January 12th, 2011 / 10:25 am

Reading as a Comfort

The suicides and untimely deaths of friends and family have been piling up the last ten years. I had a close friend when I lived in Florida who was a city utilities worker. He was into kung fu movies and karate and beach volleyball and very unlucky with women. He met a woman after he was diagnosed with leukemia, and they married, but it must have been hard to be married to a terminally ill person, and she left him in the end, but before the end. It seemed unexcusable to me that she left him before the end, but then she was the one who was changing the bedsheets and holding his head over the toilet and watching him turn skeletal and lose teeth.

When he was close to the end, somebody called to tell me. I had moved away, and drove the two and a half hours to his hospital bed. There was some kind of magnetic resistance pushing at me from the direction of that hospital. I drove around it several times and didn’t park. I went into a movie theater to watch Sunshine State, a John Sayles movie. It was a comfort to be in the movie, but not the kind of comfort that is comfortable. Watching a film in a darkened theater when you are full of darkness is a weird uncomfortable stasis. It’s dream-like, but not a pleasurable dream. My attention drifted from my dying friend, but also from the movie, into a vagueness. Someone cleared their throat in the front row, and someone near me reeked of popcorn oil. I remember a scene with two people paddling a canoe, and I remember learning later that Sayles had blown up a portion of the print because a boom mic had got into the top of the shot, and so that part of the movie was somehow grainier. But I don’t remember thinking it was grainier at the time I was watching the movie. I only remember being comforted when Edie Falco was on the screen, some kind of weird motherly feeling I had when she was on the screen.

I went to see my friend in the hospital bed after the movie was over. I coughed, and he was angry with me, because leukemia destroys your immune system. My cough could have killed him. I remember my friend had shit on himself, and I crawled briefly into the bed with him and got a little of the shit on my pants. Later, at the funeral, I was asked to speak, and I got emotional, and one of the officiants told me later that in time I wouldn’t get so emotional about people dying. I said it depended upon the person.

For awhile I was watching television, but television was a lot like being in the movie. It was hard to sleep for awhile, and some nights I didn’t sleep. The days afterward might be eight hours removed from what would have been the previous day, but instead it felt like weeks had passed. Colors became briefly associated with smells, but only pungent smells, like onion or garlic, or softly bitter and unidentifiable smells, like when you stick your nose near the spice rack.

Somebody had recently turned me on to Kurt Vonnegut books. At this time in my life, I hadn’t read very much literature at all. I had read Faulkner and Hemingway in high school, and Hawthorne and George Eliot, one novel each by all of them, but I wasn’t ready to know how good they were, because I hadn’t read enough yet. But something about Kurt Vonnegut lit my head on fire. I read all the books, one after the other, in whatever order I could get my hands on them.

If you think about what those books are about — suicide, genocide, American imperialism, religious control, Nazis, the ruthlessness of natural selection, etc. — you’d think it’s weird that these books were a comfort. But for two or three months, I lost myself in them. What a strange comfort — it was something like oblivion, just complete lostness.

This lostness is really what saved me, I think, from a deep despair, and not just about the suicides and the deaths, but over the idea of death, and the world of atrocities, and a fundamental feeling of differentness or aloneness or separation from other people.

Writing doesn’t offer the same kind of lostness. Writing requires a giving that is harder-earned the more of it you do, except maybe the occasional, once- or twice-a-year gift of flight that leaves you not long after it seizes you. But reading, good reading, reliably welds you to the most fluent, able part of another human being’s interior life, and if they’ve done they’re job, you’re pleasantly enslaved to it for as long as it takes you to finish the thing you’ve started.

I know a man, an engineering professor, who says his life’s work is reading Proust. I asked him why. He said because the end of it is never in sight, and he fears he’s not strong enough to be a person who lives in the world the way other people live in the world once he’s come to the end of it. The it he fears coming to the end of, I think, is the lostness. His great despair would be the loss of the lostness, which would require the gaining of the present knowledge of the greater lostnesses that end with the greatest loss.

The contemplation of death is for some people this great terror, and the best reading is often full of the contemplation of death, and so they stave off the contemplation of death by choosing the lostness of a contemplation of the contemplation of death.

The concerns that spur this reflection today are less than the concerns of death, but they are the concerns of the sustenance of life that rise from fear and upheaval in the workplace. Mine is particularly scary lately, full of uncertainty, with lawsuits and threats of recrimination buzzing from office to office as one group tries to wrest power from another. I’m not actively involved in any of it, as a target or an actor — I am, indeed, a person without a place in any of the competing power systems — but the uncertainty and the atmosphere of fear is difficult some days to escape.

This morning I turned again to some books I’ve been reading or rereading in fitful starts and stops — Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Kafka’s The Trial, John Wray’s Lowboy — and I was transported to some Germanic rehearsal space, or to a nineteenth-century opium haze, or to the house of detainment, or to the New York City subway, and — there is no way to gild these abstractions — it was a comfort, and I knew it was would be a comfort, because it is reliably the comfort when there isn’t another comfort. I take refuge in the trouble of others rendered in twenty-six characters arranged in meaningful orders and transformed by my synaptic storm into something that briefly becomes more real to me than the woman who delivers my mail, the first person I saw this morning after rising from the deep place into which I had dropped myself with aid of the books.

There is an asterisk in the accounting of every serious worry or grief I’ve borne subsequent to my friend’s death from leukemia. I can remember the book, and I can remember the bathroom or bedroom or Fazoli’s restaurant or cloth-upholstered bucket seat to which I withdrew in the middle of something for which I should have been more present. I will probably never be able to enjoy Harry Crews’s A Feast of Snakes again because it was in my pocket graveside three days after the suicide of my seventeen-year-old nephew. It’s sitting here beside me on my office desk. There is a face on the cover of indeterminate sex. The left side of the face is green, and the right side of the face is orange. It was overcast at the graveside, in Lexington, and before the end of the service it started to rain. Some people fled for their cars, and others stood in the rain, as though it meant something, but it meant nothing at all, except that two varieties of air and moisture met in some meteorologically describable way, and water fell from the sky. If we’d been on a different planet, it might have been mercury or methane that fell from the sky. Or maybe instead of falling, it would hover. There is something in my training that wants to strain for a metaphor and make some meaning and make you feel something, but there’s not a metaphor here or anyplace else in the world that is useful to describe the horror of that afternoon. Thinking about it, I can’t wait until lunchtime, so I can replace my darknesses with someone else’s for an hour or so, while I eat my roast beef and drink my Coke.

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