On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

Heartbreak smells the same in any language.

During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide.  I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make.  All I remember is that I promptly said:

“Almonds.  The official scent of unrequited love.”

“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked.  “That’s good.  Some people can’t.  You’ll be much less likely to die.”

41Bn22qtn6LI actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it.  Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis.  I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.

*

Kids needs to learn about heartbreak.  They will feel sorrow.  Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.

I know I was miserable during high school.  And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.

Reading more would have helped.  Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity.  When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.

And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.

This is heartbreak.  Learn it well, young person.  You too will hurt.

*

proust_yuc7utMarcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.

and we wrestled, locked together.  I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her.  Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:

You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”

At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling.  He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants.  Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.”  It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.

He felt joy that afternoon.

But then, months later, that same joy stabs him.  Their relationship has ended.  Marcel fancies himself indifferent.  Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain.  The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:

The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart.  Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me.  I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.

He loved that she loved him.  He hates that she might now love another the same way.

And that, kids, is what life is like.

*

But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time?  I certainly didn’t.  Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.

I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.

all-the-dirty-partsAnd so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts.  When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes.  Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.

Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.

You found it right away.

They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find.  The clitoris is not hard to find.  I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer.  Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right.  And porn helps.  Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit.  It’s educational.

Or, on the same page:

I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face.  Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec.  We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.

Pornography lied to us.

I’m writing my congressman.

OK but let’s watch another one first.

The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests.  But he too has a heart.  And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.

Officially together?

She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer.  I already thought it might not work, to ask her.

OK.

Do we need a permit?  Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?

I was just asking.

Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?

And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.

They’re in high school.  Their relationship won’t last forever.  Which she knows.

So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.

And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else.  Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to.  He sits alone in his room and ruminates:

I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing.  For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t.  Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.

And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.

When you are older –

That’s the only part of the advice I hear.  But, Dad, I’m not.

*

I’m sorry, dude.  It does hurt.

And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt.  There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.

At least Daniel Handler wrote a book for you.

On charming sentences and sifting the OED.

For the most part, I didn’t have fun at school.  But I always enjoyed the days when we were given lists of new spelling words and told to look up their definitions and write a sentence using each.  Sure, eventually we’d have a spelling test that I would fail — I scored between zero and thirty percent on spelling tests so often that my mother was called in for a conference, which terrified me, expecting to be yelled at, but instead she burst out cackling because she’s perhaps the only person whose spelling mistakes are as idiosyncratic as my own — but that first day, with the sentence writing, was always a blast.

anne_carson_4_0I loved writing sentences that you could imagine being part of a story without going through the effort of writing all the rest.  And still do, honestly.  If I were attempting to pretend my affection was motivated by something other than an aversion to sustained effort, I would allude to Anne Carson here: her art is often fabulously fragmentary, possibly due to her background in ancient Greek literature, from which we often have only scraps and pieces of the original works.  It’s easy to imagine this quotation from her fantastic Autobiography of Red as being the sole surviving remnants of a larger work, but she included everything a reader needs:

XV. TOTAL THINGS KNOWN ABOUT GERYON

He loved lightning He lived on an island His mother was a
Nymph of a river that ran to the sea His father was a gold
Cutting tool Old scholia say that Steichoros says that
Geryon had six hands and six feet and wings He was red and
His strange red cattle excited envy Herakles came and
Killed him for his cattle

The dog too

XVI. GERYON’S END

The red world And corresponding red breezes
Went on Geryon did not

If you haven’t read that book yet, I highly recommend it — Autobiography of Red, alongside Queer and Love in the Time of Cholera, is one of my top three for the literature of unrequited love.  Carson’s work is strange, beautiful, powerful, and funny.  Most of the humorous passages in Autobiography of Red build slowly, so I don’t have a good short one to slap up here and convince you, but consider this essay from her collection Plainswater:

On Reading

Some fathers hate to read but love to take the family on trips.  Some children hate trips but love to read.  Funny how often these find themselves passengers in the same automobile.  I glimpsed the stupendous clear-cut shoulders of the Rockies from between paragraphs of Madame Bovary.  Cloud shadows roved languidly across her huge rock throat, traced her fir flanks.  Since those days, I do not look at hair on female flesh without thinking, Deciduous?

Anyway, I’d obviously stress my fondness for Carson’s work if I were attempting to claim that my love of single sentences had any other root than laziness.  But it doesn’t.  I read slowly.  I write slowly.  A single sentence … wham!  It’s over and done with so fast!

OEDSometimes I can find beautiful sentences in the OED, but this is more rare than you might expect — the editors have a clear preference for early usages, whereas I don’t much care when something was written.  But they’ve definitely included some brilliant ones.  For instance, here’s one they found Henry Swinburne’s Travels in the Two Sicilies:

Mephitic vapours and stagnated waters have converted this favourite seat of health into the den of pestilence, at least during the estival heats.

I like picturing the facial expression of a fourth-grade teacher stumbling across that sentence while grading a student’s vocabulary homework.  Although, if I’d been that teacher, I would’ve assigned the word “aestive” instead of “estival;” that’s my preferred archaic adjective for “summer.”

Which, right, I wish I’d spent more time looking at the OED back when I was in fourth grade and failing all those spelling tests.  I could’ve made so many more bratty pronouncements!  I could have explained that “correct” spelling in English is rather meaningless because the conventions have shifted so often, and the conventions are often incorrect as well — English spelling typically tracks etymology, not phonetic pronunciation, but the standardized spellings sometimes have the etymology wrong.  For instance the S in “island” was included because some monks thought the word was etymologically related to “isle,” but they were wrong.

Not that my fourth-grade teacher should have been impressed by such pronouncements.  I would’ve been trying to explain away my having included the wrong number of Rs and Ls in “squirrel.”  But I can dream.

Here are two more doozies that I learned about from the OED.  The first is from Samuel Hageman’s Once (while attempting to learn his first name, I learned that Hageman was a Brooklyn theologian who published, amongst other works, a volume titled Bird-songs translated into words):

They stopped at the door of the pawnshop… There sat the hateful abactor, skilled at agony, and dextrous in the arts of distress.

Minneteppich_KGMAnd this, from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of Bartholomaeus’s On the Property of Things (which is written like a science text, although it lists the griffin as a type of bird — modern scientists now know griffins to be mammals — and oysters as the natural enemy of the crab, whereas we all know that the sworn enemy of a crab is generally another crab):

The capon is a cocke made as it were female by keruynge away of his gendringe stones.

I suppose this sentence, with its, um, eccentric spelling, looks more like something that I would have submitted to a teacher.

And I still do peruse the dictionary regularly, writing my own definitions and using some of the more intriguing words I find in original sentences.  A recent favorite was for capnomancy, divination by smoke.  I jotted down a line of dialogue that I hope to include if I ever write an orcs-dragons-and-axe-weilding-princesses style fantasy novel: “Capnomancy my ass!  Any fool can predict doom when the whole goddamn town looks to be on fire!”

I showed this sentence to K’s & my then-housemate after returning from the library (though not immediately after — I considered it necessary to remind her of the definition for the word “obganiate” seventeen times first), at which point she asked me about the other good divination words in English.  Indeed, there are enough good ones that she promptly began a series of paintings depicting them: her favorite is alectryomancy, divination by the mealtime meandering of a rooster.

Sadly, I don’t have a scan of that piece of artwork — I only have computer files for the types of divination we included in our board game.  Luckily I do have her painting for capnomancy, as well as a beautiful joke painting she made for chresmomancy.  Perhaps “joke” isn’t the correct word, actually: jokes are usually funny.  Whereas my preferred type of humor is something that I think is funny, but clearly isn’t.  The only “joke” is that chresmomancy doesn’t actually refer to divination through the use of psychedelics, it’s divination by the ravings of a lunatic.  But I did a lot of sitting for people during college and, believe me, one could reasonably get the two confused.

_-capnomancy-watermarked_-chresmomancy-watermarked