circles and that across the fracture site held a nice position. The area was widely irrigated. All the incisions were irrigated. The incisions were closed with the 3-0 Monocryl and staples. We did put a 5 mm end cap in case the nail needs to come out some other time. The insertion site was irrigated out. The patellar tendon was closed side-to-side fashion with a 2-0 Vicryl. The peritenon was closed with 3-0 Monocryl, subcutaneous tissue closed with 3-0 Moncryl and staples. Sterile dressing was placed and a posterior splint was applied and the patient transferred to recovery room in stable condition.
It’s been 2.5 weeks since I slid a few feet down a mountain, broke my ankle and the tibia and fibula bones in my leg, got helicoptered out, and had a surgery called Open Reduction and International Fixation, meaning I now have a rod and several screws in my leg and will get stopped whenever I go through metal detector (I think that last detail is kind of cool, at least in theory. At least my kids think it’s cool). I have spent most of my post-accident time staring at a lot of things. The lake outside my hospital room in the Adirondacks (Saranac Lake). The bright blue bruising on my thigh and big toe. The weird swollen transformation of my left leg. The mountains I wasn’t climbing. The photos my husband took of the people who helped rescue me and also the photo of me flying through the air on a harness up toward the helicopter. I thought I would also get a lot of reading and writing done. Or at least I could get caught up on email. But apparently you can’t read or write on OxyCodone. At least I couldn’t.
Now that I am no longer in constant pain, and I’m off prescription pain killers (yes! because that was scary), it seems a good time to ease back into writing. But my brain is frustratingly resistant to this plan. I wonder why. Self defense? Denial? An absorption of bad habits (I did a lot of googling in the hospital so why not just keep googling away the mornings)? Laziness? Tiredness? Inertia? Self-pity? Disinterest? I’m hoping to ignore all of the unhelpful signals I’m sending myself right now (don’t write don’t write don’t write) (instead of writing, sleep! Stare out the window! Make granola! Buy weird things on Amazon! Do yoga! Sleep! Watch your leg!) and instead force myself to sit in this now uncomfortable desk chair and do the work. My plan: write 140 characters for Twitter. Write a few blog posts. Do some critique-free journaling about details of the accident. Respond to some writing related emails. Find a way to sit comfortably with my leg elevated. Send out a few stories to journals/magazines. Then start on a children’s story. Then get back to the monster project I was working on (before the “vacation”) about the end of the world.
Thoughts about my accident and writing: I fell several feet coming down from Algonquin in the Adirondacks at a steep part of the trail. I must have landed in the worst way possible because several feet is not that far to fall. I don’t remember falling, but I remember suddenly being on my back, and a man — Tim, who I like to think of as my guardian stranger–rushed over and said, “Are you okay?” and “Oh God,” and “You are really hurt. You have a bad injury.” and “Are you hiking alone?” I looked at my leg and saw something was very wrong with it, it was twisted at an odd terrible angle, so I closed my eyes and didn’t open them again for a long time. Tim called for my husband. “Your wife is hurt,” he shouted. “Come quickly!” My husband must have started running, as Tim added, “Not that quick,” worried there would be another fall. Tim held onto my left hand. With my right hand, I gripped my husband’s arm and left nail marks in his skin as they tried to straighten out and stabilize my leg. My daughter’s stuffed animal lamb was used as a cushion. I really wanted someone to stick something in my mouth that I could bite down on, a stick, or ? That idea didn’t seem to go anywhere. At least no one agreed to put a stick in my mouth. Tim covered me with his rain coat. Passing hikers stopped by and asked how they could help. I was hysterical for a while. I asked my husband to shoot me. We didn’t have a gun, of course. All we had was Advil. Time slowed. My daughter held my hand and touched my face. This was not how I wanted my children to see me. I needed both of my hands held at all times as that grounded me. My legs were shaking and my teeth were chattering though I wasn’t cold, and the shaking made the pain worse. My husband tried to distract me by reading Castle of Llyr to my kids and to me. That book unfortunately is my least favorite Chronicles of Pyrdian book. Somehow our cell phones worked. A younger couple had called 911 and was connected with DEC dispatch, and was told a helicopter and some rangers were coming out, resulting in the longest 2.5 hours of my life. The rescue helicopter arrived, hovered over us, then flew off, then circled back again, hovered, and flew off. The helicopter blades created a tremendous noise and its wind shook the trees. The fly-bys were because the pilot had to burn fuel before evacuating me from the mountain. Something about the warmer weather. I closed my eyes and pretended the helicopter was never going to come, that this was my new reality, lying in the middle of the trail with my destroyed leg surrounded by my pain. When I opened my eyes, a ranger was next to me, preparing the harness. I assumed I would be getting pain meds. I assumed I would be taken up in some kind of cot-like stretcher. But no pain meds and no stretcher. At some point my husband was busy preparing to help move me to the pick-up spot, while my daughter was helping radio the helicopter, which meant no one was holding my hand. The feeling of my hand adrift left me panicked. I began opening and closing my hand, and when Tim saw this, he held onto me. The ranger said, “Grab onto this here, but don’t touch that,” pointing to the contraption that would be hooked into the wire lowering down from the helicopter. I didn’t totally understand but then that might have been the point of the situation, a lack of recognizable logic and sense.
When I’ve gone through traumatic and difficult events in the past, I’ve always felt like I’ve had two selves experiencing the scene: my writing self and my regular self. The writing self takes a step back, taking notice of small details, and points out interesting observations, assuring me that whatever I am going through, it will be worthwhile, as I might be able to use it in my writing somehow. This accident was strange because it was like my writing self jumped ship and abandoned me, and all I had was myself, freaking out from the pain, and from the uncertainty about how and when I was going to get down the mountain.
Still, I knew I wanted a notebook with me as a kind of talisman. When the helicopter was on its way, I asked my husband to gather together a few items I could bring to the hospital. My phone, insurance card, kindle, and most importantly this green notebook and pen. I kept repeating myself, asking him to make sure the notebook would go with me. I imagined writing down a narrative of the accident, and writing down how it felt to be raised in a harness toward a hovering helicopter, meaning I left my children and husband below on the ground, while the sun was about to settle behind the mountains, knowing my family still had three hours of hiking left to go. The final light on the tops of the trees was golden and powerful. That narrative never emerged. I would go on to write only three small pages over the next 2 days in the hospital, and after that, up until this point, I’ve written nothing. I want to understand this block, my disinterest, for the first time, in recording a dramatic life-changing event. But I don’t understand it. I only know it’s still there and I still need to push against it, this curtain surrounding the actual experience around which it’s very difficult to form the words.
I think part of the difficulty in writing about this is that it was a freak accident. No one can be blamed. I was wearing trusty hiking boots and poles. I was going slowly. It was just that the trail was wet. Everyone was slipping. My husband had slipped minutes before. A woman had slipped and split open her arm a few minutes before that. Me crashing down there and having surgery and having to hobble about on crutches seems to be serving no higher or interesting or illuminating purpose. There seems to be a lack of complexity in this situation and perhaps the point of view that I’m most familiar with–mine–is the least interesting and most predictable point of view, for storytelling purposes at least.
When the author Colum McCann spoke in Syracuse last year, he touched upon an assault he experienced after intervening in a domestic dispute, and how afterwards, something changed in him, and he felt it necessary to go back and revise most of the stories in his upcoming book Thirteen Ways of Looking. It sounded like he gained some deep understanding through his own pain and from the violence inflicted on him from another person. Is it different when one’s physical injury comes from an accident? In such a situation, can anything be gained?
I think so, though some of the revelations I’ve had are very personal and perhaps less relevant to everyone else. For instance, I had never before reached my limits of how much physical pain I can endure. Now I can say that I’ve been there to that bleak place. Previously the most pain I felt was natural childbirth, which didn’t come close to approaching the feeling of having my leg splinted sans painkillers before I was taken up in the helicopter. (I also wonder productive pain–i.e. you will have a baby when you’re done with this!–may be easier to bear than non-productive pain.) I would like someday to try and describe the experience of that pain more, how animalistic it was, overriding any rational thought and hope. How even though it lasted only 2 minutes, that time expanded and became everything. I think I may only be able to describe it through metaphor.
Another revelation: there is still such kindness in the world. How beautifully intuitive it is, to reach out toward a person in enormous pain and hold their hand. The fact that humanity is still a kind species is so easy to forget if you read the news. There are so many little incidents of kindness that I’ve experienced these past two weeks. How the man who held my hand on the mountain, Tim, walked with my family down the mountain in the dark back to our cabin. How he offered to carry my daughter when she started hiking slowly. The PA at Lake Placid who told me I needed to have surgery. After he told me this, I began crying, and he placed his hand on my arm. After feeling such enormous pain in my leg, his simple touch was a revelation, compassionate and gentle. The high school girl who kept me company beside Heart Lake and I swear I saw in her glimpses of my 8 year old daughter. I thought, I am seeing how good and kind and empathetic my future daughter is going to be. It was a beautiful vision and I was so grateful for it. Everyone who shared their stories of how they healed from similar injuries. The woman in her 80’s who was grocery shopping in Lake Placid, she was leaving the store bathroom while I was entering, and she held the door for me. A minute later, she re-entered the bathroom, and said she was going to wait for me, because the door was very heavy and she didn’t want me to be trapped in the bathroom with my crutches. While I washed my hands, she struggled with the automatic paper towel machine and handed me a neatly folded paper towel. It’s not like she was in great health herself. She told me she was a retired nurse and knew how hard it was getting around on crutches. She opened the bathroom door for me, which wasn’t a simple task for her either–what’s up with such heavy non-automatic bathroom doors, people?!–and then she wished me luck and went on her way.
We have the occasional family movie night over here, which started as a way for me to keep sane while my husband was in a long distance master’s program which required him to be gone anywhere from 4 days to 2 weeks every other weekend. But it ended up being pretty fun watching movies with the kids so we kept the tradition going. We all take turns choosing the film, meaning our movie watching history is quite varied, encompassing Spy Kids, Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, Big Hero 6, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Singin’ in the Rain.
This past weekend was my turn to pick, and I decided it was time to introduce Hitchcock to my kids. My dad is a huge movie buff–he also collects and sells 16mm film and fixes projectors–so I grew up in a house dripping in movie history. My dad’s approach to movies certainly shaped my approach to reading: he loves movies unabashedly, with little regard to genre labels. Mystery, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, literary, classics, whatever. So in addition to watching The Blob as a kid (ah, that movie theater scene with the air vents!), and The Attack of the 70-Foot-Women, and Them!, and some movie about brains from outer space, and a whole lot of Twilight Zones, and The Godfather, Hitchcock was thrown into my childhood at some point, and I have fond memories of watching Rope, and Rear Window, and North by Northwest as a kid. (I do not have fond memories of watching Psycho, as I am forever terrified of hotel bathtubs with shower curtains.)
So I’ve made a point to expose my kids to older movies as well. My daughter giggled all through “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain, and we all found Errol Flynn’s 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood to be very, very exciting, though the sound quality sucked. I was a little surprised about cocaine’s appearance in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, but, you know, that just kick started the discussion about drugs and addiction that every parent has to have at some point (but did I really want to have that discussion when my daughter was 5? Thanks a lot, Charlie Chaplin).
For Hitchcock, I started off by showing my kids this spectacular preview to North by Northwest:
My 10-year-old son thought Hitchcock was hilarious. My daughter, now 7, got excited about the action scenes.
North by Northwest went over great. I mean, it’s not the perfect kid’s film using today’s definition of “kid film.” The drinking scene needed some explanation (Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill is forced to drink too much bourbon then he’s forced to drive his car in an attempt to kill him). And some of the, what to call it, romantic (?) dialogue between Roger and Eve Kendall was waaaaaaay over the top (Roger: The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her. / Eve: What makes you think you have to conceal it? / Roger: She might find the idea objectionable./ Eve: Then again, she might not.) But I’ll take that kind of stuff to the choppy, non-stop frantic energy of today’s current films that are marketed to children. Kids, it’s assumed, are unable to or unwilling to linger.
What surprised me most about re-watchng North by Northwest is the varied pacing. In particular, when Hitchcock slowed things waaaaaaaaaay down. Take, for instance, the Indiana scene, my favorite in the movie.
I would describe the scene as David Lynchian or maybe Fargo/Coen brothers-ish, but Hitchcock came first, so that comparison doesn’t work. But I love how everything is held a little too long. Other directors might have had one car pass Cary Grant by. Other directors might have shortened the interaction with the man waiting for the bus. But that slow pace built such tension as we sat watching the film nervously, our nervousness building with each passing encounter, until the crop duster descends and tries to mow Cary Grant down in the scene that follows. I believe something can be gained here from thinking about this scene in the context of writing, and genre writing in particular: that there is a place for moments of languid and quiet pacing even in such stories. (I ponder pacing and genre more here and here.)
My therapist has been bringing up anti-depressants every few months since I started seeing her in December 2015. The first time, I said there was no way I was going to take medication. My response was like a reflex. Where does such a reflex come from? Partly, I think I wanted to love my brain as it was. I wanted to think my brain was normal and good and, on the days when my brain did not treat me kindly, that I could wrestle it back into shape using behavior modifications, exercise, and my writing. My depression has never been the debilitating, can’t get out of bed sort. It’s chronic and low grade with occasional dips into major depression mixed with suicidal ideation. It’s not pleasant, but most of the time I can appear functional, and sometimes my brain will start doing some weird warped thinking that I can put into a story.
The second time my therapist brought up antidepressants, I said I’d think about it, and I thought about it for a few days, and then I said again, no way! I love my brain! And, to be honest, I had become very interested in writing about, and through, the low points of my depression. I felt like I was being given an opportunity to explore this weird dark murky awful landscape as a writer, and the writing I did while in such a place was dark, murky, weird, but also interesting to me.
Then recently I had a Very Bad Weekend, where my suicidal ideation ratcheted up a step, and it freaked me out a little, and also I was spending so much energy trying to answer the question “Do I want to be here anymore?” that I was having trouble doing anything else for a few days other than surviving and writing. (An awful complex fact: I think the writing I did during this time is actually pretty fascinating, and weird, and dark. I’m hoping to turn it into a creative non-fiction piece. So I don’t think my depression ever ruined my writing, though it did narrow the focus of my writing to me me me me me.) At my next appointment, my therapist brought up medication again, citing some reasonable evidence based data: that meds + therapy have been shown to be more effective than meds or therapy on their own. That I have been working very hard at therapy for 1.5 years and maybe it was time to try something a little different. She mentioned the possibility that maybe I didn’t have to go through so much suffering in order to write or to live my life. She doesn’t believe that artists need to be depressed in order to be good deep artists. Sometimes freeing one’s self from depression can actually help one’s art, she said. I said okay, yeah, I’ll think about it, and this time, I did actually do some thinking and some questioning.
Here’s what I thought about. How useful was my suffering or my depression? And who was it useful to? Was it useful to my writing? What kind of writer would I be without my depression, and without access to that very deep dark hole of a place in which I fell from to time? Would taking meds mean I was agreeing that my brain wasn’t normal? Was I just buying into society’s idea of a normal brain? What if my husband liked me better on meds? What if I liked myself better on medication? Was I participating in the over-medicating of American society if I started taking anti-depressants? What would meds do my writing? And, of course, there was the question, how much did I want to be here?
I had no idea the answers to any of these questions, so I started reading about writers and medication, or at least googling about it. I found some essays on line.
“When I look back on the writing I did during the 18 months or so that I was on SSRIs, it doesn’t seem terrible. Actually I won two awards that year for journalism, something that never happened to me before and hasn’t happened to me since. But I don’t think my fiction was all it could have been. There was a blankness to it. I feel like when I’m writing something worth reading, I’m doing two things: I’m saying something, but at the same time I’m reacting to what I’m saying, and I’m building that reaction into the next thing I say — I’m iterating, feeding back into myself, forming strange loops. Somehow that second stage wasn’t firing while I was on Serzone. The loop wasn’t looping.”
“The fact is I was falling in love. With Wellbutrin. I had found my drug. I could get out of bed in the morning. I did less ruminative thinking. I didn’t write and rewrite the same sentence 50 times. Whereas before I would get stuck and blocked ten times a day, now I kept on bulling forward. It was like I’d been water-skiing my whole life, but the boat had been going at half-speed, and I kept sinking down into the water until it burbled up around my knees and eventually I dropped the rope and fell over. Now the boat was going full speed. I was skipping along. I was finally getting somewhere.”
In 2013, Alex Preston seems to suggest in The Guardian that antidepressants are mostly bad for one’s creativity, though occasionally the drugs are portrayed as a necessary evil, depending on who you ask.
“Within three weeks of my own Prozac fog lifting, I was writing again. Yes, I still felt down, so down some days that I couldn’t work and buried my head under the duvet, but the trade-off was days when my fingers couldn’t move fast enough over the keyboard, my pen struck sparks from the page. In Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, the heroine, Kitty Finch, has just quit Seroxat. “It’s quite a relief to feel miserable again,” she says. “I don’t feel anything when I take my pills.” It’s been five years since I took my last SSRI. The happiness I get from my writing is deeper seated and more authentic than anything that could be confected in the laboratories of Big Pharma. The drugs didn’t work for me and, more importantly, I couldn’t work when I was on them.”
“I agree that powerful art is created out of a deep need, and bears the imprint of the essential raw self or soul. But if my anxiety really is a biological disorder, as doctors and psychologists have repeatedly insisted, then my essential self isn’t the anxious thoughts and existential dread I used to constantly feel. My essential self would lie underneath the layers of catastrophic images and anguished mental chatter. It’s possible that the medicines I take could help me travel a clearer and more direct path to that place, avoiding the potholes and back alleys of phobias, anxiety, and panic. Though it takes more discipline to sit down and write now, since I am not doing so to save my life, I am practicing writing from a place of curiosity rather than pain, fascination rather than desperation, forging my way more safely into a different dark.”
“Lexapro turned me into a zombie, riding through the motions of life without feeling. Things that made me angry became irrelevant. There was no twinge of sadness watching Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. If you’re wondering whether something is off, that’s a sure sign. Whenever I picked up a pen to write, I had nothing. I couldn’t even write about the damn rain. If you’re a creative writer who can’t poetically describe the rain, you’re in trouble.”
There are a lot of forums where people who enjoy writing at various levels say antidepressants either killed their creativity or it was okay or maybe it even helped (here’s one discussion at reddit).
“I write more frequently now, because I don’t have to fight against the fatigue and hopelessness to even get started on a story. I did have a bit of an adjustment period in my work, but that could be attributed as much to how I drank pre-meds as anything; I had to encourage myself to write as fearlessly sober as I did drunk. The idea that medication is guaranteed to ruin your work is horseshit. Yes, some people have reported that, but others have had the opposite experience, and I can’t help but wonder how many people have avoided a treatment that could’ve saved their lives based on that fear.”
And then there are the numerous articles and more articles and even more articles about how we are an over-medicated society. This 2 part book review, by Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books in 2011, is kind of famous (here’s part 1 and part 2) (Peter Kramer, noted below, does not find Angell’s arguments to be accurate, by the way).
“The books by Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat are powerful indictments of the way psychiatry is now practiced. They document the “frenzy” of diagnosis, the overuse of drugs with sometimes devastating side effects, and widespread conflicts of interest. Critics of these books might argue, as Nancy Andreasen implied in her paper on the loss of brain tissue with long-term antipsychotic treatment, that the side effects are the price that must be paid to relieve the suffering caused by mental illness. If we knew that the benefits of psychoactive drugs outweighed their harms, that would be a strong argument, since there is no doubt that many people suffer grievously from mental illness. But as Kirsch, Whitaker, and Carlat argue convincingly, that expectation may be wrong.”
Even my beloved Dr. Weil chimed in on the overmedication of America in The New York Times this week (by the way, what Dr. Weil says below sounds like an extreme generalization and does not sound like a good idea or a viable solution):
“Here’s another example: I would only use antidepressants for very severe depression and then only for a year at most. With long-term use, they can intensify or prolong depression. For mild to moderate depressions I would try other measures: regular exercise, reducing caffeine, acupuncture, cognitive therapy, vitamins B and D, St. John’s Wort, fish oil — and spending more time in the company of happier people.”
There has been some pushback to the overmedicated narrative thankfully, though I think those voices are generally quieter. One example is Peter Kramer’s Ordinary Well: The Case for Antidepressants. I just started reading this book, and it is great so far.
“To state Kramer’s position bluntly, SSRIs work—not all the time, and not for all people, but in lots of ways for lots of people. How they work remains a partial mystery, and how well they work has a subjective component—as do the afflictions the drugs treat—but murky borders do not mean there is no country. Pharmaceutical companies may have pushed a cartoon claim of “chemical imbalance” to suggest that some people need supplementary serotonin the way others need extra iron, but Kramer bases his assessment on 30 years of clinical experience as well as his own immersion in the literature of drug trials.”
Armed with such random and inclusive research, I decided to keep researching. Because I like research! And as long as I was researching, I could put off the decision of whether or not to start taking meds. I kept talking to my therapist about medication. I wrote to one of my favorite writers Andrew Solomon, who has struggled with depression, to get his opinion. Andrew Solomon generously wrote back this very solid advice:
“If you look at my books, you will see that antidepressants have not gotten in the way of my writing as well as I ever have. If you try the meds and feel they interfere with your writing, you can stop taking them (under a physician’s directions). If you never try them, you’ll never know.”
I thought about Daphne Merkin, who wrote This Close to Happy, a beautiful memoir about depression, while on meds. I thought about how 25% of American women aged 40-50 are on antidepressants, a fact which freaks me out and makes me so sad (what is it about this world that makes so many women that age incompatible with living happily on the planet)?
I told my sister I was worried my writing would suck on meds. She asked me, “Would you rather write well and be miserable, or be happy and not writing well?” I said, “I think not writing well would make me miserable.” The deep dips of my depression had been giving me something to write about or write against. My therapist said maybe not being depressed will give me more energy and focus to write. But usually I had been able to write through my depression, and I wasn’t often distracted by it, except when I felt compelled to research the effectiveness of various suicide methods, which I always felt could be used for a story, anyway.
I talked with the writers in my writing group. One friend asked did I know how many writers were on meds? Another said we were talking about SSRI’s here, right? It’s not like we were talking about clozapine. I tried to explain my hesitation: I wanted to love my brain as it was. “Well, fine,” said a friend, “go ahead and choose to be miserable!” But it was more complicated than that. I was exhausted from my suicidal ideation that had been haunting me for years. I was tired of having to justify my life to myself, which, on good days, I kind of could do, and on bad days, I couldn’t. But I wanted the world to go on meds instead of me. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen.
So I picked up the phone, called my primary care physician, and made an appointment.
My primary care physician is a lovely MD with a holistic bent. She likes yoga, lentils, and breathing exercises, and she has never in the 15 years I’ve known her been an enthusiastic prescriber of drugs. This is one reason why I like her. But I thought my situation would be an exception. When I went in and said, “I’m depressed! I want anti-depressants!”, it’s true I expected fanfare, or at least for her to say, “Congratulations! You’re here after hours and hours and days and weeks of research and thinking! You’ve made a healthy decision! You are not ruining your writing in any way!” Instead my doctor looked disappointed. She promised that she would write me a prescription, but then went on to talk to me about diet changes, positive thinking, meditation, and walking for a long time. I felt like a junkie. This was not the response I was looking for. I left thinking, have I not tried enough? Are weekly therapy sessions, and trying to implement a whole host of healthier thinking habits, and having an emergency plan, and a list of coping strategies, and yoga, and running when I’m not injured, not enough? On the one hand, I appreciate the amount of time my doctor spent with me. On the other hand, I think (and hope) antidepressants are warranted with depression, and with some kinds of depression, lifestyle changes are not a substitute for meds.
I started taking a low dose of generic Lexapro.
I’ll be honest, at first I felt like I was poisoning myself. I know that sounds dramatic. But my body physically felt so bad, bad headaches, nausea, like I had the flu. I thought it was my body’s last ditch effort, that it was crying, “Please, please, stop!” Then the tiredness set in. I didn’t tell my husband I was trying out meds for the first two weeks. Instead, I pretended I was sick. I’m not sure I’d recommend this approach, but that’s what I did. I didn’t want to have my husband say, “I am so excited that I will not have a super depressed spouse anymore, hooray, go medication go! Can you take more or maybe up the dosage?” (I did eventually tell him, and he did not say any of this). I listened to a lot of The Hilarious World of Depression podcasts during this time. It’s a brilliant, lovely show where comedians talk about their experience with depression, and a lot of them are on medication or have used medication to get through their depression, and it was such a healing relief to hear creative funny people talk about meds in a positive light.
After a week, the headaches and nausea did go away. The tiredness didn’t. It’s still here, in fact, sitting in my lap. It’s a tiredness that reminds me of how I felt when I had a nursing newborn in bed, and I would wake up in the morning feeling like I hadn’t slept, and then I’d continue to feel that way the entire day. It’s a tiredness that is like a weight attached to my limbs. It’s uncomfortable and a pain.
The good things about medication? I am able to talk to my husband again in the evenings. That voice in my head exhausted me to such a degree that all I wanted after dinner was quiet, which is fine if you have a quiet spouse or if you don’t have a spouse at all, and also if you don’t have any kids, but I have a spouse, and he likes to talk, and I have kids. Also I feel like my sadness has a floor on it now. I’ve only cried once in the last 4 weeks. I am not thinking of suicide every day or multiple times a day. Last week I didn’t think about it once. Things bother me less. Should things bother me more? Probably. But it is relaxing, to not watch the evening explode or catch on fire or burn down after one bad interaction with my husband or my children. And sometimes it’s nice to be able to not be thinking anything.
How has SSRI’s affected my writing?
The first week (which, I know, everyone says is too soon to feel any real effects, but whatever), I felt like a voice was shut off in my head. Sure, it was the voice that had been set on loop, the voice that would get stuck and tell me all sorts of awful things about myself and then go on repeat, or it would remind me, when I was really down, of the various ways that one could kill themselves. I realize none of that is at all useful. But that same voice would sometimes point out a reality not available to everyone else, a reality I wanted to write about. I miss that voice. The first week I imagined that poor voice bound and gagged and hurt. My therapist suggested there is a way to get the good parts of that voice back, but I don’t know how to do that yet.
When I first started to take meds, I would sit down to write, and all I heard, instead of that familiar voice, was,”OH MY GOD I AM MEDICATION, OH MY GOD I AM MEDICATION.” I was very self-conscious. I would change a word in a sentence and then go back and examine the change, and wonder, is this change any good? Would I have made this same change before medication or would I have been able to come up with a better word? This did not help my writing any. But eventually I chilled. This took 1 week, maybe 2. I got to the point where I might remind myself, “You’re on meds!” and the response would not be a freak-out but something more civil, like, “Yeah, I am.”
Once the panic subsided, it seems like I’m able to revise just fine, though the tiredness is an issue, and I tend to start falling asleep half an hour after I start writing, which means a long nap, from which I wake up cranky, because I hate naps, and after I write for a little more, I start falling asleep again. I’m thinking about seeing a psychiatrist and trying out an anti-depressant that isn’t known for fatigue. (It will be hard for me not to go in and say, “I want Wellbutrin!” As that is what Lev Grossman likes and used while writing the later books of his Magician series, and I like Lev Grossman, and I like his writing. But I need to remember Lev Grossman has his own brain and I have mine, and each brain’s response to medication is so personal and unique) (though I still might go in to the psychiatrists office and say this anyway, as I am tired of being tired).
In terms of subject matter, I don’t have the same drive or obsession to be examining my sadness and my depression in my writing. Is this a good or a bad thing? Perhaps it was time to move on. I probably have way too many pages written on this topic. It might be exciting to write about something more outside of myself. I don’t know. There certainly is less of an urgency to write as well, though I’m still writing just as much. It just takes more internal motivation. Maybe it’s that writing is no longer so tied to my survival. Will that affect the quality of my writing? I don’t know. I have to imagine this change will be reflected in my stories somehow. But I know a lot of great writers have not written out of a sense of survival. And I’m sure a lot of great writers have.
Am I part of the overmedication of America? Part of me thinks that a person’s individual depression, or anxiety, or reasons for taking medication is so complex, that perhaps everyone should mind their own business and stop being so judgmental about what medicine other people are taking. For me, the decision to take medication felt necessary, if I wanted to stick around, and it was through no lack of effort on my part. And I don’t think medication is so great that I would ever want to be on it if it wasn’t necessary. It’s not like, whoo-hoo I’m exhausted, and I want to take a nap, and I don’t care so much about so many things anymore, this is awesome!
Sometimes I feel like a character in one of my stories, who takes a pill so that she can be altered enough to allow her to stay in her current life. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, I suppose, other than I would like my unaltered brain and my current life and the world to be a better match.
“For Lewis it was a decision between writing on Prozac or not writing at all. For Keeril Makan, the choice was rather different. One of America’s most celebrated young composers, he struggled for years with a depression that would often find vivid reflection in his work. He describes his music as “informed, almost viscerally, by my depression”, and spiky, atonal pieces such as The Noise Between Thoughts attack the listener with a bleak physical force. Finally, though, he reached a point at which he had to step away from the darkness. “Although I was still composing,” he told me, “it was such an excruciating process and was putting me in contact with these really difficult emotional places. I couldn’t go on with my daily life. I was creating music I was happy with and people were interested in, but I had to live as well.”
He started taking the antidepressant Wellbutrin and meditating, and found that his music gained a new depth as he dragged himself out of his depression. “Being on the antidepressants does change the type of emotions I’m experiencing,” he said, “but I think they can be just as interesting. If anything, this helps the composing. I was working on an opera recently and I don’t think I could have written it before. I was too one-dimensional, emotionally. Things were just dark but now there’s both – dark and light.” I confessed to admiring the raw power of his early work and he chuckled. “It’s true that I’m not as fully immersed in darkness as previously, but I guess I don’t care, because I couldn’t keep doing that. It was a question of living, or creating this music that was negative and violent. I made my choice.”
I’m still treating this whole thing as an experiment.
I have chronic low-grade depression (dysthymia, a word I will never be able to spell without looking it up) with some episodes of major depression. I also have a son with Asperger’s/Autism and a complicated marriage. So I’m in a lot of therapy now and have been for the past few years. Couples, individual, parent therapy to help my son, plus, as an extra bonus these past 8 months, physical therapy and gait retraining for a stubborn running injury. Upside: I can put therapists, and being in therapy, in all of my stories! As I know a lot about it now. Downside: it takes up a lot of time and I’d rather be writing (or showering). In couples therapy recently, I began doodling to calm me down, as couples counseling is as relaxing as someone looking into your eyes, and holding your hand, and pulling off your fingernails one by one, but also because I like doodling. Here’s me, on a relatively okay day, making a neat orderly picture while I talked with my husband and therapist.
Then I had a bad week. My depression flared up. Here’s me at couples counseling, 2 weeks later, when I was stuck in one of those low points.
These two drawings are comforting to me for several reasons. I’ve often written through, and about, my depression, but I hadn’t drawn through it before. It’s nice to know that something as invisible as functional depression (well, invisible to other people at least) can come out in a sketch. Visual proof, perhaps. Also, I see these two drawings as a reminder that at some point my mood will inevitably improve. I was once able to draw neat boxes; then I was unable to draw neat boxes for a while; but now, at this moment, I am able to draw neat boxes again. The second drawing allows me to see my depressed self at a distance as well, which I find fascinating (I tried taking a photo of myself in a very depressed state once, because I wanted to see what I looked like. I guess I’m glad I did that, in case I have to describe someone who looks unbearably sad, but it’s a hard photo to look at. This drawing is easier for me to stomach). I see in that second sketch someone–okay, I see me–trying very hard to bring some kind of recognizable order to the chaos that was my mind at that moment. I appreciate and admire that some part of my mind was trying very hard to draw some recognizable shapes, even if the depressed part of my mind immediately went in afterwards and began to scribble methodically all over those shapes. (That is actually a great summary of conversations between my non-depressed and depressed parts of myself: the little non-depressed part of my mind trying to stay hopeful while the depressed part of my mind easily overwhelms it by releasing a vitriolic storm).
And then, in the upper middle of the drawing, I swear I drew a portal for myself. Not consciously but I can’t help seeing it there now. I’ve been obsessed in my writing about portals for so long, and I love that some part of my mind was trying to create one for me, a dark tunnel out of the mess of myself through which I could go.
I forgot an essential book for the “slow-paced genre realism” category I recently made up: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I discovered the novel after watching the first episode of the excellent TV series. (The beginning of The Leftovers pilot, by the way, contains what may be the best three minutes in television I’ve seen. Please watch if it you haven’t! Overall The Leftovers an amazing job of depicting the complexity of parents and parenthood and this three minute intro is no exception).
The premise of The Leftovers: 2% of the world population has disappeared (about 140 million people). Though we get a sense of the chaos that happened immediately after “the departure” as it’s called (and that chaos certainly has apocalyptic tones), what is brilliant about both the book and the TV series is that the story really begins 3 years after the departure, when things have kind of returned enough to normal to resemble literary realistic fiction. The world still works. People have jobs. The infrastructure is functional. Yet everyone is affected–haunted?–by the disappearances and are dealing with their grief in their own way. Nobody understands why it happened: was it the Rapture? If so, why were non-Christians taken along with Christians? And why were bad people taken as well as good people? What does it say about someone if they were left behind? And where did the people who are gone go? Did they go to a better place? A worse place? Did they just disappear?
Those questions are never answered, by the way, which I think is great. The answers might be the preoccupation of a different version of the novel, one more formulaically genre-ish, but this book’s concern is the way people deal with their grief, and how people move on, or don’t.
The Leftovers strikes me as “post-apocalypse light.” In most post-apocalyptic fiction that I’ve read, enough of the world’s population disappears to disrupt normal day-to-day functioning. The planet becomes a scary wasteland, and the story concerns itself with how people survive and eventually rebuild. They’re like adventure novels. In The Leftovers, only enough of the population is missing for practically everyone to be affected in some way. Most people saw someone disappear or they are related to someone who disappeared. But more than enough people are left that life can continue on seemingly unaffected on the surface. Everything is still functional in theory–there is electricity, cars, jobs, grocery stores, food. It’s the grief and the doubts that are crippling: why were certain people taken and why were certain people left behind? It’s really a novel about grief and all the ways that we can lose people.
The book is slow and beautiful and subtle and devastating but also somewhat hopeful at the end. It also contains one of my favorite passages about motherhood. This passage rips my heart out by its teeth, so I’m going to include it below.
(This is a letter written by Nora to Kevin, who she is trying and failing to date, about what happened the evening her family disappeared. )
We were having a family dinner.
It sounds so quaint when you put it that way, doesn’t it? You imagine everyone together, talking and laughing and enjoying their meal. But it wasn’t like that. Things were tense between me and Doug. I understand now why that was, but at the time it just felt to me like he was distracted by work, not fully present in our life. He was always checking that damn Blackberry, snatching it up every time it buzzed like it might contain a message from God. Of course it wasn’t God, it was just his cute little girlfriend, but either way, it was more interesting to him than his own family. I still kind of hate him for that.
The kids weren’t happy, either. They were rarely happy in the evening. Mornings could be fun in our house, and bedtimes were usually sweet, but dinners were often a trial. Jeremy was cranky because … why? I wish I could tell you. Maybe because it’s hard to be six years old, or maybe because it was hard to be him. Little things made him cry, and his crying over little things irritated his father, who sometimes spoke sharply to him and made Jeremy even more upset. Erin was only four, but she had an instinct for getting under her brother’s skin, pointing out in a matter-of-fact voice that Jeremy was crying again, acting like a little baby, which made him absolutely furious.
I loved them all, okay? My cheating husband, my fragile boy, my sneaky little girl. But I didn’t love my life, not that night. I had worked really hard on the meal — it was this Moroccan chicken recipe I’d found in a magazine — and nobody cared. Doug thought the breasts were a little dry, Jeremy wasn’t hungry, blah blah blah. It was just a crappy night, that’s all.
And then Erin spilled her apple juice. No big deal, except that she’d made a big fuss about drinking from a cup without a top, even though I told her it was a bad idea. So what, right? It happens. I wasn’t one of those parents who gets all upset about something like that. But that night I was. I said, “Damn it, Erin, what did I tell you!” And then she started to cry.
I looked at Doug, waiting for him to get up and get some paper towels, but he didn’t move. He just smiled at me like none of this had anything to do with him, like he was floating above it all on some superior plane of existence. So of course I had to do it. I got up and went into the kitchen.
How long was I there? Thirty seconds, maybe? I gathered a handful of towels, winding them off the roll, wondering if I’d taken enough sheets, or had I possibly taken too many, because I didn’t want to make a second trip but didn’t want to be wasteful, either. I remember being conscious of the chaos I’d left behind, feeling relieved to be away from it, but also resentful and overburdened and unappreciated. I think maybe I closed my eyes, let my mind go blank for a second or two. That was when it must have happened. I remember noticing that the crying had stopped, that the house felt suddenly peaceful.
So what do you think I did when I got back to the dining room and found them gone? Do you think I screamed or cried or fainted? Or do you think I wiped up the spill, because the puddle was spreading across the table and would soon start dripping onto the floor?
You know what I did, Kevin.
I wiped up the fucking apple juice and then I went back into the kitchen, put the soggy paper towels in the garbage can, and rinsed my hands under the faucet. After I dried them, I went back to the dining room and took another look at the empty table, the plates and the glasses and the uneaten food. The vacant chairs. I really don’t know what happened after that. It’s like my memory just stops there and picks up a few weeks later.
Would it have helped if I told you this story in Florida? Or maybe on Valentine’s Day? Would you have felt like you knew me better? You could have told me what I already think I know — that the crying and the spilled juice aren’t really that important, that all parents get stressed out and angry and wish for a little peace and quiet. It’s not the same as wishing for the people you love to be gone forever.
But what if it is, Kevin? Then what?
The TV series made some interesting but successful adaptions from the book, including giving one of the book’s minor character a much more prominent role. Holy Wayne, a charismatic cult leader, is dismissed as a charlatan in the book. With Holy Wayne in the TV series, we don’t know if he’s for real or not, or if he’s just taking people’s money and giving them hugs–he claims he can hug away people’s pain–but the thing is, people think that he is helping them. People, such as Nora in the scene below, believe he is for real. I think that’s rare and complex, to put practical doubts aside and show a cult leader giving something necessary to the people who believe in him. (I have little patience for cult leaders being shown as simplified one-dimensional villains, as practically every book that contains a cult leader portrays them, but that is a post for another day.) Re-watching this scene, I can understand why some people thought the TV series was overly devastating and dark–I believe it was called “the most dismal show on television.” There is none of that exciting adventure, where people triumph over the landscape/devastation/cannibals, that you often see in post-apocalyptic fiction (for more thoughts along this line, check out this New Yorker essay: “The post-apocalyptic imagination is shot through with unacknowledged wish fulfillment”). People in The Leftovers are certainly not triumphing. They are usually just really, really sad. But I think that’s a more realistic and honest tone than that heroic adventure vibe many apocalyptic books give off.
(What I’m reading now: Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones; about to start Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which is such an awesome title; and reading the YA urban fantasy My Diary from the Edge of the World, Jodi Lynn Anderson, to my daughter)
I had a great time this past month savoring Version Control by Dexter Palmer. It clocks in at a little over 18 hours as an audio book, but once I settled into the story, I found the slow pacing to be really wonderful. I wonder if we can create a sub-genre in science fiction or fantasy of slow-paced genre novels (or slow-paced genre realism?). Think a little Alice Munro or Karl Ove Knausgard transported into a genre setting. Into such a categorization, I’d throw some of my favorite books: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, as well as Molly Gloss’s Dazzle of the Day and Wild Life. Ah, and how about the beloved The Wall by Marlen Haushofer? My Real Children by Jo Walton? And then there is this one book I read 20 years ago, which I can not locate, no matter how many creative Google searches I do, about a regular California community and a regular woman, maybe a mother, who is just essentially living in an almost boring way–and then, in what’s maybe the last two chapters, there is a nuclear holocaust. But that is such a small part of the book, maybe even an afterthought…
I’ll stop my list now. But I do admire the authors who write this way. I think it takes some courage to straddle the line, not just in style but in plotting, between genre and realistic fiction as they do, as genre readers may find such fiction slow, and literary readers may wonder why there has to be aliens in the story.
My love for slow sci-fi and fantasy doesn’t mean I avoid or despise meaningful plot-driven genre books. The Underground Airlines comes to mind, a page turner, but also fascinating in its alternate history of the U.S., but also a dark mirror to who we are now. In more traditional genre books though, I find myself drawn to the minor characters who are left behind in quests, who don’t save anybody or become involved in intrigue or do anything spectacular–who are simply living their ordinary lives against an interesting fantastical backdrop, and often I wish the story was about them rather than the hero.
I came across an essay of Dexter Palmer’s on Strange Horizons: “On Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.” It’s a lovely essay, written with the same generosity, thoughtfulness, and curiosity that I found in Version Control. The essay’s opening captures some of what I’ve been thinking about lately concerning writing, readership, and readers’ responses to a work–in particular, what seems like people’s impulse to judge, rather than a movement to first try and understand. To equate quality with whether or not they liked the book, not allowing that it’s possible for a book to be successful and, at the same time, for them not to like it. Rather than thinking of work we don’t like as a failure, there is the possibility that maybe it’s us: that we are uninterested in reading the work in the way the author intended, or that maybe we just don’t like that sort of writing. (How does one identify a successful versus an unsuccessful book then? Is it by first determining what the author was attempting to do, and then considering was the author able to achieve that? Or maybe it would help to simply acknowledge, before we judge, our reader biases: I don’t like fiction that leaves me depressed, etc.) Part of my feelings about this is personal: I write slow fiction, and that includes slow genre fiction. Right now I’m drawn to stories in which nothing substantial happens on the surface, other than the reader is given a window to a character’s life for a little while. I realize these sorts of stories aren’t for everyone. But the fact that a story isn’t for anyone does not, by default, mean 2 stars. Anyhow, here’s the Palmer’s essay opening:
All novels are exercises in empathy for their readers; all of a novel’s readers are performers of its possible meanings. Each novel gives hints of the kind of person it wants its reader to temporarily become in order to enjoy it to the fullest. We don’t read eighteenth-century fiction with the same ear as we do fiction from the twenty-first, or science fiction with the same ear as literary fiction about the daily lives of New Yorkers. If we are skilled readers, we quickly pick up on the hints the text throws out and we shift our expectations. If not, or if the conventions of the work are unfamiliar to us, then perhaps we find ourselves left out in the cold, or saying, “I really wanted to like this book. But.”
This is certainly not to say that all novels are inherently good, and that a displeased reader is always one who has failed the text, but to say that when a reader bounces off a novel, we should ask if the problem lies with the author’s failure of craft, or with the reader’s inattention, improper expectations, or inexperience, or whether it’s caused by some other reason altogether. With a work whose critical reputation is well established over decades or centuries, this is easy: one-star Amazon reviews of Moby-Dick are mocked for a reason. But with a work of expansive scope and ambition that’s still only months old, the question is harder. Here is the opening of the New York Times’ review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, dated May 28, 1922:
“A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may comprehend ‘Ulysses,’ James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will gain little or nothing from it—even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it—save bewilderment and a sense of disgust. It should be companioned with a key and a glossary like the Berlitz books. Then the attentive and diligent reader would eventually get some comprehension of Mr. Joyce’s message.”
That sounds like the beginning of a hatchet job, the sort of review we’d smugly laugh at now that ninety-odd years have passed, but two paragraphs later Collins calls Ulysses “the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century.” Collins isn’t hedging his bets here: he knows, even in these early days, that he is in the presence of genius. And yet he freely expresses an ambivalence about the nature of that genius.
In the following paragraph, I also found this idea fascinating: that micro-realism and micro-description has a place in genre fiction, but not in realistic fiction. I don’t know if I agree with this–perhaps My Struggle would be the book I would hold up as an example where the point of the book is in the minutiae of detail. Where it’s not the detail itself but the lens through which the detail is seen that’s important: every character or narrator does not see a tree identically. (Bolding below is mine.)
Whether Moore’s attention to detail is an asset or a liability in the first part of the novel, it clearly becomes an asset in the second part, when the dominant mode changes from realism to a mix of young-adult fantasy mixed with metaphysical speculation. In this section we get an extended journey into the afterlife world of Mansoul, occasioned by a near-death experience brought on when Michael Warren chokes on a cough drop at the age of three. There is a strong influence in these chapters from Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, as well as the children’s adventure stories of Enid Blyton, and it’s here that the cosmogony of this novel is revealed: essentially, though humans perceive themselves as moving dynamically through three dimensions as they age, they are in fact static four-dimensional objects, and their belief in their own free will is a necessary illusion. If one might think that many parts of the first section of the novel would be better rendered as a comic rather than as a text, here Moore breaks free of the two-dimensional limits of the page, using prose to describe extra-dimensional objects that would be impossible to visualize otherwise, and that benefit from extended detail, being wholly imaginary. (One might also say that the problem here is that Moore writes realist fiction in the same style as he writes genre fiction, as if Northampton’s sights and sounds will be as unfamiliar to the reader as those of Mansoul.)
Love this too…the idea of intentionally creating a work for which an ideal reader does not exist. To have that be the point of the work.
But an optimistic reading, the one I tend toward, is that it’s a suggestion that the scope of Jerusalem is such that its ideal reader of this text may not and may never exist, and creating a work with such a scope was Moore’s ultimate aim. Nearly every reader who encounters this work and sticks with it will find his or her empathy for art tested, in one way or another: this is the achievement of a work that’s so remarkably versatile and all-encompassing in its genres and styles. Whether the book constantly tickles one’s pleasure centers (and I freely confess that it did not for me) is, in the instance of this book, almost irrelevant. The novel is aiming for greater things than pleasure, not least of which is the illusion of fully preserving a place, in all its detail, in four dimensions. (Alma, talking of her work, just a few pages from the novel’s end: “I’ve saved the Boroughs [ … ] the way that you save ships in bottles. It’s the only plan that works. Sooner or later all the people and the places that we loved are finished, and the only way to keep them safe is art. That’s what art’s for. It rescues everything from time.”) (1259)
Anyhow, read the essay! I’m curious about Jerusalem now, it’s officially on my reading list, but so are about 500 other books (sigh…).
I recently became obsessed with The Throwback Special written by Chris Bachelder. I started off listening to it as an audiobook while aqua jogging in the local YMCA’s pool. It’s a difficult book to listen to in the first place, lots of shifting points of views (the novel follows 22 men) and tons of little gems of descriptions and dialogue that you might miss if your attention wanders for, say, a second. It’s especially difficult to listen to while aqua jogging in a pool, as pools are noisy to begin with, at least the pool I use, and you’re also getting splashed, and sometimes the nice water aerobics women sharing the tiny roped off corner of the pool with you are trying to talk to you. (What is the perfect book to listen to while aqua jogging? I haven’t quite found it yet…). So after a first listen through, I read this book again, this time on my Kindle. Then I listened to it one more time. Then I went back and reread anything I highlighted, which seriously was about half of the book.
I think I’m done with my rereading, but really, it’s an amazing book stylistically, a book I tried to study and learn from as I read through it again. How does Bachelder manage to be so funny while not belittling his characters and turning them into a joke? How, in this time, in the current political/publishing climate, do you write about 21 white middle-aged men (1 of the men is bi-racial) and still have their stories seem vital, valuable, and worth telling? How do you take a story about football and guys and make a reader like me, who is completely uninterested in football, and prefers I’ll be honest to read stories about women, love the novel? And then there’s all the smaller stuff: how Bachelder is an expert at not over-explaining. How he slips in small details and then leaves the details behind, letting the reader make of them what they will (such as this hint at a character being suicidal: “In his garage where he did not kill himself he had constructed a prototype of a self-washing house window.”). How he has his characters tell these amazing, interesting, yet at the same time ordinary stories to each other and then the particular story isn’t brought up again. The story isn’t connected to some future event either. It’s put out there, often in a monologue format, and usually not everyone is listening to it, and that telling of the story is its own purpose.
I could go on and on but I’ll limit myself to one more thing Bachelder does extremely well: list making as a narrative device. His lists have this great rhythm to them but I also love how he breaks the rhythm with dialogue or grammatical variation or by varying the length of a list item. And also I love the emotional variation of his lists too.
TRENT HAD COME HOME to find his daughter going down on a boy. Jeff had come home to find his daughter going down on a girl. Andy had come home to find his kid doing like this with an aerosol can of whipped cream.
“Yeah, whippets,” said George, the public librarian.
Tommy had come home to find that his dog had eaten a package of diapers. The surgery was twenty-five hundred dollars, and now he had pet insurance. Nate had come home to find his wife Skyping with a man in a military uniform. Bald Michael had come home to find his son hurting a cat. Whenever Peter comes home now, his daughter is reading. He was so anxious for her to learn to read, so worried when she showed little interest, but now that’s all she does. She doesn’t even talk to Peter anymore. She just sits in corners, knobby knees pulled up to her chin, the book held over her face like this, like a veil. The other men knew about books over the faces of girls. Carl came home to find his son building something with a lot of wires. Wesley came home to find that his twins had built twin snowmen. The picture was on his phone if he could only find it. Fat Michael had a friend who came home to find that the rags he had used to apply linseed oil to his furniture had spontaneously combusted, causing sixty thousand dollars of property damage. When Steven had come home, everyone in the house was just gone.
Here’s a great list of the various t-shirts that the men wear to sleep.
THE EMPTY HALLWAYS WERE HAZY WITH sconce light and Wi-Fi radio waves. The small red lights of ceiling smoke detectors blinked in no discernible pattern. An elevator car rumbled in its shaft, transporting nothing but a name tag (Marc) and the scent of degraded deodorant. A ghost coursed the stairwell. The vending alcoves clicked and hummed.
Vince’s T-shirt read Daytona Beach, and he snored intermittently.
Carl’s T-shirt read No Coffee No Peace, and the Sharpie wouldn’t wash off his hands.
Wesley’s T-shirt read Richardson’s Lawn & Garden, and he composed, in his mind, in the dark, a long letter to his son.
Gary’s tank top read I ATE THE MEGABURGER, and he snored aggressively.
Bald Michael’s T-shirt read Miller High Life, and his sleep apnea machine made a pleasant bubbling sound like a fish tank.
George’s T-shirt had a picture of Darwin with an enormous block of text far too small to read, and he snored slowly.
Nate’s T-shirt read WTF?, and in the dark he regretted the cigarette.
Robert’s T-shirt was inside out to conceal the design, and in the dark he worried that his older daughter was developing an eating disorder.
Andy’s T-shirt read Which Way to Rock City?, and he snored like a cartoon hound.
Gil’s T-shirt had a picture of Thor and Loki, and his hand was asleep beneath his pillow.
Myron’s T-shirt was yellow, and he snored with a placid countenance.
Tommy’s T-shirt was incomprehensible, and he snored beneath his mustache.
Fat Michael’s sweaty shirt read Bailey’s Peak Challenge 2006, and he ran seven-minute miles on the treadmill in the hotel’s Workout Center, wearing his Joe Theismann helmet and staring blankly over the single bar of the face mask into the wall-length mirror.
Derek’s T-shirt read University of Virginia School of Law, and in the dark he wondered if he should put some pachysandra or other ground cover on that steep slope in his backyard.
Steven’s T-shirt had a picture of sunlight passing through a prism, and he snored consistently.
Jeff’s T-shirt read Ninja in Training, and he told Steven, snoring beside him, that as much as he hated to say it, this would probably have to be his last year.
Randy’s T-shirt read Thompson Optical, and he could begin to feel the gentle tug of the pill.
Chad’s T-shirt read California Dreamin’, and he snored without making a sound.
Charles’s V-neck T-shirt was white, and all of his T-shirts were V-neck and white.
Adam’s T-shirt read Second Place Is the First Loser, and in the dark he calculated his chances.
Peter’s T-shirt was blue, and he stared at the clock, waiting for the number to change.
Trent’s T-shirt read Big Data, and although he courteously wore a nasal strip, he snored with calamitous volume. When he woke up, he discovered that his nose was running. Though he did not have a cold, or he hadn’t had a cold when he went to bed, mucus was now streaming down his face, his neck. In the dark he reached toward the bedside table for a tissue or towel. He grasped something soft, and brought it to his face. As he did so, he realized that the mucus was blood, and that the tissue was a jersey.
The final excerpt uses, in the last section, the list as a plot device–cool! I especially love, in the list below, the list as a question, and the uncertain list where not even the narrator knows what is going on.
THERE WAS A DEER next to the dumpster behind the hotel. It stood still in the rain, ears alert, waiting to be frightened. A grainy version of the deer occupied a small box in the third column of the fourth row of the surveillance grid of the sixteen-channel CCTV monitor at the front desk. Like anyone shown on a surveillance monitor, the deer appeared to be involved in a crime.
In another box of the surveillance grid, the parking lot glittered blackly.
In another box, four grown men threw a football in a hallway.
In another box, two employees from the AquaDoctor scrubbed the lobby fountain with soft brushes.
In another box of the surveillance grid, the stairwell was so profoundly deserted as to seem post-human.
In another box, an elevator passenger dropped into a three-point stance.
In another box, it was very difficult to tell what exactly was going on.
In another box, a man wearing an elbow pad ran an unsustainable pace on the treadmill in the workout center.
In another box, two grown men threw a Frisbee in a hallway.
In another box, the continental breakfast had long since ended.
In another box, was that a cat in a hallway?
In another box, inhabitants of the conference center applauded silently.
In another box of the surveillance monitor, the front desk clerk ignored the sixteen-channel surveillance monitor.
In another box, a man pacing and gesticulating alone in a hallway was either suffering from mental illness or using a phone with a hands-free headset.
In another box, an upside-down bird gnawed grainily on the knotted rope in its cage.
In the final box, an elderly man walked with purpose and a dignified limp through the lobby doors, into the hotel, vanishing from the box. He then reappeared in the front desk box, placing his elbows on the desk in a manner that seemed both inquisitive and assertive. He spoke with the front desk clerk — he appeared to speak with the front desk clerk — then walked briskly out of the box. The elderly man reappeared in the elevator box, pressing buttons, or more likely pressing a single button repeatedly. Here, in the elevator, you could see him well. He was perhaps seventy-five, with a full head of neatly trimmed gray hair. He was tall, with excellent posture. He wore a plaid shirt tucked into dark pants, but it was not difficult to imagine him wearing a uniform of some sort. The man did not, like almost all passengers, look at himself in the mirror on the back wall of the elevator. After a time, the elevator doors opened, and he exited the box. He reappeared in a different box of the sixteen-box surveillance grid, walking toward a group of grainy men throwing a football in a hallway. Most of the men dispersed immediately, though one of the men stood against the wall as if frozen. His face, which was not clearly visible on the surveillance monitor, had a startled expression. The abandoned football still spun on the hallway carpet like the altimeter dial of a rapidly descending aircraft. Midway down the hall, the elderly man stopped outside of a room, and knocked on the door. The vending alcove was neither visible nor audible. The man appeared to say something to the door. One is forced to assume that he was viewed through the peephole. Eventually, the door opened, and the elderly man entered the room, disappearing from the box in the fourth column of the second row of the surveillance grid. By this time the deer, too, was gone from the box with the deer in it.