Thursday, May 23, 2019

The possibility of joy

I went out into the undimmed, Katherine-Mortenhoe-dancing-down-the-street-morning.

Spring. That day spring was special. Not just a matter of cuckoos and poetic crocuses. That day spring was special, an affair in the blood that even the largest city could not arrest, a process that enlarged one's perceptions till even oneself could be almost beautiful. In March the sun may shine and the air may be balmy, but without April in the blood this lightheartedness never catches fire. The building may purr, but the body knows better. It wears its ugly winter, summer, autumn skin and, as in all these seasons, knows no other. Only in spring is the flesh new, and the spirit incorruptible. Which made, I thought on that sweetly sad, sadly sweet, Katherine Mortenhoe morning, the spring the only bearable time for dying.
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton, skewered me.

I wept. I wept for my pathetic self. I wept for my wasted years. I wept for the children I wanted but didn't have. I wept for the novel I haven't written. I wept in self-pity. I raged against the man who cheated me of fertile years, and cheats me still of the private moments he's made it near impossible for me to find. I raged against the days that fall away.

I wept for humanity, that we are so embarrassed, ashamed, afraid to ask for what we want, what we need from each other. That it is so difficult to show kindness. That we don't know what kindness is.

I once fell in love with a man who lived so much in the present he couldn't remember yesterday and made no plan for tomorrow. I accused him of being digital. Discontinuous.

In Katherine's case, it's illness. She is dying of information overload — a breakdown of the neural circuits having exceeded their limits. It's accompanied by psychological phenomena, neural spasm and nausea best described as outrage. She becomes first by choice and then as a consequence of disease "free of context."

In D. G. Compton, Authenticity, and Privacy in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Anna E. Clark writes:
In a nod to Mortenhoe's title, Roddie says at one point that people are only true when they're "continuous" — when, that is, they're made up of things — names, desires, traits — that endure from one moment to the next. Roddie initially believes that these continuous qualities inhere in the person herself, but by Mortenhoe's conclusion we are left with the feeling that they belong not to us but to others. They are the products of the ways we're seen, the ways we're documented.
When do you cease to exist? When do you cease to exist for others? What would you do if you knew you had only a month to live? Would you live your same life? With the same people? Go to the same job? Would you sign a TV contract for a reality show? ("Certainly human behavior has changed since the coming of TV behavior.") Would you go off-grid? How exactly would you do that?
Seven hours remained. I suppose seven hours do not sound all that terrible. Neither, really, do four hundred and twenty minutes. But I counted them, every one. And they're more than enough when all your life has is an ambition you've seen through, a hope you dare not examine, and a direction you'd rather not guess. They're enough to make possibilities of joy seem, to say the least, a bit ridiculous.
Katherine's diagnosis comes at a time when disease has been virtually eradicated. It's unheard of to die of anything but old age. Katherine's 44. Perhaps it's telling that she works as a programmer of romance novels. Katherine leaves her husband, and it's not immediately clear to Katherine or the reader whether it's out of love, to spare him the ordeal.

Roddie, meanwhile, is a TV personality who's had a camera implanted in his eyes. Everything he sees is automatically captured and transmitted to the studio for review and editing. (It's like he's live-streaming. He can cut audio, but he has somewhat modified his gaze — always scanning for the moneyshot but never looking down when he pees.) His network has invested in him, intent on broadcasting Katherine's demise to a "pain-starved public."

This near-future scenario from 1974 felt a little dated at the start, with its forward-looking vision of public telephones (hah!), post offices and reams of mail (how quaint), reality TV (wait a second...), and hi-fi records (umm...). But that Philip K Dick/Robert Sheckley vibe quickly faded into the background. It became a brilliant story of two fucked-up people in fucked-up circumstances.

Katherine seems to have a clear idea of how she should come to her end, but she turns out to be confused, desperate, and lonely. Roddie is truly conflicted, remorseful, and wants to atone.

They grow very close to each other, both lying to each other, and it is profoundly moving.
The thing is, beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder. Neither is compassion, or love, or even human decency. They're not of the eye, but of the mind behind the eye. I had seen, my mind had seen, Katherine Mortenhoe with love. Had seen beauty. But my eyes had simply seen Katherine Mortenhoe. Had seen Katherine Mortenhoe. Period.
I also saw her with love.

I want to see people as continuous. I want to see the possibility of joy.

The Atlantic published an adapted version of Jeff VanderMeer's introduction to the novel.

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