Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The Post-Birthday World

I'm between books right now.

While that might not sound like a noteworthy event, it is an unusual occurrence for me. Usually I have two or three books on the go at any given time, not to mention various books-in-waiting.

Last week, post-Moonwalk and more than a little weary, I was wallowing in Lionel Shriver's latest: The Post-Birthday World. I finished it in the wee hours of Saturday night, even though we had returned home late from a 50th birthday party. Three days -- and I still haven't started a new book! Perhaps it is my way of paying homage, but I feel almost reluctant to begin another (probably less satisfying) reading experience

For the first time in a while, I experienced that incomparable pleasure of being totally sucked in to a fictional world. It really was one of those books-that-you-can't-put-down for me. Every chance I got (or took), I was sneaking chapters. I read while making a Red Velvet cake for my daughter's 14th birthday. I read while catching up with the washing and ironing. I got into bed early, in order to read; but then stayed up too late, because I couldn't stop reading. The characters intrigued me; the details delighted me; and the plot gripped me to the point that I could barely restrain myself from galloping through it as fast as possible. I would catch myself skimming, because I was so anxious to know what was going to happen . . . and then rereading, because there was so much to admire in the writing itself.

The book's plot (and philosophy, perhaps?) hinges on the idea that a single decision can make one's life spool in an entirely different direction. In this case, the decision is a kiss. Move in, or turn away? (Has anyone else been there before?) The protagonist, a Russian/American woman named Irina, has two possible destinies -- one with her long-time partner Lawrence, and another with Ramsey, casual friend suddenly turned into crush. In alternating chapters, the novel presents both scenarios -- and not only does the reader get to explore how the same incidents or details get played out in different ways, but also, inevitably, to judge which "choice" seems to be the better one. If you've ever read Shriver, you will know her to be a rather dark and complicated thinker -- nothing is ever simple. Because of the different possibilities, the novel actively engages the reader in a constant act of evaluation -- and then reevaluation. Instead of taking sides, the novel allows the reader to explore her (or his) own ideas and value systems. What is more important in a relationship: comfort or danger? Stability or excitement? Passion or friendship? Sameness or difference?

This idea has been explored before -- the movie Sliding Doors comes to mind -- but it is such a great plot device that I wonder why it hasn't been used more often. Without giving too much away, one of the ideas that Shriver plays around with is that of destiny. For instance, are certain aspects of our existence going to play out -- no matter which decisions we make along the way? And can we really turn away from the turning-points in our lives, or will they impact us no matter what? In other words, even total passivity is a choice that can directly impact the course of one's life. You can turn away from the kiss, but the desire still infects you -- and perhaps is just as powerful for being unfulfilled.

When I was in college, I can remember having to answer the question What do you fear? in a philosophy class. Only 20, with most of my life in front of me, I can remember my immediate answer: Regret. I fear choosing the wrong path. I am someone who is sometimes haunted (and sometimes just intrigued) by other lives and other possibilities. I am also someone who remains amazed by the idea that life can turn on a dime.

At 25, I agreed to meet my future husband on a blind date. I had just broken up with a long-term boyfriend; I was supposed to be buckling down to my PhD program; I wasn't looking for a serious relationship at all. My first thought was No, but I was persuaded by the single detail of an English accent. As a lifelong Anglophile, the English aspect of this unknown man swung my decision. And that, as Frost said, has made all of the difference. Two years later I was married, pregnant, and living in England. But even if I had said No to this particular English man, would that part of me -- the part that yearned for a different culture than the one I was born into -- still have guided my destiny? It seems likely.

Shriver is an expatriate American, who has lived in London for many years. In a "Meet the Author" piece at the end of the novel, she describes her first babyish words for "I want out" as a sort of "running theme" in her life. I suppose that this compulsion is what leads people into lives which are really not their own. I think that it also may have quite a bit to do with writing (and reading, for that matter) . . . for what better chance do we have to escape ourselves, and inhabit someone else?


Brave Sir Robin said...

There is no escape from ourselves. There is only denial.

Sounds like I have another one for the list.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Sold! As I recall, I liked Sliding Doors.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I thought you’d like The Post-Birthday World. I’m so pleased to hear you loved it. I hope you didn’t burn the cake as the story sizzled. You’ve really captured the essence of what makes this book and Lionel so compelling. I’d add that it’s very well written. I loved it too.

Like you, I relate to falling for that accent into English Wonderland. How different my life would be without that first kiss! I’d kiss him all over again and again, as I do every day, although I no longer hear the accent.

Another movie along these lines is Ground Hog Day. A man wakes up and has to relive his day over and over again in an attempt to win the woman he loves. It reminded me of writing and revising and revising a novel.

Alyson said...

Very interesting post and now I MUST read this book.

I find it the idea of running as a way to leave the world you came from very interesting. I've always been a bit that way. I ran to England at 16. I kept moving to different places to see what fit me. And reading this post, I wonder if that has something to do with wanting to run from certain childhood experiences.

You've got me thinking. As usual.

Nimble said...

I'm tempted, but non committal. I am between books myself right now. I keep wandering into the living room to look for my book and then remembering that I don't have one going yet. The Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle is my entertainment this week.

As a young adult I was often paralyzed by the idea of regret and which way is the right way. I am so glad that time has beaten that right out of me.

Bee said...

An interesting comment -- if brief!
I was, hopefully, speaking of something other than denial.
Different places bring out different parts of ourselves -- as do people.
But perhaps there is something in what you are getting at as well.

I promise you that it is an engrossing read!

Ah, Groundhog Day is something slightly different . . . as in that one, the Bill Murray character gets to play the same scene over and over until he gets it right! (I, for one, wouldn't mind this superpower.)

Since it's Wimbledon season, I would also like to mention Shriver's fascinating novel about tennis and marriage: "Double Fault."

I'm so glad that Shriver's success with "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is encouraging people to read her other work. As you point out, Sarah, she writes extremely well.

I DO believe that some places fit us better than others. Like a relationship, a place can either encourage us to grow -- or conversely, to shrink and atrophy.

I think that too much choice is what makes the 20s decade so terrifying. You're right: the narrowing of options can concentrate the mind and steady the nerves.

Let me know what you choose to read next! I am still toying with picking up my Rushdie . . . but the time hasn't quite ripened yet.

Barrie said...

I must read that book!

Lucy said...

Ah, there it is again, bee on a good book kick! Persuasive as ever...

Kate said...

Thanks sincerely for your comments ... .
Here's how I found you: I looked for other bloggers who liked Tyler's DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT. In my opinion, there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who read Anne Tyler and those who don't. I realize this viewpoint is kind of snotty pants. Still, if I "find" someone who reads Tyler then I instantly want to know more about that person. Weird, huh? (Incidentally, here in my little corner of the world, I know only one other woman who loves Tyler as much as I. Amazing but true.)
Then I read your profile, thought, "Hmn, she and I like the same things. This lady seems interesting. And so worldly. Living in England and all.
Reading your blog, I was delighted with your style. Smitten, actually, with the way you string your words together. Which explains why I figured you had to be a popular novelist or essayist or poet or something to that tune.
I particularly like your "Bee Drunken Manifesto." The very idea of living passionately is a philosophy I adore. Life is too short to live any other way.
I too am between books. Just finished reading Garth Stein's THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. Cannot say enough about this a-m-a-z-i-n-g novel. It's narrated by a dog, Enzo. Stein's style is fluid and unpretentious and immensely readable. My dog Bella is now the recipient of normal-toned conversation. While I walk her I ask questions. People questions. "So, Bella, in your opinion, what's more important in a relationship? Have you ever been in love? What do you think Heaven is like? Do you think you'll be reincarnated? Do you prefer spiral noodles to tube noodles?"
(I have comfort and stability; I yearn for excitement and passion.)
And, yes, I do believe "that a single decision can make one's life spool in an entirely different direction." It certainly happened to me. And lots of people I know.
My single decision to have sex on a fifth date explains why I married a man I hardly knew. Embarrassing shotgun wedding. My mother told the neighbors her first grandchild was born prematurely. (My daughter Laurie was born with a full head of hair and weighed in at nearly nine pounds.)
I'm still married to the same man. Twenty-three years now.
He hardly knows me.
Nice to write to you, Bee. I intend to check your blog daily.
Hope your weekend is a drunken one.

Bee said...

Barrie and Lucy,
Your reading time won't be wasted if you give this one a try! What a page turner.

So much lovely stuff to respond to here. I look forward to future blogging with you. If there is a good litmus test for friendship, I agree that Tyler's work could be it!