Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jean Rhys, I Love You.3

This is the second of two parts. To read the first part, click here.

What I love about “The Lotus” is that the emotions taking place are so hard to categorize. Nevertheless, I’m going to try: Ronnie has invited his downstairs neighbor, Lotus, to Christine’s and his apartment, all the while viewing her with an attitude somewhere between pity and cynical glee. Christine feels toward Lotus something akin to envy, with a clear dose of revilement, all the while trying to play along with Ronnie’s condescending joke. It’s funny, though: am I projecting or is there some level of reluctant admiration on the part of the couple?

The ironic tone of Ronnie and Christine is what makes “The Lotus” feel so contemporary. Ronnie tells his wife about Lotus:

‘I think she’s damned comic. She’s the funniest old relic of the past I’ve struck for a long time.’

The inside-jokey objectification here reeks of hipsterism. Later, after he has escorted Lotus home, Ronnie even thumbs through a catalog of second-hand vinyl! My own couple, Remy and Poney Marie, have a similar throwback-inspired superiority toward / fascination with Myrne.

Lotus, like Myrne (a character from my short story, “face”), is an older woman with trashy tastes and a substance dependence problem. Both women also have a tarted up, sickly appearance: Christine, at one point, remarks that Lotus “looked awful.” Poney Marie has similar thoughts about Myrne, and worries that the former stewardess’s ugliness might sabotage her campaign. This aspect of their relationship forms a dissimilar, complicating element to the story I’m writing (which is perhaps why it’s starting to spiral a bit—even, at times, hinting at becoming a novel): business is at the heart of how Myrne and Poney Marie relate, which causes a constantly shifting power dynamic.

Another difference: where Lotus is a mass of insecurities on display, Myrne puts up a tough front. Reading “The Lotus” reminded me that maybe I need to temper Myrne’s toughness with some more obvious fears, that her vulnerability at times needs to be more apparent to Remy and Poney Marie.

What’s also interesting about Lotus and Myrne is that both women are literally out of their elements—albeit in vertically opposite directions. Lotus is a basement dweller, subterranean, who has ventured upstairs to socialize. Myrne, as a former flight attendant, once frequented the skies, but has since become entangled in the social nightmare of the book, which has grown so weighty, it’s bound her to earth.

Lotus—like Myrne and like me in the midst of that long, looming middle—is trapped. Myrne is literally stuck in the book; Lotus, a romance novelist in the midst of a manuscript (not five), is more figuratively ensnared.

‘The awful thing,’ Lotus said as she was going out, ‘is not knowing the words. That’s the torture—knowing the thing and not knowing the words.’

I’m sure Rhys understood this better than anyone—writing can always sort of wall you in. There’s a point where the book encloses you and is no longer yours. To make a punny, surface-level comparison, I’ve also heard tell of this happening with Facebook.

I’ll return to the subject of death in a moment, but first, while we’re trapped down here in Lotus’s basement, some questions: Isn’t there always a hint of death every time we sit down to write? On the surface, perhaps, we want to be remembered, and so, our hands over keyboard, there’s a part of ourselves that’s trying to outsmart the reaper. But writing, of course, in its purest form, is about discovery, about finding out what we didn’t know we knew. And the ultimate unknown: what happens when we die? How are things going to end? When we write, we—often unsuccessfully—feel around beyond those all-interring walls.

For me, the most chilling part of “The Lotus” is Christine’s willful ignorance of her own all-too-obvious mortality. In a sense, Lotus has risen from the grave to haunt Christine, coming up from the basement, white as a ghost, with falsely bloodied lips.

‘No, isn’t it distressing?’ Christine remarked to no one in particular. ‘Most people go on living long after they ought to be dead, don’t they? Especially women.’

While I don’t think Poney Marie—so far, at least—is as vicious as Christine, she is equally naïve, and consequently just as destructive. Like Christine, who is bored with slumming it, Poney Marie has hopes for a brighter future. At one point she follows Remy to New Orleans, after he convinces her of the city’s romantic charm. I think of Poney Marie as belonging to the cult of youth, the word cult used here not to imply worship, but rather a sort of limited vision. Christine also belongs to this cult, although it’s her encounter with Lotus that leads her unwittingly away from it. But while Lotus is emblematic of Christine’s dismal surroundings, I think I want Myrne to haunt a less explicitly symbolic frequency. Perhaps because she exists within the book, such an already overwrought symbol.

This is how “The Lotus” ends:

He could not help admiring the way Christine ignored the whole sordid affair, lying there with her eyes shut and the eiderdown pulled up under her chin, smiling a little. She looked very pretty, warm and happy like a child when you have given it a sweet to suck. And peaceful.

A lovely child. So lovely that he had to tell her how lovely she was, and start kissing her.*

Notice that twice Rhys compares Christine to a child. I see Poney Marie’s youth similarly ending in “face”, but I’ve never imagined her being quite as oblivious. There is disillusionment in store for her, I don’t doubt it, but I wanted from the beginning for her to be conscious of it. I also wanted somehow—and who’s being naïve now?—to have Myrne be Poney Marie’s salvation. After re-reading that final paragraph of “The Lotus”, though, I wonder if that salvation is meant to happen. Maybe I’m the one who’s in for some disillusionment.

I’m in the middle, you see, and it’s dark down here in my box, and, maddeningly, the end is obscured through miles and miles of dense dirt.

*The moment Ronnie starts kissing her here, Lotus’s loneliness hit me hard, and I thought again of Mike Leigh’s Another Year.

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