Archive for September 2012

There are some books that I’d rather burn than read, if only to get rid of some of the pages that serve as filler.  The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler is a long, winding stack of paper that divulges the story of several generations of a prominent family.  It is a semi-autobiographical work and represents various aspects of the writer’s life as he lived it through Victorian England.

If you ever choose to read this book, begin halfway into the spine.  The first half of the book is important in that it gives you background of how the main character, Earnest Pontifex, came into being, but it lacks importance because the reader is reminded of that same backstory whenever Earnest makes a decision or reacts to something.  Quite literally, it is written as a family history to acquaint the reader with the Grand Ol’ Pontifexes and to bash Victorianism when convenient.

When Butler is finished eulogizing his family history, the story starts to get juicy because bad things happen to the main character.  Spooky, I know.  He spent 300 pages in preparation for a plot twist.  M. Night Shyamalan and George R. R. Martin couldn’t even be bothered to do that.  When that twist happens, the pace quickens, though the prose does not.  The same muddy words and rambling paragraphs are used to heighten the story and finish out the plot.  The final passage of the book is a knockout, and once I finished, I felt sad for having done so.

The reason why I read this book is because I am insane.  I am determined to read every book on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list for no other reason than to give myself poor eyesight at a young age.  The Way of All Flesh is number twelve on the list and is notable for its scathing commentary on Victorian lifestyle and its hypocrisy.  By ‘scathing commentary,’ I mean ‘prodding suggestion,’ because it’s difficult to be scathing when you’re writing a book about how much you hate Victorians in the age of Victorians.  However, Butler was so rattled by the message in his book that it was published post-mortem.

Here’s a good reason to read this book: it’s proof that the giant gulf between the rich and the poor existed prior to (insert American president)’s presidency.  Once the gulf is established, Butler paints an outrageous picture of the attitude that rich people have towards poor people.  ‘Outrageous’ is how I felt when I read some of the encounters that Earnest had (reference: Earnest’s encounter with Townley on the side of the road), but I later found it to be realistic.  I think it’s important to note that most of us (the common reader) would have a view of the world from the ground up; that is to say that most of us are not extremely rich.  Butler shows the reader the attitude of the rich towards the poor without embellishment, remorse, or explanation; it’s left to the reflection of the reader and the main character, Earnest.

The Way of All Flesh was published in 1903, 20 years after it was written.  3.5/4.0.  Listed as #12 on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

The train is the sum of all my fears.  Packed, hot, gross.  Smells like a humidifier filled with hot dog water.  People coughing, sneezing, burping.  No room to move, to stand, to get comfortable, to avoid gaping stares, to save your dignity as a human being.  It matters little if you stand or sit.  Carloads are measured by people per square inch.

I do my best not to look, notice, or stare.  If nothing else, it’s a gallery of people, full of wondrous, disastrous beings, striking ridiculous poses as they hurtle forward in space.  There’s something to be said about being surrounded by hundreds of bodies with nowhere to go and nothing else to look at, but I’ll let someone else say it.  I deafen and blind myself with headphones and a book.

Despite my best efforts, it’s nearly impossible to block out everything.  My train schedule has lately been coinciding with a couple who gets on a stop before I do.  They usually get a seat.  My stop is a bedroom community, so I usually don’t.

When the doors open, I have no choice but to follow the crush of the crowd.  I watch my feet so I don’t flatten any tires.  I stop moving when there’s nowhere else to go.  It’s usually in front of them.

I’m sure they’re very nice folks.  Good natured, well to do, nice to talk to.  They probably watch reality competitions and read books before going to bed.  In public, they’re terrorists.

There’s a hall in the gallery of people for those who engage in public displays of affection.  The reactions of those watching behind the rope line remind me of contorted faces in the throes of the house of horrors: grossed out, mildly amused, grossly entertained.  I am far from the only person who is not amused by this puerile engagement.  People stare conspicuously into the space around them, and the train-goers seated on either side lean away and into the cramped real estate of their less affectionate neighbors.

Of course, wherever I look, there they are.  It’s hard to ignore two elephants who can’t decide between making out and nibbling each other’s faces.  The book blots out only so much, and my arm gets tired after a while.  With each bump of the train, my arm lowers a little, until dear God, there go my retinas.

This has been going on for weeks.

I wonder what circumstances have brought these people into my life.  Something was set into motion that brought them out of the ether of the universe and into the seats in front of me.  Several weeks ago, they were elsewhere, terrorizing the blank space of others.  Now, they’re here, copping feels and smashing their faces together.  I’m less disgusted by their existence than I am by how they choose to exist.

One of them has dominance over the other.  I might even call it ownership.  The Master has her arms around him at all times, with one arm snaked behind his back and the other over his chest.  As near as I can tell, the Pet likes this kind of relationship, insomuch as trying to snuggle closer to her when a bump upsets their posture.  The Master kisses him with a mouth that is trying to take small bites from a banana.  The Pet leans forward and receives them with his eyes half closed, and resembles a dog receiving a kind hand.  I dry heave.

You might think that after continuous exposure, I would get used to it.  I don’t.  The train is no sacred ground, but I have expectations, and one of them is to not vomit in my mouth when my eyes wander from the fibers of literature.  The Master pushes it and the Pet allows it.  They’re symbiotically linked.  For a brief while, I root for an uprising; the Pet could cast off his limbed shackles and throw down his bondage, but it never quite turns out the way I want it to.  He continues to nose her, and I continue to gag.

I’m quite certain that they are rabbits, nuzzling with human skulls.  They might even be people.  I entertain the thought that they are newlyweds, but that wouldn’t explain why they want to eat each other’s aftershave and foundation.  Maybe he lost a bet and she’s collecting on his subservience.  The dom/sub relationship would certainly support that idea.  Maybe he lost a bet to, say, marry that woman, and perhaps as an unfortunate consequence actually went through with the marriage.  Here they are, whispering tart nothings into each other’s ears.

I glance down from my book and notice his wedding ring.  It’s… the same as mine.

My wife and I went to a jewelry store and looked at rings months before our wedding.  She settled on a nice little band with small diamonds.  I tried on gold, white gold, platinum, more gold, until I found a ring the was me.  It was titanium and had a black lacquered braid running through the middle.  It was nothing that I had ever seen in any wedding that I’d attended.  I tried it on and immediately ordered it.  I’m not a gold, white gold, or platinum person.  Other people are.  I am not.

My band is living on his ring finger.  He reaches over and scratches her stomach; I resist the urge to slap both of them silly.  My ring, a source of strength because of its former uniqueness, is a genie for the common window shopper.  I revisit the jewelry store in my head and slug the Pet’s avatar, standing outside the door.  This is my ring.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.

After several weeks of this dog and pony show, the Master points at me.  I’m standing over them, reading, as per my lamentable usual.  She doesn’t think that I notice, but it’s an unfortunate side effect of being obvious.  She leans over to the Pet and whispers something.  The Pet whispers back.  She clarifies by pointing at my hand.

I’m not dumb, but those who accuse me of being so may make a strong case.  They finally realized that I wear the same ring as he does.

She looks excited.  It’s as if she’s receiving vindication for beating him so badly; there’s the ring that I forced you to wear after you lost the bet.  He leans his ear towards her mouth.  She kisses it softly before she tells him the news.  He sits back and looks at her, puzzling over this revelation, and then makes a poor attempt to look at me out of the corner of his eye.  She flicks her finger at me again.  My hand slips adroitly into the lining of my pants pocket and I move the book to cover their prying faces.  I neglect the railing that I was holding on to and nearly fall over when the train negotiates a sudden turn.

His face falls and he turns back to his lover, confused, wondering what in the world she was talking about.  He looks at his own hand and back into the general population of the train.  There’s no ring, and no hand attached to it.  I begin to realize that I can’t turn the page with my thumb.  I keep scraping it against the paper, but it won’t turn over the binding, and the paper is starting to crumple.  The spine of the book keeps slipping off of my index finger.  I keep reading the last line of the page over and over.

The brakes squeal and the train jerks to a stop.  The Pet and his Master look over their shoulders to check which station stop they’re at.  The page flips.  When they resume their amorous air, I am as I was.

I win.  For two more pages.