Thursday, July 9, 2015

Reading Ahead: My Weakness for Spoiler Alerts

We just finished watching the first season of Bloodline on Netflix. I made it through several episodes more than once, as T's schedule didn't quite correspond with my son's, and my boy couldn't wait to see the end. I agreed. The Rayburn family runs an inn in Key Largo, and their long-buried secrets and dark resentments had captivated me. An only child, I've always found glimpses of sibling interactions like visiting a foreign country. For the first season at least, this show is an extended close up of four grown children acting out in spectacular fashion, complete with blame, self-pity, passive aggression, and epic self medicating. I can't stop watching.

As the arc of the story stretched toward a reckoning, I confessed to my child I'd read a full first-season synopsis and knew what would happen, though of course I wouldn't tell him. "Who does that?" he demanded. He couldn't understand why I would ruin it for myself. My reply was that once I knew the plot, I could relax and enjoy the characters, the dialogue, the details of the set. A few minutes later, I commented that the screenwriters for the series must have had some pretty jacked up families. "Yeah, they probably had mothers who read plot summaries instead of just watching the show." 

I didn't find out the gender of either of my children before they were born. I don't shake presents under the Christmas tree. There's no question I like to be prepared, but my point is that in some circumstances, it is actually possible for me allow a situation to unfold without fiddling with it. That all goes out the window in the face of dramatic narrative.

Rarely do I go to the movies, and almost never alone. Certain kinds of art (it doesn't even have to be all that good) have a profound effect upon me, a cause of great embarrassment from childhood. I'm fearful of the strong emotions movies often dredge up in me. I hate weeping in public. Vivid depictions of death or assault or anything to do with harming a child leave me dragging existential sadness around long after the lights come up. When I watch anything more potent than Something's Gotta Give at home, someone else has to be there. Not really to share the experience as much as to put up with my leaving the room during particularly violent or sad sequences, returning when the offending scene is over to ask for a brief update.

Books are different. First of all, I can always take a break if it's too much. Or read ahead, just a little. When I was young I did this routinely, until I read Henry James' A Turn of the Screw and, heart pounding, couldn't stop to do so because it was just so good. I recognized that when the story was cranking along, it was best to go with it. Also, novels are not an assault upon the senses the movies are, and I feel safer in my imagination. Still, it's a habit I have had trouble breaking.

I just finished two books of quality and structure that simply would not let me read ahead. Louisa Meets Bear, by Lisa Gornick, is a set of ten short stories that all stand admirably on their own. But read them in sequence, and it becomes clear there is a filament that connects the collection through overlapping characters mentioned in one and appearing in another. The relationships Gornick sketches are also held together by fragile means, and much of what transpires is about people trying very hard to be with those they love but never quite completely reaching one another. When reading these stories as presented and reaching the final one, the reader is rewarded with a deeply satisfying ending.

In Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, our protagonist is Ursula Todd, also part of a messy family with a large brood and a couple of servants. The characters' natures are all fixed throughout the book: Ursula herself is intelligent and uncompromising, and her sister is happily domesticated and loving. Their older brother is odious, their father kind, their mother self-absorbed. There is an adored little brother called Teddy, a crazy aunt, an assortment of pets and always the desperate, grisly reality of London for those who remained during the Blitz.

The plot appears to skip a beat at the beginning. Did the infant Ursula die during childbirth, or did the doctor make it through the snow? Hanging in there, we realize that all the way through, the fate of Ursula and the others in her life is changeable. Did she marry a German who left her alone with babies as the borders to her homeland shut down, or did she remain a spinster having secret affairs? Does Teddy marry the girl next door, or is she murdered as a child? What Atkinson seems to be telling us is that life is consistent only in its uncertainty; turn down one block instead of another, and it could change altogether. Best just to let go and see what happens.

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