Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Solitude is a happy kind of loneliness. (The Rum Punch Review)

Sweetie this morning was reading the paper while I was trying to think up clever things to say on Twitter, and she gave me this piece of news:

"Lost," she said, "Is going to wrap up the series without answering all the questions."

My first reaction to that was to cover my ears at the mention of the Lost series, as I'm watching it on DVD and I'm only up to Season 4, despite making what I can only describe as heroic efforts to get caught up. If you ever want to know the meaning of the word Pervasive, try to avoid hearing spoilers about a pop culture phenomenon; at one point, they had a cast member from Lost come on Web Soup to talk -- and since when is Web Soup supposed to be relevant? (At one point, too, they talked about it on the local news, as a group of local college professors -- professors who obviously did not deserve tenure and are no longer taking education seriously -- did something purportedly academic related to Lost.)

My second reaction was to say So what's the point been? then, and briefly get incensed about "creative" types in Hollywood -- people who I thought had a whole story to tell but were obviously just making it all up as they went along. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if you're going to pretend you're not making it all up, if you're going to pretend there's a pattern to this all and you've got the whole story worked out in advance, then, for God's sake, actually have the whole story worked out in advance. Don't get to the end and say Well, I can't figure out what to do about Ben, so let's just leave some loose ends hanging.

My third reaction was to think that loose ends hanging is not necessarily a bad thing... if that's the point of what you're trying to do, and if what you're trying to do has a point in the first place.

Sometimes, loose ends hanging = creatively bankrupt/overtly trying to be artistic. (a la The Sopranos ending.) Sometimes loose ends hanging is just a giveaway that you didn't really have a plan in the first place (a la The Star Wars movies, and Lost), and sometimes loose ends hanging is the only way to end the book, it seems.


That's the thought I had upon finishing, and then thinking about, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano.

Right off the bat, I will tell you that Solitude passed my primary test for whether it's a good book or not. That test is whether, when I finish the book, I feel the need to just sit and contemplate it for a while, or whether instead I immediately go on to reading something else.

If I finish a book and set it down and just sit there and think, for a while, letting it all settle in and permeate me, then it's a good book. If I finish a book and instead reach for the next one on the stack, or in this case "next in line on the Kindle," or go to grab a magazine, or turn on the TV, it's not such a good book.

I finished Solitude yesterday afternoon. I left work early yesterday, at 11:30, deciding abruptly to take a half-day off of work because I was amazingly, astonishingly, frustrated with 98% of the people I work with -- so frustrated that it made more sense to take an unscheduled half-day-off than to try to muddle through the rest of the day and risk saying something I would regret to someone I shouldn't say regrettable things to.

So I went home, and I ranted instead to Sweetie for a while, and when I ran out of steam, I found out that Mr Bunches had gotten a tick on his foot that morning, and we weren't sure how a tick got into the house in the first place, and we weren't sure if Mr Bunches would now be at risk for Lyme Disease, whatever that is, and that took a lot of my work-based-frustration away as I focused on that for a while. Then, I settled the Babies! down for their nap, and I ate lunch, and the combination of a salami-and-salt&pepper pickle-and gouda cheese sandwich, with Ramen noodles, calmed me down, and I settled in for an afternoon of reading: nearly 1 1/2 hours of uninterrupted (almost) reading, a rare luxury.

Because of the circumstances under which I finished the book, Solitude will be one of the only books that I can remember exactly how and when I bought it, and read it, and finished it. That's something new, too, because I read books now almost exclusively on my Kindle, which means that I can buy books anywhere -- making the circumstances of buying the book part of the experience of reading the book.

In Solitude's case, I bought the book on a Friday afternoon while sitting in a parking spot outside the building where I used to work nearly 20 years ago. That is, I used to work there 20 years ago; I didn't buy the book there 20 years ago.

I'd had to go to Milwaukee for a deposition that day, a fine, sunny-but-chilly Friday, and I got to the location about a half-hour early. It was only then that I realized that the building was the one I'd worked in as a temp back in the summer before I went to law school, back in 1995. I'd spent that summer temping at a computer network company, and as I pulled up this particular Friday and realized where I was, I remembered clearly how I'd sometimes on my lunch hours back then walked over to the river and sat to read paperback books while I ate lunch, or walked a few blocks over to the musty used book store I'd bought most of my books from back then.

Because I was a half-hour early, and because it was the day that Sweetie gives me my allowance, I had both the time and the money to do some book shopping -- but only because I had my Kindle; if I'd had to get out and go find a bookstore I'd have never been able to do that. But sitting there a half-hour early for my mediation session, and with no clients to meet (they live in another state and were going to attend by phone), I had some time to kill, so I pulled out my Kindle and went shopping.

Solitude was actually my third choice that day; as I browsed around (and downloaded two free books that I'd never heard of before, because, hey, free books), I first looked at The Infinities by John Banville, and thought about that one for a while. Then I looked at The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald, and thought about that one for a while.

But then I pulled out my collection of book-review clippings. When I read a review of a book I think I might like, I clip out the review and keep it with me. I used to just write down the name of the book and the author, but then, months later, I'd look at that name-and-author and sometimes not recall what the book was about, and not recall what it was I thought I'd liked about the book. So I take the whole review with me and just stick it into the notebook I carry with me at almost all times (I have it with me every time I don't need it, and almost never when I need it.)

I came to two reviews of Solitude: one I'd clipped out when I read it, and one from another magazine that Sweetie had clipped out for me when she'd read it. She'd read the review and given it to me and said "I thought this book would be one you'd love."

Both Sweetie and I thought I'd like the book, and that counted for a lot. So I went and read the summary and on an impulse clicked Buy and had the book.

Both Sweetie and I were right. The Solitude Of Prime Numbers is a book I would love, and I did love it.

The book starts out with Alice, as a young girl, heading off to a ski lesson. We learn that Alice doesn't like skiing, and there's a mishap involving warm milk, fog, and a spill that injures her leg.

The focus then shifts to Mattia and his sister, Michela. Michela is autistic -- it seems, although that's never spelled out -- and Mattia may be, but less so. Mathematically inclined and a good brother, to a point, Mattia suffers mostly in silence the problems created by his weird-acting sister, but one day, having both been invited to a birthday party, Mattia makes the decision to leave Michela in a park while he attends the party himself. Regretting his decision, he goes back to the park, and [SPOILER ALERT! REALLY! HONESTLY!] Michela is gone.

From those two events -- a skiing accident and leg injury, and a bad decision made by a child too young to really know better -- Mattia's and Alice's lives are propelled forward through society (in this case, Italian society). But while they move through society, they never seem to really be part of it. Alice briefly gets to join the popular girls' group at the school. Mattia gets recognized for his mathematical brilliance. They get jobs and Mattia graduates from school and they interact with their families and friends, but never really join in.

They are, as Mattia thinks of them later in the book, prime numbers -- they are numbers divisible only by 1 and by themselves, numbers that do not mesh easily with other numbers and that have their own unique properties, for good or for bad.

And they are, in a bit of foreshadowing as Mattia thinks, twin primes -- prime numbers that sit tantalizingly close together, but not next to each other; prime numbers never touch, and that's a lesson we, the reader, learn too late as we follow Mattia's and Alice's path: Alice, invited to be part of the popular group, is told she must pick out a boy to kiss. She picks out Mattia, who then attends the party where Alice is supposed to kiss him (or more), but they don't -- because Alice leaves it up to Mattia, and Mattia, having taken charge once in his life to terrible effect, appears to have resigned himself to drifting along for the remainder of his time, not interacting unless someone does it for him.

After that initial date at a party -- a date where everyone except the two realizes that Alice and Mattia in fact complement each other perfectly -- Alice and Mattia's story unfolds in jumps of years; they hang out together in late high school/early university. They drive around and they kiss when Mattia graduates college. And, as that happens, other things happen, too: Alice's relationship with her father worsens and then gets better. Alice, while visiting her dying mother, meets a handsome young doctor with his own well-hidden inner turmoil and marries him. Mattia becomes a professor and solves a math problem.

Through the story, the driving force behind the plot is a sort of will-they-or-won't-they, but not in the teasing Ross & Rachel (or Sam & Diane or Maddie & David, for you older readers) way; there's nothing coy or sexual about the potential Alice-and-Mattia relationship; it's apparent that they're perfect for each other, maybe -- because they may not be perfect for anyone. They're too damaged, maybe, to be around anyone for very long, throughout most of the book, and as a reader, I found myself wanting them to get together, to be in love and spend their lives together, not so much because it would be a romantic conclusion but because it seemed the only way to fix them, to give them some happiness.

I wanted that because sadness permeates Solitude in a melancholy but pleasant way. It's not the desperate, anarchic sadness Kurt Vonnegut injects into his books. Instead, its the sadness of regrets that can't be undone -- the sadness of tiny decisions with immense repercussions, decisions made in the space of a few seconds that alter, irrevocably, the course of a life time -- decisions often made by people not equipped to make them, with incomplete information to work with.

Mattia recognizes those instances, late in the book, realizing that he's in one -- for the first time in his life, maybe, realizing that the choice he's about to make will profoundly alter his life in ways he cannot anticipate. It's a moment brought on by a heady exhilaration of several moments: he's solved a major problem, he's had sex for the first time, and he's heard from Alice for the first time in years -- all in the span of about 24 hours -- and then he's meeting Alice and nearly dies in a car accident, and flush with that emotion he looks around him and realizes that this is another one of those moments -- those moments that pop up and are often only recognized in retrospect, but this time he knows it's there and he must decide.

The sadness of those moments is often what sticks with us. I can remember, when I was a kid, being on vacation with my family in St. Louis, visiting relatives. We had gone, for the morning, to a nearby park to play before that afternoon going to visit Grant's Tomb. At the park, my Uncle Mark had teased me, and I was not (and am not) a person who takes kindly to teasing. I'd gotten mad -- ferociously mad -- and when it was time to leave, I'd refused to leave the park and go back to my aunt's house so that we could go to Grant's Tomb. I made a huge scene, arguing with cousins and uncles and brothers, refusing to go and refusing in particular to go with my Uncle Mark. When he'd tried to pull me by my arm to go -- he's about 4 years older than me -- I'd grabbed a stick and tried to hit him with it.

The end result was that I eventually went back to my aunt's house, later than we'd planned. We didn't go to Grant's Tomb that day, and I don't know if that was because I'd made us late or if plans simply changed; I was only about 7 and don't remember all the details.

But I do remember the argument, and my refusal to leave, and my upset at that, and I do remember that I never saw Grant's Tomb, and the sadness of that moment, in its own small way, has always stuck with me. It wasn't a life-altering moment, or I don't think it was, but it was a sad moment that has never left me. 34 years later, I can recall details of that morning with a clarity that amazes me, considering that I have difficulty remembering today what I did yesterday.

We don't remember the happy moments like that, not as easily, and I don't know why that is. I don't understand why we're wired to store away, automatically and indelibly, the saddest things in our lives, but have such difficulty remembering the happy times. I live in fear, sometimes, that the truly happy moments of my life -- my wedding, the day the Babies! were born, moving into our new house, things like that -- will fade away, and I'll be unable to recall them, and be left only with the sad moments.

It may be that sad moments stay with us because they change how we think and feel and act, while happy moments just reinforce what we were already doing. Who makes dramatic changes in the way they act after they've just had a great day? Nobody. But when terrible things happen, we vow to do something differently, or our bodies and minds react to the terrible things by making us act differently, even if we don't know it or want it.

Solitude packs many such moments, sad moments that stay with us and force new actions: the moment Alice decides to ski off into the fog. The moment she asks Mattia if he wants to kiss her. The moment Mattia doesn't say what he's thinking as he shows Alice the job offer from a foreign college. Some of those moments have significant results; some may not, as we're not told. But they all carry with them a greater or smaller sadness that adds up and multiplies and bursts through the characters in the book -- even secondary characters like Mattia's parents or the photographer Alice works for carry their own burdens of sadness -- and it's that sadness that needs to be alleviated, that sadness that I, as a reader, kept hoping would be fixed by Alice and Mattia being together, breaking through the barriers each has -- reaching across the gap separating them as twin primes, and finding each other on the other side of that gap, and, while maybe not riding off into the sunset in a convertible with "Just Married" scrawled on it, at least realizing that there's something of happiness out there for them.

The book again and again draws close to that line -- getting almost too sad and then providing a break from it -- before at the end providing a kind of second shove forward that at first seems like a major plot twist -- but it quickly becomes clear that it isn't so much a plot twist as the final kick of a long-distance runner who sees the finish line: Alice thinks she has some information for Mattia, and summons him back to Italy, leading to the near-car accident and Alice and Mattia reuniting after 9 or 10 or more years separated by emotional and physical distance.

The final few chapters are almost heartbreaking: Mattia visiting his parents for the first time in years, Alice wanting to call her father, the two of them meeting at the house where Alice has recently separated from her doctor husband. In fact, strike that almost. They are heartbreaking -- even without knowing how they end up, as I read them, I was overwhelmed with the emotions the two characters (who seemed real by that point) were lugging around.

When I talk about the sadness, I don't mean that in a bad way; the book is sad in a necessary way -- sadly enjoyable the way a sad song is sadly enjoyable, too, regardless of your mood. If you're in a good, happy mood, you can listen to a sad song and enjoy it for what it is -- letting the sadness of the song pull forth muted emotions and memories of sad times that you can examine and think about without danger, enjoying the pleasant mood while knowing there is a counterpoint to that mood. If we never were sad, we wouldn't know when we are happy.

And if you're sad, a sad song is more than necessary: It's like a mold: shaping and fitting your emotions into something recognizable and more-easily-handled.

The sadness in Solitude is like that: when I read it yesterday, in the comedown from my frustration and my concern over Mr Bunches, the troubles of these fictional-but-real-seeming characters served to put my own into perspective. I may have problems at work from time to time, but I don't have the kind of gaping chasm in my life that Mattia must find a way to navigate. And when I read Solitude over other days, when I was in a better mood, I was able to enjoy the sadness of other people's lives because it was not my own.

Solitude ends, as I hinted at, by not so much ending as trailing away. It has both an ending and a not-ending: The final passages of the book put a close on the story that we've just read, without ending the story. There's no hint of a sequel or a to-be-continued, and that's appropriate, because the story of Alice and Mattia -- or, better, the Story of Alice-And-Mattia -- has ended, while Alice's story, and Mattia's story, has not. It's almost as though we've seen an episode of the Alice And Mattia Series, a self-contained story that may go on, but watching one episode tells us a complete story in and of itself.

At first, I found the ending somewhat frustrating: what's the point been, I wondered -- and then I wondered why it had to have a point, at all. Do books have to have a point? Or can they just tell a story and let us decide what the point -- if there is one -- is?

Or maybe they all have a point but the point is dependent on the reader's perspective -- the My Aunt's Dog Theorem again: whatever Giordano's point is, it's not my point.

My what's the point been question had another meaning, too: I wanted to know the point of Mattia's and Alice's life; having grown to like them as characters and wanting their stories to end happily, I wasn't sure, at first, that they had -- and again, not a "happy ending" resolving itself into a fairy castle, but a happy ending that would mean, for these two, that there was a reason to smile at the next day again.

I finished the book -- and I didn't close it and look at the cover, the way I used to before I read on a Kindle. I clicked the Kindle off and set it on my bookshelf and lay on my bed, with Sweetie napping beside me and the sounds of the Babies! filtering through the monitor we have into their room -- a quiet movie playing in the background, and Mr F rumbling around, not yet asleep in his own nap. I listened to the sounds of the afternoon neighborhood around me, sounds I almost never hear because I'm at work in the afternoon generally, and I looked up at our motionless ceiling fan and just pondered the book for a while, thinking What's it all about, then?

And today, I'm still asking that -- but in a better way. Giordano's sparse, spare writing -- the book is a fast read-- had created characters that came alive and whose lives I could almost see, as clearly as I could see my own, and they've stuck with me, today, the way all those sad moments in my own life stuck with me. I'm sitting here today, back at my office, with the images of the end of the book in my head: what Alice was doing and thinking, what Mattia was doing and thinking, and I'm wondering what was it all about then?

I don't know, yet, what it was all about. But I do know that it was a fabulous book, one that I imagine I'll keep on imagining for years, letting the sadness of the book settle in and become a permanent fixture in my life -- something that will change, irrevocably, the way that I act in the future, in ways that I can't foretell now, but which I hope will lead me to the kind of ending-and-beginning that the book itself contains -- one that takes all the previous sadness and reveals it, in the end, for a kind of happiness after all: pain can end up showing us that we still feel, and anger can reveal the depths of emotions that we still carry, and, in the end, solitude is a happy kind of loneliness.

That, I think, is the point of The Solitude Of Prime Numbers, or at least the point I'm going to say it has for me: That the sadness is a kind of happiness, that in the way each of our lives is unique, we are each a prime number - - alone, but never far from someone who is like us and who truly understands us, too. That person may be living in Italy while we are teaching at a foreign college, or she may be sleeping next to us while we read a book she clipped a review of for us. The key is to recognize that person, and to recognize those moments when that person needs you, and you need them, and, at those moments, to reach across that gap between you and share a little bit of the sadness, spread it out and open it up and in doing that, turn it into something better.

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