Only Say the Word

The title above is taken from a book by Niall Williams. That book, like most of my books, I bought many, many years ago, for reasons I don’t recall. It is a pleasant book, quite intense emotionally with perhaps not enough depth to balance the constant flow of feeling. I am not really interested in writing a book review, however. Instead, there are two aspects to the story that I found very intriguing in that they probe mysteries in my own life and they are written authentically and clearly by the hand of someone with experience.

To give some context, a brief synopsis will be helpful. The book is written partly in the present and partly in the distant past, each period delineated by a separate typeface. Some chapters recount the childhood, early adulthood and marriage of the narrator, others, on a roughly alternating basis, are written in the present tense by the narrator who has recently lost his wife and is struggling to adjust his life and his children’s life following that sad event. The Narrator is Irish, but emigrates at around the age of twenty to New York after meeting his future, American wife in Dublin. They return together to his home town after having been married for a couple of years.

He is an aspiring writer she dreams of becoming a painter. When they first marry, there is a period of idealism where he looks for copywriting work to sustain them while he works on his novel, and she takes a job laboring in a plant nursery in the meantime. He quickly gives up looking for work, going into New York and depositing his printed CV’s in the trash after spending the days reading in bookshops around the city. Eventually he does find a job, as a box boy in a bookstore. They move into a small attic apartment and subsidize the rent by doing landscaping work for the owner. At first the excitement of being alone, adult and in love sustains them even though they have no money and their work leaves them no time to pursue their respective ‘higher callings.’ But eventually they come to the realization that the fact of merely surviving is not enough. It is quite a sad and scary moment in the story. To me the most fascinating part of the book is then, at the moment when they come face-to-face with the potential for failure, with the impotence of their love to conquer the facts of the world, and in fact, with the power of those very facts to grind their love and ideas of themselves into dust, to destroy them as lovers and as individuals.

That moment in the story is so significant to me because I have two siblings who must have faced a time like that. Both of them have pursued a life of artistic endeavor. And I have always wondered what it must be like to stand at the point where one stands at a fork in the road, one path leading to a safe, restrained life the other to a precipice over which one must jump hoping that one’s talent is real and that an audience exists and that the fibers of one’s work will be able to make a net strong enough to stop the fall. What fear and what confidence someone would need to overcome the fear.

In the story, they leave America and go back to his hometown in Ireland, making a homecoming trip, reversing the tide of generations of emigration and nominally leaving the land of the free for the old country. In Ireland they find a different freedom, liberation from the money-drive of America, and the two of them manage, through tides of doubt, to make it. This homecoming is the second part of the story that resonated with me. His was a homecoming, a simple return to complicated roots. For his wife it was also an important transition, albeit in the opposite sense. At the surface level, she was resetting her life, tabula rasa. But at a deeper level, she also seemed to going back home, as if her time in America, the generations her family had been there, was a hiatus away from where she really belonged, where her roots were still buried.

That part of the story fascinates me because I feel like she must and at the same time the way he does. I feel the rootlessness of my American side, the rootedness of my Lebanese side. I feel a torrent of freedom when I contemplate the rootlessness but a meandering nihilism is just beneath the surface. The other half of me with its roots, provides just enough sense of place, belonging and feeling of meaning that the nihilism loses its potency. But, of course, that rootedness comes with a string attached, almost literally, a thread of attachment that provides security, but also limits flight and movement, and which carries a tinge of sadness and the burden of obligation. And to have these two vibrating contradictions is its own special kind of torture, providing access to a choice that almost no one has, that is almost impossible to make. Do you want to be at home, safe but caged or free but alone and faced with the ultimate pointlessness of life?

Postscript: I was thinking about the contrast between the experiences related in this book, the idealism lived, the fear faced with courage, and even the move to Europe implemented and not just dreamed about, and the events of Revolutionary Road, where a young couple who meet easier and more traditional early success and where the fear of losing position, safety and status ultimately overwhelms their vision of their future, and in some ways destroys them. The two books are parallel and yet in their key points take opposite turnings with opposite results.


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