After having wrapped up a disconcerting read, I often feel unimaginable sadness on my own behalf for failing to appreciate, and on the writers behalf for being unable to drive the message home.
Here’s the list from the most disappointing “I-wish-I-had-never-known-you” to least disappointing “I’m-willing-to-give-you-another-chance”:
- The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan (review)
- Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (review)
- Tuesday’s with Morrie by Mitch Albom (review)
- Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen (review)
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (review)
- Cosmopolis by Don Delillo (review)
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (review)
- Neuromancer by William Gibson (review)
A few thoughts
The premise is conceptually strong albeit fazed in many places. The story in itself is replete with question marks, the characters seem to be sketched out of thin air, lacking real life relational dynamics between men and women. At times I also felt how intense and unnecessary the violence was.
I’m confused as to what the motivation for writing this novel was. Was it to explore the nature of power in general or gendered power? Is the author asserting that violence is ingrained within everyone, but the limits to exercise this aggressiveness is dependent on external factors?
Towards the end, countless strands of the story didn’t seem to tie together for a more coherent conclusion. At times I felt the writing turned sloppy, reflecting perhaps the writers own disinterestedness or confusion as to how to wrap up the story.
All in all, the premise seems half-baked, lacking in depth which is why it was unable to drive its message and intention home.
• The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers. The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.
• We send electric currents down orderly runs of circuits and switches, but the shape that electricity wants to take is of a living thing, a fern, a bare branch. The strike point in the centre, the power seeking outward
• if she really wanted to she could get out. The knowledge is as good as freedom.
• There was a time when every crevice of this child’s body was Margot’s to clean and care for. It is not OK with her not to know her own child’s strength.
• Eve has made friends in a way Allie has always found difficult. Eve is kind and quiet and watchful, where Allie was spiky and complicated
• A child in danger must learn to pay more attention to the adults than a child loved and cherished.
• She could kill them. That is the profound truth of it
• It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth
• It’s just that there’s something exciting about the storm, something that makes you want to join in.
• the true religion is love, not fear
• The scaffold sways as he climbs. It’s not bolted to the walls of this crumbling concrete building. It was lashed with ropes once, but they’ve frayed and rotted, and the strain of his climbing is pulling the fibres apart
• But she likes doing it herself. Feeling the paper under her fingertips. Watching her decisions turn into maths turn into power
• Don’t give reasons; never give reasons. They’ll ask you why you think you lost, but never tell them, they’re trying to back you into criticizing yourself
• The things you don’t want to know, Roxy, those are the things that’ll get you in the end.
• He has written in the scribbled notes for his book: ‘At first we did not speak our hurt because it was not manly. Now we do not speak it because we are afraid and ashamed and alone without hope, each of us alone. It is hard to know when the first became the second.’
• Men are no longer permitted to vote – because their years of violence and degradation have shown that they are not fit to rule or govern
• There is a war slowly spreading in the country, not declared on a single day between well-defined enemies but spreading like measles: first one spot, then two, then three. A war of all against all
• One of them says, ‘Why did they do it, Nina and Darrell?’ And the other answers, ‘Because they could.’ That is the only answer there ever is.
• Their bodies have been rewritten by suffering. They have no fight left. They cannot, in that moment, tell which of them is supposed to be which. They are ready to begin
• The shape of power is always the same: it is infinite, it is complex, it is forever branching. While it is alive like a tree, it is growing; while it contains itself, it is a multitude. Its directions are unpredictable; it obeys its own laws
• The way we think about our past informs what we think is possible today. If we keep on repeating the same old lines about the past when there’s clear evidence that not all civilizations had the same ideas as us…we’re denying that anything can change.
A selection of my favourite passages from the book
• I feel tears well up in my eyes. We are waving at each other, touching each other over a great distance. I am looking at the wilderness and at Peter: the two dearest beings in my heart
• The wilderness might be able to teach us something, if we have time to listen
• I discovered it was much easier to accumulate things than to discard all the goods I had grown attached to
• There is only one rule with ideologies and that is the fact that they change all the time
• Just watching it calmed my mind. It had taught me its main principles: it always needs space and air. And, once a fire is burning well, it detests being disturbed in its heart. Fire and human beings have a lot in common that way.
• Mental and physical rest is so important at all ages. The art of doing nothing is undervalued
• Life had been put in a prison here; it was only allowed to grow a certain way. Human order meant control. The wilderness was the opposite: it looked chaotic, but had its own, everlasting order
• To sit through a very quiet winter, even just once in your life, is very purifying—mentally
• Somehow I had forgotten what I looked like, because Peter’s face had become more familiar to me than my own.
• What you want to destroy, you must first allow truly to flourish
• If you envision yourself as a tree, nobody can possibly lift you
• A timeless land protected by ancient rhythms, where humanity is obsolete and control pointless. A land in which the forest is a guardian and fire our closest friend, the wind a bringer of change and the sun our salvation.
• To him, every stone, bird and drop of water revealed one of nature’s many secrets
• We’re all born in captivity, conditioned to seek security instead of freedom, but actually we don’t know what freedom is because we have never had it
• ‘If we stop seeking psychological security,’ I continued, ‘there’s a chance that we might find out what freedom is.’
• That which is most powerful is subtle—almost invisible
• It’s amazing how nature provides everything, without asking for anything in return
• In a way, mortality is the price we pay for life
• I had the impression that she was studying our sounds, habits and patterns, as if she was some kind of weka anthropologist studying human-ape behaviour
• Your dependence and attachments have prepared the soil for your sorrow
• To hear a big stag—some weigh as much as 200 kilograms—calling in the quiet night was magic. It was as if their roars came out of a hidden canyon below the earth, so deep was the sound that resonated through the silent mountains
• The best skill in the world is to feel at home wherever I am, I thought.
• Every plant had preferences that could not be learned through study, only through instinct
• Walking over the hostile, hard ridges, where storm and wind were playing freely, gave me a feeling of insignificance that was strangely liberating. Only the present counted. It had a purifying effect and gently took away all the nonsense that didn’t really matter in the eyes of nature.
• I suddenly felt the world expanding. Everything was beautiful and made sense. It occurred to me that the meaning of life lies in aimlessness: when there is no focus at all, the world opens up.
• We were living with the weather and its moving beauty, with the delight and wonder of the sunsets
• Birds are the earth’s first musicians, I thought. All about me, high-pitched tunes lifted into the air like a fountain and were then replaced by a tapping similar to water dripping on rocks. As the day broke, the music grew fainter and the river sounded louder
• Simplicity, clarity, purity. This was a vision I had always kept with me, as it seemed the natural course of things in the world.
• What was this love and our relationship, really? Was I merely caught up in perpetuating a perfect image of it? Was I simply playing a role in a play full of endlessly repeated words and gestures? Was I tricking myself?
• The birds’ homecoming was accompanied by a deafening cackling, squeaking, screaming and howling—an unearthly and unbelievable cacophony
• any action derived from guilt usually just creates more confusion and distortion. It never solves conflict
• ‘Very strange,’ said Peter, when our visitor had departed again. ‘When I looked at you just then, you appeared so old and worn-out, but now you look normal again. Even the landscape looked kind of ugly!’ I was astonished, because I had felt precisely the same thing. ‘It is as if we were looking at the world through that man’s eyes.’
• Everything in nature had its own distinct colour
• While we talked, I realised how, in nature, everything is living: the trees, birds, animals, and even fire and the weather are lively. Everything exists in relation to everything else. A house, on the other hand, with its totally indoors environment, is quite dead by comparison.
• If I looked into the heart of nature’s rhythms, I could see that sacrifice was part of its cycle
• While looking at its eyes, I understood that beauty does not come through becoming, but only with being. The chamois was not working towards a better version of itself; it just lived. I, on the other hand, was always trying to become nicer, better, stronger, smarter and prettier, which caused me to lose my authentic self. I understood that the process of becoming disfigured my being. This chamois showed me, in that moment, that being is the most beautiful form of existence.
• I could see how I interpreted, judged and analysed my own thoughts, thereby restricting my own mind. I realised that these social rules were made in the past, and had nothing to do with the ever-changing present.
• Fewer possessions meant less anxiety.
• It’s a kind of permanent yearning, but it also gives me the energy to keep aiming for an ever-moving goalpost.’ I told her about the day I had seen the chamois and realised that real beauty lies in being not becoming. It had made perfect sense in the wilderness, but I now saw that in civilisation everything was about comparison.
• The moment that I walked through the door of responsibility I found myself in the room of obligation
• I started to miss the breeze and, above all, the fire. It felt as if I had lost the company of a good friend. The convenience of the heat pump did not match the sparkling beauty and warmth of a fire
• Time seemed to vanish quickly when I was behind a computer; the machine ate the hours away. I noticed its predictability created a sense of comfort, which in turn created a resistance to stepping into the unknown
• We all think we’re getting somewhere, that we’re making progress, but we’re in fact just struggling to keep our spot on the treadmill. People have become like sheep. Sheeple
• We’ve got to pay the mortgage or the rent,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘For a house we only see at night’
• It’s called comfortable slavery
• Other cultures have deities on the walls; here, we had The Clock
• Well, I reckon people have so little connection with their bodies that they need to feel pain to be reminded of their physical existence
• Life in this society is one great assault on the senses. We’re constantly overloading ourselves. We eat too much, because we can’t feel whether our stomach is full or not. We don’t taste anything, so we need more MSG and salt and sugar. The music we listen to—like the band just now—causes hearing damage
• The system in which we live is a forced consensus of a self-created monster
• Even though we walked with a physical burden, the walk relieved us from the mental burden of time
• It’s good to remember that, no matter what we do to make our civilisation secure, this volcano here has the last word
• Life was simpler without a lot of belongings that require care and maintenance. It seemed to me that possessions have a crafty way of possessing the owner
• To love someone is to give the other space to put down roots, grow tall and to flower
• when I see the place where I’ll die, I’d like to think that I’ll recognise it. Then I’ll know the time has come to stay in one place
• the world of academia, thought, concepts and ideas are quite overwhelming. It almost becomes more real than the natural world. But I don’t think there is order to be found in an abstract world. Even though outwardly the wilderness looks chaotic, I think it is within the natural realm that we find true order
• I had learned to endure, like the rocks in a river. I had learned to be flexible, like willows in the wind. I had learned to walk, to live a nomadic life. As a hunter, I had become wild and fierce. I had hunted for food by understanding—almost becoming—the animal I wanted to find
• The natural world is the one thing the mind didn’t make
A selection of my favourite passages from the book
• I wonder to myself sometimes, Is literature to the general reader ever anything more than a fairy-tale? We write with our heart’s blood, as we put it. We ask our conscience, Is it right thus to lay bare the secrets of our souls? The general reader does not grasp that we are writing with our heart’s blood: to him it is just ink. He does not believe we are laying bare the secrets of our souls: he takes it we are just pretending
• A farmer has a way of standing on one leg and looking at a thing that isn’t there. It sounds simple, but there is knack in it. The farmer is not surprised it is not there. He never expected it to be there. It is one of those things that ought to be, and is not. The farmer’s life is full of such. Suffering reduced to a science is what the farmer stands for
• He is tall and thin, with a sensitive, mobile face, and a curious trick of taking his head every now and again between his hands, as if to be sure it is still there
• To pay your dividend—to earn your two thousand—you have to do work that brings you no pleasure in the doing. Content with five hundred, you could afford to do only that work that does give you pleasure
• In the perfect world the thinker would be worth more than the mere jester. In the perfect world the farmer would be worth more than the stockbroker
• never minds what happens to him, and is equally contented if it doesn’t
• The influences that make for reformation in human character are subtle and unexpected
• Hers is that type of beauty that escapes attention by its own perfection. It is the eccentric, the discordant, that arrests the roving eye. To harmony one has to attune oneself
• She had a temper—a woman without a temper is insipid; but it was that kind of temper that made you love her all the more
• Subjects that I feel will never be of the slightest interest or consequence to me have been insisted upon with almost tiresome reiteration
• the writer of books is, generally speaking, an exceptionally moral man. That is what leads him astray: he is too good
• In the book, you, not he, would have tumbled over the mat. In this wicked world it is the wicked who prosper
• That will be our chief pleasure—making them good and happy. It won’t be their pleasure, but that will be owing to their ignorance
• We will let them play games—not stupid games, golf and croquet, that do you no good and lead only to language and dispute—but bears and wolves and whales; educational sort of games that will aid them in acquiring knowledge of natural history. We will show them how to play Pirates and Red Indians and Ogres—sensible play that will help them to develop their imaginative faculties
• But we, of course, must choose their friends for them—nice, well-behaved ladies and gentlemen, the parents of respectable children
• I’m not quite sure what fool it was who described a bore as a man who talked about himself. As a matter of fact it is the only subject the average man knows sufficiently well to make interesting
• “When our desires leave us, says Rochefoucauld,” I remarked, “we pride ourselves upon our virtue in having overcome them.”
• The screech-owl in the yew-tree emitted a blood-curdling scream. He perches there each evening on the extreme end of the longest bough. Dimly outlined against the night, he has the appearance of a friendly hobgoblin. But I wish he didn’t fancy himself as a vocalist. It is against his own interests, I am sure, if he only knew it. That American college yell of his must have the effect of sending every living thing within half a mile back into its hole
• A lover does not point out his mistress’s shortcomings to her
• Our modern morality! Why, compared with the teachings of nature, it is but a few days old
• It will not be me that he will want: only my youth, and the novelty of me, and the mystery. And when that is gone—
• when Love’s frenzy is faded, like the fragrance of the blossom, like the splendour of the dawn; there will remain to you, just what was there before—no more, no less
• If passion was all you had to give to one another, God help you. You have had your hour of madness. It is finished. If greed of praise and worship was your price—well, you have had your payment. The bargain is complete
• What remains to you will depend not upon what you THOUGHT, but upon what you ARE
• If behind the lover there was the man—behind the impossible goddess of his love-sick brain some honest, human woman, then life lies not behind you, but before you
• Life is giving, not getting
• The lover’s delight is to yield, not to claim
• Life is doing, not having
• The passion passes to give place to peace. The trembling lover has become the helper, the comforter, the husband
• the whole art of marriage is the art of getting on with the other fellow. It means patience, self- control, forbearance. It means the laying aside of our self-conceit and admitting to ourselves that, judged by eyes less partial than our own, there may be much in us that is objectionable, that calls for alteration. It means toleration for views and opinions diametrically opposed to our most cherished convictions. It means, of necessity, the abandonment of many habits and indulgences that however trivial have grown to be important to us. It means the shaping of our own desires to the needs of others
• They cry with one voice, “Give us back our Youth with its burdens, and a heart to bear them! Give us back Life with its mingled bitter and sweet!”