Breaking up Is Hard to Do / You Are What You Eat

18 Feb

What do novels do to you? I’d love to know how other people feel after turning that last page.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I am so wrecked after I finish reading a novel. It’s worse than The Day after Christmas Blues — far more distracting, disorienting.

One obvious answer is that a novel is a heck of a lotta information for your brain to process: tens of thousands of words, meanings layered on meanings, emotions, scenery, and a side of curly fries to boot.

It’s more than that, though.

Books grab you, drag you into a new world.

Novels are convoluted high-speed rollercoasters that, instead of returning you to a sparkling popcorn-scented amusement park, deposit you directly into your drab office cubicle in the middle of a work day, leaving you as blinking, disoriented, and exhausted as a bodysnatcher or medium who just finished convening with the dead. And the phone is ringing, and your boss is coming down the corridor, and you still have cotton candy on your fingertips, and you have to pee. Or maybe not that last part. But sometimes you do feel a little sick.

The transition can be as happy and gentle as a mother lowering a baby to its crib.

It can be as dismaying as seeing your entire family and everything you own receding into the distance on a departing train as you chase it through an empty station.

Sometimes, it’s just a rough kick on the seat of your pants and the sound of a slamming door.

For me, it’s never a clean break.

Books possess me, weave barbed vines into my psyche, use my emotions as marionettes, and shape the way I view the world and express myself, sometimes indelibly.

Maybe that’s why people don’t just set aside books they hate. They hurl those suckers across the room. The wrath isn’t about time forever wasted; it’s about exorcism. That book was trying to slide its nasty, slimy vines into your brain, use you like a puppet. So invasive, so unwanted. You can’t just turn your back. You have to smite! Destroy! (Lest it creep from beneath your bed at night to grab you by the ankles and mark you for life.)

When the cable channel Sprout premiered (2001-ish?), they played episodes of Sesame Street from the early 1970s that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. My friend was visiting that weekend, and we — both children of the seventies — sat transfixed for hours, looking at each other, first with discomfort, then fearful delight, then gleeful laughter, as our mouths moved on their own, reciting old rhymes, singing old songs — things we didn’t know we knew. We heard jokes and silly inflections that existed in those episodes and those episodes alone. They were elements so ingrained in our minds as Something Funny that we each thought we’d invented them or that they were a native part of our personas.

It was wonderfully disturbing fun, and when the marathon ended, I went about feeling haunted and melancholy. A small window had opened on my formative years and then closed again in a whoosh of dust. I was left not just missing the experience but wondering how much of me was me and how much came from snippets of Sesame Street with a sprinkle of Stephen King on top for added sparkle.

This is fiction for me. Each book leaves its own tattoo. Afterward, there’s a healing process. I often skim the entire novel a second time, if I liked it, and sometimes a third. If it’s going to be a part of me, I need to know what it all meant. You are what you eat, as they say.

So, how about you? Can you just close a book and move on without a second glance? Am I overly impressionable?

* The latest book to possess me is Donna Tartt’s Secret History. More than 500 pages of lovely, if disturbing rollercoaster that’s left an aftertaste of scotch and cigarettes and India ink, as well as a fascination with how she got me to love these often-horrible characters, seducing me along with the protagonist. I thank my husband for introducing it to me.

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4 Responses to “Breaking up Is Hard to Do / You Are What You Eat”

  1. Samantha February 18, 2011 at 18:11 #

    So beautiful, Caroline. I want you to send this to a magazine.

    It also reminds me of how I sobbed on the OCTD bus at 13 because I’d just finished “The Pigman’s Legacy” and now the kids were going to go on living their lives together and not telling me about it. I couldn’t bear that they were going to exclude me. Talk about a difficult transition. 😉

    • Caroline February 19, 2011 at 11:53 #

      Thanks so much, Sam!

      I read the Pigman books. I think I have the original here in the room… Yep, just checked. I do — a former library edition. And, apparently, it was Paul Zindel’s first novel. The Secret History was Ms. Tartt’s first novel, too.

  2. Misha February 20, 2011 at 09:08 #

    Wow, I loved this post. It really reminds me of me when I read.

    Even the worst book leaves me with this niggling sensation after I finished it.

    I tend not to read a book again though. Maybe because I’m afraid that it would ruin my memories of the first experience. Maybe because I have already read a life time of books that would have to be reread…

    Anyway, I have an award for you on my blog. 🙂

  3. Tony Benson March 6, 2011 at 11:43 #

    Hi Caroline. I’m a bit late to your post as I’ve been out of circulation for a few days, so I’m catching up with friends now.

    I loved how you described your feelings here. You’ve captured how all of us avid readers feel when we finish a book, good or bad! Isn’t it strange that reading can leave you emotionally exhausted!

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