Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Other Side of You, part two

Part one is here.

The first time they meet, Thomas says,
I find I have to say things aloud so I can listen, because I'm the only person who understands me well.
They fall out of touch for fifteen years, Elizabeth marries and has a family in the London suburbs, and when they meet by chance on a flight to Rome, Thomas says,
"Of course, you're half Italian, aren't you? I've forgotten your name."

She began to say "Eliz-" but he interrupted.

"Don't be absurd, naturally I know you're 'Elizabeth.' The other one."

"It was Bonelli, but it's Cruikshank now."

"So there's a Mr Cruikshank? Who is he?"

"Someone I met soon after we met."

"Tell me all about him." She'd forgotten his trick of putting his head on one side. "Do you know, the Indians believed that the eyes of twin souls are an identical width apart?"

Those bits of dialogue are Thomas in a nutshell. His conversation is a mix of lecture-hall factoids, self-involved pronouncements, and bluntness. He's a blowhard--and, I quickly realized, one of a particular type, the sort that celebrates his own rudeness as some righteous blow struck against convention on behalf of truth. I found him instantly, remarkably, unpleasant. And as the pair embarks on a passionate affair, his claims of being a blunt truth-teller--someone who, as he says, "doesn't fuck about"--are revealed as not just annoying, but deeply pernicious. Thomas isn't actually interested in truth or honesty; rather, he's interested in the leverage that claims of truth can give him, in truth's value as a weapon.

In its simplest manifestation, that takes the form of his criticizing her wardrobe--from her underwear to her coats--as fusty, inauthentic to her free soul, and, ultimately, abominable. At its worst, it becomes an attempt to unmoor Elizabeth's every opinion and conviction in an effort to control her. Here is a portion of a conversation the two have about why she is reluctant to leave her family to be with him:
"For God's sake," said Thomas. "Behaving 'badly,' as you put it. What's that? By Neil's lights you'll be behaving appallingly badly by leaving him for a complete stranger. Anyway, why not behave badly? What's wrong with bad behaviour? Bad behaviour, good behaviour, what's the difference? Do you think you know? Really know? And you do know, don't you, he'll feel better if you behave, as you put it, "badly"? You'll be doing him a kindness if he can say you've behaved like a trollop. Be a trollop. Abandon him. Abandon your principles. They aren't yours, anyway. They're made up. You should stop making yourself up."

"I don't know what you mean," she said. She wasn't quite prepared to cry.

"Look," said Thomas, less fiercely, "it's like this. You aren't the person you've made yourself out to yourself to be. You're another person, quite a different one, maybe not too nice at all. I don't know. I don't care. I don't love you because you're nice. What's nice anyway? They can be "nice." Let them be. I'm not."

And later:
"You are trying. Extremely trying. I've never met anyone so trying. And I'm not being 'like' anyone except myself. I see things you don't see. It was there from the beginning. You didn't wait for me. You went and married him. You didn't wait. I should have seen."

Thomas, in other words, is an asshole. Now, to have created a character who is such an authentic, believable, blowhard asshole is a legitimate accomplishment. But I quickly realized, to my astonishment, that's not the character Vickers thought she was creating. The romance between Thomas and Elizabeth is the heart of the book; Vickers presents both Elizabeth and the psychiatrist as drawing different, life-changing lessons from their story, lessons about faith and the losses inherent in the choices we make. Vickers doesn't think Thomas is a jerk; though she makes some gestures towards acknowledging that he can be difficult (and has him do so, too), she thinks he's essentially right, both in his opinions and as a figure of romance for Elizabeth and of admiration for the psychiatrist. Yet even the most generous reading of his pushy, petulant behavior makes it seem an extremely unlikely foundation for a relationship of equals.

And with that realization, The Other Side of You was ruined for me. After all, trust is at the heart of the compact between reader and writer. I agree to surrender significant amounts of my time because I trust that a writer has interesting thoughts about people and human relationships. If Salley Vickers can't even recognize a horrid blowhard--one she's created--I have to doubt all her other impressions of human nature, too.

More tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment