What do you read a book with?
“The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne,” sang the Beach Boys, bitterly, and from experience by the sounds of it.
In a song called Surf’s Up, from an album that was supposed to be called Smile, that lyric reflects the mood better than either of the ironic titles, and presages the unfortunate lives of both song and album. Smile was never properly released, and Surf’s Up was chopped up and lobbed out years later, by which time the fun and the sun and the prospect of good times had drained for good from the world of the Beach Boys. Everything got muted, uncertain, complicated, older. The Beach Boys changed. Maybe it was age but listening to them you sense more than that. Drugs or fame or a general disillusionment, maybe. What’s certain is there’s no sunshine here. The Beach Boys were innately Californian, but where once you might have pictured wholesome tans, here you can taste the tannins - that lyric on the tongue is as earthy as a complex Zinfandel.
As youth pales, these are the complex notes of ageing. Another year gone, the song says. You get older, you grow up, and this is the hangover. The fun fun fun is gone and so is the camaraderie.
It’s time for duty. It’s time to face reality.
It seems weird, or maybe entirely appropriate, to think about this song on Friday nights. I have though, recently, because Friday nights should be nights of celebration and forgetting and escape, of abandon, only now they’re not. Or at least if they are the celebration is, like the mood of the song, muted, uncertain, complicated. Friday nights are nights to quietly mark the passing of perhaps the only unit of time in which it is healthy to think of oneself as living. Friday nights are now nights for a family to gather in one place, to be together after a week of atomised toil in adapted rooms. Another week gone, the ritual says. And in our family’s Friday nights, the ritual has become an easy run of freshly scheduled TV: the latest Marvel episode, followed by Grayson’s Art Club and Gogglebox.
Maybe it’s my tainted Friday night view but a very Surf’s Up dose of reality has infected the Marvel universe, and there’s something about this that makes it perfect viewing for now. Where once there was an easy humour about the films, now the laughs come pretty hard here too. WandaVision was an extraordinary exercise in self-reflexive grief. And now The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which you wouldn’t call high art or even particularly gritty but the gap between, say, Thor Ragnarok and the back-to-the-world gloom of the new show is a lot like the gap between, say, Surfin’ USA and Surf’s Up. The world feels greyer, older. A ‘now what?’ pall saturates the screen. Your palette picks up the bitterness, and the uncertainty, the drudgery of life without the colourful ones. The Avengers camaraderie has gone and it’s time to face reality.
The show’s hangover vibe has the two lead characters walking around like spectres at the feast. Sam Wilson feels he’s let his family down and doesn’t feel good enough to replace Captain America. Bucky’s wandering around with his hands in his jacket pockets, all De Niro in Taxi Driver, antsy but aimless, forced by his state-mandated therapist to seek out the people he’s hurt and make amends. Loss hangs in the air like a fog, everyone waiting for it to lift.
It’s all down to ‘the blip’.
The blip is what society inside the Marvel universe has come to call the five year absence of half the world’s population. Thanos wiped them out at the end of Infinity War, the climax of Endgame brought them back. I find the blip fascinating. Can you imagine it, grieving for people who evaporated without warning, only for them to return? Nations, cities, towns, villages and families, all cut in half. No warning. Five years of attempts at healing. And then they come back. What would that do to a society? How would you begin to process the individual and collective trauma? How would you even calculate it? The resentments and sadness and unfairness it would have unleashed. The change in humanity.
Unimaginable things like this happen in films all the time, but it’s rare for films to consider the aftermath. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, this collective trauma forms the backdrop to the story. Relationships are in recovery. Repatriation services exist for anyone displaced. But the blip has created fault lines too. An internationalist anarchy movement, a terrorist organisation of sorts called the Flag Smashers claims things were better before everyone came back and is demanding the end of borders. The extreme response within the story makes the unimaginable more imaginable. We know, don’t we, that the world doesn’t simply come together to heal, even when it seems a self-evidently good thing to do. Too much gets in the way. Ours is a world of populism and saying what people want to hear, of polarised views and toxic ‘both sides’ balance, of shared trauma that only serves to deepen schisms. We’re watching this new Marvel phase beset by our own collective and convulsive global experience, and the longer the pandemic goes on the more believable the polarised response to the blip seems.
The last few years have shown us that events that we couldn’t have imagined serve to strengthen our belief in what we already thought. Bad faith and confirmation bias contort things. They explain the unexpected until it’s seamlessly integrated into and even reinforces our fixed world view. Steps taken to address the threat of a deadly virus can be understood, if we are so inclined, as restrictions on freedom of movement. The call for equality of opportunity and freedom from violence for all can be processed, if we are so inclined, as the tyranny of a ‘woke’ agenda. Amid the pain and grief and loss we all share, and the lost time and missed opportunities that affect each of us, what the pandemic really means remains in the eye of the beholder.
I worry about this, and about our way out of it. It’s human nature to be endlessly, blindly, happily reaffirmed. We are wheels in a ditch, further entrenching ourselves the harder we work to get out of it. Our reactions give us a greater sense of who we are in the world, because they trigger ideas as yet unspoken, or even yet unthought. But they also move us further from each other, going over what may have been pencil sketches of ourselves in bold, turning outlines into boundaries.
We can see this in the arguments we have about stories. We won’t fight over the plot of a film, but we will disagree over the meaning of what happened. It’s our interpretation of events that tells us who we are, shows us where our empathy lies. The guy who cheated to get a promotion - was he betraying his colleagues or exhibiting understandable behaviour given what is condoned by his employer? The woman who struggles to commit to a relationship - is she rightfully wary of most men she meets, or governed by unresolved issues from her past? The answer, probably, inevitably, is both. The world is complicated. This is true in fiction and it’s true in life, because the world isn’t binary. Yet we read it as if it is. We read the world like it should work by our own rules. Rules we maybe haven’t written down or perhaps even thought about consciously but that build up in our minds during the time we are alive. When we perceive these rules to be broken, we are indignant. We feel we belong to those whose rules seem the same as ours.
What we see is shaped by what we think. We read the world with our lives. And stories are the training ground for life.
This idea that we bring - can’t help bringing - ourselves to the stories we consume and the world we experience is something Patricia Lockwood touches on in a review of Elena Ferrante’s most recent book. Lockwood is a novelist and essayist, and she wondered aloud about how much of her own experience of reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet she should have included in the piece:
While writing this, I read another essay that made me self-conscious; it lamented the trend toward the autobiographical review. Oh no, I said to myself, like Lenù at university, like Lila at the party, I have been doing it wrong the whole time. I went through what I had written, carefully removing the I, I, I. Then I stopped. I was even angry. I thought, what else do you read a book with but your body, your history?
Ferrante’s novels are vivid and thoughtful and, according to some who would know better than me, as good a representation of complicated female friendship as you’re likely to find in literature. It’s life at a granular level, charged with the electricity of recognition, of authenticity, with the reader the one responsible for completing the circuit.
Books like Ferrante’s trigger all kinds of associations and memories. You can’t help but read them with your full being. Lockwood lists the aspects of her life with which she reads Ferrante:
What do you read a book with? Your wrong clothes, wrong shoes, wrong words, wrong mind? Monica Vitti’s face, floating past telephone wires? The bracelet that belonged to your aunt, the link pinched together between fingernails? Old diaries, lost, sunk in the river? The shame that must pass from me to my notebook: that sometimes when I read these scenes I am imagining Buca di Beppo? The death of the family dog? The back-and-forth hands of my mother, sewing; the dress that men see on me? Those ugly Europa covers, like the stock photos in frames you buy at Walmart? The disappearance of high school friends, those geniuses, those genuine articles, who somehow accomplished the real escape?
I too have been Lenù at university, with an accent and only two outfits, I too have been Lila at the party. And I have been the fireworks, and the sudden fluent speech, and Lenù opening her mouth to join the conversation, overtaken by the monologue: ‘Oh, how moved I was, as I spoke: I felt tears coming to my eyes.’
And my brilliant friend, beautiful, standing in the darkness of her own disappearance, who listens to me in silence, who alone knows that I am a fraud, who hears the sound of my match igniting and who will ask me in dialect, after we leave: ‘Why were you talking that way? Who were you trying to impress? Are you ashamed of me?’
Your body, your history? The old neighbourhood? The planet?
We cannot help but bring our whole hungry life to reading. Because stories are not distractions. They confront us with who we’ve been. Who we are.
George Saunders underlines this point and shows us how schisms deepen as a result in his new book about Russian short stories, called A Swim In A Pond In The Rain. It’s a glorious book, a printed equivalent to the class Saunders teaches at Syracuse University. It includes seven short stories by Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev and Tolstoy; short stories that Saunders uses to help us write, read and live better. Discussing Gogol’s The Nose, he introduces the Russian tradition of skaz storytelling. Skaz is a form of unreliable first-person narration - like an unseen and unnamed comedy character - and it serves to make stories as unnerving and unresolved as life is:
There is no world save the one we make with our minds, and the mind’s predisposition determines the type of world we see.
A woman who lives in a tiny ranch house, obsessed with the fact that her grass is dying, goes to Versailles and is impressed, mostly, by the lawns.
A dominated guy in a bad marriage goes to a play and can’t get over how much his wife is like Lady Macbeth.
Such is life.
No, really, says Gogol, such is life.
If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, “Given how generally sweet people are, why is the world so fucked up?,” Gogol has the answer: we each have an energetic and unique skaz loop running in our heads, one we believe in fully, not as “merely my opinion” but “the way things actually are, for sure.”
The entire drama of life on earth is: Skaz-headed Person #1 steps outside, where he encounters Skaz-Headed Person #2. Both, seeing themselves as the centre of the universe, thinking highly of themselves, immediately slightly misunderstand everything. They try to communicate but aren’t any good at it.
The Nose is an absurdist short story about a St Petersburg man whose nose goes missing and turns into a person before it is eventually arrested and returned by a policeman. The skaz narrator serves to help us trust in impossible events and keeps us reading long enough to reflect on what it all means. He also acts as a reminder of our tendency to confuse “merely my opinion” with “the way things actually are, for sure”, thanks to the credibility gap between what he says and what we know to be possible.
But then, in the middle of the story, Gogol’s skaz narrator, like the too-stoned person at a party, actually alights on something profound and beautiful by reflecting on the transient nature of the story’s situation.
The major very nearly laughed with joy.
But there is nothing enduring in this world, and that is why even joy is not as keen in the moment that follows the first; and a moment later it grows weaker still and finally emerges imperceptibly into one’s usual state of mind, just as a ring on the water, made by the fall of the pebble, merges finally into the smooth surface.
In the middle of this absurdist story is something meaningful for us all to take away: the intensity of experience has a tendency to fade. Joy, just like anything else, also fades, “merges finally into the smooth surface.”
And yet. Within this thought is another, a notion we might cling to. It’s a thought that speaks to our intractable natures - our selves as wheels in a ditch.
Maybe our world isn’t fixed. Maybe we aren’t fixed. That surface, before it became smooth again, had first to be disturbed. Before it faded, there was joy, as keen in its first moment as it ever will be. The pebble fell. It was dropped. The surface was smooth and it became smooth once more but in between, well, there were ripples.
There was change.
Towards the end of his book, Saunders borrows Gogol’s image of the dropped pebble to capture the effect that reading - and the act of writing - has on us.
The writer and the reader stand at either end of a pond. The writer drops a pebble in and the ripples reach the reader. The writer stands there, imagining the way the reader is receiving those ripples, by way of deciding which pebble to drop in next.
Meanwhile, the reader receives those ripples and, somehow, they speak to her.
In other words, they’re in connection.
These days, it’s easy to feel that we’ve fallen out of connection with one another and with the earth and with reason and with love. I mean: we have. But to read, to write, is to say that we still believe in, at least, the possibility of connection. When reading and writing, we feel connections happening (or not) That’s the essence of these activities: ascertaining whether connection is happening, and where, and why.
These two people, in these postures, across that pond, are doing essential work.
As the world continues to fracture, reading and writing are modes of connection that can - or can at least attempt to - bridge the deepening schisms between us. And if Patrica Lockwood is right and we really do read books with our lives, so strong is our need to recognise ourselves in the world, can it also be also true that reading books gives us the means to change our perspective?
Saunders thinks so, and uses close readings of these Russion short stories to prove it. Summing up he says:
What is it, exactly, that fiction does?
Well, that’s the question we’ve been asking all along, as we’ve been watching our minds read these Russian stories. We’ve been comparing the pre-reading state of our minds to the post-reading state. And that’s what fiction does: it causes an incremental change in the state of a mind. That’s it. But, you know - it really does it. That change is finite but real.
And that’s not nothing.
It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing.
He’s right. It’s not nothing. Fiction changes our minds because we step from our own limited consciousness - the life with which we read - and into another one, or two, or more. His parting shot is to examine how precisely fiction changes us, in this “finite but real” way.
So, we might ask, how are we altered, in that “short time afterward”?
I am reminded that my mind is not the only mind.
I feel an increased confidence in my ability to imagine the experiences of other people and accept these as valid.
I feel I exist on a continuum with other people: what is in them is in me and vice versa.
My capacity for language is reenergised. My internal language (the language in which I think) gets richer, more specific and adroit.
I find myself liking the world more, taking more loving notice of it.
I feel luckier to be here and more aware that someday I won’t be.
I feel more aware of the things of the world and more interested in them.
Essentially, before I read a story, I’m in a state of knowing, of being fairly sure. My life has led me to a certain place and I'm contentedly resting there. Then, here comes the story, and I am slightly undone, in a good way. Not so sure anymore, of my views, and reminded that my viewmaker is always a little bit off: it’s limited, it’s too easily satisfied, with too little data.
And that’s an enviable state to be in, if only for a few minutes.
When someone cuts you off in traffic, don’t you always know which political party they belong to (that is, the opposite of yours)? But, of course, you don’t. It remains to be seen. Everything remains to be seen. Fiction helps us remember that everything remains to be seen. It’s a sacrament dedicated to this end. We can’t always feel as open to the world as we feel at the end of a beautiful story, but feeling that way even briefly reminds us that such a state exists and creates the aspiration in us to strive to be in that state more often.
Would we have felt as fond of the real-life versions of Marya, Yashka, Olenka, Vasili, et al. [characters in the stories included in the book] as we now feel of their literary representations? Might have we dismissed them, failed to notice them at all?
They started out as notions in the minds of another person, became words, then became notions in our minds, and now they’ll always be with us, part of our moral armament, as we approach the beautiful, difficult, precious days ahead.
Stories change us because they help us notice the world beyond the consciousness that contains us. They change us even as they disclose to us who we are. They are pebbles dropped in a pond. We are altered, perhaps only briefly, temporarily, or slightly, by the ripples of the pebble as they dislodge or coax us from our assumed selves.
This makes noticing a radical act. Noticing is to be aware of the changes, to accept them, or at least accept the possibility of it. We experience it in the before and after of reading, and of writing. This changes us and creates a connection with others - those trying to connect with us and those who are not. Our outlines become less than boundaries again, porous enough to let more of the world in.
We, somehow, are not fixed, even though we work so hard to fix the world to our idea of ourselves. To believe in stories is to believe in the possibility of change. It puts us on a setting that allows events, convulsive ones, small ones, to change us. The lives of others can change us, if we let them. We change and we grow. As we go from youth to age we value different things. We focus on different aspects of being alive. We go from fun to duty, from a sense of ease to a sense of responsibility, from hope to bitterness, from wanting to save the world to trying to save ourselves, from naivety to wisdom, from self-centredness to caring for others, from Friday nights out to sitting with the people you love most in the world watching telly, from Thor Ragnorok to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, from Surfin’ USA to Surf’s Up.
And maybe as we undergo all this change, the laughs do come a little harder. But maybe we can notice them more keenly, and they mean more to us when we do.