Book By Book

A diary in literature

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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is only a few hundred pages long, a quick read that often refuses to delve deeply into scene or description. Instead, the book relays information the same way it would actually be remembered years later: as a story the narrator has crafted about his own life, a hazy story, missing details, second-guessed and puzzled over. It is a fast read, but not a light one. The seemingly slight words on the pages are more than a little troubling, and I left the book with a strong sense of being unsettled, jostled out of my narrative assumptions. Life is a story we tell ourselves, but life itself is not a story.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first section the narrator, middle-aged Anthony, recalls his youth at an English boarding school. He thinks he has a good handle on what happened between himself and his best friends so many years ago. Even the tragic loss of one of those friends seems to lack any mystery, and Anthony believes his life will continue on the same staid and settled path as always. Then one day he receives an unexpected message that leads to the unraveling of everything he thinks he knew about himself and those old, half-forgotten friendships.

As Anthony begins to interact with his past for the first time in years, he is shocked to discover that things were not as he remembered, that in fact, he was not as he remembered. He says, “We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

This realization feels true and inevitable, as the gentle, meandering narrative moves towards its conclusion powered by a strong sense of fate. By fate, I mean the unavoidable reality that time marches relentlessly on, despite our best efforts to harness it. I devoured the last half of this book like it was a delicious thriller, but the revelations here are not used to shock or titallate. They are slight revelations, about the ways that people connect and how they don’t; ultimately, these revelations are used to illustrate the fact that life is not prone to tidy endings or simple moral conclusions. Each life is murky and unseen, even by the one who lived it.

Filed under Julian Barnes CRB5 The Sense of an Ending Fiction

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The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

This book moves through time and space like ocean waves, or like the shifting of memory. Mostly while I was reading it I drank it down like water, gulp after gulp, every word. A lot of terrible things happen, and Lidia, in the book, is the originator of a lot of those terrible things. But she writes them fiercely, with shining words, so I could say yes to all of it. Until I got to this one part. In this part she is a visiting writer at a university where she meets a beautiful man who is a student of hers. They proceed to have mind-blowing sex. Also, he is married. And then they decide to have a child. She describes herself walking through the halls of the university where she works, her belly swelling, smirking at the prudish academics who would eventually fire her.

I did not like this at all. My objections actually came from a strict moral sense I didn’t know I was harboring. As I was reading I thought, how could this woman not know that she was making horrible decisions? Why would she knowingly hurt other people this way? Why would she be so wildly unprofessional?

A good word for Lidia Yuknavitch is “unrepentant.” In her book she tells us her sins, but she does not ask for forgiveness. She doesn’t even learn her lesson.

Why do we – why do I – look for that story of redemption in a memoir? I mean, it’s a classic story, it’s the hero’s journey, it’s Jesus Christ on the cross. But our real lives take no such narrative shape. I think we don’t really look for the life story of someone else in memoirs, but instead, we look for a map to show us how to live our own lives. Who should we be? What unsettled me about this book is the fact that it is not a map at all.

Maybe that’s the best thing about it. For instance, right now as I am writing this review, I am editing myself. Which of my thoughts about this book are the right ones to have? Which will people judge me for? How can I review this book in such a way that people will really like me? In fact, I find myself afraid of what Lidia herself would think of me. But that’s not the point. Fear is not the point, approval is not the point. At least, not for Lidia.

In an interview, Yuknavitch said, “I wanted to leave the reader in a space where there was no repenting, transcendence, and forgiveness. I don’t believe in the Christian narrative. So I left you there where I was. I left you, the reader, in the “space” of the grand fuck up. Because we all fuck up, and then we go forward, and maybe we get better and maybe we fuck up some more.” She wrote her life. Here is how she tells it, whether you like it or not. Lidia, pregnant and smirking, striding through the halls of the university – I can’t get that image out of my mind. And you know, I still don’t like it all that much. But I’m pleased and amazed that she chose to write it exactly the way she did.

If I am left with an image of her swelling pregnant body, it is because this book is more than anything a body story, which means it dwells on the sensations of that body, and the pain it suffers. The book follows the body through intense pleasure, also, and through disgusting moments of humiliation. There is a lot of honesty to that, the kind of truth about existence that is worth reading, swallowing, worth taking inside your own mortal flesh. 

Filed under Lidia Yuknavitch cannonball read chronology of water memoir