Saturday, June 27, 2009

#7: My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead

More than what I read, it was the way I read it. One story a lunch break, give or take, sometimes a fraction of a story or sometimes two. For that brief half-hour, sandwiched between lunch duty and my 12:30 paperwork prep, I would shut the door, hide behind my filing cabinet if anyone knocked, and read about love.

If you're going to read about love, the time to do it is in the middle of a work day at an inner city school. You keep love in perspective if you do it that way; you understand its limitations and its boundaries, the things it can't do. Love can't feed a child or clothe it or make it happy; it can't help you pound knowledge into a kid's skull or make the school day go any faster. Love isn't an agent at all -it doesn't act, but sits there shimmering soundlessly between the cafeteria tables and the old computer.

It goes without saying that love, despite its lack of agency, is dangerous. Our language reflects this: you're sick in love, you fall. So what could be more dangerous, for the seventh installment in My Year of Reading Dangerously, than an entire book of love stories? Even if it was edited by the spectacularly gifted Jeffrey Eugenides (see Middlesex; The Virgin Suicides)?

I must confess that, in the face of this book, I quailed. My Mistress's Sparrow spent some quality time under the bed, followed by some additional months on the bookshelf, where, day after day, its maroon heart heaved reproachfully against the edges of my sight.

Finally, slowly, I broke. I sickened; I fell. And it was good, really good. A few of the stories I loathed; most of them were OK; some were so lovely they hurt. But such is love: a hit or miss, twisting, flickering nothing of a feeling. Eugenides's singular wisdom was to understand this: instead of presenting stories that orbit around love as if around blazing sun, he chose stories that are prisms, refracting love into a hundred scattered colors.

I read Robert Musil's thankless Tonka over two or three thankless, luckless days. William Trevor's Lovers of their Time, a wistful meditation on ephemerality, I read on a day when two kids threw up in the lunch room and had to be hustled out like surrendering bank robbers. The day I finished Deborah Eisenberg's Some Other, Better Otto, perhaps my favorite story in the book, there was a hot, wet rain of the kind that coops you up but doesn't relieve the pressure in the air.

And through it all: love. Love limp, love tired, love wizened and sad. Love worth closing the door for, perhaps worth propping it open again.

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