Look mum, no hands

It started back there with Orhan Pamuk, and now, all of a sudden, it’s an obsession. I didn’t notice the trend at first, because you never do notice that kind of thing until you’re in the middle of it, but before I knew it, I was through The Museum of Innocence, The Little Stranger, Freedom, and was pulling Wolf Hall off the shelves.

Must. Read. Thick. Books.

Reading The Museum of Innocence was like taking a walk in a summer shower. Sensuous and inspiring all in one. It’s set in Istanbul, and if I were a city, I’d aspire to be Istanbul, opulent and melancholy and seething and vibrant and cohesive and divided and bloody hard work all wrapped into one.

But more than losing myself in characters and plots and settings, reading big thick books is making me slightly euphoric (can you be slightly euphoric, or is euphoria an absolute state?) simply because I am reading them.

I am reading them because I can.

My fragility is fading.

This time last year, I was reading, but it was either with ferocious focus (The Shaking Woman, The Spare Room, A Year of Magical Thinking) or it was flitting about on the internet, filling my hours with links and words I didn’t even try to absorb. (I know the internet gets blamed for shrinking our attention spans and our brains, but maybe sometimes it’s more a case that we go to the internet when we’ve already got shrunken spans and brains.)

I don’t know how other people measure their wellness, but obviously, for me, reading is a measure. This time last year, there is no way that I could have picked up a book with several hundred pages and expected myself to finish it. Last year, I might have picked Freedom up, but I wouldn’t even have noticed the point where I stopped reading it. I would have just put it down one night before I went to sleep and never picked it up again.

This year, I can start on the first page, end on the last, *and* tell you something of what I have read. This year, if I stop reading a book, it’s because I decide to stop reading it, not because I’ve forgotten I ever started it. Which brings me to Freedom, the reading thereof, and whether or not I am going to finish it.

I am a finisher of books. Not without exception, but by and large, and I don’t abandon books easily. It might even be said that I over-think the decision to stop reading a book.

Reading Freedom started out well, by which I mean when I read the first sentence, I thought, ‘I am gonna love this,’ because I do love these [insert adjective] stories. What adjective should I put in there? I’m inclined to put in rambling, but there you go that’s why I’m not a critic or textual analyst, can’t think of a better word than rambling. Ever since Becky Sharp absorbed an entire adolescent weekend, I’ve liked the opportunity to sit and read and read and read and to know that even if you’re being told a lot of things you’re still not being told everything. I love domestic dramas and abundant characters and sprawling narratives. But on page four, which is the second page, I got my first inkling that me and Freedom were not made for each other.

“There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighbourhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be?”

Hmm. Okay. Firstly, it isn’t very original and secondly, I’m over it. I am over this constant attack on women, attack disguised as coolly ironic observations of women’s preoccupations. And please don’t say that this is a general critique and it’s not aimed at women, because it *is* about women, and I say this not only because I know if this were a cartoon it would be a woman’s speech bubble, but because the next paragraph affirms it: “For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee.”

So I was only a few hundred words in, and my heart was beating with the stress of taking this personally and I was thinking this isn’t going as well as I thought it would.

Now, I know that there’s a difference between author as messenger and author as protagonist. I’m not especially good at textual analysis, but I know enough to know that I shouldn’t confuse the two and I shouldn’t be taking this personally, so I kept reading. In lots of ways I kept enjoying myself and got swept away in it and wanted to know what happened next and neglected to get the tea ready because I was asborbed and so on. But there were a few things that kept niggling at me, and most of the time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being despised or at least held in contempt.

Here’s my problem. Dabbling in comedy I learnt that as the creator, you must eventually include yourself. Your observations might be clever and smart and erudite and all of those things, but if you don’t turn it back on yourself and include yourself in the joke, you’re just being mean. Or disdainful. Or contemptuous. Or some combination of those and other things.

The more I read of Freedom, the more I felt that the overall tone of the novel was disdain, and I couldn’t help feeling that this was because the author kept a disdainful distance from his characters. Further, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he treats his characters that way because that’s how he thinks of people generally. It greatly affected my willingness to keep reading, because just as I don’t want to go to a night of comedy to be constantly put down nor do I want to spend a week in the company of a book which treats me with such disdain.

Again, I know to separate messenger and message from author as person and their opinion, but I was heavily influenced by a sentence from The Discomfort Zone which I have never been able to forget. I read The Discomfort Zone, Franzen’s last book of essays and memoir, at the same time as I was reading And When Did You Last See Your Father? and I think perhaps that wasn’t a good combination because there was just too much discordance between Morrison’s and Franzen’s styles. Whatever the reason, I found The Discomfort Zone to be disconcertingly cold and distant, particularly for a memoir. For example, in talking about his separation from his wife, he writes (and you will be able to tell the sentence that has stayed with me):

“…I didn’t believe we’d really separated. It may have become impossible for us to live together, but my wife’s sort of intelligence still seemed to me the best sort, her moral and aesthetic judgments still seemed to me the only ones that counted. The smell of her skin and the smell of her hair were restorative, irreplaceable, the best. Deploring other people – their lack of perfection – had always been our sport. I couldn’t imagine never smelling her again.”

Back when I bought and read The Discomfort Zone, everything I read was part of a focused attempt to make sense of my own life which was, at the time, a shambles. Morrisson’s work made absolute sense to me, but Franzen’s left me confused and baffled, both about myself and about the work. When I finished reading it, I studied every piece of criticism I could find, trying to make sense of my impressions and responses. It’s interesting that in the front cover of the book, I have copied this from a review in The New York Times: “…the inevitable revelations that you get here make you reconsider the novels more harshly than more compasionately.”

Were the mister reading this, or if I had decided to talk about this between overs or over a cup of tea, he would say, ‘What’s the big deal? If you don’t like it, don’t finish it.’

Point. But I don’t want to miss out on Freedom. I mean everyone else likes it, no one else is taking it personally and also I don’t want to be the tosser in the corner waving my glass around and saying, INXS was great until Shabooh Shoobah, LA is fine but you really want to be in Chicago, Franzen is overrated. It could be that I’m out of practice reading fiction and I need to warm up first. I mean, about ninety percent of the things I’ve read in the last two years, both hardcopy and online, have been memoir of one kind or another. Maybe I just need to get my fiction brain back in gear.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. First of all, I’m going to read Wolf Hall, and if I haven’t found another big thick book by then, I’ll go back to Freedom. Either way, it’s tragically exciting to be reading thick books again.