Why Alexander Chee’s Novel Edinburgh (2001) Made Me Glad to Cry
Years ago, before I earned a living, I loved reading fiction. In one vaguely-defined graduate study program after another (Sanskrit? Sort of. South Asian Studies? Around there), I felt happiest in a bookstore, devouring free books.
Then during med school, I came to hate reading, period, especially at the hospital, when tears of rage and frustration came unbidden at what I’d done to myself by choosing this. Thrown away the chance to get an MFA to obey, fearfully, the laws of medicine. Locked myself (by sheer stubbornness? Refusal to fail?) into a program of study from which there was neither escape, nor compromise.
These were human lives that could be affected by how miserable I felt, and I never forgot that. From the beginning, I was wholly in it, a doctor, committed, caring, focused when in the room with a patient. But sitting outside, even squinting into a terminal as I wrote notes or copied down lab values, I found myself unable to even look at a book review headline. “I have done this to myself,” I thought each time I turned the TV channel in the resident lounge by accident to Charlie Rose, and saw some new and fresh author being praised. “I am here because I chose to be.” Instead of writing. Instead of doing something grand, like living for even a whole year as a writer during my early twenties, simply to see if I’d succeed. I never took that chance. Instead, on a strangely conservative impulse, I put myself here. As a student I prayed that despite my misgivings, fears, sense of being inside the wrong life, that I’d have the grit to do it well, that patients thrive.
Years after medical school and nearly a decade of practicing psychiatry, I’ve proven to myself that I can take care of patients even without giving up writing.
A way back in. Writing and literature, no longer forbidden. I don’t know where to start. On a strangely liberated impulse, I read Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh, mainly because it’s short, and I can fit it in on my lunch break, at the hospital.
Page after page, lambent phrase after lambent phrase, I want to cry, and feel elated that I still know how to cry this way. This way! Not the other. Not from depletion but from elation. Hallelujah! That a book like this got published, made it through. That it is possible to find a way to love yourself, even when your brokenness does not make you pretty. I write to the author to thank him. I babble on about how I am a trauma psychiatrist, that I will tell patients about his book. He gathers me, I think. He gathers my pieces.
I reach back to many college lit classes, try to remember what it was like when writing a critical essay was something I could do after a sleepless night, taking two hours of an often-distracted afternoon. Once writing came, it got finished, no stopping it or me. Often, I played little games – Due at 5? Nap first. Start up at 3. I played many such games of “look no hands, see if I fall, see if I fail” to make me that much less uncomfortable at being so much more accomplished? no – privileged, than either of my immigrant parents. Proficient, but self-conscious in English.
Now, starting to read other books too, again, without the fear that I’ll forget to think about the medical literature I need for practice, because I have forced myself to study so much, over so many years, I can let thoughts come regarding Chee’s book. I can identify why his words matter so much.
First, Edinburgh brings to life poetic influences on the page – without anxiety, with full exuberance, as if the writer is singing. There is Shakespeare. “Those are the pearls that were his eyes” – these and other lines attest to the intensely visual accomplishment of the narrative, fragments that are truly glittering, as beautiful as Louise Erdrich in Tracks or James Agee in Death in the Family. This accomplishment, the use of sentence fragment, each fragment conveying an image, the interposition of consciousness or a visual memory into the flow of the narratives, does come at the cost of a more straightforward, “plot-driven” telling that might have made the book sell earlier (according to the author’s account, rejected 24 times by publishers over the course of two years). But who cares!! My tears of joy again. It is just so damn beautiful!!
Not just Shakespeare – Joyce. There in the recollection, excavation of childhood memories, tinged with sex and shame and painful self-recognition, is autobiography woven into the poetry, are reminders of the Joyce who wrote Portrait of the Artist – with its the “moocows”, its secret code-words and ‘in-jokes’ of the subconscious. Words whispered between boys around a campfire, as each became aware of how the choir master intended to touch them, over and over. Words making it harder for pain to become something denied, lied about, or all but forgotten.
And other modernists. Virginia Woolf. Passages that are inside consciousness rather than outside of or describing physical events in the world make the description of those “outside” events all the more devastating. The trapped feelings of the boys during the molester’s “summer camp” outings, their mute acquiescence and their attempts to re-enact the sex play with each other to regain some sense of control, the sense of the molester closing in — these are conveyed through sensory descriptions that are deeply disturbing, without a corresponding disturbing event until a boy, trying to get away from the molester, drowns by himself in the middle of the lake. The contrast of inner consciousness with an abrupt, terrible and irreversible event mirrors how the stream of consciousness passages in Mrs. Dalloway are followed by Septimus’ suicide.
And, of contemporary writers, maybe Maxine Hong Kingston and Louise Erdrich also influences? In how the sensory detail of the descriptions are accompanied by statements of a child’s pure emotions and beliefs. The book is about musical, as well as visual beauty, and so sounds factor into Chee’s brilliant level of sensory detail – sounds of burning up, a crackling and bursting into flames, the weighty, meaty sound of something much heavier and more permanent than paper burning. The burning and fire -related phrases are echoed so effectively in the murder of the child molester at the end, but sounded so much earlier on and all throughout, including perhaps most memorably in the description by the narrator, while still a child, of what it was like to stand close to the boy who became his beloved, hearing the blond boy’s voice merging into his own. “The author thought it mysterious, the sudden acceleration of the body’s temperature to the heat that would sear bone. This did not mystify me then. The person writing it had never met Peter.” (P12) (italics mine). There is enormous courage in the exposure of pure grief, in a rawness of the way emotions are accounted for. “Love melted me Peter. It could only have been you.” (P50). The emotion, I would argue, is “non-Western”, in the sense that Woolf even at the most splayed-open of her passages on consciousness, was never writing with the same warmth. There is an abiding sincerity, and sometimes it’s crude, rather than the irony, skepticism, self-mocking, ambivalence, and “knowingness” (of a lot of MFA writing, one might argue). Emotion, like deeply-held belief, comes forward in declarative statements. Perhaps the non-Western speaks to an affinity and knowledge for old stories, songs, hymns, pieces of oral cultures, that used declarative statements this way – that didn’t hold back declarations, whether of grief or of someone vowing his love. These sorts of statements, by narrators whose childhoods were filled with the old songs, are common especially in Erdrich’s Tracks, in the descriptions of Fleur Pillager, and maybe even more so, describing the eerie faith of Ojibwe women who converted to Christianity.
The influence of Maxine Hong Kingston here is recognizable early on. As Kingston grounds The Woman Warrior in the story of Fa Mu-Lan, Chee cleverly and very organically uses the fox-woman legend, the story of Lady Tammammo, to ground some inner site of resistance, some powerful racial consciousness, by which he manages to prevent the molester from enacting the same sort of damage on him that the man etched on several other boys he victimized (among them, Peter). Chee pushes the use of this myth one step further than Kingston, who uses it essayistically, expanding the “talk story” to book length, making her narration itself an act of war against the forces that literally and figuratively seek to “bind” her. Within the scene by scene pacing of the novel, Chee finds the quiet moment to make Lady Tammammo protect Fee. When the child molester and chorus master, Eric B., comes up behind him, too close, intruding into his space as a reflecting, dreaming boy, Fee draws Lady Tammammo, a two-dimensional talisman given to him in stories by his Korean grandfather, like a comic book figure, sturdy boots and cape and all. Within this quiet moment though – of the pre-teen boy avoiding verbal confrontation with his abuser, along with its physical dangers – Fee’s act of drawing is radical. For when he draws boots on the legendary character rendered a comic, inspired by the Korean comic book his cousin sent, Fee is putting those boots on his own legs. The narrator Fee is dressing to be a beautiful and formidable woman, who, by definition, has the power to say “no,” a power that as a young boy, Fee still lacks. The moment of Fee drawing the comic, while his molester hangs about intrusively in the background, pressing upon, after the molester has banned Fee’s (age appropriate and developmentally normal) Dungeons and Dragons games in favor of the “naked story hour” the molester plans with the boys – after the molester’s insistence is what has driven his own foster child to drown himself in the lake by the cabins where he’s been fondling the boys – that moment of the narrator Fee making his resistant art in Edinburgh is all the more resonant when read with Chee’s more recent essay Girl (selected for the Best American Essays by Jonathan Frantzen in 2016). In Girl, in real life, I pray and hope, no one can deny or ban Fee/ Chee from anything.
She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. Clearly, I feel this way about the writer Alexander Chee. Can I fully articulate why?
Not in one go. But that’s the beauty of it. Reading Edinburgh helped me decide: I will give myself the time, to find the words.