Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

UntitledLess than a week after it was released, Grand Theft Auto 5 has earned more than $1 billion in sales and reignited the debate about its rampant violence. The news coverage of the game’s more appalling details strikes me — a person whose reaction to the typical video game controller is confusion and boredom — as disturbing.

But my bigger question is this: What makes the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 different from the violence in other works of the imagination?

For example, Breaking Bad is a cultural phenomenon which has millions of Americans rooting for a man who cooks meth, manipulates his friends and family, kills adults as well as a child, and is in possession of a machine gun which is likely to figure in the show’s finale.

Macbeth is a monument of English literature which draws audiences of refinement and taste to watch the slaughter of kings, friends, innocent women and children, and soldiers while somehow persuading them to suspend judgment of the man who is the agent of all this slaughter.

I suppose the great difference among these works, if you can establish the difference, is that Grand Theft Auto 5 celebrates violence for the purposes of entertainment, while Breaking Bad and Macbeth explore the nature of violence to demonstrate its consequences.

The point of the video game is to be a criminal and win, or at least escape any consequences for your bad behavior. Macbeth, of course, doesn’t escape consequences in the Scottish play. And we are guessing that Walter White, who already exists in a self-created hell, is likely to suffer more before the show finishes at the end of the month.

But I’m not entirely persuaded by this argument I’ve just made. Part of my doubt is that I’m not sure you can demonstrate that the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 is of a different kind than Shakespeare’s.

Defenders of the game claim that it is a satire, which would turn the game into social commentary, although social commentary on the level of Brett Ellis’ American Psycho perhaps.

At this point, then, we are required to decide if Grand Theft Auto 5 is a satire done in good faith (ie, “we’re serious about our message”) or bad faith (ie, “we’re pornographers looking to protect our revenue”). And making that judgment is about as slippery a task as a critic could assign himself or herself without helpful emails provided by Edward Snowden.

I’m also not persuaded because of this question: Would Grand Theft Auto 5 or Breaking Bad or Macbeth be as popular as they are WITHOUT violence?

For example, would you really want to watch a play in which Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth talk about their frustrations with their lives and careers, while playing the polite host to King Duncan and making sure he likes the brie and that his room is comfortable? Not really.

The violence is an essential part of Macbeth‘s appeal: appealing, I think, to the dark impulses the human race all feels but which we as social animals need to suppress. These impulses also need an outlet however, and imaginary violence is a much better outlet than actual violence. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a more direct outlet than Macbeth, but this only makes it different in degree. Not different in kind.

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The twenty-one novels in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series are the greatest sustained work of English-language fiction written in the 20th century for the high craft of their characters, story lines, language, and themes, for the breadth of their erudition, and for the sheer stamina of O’Brian’s invention.

The series follows Jack Aubrey, a fighting captain in the British Navy, and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, naturalist, naval surgeon, and intelligence officer, as they fight in the Napoleonic wars as well as the War of 1812.

The series begins with superlative novels that include the books in my best of O’Brian list below. Then, like the happiest of long-running marriages, the Aubrey-Maturin novels take a modest step down to the level of very good indeed; with my metaphorical marriage encompassing not only Jack and Stephen’s monumental friendship, but more importantly, the great devotion of O’Brian and his readers to each other.

I’ve listed my five personal favorites, ranked in order of admiration, with notes and some spoilers. (I’ve included a complete list of the Aubrey-Maturin novels below these reviews for convenience.)

Post Captain (1972)

Post Captain - a best Aubrey-Maturin novel by O'BrianPatrick O’Brian’s magnificent sophomore work is the crown jewel of the series. The novel begins with O’Brian in full Jane Austen mode, following a young Jack Aubrey with prize money in his pocket and time on his hands because of an unfortunate lull in the Napoleonic wars, as he pursues his eventual wife, Sophie Williams.

Soon, fighting breaks out again but more significantly, Jack and Stephen’s friendship breaks down over a second woman (Stephen’s eventual wife, Diana Villiers) and they challenge each other to a duel. This is the only time in the series when the enduring friendship between the Aubrey and Maturin is shaken, and it makes for some of the most difficult and moving reading in the novels.

In Post Captain, O’Brian’s skill at writing complex, lucid, and compelling battle scenes emerges in all its glory, as does his humor, most especially when Jack is forced to escape suddenly hostile French territory by disguising himself as a dancing bear.

Unlike many of the later novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series, which don’t end as much as they simply stop, Post Captain concludes with a bang.

O’Brian places Jack in command of one of the four British ships that famously captured a Spanish treasure fleet bringing gold back from the New World to finance Spain’s entry into the war against England. Stephen, in his emerging role as an indispensable intelligence officer for the British, gathers the information that makes the capture possible.

HMS Surprise (1973)

hms surprise best aubrey maturin obrianIn HMS Surprise, the pace is faster, the action more exciting, the stakes higher, and the plot architecture tighter than in Post Captain, which it immediately follows in the series’ sequence.

For my money, HMS Surprise features the best set-piece in the entire series: Jack’s brilliant and daring rescue of Stephen, who has been captured as a spy by the French and is being tortured in the town of Port Mahon on one of the Balearic Islands. This is also the moment when the friendship between Jack and Stephen becomes stronger than death, and so the great and enduring heart of the Aubrey-Maturin novels begins to beat.

In HMS Surprise, both Jack and Stephen face down significant rivals. For Jack, it is the French Admiral Linois, who defeated him in the series’ first book, Master and Commander. For Stephen, it is a new contender for Diana’s affections, who he challenges to a duel that leads to another of the series’ most famous sequences, in which Stephen performs surgery on himself.

Finally, HMS Surprise launches two more of the novels’ great elements. The first is the theme of marriage’s problematic nature, as Jack looks forward to bliss with Sophie in the book’s final lines (Jack predicts the future will be “pure paradise”). The second is exotic locales. India features prominently in HMS Surprise, and future novels will take Jack and Stephen all around the world.

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Fortune of War - a best Aubrey Maturin novel O'BrianJack and Stephen are equal as friends, but Jack is more often the agent of action in the novels, partially because he is the captain of the frigates on which Stephen serves and partially because his appalling bad judgment in nearly every aspect of his life except as frigate captain is always getting him into trouble.

The Fortune of War is the single book in the Aubrey-Maturin series that truly belongs to Stephen. In it, he and Jack have been captured by the Americans during the war of 1812. Both are taken to Boston, where a severely wounded Jack is held prisoner, but Stephen walks about with considerable freedom, since the Americans believe him to be just a naval surgeon rather than a British agent.

French agents, also in Boston, know better however, and they engage Stephen in a deadly game of cat and mouse which transforms The Fortune of War into the series’ only true spy-thriller. Thrown in the mix are Diana Villiers, that brilliant complicator of Stephen’s life, and a hair’s breadth escape that wraps up the novel nicely.

Also in The Fortune of War, O’Brian brings the double nature of Stephen Maturin into sharp focus. In the novels to this point, we’ve known Stephen as an accomplished naturalist, a committed physician, and a talented spy – but only had hints of his deadly ruthlessness. Here, Stephen kills without hesitation or regret when driven by circumstances, and O’Brian creates another contrast with his great friend, Jack Aubrey.

Jack as a naval officer is personally responsible for far more deaths than Stephen, but Jack cheerfully regards war as the world’s greatest professional sport. The rewards are immense, the rules complicated and subtle, losing often deadly, but the players feel little actual animosity for their opponents as long as they adhere to the laws of the game. In Stephen’s war, there are no rules, the killing is vicious and personal, and grudges extend beyond declarations of peace. Another way to say it, of the two men, it is Stephen who has the soul of a killer.

The Far Side of the World (1984)

far side world best aubrey maturingAs the Aubrey-Maturin series progresses, the plots of the books become less discrete and the arcs of the stories flatten; so the novels transform into one continuous narrative that blossoms with asides, digressions, false starts, storms and accidents, sudden reversals, changes of mission caused by the whims of Jack’s superiors or shifting geopolitics, and the messy complexity of the characters most of all.

The Far Side of the World is a particularly rich example of these qualities. In the novel, Jack is sent in the HMS Surprise to prevent an American frigate from attacking British whalers in the South Seas, and almost nothing goes right. He is significantly delayed by a lightning storm off the coast of Brazil that damages his ship and requires significant repairs, which allows the Americans to slip into the Pacific and strike the whalers. Later, a typhoon nearly wreaks Jack’s frigate and destroys the American ship for him. The crew is unhappy with an aging, incompetent midshipman who they believe is back luck. Stephen is entangled in political intrigue while reveling in his opportunities to collect scientific specimens. And much more.

There is something existential in all this chaos, and without suggesting that O’Brian intended to write a philosophical novel – he has entirely too much sense and talent as an artist to bother with such stuff – the total vision of The Far Side of the World delivers exactly that.

Desolation Island (1978)

desolation island best aubrey maturin o'brianIf The Far Side of the World flirted with existentialism, Desolation Islands walks right up to this dreary philosophy and gives it a big wet kiss.

Jack accepts the command of the Leopard, an aging ship barely fit to navigate the English Channel, in a mission to transport prisoners to Australia. These prisoners attack and murder some of their guards. The ship is stuck in the doldrums and battered by storms. An epidemic kills most of the prisoners and much of the crew. The Leopard is chased and nearly destroyed by a vastly more powerful Dutch ship of the line. An iceberg damages the Leopard so severely that Jack makes a desperate landing on Desolation Island (one of many in the world at that time) where they are at risk of being marooned permanently.

Desolation Island contains two of my favorite extended set pieces. The first is the Dutch ship’s pursuit of the Leopard, which takes place in the Roaring Forties, where the waves are mountainous and O’Brian’s powers of description are superb. The second is the crew’s extended stay on the cold, bleak island of the novel’s title – which Stephen regards as a natural philosopher’s paradise he is in no hurry to leave. This is an example of O’Brian’s humor, of course. But it also suggests that joy and wonder can be found any place, if you just know how to look for it.

Complete List of Aubrey-Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander (1970)

Post Captain (1972)

HMS Surprise (1973)

The Mauritius Command (1977)

Desolation Island (1978)

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Surgeon’s Mate (1980)

The Ionian Mission (1981)

Treason’s Harbour (1983)

The Far Side of the World (1984)

The Reverse of the Medal (1986)

The Letter of Marque (1988)

The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)

The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)

Clarissa Oakes or The Truelove (1992)

The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)

The Commodore (1995)

The Yellow Admiral (1996)

The Hundred Days (1998)

Blue at the Mizzen (1999)

Glossary of Nautical Terms

The Gunroom of the HMS Surprise site has a good glossary of nautical terms that come from the “Dictionary of Sea Terms” by R.H. Dana Jr., author of “Two Years Before the Mast.” These are particularly useful to new readers of the O’Brian series but helpful to everyone. Also useful is this openstax page on the principal parts and sails of 19th century ships.

Nautical Terms That Have Become Idiomatic

Idioms are phrases whose “figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning,” as the The Oxford companion to the English language nicely puts it. The OED online says idioms are “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).”

Once you start reading Patrick O’Brian, you begin to realize just how may idioms in English derive from sailing ships. For example, a “loose cannon” is a wild unpredictable person liable to cause harm. This idiom comes from the guns of sailing ships which were mounted on wheeled carriages that absorbed the recoil and allowed the gun to be drawn inside the vessel for reloading. The guns and their carriages could easily weigh 3,000 pounds, and they were secured by heavy ropes. When a gun and its carriage got loose from its ropes, it could roll all over the deck from the motion of the ship injuring or killing men. Worse, the gun could plunge down a hatch and straight through the bottom of the hull, causing the ship to rapidly sink. The CrewSeekers website has an excellent list of idioms that come from sailing ships.

Tacking and Wearing a Sailing Ship

O’Brian describes the mechanics of sailing his ships in detail. This video of the Star of India shows what’s involved in tacking and wearing a sailing ship. In both tacking and wearing, the crew puts the ship about so the wind is shifted from one side of the vessel to the other. In tacking, the bow of the ship is turned through the wind. In wearing, the stern of the ship is turned. Tacking is the more difficult manuever because the crew is turning the ship into the wind while wearing involves turning the ship downwind.

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Breaking Bad season 05Since I am perpetually behind all trends in popular culture, I am just now discovering that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is as purely addictive as the crystal meth his anti-hero Walter White cooks on the show.

I’m also just discovering how Breaking Bad has so magnificently balanced its “entertaining” and “serious” elements, which is another way of saying – broadly – that it has succeeded as a narrative built on character and situation as well as a narrative based on plot.

Before I get around to solving the problem of how I’m going to watch Season Six when I don’t have cable, let me throw a few semi-organized thoughts at you.

Breaking Bad Season Five: Addicted to Story

All stories are driven by conflict. And to vastly over-simplify matters, these conflicts fall into two broad categories: interior conflicts, which tend to emphasize character, and exterior conflicts, which tend to emphasize plot.

In its early seasons, Breaking Bad placed greater emphasis on internal conflict. Walt is a high school chemistry teacher driven to cook crystal meth because he fears he will die of lung cancer and leave his family penniless; and while the mechanics of working in the drug business are explored, more time is devoted to the conflicts Walt’s illness and the lies he tells to hid his business cause in his family, and then to conflicts Walt’s wife’s discovery of his profession cause in their marriage.

This balance begins to shift in Season 3 as Walt’s involvement in the drug business deepens, and he is increasingly threatened by other criminals and by law enforcement agents. The latter half of season four delivers a rush of pure narrative delight as Walt scrambles to kill his former business partner, before he kills Walt and his family; and the story barrels into the shows of Season Five with Walt declaring he wants to build his own drug “empire”.

It would be hard to over-praise Breaking Bad for how beautifully it manages its story, like a thoroughbred running the best race of its life, hitting all the beats, managing the minor cliffhangers of a commercial break and the larger cliffhangers of each episode’s conclusion.

Add to this “the mob meets MacGyver” elements, as Walt applies his Mr. Science skills to eliminate one threat after another. And top it off with a question: how does Vince Gilligan make story lines that sound ridiculous when you describe them to your wife so convincing and affecting on screen?

Walter White: Lured by Vanity, Enthralled by Winning

One answer is Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, who Vince Gilligan describes as a person who begins as Mr. Chips and who ends as Scarface, but who I think is much more interesting than Scarface.

Walt doesn’t really want money, although he begins cooking meth as a way to pay his medical bills and provide money for his family after his death. What Walt really wants is agency and recognition.

This becomes evident fairly early in the show, because Walt quickly makes enough money to take care of his family, but he is more concerned about his image as a nice but feckless and impoverished cancer-stricken dweeb than by the practical problem of how he is going to launder a half million dollars in cash.

Walt craves success then, and even more importantly, the recognition and respect that come with success. This is one of the reasons he keeps getting lured back into the drug business, because only there is his success – as the well-paid maker of the world’s best crystal meth – recognized.

It is also in this world that Walt’s intelligence and (as it turns out) decisiveness is acknowledged. He’s driven in part by desperation. He has to kill his business associates before they kill him. He has to elude the DEA. But the more often he wins, the more he likes it and the more he doesn’t stop to count the bodies that are piling up on route to his next victory.

Only when his wife shows him the pile of money he’s amassed, literally as big as a Mini Cooper, that he retires – right at the end of season five. What was Walt chasing? What were all those deaths worth?

We’ve Been Seduced by the Monster Who Is Walter White

This is a popular opinion and it’s true. Walt is a monster. The list of murders he’s committed prove it. So why are we on his side?

Part of the answer is that Walt wants what most people want: to be self-sufficient and respected. Part is that we humans are social animals who chaff at the restraints our societies put on us even as we embrace them, and stories about criminals or seducers or other people who break the rules are a safe way to dream away our frustrations with society’s restraints.

But a greater part of the answer is perhaps the loveliest fact in all narrative art. The social purpose of story and character, the moral purpose of literature – regardless of medium – is to teaches us empathy.

Story asks us to inhabit the lives and experiences of the characters on which it turns its powers, and to understand them, even if we don’t like them – even if in the end we are right to condemn them. Macbeth, Milton’s Satan, Humbert Humbert, Walter White.

It’s a great paradox of narrative art that rooting for bad guys can make us better people. But it can. At least when the bad guys are creations as brilliant as Walter White.

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sookie stackhouse novels harrisIf the perfect beach book (1) offers a likeable heroine (2) tells stories about problems you don’t have, (3) is smart but not taxing, and (4) contains enough sex to make up for the fact you can’t have any since you a sharing a motel room with your kids – then Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels, including the recently published Dead Ever After, are pretty good choices.

Certainly, Ms. Harris has earned her success with the character of Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic barmaid living among vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies, and just-folks humans in the small Northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps.

Much of Sookie’s appeal comes from the fact that she is a normal person. Every day, she gets up and works an unglamorous job. She shops for food, buys gas, cleans her house, and watches TV. At night, she says her prayers. On Sunday mornings, she goes to the local Methodist church. Sookie tries to look after her hard-working but sexually reckless brother. Most of the time, she wonders if she’s done right or not.

Sookie is also appealing because her strength comes from her character, not her paranormal abilities. In almost every fight with a supernatural being – and with many normal humans – Sookie is overmatched, but she will fight all the same if forced, rather than surrender. Sookie also has great courage. She will put herself in danger to help a friend or a person to whom she feels obligated. She will act on principle when it’s against her own self-interest. And she can make hard decisions when her good sense tells her she has to make them.

Another quality of Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels is their social commentary. The books are occupied with how society treats people who are different, and you don’t have to look hard to see the parallels between the vampires in Harris’ novel and homosexuals (and others outside sexual, gender, and lifestyle norms) in our own.

The supernatural can also be seen as the outward manifestation of interior psychology in the novels. Sookie dates vampires and werewolves, which is another way of saying she goes out with no-good men who are blood-suckers and animals, while ignoring the romantic possibilities with her dependable boss Sam, a shape shifter who likes to take the form of a collie.

Sookie’s mind-reading power functions in a similar way. Her telepathy is really the magical extension of her natural intelligence and perceptiveness, qualities that can make a woman living in a small town “different” or “odd” to many of the people around her.

None of these parallels should be taken too far. Harris does not invest every character or story with a deeper meaning. Or put another way, with a nod toward Freud’s famous observation, sometimes a vampire is just a vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse books.

Charlaine Harris is not a great prose stylist, but her writing demonstrates craft, and Harris conveys the sound of Sookie’s voice – and particularly her sense of humor – very effectively.

Her plot architecture is another matter, however. Many of the books are constructed around a series of loosely related incidents, rather than a unified story that has an arc and momentum. The mystery elements of her stories are often thin and feel perfunctory. Her plots seldom twist. And as the series has stretched on, it has become more and more of a soap opera.

This is not such a bad thing for beach books, however, and it means that you can read the series in any order. So try a couple if you discover you just can’t read Woolf’s The Waves while the ocean crashes and the seagulls cry and your neighbors the next umbrella over are blasting Bon Jovi. I couldn’t.

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amazon is the devil?When a federal judge ruled that Apple was guilty of conspiring to fix the price of eBooks last week, the lamentations began.

Commentators declared this would lead to the destruction of the traditional publishers and the ascendance of Amazon as a monopolistic hegemon, which would use its vast market powers to homogenize and commoditize our reading culture. Also, frogs would rain down from the sky.

But I don’t think any such thing will happen. (Well, the frogs might.) Here’s why.

The Traditional Publishing Model Is Not Essential to Reading Culture

The traditional publishers think they are essential to reading culture because they were essential in the past and because (I’m quite sure) they are sincerely devoted to their craft.

But the only two actors who are essential to reading culture are writers and readers.  Publishers are … or were … a necessary intermediary between the writer and reader, back when printing books and getting them into the hands of readers were complicated, expensive operations.

Now these tasks aren’t necessarily complicated or expensive. There are plenty of new ways, many more than before, for writers and readers to connect. And as long as you have writers and readers, you’ll have a reading culture. Before I discuss why, however, let me make a semi-related point.

Good Books Have Always Been Bad Business

This is not to say you can’t make money from serious books or serious literature. You can. The problem is you can’t make enough money consistently to turn the proposition into a sustainable business.

This leaves publishers with two choices. The first is you have a huge company in which the blockbusters in popular genres subsidize the “serious” books. For publically traded companies, this is the only option because they will be punished by the markets if they lose money.

The second is you have a small company, privately held, in which the owners see themselves as patrons of and missionaries for writers as much as they see themselves as business people, and their financial goals don’t extend too much beyond avoiding bankruptcy.

The recent obituary for Arthur Rosenthal of Basic Books described this dynamic nicely when it said he “let his taste in nonfiction and his quasi indifference to profit margins guide him as a publisher”.

Now Amazon is making the lives of people who work within the huge company model a living hell. But it is making the small company model so easy that anyone with a computer and internet access can become a publisher.

Writers of Serious Books Are Adapting. Amazon Is Helping Them Do It

One of the assumptions in much of the recent wailing over Amazon’s victory is that only serious books are real books and only serious publishers are real publishers.

No one was fretting that the Dan Browns of the world would disappear because they knew they wouldn’t.  A hegemon Amazon would still publish Dan Brown because he makes a lot of money.

The commentators did worry that a hegemon Amazon would ignore the serious, unprofitable books. Well, maybe. But maybe not.  Amazon has demonstrated an almost pathological indifference to earning a profit over the years.  This would make them a perfect publisher for the Virginia Woolfs of the world. And perhaps they would like the prestige of a having such writers under their imprint?

But if not, Amazon has given writers the tools to directly publish and promote their own books. Amazon’s print-on-demand model allows small publishing companies to produce print books with very low overhead costs. Kindle Direct allows people to publish eBooks at basically no cost.

Everyone has a chance. Including the serious writers and important voices who are getting overlooked right now by those old gatekeepers of the reading culture, the traditional publishers.

The Government Doesn’t Just Punish Price Fixing. It Also Punishes Monopolies

Finally, remember that it is not only illegal to fix prices. It’s also illegal — not to become a monopoly, as it turns out talking to my FTC lawyer friend — but to use monopoly power to stifle competition. And the government departments that are aiding Amazon by ruling against Apple, so some people claim, are the same departments that would force Amazon to change its business practices or break up if it did.

We can’t risk that harm, you say? Well, under the legal system of the United States, you generally can’t punish companies because you think they will break the law. You have to wait until they actually do.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to seize the new opportunities. They’re good fun. And you might make some art, or some cash, too.

Related Massey Posts

A few comments on “Book Publishers Scramble to Rewrite Their Future” by Evan Hughes

The NPR Interview with Mark Coker of Smashwords | Self-Publishing on eBook

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What’s the difference between an innovation and a gimmick in literature? An innovation expands the author’s vision while a gimmick tries to hide his lack of one. You’ll find excellent examples of both in George Saunders’ recent short story collection, Tenth of December.

When Saunders is good in this volume, he is very good indeed, and the elements he uses frequently throughout Tenth of December work well together to create resonant stories. These elements include …

  • language that is faulty or inadequate, usually because the narrative voice belongs to a person with whom Saunders has not shared his gifts as a writer.
  • characters who are teetering on the edge of economic / social / psychological / personal failure confronting other characters who enjoy extraordinary success (no one seems to occupy the middle ground).
  • the motif of fictional pharmaceuticals that can regulate every human characteristic.
  • strong satiric impulses balanced by great empathy for his characters.

tenth of december george saundersOne of the best stories in Tenth of December is “Escape from Spiderhead” in which Saunders slowly reveals to us that the narrator is being used as an unwilling test subject for powerful drugs because he has been convicted of murder. Here words are deformed by bureaucrats and scientists, who use technical language to obscure the horror of their actions, and Saunders deploys his innovative premise to deliver a knock-out meditation on free will, regret, and redemption.

Another excellent story is “Victory Lap” which tells the anxiety-provoking tale of a high school girl, the middle-aged man who attempts to kidnap her, and a high school boy who intervenes.  Saunders nails the voices of all three characters. The kidnapper narrates the pathetic execution of his pathetic fantasy to perfection, but it is the teenagers who really shine. Their words grasp at ideas and emotions without quite seizing hold of them, and you get the sense in the end that Saunders intends the triteness of their language to be a deliberate defense against the fear they experienced.

In these examples, the innovations – the science-fiction premise of “Spiderhead”, the conspicuously stylized narration of “Victory Lap” – work with the other elements to create stories that capture your mind, your heart, and your gut. But that’s not the case for every story in Tenth of December.

For example, “Exhortation” is a staff memo composed of inept motivational business-speak wrapped around the message that the department will all be fired unless performance measures improve. “My Chivalric Fiasco” is mostly about what happens when a worker at a Renaissance-Fair business takes a drug that makes him a highly articulate speaker of ersatz medieval dialect.

Other than admiring Saunders prose, or nodding in automatic agreement at the obvious lessons (offices are insane places in “Exhortation” and sexual harassment is bad in “Fiasco”), there is little for the reader to do. The gimmick of the style doesn’t hide the thinness of the story.

The longest piece in this collection, and I think the weakest, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”. The story is told through the diary of a man who plunges his family from serious money problems to desperate money problems by making an expensive, impulsive, and useless purchase.

This purchase happens to be (as is eventually revealed to us) four young girls from poor countries who hire themselves out as living lawn ornaments.

As a big honking obvious metaphor for the exploitation of third-world labor by Americans, you would be hard pressed to find a metaphor bigger or more honking or more obvious. Once Saunders shows the metaphor to you, however, there is not much left. You can enjoy the gyrations of the story. I didn’t. You can admire his prose style. I did. But virtuosity alone is never enough to satisfy me. It has to be in the service of something other than itself.

Don’t let this stop you from reading Tenth of December. The rewards outweigh the frustrations, and your effort will be entirely redeemed by its best and shortest story, “Sticks,” in which a man tries to connect with his family by decorating a metal pole in their yard with clothes and words. Here Saunders does more in two pages than many writers can do in one hundred. And that’s neither innovation or gimmick. That’s  talent.

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the screwtape letters cs lewisC.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters – which consists of epistolary advice from the senior demon Screwtape to a junior demon Wormwood on the damnation of  a human soul – is frequently described as a satire. But I don’t see any satire at all in The Screwtape Letters.

What I do see is a brilliant and generous exploration of human nature, a miniature portrait of Britain as the Phoney War comes to an end, and some of the most perfect prose you are going to find in English.

Satire uses exaggeration and intensification to criticize a person, idea, institution, or social convention that has power by making it look ridiculous. Satirizing demons is difficult because if you don’t believe in them as metaphysical beings (ie, you don’t believe they exist), then there is nothing to criticize.

If you do believe in devils, then you are likely to regard Lewis’ Screwtape as utterly convincing rather than ridiculous. Metaphysical evil is self-exaggerating and self-intensifying after all. And Screwtape’s bureaucracy and banality, twenty years before Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, offers readers who reached the age reason before the close of the twentieth century, a highly plausible picture of hell.

But The Screwtape Letters offers much more than an original demonic voice, satirized or not. Its greatest achievement – and I think, real purpose – is its comprehensive depiction of the human character in all aspects.

Screwtape is, of course, interested in exploiting human vice, vanity, and pettiness to achieve his goals, so these get full treatment. But he is also interested in neutralizing human virtues because these are weapons that counter the work of demons.

The emphasis is on religion and the work of religious devotion throughout, but Lewis’ insights are so universal they are likely to please readers of any religion or no religion at all – except for those diehards who are dissatisfied with any book that does not exactly confirm their particular convictions; and for such folks I recommend reading very few books or none at all. At best, you’ll be wasting ninety-five percent of your time. Why bother?

Screwtape considers the sources of domestic harmony and disharmony; sexuality, love, and married life; the foibles of social interactions in all its forms; the hybrid animal and spiritual nature of humans (under the theory of “undulation”); the character of Christianity and other trends of thought; the temptations of the world; and more.

Perhaps my favorite letter is on the nature of human laughter and joy because many good things in life, many pleasures, are gifts Lewis believes God wants us to embrace. In a few pages, Lewis explores, “Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy” with an economy and incisiveness that should provoke jealousy in any writer except that admiration overwhelms envy.

Lewis’ Screwtape associates Joy with Music and says “something like it occurs in Heaven – a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience” which he as a demon detests. Joy and laughter are “a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell” according to Screwtape.

Toward the end of the book, World War II, which has always been hovering at the edges of The Screwtape Letters, comes to the forefront as the German bombing campaign of Britain begins and the unnamed young man who is the focus of Wormwood’s intentions joins the war effort. Here it was impossible for me to think Lewis’ wasn’t speaking from his own experiences fighting in the First World War, and he does a masterful job making us feel the quality of that time in England.

Finally, there is Lewis’ writing. I could praise it, but I will simply give you an example of Screwtape at his most caustic, and let you decide. Screwtape discovers that Wormwood has allowed his young man to fall in love with a Christian girl, and this is Screwtape’s reaction:

I have looked up this girl’s dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian but such a Christian – a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute. She makes me vomit. She stinks and scalds through the very pages of the dossier. It drives me mad, the way the world has worsened. We’d have had her to the arena in the old days. That’s what her sort is made for. Not that she’d do much good there, either. A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood and then dies with a smile. A cheat every way. Looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth and yet has a satirical wit. The sort of creature who’d find ME funny!

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Which are Nabokov’s best books? And which should you consider reading? Any ranking is subjective but the reasons behind a “best of” rank can help you decide.  So here is my personal list of the eight “best” Nabokov books, which include six novels, one memoir, and one collection of interviews. Also see the Nabokov resources below these reviews.

Lolita (1955)

Lolita - The Best Nabokov novelLolita is Nabokov’s best novel because it is the book that best synthesizes all his major characteristics as a writer:

(1) A love of language

(2) Delight in word play, patterns, puzzles, and games

(3) A highly intelligent, narcissistic-sociopath narrator

(4) A resilient victim who is  the center of Nabokov’s sympathy

(5) A preoccupation with perception, consciousness, time, and memory

(6) A belief in fate and the existence of a great design behind what seem to be the random and irrelevant facts of ordinary life

(7) The conviction that art is a refuge from the assault of death

In addition, Lolita is the disturbing story of a successful child rapist. It features brilliant miniature portraits of postwar America – almost Vermeer-like in their lucidity – as well as a phantasmagorical climax that takes place in a fairytale nightmare land. Lolita is funny, harrowing, heartbreaking, and transcendent. It caused a scandal, was a critical and then a popular success, and made Nabokov a mint of money. As art and cultural phenomenon, Lolita excels. The Lolita article on Wikipedia is pretty good.

Speak, Memory (1966)

Speak Memory Nabokov - a best Nabokov bookNot a novel, but a memoir of Nabokov’s life from childhood to the moment he escapes France weeks before the 1940 German invasion – Speak, Memory is a classic of autobiography that leaves most of Nabokov’s story untold.

Instead, it focuses on Nabokov’s most cherished memories of his family and friends; his youth in Russia and his young adulthood in Western European exile; on the natural world and butterfly hunting; on a recital of the Nabokov family’s august history and their liberal politics; on stories of Vladimir’s education and tutors and governesses, including the famous “Mademoiselle O”; on poetry; and more.

Through it all permeates the great Nabokovian pre-occupation and conviction that there is more than darkness before the beginning and after the end of life; that our living persists and this persistence is wonderful; and that the people we love won’t disappear into nothingness after death. You find this theme frequently in Nabokov, but its purest distillation is here in this great book.

Pnin (1957)

Pnin a Best Nabokov novelProfessor Timofey Pnin is Nabokov’s most deeply comic and deeply human character, and his response to the incessant comic cruelty Cervantes inflicts on Don Quixote. The structure of the novel is slight and episodic (Pnin began life as serial pieces published in The New Yorker) and lacks the dazzling pyrotechnics of books like Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. What Pnin offers instead is hilarity, enormous tenderness for the agonies of an ordinary life, and the danger of laughing at rather than laughing with Timofey; which is complicated by the fact that the arrogant narrator of this novel is not a Humbert Humbert or a Charles Kinbote, but Vladimir Nabokov himself.

Pale Fire (1962)

In terms of structure, technique, and pure virtuosity – and as a landmark of post-modern fiction – Pale Fire is Nabokov’s masterpiece. But it is a cold masterpiece.

The novel is constructed from a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets composed by one of the book’s characters (the Robert-Frost-like John Shade), with a forward, commentary, and index written by another (the extravagantly delusional Charles Kinbote).

The major conceit of Pale Fire is that Kinbote’s commentary has nothing to do with Shade’s poem, which creates a WTF experience for the unwarned first-time reader rivaled in English-language novels of the 20th century only by the “Benny” section of Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury.

Nabokov’s prose in Pale Fire is brilliant; there is no better example of “the novel as chess problem” in his work; and Charles Kinbote is the craziest if not the most dangerous of Nabokov’s narrators (although it is difficult to tell what is “real” and what is imagination in his novels).

However, the human tenderness in Pale Fire – frequently buried in Nabokov’s major works – is particularly difficult to find here. It exists in Shade’s poem, which tells the story of his unhappy daughter’s suicide, and the long grief of Shade and his wife over their loss. But this is overwhelmed by Kinbote’s monumental self-absorption and the intricate innovation of Nabokov’s design. Nabokov’s supreme novel for the mind. The Pale Fire article on Wikipedia is pretty good.

The Gift (1937)

The Gift - a best Nabokov novelThe last and best of the novels Nabokov wrote in Russian, The Gift is a portrait of a young Russian writer, Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev, finding his way as an artist and falling in love with the woman who would become his wife.

Nabokov transforms this commonplace premise into a novel which is dense with detail, filled with examples of Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s writing, and convinced that fate is working secretly to assure the young writer’s happiness.

Nabokov’s powers of observation and description come to the forefront in The Gift, particularly since the novel, like many lives, is short on plot. This will please fans of modernism but there are metafictional touches as well.

The novel features a 90-page chapter entirely devoted to a book by Fyodor called The Life of Chernyshevski as well as a generous sample of hostile reviews of it. Most especially, at the end, you see Fyodor coming up with the idea to write a book that will become The Gift itself.

Ada (1969)

Ada is Nabokov’s Finnegan’s Wake. Meaning that  you can see Ada as either the summation of Nabokov’s artistic vision which pushes to their limits his genius as an author, the form of the novel, and the abilities of the audience. Or you can see Ada as a deeply self-indulgent, over-intricate and deliberately obscure, reader-hostile mess.

I’m inclined to the former view, although I think Ada is a good example of the axiom that more is not always better, and even Nabokov fans will need to endure a fair amount of confusion, re-read the novel several times, or rely on expert help (such as Brian Boyd’s Nabokov’s Ada or the chapters in his biography of Vladimir).

Ada is occupied with the 80+ year love affair between Van and Ada Veen who are, as it turns out, brother and sister and which takes place on a parallel / alternative Earth sometimes called Anti Terra and sometimes Demonia. All seven of the Nabokov qualities are in evidence, plus a fair amount of literary parody as well as a few science fiction touches and other assorted material that will keep readers so inclined to puzzle out Ada happily at work. Matthew Hodgart’s 1969 review of “Ada” gets it right and is a hoot to read too.

Bend Sinister (1947)

Nabokov always insisted he was indifferent to politics, but Bend Sinister suggests he wasn’t indifferent to the cruelty governments inflict on individuals.

The novel takes place in the nightmare city of Padukgrad, run by the dictator Paduk and his “Party of the Average Man”.  Paduk wants Adam Krug, a renowned philosopher, to give a speech in support of his government. When Krug refuses, Paduk threatens his son, and the bungling brutality of Paduk’s thugs leads to tragedy.

In Bend Sinister, Nabokov focuses on Adam Krug’s love for his son and his cheerful contempt for the dictator Paduk, a childhood acquaintance. Although the novel takes place in a fictitious country, and feels like other Nabokovian worlds, Bend Sinister is an accurate portrait of the dynamics of the total state. What is fantasy, and what gives the novel its final punch, is when Nabokov reaches into the novel and mercifully saves a character from the suffering that state inflicts. (For a longer discussion of Nabokov and totalitarianism, see my post Tyrants Destroyed: Politics in the Novels of Vladimir Nabokov.)

Strong Opinions (1973)

Readers of this collection of interviews, edited to the last comma by Nabokov himself, could be forgiven for concluding Vladimir was even more arrogant and imperious than his reputation.

Nabokov does spank the hell out of just about everyone in Strong Opinions: Freud; a long list of “second rate” writers including Balzac, Dostoevski, Lawrence, Camus, Sartre, and Faulkner; consumers of “poshlost” or cheap, vulgar sometimes popular and sometimes exalted culture; Westerners duped by Soviet propaganda; members of any literary, social, or political group; fans of “general ideas” and “everyday reality” and “social interest” and “moral messages” in novels; Edmund Wilson and his grasp of Russian. The spanking goes on.

Nabokov does condemn cruelty and brutality in all its forms. He expresses a great sunny and personal happiness. And he provides useful facts, such as the pronunciation of his last name (see my note below). As complete a portrait of the public Nabokov as Speak Memory is a portrait of the private.


Additional Resources on Vladimir Nabokov

Bibliography: Nabokov wrote novels, poems, short stories, plays, and works of literary criticism in English and Russian. You can find a comprehensive bibliography of Nabokov’s work on Wikipedia.

Short Biography: Encyclopaedia Britannica online has a good brief biography of Nabokov’s life.

Long Biography: I recommend Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Boyd does an excellent job of telling the story of Nabokov’s life and assessing the literary qualities of his major works. Boyd is well regarded as a Nabokov scholar and published his own ranking of Nabokov’s books in Publishers Weekly.

Wife and Son: Nabokov’s wife Véra was his inspiration, first reader, business manager, and much more. All his novels were dedicated to her. Nabokov’s and Véra’s only child, Dmitri Vladimirovich Nabokov, helped translate many of his father’s books and oversaw his literary estate after his mother died in 1991. Dmitri had a career as a professional opera singer. For a few years in the 1960s, he raced cars professionally as well.

LepidopterologyNabokov was also famous for both his love of butterflies and his scientific study of them. Since Nabokov was a self-taught zoologist, most of the scientific community considered him a dilettante. As it turns out, one of Nabokov’s biggest theories about butterflies was correct.

Russian Author or American Author: This question is a perennial source of disagreement. Those who wish to go spelunking in Plato’s cave and come up with elaborate theories, aesthetic or otherwise, about the essence of the words “Russian” and “American” are free to do so.  And doubtless you will too. For my part, I think the right way to answer the question is to ask Nabokov. And his answer goes like this. Nabokov is an American author because Nabokov chose to become an American citizen.

Nabokov was born in Russia, fled the revolution in 1917, and never returned. He went to university in England but did not become an English citizen. He lived in Germany but fled to France when Hitler rose to power. (Véra was a Jewish.) He fled France ahead of the German invasion in 1940. Nabokov lived in America for twenty years and became a citizen. In the early 1960s, he and Véra moved to Switzerland to be near Dmitri. Yet Nabokov always maintained his US citizenship, paying a great deal of American taxes for the privilege as he liked to point out. The Paris Review asked Nabokov in 1967 “Do you consider yourself an American?” This is how he answered:

Yes, I do. I am as American as April in Arizona…. I feel a suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers. Crude criticism of American affairs offends and distresses me. In home politics, I am strongly anti-segregationist. In foreign affairs, I am definitely on the government’s side. And when in doubt, I always follow the simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.

I might also say there is something quintessentially American about Pnin and Lolita and Ada and Van Veen, but saying that I realize I’ve fallen back into Plato’s cave.

Those inclined toward reasoned compromise might gently suggest Nabokov is a “Russian-American” author but neither reason nor compromise exists these days so y’all gonna have to pick a tribe.

Pronunciation of Name: How to pronounce Nabokov’s name is another source of perennial disagreement. This is what Nabokov himself said in a 1965 interview with TV-13 in New York and even he doesn’t firmly answer the question:

As to pronunciation, Frenchmen of course say Nabokoff, with the accent on the last syllable. Englishmen say Nabokov, accent on the first, and Italians say Nabokov, accent in the middle, as Russians also do. Na-bo-kov. A heavy open “o” as in “Knickerbocker”. My New England ear is not offended by the long elegant middle “o” of Nabokov as delivered in American academies. The awful “Na-bah-kov” is a despicable gutterism. Well, you can make your choice now. Incidentally, the first name is pronounced Vladeemer — rhyming with “redeemer.”

Movies: The most famous Nabokov movies are the two Lolita films: the 1962 version directed by Stanley Kubrick (Nabokov wrote the screenplay) and the 1997 version directed by Adrian Lyne. Lyne’s film is not a success aside from the opening credit sequence, featuring music by Ennio Morricone, which achieves a beauty and heartbreak the rest of the film conspicuously lacks.

Neither Kubrick nor Lyne deal with the key fact Humbert Humbert is a serial rapist who monstrously abuses Lolita. (The beauty of the story is all on Humbert’s side. The real heartbreak belongs to Lolita alone even if you believe Humbert’s remorse over his treatment of Lolita is genuine.)

You could argue that Nabokov also fails to deal with Humbert as a serial rapist and monstrous abuser and to the extent that Lolita’s experience is all but obliterated from the novel, you are right. I can only say that the novel emphasizes those qualities which made it possible for Humbert to succeed as a rapist. His good looks and good manners and good education. His charm and most of all his dazzling narcissism and his titanic self-absorption. That Humbert abused Lolita because he failed to see her, and failed to see her because he could only see himself, is precisely the point in my reading.

Now, Nabokov himself is having none of this and Lionel Trilling is having much worse. At least in the filmed interview below.

Interview Videos: Here are the two parts of an interview with Nabokov about Lolita.

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Queen of the Nude

Chapter 1

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Cover for "Queen of the Nude" by Peter Galen MasseyStephen and Helen Demetrius walked hand in hand along the sandy path toward the beach.  The way was hot and airless and it followed the shore of a pond separated from the Atlantic by a high dune.  Stephen and Helen couldn’t see the ocean, but they could hear the hush of the waves sometimes, and the cry of gulls, and the drone of insects in the brush.  The trail climbed along the dune and Stephen and Helen followed, pausing at the top to consider the view.  The sky was a transparent blue vaguely shimmering over the water.  The pond stretched away to their left, while to their right the land rose and became the Marblehead Cliffs.  In front of them was a length of white sand with the Atlantic falling softly against it.  Sunbathers and swimmers were scattered sparsely up and down the beach.

“This is perfect,” Helen said, removing her wide-brimmed straw hat to kiss Stephen and then setting down her canvas bag and beach chair to hug him.

“Yes.”

“Don’t you think?” Helen asked.  She leaned back and stared at Stephen with amused disbelief.  He kissed her back, doing his best to imitate her smile.  “We’re in a beautiful place.  We have two weeks vacation together.  And forty-five minutes ago, you were making love to me.  All that doesn’t add up to perfect?”

Stephen looked embarrassed.  “Yes, it does.”

Helen examined her husband seriously, then scratched his cheek with her fingers.  “Don’t be glum.  You’ve just been working too hard for too long, is all, like I’ve been telling you.  You’ll get a good rest here and you’ll be ready to go back to life just as we’ve always lived it.  Trust me.  I know you.”

“I’m not so sure,” Stephen told her, glancing away.  He loved Helen to all appearances, and admired how certain she was about her life, but he didn’t necessarily want for himself everything Helen wanted for him, and Stephen wasn’t convinced his wife understood the difference.  “I’m weary of Manhattan, Helen … and of spending all day thinking of clever ways to make people buy things they don’t need.”  Stephen rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand, squeezing his brow into a frown as he did.  “I want something else, someplace else.  I wish I could tell you what.”

“Well,” Helen replied, “let’s see how it goes.  We don’t have to figure it all out today.”

“No,” Stephen agreed, “we don’t.”

Helen picked up her bag and chair, and she and Stephen continued walking.  Helen was right, Stephen considered.  He was being stupid and ungrateful.  They were together, and the day was beautiful, and they were about to meet old friends, at least two of whom Stephen was certain they would be glad to see.  The third was more of a question.  But regardless of that, and regardless of the problems waiting for them back in the city, he wanted to do nothing to ruin their first day on the island, for either Helen or himself.

“So what’s Tania like again?”

Stephen squinted, perplexed by the question, and made a clicking noise with
his tongue.  “I really don’t know anymore.  Lyle and Mia tell me she’s changed since college.”

“What was she like in college, then?” Helen continued.

“Well.”  Stephen rubbed his chin for effect.  “Sort of a pain in the ass, to tell you the truth.”

Helen laughed.  “Oh, that sounds promising.  And we’re staying at her house?”

“Only for a few days,” Stephen replied.  He was smiling and gazing into the distance of the ocean.  “I suppose I was too, back then, a pain in the ass, I mean – at least to Tania.  She always seemed to inspire my more particular side.”

“The one that’s critical and relentless and unforgiving?” Helen interrupted, asking her question with a smug smile.

“Yes, that’s the one,” Stephen agreed.  “Are you teasing?”

“Of course.”

“In any case,” Stephen continued, “Lyle and Mia say she’s changed since then, and they are usually reliable on such matters.  Mia is anyhow.”

“Yes, she is.”

They walked several steps and Stephen’s attention drifted away from the topic of conversation.  The sun was warm, and he lost himself in the long slow breathing of the ocean and how the light danced like diamonds on its surface.

“And what is Tania to you?” Helen asked.

“To me?” Stephen echoed, making sure he’d heard the question right.  “For my part, an old friend, of sorts.”

“Meaning…” Helen prompted.  She was smiling, and her voice was cheerful, but Helen was determined to get her information.

“Meaning I never slept with her.”

“Good,” Helen said.  She digested this fact with satisfaction and kissed her husband.  Then an expression of sympathy and concern crossed her face.  “So you had no lover, then, that summer you were here with Tania and Mia in the theater group.”

“No comment,” Stephen said.  He knew that anonymous girlfriends, firmly fixed in the distant past, did not threaten Helen.

“Mia will tell me.”

“I pay Mia a tidy monthly sum to keep the secrets of my college years just that.”

“We’ll see!” Helen laughed.  “The friendships between women are stronger than the friendships between men and women.”

The path led down to the beach.  They turned left, expecting to find their companions in that direction based on Stephen’s old memories and a note from Mia, happy in its emotion but hazy in its directions, which he carried in his pocket.  The first person they passed was a naked man with a deep tan and long shaggy hair, and the fact of his nudity jolted them momentarily, even though they were expecting it.  The man walked with his shoulders hunched forward and his hands dangling by his sides, and this slack posture reflected the general condition of his body.  He was a thin man who seemed to have gained a little weight around the middle entirely for the purpose of having it hang off him unbecomingly.   His penis was small and pale and mostly lost in the black thicket of his pubic hair.  He meandered down the sand with such a lack of intensity that Stephen considered he might wander off one of the cliffs and not take note of it for several minutes.  Stephen wondered, too, if it was the normality of the man’s appearance that was unsettling.  It wasn’t nakedness, but the lack of beauty, that offended American eyes.  Then he considered how forlorn their race looked, mortal and graceless, unclothed.  Helen commented to herself that if she looked like that, she would keep her pants and her shirt on.  She would have been perfectly willing to give the man her hat, if he agreed to carry it in front of him until he got home.

“That reminds me,” Helen said, once the man was well past.  “Are they really nudists?  Lyle and Mia, and Tania?”

Stephen glanced at Helen and shrugged.  “Yes, so I’m told.  Although I doubt we’ll see Mia out of her suit.  It isn’t her thing.  But Tania will be.”

“I’ll bet you’ll like that, looking at naked women for days on end.”

“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” Stephen said.  “Actually, the person I’m really looking forward to ogling is Lyle.”

“Ugh!  I’ve prepared myself.  I’ve braced myself.  But I can’t say I’m looking forward.  The Speedo he wore in Jamaica the other year was more than enough.  Less than enough, rather.”

“Well, wait until you see the package unbound.  He’s big as a sausage and uncircumcised.  Quite a sight.”

Helen knocked the back of Stephen’s head with her fist.  “I had a wax before we left New York, but don’t expect me to walk around without my bikini.  The world doesn’t need to see my private parts, and the sun doesn’t need to burn them.  Besides, I’m not keen on the idea of winding up on some creep’s masturbation website.”

“I’m sure everyone will respect your right to wear what you want.”

“I’m sure,” Helen said.  “What about you?”

“Me?  Today, no.  I didn’t put suntan lotion on the proper places.  But maybe later.”

“Did you last time?”

“Yes, some.”

“What was it like?”

“Rather unnerving for the first hour or two, but then it didn’t seem all that much different.  And – I know this is going to sound stupid – it really was relaxing.”

“Well, you were right about it sounding stupid.”

Stephen and Helen approached the more populated part of the beach and began looking for Tania or Lyle or Mia.  Of the people there, approximately half were nude.  Of these, men were more common than women, and those approaching or past middle age were more common than the young.  Stephen saw two large deep-blue canvas umbrellas set close to each other, and walked toward them wondering if they were the ones mentioned in the note.

As he and Helen drew closer, they spotted Mia stretched out in a beach chair reading with a sun-burned man lying at her feet who Stephen assumed was Lyle.  Mia looked up and recognized them nearly as quickly, and rose to her feet waving.  Then Lyle rose and joined her, throwing an arm around Mia and grinning at his friends.  Lyle was naked and Mia was topless.  They watched Stephen and Helen cross the last fifty feet to the umbrellas.

The smile Mia gave Stephen and Helen was the same as ever, sunny and unaffected, although her posture seemed more forward and self-possessed than it had been in the past.  Mia’s breasts surprised Helen as much as they surprised Stephen, but they made her much less uncomfortable.  Helen was used to seeing other women, since she showered at the gym after her regular work-outs, and there had been two or three occasions, during some holiday or weekend visit, when she and Mia had changed in each other’s company.  Stephen had the benefit of none of this experience, however, and more than the surprise, it was a stab of desire, as strong as it was unwelcome, that upset him.  His life was complicated enough, and he didn’t like lusting after his friends, no matter how involuntarily.  Stephen had enough time to replace the look of frozen astonishment on his face with a characteristic grin before he drew close, but most of his attention was still focused on not staring at Mia and this made his conversation odd and awkward.  By contrast, Helen was not upset by Lyle’s penis, and she had expected to be.

“Mia, you look wonderful!” Helen said, putting down her chair and removing her hat to give Mia a long hug.  As Helen did, she glanced over at Stephen and lifted her eyebrows.

“And you,” Mia replied.  “I’m glad you’re here!”

“Helen,” Lyle said and opened his arms wide in greeting.

“I’m not hugging you until you put some pants on Lyle,” she announced, “but lean in and I’ll give you a kiss.”  This he did, and Helen greeted Lyle quite nicely, then put her hat back on.  “It’s nice to see you – almost all of you, that is.  One or two things, depending on how you want to group them, I could do without.”

“Charmed.  Dedalus!” Lyle mock roared, and threw his arm around Stephen’s shoulder.  Stephen would have returned the gesture, but he was still carrying his chair and bag.  “Look at you, fit as ever.  I myself have gained a little weight.”

“I didn’t think you could take so much time away from the brokerage,” Mia said to Helen.

“You do look a little squashy around the middle,” Stephen remarked, putting down what he was carrying.

“The market isn’t exactly hot right now,” Helen said.  “And I’ve earned it.”

“Mia, great to see you,” Stephen said and kissed her on the cheek, holding her shoulders lightly with his hands and hoping to forestall the embrace Mia gave him anyway.  He was glad his t-shirt lay between them, at least, but the fabric offered no protection against the smile Mia turned on him afterwards.  They were old friends, so it made sense that she would look at him fondly, but Mia had a way of crinkling her eyes at Stephen that seemed to hint at secret sympathies between them, at confidences and agreed feelings that no one else knew or suspected.  This look was partially his fault. At times over the years, Stephen had bantered flirtatiously with Mia, and had been vain enough to enjoy the attraction mixed in with all the jokes; but now was another case and Mia’s look was different too.

“How long have you been here?” Stephen asked, too jauntily he realized, sounding forced when he should have sounded comfortable.  He motioned over his shoulder with his thumb, then felt ridiculous because this gesture made no sense.

“About an hour, I think.”  Mia said.  “We came with Tania, who’s over there on those rocks meditating.”  Mia pointed at a woman who was too far away to recognize as Tania or not.  “No sense interrupting her; won’t do any good.  She’ll come over when she’s done.”

“Right.  Good enough,” Lyle said.  “Come on, Dedalus.  Let’s see if you can still throw the pigskin.”

“Okay,” Stephen said, relieved.  “If that’s all right?” he asked the women.

“Sure,” Mia said.

“Yes, Stephen, go ahead,” Helen replied.

“Right.”  He touched the brim of his Yankees cap.  “We’ll be back then.”

The men trotted off and the women watched them go.   Helen unfolded her own chair and lay back in it with a delicious sigh.  “Ah, wonderful.”

“Is Stephen okay?” Mia asked, taking her chair again but still sitting up to watch his back recede toward the sea.  “He’s acting goofy.”

“I believe your boobs scared him,” Helen said with a laugh.

“Did they?” Mia asked and looked down quizzically.  They were full, pretty, and rested close to her chest, but none of these qualities struck her as frightening.  “Why?”

“Oh, took him by surprise, I suspect.  I admit I was a little surprised myself.  We talked about it and figured you’d be dressed.”

“Should I put this back on?”  Mia asked and held up her top.

“No, not a bit,” Helen said firmly.  “It’s more fun to watch him sweat.  Besides, I gave him something else to think about before we came down to the beach.”

“All right,” Mia said and lay back in her chair in a posture that imitated Helen’s.  “I didn’t expect this would bother him.  We’ve known each other for so many years.”

“He thinks it isn’t polite to look at his friends like that,” Helen said.

“But if the looking bothered me, I wouldn’t be like this.”

“Yes, I know.  Doesn’t matter.”  Helen was silent for a moment.  “I am going to lie here for a minute, perfectly still, and then I want you to tell me all about how your semester went.  And Lyle’s new coffeehouse.”

Helen did exactly that, then stood, took off her hat and shirt, rubbed the exposed skin of her shoulders, breasts, and stomach to be sure of her sunscreen, sat back down, and smiled at Mia.  Helen’s sunglasses were like the ones Jackie O wore.  “How were your kids this spring?”

“They were great, they really were,” Mia said, beaming.  “We had a lot of fun.
A good group.  There were things I decided to teach that I don’t always, but I knew they would get it.  Really, there’s some stuff they are going to see in high school biology we already did.  I’m really proud of them.”

“Never feel like doing something else and getting paid more?”

“Don’t underestimate the salary of a unionized public school teacher,” Mia told Helen.  “And do something else?  No.  I found what I like.”

“I’m glad,” Helen said and reached over to pat her hand, “and you know I’m not criticizing, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I love the game on the Street, but I can’t say I always love the job.  Which is why there are the compensations.”  This thought hung between them for a few moments.

“And how’s Lyle’s latest venture doing?” Helen asked, with an exaggerated sigh of resignation.

“The coffeehouse is really popular, actually.”

“Is it making money?”

“That’s another matter,” Mia said, raising a loose hand and dropping it again.  With the gesture, she alluded to a string of other careers and schemes Lyle had passionately pursued, until his interest had faded or a problem more difficult than he anticipated had appeared.  None had ever done much better than break even, and more often Mia and Lyle had ended up a few thousand dollars poorer for the experience.  “It isn’t losing money, which is almost good enough.  And it is an amazing scene right now.  Musicians who started playing at the coffeehouse last fall are now playing all over Boston, and a couple are talking to record companies.  A few local writers Lyle’s invited have packed the space, people literally standing outside the window to listen.  Lyle seems to have this sense of what people want.  This could be it.  At long last, Lyle might have finally found his bliss.”

“Is that what you think?” Helen asked.

“I don’t know,” Mia said, sounding indifferent to the question.  “I do love Lyle for his enthusiasm – he still thinks the perfect thing is out there and he can find it.  But it gets a little tiring.  And I sometimes wish I could just drop teaching and do whatever I took a notion to and let him worry about the mortgage for once.”

Helen made a sympathetic noise.

“How are you two doing?” Mia asked.

“Oh, fine.  Wall Street is Wall Street, no more or less honest than usual, or I’m mistaken.  Stephen has been busy, of course, since he was made vice president in March.”

“He was?” Mia said with surprise.

“Yes,” Helen replied.  “He didn’t tell you?”

Mia shook her head.

“And Lyle doesn’t know either?”

“He probably would have mentioned it, if he’d known, but then again, you know Lyle.”

Helen shrugged at the mystery of her husband.  “I know pride is a sin, but he could brag a little.  Or not brag, but say as much as is true, at least.  This is key.  This job is the place where he can earn the choice of what do next, the whole business.”

“Maybe he’s not sure that’s what he wants,” Mia suggested.

“Oh no,” Helen said.  “Advertising is a good industry for him.  He knows it.”

Mia accepted this answer.  The two women sat quietly watching the glittering sea.  A naked older woman walked by, and Helen remembered the kind of beach at which she was.

In the meantime, the men had walked down to an open area of sand and were tossing Lyle’s football back and forth.  Stephen was the more natural athlete of the two, but Lyle enjoyed playing more, so over time their skills had grown close to equal.  Lyle certainly had the better arm.  He threw tight spirals and could drop the ball right in Stephen’s hands no matter where he stood or in which direction he was running.  By contrast, Stephen’s passes wobbled in the air and he used muscle to compensate for his lack of technique, which meant he sometimes lobbed the ball clean over Lyle’s head and sometimes zipped it past his outstretched hands.

“Ease up a bit, Dedalus.  I’m banging around all over the place with all this running.”

“Sorry.  I can’t get the motion right.  It’s been a while since I played anything that didn’t involve a racket.  Damned business.”

“Throw straight from your shoulder and roll the ball off your fingertips.  Are you remembering to release your thumb first?”

“No I’m not.”

“Try that.”

They continued and Stephen found a better touch on the ball and they settled into a rhythm.  Lyle was surprisingly swift and agile for his size, and Stephen reflected that if his friend hadn’t continued to play soccer, he would probably be even heavier.  He didn’t have a belly yet, but Lyle’s lower torso was slowly expanding in diameter and his jowls displayed the first signs of a fleshiness that was likely to consume the profile of his chin in middle age.  Lyle’s nudity didn’t particularly bother Stephen.  Lyle had been an enthusiastic streaker and skinny-dipper at school, enough so that most of the campus must have seen him naked at one point or another, and Stephen more times than he could count.  Their first year, Lyle liked to wake himself up by playing Brian Eno on the stereo and marching around their room in the buff.  Once it got cold, he did this with the windows open.  Another time, toward the end of a party during their third year, Lyle passed out in a chair in their room.  When Stephen went to check on him, he discovered that Lyle’s body wasn’t the only thing that was upright, so Stephen sensibly dropped one of his Lacrosse gloves over the offending member and left.  When Stephen returned an hour later, Lyle was still wearing the glove.  After this, it was easy enough for Stephen to ignore Lyle’s penis – certainly much easier than it was to ignore Mia’s breasts.  Stephen played the entire time with his back to the two women.  His throwing improved, but it still wasn’t perfect.

“So, how’s your girlfriend?” Lyle asked.

Stephen had the ball over his shoulder when Lyle offered this question.  He threw hard at his friend.

“Whoa, there’s that spiral!”

“I don’t have a girlfriend,”  Stephen told Lyle, approaching him with a mingled look of anger and embarrassment on his face, “and I never did, not the way you’re thinking.  She was a friend, and I admit I was stupid not to notice sooner that she was feeling something more, and maybe I was too, but I did notice before … our feelings went too far.  And our feelings were the only thing that went too far, all right?”

“Okay, settle down, settle down, I believe you, I wasn’t trying to imply, really,” Lyle said, walking toward Stephen.  “I was just asking – I was trying to ask and doing a piss-poor job of it, I mean – how you and Helen are doing now.”

“Oh, fine, just dandy,” Stephen said, rubbing his eyes with the tips of his fingers.

“Well, that sounds promising.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“No.”

Lyle lifted his eyebrows high on his forehead and inclined his head toward Stephen.  “Have you talked about it with Helen?”

“I’ve tried,” Stephen said.  He took the football from Lyle and squeezed it along the seams.  “You know how she can be, when something doesn’t match the picture of the world she’s painted for herself.”

“Umm,” Lyle grunted.  “So what’s wrong?”

Stephen laughed.  “I don’t know.”

“You mean to tell me,” Lyle asked, “that you’re acting like a miserable bollocks over a mystery problem?”

“Am I acting miserable?”

“Not exactly, for the most part,” Lyle told him.  “Well?”

“Well,” Stephen agreed.  “I suppose … I don’t know.  I’m afraid I’m falling out of love with Helen, maybe.”

Lyle whistled soberly.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t know either, could be, until just now,” Stephen said, “when you asked me and I had to think about the answer.”

This part of the conversation called for Lyle to stick his hands in his pockets, look down, and scuff the sand with the ball of his foot.  But since Lyle wasn’t wearing pants, with or without pockets, he had to settle for running his fingers through his hair.  “Is it you or her?”

“Well, you know,” Stephen told him.  “Helen’s beautiful.  And smart.  And funny.  And she loves me.  So of course it follows that it has to be her.”

“Of course.”

“Doesn’t make any sense, does it?”

“Nope.”

“Look, never mind me, Lyle,” Stephen said and tossed him back the football.  He waved a hand around one side of his head.  “I’m just stuck too deep inside my own brain and have thought my way into a muddle.  It’s nonsense.  It’s a mood.  It will pass.  Helen’s great, and I’m acting like an idiot.”

“You sure?” Lyle asked.

“Yes.”

Lyle wasn’t certain he believed Stephen, but he knew him too well to think he could argue against Stephen’s declaration with any success.

“Can we talk about something else?” Stephen asked.

“Sure,” Lyle said.  His expression changed.  “So, what do you think of Mia’s breasts?  Pretty nice, huh?  They’ve really popped out.  I had figured she was going to be skinny and itty-bitty for ever.  No sir.  I may be getting heavier, but yes Jesus, so is she. I’d love her either way, you know, but I’m definitely not complaining about the supplemental hooterage.”

“I’m not looking at Mia’s breasts.”

“Sure you aren’t,” Lyle told him.  “And I’m not looking at Helen’s ass.  Which looks great, by the way.”

“Don’t get your hopes up.  I can guarantee, with mathematical certainty that you have seen as much of Helen’s body today as you are ever going to.”

“We’ll see.  The island has magical properties.”  Lyle twirled one finger in the air.  “Come on, I’m sweaty.  Let’s go swimming.”  Stephen took off his shirt and cap and joined him.  The coldness of the ocean shocked his body as he entered, but it soon felt great.  Stephen splashed about in the waves, then swam out and floated on his back.  The noise of the world was reduced to a hushed gurgle, the salt taste of the ocean was in his mouth, and he rocked weightlessly on the surface of the water.  Stephen cleared his mind and surrendered to these few simple sensations.  He’d forgotten how uncomplicated the beach made life.  The sky above him was vast and featureless, an endless blue he found both empty and comforting.  He flexed his toes, which were peeking above the water, and closed his eyes.  Eventually, Lyle swam over and tapped him, and Stephen followed his friend out of the ocean, and back across the sand to their women.

“How was it?” Helen asked Stephen.

“The water is nice if you’re hot.”  Stephen grabbed his right shoulder with his left hand and rotated his throwing arm in a wide circle.  “I’m stiff.  Haven’t done that in a while.”

Mia stood and poked Lyle’s shoulders with one finger.  “I think you should get out of the sun.  Lyle dragged his chair under the shade of the umbrellas and stretched himself out.  Stephen spread his towel on the sand and lay face down on it with his eyes closed.

“Did you boys catch up?” Helen asked him.

“Mmmmrph,” Stephen replied.

“Yes, we’re all set, thank you, Hel,” Lyle remarked.  “We traded recipes and everything.”

Everyone was silent after this.  Stephen and Helen shared some water, then Stephen took his book from the bag and sat in his chair to read.  For a while, the soft scraping of the new pages in Stephen’s book and the hushed roar of the ocean were the only sounds.  Eventually, Mia looked up from her own paperback and said, “Helen said you were promoted, Stephen.  Congratulations.”

“To what?”  Lyle asked, looking up.  He’d been dozing.

“VP,” Stephen said.

“Wow.”

“It’s no big deal.”

“Sounds like a big deal,” Lyle told him.

“See what I mean,” Helen remarked aside to Mia.  “Modest.”

“It’s not modesty,” Stephen said and stood up.  He squinted at the horizon.  “It’s hard to turn down a promotion.  Say ‘no’ in Manhattan and they think you’re holding out for more money or have lost your mind.”

Stephen tried to think up a new topic for conversation.  He was saved from this by the distant approach of a figure that Stephen thought might be Tania.  She was no longer seated on the rock Mia had pointed out earlier.  “Well, am I right?” he announced.  “Here comes Tania.”

Mia stood and rested a familiar hand on Stephen’s shoulder and shaded her eyes with the other.  “Yes, you’re right.”  Lyle remained seated, but Helen had a quick look at her face and hair in her compact and then rose to stand next to Stephen.  Tania’s form shimmered in the heat, but Stephen recognized it.  She still walked like the dancer she never really was, not seriously, pointing her toe before setting it down, and there was still a deliberate languor in her step, which had become more relaxed and refined over the years, but which continued to serve its intended function of drawing the attention of the people around her.  So did her hair, which was permed into waves and riven with blond highlights and hung halfway down her back.  Tania turned one side of her face and then the other into the breeze, so that her hair flowed out behind her better.  She looked heavier to Stephen.  The flesh of Tania’s hips creased as she walked, and her breasts seemed to have gained some volume and lost some shape, but there was an unmistakable air of fitness and good health about her, and she was much less tan than Stephen had expected, considering how dark she had become during the summer they had spent on the island.  Stephen was interested in Tania’s body, but only with the idle and automatic attention most men pay to most women, and his looking was partially motivated by the desire to get it out of the way.  He figured he’d be seeing a lot of Tania, and the sooner he’d grown used to her naked, the better.  Stephen didn’t think this would be too hard to achieve.  He had a hard time lusting after women he wasn’t sure he liked.

When Tania drew close enough to recognize Stephen, a smile of pleasure spread across her face and her step quickened.  She held out her arms to him before she was closer than ten feet and called his name.

“Stephen!” she exclaimed and took his hands.  “After all these years,” she said and hugged him.  Stephen returned the embrace lightly, but not as awkwardly as he would have guessed.  “Thank you for coming.”

“I’m happy to be here.”

“And you must be Helen,” Tania continued, releasing Stephen and turning to his wife.  Tania held Helen’s hands and smiled at her.  “Thank you for coming, too.  I know it can be difficult, being surrounded by someone else’s friends.  We’ll do our best to make you feel welcome.”

“I feel welcome already,” Helen replied.

“Good.”  Tania kissed Helen on each cheek, then gave her hands an extra squeeze before releasing them.  She smiled between the couple.  “I’m sorry for the weather last night.  To be stuck in a Providence hotel instead of here!  Did you have trouble flying over this morning?”

“None at all,” Stephen told her.

“I’m glad,” Tania said.  She stopped and stared at Stephen’s face, then took it in her hands and moved his head from side to side, as if she were examining a vase or porcelain bowl.  “You look older, Stephen … and less sure of yourself.”

“Ha!” he laughed, as much in recognition of Tania’s former way of speaking as at the remark itself.  “And you’re as dramatic as ever, Tania, although I like your lines better when someone else is writing them for you.”

“Am I still dramatic?” Tania asked.  “I’m sorry for it then.  I thought I had grown up a little, at least, since last we saw each other.  You do look older, wiser, more serious.  Less bright.  The light inside you has dimmed a little since Oberlin.  I hope I haven’t hurt you saying these things.”

“Not at all,” Stephen told her.

“The three of us should talk,” Tania said, looking at Stephen and Helen.  “Get to know each other and catch up and not, I hope, discuss old times too much.  There were some happy times, but more it might be better not to dwell on.”  Tania seemed to consider these, then closed her eyes and dismissed them with a shake of her head.  “But if you’ll let me, I’d like to talk in the evening.  I’ve been in the sun enough today, I think, and I try to work every day in my studio in the afternoon.”

“Of course,” Helen told her.  “The day, the beach, the ocean are beautiful.  We are happy here.”

Tania nodded her head eagerly in agreement.  “The beauty of Nature is a blessing.  And no matter what troubles are bothering my heart, they never bother me when I’m here on a day like this.  I’m glad to see you all!  Come back when you are ready, and we’ll talk and eat this evening.”

Tania smiled at her friends once more, then walked away toward her house.

“Well, she’s a hoot,” Helen said once Tania was out of earshot, “but nicer than Stephen led me to think.  Wonderfully warm and welcoming.”

“Yes,” Stephen agreed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had so much female flesh pressed against me at one time.”

“I told you she had changed,” Mia said to Stephen.  “And much for the better.”

“Yes,” Stephen agreed again.  “She does seem happier, and I’m glad for it. I didn’t think I would see the day when Tania was thoughtful, however.  Unfair of me, I guess.”

“No,” Mia told him.  “It would have been unfair only if you still judged her on the way she used to be.”

“Let’s have a snack,” Helen suggested.  The four friends made a meal of the food they had, then sat reading and resting.  Afterwards, they took a walk down the beach.  Helen and Stephen swam after they returned to the umbrellas, while Mia and Lyle simply walked in and out of the water to cool off.  Once Helen and Steven were dry, Helen put her long shirt and hat back on, and announced she was returning to the house.

“I’m sure I’ve had enough sun for one day,” she said.  “I suppose I’ll walk.  I don’t think all three of you will fit in one canoe with the chairs and umbrellas.”

Mia leaned over the armrest of her chair to poke Lyle, who was lying face up in the sun.  The spot she chose blushed faintly and she poked him again.  “Why don’t you go with Helen, Lyle,” she told him.   “You’ve had enough sun for today, too, and it will save Helen a long hot trip.”

Lyle sat up, considered this suggestion, then shrugged in agreement.  “Well, I suppose you’re right.  I could ride my bike, too, get some more exercise.  I’ll take the chairs and one umbrella, Hel, if you’ll carry my bag.”

“Sure.  Are you going to put your pants on now?”

“Nah, the neighbors don’t care.”

“Right,” Helen said.  She braced herself on the arms of Stephen’s chair and gave him a long kiss.  “You’ll behave down here without me, won’t you?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“All right, big boy, let’s go,” she told Lyle.  They gathered their possessions and left.   Stephen decided Helen and Mia’s advice about the sun was sensible, so he put his t-shirt and cap back on.  He read his book and after a time, stopped to drink from one of the water bottles.

“Alone at last,” Mia commented.

“Yes,” Stephen agreed, nodding but not looking up from his book.

Mia gazed out at the ocean and absent-mindedly scratched her shoulder.  The sun was hotter, and a fine sheen of sweat coated her body.  “So, did you and Lyle have a good chat?”

“Yes, pretty good,” Stephen said.

“What did you talk about?”

“Nothing really,” Stephen replied.  “How to throw a football.”

“You men!” Mia laughed.  “That’s not a talk.  You’re both impossible.”

“I’m sure we’ll get to it, Mia.  There’s time.  We’ll take some beers to the beach one night, and a list of topics you can write up for us, and we’ll go through the whole thing.”

“Helen and I talked for a while, Mia said.

“Mmm.”  Stephen had returned to his book.

“From chatting with her, I wouldn’t know you two have been … well, having problems I guess.  Helen didn’t mention it, certainly.”  Stephen stopped reading and raised his head, but didn’t look at Mia.  The waves were barely running up the sand. A retired couple walked by, wearing matching sun hats.

“I didn’t know you knew,” he said.

“Lyle told me,” Mia replied.

“Oh.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“Mia …” Stephen began tersely.  He sighed.  “Do we need to talk about this?”

“We’re very old friends.”

“I know.”  Stephen looked at Mia when he said this.  He kept his eyes steadily on her eyes, but Mia’s breasts were in the same view and unavoidable.  Stephen held her gaze for a while, to make his point.  He looked away.

“You seem sadder than usual,” Mia said.

Stephen laughed.  “I’m not sad!”

“You’re always sad, Stephen, that’s your great secret.  Lyle doesn’t see it.  Helen doesn’t see it.  But I do.  It’s there.”

“You think I’m sad.  Tania thinks I’m uncertain,” Stephen remarked.  “I’ve become quite an object of study to the subsidiary women in my life, it seems.”

“One of the ways you keep it secret – even from yourself – is to make jokes like that.”

“I’m not sad, Mia,” Stephen said.

“No?”

“No.  I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life, spending it selling diamonds and sports cars and coffee that costs fifty dollars a pound, particularly since one day, looking out the window of my office, I saw twenty-five hundred people die in Lower Manhattan; but just because I have doubts about my job doesn’t mean I’m suffering through a major crisis or depression.”

“And this woman-friend of yours?”

“Was just that, a friend,” Stephen told her evenly.

“I had thought, from what Lyle told me about your conversations, that it was a bit more complicated.”

Stephen considered this for a moment, then put down his book.  There was no way to dismiss the subject without hurting Mia’s feelings, and Stephen wasn’t willing to hurt them.  “Yes, I suppose it was a bit more complicated, but it wasn’t what you think.”

“How does Helen feel about her?”

“Helen doesn’t know about her, exactly.”

“Exactly,” Mia repeated, blinking.  “What does ‘exactly’ mean?”

“It means that I found it easier to say I was working late because of my new job and Helen found it easier to believe me.”

“Do you think that was really a good idea?”

“I think it was a lousy idea, Mia,” Stephen replied, “but that’s how it is.  Try to discuss certain topics with Helen and she bolts like a rabbit.  So I ended up talking about them to a woman who wasn’t Helen, and lying to Helen about what I was doing, and creating two more problems I couldn’t discuss with my wife in the process.”

“But you didn’t sleep with this friend,” Mia said.

“No, I did not,” Stephen agreed.  “But I thought about sleeping with her after a while, however, which is just as bad.”

“And what could be more like you!” Mia laughed.

“How so?” Stephen asked sharply.

“Because you are always so serious when it comes to sex,” Mia said.  “More than most people.”

“No more than most people.”

“Yes, more than most!” Mia told him laughing.  “I know you, remember.  Since you were nineteen.  Sex is always a serious business to Stephen Demetrius.  All bound up with trust and integrity and loyalty.”  Mia pronounced these last two sentences in a solemn tone, with a pretend frown on her face.  “That’s why you stopped fooling around with me here, all those summers ago.  Remember?”

“You mock me, madam,” Stephen said.  They hadn’t discussed this subject in a long time and Stephen didn’t want to discuss it now.

“No, I don’t.  I love you,” Mia said, with her crinkled-eyed smile.  “I don’t mock anyone I love.”

“And it was right to stop,” Stephen continued.  “That was after you started seeing Lyle.”

“Just after.  No more than a few months.”

“No matter.”

“We were young and we were here.  It was no great fault.  Lyle and I were just having fun.  We didn’t know if we were serious or not.  I’m sure he wouldn’t care now.”

Stephen stared hard at the sea.  “I think you underestimate, Mia, how men feel about their women even for all the free talking they may do otherwise.”

“Grump, grump, grump,” Mia said.  “In any case, I’ve kept your little secret.  Lyle doesn’t know.  Neither does Helen.”

“Secrets kept for so long are no longer little, regardless of their original size, Mia,” Stephen told her with a sigh.  “It’s the keeping that ends up making them important.  I owed Lyle better.”

“You never, before, during, or since, have done anything Lyle could blame you for.”

“That doesn’t get me off the hook, exactly, does it?”

“Yes, I know,” Mia agreed.  “I know that’s how you think.  You wouldn’t be you, and I wouldn’t love you half as much, if you felt otherwise.  But I’m not sorry and I don’t feel guilty and I don’t think you are caught on any hook because of it.  And I don’t think you’ve done much wrong now to Helen, either.  You’re the only man I know who can feel guilty about not cheating on his wife. You have to be more gentle with yourself, Stephen.  Everyone except you knows you deserve it.”

Stephen didn’t say anything.  It was no use telling Stephen to be less hard on himself.  He knew it.  But there was this assassin voice, lurking in the back of his head, waiting to strike, and Stephen had never been able to silence it.  Perhaps he never would.

Stephen didn’t want to talk about himself any more, and they had drifted far enough from Mia’s original question that Stephen thought he could change the subject without seeming to do so.

“And sex is serious business, or serious enough, anyway, Mia.  It’s not like other pleasures.  You know, I don’t understand the ‘arrangement’ you and Lyle have.  He’s explained it, of course, but it’s all still very dim.”

“What’s to understand?  Or do you mean, you don’t approve.”  Mia smiled at Stephen when she said this.  She was neither offended nor defensive.

“No, I don’t think it’s wrong,” Stephen said.  “As long as you’re not hurting each other or someone else.  It just seems to me … complicated.”

“It’s about trust and honesty,” Mia told Stephen.  “Just like your sex is.  We choose our other partners thoughtfully.  They’re people we know and care about.  We each have an absolute veto, too.  It’s not promiscuous.  For a while, we were involved with Peter and Blossom, the couple from Boston you’ll meet.  And they, us.  But that doesn’t seem quite right anymore, somehow, even though we’re still friends.”

Stephen shook his head, not in judgment, but wonder.  “All strange to me.”

“Why strange?” Mia asked brightly.  “When you married, you didn’t give up other friends and family.  You didn’t expect Helen to satisfy all your needs for friendship and love – and she didn’t expect you to satisfy all her needs.  She still talks to her sisters on the phone.  You haven’t stopped going to Yankee games just because Helen is bored by baseball and goes shopping instead.  We don’t say we can have only one music, one food, one book, one home, one job for our whole lives.  Why do we demand, then, that one person satisfy all our sexual needs?”

“I don’t know,” Stephen admitted.  “Those things don’t seem as intimate, as personal to me.  I can’t explain it other than in old moral terms, which isn’t a justification but, a decree I guess.  I do know in my gut it’s the right thing, for me.”  Stephen’s scalp had grown damp with sweat under his ball cap, which he removed to scratch vigorously with the tips of his fingers.

“I think I should tell you now,” Mia said, frowning with hesitation for a moment, “that when I said we were involved with Peter and Blossom, I meant both Peter and Blossom.”

Stephen cocked his head, trying to understand what the difference in emphasis signified.  “You mean,” he began.  Stephen held up four fingers, which he crossed in various combinations.   Mia nodded.  “Oh,” Stephen said.

“You’re shocked.”

“Well, I didn’t know, rather,” Stephen said.  “I don’t think such things are shocking.  I have just thought of you and Lyle the whole time as, well, straight.  And adjusting that idea now is causing me trouble, I admit.  More with Lyle.”

“If it helps, Lyle and Peter have tried sleeping together just once.  They were very drunk and gave up after two minutes, entirely unsuccessful.  They wanted to rid themselves of the prejudice, the rotten old patrician taboo, so they said, but couldn’t.”

“That’s a relief,” Stephen said.

“And that prejudice runs deep, you see,” Mia said.  “You old bigot.”

“I’ll try to reform myself.  Every time I think I’ve drawn even with modern thought, somebody moves the mark on me.”  Stephen dropped his book into the bag and stood up.  “After all that news, and the sun, I think I need another swim.”

“I’ll join you.”  Mia stood up and stripped off her bikini bottom.  Stephen turned his head and saw that Mia’s pubic hair was shaved in a neat triangle of glossy black curls before he jerked his face away.  “Oh, I’m sorry!” Mia said.  “I forgot that would embarrass you more.  It just feels funny to me to swim with it.  It would be like you going into the ocean in slacks and a dress shirt.”

“I’ll be okay.”  Stephen tossed his shirt on the beach chair and started down the sand.  “Come along.”

Mia walked by his side.  “You going to leave those on?” she asked, referring to his swim trunks.

“Today I am.”

“It’s a shame.  The water feels better without them.”

Stephen didn’t answer.  She reached out and squeezed his hand, then let it go.  “Why does my body bother you?”

“Can’t you guess?” Stephen asked.

“Stephen,” Mia said, “you know me better than anyone else on this beach.  You know my thoughts and feelings as well as any other friend I have, as well as Lyle.  Maybe better because you listen better.  So why should seeing my body matter?”

“Because knowing your thoughts and feelings doesn’t make me want to sleep with you, Mia,” Stephen said with sudden exasperation.  “Helen and I don’t have the same arrangement you and Lyle have.  This is a dangerous game, at a bad time, you’re playing with me, Mia.  I wish you wouldn’t.”

“It’s not a game,” Mia told him quietly.  “I don’t want to hurt you or Helen.  But
I want to be honest.  I want to be who I am and be seen as that person, without apologizing or being afraid.  I don’t want to pretend I care for you less than I do because it might make something simpler.  And I’m not going to be afraid of our sexual instincts.  I’m not going to act as if we don’t have an attraction, but just because I acknowledge it doesn’t mean I’m going to seduce you.  We can talk to each other honestly, and understand each other.  We’ve always been able to do that.  Isn’t not being able to talk the problem you and Helen have?”

“Seems like it,” Stephen said.

“Then let’s not make it a problem you and I have, too.”

Stephen stopped, but Mia kept walking down the beach.  She turned to look at Stephen, and Stephen looked back, letting Mia see that he was studying her body.  Her breasts and hips were fuller, Lyle was right, she wasn’t skinny any more.  Her hair was long, wavy, and dark – as it had been in college – and her olive complexion didn’t burn as easily as Lyle’s pale skin.  Stephen looked at her face.  There he found her chocolate brown eyes, the elegant hump of her nose, her prominent chin, all as he remembered them, but her expression was different.  It was bolder and more open than it had been at school.  Mia’s face seemed to say that she was satisfied with the attention Stephen was paying her, and deserved to be seen as beautiful.  He understood that.  But Stephen couldn’t be the one to give her that attention.  He’d made his promises to Helen and he meant to keep them, regardless of what his heart cried after one day or the next.  The heart was an unreliable organ, a boat without a rudder, blown in any direction, or as often floundering in crosswinds and complicated seas.  Stephen didn’t trust his.  He certainly wasn’t going to listen to it.

“Come swimming with me, Stephen.”

“No, I think I’ll go back to the house.  I’ll take the umbrella and leave you the canoe.”

***

Stephen regretted not getting a chance to swim again before returning to Tania’s house.  He was hot even before he left the beach, and by the time he had carried the umbrella and his possessions back over the dunes and along the sandy trail, he was drenched in sweat and thirsty.  Stephen lay his burdens on the deck, got a long drink of water from the kitchen, then walked straight to the outdoor shower behind the house.  He took off his trunks and lay them across the waist-high wooden wall, and soaked himself thoroughly in the cold strong spray before adding warm water to the mix.  Stephen used the soap and shampoo he found on the shower’s long bench, dried himself with one of the towels stacked there, and returned to his room.  Helen was lying on the bed under the sheet.  She opened her eyes when Stephen walked in.

“Did I wake you?” he asked.

“No, I was just enjoying doing nothing.  Come join me.”  Helen turned down the sheet.  She was wearing black underwear with a matching bra.  Stephen dropped his towel on the floor and lay down.  They faced each other, with their heads propped on one hand.

“Will you enjoy yourself here?” Stephen asked Helen.

“Yes.  I already am,” she told him with a smile.  “It’s a beautiful spot.  I’m glad to see Lyle and Mia, and I think I’m going to like Tania, too.  I wish she weren’t so big breasted, though.”

“Why’s that?”

“Too much competition.”

“Yours are perfect, just right.”  Stephen leaned down to kiss her sternum.

“Tania’s gone to town, anyhow, to attend to some business at a gallery.  She asked if you would help with the grill for dinner, and I said of course you would.  You are the fire master, after all.  Lyle’s taken his bicycle for a ride.”

Helen reached down and took Stephen’s penis in her hand.  “Did you have fun with Mia?”

“Sure,” Stephen said, trying to sound off-hand.  “I read my book.  We chatted.  Mia went for a swim when I decided to come back here.”

“She looks great, doesn’t she?” Helen asked Stephen.  He looked carefully at Helen’s face, trying to decide if her question was a proxy for another she wanted to ask him or perhaps some kind of test or tease.  He saw nothing.  It was just conversation.

“Yes.”

“She’s filled out, blossomed.”

“So you aren’t afraid of competition from Mia’s new breasts then?” Stephen asked.

“Mia is an old friend and perfectly safe!” Helen laughed.  “She’s always been sweet, of course, and I mean that as the highest compliment.  But there used to be something shy about her, tentative – as if she were apologizing for, I’m not sure what – and it’s not there now.  That’s what I meant by blossomed, by the way, you bonehead. I think it’s great.”

“I think I see what you mean, now that you point it out,” Stephen said.  His answer was evasive and distracted because his penis was rapidly stiffening in Helen’s hand.

“What’s this?” she asked, peering down.  “Didn’t you have enough this morning?”

“No,” Stephen said.

“Who was it that set you on?  Your stacked Tania?”

“That round, wrinkled old lady in the white canvas hat.”

“I don’t think so!”

“Just you, Helen,” Stephen told her, wanting the words to be true, wanting to make them true again, and make them true for good.  “Just you.”

“Well, that’s good, because we are one flesh, remember?  That’s what my father said when he married us, and he knows what he’s talking about most of the time.”

Stephen and Helen made love again.  Afterwards, they lay together.  Stephen dozed off and Helen held his body, listening to him breathe, and tingling with relief and happiness.  “He loves me, he loves me, he loves me,” Helen whispered, “and all is well again.”

It was only now, when it was obvious that she had been wrong, that Helen could admit to herself she had been worried.  She held Stephen more tightly, smiling, and then let him fall gently away.  Helen raised herself on one elbow to look at her husband.  “I thought you were falling out of love with me,” Helen told his sleeping face.  “You acted awkward and uncomfortable when you were around me.  You worked late.  You stopped making love to me,” she whispered, dipping close to smell his skin, “although you let me make love to you.  I was scared you would tell me I was right, so I stopped you from talking.  I know I was a coward to do this, but I couldn’t help myself.  But I know now you’ve forgiven me.  And I’ll love you harder to make it up.”

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The Great Gatsby, classic cover designJulie Bosman published an interesting article on the front page of the The New York Times yesterday about competing cover designs for two paperback editions of The Great Gatsby. (The article is here.)  The first is a re-issue of the classic Gatsby cover familiar to readers old enough to have read Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in high school or college. The second is the tie-in edition for the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by that genius of brilliant excess — or hawker of wretched excess, take your pick — Baz Luhrmann.

Much of the article describes the different markets at which the two cover designs are targeted, and different sales strategies behind each. Readers already familiar with the novel are likely to choose the classic design, while readers just discovering the book are more likely to be attracted by the movie version.

Behind one of these strategies, however, are certain attitudes toward literature which I find — well, let me be gentle in my expressions here — contemptible. Allow me to explain:

How does the cover design of The Great Gatsby change the novel? (Hint: It doesn’t.)

The Great Gatsby, movie designAssuming that texts in today’s competing versions of The Great Gatsby are identical, how do the differing cover designs affect the experience of reading the novel?

The answer is they don’t. Just like reading Gatsby on a tablet rather than on paper doesn’t change the experience, as long as you think what is essential about a novel is reading the text. Is engaging the words on the page. Is entering into a conversation with the author as you read the book.

Now, the cover design can influence your expectations of a novel you haven’t read. And if those expectations are different than your reading experience, you may come to a different conclusion about the book than you might have otherwise. But all sorts of things influence our expectations of a book. Its status in the canon. The opinions of reviewers and friends. Advertising. Our mood and experiences. Our age.

But once you’ve read a book, how does anything other than having read it affect your expectations on re-reading it? Especially a novel like The Great Gatsby, which a lot of people have read. Or put another way…

If the cover design of The Great Gatsby doesn’t matter, why does anyone care?

Because people do care. Or at least we know for certain that one SoHo bookseller quoted in the article cares, because he says so. “It’s just God-awful,” he says, referring to the movie tie-in version. (I agree, by the way. It is pretty bad.)

But it doesn’t sound like this bookseller objects to the fact the cover design is ugly. Allow me to quote the article.

As to whether the new, DiCaprio-ed edition of “Gatsby” would be socially acceptable to carry around in public, [I’ve withheld  the name, you can find it in the article] offered a firm no. “I think it would bring shame,” he said, “to anyone trying to read that book on the subway.”

Shame. Really. Why?  Is it because the important thing about The Great Gatsby is not reading The Great Gatsby but being seen reading The Great Gatsbyespecially being seen reading an edition of The Great Gatsby which signifies that you aren’t some hick coming late to the art party?

I realize I’m speculating aggressively here, with a certain amount of snark, but it’s hard to think what else our bookseller friend might have meant.

Also, while I’m at it, why the hell would you care what strangers in a city of 8.3 million people think of you? Are you likely to ever see them again? What’s the point of trying to impress people you don’t know?

Also, while I’m at it, shouldn’t we be happy if a person decides to read The Great Gatsby because the movie-cover persuaded him to pick it up? Shouldn’t we hope more people will read the books we like? I would think the answer to these questions is “yes”.

Unless of course the point of great novels is not to read them or share them, but to use these books to create an exclusive club that allows us to feel special and look down on everyone else.

Allow me to be blunt. If I haven’t been already. People who use art to bolster their social status or personal vanity are philistines. They don’t care about art. For them, it’s just another accessory to flash, like a fancy watch or a cocktail  made with a certain brand of liquor.

And people who use art to exclude or denigrate others are the mortal enemies of art; enemies because the purpose of art is to connect and communicate, to inspire and delight, to comfort and challenge, to upset and exhaust, but always to leave us with a deeper experience of the life and consciousness and creation we share.

There is no connecting in an exclusive club, just arrogance and self-congratulation and rigid insularity and pettiness. These are pretty contemptible qualities.

I think I’ll pass on the opportunity to join and go get the new ugly Gatsby instead. I hear it’s available at Walmart.

Somewhat Related Content

Here’s a post on the aura of art that got started by a discussion in the comment section below.

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