Sunday, November 5, 2017

What do we know?

I feel  the rising sense of urgency particularly as the year is ending soon. So many good reads, so little time. I  often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of books that  look like  such delicious and promising reads. They either make you want to give up writing or compel you to write more diligently.
I have to temporarily vacate the room that  I use as my study. Although I only have to give up the study for a couple of weeks, yet I feel rather distracted and unsettled. I know why I feel how I feel. When I think about lending the space where I immerse myself in reading and writing, I get anxious and I  can no longer focus well.  I have to move some of my books around and remember where I have placed them. I anticipate  that I am going to feel uncomfortable in my own home and I know I must change my mindset to  deal with the situation. 

In Zoe Heller’s debut novel , Everything You Know,  Willy Muller is a curmudgeon and embittered journalist who has survived imprisonment after being convicted for murdering his wife, Oona. 'In 1970, during a marital spat, Oona broke her skull on a refrigerator door handle and died.' The story is not about whether or not he killed his wife, it is about redemption, as his financial adviser says to him, “Only when you die do you run out of chances to be good.”

The story opens with Willy waking up in the hospital , recovering from a heart attack. A post-trauma counsellor pays him a visit with a cassette tape, entitled  “ Meditation Chants  and Prayers for the  Sick”.  His doctor tells him that depression and irritability are common symptoms among cardiac patients.

In Willy’s narration, ‘ Naturally, I resented his banal diagnosis. Maybe this has nothing to do with my heart! I wanted to shout at him. Maybe I’m having a nervous breakdown!

All summer I have been feeling fretful, off kilter – lurching back and forth between deathly exhaustion and manic energy. Work has been a big problem. My pending task is to write the autobiography of Reginald Boon, former king of daytime television. But last year, shortly before I signed on for the Reg work, my agent managed to sell some producer the film option on my memoir, To Have and to Hold, for fifteen grand. And then, when the project got taken on by Curvon Studios, he got me hired to write the screenplay for another twenty. …….’

Willy is having a mental block in his writings, he has been stuck on the tenth sentence of Chapter One for the Boon project.  He ‘ just can’t produce the lighthearted, anecdotal  look at the life and times of one of TV-land’s greats that is required.’ click

The other thing is that he has just received a parcel in the mail from his youngest daughter, Sadie who killed herself four months ago.  She has sent him her journal that she started writing when she was a teenager. Though it was not his original intention, he ends up reading Sadie’s journal. 

In Willy’s voice, “ If this was my daughter reaching out from the grave to mess with my conscience, I was having none of it.
    At first, my progress was very slow. I found that I was unable to look at the journal for much more than ten minutes at a time without getting pissed off and developing pains in my gut – terrible, fluttery pains, like the first, prophetic murmurings of a bad clam. But I have slowly grown more resilient. At this point, I am able to read for quite long stretches without so much as a wince. I have even stopped humming loudly when I get to particularly uncomfortable passages.’

When my father passed away,  my sister found the journals kept by our parents. My mother had only written a short passage that covered only half a page while my father wrote pages about his feelings for my mother.  I feel uncomfortable reading about my parents’ courtship and yet I somehow feel consoled even though what he once had for my mother has taken a different form. After all change is constant, what do we know?

In Everything You know, the journals by Sadie can be rather disturbing and difficult for her father to read because she is so lonely and sad. Heller writes in Willy's voice:

'Sadie might have done herself in any number of vulgar or grotesque ways. She might have been a jumper. Or a slasher. She might have hanged herself from a light fixture after listening to Satanic messages in pop songs played backwards. As it was, she merely mixed herself a muddy cocktail using a plastic pestle and mortar borrowed from her daughter's Little Miss Chef set. So lest there be any confusion, let me acknowledge right here: It Could Have Been Worse.'

Also in Willy’s voice, he speaks of his wife, Oona.
It was an important part of Oona’s allure when I first met her – her clear and unwavering views on matters of style. She wasn’t fashionable like Heidi. On the contrary, she was always tatty to look at. Yet she had an absolute faith in her own judgments- so much so that she didn’t really perceive them as judgments at all, just simple matters of fact. I was a disapproving young man when I met her. I wrote poetry about coal miners and the class struggle and made jokes about tainting Oona’s smug English genealogy with my sickly mittel –European blood . I pretended to abhor her upper-middle-classness. But in truth, I was covetous. Oona had gone to Oxford, where she had run the Labour club and done something important at the Union and own the Herbert FuckFace Memorial prize for an essay on John Hume. She was a big one for pointing out the logical errors – the “woolly thinking” – in other people’s arguments. Someone once said to Oona,” You think too much,” and I saw her flush with pride. She was meant to end up running the BBC or being the Director of Public Prosecutions or something (She didn’t , of course. She married me and had two kids and did a bunch of pissy little jobs for the Labour Party. But neither of us knew that then.)

Zoe Heller is a brilliant novelist. While Heller’s characters are not likeable, her terrific writing makes  the novel a  compelling read. 

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