Jeffrey Eugenides’s first novel is a beautiful mythology that works like national and personal memory.
“A half-eaten sandwich sat atop the landing where someone had felt too sad to finish it.”
“What lingered after them was not life, which always overcomes natural death, but the most trivial list of mundane facts: a clock ticking on a wall, a room dim at noon, and the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself.”
I stand on a busy corner waiting for her to arrive.
We went to Taipei
When our romance was new, we would whisper deep into the night about moving to the city. We were young and we craved the center of the universe, searching for the crowd heat and machine noise that makes the world spin. The city promised action and progress; it offered escape and acceptance. We talked big until dawn, each of us dimly sensing that our love might not be real until we brought it to the city.
I fell for the city long before I met her. Dreams of blinking neon and fire escapes filled my teenage years; I fantasized about stone lions and all-night diners. I borrowed these images from movies and song lyrics and made them my own. I believed the city would transform me into somebody more interesting. To fall in love with a city is to fall in love with a moving target. The city is always changing, which is a valuable lesson for learning to love somebody.
The city was good for love because I discovered the world through her eyes, holding hands while I watched how she reacted to the chaos, spectacle, and light, her ideas bleeding into mine until the town became something we invented together. I held imaginary conversations with her about the things I saw when she was not with me. Sometimes I scribbled them into my notebook and brought them home to her.
Tonight I stand on a busy corner waiting for her to arrive, trying not to look at my watch. I scan the faces that pass by, each person defined by the simple fact of not being her. She is late or I am early and there is time to look up, which I rarely do these days. Gargoyles and grey glass. Spectral signs from the days of machine manufacturers and fruit importers. Cornices and eaves that make the neighborhood feel like a room. I watch the never-ending stream of people carrying their hopes, ailments, and gods I will never know. I search these people for her face until at last she appears with a goofy little wave and time resumes. This is when lover, crowd, and city become one.
These items will be condensed into bloodless pixels.
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During the first world war we called sauerkraut ‘liberty cabbage’ because we did not like the Germans. Ninety years later we referred to French fries as ‘freedom fries’ during a war without a number. Perhaps we stopped counting the wars because it would be too depressing otherwise.
Listen close. Beneath the floorboards of the American brainpan you can hear Robert Johnson moaning about a hellhound on his tail, grateful that we still talk about the night he sold his soul on a Mississippi highway back in 1929. Twenty years before the devil handed Johnson a guitar, a woman named Carrie Nation destroyed an Oklahoma saloon with her hatchet, determined to rid the nation of booze. They locked her up twice that day. “You have put me in jail as a cub,” she said, “but I will come out roaring like a lion and I will make all hell howl.”
While doing my laps in an empty pool, I listen to the thwack and groan of an old woman beating the devil out of a punching bag. She does not wear gloves. Anger always finds its way out. An enormous man passes me in the pool, whistling ‘que sera sera’ while doing a lazy backstroke. The TV in the locker room describes yesterday’s murders. We’re silent until somebody says “How did we get like this?”
I motor through the neon city with a busted tape deck and the heat on blast. Powerball and Jesus saves. No money down and free financing. A giant billboard with a lady grinning at a screen urges me to ‘stay entertained everywhere.’ Twist the dial and Frankie Avalon pines for a lovely girl with sunlight in her hair while voices murmur about carjackings and data-mining. Twenty-five years ago Chuck D told us about the trouble on his mind, that the government was up to no good. Not enough of us listened.
On the Coney Island boardwalk
What does it mean to be a good person? Many of us strive toward some distant light on the horizon that disappears like vapor when we draw near. Sometimes we punish ourselves for failing to grasp it, never realizing that striving is what makes us good. We hear this all the time: The journey not the destination. Progress not perfection. The maddening thing about clichés is that they are true. In 1920, John Dewey described it well: “Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever-enduring process of perfecting, maturing, refining, is the aim in living. The bad man is the man who, no matter how good he has been, is beginning to deteriorate, to grow less good. The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better. Such a conception makes one severe in judging himself and humane in judging others.”