Diaries Magazine

Rediscovering Novels

Posted on the 18 November 2012 by Maggiecarlise @MaggieCarlise

First, some background:

In January 2011, I moved into a short-term rental house in Greenbelt, MD, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., with my then-husband, our four-year-old son, our not-quite-two-year-old daughter, and our dog, Thursday – a big black lab mix who loves us and maybe four other people in the world like crazy, and thinks everybody else is to be defended against. Loudly. (She’s hard to move to new places.)

We were moving to Maryland after several years in Lawrence, KS – where we’d gone to live so that my husband could get his PhD at the University of Kansas. By Fall 2010, he hadn’t quite finished the degree yet, but he had the opportunity to do a postdoc anyway, and so we decided to move to allow him to take it.

We knew, at the time of the move, that we were soon to be splitting up – but we didn’t know yet when exactly or how. It gave the whole move sort of a surreal feeling. We were moving to a new place, a new life. We’d be closer to our families. But how long for any of it? And what would happen next?

Our relations weren’t very amicable at this time either; we were a long way yet from the place where we (thankfully) have come around now to being. This moving time was bitter and angry and very, very sad. We weren’t overtly fighting much at this time, partly because we were trying to reign it in for the kids’ sake, but also because my brother was helping us move, and we didn’t want him to be hugely uncomfortable in our company. But this “putting on a happy face” thing we were trying to do was almost worse than the fighting (for me, anyway.) I have a hard time keeping things bottled up at the best of times – and this was definitely not the best of times.

I could say a lot about this period – about him and me and us and all of it. But I actually don’t want this post to be about that.

What I want to talk about is the place we moved into in Maryland.

Greenbelt – the original, historic section anyway, which makes up the central portion of town – is a planned community from the 1930s and 40s. My impression of it is that it’s a town of “almosts.” It’s almost pretty…but not quite. It’s almost interesting…but not quite (though its history actually is kind of interesting; I’m talking more about what it’s like to live there and be looking for things to do.) It’s almost charming…but not quite. It was sort of a strange place to spend time in, particularly on the heels of Lawrence – which is an energetic, basketball-obsessed, wannabe-hippie-ish, college town. Lawrence is bright and full of movement – whereas Greenbelt feels very static. Even if we hadn’t had these big personal issues to distract us, moving to Greenbelt from Lawrence would have been a really big adjustment.

We had secured a short-term rental house (the home of an old hippie couple who spend the winter months in a treehouse they’re building in Mexico.) It was a dark little place – little being the operative word. There was one bedroom downstairs and two tiny ones upstairs – one of which was off-limits, as it was the guy’s woodshop. The other wasn’t really usable for us; it wasn’t kid-friendly at all. So we basically lived in the downstairs bedroom, the living room, dining room and kitchen. Tight quarters – but we were just glad to have found a cheap (for the area) place to live that was safe and clean and furnished, and that let us have the dog. The short-term aspect bought us four months to get to know the area – and figure out what to do next. We had the place through the end of April.

So this “what to do next” was a huge question – and one that was pretty much entirely on my shoulders. In fairness, my husband was pretty immersed in starting his new job. But he also wasn’t the one driving this whole breakup, and so wasn’t prioritizing making it happen.

I was completely flummoxed by the practicalities. We needed to break up housekeeping…no question.  But money was tight.  There was no way we could afford two residences – maybe not anywhere, but definitely not in the DC area.  Moving in with my parents was an option – but that meant taking the kids to Ohio and away from their dad, which wasn’t something either he or I wanted. It seemed like there were walls everywhere I looked.

I was particularly troubled to realize I couldn’t think of a single thing I could do to better my financial situation. I wasn’t considering writing as a possible income source at this point (that was still relegated to the realm of pipe dream.) And I couldn’t get a regular job; I had two little kids, and my working would mean our having to pay out for childcare (and there wasn’t much chance I’d find a position that would pay me more than I’d be paying out for daycare anyway, which sort of defeated the whole purpose.)

I really wanted to be home while my kids were so little; that was one issue. But the other was that I was suddenly facing the fact that I’d made a lot of personal sacrifices for a relationship that was now pretty much dead. Like: it was glaringly apparent suddenly that all several years in Lawrence had done for me, career-wise, was make my graduate work (in medieval art history) more obsolete than it had been when I finished the degree (and that’s saying something.) I hadn’t done a single thing since grad school that was resume-worthy. After some fruitless hunting around on first moving out there, I had ended up working in a bookstore for the duration of my Kansas time (around having babies.) And now, post-Kansas, pre-divorce, I simply didn’t know what to do.

What I’m getting at (slowly) is that in January 2011, I was feeling pretty isolated and pretty scared and pretty miserable. I felt like I’d pretty much screwed up my life and tossed aside my choices…squandered the opportunities I’d had…just generally dug myself a huge hole that I knew I had to get out of somehow…but I had no idea how to do it.  I somehow had to pick up the pieces of everything and figure out a new path – but I had absolutely no idea how to go about doing this.

My lifeline (literally) was music. I listened to music all the time, for solace, for insight, and was voraciously acquiring more. Falling into Bright Eyes a month or two prior had kicked me into this – for which I am eternally grateful. I truly don’t think I would have gotten through this period of time without music, and the poetry of really well-written song lyrics. (Here’s the post I wrote about that, incidentally.)

But one thing I wasn’t doing at all, for the first time in my whole life, was reading. I didn’t know what to read, frankly. I couldn’t stick with anything. In the last few years prior, I’d read nothing but romance novels – not because of some great abiding love of the genre (though, as my mom is a big romance reader, I’d always read romance here and there.) But because I simply couldn’t deal with my life. I couldn’t think. I wanted to escape – into a place where things were straightforward and predictable, and worked out in the end.

Life isn’t like that of course. And romance novels, even the better-written (and hence more legitimately entertaining) ones, like Nora Roberts’, had, by this time, ceased to hold my interest. I couldn’t get through them at all, actually. Their intrinsic triteness made me sort of sick to my stomach. I was becoming, in this time, extremely and overwhelmingly aware of a hugely powerful urge for authenticity. The utter fakeness of keeping up a facade of a stable marriage was horrible. I couldn’t stand it. But even when I started telling friends and family about my marital prospects (which I started doing around this time,) it only made me feel marginally better. After a decade+ with the person I was now leaving, I needed to discover myself again. I needed not just to speak honestly but to live honestly. I needed to move out – but in the meantime, superficiality in any form (such as the sort found in most romance novels) was just repugnant.

So, when I moved into that little rental house in Greenbelt, I had nothing to read. Nothing in hand, and nothing planned – an absolute first for me in my entire life. I couldn’t find it in myself to care about the genre fiction-type stories that I typically liked best (the science fiction, mystery, etc.) Of course, I couldn’t touch romance with a ten foot pole. But I was having a problem also with more serious and complex literature.  I just didn’t have it in me to put my head or emotions into the places those novels usually want readers to go. I had enough trouble in my own life without immersing myself in somebody else’s – somebody with even worse problems than mine. So, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t reading anything at all.

I wasn’t particularly interested, then, when I moved into the place in Greenbelt and saw that the owners had a fairly extensive book collection housed there. I had no hopes of finding anything I could stick with and wasn’t feeling very creative about trying.

But I was also spending quite a bit of time that January at home alone with two preschool-age kids. One day, in dire need of adult-level stimulation, I found myself leafing through a nonfiction book by Kurt Vonnegut. I remember that I found it somewhat interesting – enough to actually read the whole thing. But not only do I not remember the name of the book now, I can’t remember anything at all about it. The only thing I remember is that he made a statement in there to the effect that “blues music doesn’t chase melancholy away, but it keeps it at the edges of the room.” Something like that. I really shouldn’t put that in quotes because that’s definitely not the right words of what he said – but that was the concept. I remember it because it struck me forcefully, in light of how important music was to me at that time.

But the important thing about that book is that it made me feel really good – just to have something to read again. It was comforting. And it got me curious about some of the other books in the house. I started poking around a little and eventually came upon Kate Christensen’s The Great Man.

I read it through. It was different enough, subject-matter-wise, to hold my interest, as well as provide a bit of much-needed escapism. It wasn’t frivolous at all, but nor was it dark and brooding. I liked the women in it, and the way the book was something of a character study of them – and through them, of love and sex and aging and change. I especially liked the character of Teddy – who, though she’d never been stodgy, was realizing that she still had things to learn and people to love passionately and ways to grow, even at an older age. It gave me a perspective on womanhood and just life that I really needed at this time. You can squander opportunities…you can make bad choices…you can let yourself be influenced off your best path by emotions or sex or perceived needs or any number of things. That doesn’t mean you’ve ruined your life. It means you made one set of choices. There’s still LIFE out there, waiting to be experienced and lived. That was a subtle theme of the book – and a theme I didn’t fully grasp at first. But it did permeate, and I’ve thought a lot about it since. This was important for me…very important, actually.

Reading The Great Man didn’t give me the powerful and immediate jolt back into reading that Bright Eyes’ “Brakeman” song gave me back into music (here’s that story again) – but still it marked a turning point for me. It reminded me that reading thoughtfully was another of many threads I had dropped without realizing in the last several years. It taught me that there really are deeper and more complex (not superficial) stories out there that yet actually contain essentially positive characters doing something positive with their lives.  Most importantly, this book allowed me, through this nuanced glimpse into the particular choices of these three women, the ability to think about my life in relation to theirs – and hence see it in the wider context of womanhood. This (in hindsight, because I didn’t fully grasp this at first) was hugely important for me.

So I started reading again. My brother (who’s a poet) started turning me to some poetry at this point, and some other writing that I wasn’t familiar with (this, for example.) In novels, I went from The Great Man back into Margaret Atwood – who I hadn’t read in years. That encompassed re-readings of The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale before getting blown completely away by the amazing Oryx and Crake (and then the less powerful but still very interesting companion novel, The Year of the Flood.)

But after this Atwood-centric phase, I sort of fell out of reading again for a while. This was part of a very intense existential writing-related crisis I had in the early part of this year (explored in this post, if you really want to know about it.) Alice Munro and short stories in general lifted me out of this a little bit – but I was seriously doubting whether or not I could continue to read novels.

For the better part of this year, the only novels I’ve found myself really getting into were ones that were written in a more creatively formatted way. Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich goes between conventional narrative and two different diaries. Atwood’s Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, and Year of the Flood, all jump around in time and between speakers. The Blind Assassin also utilizes fiction fragments (a story within the story) and pseudo newspaper clippings to advance the tale.

I had come to think that maybe I’d somehow moved away from novels – that the genre simply wasn’t going to work for me anymore (not the traditional, linear novel anyway.) But (as it turns out), I only thought this because I’d forgotten about The Great Man.

I had cause to remember it again last month. I was shopping in a used bookstore and I happened across a copy.  It was when I flipped through it that I really realized how much of it had stayed with me throughout the last two (almost) years – and how certain ideas from it had continued to percolate in my subconscious.  I considered buying it and reading it again – but there was also a copy of another of the author’s books (Trouble.)  That one looked promising, I thought, so I went ahead and bought it instead.

I have a lot of things I want to say about this book. I’ll publish a post about it in a day or two. For now, let me just say that one of the reasons I started keeping this blog was to have a place to log some of the things that had helped me as I worked through all of the upset of getting divorced – the art, the music, the poetry, the blogs, etc. I wanted to chronicle the things that gave me a feeling of solidarity – reminded me that I wasn’t alone in the world, or even in what I was going through, no matter what it felt like.

Trouble is one of these. Trouble (besides being just a good read) is actually a really important book from this angle – in my opinion.

The last time I felt this strongly about something, or felt like it had this much direct parallel with my own life and outlook and struggles was when I began listening to Maria Taylor’s LadyLuck album. (Here’s the link to the post I wrote about that one.)

I’ll have more to say about this.

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