My annual seasonal depression is slowly but surely kicking in – why do I feel so tired all the time, I text my sister, and she responds, Because winter is coming. Oh, the equatorial child in me can never truly be squashed out – I should have brought my SAD lamp up from Norwich!
How fitting, then, to have read two books this week by two of my lifelong favourite female authors, two books about time passing, about the importance of rituals to acknowledge the passage of time, about how the seasons turn, turn, turn. Two established female novelists, two writers I’ve been reading for decades (one since I was eleven/twelve, one since I was twenty-one).
“I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned that has helped me,” he said. “Shall I?”
“Yes, tell me,” she said, growing still.
“I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.”
She thought that over.
“But…” she said.
“But… is that enough?” she asked him.
“Well, yes, it turns out that it is,” he said.
(Anne Tyler, Clock Dance)
I wonder if there’s a tendency to take mid-career writers for granted – to under-appreciate them. I don’t really know anyone else who reads Anne Tyler – sometimes I wonder if she’s seen as untrendy. All I know is that I find Anne Tyler deeply, profoundly comforting. Do I believe that the quirky, eccentric neighbours in Clock Dance are this friendly in real life? Probably not. But what does that say about me?
There was an odd little silence. Then Willa said–she couldn’t help herself–“What do you live for?”
“Well, one thing is that when you’re old, everything takes more time. Bathing, counting out my pills, putting in my eye drops… you’d be amazing at how much of the day a person can fill that way.”
“Ah,” Willa said.
Although this was not much use to Willa. She was still very quick on her feet.
“But sometimes it feels so repetitive. You know? Like when I’m getting dressed. I’ll think, These same old, same old colors; I wish I had some new ones. But there aren’t any new ones, anywhere on earth. Or vegetables: same old vegetables. Come suppertime and there’s spinach, or there’s tomatoes, or there’s corn… Why can’t they invent some new vegetables? It seems I’ve used everything up.”
“There’s broccolini,” Cheryl said suddenly. “That’s a new vegetable.”
I LOVED reading this book. The structure is shockingly experimental! We start out with three major incident’s of Willa’s life (all of which are spoiled on the book jacket summary): the night her mother disappears for 24 hours, the day she gets engaged, her husband’s death in a car accident. And then we jump to the longest section, in which Willa is unexpectedly invited to Baltimore to take care of her son’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter (whew!). I found this fascinating – the extreme jumps through time; the way we see Willa change and grow. Definitely as I get older, the themes in Tyler’s fiction (am I a good person? Have I done anything with my life) resonate all the more strongly with me.
This is definitely the kind of book that will remind you to call your grandma more often.
“I mean, sometimes when I’m feeling sorry for myself, I try the opposite approach: I widen out my angle of vision till I’m only a speck on the globe.”
“Well,” Willa said, “but doesn’t that make you feel kind of… puny?”
“I am puny,” he said. “We all are. We’re all just infinitesimal organisms floating through a vast universe, and whether we remembered to turn the oven off doesn’t make a bit of difference.”
That he considered this to be comforting made Willa laugh.
“That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.” (Ali Smith, Winter)
Winter was definitely less of an escape than Clock Dance, as it deals directly with Twitter, the current U.S. president (not named but blatantly present), the isolating effects of technology, and the history of protest in the UK (specifically the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp). This New Yorker review by James Wood gives a really helpful overview of her recent work – I keep forgetting how pun-ny Ali Smith is, and how much puns drive the themes in her writing. I think my favorite pun-tastic riff in Winter was on “to-day”, in the sense of treating it as a verb. How do you day, one of the characters wonders. Is it the same thing as to love?
The environmental themes in Winter also stood out to me – in one of the book’s many Leonara Carrington-esque surreal sequences, one character sees a piece of coastline floating above the dinner table. I’m reminded of her short stories of the rose bush growing in a chest, or the woman who falls in love with a tree. Is this the most pressing theme of our time? How we relate to the non-human, to the natural world around us? Can the human and non-human exist together in an ethical way? Will embracing interdependent relationshps with nonhuman nature save us?
The world is completely fucked, the new Brazilian president is probably going to destroy the Amazon rainforest, and my Vitamin D levels are super low and getting lower, but I’m glad these two writers are still working. Models to emulate.