Back in the glory days, Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I disagree, unless “we” are identified as that ultimately solipsistic portion of the population that cannot feel engaged in life without constructing narratives. “We” need stories in order to process experience, to cope, to understand, to consolidate stray stimuli into graspable themes and get on with our lives. You’re one of “us” if your psychologist tells you to get out of your head. I’m happy to be placed in almost any grouping that places me alongside ole Joan, but I don’t delude myself: “we” are not everyone.
The nice thing about living in your head is that is makes books an extremely low-budget form of escapist travel. You could go the route of travel narratives, but that’s taking it a bit literally, and we favor the abstract. Period pieces can do the trick – they construct a complete, comprehensible reality. Or we can read books that take you out of your own angsty head, and visit someone who occupies a similar psychological space.
With this in mind, I’ve cast my eye on Melissa Milgram’s Still Life, Zachary German’s Eat When You Feel Sad, and a collection of J.G. Ballard’s short stories.
The narrator of Still Life began investigating the phenomenon of taxidermy from a journalist’s perspective, and ultimately ends up with her subjective hand all up in a drowned squirrel. A narrator who struggles with boundaries, who cannot feign distance between self and subject, is just the kind of head I can crawl into.
Likewise, German’s Eat When You Feel Sad chronicles that habituated loneliness that characterizes the life of a twenty-something. (Cough). Never mind that I’m totally bitter that this author has co-opted his ennui into a book deal even before he’s experienced its ambition-eroding properties full-force. Still, a stray paragraph from him novel proves that there is a mind – an entire population of adultolescents minds, I imagine – going through the same aimless motions, hoping a friend will connect to gchat, tossing away poignant, but predictable, independent clauses.
One’s twenties, in my experience, are a period of disappointment. This sense of disappointment is, no doubt, tied to delusions of grandeur, just as depression can be linked to narcissism. Woe is me, me, me, and I am the entire world.
Science fiction has explored this trope of speck-like human subjectivity, counterposed to a sublime, immense universe. Not to get too meta or self-contradictory, but I’m not sure if this is a bad thing. If we can acknowledge our speck-like perspective and use it as a means of appropriating some universal narrative, then we’re getting somewhere, even if it’s just more psychological wilderness.
Ballard’s Enormous Room is about a man whose refusal to leave a suburban house limits his perspective until he believes it is the universe. But this delusion of grandeur, this bloated perception, transforms the banal topography of the living room into a strange, new world, and the reader is awestruck, and temporary expanded, by the narrator’s lunatic explorations of his kitchen.
To the kitchen, then. I’m feeling sad.