Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

★★★★☆ (4/5)

I’ve enjoyed this book for purely literary reasons. I coerced my mind into employing science fiction inspired imagery which made the short stories fun to read. Otherwise, this is a dangerous book with steadfast atheistic notions, employed through highfalutin metaphors & “wisdom” of humanity and death.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next
  • In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.
  • You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.
  • You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.
  • The Communists are baffled and irritated, because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only by the help of a God in whom they don’t want to believe. The meritocrats are abashed that they’re stuck for eternity in an incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage; the liberals have no downtrodden to promote. So God sits on the edge of Her bed and weeps at night, because the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they’re all in Hell.
  • You begin to consider all the things unfamiliar to you. You’ve never known, you realize, how to vulcanize rubber to make a tire. And now those factories stand empty. You’ve never known how to fashion a silicon chip from beach sand, how to launch rockets out of the atmosphere, how to pit olives or lay railroad tracks. And now those industries are shut down.

The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.

  • Suddenly, for just a moment, you are aware of the problem you overlooked. The more you become a horse, the more you forget the original wish. You forget what it was like to be a human wondering what it was like to be a horse. This moment of lucidity does not last long. But it serves as the punishment for your sins, a Promethean entrails-pecking moment, crouching half-horse half-man, with the knowledge that you cannot appreciate the destination without knowing the starting point; you cannot revel in the simplicity unless you remember the alternatives.
  • Meaning varies with spatial scale.
  • Unlike the other animals, who experienced each day like the one before, Man cared, sought, yearned, erred, coveted, and ached
  • In the mornings, when we’re done with our night-time haunts in other people’s skulls, we fall into restless slumbers of our own. And who do you think populates our dreams? Those who have finished their time here and pass from this world. We forever live in the dreams of the next generation.

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

  • And that is the curse of this room: since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.
  • everything that creates itself upon the backs of smaller scales will by those same scales be consumed.

It commands the knowledge of a thousand scholars, the empathy of a thousand lovers, the mystery of a thousand strangers.

  • He says, “It is not the brave who can handle the big face, it is the brave who can handle its absence.”
  • In this way, you can rage against the dying of the light by choosing an afterlife that is fast, furious, and spicy—the crystallization of your fantasies.

People come to discover that the end of death is the death of motivation. Too much life, it turns out, is the opiate of the masses. There is a noticeable decline in accomplishment. People take more naps. There’s no great rush.

  • But eventually it comes to be appreciated that not just the finitude of life but also the surprise timing of death is critical to motivation. So people begin to set ranges for their death dates. In this new framework, their friends throw surprise parties for them—like birthday parties—except they jump out from behind the couch and kill them. Since you never know when your friends are going to schedule your party, it reinstills the carpe diem attitude of former years. Unfortunately, people begin to abuse the surprise-party system to extinguish their enemies under the protection of necrolegislation. In the end, great masses of rioters break into your medical complex, kick the plugs out of the computers, and once again have a great celebration to mark the end of the last unnatural life, and you end up back in the Technicians’ waiting room.
  • But eventually it comes to be appreciated that not just the finitude of life but also the surprise timing of death is critical to motivation. So people begin to set ranges for their death dates.
  • But, instead, we all watch for one thing: evidence of our residual influence in the world, the ripples left in our wake. You follow the successes of an organization you started or led. You watch appreciative people read the books you donated to your local religious group. You watch an irrepressible girl with pink shoes climbing the maple tree you planted. These are your fingerprints left on the world; you may be gone, but your mark remains. And you can watch it all.
  • And it is clear now where this society is going. Most people have died off, and we are some of the few remaining. By the time we die and our death switches are triggered, there will be nothing left but a sophisticated network of transactions with no one to read them: a society of emails zipping back and forth under silent satellites orbiting a soundless planet.
  • The death switches simulate the society so completely that the entire social network is reconstructable. The planet’s memories survive in zeros and ones.

You discover that the you of eight years old has less in common than expected with the you of thirty-two and the you of sixty-four. The eighteen-year-old you finds more in common with other eighteen-year-olds than with your seventy-three-year-old you. The seventy-three-year-old you doesn’t mind a bit, seeking out meaningful conversations with others of the same generation. Beyond the name, the yous have little else in common.

  • They come to understand, with awe, the complexity of the compound identity that existed on the Earth. They conclude with a shudder that the Earthly you is utterly lost, unpreserved in the afterlife. You were all these ages, they concede, and you were none.
  • It realized it could accomplish this by drawing only those entities that were being observed by someone. Under this conservation program, the great meadows and mountains were only drawn when there was someone there to look.
  • This is how the world will close, not with a bang but a yawn: sleepy and contented, our own falling eyelids serving as the curtain for the play’s end.
  • To ensure we spread widely on the surface, they made us restless, longing, lusty, and fecund.
  • And yet, despite the initial success, the Cartographers are profoundly frustrated with the results. Despite their planetary coverage and long life spans, the mobile cameras collect very little that is useful for cartography. Instead, the devices turn their ingeniously created compact lenses directly into the gazes of other compact lenses—an ironic way to trivialize the technology.
  • Despite their robust outdoor design, they have spent their energies building shelters into which they cluster with one another. Despite good spreading on large scales, they clump at small scales.
  • Day after day, with sinking hearts, the Cartographers scroll through endless reels of useless data. The head engineer is fired. He has created an engineering marvel that only takes pictures of itself.

In the afterlife you are judged not against other people, but against yourself. Specifically, you are judged against what you could have been. So the afterworld is much like the present world, but it now includes all the yous that could have been.

 

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The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.

  • I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.
  • The truth is always some inner power without explanation.
  • Besides, I know about certain things simply by living. Anyone who lives, knows, even without knowing that he or she knows.
  • One way of obtaining is not to search, one way of possessing is not to ask; simply to believe that my inner silence is the solution to my — to my mystery.
  • To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete.
  • Things were somehow so good that they were in danger of becoming very bad because what is fully mature is very close to rotting.
  • My strength undoubtedly resides in solitude. I am not afraid of tempestuous storms or violent gales for I am also the night’s darkness.
  • To be frank, I am holding her destiny in my hands and yet I am powerless to invent with any freedom: I follow a secret, fatal line.
  • I should also mention that I read nothing these days for fear that I might adulterate the simplicity of my language with useless refinements. For as I explained, the word is my instrument and must resemble the word. Or am I not a writer? More actor than writer, for with only one system of punctuation at my disposal, I juggle with intonation and force another’s breathing to accompany my text.

She had been born with a legacy of misfortune, a creature from nowhere with the expression of someone who apologizes for occupying too much space.

  • The girl did not know that she existed, just as a dog doesn’t know that it’s a dog. Therefore she wasn’t aware of her own unhappiness. The only thing she desired was to live. She could not explain, for she didn’t probe her situation. Perhaps she felt there was some glory in living. She thought that a person was obliged to be happy. So she was happy.
  • No sooner do I succeed in persuading her to speak, than she slips through my fingers.
  • If the reader is financially secure and enjoys the comforts of life, he must step out of himself and see how others live. If he is poor, he will not be reading this story because what I have to say is superfluous for anyone who often feels the pangs of hunger.
  • Her laughter was terrifying because it belonged to the past and it was only revived by a malign imagination, a yearning for what might have been but never was.
  • To return to the girl: the one luxury she permitted herself was a few sips of cold coffee before going to bed. She paid for this luxury by waking up with heartburn.
  • Her life was so monotonous that by the end of the day she could no longer remember what had happened that same morning. She mused in silence and the thought came to her: since I am, the solution is to be. The cockerel I mentioned earlier heralded yet another day. It sang of weariness. Speaking of poultry, the girl sometimes ate a hard-boiled egg in a snackbar. Her aunt had always insisted that eggs were bad for the liver. That being so, she obediently became ill and suffered pains on the left side opposite the liver. For the girl was most impressionable. She believed in everything that existed and in everything non-existent as well. But she didn’t know how to embellish reality. For her, reality was too enormous to grasp. Besides, the word reality meant nothing to her. Nor to me, dear God.

I cannot stand repetition: routine divides me from potential novelties within my reach.

  • After all, was he not destined to become a politician one day? (An event this story does not cover.) And when that day comes, he will expect to be treated with some respect.
  • In the end, what had to happen would happen. Meantime nothing whatsoever happened, for neither of them knew how to invent happenings.
  • I also believe she was weeping because the music helped her to perceive that there were other ways of feeling; that there were more delicate forms of existence and certain spiritual refinements. She perceived lots of things that she could not understand.
  • They eventually bumped into each other again. For quite different reasons they had wandered into a butcher’s shop. Macabéa only had to smell raw meat in order to convince herself that she had eaten. What attracted Olímpico, on the other hand, was the sight of a butcher at work with his sharp knife. He envied the butcher and would dearly have liked to be in the trade himself. To cut into raw meat with a sharp knife never failed to get him excited. Both of them walked out of the butcher’s shop feeling deeply satisfied.
  • Even so, Macabéa couldn’t help wondering what the taste of meat was like. And Olímpico pondered: how does one train to be a butcher?
  • She would never forget their first meeting when he addressed her as ‘missy’, and made her feel that she was somebody. Once she became somebody, she even felt justified in buying herself a pink lipstick.
  • She had learned from her favourite radio programme that there were seven billion inhabitants in the world. She felt completely lost. But it was in her nature to be happy so she soon resigned herself: there were seven billion inhabitants to keep her company.
  • And even sadness was the privilege of the rich, of those who could afford it, of those who had nothing better to do. Sadness was a luxury.

More and more, she was finding it difficult to explain. She had transformed herself into organic simplicity. She had contrived a way of finding grace in simple, authentic things. She liked to feel the passage of time. She did not possess a watch, and perhaps for that very reason, she relished the infinity of time. Her life was supersonic. Yet no one noticed that she had crossed the sound barrier with her existence. For other people, she didn’t exist.

  • His dream was to earn enough money to do exactly what he pleased: nothing.
  • At this very moment Macabéa felt nausea well up in the pit of her stomach and almost vomited. She felt like vomiting something that was not matter but luminous. Star with a thousand pointed rays.
  • Should God descend on earth one day there would be a great silence. The silence is such, that thought no longer thinks.

Why Call Them Back From Heaven? by Clifford D. Simak

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Aphorisms

  • It had solitude, all right, but it had little else.
  • Memories don’t run that long or bitter.
  • There is no way of winning. But our conscience tells us that we must bear witness.

“You take faith,” Frost said, “and make a virtue of it. A virtue of not knowing…”

  • Hell, that’s all we’re doing—filling up the hours.
  • Man had fled from this land and now it should be left alone, it should be allowed to rest from man’s long tenancy.
  • There was never more than one way and now it doesn’t work.

Humanity & the Self

  • Standing there, he wrestled with his conscience and tried to look into his soul and into the immutable mystery of that area which stretched beyond his soul, and which still remained illusive of any understanding. And there was still no insight and there was no answer, as there had never been an answer.
  • And I further contend that in any mechanical contrivance there is one lacking quality essential to all justice—the sense of mercy and of human worth.
  • The newsmen sat in the front row seats, watching for the slightest flicker of emotion, for the tiny gesture of significance, for the slightest crumb upon which to build a story.
  • And he knew it was this woman sitting in the room who gave it warmth and light, but a dying warmth and light, like the warmth and light given off by a dying fire. In time, when she had left, once the memory had worn thin, the room again would become cold and dingy, as it had been before.
  • It was too nice a night, he told himself, to go back into his room. But even as he told it to himself, he knew that it was not the beauty of the night, for here, in this ramshackle neighborhood, there was nothing that held any claim to beauty. It was not, he knew, the attractiveness of the night that had turned him back, but a strange reluctance to go back into the room. Wait a while, perhaps, and its emptiness might wear off a little, or his memory might become slightly dulled so that he could accept the emptiness the better.
  • He had fled from people. He had turned his back on life. He had come to this place where he’d be safe from both life and people. But the world intrudes even so, he thought, in the form of a man paddling a canoe up and down the river

Once you’ve touched reality, once you’ve felt the reality of the naked land, once you’ve lived with dawn and sunset…

  • And lost causes. She was a sucker for lost causes, an inevitable and unremitting champion of misfortune. And what had it gotten her?
  • And that is right, he thought. We are we? A mere dot of consciousness that stood up in arrogance against the vastness and the coldness and the emptiness and the uncaring of the universe? A thing (a thing?) that thought it mattered when it did not matter? A tiny, flickering ego that imagined the universe revolved around it—imagined this when the universe did not know that it existed, nor cared that it existed?
  • She had fled, not to protect herself, but to protect the world. She walked the lonely road because she could not bear to let mankind know it had been wrong for almost two centuries.
  • Cautiously, he straightened up and fear touched one corner of his brain, whispering a suspicion of what had caused the pain.
  • There was no sign that he was aware of her and her heart welled up with pity at the sight of him, for there was about him a lostness and an emptiness that robbed existence of all meaning.

Faith & Science

  • There were times, on stormy mornings, when the view was cut off by the clouds that swirled about its top, but on a clear morning such as this the great slab of masonry went up and up until its topmost stories were lost in the blue haze of the sky. A man grew dizzy looking at it and the mind reeled at the thought of what the hand of man had raised.
  • Hurry and huddle—hurry so that one could gather all the assets he could manage, then huddle in his idle time so that he would not spend a single penny of those assets.

Could he seek for a spiritual eternity while he still clung to the promise of a physical eternity?

  • With cars powered by longlife storage batteries, there was no longer any need of service stations.
  • We either colonize other planets or we build satellite cities out in space or we turn the earth into one huge apartment house—or we may have to do all these things. Time was the easy way, of course. That’s why Forever Center was so interested…
  • They dug into the fact and the purpose of the universe and to do this they developed mathematics that they used not only to support their logic but as logic tools.

And that kind of thinking, he told himself, could have been justified at one time. But not any longer. Not if what Mona Campbell said was true. For if what she said was true, then each little flickering ego was a basic part of the universe and a fundamental expression of the purpose of the universe.

  • Would there be no end to it? he asked himself. Would there ever be an end? Was there no limit to the debasement that a man must heap upon himself?

And in that awful moment he knew that he had lost, that he was wanting in that essential capacity for humility that would unlock the gates of understanding he had sought so earnestly and, now it seemed apparent, priced at a cost too high—a cost that his basic brute humanity would never let him pay.

Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”
  • Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
  • It was not death she feared. It was misunderstanding
  • Dey all useter call me Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names.
  • She bolted upright and peered out of the window and saw Johnny Taylor lacerating her Janie with a kiss
  • Mind-pictures brought feelings, and feelings dragged out dramas from the hollows of her heart.
  • One day Tea Cake met Turner and his son on the street. He was a vanishing-looking kind of a man as if there used to be parts about him that stuck out individually but now he hadn’t a thing about him that wasn’t dwindled and blurred. Just like he had been sand-papered down to a long oval mass

She was a wind on the ocean. She moved men, but the helm determined the port.

  • Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.

“Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was ’bout y’all turning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ’bout us as you think you do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out God Almighty when you ain’t got nothin’ tuh strain against but women and chickens.”

  • The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some.

On Womanhood

  • Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget.
  • The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grapefruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask. Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?

  • He ain’t kissin’ yo’ mouf when he carry on over yuh lak dat. He’s kissin’ yo’ foot and ’tain’t in uh man tuh kiss foot long. Mouf kissin’ is on uh equal and dat’s natural but when dey got to bow down tuh love, dey soon straightens up.
  • She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.
  • The store itself kept her with a sick headache. The labor of getting things down off of a shelf or out of a barrel was nothing. And so long as people wanted only a can of tomatoes or a pound of rice it was all right. But supposing they went on and said a pound and a half of bacon and a half pound of lard? The whole thing changed from a little walking and stretching to a mathematical dilemma. Or maybe cheese was thirty-seven cents a pound and somebody came and asked for a dime’s worth. She went through many silent rebellions over things like that. Such a waste of life and time. But Joe kept saying that she could do it if she wanted to and he wanted her to use her privileges. That was the rock she was battered against.
  • “Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me”
  • It was part of him, so it was all right. She rather found herself angry at imaginary people who might try to criticize. Let the old hypocrites learn to mind their own business, and leave other folks alone. Tea Cake wasn’t doing a bit more harm trying to win hisself a little money than they was always doing with their lying tongues
  • “You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!” “Dat’s ’cause you need tellin’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves.” “Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!” “Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further.

On Love & the Self

  • It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.
  • Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore
  • “Thank yuh, ma’am, but don’t say you’se ole. You’se uh lil girl baby all de time. God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me.”

He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.

  • “Ah ain’t grievin’ so why do Ah hafta mourn? Tea Cake love me in blue, so Ah wears it. Jody ain’t never in his life picked out no color for me. De world picked out black and white for mournin’, Joe didn’t. So Ah wasn’t wearin’ it for him. Ah was wearin’ it for de rest of y’all.”
  • It was hard to love a woman that always made you feel so wishful
  • She had waited all her life for something, and it had killed her when it found her.
  • Most of the day she was at the store, but at night she was there in the big house and sometimes it creaked and cried all night under the weight of lonesomeness. Then she’d lie awake in bed asking lonesomeness some questions.

The Downtrodden

  • Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see.
  • People ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor

Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t

  • They were there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks
  • Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love
  • It was bad enough for white people, but when one of your own color could be so different it put you on a wonder.

The town had a basketful of feelings good and bad about Joe’s positions and possessions, but none had the temerity to challenge him. They bowed down to him rather, because he was all of these things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down.

On Nature

  • Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.
  • Havoc was there with her mouth wide open. Back in the Everglades the wind had romped among lakes and trees. In the city it had raged among houses and men
  • The sun from ambush was threatening the world with red daggers, but the shadows were gray and solid-looking around the barn.
  • Anybody that didn’t know would have thought that things had blown over, it looked so quiet and peaceful around. But the stillness was the sleep of swords which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference.

So she sat on the porch and watched the moon rise. Soon its amber fluid was drenching the earth, and quenching the thirst of the day.

  • They sat on the boarding house porch and saw the sun plunge into the same crack in the earth from which the night emerged.
  • Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. Most humans didn’t love one another nohow, and this mislove was so strong that even common blood couldn’t overcome it all the time.

Aphorisms

  • You know if you pass some people and don’t speak tuh suit ’em dey got tuh go way back in yo’ life and see whut you ever done. They know mo’ ’bout yuh than you do yo’ self. An envious heart makes a treacherous ear.
  • It troubled him to get used to the world one way and then suddenly have it turn different.

“Whut Ah don’t lak ’bout de man is, he talks tuh unlettered folks wid books in his jaws,” Hicks complained.

  • She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there
  • Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished.
  • There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.
  • The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.
  • The threshold of a new house is a lonely place.
  • It was an accident, said Cora. No such thing, said Rita. Everything is meant.
  • There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
  • We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.
  • Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen — to be seen — is to be — her voice trembled — penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable.
  • Given our wings, our blinkers, it’s hard to look up, hard to get the full view, of the sky, of anything. But we can do it, a little at a time, a quick move of the head, up and down, to the side and back. We have learned to see the world in gasps.
  • I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me. I have them, these attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head. Sometimes it can hardly be borne. What is to be done, what is to be done, I thought. There is nothing to be done. They also serve who only stand and wait. Or lie down and wait. I know why the glass in the window is shatterproof, and why they took down the chandelier. I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me, but there wasn’t room.
  • We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.
  • Shameful, immodest. I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.
  • There’s time to spare. This is one of the things I wasn’t prepared for — the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing. Time as white sound. If only I could embroider. Weave, knit, something to do with my hands.
  • I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits, but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me. Now the flesh arranges itself differently I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, though black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars. Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like famine. To feel that empty, again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time.
  • For lunch it was the Beatitudes. Blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a tape, so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading. The voice was a man’s. Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Nobody said when.
  • When I was younger, imagining age, I would think, Maybe you appreciate things more when you don’t have much time left. I forgot to include the loss of energy
  • You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.

Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

  • Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean. I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun. Cheerful and plebeian, shining for all alike. Rings, we would make from them, and crowns and necklaces
  • But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot.
  • Women’s Prayvaganzas are for group weddings like this, usually. The men’s are for military victories. These are the things we are supposed to rejoice in the most, respectively.
  • And it would be so flaunting, such a sneer at the Aunts, so sinful, so free. Freedom, like everything else, is relative.
  • Perhaps he’s reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all.
  • I breathe in the soap smell, the disinfectant smell, and stand in the white bathroom, listening to the distant sounds of water running, toilets being flushed. In a strange way I feel comforted, at home. There is something reassuring about the toilets. Bodily functions at least remain democratic. Everybody shits, as Moira would say.
  • By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
  • I consider these things idly. Each one of them seems the same size as all the others. Not one seems preferable. Fatigue is here, in my body, in my legs and eyes. That is what gets you in the end. Faith is only a word, embroidered.
  • Why shouldn’t he know about Mayday? All the Eyes must know about it; they’ll have squeezed it, crushed it, twisted it out of enough bodies, enough mouths by now

“Well, that’s what we call it, among ourselves. The club.”

“I thought this sort of thing was strictly forbidden,” I say.

“Well, officially,” he says. “But everyone’s human, after all.”

I wait for him to elaborate on this, but he doesn’t, so I say, “What does that mean?”

“It means you can’t cheat Nature,” he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” I don’t say anything, so he goes on. “Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new one each day.”

He says this as if he believes it, but he says many things that way. Maybe he believes it, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe he does both at the same time. Impossible to tell what he believes.

“So now that we don’t have different clothes,” I say, “you merely have different women.” This is irony, but he doesn’t acknowledge it.

  • Does he know I’m here, alive, that I’m thinking about him? I have to believe so. In reduced circumstances you have to believe all kinds of things. I believe in thought transference now, vibrations in the ether, that sort of junk. I never used to.
  • It’s this message, which may never arrive, that keeps me alive. I believe in the message.
  • Sanity is a valuable possession I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.
  • In reduced circumstances the desire to live attaches itself to strange objects.
  • But there’s something missing in them, even the nice ones. It’s like they’re permanently absent-minded, like they can’t quite remember who they are. They look at the sky too much. They lose touch with their feet. They aren’t a patch on a woman except they’re better at fixing cars and playing football, just what we need for the improvement of the human race, right? That was the way she talked, even in front of Luke. He didn’t mind, he teased her by pretending to be macho, he’d tell her women were incapable of abstract thought and she’d have another drink and grin at him. Chauvinist pig, she’d say. Isn’t she quaint, Luke would say to me, and my mother would look sly, furtive almost. I’m entitled, she’d say. I’m old enough, I’ve paid my dues, it’s time for me to be quaint. You’re still wet behind the ears. Piglet, I should have said. As for you, she’d say to me, you’re just a backlash. Flash in the pan. History will absolve me.
  • You young people don’t appreciate things, she’d say. You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don’t you know how many women’s lives, how many women’s bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far? Cooking’s my hobby, Luke would say. I enjoy it. Hobby, schmobby, my mother would say. You don’t have to make excuses to me. Once upon a time you wouldn’t have been allowed to have such a hobby, they’d have called you queer. Now, Mother, I would say. Let’s not get into an argument about nothing. Nothing, she’d say bitterly. You call it nothing. You don’t understand, do you. You don’t understand at all what I’m talking about.
  • But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • We sit on our benches, facing one another, as we are transported; we’re without emotion now, almost without feeling, we might be bundles of red cloth. We ache. Each of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby. What confronts us, now the excitement’s over, is our own failure. Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.
  • When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, cross currents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.
  • Cora smiles at me, a smile that includes. These are the moments that must make what she is doing seem worthwhile to her.
  • She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.
  • I cram both hands over my mouth as if I’m about to be sick, drop to my knees, the laughter boiling like lava in my throat. I crawl into the cupboard, draw up my knees, I’ll choke on it. My ribs hurt with holding back, I shake, I heave, seismic, volcanic, I’ll burst. Red all over the cupboard, mirth rhymes with birth, oh to die of laughter.
  • There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently.
  • They get sick a lot, these Wives of the Commanders. It adds interest to their lives.
  • but now I think that his motives and desires weren’t obvious even to him. They had not yet reached the level of words.
  • Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fish bait, I wanted it. I wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache. At the same time I saw this longing of mine as trivial and absurd, because I’d taken such magazines lightly enough once.
  • Though I remembered now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.
  • Death is a beautiful woman, with wings and one breast almost bare; or is that Victory? I can’t remember.
  • Ours is not to reason why, said Moira.
  • No mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well.
  • He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.
  • Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.
  • What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other. They cannot replace each other. Nick for Luke or Luke for Nick. Should does not apply. You can’t help what you feel, Moira once said, but you can help how you behave. Which is all very well.
  • That’s one of the things they do. They force you to kill, within yourself.
  • If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.