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Breakable You

by Brian Morton (Harvest, 2006, 2007)

Breakable You may be thought of as Brian Morton's "Modern English" novel. Although set on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and peopled by the same brainy but even more overtly Jewish characters who appear in Starting Out in the Evening and A Window Across the River, the motion of Breakable You turns entirely on internal springs, without regard for external event. That's another way of saying that, like many of today's British novelists, Mr Morton believes that you will find his characters quite interesting enough without invoking the celestial mechanics of advanced plotting. Plotting would interfere with what appears to be the novel's objective: immersing the reader in the setbacks that bedevil a quartet of characters whose health and affluence do not protect them from dark turns.

Breakable You sets forth Adam, Eleanor, their daughter Maud, and Maud's new boyfriend, Samir. At the beginning, Adam and Eleanor are winding up their divorce, and while we might reserve judgment about Eleanor, we know right away that Adam is a pluperfect shit.

At sixty-three, Adam was in better shape than ever. He could bench-press two hundred pounds and he could run for ten miles. He derived no pleasure from exercising, yet he exercised faithfully, putting himself through his paces with grim relish.

He flirted with the young woman on the treadmill next to him, and after she left he examined himself in the wall of mirrors and tried to remember how long it had been since he'd been attracted to Eleanor. More than a decade. When he married her, she was a beautiful young woman; now she was covered with rusts.

He felt sorry for her, but, with a spirit of indifference that was partly innate in him and partly a quality he cultivated, he was able to derive some amusement from the thought of how things had turned out for the two of them. He was about to head downtown for an afternoon rendezvous with a regal mistress in the full bloom of her youth, while Eleanor, if she should ever decide that she wanted to find someone new to share her nights, would be signing up for golden-years mixers sponsored by the AARP.

It is not easy to fix the reader's attention on so unattractive a character without a dash of real villainy; Mr Morton stirs in the whole bottle. Although as Adam rationalizes the matter the thing that he does (it will go undescribed here) causes no material harm to anyone, it is so dishonorable that the pages fairly curl in the reader's hands. First, as the temptation to do the terrible thing looms, the reader's initial incredulity grades to horror. Then, the crime committed, punishment threatens, and far from dreading it as one might, the reader rather longs for Adam to be brought to account, if only to set the record straight. Finally, as the number of remaining pages dwindles, the reader acknowledges that there simply isn't time for vindication. Just when one is resigned to shrugging at the injustice of life, Mr Morton piles on a final gratuitous cruelty that abrades Adam's gloss all over again.

So Adam succeeded in reasoning his way to the conclusion that it would be better for Maud if he didn't visit her again. But it was just a sort of idle mental exercise. He knew that he was merely finding reasons to do as he pleased. And at bottom he didn't believe that he needed excuses. He believed what he had always believed: if you do what you want to do, as long as you are not actually going out of your way to be cruel, you are acting within the moral law.

He dropped the Zabar's bag in a wastebasket and left the building. He walked toward the subway. You couldn't just hail a cab out here in the boonies.

The evening blossomed before him. He was suddenly free. He was going home for a shower and a drink. After that, he was going to keep his place in the world of striving and achievement, and thereby maintain himself as a model for Maud to aspire to, by appearing at the party at Elaine's.

Exit Adam, who, like Leonard, in Starting Out in the Evening, and Isaac, in A Window Across the River, feels like a character who has fallen out of a novel by Saul Bellow into Mr Morton's rather less forgiving hands. The puzzlement of Adam lingers on after the novel is finished: if he has been shown in an unflattering light, he is perfectly indifferent to the reader's distaste. Profoundly cynical, Adam is interested only in furthering his career, and he's interested in furthering his career only for the sake of the everyday glitter of success. Adam has transformed all of life into a metaphorical copulation. Mr Morton doesn't like him any more than we do, but there you are: that is the way we live.

Eleanor is much more appealing, but she is treated even more bleakly than her former husband. Her background is the same old story: the intelligent young woman with dreams of being a writer who gives them up when she marries a brilliant husband. Later, Eleanor becomes a psychologist, but although she apparently has a good practice, she is not engaged by her patients. Indeed, we're treated, during one of her sessions, to a droll authorial aside on the subject of the inattentiveness of therapists. Since throwing Adam out of her apartment, Eleanor has gained about twenty pounds, and she feels profoundly unattractive. This is a problem, because, all through the book, she is courted by an old flame, a man she loved more than she loved Adam, nearly forty years ago. But Adam offered her a more interesting life, so she took that. Patrick, the other man, still loves her, it seems, but Eleanor is strangely unwilling to be loved. She would like to be attractively on the market without actually being taken down from the shelf.

Sometimes, when she was in a doctor's office, she would look at women's magazines and read articles about how your sex life can be hotter in your sixties than it ever was before. She wasn't sure she believed it, and even if she could believe it, she wasn't sure she wanted a sex life anymore.

Even worse is what comes of the resumption of her writing. Eleanor has turned her daughter's old bedroom into a study, and thither she repairs every evening, dutifully to write for at least an hour. Instead of the novel that she has always planned to write, she composes a memoir, and the effect is quite therapeutic, as she completely recalibrates the tensions between herself and an adored older sister who died as a young woman. Just as novelistic conventions condition us to worry that Adam will be unmasked as a dreadful fraud, so here we expect Eleanor's pages to pile up into something worthwhile. But they don't. Mere paragraphs after wondering if she can deal with a sex life, Eleanor coolly evaluates her literary production.

For months she had felt as if she was finally embarking on a project that she had dreamed about when she was a girl, a project that she'd secretly persisted in considering her true life's calling. Although she'd begun so late, and might be haunted by a sense of belatedness for the rest of her life, during these months she'd at least had the satisfaction of feeling as if she had well and truly begun. But now it seemed obvious that if she'd actually thought that her writing had amounted to anything more than glorified journal-keeping, she must have been in a state of temporary derangement. It was as if she'd drunk a potion when Adam left her, an elixir of self-delusion, in order to survive being alone.

She wasn't a woman in love. She wasn't a writer. She wasn't a woman in the process of "reinventing" herself. She was a mother. If she was anything more than that, she couldn't remember what it might be.

Eleanor has three children, but of her sons, Josh and Carl, we see not a thing. If they had died they would not be more notional. There is an unstated, unfinished suggestion that the boys have escaped, if not from Adam and Eleanor, then at least from their childhoods. Their sister, Maud, has not. Unusually tall and beautiful, Maud is insecure about her looks,  because she thinks of herself as an intelligence and wants to be regarded as such by others. She is working on a dissertation about Kant about how we all have the duty to treat one another with kindness. She has had two breakdowns, requiring institutionalization. At the beginning of the novel, she seems to be healthy enough, but we find her embroiled in an unlikely relationship with, of all things, an Arab-American. And if the relationship is unlikely for her, it's utterly unwanted by him.

We learn that Sam Samir, not Samuel has been married before, and and he had a child whom he adored all the more for her affliction with a rare blood disease. At the end of A Window Across the River, Nora finds herself in the children's ward at a hospital, and she muses on the horror of subjecting loved children to painful procedures that they can't understand. This theme is opened up wide in Breakable You. Samir's full-blown anguish "grief" does not seem strong enough a word is unstintingly registered.

There is no way to explain what it's like to sit through the night next to the open coffin of your three-year-old daughter. Your daughter, who, a week before her death, had told you that she knew she was going to get well again because "if they can't bring ponies in the hospital, I have to get out of the hospital to ride the ponies." Your daughter, who, for your birthday present, had given you "birthday jumps," leaping off the couch onto a pile of pillows, delighted by her own fearlessness. No way to explain what it's like to sit beside her all night when she is nothing.

Samir is powerfully drawn to Maud physically, but as he cannot bear to maintain a normal human relationship with anyone this would constitute "living," which he has foresworn their contact remains strictly for weeks, until his heart thaws and he can bear as much contact as morning-after breakfast. Just as we dread that Adam will yield to the impulse to do the dishonorable thing, so we worry that Samir will not successfully pull out of his death-in-life. As, indeed, he does not. Falling asleep at the wheel of his car one night on the New Jersey Turnpike, he leaves behind a pregnant Maud who will miss him almost as badly as he missed his little girl. Maud will find caring for her inconsolable child to be beyond her.

What is Mr Morton up to? Certainly there is a sense in which Breakable You tests the novelist's dramatic courage. He clearly cares about his characters even Adam, whose faults would not be so lovingly drawn if his creator truly despised him. Subjecting Eleanor and Maud to staggering disappointments and even more staggering losses requires more intestinal fortitude than comedians of manners such as Mr Morton has been so far generally possess. There is no test for the reader, however; it is only in retrospect that the all the bad things that have happened to good (and, in the case of Adam, not good) people are totted up. This is the measure of the novel's achievement, and also the reason for calling it "English." The quality of middle-class daily life is rendered in such humane prose that, even when there's good reason to fear unpleasantness on the next page, one nonetheless turns to it eagerly. There is no way to explain the appeal of Mr Morton's invitation to know his characters other than by lengthy extract. Here is the entirety of Chapter 50, in which the bereft Maud decides what to do about her pregnancy.

Maud rented a car, drove north, and spent three days visiting the towns in Massachusetts and Maine that she had visited with Samir in January. On her second night, when she reached Cape Elizabeth, Maine, she checked into a motel and just before midnight she walked down to the beach.

She stood under a clear black sky, under thousands of tightly packed stars, thinking the same thoughts that everyone thinks when looking up at the vast nightlit sky. She tried to comprehend the idea that the universe might go on forever in space and time, and she tried to comprehend the idea that it might not. Both were incomprehensible. How can the universe go on forever? How can it stop?

She remembered lying on a hill in Vermont with her brothers she must have been eight or nine and learning that some of the stars she was looking at may have died millions of years ago. This was as hard to grasp now as it had been then.

She wasn't troubled to be thinking the thoughts that everyone thinks. She had no desire to be original. At a moment like this all you can do is wonder, and the fact that all of us wonder about the same things struck her as comforting.

When she thought about the vastness of the universe in time and space, the question of whether she carried the child to term did not seem very significant. The universe would roll on, unaffected by her choice.

And yet she had to choose.

Under a sky like this, humility was an appropriate response; but it would be wrong, she thought, to undervalue ourselves too much. She was in awe under the blazing battering time-traveling light of the stars. But the light that we send out from ourselves, the light of consciousness, is even more mysterious, even more miraculous, than the lights we behold when we look up at the night sky.

Maud, a light of consciousness, held another light within herself, a light in waiting, and, standing on the beach where she had stood with her lover, she knew, for the first time, what she wanted to do. She wanted to let the new light come.

Although Breakable You embraces much darker outcomes than Mr Morton's earlier novels, it is also a more ardent celebration of the miracle of consciousness, and of its equivalence, for human beings, with life itself. Consciousness levels and solves the fates of Adam and Eleanor, Maud and Samir, fixing them in the rough equivalence of a starry night's bright points. It is better to be content than disappointed, better to behave well than badly, but, in the end, all that matters is that one be aware. (February 2008)

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