Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, ed., Books and Culture. / New at patreon.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Books and boys--

Here I am, up reading On Beauty and washing child no. 3's wrestling gear. He arrived home after midnight from the Center State meet and has to be up at 4:45 in order to make the "bus" (the three boys called back for another day are riding with the coaches in a car.) Anyway, the singlet and so on must be washed, and so here I am waiting for it to dry so I can then put in the heavy things and leave them to go round and round while I sleep, so that I in turn can go to the tournament later on.

Anyway, sons are on my mind because immediately they got in my way of reading On Beauty. Because even though I am a writer and two of my three children like to write very much, I read the opening letter with some astonishment because I cannot picture a son in our age who would write a long, news-filled, descriptive letter to his parent, no matter what the motivation.  Why? First, young men tend to be uninformative compared to young women. Second, my sons would never write a letter of that kind, even though they are the children of over-educated parents. They call, they text, and they will sometimes answer a facebook note. Let us say rarely. Third, they just don't see a longish, descriptive letter as a viable mode of communication. My daughter, in contrast, will write back and forth on facebook with me for a long time. But even she wouldn't choose to write that sort of long, organized letter.  Fourth, that business of the descriptive language? Detailed description? Boys and young men don't do a lot of that sort of thing. I would have to use surgical tweezers to get those words out of my sons' mouths. Fifth, when I make it to the second letter I can't believe any young man would say that bit about the kissing the little bit of skin visible on the be-hooded brother Levi's face. That's a woman talking!

Now what does all this mean? Does it say something about On Beauty as a whole? Does it say something about Zadie Smith? I don't really know because I'm not far enough, and I need to do laundry and collapse into bed.

But what it really does mean for sure is that, yes, there is no such thing as realism. This patently odd young man can go on writing long, lovely letters because he is a made-up creature, and whatever he chooses to do, no matter how fantastic, is right. I may well decide that he convinces me, despite his utter unlikeness to the usual run of boys, once again because of there being no such thing as realism. In this little bubble world, he may make sense, and his way of seeing the world convince me. Time, as is its wont, will tell me. And now, dear reader, I am falling over with sleepiness and have just put the second load in the dryer. Good night!

9 comments:

  1. Not having a son, I can't be sure about such romantic writing of letters, especially in this day of texting, tweets and so on. However, I must say that our middle daughter me her future husband through through a mutual friend via the internet and carried on email conversations in poetry back and forth over the Atlantic. Of course those were not letters home to mother, and also before texting and tweeting. Maybe, an older and writing-inclined boy would do this.... but not to mother, I would think. Your son may surprise you yet when he falls in love.

    Hope you caught up on your sleep, Marly.

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  2. Ach, MUST reread and fix typos BEFORE sending. Sorry.

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  3. Ah, well, romantic love is an entirely different matter!

    Yes, I well believe in translatlantic and far-off letters between sweethearts and also between friends. I've certainly done both of those things...

    But a very young man writing to his father on a very frequent basis? I'd be so surprised to see long son-to-father letters from a very young guy. (Of course it would be texting in 2013.)

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  4. "First, young men tend to be uninformative compared to young women."

    Well, you as a mother would know best about such things. However, I doubt the generalization. Were it phrased in the reverse, for example, with young women somehow being less than young men in some way, you could anticipate being accused of some sort of misogyny. While I do not think your generalization rises to misanthropy--all of which I am throwing out there with tongue in cheek--I remain interested in the generalization. Perhaps it all boils down to "Mother Knows Best." And, of course, in the 50s TV show, "Father Knows Best," the mother really was the person who had it all figured out.

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  5. Indeed, it does! Luckily I am not afraid of making sweeping generalizations (ack!) that might get me into trouble... Maybe I just know too many young men who have some common traits, and maybe they're just an utterly peculiar sample!

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  6. I enjoyed 'On Beauty' but then when I read 'Howard's End', which in my ignorance I didn't do until after reading the former, I realised what a self-conscious, possibly rather mannered, mirroring of it the later book was. So the opening letter is made from a kind of pro-forma from Helen's opening letter to Margaret (educated, arty and rather overwrought early 20th c. English young women, sisters to boot), and I fear perhaps ZS is a bit more concerned with that kind of post-modern cleverbuggery than reflecting modern social/psychological behaviour! That said, I think she is also quite good at some aspects of that too, and character generally, though I'm not sure I know enough about how modern people work to be sure myself!

    I kind of felt a bit cheated this out, but perhaps I shouldn't, it's all art after all, innit, which I suppose is what you're saying. Still a good book, though I found the colour and vividness that it offered to begin with didn't quite hold up. I liked the dachshund anyway.

    Sorry, that's not too clearly expressed, bit tired from being kept awake by howliing wind and battering rain.

    Merry Christmas Marly!

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  7. Merry Christmas-to-be, Lucy!

    Thanks for those thoughts. I'll keep them in mind. But I didn't get to read a word more today, between shooting down the block, the just-fetched daughter throwing up repeatedly, the tree, and wrapping presents. Whew.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.