Kathryn Harrison had a succès de scandale in the late 90s with her memoir The Kiss, in which she recounted the four years of incestuous relationship she had with her father. Thinking to save that book for the program of creative non-fiction works I’m reading this year, I decided to try her out with a different memoir, The Mother Knot. It was 82 pages of dynamite that held me gripped as soon as I’d begun, and yet when I finished, I began to wonder about the last thing that should seem problematic with such a candid and upfront narrator – the truthfulness of the story.
The narrator is weaning the youngest of her three children when the memoir begins. At 26 months, her daughter is relatively grown-up for breastfeeding, but it is a wrench for her mother, and one that darkens her underlying mood. Not long after this, her 10-year-old son develops severe asthma, and in her extreme anxiety over his condition, Kathryn Harrison finds herself drawing dark and superstitious conclusions. Although she nurses him with an assiduity and attention to detail that could not be bettered, her growing belief is that somehow she is the cause of his illness:
It had been four months before my son’s hospitalisation that I’d stopped nursing, relinquished that cherished perception of myself as my children’s primal source of sustenance and love. Now the onset of my son’s asthma attack struck me as an indication of my new impotence. Worse and more irrationally, it seemed to reveal me as dangerous. I saw – felt – a black, destructive spirit, dybbuk or dervish, twisting out of my chest, a force of corruption that sprang from me and infected my son, choked and smothered him.’
Harrison is an intelligent lady, and she’s had a reasonable amount of therapy. She knows that her mindset is related to the complicated and dissatisfactory relationship she had to her own mother, who gave birth to her at 17 and then abandoned her to grandparents six years later. The pregnancy was intended to place some distance between Kathryn’s mother and her grandmother, a relationship that was itself fraught with possessiveness. Kathryn, her mother told her, was intended to be ‘a hostage’, someone to take her place and allow her the freedom she had never had. Understandably, Kathryn as a child found this reasoning hard to follow, aware only that she was unable to please her mother, despite the ballet, the Sunday school and the diets. She emerged from the relationship with an unshakeable conviction that she was bad, polluted and wrong. It didn’t take much in the way of crisis in her adult life to return her to that place of universal guilt, in which she could be responsible even for the illness of her son.
As a strategy of appeasement, she starts to starve herself again. Anorexia turns out to be the ongoing problem: ‘I admitted that anorexia was a maladaption; and I admitted, with chagrin, to more than two decades of remissions mistaken for recoveries.’ Like most anorexics, the practice has much less to do with body shape than it has to do with mental control and darkly divine sacrifice. ‘Would that it were as simple as vanity,’ she tells her husband, when he says, in an attempt at coertion, her how much less attractive she looks too thin. ‘I’d characterized my eating disorder as a shatterproof glass box. I was inside, alone and safe. I could see out, and nothing could get in.’ But a life devoted to the harshest form of self-control is taking its toll. Her doctor threatens her with hospitalisation unless she gets her eating under control, her therapist is losing patience with her, and she fears how angry her husband will be if she can’t take care of herself well enough to be the wife and mother their family needs. In extremis, she knows she must confront the ghost of her mother, dead these past seventeen years, and finally break free.
I’ve quoted the text as much as possible because Kathryn Harrison is an amazing writer. The prose is powerful, vivid, economical, the mysteries of the mind described with exquisite insight and acuity. For a brief memoir, this certainly packs an emotional punch although the touch is light. The arc of the narrative flies like a skimming stone, glancing off the most salient points of her story – her relation to her mother, the vortex of uncontrollable emotions that threaten to pull her down, the epiphany she experiences and the solution she discovers. It is all brilliantly done, and so neat and tidy, not a single word wasted.
This was, I felt, an amazing piece of storytelling. And yet everything that was so well done about it, took it further and further away from life as we live it, and crises as we actually experience them. Where was the resistance, the procrastination, the backsliding that attends every inch of fresh terrain won from the forces of negativity that run their lucrative rackets in the mind? Where were the months spent stumped and hopeless in the therapist’s chair? Deep-rooted problems are beyond stubborn to dig out, and they react poorly to just about any form of treatment. Like computers, minds have default settings, bizarre agreements that were made in the era before reason, or awareness of the true value of things, and they are the very devil to uproot.
But of course, none of this makes for good storytelling, necessarily. One of the best novels I’ve ever read about the therapeutic process is the highly autobiographical The Words To Say It by Marie Cardinal. When that book was translated into English, the translator felt justified in leaving a whole chunk of it out, on the grounds that it was repetitive. This was the point. The myths on which we base our sense of self have to be gone over again and again. And probably again. You may well ask, does it matter if we leave some of this out in the stories we end up telling about ourselves? And I think it does, because storytelling is not innocent, when it comes to the connection between identity and narrative. The tighter the story, the more beautiful it is, the less we want to unravel it. This is the way that those original stories of love and terror bind us in the first place. And then I worry that people in trouble might read this and view it as inspirational, wondering miserably why they are not capable of identifying and solving their problems as slickly. When the truth is that healing is a messy, graceless process, not an edited montage.
But… I would not be honest, either, if I denied what a well-written book this is, or how compellingly it reads, or how piercing its understanding of psychic pain. Read it for its insight and its honesty, but do not believe it is the full truth.
1. ‘Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a colour,’ Maggie Nelson writes in the first of 240 numbered paragraphs. ‘Suppose I were to speak this as if it were a confession’. Already there is a nugget here, a knot, a twist of thought containing strands that are both related and dissimilar. We confess to love, but rarely to loving a colour as if it were a romantic passion. But this is the springboard for her poetic exploration into a strange but profound attachment to the colour blue, a colour that evokes divine beauty, depression and ribald explicitness in equal measure.
2. Blue now appears in all sorts of ways, as a magical element of the natural world, as the infinite variation in a huge and disparate assortment of objets trouvés that Maggie Nelson’s magpie eye has found and coveted, and as a word full of rich associations in songs, poems, works of philosophy. Nelson probes the deep emotional bond that ties her to the colour, and spreads her out into the world as a curious but sometimes mystified spectator. ‘When I talk about colour and hope, or colour and despair,’ she writes, ‘I am not talking about the red of a spotlight, a periwinkle line on the white felt oval of a pregnancy test, or a black sail strung from a ship’s mast. I am trying to talk about what blue means, or what it means to me, apart from meaning.’
3. What it means apart from meaning seems to be blue’s capacity as foil for, diversion from, and mask over a failed love affair that Nelson is grieving. We never learn much about this lost love, except for the lostness, and the harshly evoked misery that she feels. She quotes Thoreau, in the wake of his falling out from Emerson: ‘When our companion fails us we transfer our love instantaneously to a worthy object.’ Whether this is exactly what she has done or not is, like everything else in this text, offered as a suggestion that flowers momentarily with possibility and meaning before drifting off into the white space of uncertainty.
4. This is what the numbered paragraphs contain: blossoms of thought, startlingly bright and vivid as the cornflowers (bluets) whose name they evoke. Each little paragraph a kind of standalone prose poem in a field thick with them. Although the proper origin of the numbered paragraph is the philosophical proposition as offered by thinkers like Wittgenstein. In this case, each proposition builds towards a profound truth by way of these individual building blocks. The white space in philosophy is like a pause in music, a moment for the mind to digest what has preceded and to ready itself for further ingestion. But the white space in prose poetry is the place for the mind to give itself over to speculation, dreaming, the lazy mingling of ideas and emotions. Is this the effect of Maggie Nelson’s white spaces? Or do they work to undermine the coherence of any message she might be offering the reader?
5. Nelson is not the only person speaking in this text by a long shot. Her voice is plaited through a rich and diverse network of cultural geniuses (nothing but pure art gets cited here). I started a list, but gave up because the non-Greek chorus of commentators became just too unwieldy. Mallarmé, Goethe, Wittgenstein, Newton, Gertrude Stein, William Gass, Emerson, Schopenhauer, Marguerite Duras (who I am always pleasantly surprised to see mentioned), Billie Holiday, Derek Jarman, Novais, Van Gogh, even William Carlos William’s grandmother gets a name check (ah, so of course, not all geniuses then, not even this can become a stable rule or certainty). They all have something to say about the colour blue, for the most part, or suffering, sorrow and the mysteries of vision.
6. What are we to make of this web of creativity, spun around Maggie Nelson and her pain and passion? Perhaps she is akin to the male satin bowerbird she describes, who spends weeks hunting down blue objects with which to weave an enticing nest for his female. ‘He builds competitively, stealing treasures from other birds, sometimes trashing their bowers entirely.’ Goethe, Mallarmé et al are surely robust enough to withstand the nicking of little bits of blue from their collected works, in the good cause of creating a blue nest woven around the seductive Nelson, who lures her reader in.
7. I should mention also the paraplegic friend Maggie Nelson talks about often, whose life was ruined by an accident and whose courage is immense but not always equal to her pain. Nelson cares for her tenderly, seeing in her suffering perhaps an echo of her own, or maybe seeing in her situation the chilling affirmation that some accidents of life have everlasting consequences.
8. But by this point in the book we may well be asking ourselves where we are actually going with all this. In the absence of a full narrative arc, standing like a rainbow over the text and pointing towards a pot of gold, will this meandering river of blueness ever deliver us to a destination? Or are we to question what ‘getting somewhere’ in a narrative means? Whether we can ever find a solution to the questions of Bluets, if indeed any questions have ever been properly posed?
9. Bluets spirals around its concerns, touching upon them in turn and moving restlessly on. It has no interest in closure, nor in explanation. Although it takes a form that was once linked with the original understanding of philosophy, which strove to identify what exactly we could know with complete certainty, its heart beats with the more modern understanding, in which philosophy seeks to track down a truthful experience of life as it is lived. It is a shift from cognitive mastery of the world, to close observation in service of a life whose mysteries will to some extent remain intact.
10. And so, in this rich, frustrating, beautiful, poignant union of philosophy and poetry, the objective proposition yields to the subjective insight. Life cannot be cured, love cannot be explained, pain cannot be deconstructed. Together they form the skein of an emotional life that is as tightly tangled as it is powerfully binding. Maggie Nelson and her friends evoke the potency of both passion and suffering, and the glorious distractions of art, thought and beauty that act as insufficient but dazzling palliatives.
What makes a novel difficult? Well, just about anything that doesn’t conform to the conventional unfolding of plot and character. And yet the whole point of convention is to produce a book that tricks us, that we can read as if it weren’t a book at all but an alternate reality into which we had slipped. ‘Easy’ books hide their very bookishness with artifice and illusion, and the reader willingly accepts being duped. You could think of a book, then, as being to life what a dream is to a waking state. We know we are dreaming, but the experience is so uncannily life-like and intriguing that we forget. So-called ‘difficult’ books are like lucid dreams, into which a different level of consciousness intrudes; we are made aware of the fact of dreaming, aware that this is not the same as reality, aware of the constructed and arbitrary nature of the whole experience. And why would we want to encounter this supposed ‘difficulty’? Because being aware of the hidden truth of creativity makes it even richer and more intriguing than before.
J.R. Crook’s beguiling novella, Sleeping Patterns, is one of the most original little experiments in fiction that I’ve come across in a while and the strangest hopscotch of a love story. It’s dedicated to the memory of the author, J. R. Crook, who is, never fear, alive and kicking. And then introduced by one of the principle characters, Annelie Strandli, known mostly in the narrative as Gretha. She has received the following narrative through the post, in chapters that have been shuffled like a deck of cards into the wrong order. This (dis)order is maintained, though the numbered chapters give the reader a clue as to whereabouts in the chronology of the story we are.
The location is a student hall of residence in South London, where the Finnish Gretha has come to study, leaving her boyfriend, Gunnar, behind her. She becomes curious about a shy, withdrawn student, Berry Walker, who is an insomniac and an aspiring writer. With the help of her friend, Jamie Crook, she manages to steal into his room occasionally to filch pages of a work in progress out of his desk drawer. The manuscript pages tell the parable of Boy One and his friend Boy Two, who are in early adolescence. Boy One is a dreamer who cannot help falling asleep in lessons, much to the rage of his teacher and despite his friend’s attempts to keep him awake. But Boy One believes in the power of dreams to tell a different kind of story, and one more significant than that contained in the real world. He’s encouraged and abetted in this by the cranky prophet who runs the sweetshop, and whose crazy philosophies entice him. Is this, then, the prequel to Berry Walker’s appearance in Gretha’s life, is it his fictionalised backstory? Does it explain his inability to sleep and the importance Gretha holds for him?
Gretha eagerly pores over the pages she discovers, avidly seeking for the meaning they contain, just as the readers of Sleeping Patterns are obliged to search out small details in the mixed-up chapters of the narrative in order to orient themselves in the events of the story. Mimicking the disrupted sleeping patterns of Berry Walker, the unfolding narrative is broken up and scattered. Both inside the story and from the reader’s perspective we begin to question what’s real and what’s fictional, and to find different sorts of patterns to help us. The story itself is not complicated, and the language is pure and simple, so this is not a book that confuses, despite its structure. But it does give the reader the strange experience of watching the mind scurry about putting the bits of the puzzle together again, trying them out in different orders, waiting to pounce on a useful clue. Everything is resolved with the arrival of the final chapter (placed last in the book, as well) and given a surprising and yet satisfying twist. At this point the elements of narrative slot into place like bullets in a chamber. But having the story in place only gives rise to a whole new layer of interpretation. Who loved and who was the beloved? Who was writing and who was reading?
Sleeping Patterns draws for inspiration from the theory of Roland Barthes who wrote an essay entitled ‘The Death of the Author’. In it, he argued that meaning was in the hands of the reader, and that searching for authorial intention, as critics had previously done, was futile. The ‘death’ of Jamie Crook that opens the novel is a neat salute to Barthes and a clever way of showing the reader how the theory works, rather than telling it. But you don’t need to know anything about literary theory to enjoy this novel; you just have to go with the flow, keep your wits about you, and be ready to take up your changing and evolving place in the dance of readers circling around the eviscerated fragments of J. R. Crook’s cunning story.