Sunday, November 8, 2020

A Single Man

 I'm not the world's fastest reader, but at my pace I've noticed I find a new favorite novel at least once a year. I don't necessarily mean all-time favorite. I just mean a book I'd add to my suitcase before I got dumped off on the ol' desert island.

(Why wouldn't I pack food? Why not a spear gun? Let's amend this to say "my book suitcase," and just assume I have other, separate suitcases for other important things like hunting dogs or a helicopter.)

I won't get into all the nightmare bullshit that was 2020. Between the pandemic and my father's dementia and death, along with everything else, I couldn't even begin. But I will say it was a good year for reading. To me, that's no small thing.

This year I read and loved Leigh Stein's novel Self Care. I adored Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Either one might, some other time, have edged its way into my suitcase. But the outstanding winner by a long, long ways was Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man

My first (intentional) Isherwood was Prater Violet. I bought it specifically because it was slim, and because I'm always on the lookout for slim fiction. I don't know exactly how the publishing industry works, but doesn't it seem like a lot of books are too long by a third? Too many to be a coincidence. Somewhere there has to pressure for longer books from either publishers or readers, but it seems to bloat a lot of literature.

(The one exception to this, weirdly, is genre fiction. Somehow all those fantasies clocking in at 700 pages never seem to overstay their welcome. A smarter critic than me could probably point to why. I suspect it boils down to the story. Regardless, when I'm in the mood for a doorstop, it's horror and fantasy and science fiction I go looking for.)

So: Prater Violet. I loved the set up, and I was deeply moved by the end. But the middle was kind of just ... meh. Still, it was enough to keep me interested in Isherwood.

Some writers are jellyfish that way. You're floating along in their prose and suddenly something stings you. You may not even know exactly what it is, just that it got your attention. Isherwood was like that for me. I didn't love Prater Violet, but whatever part of it connected, it got good and under my skin.

I read The Berlin Stories next. Again, mixed feelings: I enjoyed Mr. Norris Changes Trains. I was lukewarm on Goodbye to Berlin.

What was it, then, about A Single Man that made it resonate so much more deeply? And why did I read it now instead of leaving it on my shelf to languish with all the other impulse buys? I don't know if I could answer the latter. All I know is that it turned out to be exactly the right book at exactly the right time. During the height of the pandemic, when my entire world seemed to shrink to the size of my living room, here was this lovely, introspective narrative of a single day in the life of George Falconer, a man still deeply in grief while the world expects him to perform all the mundanities of life unchanged.

I said above that Prater Violet was my first intentional Isherwood. That's because I didn't realize, until much later, that Isherwood also translated a very popular edition of the Bhagavad Gita, the same one that I read in college. This comes back around at the end of A Single Man, which closes on a beautiful description of the ebb and flow of tide pools as a metaphor for the mystery of consciousness itself; the drop of water that returns to the ocean.

It is a novel by a writer at the height of his powers, written with a lifetime of experience, deep thought, and close attention. And it was a reminder, during a year when the walls seemed to close in, that a lifetime isn't measured by how many days it is long. It's measured by how deeply we look.


People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...