Hard Reads

Free literature dissertation idea for whoever wants it: A comparative analysis of contemporary women authors who re-tell classics. The textual pairings Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Goethe’s Faust and V.E. Scwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. It is a rich set of texts and stories, because Patchett and Schwab fully embrace the gender swap. Not only do the central characters of the story become women, the stories themselves are rooted in the needs and concerns of women. Kingsolver takes a different approach. She retains the gender of the central character, but repositions the story in contemporary Appalachia. Gender issues circulate throughout the story, but are secondary to issues of poverty and addiction.

Last year, I joined/helped form a book club for women academics at my work. There are relatively few of us, and it was an attempt to build and strengthen our connections. Generally, I’m a bit skeptical of book clubs, and stick most closely to my “Not a book club” reading discussions with my friend DJ Librarian. This one has gone very well, though. We’ve made it through the first round of everyone picking books and there was only one dud. Even the person who picked it was underwhelmed. Right now, it’s mostly fiction and pretty light. I listen to many of the books or try to get them on my kindle, but I miss having a tactile book when everyone else is paging through theirs. What I have learned from this experience is that the founder of the book club has excellent taste in reading material. Outside of bookclub, I’ve read several books she’s recommended and all have been great. She recommended Demon Copperhead to me and called it life changing. It wasn’t life changing for me, but Demon Copperhead is a really great book.(Discussion of the books larger trope ahead, but I’ll try to avoid real spoilers.)

It was the hardest book I’ve listened to in a long time. Normally, once an audio book hooks me, I plow right through it. I’ll listen 7-8 hours a day as I do chores around the house and take breaks to play mindless phone games or scroll through social media. A 20+ hour book will sometimes take me a week, sometimes just 3 or 4 days, depending on when I start it and how much I listen during the week. Demon Copperhead is a 21 hour listen that took me at least three weeks to finish. I had to take breaks. I had to skip one part, because I knew what was going to happen and could not witness it; and, the part I had to skip came well before the character descended into a opioid addiction that felt all too real and familiar.

In one of the lighter books I’m reading for book club and to recover after Demon Copperhead, a mother and daughter are talking about another person who lives in their building. The mother explains that the other woman, “…wasn’t always like that. She’s just … lonely.” The daughter says she has her husband, implying that the woman cannot be lonely with someone else around. The mother says, “There are many ways of being lonely, darling.” What makes Demon Copperhead so good and so difficult for me is that Kingsolver captures the all the complicated loneliness of opioid addiction. The loneliness of the addict. The loneliness of living with an addict. The loneliness that creeps into the families and communities surrounding addicts.

I didn’t entirely know about the addiction storyline in Demon Copperhead. Given what I knew of the book, I suspected there would be one, but I felt ready to face it. I did okay for the first two thirds of the book, and it wasn’t actually the addiction that made it so hard for me. It was the loneliness. She captured what it is like to be next to someone who just isn’t there. What it is like when the person you love, who once loved you, and who you think should be most able to see you clearly, no longer sees you. When the person you loved is only ever physically present, never fully participating in the life you’d tried to build together.

Hanif Abdurraqib has a simple, haunting, black and white sign in his house. The white frame surround a black backdrop, with white text that looks like those old building signs that allowed you to push in and pull out the letters to change the information. I know about this sign, because I follow him on Instagram and he occasionally posts pictures in front of it. The sign reads, “Yes, but my lonely is mine.” It is a Toni Morisson quotation. (Yes, that Morrison book’s crept up quite a few notches on my “To Be Read” list.) Six years out from my divorce, fully settling into my single life, I feel that quotation. My lonely is mine now and its made all the difference in the world.

Demon Copperhead was hard because it so vividly depicted what it is like when your lonely is not your own. It reminded me, and that reminder hurt like an old scar that’s been hit or re-opened. It isn’t a book that offers much escape from the world, but Demon Copperhead shines a light on some important aspects of the world that often go unseen.

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