Wednesday, March 12, 2008

All Bets Are Off (Books - The Gathering by Anne Enright)

I had my statistics midterm yesterday at 8 am and it was scary hard. I have no idea how I did but it didn't feel like I did well. It didn't matter much what came after that - a two-hour memory class, lunch with a friend, a couple of hours in the lab, and an hour-long walk home - I was too exhausted to do anything for school. So I finished The Gathering instead. This post along with this one constitute my thoughts about it. **Some spoilers follow. **

My opinion of the writing didn't change, it is luminous, but I was less interested in certain aspects of the story as the book went on. It gets into some childhood abuse issues in a way that didn't really interest me and rendered the story rather formulaic. I also found the novel's treatment of sex odd, I'm not sure I can place just how it was odd, but it was an appendage to the story while the issues of grief and family were the story. Maybe that was the narrator's relationship to sex, but somehow it made the story feel less of-a-piece. However, when it comes to grief and regret Enright is a master.

I make my way up to the top of the church and am drowned in the emotion, whether love or sadness, that floods my chest. My face sets into the mask of a woman weeping, one half pulled into a wail that the other half will not allow. There are no tears. My head twists away from whichever side of the church is more interested in my grief, only to show it to the other side. Here it is. The slow march of the remaining Hegarty's. I don't know what wound we are showing to them all, apart from the wound of family. Because, just at this moment, I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.

What does not feel in the least formulaic is the way her fiction captures the oddity, the pain, the wrongness, of an important moment of being alive. A moment which follows none of the rules of TV, the formulas of picture books - it's not the way it's supposed to be but is, rather, the way it is - and she not only gets it just right, but makes art of it. I have had moments exactly like the one described above. One where I have thought - why didn't someone tell me it would be like this? Enright tells us in a paragraph, and that paragraph has the clarity and violence of Picasso's Guernica.

I thought about this, as I saw in the Shelbourne bar - that I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go 'home' where I could 'have sex' with my 'husband' just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn't seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.

That seems to me to be the gift of shock, of grief, of any kind of radical life change that most people try to avoid like the plague. It makes us question everything, all the habits we have set up for the convenience of living. We don't necessarily want to notice that our FEET are in our SHOES all day long. It can make you feel suddenly as though you are walking in scuba diving flippers. Our nervous system helps us to not notice everything and to prioritize newer things, or louder things, or more dangerous things. We also have the ability to harness what we call attention to our will. There is too much information around us at any one moment to pay attention to everything, so attention helps us prioritize and saves us cognitive resources. To choose certain of those things instead of others. We also bundle the steps we take to perform ordinary activities - walking down stairs, driving to work - in one automatic series of actions we don't even think about any more. But these heuristics, though they save us time and cognitive resources, can get us stuck. We try to get efficient about everything we do. This can keep us from asking any questions at all. From noticing our world - whether that be to appreciate it or to detest it. Emergencies help us notice everything again. The really big ones make our brain say "all bets are off," that is probably what can be so disorienting about them. Enright's book captures that state beautifully.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Yes!! Beautifully put, Ted ... that is exactly what is so extraordinary about her writing. Well said, indeed.

Ted said...

S - Thanks! How funny. I was just putting a comment on your Casablanca post as you were writing one here!

Sheila O'Malley said...

We are in sync!