The Dependent

There’s a story many women tell, about that time they dated a musician.  Sometimes he’s an artist or a poet, but usually it’s a musician in this story.  Our heroine is responsible and hard-working (if only in comparison), while he’s aimless, entitled, or lazy.   It falls on the shoulders of the girl, likely for the only time in her life, to support this man entirely.  In “Wings,” Lorrie Moore supposes that the relationship lasts almost to a girl’s 40s, when she’s not so girlish anymore.   “She'd been given something perfect youth! and done imperfect things with it.”

In the landmark 200th issue of The Paris Review, Bret Easton Ellis says Lorrie Moore is "maybe the best short-story writer of my generation."* “Wings” is in that same issue, and  is illustrative of this pronouncement. It is the story of KC and Dench, lovers and bandmates. They've come to a significant roadblock in their lives, unable to make a living from music, unable to do much of anything else. They've come to a small town to sublet a house from a friend in a neighbourhood better than they're used to; here they try to regroup. One morning, on her usual walk with the dog (to get Dench's coffee), KC meets the resident of a large house she admires. Reluctantly, KC is drawn into old-man-Milt's lonely world of microwaved store-bought muffins, and unheated rooms. As time goes on she helps him with his doctor's appointments and errands, like a dutiful daughter or younger wife.

Part of Moore's skill is being able to economically write a novel's worth of backstory into many fewer pages. We learn how KC and Dench met, how their parents died, how Milt married for the fist time at 60.   The character of Dench emerges as one of those men that will always have a woman around to pick up his life (or coffee) for him. Early on, KC wonders:
How did Dench pay his bills?
"It's one big magic trick," he said.
Dench, probably unconsciously, preys on the soft spot women seem to have for the mysterious bad boy (though he's also smart and funny; there is much to love in Dench but he's difficult to live with because he's essentially lazy and unbothered by that).  KC is the driver behind most decisions in the relationship.  By the time they arrive in the sublet town, the pattern is completely entrenched.
She loved Dench. She was helpless before the whole emotional project of him. ... Romantic hope: From where did women get it? Certainly not from men, who were walking caveat emptors. No, women got it from other women, because in the end women would rather be rid of one another than have to endure themselves on a daily basis. So they urged each other into relationships. "He loves you! You can see it in his eyes!" they lied.
However, her relationship with Milt begins to make Dench’s inability to fend for himself more clear, and more annoying.  Dench whines that he had to spend all day alone with their dog, while KC was out all day with Milt.  Further, Dench asks KC to get as close to Milt as possible, in order to be put into his will.  It's the only time the drive to not work seems conscious and planned.  He suggests to KC that if she was nice to the old man "then the end result might be, well.. .we'd all be a little happier." "He's probably loaded. And gonna keel soon. And..." It’s enough to make KC want turn her back on Milt, though (initially) not Dench.

It’s worth nothing that Milt, too, is something of a Dench.  The big house he lives in was his wife’s originally, and he was a bachelor for many, many years before.  "Wings" begins with an epigraph by Henry James from The Wings of the Dove: “Should he find he couldn't work it there would still be time enough.”  Time, in this case, to find another woman to pick up the pieces. It’s as if he too moved from woman to woman and the last left standing – in this case KC – would be the one to get the reward: namely, the house.  KC is later accused of being a gold-digger by one of Milt's stepdaughters. This hits particularly hard, as Milt has just changed his will to leave KC the house. But the truth is that it's really the men in "Wings" who need the women to prop them up.

The day KC met Dench, he auditioned for her band.
But she remembered she had wondered whether it would be good to love him, and then she had gone broodingly to the window to look out at the street while he was singing and she had seen a very young woman waiting for him in his beat-up car. ... The young woman had clearly driven him there--would she be tossed away? bequeathed?
It's the question KC has to turn on herself, but she realises that it doesn't matter if she sticks around to be replaced, or if she cuts lose.  Dench, like Milt, will always have "time."  KC chooses a more solitary path.  

In “Wings,” KC winds up without the man, but still in the position of helping others.  She turns the house into a hostel for the families of sick children being treated in a nearby hospital.  She is tethered by the house and the narrative that her position in life is to be relied upon.  We assume Dench has flown to yet another sturdy female who could fix him.

*Though he also goes on to say that "The Corrections and Freedom are the two best novels that came out of my generation, so man up and deal with it, guys." So, perhaps his opinion is slightly suspect.

The Social Determinants of Crank

In 2005, Newsweek printed an article called, “America’s Most Dangerous Drug.” Newsweek's coverage followed an Oregonian series called "Unnecessary Epidemic." Media outlets across the United States began reporting on the spread of what the United Nations drug control agency declared "the most abused hard drug on earth": methamphetamine. Early 2005 also saw Nick Reding begin to investigate the effects of meth on small-town America. Four years of interviews and investigation produced Methland:The Death and Life of an American Small Town.

Reding begins with a good overview of what meth is chemically and historically: first synthesized in Japan in 1898, desomethamphetamine made its way to the US in the 1930s. There, in the last year of that decade, it began to be marketed as Benzedrine.
Methamphetamine in 1939 was prescribed as a treatment for thirty-three illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, the common cold, hyperactivity, impotence, fatigue, and alcoholism. In a world in which the winners were defined by the speed with which they could industrialize. meth suppressed the need for sleep, food, and hydration, all the while keeping workers "peppy."
The Nazis used meth to keep their soldiers marching through a Russian winter. Into the 1980s, meth was still being prescribed as a diet aid in the US. And above all this, it made users feel better than they had before taking the drug.
In biochemical terms, methamphetamine is what is called an indirect catecholamine agonist, meaning that it blocks the reuptake of neurotransmiters.
Essentially, meth makes you feel very good, and keeps you feeling good, until it wears off. The problem, of course, is the side-effects (several of which meth was supposed to cure): paranoia, sleeplessness, psychosis, anxiety, memory loss, and rather quickly, total addiction. The drug hijacks the brain's usual neurotransmitter cycle and very soon "the only thing that does feel good is more meth."

"In truth, all drug epidemics are only in part about the drugs. Meth is indeed uniquely suited to Middle America, though this is only tangentially related to the idea that it can be made in the sink. The rise of the meth epidemic was built largely on economic policies, political decision, and the recent development of American cultural history. Meth's basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade. Along the way, meth charts the fears that people have and the vulnerabilities they feel, both as individual and as communities. The truly singular aspect of meth's attractiveness is that since its first wide-scale abuse — among soldiers during World War II — meth has been associated with hard work. For seventy years, the drug more commonly referred to as crank had been the choice of the American working class."

The condition Reding found most salient in the rise of meth abuse in central small-town America was the loss of good-paying agricultural jobs, as farms and processing plants were swallowed up by huge corporations. Companies like Tyson and Cargill busted unions and drastically reduced both pay and staff. People now how to work twice or three times as long to make the same wage as before, if they can find a job that is. Many residents of small towns were left in poverty and misery. Moreover, they felt usurped from the few jobs available by illegal immigrants, usually Mexicans, who will work for even less pay, in more unsafe conditions. (Illegal immigrants are the perfect workforce for a profit-first company, because they have absolutely no recourse when treated unfairly.)
But there's also a more subtle connection between meth, immigration, and the food industry. That relationship is driven by the conceit that drugs, like viruses, attack weak hosts. Or, to put it another way, narcotics and poverty — along with the loss of hope and place[...] — mutually reinforce one another.

Meth isn't simply a kitchen-sink, home-made issue. When the Combat Meth Act went into effect in 2006, there was a measurable decrease in small time makers and dealers (calculated by the number of meth labs busted by police). However, this just let Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) take over production and distribution, and they now supply "95-100 percent of the meth now consumed in the United States." Unlike cocaine and heroin, the DTOs can control every step of the meth supply chain.
Unfortunately, the same American immigration policy that provides a low-wage workforce ideal for the food industry is what keeps the DTOs in business. [...] [T]he interests of the DTOs are aligned with those of the likes of Cargill and ADM.

It's not just big agribusiness that's helping meth take over. Both pharmaceutical and retail giants have a hand in keeping a main ingredient in meth, pseudoephedrine (usually found in cold pills like Sudafed), easy to get. Neither want stricter controls; change forced from the outside generally means expenditure. Reding also notes that systems put in place to track who is buying cold pills are extremely easy to circumvent: since the bigger retail chains like Target and CVS don't pay their employees much, it's pretty easy to bribe them to look the other way while cold pills disappear from the shelves.

Methland's narrative unfolds through limited biography. Most of those profiled are residents of Oelwein, Iowa, including its mayor, police chief, and a second-generation doctor. A good portion of the book shows the steps residents take in trying to fight the decline of Oelwein, of which meth is only a symptom. However, I couldn't get the story of one of the addicts out of my head. Roland Jarvis, high on his own supply, sets his mother's house on fire while making meth. He goes in and out of the house, feeling no pain high on crank and adrenaline, trying to save possessions, and put the fire out with buckets of water.
Following one of his trips outside, Jarvis looked down and saw what he thought was egg white on his bare arms. It was not egg white; it was the viscous state of his skin now that the water had boiled out of it. Jarvis flung it off himself, and then he saw that where the egg white had been he could now see roasting muscle. He looked as hid legs and hid abdomen. His skin was dripping off his body in sheets. [...] He'd have pulled the melting skeins of skin from himself in bigger, more efficient sections, but for the fact that his fingers had burned off his hands.
Reding meets Jarvis five years later, and notes how he is able to light foils of meth with the stumps of his fingers.

America prefers to see drug addiction as "a psychological rather than a sociological" problem. In keeping with the American bootstrap mythology, meth addiction is an individual's problem, even though that same drug enabled people to work longer and harder in decades past. (This approach is also seen in shows like Intervention which put the onus of addiction solely on the individual, or the family, rather than the wider societal conditions.)
[M]uch of meth's danger lies in the drug's long history of usefulness to the sociocultural and socioeconomic concepts American society holds dear, many of which stem from the pursuit of wealth through hard work.
Having read Methland I'd say that the pursuit of wealth at all costs also contributes to meth addiction; not by the wealthy, of course, but those the corporate overlords have crushed along the way.

Phil Price, a state investigator working in Georgia, puts the meth problem succinctly: "[N]one of this is about a drug. It's about a system of government and an economy." Reding illuminates the many causes behind the popularity of meth for a certain subset of Americans, by showing how corporate lobbies and drug cartels control the conditions of people so many thousands of miles away. Methland is an important book, not just about drug addiction and manufacture, but about how the decisions made for people, far away from them, can tear individual lives and whole communities apart. The collateral damage of greed lines the streets of places like Oelwein.

No Love

It's not a good idea to judge a book by its cover (Geek Love's confusing 80s neon and computer font edition is a good example of why not [the book is about circus freaks]), but the fashion anachronism on the cover of The House I Loved might have been a clue about the quality of the writing inside*. (The backless evening dress, entirely lacking in crinoline, is a clearly modern image.)

I was drawn to this novel by the subject matter: the razing and rebuilding of Paris by Baron Haussman** to create a more modern city, destroying most of the medieval buildings. I didn't know anything about this period, though it explained a lot about why I found Paris to be an "urban Disneyland." According to Luc Sante in his review of two books on the same subject, "Paris had been killed by what passed for progress and would henceforth only exist as a simulacrum of itself." Perhaps I'd have had better luck with a non-fiction account of the time.

The House I Loved is written as a letter from a 60-year-old woman to her dead husband. The writing, though, is pretty terrible and the epistolary style does nothing to create a narrative. In fact, the conceit of letter writing is often taken too literally, and it harms this novel with too many "Oh my dear"s and "I miss you"s. It's annoying how often the letter recounts events that the husband wouldn't need to be reminded of (though it's hinted that he dies of Alzheimer's, a disease that didn't have name until the early 20th century; while it's possible people died of it in the 1860s, it seemed a ploy to relate to the modern reader.) Rose often begins a portion of a letter with "Remember when..." and writing several sentences that end in question marks. It's repetitive and totally unnecessary. A letter from her brother has similar flaws:
You recall, no doubt, our miserable childhood, the threadbare affection our mother (bless her soul) bestowed upon us.[...] Whilst I grew up, with you, in place Gozlin, I already cherished the fact that one day I was going to leave.
It's doubly frustrating to read this section because Rose has outlined these very facts already, to her dead husband, who probably already knew about them. Ad nauseum...

Rose also writes things like "Since no one will see these lines," intimating that salacious details will follow, yet nothing of the sort happens. Nothing really happens; it's a frustrating book full of filler. For example, Rose writes about the encroaching demolition, then in the next line says "I still have the same eyes. The ones you loved. Blue or green, depending on the weather." Random details that add nothing to characterization, narrative, or setting abound and what's worse, they never form a whole picture.

Writing to one's closest companion, even one dead of dementia, would (one supposes) create a document with less frivolity, and more meaning, but that never happens here. One big edit could have helped this novel along quite easily: have Rose write the letter to her daughter, Violette. If Rose was to write the story of her early years, her love with her husband, and their life together in the soon-to-be-demolished house to someone who wasn't there for most of it and was too young to understand other events, there would have been some sense and flow. Then passages like this could have been avoided:
She knows you were tall and well built, with chestnut hair, and dark eyes, and powerful hands.
That's just nonsense. He would have known what he looked like. Obviously Rose is writing for herself, but if you're addressing that letter to someone it strains belief that even without them ever seeing the letter you'd write it it in such a way.

I thought about We Need to Talk About Kevin, reading this book, and how Shriver absolutely mastered the letter-as-novel. Eva, the main character, writes about all the things her husband never knew, and never saw. This approach makes far more sense, however, it might have cut down the length of The House I Loved, and it's obvious that Tatiana de Rosnay was struggling to create a novel from what could reasonably have been a short story. Rose doesn't have much going on internally, so she has to recount, repeat, and detail.
I learned to live without you, little by little. I had to. Is it not what widows do? It was another existence. I tried to be brave. I believe I was.
This kind of super-redundant writing makes me think of nothing but a poor high-school kid, trying to fill up their word count the night before their assignment is due.

Rose's big trauma, hinted at through the book, comes with 20 pages left, and I wonder how many readers would actually get that far. It's the first real action of the novel, and seems superfluously violent. Then again, it's the only time Rose tells her husband anything he wouldn't already know. There are narrative possibilities in this event, but it comes far too late to save the story. The outcome is predictable.

It actually occurs to me, just now, that the worst sin of The House I Loved is that it almost never says anything about the house itself, or the kind of architecture that was destroyed during Huassman's campaigns. The reader knows why Rose loved her family and friends (and various outfits), but the house as titular character gets very little attention. The House I Loved is a total mess.

*I realise the author doesn't have much control over the cover most times, but there's a lot of editorial attention missing inside the book, and perhaps the cover is just another symptom of that.
**Random: the hotel I stayed in, in Paris, was on the Boulevard Haussman.