Barnes and Noble has demoted its literary journals, shifting them further in and narrowing their shelf space, during my recent period of inattention. Of course these facts are unrelated: my distraction—consumption—by family life and my local B&N’s shelf make-over. Yet, like so much in life that is arbitrary and unparticular, it feels specific, relevant, and personal.
The past month and a half, I have been a writer who does not write, does not read. Each week has felt like it is approaching the last of this hectic season, a year that has surprised me in its intensity. And then I think, well is this what parenting is: always thinking you are about to catch your breath? but never quite getting there? Then I remind myself of the onslaught that is surely particular, not part of a permanent trend, school decisions, surgery, and a move to a new apartment among them.
How odd that private life comes to remind us of public debates and perennial questions: Has everyone stopped reading? I don’t believe it, a perspective that is supported by at least some hard data. [Not everyone, but it looks like people are making different choices and reading less…. For example (and many stats), see “Twilight of the Books,” by Caleb Crain in the New Yorker.] Data almost always proves useful for more than one side of an argument; the perfidious, fickle, unreliable nature of information.
Data: Doctors say the ulnar nerve may start to trap and strain in your forties. As efficiently as that date approaches, I have not arrived, and yet there was my left ulnar nerve—trapped—pulling on some invisible thread to my fingers, numbing and weakening them, at first in stealth, and then abruptly making the defect known. Data: July 4th is Independence Day. And yet, since my father died on that date, I can only see the holiday’s name with an ironic eye. When my son mentions America’s birthday right next to mine—independence day, he says—I sense the invisible flinch, like a twitch or tic, within me. These sound like crotchety thoughts, not at all the route I had in mind.
Indeed, I miss the written word. How has other life pushed me from it?
More on that in a future post. For now, I’ll point out the two essays I have managed to read during this period of literary drought, the first, by Rachel Cusk, “Aftermath,” about her divorce, motherhood, and writing, in the newest issue of Granta (#115), which (amazingly!?—see the Vida Count), is composed entirely of pieces written by women, a refreshing and welcome shift. Cusk, author of the memoir A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and novels such as Arlington Park, here engaged and moved me, made me think and say “oh, yes,” and then think some more. The essay seems to say exactly what I think (much of my own experience quite different) and then go on to say the precise opposite—and so on, back-and-forth. And yet when I finished reading it, I wanted to walk around with the volume raised, proclaiming…something—like some bible-thumping convert.
Cusk, until her separation from her husband, was the employed half of the couple. In the midst of divorce (in England), she finds her priorities and choices shifting. She is faced with supporting her soon-to-be ex-husband financially, and she wants more than half-custody of their daughters. “They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.” Here is a taste of what she is investigating:
“Call yourself a feminist, my husband would say to me, disgustedly, in the raw bitter weeks after we separated. He believed he had taken the part of woman in our marriage, and seemed to expect me to defend him against myself, the male oppressor. He felt it was womanly to shop and cook, to collect the children from school. Yet it was when I myself did those things that I often felt most unsexed. My own mother had not seemed beautiful to me in the exercise of her maternal duties; likewise they seemed to threaten, not enhance, her womanliness. …. It was only when she was with other people that, as a child, I was able to notice her objectively. …Suddenly I could see her….”
“It has existed as a kind of banishment, my flesh history with my daughters. Have I been, as a mother, denied? The long pilgrimage of pregnancy with its wonders and abasements, the apotheosis of childbirth, the sacking and slow rebuilding of every last corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed—all unmentioned, wilfully or casually forgotten as time has passed, the Dark Ages on which I now feel the civilization of our family has been built. ….My own mother once wept at the supper table, wildly accusing us of never having thanked her for giving birth to us. …We felt uneasy and rightly so: we had been unjustly blamed. Wasn’t it my father who should have thanked her, for giving form and substance, continuance, of himself? Instead, his own contribution, his work, ran parallel to hers: it was she who had to be grateful to him, superficially at least. For years he had gone to the office and come back again, regular as a Swiss train, as authorized as she was illicit.”
Cusk, in probing her own life, poses interesting questions on the subjects of motherhood, marriage, work, and creativity, and does so with intimate particularity. Her forthrightness, whether one agrees or not with some of her conclusions, is refreshing.
The second essay, by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Aleksandar Hemon, I turned to with a consuming desperation. I selected “The Aquarium: A child’s isolating illness” for its writer not its subject. I needed words, a narrative, like a lost soul looking for water in the desert of my night-time kitchen. Dishes still waited; exhaustion and heartache, for my son and troubles I could not unravel or solve, overwhelmed me. I abandoned the kitchen, and its waiting drudgery, for the living room sofa and the just-arrived New Yorker, and was soon moved to tears, overwhelmed in an entirely different way, by someone else’s pain so much more acute than my own. Hemon’s story about his nine-month-old, Isabel’s, battle with cancer is tragically beautiful in its prose, meticulous, precise, and wrenching.
“One day at breakfast, while Ella [Isabel’s older sister] ate her oatmeal and rambled on about her [imaginary] brother, I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I’d been doing as a writer all these years: the fictional characters in my books had allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand…. Listening to Ella furiously and endlessly unfurl the Mingus tales, I understood that the need to tell stories was deeply embedded in our minds and inseparably entangled with the mechanisms that generate and absorb language. Narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—was a basic evolutionary tool of survival. We processed the world by telling stories, produced human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.”
I had stumbled upon precisely what I needed to read. I had been suffocating, during this month without writing, without words; my oxygen was depleted, and here was someone else who understood. Writing (and reading too) helps us to know what we think, and even what we feel. But Hemon goes on to explain how words and writing are not enough in the face of certain losses, particularly in the consuming helplessness and horror of looming anguish such as Hemon describes.
“Whatever knowledge I’d acquired in my fiction-writing career was of no value inside our A.T.R.T. [cancer] aquarium, however. Unlike Ella, I could not construct a story that would help me comprehend what was happening. Isabel’s illness overrode any form of imaginative involvement on my part.”
And yet Hemon’s essay illustrates how important narrative is: communicating, containing, offering a finite task when other tasks remain infinite. Certainly grief cannot be trapped and contained; and yet we try.
~ Coming next… Part 2 of “My Father’s Guns” ~
~ For Part 1, click here. ~