Monday, February 18, 2008

On Love, Left of Midline

From time to time, when I am worn down or restless or thinking of nothing in particular, I am surprised -again, surprised- that we only have one heart.

It's just that we have two of so many other things: a double dose of lung, a surfeit of kidney, eyeballs paddling together like swans. Two feet, two iliac crests, two hands, two carotid arteries: our bodies couple as relentlessly, as mindlessly, as rabbits in spring. heart. Fortunately the heart, as internal organs go, is pretty interesting: it has enough valves and chambers, enough of a narrative of growth and renewal, to hold your attention solo. The heart, on its own, does OK.

I can't say the same for romance. Romances fall into that special category of comestible that must be polished off in pairs. Read one romance and you're bored silly. Read two, and you begin to notice the relationship between narrative skeleton and and narrative skin, to explore all the body between.

I suppose this is how I came to be reading a whole anthology of love stories, a book edited by Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides) entitled My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead. I'll be honest and admit that my first reaction to this anthology was along the lines of "oh barf." But there's something about multiples, about the way all the different backs squirm under the lash, that makes you tolerate the whip.


Besides, Jeffrey Eugenides is, in addition to being a masterful writer, a man after my own heart:

A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims- these are lucky eventualities but they aren't love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart.

Not the steady beating but the break in the rhythm: fibrillation, hesitation, confusion of the blood. Eugenides collects them, all these small seizures, and tells them to us one after another. And what we learn is startling:

Desire is a homeostatic system. Push it down in one place and it rises in another.

It's only a subtle shift of emphasis- from what you want to want itself, from object to action. But it's important. It means love isn't just some crevice you fall into or some garden you grow. It isn't your wife or your mother or your friend. It's in you, ruthless, under your skin. It does fine on its own.

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