Sunday, August 4, 2013


Please note I am shifting to a more open schedule. I will write posts on an ad hoc basis from now on, so I can pursue some other things. Feel free to check the blog now and then.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Bigger the Front

Grosz writes about a phenomenon called, "The bigger the front, the bigger the back." Once, he was on a plane next to a Jewish woman whose parents had stopped speaking to her for 16 years because she married a Gentile. The woman had never understood her father's vitriol (her mom had just followed suit). Then it emerged that the father had been sleeping with his Gentile secretary for decades. He couldn't tolerate his own behavior; he directed his anger at his daughter. Another term for this phenomenon is "splitting." It happens whenever a closeted anti-gay politician is revealed to have stalked men's bathrooms. I have a friend from college whose father suddenly flipped out over my friend's having chosen to date a non-Jew. The randomness and severity of the breakdown was so startling, I have sometimes wondered if the father in question was seeing a non-Jew (secretly), as well.

Richard Russo once gave his mother a copy of Anita Brookner's HOTEL DU LAC. Russo's students hadn't understood the book. They couldn't accept that the female protagonist had been badly treated by the women in her life, and that a male ne'er-do-well might represent the protagonist's best chance at salvation. The young undergrads thought the cad was the novel's villain. Russo's mother immediately understood that the women were as villainous as--if not more villainous than--the man. Still, she didn't like the book. For her, books were a form of escape. They needed to involve Lord Peter Wimsey, or a conservative romance. Why read a brilliant novel that accurately depicts life as it is actually lived?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Difficult Conversations

The last story Grosz tells is about a 26 year old. This man has HIV, and his doctor and family are desperately trying to get him to take medication. He won't; he is in denial. (A similar story concerned the Alison Pill character in IN TREATMENT.)

Grosz is unable to talk sense into the young man, who travels to the Southern Hemisphere on vacation and promptly dies of dysentery.

Years later, Grosz is trying to get his little son to take medication after a hospital visit. The kid won't, and it's maddening. Finally, Grosz stumbles on the right persuasive advice--empathy. He tells his son about when he was little and did not want to take medicine. The kid listens, then complies.

In the middle of the night, Grosz has a dream about a green lizard evading his grasp--and the letters SIDA. After some free associating, he realizes the dream is about the dead 26 year old. SIDA refers to AIDS. The green lizard refers to the young man's hometown, which was nicknamed the Lizard.

Like many of Grosz's other stories, this one seems to be about the seductive power of irrational behavior, and about human frailty.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Loss and Change

One thing Grosz harps on is the link between change and loss. It's difficult to change, because each change entails a loss. When a person changes, she or he must concede that some past way of being--however semi-functional--was a mistake. Also, it's very important for many--most--people to see themselves in stark terms--"I am purely good," "I am purely right-thinking." To accept that a past way of being was misguided is extremely threatening. It makes the person--too often--think: "I am a disaster." It's hard for people to take an AND stance: "I am a decent person AND I am someone inclined toward interrupting, or alcoholism, or OCD, or whatever the case may be."

In Michelle Huneven's BLAME, when the formerly hard-drinking protagonist wonders why her sobriety is so endlessly difficult, an older AA vet observes it's because a part of her is dying, and it isn't going down without a fight.

A friend of mine was describing his alcoholic father yesterday. This guy is in his seventies and trapped in repetitive behavior. His various mental illnesses will likely only get worse--until he dies. Then my friend will feel relieved, and guilty about his sense of relief, and life will go on.

I don't know that Richard Russo was ever able to apprehend fully that his mother was incapable of (unassisted) change. If he could accept this, he would not have continued to aid and abet her behavior. "I gave her what she wanted," he writes, "not what she needed." He continued to show up for her and look the other way when she behaved in a destructive way. What she needed was medication, therapy--and possibly hospitalization.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rick's So Vain

I zipped through EMPIRE FALLS, but I remember thinking parts toward the end were sentimental and schematic. This was years ago.

I did like the novel enough to want to read Richard Russo's newish memoir, ELSEWHERE. I'm glad I did. It's quite thoughtful.

It concerns Russo's complex relationship with his mother, who felt trapped in her own head. She chose to leave Gloversville, NY, when Russo was admitted to the University of Arizona. (Gloversville was a dying town.) She lived near Russo while he was in Phoenix, and from that phase on, she became more and more dependent on him as her mental health deteriorated.

At the end of the memoir, Russo recognizes that his mother had untreated OCD. It ravaged her system. No one suggested that she get help. Her condition became so bad, she started to resemble--strongly--the mother in "Boxes" before her death. (It would be interesting to know if Russo is familiar with Raymond Carver's work, which is superior to his own. Carver and Russo touch on similar themes.) Mama Russo needed to move every few months--sometimes weeks. She was in such pain, she imagined that every place she inhabited was uninhabitable.

My main criticism of this memoir is that Russo is perhaps overly fond of self-sympathy. He seems not to feel much guilt about his failure to insist that his mother get medical attention. (Indeed, despite having been told often, by more than one person, "Your mother is nuts," Russo never seemed to address the subject of mental health with his mother.) Russo writes something to the effect of: How could I know Mom had OCD? It's only a recent national phenomenon. But Russo often quotes Woody Allen, and Woody Allen was dragging issues of mental illness into the spotlight as early as the 1970s. Russo is an educated man. It never occurred to him to press his mother on the subject of therapy?

Also, Russo rather glibly dismisses critics of his novels. He proudly suggests that his fondness for plot has made him unpopular among some critics. I think this is unfair. While I'm unfamiliar with the critical literature on Russo's work, I suspect that its main concern is not Russo's plotting; I suspect that its main concern is Russo's occasional willingness to trade plausibility for a show-stopping moment. As long as Russo is unable to hear his critics properly, his writing will suffer.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Huge Whale-Killing Dolphins

An interesting piece about orcas in captivity--

Also, my review of SHE LEFT ME THE GUN is now available on PopMatters. (


Another Grosz story: A family brings in a disheveled little girl. The parents say they know she is "slow," and they "just want her to be happy." (This is a pernicious line, "I just want you to be happy.") Grosz works with the girl and discovers pretty quickly that she is not slow. She is quite bright. She develops a friendship with Grosz, and she begins to keep a journal. Her appearance changes; she wears her hair differently and begins to have an easier time in school. The parents wonder if they should remove her from therapy, and Grosz wonders why they would have this thought when therapy has so clearly been helpful. Then he notices something interesting. As the little girl becomes more and more functional and assertive, the other members of her family fall apart. They begin to dress shabbily; they look as if they are not taking care of themselves. It emerges that they were invested in imagining that the little girl was dysfunctional. They needed her to be weak and problematic. It made them feel good about themselves to say, "We know she is a little off. We just want her to be happy." (It's clear that the little girl wants quite a bit more than a happy life of low expectations. She wants to be a person.)

Eventually, disturbed by the disequilibrium brought on by their daughter's recovery, the parents bravely admit that they need help. Their marriage is falling apart. They need to see a therapist.