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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Upstate" by James Wood

Loaned to me by my friend Veronica, author of Alric of Bedanford.

It starts with Alan, a property developer whose company is on the brink of collapse, visiting his mother in the old people's home he can soon no longer afford:

  • He made his way through two huffing fire doors, which bottled a weekend’s stale yeast.” (p 1)
  • It was all pretty good, or as good as can be when one’s whole life has been reduced to souvenirs of selfhood.” (p 4)
But his main problem is the need to travel to Saratoga Springs in New York State where his daughter, Van(essa) who teaches philosophy and has a new, younger, boyfriend, Josh, seems to be on the brink of relapsing into the depression that has haunted her life. He flies to New York Ciry where he meets record producer daughter Helen who is considering leaving her company because she sees that the music industry is on the brink of collapse. So all the characters are contemplating the dissolution of the life that has so far given them some semblance of meaning. As Van points out, observing an old man long since retired who lives on his own since his wife has died as he sips his soup: “He was simply feeding a body, so is it could continue. For what? Well, to continue living alone for a little longer, so that he can eat more soup.” (p 223)

Pathetic fallacy abounds. The town is in the grip of winter and snow is all around. At the end the promise of Spring will lead to Vanessa feeling "her body unclenching" (p 232); there seems to be some sense that the family will pull together to help one another through the struggles. And yet most of the book has images of despair:

  • the widower's musty celibacy.” (p 9)
  • You swallow the universe like a pill, but then you piss it out too, it passes out of you, along with everything else important.” (p 67)
  • If he got rid of desire, as his book on zen Buddhism suggested, what would be left of him? Not a self, as he understood it. A driverless train” (p 75)
  • those atrocious villages in the Cotswolds, where nothing has changed in six hundred years and the genteel inhabitants live like cupboarded gnomes of history, in tiny thatched cottages.” (p 88)
  • “the dirty smoky grey mesh of the air, the defeated food and weak heaters, the dripping toilets full of old yellow bus tickets.” (p 88)
  • they wanted more money and jobs so that the smoky underlit impotent monotony of things could continue just the same as before.” (p 88) 
  • a teenage boy whose feet have outgrown his socks.” (p 95)

There are also some observations and advice about life in general:
  • for kids nowadays the past ... was nothing more than the tree that fell in the forest when you weren't there.” (p 33)
  • even if you can see three moves ahead, act as if you can't: the oil of duplicity that greases the social machine.” (p 98)
  • You should always back your car into the drive, because the journey out is more important than the return.” (p 116)
  • We shouldn't worry too much about the Absurd ... because if under the eye of eternity nothing matters, then under the eye of eternity the Absurd doesn't matter, either.” (p 169) (referencing Camus, the Myth of Sisyphus)

But in the end it comes down to the fact that, “For some people ... happiness is like all the other things you take for granted - inner-ear balance, say, or the regular thump of my heart, or my ability to sleep at night.” (p 202) If this automatic happiness malfunctions, then “Despair was like a sea. It threshed restlessly, just out of sight, always there: the deep enemy of human flourishing, inching away at its borders.” (p 176) On the other hand, Alan the father, to whom the daughters attribute this miraculous ability to be automatically happy, protests: “I’m not buoyant like a boat is, without any effort. I'm buoyant like a human being is. I have to work at it the whole time, or I'll sink in the water.” (p 103) 

A nicely observed and written book about the important philosophical question about the meaning of life and its impact on our ability to be happy.

July 2018; 233 pages


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