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Depressing the Almost Moon
One of the signs my new friend and I were falling in friend-love was when she came to my flat, looked at the bookcases on three walls of my lounge room, and began twirling like a princess at a ball, singing, ‘I want to borrow everything!’
You know you love books when you’re a rental tenant in Melbourne and you still have three six-foot cases of them. On camping holidays as a kid, I used to pack one book per day, plus spares. When I wasn’t reading, I copied out the dirty bits into letters to my friends, cycling through every ink in my ten-colour pen.
It would be madness to keep everything when you read this much, but the books I do keep have got into my imagination, or my worldview. They’re like a person you know and love but seldom get to see: you may be cooking dinner and suddenly think of them, and send them a funny text message and get tomato paste on the screen. Or you may feel sad for no reason you can tell, and be looking out the window at the light fading on the crenulations of the neighbour’s chimney, and feel that you want to cry but also that you are a completely ridiculous human being, and then you will debate whether you want to send them something mushy. In the case of the book, the text message is when you go and take it down off the shelf and flip for the passage you remember.
(Sometimes the friend replies uninspiringly, or not until after a chilling delay, or not at all. And almost universally the book is not how you remember it—or the passage takes way too long to find—or you have bamboozled yourself and it is the wrong book entirely. But I would not get rid of books for this, any more than I would delete the number of the friend who is a lacklustre texter.)
The trouble with my new friend was that she, too, was a retainer of multitudinous books, so loved the idea of my books. But she didn’t know whether she loved them in reality—until she tried them.
The spindle on which she pricked her finger was Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon, which I, at least, would describe as a dark, gorgeous novel of immense emotional gravitas. Sebold’s other two books are Lucky, a memoir about her horrific rape as a university student, and most famously The Lovely Bones, a magical realist novel in which a child is raped and murdered, then carries on as a spirit presence as the perpetrator is brought to justice. The Almost Moon is a partial departure in that it’s written from a middle-aged perspective, and there’s no sexual violence. I am only spoiling the very opening sentence by saying it features a woman who, in sympathetic circumstances, kills her mother.
My friend kept this book for a suspiciously long time. Then, one day, she brought it back. She said, with a certain grandmotherly firmness, ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t get past the first chapter. It’s too depressing.’
Depressing? Is beauty depressing? Is truth itself depressing?
A schism had opened. Without meaning to, I found myself gathering evidence against this friend. One time in my car, a particularly beautiful song by an American band called WHY? began playing. The song is ‘Song of the sad assassin’ and it begins, ‘We lifted the body from the water like a gown.’
My friend said that fateful word again. ‘That’s depressing.’
So I said, like an angel of patience and mercy, ‘Put something of yours on, then.’
So she stuck the transmitter jack in her iPod and put on Taylor Swift.
It was all beginning to add up to something.
This is quite unfair to this friend. She writes young adult fantasy fiction in which plenty of hard things happen. For instance—I will be deliberately vague here—someone thinks a supernatural force can resurrect her relative, but in the end it can’t. Or, someone who can turn into a supernatural creature fights an evil force, and then can’t ever change back into a person. So it’s not as though she wants everything to be kittens and fairy floss. But I suspect she has some sneaking interest in our old friend, the diagetic agenda—the wish to shape the world—as opposed to the mimetic—the mere wish to depict it. Certainly everybody in her books learns something and grows as a person by the end. God, how I hated that in young adult fiction when I was its audience! Especially when the parents seem awful at the start, but come good in the end. I want to vandalise a train station just thinking about it.
Possibly I am unreasonably well-disposed to Sebold. We are both members of the invisible club of sexual violence survivors, which means that although we don’t know each other, I feel I am just generally on her side and interested to hear whatever she’s been up to lately. And her work speaks directly to that loneliness that comes from having horrible things happen to you, and then going outside and the sun rising in the usual way, and the neighbours chirpily checking their mail. My friend doesn’t have this kind of connection, or comfort—if that’s the right word—with Sebold’s subject matter.
Perhaps I should not have lent something I was so close to. We were new friends—it may have been too much, too soon. As if she’d said, ‘Be yourself!’, and I’d taken it too literally, farted and burst into tears. Maybe I should have started with something cheery and accessible. Maybe I could have pretended I world-wearily hated them all anyway? Or I’d only bought them by the metre as décor.
Or maybe it’s just best never to let anyone in your house.
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