Things that happen to you

You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else. […]

It is an incontestable fact that you are no longer young. […] This is one example of the various things that could never happen, but which, in fact, have happened. […]

Physical pleasures and physical pains. […] Innumerable instances, not a day gone by without some moment or moments of physical pleasure, and yet pains are no doubt more persistent and intractable, and at one time or another nearly every part of your body has been subjected to assault. Eyes and ears, head and neck, shoulders and back, arms and legs, throat and stomach, ankles and feet […]

Paul Auster’s Winter Journal is a memoir, a largely non-chronological catalogue – narrated in the second person – of places he has been to, women he has loved, apartments and houses he has inhabited, and various bodily indignities he has suffered, most notably panic attacks. Its opening – and this may not please the author – echoes, or is echoed by, the title story in another book published this month, When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald:

When it happens to you, you will be surprised. That thing they say about how you knew all the time but just weren’t facing it? That might be the case, but nevertheless, there you will be. You will feel like you have been kicked in the stomach, that your insides have just separated to make room for something big.
You may not cry at first. You may wonder why you don’t cry, and you may even feel like there is something seriously wrong with you. You might look at yourself as though you were a character in a book or a movie and you might think to yourself ‘Why isn’t that woman crying? What’s wrong with her?’

Ringwald’s book  – “a novel in stories” – is the surprise literary find of the season, a set of interlocking stories not unlike a Los Angeles Olive Kitteridge. The “it” here, of course, is the discovery of your partner’s marital infidelity. Auster, too, writes about his inability to cry: in his case, to mourn his mother’s – or anybody else’s – death:

[…] and still no impulse to cry, to break down and mourn your mother with an earnest display of sorrow and regret. Perhaps you are afraid of what will happen to you if you you let yourself go, that once you allow yourself to cry you will not be able to stop yourself, that the pain will be too crushing and you will fall to pieces, and because you don’t want to risk losing control of yourself, you hold on to the pain, swallow it, bury it in your heart. […] Your eyes water up when you watch certain movies, you have dropped tears onto the pages of numerous books, you have cried at moments of immense personal sorrow, but death freezes you and shuts you down, robbing you of all emotion, all affect, all connection to your own heart.

You didn’t think Auster would make this much use of the word “heart”, did you?

Back to Molly Ringwald:

When it happens, to you, you think that you might die. You won’t. This isn’t the kind of thing that you die from, but at night when you can’t sleep from all of these details that keep you from resting and you’re gasping for air, you’ll wish that you would die. You’ll wish that it would happen by accident so that your children won’t have to live wondering why you would ever do such a thing. During the worst nights, you will find yourself plotting.

And then one day, you’ll stop. […]

And then then you will cry. And then you won’t stop crying.

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