I’m not one of those people who are glued to book reviews and clamoring to read the latest thing, despite my profession. I prefer to give books a bit of time to age, and to see if it’s just going to be a flash in the pan that no one will care about in a year or so (Water for Elephants, Sarah’s Key) or will actually enter the modern canon as worthy of the time it takes to really read a novel.
Because I’m not, nor have I ever been, one of those folks who can speed through page after page, skimming through the boring bits, glancing over descriptions, jumping ahead to the action. For better or for worse, I read every word.
This isn’t a moral stand or a judgement on those who can read faster than I can. I’d find it rather useful if I could hustle through a novel in a weekend, or knock off six chapters in an evening. And I’m not going to make some preposterous claim, like that I enjoy slowly read novels on a deeper level or something. I just don’t read very fast. It’s something I’ve accepted.
It also means that, for me, while reading is a pleasurable and leisurely activity, it is also one that is undertaken with great care. Is whatever book I’m about to embark upon going to be more worth my time than Kant or Hegel? Woolf or Joyce? Pynchon or Wallace?
(It does seem to make reading certain philosophy easier, because I’m used to reading at a very slow pace, whereas, for example, a companion of mine once flew into a rage because she couldn’t deal with the long sentences, but also couldn’t turn her long ingrained speed-reading off. Another friend of mine used to fast-forward through parts of movies that she found boring, and then get angry at the films when she couldn’t understand what was happening (she was the quintessential person in the movie theatre “Why did they kill that guy? I thought he was with them? He was with the bad guys? When did they say that?”), but that’s a separate problem)
Which brings us around, the long way, to Greenhauser’s I am Always Late to the Party.
It’s a novel that came out a few years back, and one that I didn’t pay much attention to on its release, though a lot of folks seemed quite taken by it.
A quick plot summary: Esther, a woman in her late 20s, attempts to “rationalize” her life, by making everything she possibly can completely optimal. She counts her steps, she notes how many times she chews each different type of food, she measures how long she needs to sleep given what activities she has performed each day, etc. etc. She figures that by doing this, she will save herself enough time and effort that she’ll have time to be happy, that the main source of her unhappiness comes from how busy she is, and if she had the time to relax, she wouldn’t hate herself nor the world around her. She has encounters with various folks, there’s minor plot lines running throughout the book about her landlord trying to get with her sister, her boss dissolving the company because of mismanaged funds, her ex-boyfriend who lives down the street from her job trying to get back on his feet after their recent break-up, but the main thrust is Esther herself trying to solve the condition of her life by making more time.
She fails, as you might imagine.
But what struck me as brilliant about the book was not the set up, nor the rather predictable ending where her best friend lets her know The Secret that life isn’t just a series of tasks to be performed, but something to be relished and enjoyed, and that if you spend all your time trying to make yourself happy, rather than finding happiness, you’ll never succeed, and all that… No, it’s that this section comes while there’s still a good third of the book left, and Esther’s reply is “Yeah, no shit. But I don’t have any money. My job is falling apart. I can’t just fuck off to India for two months, Siobhan,” which, needless to say, isn’t the reaction she was expecting.
Now, they don’t have a big breakdown shouting match or anything, which is another point I liked, because far too often female friendships are depicted as fragile or petty, and this honestly felt like a realistic relationship. Siobhan takes it in stride, and lets Esther complain some more. She’s a good friend. They go out drinking, and through the strange vicissitudes of fate, end up crashing a very fancy party hosted by Simon, who is an amalgamation of a number of business person stereotypes. Esther looks like Simon’s ex-girlfriend from behind, and he ends up shouting a ton of nasty things at her, which Esther initially takes as criticism at her crashing the party. But then he gets more personal, going on about parts of their “relationship”, and finishes by calling her Grace. Only after he’s made a fool of himself does she turn around and say “I think you meant to say that to someone else.”
Esther and Siobhan get back to Esther’s apartment, and Siobhan passes out in Esther’s bed. Esther tries sleeping on the couch, but finds that this has fully thrown her attempts to control her life astray. It will take weeks for her to get back on track. But when she controlled everything, she wasn’t happy. What was she doing with all that spare time? Trying to figure out ways to arrange for more spare time? And when she let herself go and didn’t care, at the end of the night, regardless of how good a time she had, she was still back in the same place. What was the point? Why bother with any of it? She goes to the top of her building, intending to jump, but finds that the entire roof has been encircled with fencing and safety nets to prevent this very thing. She laughs, “A sad, private laugh, the sort you’d imagine coming from a clown’s tent as he takes off his make-up after the night is over”, and goes back downstairs.
There’s some plot wrapping up after that (Siobhan punches Judd, Esther’s ex-, when he shows up the next morning, her landlord and her sister finally go on a date, her boss sells the company and Esther doesn’t lose her job, she meets Grace and learns what an ass Simon was during their relationship, etc.), but this is really where the novel ends in terms of character development and significant action.
It isn’t that she chooses not to commit suicide, it is that suicide is made just inconvenient enough for her not to bother making the effort. Her life isn’t good, per se, but she is forbidden from stopping it easily. She must go on living, happy or not, unless she really doesn’t want to. And, which is why I’m glad the novel doesn’t end on the rooftop, the world doesn’t care whether or not she likes it or hates it. Life still moves on for other people.
One will hope that it will keep its place in the literary consciousness, but sadly, I’ve not seen a copy in bookstores since I bought mine.
So it goes, I guess.