Friday, November 28, 2008

'Breakable You' ...

At the beginning of the year, Mercurie challenged me to read one book of fiction per month in 2008 because he thinks we just don't read for pleasure enough anymore.

So a few days ago, I wandered over to my shelf of books waiting to be read and saw this book for what felt like the first time. I'm sure it had been there all along. I'm sure someone didn't break into my house in order to slot a novel into my collection, and yet, when I pulled it down and read the first sentence, it felt completely new, not like one of the many books I've thought about starting before.

I started reading and kept reading. Unlike some books that languish on the floor next to my bed, bookmarks firmly wedged between pages and unlikely to ever move again, this book drew me in, kept me wanting to turn the pages. So I did.

The chapters vary in length. Some are "chaptery," others are just a page or two. So by page 12, I was already on Chapter 4. By page 35, I was already on Chapter 6. But as I read Chapter 6, I thought, "Haven't I read this already?" Indeed, I had. Chapter 6 is almost identical to Chapter 4. Huh? Was that a mistake, I wondered? Did an editor miss this? Did the author, Brian Morton, cut and paste for some reason and then forget to change one of the chapters? Would the chapters repeat again? Was this the literary equivalent of "Groundhog Day"? Was I going to read the same chapter over and over? Would the logic of constructing the novel this way reveal itself by the end of the book? I eventually realized that Chapter 4 is told from Maud's perspective, while Chapter 6 is told from Samir's. But from that point on, my antennae were up. I grabbed a piece of scratch paper and ripped off bits to mark Chapters 4 and 6.

I kept the rest of the paper as a bookmark. My bookmark, however, got smaller and smaller as I kept cannibalizing it to mark other parts of the book. I never do this when I read. Well, I guess I do now. This volume has many scraps of paper peeking out from top.

The next scrap, after Chapter 6, doesn't appear until Chapter 14. I wanted to remind myself of this sentence, of Eleanor, the mother: "Tonight, she watched Law & Order for half an hour, wondering idly, as she always did, whether Sam Waterston was unattached."

That sentence made me smile. I have a crush on Sam Waterston, too. I have for years, ever since he portrayed Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields.

Not all the scraps denote "issues" with the book. Some are in place to call me back to a well-written sentence or a thought deserving of praise. Like this sentence on page 137: "We wish for symmetry of feeling, but we rarely get it. It is painful to be the one who loves more, and painful to be the one who loves less."

Ditto this sentence, about 9/11, of Samir, Maud's Arab boyfriend: "He understood with his rational mind that it was an event in the world, out there, but the event was so huge as to punch a hole in the wall that separated the rational mind from the dream mind ... ." That's exactly how I felt that day. I was watching CNN, understanding what I was seeing, but somehow unable to believe what I was seeing.

Consider this a spoiler alert. I'm about to reveal some essential parts of the book that you may not want to know about if you have any inclination to read it. OK? OK. On we go ...

You need to know that Adam Weller is the father in the book, a writer of some renown, a B-list writer to Saul Bellow's A-list status. Izzy Cantor was Adam's contemporary but was always better received in literary circles, hovering between Weller and Bellow. On page 99, an "Adam" chapter, Morton writes of Izzy, "In his books, he always took care of his characters too much. He never wanted to believe that any of them could be evil. So if one of his characters did something morally reprehensible, Izzy would never just go with it; he would surround the action with context, explanation, extenuation. ... Adam wasn't eager to be immersed again in the vague skim-milky kindness of his old friend's world."

You also need to know that Izzy's widow, Ruth, ran across a novel in Izzy's papers that she believe to be his best work yet, and asked Adam to read it and offer his opinion. Adam was reluctant to take it, worried to be in possession of the only copy of a potential masterpiece. But Ruth reminded him that Izzy always kept a carbon copy of everything he typed. Adam eventually, reluctantly, reads the novel and discovers that, indeed, it is a work of genius, the book that will bring his departed friend the glory he always deserved, the book that will cement his standing among the Bellows of the world.

So when Ruth dies and Shelly, Izzy and Ruth's daughter, tells Adam and Ruth wanted him to have Izzy's papers, I instantly knew what was coming: Adam was going to publish the novel as his own, justifying the "morally reprehensible act" by telling himself that its success could no longer bring any joy to Izzy or Ruth, and that the main character was partly based on him anyway. I knew this on page 198. The chapter is written rather expressly in that vein, so I'm not patting myself on the back as some telegraphing genius, but there existed the possibility that Adam wouldn't go through with it, that he'd redeem himself before the endpaper, that he'd prove himself to something other than a narcissistic ass after all. But nope, I knew Adam wouldn't do the right thing, because Morton told me on page 99 that Izzy never wanted to believe that any of his characters could be evil. Ergo, one of the characters in this book had to be evil. Or, if not evil, morally reprehensible. Adam. Done.

Meanwhile, on page 239, Eleanor, Adam's wife who has been left for the much-younger Thea (because all successful men in their 60s leave their wives for young, hot women who fawn at their feet) is supposed to be listening to one of her clients – she's a therapist – but she's distracted, which Morton indicates with this bit of "effort": "Huh? Eleanor thought. Did you say something?" Huh, Morton? Lazy much?

Which brings me to the most obvious moment in the book. On page 245, Morton writes of Samir, Maud's boyfriend, the man with whom Maud is expecting a baby, who is going to drive back to New York late at night, "He wished he'd remembered to buy a cup of coffee, though, before he started out." Oh, for the love of God. Reading that was like having a hand reach out of the pages and slap me as if to say, "That was foreshadowing, in case you didn't know!" Sure enough, on page 249, the chapter ends with "It's funny how". No period. Just an abrupt ending. All that was missing was a black screen and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." Samir, of course, just died, mid-thought. And in case I wasn't sure, though I was very, very sure, and very, very annoyed – could it be a bigger cliché to kill the father of the baby part way through the book? – the first words of Chapter 44 are, "After the funeral ... ."

Still, there are some thoughtful moments in this book. Like this passage on page 275: "Ralph [Maud's friend] was a friend who asked the second question. She thought that this might be one of the definitions of true friendship. If you have a friend who pays enough attention to you to ask the right question, you're lucky; if you have a friend who listens to the answer, thinks some more, and asks the second question, then you're blessed." Here, here.

Maud has the baby at the end of Chapter 53. Chapter 54 begins, "She named him David." That made me laugh. Almost everyone in my life is named David or Dave. The other day, I was relaying that fact to someone and rattled off 10 of them with no effort.

Throughout the book, Morton tosses around the names of philosophers like a boor at a cocktail party, but through Maud, he offers an idea that made me muse about my life. "The question of how we should treat one another is the central question in personal relationships and the central question in world politics. It's the question.

"This is what she had thought. But now she saw she was wrong.

"All of her time in graduate school had been spent on this — this mincing meditation on how we should treat one another. And it had all been a mistake. She'd inherited the good-girl gene from her mother: the gene that makes you too ethical, too aware of the needs of others, too nice. Her mother had thrown away her life. She'd made a fetish out of caring for others because she lacked the courage to take care of herself. ... If each of her parents had been a little bit more like the other, then each of them might have become a complete human being. her father would have had some feelings for other people and her mother would have had some drive." I have plenty of feelings for other people. I need more drive.

This sentence got flagged just because I thought it was beautiful: Of Eleanor, "She had written her way into a profound solitude." And this one got flagged because it made me chuckle: Of Adam in relation to Thea, "She had made him seem to be a creature of the contemporary world, rather than a fossil from a bygone age when Jewish intellectuals walked the earth."

There are several phrases within the book that caught my ear, among them "pocket-sized park" and "the cluster of illuminated bridges to the south looked like creatures of a great and ancient dignity." And there are many other slips of paper tucked into these pages, though now that I reread the words, the passages seem less worthy of note, whether I was fond of them then or frustrated.

But let's end on a high point, shall we? Maud, in the face of Samir's death, having checked herself into an institution (her third such stay in her relatively young life) despite having David to care for, checks herself out for a weekend and visits the library in Samir's hometown, hoping to find the book of poetry he had quoted from when they were together, the poetry that provided him "a door to a wider life." After reading a bit of philosophy, too, she decides, "My first act of resilience ... will be to believe in my own resilience." Which is a very good place to start.

We're all breakable. Life, in many ways, is fragile. But life, too, in many ways, is not. We're all able to endure far more than we believe possible, and not only to merely survive, but thrive. As Maud notes of her friend: "Ralph knew how much this meeting meant to her, so he was trying to put aside his own troubles and make the occasion successful. It struck her that there were many opportunities for heroism in life. You don't need to fight a war to find out who you are."


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