There it is. Right there on the novel’s first page. Right there in the first line, staring the reader in the face. A lie.
Nothing against Tolstoy. I’m an admirer. I simply happen to believe he’s responsible for the most widely quoted whopper in world literature.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Literary types swoon over that line, which opens Anna Karenina. But have they considered the philosophy they’re embracing?
If Tolstoy is to be taken at his word, a person must be unhappy in order to be interesting. If this is true, then certain other things follow. Happy people have no stories you might possibly want to hear. In order to be happy, you must whitewash your personality; steamroll your curiosities, your irritations, your honesty and indignation. You must shed idiosyncratic dreams and march in lockstep with the hordes of the content. Happiness, according to this witticism of Tolstoy’s, is not a plant with spikes and gnarled roots; it is a daisy in a field of a thousand daisies. It is for lovers of kitsch and those with subpar intelligence.
Yolanda would say I’m taking this far too personally. Yolanda thinks any idea that keeps a person home working on a Saturday night is hideous. Also, that I need to start wearing tighter clothing if I want my weekends to headline something more exciting than collating.
But even she would get riled if she realized what Tolstoy fans are swallowing wholethere’s nothing more likely to enrage Yolanda than the topic of happiness.
For people who claim to want happiness, we Americans spend a lot of time spinning yarns about its opposite. Even the optimistic novels end the minute the good times get rolling. Once characters enter the black box of happiness, no one wants to hear a peep out of them. I’ve learned exactly how hard it is to find a good nontragic American novel on academia’s approved- reading list. I struggle every semester to design my Modern American Lit syllabus with just one plotline that doesn’t make you want to jump off a bridge. Paine’s wish that “the New World regenerate the Old” notwithstanding, the tragic European tradition was hardly o’erthrown on our shores. Hester Prynne doesn’t make out too well in the end, does she? Ethan Frome and poor Billy Budd and just about everyone Faulkner or O’Connor or Porter ever met are doomed. Even sensuous Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God goes through three husbands and then has to shoot the best one of the lot. Moral of the story? Never trust joy. (Do not ever say this aloud on a conference panel. Literature professors don’t, ever, call books depressing. The correct word is “disquieting.”) Let me be clear: some of my best friends are tragic novels. But someone’s got to call it like it is: Why the taboo? What’s so unspeakable about happiness?
I think people are terrified of happiness. I don’t mean just Americans; this goes for everybody. And that’s why Tolstoy’s gotten away with that cheap shot all these years. But he’s got to be wrong. If happinesslet’s say, for hypothetical example, an honest, requited, passionate loveis really the death of individuality, why would anyone want it?
What I want to know is this: Can the American story have an ending that’s both honest and happy? Can we ditch the venerable idea that life is meaningless without tragedythat every one of us has a choice between numbed-out conformity or noble suffering, with no option to check the box marked “other”? Or are the doom-mongers right?
I say there’s hope. And I don’t just mean early Mark Twain. Look for the subversive plot twist, the wink at the bottom of the page, the sly, stubborn sidestepping of doom. I want to write about what Washington Irving implies about happiness; and Thoreau and Whitman, Eaton and Welty, Paley, Bambara, even Vonnegut. There’s a trail of bread crumbs to follow. There are American writers who dare venture into the treacherous waters of fulfillment. Most of them do it stealthily, as though it’s imperative not to get caught talking about joy.
I’m saving this, of course, for my post-tenure book. I’m not naive. Talking about happiness is career suicide. I’ll be accused of championing papof responding to a book not as a critic, whose role is to dissect, but from my kishkas. Add to my crime the sin of trespassing the boundaries of several specialties. Academics today aren’t supposed to address overarching concepts. We’re supposed to locate within context, place within tradition, and say as little as possible along the way about the original texts. One is not to cut a skylight in the intellectual house; one is to rearrange a few sticks of furniture in the basement. Do more, and you’re accused of trying to be a public intellectual. When I first understood how mincing the academic conversation could be, how capable of silencing a nnnnnovel’s heartbeat, I nearly turned tail. For three weeks I sat in a graduate school seminar on Moby Dick; no one mentioned the whale. I circled job listings. But I didn’t leave school. I became, somehow, more determined to become a professora tenured one, able to forge my own path. I learned, when the occasion absolutely demanded it, to keep my own counsel, to stay mum about the leviathan lurking beneath the refracting surface of every line. I even developed a grudging respect for the basic academic vocabulary. It may be pretentious, but it serves a function. It’s the antiseptic garb a surgeon dons before she cuts, for the life-and-death drama of the operating room demands that she be utterly dispassionateher keen eyes and masked face inspiring our trust in the sureness of her hands, their innocence of the germs of easy emotionality.
Upon accepting my faculty appointment, I made a private vow never to say “simulacrum” if “cheap imitation” will suffice. Never to decry the dumbing down of American culture while smarting up my own ideas with showy verbiage. Never to say “debative quality” when I mean “argument,” or hedge with “it might be said” when what I mean is, I believe.
Each morning I wake to the blandishments of my clock radio, set to a pop station I’d never tolerate in anything but semiconsciousness. I dress, stuff my briefcase with the papers stacked on my bedside table, and walk twenty blocks to the building the English Department shares with Classics, Sociology, andimprobablyArchitecture. This is home: its peculiar scrollwork and mustard yellow façade a thumb in the eye of the stately street; its narrow elevator jammed with both faculty and students, mocking the professorial discomfort with intimacy. Anticipating the elevator’s closing doors, I quickstep into the building, but not before I’m handed a flash of myself in the half-dome security mirror over the door: a somewhat lanky figure in muted professional attire; pale curls restrained in a ponytail; an unadorned, up-peering face that startles me with its gameness.
I sit among books all day, lecture from them, underline their pages emphatically. Between classes I comb the library for a spark of insight left buried in the stacks by a thinker I’ll never meet. You get used to it: a life mining the ore of literature. It’s not as airless as it sounds. Anyone who thinks books are sterile objects hasn’t really drawn breath in a library. The older volumes are autumnal, evocative of smoke and decayed leaves. The newer ones smell like glue and vanilla and import. Books have a sound, tooturn their pages for enough hours and years and you start to rely on it, just as people who live by the shore assimilate the rhythm of the waves: the sweep and ripple marking the end of a page, a sound that seems to be made by the turning of your thoughts rather than the movement of your hand.
Evenings find me at home on my sofa in sweatpants and threadbare socks, nursing a soda and doling out advice. Yolanda, my old Seattle high school classmate, now fellow New Yorker, phones with bulletins from the field: tales of relationships gone bust. It’s my job to be shocked. I’m careful to share her outrage as long as she needs before helping her sift the love-wreck for salvage. Later at night my cousin Gabby phones from California to ask whether I think it’s okay to date a guy thirteen years older; six inches shorter; without job or hair or visa; with accent, or wife, or laboratory results marked inconclusive. Phone pressed to my ear, surveying my toes through fabric worn to cheesecloth, I opine. Through relinquishing desire, say the Buddhists, one attains understanding. And through having no romantic life of my own, I’ve discovered my calling. Tracy Farber: lit critic by day; by night dispenser of romantic advice.
How did this befall our dashing heroine?
There was Jason. He wasstill isdependable, kind, smart, prudent. Perfect. I kept tilting my head to make the picture hang straight. Walking down the street, he’d notice the signs and the shops, the grinding gears of the city. The considered pace of his observations, not to mention his unremitting practicality, made me want to run laps around the block. I could hardly explain it to myself, let alone to him. How do you tell a man you’ve been desperate for him to say something startling, make you laugh, even prove you wrong? That at the beginning of an argument, you don’t want to know you’re going to win? I kept hoping for the hesitation to evaporate so I could do the sensible thing and adore Jason back. But even in Wharton novels you can’t argue with almost but not quite. All I could do in the end was ask him, didn’t he think we might be a horse and a llama? Similar enough to like and respect each other, but still . . . a horse and a llama. That was the first and only time Jason got angry. He thought being cautious about making a commitment, when we so obviously cared for each other, was absurd. I replied that when you’re an only child and you’ve spent years cracking jokes to cheer up your relentlessly quiet parents . . . and you’ve seen your father sipping a cup of tea with that expression that says no way out, and your mother once let drop like it was nothing that she’d given up her dream of a graduate degree in physics when she had you; and you once found a blank piece of paper on which she’d scribbled was it worth it; and your father sat you down at age ten to ask what you wanted to do when you grew up and then addressed you with awkward unprecedented seriousness about fulfilling yourself and following your dreams, and when one day you add up the dates and realize they got married because you decided to spring yourself on them, and your parents sometimes do seem happy but how happy, is this the love they wanted, is thishonestly?who they wanted to be?
Then caution starts to look like the pinnacle of good sense. That is, unless both sides feel truly inspired.
I hurt him.
After Jason, there were a couple of short-lived flings. Then a flurry of dates, most awful. I got set up with New Age musicians; solid burghers; brilliant, hilarious computer programmers who found eye contact painful. A few of the dates were promising, but only to one party. I obsessed. I was obsessed over. Bad feelings were had; let’s leave it at that. I made the requisite efforts to give love a chance, along the way braving the thousand psychic shocks a single woman is heir to. At a friend’s engagement party I noticed the caterer, a sweating man in a starchy black suit, checking my hand for a ring. Don’t prejudge, I admonished myself as he approached. “Soon also for you it should be this happy,” the guy lilted, his scalp shiny under thinning hair. “And when it is, you should know who to call.” The business card he slipped intimately into my palm read MR. OMELETTEKOSHER CATERING FOR ALL OCCASIONS.
My dating slowed to a trickle a few years ago, mostly because I didn’t cultivate it. I decided I didn’t want to be a collector of people or of grudges. I didn’t want to be like Marcia, the pretty library assistant who sits in the park every day at noon fishing gourmet leftovers out of another styrofoam container: Lousy guy, good restaurant. I didn’t want to be like my grad school classmate Trina, who, upon clearing out her computer hard drive shortly after her wedding, ran across three files titled “asshole” and had no idea which nearly forgotten ex had inspired each.
Dating emptied me out. One evening, returning from a tepid dinner with a perfectly nice man (“perfectly”: adverb of dating doom), I turned on my TV and stared bleary-eyed at a nature special about the tropical rainforest. There, amid platter-sized dasheen leaves and aerial roots, cinnamon laurels and primeval ferns, were the hunter vines: stout branches that sprouted from the forest floor, hitched onto the nearest tree, spiraled halfway up its trunk, thena dozen feet upgroped out into open air to find another, likelier trunk, around which they grew for a dozen months or years until switching to another tree and then, finally, up in the canopy, leafing out into golden sunlight. I thought: I know people like that. That evening I opted for early retirement. I told my friends thanks, but no more blind dates.
Now, at thirty-three, I’m well past the stage of being ticked off at married women who have that well-fed, big-eyed, satisfied look. Past feeling irked by the Marriage Mafia, those concerned citizens who recite dire matrimony statistics to single women over thirty, as prelude to an offer (bachelor cousin, formerly gay colleague, themselves) we can’t refuse. I’m past being annoyed at married girlfriends over a crummy pronoun. (“How are you?” “We’re fine.”) And I no longer rant to my silent living room because Hannah, with whom I hadn’t spoken in three weeks, told me over the line: “Ed is home, I should get off the phone”as though she didn’t see Ed every day, as though there could be no value in spending a few minutes on the phone with her once best friend. I’ve accepted reality: Hannah’s priority is Ed, and together they form an ironclad front. I’ve accepted that my single friends call because they want to be in touch; my married friends call because not being in touch makes them feel confused about their lives; and my friends with kids call hoping to get my answering machine, so they can discharge their friendship obligation and still have time for a nap. I’m past worrying over just whose world is shrinkingmy married friends’ or mine. And even past the ache I felt when I learned Jason was getting married. Her name is Julie; she’s very nice, and rather quiet; and she has absolutely no sense of humor. Or at least, she doesn’t get my jokes. But Jason is happy, and I can feel genuinely glad about that. And when that fails, I remind myself: I was the one who said I couldn’t marry him, becausethough I may be, as he put it, the world’s most unlikely romanticafter two years I still, inexplicably, couldn’t coax my sensible, pragmatic self to say yes to a man with whom I wasn’t in complete utter total witless love.
Long ago I came to the conclusion that all married people are with the CIA. Once they were truthful women and men; friends I understood and knew intimately; people like me, whose every up and down was acknowledged and evaluated in the company of confidants. Then came the wedding. That old saying is nonsense: a wedding never made an honest woman or made an honest man out of anyone. During the ceremony brides and grooms take a vow of secrecy. Afterward, they could tell you what makes their marriage tick; they could explain how they manage day to day without throttling one another; whether they have regrets; and why, in fact, the institution of marriage is desirable in the first place. But then they’d have to kill you.
I’m retired now. My role in life: to supply patience and reason to all comers. Long after Yolanda’s other friends refuse to come to the phone, I listen to her jeremiad of flopped romance. Knowing my own pessimism wouldn’t be livable for her, I urge her to persevere toward her ideal of happinesswhich is, after all, the purpose of friendship. And when my cousin Gabby phones from California to complain about her mother, who recently presented Gabby with four enormous boxes of dishes (Aunt Rona bought the set on sale years ago, planning to give them to Gabby for a wedding gift, “But,” she told Gabby with stoic sadness, “it looks like maybe that’s not going to be. So take. Use them in good health.” Gabby took. She has been driving around with a trunk full of dishes for weeks, unable to bring the boxes into her apartment because of the unshakable sense that the act will curse her to eternal singlehood), I tell my cousin to put the dishes in basement storage and use the story as a jokeand if that doesn’t help, she might casually inform Rona she’s considering buying her a walker; of course it’s premature but they’re on sale.
When I can’t sleep I take a book to the all-night café on Sixth Avenue. I sip seltzer alongside the giddy and the drowsy-eyed and those quarreling in foreign languages. In the tight quarters of Manhattan cafés, it’s polite to feign deafness, but of course everyone listens. This is the intimacy of New Yorkers, unmatched anywhere in the world. Night after night, I listen to people talk about love. Midnight, two a.m., three: New Yorkers cluster in cafés, the daytime’s distractions at last shed.
Where love is concerned, there are two kinds of people: those who think a relationship with a decent, devoted person is a keeper unless there’s a resounding minus; and those who think a relationship with a decent, devoted person is a starting point. New York City, being populated by eight million opportunities for trading up, is peopled primarily by the more exacting variety of romantics. They settle on hard plastic chairs, order coffee or herbal tea, and speculate about the one they’d like to know, used to know, hope to meet: his moods, her intelligence, her breasts. The person like no other. Sometimes my students come in, and after a cautious wave pick a table far from their professor. I do them the courtesy of burying my nose deeper in my book, and send them a silent wish for luck. College students are specialists in love and its many homonyms, and can’t fathom a life without them. Male and female, they spend hours in fierce debate: Would you give up a job, a friendship, a religion, for someone you loved? Would you rather a spouse with whom you could have great sex, or one who gives great back rubs? The café on my block harbors abiding concern over Deepsterswhite guys who take a woman to a drum circle for a first date, throwing themselves into the fray of African dancing, and they’re good at it, flapping their arms as convincingly as any eagle in midtown Manhattan. Men with wingspan. Men pious about their politics. Then there are the whisper-voiced women who insist you remove your shoes in their apartments. A man can never be vegetarian enough for such a woman. There are the men who fall in love instantly and woo hard, poeticizing their own abasement, proud of the psychic bruises they incur in their desperate pursuit . . . then when the woman agrees to start a relationship, they run away so fast you hear the thunderclap: sonic boomers. There are the women who worry aloud about hurting their dates, women so unsure of what they want in a relationship that they’re torn in half; they really care for you, they’ve never met anyone quite like you, but they’re so busy with their own struggle to find themselves they can’t be with you right now, though perhaps in the future, it’s nothing personal, we are sorry, your call is important to us please hold.
People look alike when they cry. Faces naked, thrust forward, each ragged breath a question. The younger women give in most easily to the messiness of the production, honking their noses and letting out peals of anguish. When the worst is past they blink at the bright café with puffy eyes. To watch them come back to themselvesto hear that first muffled giggleis to witness the return of expectation. Sometimes the men cry too, their heads absolutely stilla discipline requiring untold effort. They don’t use tissues, only the backs of their hands, and they never look in the café’s many mirrors when they’re done: if you don’t acknowledge tears, they aren’t real.
Night after night, book and tea mug in hand, I hear men groaning under the weight of their girlfriends’ ticking clocks. I hear women sighing to one another over the stupidities of their boyfriends, cementing late-night womanly bonds of exquisite martyrdom.
Well, they pronounce with heavy shrugs, we’ve got to live with it.
And I want to say: No one’s forcing you.
One night I will do it. I will stand up on my table, clink spoon against glass, and give my blessing to the crowd. Don’t settle, I will say. And don’t pursue love against the interest of your own health, like an addict in need of a fix. And don’t give up hope, if you think there’s something out there worth waiting for. When you meet that person, you don’t just want to be kind of happy. You want to be preposterous-happy.
I miss sex. That’s a vertiginous, aching fact. But my fascination with love goes deeper than sex. Love is the channel of mysteries. The unlocker of secrets, decoder ring of souls. People are ciphers until you love them. The prosecutor whose underlings tremble at his command? Love this man and he will show you his Giant Killer Gecko imitation. His hidden fear of drowning. His single childhood memory of his grandfather. Love is a window, and in this city of façades we lone pedestrians can’t help trying to warm ourselves by its light.
At home I watch figure skating on television with the sound off: couples slipping across the ice with exuberant ease. I’m not sure whether to believe their high-wattage smiles. Most of the time, I think of love the way I think of literature. It moves me; I study it; my study helps me understand the world around me. But although I believe in the epic power of Hamlet’s struggles, I don’t expect to run into him walking down the street. Some days my life feels muffled, not fully lived, because it’s conducted alone. I think: if a concrete block fell through my ceiling tonight and I choked on a muffin and drowned in the sink, just how long would it take until someone realized I was missing? Other days singleness is euphoria. I am a meteor passing through this city, showering sparks.
I’m happy in my own way. Maybe scorning happy peoplemaking them sound uninventive and stupidcomforted Tolstoy during his own unhappy life. But deep contentment is as individual as a footprint. For example: Sitting at my desk the morning of February 15, watching the florist’s truck pull up across the street and a delivery boy emerge with a bouquet of red roses. Those heavy crimson heads whip in the wind as he searches for the right buzzer. I imagine the argument that must have ensued the previous night when someone’s valentine fell asleep on the job. And I lean back and munch carrot sticks and consider the satisfying hours I spent reading Welty on the evening of February 14, arguing and agreeing in blue ink in the margins; prodding the limits of my understanding; reveling in the intimate, exacting company of my own mind. Then calling a friend and, later, watching a favorite L.A. Law rerun. And how I probably had a better time than the woman across the street whose boyfriend has dispatched this delivery boy. One hurt and shaken woman, and two men desperate: the boyfriend for forgiveness, the delivery boy for the right doorbell as the wind nearly spins the roses out of their vase. You tell me who had a better Valentine’s Day.
Like that. That’s how I, Tracy Farber, am happy.
Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Kadish. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.