I've said before that things are weird. I don't know how else to describe my life right now. Just weird. (Getting better, though, a bit.) I'm always particular about what books I read when, in what mood, but when things are like they are now, that selectivity is heightened. I cannot read just any book, and I will flit between ten or more books until I find the one that feels just right. For that reason, in times like this, I find myself going back to my happy places: Kerouac, Ondaatje, The Virgin Suicides,The Great Gatsby. The English Patient has been calling to me like a siren in the last few months, but I have had to resist the temptation. I know what happens when I read that book...despite what some may believe, sometimes I really do know what's best for myself. I'm not always into self-sabotage.
Anagrams was a test for me. I would pick it up, read a few pages, and put it back: "Not now." A few days later, I would pick it up again and read a few more pages, and put it back. "Not now." Well why not now, damn it? Because it's too upbeat? I want to say, yes, too upbeat, but to call this book upbeat is, well, to be Kristin I suppose. Turns out, I needed this book.
I'll admit, at first I thought I got this book. I became slightly more confused with each chapter…ok, so Benna teaches geriatric aerobics, AND teaches art history at a community college, AND is a nightclub singer. And Gerard teaches aerobics to kids AND is a nightclub singer AND in a rock opera version of Dido and Aeneas...hard economic times, you know? (FYI...Dido and Aeneas are EVERYWHERE for me right now.) It all, sort of, made sense in my mind...first Gerard must have been Benna's student, married with a daughter, then gotten divorced and started up with Benna, and eventually moved into her apartment house. Then they broke it off, but still drink near beer together every morning. But then I get to the second part, and Benna says that her friend Eleanor is imaginary. Wait – what? And where did this daughter – who is also imaginary – come from? At first I thought this was one of Benna's witticisms, because it seemed the type of quip she would make. But I kept going, and it was clear she was serious. So, I had to look it up. Duh! Sometimes I read into things too much ("I'm cool? What does that mean?") and sometimes I accept too much at face value. There must be a middle ground somewhere that I just cannot seem to find.
So here's what's really going on: Benna teaches poetry at a community college. She makes friends with Gerard. She has an affair with one of her students. She has an imaginary friend Eleanor, and an imaginary daughter. This is all learned in the second half of the book. The first half of the book is a series of short stories, really, about people named Benna and Gerard and Eleanor, etc. in parallel lives, essentially. It's derivative of reality, or nonreality since Eleanor is imaginary anyway.
The writing was amazing. Yes, this story is desperately bleak. Benna is so lonely and isolated that she makes up imaginary children. But it's funny as hell. I get this humor. I could have written this. Well, not really, but three quarters of it is stuff that would come out of my own mouth. Even in the depths of despair, sometimes, I cannot help but be sarcastically funny. Here are some examples that I underlined. (I underlined a lot in Anagrams.)
- "Yes, well," said Gerard, attempting something lighthearted. "I guess that's why they call it work. I guess that's why they don't call it table tennis."
- Eleanor and I around this time founded The Quit-Calling-Me-Shirley School of Comedy. It entailed the two of us meeting downtown for drinks and making despairing pronouncements about life and love which always began, "But surely…" It entailed what Eleanor called, "The Great White Whine": whiney white people getting together over white wine and whining.
- "I think a few well-considered and prominently displayed uncertainties are always in order."
- "...Remember: It's important not to be afraid of looking like an idiot." This was my motto in life.
- Aeneas shouldered his guitar and riffed and whined after Dido throughout the entire show: "Don't you see why I have to go to Europe?/I must ignore the sentiment you stir up." Actually it was awful. But nonetheless I sniffled at her suicide, and when she sang at Aeneas, "Just go then! Go if you must! My heart will surely turn to dust," and Aeneas indeed left, I sat in my seat, thinking "You ass, Aeneas, you don't have to be so literal."
- Things, however, rarely happened the way you understood them. Mostly they just sort of drove up alongside what you thought was the case and then moved randomly down some other way.
- No idiocy was too undignified for me.
- I didn't want my life to show.
- He also has a cold, and has pulled the hood of his sweat shirt up over his head and tied it. "You look like the Little League version of The Seventh Seal"
- ...feel my heart fluttering. It's a Tennessee Williams heart. A bad Tennessee Williams heart. I don't know what to say. The music urges love on you like food.
- "I've never put much store by honesty. I mean, how can you trust a word whose first letter you don't even pronounce?"
- It is as if our separate pasts were greeting each other, as if we were saying, This is how I have been with other people, this is how I would love you. If I loved you. Everything always seemed to boil down to boil down to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Off you would go in the mist of day and all that.
- You have a choice," she told her class. "The whorish emptiness of lies or the straight-laced horrors of truth."
- "You made her up? You made up an imaginary daughter?"
"Of course not," I say. "What, you think I'm an idiot? I made up a real daughter...I don't go around making up imaginary daughters...That would be too abstract. Even for me."
Shawn has been showing more of an interest in what I'm reading; I know why he's doing it and I really appreciate it. And he's asking me about this book that I will not put down, and why it's called Anagrams, and what it's about. As I'm trying to describe it, and how it's a bunch of stories about the same people, but not the same people, etc., and he says, "like Mulholland Drive?" YES. THANK YOU. EXACTLY LIKE MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Except funnier. But the basic idea of doppelgangers living tangential lives is the same.
So, why did I need this book? I can't explain it. I love Benna. I love Gerard. I love Eleanor. I want a friend like Eleanor, who would yell out of cars at joggers, "Hey, go home and read Middlemarch." In college I had a friend who would have done something like that, but it wouldn't have been about Middlemarch. No, seriously, I need someone in my life who will yet at random people at George Eliot. Who will know who George Eliot is to begin with. That is why I needed this book. Thank you, Lorrie Moore.