Friday, November 8, 2013

House of the Dead in Bed-Stuy

A Meaningful Life, by L. J. Davis

     L. J. Davis's novel of absurdity, despair, and home repair--three topics linked in real life--reminded me at first of Kierkegaard's The Concept of Dred.  Lowell Lake of Idaho finds himself married and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, working at a dead-end job as a technical editor, and drinking himself silly night after night.  Lake is the sort of person who drifts from one thing to another without volition, lacking energy, devoid of passion; he neither loves nor hates his wife, his job, or his life.  His existence is a fate he can neither embrace nor alter.  Although the novel is set in the middle 1960's--the Vietnam War unscrolls on television each night--Lowell pays no attention to politics or culture and appears to be one of those ethereal beings whose disconnection from the world  is absolute.  Davis uses scathing miniatures--Lake at home, Lake at work, Lake aimlessly wandering the streets--to convey his waifish "hero's" alienation from everyone and everything (to be fair, Lake's wife is herself a shadowy being about whom we know exactly three things: she's Jewish, has obnoxious parents, and wears a girdle--this is a one-man show). Inertness is the dominant theme of the novel's first hundred pages, that and a numbing sense of emptiness.  And, yes, Lake is annoying: he whines too much, drifts about in the way a pampered teenager might do, and refuses to "take hold."  In one witty section he notices, without a trace of feeling, that his wife is systematically throwing out all of his clothes and, indeed, during critical parts of the story, Lake must deport himself fully nude, like Adam, post culpa.  Lake is just the sort of self-hating narcissist one read about in the sociological classics of the 50's and 60's--The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life.  We know that personal authenticity and identity were major American concerns in the 50's and 60's, perhaps even more so than today (it may not be an exaggeration to say that we've given up on the notion of authenticity and settled for spite).  I remember that my parents, who owned no more than half-a-dozen books, kept a copy of Norman Vincent Peale's longtime bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking on the coffee table, right next to a family Bible that was never opened. Everyone was trying, but without much luck.

"The relation of freedom to guilt is dread," wrote Kierkegaard, and this formulation might explain the American propensity for flirtations with meaninglessness indulged in by Lowell Lake and the millions of Americans who devour books like Peale's (or Billy Graham's, or the raft of other books designed to help us cope with our incredible good luck).  What can you do to fill up a life whose possibilities are endless?  You might finish up at Stanford (as Lake does) and hop in your car and drive anywhere--to New York!  And, back when such things were possible, you might rent a nice apartment, pick out a job from the many on offer, and commence a life whose luster quickly fades.  Is this all there is?  Perhaps we really believe the myth of "boundless freedom," or take our Whitman without irony--we sing of ourselves and celebrate ourselves, and worship our freedom without ever considering that dread lurks inside the bubble of self-regard we've constructed--our manifest destiny, our American melancholy. 

Kierkegaard gave up his fiance for obsessive writing about, well, his obsessions--sin mostly, and Christian identity, and the hypocrisy of his fellow Danes.  His books are one part Hegelian metaphysics, one part Christian apologetics, and more than one part melancholic self-examination.  But his mood, bleak as it may have been, was relieved now and again by flashes of wit and by an ironic sense of his own absurdity.  For this reason, after a while, I came to renounce the idea that Lowell Lake was a Kierkegaardian 'Knight of Faith' and began to see him as Dostoyevsky's Underground Man--"I, for instance, have a great deal of amour propre."  Lowell Lake might also have benefited from a slap in the face, or a kick in the pants.  But he's too obtuse to be humiliated; when his wife criticizes him, Lake misses the point, or fails to find an appropriate response: "Lowell opened his mouth, made a little sound, and closed it again for fear that nothing would come out but gibberish."  Post-modern psychology suggests that there is no fixed self, and no answer to the question "Who are we?"  But this is a bitter pill to swallow; our conviction that we are the voice in our head, the gestures we use to present ourselves to others, the poses we strike to gain acceptance is nearly impossible to overthrow.  The narcissist blots out the Other and refashions the world to suit his or her fantasies of the the self.  Or, maybe, he buys a rundown house in a decayed neighborhood and fixes it up.  Perhaps the American real estate fetish is the means through which a nation of self-regarding, anti-social egotists finds solace--in the House of the Dead.

So Lowell buys a house on a nightmarish block of Brooklyn.  A reeking, sewage-filled, ruin of a once-grand home--a metaphor, of course, for the ruin of the polis itself (this is the era of Jane Jacobs'  The Death and Life of Great American Cities), but for Lowell Lake the house is a chance at salvation--or authentication.  The problem is that he has to give up his wife and his sanity in order to rebuild his wreck of a house.  But as Kierkegaard was fond of reminding his readers, you must lose your life in order to save it, or, perhaps, you must take someone else's life, capriciously, without consequence, in order to find value in your own.

Here's Dostoyevsky: "We are oppressed at being men--men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man.  We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better."

And Davis: "It all meant nothing whatever to Lowell.  Standing in the parlor of a house no longer his, listening to the voices of people whose lives were closed to him forever, contemplating a future much like his past, he realized that it was finally too late for him. Everything had gone wrong, and he had succeeded at nothing, and he was never going to have any kind of life at all."

I can't say I enjoyed this novel, but I read it avidly, laughed once in a while, congratulated the (unfortunately) deceased L.J. Davis on his ability to pull off such a thing--a tragicomedy involving real estate--and vowed never to move again.

A Meaningful Life is published by New York Review Books, with an appreciative preface by the reigning novelist-in-residence of Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem.

George Ovitt (11/8/13)

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