It hits hard, when you’re the sort of person inclined, as I am, to the critical analysis and evaluation of others’ behavior, when you do something yourself that you know is legible. By legible I mean open to readings that endow said action with a meaning beyond the immediately obvious and literal. All the chattering I do, spoken or un, about other people and their foibles returns with a vengeance – I have made myself available to skeptical treatment that is all the worse for the the fact that I will probably never hear it, only sympathetically imagine it.
I’ve done a few things that cause this rather reflexive – even paranoid – reaction in me. The other day I threw a strop outside of my house because there was a summer street party on and someone had stuffed my rubbish bin full of street party debris. The neighbors, with whom I’ve exchanged less than a hundred words since I moved here last November saw me do this, and now I avoid them at all costs, even more diligently than I avoided them before. I can almost hear them discussing my over the top reaction in their bed at night, which sits a few meters away from mine behind, of course, the wall between our places.
Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that I moved to this street in the first place. My current house is on the same street as my home during my previous marriage. It’s a street that runs for two blocks, so it’s not like once living at the bottom of 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village and then moving, a few years and a divorce later, to the same street on the Upper East Side. Or even the bottom of Tottenham Court road in Soho and then moving to one of those flats that sits atop Warren Street Station. My new place is exactly 50 house numbers away from the old one. And given the opposing sides of the streets, that places me 25 houses away from the place that I used to call home.
You can understand why I can hear, echoing, the readings of this development. “He wants to reset the clock. To start over. He’s trying to get it all back. Can you imagine, out of all the streets in London, or even just North London, he picked the selfsame one???”
One of the jokes, perhaps a bit defensive, that I used to make is that I can now go back to my old GP and simply claim that they have my house number wrong. I never bothered to transfer to another doctor, as I’ve not been to a doctor since I last lived here. Full circle, the trip has been, to the point that even the NHS won’t notice I’ve ever been gone.
I can’t decide if I am an incredibly sentimental person or a completely anti-sentimental person. Probably it’s the sort of geometric arrangement where everything meets at the poles, and the least becomes most and vice versa. But I do know that, on the one hand, there were clear reasons to me why I chose to buy this house, reasons that of course had nothing to do with my previous incarnation on this street. They are solidly sensible, middle-class sorts of, reasons. The space afforded, quality of presentation, school catchment zones, relative un-horrificness of the commute. And of course there’s a Waitrose in walking distance. When asked or prodded, I respond, “I am good at the real estate business. If I picked well once, why wouldn’t I pick the same thing again?”
Definitely not a clincher in the decision, but something that was at the back of my mind, was the fact that when my daughters visit, as they are doing right now, they are in a neighbourhood that they know and love. That, during our last visit, when I still lived in Highbury, they begged me to return to over and over so that they could run into their friends at the park behind their old school. Which of course, now, we do.
But the funny thing is: now that they’re back, and recognized constantly on the street by people that are strangers or half-strangers to me, mothers of their friends or their old friends themselves, they draw away, reluctant to engage, half-heartedly waving and saying “hi” but basically pulling me back toward our house. And then they say, or at least the oldest does, “Please can we go home now. I’d rather just be at home with just my sister and you.” The same thing on the way to the park itself, that object of fascination and long bus rides just last year. “It would be cool if people were there. But I kind of hope they aren’t and we can just hang out. Is that weird, dadda?”
If I were honest, I’d reply that it is a bit weird, but at the same time utterly understandable. For we, as a family, are town people – the bourgeoisie, if you take the term literally – and we I think corporately believe in the “good fences make good neighbors” stuff. They are sisters, but they seem to have inherited my only child’s love of solitude, or the relative solitude of family life behind chained front doors and closed shutters. I can’t remember ever knowing my New Jersey neighbors during my childhood. And now they themselves, my daughters, primarily live in New Jersey. Plus ça change…
I wonder further sometimes whether all of this has anything to do with my interest in the novel as a form. After all, as I tell my students over and over again, the form gets its start in an increasingly bourgeois-ifying world, when the doors are more often shut and the shutters more often pulled. One started to wonder – as I tell my classes – what exactly is happening over the reception room, the kitchen, the bedroom next door. And so the novel pulls down the walls, doll house style, and shows…. The spousal argument in the reception room, the euphemized or not sex in the bedroom, the man with his children who normally live in New York, feeding breakfast to them in the kitchen one Kellogg’s box and yogurt pot at at time, and wondering what exactly it is that we’ll do together today to make day fourteen of thirty-nine go well in a memorable sort of way.
Just before bed, my youngest daughter queried my wife about what the prefix “step-“ means. What a stepmother is, a stepdaughter, a step-sibling, and the like. It’s really no wonder: in the past year or so she and my older daughter have gained a stepmother, a stepfather, a stepsister, a stepbrother, and now an as yet unborn half-sister, which they only learned about last week.
She seemed especially baffled, as the conversation went on, about how it was possible that I could be the new baby’s father, given that I am her father but my wife is not her mother. That is to say, her mother is no longer my wife.
Of course, in part, this is the natural impulse of the newly re-sistered to protect her turf, to stake out her claim of specialness and special parental attention. But it also seemed to me like genuine bafflement – a sort of child’s version or inversion of the Freudian axiom about the essential unknowability of paternity.
I remember being confused about such things too when I was her age. I had no pressing reason to wonder about it, but these things edge into the quasi-metaphysical when considered by the six-year-old brain. How can my father father a child who is not my full-sister? What does it mean to be “related” to someone if they are neither my mother nor my father nor my sister nor my brother nor my cousin etc.
For better or worse, I had a less complex childhood than my daughters had, so mostly my own perplexity had to do with the difference between “real” cousins or uncles or aunts and those people who were simply called cousins or uncles or aunts. Living without siblings, and being born to a mother without siblings and a father who clearly would rather have been such, brings these questions to the fore. Do I have any real family at all, save for you two? I also remember being utterly stumped by the branching and self-entangling family tree of the British royal family.
In the end, she had to be put to bed as we have to get up early tomorrow, but I am not sure that she ever fully grasped the whole step- and half- and full- situation. There is a monumentality to parenthood, in the eyes of a six-year old. It’s like the familial version of the mathematical principle of identity: “each thing is the same with itself and different from another” just as “my dad is my dad and is no one else’s dad… save of course for my older sister, who was here even before me.”
But there is a principle of identity at play for my wife, their step-mother too. At some point in the conversation, my youngest offered the following equation, in conversation, to her.
“You are not my mummy.”
“That is true. I am not your mummy.”
“Actually, you’re just my Rosie. You’re my Rosie.”
We rented an Airbnb place for tonight and the next two nights in Paris. We are in Paris because, due to extravagant airfares, I had to cancel a trip to see the kids last September. “We could do other things with that money – great things” I said on the phone. Disneyland was broached, by one of us, both of us, so we are here.
I saved at least £1500 by staying in an Airbnb in Paris rather than the park itself. Earlier this year, they visited the proper Disney World, in Florida, with their mother and their new step-father, so I felt I could get away with it.
Somehow I missed the right stop. I had convinced myself that we were staying on one of the spurs off of Place de la Nation. When in fact it was Place Voltaire. And so we backtracked. And we are here.
What was interesting though was the entry to the apartment. Here are the instructions that the owner sent us:
Hi Michael, a few information to get in my home…
- First, when you are in front of the big brown door on the street, you’ll have to make the following code : 472B.
- Then, in the hall, you’ll see on your left some mailboxes. Mine is the one with ‘X’ written on it and a little orange sticker. You can open it with a coin, or your own key… And get the 2 sets of keys which open the door of the flat.
- To open the glass door in the hall, put the green pad that hangs on the keys on the black pad just beside the door.
- Then my flat is at the 5th floor, on your left. The very little key opens it. You’re home!
I let you the phone number of my friend if you have any problem : (phone number hidden). Could you confirm when you’re home that everything’s okay? (I am currently in Rio so I just woke up…)
If you need any information about the house, ask me!
Despite all my apprehensions, the directions worked to a T. So much so that I developed a soft sort of respect for our landlord of three days. But my girls, at least temporarily, had other ideas.
It was dark upon entry. We had to use the light on my iPhone to guide us around. Clearly the woman who rented us this place is a person with a penchant for atmospheric lighting. Children react badly to such things, especially when they are initially sceptical about what we are doing in somebody’s flat, off the beaten path, rather than – as my daughter put it – a ‘hotel like the ones in Memphis or wherever.’ She meant a chain hotel.
And so there was a bout of worry to get over. Things seemed to improve when we turned the TV on. I cannot now seem to turn it off, but we will get to that in due time. Nonetheless, I had to turn some pictures – I think a cover of a book about transvestites – over before they would sleep. The French love images – in every corner someone or something peeps out in this place.
But the point of Paris, especially to young Americans, which I was once, is estrangement. I hope that is what happens and it sticks. They are starting Paris in a different place than I did. But let’s hope it sticks.
My father burst into tears today. His face scrunched up like a child’s – like himself as a child, his face as a child – and the tears began to flow. Did he leave himself like that, visible, just long enough for me to see before plunging his face into his hands? He will be 70 next month.
He cried because he’d fucked his flight reservations. For the second time this week. The day before he flew from the US, he called me in a panic to say that he’d messed up, really messed up. That he was supposed to fly out of London and back home on Friday but had somehow booked the return for Sunday. He asked if we would be around over the weekend, if it would matter if he and mum stayed on. I responded that – as he already knew – we were taking the kids to Paris on Friday night.
During his stopover at JFK on the way here, he managed to change the flight. As it turns out though, he changed it to the wrong day – Thursday, today, instead of Friday, tomorrow. Which we discovered as we tried to print out his boarding passes in my kitchen – he is obsessive about printing his boarding passes at the earliest possible moment – and the screen indicated that the flight in question was delayed, but would begin boarding within half-an-hour.
Upon examination, we further discovered that the flight he’d thought was booked for Sunday was actually booked for Saturday morning. He’d confused the dates. And even more: we remembered that Saturday morning was the date and time we’d agreed they would leave all those months ago when he was booking his trip.
After the tears, a phone call which sorts it out at a price of $1000 for the two of them. He’d already paid $1000 to sort it out, erroneously, earlier this week. He has the money to cover it – and I remind him of as much. I also bark when, in the midst of the tears and the calling, he utters the phrase, “I’m not sure I can take this much longer,” which I know refers to my mother. I reply: “This has nothing to do with anything other than an airplane flight. What does it have to do with anything else?”
He is gone now – off to a hotel by Heathrow where he will anxiously pack and repack his bags and perhaps take the shuttle over, a night early, to try to pick up his boarding passes, which we never were able to print. Of course one wonders about senility, given what an expensive debacle he’s made of his travel arrangements for this trip. When others speculate, I ward them off.
My barking is not a new thing. I suppose I learned it from him. But it is odd, when one is 38 and one’s father is 69, how quickly the tone shifts. How quickly the once scolded son becomes the scolding son, on alert for faux pas, childish projection, and other behavioral anomalies. I do it to my children, bark, and I do it to my parents too now.
1) Receive a text on Saturday from the porter in our old building saying that a “large envelope” has arrived for me. We moved away last October, had our mail forwarded changed address on all the relevant accounts.
2) I proceed to worry because:
a) mail, in today’s day and age, has become an ominous matter. One used to receive so many things, and many of them good (papers and magazines, correspondence) by post. Now it seems like the only thing one gets are epistles bringing bad news – a tax that was left unpaid and that now is in arrears, a legal notice of some sort, a bill on an account that hasn’t been paid etc. That and loads of junk mail – which the porter wouldn’t have called us about. I simply can’t think of what it might be – which only makes the fear grow stronger that it is something awful indeed.
b) I am terrible at not worrying about things that I can’t take care of immediately. Because I found out Saturday at noon, and the porter stops working around noon, I wouldn’t be able to resolve the issue by finding out what was in the mysterious package until Monday morning. My first thought: “this is going to taint the rest of my weekend, not knowing, not being able to act on what ever it is. We’re warned against the “fear of fear itself” – quite reasonably, as it might well be the most frustrating and disabling form of fear – but I can’t seem to help myself.
3) Looking for books to shift from my house to my office, as I had a bit of spare room in my bag this morning and I’m trying to keep the house especially tidy of late, I locate something I recently purchased and had meant to read immediately but had forgotten about. It’s the new book that Coetzee has co-authored with the psychoanalysis Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.
I decide to bring it along for me to read on the commute.
4) I read the first 15 pages or so of the book on the bus and then during the one stop on the Underground it takes to reach my old apartment building. As I do, I think about how relevant some of it is to an essay that I have coming out in an American academic anthology on “therapeutic culture.” (I wrote a piece for it on “blogging.”) I wonder momentarily if it’s too late for me to add some of it in – and then remember that the book is already probably in production. Proofs appeared months ago. I also think of the fact that just last week I completed an article for another anthology I was meant to appear in. Unfortunately I completed the essay approximately 6 months late. The afternoon that I finished it, I had a drink with one of the other contributors to the volume. “Do you think it’s too late for me to submit it?” I asked. He clicked at his computer in response and produced a pdf of the full proofs of the edition, which had arrived to him via email that day. Alas.
As I read, I also think about my problematic anxiety about the package – and all the instances of problematically useless worrying that I do all the time. I wonder this book will encourage me to consider therapeutic treatment for this. I also wonder what is at the bottom, psychologically speaking, of such worry.
5) My anxiety mounts as I approach my building, ring the buzzer for the porter, who lets me in and hands me the package in question. The return address is a university press. I still cannot guess what it is – though my heart is now at ease as it’s clear it’s not some sort of terrible message of financial mismanagement or the like.
Outside I open the envelope. It’s a finished and final copy of the selfsame collection on therapeutic culture in which my essay appears, the very one that I had considered attempting to edit just now on the underground. And of course, this revelation – one is tempted to call it an epiphany – leads seconds later to a sort of quiet marvelling at the little helix of psychoanalytically-loaded stuff that had just happened this morning.
6. Had my seemingly accidental re-discovery of Coetzee’s book this morning – and the haphazard decision to bring it along on my trip to work (with a detour to confront this anxiety-inducing envelope) been not so accidental and random after all? Had I, on some level, “known” that the only possible thing that could have arrived in such a package was this book – and thus was some back bit of my mind trying to send a irony-laden to the front bits of my mind by giving me a sort of “hiding in plain sight” clue as to the contents of the envelope? And further, the fact that all of this happened via two books on psychoanalysis itself does seem like a bit of a pirouette on the part of my unconscious mind.
7. Or, on the other hand, is this simply the type of story that we love to tell ourselves – the story of a coincidence that can be congealed into the shape of a narrative, or even of a conspiracy (in this case a conspiracy between my unconscious mind and a set of objects – two books.) There are many other details of my morning that I’ve left out that would have contributed nothing to this story: the coffee that I made myself this morning that turned out to have been made with spoiled milk, the painfully large withdrawal I had to make from the bank to pay for a summer holiday and a tax bill, the huge shit that one of the neighbourhood cats left front and centre in my garden last night.
There are even other parallel stories that I am eliding – potentially more interesting ones: I was bothered by the fact that the stopoff at my old place would require me to take the slower of the two underground lines available to me (Piccadilly rather than Victoria). When I reached the station, there were announcements that the latter (my usual, faster route) was almost completely suspended due to a “person under a train.” Which led me at first, for a second, to feel relief – at least I would have been taking the slow train no matter what. And then to feel slightly ashamed of myself for such a ridiculously callous response to a horrific accident.
8. And what is there, further, to make of the fact, that amidst all of this – a non-trivial portion of which has at least something to do with late submissions – further seemed to me, by the time I made it to my office, to stand as good material for a blogpost. A blogpost that I’m writing right now instead of finishing yet another late article for yet another academic anthology.
I used to write for the New Statesman’s “back of the book” relatively frequently. Which was something that I impressed myself by doing – for god’s sake, I had a paper subscription to the thing before I moved to the UK. But editors change, and then, well, the salad days at £275 or whatever per pop are over.
But can someone tell me what the hell is up with the “back pages” columnists? Just picked up this week’s number on the entry-way floor, strummed through it while waiting for my daughters to call so that I can order my Friday-sabbath Pakistani feast (this is satiric performativity by the way – bread and butter tactic of this crowd) and this is what we have:
– Will Self at a bloody Who concert. “many of us share at least some of Tommy’s disabilities – although, unlike the deaf, blind and dumb kid, we’re no longer capable of playing a mean pinball.” Suppose it’s a slight uptick from “Man with a giant thesaurus visits the Stockwell Burger King to, well, verbalise about it.”
– Suzanne Moore telling us about a fling she had with a maybe-IRA bro in the, what, 1980s. She had sex with a guy who took her to a Holloway Road pub. All of her columns, from what I can tell, are about sex in the 1980s with a guy who she met in a North London pub. But this one seems to have used a false name, which is I guess more interesting. Would make a great anecdote, in a North London back garden like mine, over BBQ. But everyone would walk away, as do readers of Moore’s columns, simply thinking, “Hmmm… seems like she needs us to know that she once had a load of bad sex.”
– Tracey Thorn lamenting the fact that her teenage daughter is free and easy enough to borrow the family tent, go to Latitude (wow), and get up to whatever dirtied her “micro shorts.” Good Christ. You should know though that while watching Glasto on the BBC, her highlights were “Mary J Blige and Jessie Ware, and the moment when Pharrell brings some children up on the stage.” She also “gear[ed] herself up for Kanye West.”
– I’ll never make fun of Nick Lezard because 1) he’s literally the only bit of the New Statesman that I read in my lovely hand-delivered copy each week. 2) I’ve gone though a nasty bit of divorce-with-kids like him. 3) Above all, he writes really well. But still: I feel, as opposed to the above, that I’m cringing with him, rather than at him, as he details his weekly struggles with the Marylebone mice, the rising prices of wine at Majestic, the (oh dear) “hefty loan from the daughter.” Mostly the column seems like a worst case “divorced man of letters with kids” plea for help – I suppose the help comes mostly (though this weeks column is about a reader who sent him £50) in the form of cheques from the New Statesman.
At any rate, that’s this week’s back bits. And one can easily (if one wants) imagine the four at a sort of mixed North London, well, if not a dinner party, perhaps one the “better pubs,” where one could play out (as if with our youthful “action figures”) the conversations between the bunch. Does Lezard call Thorn up on the fact that he owns not a tent, let alone the scratch to fund his daughter’s Latitude indulgence? Do Moore and Self query each others hazy (but scriptable, when need be) sense of the 1980s and 1990s?
But the bigger question is: Why does the New Statesman, ostensibly the “soft left” magazine of Britain, feel the need to regale us with the stories of people who were born at a point when they could a) go to university for free b) louche around a bit, even quite a long bit and then c) still find themselves a house in North (or South) London and a healthy sinecure at a paying magazine? Why does it feel the need to stage some sort of horrific Islington adult play-date in its own back pages?
From Michael Hofmann’s rather brilliant piece on Kundera in the new LRB (paywalled, I think). Here, he’s talking about Kundera’s characters and sex.
Kundera has an old – and I would say, a dated – trust in sex. Sex as the expression of or the stand-in for or the earthly (or heavenly) representative of personality or inner life. […] Whoever they are, sex tests them and keeps the score. Do they use rude words or not? Do they prefer darkness or do they like to leave the lights on? Do they shut their eyes or keep them open? Are they thinking of the person they’re with, or of someone else? Kundera is touchingly interested and trusting in what he finds out: they are about the only stage directions you get in his books. Where other observers might contend our species is at its most generic in bed, and any differences we might display there are either faddish or not interesting, that, for example, the way we like to shop is altogether more expressive and revelatory, Kundera takes another view. He deserves the label ‘erotic politician’ more than Jim Morrison ever did.
I’m in the very early stages of trying to write something about the representation of sex in contemporary (and relatively contemporary) novels. One question that I’m asking myself – and asking the works that I will talk about – is a relatively obvious one: how has the representation of sex changed since the arrival of ubiquitous internet pornography. I’m hoping that the answer isn’t as obvious as the question. But Hofmann’s paragraph above expresses perfectly part of what I am thinking – the part that we have left behind.
We no longer believe, or at least have begun to doubt, that sex is personally-revelatory, a pathway to the demonstration of some sort of personal (or interpersonal) quiddity. Perhaps pornography has something to do with this – what at first can seem intriguingly distinct comes to seem something else entirely when it dawns on you that there are hundreds of thousands of these totally unique things. (Every snowflake is different, yes, but the fact that there are so goddamned many of them, each a unique shape of their own, might start to make you wonder whether it matters that each one is different. That is to say, difference become less and less interesting the more that you realise everyone is different, but in an utterly random, meaningless way.)
Fiction, since its modern prose forms arose, has always been tantalised by sex. The romance suppresses it in sublimating it (or maybe it’s the other way around). But maybe now, with everything all out in the open, or at least nearly everything, fiction faces a bit of a problem. And instead of Kundera’s epiphanically-revelatory sexuality, we have the grim grinding of Houellebecq’s (and other’s) characters – grinding aimed at a sort of transcendence, still, but we can’t help but know that the joke, as it was on Emma Bovary, is always on them.