I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The Bell Jar isn’t an obvious Christmas book but I always remember this scene and how it perfectly sums up that feeling when you’re a grown up of it mostly being disappointing.
I’m fortunate in that I had great Christmases growing up, so I love Christmas. There’s one thing you know about me. The other thing is I’m not that happy. I’m not that bad most days, I’m Wednesday Addams, more cynical that miserable, but my idea of a good day is if I get through it without crying or if I pet a dog or don’t spill anything down myself. Long gone are real notions of happiness. I will gladly take alive, safe, warm, fed, loved, petted a dog, over happy any day.
But I love Christmas and I always worry that I won’t have a happy Christmas. Most of the year I’m ok with not being that happy but at Christmas I want it.
Obviously a lot of this pressure to be happy comes from the movies and fiction we are surrounded by. When people think of festive fiction they think of Charles Dickens and The Kranks and The Grinch, which are all about Christmas miracles and warm fuzzies. You’re supposed to wear ugly sweaters and drink egg nog whatever that is and sing nonsense songs, preferably round a piano — shouting Mariah Carey in a karaoke bar doesn’t count. You’re supposed to be glad to see your family, eat a big dinner, fight with your siblings but then make up when you remember the time one of you got up in the night and opened your presents and then wrapped them back up again, because that happens.
But people forget that those stories are all about how awful Christmas is really and it’s only at the end that things turn out ok. It’s a Wonderful Life was based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern and is the perfect example of this. People love it for its hopeful message at the end but really it’s mostly about suicide. (It’s also important to point out that in this story the worst fate that could befall Mary is that she becomes a librarian.)
Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm is one of my favorite miserable holiday books and films. Set during the holidays in New England in 1973, everything is falling apart for the Hood family. The adults are fighting and cheating and barely holding it together and the children are going off the rails. The daughter Wendy turning A Charlie Brown Christmas up louder on the TV to drown out her rowing parents sums it up for me. And reminds me of the patron saint of miserable Christmases himself, Charlie Brown.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is another holiday classic about a dysfunctional family who are summoned together for one last Christmas. Obviously it doesn’t work out because the dad is sick and they’re all nuts and this has become the classic Christmas scenario in both literature and film. The message being families and holidays just don’t mix.
Christmas with the Kranks is based on a John Grisham book called Skipping Christmas and it might be the only John Grisham book I’ve read. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, it’s about how awful the holidays can be and how sometimes you just don’t feel like it only eventually you’re pressured into it and have to just give in, let Christmas take over.
My recent favorite Christmas book has to be the outstanding Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. She truly sums up how bleak and depressing the holidays can be. “I had hard feelings around the holidays, the one time of year I couldn’t help but fall prey to the canned self-pity Christmas prescribes,” Eileen says, she also says she can’t be done with the charade of it. Which is exactly what it is. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it but you will never read about such a depraved Christmas party in your life.
Christmas is also something we do for other people. It’s something that can hold us together when we’re falling apart. Nothing makes me think this more than the wonderful book All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. This is a devastatingly beautiful book about two sisters, one of whom kills herself just before Christmas. Her death is imminent throughout the book so when it actually happens you almost feel relief then watch as the family push on. “We had to get a Christmas tree” says Yoli right after because that’s what you do. And later her daughter says “Let’s not have forced gaiety this Christmas” but she says “We’ll have a tiny bit”. Because that’s what you do.
One of my favorite writers, Augusten Burroughs, wrote a whole book dedicated to Christmas called You Better Not Cry and it’s a perfect balance of wonderful and awful. His stories make you laugh and cry and that’s what the holidays are about. I think once you dispel the myth that it’s all about being happy you are much more relaxed to just take it as it comes. If Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas taught us anything it’s that the man in the red suit is pretty grumpy himself and I love him more for it. Bah humbug forever.
One year I was so worried I wasn’t going to be happy I just got very drunk because drunk people are always happy I thought only it turns out I’m not a happy drunk, I’m a shouty crying drunk. I realise I could do that skipping Christmas thing but that’s so passé now and I had a friend that did that who went to some party island and she still hasn’t come back but I can’t dance nor do I like the heat. But also, I love Christmas. I don’t want to skip it.
So when I say I’m dreading the holidays I mean I’m worried I won’t feel how I want to feel. I’m putting the pressure on myself really so I need to learn to give myself a break, to say ok, so it’s not going to be like the movies and books but it won’t be as mad as Eileen’s Christmas or as bad as Tiny Tim’s. Reading about dysfunction families at this time of the year makes me feel better about my own and that’s obviously the point. Christmas is going to be what it is and it will all be over soon anyway and then you can go back to being your miserable self and no one will make you wear a hat or sing a song or eat a Brussels sprout.
I just want an ok Christmas and for everyone else to be ok with that.
Image: Flickr user forayinto35mm
Koa Beck’s father gave her a copy of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying when she was 15 years old. Depending on your persuasion, this was either a brilliant idea or an awful parental blunder. Regardless, Beck says the book (aided by The Bell Jar and Diary of a Mad Housewife) helped her understand that “the game was rigged, that everyone was lying, [and] that there was so much more to being a woman than what society said there was.”
I tend to like and lean towards creative things made by womenfolk—perhaps it has to do with being handed a Cibo Matto mixtape at a crucial point of adolescence or deciding to major in post-1945 yonic-ceramic-art-history in college (yes! I really did this!); yellow-wallpapered observations are always my default reads. But this year, I found myself reading almost exclusively female writers–and more specifically, their collections of short stories. As Lorrie Moore puts it (best, always best), I have entered “that awful stage of life between twenty-six to and thirty-seven known as stupidity,” and the best way I’ve found to navigate—or at least subsist within—it are these compact little morsels of ladywriting, with beginnings, middles, and ends. I blame the Internet and Saturn’s return.
My favorite discovery this year was Canadian bookseller Deborah Willis, whose debut collection Vanishing and Other Stories really floored me. Willis has this airy, almost giggly writing voice that sounds like a Valley Girl gifted with an Oxford education (example: “What I did understand, later but still way before Claudia did, was that it was impossible. That we could never break free. No matter what we did, we could never separate them from us. Our bodies were built by the lentils and flax they’d fed us. Their bone structure lingered in our faces.”) The title story in her collection is told by a woman whose neurotic author father mysteriously left his attic office one day and just never returned—the narrator is still stunned by it after so many years, this spectral longing, this losing a person due to the fact that they simply do not wish to be found. If you have time to read one more short story this year, consider making that one it.
Willis’ work reminded me a bit, but not too much, of Aimee Bender’s wonderful, casual magical realism, which I am (utterly, blushingly) ashamed to say was a 2010 revelation. Her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake–about people who eat their feelings in every literal way–was one of my favorite long reads this year, but I found myself gravitating more often in quiet moments to her debut story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which contains one of the best descriptions of losing love I’ve found. A woman’s lover experiences “reverse evolution,” becoming a monkey, then a salamander-like primitive creature that she must let out to sea. “Sometimes I think he’ll wash up on shore,” she writes. “A naked man with a startled look. Who has been to history and back.” And isn’t that what we all want from past loves? Bewilderment and a sudden return to our stoop. Point: Bender.
Last cold front, I dove headfirst in the Mary Gaitskill oeuvre after seeing her read at the Center for Fiction early in the year, gobbling down Don’t Cry and Bad Behavior (again, deep shame of not getting there sooner). I also found and courted and decided to settle in with Amy Bloom, particularly Come to Me—which was the winner in the “story openings I wish I’d written” category: “I wasn’t surprised to find myself in the back of Mr. Klein’s store, wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable.”
The last woman-penned story collection I read was Michele Latiolais’ forthcoming Widow, which is weird and sad and compulsive and continues to stick to my ribs. Latiolais writes about grief in such a raw way—she joins the general pantheon of No-More-Husband literature (high priestess: J-Did), but her style is so unique as to be another genre altogether.
And also! Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which nails so much in so little space.
Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]