Wisdom, happiness, freedom and lots of other things are so desirable that we pursue them purely for themselves, though they are only attainable as means or by-products of our other, less tempting goals. They are like unexpected guests who come and go and never stay for long. The more one is trying to take hold of them, the more elusive and annoyed they become. So, when wisdom is the main goal in the story (or life) and everything else is subdued to it, there is a chance of converting a novel into sermon and excitement into dullness, by leaving out the alluring fuel that is made of inner conflicts, trials, transforming dialogue between the characters and their circumstances. To a moderate degree this happened to A Severed Wasp.
A retired piano virtuoso returns to her birthplace to find solace, but bumps into an old acquaintance that needs her help. Between warm baths, herbal tea rituals and neck massages she finds the time to heat up her experience-made pot and pour the wisdom among the thirsty gathering that loiters around. She becomes a sage for the church congregation, a mentor to their prodigal children and a prosecutor of the mischief among them. Former pop star, reminiscences of Nazism and homophobic calls mingle in.
What makes the plot bizarre is the fact that it is a sequel to Little rain, a simple novel written around fifty years earlier, that resembles any other coming-of-age book. The author and protagonist surely have matured; the youthful determination and sincerity that made the prequel somewhat bearable have been replaced with stiffness and versatile plot twists that the protagonist, like god, straightens out with her magical touch. The old age seems to smooth the strains and edges like rivers do with pebbles. Unfortunately, the fun is not so much in the final result as it is in transformation.
The story evolves so gently and quietly that talking about it feels like tainting it and violently intruding on something that prefers to be left in peace. This has as much to do with the story’s subtle and eluding tone, as with the parallel narrative. Stoner is a quiet and gentle men with the purest of intentions, but which, as it often happens, get tainted when materialized. His life advances in an isolated manner, devoid of the force that transforms a thought into action or the knowledge of how to use it.
Stoner grows up on a farm and lacks the notions of the bigger world’s complexities. When he, by coincidence, discovers literature and the academic world, the consequences are two-sided. Knowing hard work, he progress quickly. Lacking experience, he isn’t able to connect his own life with this imaginary world and instead, separates them completely. Since the new world has nothing to do with the former one – it is exempt from monotonous, repetitive, manual work and is full of wonder, novelty and flights of thought – he finds in it a perfect hideaway. It is a place where the practical life can’t intrude and the daily problems can’t invade, but where the inputs still have straightforward outputs and things are as simple as they sometimes were. The worse his domestic life gets, the more he retreats to studies; the more he masters the written word, the less he can articulate his own everyday. The two worlds become so isolated that even a desperate cry for help from his nearest turns into a distant call from a faraway land. Despite all the theoretical knowledge, he doesn’t have the tools to question and resist his own life course.
This book is a monument to the mundane, to the paths we choose without really choosing, to the joys and sorrows that coincidences distribute unevenly among people, and of a life that has much more within its reach, yet stays motionless and trapped between opposing forces. With simple, but deeply moving sentences it portrays a correspondent story. As many monuments, it captures a moment of life and provides a humble warning for those who are inclined to follow his path.
As in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the story is told through the lenses of a certain mental condition that only few have access to. In this case, it is Alzheimer’s that disables the protagonist from reaching what her mind has set before her: solving a disappearance of a beloved one. But whilst providing an old lady with countless obstacles, the disease does more; through forceful emergence of what was trying to be forgotten, it opens the sheer possibility of the task. The past takes lead and shapes present, or what it needs from it, in tailored patterns.
The book shows credibly how losing a hold over continuity of the present necessarily leads to strengthening of an inner world and enforcing its persistence to act out regardless of everyday barriers that slow down a healthy person: fears, others, physical obstacles. The gap between inner and outer, past and present, is sometimes lost in the narrative, but the author reinstates them with the help of a mystery, which gives the protagonist some focus and unity. What would otherwise remain dispersed and hidden from the outer world, is in this way made sensible and given a logic of its own.
As in The Curious Incident as well, it seems that only a peculiar state of mind is not itself enough to make the story interesting. The mysterious hook is needed to lighten up the matter and show the disease in broad spectrum. The tool with which both stories are told is similar to the psychological test where you need to make a castle out of a sheet of paper – what is assessed isn’t the final result itself as much as all the characteristics that one reveals unconsciously by focusing on the result: interactions with others, forethought or rashness, working under time limit etc. So, if all you care about mysteries is who’s done it, you’ll probably be disappointed by the book’s predictability, but that was never really the point.
To live as a detection device in the middle of a busy street is a legitimate choice – and a tempting one to make. To observe the world as it leisurely unfolds without your interference means to avoid the difficulties of constant selection. If you are just a passive receiver, all bits of the ceaseless flow of information fit your narrative; there’s no need to shape them in accordance with your purposes. In exchange for cohesion you get all kinds of bypassing, unfinished, often interesting stories. In other words, you get an outline.
Since nowadays this kind of existence is often imposed on us with or without our wanting it and we are forced to let a lot of material pass us, untouched and unattached, I was intrigued to read a book with aspirations towards exploring the living conditions of such complete surrender. But the main character in this novel, a sponge that soaks everything and gives away only the least of herself, encounters, in accidental meetings with others, a strange amount of coherent and completed life stories. Though there are plenty of these others, who can’t wait to share their biographies with a listener that never interrupts, I was able to decipher only one voice. Instead of diversity, otherness and chaos, I got the author’s attempt to write something, anything.
Being a part of any community, let it be marriage, family or close circle of friends, does not entail an alignment of thoughts and values – however it often feels this way and forms the basis for connecting. Everyone knows an unsettling feeling that a certain kind of recognition brings, when all of a sudden your world becomes more parallel than related to that of others and an abyss opens to show you that an intersection of beliefs is made of so completely different directions that three dimensions are suddenly not enough to describe the space we live in.
This was the feeling of reading this book. After an initial story about a family that is at least close if not happy, where the joys and tragedies are described from a chronological and personal distance, it makes an abrupt switch to the consequences of a dark, previously unmentioned family secret, that weaves its web on generations to come. From an idealistic family portrait we are dragged into the personal lives of traumas and their tangible realities. The fundamental loneliness of each of us, that is never felt deeper than in a company of deft listeners, is shown within all its reach – to the point I wondered if perhaps it is not the author’s fault to make the threads that link solipsistic planets so little known. As in life, I was left to fill the blanks myself.
A relationship that one can have with a wooden fence is in many ways similar to the emotional landscape portrayed in this book. A breakup following an affair was described with as much sensitivity. On the surface, a wooden fence looks meaningful. It gives one a sense of security as it separates one’s place from the rest of the world; it provides a sense of satisfaction when is colored nice and it can even help one’s flowers to grow. It also resembles some of the possible dangers that a relationship can encounter. It breaks when one leans too harshly and it always has an open space or gates, so that one can exit without too many difficulties.
But relationships between people are normally more diverse; they aren’t just there waiting for someone to attach whimsical meanings to them and they aren’t the servants of a mere convenience. They need some action and reciprocity to happen, and some motives to define their course. Considering an abundance of works with similar themes, where the hardships of relationships are shown in all their glory (Kureishi’s Intimacy, Ferantte’s The Days of Abandonment etc.), I mistakenly believed that the protagonist’s search of finding a purpose in a mess of her affairs will eventually bear some fruit, but every new page proved me wrong and has drawn me further away from discovering it.
I can’t blame the components the author has used. Youth, childless attachment and unfounded obsessions are fragile enough to work with and there’s a lot of effort needed to prove their significance. But it can be done (at least Shakespeare’s done it!), so something else has to be responsible for this novel’s lack of credibility and force. It was as if the author was convinced that twisting and turning the plot will bring on a complexity by itself. That didn’t happen and even the promise of a final hook, that was all that held me on, turned out to be as superficial as the rest of the book.
In a noble English household, where the banquets are prepared by loyal servants and consumed by mighty statesmen, a butler with his reminiscences of the war period serves us the essence of servitude and its quiet assistance to history. In a nice, neat world that he inhabits, the schedule is set and its boundaries established; his freedom ends where his master’s expectations begin. The unpredictable is for others to handle and the fog surrounding decisions is dispersed without his helping hand. Within these simple rules, life can easily be fulfilled.
Like silver and plates, everything has its order and all is just a matter of keeping its position. Diminished display of thoughts is a job requirement, in his case internalized to such a degree that no human interaction can be but a useful tool for improving professional skills. Only little contentments of his work achievements constitute his reality, leaving behind all vagueness and sorrow. In a dull, complacent state like this, there is no room for doubt, changes of course and no room for freedom.
I don’t recall many so pleasant and readable metaphors for the limitations of mind. Even if one chooses to obey orders to make a living (as we all do to some extent) and finds certain joy in being a shadow of another one’s willpower, he is still not excused of responsibility. Not making your own decisions is quite similar to making them. Putting general morals concerning others aside, the saddest result were the butler’s own missed opportunities.
In the middle of an African village on the verge of white people’s arrival, the rhythm of living is dictated by weather, crops and all sacred nature’s inventions. Inner life is as important as any of intangible magical forces – not very much in comparison with the plenitude of all the other ephemeral things.
Everything that transcends an individual is a cause for commotion. Marriage means a colossal feast and faraway death disturbs everyone’s night rest. All the society’s great events are accompanied by divine beings. With such a vast entourage, many of this distant world’s characteristic that we condemn today (gender inequality, lack of education, ostracism…) feel at least as peaceful and joyous as the ones we’ve gotten used to cherish.
Even some aspects of their arbitrary laws and consequent violence made me feel sorry for all that was lost in between. Without written, defined constitution, justice is made by people’s spontaneous and versatile interpretations of it. Divine order (or nature as a whole) is an unfair judge; it speaks to everyone differently and its language is too similar to all kinds of prejudices and accumulated experiences. But it is also a very reassuring messenger. It makes everyone responsible only to itself, the whole. Wrongdoings are therefore punished only for restoration of the divine order; they have no integral fault or debt to society in themselves. Guilt is nonexistent and thinking about alternatives diminished. Nowadays, there’s only camping left for a little bit of nature’s touch.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Sea, sun, bathing and loose summer rules form a recipe for a respite. Warm and welcoming environment, shaped by people with different predispositions gathered under the same soothing conditions, lighten the protagonist’s manners. Her senses, before entangled beyond recognition, suddenly soften and let the melodies, smells and shapes in. Adjustments within her, long having been guided by society’s calls, now slowly, but steadily, change course. In awakening to the stimulants and novelties the protagonist quietly, but firmly, demands her right to feel her own feelings.
If in the works of similar stature the nuances of emotions are often but subtly implied and hidden behind the excessive behavior, they are here stated openly and affectionately. Although we are given free access to her thoughts, it is with less spectacle than any implication could leave us to imagine. It’s a silent, straightforward strength; she doesn’t lose herself in a love affair, but gains vigor from it. Similarly, her decline is more connected with a realization of the eternal gap between human nature and natural laws than it is with love itself. When summer ends, autumn comes and interrupts the immediacy of her bond with nature. Being enclosed between the walls of human invention, she knows no way out, for her awaking progresses linearly and is not attuned with the nature’s cyclic seasons.
Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates
Cautious interwinement of different time modes and perspectives held a lot of promise. Parts of the plot were carefully strung into a captivating, fight-for-breath whole. Along with the lack of misplaced words and clutter, it was what made the flow neat and tidy, but also what opened the possibility of its pitfall. By definition, stringing pieces in a sequence involves staying within the narrow line and connecting similar components. The same happened to the story – the auspicious start did not progress and evolve, but only invoked a complementary platitude.
The purpose of books based on true stories, is to give us a possible narrative behind the bare facts. Instead of plausible interpretation and deeper understanding this one delivers only more cliches and pompousness. It felt as if the author had mistaken an image of an all-American gal, with unresolved daddy issues and girl-power ambitions, for a person. The protagonist and her relations had no uniqueness that would make them convincing, but remained the manufactured products waving from the billboard, that one sometimes wants to get to know, but never can. Yellow pages of an artsy journal would have as much effect. Life can be but a series of coincidences and its end a peak of absurdity, but at least it has some moments of significance, which is a fact this book desperately tries to avoid.