The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge is the last novel I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards Nominees. I think I accidentally saved the best for last because this was my favourite out of the bunch. What La Farge did with this work is really impressive because he had to work with one of the most controversial figures in Science Fiction history and somehow he examines possibilities without glorifying any of the negatives in H.P. Lovecraft. Only three years ago the figure of Lovecraft was removed by the Locus Fantasy Awards so it’s a difficult topic to work with so shortly after. Reading this novel was like peeling layers and layers on a dark flower and finding something new each time. Like a cubist artist, La Farge holds H.P. Lovecraft and the persona of this mysterious figure, but looks at it from every possible angle, considering each perspective. For one, this story isn’t really about H.P Lovecraft, it’s about a woman who is in love with a man who was passionate about a particular aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s life. This hierarchy of perspectives creates a distance between all that one may find problematic with Lovecraft. Each character being slightly flawed and a little unreliable still preserves the mystery. Allow me to explain a little of the plot and I will try to be less cryptic. The story follows Marina who is herself a psychiatrist. Her husband Charlie was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and one day simply vanished. The last thing we know is that he was by the edge of the lake. In trying to find out more about her husband Marina finds that Charlie was doing passionate research work on H.P. Lovecraft, in particular focusing on his sexuality, and if maybe he might have had a homosexual relationship with a young fan by the name of Robert Barlow. His lead was finding a Lovecraft diary also known in this novel as The Erotonomicon (playing on the Necronomicon). It was kind of interesting to consider that at the time H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘clues’ or proof trail of being homosexual might have been hidden by publishers or friends to ‘preserve’ his integrity whilst the racist and xenophobic parts of his biography were unashamedly left in, whereas today it would be exactly the reverse. I am a big fan of acknowledging that no one is good or bad, but a dynamic character with flaws and qualities alike and that the path to rehabilitation and education can help anyone no matter what they said or did in the past. Lovecraft did a lot of good for fantasy and sparked a series of subgenres. He was very unhappy and died in extreme poverty. I have always tried to keep that in mind, and La Farge just reminded me how interesting Lovecraft was and it’s making me want to go read the Necronomicon again.
Because the main narrator is involved in a mystery trying to find out more about her own husband, because Charlie himself is psychologically unstable (which automatically makes him an unreliable narrator), and because the ‘findings’ about Lovecraft have been filtered, hidden, and ‘rumoured’ the whole novel preserves an overall tone of suspense and eerie mystery. Even Charlie’s disappearance is something straight out of a Cthulhu story. No one is one hundred percent reliable, and no one has a definite answer on Lovecraft, which leaves the reader of The Night Ocean alone, left to come up with answers by connecting the dots. Also, Marina trying to understand Charlie, and him explaining Lovecraft to her in flashbacks/memories, and her learning more about him as we go along, we are introduced to bits of biography about Lovecraft, including the parts which make him a controversial figure. Like I said, this novel was very dynamic and it is presented in such a way that reminds me of a cubist painting. It is no small feat, and La Farge has succeeded immensely (in my humble opinion). This was a very difficult task and his writing is absolutely amazing. The way the story is told, the diverse cast of characters, the new parts of Lovecraft’s life to be explored, the incorporation of a female narrator to guide the story forward are just a few aspects of what makes this story so good. I also have to slip in that I was hooked on Charlie the moment he said he procrastinated by watching Lost…something I’m obsessed with. There goes my bias.
Definitely read this book if you love H.P. Lovecraft, mystery, science fiction, the macabre, steampunkish speculative fiction, and gothic atmospheres/settings. I mean…this is a Shirley Jackson Award nominee…so you already know.
Before assessing my own opinion in terms of literary merit, and what I believe Shirley Jackson-worthy literary books to be like, I looked at some previous winners and award patterns. First of all, I’m NOT a judge or a literary scholar by any means, this is just MY OPINION and personal project. I like examining these things and nerding out over them, so I looked at all the winners since the awards got started. For instance, if you tally up all the winners for all six categories (best novel, novella, novelette, short story, single-author collection, edited anthology) included there have been a total of 66 winners in the last 10 years (some years there were 2 editors for anthologies, and one year there were two winners in the same category). Of the total 40 were men, and 26 were women. Of the total winners 49 were from USA, 7 from Canada, 5 from the UK, 2 from Australia, 2 from Japan, and 1 from South Africa.
Some people have won the Shirley Jackson Award twice (or more), or even in more than one category in the same year. For example in 2010 Neil Gaiman won for best novelette, but also for best edited anthology for a different work. From the list of this year’s nominees for best novel, Victor Lavalle won in the past, in 2016 for best novella, and in 2009 for best novel.
I tried to look at this year’s nominees from a “numerical” standpoint in terms of readership and ratings (as of RIGHT NOW looking at Goodreads)
These numbers are of course very loose as many readers may not have Goodreads, or are like me and don’t like to assign a star rating to a book on Goodreads and merely “add it” with a written review of pros/cons.
There are some things to consider about each of these books that doesn’t even involve the content. This is me brainstorming:
The Hole is the shortest book on the list with only 198 pages, of that not even having the most favourable ratings, and it is the only book in translation (thus we cannot read it in the original language to fully appreciate its craft). Simultaneously it involves the work of more people since it is in translation. It is also the only book on this list with no audiobook accompaniment which usually reaches a wider audience which may have shortened its reach. IF it did win though, it would be the first winner from Korea. Hye-Young Pyun is also the only female nominee in the best novel category this year. The Bone Mother‘s presentation is in the form of a series of short stories or anecdotes rather than a novel in the traditional sense. It is also the only debut novel from the list, whereas all the other authors have published several works beforehand. Ill Will has also played around with presentation in the forms on non-traditional columns (something I have not encountered before in a novel), and The Night Ocean has at its center one of the most controversial figures in fantasy: H.P Lovecraft who just three years ago was dropped as the image of the World Fantasy Award. To be honest, from the list this novel got my attention most because I enjoy Lovecraftian fiction and I am saving it for last. Of course, the judges probably already knew this when they selected it, and as I have not yet read it, I will not pass judgement on it. Victor Lavalle has won the Shirley Jackson twice in the past both for best novel (2009) and best novella (2016) so he’s clearly mastered something the judges of the Jackson Awards appreciate. His book is also the only one with both high readerships and equally high percentages in ratings (highlighted in red above). I think the WISE thing to assume here is that these five novels have been selected for a reason, and that judges will place all prejudices or previous knowledge aside and look at each novel as it stands alone. Sometimes I wish these things were as easy as: I just enjoyed this one the most! But it’s so hard when they are all very very good! So far I’ve enjoyed the two books I read, and I’m currently in the middle of The Changeling, and almost done The Hole and they are both equally amazing and elegant to the previous two works I read. Reviews for the next three books will follow!
Nevermoor has been getting a lot of praise everywhere and I was really excited to read it. I got both the book and audiobook and I was prepared to dive into the newest great children’s book. I’m a huge collector and reader of children’s literature and I approached this book with an open mind, hoping to be transported and have all the good feelings that accompany the reading children’s books. The first 100 pages were great! We get introduced to Morrigan Crow who is from this family of “Crows.” Her father (Corvus) is the mayor, an influential politician, and kind of distanced from her as she is cursed. Everywhere she goes something bad happens. The world she is in “now” is not too developed or explained, we just get a sense that every once in a while a child is cursed and when they hit age 12 they die. Morrigan lives with the knowledge that she will die by 12. Knowing this, I kind of thought that maybe her family was distancing themselves from her so that they don’t get attached because they know she will die. The suspense of it all is quite different than other books and I respect that there was more showing than explaining, and kind of action-packed. On the eve of her 11th birthday Morrigan finds that this was actually the day she’s supposed to die, but gets approached by a man who purchases her at auction, named Jupiter North. He calls her Mog and saves her from her fate, takes her to Nevermoor, and enrolls her into a race/contest for children for her to earn the rights to stay in Nevermoor. Up until this point I can see many comparisons, as many have already mentioned, that Morrigan Crow is basically Harry Potter. She’s mistreated in her previous life, she’s a cursed/chosen one, and she enters a new magical realm with a guide/mentor. Once in Nevermoor the book turns into a hybrid of The Hunger Games, and The Goblet of Fire, where there are just countless contests where the children must “prove” themselves worthy of joining the Wundrous Society in Nevermoor. For Morrigan it’s even more important because she’s an ‘illegal’ and by winning she can get to stay in Nevermoor. I’m not going to say much more plot-wise. This is the general premise. It definitely has its strengths and its own spins. I enjoyed the diversity in this work. From the names one can tell that some characters come from different backgrounds. The language is elevated and certainly respects children’s literacy skills, perhaps even presenting some challenges. I particularly enjoyed was finding out that Jupiter’s “powers” are seeing things as they are …truly. He is sort of a magical version of Sherlock Holmes where he can look at something, observe it and truly know everything about it, and most importantly see its potential. Jupiter says:
“It’s not a memory like yours or mine. It’s more like…how shall I put this? There are…events and moments in the past that attach themselves to people and things, and cling to them through time simply because they have nowhere else to go. Maybe they eventually fade or get torn away or just die. But somethings never die—the especially good memories or the especially bad ones can hang around forever.”
This concept was very creative and I really enjoyed it. However, I felt like on many levels it was extremely unfocused. It jumped from place to place, from character to character, from sequence to sequence, without allowing the reader to get acquainted with a place, or attached to a character. No concept, location, or character is fully developed and it made the story feel very wobbly. I felt like the author kept changing direction and pointing to something else every few sentences. It was as if the author tried to squeeze Harry Potter 1-5 in one book, told by Dr. Seuss, and then made a list of everything that sounded sort of cool and just threw them in fast without any time to process. The chandelier grows out in the shape of a ship like a tooth would, there’s a vampire-dwarf, or dwarf-vampire and there’s a difference, the concept of Morrigan being an ‘illegal,’ the random side characters thrown in, the umbrellas, the contest, what the actual Wundrous society is and what does it do, the children’s auction, before she’s about to die her step-mom mentioning she’s pregnant like in a soap opera. Everything happened so fast that it felt rushed, and nothing is fully developed. The characters hardly had any depth. The ‘bad’ girl was just ‘bad’ and annoying. One Goodreads reviewer said that Townsend must have put all these fun facts or fun ideas in a hat and just pulled them out at random, and that it resembles Hotel Transylvania…and that’s how I kind of felt reading this. There’s no foundation, the place doesn’t seem real or like it truly has a history. Jupiter North (despite the cool name) is a mash-up of Mary Poppins and Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder). He’s even described to look a lot like Gene Wilder in the Willy Wonka role. I felt the presence of the author the whole time and it was very transparent what she was trying to do, and what previously existing stories she was trying to mesh together.
Saying all that, and how transparent it was to me as a long-time reader, and superfan of children’s books…I don’t know if a child would be able to see through that, or if they would thoroughly enjoy it. I don’t believe children should be treated like they are not smart, or have short attention span, but if someone can’t see through every plot incident and every character and be able to point out exactly what it reminds you of, maybe this could be really enjoyable….that said, I can’t help but think of the C.S. Lewis line:
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
Again, this novel was a mix and it had some pros and… it had some cons. I’d recommend trying it out because a MAJORITY of people seem to enjoy it, so clearly there’s something to this book, even if I’m not capable of seeing it.
“The ship drifted on the horizon like a symbol of escape”
“I wonder…when it was that the world first went amiss, and men forgot how to live and to love and be happy.”
I loved this book so much! It’s exactly what I needed right now. Daphne Du Maurier is so skilled in creating a perfect atmosphere, exciting plots, and dynamic relationships between her characters. This novel is escapism at its best.
Frenchman’s Creek follows Dona, a beautiful 30-year-old woman who is part of London’s upper class. Dona married Harry years ago and had two children with him. She never liked propriety, or the aristocracy, and would try to visit saloons and infiltrate other parts of society but it never felt enough, and it never felt right. The passion and love between Harry and Dona had faded many years ago (and never really existed in the first place) and Harry stopped trying, being completely inattentive to his wife. He was so preoccupied with his projects and hobbies that he might as well have been single. Feeling trapped, Dona decided to leave Harry for the summer and spent her days in absolute freedom at their summer home/cottage Navron House, right by the coast. We get a sense that Dona wants to escape. She wants absolute freedom and adventure. Upon arriving she thinks to herself as she stands by the coast:
“this was freedom, to stand here for one minute with her face to the sun and the wind, this was living, to smile and to be alone.”
Upon arriving, Dona finds all of her household staff missing with the exception of a rugged man named William. Rumours around town are that in recent months a pirate and his crew have been robbing the rich families around Navron House. Dona finds all this quite odd, until she comes face to face with the pirate ship hiding right by her house in a creek by the forest. Dona develops a friendship with the captain of the ship, who is a Frenchman (hence the title) by the name of Jean-Benoit Aubéry. The pirate is dark, handsome, French, and an incredible artist. He loves the sea, basking in freedom, and has a fondness for birds, naming his own ship La Mouette (the seagull). The novel picks up from there and there are so many escapades, and Three Musketeers-like fights, and adventures, filled with excitement and passion. The whole time Dona must reconcile her position in society with her longing for escape, and her role as mother and part of the aristocracy with her pirate adventures. There are two prevailing themes brought up over and over in this novel. The first is contemplating what it means to be happy and free, and the second is the realization that excitement and absolute ecstatic happiness can only be experienced temporarily. Good, nay, great things cannot last for too long or they lose their charm.
William says to Dona:
“a man is faced at once with a choice. He must either stay at home and be bored, or go away and be miserable. He is lost in either case. No, to be really free, a man must sail alone.”
Later Jean-Benoit and Dona discuss life as a pirate and she asks him if this life has brought him happiness, to which he responds that it has brought him contentment. When asked to explain the difference he says:
“contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction. The mind is at peace, and the body also. The two are sufficient to themselves. Happiness is elusive—coming perhaps once in a life-time—and approaching ecstasy.”
The novel’s dominant feeling of uneasiness is best captured in this conversation between Jean-Benoit and Dona as she knows she must return from her first one-day escapade wishing their love-affair could last forever, and that her life could always be at sea. He says:
“you forget…that women are more primitive than men. For a time they will wander, yes, and play at love, and play at adventure. And then, like the birds, they must make their nest. Instinct is too strong for them. Birds build the home they crave, and settle down into it, warm and safe, and have their babies.’
‘but the babies grow up,’ she said, ‘and fly away, and the parent birds fly away too, and are free once more.’
He laughed at her, staring into the fire, watching the flames.
‘There is no answer, Dona,’ he said, ‘for I could sail away now in La Mouette and come back to you in twenty years’ time, and what should I find but a placid, comfortable woman…with her dreams long forgotten, and I myself a weather-beaten mariner, stiff in the joints, with a beareded face, and my taste for piracy gone with the spent years.’
‘and if I sailed with you now, and never returned?’
‘Who can tell? Regret perhaps, and disillusion, and a looking back over you shoulders…perhaps no regrets. But more building of nests, and more rearing of broods, and I having to sail alone again, and so a losing once more of adventure. So you see, my Dona, there is no escape for a woman, only for a night and for a day.’
To follow this story from Dona’s perspective and to know what she wants, what she is capable of, and to know that even those who ‘love’ her are not willing to join her in either adventure, or nesting, or misery is one of the ways in which this novel pulls at the reader’s heartstrings. The adventures she has are very Wendy-like: temporary. I would like to think that Frenchman’s Creek is almost like Peter Pan for adults. Both novels incorporate pirates, a woman trapped between a world of fun and one of responsibility, a woman longing for adventure, two younger children, and they are both filled with bird-references. (Totally cool fun fact, Daphne Du Maurier’s aunt was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies–the mother of the children who inspired Barrie’s Peter Pan). I don’t know if this book is too deep, or heavy in any way. It is light, and fun, with a bit of pain, but what makes this light narrative worth your time is that it’s very well-written. Daphne Du Maurier has such dexterity and uses language with such craft. The landscape alone will place the reader in an amazing state of mind. This is very much an escapist novel, and like Dona, the reader will temporarily go on an amazing journey. I highly recommend this book, it’s really fun, and has many funny bits (particularly when Dona pokes fun at the aristocrats in their faces without them realizing what she is doing).
Perhaps it’s tough to step back in time just a little and see that David Foster Wallace saw the dangers of what is now on demand 24/7 media consumption in the form of Netflix and other film networks, YouTube, etc. While Infinite Jest is an attempt to present some of the dangers thinly veiled in fiction, it is a bit exclusionary by being over 1000 pages, serving a very narrow, elitist, academic crowd, taking Shakespearean strides and inventing too many new words hoping the reader understands, and has a fragmented structure with layers of references, meta-references, and irony. It’s certainly readable but it is intimidating. If I had to discuss David Foster Wallace, or give an introduction to him, I would start off with the first essay in this collection: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s one of my favourite essays of all time, and one I re-read often. While this collection contains seven separate pieces (one including an academic discourse, an analysis of David Lynch’s films, a tennis essay, and a retreat), I will discuss in this post two of my favourite David Foster Wallace essays: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (henceforth I’ll refer to them as “E Unibus Pluram” and “Supposedly Fun”). I will highlight some of my favourite passages and add to it some of my experiences. This is not a review, or an analysis. This is me jotting down my favourite parts of these essays with a few notes from my annotations and what it reminds me of, as well as the feelings it stirs. Let’s call it a ‘reader’s diary?’
What has drawn me to DFW is my highly addictive behavior—something DFW himself struggled with, and a theme he incorporates in his fiction and non-fiction. Television, porn, and weed more than anything else (in Wallace’s work). We see traces of all these things in Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, the whole of “Big Red Son” focusing on pornography alone in Consider the Lobster, and television in this collection. I’ve always watched a lot of television as a kid, a teen, and in undergrad. Not only did I stream things continuously, I would watch several of them again and again. I would have it on in the background to avoid silence when cooking, cleaning, painting etc. By third year of undergrad I was on Netflix and YouTube non-stop but this time actively watching. I calculated that I had spent a total of 56 days of the year watching (24 hour days) when I put all the calculated time of all the seasons of all the shows I had watched in second year. Netflix made things even worse by automatically going to the next episode, something YouTube now does too—like an all-you-can-eat buffet of media. The strangest thing was, that I felt like I was doing some sort of artistic research, or like I was doing this for the purpose of learning something. Lost kind of put an end to my TV watching days because nothing ever compared, but the YouTube watching persists. You will immediately be able to see why this essay struck a chord with me. Wallace begins with:
“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy somehow. Almost predatory…but fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious.”
This of course results in watching television as a voyeur, or ‘peeping-Tom’-ism hoping to see some human behavior and in on the secret lives of others:
“We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins…lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being of other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”
The problem however, is that all of these lives that we are watching are not real. The actors know that they are filmed, it’s all a fakery. These behaviours transcribe later on into social media where everyone on you know presents only the best versions of themselves, and everything is filtered and edited on YouTube, and even to the extreme in Hollywood films and shows.
“The people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies…they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all…we’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers…television is pretending ignorance. They know we’re out there. It’s proffered—illusion…not real people in real situation. We’re not really even seeing ‘characters.’”
This seeps into the lives of celebrities as well. Wallace writes of our relationships with these celebrities:
“…we worship them. These characters may be our ‘close friends’ but the performers are beyond strangers: they’re imagos, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hangout with and marry only each other, inaccessible “
In assessing these relationships Wallace states:
“This illusion is toxic. It’s toxic for lonely people because it sets up an alienating cycle (vis. ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ etc), and it’s toxic for writers because it leads us to confuse actual fiction-research with a weird kind of fiction-consumption.
We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience ‘experiences.’”
I think here is where this sort of disjunction occurs because since Wallace wrote this essay and killed himself in 2008, social media has sort of become the everyday person’s form and response to these celebrity lifestyles. Zadie Smith related that in her criticism of Facebook when she says that you behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ before becoming a full person, or becoming someone at all. The voyeuristic nature of our relationships to our immediate social network is just as detrimental as the pretend-voyeuristic nature of our relationship to television, because like these actors, people filter, and edit and choose which version of themselves they present to the world. The gap between the Wallace essay and “the now” comes in the form of Franzen-Smith in the conversations on Facebook (see my full essay on that here). The part that Wallace concerned himself with is the way this longing for experiences and a way into another human’s life becomes as addictive as a substance. He writes:
“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. It both cases problems for the addict and offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes…[television] is a ‘distraction’ –diverts the mind from quotidian troubles…television also purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life…offering a dreamy promise of escape.”
The reality is you’re sitting on a piece of furniture inside a box staring at another piece of furniture in a box. In this essay though, Wallace isn’t only observing an entire culture’s relationship to television, rather he’s looking at how this lifestyle then becomes the contemporary American life, and then it ultimately gets placed into fiction and art. He writes:
“This culture-of-watching’s relation to the cycle of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance has important consequences for U.S. art…giving in to collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision…I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture that enjoys a significant relation to the television that has my generation by the throat.”
Wallace then says that when media makes ‘loathing oneself’ references and is meta-referential, then it’s a sort of permission slip for the viewer to continue to indulge. Now that you notice the hypocrisy and irony of it all you are somehow better than the masses, because you’ve noticed it, and we are giving you permission to keep going because look, you’re better than everyone else. The beginning scenes of Norton’s character in Fight Club come to mind–IKEA nesting and daily numbness. Anyone?
Wallace’s bottom line is that what this cycle does is create a society of lonely people. He writes:
“The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier…. the viewer’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.”
The second essay in this collection “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” is Wallace’s account of taking a cruise and ‘enjoying’ himself—but mostly capturing the pressures that exist on a vacation (as they do on birthdays, Christmas, summer and other such designed places, times, and spaces) to enjoy oneself. He writes:
“It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product—it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stresses indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’… You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you…a seductive promise. The ads promise…. you will have NO CHOICE but to have a good time.”
But Wallace captures something in this essay that I’ve personally felt on every resort and every ‘pamper’-oriented trip or event. An overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness. Wallace writes it beautifully:
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad…especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”
By taking choice away from you the cruise-line has made decisions for you, and now you must be forced to enjoy them. The alarm comes from realizing that being on this vacation in itself was your choice and it’s a choice you are now stuck in and a choice you must live with, which becomes a metaphor for life at large. Wallace writes:
“It feels like much time has passed and it’s passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun and then I have live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time.”
Which reminds me of the ever-famous Fig Tree passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is now framed on my wall.
Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.
I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.
This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.
“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”
Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:
“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”
What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:
“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”
Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:
“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”
A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.
Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.
There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:
“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.
As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”
I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:
“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”
The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:
Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination
Be around trees
we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.
Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.
You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.
Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.
Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi
“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath
“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson
“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill
“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).
“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle
“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne
“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching