I’ve been reading a book called Desolation by Yasmina Reza. I like that the cover is an old’s man hand, a gaudy ring on his middle finger, giving me the finger. I feel amused, tempted, and challenged by this man’s hand. As if it’s a dare. Open this book. And his curved finger is almost an inviting gesture. Read only if you care to confront the cantankerous, the lewd, the unhappy.
And I have been reading it. Quickly, relentlessly. Much like the man on the cover, I’ve been giving my responsibilities the finger. I’ve been thinking too much about what it means for a man to be unhappy. I’m not sure why these thoughts are uniquely about men- maybe because my grandfather died. And he was unhappy. And a man. Maybe because I’ve met a lot of unhappy men recently. I suspect unhappiness doesn’t differ much by gender, though its causes might.
The narrator is an old man who is speaking to his son. As the reader, you become the son, since it’s written in second person. You live in some tropical country eating mangos all day, happy and maybe bored, and you may or may not despise your father for his deep-rooted unhappiness and refusal to accept your apparent joy. Or at least that’s how he sees it. He recounts his friend Lionel’s epic battle against impotence when the prospect of sex with a young waitress presents itself. And he talks about his wife, your mother: Nancy.
It seems odd that she should care so much about a single wrinkle on her cheek but accept humanity as good, life as beautiful, without a second-thought. And her husband is heroic in an anti-hero kind of way; he triumphs against happiness. Or perhaps that’s how he frames it, and there is no triumph involved.
He says to you, “Some idiot schoolboy once wrote, ‘I was walking quietly along the path when all of a sudden, cunningly hidden behind a tree, the picturesque leapt out and struck me.’ Do you remember how we laughed? It was the cunningly hidden behind a tree that was the best. Well, that’s exactly how it’s been for me recently with depression. I’m walking along minding my own business and all of a sudden, cunningly hidden in the scenery, depression leaps out and strikes me. With a force and a weight you can’t even imagine. And what do I do to fight it? I dye my hair. When existential depression attacks without warning, your father dyes his hair.”
I like that quote in part because that’s how students write. They want to write something that sounds smart, and they end up writing things like that, and it makes me laugh and teaches me what not to write. And also because that’s what depression is; something dark and hidden that comes out of nowhere and feels the way you feel as a child when you get the wind knocked out of you. I haven’t been depressed as much as I have been thinking too much about what depression or unhappiness or whatever you want to call it means for others.
And at funerals, that’s all you see, unless someone has no social graces. Unless he does not wish to hide his happiness about the events that transpired that resulted in a person’s death. But I didn’t see any of that (read: the funeral wasn’t a Lifetime movie). Just sadness, fear, uncertainty. And maybe that’s why I like this book so much. It’s my grandfather’s voice, and he’s speaking directly to the reader, to me. I don’t miss my grandfather as much as I am confused by his death. It’s worse when the dead person was young and hadn’t had what we consider to be a ‘full’ life.
But an old man’s funeral is more uncomfortable than it is sad. It causes all of those delicate questions to come bubbling up from the depths, pesky like a small child who keeps asking why, painful like a papercut that’s resistant to antibacterial cream.
I’m not sure I recommend this book. It’s short, if you like short things. But it’s sad, and it’s aggressive. You have to be in the mood to have someone giving you the finger the whole time. xo-m