I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
“Obliged to admit that for the first time in my life I feel myself in the middle of a psychological collapse.”Albert Camus was in Montevideo, nearing the end of a lecture tour of South America, when he entered those words into his diary. American Journals, chronicling Camus’ 1946 voyage to North America and his 1949 visit to South America, shows a humane soul with a sharp mind who’s teetering on the brink, one minute penning astute observations on human suffering; the next – perfunctory, and seemingly overwhelmed almost to the point of paralysis by the simplest, most mundane, obstacles.The North American trip in spring of 1946 came four years after publication of The Stranger, and mere months before Camus would complete The Plague. The diary begins on board a ship as Camus struggles with an ocean voyage and girds himself against odd and intrusive fellow passengers. By the end of the crossing, he’s figured them out.”Everyone prides himself on being elegant and knowing how to live. The performing dog aspect. But some of them are opening up.”On such extended voyages as these, false fronts fade after a while and forced impressions begin to wear away. One’s fellow-passengers begin to reveal their true nature, or at the very least one catches on to their facades.Once in New York, Camus observes the many sides of the American character. After noting how funeral homes and private cemeteries operate (“you die and we do the rest”), Camus comments that “one way to know a country is to know how people die there. Here, everything is anticipated.”Of American generosity, Camus has nothing but admiration. While he was giving a lecture, someone had made off with the box office takings which were to have gone to a children’s charity. When the audience finds out, a spectator proposes that everyone give the same amount upon exiting as they gave upon entering. In fact, they gave much more.”Typical of American generosity,”Camus lauds. “Their hospitality, their cordiality are like that too, spontaneous and without affectation. It’s what’s best in them.”Camus travels through New England and on up to Quebec. He also visits Philadelphia and Washington D.C. By the time he’s back on ship for the return voyage, he’s begun to lose interest in his fellow passengers, and his musings reveal his frustration and hopelessness:”Sad to still feel so vulnerable. In 25 years I’ll be 57. 25 years then to create a body of work and to find what I’m looking for. After that: old age and death.”In fact, Albert Camus would die 14 years later in a car crash. But not before yet again braving the Atlantic – this time for a lecture tour of Brazil, Argentina and Chile.Amusingly, Camus provides loose sketches of fellow shipboard passengers. It seems like a mystery or intrigue novel or film noir just waiting to be written – especially as this was 1949. If anything is frustrating about the journals, it is simply that one wishes that Camus would flesh out his often skeletal thoughts.”Woke up with a fever.” I tried to calculate just how many of Camus’ shipboard entries began with “Woke up with a fever” or some variation. But I lost count. I’m now wondering whether a shipboard memoir could even exist without that sentence. Still, despite his physiological reaction to the voyage, or perhaps even because of it, Camus is deeply enamored of the sea in all its raging power – often remaining transfixed by it. It is “a call to life and an invitation to death,” and leaves him with “inexplicably profound sadness.”His exhaustion and his ocean fixation clash on one occasion, when he enters this into his diary: “Too tired to describe the sea today.”Arriving in Rio, Camus notes: “Never have I seen wealth and poverty so insolently intertwined.” Finding himself in the company of a Brazilian poet, Camus offers this scathing assessment:”Enormous, indolent, folds of flesh around his eyes, his mouth hanging open, the poet arrives. Anxieties, a sudden movement, then he spills himself into an easy chair and stays there a little while, panting. He gets up, does a pirouette and falls back down into the easy chair.”The corpulent poet later points out “a character from one of your novels” – a thin, gun-toting government minister. But Camus silently decides that it is the poet himself who is in fact a “character.”In the hills outside of Rio, Camus is taken to a macumba – a trance-inducing spiritual dance where the dancers attempt to arrive at a state of ecstasy. Camus, hanging back and observing with his arms crossed, was told to uncross his arms so as not to impede the descent of the spirits. In the end, Camus yearns for fresh air rather than heat, dust, smoke and writhing bodies: “I like the night and sky better than the gods of men.”After Rio, Camus travels to Recife (A map somewhere in the book would be nice. My edition has none). He describes it as Florence of the tropics. (Although while in Recife, he did “wake up with the grippe and a fever.”)Then it was off to Bahia: “In bed. Fever. Only the mind works on, obstinately. Hideous thought. Unbearable feeling of advancing step by step toward an unknown catastrophe which will destroy everything around me and in me.”For every journal entry soaked in fever and depression, there’s one that lifts you up. Camus writes of a radio program in Sao Paulo where people can go on air to make a public entreaty. An unemployed man went on the air one day and said that since his wife had abandoned him, he was looking for someone to temporarily take care of his child. Five minutes after the program ended, another man came into the station, half-asleep, half-dressed. His wife had heard the plea, woke her husband, and dispatched him to go get the child.After Sao Paulo, it was off to Montevideo, then Buenos Aires, across to Santiago, Chile, then back to Brazil and then home.A slight volume, American Journals nevertheless reveals a fragile man at the height of his fame, who can still, through all of his medical and psychological problems, offer observations which are astute and often amusing, and it offers some personal context to the ideas that would show up in his later works of fiction.
With no mention of the titular character in it at all, critics have been squirming in their seats, unsure of what to think about the title of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. Since its publication in the UK and other English-speaking countries in March, it has become the occasion of many outpourings of critical anxiety. Rare is the occasion when someone like Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books can feel excited about their confusion; or address it honestly as Leo Robson does in the New Statesman. More common is a scramble to make sense of the thing, like Theo Tait’s ingenious attempt in The Guardian, or the dismissal of its importance in giving the book some other framework for evaluation, as in Justin Cartwright’s otherwise interesting guide to the book for the BBC. And with the publication of the work in the U.S. we can only expect more of the same.
The problem isn’t that the title doesn’t describe what’s in the book. It’s the way it doesn’t. It’s too big a title, too grand. It describes a character who, even if he is not literally related to the character in the book — a boy named David — works on such a larger scale that it wouldn’t even work figuratively. And so even when we can’t find anything meaningful in it, it is hard to believe that Coetzee didn’t mean it to be there. It seems, in other words, indeed serious, in being a little too serious — there’s no letup, no obliqueness in it, no irony that is clear and distinguishable.
The funny thing about it is that Coetzee may well indeed mean what he says, and to be taken to task for this is rather strange: as if once he seems too serious, critics think he can’t be serious at all. And this shows that however petty their reaction has been, the critics are on to something. We know Coetzee as a postmodern writer, a coy writer, playful, always up to something, or trying to be up to something. What we witness in this book is a change of emphasis towards seriousness, a stylistic change, or experiment in changing, which is remarkable to watch.
It’s visible in the straightforwardness of the story itself. The book is about a little boy David and a man old enough to be his grandfather, Simón, arriving in a strange Spanish-speaking land. We don’t know where they are from; we even don’t know their real names, since it was Belstar, the refugee camp where they were, that gave them these. Simón himself, through whose experience we witness most of what happens, doesn’t know anything about the child: details are hazy. “There was a mishap on board the boat during the voyage that might have explained everything,” as Simón puts it. “As a result,” he continues, “his parents are lost, or, more accurately, he is lost.”
The rest of the story is simply David developing under Simón’s care, as they both attempt to start what they call a “new life” together. After a few failed attempts to find the boy’s father and mother, Simón struggles to get a more permanent home for the boy. An old washed-up romantic, but without the confusing animalistic drives of a David Lurie (the hero/villain of Disgrace), he gets it into his head that what the boy needs is a mother. This can be achieved, he thinks, by simply finding one; Simón seems to assume, rather strangely, that a bond like this can be created just by arrangement. Improbably enough, on a hike one day he finds someone willing to be David’s mother, and delivers the boy up to a woman named Inés. But he still watches the boy from afar, and misses him. He folds himself back into the family, doing chores for them and small tasks, and monitors the care of the child, entwining his destiny more and more with his.
There is a strange feeling you can get while reading Coetzee’s work that you merely are hearing a yarn: in other words, that the direct, incredibly precise style is the only thing remarkable about what is simply a straightforward tale. The exact narration of plot borders on bottoming out and becoming the — exquisite, no doubt — chronicling of mere events. This feeling was, in Coetzee’s previous work, always countered by the work’s form breaking up, or turning against itself, which would remind you the precision and exactness was slowly working towards a point: that is, that the work was spare for a reason, that the economy plays generously with the things you are hearing about.
But here we have no postmodern tricks as in Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year. No strange intertextual references as in Foe. No metafictional scenes like the close of Elizabeth Costello, wherein a strange set of judges in the afterlife ask the titular character, a world-famous author, if fiction itself is really worth anything at all — a fiction in which we hear about the meaning of fiction, and in which the status of the fiction we are reading seems to hang in the balance because of what happens within it. Here we simply have Simón befriending a child and believing in him, as it were, so it is no wonder that this feeling of flatness sticks around, and we think Coetzee has decided to stop with all this beating around the bush, with these sidelong ways of probing the depth of his characters.
There are a few tricks still up his sleeve, however. First and foremost there is the pace at which the tale is told, in another instance of that narrative economy which Coetzee has so perfected and which would make anything he writes engrossing. Then, more importantly there is the boy himself. He is, simply, fascinating. Especially in his conceptions and ideas of the world, which Coetzee relates sympathetically and which Simón can’t stop listening to. This despite their childishness, all their petulance and profundity, all their (in a word) contrariness. “Why do I have to speak Spanish all the time?” David asks Simón once. Simón patiently explains:
“We have to speak some language, my boy, unless we want to bark and howl like animals. And if we are going to speak some language, it is best we all speak the same one. Isn’t that reasonable?”
“But why Spanish? I hate Spanish.”
“You don’t hate Spanish. You speak very good Spanish. Your Spanish is better than mine. You are just being contrary. What language do you want to speak?”
“I want to speak my own language.”
“There is no such thing as one’s own language”
“There is! La la fa fa yam ying tu tu.”
Coetzee has David shout things like this often, in the way children do sometimes, where they have been thinking of something by themselves for an hour or so, playing out some internal fantasy of some sort, and suddenly inform you about it as if it was real, and as if it made sense to everyone and was obvious. It happens as David learns to read and talks about Don Quixote as if he were real, as he learns math and talks about numbers as if they had strange properties, as he talks about other people, and their strange characteristics or powers, and in so many other occasions in the novel. And while these fantasies are contrary and counterfactual, they compel. After hearing the boy’s own language, Simón objects:
“That’s just gibberish. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It does mean something. It means something to me.”
“That may be so but it doesn’t mean anything to me. Language has to mean something to me as well as to you, otherwise it doesn’t count as language.”
In a gesture that he must have picked up from Inés, the boy tosses his head dismissively. “La la fa fa yam ying! Look at me!”
He looks into the boy’s eyes. For the briefest of moments he sees something there. He has no name for it. It is like — that is what occurs to him in the moment. Like a fish that wriggles loose as you try to grasp it. But not like a fish — no, like like a fish. Or like like like a fish. On and on. Then the moment is over, and he is simply standing in silence, staring.
“Did you see?” says the boy.
The key thing about this moment, and about other similar moments, is that Simón did not see, or saw only for a second. But that this reserved and fiercely independent man can so thoroughly commit himself to trying to see, or, at the very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see, or, at the very very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see what it would be like to see…this shows Coetzee’s child here is much more than someone relating the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of babes — even perhaps the mouth of a baby Jesus. David is the vehicle for Coetzee’s effort to explore belief’s ability to conquer doubt — more particularly, the doubt of Simón — and of the way fantasies can coax even doubt itself into becoming a form of trust, of faith, of belief.
And as David’s fantasies increasingly disrupt the class in school, and the school threatens, eventually, to kick the boy out and put him in a disciplinary facility for children, Simón has to take this commitment even further, and consider whether he will follow the boy and run off again, away from the authorities, to somewhere else, another new life, or try and stick it out in the town and educate him out of his fictions.
For critics, the biggest problem with Coetzee in his early career was the way his style failed to engage with serious, real-world problems. As critics complained, he lived and wrote in South Africa in the midst of one of the worst crises of the century. Where, in the interesting fables he then fabricated, was anything of the brutal situation around him? Postmodern authors were addressing politics even as they wove interesting tales: Yet Coetzee worked in a sort of neo-Modern arid and ironic style implying that art needed to concentrate on things more ambiguous, sometimes concentrating on colonialism through allegory, representing the colonizers as much as the colonized. He was being contrary, in many ways.
Yet by now Coetzee has published much dealing with animal rights, among other things, and Disgrace dealt directly and provocatively with South African issues. What seemed lacking in the purity of his representations of life has been filled up with a closer and more interesting relationship with the world around us. In the recent edition of his correspondence with Paul Auster, Here and Now, we even find him grumbling about the financial crisis. In this respect, the dust jacket’s claim that The Childhood of Jesus is “allegorical” is misleading, a throwback to an earlier contrarian mood. For now we seem to find Coetzee dealing with a problem different in character: a question about the internal, rather than the external, limits of his work, the limitations of his own style.
It is a question of how far irony, self-consciousness, coyness, evasiveness, whimsy, reserve, and simple but efficient avoidance of the commonplace and real, can indeed address the opposite: sincerity, seriousness, truth-telling. While the world can be represented, can it only be played with? Can’t things be believed in? The Childhood of Jesus reminds us again how baffling Coetzee can be, but also that he can be tender, can have, as Frank Kermode once put it, “reserves of feeling that are tragic or even religious.” These are moments where he pretty clearly reminds us that no, we can believe in things, and we do even as we doubt. Play and seriousness have a way of communing together sometimes, with childlike simplicity.
In the fall of 2010, reporter Mac McClelland was sent to Haiti to cover the country’s recovery nine months after the island’s devastating 7.0 earthquake, which affected 3.5 million of Haiti’s residents. McClelland arrived in Haiti after spending four months in New Orleans covering the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. So she was no stranger to disaster scenes. But the post-quake squalor of Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital, shocked her. Driving from the airport to her hotel, she was confronted with miles of displacement camps, tent cities where thousands of Haitians, many of them children, lived in subhuman conditions, without running water or toilets. There was not enough food and water or security. Violence, especially sexual violence against women and children, was rampant. On her first day of reporting, McClelland witnessed an act of sexual violence so shocking that she found herself dissociating, her conscious mind leaving her body and watching the scene from afar.
This instance of dissociation would change McClelland’s life, although she didn’t realize it at the time: “In the moment, though it was extremely disconcerting, I didn’t have time to think or worry about it.” Instead, McClelland continued her reporting trip, during which she began to exhibit strange symptoms: she felt buzzed and shaky; parts of her body went numb and seemed to disappear; and most disconcerting, she found herself crying uncontrollably for hours at a stretch. Eventually McClelland heeded a friend’s advice and ended her reporting trip early. But at home, things only got worse. Desperate, McClelland visited her old therapist, who told her that she seemed to be exhibiting symptoms of PTSD. McClelland told her therapist that sounded “absurd” and that PTSD was “for veterans”, not reporters, mere witnesses.
Irritable Hearts is the story of what happens after this “absurd” diagnosis. It’s a memory of recovery, a thoughtful and well-researched record of one woman’s experience with a subtle and often terrifying condition. McClelland delves into the history of PTSD as well as her health history, her romantic and familial attachments, her career ambitions, and her childhood. With the help of her therapist, she learns to stop seeing her breakdown as sign of weakness: “My symptoms were not a dysfunction, but an adaptation to some very dysfunctional situations, situations I hadn’t fully processed. Trauma had been perpetrated upon my body, and lived in my body. It was my body reacting to trauma.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is most commonly associated with soldiers. But war experience is actually not the most common cause of PTSD. Instead it is violence against women, the subject McClelland was immersed in and what she witnessed just before her dissociative episode. In her research into the history of PTSD, McClelland was startled to learn that Sigmund Freud himself made a link between sexual abuse and PTSD-like symptoms. After hundreds of interviews, Freud found that most of his female patients, the ones so famously plagued by “hysteria,” were victims of sexual abuse. His theory was that their symptoms were the body’s natural response to trauma.
This wasn’t something anyone wanted to hear in the late 19th century and unfortunately it’s still an uncomfortable subject for the public to explore. McClelland learned of this discomfort first hand in 2011, when she published a personal essay about her experience with PTSD. The essay detailed her sexual difficulties in the wake of her diagnosis and the counter-intuitive treatment she’d found comforting: violent sex with an ex-boyfriend. I first became aware of McClelland through this piece and no doubt many others did as well. The essay got a big response online, much of it positive, but in the way of so many online debates, the negative was really, really negative. McClelland was labeled narcissistic for writing frankly and unabashedly about her sex life. Her status as a victim was also questioned, and critics accused her of exaggeration and self-glorification. Some even labeled her a colonist. A second backlash questioned her reporting and ethics.
The comments gave voice to McClelland’s worst fear: that she didn’t, somehow, deserve to have PTSD, that a tougher person, a stronger person, would have been able to witness something horrible and recover quickly, that a better reporter would not be so vulnerable to other people’s suffering. McClelland’s symptoms got worse in the wake of the essay’s publication: “I found it impossible not to feel attacked. And sorry for myself. My sorrow extended far beyond my own suffering…[I felt] sorrow for anyone who’d been traumatized and now heard trauma called narcissistic or weak because of me.”
The thing is, McClelland is an unusually compassionate and strong person. This came across to me in her essay and it comes across again and again in her memoir. Even as McClelland spends much of the book detailing her mood swings and crying jags, what emerges is a portrait of a capable, independent, and resilient woman. She’s the kind of person who, when she finds herself unexpectedly saddled with thousands of dollars of debt (thanks to her father, who secretly took out loans in her name), does not wallow in misery but instead works three jobs until the debt is paid off. She’s the kind of person who decided, a few months out of grad school, that she would write a book about the Burmese refugee situation, and then four years later, published that book; she’s the kind of person who, after spending four months reporting on one of the worst man-made natural disasters, accepted a reporting assignment to Haiti. If McClellan has a fatal flaw, it’s that she doesn’t know her limits. That’s the lesson that PTSD eventually teaches her, by forcing her to pay attention to her body’s self-protective defense mechanisms.
One of the positive results of the controversy surrounding McClelland’s article was that a number of sufferers of PTSD wrote her notes of support. McClelland includes several of them in Irritable Hearts and they are a dispiriting reminder of how mental illness is still a taboo subject in the U.S. Through these letters, McClelland is introduced to a community of PTSD sufferers, many of them veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there’s anyone who can understand McClelland’s shame for not being “tough enough,” it’s veterans. As one marine, Chris, writes to her: “Marines are a rare breed. We don’t ask for help when we need it. That’s why I have lost 6 of my buddies to suicide after we got back to the States.” After meeting Chris in person and hearing about his experiences first-hand, McClelland feels sheepish bringing up her own trauma, as a witness. But McClelland soon learns that within the PTSD community, people don’t tend to compare traumas:
He wasn’t interested in saying to me, “What happened to you is not that big of a deal”…Any more than Chris would say to an earthquake survivor, “You know what’s really awful? War.”…This atrocity hierarchy, which one’s nervous system is unfortunately unaware of, is imposed on traumatized people by non-traumatized people.
This gap in understanding between the traumatized and non-traumatized, and more generally, the mentally healthy and the mentally ill, comes up often in McClelland’s reporting. Americans simply don’t have a way of talking or even thinking about mental illness without attaching stigma to it. We blame those with mental illness in a way that we don’t blame people with bodily illnesses, and in fact we don’t even specify “bodily” illness, so that the modifier “mental” is a way of putting it into a different category, one that doesn’t require as much sympathy or support. Certainly our healthcare system treats mental illness in this way, requiring people to jump through hoops and/or pay huge deductibles before supplying the bare minimum of care. McClelland describes her efforts to have her PTSD recognized by her insurance provider, but doesn’t lose sight of the fact that she’s lucky to have enough savings to cover the cost of her treatments until she receives coverage. Many of the people she interviews are not as fortunate.
I’ve neglected so far to mention the love story woven through Irritable Hearts, and which provides the subtitle: A PTSD Love Story. In a chance meeting that seems, in retrospect, fated, McClelland kisses a French soldier on her first night in Haiti. The soldier, Nico, has his own psychological baggage and is unfazed when McClelland begins to behave erratically. The two embark on a long-distance love affair, even though little about their pairing makes sense. He’s a lot younger than her, barely speaks English, and is stationed thousands of miles away. She’s recently divorced and in the throes of a personal and mental breakdown. Yet their connection is strong. At one point they break up but promise not to marry other people until they’ve seen each other again. They want to be together but, as if in some kind of perverse romantic comedy, there are a lot of obstacles.
One of the biggest obstacles is that McClelland can no longer enjoy sex. She undergoes somatic therapy, a kind of intense talk therapy that incorporates touch. A therapy that acknowledges and works with PTSD’s physical symptoms seems like a sensible course of treatment, yet most veterans still receive cognitive therapies, which can sometimes re-traumatize patients. For McClelland, somatic therapy was the only thing that worked: “My symptoms were in my body; my fears were for my body…I’d had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to rationalize my way out of it. Believe me. I’d tried.”
McClelland’s writing about sex, about her body, and about her relationships is fearless and revealing. I imagine that a lot of people suffering in the wake of trauma will find this memoir comforting because McClelland does get better, and at the same time, she doesn’t gloss over the time and patience that healing requires. If I haven’t written much about McClelland’s relationship with Nico, the soldier who eventually becomes her husband, it’s only because it’s difficult to summarize. Love is simple, but people are complicated, and McClelland explores this dilemma as she describes the ups and downs of dating while mentally ill. What struck me most about McClelland’s portrayal of her relationship with Nico was just how hard she was willing to fight for it. She wants to love and be loved, she wants to do meaningful work, she wants to “feel herself in the world”. As her therapist observes, “You’re so hungry to get better.” It’s hard not to root for a narrator like that.