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Been a rather action packed couple of weeks, so I was glad to have yesterday to do nothing.

And by "do nothing," I mean listen to Prokofiev, read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, shop for a few groceries, hang out with the KatZ and eat stale Linzertort cookies.

Life After Life is one of those novels you either love or you hate. I loved it. Given my philosophical proclivities, how could I not?

The book is about déjà vu, or rather about how it's always the Ganges, but the water is different each time you wade in it. Ursula Todd is born -- and then she dies (nuchal cord.) The next time she's born, she drowns on the Cornish coast at age two. (There may have been a sororicide in between.) Take three is a fall off a sleet-covered ledge on to which six-year-old Ursula crawls after her beastly brother flings her favorite toy out the window. Take four is -- well, you get the picture.

Atkinson is the most cerebral of writers. Her characters are ice sculptures. They don't interact so much as collide like floes on the icy river. This will be off-putting to readers who like complex characterizations. Her dialogue is uninflected. Her descriptions are often rivetingly lovely, and she appears to be on a familiar basis with every Great Writer of the last 400 years from Jane Austen and John Donne (What if this present were the world's last night??) to Thomas Mann and E.M. Forster. She also uses unusual vocabulary -- I had to look the word "provenance" up, being unsure that its real meaning was the one I inferred from context. (For the record, it refers to the exact chronology of ownership.)

Atkinson started out as a literary author, but being a smart bunny, she quickly realized that it's very, very difficult to eke out a living as a literary author and began to churn out mystery novels cum police procedurals for her bread and butter. That's actually pretty funny. She's a horrible mystery writer if you ask me. For a reader to care about a mystery novel, one of two things needs be: Either the characters (victim, detective, both) need to be compelling (Sue Grafton) or the plot's momentum needs to be relentless (John Sandford.) Atkinson's characters are ciphers and the action glides in slow motion, skating somnabulists on a frozen pond on a night lit by the barest sliver of trembling moon.

As I say, though, I loved Life After Life. My earliest memory is of floating through some kind of curious mental matrix defined by backwards-looking mirrors, thinking, Why am I "Patty?" Why am I me? I've always thought in terms of permutations and combinations leading away from one seed moment, that one nexus of irrefutable truth, the point where the shimmer begins. In Atkinson's book, it's a sly epilogue on the very last page: Mrs. Haddock, the midwife, takes refuge in a bar when snow prevents her making her way to the Todd house.

Of course, you could deconstruct that scene as well. In the end, all irrefutable truths are like atoms -- subject to endless deconstruction.

###


Last weekend I went up to Syracuse to see the Number Two son. On the whole, I think it was a Good Visit -- my intent was to take him out to dinner and then cook and freeze a huge amount of food since he looked painfully thin to me when I took him out to lunch on his birthday weekend. I managed to do the latter. The mattress I bought him is really, really comfortable (I slept on it.) The train ride was fun. Syracuse is not a particularly attractive city, and procuring ingredients for the chili and lasagne necessitated hiking several miles to what may be the ugliest and most depressing supermarket I've ever been in. Prices sure were cheap, though.

There's a basic communication I just don't have with Robin, though. Did I ever have it? I don't doubt that he loves me, but he doesn't like me particularly, and I'm not sure that he ever will. And that, of course, resonates with one of my own secret fears, that I was a bad mother.

Maternity did not come naturally to me. How could it? I had no role model. When Robin was born, I was just embarking upon my Time Inc. career -- in fact, Robin made his first trip to NYC when he was 10 days old so I could breastfeed him across the conference table from my corporate masters.

He didn't like breastfeeding.

He didn't like most of the ways I tried to be a good mother, which mostly consisted of saying, No, to things that Ben had already said, Yes, to. I was working very hard to keep the nuclear family afloat financially, so Ben de facto became Robin's primary caregiver.

Max had had a nighttime ritual -- bath, bedtime story, lights out at 9pm. Robin had no corresponding ritual. "But he's not tired," Ben would say. It's easy to blame it all on Ben. I was making huge sums of money, but I was perpetually exhausted from all the strategic wrangling and commuting.

Truth is, though, I knew I should have been more insistent. Kids like bedtime rituals. Kids like routines. Even teenagers like routines -- gives them something finite to rebel against.

When Robin rebelled, he had to rebel against the Universe.

By the time we got to Ithaca, the battle had been lost. Robin would have been lost, really, had not Providence intervened in the form of one of those Great Teachers who make Huge Differences in kids' lives. Without Peter's mentorship, without the outstanding project he did for Peter, Robin would have had a hard time getting into a good college, I suspect. He could never have exceeded escape velocity.

I don't think you can really build a successful adult relationship with your parents unless you like them on some level. Max likes me -- gets a genuine kick out of my various eccentricities and genuinely values some of my talents. ("You're a terrific editor," he wrote me recently, and I think he was being sincere.)

Robin does not like me. Can sustain short conversations with me when they're about books or movies, but in general finds me tedious and longwinded.

I was completely uninterested in my own mother, of course, from the moment I escaped her house. I was 15. I went through several years of misadventures until I was finally accepted at UC Berkeley. Recently, I've started to remember that she really did try to achieve some sort of rapprochement with me after I started college. She'd drive across the Bay Bridge and take me out for Chinese food, two or three times a month. Always the same little shabby Chinese restaurant. She was trying, wasn't she? That never occurred to me at the time. Sometimes I think that my relationship with Robin is a karmic retribution visited upon me because I refused to make an effort with my own mother.

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