Talking Past The Conversation

the haunting of hill house

First Edition of The Haunting of Hill House

Last October, Netflix released an in-title-only adaptation of one of my favorite novels The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. By chance, I had also assigned my creative writing class Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery” along with a reimagining of it by Megan Mayhew Bergman called “The Lottery, Redux.” The very fact that I decided to assign Bergman’s story reveals my deep love for it—after all there is no better way to ensure that you can start a conversation about a story than to put it on a syllabus. Netflix’s adaptation, by itself, is a great horror miniseries and would be one of my favorites of all time if I didn’t hate it so much.

I have a complicated relationship with film adaptations. Without the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion, I would have likely never read Jane Austen. However, Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings (not only a great adaptation but great movies in and of themselves) have ensured that I will not reread the books. I have tried, but I can’t help but imagine Frodo, not as I originally imagined him, but as Elijah Woods. Film adaptations can introduce an audience to a work that would otherwise overwhelm them. Give them a path when they feel like they may otherwise be lost. However, film adaptations can also supplant the images in a reader’s head, well, at least it can for me.

1963 the haunting

1963 The Haunting 

Hill House was adapted into film before in 1963 and 1999. I rather like the 1963 version, which hues closely to the book and, I think, benefits from the lack of special effect technology available at the time. When my father first recommended the book to me, he said something along the lines of “I was half way through it and was terrified—and nothing had happened yet!” Oddly, that is one common complaint I’ve encountered from people who’ve not enjoyed it. Hill House is all about the mood and atmosphere, and, if the mood doesn’t work for you, then the book isn’t going to either. While no film can completely capture Hill House’s mood as the book depends on the close third person that allows us access to Eleanor’s thoughts and fears, the 1963 adaptation comes the closest. However, it is not so good that it supplants my own relationship with the book. The 1999 adaptation is an over-the-top cheese fest that I don’t really think is worth mentioning. Its greatest crime isn’t that it wasn’t a faithful adaptation, but rather that it’s just a bad horror movie.

Had the Netflix’s miniseries had a different name—changing nothing else about the story—I would have thought it made interesting and annoying allusions to Jackson’s book, and I would have happily recommended it to anyone. Episode 5 “The Bent-Neck Lady” and Episode 6 “Two Storms” are outstanding for how they build on the tradition of the ghost story. The relationships that they present between the past and present and between the dead and the living is fascinating and terrifying. But by using the same title as Jackson’s book, the Netflix miniseries promises to be, if not an adaptation, at least in conversation with the original. However, I’m not sure that it is.

Now it would be hypocritical for me to dislike the miniseries simply for utilizing the characters and elements of the story in a new way. I do that in much of my own writing with fairy tales (“The Perils of Glass” and “The Frog Prince“). However, I feel, that when you do borrow elements, you should be in conversation with the original. That is part of why I so enjoy Bergman’s reimagining, “The Lottery, Redux.” In Jackson’s “The Lottery” she presents a tradition whose origins have been lost to time and takes place in a timeless America. The reader is left questioning their own traditions: how they are taken for granted and how they may harm people. However, Bergman, by moving the story to a possible post-apocalyptic setting, explores how violent traditions originate, are justified, and become normalized. Rather than make us question our current traditions, Bergman has us question what we would do if we thought our own survival was on the line. Both stories explore how tradition causes people to be othered and, in turn, allows them to be harmed by society at large. Jackson explores how that type of tradition is incorporated into a comfortable daily life while Bergman explores how extremes can push people to everyday violence. Bergman’s reimagining works, in part, because it is in direct conversation with Jackson’s original and caused me to go back and think more deeply about it.

The Haunting of Hill House TV Series.png

Movie Post for Netflix The Haunting of Hill House

The Netflix miniseries didn’t make me think more deeply about the original novel. As I watched it, I recognized that characters in the miniseries shared names with characters in the book and little else. I would recognize objects and quotes from the book—often ascribed to a male author who, in the series’ universe, wrote a book called The Haunting of Hill House. This is a whole other can worms especially since there is a female character name Shirley.

While both stories are about haunted houses, they have very little to do with each other. In Jackson’s novel, whether the events are actually supernatural or whether the characters are working themselves into a shared hysteria is ambiguous. Even if you read the novel as definitely being about something supernatural whether the supernatural thing is a ghost is in question. Jackson’s novel explores the isolation one woman feels and her failures to find connection and a place to belong. Hill House, whose “walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut,” does not look like a cliché haunted house. It is well-ordered and maintained, and it is that order itself that seems to drive people insane.  Hill House in the miniseries is a traditional haunted house. In the modern storyline it is shown with boarded up windows, cobwebs, and dust. Where as in the past storyline, it is under refurbishment. Not only is there is no doubt that ghosts exist in this universe, but almost every scene has one somewhere in the background. The miniseries is concerned with the consequences of a family trauma and whether it is possible for the family to heal from it.

While these two themes could certainly tie into each other, the creators of the miniseries don’t really seem interested in entering into a conversation with the novel. Rather there are some stylistic elements that the creator wanted to utilize, which in and of itself is fine. However, the use of the title promises the audience something more, not necessarily a faithful adaptation, but at least an adaptation that is in conversation with the original. Hell, I would have preferred a takedown of the original.

It was only at the end of the miniseries that it seems to enter into a conversation with the book at all. Hill House is, of course, known for its opening paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Also, the book’s ending line repeats that ending of the first paragraph: “Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors where sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” The opening and closing reaffirms that sense of order and how that creates isolation. The miniseries ends with:

Fear. Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. But so, it seems, is love. Love is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway. Without it, we cannot continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality. Hill House, not sane, stands against its hills holding darkness within. It has stood so for a hundred years and might stand a hundred more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks met neatly, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and those who walk there, walk together.

Netflix Closing Scene.png

Umm…Netflix, I don’t think the bricks meet neatly or the floors are firm any more.

I may have thrown something at the TV when I heard this. Jackson wrote a story of a woman who wanted to belong but could not find a place for herself and was destroyed by this failure. The miniseries tells the story of a family that survives—well, most of the them do—by pulling together and loving each other. Jackson showed us the real problem of a person who is isolated to the point of mental illness and suicide, and the miniseries answers this with, “Love is how we survive this awful world.” Even within the miniseries this is problematic. The murder of one child and the attempted murder of two others is done out of a familial love, so suggesting a family just needs to pull together seems at best an oversimplification. However, when held in juxtaposition to Jackson’s novel, it feels like it is barging into a conversation without actually knowing what is being said. In Jackson’s novel Eleanor’s family is toxic and staying with them would have been a sort of living death for her. Her failure isn’t that she pushes people away as is the case for most of the characters in the miniseries. Her tragedy is that she can’t find a place where she belongs and is loved. In the end the miniseries is having a different conversation than tne one the book is.

After the Netflix miniseries was released, I kept hearing people exclaim how much they loved it and that they were going to read Jackson’s novel, and, while I’m happy that more people will be reading her work, I worry that it will be dismissed because it is so different from what caught their attention. They enjoyed a story of a family experiencing a tragedy, falling apart due the trauma, and eventually rebuilding and healing, and in the novel they will find none of those things.

 

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In Praise of Endings

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

I have a habit, where, as I’m reading a book, I turn to the last page. I don’t read the last page, I just see what it is and calculate how many pages I have left to read. I do this whether I am enjoying a book or not. The other night, as I was reading Because They Wanted To: Stories by Mary Gaitskill, I noticed that the last sentence didn’t have a period or closing quotation marks. There was no flyleaf or an about the author page. My copy was missing the last four pages. Google books let me preview several pages, in fact a surprisingly large amount of pages—but not the last four. I’ve checked several libraries and have discovered that there is no e-book version of the text that I can quickly check out. They did have physical copies, so I was able to Xerox copy those missing pages.

I wish I made this discovery earlier in the book, when I could have contacted the bookseller and got a different copy. But since I was 220 pages in, with annotations, I’m just going to hold on to the copy I have. Never before had I felt so much like the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

We are all frustrated when we are denied the ending of a book, a film, or a television series. We want to know how the story turns out. But recently, I find myself not longing to know what happens next, but wondering how things will end. There was time when I devoured the books in the Star Wars expanded universe, but somewhere in my twenties I lost interest. One book would introduce a new idea with interesting consequences, and the next would find a way to get rid of the consequences and return the characters to the status quo. I once was a fanatic about the show Supernatural, and considered the ending of season five near perfect. It would have been perfect if it had ended five seconds earlier, removing the cliffhanger that would lead into the sixth season. When I meet other fans of the show, they are shocked and even suspicious of me. How could I allow the characters to remain in such an awful situation? Didn’t I want to spend more time with them? However, the continuation of the story cost the fifth season’s ending its catharsis.

Once I just wanted to spend time with the characters, and I still do, but catharsis has become much more important to me. Even if that means things don’t go well for the characters that I love. Now I’m not knocking those who turn to fiction only to spend time with characters they love—it’s just that we have different tastes and want different things from our fiction. I also enjoy ongoing series. However, I’m aware that if a series goes on long enough I will eventually lose interest, even if it is still good, because it’s denying me the end, the catharsis.

Perhaps the reason that I find endings so satisfying is because things do end. People break up, retire, and die. The hero of one battle is rarely the hero of the next. Yet the longer a series goes on, the hero becomes more and more central to the universe. Eventually the universe seems to revolve around them, and, when that happens, it becomes unbearable claustrophobic. The protagonist becomes the most important person in that world. No longer are they just a human being fighting against fate, but they are mythical in their power and influence. While there is a certain pleasure in reading about characters whose importance is of mythical proportions, I prefer when the characters start out mythic rather than becoming so through each new edition to the story. Perhaps the best example of this transformation is that of John McClane, which has been noted by many people. One of the pleasures of Die Hard is that John McClane is an everyman, a regular cop, who finds himself in an extreme situation and rises to the occasion. However, several movies later he has become the supreme bad ass. All sense that he is a regular guy is gone, which means the tension of the original is gone. We know he will succeed because he’s no longer is a mortal man. He’s something more. Also, the bit of escapist fantasy that is in the first one—a regular person winning against near insurmountable odds—is gone. I like John McClane, but I rather his story ended when his universe was big, and he was only one somewhat believable man.

Of course there is also a certain aspect of escapism that comes with an ending. Yes, a person dies, but humanity will continue. When humanity dies, life will continue even if its just molecules on the sea floor living off the heat from volcanic vents. When the sun goes out, the universe will continue. The events of our life are rarely tied up in neat cathartic bows. No one really has the last word. In the Grace Paley story, “A Conversation with My Father,” the narrator’s father asks her to write a story like “‘the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov.’” She attempts to write the story, and, when she finally gets one that her father likes, she frustrates him by adding a scene beyond what her father considered a good ending. The narrator then says of the character that she has just created, “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.)” If stories in someway mirror life, then, yes, endings can feel arbitrary. After the story ends, the character—unless died—will continue living and making choices.

I think the best endings leave room for the knowledge that time continues. You feel that, when you close the book or turn off the film, the characters’ lives don’t stop. You sense that they will continue with their lives for better or worse, but that they are changed. Or maybe the characters aren’t changed, but the audience is. You have observed the characters go through a set of events that makes you realize something you hadn’t before, and part of the satisfaction—albeit a more melancholy one—is understanding what the characters fail to understand. That is what a good ending provides: a sense of consequence. We are changed by it. We understand how the characters will be dealing with those consequences for some time. I think one of the best examples of how an ending can do this is the new film The Babadook. (Obviously there are spoilers ahead, so go watch the film if you haven’t yet. I highly recommend it)

Poster for The Babadook

The Babadook ends with the titular monster locked in the protagonist’s, Amelia’s, basement. Amelia is caring for it or at least feeding it. I like this ending for several reasons. If you interpret the story as literal—this woman was actually dealing with a monster—the ending suggests that the monster is so powerful that it can never be killed. The Babadook is a curse she can’t rid her family of, but it is one that she can contain and keep from harming her, her son, and others. If you interpret the film as being symbolic, the Babadook representing her chronic depression, then we see the ending as her learning to manage mental illness. She will continue to suffer from it, but she has found ways to deal with it and still live a good life. As I walked out the theater, I discussed the “what ifs” with my husband. It was a fairly long conversation. I spent a lot of time wondering what would happen next for Amelia and her son. However, I do not want them to ever make a sequel to The Babadook. I do want the director and the actress and everyone involved to continue making films, but the ending is so satisfying I don’t want to lose it.

The risk of every sequel, of each new edition, is that it will somehow undermine the consequences of the original’s ending. The couple who started a relationship in the last story are suddenly divorced at the beginning of the new one. The lesson that was learned is forgotten. A sequel to The Babadook would perhaps eliminate one of the possible readings of the original. If the Babadook attacks a new family, I would have to view him as real rather than the manifestation of the protagonist’s mental illness. I’d also wonder what happened to Amelia and her son, whose survival I was so invested in in the first film. If they are killed off to tell this new story, I would be livid. If a sequel returned to these characters, there is a chance that I will lose the interpretation that the Babadook is a supernatural monster.

While it is possible to make a good sequel, doing so without undermining the ending is hard. Part of the reason I think so many people disliked Alien 3 was because the character whose survival was key to the tension of Aliens was killed off at the beginning. Suddenly your joy at the little girl, Newt, being rescued by Ripley is taken away and off-screen at that. For a lot of people, the new film doesn’t change the enjoyment of the old one, and I wish this was true for me. But whenever I sit down to watch Aliens, I can’t help but watch Ripley’s rescue of Newt with sadness because I know that she will die soon after the credits roll.

Once again it’s not to say a good series or sequel can’t be made, Aliens certainly proves that, but sequels can alter how we feel about the original’s ending. Hell, I think that the third sequel to Alien could have killed Newt and still have been a good movie. However, since her survival was a key part to the ending of the second film, her death needed some of its own time. As it stands in the film, it feels like they simply got rid of the character because she stood in the way of their new plot. The consequences of the last film were not explored, instead they were brushed aside.

Perhaps I’m not writing in praise of endings but rather in praise of consequences. Like I keep stating, serialized stories can be good, but each new edition must feel like it is building on the last story. Sometimes the new situation created by the ending can lead to a new story. I feel that the best ongoing series, whether book, film, or TV, acknowledges these consequences. However, when the series does not acknowledge them, the impact of these consequences are negated, and the characters become either caricatures of themselves or just empty vessels that are used to better advertise a product. When a story ends, whether it be realistic or fantastical, I want a sense that what has just happened has some sort of impact on the character’s life and is not just another adventure in a set of adventures that becomes, no matter how extraordinary to us, a boring routine for them.

Difficult Books, Insecure Reader

Once a former friend of mine, who liked to collect interesting quotes from the internet, made a point of repeating a quote to me about how the only good reason to read was for enjoyment (unfortunately, I neither remember the quote or who said it). In retrospect, I realized that she was using this quote as a veiled criticism of my reading habits. At the time I was reading some French post-modernist novels. Those books often were a hard slog, where I didn’t necessarily understand all of what I was reading. I suspect my friend was trying to point out that I should not read books because they are “important.” What she failed to realize was that I enjoyed reading those books.

Yes, sometimes I read books to lose myself in adventure, but other times I wanted the struggle. Like how some will hike a difficult trail or solve a difficult puzzle, I enjoy getting through difficult books. Just as one can feel miserable and hot during the middle of a hike but elated at the end, I too often feel miserable during the middle of a book but elated at the end. And sometimes, I give up.

All this build up leads to a single point: I’ve read Finnegans Wake! In the past few weeks since I’ve finished it, I’ve resisted the urge to carry the book around and tell strangers “See this book, I’ve read the whole damn thing!” I’ve always been worried about finding myself in a conversation with snooty elitists—the kind that only exists in movies and New Yorker cartoons—who’ll look down their nose at me and say in their mid-Atlantic accents “Have you ever read [insert obscure author’s name]’s [insert obscure title probably in French or German]?” But now,  I feel secure in the fact that I can reply “No! But I’ve read Finnegans Wake, M***** F*****!” Let’s not dwell on the unlikelihood of this scenario or its revelation of my insecurities, but instead focus on my feelings of accomplishment.

I should admit that I would have never picked up this book on my own. I was too intimidated by it. Hell, I was too intimidated by Ulysses to read it, and Finnegans Wake is supposed to make the former look like “See Spot Run.” A podcast that I listen to, Literary Disco, created Finnegans Wake Up, where everyone participating read five pages a day and discussed the book on Goodreads. Reading the book as a member of a community helped me, I would not have finished it otherwise. Reading other participants’ comments allowed me to better understand passages and not lose hope during the really rough parts. That said, I still finished the book a month after the group. I imagined myself as the last person who crosses a marathon’s finish line; everyone else has already gone home to take nap. But damn it, I still crossed that finish line.

If it was simply hard, I would not have been able to keep reading. Like a treacherous hike where there is often the joy of being in nature, there were these moments where I suddenly felt like I understood something. Whether it was a line that seemed to be questioning the  nature of literature and narrative, a reference to history, mythology, or Popeye, or really really dirty jokes (and Joyce likes his puns filthy), I still  found honest enjoyment. Of course there was the page after page of what seemed to be pure gibberish, where I just hated it all. At those moments, I could not blame anyone who threw the book against the wall.

The more I think about, I realize that I’ve always been drawn to difficulty. Not necessarily the same syntactical, grammatical and purposely obscure difficulty of Joyce. Yet when I think of my favorite books—the ones that I turn to when I just want to get lost in a story—there are still types of difficulty: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels contain satire which forces me to turn a critical eye on the real world, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and We’ve Always Lived in a Castle forces me to face the dangers of my own inclination towards isolation, Sándor Márai’s Embers  make me consider my own failed friendships, and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility helped me better understand what it is like to have limited options and have to rely on the good will of others to survive. Even if the prose is easy to follow, these books cause me to turn a more critical eye on the world and on myself. Rarely is such observation an easy or enjoyable task, yet it is one that I not only find necessary but that I crave.  Thus I turn to a wide array of books and films that I’ll struggle with and, yes, sometimes fail to finish. What my former friend failed to understand was that I didn’t read to lose myself but that I read to challenge myself.

Of course, she may have simply been responding to what she perceived as elitism on my part. Considering that I was in my early twenties, I was not necessarily above snobbery. I was proud of my achievements, and I thought literature was important. Even now when I brag, “I’ve read Finnegans Wake” many will hear “and you haven’t!”  Hell, I still hear “and you haven’t!” whenever I get in the conversation with people about books, films, travel, food, and whole mess of other experiences. My joy in reading that big intimidating book is the difficulty that I experienced and worked through, not that others haven’t read it. Anyone can answer my “I’ve read Finnegans Wake” with “Well,  I’ve read Proust” or “Charles Dickens” or “Agatha Christie” or “Toni Morrison” or “Isaac Asimov” or “Dean Koontz” or a long list authors that I have yet to read. The truth is I still fear those cartoonishly pretentious intellectuals who will have always read that obscure author that I’ve never heard of. As with all personifications of my insecurities, they will never be impressed. It’s still fun to image smacking them with a volume of Joyce’s work or any book for that matter.

Stories about Stories

Before I get into my car, I check to see that no one is in my backseat. Other than revealing the sad state of the world where that is not a uncommon habit for a woman, it also reveals the hold that stories have over me. I check the backseat not because of the countless bits of advice that I’ve been given when I’m reminded that it’s my responsibility to not be targeted by a sociopath, but because I heard an urban legend at a slumber party.

You’ve probably heard this story too. A girl drives home late at night and notices that she is being followed by a car that turns its high beams on at odd intervals. Regardless of which turns she suddenly takes or if she runs a red light that strange car follows. Finally, she can’t stand it any more and drives home, where she makes a run for her front door. The other driver gets out and starts screaming that there was someone in her car with her. She goes back and sees an ax laying across the backseat. Whenever the ax-murder raised the weapon, the driver behind her would turn on his high beams to keep the murder from killing her.  Late at night when I get into my car, I inevitably think of this story and look into my back seat.

Often we think of stories as something that we grow out of. One person may say that he or she is too old to believe in fairy tales but still expect their romantic life to follow the lines set by the Disney films. How many us who don’t believe in ghosts will still stay away from those famed haunted houses? Even though many will still turn up their nose at superstition, they’ll still hold their breath when driving past a graveyard, knock on wood when they talk of possible tragic outcome, or remain silent on their wishes after blowing out the candles of a birthday cake. I know a few skeptics who were able to rid themselves of these habits entirely, and I envy them at times. But even though I know that nothing will change the chance of the universe, I still throw split salt over my shoulder. Just because I know, without a doubt, ghosts don’t exist, doesn’t mean I’m not turning all the lights on after hearing a particularly good story.

Perhaps that is why I enjoy magical realism so much. It is just realism where spilling salt is serious business, where breathing in the graveyard air is dangerous, and where folklore isn’t hidden away but a living, breathing presence. Perhaps this is why I write so many stories and poems that deal with fairy tales and myth, because I can’t explore my poor body image without thinking of Cinderella’s two ugly step sisters, I can’t think of aging without thinking about the queen in Snow White, and, when a strange man asks me for the time and stands a little bit too close, I can’t help but think of Little Red Riding Hood. Gods, monsters, princesses, and witches make up a large part of the fabric through which I emotionally view this world.

One book, which I recently read, that does a wonderful job illustrating how stories color our view of the world is The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. The book follows Natalia, a young doctor whose Balkan country has been divided by a civil war. She is crossing the new border to give vaccinations to people who view her, in general, as an ancestral enemy. On top of this she discover that her grandfather has died after also crossing the border for unknown reasons. There is a constant tension as Natalia, a lone woman, wanders this angry territory. Obreht does a wonderful job of showing how the threat of violence, while not necessarily overt, is always there. Natalia is reminded that she shouldn’t go to certain places alone—though she doesn’t always take the advice.

When describing The Tiger’s Wife to friends I’ve called it magical realism, but that category doesn’t do the book justice. As Natalia describes her current actions and remembers the times spent with her grandfather, she doesn’t witness anything that couldn’t happen in our mundane world. There are moments that seem magical, like the time she saw an Elephant walk through the city under curfew in the dead of night. It is a beautiful moment, but it’s not literally magical. Even the story that she reconstructs of her grandfather’s boyhood involving the tiger and the tiger’s wife can be logically explained—though there are many moments that seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. In fact throughout most of the story everything exists in our logical mundane world, it’s tension coming from us wondering if she will come across some of that magic she has only heard of in stories. Whether she does or not, I won’t spoil for you. For most of the book, it is only in the stories that Natalia remembers her grandfather telling about his encounters with the deathless man where we see something literally magical happen. Of course, we are hearing Natalia recalling stories her grandfather told her. There is a good deal of distance between us and what may have actually happened—like all good folk tales and urban legends.

Yet for all of this world’s reality and logic, it is still defined by these old folk stories and beliefs. Natalia’s grandmother doesn’t want to move her grandfather’s things for forty days after his death lest his spirit becomes lost.  People leave coins for the dead. We see a group refuse to get their children medical care, as they dig up a vineyard looking for a corpse of a relative, who they believe has cursed them for not giving him a proper burial. Many of these people know those old stories are just “fairy tales,” yet their actions are still dictated by them

In the United States, we tend to pretend that we have moved beyond these stories. Yet, they still color how we approach death, birth, love, and myriad of other actions. To ignore these stories in the name of logic is dangerous, because these stories are still coloring our actions. If we put the folk tales, the fairy tales, and the urban legends, where we reasonable adults can’t see them, we can’t analyze how they are affecting our views.

I suspect that you can go anywhere in the world, point to a bit of geography and ask the locals “What’s that place’s story?”, and they will have one to tell you. Landscapes that are the bodies of giants, the result of a hero’s triumph, the scars of a god’s wrath, or echo with the body-less voices of miner’s buried alive. Even as children, my friends and I tried to create stories for our neighborhood. A small swell in the earth in an empty field became the haunted grave where a murdered baby was buried. The grove of cottonwoods where we rode our bikes was filled with century old ghosts that you might catch a glimpse of if you were alone, and a house that was falling apart belonged to a witch. When someone asks me what I’ll do when I’m done with my fairy tale poems, I stare confounded. I’ll never be done with them.

The Book I Almost Didn’t Read

I’ve always been fascinated by book covers: how they’re designed, what they tell us about a book before we’ve even read it, how a bad design may keep me from book I would otherwise enjoy, and how a good design will trick me into reading a book I don’t like. Last year Meg Wolitzer wrote a great article on the different ways the books written by women are marketed—including the typeface that is used on the cover. Yesterday, I came across link to an article about how Maureen Johnson had asked her twitter followers to create covers for books as though the original author had a different gender. It’s quite fun.

The article got me thinking about a book I read recently, Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. This book may be one of my all time favorites.  It’s about a writer, the titular Mr. Fox, his muse, Mary Foxe, and his wife, Daphne.  There is a bit of a love triangle between the three, but what makes it interesting is that Mary is a creation of Mr. Fox’s mind not a flesh and blood woman.  The book begins with Mary accusing Mr. Fox of being a serial killer, as he kills of all the women in his novels. They start a game where they enter several different stories—in someways it is a bit reminiscent of Italo Calivino’s If one a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Ultimately, Oyeyemi is exploring how women are viewed, often in ways that justify the violence done to them, and how fictional constructs reinforce or subvert these views. Yet despite the heavy topic, the book is often lighthearted and funny.

However, you wouldn’t be able to tell it’s dealing with such topics from the cover. When I first come across this book, it  was the cover to the right that I saw. I immediately recognized that the title was a reference to the British fairy tale, “Mr. Fox,” where a young woman visits her fiancé’s house and discovers he is a serial killer.  She takes a dismembered hand of one of the victims, and at their wedding reception reveals his crimes to the whole neighborhood. He is immediately killed by her brothers and her friends.  That definitely drew me to the book, but the Art Deco style, the colors, and the shadow of the woman with her back turned to the dapper gentlemen suggested that this book was most likely a period mystery novel with romance elements. Mystery is a fine genre, but not really my cup of tea (I hate puzzles).

Then I started to hear good but vague things about the novel. When I came across the edition pictured to the right at a book store, I bought the book.  This cover for one connected the book to the fairy tale—the beast disguised as a human—and it suggested that their might be some exploration of tropes—how the collage of the fox and clothing are not smoothly merged.  However, I was a bit worried when I read the summary on the back (which I can never resist reading). It said:

Fairy-tale romances end with a wedding. The fairy tales that don’t get more complicated. In this book, celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

On one hand the book had seemed to have magical realism, which I loved, but on the other hand it might just be a romance (also not my cup of tea).  That summary only hints at the fairly dark parts in the book, but definitely emphasizes the romantic relationship between a man and two women.  Oddly, it also suggest that the final outcome of the novel is based on the Mr. Fox’s choice alone, where in the book the two woman have equal agency.

I can’t say why the publisher chose to highlight certain aspects of this book—the love triangle—and not the other more violent parts—the murders in the embedded stories.  Maybe this really did sell better, and I would never begrudge an awesome author getting read by a wider audience.  Maybe I’m just revealing my own biases—in loving the meta and dark parts of the book, I’m probably selling short the fact that it is fun, usually lighthearted, often optimistic, and even romantic.

All I know is that I love this book, and I almost didn’t read it because of what was on its cover.

The Years Needed to Read a Book

I’ve just finished To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and, as a surprise to no one, I loved it. I loved it so much that I didn’t just break the spine, but, to my horror, ripped the book in half. Thankfully I had some Scotch tape on hand.

What is really momentous is that this is the first book that I’ve returned to after giving up on reading it, because it was “too hard.”

I’ve always been a reader, but somewhere around my Sophomore or Junior high school year my reading habits changed. Before then, I tore through escapist literature—I was particularly fond of the Star Wars extended universe. On whim, I picked up All Quiet of the Western Front. Instead of escaping on a grand adventure, I faced a horrifying reality. Yet, at the end of the book, I felt that I understood the world—the beauty and the tragedy—a little bit better.

At the time I was ignorant of what the Canon was and the problems inherit in it, all I knew was that All Quiet on the Western Front was considered a classic, and that I wanted to experience that sense of clarity and catharsis again. I thought I could only experience it through “the classics.” As you can tell, I had only vague idea what any of this meant or what authors to seek out.

I started to wander the library stacks picking up books that I’ve heard mentioned in class or whose covers made them look like a classic (the only reason I knew Madame Bovary was a classic was because of its leather cover). Sometimes I discovered books I loved (Calvino’s, Camus’, Austen’s, Gaskell’s, and so many others), sometimes I discovered books I hated, and sometimes I discovered books that overwhelmed me.

When I selected a book that overwhelmed, I would often read a few pages, but find that I couldn’t follow what was happening or, in some cases, the syntax. To the Lighthouse was one those books. I started reading it, but I didn’t know what was going on. I was left wondering who the main character was, what were all these people doing, what conflict was pushing the plot forward. I would reread whole pages, but the words became no clearer.  Eventually I gave up—I felt that I wasn’t smart enough to read it.

I encountered Woolf again in a college literature class, where we read Mrs. Dalloway. Once again, I couldn’t follow what was happening.  Woolf’s narrative switched from character to character without warning.  I kept wondering why we were spending so much time with boring Mrs. Dalloway and not more time with Septimus Warren Smith, who I found more interesting. I figured that I just didn’t like Woolf’s writing that she was just to hard for me to read.

This all changed when I saw the film, The Hours. I quickly tracked down the book by Michael Cunningham. His book made me question my initial reading of Mrs. Dalloway, allowing me to read it once more. It is strange how point of view can affect our reading of a book. When I first read Mrs. Dalloway, I’d firmly believed that literature should be about grand ideas and grand passions. When I read The Hours, or maybe because I read The Hours, I was starting to wonder if literature could be about the little things that made up our days. I started to wonder if the trifles that I had been so quick to dismiss were just as important to our lives. In Mrs. Dalloway, and really in much of Woolf’s writing, she shows how the grand and small connect, how our lives are made up of both wars and the errands we run on a busy afternoon. She shows how what we would dismiss as insignificant can make life worth living.

Since then, I’ve read The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Orlando, The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is one of my favorite writers. Yet when I picked up a copy of To the Lighthouse, I was intimidated. Here was one of the great books that I had failed to read.  Here was a book that I was not smart enough to read. This feeling of doubt is, of course, familiar: I feel it every time I sit down to write.  It asks me who I think am. I’m not that important; I’m not that smart; I’m not one of those people who will finish To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, or Swann’s Way. Perhaps that is why I sat down with the book; I needed to prove something to myself.

When I finished To the Lighthouse, what surprised me most was just how easily I could read it. I could follow the narrator as she switched focus from one character to an other. The action was clear. I wondered if this was the same book that had so overwhelmed me before. But it was, I had simply grown as reader. I was now more familiar with Woolf’s syntax. I had read more complex, sometimes frustrating, experimental writing. Stream of consciousness following multiple characters was familiar; I was an old hat at it.

In some ways my journey to finally reading Too the Lighthouse oddly suites one of the book’s main themes—the relentless march of time. People die, houses fall to ruin, books and paintings are forgotten, nothing lasts. Yet there is comfort in that change. A painting will be finished, and books will be read.

In Too the Lighthouse, Woolf questions  the traditional view of art—an avenue to immortality for the Great. In one scene, we see Lily Briscoe remember Mrs.Ramsey taking her and Charles Tansley to the beach.  Lily thinks:

But what a power was in the human soul!…That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite…something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.

Mrs. Ramsey had gone to the beach with two of her friends and created a day that causes Lily to question her views and had truly moved her. We tend to think of the duties of hostess as inconsequential, but that day, because of Mrs. Ramsey, transcends and works like a piece of art. Woolf has shown us that those “inconsequential” moments can carry consequence.

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because it speaks directly to my artistic endeavors. I have known several Charles Tansleys who have told me that I couldn’t write just as Charles told Lily that “women can’t paint, can’t write.”  I too have looked at my writing, much as Lily looks at her paintings, and thought it will be forgotten.  Yet Woolf’s final paragraph in To the Lighthouse reminds me that it does not matter:

she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture.  Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred.  With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

As I read those final lines, I feel I can go on writing.  Once again I feel that I know something more about this world. I again feel that catharsis I felt at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front and so many times since with many other books.  It was worth all the years it took me to finally read those lines.

The Return of March

Last year I participated in A Writer’s March, and I’m going to do so again this year.  What is Writer’s March you ask?  It is where you set an achievable goal in your writing and stick with it.  In a lot of ways it is like NaNoWriMo, but more relaxed.  Instead of focusing on generating pages, which  you can still do, the focus is on creating good writing habits that you can continue once the month is over.

Last year my goal was to write three hours a day and for the most part I met that goal.

This time around my goal is to write an hour a day.  On the surface it looks like my goal may have shrunk, but in reality my life has changed.  No longer do I have every morning to myself, and I’m working quite a bit more than I did last year.  Unfortunately, as my life has changed the writing habits that I had developed no longer work for me.  My focus this month is to develop new writing habits that I can expand on.

Go check out A Writer’s March here, sign up and set yourself some goals!