I read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending early last year. And it still lingers in me. Its brief 163 pages belie the universe it packs in them. And that universe is one of loss and disappointment, which, now that I’m a middle-aged man, seem to speak to me: roads not taken, decisions made or not made, an entire alternate life—a better life?—left to some other reality.
This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.
I so often, growing up, thought my life would be like a book. Don’t we all? I’d be successful, prosperous, among the gliteratti. My best friend once had a dream that I had just returned to Los Angeles from a meeting with a New York publisher in time for her wedding. That’s the way we thought.
I’m not saying that my life is awful. Far from it. I have a loving spouse. I have wonderful fur-kids. I have a job I love. I have friends and family I adore. I’m happy with the path I chose.
But did I choose it? And how much of this path I’m on was determined by my youthful fantasies, the idea that my life should be like a great story, unfolding, with a neat, happy ending? Surely at age 20 I thought I’d be a securely published writer by age 45. (Actually, I always had an idea that I’d die young. I didn’t want to age. Age was where fire died.)
Literature is plotted. It is laid out. Even when it seems without plot, there is an intelligence putting one word after another, one scene following upon the previous.
Life, if you’re lucky, sometimes bends to your will. More often it careens wildly, throwing up hardships and joys, rain on the just and unjust. As Don DeLillo said, “all plots lead towards death’; but you don’t even need a plot for that. Life will, eventually, end the same for all, by ending. With the end of a book, the reader can imagine a vista opening up past the last page. I assume some of the religious reading this say the same happens for life. I’m not holding my breath on that one.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.
You know of my life because of the stories I tell. And I’d like to say I hide nothing. But I do. We all do. We cut. We embellish. We slyly alter. Sometimes we leave fact as is. But fact is dicey. Memory is frail. Do I really remember a little girl falling onto a subway track? Or is that something I just made up to flesh out a dim memory? Do I really remember clambering on the outside of our fire escape, dangling from our 2nd floor apartment? I think I do. But as an adult I wouldn’t even dream of doing something like that unless in extremis. Certainly not for a lark. Maybe I do remember it, or maybe it was a fabrication of my mind.
No autobiography is without invention—or, at least, omission. I’d like to think I don’t create fables; but I know I leave things out. We all do. The embarrassing utterance; the time I looked a fool; the time I said or did something cruel. Life will provide enough with which to accuse us. Why hold on to one’s past indiscretions?
Because if you don’t, you might commit them again. Another essay on which I’m working is about “fat shaming”. I’m not fat myself; but someone dear to me is, and I would be quite dismissive and cruel. It took growth and my own shame to elevate myself above that. You have to at least store the pain, store the moments when reality did not conform to your perception of yourself; to forget is to repeat.
We all tell our own stories. The further they stray from the factual, the more you are lost.
When you’re young – when I was young – you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?
When I was a younger man, I thought as younger men do. I wanted passion. I wanted freedom. I wanted to bestride the earth like a minor colossus. I wouldn’t be tied to a desk job; I’d work in the woods, with my hands, tending to real things. I’d write terror-inspiring novels, breaking all conventions, blazing a path with my peers.
Now that I’m older. I don’t want my emotions to rule me. I want them to complement me. I want them to be handmaidens to reason, to a comfortable life. Is it wrong to want a comfortable life? I want to be told, as the narrator in the novel, that everything will be okay, that things have a way of working out.
Of course, as a librarian, I’m faced daily with people for whom things haven’t worked out. That’s another upcoming essay. People with whom I would drink at a bar close to my work, now down and out, walking the blasted heaths of the streets, deteriorating at greater speeds. Sometimes things will be okay. Sometimes they won’t. And while you can sometimes affect which way things will fall, many times it is just out of your hands.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be told—with telling yourself—that things will be okay. We couldn’t go on otherwise. A little delusion is fine. But when reality begins to warp one way or the other, don’t deny it. That way leads towards the fall.
No, this wasn’t a review of the book. Not sure if I’ll do any straight-ahead book reviews. I probably will, just to try my hand at it. (I haven’t done a “book report” since 8th grade.) If you haven’t read The Sense of an Ending, you should do so. It will be a good use of your time. If you have, leave a comment here. I’ll look forward to them.