No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2010/03: A Home at the End of the World -- Michael Cunningham

I got distracted by the pale darkness, the refrigerator's hum and the jars of spices meant to cure headaches, insomnia, and bad luck. I might have been a body buried in a brick wall, eavesdropping on the simple business of the living. It came to me that death itself could be a more distant form of participation in the continuing history of the world. Death could be like this, a simultaneous presence and absence while your friends continued to chat among the lamps and furniture about someone who was no longer you ... I was living my own future and my brother's lost one as well. I represented him here just as he represented me there, in some unguessable other place. (p. 152)

Jonathan grows up an only child, close to his mother, amusing her and himself with the stories he invents; sometimes he's unable to remember with hindsight whether something truly happened or was a tale he told. Bobby grows up in the shadow of his adored elder brother, like a character in Carlton's stories: when Carlton dies, Bobby finds himself adrift, unscripted.

Sooner or later Jonathan and Bobby meet -- Jonathan's the new kid on the block, Bobby's the bad boy of the school -- and start to tell one another the stories they need. (And listen to Jimi Hendrix, and smoke dope, and get experimental.) Jonathan's mother, Alice, alienated by her much older husband, hangs out with the boys. Bobby (whose mother is dead) treats her respectfully, and she can pretend to herself she's still close to, loved by, her son. Jonathan and I had always been good friends despite our blood bond. I decided that accepting Bobby's little gifts of music and dance would do no harm. I had been a bit wild myself, at Jonathan's age, not so very long ago. (p.81)

Things fall apart. Jonathan leaves for university, and Bobby moves into the space he left, literally and figuratively: and Alice realises that he's become boring, and that she wishes he'd leave.

Part Two of the novel opens some years later, in New York, where Jonathan's sharing an apartment in a bad part of town ("I considered this neighbourhood a source of anecdotes" (p. 109)) with bohemian sparkling Clare, who's somewhat older than he is. They've lived together for three years, and she's never met his lover Erich: Jonathan compartmentalises very effectively. He and Clare are the best of friends, in love in every sense save the erotic. Then Bobby moves in ...

Bobby of Clare: "Her effect on me resembled the effect of music. I had a hard time conversing in the face of her." (p. 138)
Jonathan of Clare: "Like many of us, she had grown up expecting romance to bestow dignity and direction." (p. 255)
Clare of herself: "An undecided, disorganised woman who fell out of every conventional arrangement. Who dragged her own childhood along with her into her forties." (p. 274)

This is a complex and layered novel, full of echoes and resonances -- seldom remarked by those who act them out -- stories and make-believe. There are stories the characters tell themselves and stories they tell one another, and stories that never quite take shape.

It's a couple of weeks since I read it and the memory of their story -- Jonathan's, Bobby's, Clare's, plus Alice's and Erich's -- is still shaping itself. A Home at the End of the World is ... it's not a happy story (though there are moments of surpassing joy within) but it has weight, rigour and honesty. Each of the characters is true to themself; each a broken person who's remade themself; each capable of love and cruelty, of simple emotional blindness, of self-deception. "We become the stories we tell about ourselves," says Jonathan.

I don't like the ending, but it is right and it works. Everybody gets what they want, or think they want: cities, siblings, freedom, home. And I love the prose, especially Bobby and Alice's narratives.

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