I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
I was at Whole Foods having a tantrum about vanilla paste, simultaneously aware of the cultural type I was embodying with obnoxious ease, and genuinely annoyed about the paste scenario. “You could always call ahead,” said the employee who had informed me of their lack of vanilla paste, who I’m also sure is a perfectly nice man who rises in the morning hoping to make the best of his day. “I did call ahead,” I said in a tone of voice I modeled after Gregory Peck, “I was told you had it.”
Using passive voice to withering effect on a grocery store employee is not what I had expected from my Friday night, but it’s where I ended up when I decided to learn how to make great pie in a weekend.
I have very few absolute goals in life — as far as where I want to be in five years, how much money I want to have, or places to see before I die — but I really want to be good at making pies. Its attractions are threefold. First, a good pie is universally welcome. Second, mediocre pies — from grocery store bakeries or home cooks who use Crisco — are far too common. Third, only a portion of good pie-making can be taught, the rest is learned by experience. It’s not just cooking, it’s craft.
Most of the great pie I’ve had in my life has been at Hoosier Mama Pie Company, my favorite place in Chicago. Owner Paula Haney left a pastry chef job at a more upscale restaurant to focus on perfecting America’s dessert in her own shop in 2009, and the results are divine. A bite of Hoosier Mama pie is like everything good about the world, in your mouth. (A friend of mine once went into the shop and asked if they would let him volunteer. “I’ll chop fruit or wash dishes, anything you want,” he said, “I just want to be involved.” His offer was politely declined.) When Haney published The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie earlier this summer, it felt like a personal gift, like she was rooting for me.
I decided to put myself through pie boot camp, making four pies in one day — Strawberry Rhubarb, Maple Pecan, Hoosier Sugar Cream, and Lemon Chess — and inviting 10 friends over to eat them. My main goal was the crust, the deceptively simple foundation of a good pie. When you’re making pie crust, every detail is important: the temperature of the ingredients, how long you spend on each step, how long you wait in between each step, how much water you add, how long you knead the dough, and whether you’re chronically forgetful about flouring the roller (that’s me).
Haney spent a summer perfecting her crust recipe, and provides 20 pictures of what the dough should look like at various steps. There are instructions, yes, but you’re making all the decisions about whether the dough feels crumbly, soft, cool, or relaxed enough to move on to the next step. The stinger is, a mistake at any point in the process can ruin the crust, like the bad bulb in a string of Christmas lights. No matter how many crusts you’ve made, you still have to pay attention to each one and be able to adjust. I can say that the fourth crust I made that day was better than the first, but that only made me realize how much better I can get. It’s no mistake that on the cover, the word “wisdom” in the book’s subtitle — “Recipes, Techniques, and Wisdom from the Hoosier Mama Pie Co.” — is printed about three times larger than all the other words.
The book wants you to understand pie. The recipes have origin stories, there’s a section titled “In Defense of Canned Pumpkin,” a sidebar on the history of Crisco (spoiler: it’s cautionary), and a Pie Dough Troubleshooting Guide, but the real message is that you need to practice. You may also need to traverse the city in search of vanilla paste.
At one a.m. the night before my party, as I was putting the last dough round into the fridge to rest overnight, pie crust took on greater meaning for me. A great pie is a product of both skill and wisdom; as, I believe, is a great life. You make a long string of intuitive decisions and hope they alchemize into something beautiful. That’s why each good pie that comes out of the oven felt like a win to me; it feels like a small reassurance that you’re good at life. Plus, delicious.
Photo Credit: Tyler Core
It is easy to write about the arrival of desire. You can spot its presence right away: it reddens cheeks, quickens pulses, and makes a cold room hot. Discovering lust is naturally dramatic in any story, and writers from D.H. Lawrence to Danielle Steele have discovered all the tricks to make our hearts race and palms sweat. But how do you write about desire’s disappearance? When the central characters of your love story left their virginity behind long ago, what is left to discover? And when the sheets go cold, what generates emotional highs? The tension comes from what is absent, and so the story without sex is populated by apparitions, suggestions and possibilities of satisfaction whispering in the wings. Desire haunts former lovers, and becomes an embrace from which they cannot escape.
This kind of desire-in-absentia serves as the engine of Meg Wolitzer’s extraordinary new novel The Uncoupling, which may prove a new classic for our oddly old-fashioned modern times. At the novel’s outset, Robby and Dory Lang are the model of a modern marriage, one traditionally structured yet propelled by a steady passion. Contented in each other’s company, they assumed that desire would always be there, that “they would sleep together frequently, happily, and not just gently, but with the same gruff, fierce purpose as always.” They teach in the English department at Eleanor Roosevelt (“Elro”) High School in Stellar Plains, New Jersey, and hardly register the arrival of a new drama teacher with plans for a production of Lysistrata, the Aristophanes comedy about the women of Greece going on a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. Though the themes of the play contribute a great deal, Wolitzer spends more time playing with the broader exploration of desire, and when a cold wind sweeps into the town and steals away the women’s lust, what ensues is a supernatural happening with devastating consequences.
Wolitzer’s principal assumption, even in the happy beginnings of the novel, is that desire fades as love marches forward into middle age, that even the most content of couples will find themselves wanting less of each other. “People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness.” Dory never had to suffer through this odd nostalgia, and so when the cold wind sneaks into her bed, she is disarmed by its presence. “It was as if the words had been supplied to her by some hidden prompt,” and what most torments her is that though her affection for Robby remains, the easy passion has vanished. Dory finds herself stuck in memories of how their love used to be, apologizing to Robby but unable to move forward. “She couldn’t tell him about wanting to shake everything up, or about what she now knew, which was that once you realize you are different from the way you used to be, then you can never be that earlier way again. Awareness changes you forever, and instead of being spontaneous during sex, you will forever be a little self-congratulatory.” This new reality, this never being able to go back to the spontaneity of sex, stops up her lust completely. “You could dress love up, but always you would have to confront desire—its absence or presence.” Robby’s desperate purchase of a Snuggie-like blanket is all that Dory has to see to really give up and give in to the despair of a sexless future. “He had bought it because they were now in a period of life in which they could use it. They were seeking warmth from someplace other than each other.”
As the spell sweeps through Stellar Plains, anxieties grow over passion stretched over too many years, sex that has become too lived-in, and too accustomed. Wolitzer manages to get the adult perspective on teenagers just right, full of half-correct sugar-coated predictions, and uses their misperceptions to kick the sexual anxiety up a notch: Robby says of his daughter’s generation, “They’re all like someone in a dream,” and it’s a statement born more out of wonder than condescension. Yet their daughter Willa is also touched by the spell, just as she begins a tender romance with the drama teacher’s son. They come together as avatars in a virtual forest, and Willa’s first sexual experiences give her a new awareness of her body and her desires. “She felt as if she were unfolding, unclasping, being saturated, falling to bits, intensely whirled around like someone blindfolded and about to smack a piñata… ‘Going the distance’ seemed a good way to think of what it would be like. It—sex, actual sex, created a distance between you and everyone except the other person. You were in a hot-air balloon, and you waved goodbye to your sweet but clueless mother and father, and even your dazed and innocent old dog.” This is the poignant, trembling awareness of teenage love and the first awakening of desire. Through Willa’s eyes, Wolitzer gives us a character who gets to experience everything fresh, and Willa blossoms through love and sex with a surprising amount of tenderness and humor. This, of course, becomes all too tragic when the chill forces her into a jaded nihilism, thinking, This is never going to last. Oh, what is the point? She withdraws from what she has just discovered, and you want to reach through the page and shake the spell off of her; no one should have to suffer this loss, especially not someone who has so much left to explore.
The spell makes its way to all the main female characters, and in each person’s cooling and retreating, Wolitzer gives specific, very real reasons to recoil from intimacy. Ruth the gym teacher is performing a dance for her handsome husband and three small boys when the cold air rushes into her kitchen and all over her skin. “She realized now that she had been overtouched; she was like a computer with a thousand fingerprints on the screen. How did anyone tolerate being touched? It was terrible, all that touching.” The revulsion sweeps in so suddenly that it literally knocks her to the floor and leaves her weeping, begging her husband to leave her alone. The alluring school psychologist Leanne, juggling three men at once, suddenly senses that “one of these days it’s going to look bad, and I’ll seem like this predatory person. And that will be terrible and humiliating.” A sad little worm of self-doubt clings to her, a reminder that “one day, not terribly long from now, she would be older, and she would be considered someone a little wild and embarrassing. A cougar, perhaps… Men could get away with sleeping with various women, but not the other way around.” And poor Ed and Bev Cutler, the long-married long-dispassionate, suddenly have the disappointment of their relationship stripped bare to them, the cold wind no longer worth fighting back. They retreat to opposite sides of the bed, no longer hoping for something better.
But even as the husbands begin to ache with longing, and the wives tears their hair out in frustration, the adults unite in a mutual fear of a new, colder world encroaching on their former, warmer ways. They wish to be more like their children, like their students, like the newer generation that might be on the verge of discovering something fresh to lust after. “You weren’t supposed to think that life was worse now; it was ‘different,’ everyone said. But Dory privately thought that mostly it was worse.” The adults fear that they are too old for passion or pleasure—and so they envy the teenagers who have everything ahead of them to look forward to, and nothing behind them to mourn. Dory sees this all too clearly:
Lucky them for the future, and the love that lay waiting. They could make whichever analogies they chose: the love that lay waiting like a web page as yet undesigned, or maybe even like a forest as yet unwalked in. A bafflingly simple forest green and virtual, or one wet and dark and real. Lucky them. She had underestimated them, and now she felt only regret.
If the language of desire is spoken with a vocabulary honed over many years, then inevitably women got tired of talking. What was there that was new to say? Wolitzer brilliantly executes the premise of the magic spell, but with feelings articulated this clearly, she doesn’t need supernatural sorcery to transport the reader. And only in a peripheral plot or two does the novel falls short. But Wolitzer’s achievement is extraordinary—finally, a novel about true yearning that doesn’t belong solely to the young. She creates an original parable without ever leaning on her source material, and explores all the life stages of desire: the long relationship that has somehow maintained its energy; the first tremors of teenage lust; the quick excitements of one-night stands; and the frustrated marriage with all its inevitable droops and disappointments. She has built for us a community defined by desire, and in taking that desire away, she turns what could be a mundane story into something mythic. Though much of what the town of Stellar Plains faces is painfully recognizable, on every page this reader found it “thrilling, it was all cracking open, and in their lifetimes, which was so terrific. How wonderful to be there for the show.”
The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.