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On Reading Dan Chaon’s “Falling Backwards” and Mary Gaitskill’s “The Arms and Legs of the Lake”: An Essay on Compassion

I’ve read about Dan Chaon and possibly have read other stories by him (because I’ve read many journals over many years, and he’s widely published in lit mags), but I recently purchased the collection, Among the Missing. I had read an interview and something he said, and I’m paraphrasing here — “I don’t understand how some people can devote themselves to excessive drinking and write…writing is destructive enough for me” — intrigued me. The idea that writing fiction is a destructive behavior is sensible enough, but the idea that someone “devotes” themselves to alcohol abuse perplexed me. In the article, he was a bit apologetic for the comment — again, I am paraphrasing here — saying something like, “sorry if that sounds unkind,” and also explained that he knows many “writers who do abuse alcohol.”

I loved the story, “Falling Backwards” from the aforementioned collection, but my reading of it was very much colored with having read this interview, and I wondered how sympathetic he was toward the two alcohol abusing characters in the story, the father, and the son of the main character, Colleen. Part of my wondering, too, came about because I was looking for an answer while reading the story, and didn’t really come away with one. That said, I, the reader was sympathetic, so perhaps that is all that matters. Also, Chaon himself is adopted, which also greatly colored my reading of this story. (Here’s the interview.) When Colleen wants to hear about her family history from her father (biological — and he raised her), he is not impressed. “Genetics is destiny, she told him.” He responds, “[A]ll that DNA stuff is just chemicals! It doesn’t have anything to do with what what’s real about a person.” This question of nurture over nature is very old and widely discussed. I read the book The Nurture Assumption with great curiosity when it came out. But fiction has a way of attacking these issues sideways, illuminating complexity of feeling in a way that a book like The Nurture Assumption cannot.

And so it is with “Falling Backwards.” Here is Colleen on her son: “[s]he rarely speaks to her grown son”; “it disturbs her that she can’t muster much compassion.” Here, Chaon sums up this section of the story: “She can’t believe how far away she is, how distant from the people that she should love.” Implicit in this, to me, is that she does not love her son, or her father, for that matter. Love, here, can be understood in two ways: one, love as a finite thing, existing inside the heart of a person; or two, love as something that flows, as an action, something we do, not something we have. It is the latter definition that makes this sentence bearable to me: she is not, in that moment, loving people she should be loving. But to think to oneself, “I have no love in my heart for my son and father,” would render the story outrageously bleak. Is that what Chaon wants to do?

I choose not to read Chaon’s story that way. I choose to see him having compassion for the icy Colleen, even in the most brutal section of the story, where she is being cruel to her very small son. It is not a sick sort of cruelty, similar to the kind found in Damon Galgut’s A Small Circle of Beings, a book I was unable to finish; but it is painful enough. So it is in the final sentence of that section (“she begins to weep herself, with shame and fear”), where I again choose to see Chaon giving his heart to his creation. It is a crushing story, infused with suffering and alienation above all things, one where the image of a braid of hair found in an old trunk resonates with gorgeous symbolism throughout, in particular in that it belonged to a girl to whom all the “loving and willing hands could do did not save the child.”

In a 2005 New York Times interview, Mary Gaitskill talked about the “pure hell of a loveless home and world” and that the opposite of compassion is “smugness.” What strikes me most is the idea that smugness, not violence or vitriolic hate (although yes, to that, as well), is the opposite of compassion. I found that wise beyond anything I had read in quite some time.

In “The Arms and Legs of the Lake,” a black (hey, he could be West Indian), disturbed, Iraq veteran named Jim Smith (everyman sort of name) is taking a train usptate to visit his foster mother. A white middle-aged female professor is also on the train, as are others — another Iraq vet named Bill, an older WW2 veteran, an African American couple on their honeymoon, the train conductor — whose inner thoughts (and voices, really, but not aloud) and occasional voices combine to give us a disparate, rich viewing of a few hours of life.

I’ve read all of Gaitskill’s four books and found her growth as a writer stunning. Her more recent work show an intensifying of her preoccupations as a writer, an intense deepening of emotion and expansion in character study.

There is never any doubt for me where the author’s compassion lies in this story. It is everywhere, diffused, yet specifically lands hard on occasion. Gaitskill’s use of language has always struck me as ornate, very adjective heavy (particularly in Veronica) and it can take me awhile to read fluidly through her sentences. In the very first paragraph, Gaitskill establishes her tone with her highly observant, detail-oriented language: “A big, white bartender slapped the bar with a rag and talked to a blobby-looking white customer with a wide, red mouth.” Bright, even harsh feeling, colors, a “slap” noise, the word “blobby” — she is, no matter what others say, unconventional.

Here is an example of Bill’s interior thoughts:

You talk to a little boy in broken English and Arabic, make a joke about the chicken or the egg, you light up a car screaming through a checkpoint and blow out a little girl’s brains. You saw it as a threat at the time — and maybe the next time it would be. People could understand this fact – but this was not a fact. What was it?

And here is the disturbed Jim, asking Bill about the Hudson river, including the sentence from where the story gets its title:

“The reason I’m asking is it looks too big to be a river. A lake is always going to be bigger than a river. I remember that from school. The river leads to the lake; the river is the arms and legs of the lake. Only thing bigger than a lake is the ocean. Like it says, in the Bible, you know what I’m saying?”

This sentence takes on all sorts of meanings as the story densifies, the mulitiple voices layering the meaning, and, if nothing else, becoming “the arms and legs of the lake” itself.

And here is some of Jim’s interior rambling:

Outside the window the mouth of God was silent. It was silent and it was chewing — it was always chewing. That was OK; it needed to eat to keep the body going. And the eyes of God were always shining with love. And the nose of God — that was something you grabbed at on your way to the chewing mouth.

This would be funny if the darkness weren’t already illuminated by everything that Gaitskill is doing. Here, her imagery gets eccentric again, but it is never silly and it is never gratuitiously weird. It all works; it has a purpose.

And later, in the climactic scene, we read the thoughts of the beautiful black woman on her honeymoon, who feels for Jim when he loses it:

“Because he like my brother…I can’t talk about it here, Chris, all these people listening…But my brother coulda turn out like this man here. Kids beat on him when he was like six; he had to be in the hospital, and for a long time after, he talk in this whisper voice that you can’t hardly hear, like he talkin’ to himself and to the world in general, talkin’ like a radio with the dials just flipping around, givin’ out stories that don’t make no sense, but all about kickin’ and punchin’ and killin’ people.”

Gaitskill’s story bleeds and shits compassion all over her tragic humans; it is an ugly, beautiful thing. All of the myriad voices are damaged or stupid or loving and not one is beyond sympathy regardless of the wrongdoings they’ve done or do in the action of the story.

How to achieve compassion without being clinical? Do you have to like the characters? Does the author have to like the characters? (Does the reader?) I would hope not; compassion is not “like.” And then there is the issue of respect — does Chaon respect his alcoholics, even if he has enough heart to love them? Should he? Perhaps not. To feel for is enough. It makes me think of something I read, an article on Richard Yates where he is answering questions after a reading, and one person mentions how horrible one of his female characters was, the mother in Easter Parade, calling her cold, selfish, crazy, terrible and so on, and Yates replied: “Oh, I don’t know. I sort of love her.”

8 thoughts on “On Reading Dan Chaon’s “Falling Backwards” and Mary Gaitskill’s “The Arms and Legs of the Lake”: An Essay on Compassion

  1. To answer one of your posed questions, abusing alcohol requires a singular devotion – those not up to the rigors will eventually quit. Being an alcoholic demands relentless mental stamina (swimming through fuzz and rising above throb); it demands the ability to self generate narrative (correcting for actual or willful blackouts); it demands the self-absorption to feel unique (believing it’s possible to thrive in an activity where so many others have been driven to death or despair); it demands solitude (in order to do it right, the devoted drinker has to leave behind all those nattering, chattering, intervening voices).

    Sound like any other vocation? Small wonder so many writers are driven to drink, small wonder too that very, very few manage to maintain a devotion to both for the entirety of their careers.

    But other than at times crippling your social life, how exactly is fiction writing a destructive act? Now I’m perplexed.

  2. Nathan,
    I’m not sure if you read this correctly, but I was quoting and questioning Chaon. It is he who talks about devoting oneself to alcohol abuse- in my experience, it doesn’t seem like a choice for many people, I find alcohol abuse much more mysterious that a simple choice, unlike choosing to buy a shirt at the mall or deciding to study economics in college.

    I agree with him that fiction writing is, to an extent, destructive. And it’s been argued at length by others- but to create anything involves destruction as well. You can’t have one without the other.

    1. Paula,
      I appreciate your considered reply. I understood that you were referencing a quote from Dan Chaon, and in my reading of the paragraph, you seemed to be grappling with his use of the word “devotes,” since, as you mentioned, there is clearly a point in physical addiction where “choice” is not so simply defined, and once you factor for genetics and environment, perhaps “choice” never fully existed.

      As an active verb (“devotes”), I do think Chaon’s usage was appropriate because the addicted person will pursue their drug of choice to the exclusion of all else – family, job, health, and forgive me Fred Exley for saying this, even to exclusion of continued quality writing. Alcoholism is an exacting, singular pursuit, and in that way, I think it can be regarded as a “devotion.”

      You are correct, though, pouring booze down one’s throat or pouring words on a page are not tossed-off choices and I certainly wasn’t meaning to be reductive. Furthermore, this was hardly a central issue in your essay so I apologize for belaboring a minor point.

      I am, however, still curious about what of value is destroyed during the act of creation. If you were thinking of any specific essays or interviews where that argument is developed in full, I would be interested in whatever links or search terms you might suggest. Thanks!

  3. Nathan,
    I’m appreciate your consideration of my essay and actually, whether abusing drugs and alcohol is a choice was a significant point so you were right in questioning it. Choice I take from “devotion”. To say someone devotes him/herself to something, in my mind, implies choice. And I don’t agree with that.
    In regard to essays and whatnot about creative/destructive impulses being united, and not mutually exclusive, you could start with Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In my experience creation- of any kind- is often coupled with destructive behavior. Writers not being the only ones to suffer from this. This is where I take issue with with Chaon-and why I prefer what I see as Gaistkill’s outlook. I guess I feel that our flaws are united to our strengths. That said, I came around I think, or hope, in this essay, to see that Chaon is just struggling with his compassion for this all too common weakness.
    I thank you for your interest in this idea, or my essay, and I hope to expand on it at some point.

  4. Paula,
    Funny, several hours later, in the middle of an unrelated activity, I had one of those A-HA moments and made the mental connection, oh right, a reader’s individual view on the determinism of addiction may dictate how sympathetically they feel the author has handled his characters. And, beyond that, individual readers might bring yet another personal bias, whether or not they think someone manipulated by forces beyond their control is more deserving of compassion than someone who simply makes poor choices over and over again. At this point, the work has truly left the author’s hands and become property of the reader.

    Thanks also for clarifying the other point, outside of a very abstract sense, I was having troubling seeing the act of creation as an act of destruction. I certainly agree, though, as human instincts, creativity and destruction come from a very similar place. After all, you never fully understand a thing until you’ve seen where it breaks. And, even more importantly, if it’s possible to put it back together.

    Good show – I’ll look forward to your future posts. Thanks!

  5. Great one Paula. Maybe smugness is more in line with indifference to others and conceitedness (I’m more important than you) and that is why she used it there. Refreshing view. It would be nice to have a salon on emotions, what they really mean to each of us, etc.

    Nathan Huffstutter is quite a name.

    1. At my four-year old’s preschool, they just went from learning to write their first names to practicing their last names. My daughter’s best friend is named Emily Vu. Life can be unfair.

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