Thursday, August 19, 2010

Extracts: "the indefatigable system"

In the novel Olive Kitteridge there's a scene where a man by the name of Kevin Coulson has returned to his home town because he wants to commit suicide there. He parks his car near a marina and sits for a while looking out at the ocean; the gun is wrapped in a blanket in the back seat, and he fully intends to use it later on, but for now he wants to just sit and watch the ocean. That's when his old junior high math teacher (Olive herself) spots him, taps on the car window, and plops down on the passenger seat.

There's one excerpt from that section that I particularly liked, because I think it gets at how even when the mind and heart seem set on oblivion or demise, a person can still be grasping almost hysterically at life.
At the very moment Kevin became aware of liking the sound of her voice, he felt adrenaline pour through him, the familiar, awful intensity, the indefatigable system that wanted to endure. He squinted hard toward the ocean. Great gray clouds were blowing in, and yet the sun, as though in contest, streamed yellow rays beneath them so that parts of the water sparkled with frenzied gaiety.

He doesn't know whether he wants Olive to stay or go - there are some points when he definitely wants her to leave, because he senses she's thwarting his plan; as for Olive herself, it seems that even though she doesn't know the specifics and hasn't seen her old student in years, she senses that something's off, and she makes herself comfortable in that passenger seat.

The scene ends with everything getting turned upside down, and Kevin winds up rescuing someone from drowning in the choppy water off the marina:
the girl... now holding him with a fierceness that matched the power of the ocean - oh, insane, ludicrous, unknowable world! Look how she wanted to live, look how she wanted to hold on.

I don't think we find out what happens to Kevin, after that chapter (the book is a collection of stories/episodes about Olive and various people in her family and community). But no news can be taken as good news in this case; there was a reason he had decided to return to his home town to kill himself, and if he had, people would have been talking about it for years after.

As for the book as a whole - I had mixed feelings about it; it felt sharper and stronger initially, then seemed to fade, with the writing losing its freshness, and the ending coming across as too tidy and tired. I guess I was hoping for more imagination and at some points more depth. Sometimes it felt like a compilation of fractures and disorders, one after another - adultery, anoxeria, depression, suicide, more adultery, and similar-sounding notes on futility and impotence over and over again.

In any case, the characters mostly went on living, however much their lives were constricted, off-kilter or empty-feeling. One of the best elements to the book I felt was that it contrasted the difficulty and complexity of individuals with the often glib or simplistic explanations provided by doctors and therapists (and by the individuals themselves, trying to place blame or pinpoint the source of problems); pointing to a faulty gene or an imperfect parent just can't explain the whole of it - the whole of what a person is - however much it's tempting to settle for the easy explanations.