What's All This Then?
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What's All This Then?
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Field-Tested by Maud Newton
in Miami, Florida
I graduated from college in the summer of 1993. To escape the boy I was dating and the hellish relationship we'd constructed, I moved back home to live with my mother, stepfather, and sister in our rat-infested home in the Kendall area of Miami. I was not well.
My hands shook; my hair fell out in clumps; my eyes bulged, giving the constant impression of rage or insanity, or both. When I lay down to sleep at night, my heart pumped like a broken water main. At last, I went to the doctor and learned that my resting heart rate was 127 beats per minute. She diagnosed a thyroid condition and told me to quit my job. Facing full-time home confinement, I drove immediately to a used bookstore and bought every $0.50 paperback in the place, including Notes from Underground (a friend had sent me a copy years before, but I'd misplaced it).
I don't think I've ever started a book with opening sentences that reflected my mental state as perfectly. “I am a sick man,” Dostoevsky's narrator begins. “I am a spiteful man. I am a most unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. Then again, I don't know a thing about my illness; I'm not even sure what hurts.” I was amused from the start, then engrossed. A man may “intentionally, consciously desire even something harmful to himself,” the narrator tells us, “in order to have the right to desire something even very stupid and not be bound by an obligation to desire only what's smart.” Why, it was as though he'd been living with me and my not-yet-ex for the past three years.
I'm not sure how useful this field test is since the circumstances are so particular to my own life. But I can tell you that the book kept me entertained on long Metrorail rides out to Jackson Memorial Hospital. On one trip, a foot fetishist got up from his seat to crawl around on the floor next to my moccasins, surveying, but not quite touching, them with his hands. I noticed him, cleared my throat, and pretended to keep reading. But then I actually did keep reading. And then I forgot he was there.
That fall Notes from Underground did one of the best things a book can do: it distracted me from a terrible time, while simultaneously, paradoxically, illuminating it.
Maud Newton, a writer and blogger living in Brooklyn, is working on a novel set in Miami, her hometown.
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