You know you’re in love, or I certainly did, when your boyfriend’s Christmas present to you is the most beautiful, redolent (I like the smell of second-hand books) little short story collection by a former psychoanalyst whose insight into the manifestations of romance and intimacy apparently knows no bounds. Well-done boyfriend. But more importantly – or at least more pertinently – well-done Amy Bloom. The status of Bloom’s collection Come To Me (1993) as her fictional debut is potentially depressing; her stories, quite the opposite.
The question that arose in my mind on concluding the avidly devoured volume (apart from HOW?—a frequent refrain of the aspiring fiction writer, I’ve found) was – in a collection of perspectives and narratives that includes a bereaved wife committing ‘incest’ with her stepson, a ten year old child confronted with one parent’s adultery and, perhaps more shockingly, the other parent’s compliance, and a young mother feigning Semitism to entrap the middle-aged doctor who delivered her baby – what was it that made Bloom’s stories so consistently, and irresistibly, romantic?
I don’t mean romantic as a synonym for erotic or trite or teary-eyed or in any way comparable to the repulsive, commercial and supremely unrealistic spew that constitutes mainstream ‘romantic’ movies post-Meg Ryan (The Notebook is crap, ok? Long may When Harry Met Sally reign.) I mean romantic in its most timeless, ephemeral, intensely emotional sense, like the feelings you have after a really, really good first date or in the morning on a Sunday laying eyes on your sleepy lover at their most sweet and soft and eminently unobnoxious. Or when an old couple has been together for fifty years and still holds hands and says ‘dear’ resolutely; or when someone does something completely unexpected, which they’re usually pretty shit at doing, for no perceptible reason other than that they love you. Ok, so maybe all this stuff is still trite, but at least it’s true (FYI any scenario in which a man is confronted with Kate Hudson fawning over him – even if she is holding a tissue in her hand and saying ‘blow’ – and rejects her, is not.)
But what do I mean – like really mean, not just in terms of scattered pop culture references or my own sentimentality – by this kind of romance? Or even if we can sort of just know what it means in an abstract sense, how is it possible for writers to effectively talk about one of the few things in life that totally, by definition, defies words? Is it one of those scenarios where what we don’t say is as important as what we do say – like comforting a sad person, having sex or acting a Pinter play? Well, partly maybe, but if that were the case Bloom’s stories would probably contain a lot more awkward prevarication, some ominous pauses and a fair bit of heavy breathing. As it is they are evocative, succinct and completely beautiful. They are real, palpably human stories in which the love IS the language, just as it is in our own.
Love is completely inseparable from language, in the sense that more often than not it is tied up with those three – inordinately big – little words. When we say “I love you” we don’t mean just “I L-O-V-E Y-O-U.” Far from it. We are making a profession and an association with a thousand little words and acts and promises we plan to say and do and make in the future. I’ll be there for you. I’ll try not to hurt you, on purpose (although I’ll most likely hurt you by accident, a lot.) I’ll spend a lot of time with you and make space for you at the expense of other things and people. I’ll support you. I’ll like you (not always an easy
one in terms of constant upkeep.) I’ll give the same kind of unconditional, irrational, non-judgmental affection and attention to all of your foibles, quirks and qualities, regardless of time, place, circumstance… ‘Love’ in this sense is a word without a definition because it is a commitment without boundaries and a concept without delineable meaning—it is personal.
It is this paradox that Bloom so expertly circumscribes in her stories. Her writing explores the space between the concept, which places so much significance on what we say, and the reality, which transcends words constantly and variably for each individual. In ‘Love Is Not a Pie’ our sense of a mother whose only holiday rule is “don’t even think about waking your mother before 8:00 A.M. unless you are fatally injured or ill,” who calls having pancakes “a blueberry morning,” whose rainy day ritual is making sangria, who dances the twist, is at once vividly complete and only half of the truth—a fragment of idealized childhood memory belonging to an eleven year old girl’s “model of leisure.” You can almost hear the cricket-buzz of silence as the little girl, Ellen, walks in on an embrace between her mother and family friend Mr DeCuervo, a moment incomprehensibly distinct from the “big pink-and-orange man enveloping a small, lean black-and-white woman” that she knows as her parents’ cuddles.
The truth is in between the lines; above and beyond the sight she describes of her parents in bed with another man; in the private significance of the laugh and the handshake her father and Mr DeCuervo share at her mother’s funeral years later. The truth of what her mother’s love meant is lost in the secret meaning of her words to her daughter, “Love is not a pie,” and rediscovered implicitly in Ellen’s decision to part ways with her fiancé because he follows her instructions, when “he should have known that I was just being considerate.” This is the magic of Bloom’s evocative storytelling; love is captured in a set of words, lost in the indescribable depth of their meaning and rediscovered in the moments which that love creates. Love is not how we say it or even in what it makes us do—it is the silent, powerful, personal meaning that lingers in between.
This is true of all the stories in the collection. In ‘Sleepwalking’ there is no concrete intimation of sex in Julia’s love of her stepson. But the unspoken tension ratchets up in the language: “His tears ran down my bare leg,” “his briefs hanging off his high skinny hips,” his body is a “dark caramel column,” creating a subconscious yet palpable sensuality. I couldn’t say I expected them to sleep together, or that I condone or can identify with an act that Julia seems to savour while also comparing it to childbirth. Yet I was beyond judgment of the facts because the words were so much more than their meaning. The sexuality and emotion generated by the story, which pulsated like blood through its veins, had made it so much more than the sum of its linguistic parts.
So perhaps this is the metaphor I was looking for: words = veins, feeling = blood. Except romance, unlike so many pints of blood, cannot be measured. In fact if these stories showed me anything it was that romance, in particular, cannot be measured or substituted with saccharine commercial formulae because it has to be more than your typical love story. Romance trades on the unexpected, the inconvenient, the against-all-odds, the weird and embarrassing and honest. The idea that only he or she could have loved only him or her in that particular, incidental way is the essence of a romance. It is distinct from the idealism and neatly tied ends of happy ever after.
I’ve always hated the ubiquitous phrase “I’m a romantic”—there’s something gross and awkward (with a pervasive whiff of the online dating profile) about it and, also, I always wondered what it means. That you like to be loved? That you’d rather not be alone? That you wouldn’t balk at a beautiful, unexpected gesture? Well, sure.
And yet, the very reason I hate the phrase “I’m a romantic” is the same reason I would have to proclaim myself one if asked (while mentally ticking the asker off my list of potential love-interests): I want love to be original. I don’t want to be asked and I don’t want to be told, as long as I can quietly believe that the book my boyfriend gave me for Christmas and the looks he gives me and the times he says he loves me are wholly authentic, sincere and original—then I can jump straight on the bandwagon up the one-way street and cry romance. MY romance. No one else’s and not to be repeated or cheapened or understood.
So maybe that explains my arbitrary predilection for Meg Ryan. My Meg Ryan might be your poison; your Ryan Gosling might taint my meat. Potayto, potarto. Just don’t you dare tell me they’re one and the same.