I haven’t touched the guitar in a couple weeks, but wanted to play today, and thought I’d share this awful improvisation to show my appreciation for all those yesterdays. As fucked up as they were sometimes, I wouldn’t be who I am today without all those yesterdays. And of course, all those yesterdays start adding up and before you know it, you’ve made another trip around the sun. Congratulations! I hope you enjoyed the ride. You’ve got time. You’ve got time to escape. There’s still time! It’s no crime to escape! It’s no crime to escape! There’s still time so escape!
By Nicole Krauss
From the back cover: “A heartbreaking meditation on loss and memory and how they construct our lives.”
I’m full of loss and memory. When my parents divorced my dad went to live with his friend Bruce, sleeping on a futon in the basement. Bruce was a very eccentric hippy who had inherited a fortune and a very great house that was filled with exquisitely cool furniture and decoration and details that defy explanation. One room was full of the most 1970s style furniture and asthetic, with shag rugs and bright colors; another was furnished with dark, rich mahogony wood antiques, with mother-of-pearl inlay and 1920s Art Deco style details; there was an enormous pool table in a room with red velvet wall coverings; the living room had a skylight full of ferns hanging over a slate stone coffee table surrounded by low sitting white leather couches that made the room feel like a garden. More: the t.v. was one of those huge consoles from the early days of home entertainment, over two meters long and one meter wide that included a stereo and record player and boasted of “hi-fi” sound; a hot tub, of course; an iron stove in the kitchen and the first microwave I had ever seen; a spiral staircase that led to a second floor sunroom with wicker furniture and three massive fish tanks. I visited Graceland, Elvis’ famously eccentric house, and seriously, Bruce’s was wilder and better in so many ways. Bruce also owned a 1950s Studebaker AND a DeLorean before the DeLorean became famous in Back to the Future, but he drove a Harley Davidson (Don’t ever try to outrun a State Trooper, he told me, with a swollen nose and two black eyes. It only ends bad.) And a customized brown van with carpeting, swivel seats and a stained glass window. The distinguishing feature of this great house, you see, was the stained glasswork. Everywhere. Bruce and my dad were professional stained glass… well, “artists” seems like a stretch, but certainly artesans. They were constantly designing and making and selling lamps, windows, window hangings, mirrors, garden accessories, candle lanterns, etc., etc. The house was completely full of their work. The basement was a workshop, and the whole great house was a studio. One particular piece stands out in my memory. On the back porch, where the hot tub (which Bruce also built himself out of wood), one entire wall was removed and replaced with a stained glass wall with an intricate Chinese dragon design that also served as a sliding door opening into the garden. The detail is so vivid in my mind’s eye. Speaking of the garden, the last time I saw Bruce, in 2008, he invited my sister and I over to see the giant glass and stained glass pyramid, with copper pipe framing, that he had constructed in, or, better, over his back yard. It was a small, (small being about 10 meters in length and width at the base and maybe just as high) scale replica of the famous I.M. Pei pyramid outside la Louvre. The top half of the pyramid was beautiful stained glass windows, but it was open below. It was incredible. My lasting memory of Bruce is him standing in the center of the pyramid that day and showing off his expert nunchuck skills. Nunchucks!
My father got his own place eventually, but continued making lamps and windows, but then remarried and that part of his life slowly faded away. I have three pieces of my dad’s here with me in Spain. The most precious is this lamp that he gave us for our wedding present.
This is the only piece of furniture I have any concern for or connection with. My father made it. It’s a beautiful gift and it reminds me of Bruce’s great house. My children understand that if one of them breaks it, let’s say with a thrown pillow or stray football, they will be immediately escorted out of the home and not allowed to return until further notice. If our home caught on fire, it’d be the only thing, besides photos, that I’d really be upset to have lost. I might be sad about my childhood Teddy as well, but that’s a different sentiment.
All of this gets us to the book, Great House, and the desk at the center of the story. The connection that different characters develop with the desk, and the way the desk connects the characters is what got me thinking about my father’s lamp and the history behind it. I have a photo somewhere of my son as a baby, with his head on my shoulder, staring at the soft light of the lamp. The photo would just be another photo if the lamp was from Ikea. But this photo is my new son connecting with the spirit of my father, through a lamp. The story behind lamp, the sentiment and emotion it imbues … Wait… How can an inanimate object like a lamp or a desk imbue sentiment or emotion? Exactly. But they do. Memory, nostalgia, sentiment. Animism is the belief that all things, even inanimate, contain a soul or a spirit. I hold on to sea shells and pens, dried flowers or bird feathers, teddy bears or tea cups, because I’m somehow connected to the spirit inside these objects, the memories and lessons they inspire.
The desk in Great House inspires a succession of writers, and much of the book details the delicate and deceiving dance of the writer’s muse. The author describes the deepest turmoils and turbulations of the characters most affected by the decades long voyage of the desk through Nazi occupied Budapest to London and New York. Its owners and their friends and family discover their connection to the desk is far more meaningful than they understood. The inner lives of these characters are deeply explored, and it seems the author believes that we are all, in our deepest places, speaking to ourselves with the same voice. The voice, tone, cadence, motivation, ideas and emotions of an elderly Jewish man are virtually the same as a middle aged American woman from the Midwest. This is my one quip with the writer. Whereas The Slap was very adept at creating and showing different characters and perspectives, most of the characters here seem to feel the same inside. That is, their internal thoughts, (there is almost no dialogue in the story… it’s all happening in retrospect) all not only sound the same as written, but are not distinguishable from the character in the previous chapter. Not everyone can experience memories and loss, and loss of memories, the same. Right? And if they do, at least each of us would use our own way to describe it. In this book, each character’s way is the author’s way.
It is, however, beautifully expressed: “… I thought of my childhood, of my mother and father who are both dead now, but whose child I cannot escape being any more than I can escape the nauseatingly familiar dimensions of my mind. Now I am fifty, Your Honor. I know that nothing will change for me. That soon, maybe not tomorrow or next week, but soon enough the walls around me and the roof above me will rise again, exactly as they were before, and the answer to the question that brought them down will be stuffed into a drawer and locked away. That I will go on again as I always have, with or without the desk. Do you understand, Your Honor? Can you see that it is too late for me? What else would I become? Who would I be? “
Despite my criticism about the author not making the character’s inner thoughts more distinctive in voice and person, it’s probably true that most people who have felt like this and have had “a heartbreaking meditation on loss and memory and how they construct our lives,” would express it in fairly the same way. I know I have, and I know I do.
The tides of time, truth and lies. Deep sea discoveries. Hand in hand. The rising and falling shoreline. Castles turn to sand. The currents. The drifting. Uplifting. Twisting and turning, tangled up in clear blue skies, waves, tides and currents. Deep blue pools. Sun, salt, summer, sky, sea, swim, shore, sand, seismic shift sent tsunami waves, but not before deep sea discoveries of oceans inside, oceans in disguise.
Ghosts in photos, empty holes where hearts and souls shared sacred secrets, deepest desires, shedding skin to show true selves, hopes and fears, to discover and connect with each other in waves of conversation and excitement and champagne sandwiches and dances and coincidences before consequences and scars. Hurricanes and cyclones came. Crashing waves all around, lightning bolts reaching ground, currents circling down, but these sacred places, like an oasis, safe sanctuary, sea of tranquility and clarity where we swam sideways through the shifting, swirling sea and nothing else mattered.
The undertow rips. The crashing tsunami hurricane cyclone waves coming back. Coming back hard. Pushing and pulling further out to sea. Swim sideways, dive deeper, search for a helping hand in the maelstrom, seek rescue or respite in the wrong places as the undertow rips, drags you down, tossing and turning, fighting for breath. Endless fights, sleepless nights, the horror of loss and hearts broken. The undertow, waves of consequences for acts and omissions rolling in, overwhelming undercurrents of repurcussions, pushing pulling tides of time, drifting further from shore, deeper down into memories of mistakes made, opportunities for redemption lost, swept away into the ocean of disguises. Here in the undertow, everything changes and thoughts of getting back to before, back to shore, quickly, painfully recede with dreams or fantasies of future days of discovery. The undertow leaves you with nothing.
Awake now. Face down on the wet sand, small stones and broken shells. Somehow alive. Somehow survived the undertow. The sea softly caressing, cool clear water washing mixing with salty tears at the shoreline. Deep breaths, follow the rhythm of the waves as they slip into shore, over the stones and shells, over me. The sound like an echo of souls breaking open, a fading echo of you, me and the sea, like a whispered song of what could never be. Let it echo, that whisper of fantasies, memories and realities, the signs and evidence that the act of love has consequence. Waves have an undertow. Let that echo drift, and fade and sink into the deep.
Stand strong on land, what's left of me. The undertow ripped and stripped the best of me, swept it out to sea and I had to let it go. Had to leave the best of me, to save the rest of me, to form again in the wet sand, a better man.
I recorded this before, as a tribute to my dear friend, BoJack Horseman. But now that I have an electric guitar to play with, I thought I’d give it another go. It’s a beautiful, sad song. Some might say “bittersweet”. Which reminds me of a story. In August of 2018 I was in the U.S.ofFn’A with my family, but even better, in a Walmart, and while my wife shopped for cheap bathing suits with the kids, I wandered around and found myself opening up a bunch of “Back to School” Crayola crayon boxes and pocketing the Bittersweet crayon, because…right…because…, it seemed really important at the time. I see myself from above, like watching from a security camara, surreptiously opening up a box of crayons to take just that one, and can’t help but wonder why I did those things. I once got caught trying to steal two Pearl Jam CD’s from the FNAC on Champs Elysees. A security guy wrestled me into a back office and they took my passport and credit cards and made things VERY uncomfortable, but I KNOW why I was stealing those CD’s. For myself. And I was broke. But stealing a crayon? Or a piece of cake? Or a butterfly bookmark? Or a book? Why did I steal those things? Does it matter? Somewhere in the world there is someone who will lie, cheat and steal for you. Don’t ever forget that.
Bittersweet. I was at this concert in 1995…a very Colorado band in the most Colorado venue…I saw lots of shows at Red Rocks, including Pearl Jam two nights in a row a few weeks after this BHTM show…good times, dude…good times.
Bittersweet memories of bittersweet stealing bittersweet songs bitterweet places and bittersweet crayons.
By Christos Tsiolkas
From the back cover: “At a suburban barbecue one afternoon. A man slaps an unruly boy. It’s a single act of violence. But this event reverberates through the lives of everyone who witnesses it happen.”
The structure of the book is intriguing, and really puts the focus on the “lives of everyone who witnesses it happen.” The book is not so much about that slap as it is about the lives of the people who were there, and the book is structured in eight long chapters that focus on one of the people who were there and how and why this event affects them. The eight chapters go into extensive detail and past histories of the characters from that character’s point of view, and the reader then links certain events together.
It’s a creative way to explore themes and stories that have been told millions of times before: marriage, family, friendships, growing up and getting old. There is also alot of exposition about race and class relations in Australia that I didn’t get very invested in, but is clearly something the author has alot to say about. It was when the stories got into the marriages and infidelity of the characters, especially in the last 100 pages, that I found the book most interesting.
There are four couples: Hector and Aisha, who are hosting the BBQ; Harry, who is Hector’s cousin and the one who slaps the child, and his wife Sandi; Rosie, who is a childhood friend of Aisha, and Gary, and their son Hugo, who is the boy who is slapped; Manolis and Koula, who are Hector’s parents; and Connie and Richie, who are just finishing high school and work with Aisha and babysit Hugo. There are other supporting characters, like Anouk, who is Aisha and Rosie’s friend from childhood, who is not married, but living with a man 20 years younger. If all these character’s are confusing, welcome to chapter 1. It takes a bit to get all the characters straight, and for the first three chapters, I had to keep looking back to be sure who was who, but as the book goes on, and the author’s structure of the story becomes clear, and the characters are so deeply developed, it works. The fact that I can remember these characters almost a week after having finished the book reflects the care and detail the author goes to in creating and describing their lives.
The morality and repurcussions of the slap are not really the focus of the book, though it is the focus of the lives of the people in the book. Instead, the slap, and the ensuing court case about it provide the central hub around which the author tells all the other stories about the lives of the characters. And what lives. In the first five pages we learn that Hector has had an affair with Connie, who is not only just 18, but works with his wife. Harry has two lovers, one that he supports in exchange for sex and drugs and another that works for him in his auto repair business and may be stealing from the company. Towards the end of the book, Aisha goes to a veternarian conference and has a one night stand with Art, who becomes very attached to her, a deeper connection, let’s say. Aisha then goes to meet Hector for a vacation in Bali, where she is wracked by the guilt of it all, only to discover that Hector is in an even worse state of mind. Essentially, he has a nervous breakdown, and the couple work through the ordeal without really resolving it.
As Hector is falling apart, and it’s clear that he wants to confess, saying, “I can’t continue to live like this,” Aisha asks if he wants a divorce, and when he says no, she breathes out, “experiencing a moment of blessed relief; and, for an instant that flashed by so quickly she barely registered it, she also felt a pang of regret. What couldn’t be, what you didn’t ever want to be, but in which you could not also help wondering what could have been.” She then goes out to get some food for their dinner and hears an American voice, and “gave herself over to fantasising. She was with Art, she had come to Montreal. He fell into her arms. He would divorce his wife and she would divorce Hector. She would learn French, they would have long weekends in New York City. Then she thought of her children and brushed the sweet, impossible fantasy aside. She picked up her order and walked back to the hotel.”
They talk for hours about their marriage, their children, the slap…and then Hector “confesses” that he was unfaithful with a 19 year old university student, and that they never had sex. This is a lie. He was fucking 18 year old Connie! Connie fell madly in love with him and her life is falling apart because he told her he couldn’t continue! Some of the things Hector confesses are true. He has been waking up at 3:17 every morning, start to shake and cry, “convinced that he was going to die – the beat of his heart seemed so tenuous, so irregular, his breath short, strained.” He starts to cry, “I’m scared, Aish, he shuddered, I’m so fucking scared.” He fucking should be. Aisha then confesses her affair with Art. “Not the truth, only the things that mattered.” And they decide that they don’t want to divorce, they want to fix what is wrong in their marriage, and, most of all, to stay together for the Children. Good luck!
The next day, though, Aisha is still processing her feelings. She is very disturbed by the age of Hector’s lover, (Again, he is not telling the truth…he is not even telling her what matters…it was Connie!) And as it’s clear that Hector is not fully forgiven, as Aisha really starts to question him now about his affair and the hows and whys and whens, Hector is still holding the unspeakable truth inside, and still breaking down in tears in the restaurant and still waking up at 3:17. He hasn’t come completely clean. But it doesn’t matter…Aisha is going to forgive him. She has to. “I will concede nothing else, she promised herself. Again she experienced a wave of weariness, a numbing heaviness to her neck and shoulders, to her very bones. This, finally, was love. This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individulas to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together. In this way, in love, she could secure a familiar happiness. She had to forego the risk of an unknown, most likely impossible, most probably unobtainable, alternative happiness. She coudn’t take the risk. She was too tired. And anyway, she scolded herself, the children…”
Once back home in Melbourne, Aisha just doesn’t feel the same. She tries, but things have changed. Aisha is the central character in the novel and the person most put in the middle of the moral morass of the slap. It happened in her house, she is part of Hector and Harry’s family, but she is also best friends with Rosie and truly believes the slap was wrong. But at the end of her chapter, she no longer is in the middle. She chooses a side and it leads to a stirring ending. Along with Hectors incomplete confession, this chapter sets up the dramatic ending of the story, and was obviously, for me, the most important chapter, dealing with quite relevant themes. At the end of the chapter, Aisha receives an email from Art, “I haven’t been able to forget you. Do you feel the same?”
For as much as I’ve written here, I’ve not even scratched the surface of everything that happens in the book, and I haven’t given anything away. It is an engrossing story, a bit rocky at first, but I couldn’t put it down at the end. As the past, present and future all come together for the characters, creeping up unseen for some of them, all too familiar and clear for others, I found myself relating to all of them…male, female, young, old, rich, poor, sober, addict, slapper, non-slapper. The author has made each character and their lives and views of the world distinct, detailed, understandable and relatable. Who they are, and why they do the things they do…somehow, makes sense. I wish someone would write a book like this about me so I might understand my own life a bit better.