Saturday, February 12, 2011
The Other Place
Every once in a while, I come across a story or poem that I'm so enthralled by that I can't help but read pieces of it aloud. Such is the case with Mary Gaitskill's new story, "The Other Place," which runs in the current New Yorker. Before doing such a thing, I read it on my phone, something I'd never done with a longer story before. The link came in through Twitter, and there I was in the restaurant, scrolling, scrolling down, my face fixed to the phone's face. I don't think I lifted my face once during the whole meal, and when I did, the restaurant before me looked blurry and slightly skewed. It smelled of seaweed, not in a bad way (this was a Japanese restaurant) but in a sweet, salty, pungent way. The bowls were empty on the table, the chopsticks in the far right corner. I felt simultaneously exhausted and very awake.
This is the passage I read aloud to Mark when I walked back to the apartment:
When I was a kid, I liked walking through neighborhoods alone, looking at houses, seeing what people did to make them homes: the gardens, the statuary, the potted plants, the wind chimes. Late at night, if I couldn’t sleep, I would sometimes slip out my bedroom window and just spend an hour or so walking around. I loved it, especially in late spring, when it was starting to be warm and there were night sounds—crickets, birds, the whirring of bats, the occasional whooshing car, some lonely person’s TV. I loved the mysterious darkness of the trees, the way they moved against the sky if there was wind—big and heavy movements, but delicate, too, in all the subtle, reactive leaves. In that soft, blurry weather, people slept with their windows open; it was a small town and they weren’t afraid....
Instantly he said, that sounds like you. In retrospect I suppose I could say, uh-oh, narcissism confirmed. But at the moment it felt like the kindest thing anyone could have ever said to me--at that moment. I felt very peaceful and quiet within myself, and I didn't move.
Anyway, I woke up this morning to read Deborah Triesman's Book Bench interview with MG about the story. I think it says some of the smartest things I've ever read about the mystery of human emotions--feeling vs. nonfeeling, the darknesses we all hold inside us. I read this passage aloud to Mark:
Part of what I loved about the HBO series “The Wire” was the way the characters embodied qualities of power and vulnerability, feeling and total non-feeling, between people and within each person, and showed how feeling can clash with the practical demands of where you are in life. These polarities are perhaps the most dramatic thing at the root of human life, the most anguishing, poignant, and occasionally beautiful. Sometimes, frightening. Especially the question of feeling and non-feeling. No matter how big or small the life is, by whatever social standard, how these dualities play out, run up against each other, run together, or reverse themselves is always a story. “The Wire” had a scene that just killed me, where a middle-aged security guard foolishly stands up to a young psychopath named Marlo, not knowing what he’s dealing with, trying to reach Marlo, who has no heart, on a heart level, to assert his self-respect and his sense of the world as a decent place. Marlo ends the conversation saying, “You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.” Marlo’s muscle arrives and he walks off, and we realize that the guard is going to be murdered for this small, noble act, leaving behind a wife and child. It’s a futile, terrible loss—in a way, plain stupid. We feel the helpless quality of that kind of big heart, but we also feel the strength of the gesture.
It's astonishing to read such emotional intelligence so clearly articulated, plain and accessible, alert, available. I don't often use the word "astonished," as it's been overused and emptied, but I have no qualms about using it here. I'll be thinking of this passage, in so many different contexts, from the here on out.
Needless to say, this time Mark didn't say that that sounded like me.