Lexical Undertakings - #5
Books read in July 2018:
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
This Love Story Will Self Destruct by Leslie Cohen
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Of the books I read this month, two are about love and two are about obsession.
It was apparently an event when Less by Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Less is the story of a novelist who bumps up on middle age through the marriage of a young lover and then travels the world in an attempt to escape it. Any attempt to escape your age has only two possible consequences: tragic failure and comedic failure. Luckily for Arthur Less, Greer’s protagonist, his adventures tend toward the comic. And, traditionally speaking, comic novels win awards about as frequently as those giving the awards out admit that, in fact, they actually haven’t read that book because they were too busy reading The President is Missing.
Arthur Less’ adventures also tend towards the very, very gay. I don’t just mean that his adventures involve a lot of men having sex with men (although they do involve a lot of men having sex with men). I mean that they involve many of the trappings of a traditionally gay lifestyle -- as a young man, Arthur lived with an older man and they hung a photo of a “naked and barely unrecognizable” Less in their living room. Less is never faithful to the man whose house he lives in; that man does not expect him to be. Less never discusses the possibility of children or marriage with the man he dates for nine years; the man does not expect him to even really consider it. And then, abruptly it seems, Less’ younger lover, a man named Freddy, up and announces that he has considered it, with another man, and he is getting married. It’s okay though, because Less is invited to the wedding.
Is this what they had thrown stones at the police for? Less wonders to himself as he climbs aboard a plane to avoid the whole mess. Marriage? The traditional gay man’s life, with its lack of children, monogamy, or commitment, only exists because the traditional straight man’s life, filled with children, monogamy, and commitment, was cut off to them. An entire culture developed as a result of the dominant culture refusing to accept or tolerate different kinds of people.
And now? In 2018, when Arthur Less is turning 50? Now it is being opened up and suddenly being queer doesn’t necessarily mean having to look all that different, because gay people get married and have kids and only sleep with each other, and straight people never get married, skip the kids, and routinely sleep with anyone they want. And everyone is doing all of these things both over and under the age of 50, for pretty much the first time. The questions of what happens after acceptance* and what happens after 50 are two of the most interesting and timely questions I can think of. Plus it will make you laugh.
This Love Story Will Self Destruct by Leslie Cohen will also make you laugh, although it isn’t timely in the slightest. I believe that I found this book on a list of Books to Read if You Like Rom-Coms, and, because I do enjoy rom-coms, I picked the best sounding one and laid out in the sun basking in it, because it is summer and that is lovely.
In the last third of This Love Story Will Self-Destruct, after Ben and Eve have gotten together but before they have had the argument that will tear them apart, Ben meets Eve’s family. And tries to explain the world to them.
“Eve is interested in how the world works,” he says matter of factly. “And I’m interested in how it feels. Together, we might know everything.”
Part of enjoying romcoms is being aware of how paper-thin they can be. To me, romcoms are the adult equivalent of a paper puppet show and that is perfectly fine. However, it’s become fashionable in recent years to release romcoms, like The Big Sick and Ruby Sparks, that explicitly play with and examining the character tropes and the well-worn plotlines. A common way of doing so is to simply gender-flip the story, as was done in the Anna Farris remake of Overboard (which I’ve heard was terrible, but that is beside the point).
Ben, a structural engineer, and Eve, a writer, are different, because she likes feelings and he likes facts. Eve compliments Ben by giving the emotional parts of his brain that he prefers to neglect a bit of a workout. And Ben forces Eve to grow up, be a bit more serious, stop giving in to her feelings and impulses so much. Eve is flighty. Ben makes more money (but she’s not, like, interested in him because of that or anything). It’s a familiar story and one that I cannot ever imagine being told with the opposing characteristics. In this version, both characters are charming and there isn’t anything infantile at all about the notion that he is the lock, she is the key, and together they can open wonders. In the other, the woman becomes an uptight, scientific shrew, and the man becomes a slobby child. I’m not sure that every single story needs to still work with the genders swapped. But I’d love for someone to try with the STEM-meets-ART trope that This Love Story Will Self Destruct was all over.
The next book I read was one of the hot book sof the spring, something I kept hearing about on podcasts before picking up. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is a remarkable book, but there are a few reasons that it was so widely talked about. First, the author, Michelle McNamara died unexpectedly in her sleep while she was writing it. The book was published posthumously with the help of two editor/crime enthusiast friends and her husband. Second, that husband is Patton Oswalt. And third, shortly after the book was published the Golden State Killer was caught using DNA evidence, a tactic that McNamara was advocating heavily for when she was alive.
It’s a whirlwind. But for me, personally, one of the most exciting parts on this book was when Michelle explained that she believed her True Crime obsession stemmed from an unsolved murder in her hometown of Oak Park, Illinois in the 1970s. She grew up about 8 blocks and twenty years from exactly where I did.
When describing Oak Park, the South Side she paints was a little different than what I knew, filled with Irish Catholic families and slightly too cold houses. But, “North of us,” she explains, “was the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and an affluent neighborhood of prairie homes and liberal professionals intent on staying hip,” which is the Oak Park I knew to a T. She remembers her friend Cameron’s family, from the North Side, introducing her to vegetarian salt and the word “Kabuki”. I remember my friend Alicia’s family, from the North Side, introducing me to sushi and the word “Whole Foods”.
Apart from the excitement I felt at seeing my home town in a book (I jumped up, thrilled. My boyfriend continued playing a video game, less than thrilled) there were parts of this book I found disappointing. I hated to think it, because of the circumstances, but while the finished bits were electric, the bits compiled from notes were decidedly nonconductive.
But, the story is undoubtedly fascinating. 12 murders and 50 rapes that were nearly forgotten in the era of Harvest Gold now being brought into the sun. Knowing so many things that the writer herself does not -- about the results of the investigation she is discussing, about which hunches of hers were correct, about her own impending doom.
And, I think, about the fruits of her labor. Very few authors begin projects with the understanding that their books will languish for weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But McNamara seemed to find something bizarre and almost shameful about the consuming interest that lead her to write the book. She opens it with a description of herself, awake while her family sleeps, sitting in her daughter's playroom in the dark, tapping away at her laptop. She compares her obsession, her need to search and to know, with the obsessive stalking of the killer himself on more than one occasion. Even the subtitle One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer hints that there is something deviant and wrong here.
I wish I was that obsessed with something, anything. As a writer today, there are more and flexible ways for you to get your writing out there (a monthly book column few people are reading, perhaps). As a result, everyone’s writing is out there. It is much harder to get anything you say to stand out. You not only have to have a great story that you can spin with pristine wording. It has to be, if not unique, at least unusual. And obsession is a short cut. People who are obsessed with something almost always end up with interesting things to say about it. They find setting aside time from their life to learn about it not only possible, but impossible to exist. In Less, Greer is writing of what it is like to live with a genuis poet and he calls a successful creative as a person with an addiction they court. Feed the habit, keep the habit. It frequently seems that obsession is the shortest path available to notoriety, even post sudden death.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell chronicles the last thing I was, indeed, obsessed with. It is the story of Cath (and her twin sister Wren). Cath writes fan fiction for a series of books called Simon Snow, a clear stand-in for Harry Potter. She is, in fact, one of the most popular fic writers. However, most of the story takes place as she tries to balance real college and real problems with fictional boys and a fictional school.
As a kid, I was obsessed with Harry Potter. That’s a claim that adults my age frequently make to one another -- and I kind of always to reply No, you don’t understand, I was obsessed and put all of my emphasis on the last word, like they could not possibly have wrapped their heads around it the first time. The truth is, no one is able to wrap their heads around someone else’s Harry Potter obsession. For some people, “as I kid I was obsessed with Harry Potter” means “I read all the books more than once”. For others it means “I created a small career out of this”. For me, it meant “I read and write Harry Potter fan fiction every day” and “I have read these books over and over and over”. This particular obsessive fandom shaped my generation. It is a large part of why millenials are the way we are, and why we have shaped society to look the way it does. But Rainbow Rowell’s adorable book is the only one I’ve ever seen talk about it.
*Yes, I know that there has not been 100% acceptance on 100% of fronts. Of course not. There is still so much structural and social inequality. My point here is that being a middle aged gay man in 2018 is radically different than being a middle aged gay man in 1972 largely because it is a less radical thing to go about doing.