Currently Reading

More accurately, just finished reading. Over the last two weeks, I read My Education, by Susan Choi, followed by The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman. It was interesting to read the two novels back to back because My Education has a female protagonist in her early twenties, and by and large chronicles her love affair with a thirtysomething woman. On the other hand, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. follows a thirtysomething male protagonist as he navigates relationships with multiple women in the Brooklyn literary scene. The books have some commonalities: both take place at least part of the time in New York, both main characters are writers, and I could relate to certain elements of both stories being that I, like Regina of My Education, am in my early twenties and I, like Nate of Love Affairs, live in Brooklyn.

Despite the fact that I probably have more in common with Regina, Love Affairs hit me on a gut level that My Education did not reach. This is how I know: I was devouring the book on my couch while my boyfriend was watching the Super Bowl. Boyfriend Alex decided to cuddle up next to me when the post-game episode of New Girl came on. “You don’t want to watch New Girl, babe?” he asked sweetly, knowing that I like the show.

“No, I’m reading,” I replied without even glancing at the television screen. The book’s main character, Nate, was in the midst of a horrible breakup with his girlfriend Hannah—horrible for her, I should say. I was reading through a scene in Prospect Park where she admitted that it wasn’t working out, to which he nodded his head. I knew, as I read, of the pain of that nod; the night before I’d been out with a girlfriend who had broken up with her boyfriend days earlier. “He didn’t even put up a fight,” she said, somewhat anguished. “I was surprised.”

I was mortified for Hannah, and mad at Nate, and at the same time completely enveloped in Nate’s perspective of the discussion/breakup. The book is written in close third and thus kind of reads like a decoder ringso this is what men are thinking! (I should note, it’s written by a woman. I am reading this blog post to Alex and he is not buying that it could correctly represent the male perspective, but it felt very, very real, and very male.)

Anyway, after I brushed off Alex’s New Girl suggestion, he jokingly said, “I feel like we don’t share anything anymore.” He was not being serious, not at all. Normally, knowing his sense of humor, such a comment wouldn’t bother me, wouldn’t even register for me. I would just smile indulgently. But so disturbed was I by the preceding 200 pages of Nate’s point of view, so wrapped up was I in his stark judgement of women and relationships, so angsty was I over the in-progress breakup, that I set the iPhone on which I was reading down and cried, “What are you talking about? Are you serious?”

Alex was understandably taken aback. He quickly reassured me that he was joking, that it was a stupid joke. I persisted. “Are you sure there’s not some truth to the comment?” I said.

Memories of Hannah and Nate’s fictional miscommunications filled my brain. I thought of how she, in his eyes, became meek and overly emotional, while it was clear to me that she was reacting to his increasing disengagement. She would beg him to tell her if something was bothering him. He, turned off by that very begging, would deny that anything was wrong and continue to shrink away.

“You can tell me!” I nearly shrieked, suddenly irrationally convinced that Alex’s ill-advised joke portended the demise of our heretofore stable, two-yearlong relationship. In a flash, it seemed that our shared cat Chives, Brooklyn apartment not so unlike Nate’s and life together could be on the line.

Alex, remarkably calm, reassured his crazy girlfriend that all was well, and I settled down. I went back to the book. About an hour later, once I’d finished, I admitted the source of my freakout and apologized. Alex laughed patiently. He’s always great, but he was looking pretty damn incredible in comparison to Nate.

It’s not that My Education was bad, or not as well-realized. I fully bought Regina’s progression: her descent into all-consuming love, her deep depression after the breakup, her move into adulthood and motherhood and the professional world. But in My Education men are largely on the periphery; this is a book about two women’s sexual and emotional entanglement, and it looks at love, sex, motherhood, and work from a perspective that I recognized, if not necessarily related to. Nate’s perspective, on the other hand, was quite alien to me, and at the same time particularly affecting because he exists in a Brooklyn that I inhabit. Waldman peppers the novel with images of the gentrifying borough, often through the lens of Nate’s Privileged White Male Guilt Complex. Nate taps away on his laptop in cafes that sprout up like flowers (or weeds, depending who you ask) next to bodegas. Nate hears a cabbie grumble about delivering his passengers to Brooklyn. Nate observes the church across the street from his apartment. I encounter all of these sights and sounds every day, and so it was particularly interesting—and worrying—to imagine Nate-like men just strolling around my neighborhood.

I know assholes exist, but it’s not often I am privy to their innermost thoughts.

I don’t mean to oversimplify Love Affairs, by the way, by making it sound like the white male narrator is such a dick that it’s not worth the read. One of the pleasures of the book is seeing how Waldman manages to keep him likable without giving him some hero’s journey. Alex is saying, now, that he wants to read it to see if it’s “true.” I don’t know if it would resonate with him, though, because his truth is not Nate’s truth (thank God!!!). As I read, it might have seemed like some sort of secret window into the male brain, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it couldn’t be. And nor should it be. Remember when everyone freaked out that Lena Dunham wanted to be the “voice of generation”? (Which she didn’t; her character did, and we were supposed to laugh at that.) People were mad because, here we go, a rich white girl wants to speak for all women. But on a deeper level the notion that anyone could speak for everyone of a certain type upsets people, as it should. (It probably partly speaks to our senses of self; what does it say about my individuality if some voice accurately speaks for me? And if that voice does not represent my experience, what does that say about how society devalues my perspective?) Nate, then, is not any more representative of a certain type of man than Hannah Horvath is of a certain type of woman, but his voice—the voice that Waldman cultivates—is fresh and interesting and, ultimately, enjoyable, even if it did momentarily freak my boyfriend out.

***

And a quick currently watching note. Went with the coming-of-age tales this week, with The Spectacular Now and The Way, Way Back. Both bildungsroman, both revolve around young men, both fairly predictable. The Way, Way Back felt like a retread of countless other such tales (mom has a boyfriend, trip to a beach town for the summer, awkward kids gets a summer job, meets older mentor who is also kind of emotionally stunted, but fun—you know how this goes), but it’s breezy and sweet and Allison Janney is great, always. (Also, why does Amanda Peet always get cast in that part?) The Spectacular Now is also easy to call—reminded me of the underrated gem Keith—but Miles Teller gives a beautiful, effortless performance, like he just lives that character. Can’t wait to see his future work.

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The Double in True Detective

Dr. Jekyll famously posited that “man is not truly one, but two,” a reference to one of the tenets of Gothic fiction: the double. Page through the genre’s staples, and the sets of doubles are as ubiquitous as stormy weather or labyrinthine abodes. Often, Gothic twinning is representative of the duality within man, or simply put, good versus evil, as with the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Other Gothic pairs include Matilda and Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason, and Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature.

The double was passed down to the Gothic novel’s descendant, horror film. Buffy the Vampire Slayer memorably used the double in the episode “Doppelgangland,” wherein Willow’s vampire doppelganger from another dimension takes a trip to Sunnydale and thoroughly confounds the Scooby Gang, who understandably assume that their good friend has been killed.

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Willow encounters her vampy double.

In Buffy, the double is used for comedic effect, allowing for some great mistaken identity gags. But laughs aside, the episode nicely typifies the double’s place in Gothic fiction. In the episode, Willow is questioning her reputation as a reliable, maybe predictable person. She meets her double just as she’s in the process of reevaluating herself. Horror films and novels are often about subverting our constructions of normalcy (that’s why Michael Myers terrorizes an idyllic suburban neighborhood), and what’s more disturbing than being confronted with your own construction of self? In meeting our doubles, we must reflect on the permeability of our identities.

Fitting, then, that HBO’s True Detective, a show that spends a lot of time considering the nature of selfhood, is littered with doubles. The most obvious pairing is Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart, a couple of Louisiana cops tasked with solving a gruesome murder. At first the men seem quite different; Cohle lives alone, and is fairly antisocial and prone to philosophizing, while Hart is a family man who seems to enjoy beers with the fellas and a good dirty joke. As the show continues, though, the characters become more and more complex, and more and more similar. “You’re obsessive,” Hart says to his partner in the most recent episode. “You’re obsessive too,” Cohle replies. “Just not about work.” Even without verbalizing their similarities, the show frames the two men as doubles, dressing them in the same palette or shooting them in parallel, as if they’re two sides of the same coin.

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Doubling can also be found in the form of Hart’s daughters, cherubic blondes who are often dressed almost identically and, in a recent scene, were blocked to move in unison.

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See also: the double date between Hart, his wife, Cohle and his setup. Notice that Hart’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, also physically resembles Cohle’s date, creating another visual double. During the date, a thematic doubling of sorts arises during the characters’ conversation about synesthesia. Cohle explains his condition as “a type of hypersensitivity. One sense triggers another sense. Like, sometimes I’ll see a color and it’ll put a taste in my mouth; a touch, a texture, a scent may put a note in my head.” Replies his date, “So when something feels good, does that mean it feels twice as good? Like, say, two different ways?”

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Lastly, Cohle and Hart, while doubling each other, are further doubled by the detectives who interview them in the show’s framing device.

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Even the show’s title, True Detective, can connect back to doubling, for in not pluralizing the noun it’s as if the two protagonists we see on-screen are in some ways one and the same. Toward the close of the most recent episode, Hart, somewhat uncharacteristically, asks Cohle a question about selfhood. “Do you wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?” he asks. “The world needs bad men,” Cohle replies. “We keep the other bad men from the door.” At episode’s end, the bad man is revealed: a naked figure holding a machete and wearing a gas mask stalks across the frame, ostensibly the killer we and the detectives have been searching for. But earlier Cohle and Hart were established as bad men themselves, and so is this not another metaphorical, monstrous double? Already the lines between “good” and “bad” have been muddied in True Detective‘s universe, but often in Gothic fiction one double subsumes the other. In the end, this may be a story of death, but the mutilated bodies we’ve already encountered may not be the only victims.