Those secret, shameful habits of yours
Plus end-of-year reading recommendations
Dear friend —
I don’t know anyone who’s happy with the way 2020 went, though if you think back on it, we all made quite the effort. Every day we took care of our homes and bodies, survived the daily pummeling of bad news, and eked out a living besides — or something close to it.
And some goals we set for ourselves we actually did achieve — though likely they weren’t the things we hoped to make happen at the beginning of the year. This year I left Los Angeles and became a nomad — which is to say that I literally stopped working toward goals and instead opted to wander aimlessly.
Maybe I’m describing not 2020 as a whole but the end of 2020. At this point of the year there’s the sense of life just going on formlessly, its loose ends drooping like the strings of tired balloons, shriveled and slowly sinking to the floor because the party was over days ago, and it happened without you. The end of the year feels like purgatory, we trudge through it wanting it to be over already, we chafe against the grimy December days grinding on and on and on, keeping us from the fresh new year. Though as with all unpleasant places, purgatory too has its pleasures — the end of the year gives us full permission to wallow and sink and writhe around in our miseries, to isolate and indulge in those secret, shameful habits we can only truly enjoy when we’re alone.
That, in short, is the sort of pleasure reading has given me this year.
Novels, especially novels by women, are often considered frivolous things, but when I’m engrossed in a good one I feel I’m doing something vitally important — like I’m neck deep in the work of ferreting out some essential truth about life, something that will shift the world I know to a new configuration, the tweak almost invisible to the naked eye yet responsible for the destruction of everything I believed in before the book. That the emotions these novels elicit are mostly painful ones maybe says something about me — or maybe something more general about our collective propensity toward masochism. Reading about loneliness makes us feel less alone, sadness comforts us, hurting feels like living.
Here are my end-of-year reading recommendations:
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney (Hogarth, 2017)
If you’ve enjoyed the exquisite pleasures of waiting endless for an ex-lover to text, this is the book for you. The narrator, a college student called Frances, is in Dublin on summer break with her ex-lover and best friend, Bobbi. At an open mic, the girls meet an older couple (older meaning in their thirties) — an established photographer-writer called Melissa and her husband Nick, a handsome but only modestly successful actor. An immediate flirtation develops between Bobbi and Melissa, but it’s Frances and Nick who ultimately begin an affair — at first in secret, later more openly. Strange emails and quiet jealousies and emotional fallouts ensue.
If you read the reviews, you’d believe this novel is about adultery, or conversation, or millennial irony, but to me Conversations With Friends is about waiting, the pains and pleasures of it — waiting for the money to show up in the bank account, the story to publish, the lover to call. Because the thing about any affair is that it consists mostly of waiting, and the waiting can go on so long that the pain doesn’t dull exactly, but becomes so much the norm you learn to organize your mundane life around it: “Gradually the waiting started to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.”
Buy at Bookshop
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (Europa, 2005)
Olga too is consumed with tasks, though in her case it’s less to distract herself and more due to necessity, having suddenly become the sole caretaker of her two kids after her husband suddenly declares it’s over and leaves. More things “happen” in this novel — Olga crashes her car, tries to fuck her neighbor, yells at friends, assaults the husband, and just flails around desperately to find something, anything, to escape her misery. Yet there’s so much mundane waiting here too — all the repetitive comforting and cleaning and ferrying around of children, the insistent details of life Olga’s still responsible for even in the midst of an emotional catastrophe.
Most of the time, Olga goes around in a numb, absent-minded state, so removed from the world around her that she asks her little daughter to poke her with a sharp object to bring her back into consciousness. All the while she’s terrified of becoming poverella — the neighborhood’s woman scorned, weepy and purposeless without a man, pitied by all who see her. What will become of Olga? What will become of any of us, with our individual fears of what we don’t want to become? The only thing we can really do is see what happens as time passes. The Days of Abandonment is about abandoning the self to waiting, the hope and fear in it, of what may or may not happen.
Buy at Bookshop
Open Me by Lisa Locascio (Grove, 2018)
There’s a lot of waiting in this novel too. Roxana goes to Denmark for a summer abroad program between high school and college. There, she meets Søren, a Danish grad student she finds cute — and decides on a whim to ditch the program and go live with him in a little remote town. It might be a romantic adventure except Søren mostly goes off to study, keeping Roxana locked up in his apartment.
The situation sounds adult and dangerous — she’s completely isolated, doesn’t speak the language, and is dependent entirely on a guy she barely knows — but in reality is so safe as to be bored as fuck: a teenage girl at home, grounded. Even when Søren is home, he’s distant and asexual. So Roxana spends almost all her time alone, her life delimited to the bedroom, bathroom, living room, her only activities watching TV, thinking, masturbating, and stewing in her own juices, wondering, as we all do: What is so wrong with me that the things I want to happen refuse to happen to me? What do I need to do? How long do I need to wait?
Buy at Bookshop
Of course, Frances, Olga, and Roxana don’t wait forever. All these novels have that turn where things shift. That, I suppose, is the seduction of fiction. All novels sell a fantasy — that everything that happens adds up to something else, even if that something else wasn’t what you initially wanted. Novels sell the illusion that the pain of waiting turns to some form of pleasure, or at least resolution. The lover who ignored us for months will suddenly call. Newer, better adventures will come our way. Despite our mistakes, we’ll learn something, and be changed by it.
Real life makes no such promises, though like a good novel, it leaves open the sense that something unexpected might happen at any time, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe right after I finish this love note.
In the meantime, reading really good books about waiting isn’t a bad way to wait.
Thank you for writing: Responses to your responses to my last love note
I got lots of recommendations for what to do while in Long Beach! Thanks especially to Paige who recommended Seabirds (try the beer battered avo taco).
Jim noted that it seemed odd Dorland Mountain Arts Colony didn’t have a generator, being located in an area where the power has a way of going out. A generator was indeed there — it just wasn’t up to the task! The Dorland generator had the power to keep the wifi working — and, intermittently, the water pump — but nothing else.
Calin: Yes, there was a guy I went out with once who talked an awful lot about werewolves. We did not go out again.
Sara: Tucson didn’t work out for me, but it might work for you! I especially liked the city’s many little free libraries. Half a million people live there and I can't imagine they're all dealing with dry eye issues….
Shoutout to all my fellow female nomads out there. It was lovely hearing from you.
P.S. Three links you might enjoy:
Did you know the New York Public Library has secret apartments?
I created a blob opera. La la la —
P.P.S. If you liked this post, click the heart 👇 and feel free to write back —