We Prepare For A Holiday

Yes, the blue moon must have been glimpsed in the sky because Mr Litlove and I are going on holiday again. He is doing another chair making course, this time in a workshop on the edge of the Sussex Downs, and I will be going along for the ride with a box of books. We’re staying in a place called Library Cottage, which should bode well, don’t you think?

In an unexpected twist of fate, the injured member of the party this time is Mr Litlove. Last week he went for a routine eye check up and was sent to the emergency clinic at the hospital. There were some concerns about a thin patch on his retina, though what the upshot of this concern is, we are not entirely sure.

I dropped Mr Litlove off at the clinic at 10.30 in the morning. By 11.30 he had the drops in his eyes to enlarge his pupils and by 12.30 he was finally seen by a doctor. The doctor, however, wasn’t at all sure what she was looking at. ‘I wish your optician had said on the form where the problem is,’ she told him, ‘I can’t see anything wrong.’ Then, having checked the form again, ‘Ah, yes, she did say. Well, the retina’s a big place, you know.’ Once the doctor had located the problem, she still didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Twice she went off searching for a colleague to give a second opinion, and there were no colleagues to be found. ‘Perhaps I should pop you back in the waiting room and see another patient,’ she muttered to herself under her breath, while examining him again. Did she think his condition might deteriorate to the point of certainty within the next half hour? Or was he going to stay there indefinitely?

Towards two o’clock they let him go. The doctor decided he should come back for some treatment and told whoever it is who keeps the appointments diary that it had to be within a fortnight. ‘I’m actually going on holiday the week after next,’ Mr Litlove confessed. And of course there was no appointment to be had in the week ahead. The consultant four doors down was consulted and the message came back, ‘He’s fine, do it when he’s back from holiday.’ The reassurance was nice, Mr Litlove said, and would have been even nicer if the consultant had actually looked at him. But he’s experiencing no symptoms and in fact, he thinks that something similar happened to him four years ago. Only then, the test took place at the opticians and he can’t recall the outcome. Maybe he was supposed to go to the hospital and forgot to make an appointment? Maybe the opticians forgot? But still, if he’s had this for four years at least, it’s unlikely a couple more weeks will make a difference.

When I mentioned this to my mother on the phone, she remembered the same thing happening to my brother. When they next saw each other, she got the full story off of him, and would you believe it, but my brother has been seen twice for thinning of the retina, once 15 years ago, once about four or five years ago. He’s never had any treatment, and hasn’t been able to get out of any doctor how serious this all is. It strikes me as extraordinary, this lack of information that passes between doctor and patient. Why is medical knowledge treated as classified? Is it something to do with doctors being afraid of people sueing them? Or are doctors rarely certain what is going on with a patient?

Sitting in the waiting room without his contact lenses in and thus forced to read his rowing magazine with one eye closed and the paper held an inch from his nose, Mr Litlove said he thought this must be how the NHS runs an efficient service at a low cost. ‘You don’t worry about the patients’ time, but keep them all together so they can be seen when the doctors are ready,’ he said. ‘But your experience wasn’t one of efficiency,’ I told him. ‘How long did the doctor dither over your diagnosis?’ ‘Well I’d rather not have a doctor who is cavalier with my health,’ he replied. ‘I completely agree,’ I said. ‘So wouldn’t it have been good if she could actually have had that second opinion she wanted?’

So, we are going away hoping he’ll be fine, and having been told if he has any strange disturbances of vision we must rush him to the hospital. I have to say I am impressed by my husband’s stoic calm. I do not deal with these sorts of medical issues well. But I’m also quite sure that he’s had whatever he’s had for a long time, just like my brother. I think it’s one of those things that, if you’re unlucky can be problematic, but is most likely not an issue the rest of the time.

Talking of being unlucky, our neighbours who usually feed the cat in our absence are also going away too. So Harvey is headed for the cattery for the first time in his life. It’s an imposition to ask people to come round twice a day to feed him (and even that is a lot less than he’s used to, now he’s an old, querulous, whining cat) but at least we know he can keep his routine and that he’ll be safe if we board him. Harvey has already suffered the great indignity of having to get his shots updated and will not be at all pleased to learn his fate. The other evening, Mr Litlove was checking the cattery out online and was surprised to find they have a facebook page. ‘That’s good,’ he said, ‘Harvey can drop us a line while we’re away, let us know how he’s getting on.’ I could envisage it already: ‘O hai, hoomans. Kamp suks. Git me now.’

And finally, what books am I taking? You’ve been very patient waiting until now to ask. I am taking:

Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Early Warning by Jane Smiley

Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd

This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway

I’m halfway through a thriller that I’ll take too, and then I’ll probably not be able to resist throwing one more book in. I’m thinking either Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (which I am one of the last remaining people on earth not to have read) or Us by David Nicholls. Have a great week next week, and don’t forget to visit our new Extra Shiny, out on May 14th, debuting our book club with Laline Paull’s The Bees – which is now looking like a controversial choice!

Lying

You may well be familiar with the paradox of the Cretan liar, the Cretan who says: ‘All Cretans are liars,’ thus presenting a difficult act of deduction. Do we believe her or not? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, is the most audacious elaboration of this paradox that I’ve ever had the immense pleasure of reading. It’s a memoir that attempts to express the deepest, most twisted realities of Slater’s identity and her troubled relationship to her mother – and not a word of it might be true.

LyingWhen she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. Lauren’s father fades into the background, a spineless Hebrew School teacher, leaving centre stage in their family life to his socially ambitious wife. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.

Initially her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But when she is sent to the nuns whose special program teaches her how to fall without hurting herself, the will Lauren finds to help her is quite different to the one her mother insists upon. There are two types of will, she explains.

Will A is what we all learn, the hold your head high, stuff it down, swallow your sobs, work hard kind of will. Will B, while it seems a slacker thing, is actually harder to have. It’s a willingness instead of a willfulness, an ability to take life on life’s terms as opposed to putting up a big fight. It’s about being bendable, not brittle, a person who is brave enough to try to ride the waves instead of trying to stop them.’

The discovery of Will B seems to offer genuine hope and enlightenment to Lauren, as well as a way of escaping her mother’s clutches. But then puberty comes around and everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. In the end she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. Oh, and she’s also left with those personality disorder symptoms I mentioned before – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.

And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. Writing begins to take on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. Lauren begins an intense and unhappy affair with another writer (and sexual compulsive) who had wanted to mentor her, and when this ends and she is left in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, no such operation would ever be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.

So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch, or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate, or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth, or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ How can we pretend that things are real or not real when half the time we’re not even sure ourselves? When reality can feel like a dream, or like such a vivid intense experience that we can’t believe it when other people tell us it wasn’t so, it wasn’t that way. How can we be completely sure that our memories are accurate? Or that the stories we tell ourselves aren’t true?

I am toying with you, yes, but for a real reason. I am asking you to enter the confusion with me, to give up the ground with me, because sometimes that frightening floaty place is really the truest of all. Kierkegaard says, “The greatest lie of all is the feeling of firmness beneath our feet. We are at our most honest when we are lost.”’

And the thing is, no reader can accuse Lauren Slater of not being honest about the way she toys with us. The book opens with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy (who needless to say, does not exist) in which he tells us exactly what we will be up against when reading this memoir:

[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’

So, are you horrified yet? At the idea of a memoir about a debilitating form of epilepsy that might not be factually true? About a non-fiction writer refusing to tell her readers what actually happened and what is a construct?

But what if this memoir really is the truth of Slater’s life? What if she is a natural confabulator, uncertain herself what is real and what is fantastic? What if she is just more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections? What if our identities were all composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? I think it’s more truthful to say that they are, than that they are not. I think that Lauren Slater asks us to confront a very disturbing truth of the human condition – and of storytelling – when she draws our attention to the very blurred boundary between truth and fiction.

A final intriguing point. Halfway through this book, I had a small, disconcerting thought. I went to my bookshelves and found that yes, I had this book twice, once in an American edition entitled Lying, once in a UK edition entitled Spasm. The blurb on the back of the American edition admits immediately that this is a book about the uncertain line between fact and personal fiction. The UK edition begins with the epileptic fits and the surgery, stating that by then the ‘psychological reflex was ingrained’ of inventing and exaggerating. Two utterly different perspectives on the same book. Which one is more true?

The Unexpected Pleasure of a Social Fail

Last week I was invited to a publisher’s event in London and despite my terrible track record at attending such things, I decided I would go. There are plenty of reasons why I hardly ever attend, beyond my chronic fatigue. They all seem to start at 6.30 p.m., for instance, which is a dreadful time if you are a creature of habit and like to eat regularly. To arrive in good time, I need to leave my house about half past four, which is too early for tea beforehand, and then if one stays to the bitter end at 8.30, this means eating dinner at home around 10.30 p.m. which is even past my bedtime. Obviously other people find their way around this, but I admit it perplexes me.

Anyhoo, I boarded the train with my emergency supplies of a Marks & Spencer wrap, made it to London and walked to the venue which was just off Charing Cross Road. I visited the new Foyles as I had a a little time to spare, and found it very spiffy to look at, but a tad confusing in layout. Mind you, it’s definitely a step up from arranging books by publishers. Then I walked to the venue, eating half the wrap as I went (and trying not to drop lettuce into the folds of my scarf) and still arrived a bit early. I cased the joint, as the old gumshoes used to say, from the other side of the street, and saw people going in. At the door there was a young woman with a clipboard taking names, and I feared things were not going to go well when she could not find my name although I had written to rsvp. I had my invitation printed out in my bag, but it seemed she didn’t want to challenge me, just hastily added me to the bottom of her list and waved me on to coat check. The people in front were having their coats taken, and when that young woman never returned, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to keep my coat with me, which was a good decision in the end.

I sat in one of the alcoves in the bar, watching London publishing people arrive and flicking through the publicity brochure. This is when I realised I had made a mistake in not checking beforehand whether any other bloggers were going to attend. I’d been so sure somebody would be there who I knew, but as jolly partygoers poured in, I realised there was no face I recognised. They all knew each other though. They were doing that social clumping thing, where they separate into little, dense groups of furiously chatting people. When I finally saw a face that was familiar it took me a while to place it. Then I fervently hoped I hadn’t been staring. I think it was the owner of a book store who I met several years ago now, offering to create content for a website for the shop. This person was dead set against any idea of a website and we parted company less than pleased with one another. Yikes.

Well, half an hour had passed and I was very bored, and nothing seemed to be happening and I really had no desire to talk to the only person who might know me. And so I put my coat back on, slipped through the crowds in the room, and left without anyone noticing. Then I walked back to the station, got on the train and ate the other half of my wrap for dessert. It was one of those sleepy trains with the final few commuters of the evening all happy to nap in their seats or read. Across the aisle from where I was sitting an Indian gentleman slept through the first half of the journey and then when he woke up, he took a book from his bag. Inevitably I craned my neck to read the title and was intrigued when I saw it was a memoir by Michael Greenberg called Hurry Down Sunshine about a severe breakdown his daughter suffered. I’ve had it on my shelves for a couple of years without having read it yet (same old story!). Well, the gentleman saw me looking and smiled, and I smiled back at him and it was clear we both were on the brink of saying something but were a little too reserved. Ten minutes later, as the announcer said we were arriving home, and we were all shifting and leaning forward in our seats, we just started chatting (he was enjoying the memoir, though it was very sad, so maybe enjoy was not quite the right verb). And I had my bookish conversation after all.

When I told this story to Mr Litlove with the stated intention of blogging about it, he wasn’t sure I should mention it. I think this is because Mr Litlove is an alpha social animal, who would never be intimidated by a room of strangers and would find an easy, natural way to enter a conversation other people were holding. I do admire him for that. But that’s not me. I dislike parties, and travelling, and I fear being stuck in social situations I’m not enjoying. I was quite pleased that I took the decision to leave and to conserve my energy which is still in short supply and precious to me.

And it’s very intriguing why I should have found it easy to talk to the stranger on the train and impossible to talk to the strangers at the party. All I can say is that the train felt like a level playing field, socially. At the party, the people there knew each other already and I was at a disadvantage. And on the train, we had made a connection over the book; it was a tiny thing, barely perceptible, but it made all the difference. Something real had occurred, and the real is always simple to capitalise upon. When the connection is artificial, you have to work so much harder.

In case you’re interested, I had a bowl of cereal when I got home, to round off my nutritionally impoverished evening and I still managed to come down with a chronic fatigue relapse a few days later, which goes to show that evenings in London are probably still beyond me physically as well as socially.* But the experiment was interesting in all kinds of unexpected ways.

 

* And yes, Dark Puss, you are top of my list for when I am able to spend a bit more time in London!

The Things We Talk About When We Talk About TV

I have always been aware that Mr Litlove and I are opposites and generally this works out okay. We worry about different things, and can therefore count on one of us being sensible for the other in a crisis. Although our interests are wildly different, they both require space alone and time to indulge, and so we’re usually sympathetic to each other’s needs, particularly now we don’t have childcare to share out. But every so often, the deep-down difference in our natures makes itself felt to my surprise.

We were watching The Good Wife – the first season, as I’m on average six years behind the curve when it comes to television and films – and in this episode, the legal drama concerned a wife and a mistress who were wrangling over the body of the man they shared, as he was being kept alive on a life support machine after a motorbike crash. One wanted to turn the life support off, the other to keep it on. Thrown into the discussion was testimony from a doctor who’d witnessed a patient suddenly revived and healing after twenty years of comatose inaction.

So naturally, I expressed my feeling to Mr Litlove that I would never want to be maintained in a vegetable state. That if the lights go off, then that’s it for me and no regrets. A bad virus gave me thirteen years of chronic fatigue syndrome, and I can’t imagine what the payoff would be for twenty years in a coma. Not worth considering in any case.

‘So what about you?’ I asked.

Mr Litlove didn’t say anything; he just scanned the ceiling for a while with his eyes.

‘Oh my Lord,’ I said. ‘You want to be kept alive, don’t you?’

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove, batting his eyelashes, ‘if I wasn’t being any trouble.’

‘I think you might be a little bit of trouble.’

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove, still batting, still reasonable, ‘if I wasn’t in any pain.’

‘No pain, for sure. You’d be dead.’

I still can’t quite believe he’d want that, I mean, who would want to exist in a vacuum of thought and sensation, with no relationships, no creativity, no feelings to access? And then I thought of Mr Litlove on the weekend, and how he works his way through hours of seven-minute-long clips of The Graham Norton Show on youtube in order to be in exactly that insentient state… and I suppose it came a little clearer.

As for The Good Wife, I absolutely loved the first season, but having reached the end of the second just last night, my admiration is waning a teeny bit. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s essentially the story of Alicia Florrick, the wronged wife of a politician caught in a damaging sex scandal. Alicia has to return to work as a lawyer in order to support her two teenage children while Peter is in jail, but then he gets bail and comes home and wants to get back into politics. (I don’t understand the American system – he’s state attorney, which somehow seems to be political.) The question in the first season is whether Alicia can forgive him for what he’s done to them all. She’s remained loyal on the surface, partly out of the paralysis of shock, partly because she wants to do the right thing by her family. But you can see that forgiveness is almost beyond her. In this second season, it’s looked as if the marriage is healing, until we reach the end when a new revelation splits them up again.

The thing is, I understand the television series requires oodles more conflict in order to keep going. But the lovely purity of motivation that powered the first season seems to have gone. Now it looks as if Alicia never really forgave Peter, that she was always holding out for a good reason to leave him. She has no statute of limitations on past misdemeanours, and she seems to think that people are good or bad, with any fault or crime putting someone beyond the pale in her life. She’s also become very controlling, which sure, is a response to having been put out of control through no fault of her own, but it also speaks to the litigious nature of American legal practice, and it never works as a life strategy.

Anyway, I’ve watched two seasons in a row and it’s probably just time for a break. I need a new box set!