I enjoyed A Prayer for Owen Meaney but found that this book had many similar themes: a private school setting, a boy with pronunciation difficulties and wresting. Indeed, the narrator of this story is also a writer who is accused of writing about the same themes repeatedly.
The narrator’s teenage sexuality is realistically portrayed: fumbling with a girl and fancying bullies. So too is his desire for knowledge yet he is prone to gaffes, such as not knowing that James Baldwin was black.
He is, however, obsessive, for example about who told a particular story, like someone four years younger and about a ‘training bra’.
He makes some profound statements such as, ‘we are formed by what we desire.’ and “We already are who we are.”
There is the occasional nice turn of phrase, for example arrested development is described as bugs in amber.
However, there are some odd expressions for an American: ‘pissed off’ tends to be English. I thought Americans simply said ‘pissed’
The helpfulness of the librarian reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s story, and the geekiness of librarians who see books as collectibles rather than as things to ponder is evident in her statement that is was a waste of time rereading any book when there are so many other books.
I didn’t like much that followed the introduction of AIDS to this book – I have previously avoided books that deal with it.
Members of our book group had mixed feelings about this book. Most didn’t like it, for example: ‘It was the opposite of a page-turner.’ ‘Two-thirds of it was a page-turner but he lost his way.’ ‘I liked his quirky start but, by the end, I wanted to fill him.’ ‘I enjoyed quite as bit of it but I wished he’d got on with it. It needed a sharper focus. It was repetitious and needed editing.’ ‘I didn’t /couldn’t finish the book- I really HATED it – difficult to put my finger on it- but it seemed lacking in any kind of narrative drive- very rambling. Also just like a long list of activities- like a big “what I did at the weekend” but for a whole lifetime instead? Or rather who I slept with during my lifetime? Didn’t seem to have any feelings or thoughts or “interior life”. I just couldn’t engage with the narrator or the story.’ ‘Tedious.’ ‘There is more to people than simply labelling them ‘tops’ or ‘bottoms’.
There is something very unrealistic about this book. It is mainly about school and its aftermath. There cannot be that many people who keep in touch with most of their schoolmates throughout their life and hardly meet anybody else. Nor can there be that many cross dressers in the same cohort.
The people in the book are also very insular. Despite living in a small town, there is nothing about the outside world except for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Nothing about McCarthyism for example.
Bisexuality needs to be understood more but this book won’t facilitate it.
“We are formed by what we desire”
“Don’t forget this, too: Rumors aren’t interested in the unsensational story; rumors don’t care what’s true.”
“And when you love a book, commit one glorious sentence of it-perhaps your favorite sentence-to memory. That way you won’t forget the language of the story that moved you to tears.”
“Self-hatred is worse than loneliness.”
“Gender mattered a whole lot less to Shakespeare than it seems to matter to us.”
“My dear boy, ” Miss Frost said sharply. “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me – don’t make a category before you get to know me!”
“He was one of those people things came easily to, but he did little to demonstrate that he deserved to be gifted.”
“All I say is: Let us leave les folles alone; let’s just leave them be. Don’t judge them. You are not superior to them – don’t put them down.”
“Most places we leave in childhood grow less, not more, fancy.”
“You can learn a lot from your lovers, but-for the most part-you get to keep your friends longer, and you learn more from them.”
“It doesn’t really matter who said it – it’s so obviously true. Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”
“The time to read Madame Bovary is when your romantic hopes and desires have crashed, and you will believe that your future relationships will have disappointing – even devastating – consequences.”
“Novels are just another kind of cross-dressing, aren’t they?”
“It happens to many teenagers-that moment when you feel full of resentment or distrust for those adults you once loved unquestioningly.”
“You live your life at the time you live it — you don’t have much of an overview when what’s happening to you is still happening.”
“It is exhausting to be seventeen and not know who you are.”
“…where our desires “come from”; that is a dark, winding road.”
“…friends were more important than lovers – not least for the fact that friendships generally lasted longer than relationships.”
“…there’s a limit to enduring admiration being a substitute for love.”
“I’ll bet every fucking one of your angels is going to be terrifying!”
“That’s okay,” I said. “We’re writers. We make things up.”
“Nostalgia!” Miss Frost cried. “You´re nostalgic!” She repeated. “Just how old are you, William?” She asked.
“Seventeen, ” I told her.
“Seventeen!” Miss Frost cried, as if she’d been stabbed. “Well, William Abbott, if you’re nostalgic at seventeen, maybe you are going to be a writer!”
“I’m just a woman with a penis!” she would say, her voice rising.”
“Of course, everyone is intolerant of something or someone.”
“By ’95 – in New York, alone – more Americans had died of AIDS than were killed in Vietnam.”
“people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents.”
“I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the penis word.”
“Why do you guys want to take all the mystery away? Isn’t the mystery an exciting part of sex?”
“You should wait, William,” Miss Frost said. “The time to read Madame Bovary is when your romantic hopes and desires have crashed, and you believe that your future relationships will have disappointing – even devastating – consequences.”
“Someone who hasn’t read a novel doesn’t really know what it’s about, William.”
“Small towns may revile you, but they have to keep you-they can’t turn you away.”
“You can’t possibly know that you’re going to be a writer!” Miss Frost said. “It’s not a career choice.”
“Never trust a man with a lunatic wife in an attic,” Richard told me. “And anyone named Heathcliff should make you suspicious.”
“Bill is a fiction writer, but he writes in the first-person voice in a style that is tell-all confessional; in fact, his fiction sounds as much like a memoir as he can make it sound.”
“God, I think I just hit a high E-flat – and I really held it!” Esmeralda said, after one of her more prolonged orgasms, but my ears were warm and sweaty, and my head had been held so tightly between her thighs that I hadn’t heard anything.”
“What do you think I imagine making love to a vagina would be like? Maybe like having sex with a ballroom!”
“If you live long enough, Bill – it’s a world of epilogues,” Richard Abbott said.”
“Isn’t it perfectly possible that Nils and his wife are too depressed to have kids? The prospect of having kids depresses the shit out of me, and I’m neither suicidal nor Norwegian!”
“There were those apres-sex moments when, in a half-asleep or forgetting that I was with a woman, I would reach out and touch her vagina- only to suddenly pull back my hand, as if surprised.”
“It’s as if you’ve been shot in the heart, Bill, but you’re unaware of the hole or the loss of blood. I doubt you even heard the shot!”
“…one of the more sophisticated and accepting things about Europe, when it came to difficult decisions regarding sexual identity, was that the Europeans were so used to sexual differences that they had already begun to make fun of them.”
“You know, it’s not only writers who have this problem, but writers really, really have this problem; for us, a so-called train of thought, though unspoken, is unstoppable.”
“I had acquired an undeniable mystique – if only to the Bancroft butt-room boys. Don’t forget: Miss Frost was an older woman, and that goes a long way with boys – even if the older woman has a penis!”
“What would Miss Frost have thought of me? I wondered; I didn’t mean my writing. What would she have thought of my relationships with men and women? Had I ever “protected” anyone? For whom had I truly been worthwhile?”
“Ah, well…” I started to say, and then stopped. So that was where he was going; I’d heard it before. Richard had told me that I’d not been standing in my mother’s shoes in 1942, when I was born; he’d said I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, judge her. It was my not forgiving her that irked him-it was my intolerance of her intolerance that bugged him.”
“According to my mother, I was a fiction writer before I’d written any ficton, by which she meant not only that I invented things, or made things up, but that I preferred this kind of fantasising or pure imagining to what other people generally liked – she meant reality, of course.”
“And when you love a book, commit one glorious sentence of it—perhaps your favorite sentence—to memory. That way you won’t forget the language of the story that moved you to tears.”
“but you live your life at the time you live it—you don’t have much of an overview when what’s happening to you is still happening.”
“We can afford the workers’ compensation, Harry—he’ll watch what he says the time next, won’t he?” Nils would say. “The ‘next time,’ Nils,” Grandpa Harry would gently correct his old friend.”
“When the ship suddenly pitched more steeply, the bookworm lost his grip. He came skipping over the toilet seats—his ass made a slapping sound—until he collided with my father at the opposite end of the row of toilets. “Sorry—I just had to keep reading!” he said. Then the ship rolled in the other direction, and the soldier sallied forth, skipping over the seats again. When he’d slid all the way to the last toilet, he either lost control of the book or he let it go, gripping the toilet seat with both hands. The book floated away in the seawater. “What were you reading?” the code-boy called. “Madame Bovary!” the soldier shouted in the storm. “I can tell you what happens,” the sergeant said. “Please don’t!” the bookworm answered. “I want to read it for myself!”
“Motherfucking Christ,” Gerry said to me on that Christmas Day, 1960. “Isn’t it perfectly possible that Nils and his wife are too depressed to have kids? The prospect of having kids depresses the shit out of me, and I’m neither suicidal nor Norwegian!”
“That Christmastime night, all Mr. Lockley could manage to direct to Elaine was a minimally cordial bow—as if he were saying the unutterable, “Good evening, knocked-up faculty daughter. How are you managing now, you smelly little slut?”
“Listen to me, Bill,” Richard said. “Let the librarian be your new best friend. If you like what she’s given you to read, trust her. The library, the theater, a passion for novels and plays – well, Bill, this could be the door to your future. At your age, I lived in a library! Now novels and plays are my life.”
“…worst of all were the highly unlikely science-fiction novels, or the equally implausible futuristic tales.
Couldn’t my mom and Nana Victoria see for themselves that I was both mystified and frightened by life on Earth?”
“I have digressed, which is also the kind of writer I would become.”
“You’re not like anyone else, Billy – that’s what’s the matter with you,” Donna said.”
“In the sixties, dear Bill, we did not say ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ – we said ‘pitcher’ and ‘catcher’…”
“The operas I loved were nineteenth-century novels!”
“It’s Shakespearean, Bill; lots of the important stuff in Shakespeare happens offstage – you just hear about it.”
“For seven of the eight years he was president, Reagan would not say the AIDS word.”
“I didn’t try to say the penis word for Elaine. “Cock,” I said to her.”
“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t.”
“I actually remember my grandfather better as a woman than as a man.”
“Richard Abbott, who I thought knew everything, answered: “I don’t know, exactly.”
“Don’t worry, Bill,” Borkman told me. “I have Muriel and Richard in my pocket-back!” “In your back pocket—yes,” I said to the crafty deerstalker on skis.”
“Good evening, knocked-up faculty daughter. How are you managing now, you smelly little slut?”
“In addition to suffering her husband’s scathing portrayal of a shrewish wife and mother, Nana Victoria had to sit not more than two seats away from the transsexual wrestler!)”
“I saw an oxygen tank in the cluttered room—what had been Atkins’s “study,” as his son had explained, now converted for a deathwatch.”
“This prevented Elaine from making up any stories about whomever I was seeing at the time, man or woman. Therefore, no one was falsely accused of shitting in the bed.”
“Okay,” I said. I still have that photograph, though I don’t like remembering any part of the day Carlton Delacorte died.”
“I later found a bookstore on the Calle de Gravina—Libros, I believe it was called. (I’m not kidding, a bookstore called “Books.”)”
“(You shouldn’t guess about someone’s past; if you don’t see any evidence of it, a person’s past remains unknown to you.)”
“In short,I might take seriously the idea of service to my country when my country begins to demonstrate that it gives a shit about me!”
“Savor, don’t gorge.”
“I won’t pretend that it wasn’t gratifying to hear this, but I would rather have heard it privately; it wasn’t something I wanted to share with Tom Atkins.”