Fool Me Once and etc.


In my writing classes, I continually stress to my students (every single time we meet) that it is easier to write more about less, to narrow down a topic to something very small. That is way easier than trying to write little bits about a whole bunch of stuff, plus it almost always makes for a better essay. It’s going to be hard to do The Effect of Living Backwards in the space I have. It’s a book of with moral dilemmas on seemingly every page. It’s a book where you aren’t sure what is real or not (and neither do the characters). Sibling rivlary. Shame. The realization that you’ve lived your life according to what you think other people think about you (hence, living backwards). A friend of mine (our own Juvenal, no less, who may well have stolen this) says that a good story isn’t about something–it is something. The Effect of Living Backwards is, indeed, something.

Two quick quotations from the epilogue that really serve no purpose other than I like them:”I soon learned that a little bit of doubt goes a long way; a little bit of doubt can cast everything you thought you knew into question, until everything is related, until every unknown is known to you, because the world is a terrible net of certainty.”

“Despite your fear that the world is a lonely place, it is precisely the opposite that should unnerve you.”

You come to know the characters in Living Backwards by their shame. Not embarrassment, not, oh, I wish I’d done that differently, but shame. The kind of shame that you don’t tell anyone and but yet, see, the thing is, you still spend your entire life trying to prove to everyone that you aren’t like that, that you aren’t defined by that shame. For instance, say you did a stint in a nervous hospital but not too many people know about it. You may well spend your entire waking life thinking everyone is looking at you as though you were crazy, and you are out to prove them wrong. Or if you cheated on your husband but no one knows. You live in a way, not to cover up, but to prove that there is no way you are a cheater.

Alice is the narrator of the story, but as different characters are introduced in the novel, their are short breaks where we find out the shame that defines that character, that helps explain her actions, her thoughts.The novel’s setting is a hijacking. Alice and Edith are sisters traveling to Edith’s wedding in Morroco. Edith is the pretty one. Alice is the smart one (i.e. not attractive) with some direction-in-life issues. The two are not the best of friends, and their rivalry is continually tested against the love they have for each other (albeit, deep down inside) by the hijackers. They lie to each other. Edith cavorts (i.e. well, she sleeps with) one of the hijackers, pretty much just because Alice had been chosen by the hijackers as the liason with the negotiator. Alice and Edith’s rivalry isn’t going to be interrupted too easily by a few militants threatening to kill everyone.

The hijackers, though, aren’t really after anything. It is another case of sibling rivalry. The lead hijacker, Bruno, is trying to outdo his brother. Bruno doesn’t want to kill anyone, and he doesn’t want any money or anything from any government. He’s simply trying to make a point–he’s smarter than his brother. But that doesn’t mean that no one is killed. Bruno is a brilliant reader and manipulator of people. He can sense who is weak and in what ways. He uses this against the passengers, and the only people killed are ones that other passengers kill.

Which brings us to the moral dilemmas in the novel. Edith and Alice’s father used to pose them with dilemmas. Some are seemingly simple dilemmas. Okay, say you were tired from working 16 hours and were riding the bus home. You got the last seat on the bus. A couple of stops later, an elderly woman gets on. Do you give up your seat? Would it matter if it was an attractive older woman or a ragged older woman? Some of the dilemmas are hard. The only one parachute for two people type. The hijackers, Bruno in particular, profiles the passengers, guesses what type of person they are (do they give up the parachute, the seat on the bus) and uses the passengers to play games. One such game involves three passengers in a line and one of the hijackers behind them. The second passenger is given a loaded gun and ten seconds to either shoot the person in front of her or him or pass the gun to the person next in line. If they shoot, the game is over. If none of the passengers shoot, the gun is handed to the hijacker and he is free to shoot or not. None of them know for sure.

Alice comes to know herself when she realizes that she has always defined herself by other people’s expectations. That seems quaint and a little bit of a cliche, and I’m really not doing Julavits’ ideas justice. The novel causes the sort of introspection that can hurt. The sort of introspection that can only be done in the presence of others. Introspection that is created by, requires even, doubt, and only by embracing this doubt can people…I’m not sure what. But this is not just about self-discovery; it leads to a connection with other people. And it’s not just about “we’re all connected.” It doesn’t always make sense, and that’s the beauty of the novel.

Despite how the last paragraph may sound, Julavits isn’t preachy; in fact, she’s anything but. She is a story teller, and she is very good. She creates characters that are memorable and unique. The dialogue in the book is near perfect (I think writing good dialogue is one of the hardest aspects of writing, and I admire writers who do it well). And even though I spent an entire paragraph talking about introspection nonsense, the book is not a philosophical treatise. It is a story that is, even if it lacked the ability to challenge the way we see the world, fun to read.

Next week I’m not sure about. Either Amanda Davis’s Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, or I may just tell a story about my meeting one of my favorite writers (he came to my house, no less).

What I’m currently reading: Perdido Street Station, by China Mielville (very good). Wiseblood, by Flannery O’Connor (one of the best things I’ve ever read). Swan, by Frances Mayes (don’t bother). Under the Banner of Heaven by John Kraukaur (the verdict’s still out).


6 Responses to “Fool Me Once and etc.”

  1. Coach Says:


    This sounds like an interesting read (psychological mumbo jumbo notwithstanding). You know me; I don’t look for much beyond “it has a good beat and I can dance to it” (despite my religiously conservative upbringing). Now, bring on the Krakauer. I’m all about Under the Banner of Heaven. I found it to be a fantastic read, Alexander Supertramp. Keep up the good work.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Man, I’d love to take one of your classes. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with me (us) in this format since the other isn’t real feasible right now.

    I’m trying to get to Flannery O’Connor soon…

  3. Michael Lasley Says:

    Coach, I do know how you love your Sue Grafton. I may need your help with the Krakauer book, as, beyond not being able to spell his name correctly, holy cow is the history of Mormonism confusing.

    Al, I’m not sure you’d learn much in my classes, other than that I like to display my wicked sense of humor at all times. You’d probably learn a lot about my nephews as well, as I probably talk about them more than I do about writing. I mean, really, as you can tell from my columns, I break pretty much every grammatical rule. And you’d probably make an “A” simply because you’ve already complimented me. I’m a sucker.

  4. Terry Austin Says:

    Under the Banner is fun, fun, fun.

    Them Mormons is wack.


  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    Wednesday and Coach have me wanting to hurry up with the Krakauer book. The fundamentalist Mormons are, indeed, wack. But and I should save this ’til I review it, but the LDS church itself actually doesn’t seem that wack to me. I’ll also admit that I’m always suspicious of Krakauer’s writing, as he sensationalizes everything–but I’ll hush now.

  6. Coolhand Says:

    you’re talking about shame made me think of my wednesday night bible study. we’re talking a lot about confession and the power of realizing you’re not the only person who struggles with something.

    good stuff.

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