This ideal reader

I.

I am well aware of the arrogance in claiming that a certain book has been written with one’s self in mind. [Although I am also aware—and confident—that this proclamation ownership has not yet reached the prose-sickening stylings of one Elif Shafak.] I realize now that a more politic way of saying so is looking at through the reception of the work. And so, instead of telling y’all that Eugenides followed me around for the better part of four and a half years [and counting], I will hazard telling you that, hey, though many people will lovingly stroke the spine of The Marriage Plot, I am certain of my standing as one of its ideal readers.

Alberto Manguel writes, “There comes a time when every reader considers himself to be the ideal reader.” And I am thankful for the validation.

[Hopefully, the above statements can effectively prevent the lot of you who have long wanted to shove an elbow to my face whenever I lay absolute claim on books. Ideal readers, you and I, and that girl with the felt stars stitched to her walking shoes. We are legion.]

How many of us have taken a stab at describing this book’s effect on us? Or describing the book itself? Recently, a friend asked me, on Twitter, if I’d read it and liked it. I told him it was a college novel, and a love triangle, and that it was lovely. I add now that it brought me back to college and its sneaky little promises of infiniteness, of love, of the golden life beyond it. You’re reading Sartre and Nietzsche, with a little Foucault thrown in. You carry around bootleg copies of Euripedes and T.S. Eliot and Wilfrido Nolledo and Lakambini Sitoy, you wander in and out of yellow-lit rooms and gaze out picture windows that frame fire trees. You wear your hip-length curls in a bun high on your head and tend to forget the pens you’ve pushed through the mass. You fall in love with a boy but don’t tell him; the next day you kiss someone else. You argue with a stranger about Heidegger, you read a romance novel in public for the first time, you sneak alcohol in water bottles and roll around the football field. You blow your money on take-out and pick up your first pack of cigarettes and find yourself, at 2 AM, wandering Katipunan drinking yoghurt. A man you’d later realize was Greg Freaking Brillantes would amble toward you with a little smile and tell you that he’d read your story and that he liked it and when were you going to publish a book? You consider keeping a hedgehog as a pet. You move around a lot, as much as possible in a 700-meter radius. You fall in love again, and you say it’s f’real this time, and you tell your mother so, and she asks you if you are happy, and you only feel a split-second’s worth of guilt before you say, Yes, Mommy, yes, I am. You were infinite, dude, infinite.

For reminding you of all this, at the very least, fuck The Marriage Plot.

II.

I begin with Madeleine, whose frequent brushes against ecstatic book love can be shared by so many of us. Even the little trepidations that crawl through her. How many times have I raised my head from a book for a moment to wonder if I should go back to real life?

Madeleine, she goes: “And yet sometimes she worried about what those musty old books were doing to her.” I know, I know. There’s still a nugget of shame when I remember how I nearly sewn Madame Bovary to my chest. But then after that pause, the obligatory acknowledgment of the real world, we go back to bend over the pages. And, this:

What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!

But, well, there’s another, more personal aspect to my identification with Madeleine. Ready yourselves for your collective groaning, because this one’s about Roland Barthes. I’m sorry. Heh.

Near the close of my decade-long wait for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, the apprehension creeped in. Not so much doubts on the book’s merits, not even the near-certainty that this was not going to be Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides. To put it bluntly, I was scared shitless because Eugenides was going to dedicate a chunk of his book to stand as a love letter to Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. And you all know how much I love—and am overprotective over—that book.

The logistics was staggering. A long-awaited book by a much-loved and critically acclaimed author—everyone and their mother was going to read it [my mother wants to, that’s something]. And if everyone was going to read it, then everyone was going to be reminded of—or worse, haha, introduced to Roland Barthes. And because I was confident that Eugenides would knock our socks off with this book, he was going to make a convincing case for reading Barthes, whether or not a tragic trajectory was in store for his characters who’d done so. Which basically means, my little obsession with ALD was going to be, ick, shared.

In the spirit of fairness [sorely lacking in these parts*], Eugenides gives voice to every hapless book lover in the form of Madeleine. Who loves herself some Barthes and, like me [I am sorry for projecting the hell out of this character!], her Barthes-loving takes her on an alternately vivifying and depressing ride with, well, love. So many crucial scenes in Madeleine’s life has ALD as a prominent secondary character. Bully for her.

Here is when Madeleine first discovers Barthes, experiences him for herself, and, again, yes, yes, I understand:

What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from the jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude.

Fuck you, Eugenides. I couldn’t agree more. [The pertinent quote is here, at the beginning of ALD.] Madeleine goes on, and I agree with her some more, and I wanted to bug the people around me to say, See, didn’t I tell you, I am all over this fucking book. Here:

. . . Madeleine fully understood how the lover’s discourse is of an extreme solitude. The solitude was extreme because it wasn’t physical. It was extreme because you felt it in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, the most solitary of all places.

Well. I am torn between resolving to carry a childish loathing for Eugenides for brandishing this book about—see where your heartbreak gets you, dear readers—and, you know, just falling silent because how could one be-vest-ed man write this all down, because Madeleine is me, that book-loving is me, that trajectory of loving with Barthes in tow is undeniably me. Torn, I tell ya.

But what can you do when you read a book that lends you a voice? That shares not just your love for some very specific object, but allows you to express that love, if only by pointing at a passage?

A Lover’s Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool of the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognize that being “in love” was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was, it didn’t work. She could read Barthes’ deconstructions of love all day without feeling her love for Leosnard diminish the teeniest little bit. The more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page. She identified with Barthes’ shadowy “I.” She didn’t want to be liberated from her emotions but to have their importance confirmed. Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sentence. And, oh, how she loved it!

III.

And then, there’s Leonard. Leonard of the bandanna, the lone rhino bleating away at the edges of them limber-limbed youth. Manic Leonard, depressive Leonard, Leonard who sits quietly at roundtable discussions on Semiotics and retires to a dinghy little apartment that refuses to shelter even a little plant in its dusty corner. Leonard, who Madeleine, of course, falls in love with, tries to live with, tries to live despite of.

Oh, Eugenides. You thought Madeleine wasn’t enough for me? You had to bring in Leonard, the proverbial final nail on the coffin? You had to add to the minutes I’d already spent looking up from the book, the pause augured by the heaviest of sighs? Damn it. Leonard who soon enough “realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.” I just can’t win with this book, no? Even the people Leonard meets—here, a co-patient who describes her depression thusly: “Depression be like a bruise that never goes away. A bruise in your mind. You just got to be careful not to touch it where it hurts. It always be there, though.” There goes Jeffrey Eugenides, poking and poking and poking where it hurts the most. Gleeful sonofabitch in his purple vest.

It seemed especially cruel, then, three days later, in the hospital, when the doctor came into the room to tell Leonard that he suffered from something that would never go away, something that could only be “managed,” as if managing, for an eighteen-year-old looking out on life, could be any life at all.

IV.

Another from Manguel’s manifesto, “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader.” The relevant item for this post is not, by the way, “The ideal reader has no interest in the writings of Bret Easton Ellis,” but this: “For the ideal reader, every book reads, to a certain degree, as an autobiography.”

I am cheating at this point, but here is another from Manguel: “Upon closing the book, ideal readers feel that, had they not read it, the world would be poorer.” I feel exhausted by this book, and a part of me continues to resent it being raising against the light certain aches. I will love it forever for lending me a voice, though. At the simplest level, I love it because it is a good book, an intelligent book, a book with heart. One that has oh-so-carelessly pushed me to confront truths I’d rather turn away from, sure. But, you know. Good book. [Yes, I am patting the book as I write this last line.]

Good lord, reading is dangerous business. Keeping a blog about one’s reading is, if possible, more so. Why do I do this to myself?

PSA: Guys, oodles of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is available at National Bookstore for PhP715. Get it. I won’t hate you, I promise. Admit it, you’ve been waiting for this book for nearly a decade too. Get it.

——-

[*] You-don’t-have-to-read this digression: Yesterday, chilling at Cubao and trying not to buy books, I wandered into the National Bookstore Superbranch and, um, bought me some Roland Barthes—his S/Z, which I’d long despaired I’d never find. Well. I showed it off, and mah boss said, “You know, I saw A Lover’s Discourse. But I didn’t buy it, because it wasn’t mine.” And then a glare my way. Hah. Harhar. I seem to enjoy telling people to not read the best books.

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6 comments

  1. While I’ve never quite had this experience, I’ve come close enough to merging with a character to know it would present an exhilarating crisis if it ever succeeded. On one hand I’d realize I’m deeply understood and exposed to thousands of readers (little would they know), but on the other hand I’d realize I’m also inventable. Am I not unique enough, Author, to escape your power of characterization? Yeah, fuck you, Eugenides.
    But I’ve wondered, when you discover you’re the ideal reader, what do you do with that? Encourage people to read the book knowing it’s a disclosure of yourself? Or direct them away so it stays personal, stays your book, your Madeleine, and so on?

  2. How I wish I could write posts like you do – they’re so imaginative and swirling and wonderful. It makes all the this-is-what-happens-in-the-book-and-what-I-thought bloggers (like me) look very inadequate…

    S/Z – great stuff. It blew my mind a little, but I valued reading it. I was not its ideal reader, but I was allowed a glimpse of what that might feel like.

    Alberto Manguel seems to be able to write books for which all true readers are ideal readers. Now, that’s a skill.

  3. Goddamn woman, part one had me quite floored! there was an aching somewhere in my chest after having read what you wrote. your prose is wonderful, Sasha. I look forward to keeping a clone of you on my shelf for all those nights when my own soul decides it is restless. love and affection but more respect than anything.

  4. sasha please come back. I miss you. Am reading Josephine Hart and you must must must read her. Here’s a pic of her. She personally had a great love story.

    http://twilightirruption.blogspot.com/2011/10/breaking-dawn-wedding-bella-and-rob.html

    Their picture is at the end of the post.

  5. [...] I should probably send already-confirmed fans of Roland Barthes directly to a review by The Marriage Plot‘s ideal reader, the inimitable Sasha. [...]

  6. [...] Sasha & The Silverfish: “Recently, a friend asked me, on Twitter, if I’d read it and liked it. I told him it was a college novel, and a love triangle, and that it was lovely. I add now that it brought me back to college and its sneaky little promises of infiniteness, of love, of the golden life beyond it…..But what can you do when you read a book that lends you a voice? That shares not just your love for some very specific object, but allows you to express that love, if only by pointing at a passage?” [...]

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