The Lives of Imaginary Others

Re-reading a once favourite book is potentially a perilous encounter. Revisiting those texts that once transfixed us requires a certain audacity. A different response is guaranteed, more pronounced by the passage of time and breadth of life. Reading is transformative, and we re-read through the filter of every other book we have part-remembered; all we can hope for, when we read, is a partial memory. In her book on re-reading Patricia Meyer Spacks writes:

Reading something for the first time may also evoke past selves, inasmuch as we recall bygone experience, of books and of life outside books, when vicariously experiencing the lives of imaginary others. Rereading brings us more sharply in contact with how we-like the books we reread-have both changed and remained the same. Books help constitute our identity.They also, as we reread them, measure identity’s changes with the passage of time.

Those ‘lives of imaginary others’ may be incorporeal, but, if the writer is a good one, can be more substantial than those we come into contact with in real life. Though I forgot her name, Virginia Markowitz (“Virgin for short, but not for long, ha, ha.”), from the automobile casualty insurance company that gave Bob Slocum his first job, is an old acquaintance, first met over twenty years ago when I first read Joseph Heller’s Something Happened.

Joe Heller is a great writer. I agree with John that Something Happened is a significantly better book than the extraordinary Catch-22. In Something Happened, Heller restricts himself to streaming the narrative through Bob Slocum. Heller says:

There is very little in Something Happened. Bob Slocum tends to consider people in terms of one dimension; his tendency is to think of people, even those very close to him—his wife, daughter, and son and those he works for—as having a single aspect, a single use. When they present more than that dimension, he has difficulty in coping with them. Slocum is not interested in how people look, or how rooms are decorated, or what flowers are around.

Even presented in one dimension, Virginia, ‘that pert and witty older girl of twenty-one’ is as potent a force as when I first read Something Happened, though, on this reading, she is more tragic than erotic. Though Virginia’s life is imaginary, my memory of her is strong, equally for the ‘limited persona’ of Bob Slocum and his dysfunctional family.

I’m only 143 pages into this 569 page edition and enjoying it mightily. Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful remark: “Rereading them, certain sentences are what greet me as familiars” is so true of Something Happened. One small sample:

In my department, there are six people who are afraid of me, one small secretary who is afraid of all of us. I have one other person working for me who is not afraid of anyone, not even me, and I would fire him quickly, but I’m afraid of him.

There are several novels that come to mind that capture the dissonant chords of marriage and family life, far fewer that encapsulate the banality and quiet awfulness of office life. Heller nails both with precision.

1 thought on “The Lives of Imaginary Others

  1. Pingback: What I’m Reading Now « valrfederoff

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