Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Memory's Gate

The author of this 1989 novel, Greg Erickson, is a fellow congregant of mine at St. Cloud Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (  I’m looking forward to talking to him about it, but this blog post is being written with no input from him.  I’m hoping he’ll leave a comment, so my readers can see what he thinks of my reading of his book.

One thing I want to ask him is how he got the idea for the book.  He takes the religious idea of reincarnation and the romantic idea of a “soul mate,” combines them, literalizes them, and puts them into a realistic setting.  What if you could identify someone who shared your soul in a past life?  What if you could identify the person who, in this life, shares the soul of your previous identity’s soul mate?   That is what happens in Memory’s Gate.  It is almost enough to make you believe in reincarnation.  Well, maybe not, but it will definitely make you believe in imagination.  And Greg Erickson has plenty of that!

He also has the skill to construct a narrative that moves back and forth in time from the the life of Paul Weeres in the present day to his past life in the form of Michael McSwain in the 19th century, not to mention the flashbacks during Weeres’ life.  The flashback is certainly an appropriate device to use for an exploration of past lives; however, all this time travel requires readers’ full attention lest they mix up, not only the time sequence in Weeres’ life, but also what happens to whom in both lives, especially since the two lives have several parallels.

Weeres goes along with a hypnotist at a dinner party, who, apparently by accident, regresses him to his past life as Michael McSwain.  Later, automatic writing appears on one of Weeres’ antique typewriters, eventually leading him to the elaborate scheme concocted by McSwain to contact, not only his soul in the next life, but also that of his first wife and soul mate.  The whole narrative is quite ingenious.

In addition to McSwain’s quest to contact the future and Weeres’ journey to understand reincarnation and contact the past, there is Weeres’ romantic quest for his soul mate, which is mostly a waiting game as he cycles through a wife and several lovers, both real and potential.

Erickson’s genius is to make all this reasonably credible.  According to reincarnation theory, nothing is a coincidence.  Even so, it was a bit of a stretch for me that the soul of McSwain’s second wife ends up in the body of his great-granddaughter, who becomes Weeres’ lover.  There’s also a pretty bizarre episode in which McSwain’s former housekeeper goes off the deep end and tries to murder his second wife in a knife attack.  For the most part, though, Erickson keeps the narrative on a pretty realistic and believable plane.

Nevertheless, there’s a gothic quality as the supernatural (and the violence) intersect with everyday reality.  Yet, the style evokes more curiosity and suspense than fear, and the protagonists emerge, not only relatively unscathed, but fulfilled. However gothic, the narrative does not play out in terms of mere escape from the irrational, but in terms of domestication of the irrational.  The seemingly irrational notion of reincarnation is tamed and incorporated into the realm of ordinary reality.

Similarly, if you accept the rational reality of reincarnation, then the romantic idea of a soul mate is perfectly sensible.  The only question is whether the two souls will find each other.  A lot depends on the suspension of disbelief.

What I found most fascinating, though, is the way reincarnation can stand in for the somewhat unorthodox religion that Erickson and I share, Unitarian Universalism.  I have no idea if it was intentional, but, knowing Greg, when I read of the suspicion, especially in the 19th century setting, with which reincarnation was viewed, I could not help but think of how Unitarian Universalism today is often viewed as a questionable, fringy, if not cultish, belief system. 

Weeres, to some extent, but especially McSwain, must keep his belief in reincarnation secret, McSwain from 19th century conservative Christians and Weeres from 20th century rational skeptics.  Similarly, Unitarian Universalism is often viewed, at best, as a weird religion, and, at worst, as a form of devil worship.  When one considers that reincarnation would be viewed, at best, with skepticism, and, at worst, with contempt by most Unitarian Universalists today, the historical parallels and ironies compound.

One way to read this novel is simply as imaginative play.  And that’s enough right there.  It’s a fun read.  But you could also find, if you are so inclined, a message about enduring truths of human experience, truths about the quest for identity and lasting love, for example.  But there’s also a message about how social conformity and environmental pressures control our belief systems, and the tremendous effort it requires to resist those forces and pursue our own truth. 

I can’t wait to ask Greg what he thought he was doing in this novel!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Every Last One

Coincidentally, immediately after The Scent of Rain and Lightning (see previous post), I read another novel about an ordinary family experiencing extraordinary tragedy, Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One (2010).  This time I’m reminded of Judith Guest’s Ordinary People (1976), which I taught to college students in a course on gender issues in literature. 

Guest’s novel focuses on the aftereffects of the accidental drowning of the older son and attempted suicide of the younger one on an affluent, suburban family.  The traumatic events have already occurred when the novel begins, and we watch as the younger son travels his journey to health and healing, with the help of an able psychologist, and as his parents, particularly his mother, slowly unravel.  In The Scent of Rain and Lightning, we learn of the tragic events through a lengthy flashback.  The death of Jody’s parents thus occurs near the center of the novel.  Similarly, the tragic event of Every Last One occurs at almost the exact center of the novel, after 17 chapters on the everyday life of the Lathams, another affluent, suburban family.

During those 17 chapters there is a continuous sense of foreboding.  There is the middle school son suffering from depression, the teenage daughter who breaks up with her boyfriend (who doesn’t take it well), the stable but humdrum marriage, and the hint of previous infidelity, but nothing that really seems to justify the ominous air of impending doom.  Will there be a divorce? Suicide? Something worse? Something will happen, but what?  Nothing prepares us for the “something worse” that occurs to that family on what seems to be a typical New Year’s Eve, though the signs have been there all along.  I read those signs no better than the mother of the family, the ever-vigilant mother ceaselessly looking out for potential threats to the well-being of her family.

The last 16 chapters tell of the restoration of order, of health, of something approaching normal life, punctuated by mini-crises and transitions.

The novel is structured by the passing seasons and the annual events (high school prom, summer camp, Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s, high school graduation, summer camp, etc).  The primary sections are marked by three houses: the original family home, the transitional guest house of a friend, and the new house, where Mary Beth, the mother, seeks to build a new life.

On one level this is a story of motherhood, the process of maintaining the order, health, and happiness of the family.  Although Mary Beth runs her own landscaping business in the community, her primary focus is the caretaking of her family: keeping house for them, feeding them, surveilling them, disciplining them, creating opportunities for them, and supporting them.  At one point, late in the novel, she says that every fear is a fear of dying, “every last one,” and it has been her mission to keep disorder, illness, and death at bay.  It turns out that no amount of education, affluence, privilege, caretaking, or vigilance can ensure her success.  And so her mission must become learning to live with that knowledge.

As with all novels there are political messages if you look for them. For example:  with all our progress women still bear primary responsibility for domestic life and therefore the blame for its failures and oversights; or, while class privilege cannot protect you from tragedy, it can sure help insulate you as you pick up the pieces (friends with guest houses, prescription medication, life insurance, a generous inheritance, psychologists, grief counselors).   

Mary Beth can be seen as a social “victim” in one case and a beneficiary in the other.  Transcending her position in the matrix of social power, however, is the universal quest for order, health, and happiness in a world in which death is the universal end and the universal fear.

Kiernan, the boyfriend that the Latham’s daughter, Ruby, breaks up with the night of prom, had been a childhood friend, the son of a family who had once lived next door.  Their quest for order, health, and happiness had been derailed early, first by the drowning death of Kiernan’s younger brother in the backyard pool, then by divorce, and, then, apparently, by  the emotional instability of the mother, Deborah.

Much later, in Kiernan’s makeshift room is found a wall of photographs he has taken of Mary Beth’s family, especially of Ruby, with the words “Happy Families” spray painted over them.  This reference to the famous quote from Tolstoy in *Anna Karenina* is suggestive: “Happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Whatever you think of the quote, Kiernan seems to prefer Ruby’s family to his own.  At least the Lathams are intact.

The quest for family happiness and the contrast between “happy” and “unhappy” families are central to the book.  Further, if the Lathams represent the “happy,” then Kiernan’s family represents, not only the “unhappy,” but also the shadow, or dark side, of the “happy” family. 

The two have been closely connected: they lived next door to each other, Deborah and Mary Beth were best friends, Kiernan and Ruby had been a “couple” almost from childhood, and, it turns out, Mary Beth had had a brief adulterous fling with Deborah’s husband.  Did Deborah know? Did Kiernan know?  The husband had been a serial adulterer, so when Deborah threw him out, it’s not clear how much she knew about all her husband’s partners.  Whether Deborah “knew” or not, Mary Beth’s own guilt might have weakened the friendship.   In any case, after the divorce Deborah and Kiernan move, and, while Kiernan continues to be a regular at the Latham home, Mary Beth’s friendship with Deborah wanes. 

Mary Beth’s affair, however brief, is one indication that all is not well in the “happy” Latham family.  And how much does her own family know about that?  If Kiernan knows, did he tell Ruby?  Does Mary Beth’s husband know?  Another sign is the tension between the Latham twin sons, one of whom is a successful athlete, who has lots of friends, unlike his brother, who is more of a loner with an artistic bent.  The latter son shows signs of depression and starts seeing a psychologist, who specializes in twins.  Then there is the break-up between Ruby and Kiernan, which seems to liberate Ruby, but devastates Kiernan, who keeps finding excuses to see Ruby and visit the family.

After that fateful New Year’s Eve, when the dark side erupts, Kiernan’s family is further destroyed, the Lathams are no longer “intact,” much less “happy,” and Deborah blames Mary Beth.   Was Tolstoy right, or is there only a thin line of difference between the two types of families, a line that can be crossed in an instant?

Is hope to be found in the contrast between the ways the two former friends respond to their respective tragedies?  When Deborah takes revenge by deliberately crashing into Mary Beth’s car multiple times in a parking lot, it does not bode well for her recovery.  Mary Beth, on the other hand, while, for the first time, setting a clear boundary between herself and Deborah, appears to be on the road to rebuilding her life and what’s left of her family, not that one ever fully recovers from the kind of tragedy she suffered.  At least, as she says at the end, she is “trying.”  

That may be the most redemption the novel offers in this sadly tragic tale.  There is more reason for hope, but that would give away too much to anyone interested in reading the book for themselves.  In any case, whatever hope we are left with is tempered by the knowledge that death is still the universal end and the universal fear for every last one of us.