In this post I’ll be talking about DIFFERENT CLASS by Joanne Harris, HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund, PERFECT LITTLE WORLD by Kevin Wilson, INFINITE HOME by Kathleen Alcott, and THIS CLOSE TO HAPPY:A RECKONING WITH DEPRESSION by Daphne Merkin.
Different Class, by Joanne Harris, hardcover, 416pp, Touchstone, April 2016
It’s an unenviable burden to be the book I read immediately after I’ve just finished a five-star-can-I-marry-a-novel-legally sort of experience; the kind of falling in love I did with Cara Hoffman’s Running. [You can read about it HERE.] So, to be fair to the writer, I try to go in an entirely different direction, most often heading into genre-land — though I am not so much a fan of categorizing writing — and I turn to writers who have successfully created worlds and milieus they revisit and further develop in series. Thus, having read an essay in which Joanne Harris was compared to Patricia Highsmith, I thought it high time (Oh dear, I didn’t mean to do that.) I sample her work. Too, I’ve a weakness for books about British schools and what goes on there, which, in concert with my fondness for murder/scandal procedurals made Different Class seem the ideal choice. And although it took me a while to adjust to its rhythms — which I attribute to detoxing from the genius of Running — I was eventually caught up in this thriller. The protagonist, Latin master Roy Straitley, tells his side of the story, jumping back and forth in time from a decades old scandal to the present when he is being not so subtly nudged toward retirement by one of the key players in that long ago murder. A second narrator of ominous, anonymous, and malicious voice, was also a key player in that murder — and we are given to wonder if he and the modern-day nudger are one and the same. A well done, twisty, here’s a piece of truth, there’s a piece of truth, information and hints neatly parceled out, forward driving, keeps you guessing sort of novel full of erudition, compelling intrigue, and clever plotting. A lovely way to unaccustom myself to the incomparable wordsmithing of Cara Hoffman.
History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund, Hardcover, 288pp, January 2017, Grove Atlantic
Without meaning to do so, the next three novels I read all had in common a theme of chosen families and the ways in which we connect and discover and disappoint ourselves, and are discovered by and disappointed in others.
History of Wolves is one of those very buzzy, New York Times-Editors’ Choiced, Indie Next-picked, NPR, People and O magazine-loved, literary fiction reviewers’ darling of a book. Past experience, sorry to say, leaves me suspicious of so much praise and adulation because all too often inescapable buzz has more to do with insider connections and a fantastic publicist.
But I am glad to tell you this novel was deserving of much of its praise.
Linda, the teenage narrator, lives with her parents — maybe — in what remains of the commune in which she spent her early childhood. At the house across the lake arrive a mother and child, and soon Linda is companion and watcher for both, gently easing herself into this new family she falls in love with. Eventually the husband/father arrives and they are revealed as far more complicated and far less ideal than they at first seemed, and as self-deluded and guilty of loving in ways that confuse, confound, and cause pain as are Linda’s own family.
The story is especially disturbing, relentless in its small and large agonies, but Emily Fridlund writes with such grace and command of language and metaphor that the beauty of the well-crafted prose makes bearable the heartbreak of which it sings.
Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson, Hardcover, 336pp, January 2017, Ecco
I read Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang in August of 2011, mostly on the subway, going back and forth between Manhattan and the ugliest, most blighted, far, far, reaches of Brooklyn, where I was housed in a tiny, un-air conditioned fourth floor hovel next to a subway station and its raised track which caused my room to vibrate each time a train went by during that glorious summer I spent living in New York and performing in the Fringe Festival. So, his work has a special place in my heart, as do most things connected to my New York adventures, even the graffiti awaiting me on the roof-door of the building saying, “RIP Charlie.”
But, back to Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World. Having just finished a book about the after-effects of communal living and the choosing of a new family, it was interesting to dive into this story of Isabel Poole, an economically disadvantaged young, single mother who makes the decision to enter into a contract with a child psychologist who dreams of building a Utopian child-rearing community; a new kind of extended family in which the children are communally raised by all of the parents without knowing which of their caretakers are their biological begetters.
Having read reviews before I started, as I became involved in this story I was confused at those who had called this a hilarious, funny, amusing novel. Not once did I laugh. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy this book, because I did, but I didn’t think it a comic novel, or, even particularly witty. I don’t think it was intended to be those things.
I did find it touching, warm, and gently provocative in its exploration of what family means, what it can and cannot do, and I found Isabel far easier to relate to than I had Linda in History of Wolves. Perhaps because the sorts of abandonments and betrayals Isabel experiences make her an Everyperson, a stand-in for what many of us are feeling thanks to current events: adrift and alone in a world where the rules are new and mysterious and not quite working, ever a breath away from fleeing, at the mercy of a world run by corporations and the vicissitudes and mutations in the moods, minds, and moralities of those around us.
Small cavil; I found the members of the Acklen family to be a bit stock-character good-cop/bad-cop cliché, deus ex machinas to facilitate and tie up the Infinite Family Project platform of the novel, but, this didn’t undo the alchemy of Kevin Wilson’s taking a far-out premise and grounding it in prose and plotting that made it seem entirely possible; likely, even. Of course, nowadays, watching the news is not unlike reading the first chapters of a dystopian novel wherein you know, any second, the world is going to erupt into irreparable destruction — thus, real life being what it is, it must be difficult to write an outlandish novel anymore.
Infinite Home, by Kathleen Alcott, Hardcover, 336pp, August 2015, Riverhead Books
Here’s the thing: I read books because I hear about them on Twitter, or at literary websites, or from authors I’m reading talking about writers they’ve loved; all of which is to say I don’t have a curated reading list so much as I have that feeling of a game show I watched as a child where someone was let loose in a store with a shopping cart for sixty-seconds and whatever they could pile into the cart and get across the finish line was theirs to keep. That’s me as a reader. Wildly flailing and staggering and tumbling and racing through life, grabbing at this book and then that and oh holy crap that one looks delicious too and then I must have everything she’s ever written and wait that one from the nineteenth century which inspired this one from the twenty-first looks so shiny and — you get the picture.
So, I don’t know who (or where or what) recommended Infinite Home or any of the others in this round-up to me, but this was the third novel I read in a few short days which was about forming (or, falling into) one’s own chosen families, and it was the second which featured someone who cut themselves. Too, Perfect Little World had been about a community called The Infinite Family Project, and then, this, titled Infinite Home. As I was reading through these three novels, the similarities and the synchronicities were as compelling to me as the books themselves. Was it coincidence? Or, am I somehow magnetized to stories about outcasts building worlds made of love found from other lost, wandering folk? Like the worlds I built in my theatre and teaching days? Like the world I inhabit now on Twitter? Who knows.
Really, I’m asking — do any of you know?
After reading Kathleen Alcott’s beautiful Infinite Home, I imagine she would know. I fell in love with her on page 18, a love that deepened as I devoured this novel in one day. Listen to this and you, too, will be in love and going immediately to get your hands on this book. It is a paragraph about Thomas, a once respected artist who has been felled by a stroke, losing use of his left side and his creativity. He is describing Edith, the owner/landlady of the apartment house he and a collection of the lost, lonely, and damaged inhabit. Here it is:
He made a mental list of the things he liked about Edith; it made him happy to put names to them. He enjoyed the way Edith disliked openly. She didn’t feel the need to offer complex criticisms or to imply that her preference came from superiority. Tomatoes? “Hate ’em!” she’d said. Also: sweaters that pilled, the man at the corner store who always said, “You look tired,” the smell of unwashed art students in the summer. She threw those off her back with efficiency and purpose, as though beating standing water from an awning, and it made Thomas feel more at home with his own distastes. But he adored Edith for plenty of other reasons: She understood slowness. She knew how to wait for the kettle to warm, how to move across a room and appreciate each photograph and plant within it. She was careful about laughter, went to it only when it truly called her. The anecdotes she offered were always well-formed, compact things he felt he could keep and carry with him. “Edith,” Thomas had said on several occasions, in moments drunk on self-pity. “Sometimes I just don’t know! What recommends the rest of my life?” She was the only one he exclaimed around. When he said such things, she made a crumpled face, waved her hand through the air to banish his wallowing as it bounced off the high ceilings. “Dear heart,” she said. “Of course you don’t know. How could you? But have you ever been astounded by what you knew was coming?”
That is some glorious, insightful, lyrical prose. I was hooked. I love that it is all one paragraph, rather than being broken into bites. The author connected her development of Thomas’s perception of Edith, his trust in the way she sees him, and what the details he notices and things he knows say about both of them.
There are quite a few characters in this novel, each of them vibrant, grounded in truth and reality, and given their due, made visceral for us. Also, like there was in Perfect Little World, there is a villainous, avaricious child who wants to undo the good done by a parent. Both of those malefactors I saw as symbolic of the hellhounds now taking charge of this country, determined to undo the loving goodness and kindness we’ve spent generations achieving, slow step by slow step to equality.
Happily, both Perfect Little World and Infinite Home resolved in comforting ways. This was my favorite of the three family-making novels I read, and had Kathleen Alcott ended it any other way, I think I would have liked it not even a little. The outcome encouraged me in my resolve to see things in a more hopeful way. Which was a good thing, because the next book I read challenged my ability to maintain my newfound optimism.
This Close To Happy: A Reckoning With Depression, by Daphne Merkin, Hardcover, 304pp, February 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
I’m torn about this book. I am 55 years old and have been suffering with one or another form of depression since I hit puberty, and although I did talk-therapy three times, for about a year each time, I resisted medication until thirty days ago.
My life has changed. My favorite effect — so far — is the medication seems to serve as a sort of editor or inhibitor of the “bad voices” — not that I am schizophrenic, but, rather, in the internal monologue always and forever going on, the darkest mutterings and urges of the doom and gloom voice have been silenced. Since I was twelve I have been hearing in the narration of my life: “And then, he died.” I have wished for forty years — sometimes far more urgently than others, but always there — to die, to be finished with this life, to be over. That feeling is gone. Better yet, the habit of thinking negatively and expecting the worst has been interrupted, and when it occurs it is actively — though kindly — questioned. So, when I start to think in those old patterns in which I want to say or project something ugly or dire, the Charlie who existed when I was MUCH MUCH younger speaks up. The little boy Charlie who believed the world was safe and everyone love him, that smiling child in photos, he steps in before I can submerge myself and near-drown in sorrow. He says, “Wait a minute, the world is a good place, don’t give your energy to the monsters.” It isn’t so much that I am dancing on the ceiling in a near manic relief like I did in the past when my dysthymia retreated for a bit — as it regularly did — but, rather, I am not having the soar and sink syndrome; I am even, steady, unafraid (mostly), and alive in a way I have not been in so long that it is as if I am meeting myself anew. I have managed to wake up the young, smiling me and bring him along into adulthood. It’s a wonderful thing and I am very lucky because I know the meds do not work for everyone, and many people struggle to find the right ones. AND, even if this is a placebo effect, if I’m imagining it — I don’t care. It feels miraculous and safe and how I got here is irrelevant.
Daphne Merkin’s experience with depression was — is — far worse than mine and perhaps it was too early in my recovery to read about someone else’s journey? There were certainly passages that resonated with me to such a degree I had to read through them very quickly, not allow them to take too much hold. Also, there were some horrifying stories which were far different from my experiences. Her parents were emotionally abusive whereas I was much loved and held close by my family; my childhood trauma came from a world unkind to girly-boys and the internal struggle I fought knowing from a very young age that I was not what society wanted a boy to be.
Still, whatever the reason, my brain and body reacted to life in ways inclined toward sorrow and fear and withdraw. Too, my pain and anger and melancholy were difficult for others to understand. Daphne Merkin’s refers to Victorian poet and likely sufferer of bipolar depression, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, Spring and Fall, which happens to have always been one of my favorite pieces:
Spring and Fall
To a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
And she says, about it and about her:
Sometimes, when I wonder why this blackness got started so early and why it has stayed around for so long, it seems to me it would have helped to look on myself as a kind of Margaret grieving for the end that awaits us all — to have that sort of elegiac perspective. As it was, I grieved over everything indiscriminately and no one ever inquired into it. “You like to be sad,” my mother frequently said to me, with her usual Germanic lack of sentiment. As though it were a choice. Hopkins would have understood, I am sure of it.
Yes. That. I did not understand my sadness, I felt guilty about it, I believed it was my failure of thought and attitude, a sin I was committing against myself, that I was ungrateful and wasting the blessings bestowed upon me by a higher power (when I still believed in a higher power), and I ought be able to pull myself together. So I tried. And I hid my depression, as much and for as long as I could. But, like Daphne Merkin being judged by her mother as preferring sadness, I can vividly recall speaking to a dear friend during a period in my life when things were going well; I had gotten some things of which I’d long dreamed, an achievement which caused anxiety based in the fear of losing those moments, knowing they would end, the sorrow of not being good enough to maintain these joys, and so I was panicking because I was undeserving of happiness. I had to look for the dark side — doing what I always did, that self-flagellating, emotional S&M, where all pleasure must be accompanied by punishment and pain. My dear, long-suffering friend who wanted only good things for me and for me to be able to enjoy them, said; “I don’t know what to tell you anymore, you just won’t let yourself be happy, you want to be miserable.”
No. I didn’t. I don’t. But it was what I had known since I was an adolescent and because of it I cultivated a dark view of reality and the world. It was part of the fabric of my emotional DNA. So, this from Daphne Merkin also rang a bell:
Still, it was hard for me to agree to try medication for something that seemed so intrinsic to who I was — not something out there, like having a case of the measles, but the state of mind in which I lived, so to speak, however negatively.
That. I didn’t want to be miserable, but with years of practice and needing some way to make it through the days and the downs and the voice insisting I and everyone else would be better off if I would just go ahead and die, I had come to justify my sorrow as being the only sane response to a world full of hate and suffering and ignorance. To me, people who were happy were the ones who had a problem. I had to believe that, because I believed my sorrow was something I could not escape any more than I could not be gay, not be male, not be white, not be Charlie who cried at everything and was only happy when he was alone with a book or on stage singing a song. Believing my sorrow was normal was a necessary survival technique in the circumstances in which I lived.
Daphne Merkin’s sorrows were many times larger than mine. She was hospitalized repeatedly when suicidal. She has been in talk therapy and tried many combinations of drugs and treatments to find a way to sustain herself. Yet, she managed to be an accomplished writer and mother. She found a way, she lived a life. As did I.
I wonder, had I had the financial and social advantages she had, would my suffering have taken a different shape? I would not have been any less depressed — I don’t think — but had I lived in a world where psychiatrists and drugs were within my reach, or had an upbringing absent the philosophy of “get it together, you’re not that sick,” or been born in an age and location where being gay was not itself considered something of which I needed to be cured, a fact which made me terrified in my youth of speaking about it to anyone in authority, or, had hospitalization ever been an option, would I have been gentled into drugs and treatment earlier?
Such pondering about the availability of treatment and living in a world supportive of who you are makes me all the more outraged at the GOP and current administration’s decimation of the health care system and pushback on the gains in equality hard-won for the LGBTQ community. The people who have treasonously and deceptively gained control of the government are heartless, soulless monsters, evil to the core, and I hold them responsible for the suicides and sorrows and bashings of LGBTQ and immigrant youth, the unpunished abuse and rapes of women (and, to a much lesser degree, men, usually at risk men), and policies which encourage the hunting of people of color, Muslims, Jews, women, LGBTQ, and on and on. We’ve gone backward in time, somehow, and I cannot fathom the number of people who will be damaged, who will die — not JUST because of the policies, but because of the poisonous atmosphere and culture being encouraged by these hateful republicans and their alt-right, hetero-white-male armies of ignoramuses and idiot malcontents.
And, if you’ve made it this far, you will understand my issue with Daphne Merkin’s memoir of depression, because having read this you will probably have said at least once, “Too much about him, so self-indulgent,” or thought, “This is too close to home, I’d rather not be reminded of feeling this way,” or felt, “Oh please, get to the point and hurry it up,” and likely some measure of, “Damn, I’m sorry you had to go through this but I don’t want to be going through it with you. I’ve my own crap to sort.” And then, finally, if I’ve done any part of my job — and Daphne Merkin certainly has accomplished this, you’ll have a moment of relief, the exhale of, “Thank you for sharing this, revealing yourself, and letting me know I am not alone.”
You aren’t, my friend. None of us are. And if talking about it, sharing our lives and thoughts helps one person (like me) to say yes to medication or to have the impetus to hang on for another day, if even a hint of hope and faith are conjured, well then, that’s enough.
And so, dear ones and new friends, here I am, and here we are, going.
[Editing note: page 148 of This Close to Happy speaks of “Motown honcho Gordy Berry” — which I am relatively certain ought to be Berry Gordy. Then again, who am I to talk about editing because — yeah, I need some. However, I am a one man blog, kids. Love and Light.]