Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Man Who Watched the World End

(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Thanks muchly to Lori for providing me both the digital version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.) 

The Man Who Watched the World End, Chris Dietzel
Read: 31 August to 5 September 2013
3.5 / 5 stars 

If you're looking for a breezy, feel-good tale, The Man Who Watched the World End is probably not for you, nor will it be your kind of novel if you prefer endings that are neatly packaged with bright, optimistic bows that herald the joys awaiting a story's characters beyond the last page; however, if you like your fiction to be character-driven and insightful even as it teeters on the brink of society's obsolescence, then Chris Dietzel has written the book for you.

The novel begins as humanity's reign is ending. The children comprising mankind's final generation are alive only in the biological sense. They grow older but are human marionettes: silent, immobile, helpless to care for themselves, kept alive by the loving kin or kindhearted strangers upon whom they are wholly dependent. Decades later, these Blocks (so named "because it was as if their condition obstructed them from the world") and their siblings are the last proof of man's existence, reduced to pockets of senior citizens cohabiting in group settlements (though, if our narrator is indicative of the outliers, a handful are watching their and society's clocks run down in the familiar imprisonment of crumbling homes in derelict neighborhoods) as nature reclaims all that the elderly remnants of a once thriving species no longer have the youthful vigor to defend.

We see very little of this, as the reader's glimpse into the quieting world is a three-month period captured within one lonely old man's lovingly, diligently maintained diary. It is through the eyes of this man -- who, along with his Block brother, is the last human occupant of the otherwise abandoned and symbolically named neighborhood of Camelot -- that the audience bears witness to the conclusion of our earthly chapter. Since the world is ending not with a bang, not even with a whimper but a slow exhalation, there really isn't a whole lot to see other than one man's daily ritual of tending to the brother for whom his love becomes increasingly unyielding, hoping for a southward ride from a passing convoy on its way to one of the communal-living sites, and watching the local flora and fauna take back what man has only temporarily claimed. But this is not a story of man vs. nature, man vs. self or even man vs. improbable odds: It is, simply, an account of one man's life that turns flashbacks into a supporting cast and exposition into thoughtful narration.

The elderly gentleman tasked with narrating the end of society as he witnesses it carries the story almost entirely on his own: his brother is in a waking coma, his last remaining neighbors fled right before the novel's beginning, and the animals surrounding his house are more interested in his future carcass than his breathing companionship -- including the wild dogs and feral cats born of domestic pets so many litters ago. All he has are his memories, which are equally parts familiar and tinged with a foreign sorrow, as he was among the last wave of normally functioning children and grew up knowing that most babies born after him, like his brother, would never be shaken from their unresponsive silences.

As he reveals more of his past self and present worries, he paints a picture of a bygone era that is just recognizable enough to be eerie: His memories are just like any of ours, composites of his internal and external memories with a few of his parents' own that have stuck with him over the years, but interspersed with the sense that doors previously unknown to mankind were suddenly slamming shut forever as he and the rapidly diminishing number of "normal" children became the last to tackle the once-joyous milestones of growing up.

It is in showcasing such memories that Dietzel's attention to detail may shine the brightest, as the far-reaching impact of a species poignantly aware that it has no future was something he obviously (and successfully) considered from all sides. From baby items suddenly becoming a defunct business to the government finally summoning the foresight to ensure the last hiccup of humanity will at least be provided for in what should have been its grandchild-rich golden years, the international ripple effect of newborns lacking discernible brain functions is terrifying in both its implications and the ways in which Dietzel summarily dismantled familiar infrastructure. The secondhand glimpses of a world that has seen the last Hollywood film, the final World Series, the disbanding of governments, the emotional ramifications of tracking the youngest "normal" person, and the annihilation of the hope that keeps us moving forward are hard to watch even as past events, but Dietzel writes so matter-of-factly and compellingly that each memory becomes the ultimate example of how our very human curiosity forces us to ogle unfolding tragedy. 
There are a few weak spots in what is an otherwise impressive debut novel. The greengrocer's apostrophe -- my sworn enemy -- popped in to say hullo a few times ("Dalmatians and Rottweiler's united"; "if the Johnson's just now decided...") and there were a few homophone issues, like "feint breaths," "slightly older then myself" and "faired better," that drove me a little batty. Less frequent were simple editing issues, such as "the last four decades years" and "He couldn't help but be letdown." Aside from a comparatively few lapses in mechanics, the biggest problem I had with the story itself was the government's Survival Bill, which "provided the last generation of functioning adults with resources to take care of themselves and their Block relatives." As a reader, it sometimes seemed like an easy way to sidestep the survival issues a vulnerable society would face in a more brutally overt end-world scenario; as a writer, though, I understood that tacking on the additional responsibility of a people left to fend for themselves without food, electricity and a reliable internet connection in increasingly hostile terrain would only detract from story Dietzel wanted to tell.

But for every one pitfall, The Man Who Watched the World End had a dozen more successes. It shows an incredible awareness of the human condition, of how loneliness and constant reminders of our fading presence in a world we once lorded over can affect everything from a single man to an entire desperate, dying species. The metaphors were resoundingly spot-on: I couldn't help but read the Block phenomenon as a cautionary tale foretelling the long-term dangers of what happens when children of Helicopter Parents grow up without any idea of how to function outside their protective bubbles, and having the narrator reside in Camelot -- a name nearly synonymous with so much promise and so much lost -- was a subtle yet effective touch. 

The Man Who Watched the World End is a tribute to humanity's prodigious knack for optimistic denial and its inability to believe that its end is not only possible but also inevitable. It is fraught with hopefulness and helplessness, a celebration of how the past and present can be powerful motivators in the absence of a future, and a touching example of how the strength of family in all its incarnations can often be enough to keep an individual going against the harshest of odds.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Out with It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice

Out with It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice, Katherine Preston
Read: 31 August 2013
4 / 5 stars

I've stuttered since first grade. My relationship with that part of myself is oceans better than it used to be, though that doesn't mean I'm completely at peace with it. The little girl who was too afraid to assert herself for fear of sputtering all over the difference between what she wanted to say and the tangled ghost of approximation she had to settle for quickly supplanted the even younger girl who had no problem hamming it up with improvised songs and dances on home videos; the adult she grew up to be, on less fluent days, automatically apologizes for stuttering and will feel a wave of relief no less powerful than the countless ones before when her conversational partner says they've never noticed. The wild dream of unblemished speech is just not a realistic one after a certain point, making acceptance the only viable option: Realizing that one merely chooses to live in fear of their own voice and can just as easily choose not to is a moment nearly as empowering as sudden fluency.

Speech therapy was presented as an option exactly once, in what felt like an ambush when my elementary school's speech therapist pulled me aside during class a year later. Not being able to withstand the internally embellished embarrassment of a public outing as someone needing to be fixed while also imagining all the ways I could be reprimanded for interrupting class, I insisted I didn't need help just to end the inquisition as quickly as possible; I now have to assume that academic professionals wouldn't let a clueless seven-year-old have the last say, and that my parents (who, after asking my pediatrician how to treat my stutter, summarily ignored his advice and chose to make fun of me for years to come -- which did have the benefit of making the surprisingly few schoolyard jabs roll right off my otherwise too-sensitive self) or whatever teacher initiated this encounter didn't see the worth in pressing on.

The first time I decided I was ready to try speech therapy was in high school. I only wound up seeing the school's specialist a handful of times, as the sessions pretty much involved me reading aloud from whatever book she had available and her declaration that I didn't have a problem. At that point, after nearly a decade of living with a stutter, I knew my own patterns well enough to be frustrated with a seemingly optimistic prognosis: I have good days and I have bad days, with the problems mostly flaring up at double consonants or when speaking on the phone, and rarely occur when a book or a script supplies my every word.

I doubt I'll ever work with someone to "fix" the way I talk just as much as I doubt the possibility of shedding the verbal flaw I've sported for more than two decades, as I am now more interested in what I can do to encourage understanding but have been unsure of what exactly my options are. So when I stumbled upon an article about this book, I had two immediate reactions: "I absolutely need to read this" and "I absolutely should have written this." (Later, "Why wasn't I interviewed for this?" would come, but fleetingly and only half seriously.) I have never spoken to another stutterer and certainly never had a chance to ask the probing and probably eagerly invasive questions I've been dying to lob at someone else who knows what it's like to live with an invisible hand at one's throat: This book was that chance. Here is someone offering up not only her own experiences but also those of so many others.

Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice is a story in two parts. It is an unflinchingly honest account of its author's nearly lifelong battle with her stutter as well as a study of how the condition manifests itself in others, the schools of thought proposing various coping methods and solutions to hide behind, and the search to understand just what exactly causes this particular speech impediment. It is the need for inner reflection happening in tandem with outward-focused curiosity that turned Katherine Preston's debut into exactly what I expected a stutterer's memoir to be, as the affliction makes it impossible for a person to remain in ignorance of how his or her faltering speech affects and is perceived by every single person who serves as our audience. To stutter at an early age is to find out what happens when childhood's blissful lack of self-awareness is replaced, with a callous prematurity, by adolescence's almost paranoid perception of harsh scrutiny.

It is a book fraught with disappointment, frustration and embarrassment, but also determination, hope and self-discovery. Stuttering is, as Katherine quickly points out, not a fatal disease but it is a decidedly unexplored and misunderstood one. It is a condition that is unpredictable and humbling, that lays the afflicted vulnerable to the slings and arrows of society. It is a childhood bully who tends to retreat by adulthood, though not all of us will reach the wonderland of fluency: "Statistics will later break us into two groups," Katherine writes. "Those who "recover" and those who don't."

Katherine traces her journey with an unwanted passenger whose mission it is to mangle her every word -- her phonetic renderings of a voice made exasperatingly arrhythmic brought to mind another stutterer, the estimable David Mitchell, and his personification of the impediment through the inimical Hangman -- from its first appearance at the age of seven through the already daunting terrain of adolescence to finding a place in the adult world that will accommodate her years of accrued baggage. It is a personal voyage so punctuated with objective reflection and the slow growth of inner strength that any stutterer would be proud to call it their own.

For all my knee-jerk self-reproachment at having been beaten to the punch in terms of penning the definitive stutterer's memoir, Katherine's is by no means the path we all have followed. Despite her numerous attempts to find "success" in speech therapy, her gradual shift in knowing that she would give anything to divest herself of a speech impediment that makes simple verbal communication grounds for a panic attack (let's not even approach the unique horror the prospect of phone calls brings) to realizing that the hurdles such a condition has helped her overcome and the resolve it has instilled in her is empowering and paved with tiny victories but it is her own path to self-acceptance and hers alone, though her milestones and breakthroughs and jumbled emotions are all stops along the way that I can't help but believe are common to all stutterers' experiences.

The part of me that read this book in the hopes of recognizing echoes of myself and feeling a little less alone for it was dizzyingly satisfied. Katherine is roughly the same age as me and began stuttering around the same time I did. She, too, is a rarity among rarities, being a female stutterer who carried the disorder into adulthood. She is able to examine her younger self, her fears and her insecurities with a clinical eye and an improbable amount of heart. Reading about her early retreat inward, her horror over being seen as something broken, her struggle to overcome a speech impediment that overshadows all she is and is capable of every time she ventures a spoken thought offered me a sense of empathetic kinship that is usually reserved for the beautifully damaged fictional characters I've come to favor. Like me, she is no stranger to deploying an arsenal of thesaurus-gleaned stutter-friendly synonyms to dodge the words that are habitual problems. She adopted accents and affectations to gloss over verbal traps. She was reluctant to identify herself as a stutterer, preferring to ignore that which plagued her until she finally had to learn all she could about the foe within. Later, having realized that she could make her written voice do all the things her spoken one couldn't but being unsure of how to make it as a writer, she tried her hand at journalism.

It was what Katherine and I shared that made the differences in just our two stories appear so divergent, though: It was so easy to sympathetically nod along when she was navigating familiar territory that being jarred from it had the strange sensation of an out-of-body experience, or seeing the same role played by two different people. She emphasizes her parents' unflagging support and willingness to help her "get better" without pushing her beyond her comfort zone and reducing her to incurable disfluency, and I couldn't help but envy her of that. Her tales of speech therapy, the brief spurts of hopeful fluency that sputtered into the resurgence of the stutter she thought she had finally put to rest, were genuinely surprising, as I had always fancied that corrective measures were the ticket to speech unencumbered. And, because I can't help it, yes, I compared the severity of my stutter to those both reprinted and spoken of in this book, and was profoundly grateful that my worst days are what someone else wakes up hoping for.

The bravery Katherine embraces in exposing that which has been the most fiercely guarded part of herself is incredible. She digs into old diaries and painful memories to pinpoint relevant stopping points along her journey, which read as an offer of trust to the reader rather than cheap bids for congratulations. As an adult stutterer, I found it reassuring that someone was so open and detailed about this things so few people truly understand; as a younger stutterer, I imagine I would have found relief in knowing that someone else has trod this path before without letting the all-too-easy giant-in-chains excuse keep her down.

It is that honesty and refusal to sugarcoat her life as a stutterer that makes Katherine such a perfect voice for those who have yet to embrace their own. She examines how stuttering twists the things most people take for granted, like being able to supply one's own name quickly and effortlessly or making a joke without fearing that the punchline and timing will be ruined by an inopportune loop of repetition, but it is her straightforward examination of how a stutter affects one's professional path that nearly had me giving myself whiplash by nodding in such vigorous assent. "It turns out that careers are a sticky subject for stutters," she writes as an introduction:

Many advocates argue that any job is possible. They have a point. I have met stutterers in every career that, at twenty-two years old, I had assumed were nigh on impossible. ... Their hearts were in the right place, but there was one rather large problem. They gave me the distinct impression that any job was possible as long as there wasn't a discernible speech impediment. I could have anything I wanted as long as I didn't stutter obviously. ...

If you have the advocates on one hand, you have the realists on the other. They appreciate the sentiment that no job is impossible, but they refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. Instead they take to emphasizing the degree of the stutter. What may be possible for a mild stutterer is not always possible for someone who stalls on every word.

Katherine is able to take a step back from a condition she knows all too well in order to consider the non-stutterer's vantage point, to recognize the severity of each stutterer's impediment. She is a narrator who is remarkably adept at sidestepping the pitfalls of judgement in favor of considering all sides before attempting a thoughtful, logical assessment.

Out With It is engaging and insightful, showcasing its author's curiosity and capacity for overlooking the worst of a situation in order to focus on its benefits. While it's obviously got loads of appeal for stutters in particular, the gist of the story is making peace with one's imperfect demons and learning to look outward. Katherine's book "is not one of deliverance" nor does it have that moment where she is "magically fixed as the curtain drops" -- and it's all the better for delivering one of the book's unexpected messages: Recognize the difference between being grateful for what you have and settling, and know when wanting to be better becomes the same as demanding too much.

Katherine bemoans how she was in her twenties when Hollywood finally presented a stuttering cinematic hero in The King's Speech, and how there are few role models for stutterers beyond those who have successfully hidden their impediment to land some some of societal prominence. In unloading so much of herself in a book that's less of a memoir and more of a promise that someone has not only shared those moments of seemingly insurmountable mortification but also overcame all those same hurdles to become what she knew she was meant to be, I can't help but believe that Katherine Preston is filling that once-absent role all by herself.

Two breakfasts in one

The only way crepes can possibly be improved upon is by stuffing them with pumpkin pancakes.
(Amy's Omelette House, Burlington, NJ)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. IV: Sodom and Gomorrah

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. IV: Sodom and Gomorrah, Marcel Proust
Read: 1 July to 30 August 2013
4 / 5 stars 

As Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twentieth-century musings and poring over sweetly triumphant images of same-sex couples rushing to "legitimize" their long-running relationships with celebratory midnight marriages. As the strange continent of "inverts" draws horticultural allusions and comparisons to covert societies in Proust's time, the LGBTQ community is finally being recognized in a way that signals the slow unraveling of ignorance and inequality in mine.

For the first three volumes, it was easy to lose any sense of cultural or chronological divide when faced with so many universal constants of humanity that all but waltzed off their pages and pages of lyrical metaphors; in S&G, we have a Narrator who recalls how the first time he saw an airplane overhead filled him with childlike wonder and lives in a time when it is apparently totally normal for a man to pick out his female companion's evening attire, which are but a few examples that, like unchecked homophobia, for the first time in my journey with Proust heralded a struggle to bridge the gap between when these volumes were written and when I'm reading them, bringing into stark reality just how much separates modernism from modern times, regardless of how well the common ground of so many other shared human experiences minimized the inevitable differences in eras and epochs. I finally felt the full extent of the distance -- literal and figurative, in time and physical distance, of the real and fictionally polished -- between the richly depicted, intricately crafted images Proust used to construct his Narrator's winding halls of memory and the world to which I belong. It was a jarring transition, for sure, but it was also a rather well-timed one: As the Narrator become increasingly aware of adult life's complicated emotions stirring inside and the societal politics constantly changing around him (not to mention the slow encroachment of technology, which does cast a shroud of smoky modernization on a world previously draped in pristine laces and cloud-soft velvets), I, too, got a taste of that irrevocable shift from a reasonably expected understanding to desperate reconsideration of an ever-shifting world.

This installment, sadly, is one I read in staccato bursts of precious free time. It is unfortunate because Proust is best savored like good wine rather than chugged like cheap beer, and I fear I spent more time drunk on his beautiful words than intoxicated by his narrative insight. In those exhausted but relieved hours at home, in those stolen wedges of at-work bookwormery, in whatever few minutes were spent in quiet solitude, I clung to Proust with the desperation of a booklover in the throes of both work-related burnout and the dreaded reader's slump. And while a frantic heart may not be the best way to approach words that are ideally enjoyed at a leisurely stroll, I do believe the Narrator's burgeoning sense of humor and need to slowly drink in his surroundings kept me grounded during chaotic times. While S&G may not have been my favorite installment, it is the one that affected me the deepest.

Among the revolving door of social obligations and self-indulgent observations that seem to occupy the majority of Fictional Marcel's abundant free time, I found myself most invested in his delayed reaction to his grandmother's death. Having never known the magnitude of a transgenerational love like that which Narrator shared with his maternal grandmother, I felt his palpable grief just as keenly as the slow-arriving but no less heartrending clarity of permanent absence that hit him upon revisiting a place that once played such an important role in demonstrating the fondness and compassion that can exist between a grandmother and her grandson. As the Narrator contemplates how different Balbec is without his beloved grandmother, as he muses on how much his own once-young mother has taken on the visage of her own mother now that the elder woman's death has left a role unfulfilled, as he retraces rooms that once were filled with his grandmother's presence, the concrete reality of past time being truly lost time came thundering down against a mostly familiar landscape that derives most of its changes from the players inhabiting it. It is odd that the grief is intense but short-lived, yes, but I couldn't help but write it off as the Narrator's decision to forge ahead with his life rather than mawkishly wallow in grief -- such are the intermittences of the heart, no?

I continue to find the romantic entanglements of these characters to be a high-school level of ridiculous. It seems like so few of the relationships presented thus far in ISOLT -- Swann and Odette; the Narrator and Gilberte (and also Albertine); Saint-Loup and Rachel -- are healthy, mutually affectionate ones, but it could also be that I have little patience for romances, even fictional ones, that are built on a foundation of obsession and possession rather than respect and genuine fondness. And, really, the affair between Morel and Charlus isn't anything laudable, I know, but I can't help but find it one of the most believable examples of heady lust in terms of its execution and its players' emotionally fueled behaviors. There is little else but pure attraction drawing Charlus helplessly toward Morel, who can't help but take advantage of (or be manipulated by, depending on your vantage point) the older gentleman's affections and gifts. Still, the greed with which Charlus tries to keep Morel to himself while all but undressing him in public, the satisfaction he derives just from coaxing the younger musician into his presence is…. okay, a bit much, yes, but also keenly evocative of an irrationally all-consuming, unrealistically intense first crush and the reluctant empathy of understanding such memories drag along in their wake.

Sodom and Gomorrah struck me as proof that the memories of our past can't help but be intertwined with memories of others, a reminder that there are always multiple perspectives at play -- and that, as the ending scenes with Bloch reinforce, not everyone's assessment of a situation will always be reliable or anything more than actions born of misunderstanding a sticky situation that was handled badly because there are no do-over options in real life and things only make sense when hindsight lays down the rest of the puzzle. ISOLT might be fictional, sure, but it is written as an account of life, and sometimes learning life's lessons means that truths can be as ugly as our lesser selves.