An American psychoanalyst comments on the matters in his world - books he reads, movies he watches, conferences he attends - from a psychoanalytic perspective. Intended for those curious about modern applied psychoanalysis.
This grows out of a project - the 10,000 minds project of the American Psychoanalytic Association - intended to help the public become aware of contemporary psychoanalysis.
Friday, September 22, 2017
Anything is Possible – A blessing or a curse?
Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, Anything is Possible, seems
to me to be her bleakest offering yet. I
have written about her Pulitzer Prize winning Olive
Kitteridge, which I used to teach personality theory, and this book is
structured like that one – every story has some tie – usually many of them – to
a single character, but in Anything is Possible, Lucy
Barton, about whom Strout has previously written a novel, does not shows up
in every stand-alone chapter if only to breeze through as Olive did – in fact
she only appears in person in one of them.
There are ties to her – and all of the other characters - in every
chapter, though. Sometimes the ties are
are obscure and it is only when the chapter is almost over that we realize, “Oh,
that’s the same Charlie who she talked about in the last chapter,” and
sometimes we don’t even realize that the selfsame people are being referenced. Some of the interconnections are so obscure that
we are only likely to catch them on a second reading.
So the ghost who is at the center of this book and ties all
of the short stories together is a novelist who grew up in the most psychologically
and economically poor family in a small psychologically and economically
impoverished farming community in Illinois.
She became an unbelievable success and now appears on talk shows and
regularly churns out best sellers. So,
we have our first experience of “anything is possible”. But I‘d like to start at the end of the book,
where the phrase is actually used for the only time, to explore the phrase’s underside,
which this books seems to explore over and over and over in a variety of ways
and with subtle gradations, but with a consistent, haunting theme of decay and
demise that belies its surface message of hope.
In the final chapter, one of the truly successful “graduates”
of the next small town over, who is one of Lucy Barton’s cousins and used to
eat garbage with her out of the dumpster when he would visit in the summer, is
now living a comfortable life in suburban Chicago. Abel Blaine is prosperous, running the
heating and air conditioning company that he inherited from his father in
law. He is now a grandfather who has had
a heart attack, and he is watching an annual production of A Christmas Carol
that he has seen many times before with his family. Scrooge is played by a bad actor who has been
panned in the suburban news that morning and there is a power outage in the
middle of the play. Abel is hungry – he missed
dinner because he was late from the office and when he gets home from the
theater he wants to spend time with his granddaughter rather than eat, but then
he discovers that his granddaughter has left her plastic pony at the
theater. He returns to the theater where
the actor playing Scrooge is alone there, lets him in, and then corners him in
a locked room, taunting him and decrying his own failures and acknowledging the
he, Scrooge, turned off the power remotely in the middle of the performance to
introduce chaos into the room. Lucy’s
cousin (and we) sees that Scrooge is unhinged just before Abel has another
heart attack, which motivates Scrooge to call 911. As the cousin is being carried away by the medics,
he is struck that the interaction with the Scrooge character was a genuine
interaction – and he imagines that, because of this genuineness, they are
friends. The novel then ends
ambiguously, suggesting that he feels anything is possible – perhaps meaning
that he can die and be free of life’s encumbrances or that he can live and look
this man up and begin a relationship with him.
This book continues, in the wake of Lucy Barton, to be a
meditation on the need for a writer, but more importantly a person, to be
honest true and genuine and the complicated consequences of doing that. Lucy Barton, the author in the book – and some
kind of alter ego of Elizabeth Strout, the author of the book – continues to
exhort people who watch her on TV to write truthful sentences. This is, I think, a moral directive that was
given to Lucy Barton by one of her revered writers when they had a chance
meeting in a bookstore. And the truth is
that anything is possible – you can eat out of a dumpster when you are a kid (as
Lucy and Abel did together), become fat and happy as an adult (as Abel has done
– Lucy is lean and not happy but she is also successful), but also that you
could then die hungry and lonely in a strange theater where you finally feel
connected to someone – someone who appears to be unhinged. And this comes in the wake of feeling, early
in the conversation, that you are just saying the lines – as you felt the
actors were doing in the play. Then you
begin to speak honestly – and so does Scrooge – and you are now in your own
little Christmas Carol – seeing the past, the present, and, perhaps, the
So, yes, anything is possible, but would you want the
eventualities this would bring? Those
who postulate the existence of infinite universes caution that there is then,
an infinite number of ways in which misery can be expressed. But I think that Strout is proposing that to
be the case within this one universe of ours, with its infinite possibilities,
but also realities – realities that are harsh and lonely. And, I think, she is proposing that the hope –
and I think this is a very American Dream hope – that anything is possible – is
a cruel hope – one that keeps us hanging in there, hoping against hope that the
next relationship, the next job, the next moment, will bring happiness. That hope is never quite realized, but we
manage to squeeze enough juice out of it to keep us going – we realize that we
don’t need happiness, perhaps all we need is hope, but that means that to
honestly and directly articulate our experience as it actually is will deplete
us of that hope and leave us withered and alone, as impoverished as Lucy Barton
ever was in the worst moments of her childhood.
This feels to me to be an awful and cruel vision, but also,
on some level, a true one. We build dams
against time, we accomplish a great deal, but in the end, we have also built
dams between ourselves, we are isolated and alone, and what we cherish – what we
hunger and yearn for, is not what we have invested ourselves in pursuing. We have been distracted by shiny objects, we
have worked to protect ourselves when protection wasn’t needed, and we have
thus alienated those we love.
As I have posted on Elizabeth’s books twice before, and the
last time I did, a friend sent me an
interview with Strout about her writing process. Strout does not map out a book ahead of
time. She writes bits of it as they come
to her, in longhand on pieces of paper and she arranges the pieces until the
book has formed itself. She writes from
within her characters and allows herself to be distracted, when writing Lucy
Barton, for instance, by Lucy’s acquaintances, and to write about them when
they come to her, and by the time she has finished the one book, the other is
almost written as well. In that process,
I think that Strout is searching for truthful sentences. And she uses these as building blocks to
write truthful stories.
I think that we can sometimes write stories – and deceive
ourselves in the process. They have
happy endings. Don’t get me wrong. Happy endings are a good and maybe even
necessary thing. In my profession, Dr.
Karl Menninger exhorted us never to underestimate hope – the kind of hope that
the phrase “anything is possible” engenders.
But I think we also have to be truthful.
I think that sometimes in these posts and sometimes in my work with my
students, my patients and in my role as a parent and a spouse, I am less than
truthful. I want to believe that
anything is possible. And I think that
Strout is pointing out the essential role that hope plays – but also that it
can veil the truth of the thinness of the life we are living from us. We can live for tomorrow – for the American
Dream to play out – but in order to do that, as a recent spoken word artist
pointed out in her performance – we have to be asleep. And sleep walking through life creates holes
where filled spots should be.
In another part of the interview, Strout maintains that this book is partly
about the people who stay. Most of them
are women are she is writing about a time when women had to stay – when it was
harder for them to leave. And I think
she may be talking about the things that help them stay – the ways in which
they promise themselves that things will get better. But she gets that this is not just the
phenomenon of the woman – Abel has been making himself stay at his job and with
his wife – though he does get moments of pure pleasure with his granddaughter –
when he is doing what he wants – when he is feeding himself what he is truly
hungry for. But these moments are few
and far between. Because they are possible,
we hang in there. And even in our dying
moments we hope for more of them and they end up being enough to sustain us –
but, truth be told, there are times when that is all they do, sustain us – they
keep us hanging on until we can find the next moment that will provide some
sustenance – never enough to fully satisfy, but enough to keep us alive.
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