Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book 45: Some philosophical musing, a poem, and I manage to squeeze in a reference to Nick Harkaway.

Like the protagonist in The Gone-Away World, the main character in The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty is someone who never existed, at least until now. That seems to be a theme in the books I really love: people whose lives consist of them inventing or reinventing themselves until they run into trouble or learn who they are.

Aside from that theme, there's no similarity between the two books, but I liked each of them equally, albeit in very different ways.

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty takes its name from a poem of a similar name:

The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty 

You are sitting here with us, 
 but you are also out walking in a field at dawn. 

 You are yourself the animal we hunt 
 when you come with us on the hunt. 

 You are in your body 
 like a plant is solid in the ground, 
 yet you are wind. 

 You are the diver’s clothes 
 lying empty on the beach. 
 You are the fish. 

 In the ocean are many bright strands 
 and many dark strands like veins that are seen 
 when a wing is lifted up. 

 Your hidden self is blood in those, 
 those veins that are lute strings 
 that make ocean music, 
 not the sad edge of surf 
 but the sound of no shore.

The poem makes an appearance in the book, which in its story ruminates on what identity we have, and whether we take that identity because it is forced on us, or if we are free to choose it -- as well as whether you can be more than one thing at one time.

The main character never reveals her real name. At the beginning of the book she is on a flight to Casablanca, wanting to sleep but unable to, and as her story unfolds we learn what has led her to be on this flight: she's running away from home, in a way, having left her husband under circumstances in which her entire life has essentially been stripped away from her, more or less literally.

That effect continues when, as she checks into her hotel, her backpack containing all her money and credit cards, as well as her passport and IDs, is stolen. When she contacts the police, she is given a similar backpack with the passport and credit cards of a woman who looks similar to her; becoming convinced that the hotel and the police are planning something sinister (her paranoia about the world around her ends up being entirely justified, in a way), she checks into a new hotel using the new identity.

From there she gets a job as a confidant to a movie star and stand-in on her set, with the story quickly unfolding in a set of zigs and zags that leave a reader almost breathless.

The story itself is satisfyingly, and yet unsettlingly, unpredictable, and pocked here and there with a sly sense of humor; the main character adopts various identities throughout, each seemingly forced on her by circumstances, and when she finally is recognized, the recognition itself is for something completely bizarre.

Midway through the book, the character talks with the movie star's bodyguard to get the stand-in job; she distracts the bodyguard from questions about her by engaging him in a discussion about evolution, which the bodyguard is studying, and the bodyguard talks about how some animals will make sudden leaps in evolution when it is forced on them, like birds which have to move permanently to higher trees naturally selecting for stronger fliers.  That's the tipoff to the theme of the book: each identity the woman takes on is forced on her, each of them springing from some earlier problem that she could not cope with in her earlier guise.

It's an interesting thought. There's an old saying: Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger. I'm not sure that's the case always (polio) but I get the idea.  Here, Vida's theory seems to be that some things are so powerful we must shed our identity entirely to escape or deal with them. Or, given the poem she based the title on, perhaps it's not that we are giving up our identity but simply opting to slide into the other part of us that is more capable of dealing with this. We are multitudes, according to the poem: we are solid and win, hunter and hunted, here and there, and our hidden selves make a music through our veins -- the music of no shore, the music made by a wave that is unbounded and can go on for a long time before cresting and crashing back.

Such a philosophy is seductive: we have it in ourselves not to withstand force, but to deal with it through another form. If the solidly-rooted plant is to be uprooted, we will become the wind; we can pick where we want to be.  But even when we do, we cannot entirely escape our past: while we are the diver, and the fish, we are also the diver's clothes, lying empty on the beach.

If that past is the force that caused us to change, to molt into something ever brighter and bigger and stronger, would we want to escape it? All the forces that have ever acted on us have made us the person we are today: every missed opportunity, successful move, every person we've loved or lost or hated, every job, every day we slept in: all of them led us to be who we are right now, and who we are right now is also who we are then, and who we will be.

Reinventing one's self isn't very easy: sometimes it takes the destruction of an entire world, as in The Gone-Away World.  Sometimes it doesn't work well at all, as in Rabbit, Run. Sometimes you have to make compromises, like Bingo's Run. Sometimes it's torturous, like the main guy in Wodwo. (See? I said it's kind of a theme of these books -- although whether they all intended such a theme or I'm just My Aunt's Dog-ging it is hard to say.)  It's easier to imagine starting over if you believe that the new you was there all along, that you always were not just the diver but the clothes and the fish, so that you're not creating a new life, but just shifting into a different aspect of yours.

The air of panic in the book fades away when the main character at last realizes that, that she can take her past and use it to catapult herself higher up in the trees and become something new. This allows the book to end on an optimistic note, and because of the terrible things that have happened to the character, you can't help but feel she's earned this escape into a brighter strand.

It's a great book.

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