On courage, parenting, and Sergio de la Pava’s ‘Lost Empress.’

On courage, parenting, and Sergio de la Pava’s ‘Lost Empress.’

Sometimes the challenges that life throws our way will be over quickly.  Succeed or fail, we know that a finite quantity of bravery is expected of us.

lostempressIn Sergio de la Pava’s Lost Empress, a football owner addresses her players before the last game of their season.

“I once had someone reduce the film of a game to just those seconds when the ball is actually alive and in play. You know what the result was? Eleven minutes.

A three-and-a-half-hour football game reduces to eleven minutes that actually decide who wins or loses. Are you going to sit there, knowing all the work we’ve put into this season, the bloodshed, the bones snapped, and tell me that you can’t bind yourself to your brothers and collectively outperform another group of men for just eleven minutes?”

Eleven minutes during which they’ll either win or lose – except that by now everybody knows that modern football destroys players’ brains. The consequences will linger long afterward. The team’s quarterback acknowledges as much before the game:

“I don’t care if I’m drooling in a corner in ten years as long as that [championship] ring’s on my finger as I do it.  It’s all I think about.” 

Like Socrates lifting poison to his lips, the quarterback knows that he is choosing to end his life: This is not about his body; it’s more fundamental, his mind. Medically, he should not participate in even more more play of football.  But he has the courage to face it.  It’s only eleven minutes, after all.  Or three-and-a-half hours.  Still, only a single game’s worth of pain and suffering to attain glory. 

In the fourth quarter’s waning moments, Harris, the quarterback, makes one final play:

Taking the ball in just his right hand he brings it back and throws it as hard as he can, screaming in agony as he does since it feels as if his arm’s just been detached from its socket.

The millisecond the ball is released a Cowboy defender launches himself forward helmet-first into Harris’s face mask.  The face mask gives way on impact and the defender’s helmet goes right through into Harris’s face to shatter his nose, bounce his brain off his skull, and resect substantial parts of his lips.

The referee jogs towards the goal line to make the call that will immediately decide the winner as there is no instant replay.  After a seeming eternity he raises both hands and signals touchdown and a Pork victory of 23 – 22.

Harris is unconscious on the ground, it’s not that he will never remember this, it’s more that he never experienced it in the first place.

Interwoven with the quarterback’s story of willful self-destruction is another version of courage.  An impoverished parent whose life seems to be in shambles resolves that she will pour herself into raising her kid right, no matter what it takes.

she’d pinpointed this one thing, a sure path to meaning.  There’s a spiral that has to stop.  A person formed by shit parents becomes a shit person and by extension another shit parent who forms a shit person until you just end up with shit everywhere.  A life spent accomplishing only one thing can maybe be justified if that one thing is significant enough.

She could therefore literally decide that the sole purpose of her breathing was terminating that spiral currently pulling [her son] Donnie towards its diminishing circles.

 

She could do that, in essence forfeit her life.  But it would take a strange kind of courage. This wouldn’t be a stint in the can, it would be a life sentence.

To succeed, she’ll need to be brave for more than three-and-a-half hours.  Good parenting is exhausting.  In the first few years, my spouse and I felt that each night at bedtime we were struggling to toss our bedraggled bodies over the finish line – and then we’d have to wake up and do it again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Oh my.

Eleven minutes for glory?  A committed parent is looking at approximately twenty years, no cheering fans, and no assurance, ever, that you’re even doing it right.  A parent needs to be brave in the sense that David Foster Wallace described in The Pale King.

The_Pale_King‘By which,’ he said, ‘I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood.  You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it. 

The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor.  It was theater.  The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all–all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience.  An audience.’ 

He made a gesture I can’t describe: ‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality–there is no audience.  No one to applaud, to admire.  No one to see you.  Do you understand?  Here is the truth–actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.  No one queues up to see it.  No one is interested.’ 

He paused again and smiled in a way that was not one bit self-mocking.  ‘True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space.  True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care–with no one there to see or cheer.  This is the world.  Just you and the job, at your desk.’

Wallace fully expected to have an audience for his words, but even then, bravery was needed during the lonely years spent composing – indeed, the tragedy here is that Wallace’s courage abandoned him just as he wrote this passage.

A parent, too, has a very limited audience.  Usually the only people watching are the children being parented, and, given the way our brains work, children will inevitably forget most of the moments that you share.  But you’re creating the emotional pallet that will color the rest of their lives.

Lots of parenting feels like drudgery, and it takes concentration to do right, and it matters.

image (4)According to Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a human parent thus seems, of all [animals], the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her.  And yet, for reasons inherent in [our] evolutionary history, she has been the one most fated to do so.  Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision. 

Or there’s Michael Chabon, in Pops, describing the burdens he knowingly undertook when he and his spouse decided to raise children.

image“Put it this way, Michael,” the great man said, and then he sketched out the brutal logic: Writing was a practice.  The more you wrote, the better a writer you became, and the more books you produced.  Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both.  Children, the great man said, were notorious thieves of time. 

And yet.  Even if this unnamed great writer were correct – which seems highly dubious, since most writers need to live in order to escape self-absorption – Chabon probably made the right choice.  If our species is going to persist, we’ll need another generation.  If our species is going to thrive, we’ll need children who were raised well.  We’ll need people to bravely accept all that parenting entails. 

I’d like to think that my own courage hasn’t failed my children yet.  Luckily, it’s reinvigorated when they smile.

On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

Our lives are often shaped by unplanned events.  We have big dreams – I wanna be a fire fighter when I grow up! – but then the unexpected happens and our whole course shifts – my counselor helped me get through a hard year, and now I want to do the same for others.

Undergraduates seem particularly susceptible to this sort of sudden swerve.  Perched on the cusp of adulthood, everything feel momentous… and many are in a position, for the first time in their lives, to make their resolutions stick.  In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, an undergraduate inadvertently attends a review session for the certified public accountant exam and decides that this is the heroic career he was destined to pursue.

frank drawing
This dude is probably not prepared to make decisions that will reverberate for the rest of his life… and yet. Anyway, this is me, freshman year of college.

19537_27p1pIn Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a slapdash decision changes a life:

You were only supposed to take four classes, but when I found out they didn’t charge extra for five, I signed up for beginning Russian.

This logic made me smile – at my university, too, students were supposed to enroll in three or four classes each quarter, but a fifth was free as long as you gathered a sheet full of signatures (as was a sixth, as long as you didn’t insist on receiving a grade or credits toward graduation).

Indeed, being a cheapskate steered the course of my own life, too.  Like the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot, I chose my class schedule with an eye for value, enrolling in as many classes as possible, always choosing the highest numbered course from each subject I was interested in (having mistakenly assumed that bigger # in catalog = more learning).  Worse, a woman I was attempting to woo liked studying with me, so during my sophomore year I signed up for all her classes in addition to my own; at the end of that year, I’d completed all the requirements for a chemistry degree.

Toward the end of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I figured why not do more school?  I applied for graduate school… in chemistry, because that was my undergraduate degree.  All despite never liking chemistry.  My plan, before I’d arrived on campus, was to study mathematics, economics, and philosophy.

Whoops.

But the woman I had a crush on sophomore year did briefly date me.

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This dude? Still not prepared… and yet. This is me, first year of graduate school.

Back in the world of Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist soon develops a similar life-altering crush on a student in her haphazardly-selected Russian class:

On Thursday, I got to Russian conversation class early.  Only Ivan was there.  He was reading a novel with a foreign title and a familiar cover: the illustration showed two hands tossing a bowler hat in the air.

          “Is that The Unbearable Lightness of being?” I asked.

          He lowered the book.  “How did you know?”

          “It has the same cover in English.”

          “Oh.  I thought maybe you knew how to read Hungarian.”  He asked if I had liked the book in English.  I wondered whether to lie.

          “No,” I said.  “Maybe I should read it again.”

          “Uh-huh,” Ivan said.  “So that’s how it works for you?”

          “How what works?”

          “You read a book and don’t like it, and then you read it again?”

UNBEARAB.gifI can understand why someone – especially a female character – might not like Kundera’s book.  Yes, it depicts the way an out-of-control state can derail someone’s life… but so much of The Unbearable Lightness of Being depicts an entitled protagonist behaving rakishly toward women.  I happen to like this book, but only because Kundera, by revealing events out of sequence, includes a transcendentally beautiful description of where love comes from.

Midway through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a sad passage included several seemingly unimportant details:

Three years after moving to Paris, [Sabina] received a letter from Prague.  It was from Tomas [her former paramour]’s son.  Somehow or other he had found out about her and got hold of her address, and now he was writing to her as his father’s “closest friend.”  He informed her of the deaths of Tomas and Tereza [Tomas’s wife, whom he’s treated shabbily through most of the book].  For the past few years they had been living in a village, where Tomas was employed as a driver on a collective farm [because, despite his successful medical career, the new regime would not let him practice].  From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.  The road there wound through some hills, and their pickup had crashed and hurtled down a steep incline.  Their bodies had been crushed to a pulp.  The police determined later that the brakes were in disastrous condition.

We live.  We die.  This passage would seem a tragedy – an ill-maintained vehicle was the death of them (from the final pages: [Tereza] recalled a recent talk with the chairman of the collective farm.  He had told her that Tomas’s pickup was in miserable condition.  He said it as a joke, not a complaint, but she could tell he was concerned.  “Tomas knows the insides of the body better than the insides of an engine,” he said with a laugh.  He then confessed that he had made several visits to the authorities to request permission for Tomas to resume his medical practice, if only locally.  He had learned that the police would never grant it.).

And yet – a stray line, which I thought unimportant when I read this passage, suddenly blossoms into romance in the book’s final chapter: From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.

Four pages from the end:

          “Seeing you in that dress makes me want to dance,” the young man [whose dislocated shoulder Tomas had just reset] said to Tereza.  And turning to Tomas, he asked, “Would you let me dance with her?”

          “Let’s all go and dance,” said Tereza.

          “Would you come along?” the young man asked Tomas.

          “Where do you plan to go?” asked Tomas.

          The young man named a nearby town where the hotel bar had a dance floor.

This moment – brought coincidentally about, because who could know that this young man would dislocate his shoulder?  That he would want to dance?  That he would know a nearby bar where they could dance and drink and spend the night? – is special.  Finally, after years of marriage, this is the beginning of Tomas and Teresa’s honesty with one another, their happiness and their love.  Which we, the readers, know because of that stray line earlier.  Kundera lets us watch the first night Tomas and Teresa go dancing together, after coyly embedding the knowledge that they would repeat this experience through the rest of their lives.

          “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas said.

          “Surgery was your mission,” she said.

          “Missions are stupid, Tereza.  I have no mission.  No one has.  And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.”

So, yes, I liked The Unbearable Likeness of Being… but only for this moment, this sudden twist that Kundera enacts inside a reader’s brain.  Without this – considering only the plot, for instance, or the characters – the book wasn’t for me.

But I can understand why the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot considers lying.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being is very popular – especially at Harvard, where she was attending college.  During my sophomore year, someone published a list of most-purchased book titles at various collegiate bookstores.  The woman I was wooing felt extremely dejected after she saw this list.  She’d chosen to attend Northwestern instead of Harvard because the former had admitted her for a 7-year combined undergraduate & medical degree.  The list made her think she’d chosen wrong – that Harvard was the place for cultured human beings, and Northwestern appropriate only for over-earnest Midwestern strivers.

The most-sold book at Harvard’s bookstore?  The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  At Northwestern’s?  An organic chemistry textbook.

s-l225.jpgI have to admit – I contributed to this problem.  I bought a copy of that organic chemistry textbook.  I took the class my freshman year, when I foolishly bought texts for every class I was taking and stumbled back to my dorm crestfallen after forking over $450.  I was so appalled that I resolved to never buy another textbook… which I stayed true to until I bought a text for the grad-level microeconomics series my junior year.

When I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I’d borrowed it from the library.

In Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist one day decides to write an email to Ivan from Russian class.  This first email spawns a long correspondence: an electronic simulacrum of romance.

Batuman’s style resembles that of Tao Lin’s Taipei (which in turn resembles Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises).  We are drawn into a privileged world through the sheer accumulation of detail regarding the characters’ day-to-day lives.  In Lin’s and Hemingway’s novels, the characters take drugs and muck up their romantic lives – in Batuman’s, they skip class, teach the less fortunate, and muck up their romantic lives.

All brought on by what?  The sudden realization that a fifth class would be free.  When we look back, it becomes glaringly clear: such small decisions set our paths!

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

9781925240238I assumed I was the ideal audience for Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound.  It’s an epic work of magic realism, and there are bountiful parallels to Gabriel Garcia Marquez — just like everybody else, I love Garcia Marquez (some friends once used iron-on lettering to make me a shirt reading, “Almonds: The Official Scent of Unrequited Love”).  Kurniawan alludes frequently to The Mahabharata, which is like the bigger, badder, beastlier younger sibling of The Ramayana.  And a major theme of Beauty Is a Wound is the tragedy of pervasive violence against women.

Kurniawan’s interests mirror my own — why wouldn’t I love his book?  Why wouldn’t I tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too?

Well, some stylistic parallels to ancient mythology affect how enthusiastically I’d be able to recommend his book.  From The Iliad to The Bible to The Mahabharata, one common characteristic of epic mythology is repetition.  Stories are told over and over again by and to different characters, the same turns of phrases recur throughout.  This is reasonable for a work composed orally, but can seem excessive to contemporary readers: consider this passage from Mark Leyner’s egregiously-titled sendup of epic mythology:

T.S.F.N. : If we were to ask you to pick the one thing you liked most about the performance of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack you just listened to, what would it be?

REAL HUSBAND: The sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness of it.  And the almost unendurable length.

Repetition makes the parallel between Beauty Is a Wound and The Mahabharata more explicit, and even though that choice improves the work from the perspective of someone who understands why he’s doing it, I fear it might also make the book seem less accessible to the average reader.

CaptureIt reminds me of stylistic choices made for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (although this is dicier to write about, because Wallace did not have the chance to compile a final version).  In The Pale King, Wallace approached boredom with the same multifaceted concern he’d devoted to desire in Infinite Jest ... so it’s natural that some passages in The Pale King needed to be boring.  I understand why he did it.  At the same time, I worry that the choice may have turned away some readers, and that’s a shame because there are some beautiful ideas in the book (here’s an essay about my favorite passage).

A reader unfamiliar with the incessant repetitiveness of traditional mythology might be puzzled why so many phrases in Beauty Is a Wound recur.  This is especially noticeable with the more striking imagery in the book, like,

bananaThe other [murdered communists] had been left to rot on the side of the road, until those who couldn’t stand them anymore finally buried them, but even then it was more like burying some shit after defecating in the banana orchard.

followed, less than a hundred pages later, by,

But it wasn’t like burying a corpse — it was more like burying a turd after taking a shit in the banana orchard.

That’s a choice I wouldn’t make, but that’s fine — fans of traditional mythology are accustomed to, in Leyner’s words, “mind-numbing repetitiveness.”  So, yes, characters’ histories are recounted anew several chapters in a row, imagery recurs, linguistic tics crop up again and again.

(I’m culpable of this last one too, it seems.  I never grew accustomed to Kurniawan’s / translator Annie Tucker’s use of way where I’d say much, like “way better,” “way more modest,” “way more frightening,” but during a Skype chat about my novel with an overseas draft reader he expressed befuddlement why I’d written couple instead of few so many times, “a couple batteries,” “couple beers,” “couple hours,” etc.  All I could say was, “Whoops.”  I guess we speak worse English here in Indiana than they do in Tehran.)

The thing I found most off-putting in Beauty Is a Wound, that makes me hesitant to recommend it, is that, despite Kurniawan clearly caring deeply about the plight of women, the book still felt vaguely misogynistic.

This probably is not Kurniawan’s fault, entirely.  He seems like he might well be a feminist, protesting the callous mistreatment of women in traditional mythology — in The Mahabharata, for instance, the heroes gamble away their wife, who is then forcibly stripped in the middle of an assembly hall. That the vast majority of female characters in Beauty Is a Wound are raped, with their violations described so cavalierly, seems like a valid commentary to make.  Even that victims are then portrayed as falling in love with their rapists seems valid — in the United States, victims of sexual assault often have subsequent consensual relations with their attackers, and the Bible instructs for victims to be married to their assailants.

At the same time, it made me sad that the women in Beauty Is a Wound are so uniformly depicted as irrational and cruel.  I was reminded again and again of Scott Aaronson’s blog comment describing the way that geek culture often fears and reviles women for being sufficiently beautiful to invoke desire:

scott6-smHere’s the thing: I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.  I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.

Aaronson’s case might be extreme because he began college so young, but I think the general psychological progression is pretty common amongst geeky, nervous males: desire women, fear women, dislike women.  The misogyny of geek culture seems to be rooted in the expectation that women will be cruel.

Kurniawan depicts that same feared cruelty.  This wouldn’t have seemed so odd had it come from a single character — some people are cruelbut almost every female character seems beset by similar motivations.  It’s stated most explicitly when Almanda is crushing geek dreams:

kapowEach would grow more confident, feeling like the handsomest guy on earth, like the kindest man in the universe with the best hair on the planet, and convinced by all of this at the first opportunity that arose they would speak up or send a letter spewing their prehistoric pent-up desires: Alamanda, I love you.  That was the best time to destroy a man, to shake him up, to tear his heart to pieces, the best opportunity to show a woman’s superiority, so Alamanda would say, I do not love you.

“I like men,” Alamanda said once, “but I like to see them cry from heartbreak even more.”

(It’s also unsettling that she is later “tamed” by methods prescribed by jerktastic pick-up guides like Neil Strauss’s The Game.  Alamanda rejects everyone until a character “negs” her, then she finds him irresistible.)

While I appreciate that Kurniawan is so passionate about the dire straights of women, it’s a shame that misogyny is so pervasive that it inflects even books written in defense of women.  I just began reading Franzen’s Purity, for instance, and it already bothers me how frequently Pip, a twenty-something year old woman, is referred to as “girl.”  Again, this isn’t necessarily Franzen’s fault, it’s pervasive — consider Flo, the Progressive Insurance “girl.”

Calling an adult male “boy” is noticed to be demeaning by most people, but “girl” is (still!) used so routinely that it can slip by unnoticed.  Even though it shouldn’t.  That sort of language helps perpetuate our misogynistic culture.

I don’t know much about how woman are treated in Indonesia, but judging from Kurniawan’s book the situation seems to be just as bad as here, or worse.  Which obviously saddens me from the perspective of someone who cares about social justice.  But it affects me as a reader, too.  If Kurniawan had been immersed in a culture that talked about & treated women respectfully, I bet he’d have written something I’d really enjoy.