Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Sheer Big Waste of Love

This is the fifth of a now-thirteen-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story, "Sheer Big Waste of Love": shiny toy airplanes and the sound of stilettos on a stone road.

Spoilers are inside as per usual, for this and all previous stories. There are probably also some spoilers for Greek mythology, if you think such things can be spoiled.

I promise I will try harder to get on a schedule, as my last "attempt" was pathetic.

Previous reviews:

Addison is about to be a father. He has no idea what this encompasses; not only has he grown up without a father, but he's grown up without a family. His mother died when he was seven, and he spent a miserable adolescence in a "vicious" Catholic orphanage that finally spat him out onto a crossroads: a life of crime, or a life of law enforcement. He chose the police. (I don't know whether law enforcement careers often start like this, but just go with it.)

It's a time of hope, of course, but it's also bittersweet, as it naturally gets him thinking about his father -- a hardened brute of a man -- and about the love he could have had.

Review: Does every story in this collection involve Greek mythology in some way? I couldn't sense anything in "Dissonance." Who would Rebecca and Simon be, anyway -- Castor and Pollux? (That's off-the-cuff; they're not. Probably.)

At any rate, this isn't an issue in "Sheer Big Waste Of Love." There are undoubtedly mythological references I've missed in the other stories -- to be covered in the now-pretty-much-certain thirteenth post -- but it's impossible to miss this one. Bill Addison is Zeus. There are so many clues that it's not even right to call them "clues" -- it's not a mystery. The story primes you with Clare's project on the Ancient Greeks, and then almost immediately after Bill is introduced, tosses out signifiers one after another. Addison imagines his father in a chariot in the clouds like a god. Shirley jokes that he "came in a shower of gold," rendering the myth even lewder than it already is. There's thunder during the big climactic fight -- more on that later. The references are so blatant, in fact, that there really isn't much reason for me to keep listing them like this, like my blog's a trophy case.

In my "Tunnel of Fish" review, I noted that the story transplants the myth into the real world and explores its repercussions. "Sheer Big Waste Of Love" does it one better. It conflates two sorts of stories: the stories of those the gods have touched, and the stories of those who often go ignored nowadays. Greek mythology does the former, of course -- look at most of its heroes -- but you could hardly ask classical myth to predict the 2000s. It's impressive enough when people "predict the future" from mere decades ago, even though that's a statistical certainty and the pundits who were wrong disappear unless they're funny enough to be mocked. It's much easier to tell modern stories now, when we're standing in them. "Tunnel of Love" told these stories, too, but it showed family and love prevailing despite hardship. In this story, they mostly don't. The title drop in "Dissonance" was no accident; they're both about wasted love. "Sheer Big Waste of Love" just blows this up to epic proportions.

This doesn't happen the way you'd expect. Think of how our culture frames families who don't love: it's usually the parents' fault, no? So they say. And Addison's non-nuclear family Yes, Addison's mother is a prostitute. In a lot of other works, this would mean that Addison would be relationally and sexually stunted until, perhaps, he'd realize the mystery of his mother's job to abject horror. Think Watchmen (yes, Rorschach is hardly perfect and in no way a role model, but that hasn't stopped thousands of people from seeing him as one.) Atkinson doesn't do this. Did you really expect her to? She's already brought dimensions to characters who are often caricatured: horrible teenage metalheads, women turned children's-book heroines, nerdy obsessive boys.

This doesn't mean she can make Addison's life great, of course. By all rational standards, Addison's childhood is terrible. He's always hungry, his meals being trifles like margarine-and-sugar-spread white bread. People pity him. They'd pity his mother, maybe, if their empathy moved past "children = good." That's children in the abstract, by the way; most of them don't even bother to use his name. What she can do is love him, and the plot wouldn't happen if she didn't. She knows she's going to die soon, so she tries to give Addison some semblance of a future through Bill. That's an act of love, or at least it wants to be.

But it isn't enough, because it depends upon a myth: the Daddy Warbucks story, the rich older man swooping down from the heavens to give his long-lost child the life he or she deserves. If this story was written a few centuries ago, Addison would probably turn out to have noble blood, in some grand reunion at the end of the book. Things don't work this way. Shirley wants to confront Bill "in all his glory," but Semele tried that already. It didn't really work out for her.

And at least it doesn't work out for Semele because Zeus was too brilliant. It doesn't work out for Shirley and Addison because Bill -- just like the archetypal real-life rich guy -- too callous. It's foreshadowed when the path to his house looks like an obstacle course, and even when we see the inside, there's something off about it. Addison thinks the whole scene looks like something out of a magazine -- "well-dressed people smoking and drinking and throwing their heads back in easy laughter." Kids race around the garden with airplanes, wings flashing in the sun like something out of a TV advertisement. Addison thinks Susan looks like she comes from Fairyland, playing with her doll on her rug in her pink dress. It's all too perfect, which makes it even more devastating when the clouds roll in, the parents tell the children to scatter and Bill starts shouting. I almost couldn't read past that page. It's too stark, and it dashes any lingering thoughts that Bill's family would be a better fount of love.

So there Addison is, forty and stranded, not entirely sure how families are even supposed to work. He has Clare, and he's going to have a family, but it's not enough; he's still, as he says, "on the outside looking in." This undoubtedly happens all the time. People who talk about "family values" are missing the point. It's not about demographics, it's not about "values" in the freeze-dried sense they usually mean. When your definition of "integrity" is something that can be taught in one month of public school -- well, public school as it is right now -- then your definition is wrong. It's part of human nature to be compassionate, just as it's part of human nature to be horrible. Addison feels it. At least twice in the story, he's pulled, practically by DNA, to declare himself family. It never works.

And that's the most devastating part at all, because for a few moments at the end of the story, it almost seems like he's going to succeed. Right after the funeral, Susan and Addison talk again. They last connected at the big confrontation; she's the one person out of the whole Addison family who seems to have some compassion. Bedraggled from the rain, she tries to give Addison that shiny toy airplane he wanted to play with. But before she can really talk, before Addison can thank her, her mother drags her away. That's compassion thwarted once.

They meet again. It almost seems like it will work; Susan and Addison both have escaped their stunting, have grown up to be fairly decent people. They talk. "Love's the most important thing, you know," Susan says. Addison almost believes her. Susan's holding herself -- like she's cold, yes, but like she needs something to. Addison kisses her on the cheek. And then she walks off, and so does he, and how little has changed since they first met. Addison has Clare, Susan has herself. They've survived. But survival isn't everything; in Maslow and everyone else, it's just a beginning. What else could there have been?

What a sheer, big waste of love.


- "Ten Things to Consider Before You Say 'I Do'" shows up here -- remember it? Mind: Clare doesn't say "I don't."

- Clare's school project rings so true. I did those too, in fifth grade. There were three of them: Egypt, Greece and Rome, and they were a whirlwind of bad classical fonts and pretty-making and poring over kids' nonfiction books. Tangent: do kids even still use those now that Wikipedia is here? I'm sure teachers must still be promoting them, and I'm sure there are troves in libraries. A few of them fodder for Awful Library Books, no doubt, but most thoroughly justified in existing.

Name Report: A male Addison! That's something you don't ever see. Blame to Grey's Anatomy, which I always misspell mentally as the actual medical tome of which >75% of the viewership has never heard. Of course, Addison is kind of a regrettable name given the story's plot, but hey. Other than that, the names are fairly standard: older people named Shirley, Douglas, Susan, Andrew and Pamela; younger people named Ewan, Connor and Amelia. The ages, at least, are spot-on. Always nice to see authors pay attention to these things instead of writing anachronisms, born of name-dartboards for all we know. Refreshing.