Saturday, February 21, 2009

My Delusional Happiness is Better than Your Eloquent Misery

I just finished reading Rachel & Leah, by Orson Scott Card. I loved the book. I've always loved the patriarch's lives - Rebekah and Isaac most of all. Perhaps because their lives are so dynamic. Perhaps because their lives are so real. The people aren't perfect, but they love God and follow him, and try to do his will for them, and they become better. I've always liked Leah more than Rachel - not that Rachel does anything wrong. Just that Leah is the underdog - not only does she end up with a husband through trickery, but from her perspective he never loves her, as the names of her sons progressively show her attempts to gain his love.

I know in regards to my dating life in college that I certainly wasn't the underdog for getting men, but as a teenager I always felt so gangly and awkward when it came to boys. I have many sisters, and all of them dated aplenty, even in High School, while I didn't really at all. Even the boy I had liked for four years ended up liking my sister more than me (well, he liked me too. He just liked her more - or was better friends with her, at least.) So Leah's situation always spoke to me. I always feared in my teens that I would end up a spinster, alone, with no-one to love me. Of course, then I went off to college, and from the day after I turned 19 onwards up through my marriage at 22, my only boy problem was that I had too many to love, not enough (my home bishop once asked my Mom how I was doing at college, and she told him I'd be doing great if they would ever institute Polyandry. Ha ha. Only I'd had the same thoughts myself before.)

Reading this book brought it all back to me - my fears of getting passed over. My freshman year when I started Modern Hebrew, all the Hebrew students had to pick a Hebrew name to go by in class. These names were ours exclusively, to the point where through two years of language instruction I often didn't know my classmate's real names, but only their Hebrew ones. My Hebrew name I chose was Leah. Except in Hebrew it's pronounced Laiya. (Like in Star Wars). If someone were to address me using that pronounciation, I would turn to them as surely as if they called me Thora. (As a totally unrelated sidenote, in Arabic I chose Miryam, and like with Hebrew we exclusively used our Arabic names. Most of the way through the semester I was out to dinner at a Lebanese Restaurant in Salt Lake called Mazza, when we were discussing our "real" names. I told them my name was Thora, and they were very surprised. None of them could picture me as a Thora. It did not seem the sort of name I would have to them, and they could not reconcile it with me. Even weeks afterwards some of this continued to comment on this to me. Miryam was always my name to them. Although once I went to Egypt everyone there called me Surriyyah (their attempts to say Thora), and to them that was my name to the extent that I wanted to give that name to Lydia for her middle name, but Avram and I could never figure out how to write it so that it would be pronounced correctly {Since Surriyyah is actually Thurriyyah, which is the Arabic word for the Pleiades, but in Egyptian Arabic the Th sound turns to an S sound. Not to mention the very Semitic doublying of the Y. Anywho}).

So, to bring you mind back, I really liked the book. Although he ends it at the two weddings, and is planning to continue the story with a book, The Wives of Israel. Except, it's been five years since the publication of Rache & Leah, and no such book has come forth yet. And I'm not a patient person. Oh, sure, I know the major plot points - Leah has six sons. Rachel has none. Zilpah and Bilhah have two sons apiece. Rachel has none. Jacob goes crazy with his crazy family and God changes his name to Israel. Rachel has a son. Leah is jealous. More trouble ensues with the next generation. But obviously I'm not reading the book for the surprising endings anyway.

Moving on to other Mormon Authors, I'm a huge fangirl of Brandon Sanderson, who's Young Adult second book I just finished. The first one is called, Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians and it's as great as its title promises. Plus he writes Adult Fantasy, and he lives in Provo, which means that if I were still at BYU I could go to all his signings, like the proper fangirl I am. But I can't. It saddens me. Plus he was at BYU the whole time I was, basically, and somehow we never met. Sure, it was a campus of 30,000, but honestly, it's a small Mormon world. And then I could be married to someone rich and famous right now. (Kidding, Kidding. Brandon is married anyway, and also I love Avram. But sometimes I like to dream of being rich and famous. Or even more agreeably, resting on the laurels of my rich and famous husband.)

And speaking of Alcatraz versus the Scrivener's Bones (the second book in the series), there's a line in there that rung true to me; "The second quickest [way to feel bad about yourself] is to read a depressing literary work intended to make you feel terrible about humanity in general." Lately I've been reading a lot of books that make me wonder if happiness is an illusion. Or rather, if most of the people in the world are unhappy, and I and most people I've ever personally met are the far minority of people who are happy. But that would imply that I live in a blessed circle of happiness. So perhaps everyone around me is unhappy, and I'm delusional. Maybe I'm even unhappy, and just fooling myself into thinking I love my life, my husband, and my girls, my job as a mother and my religion.

Then all the meta-thinking is too much for me, because if there's one thing I know for a fact, it's that I'm extremely happy in my life. So I know that I'm not delusional in happiness. And I can vouch that most around me seem truly happy (and not because they have easy lives. By far and away the most unhappy lot I ever knew was in boarding school, who had experienced rich and easy lives). But most around me are also Mormons. Some would say that this isn't a fair sampling, but I say that if Mormon's are unfairly happy, then everyone should become Mormon too and be as happy with us. If we're all delusional in our happiness and bubble together, is it delusional anymore, or just paradise? Then I conclude that maybe only the people who are primarily responsible for writing books are unhappy. Or at least obsessed with unhappiness. After all, Tolstoy captured this thought in his opening line to Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I disagree with this statement, but I do think it's easier to write about unhappy families or people than happy ones. Some of my favorite novels are about happy people. Like Anne of Green Gables. Admittedly, some of my favorite novels are also about people who aren't as happy. Like Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norell. The latter expresses what I think the best novels do - take people who aren't perfect, so are not perfectly happy, but who also do not read like a character out of a Greek tragedy, where you already can sum up the rest of their lives in one sentence: They have a fatal flaw, and throughout the course of the story despite (or because of their best efforts) everything turns out horribly and if it's an ancient story everyone ends up dead, but in a modern story they continue along, trapped forever in their miserable lives. (Ala A Hundred Years of Solitude). At the end of Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell the two title characters are still not perfect, nor perfectly boring. But they have progressed in life, and learned things, and I daresay are even happier for their greater growth.

This morning after a wonderful breakfast of eggs, turkey bacon, whole wheat biscuits and grapefruit that Avram made for us, he reseasoned our cast iron skillets while I did dishes and cleared up. We both spent the time singing old rock and roll love ballads and folk songs at the top of our lungs together, while Lydia danced along and Elisheva happily ate. As I shimmied along to twist and shout, while also wiping the table off, as I watched Avram singing and dancing with Lydia, I thought to myself, "I cannot imagine being happier than I am today, with my family. So take that, literary writers." They may be eloquent and insightful into the wretched human condition, but I'm happy, and I think I've come out ahead. Even if I'll never get to read the sequal to Rachel & Leah.


  1. My favorite stories are where the characters know both joy and sadness and somehow make it through the unhappy muck and come out the other side happier than before. Sort of an "opposition in all things" perspective.

    Especially in the family, where those dancing in the kitchen moments contrast nicely with the 2 am vomit sessions or trips to the ER.

  2. I need to read Card. I never have, and I feel like I'll never be a Mormon intellectual if I don't. I think he's actually in Heidi's stake, or something like that. And Heidi's grandfather was his boyscout leader for a brief time.

    I'm on a Nick Hornby kick today, so bear with me. But he said that you can write a book that's funny and has hope but that has to do with something sad (or perhaps true to life?):

    "It seems to me there's probably nothing you can't do in a funny book that a heartbreaking book is doing. You can write about exactly the same stuff. You just try not to deny people hope and enjoyment at the same time."

    I think readers (in a western Christian tradition?) want to hope, even in unhappy situations, which is why I think the Greek tragedy model you mention is ultimately unsatisfying.

  3. I'm not speaking to OSC until he writes that last book. Seriously, no more caramels for him until he cranks out the finale. I am a bad wait-er and I am on year number three of waiting.

  4. Ha ha ha! I just read your message above the comment box and had a good laugh.

    My comment was going to be: Please write shorter posts because I think of 13 things I want to say before I get to the end of them. Maybe break them up into thirteen tiny little posts and post them all at the same time. It's not that I don't want to read them because they're long, it's just that I can't remember all the things I wanted to say (I had this problem while reading the Saga, too.)

    Or you could just keep your posts more boring. That might work too.