The Conditions of Love

June 20, 2013

The Conditions of Love ,

Dale M. Kushner, Grand Central Publications, 2013



Although we may harbor desires to restore some of our youth, few of us desire to return to adolescence. Adolescence is one of the only diseases that age can cure. Starting with the titular denial of unconditional love, Dale Kushner, through the voice of Eunice, a preternaturally wise adolescent, reconditions love as intermittent drama constantly redefined by struggles with loss, guilt, and acceptance. Intimately navigable and eidetic as a pirate’s map , Ms. Kushner explores the dreamscape geography of emotion from apartments, cabins, carnivals, movies and farm communities. From Wild Pea to Vieuxville Eunice’s interiority continually spirals outward through a hybrid realm of altered Nature, hubris and art.  Her conditions of love arrive as terrible miracles with epiphanies of forgiveness and acceptance.

The Conditions of Love is a philosophical romance and narrative Bildungsroman in the classical sense wherein the heroine, Eunice, must confront and divest herself of illusions to arrive at the realm of the spiritually genuine. Eunice is heroically bright and unconscionably optimistic. The teenage narrator is harrowingly alone, drifting through isolated islands in the marshy seas of the upper Midwest. Eunice constantly acquires and escapes appellations as she enters adventures,”Cissy, CC, Cisskala, CC Dumpling, Bunny, Moucheroo, a brief period misnomered as Iris, Sparrow and ultimately the Nomen of  memoirist. Her identity as a young girl is amorphous, she adapts to situations like a mirror with reflection and blank. She allows the variety of her rescuers to project their weaknesses onto her, while her own peripatetic relations seem guided by ironic divine whispers. Eunice roams the novel not so much as a feminine Odysseus, but Telemachus, another child of lost wanderers. She too is haunted by living with abandonment and myth, and struggling with her incability to accomplish the tasks before her.  Eunice isn’t looking for Troy; she’s looking for home.

The temporality of her adolescence is merely a literary device to articulate the problem of enduring constant impermanence. The philosophical message of the novel is pitched in the emotional register of an astonished teenager, who asks awkward difficult questions perhaps only person of that age and intelligence can reasonably present. But that is one of the reasons we venerate and fear precocity, it is unpredictable knowledge. It is quite literally a twisted link to the mythic, a divine gift with a bill attached. These wonder children arrive like the infant Kronos struggling with their scythes, or more accurately, ours.  Like Eunice, they are sharp edged shards of a magic mirror or halfling creatures at home in strange seas.

Ms. Kushner’s Eunice self-consciously proceeds in the stereotype of an artist at work as she describes the events in this strongly visual novel.  She is simultaneously immersed and disengaged. Although the novel is intimate, Ms. Kushner often directs the reader from odd distances and perspectives through unschooled drawings, recordings of opera that must be listened to in reverent silence, model planes, movie vignettes, an unread book of poems bound by a bracelet, hidden letters, found photographs, and unfinished paintings each containing desperate gestures to repair, or express loss. References and allusions to various art forms are commonplace.  The writing is strewn with failed attempts of people struggling with limited artifice, forms that are sentimental, but incapable of full expression. Many of the novel’s passages of description are frequently poetically wrought as paintings lingering in detail and metaphor to nuance feelings her young narrator is incapable of articulating. Others provide the gallery of tableaux, the album of images that quickly flips context to memory.

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is Eunice’s attempt to speed her maturation with complicated relationships with wise, but damaged adults. She constantly arrives and leaves, and as every adolescent must, bringing the gift of abandonment. She engages and leaves Mern, a mother created of appearance and loss, a father who is an amusement park device, a series of surrogate parents, and finally the man who must make a gruesome sacrifice to her art and happiness. The three characters Mern, Rose and Fox offer Eunice romantic illusions, separation, sympathy, and union. She changes their frozen loss into restored capacity to dream and live. Although archetypical parent visions, the overly social mother, the earth mother, the farmer father, the detail and gesture Ms. Kushner imparts to each of these characters lets them breathe and grow beyond their prescribed images.

It’s a tough book to survive as character, animal or dream. Although her prose is painterly delicate and at times romantic, Ms. Kushner tells a brutal tale. Relationships are episodic and refuge temporary while the mechanisms of her world are insensate and unstoppable.  Eunice decimates phylum and species leaving behind a parakeet, a dead turtle, a hacksawed lamb, a one horned ram in strangled by a fence, two charred cats, a miscarriage, a burnt child and a man’s hands. She is quite Dickensian in her willingness to visit suffering on her characters and their worlds of illusion in pursuit of their redemption. And like Dickens her serial plotline meanders more like visiting than rising action. Only those characters who love Eunice from ordinary distance or in ignorance are spared the spiritual triage needed for salvation. Her conditions of love are severe; only in art will love endure, but only by release of guilt and desire will her characters find fulfillment.

The Conditions of Love speaks in an oblique way to the tide of digital images, memes and ghost written memoirs that currently surround us. The obsession to preserve every moment that removes us from pursuing the actual dream of our life makes this rural survival tale relevant. Like Eunice we are surrounded by addicts of nostalgia, frozen romances and self-imposed isolations. The novel ends in a pastiche of jottings for a nearly finished memoir, conversations with dead, marked exhibits and tidy dénouement. We leave Eunice as an adult, fulfilled, scattered and unknowingly in need of rescue by an adolescent.


Empire of Ice Cream

June 15, 2013





There is always violence in my neighborhoods. My bullies don’t hide behind shadows. They’re soft and talkative sometimes, but they possess a genuine possibility of violence. I doubt they are cowards. Perhaps they are like much of our world, remnants, like calligraphers or acrobats, they are left here with gifts and skills suited to another age. Bullies may have brain wired instincts and attractions; the same evolution that produced opposable thumb and finger dexterity also produced the fist. One of my favorite bullies was Barry. Hardly a name to inspire fear, but he managed his reputation well enough. He enjoyed a natural pompadour and wore a silver identification bracelet. I’ve known better (or worse) bullies than Barry, but he is on the corner here…waiting.

I was going to my first high school dance. Flush with deodorant and terror I walked up Gibson Street frantic with the knowledge that I had mis-dressed. Who can trust their parents at a moment as tragic as that? I was thinking about Shin Dig and the Up Beat dancers when I came upon Barry standing at the corner.

“Going the dance?”

I was double stunned, first that Barry knew where I was going and second that he cared. Apparently my attire had betrayed me on the street before it could reveal my modish resplendence on the dance floor.

“They won’t let me in.”

I was relieved, but wary. Nonetheless I amiably inquired why. Since with bullies, nearly all questions are rhetorical.

“It doesn’t matter. Here’s what I want you to do.”

As I listened as I was dragged into a conspiratorial conversation that had not only the prospect of a random beating, but consequences that would stain my already confused high school career. There seemed no negotiation or reason; He walked along with me.

“There’s going to be a girl there. Her name is Barbara. You’re going to watch her. If she dances with anybody, you tell him to come outside. I’ll be in the parking lot and I’ll take care of him. You can do that?”

Of course, criminal or snitch what better choices to find my way into the complicated cliques and strata of a new school? I could hear the music playing faintly. Generally there are two ways one doesn’t want to arrive at a dance, on the leash of a street tough, or in a police car. With luck I could also leave one of those ways as well. Fortunately I didn’t know Barbara. Hopefully I mentioned this to my conspirator, who then suggested since he was going to the parking lot anyway…he would point her out to me. I had to demure to his foresight. In any event it helped me get over my self-consciousness about my clothes. When we arrived at the parking lot I hoped for something to happen in my favor; it didn’t. Barry and I waited around in the triangular shadows near the fence until a group of girls walked past.

“That’s her.” He said”the cute one with the hair.”

It was no time for irony or grammar clarification; I knew who he meant. I started to mention that she seemed attractive, but prudently let that go to mumbles and a nod. It seemed prudent all the way around if I didn’t acknowledge her existence any more than necessary. I didn’t want to explore the action end of Barry’s jealousy if I didn’t have to, besides I had a dance to attend that if possible had become even more wrought with meaningless angst..

That was how I came to know Barbara.

Initiating myself into the hyperactive collective consciousness of mid-sixties rock culture, I immediately joined the line of guys against the wall watching. We had all dressed wrong. We knew it. It was the mur de refuse’.  I was more fortunate only in that I had an alleged purpose for lurking. I watched Barbara for a long strange moment. She talked with her girlfriends. A few boys came towards them and spoke. She laughed easily. I liked her laugh and I liked her for laughing. The band was churning through the opening riff of some three minute song by the Standells or Paul Revere and the Raiders. After the first few bars it sounded like electric water. I wondered if Barbara’s relationship with Barry was similar to mine. There was no accounting for geography.  It was one more item in the evening that seemed close and immediate, but just beyond my understanding. Some of the songs I recognized as similar to ones I’d heard on the radio, but for the next half hour I wandered around in a sonic fog trying to imagine my way out of West Side Story”. Optimistically I could be one of those wild mambo dancers, but I would have settled to escape as Anybodys. It was time for my first surveillance report.

“She’s having a terrible time man. You know she’s just sitting there talking with her girlfriends. She seems sad or something.”

“Is anybody dancing with her?”

“Nobody. She’s just sort in the corner. You don’t have to worry. I don’t think she’s even going to stay.”

“Okay. Just keep an eye on her. Tell me who she dances with.”

 It seemed a better notion not to mention that if she were dancing with anyone I wouldn’t know their name. I began revising my fiction.

“Sure.” An adjective, let the dictionary of ambiguity differentiate shared fiction from prevarication. The history of dictatorships is rife with such passive-aggressive resistance. As one great prevaricator once said, ”You go to war with the army you have.” I wasn’t the aggressor here; history was on my side.

Barry was working his tough guy stare on the asphalt the last I saw of him that night. 

When you’re young you imagine your initiation into the world will be dramatic, like finding a body, or jumping off a moving freight train, some defining gesture that a filmmaker would employ. In my life it was walking back into that dance knowing I’d lied to Barry. I knew three things about myself as I started back down the stairs to the dance: 1. I was smarter than Barry, I could outwit him most of the time and even if he beat me up, so what?, 2. Doing what I was forced to do sucked, whether it was Fidel Castro or a guy in Cuban heels, dictators sucked., and 3. In the brutal Darwinian feeding frenzy, I was joining other the side.

Barbara could dance like Rita Moreno in a lavender dress with black trimmed petticoats and I was more than willing to abet that stepping out.  I was pleased in my moral progression to have gone from delinquent, to snitch, to liar, to fictive liberator in the space of a few pop songs. Rock and Roll hadn’t arrived at any self-consciousness yet. It had a few purposes, dancing, driving the old man’s car too fast, making out, lost love, and getting psyched for a fight. I was too young to drive, my chances of love, dancing or making out that evening weren’t nearly as great as getting beaten up, but strangely I felt good. Although still mostly irrelevant in my own life, if I’d have smoked, I would have had a cigarette.

“Sure.” Not quite tattoo material, but good enough to remember.

In that moment I was pleased that by my refusal Barbara could be laughing at some guy’s joke, doing the Shing-a-ling or whatever she pleased and as long as she didn’t do it the parking lot. We were freed…sort of invisibly. Olle-olle-oxen-free everybody went home happy and mostly oblivious, much better than “West Side Story”.

By the random peculiarities of the alphabet Barbara and I were seated near one another in some of the same classes. We were in a lot of rooms where a lot of conversations took place. We knew some of the same people. She was generous to me with responses to Latin grammar exercises. I liked her in the relentlessly busy, shy, anxious and distracted manner of a student. There was a 1/26 statistical probability about our relationship that was above average, so we remained more than acquaintances, but not quite friends.  It was like most of high school for me, awkward and nearly pleasant…like avoiding getting beaten up.

That’s not the point.

Time and technology intervened and a few years ago I found Barbara on Face Book. Or more accurately we have re-Friended one another’s avatars. On FB we are creations made of invisibility, photos and around 420 characters of commentary. We enjoy our common affection for the fragile security of the past and enjoy a certain pleasant emptiness that remains frozen between us. In some ways it’s like being partially remade out of events that didn’t occur. It’s currently fashionable to contemplate re-capturing time in the Proustian sense. Like Einstein, another early 20th century time theorist, we tend to read books about them more than their actual work. However if I posed the question “What would happen if Marcel dipped his madeleine in a cup of tea while traveling at the speed of light?” we would generally understand the allusion enough to debate the possibility. Time is both discrete forms and malleable.  FB can shape time into correspondences that remain like Styrofoam peanuts surrounding certain emotional states. In some sense it’s like writing, but without the impulse to explore beyond the surface of its signature. More like ice cream, it can only exist in the frozen margins between 10 and -20 Fahrenheit. Anything else is messy or tasteless.

A few weeks ago I sat down late one evening to watch “Forbidden Planet”. Much to my patient wife’s dismay I enjoy watching some films over and over. Classic films, like classic books, gain a depth from rereading throughout one’s life. I never tire of Homer or Ovid,” King Kong” or “Amarcord”, or for that matter, Proust. They are like old friends I will always entertain regardless of my various emotional states or situation. In return they always leave unexpected gifts along with the pleasure of their never changing. “Forbidden Planet” started unreeling its tight polyester Cinemascope future from the past, Walter Pidgeon’s goateed Dr. Morbius, Robbie the Robot and the mysterious invisible collective unconscious monster. The film is always on the borderline of classic, but it requires a preface. The psychology of the energy monster, first electronic film score, how it has been cannibalized, etc., there’s much to recommend this film. It generally rates 8 out of 10 stars. A perfect movie to enjoy with popcorn,moderate attention and conversation.

Leslie Neilsen was barking orders into a handheld microphone connected to his belt and I couldn’t maintain my disbelief.  By the standards of 1956 sci-fi Neilsen’s portrayal of Commander Adams was more than adequate. He was at least as good as William Shatner ever was. But something from the future had leaked into my imagination. Not, as with many Sci-Fi films, that the calendar now registers the dates we should have been in utopia, dystopia or obliterated to some beyond, or that my cell phone can do more than most contraptions devised as futuristic props. I couldn’t disassociate the intervening portrayals of Dr. Rumack or Lt. Frank Drebin from the image I was watching. I had seen too many Zucker Brothers movies to allow Mr. Neilsen to portray his character as a hero.

This transformation had no sense of chronology or development as someone might study earlier work for traits found in their masterworks. Marilyn Monroe made 25 films (Twenty-six if you count “Scudda-Hoe Scudda-Hay”) comedies, musicals and dramas. Variant images of her still form a multi-media mosaic from 16mm stag films to Pinterest boards. She remains in whatever tact we need her to be. Commander Adams refused to obey.

My experience was a juxtaposition in ritualized event of an inappropriate experience, like finding an octopus in church. The late Mr. Neilsen embraced his later roles as a comic actor (His actual epitaph is a fart joke), but I have only illusory experience with him. I never met him, read his autobiography “The Naked Truth” or had much desire to do either; he’s not Marilyn Monroe (or Shirley). Yet my internal structure for interpreting images of him had lost some of its internal consistency. A different time had intervened. Not the time of experience, with arguments at work, ex-spouses, illness and maturity, but a refracted time, one that replaced my chronological construction with a pre-revised version. I couldn’t enjoy “Forbidden Planet” and went to bed flummoxed.

History had been changed; I had unwillingly developed a differentiated sense of events in a time that allowed them to transfer without experience. It was as if the future had flowed backwards into Commander Adams. A past future from “Forbidden Planet” had gone into an intermediate future of Zucker Brothers films, then returned to the past projected future changing the present experience. It wasn’t a lapse where I couldn’t remember him; I couldn’t forget him. Yet  I could still believe Walter Pidgeon enough to suspend disbelief, even though he wore an outrageous goatee, a spandex jumpsuit, and I know he was a McCarthyite involved in blacklisting. It probably says something about the relative values of laughter and anti-communism, nonetheless, his performance remained intact enough for my imagination.

Dr. Morbius was much like my experience of re-Friending Barbara.

On Facebook we both preserve and alter time, and shape experiences to fit an unspoken emotional structure. Barbara and I employ a deep etiquette, but not the classical form of etiquette (although we are polite). We can in a few keystrokes establish a type of affection that exists both in and outside of our experience. We have no idea who we are. We could have passed unknowingly in airports, watched the same sporting events on television, read the same books, or eaten the same foods. But those events don’t establish any foundation to the relationship, as they do with other non-FB friends I have maintained from that period in my life. Our fragmentary correspondence has its foundation in maintaining a level of suspended disbelief in our own lives. FB preserves an unspoken fragile experience that keeps the feel and tenor of a collection of events forty years past. It has less consequence than our first non-meeting at the dance, yet it values a continuation of that vague experience of innocence and inexperience. The single rule we both willingly accept is we cannot change. 

Business connections and circumstances being equal, people often chose to go to reunions or don’t for the same reasons; they need to keep a particular emotional experience intact. Reunions renew relations or re-establish absence, but the core experience of the past is the attraction. How the beautiful have suffered, the underachiever achieved, or who stayed the same. It’s all rooted in that collective mindset that we share by actively maintaining the same bank of memories and illusions. If the girl we stood up has become an investment banker, or the boy who waited in the parking lot has become a County Judge is inconsequential without the artifice of the yearbook. Without our ability to employ that context they’re just more bankers and judges.

Of course there are relationships that personal fiction can’t conceal, the results of experience; age. It fills every cell. On Facebook, we can circumvent some of the experience of our own passing. I have friends I’ve corresponded with for over thirty years. Our exchanges of letters, postcard, and lately e-mails came slowly, with long periods of silence and then frantic intimacies. We seldom have occasion to meet and don’t telephone, but we remain engaged in the lives of one another. We share one another’s passing. We age together. My Facebook re-Friends and I must keep a delicate emptiness between us.Barbara‘s comments are clear, sensible and direct, mine are generally obsessive and tangential. We both chose to inhabit the same pattern as our days in high school. The foundation of who and how we are to one another is frail as adolescent ambition and must remain in defined proportions to survive. We exist as reliably as a favorite flavor of ice cream in a freezer. 

Initially I searched out high school classmates, established a FB group and attempted to be curious about their lives. Eventually I deleted the group but kept a few, one of whom was Barbara. Our relationship is a confection both of us can live without, but occasionally enjoy. Between us we have preserved a fragile Like in an incessant rambling word machine. That’s all, a like with a history that unlike “Forbidden Planet” remains preserved. Not quite Proust, but a poetic time nonetheless.

My therapist friends tell me there is something in this that has been immobilized, a need, some disconnected emotion, or a trauma that I refuse to acknowledge or release. They may be correct; they often are. They can cure my Pinterest account. I have plenty of traumas and frozen needs to work on, this one I believe I’ll keep just as it is, perfect. The Latin meaning of perfect wasn’t without error, it was a tense that meant complete. Between us on FB it’s not scribimus hic “We write it”, but nos scripserat hic, “We had written it”. It was finished some time before. Perhaps in spite of the acronyms and abbreviations FB will invest us with lost Latin tenses to use in English; probably not. It can help continue the tissue of fiction that began coincidentally with a lonely bully, an unprepared Latin student and the girl at the dance with the hair. For me there is a weak dogma maintaining that evening as part of my story of wandering into the adult world in an unknown act of rebellion and empathy. I’m not sure why Barbara continues to extend her generosity, perhaps out of habit and grace. Like the original one word fiction, it doesn’t seem that bad at all.