Saturday, July 17, 2010

Heartbreak Warfare: Me and Myself on Our Better Selves

"Once you want it to begin, no one ever really heartbreak warfare."

Me: I just finished reading Nick Hornby's How to Be Good.

Myself: I really enjoyed it, even though it was sometimes like stabbing myself in the eye. It's the chronicle of a marriage in the trenches, and like the opening scene of the otherwise comedic Date Night: sometimes a little too real.

Me: There's something I appreciate about raw portrayals of everyday lives. I think I come out feeling more normal. But the few close friends I asked who've read the book either loved it or hated it. I am curious to hear the analysis of my fellow Book Clubbers at our discussion next week...

Myself: It's painful to read the honest revelations of a dissatisfied wife in a wretched union, albeit fictional. For example: "There have been times recently, since the beginning of our troubles, when the sight of David awake, active, conscious, walking and talking has made me want to retch, so acute is my loathing of him..."


"Phone calls like ours only happen when you've spent several years hurting and being hurt, until every word you utter or hear becomes coded and loaded, as complicated and full of subtext as a bleak and brilliant play."

Me: Ouch. I spent a good portion of the book hoping to never resemble those remarks too closely. However, it's Nick Hornby, and therefore there's humor, as well as glimmers of hope.

Myself: The book is partly about making peace with the lot you've both been dealt and chosen, and partly about how simple it is, ultimately, to be little more good...a little, dare I say, nicer.

Me: I could relate a little to protagonist, Katie, a doctor who gives herself "goodness" credit for having chosen a helping profession. But she admits she's not always nice to her patients...

Myself: I am definitely guilty of wanting to be a nice person.

Me: "Guilty" of it, haha.

Myself: Well, I think that's a little at the heart of what this book explores. Goodness for the sake of sanctimonious purity is not all that pure, after all.

Me: If you're shoving it down others' throats, or being superficial, certainly. Goodness isn't a competition. One of the questions Hornby asks is do we strive to be good for our own sakes, for others close to us, or for our audience (society/community)? And what about people who totally reject the notion that we should be good, or nice?

Myself: I think it would be interesting to live without conscience for a day or two. I analyze too much.

Me: Goodness shouldn't be driven by guilt.

Myself: I know. I feel guilty that sometimes I think my goodness is driven by guilt.

Me: This book makes me think that maybe in a marriage, no one should be measurably "gooder" than the other.

Myself: Actually, I think no one should be measuring. When someone starts measuring, that's when the trouble starts.

Me: Yes!

Myself: Hornby sets up this awesome juxtaposition with Katie and her husband to explore these questions. Husband and wife are in cycle of hatefulness; Katie has a brief affair; Katie confesses such to her husband. She just about brings her marriage to its knees, except for the fact that her husband won't agree to divorce her, and then consults an alternative healer and becomes a Really Good Guy. Perhaps too good: Katie evolves from being annoyed with her generally pissed-off spouse to being annoyed with a mate who not only refuses to fight with her but wants to shelter homeless people in their house.

Me: Her husband turns everything upside down, and the change is abrupt, as Katie observes: "We are the ideal family. We eat together, we play improving board games instead of watching television, we smile a lot. I fear that at any moment I may kill somebody."

Myself: Imagine having all of your values and ways of life evaluated not only by your newly philanthropic husband, but also by a live-in Spiritual Guru named GoodNews.

Me: I love the dialogue between GoodNews and the family members. In one of his first scenes, GoodNews explains to Katie that he doesn't like beds: "I just think they make you soft. Take you further away from how things really are." When Katie asks, "And how are things?" she gets, "That's a big question, Katie...and I don't know if you are ready for the big answer."

Myself: Katie balances coping cynically with the changes around her with trying to participate genuinely in a search for goodness. She goes to church. She reinvests in some relationships she's neglected. When GoodNews suggests "Reversalism," ("If you stole something, give it back...if you were horrible, you have to be nice"), Katie gamely invites her least-favorite patient over for dinner.

Me: I love that part--"Barmy Brian" is such a tragicomic character.

Myself: And he too almost moves in with the family, along with homeless teen "Monkey" and GoodNews.

Me: The Reversalism idea is the straw that breaks the back of this journey, though.

Myself: Well, really--would you want someone who wronged you in the past to call you up and invite you to dinner or make some charitable offering, all with the purpose of making their own self feel better?

Me: I would probably go along with it to be nice. And out of a sort of curiosity.

Myself: It's a turning point when both Katie's husband David and GoodNews call up people they've detested to make nice and despite themselves, find they still detest them.

Me: You can feel Katie's little sense of glee when these schemes GoodNews and David come up with falter.

Myself: Well, because it's a novel portraying extremes: extreme unhappiness attempting to be remedied by extreme lifestyle change.

Me: Kind of the definition of mid-life crisis.

Myself: Ultimately, the answer lies in the middle somewhere. Perhaps starting with agreeing not to use sarcasm, contempt, and blame as the commerce of your relationship.

Me: I have to bite my lip sometimes to stray from the script. A gift I can give my husband is often simply not saying what he expects me to say in response to whatever annoying action I expected him to do. One annoyed person who can tell herself to get over it is better than two annoyed people locked in detente.

Myself: More John Mayer lyrics: "I swear to God we're gonna get it right if we lay our weapons down..."

Me: At the end of the novel nothing is really better. There's still a marriage that requires work and a family in need of healing.

Myself: Which leads me to what I think is the other message of the book--one that newlyweds and idealistic unmarrieds don't want to hear, perhaps: That sometimes happy marriages rely on the conviction that This Life I've Chosen is quite good, actually, despite not matching up with Hollywood standards. "I can do this," Katie concludes, "I can live this life."

Me: I think she should summon up a little more enthusiasm. Maybe sign up for a class or exercise more often.

Myself: Look inward.

Me: Right. It seems to me that dissatisfaction with a marriage, or one's life, is usually about dissatisfaction with oneself. Before looking outward--blaming others, having an affair, charting a path of self-destruction--one should explore small changes to one's life.

Myself: And be hopeful and optimistic.

Me: And nicer.

Myself: But not necessarily to be better. To feel better, to live better.

Me: Amen.

1 comment:

Ms. F said...

This book sounds like something I could get into...I haven't read Hornby since "High Fidelity" -- which I loved. Danny mocks me because I still make people "mix tapes", only now they're CDs or playlists... :)