Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Once you agree it's love, something about it is over

Love stories are a confessional whispered to a third party, not the lover, because once you agree it's love, something about it is over.
This is not a love story. It's a story about a love story.

When I read a review of Break.up, by Joanna Walsh, early last summer, I thought it might help me process a difficult breakup of my own. I ran right out to buy it, but for some reason delayed reading it. I was feeling a sense of urgency, both regarding getting over this guy, R, but also about writing about that experience and my various epiphanies, but I think I wanted my closure to be pure, uncoloured by this kind of autofiction.

I left Break.up lying on my coffee table all summer. Sometimes it would admonish me to just get on with it, get on with all of it... the writing, the living, the loving.

When months later I finally got around to reading it, I was processing an entirely different lovelife state. What I hadn't known when I acquired Break.up was that I was then exchanging the initial text messages with M, what is no doubt my strangest (and still ongoing) "relationship" to date. Months on I was struggling to pin it down, I wanted to fold it up and put it in a box, tuck it away. For my own good, really. But I let it flutter on, too impalpable to be described.

R was my spring, long gone before I started reading Break.up, and quite unexpectedly, and just as I turned the final pages, he appears to be back in my life.

O was my autumn, a potential romantic interest, then an occasional lover, then a friend. But Break.up cast light on that relationship too. And as I turned the final pages, the friendship cracked.

But it was the summer (the year?) of M. I've never met M in real life. Sometimes I wonder whether he really exists as he's presented himself — maybe he lives in a basement around the corner from me, maybe he's someone I already know. Does it even matter if he exists as anything at all outside my own head?
Your tongue in my mouth: did we speak truer when we spoke online, without bodies, sounding tinkling with the tongues of angels?
The men who counted last year amount to a trinity, my trinity of men — my R, O, and M — my read-only memory.

I met them all online.

And this is the point of Break.up: the strange state of text-based relationships.

I had 13 face-to-face encounters with R. Fewer than that with O. None at all with M. Yet the messages we exchanged number many thousand.
But I don't like phone-talk: so breathily intimate, my ear up against someone's mouth, the crackly physical proximity of my parents' era. I remember everything you said out loud. It's my own words I didn't hear. When I talked they echoed round my skull, or down the line, but didn't stick. As I pushed them out I couldn't hear myself speak. I wonder what I said to you. Type, at least, had memory. Give me the cold keys of my aluminum laptop and I'll play them like a Belleville piano. What's more, writing gives me time for some elegance of response, (elegance is refusal), for some esprit d'├ęscalier, in the timelapse. An object qui parle, naturally there were things I held back. [sic]
I think of myself as a text-based person — and here I mean literary text as opposed to phone text. I think I'm better "on paper." I like to think about my words before I commit them to paper, before I commit to them, before I commit them. I have never written so much as I did in 2018, drafts of stories and character sketches, poetic outpourings, notes to boys. And never have words been so inadequate.

She considers the rules of the game: the correspondence takes turns. Is it my turn to respond? How long can I take to respond? The gap between messages widens. What if you don't respond?
Now each word has more edges, and they are sharp: your works are more defined now because, though you still write to me, there are fewer of them, and they come less often. All those words we used to have, and now we're monosyllabic! Each stands out, sparser therefore more distinct, changing the focus, making it difficult to judge how far away you are from me.
Walsh travels across Europe for the length of this text.
It's just one of those pieces of Rome that cracks through the concrete of the present day like a bad memory, a way in for grass, for all kinds of untidy thoughts.
When R and I broke up, I walked back and forth across my city, saw the ghosts of us everywhere, back and forth.

Walsh writes things that are eerily similar to lines among my own post-break-up scribblings last spring. Walsh writes: "You, for instance, are not here now, and you-not-being-here accompanies me wherever I go." "Love's not analog, it's digital." (Although, I argued the opposite.) "What I miss is desire."

As I mentioned previously, I didn't entirely connect with this book. The syntax is precious, surely the result of writer's workshops.

Despite the subject, it's emotionally distant, almost alienatingly so. It's too personal to be a universal experience for a reader to automatically embody.

But I love the fragmented nature of this book, travelling from place, to memory, to place. I love the quotes scattered throughout: Breton, Heidegger, Barthes, etc. (I saw a girl reading Nadja on the metro, I wanted to hug her.)

It's important that there's very little about him in this text at all. It's not about him, not really.
In the last year I've read everything I could find about love. What did these books tell me? All about what it is to be a lover, next to nothing about the beloved, in any case, nothing that matched your own specific oddness, or maybe I mean my own. But I have found that writing is not a tool that can be turned upon anything: I have not chosen what to write about, I have only decided whether to write about what I have. Writing is not transferrable, perhaps.
I too have been doing research, reading everything I could find about love, I read this book about love. I've learned nothing.

It's about a year ago that I read Elif Batuman's The Idiot. It's shortly thereafter that I started online dating, and the mood of that book lingered, coloured my experience.

Here's what I've learned in the past year, from real life and from the books:
  1. Relationships happen inside one person's head, they are forged and broken there.
  2. Love does not exist between two people, love is one person's attitude to the world (and with any luck, it coincides with that of another).
  3. Words are inadequate, no matter which words, no matter how many.
In the Guardian, Break.up by Joanna Walsh review – the end of a virtual affair:
What I feel in the end is admiration without pleasure. Walsh places feelings on display, yet keeps them austerely inaccessible, and I see the point of this without enjoying the effect.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fighting for Emotional Liberty in Joanna Walsh’s “Break.up”:
Break.up is as much about the loss of emotional liberty in a world that relies more and more on digital connection as it is about the loss of love.

1 comment:

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