Wednesday, February 27, 2019
Sour Candy by Kealan Patrick Burke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
We’ve all been there. Standing in the aisle of some big-chain box store. Trying to hurry and get the stuff we need so we can get out and on with our lives. There’s a hundred other places we’d rather be, and we’re already annoyed because it took way too long to find a parking place and there are too many people there whom, it would seem, are only there for the sole purpose of standing in our way, chit-chatting with a friend or acquaintance they happened to have ran into while shopping. Thats when the screaming starts. Some loudmouth kid is braying like a donkey because they didn’t get either a cookie or a toy they wanted, and their parents are either trying to negotiate with the little shit, or, worse, attempting to ignore them. Meanwhile, you’re standing there thinking, that it just isn’t possible that this kid isn’t some kind of demon from Hell. Well, you could be right.
Phil Pendleton is an unexceptional man, living a carefree life with his young son, Adam. No one who observes them however, has any idea that Phil has only known Adam for a short time, and this seemingly carefree life they are living is really a living Hell. After the two randomly meet at a store, Walmart of all places, Adam decides to make Phil his newest “parent,” using his terrible powers to completely rewrite Phil’s life so that everyone thinks he’s always had a son. Only Phil remembers the life he used to live and those memories are no comfort as he becomes a prisoner in his own home, a slave to this demonic child.
Suffice to say, this is an ominous and innovative story that plays on the fears associated with becoming a parent. The core premise is one of a man having to take charge of a child he never wanted, and having to unwillingly give up aspects of his personal life, which is a real-world relatable circumstance that offers a breadth of intriguing narrative paths, particularly when considering the child is a supernatural being, possibly even a malicious one.
Burke’s writing is visceral and during the final pages, you could have lit me on fire and I wouldn’t have noticed as Phil’s numb despondence acted like a contagion I struggled to keep out of my own mind. His descent into madness is rendered in unnerving terms and there is even a Lovecraftian pantheon of monsters, which helps to create a stomach-twisting ride through the depths of horror, breathing new life into an often-stagnant part of the genre.
By introducing the unfathomable into the everyday, Burke has managed to hit us all right where we live. Phil Pendleton was simply doing what we’ve all done before, making a quick run to the store and that, coupled with one kind gesture, was enough to ruin him. If this idea that we could all be living so close to an abyss doesn’t scare you, then I don’t know what will.
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
"Maybe you should."
He knew he wasn't really talking to anyone. But ever since she died it had made things a little easier to pretend that she was still there.
At first he pretended that she was only visiting friends or picking up some last minute item needed to finish that nights supper, but he had to stop that mental game of denial, it was getting too easy and it frightened him.
"He thinks I'm crazy."
He didn't say anything for awhile.
"I guess maybe life is for the living,” is what he finally said, but didn't believe.
"You have to move on Frank, I can't stay here forever."
"I know, I know, Jesus Christ I know, but it's only for a little while, just a little while longer, please."
He got up from the table and poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Is that my cup?" She asked.
"How much longer are you going to keep my things Frank? It's been over a year now."
He just stared at her. He could see the details of her face were beginning to blur. He had a hard time remembering what she even looked like. It was getting harder everyday. Tomorrow he would have to find her picture, the one where she was all smiles, the one she always said was the only picture of herself she ever liked. Keven would help him find it. He would ask him when he came over.
"Dammit Helen." He shouted slamming an open palm down onto the counter.
"Don't you understand?"
"It would just make things easier on you is all..."
"Easier? Easier to what, forget about you?" He asked, his voice cracking.
"Is that what you want Helen, for me to forget about you? God knows thats what Keven wants."
He took another sip of coffee.
"It's not forgetting Frank, it's moving on."
"Moving on to what Helen? You were everything. You were my life. My hate. My dreams. All that’s gone now. There’s nothing to move on with."
"You can't grieve forever Frank or you really will go crazy."
"Good. I want to suffer Helen. I want to go mad with grief. I want to feel the pain of your loss every morning when I wake up until the moment I fall asleep."
Tears were forming in his eyes as he walked back to the table they shared every morning for twenty-nine years and sat down across from her. No one said anything. They just sat in silence together and that was enough for him.
He wanted to say so much, but found the silence too oppressive and it strangled the words right out of his throat.
"I know you’re dead. But I.....I can't do this."
"Sure you can Frank, just let all the pain and grief be replaced by the good times we had together. It was a beautiful life we had together filled with so much love; sometimes I thought we would drown in it, and we were always there for each other. You were so good to me Frank, I don't think I could have loved anyone else as much..."
"There was never, not in twenty nine years of marriage, a moment I regretted.."
He felt what little control he had begin to slip away. He had always hated crying in front of her.
"You remember when you asked me to marry you? You cried so hard I couldn't even understand what you were saying, but I didn't have to. I could tell that you loved me and I was so happy to say yes."
And then it hit him. So hard he nearly fell out of his chair. The pain was so intense he could barely sit still. He wanted to run. To run out of the house, into the street, and never stop.
"It's ok Frank."
"No it's not. I can't even enjoy the good times without being reminded that they're over. I don't know what to do Helen please help me, I can't do this. I can't face it."
But the truth was he was pleading with only himself. He was alone. Sitting at a table. In the kitchen of an empty house. A house now too painful to live in.
"How am I supposed to go on Helen, and what would be the point?"
"I don't know Frank."
"There will never be anyone else like you, but I'm supposed to just accept that and move on?"
"You can't change it Frank, it's just how things are."
"But it's so goddamn unfair." He shouted.
"I wish heaven was real. Hell, it doesn't even have to be real, I just wish I could believe it was."
She didn't say anything.
"I don't want you to become a dream Helen. I don't want you to become a stranger. I don't want it to be like you were never real."
He sat there for hours talking to himself trying to understand what couldn't be understood. Feeling as empty as the coffee mug in front of him.
"You should eat something Frank, you've only had coffee."
"I'm not hungry."
"What happens now Helen?" he whispered, barely audible.
That’s always been the logic of a broken life. Grief had hollowed him out.
This was the way it was for him every morning of everyday and he knew that if he wanted to keep her it would have to continue this way.
"I love you Helen."
"I love you too Frank."
Some days he would acknowledge what on other days he couldn't. That nothing he did could ever bind her to him. That healing in effect was akin to forgetting. That every minute that ticked away just meant that he was that much further away from her. His grief was the only real connection he still had to her now and one day he knew she would become only a story and remembering her would get harder and harder until he couldn't tell whether what he remembered even happened or if he had just made it up. She would be taken from him piece by piece in the middle of the night as he slept and he would never know the exact moment when he would lose her.
And then it would be morning again.
Tuesday, February 5, 2019
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As part of my New Year’s Resolution to think more, or I should say, to think more for myself, as should have been everyone’s resolution, I decided to read Dr. Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
The title of the book sounds a little like any other self-help book you’ve never bothered to read, but it’s really tongue-in-cheek. This isn’t Your Best Life Now or How to Win Friends and Influence People. It could easily have been titled Life Is Suffering: How to Deal with It. Which is really the founding idea in the book, that suffering is built into the very structure of being itself and although life can be unbearable, people do have a choice either to withdraw from it, which is a "suicidal gesture” or to face and transcend it.
Millennials are often lambasted for being entitled or that they expect life to be rosy and uncomplicated. However, many of us have by now figured out that it’s not. We have college debt. We’re living at home. We can’t find a job. We’re lonely. Life seems pretty terrible. Peterson’s response? “It is. Here are 12 Rules to help make it better.” Which is also, I think, why Peterson appeals to so many people, especially young people. Rather than sugarcoating life, Peterson acts more like a forthright father telling it to us straight.
The book, if you haven’t already picked this up from the title, is divided into twelve chapters with each title representing a specific rule for life explained in a corresponding essay. Drawing from the ideas of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who’s work posited a species-wide collective unconscious populated by “archetypes” which are essentially deeply rooted characters and symbolic motifs that reappear in art, dreams, myths, and religions. Peterson manages to merge these ideas with modern evolutionary science to argue that mythological and religious stories have evolved over thousands of years to express, in a dramatic form, fundamental truths about what it means to be human. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilization began. Peterson’s approach to these ideas goes deeper than rationality, by a large margin, and his ideas reflect a reality that's deeper than that in which we have been able to apprehend rationally thus far. However, the book itself is really just a more popularized version of Peterson's denser, more academic lifework Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which failed to create much of a ripple upon release. With this book however, Peterson makes his ideas more accessible, using the stories upon which Western Civilization is built to help educate readers who may not be very well-versed in classical thinking.
My only criticism of the book is that it is perhaps a bit overwritten, not only stylistically, but thematically. What’s most valuable in the book could have easily of been condensed into shorter essays or perhaps even a series of bullet points, however I don’t really see this as a problem and the book itself is still incredibly readable. Petersons tone remains pragmatic throughout the book and most of his critics will be surprised I think to find that much of the advice that he offers is quite unobjectionable if they would only take the time to engage with the book in a serious way.
Critic Danyl Mclauchlan, who in a review for The Spinoff, wrote, “I think Peterson is mostly a crackpot. If the serial killer from Se7en wrote a self-improvement book for wayward teens and new parents it’d be pretty close to 12 Rules for Life.” How anyone could claim to be a serious person and still write something like this is beyond imagination. Not only is this attitude incorrect and ridiculous, it’s also a sign that the reviewer himself is embarrassingly unsophisticated.
Pop culture and media critic, John Semley, has written of Peterson that he, “seeks to justify existing structures of social dominance by deferring to the hard-wiring of ancient crustaceans.” Yet Peterson’s point in the book is simply, and inarguably true. Nonhuman primates have hierarchies, birds have hierarchies, revolutionary egalitarian societies have hierarchies; hierarchy isn’t going away. The real political questions are, which hierarchies are legitimate and fair? Which ones incentivize good conduct and allow individuals and societies to flourish? Which ones minimize suffering? It’s an almost banal point that can nonetheless provoke violent reactions.
Caitlin Flanagan, in addressing some of the criticisms directed at Peterson, in a piece for The Atlantic, wrote, “The alarms sounded when Peterson published what quickly became a massive bestseller, 12 Rules for Life, because books are something that the left recognizes as drivers of culture. The book became the occasion for vicious profiles and editorials, but it was difficult to attack the work on ideological grounds, because it was an apolitical self-help book that was at once more literary and more helpful than most, and that was moreover a commercial success. All of this frustrated the critics. It’s just common sense! they would say, in one arch way or another, and that in itself was telling: Why were they so angry about common sense? It is because the left, while it currently seems ascendant in our houses of culture and art, has in fact entered its decadent late phase, and it is deeply vulnerable. The left is afraid not of Peterson, but of the ideas he promotes, which are completely inconsistent with identity politics of any kind.”
Whatever else you might think of Jordan Peterson, he is without question, a man of remarkable learning and experience and despite the heavy, and often times unfavorable, criticism directed at Peterson, he has still managed to become an undeniable intellectual phenomenon, with his 12 Rules for Life serving as a sort of canary in the proverbial academic coal mine. By which of course I mean that there are clear indications that the progressive/postmodern academic left has taken identity politics to irrational extremes and the reaction to Peterson, and his book, provides a very useful way to understand the cultural-identity political split that we find ourselves in.