Everybody thinks springtime means birth, or rebirth, or at least hot times in de sack. Let me tell you, if you have a mattress heating pad, hot times in the sack are yours year-round. I have recently discovered that we’ve been all wrong. Spring = death.
I had a day last week where I realized I was constantly thinking about death. Upon reflection, I figured out it’s because several cars tried to run me down – crosswalks are not for people, they’re for cars who assume they’ll be able to kick it through the intersection on that orange light no problem – and I thought if I have so many close calls, it must be because I am nearing the end. Every near miss (which generally amounts to me leaping out of the way instead of a car stopping) is a suggestion that I live life to the fullest because it might be over in five minutes. I got so that I imagined what the impact of a car would feel like against my body, how much it would hurt, and where.
My thoughts ran on from there: what does a cougar attack feel like? I suggested to someone on the weekend that I’d be happy to die “by cat,” and was met with skepticism. True, that would be a sore one. Prolonged, likely. Bear attack: worse. Especially if there was already a porcupine in the stomach. How horrific.
Then there were the eight migraines that blinded me in five days, leading me to wonder if I was now having the stroke I anticipate these headaches leading to as I brazenly popped pills in front of my classes. And the death thoughts proceeded from there to wondering if my cat would have a heart attack in the seven hours I was away from home, or if I’d get pushed off the crowded platform at Yonge station, or if the headaches were finally proving life wasn’t worth living and I should get my over-consuming ass off the planet.
These are generally fleeting thoughts, but the regularity with which they now occur suggests I am in a stage of life commonly known as Middle Age, or that period in which one’s fragility supersedes impulses to partake in roller coasters, Red Bull, chips-as-dinner, or unprotected sex. Or sex at all, if it’s already 9:00, and it’s Friday, and it’s so late...
The death thoughts have lingered, spreading to things we don’t normally attribute life to, and as such, cannot expire. For example, the term. This term has been the worst of my life, and I don’t say that lightly, to the point where I wake up in the morning, count the days left, and envision stabbing those days in the eye, letting them bleed cultural studies terminology all over the floor while I just eff off and read a book somewhere nobody will speak to me. Tip: don’t count the days left of something that seems endless, because it actually makes it longer.
Death of a semester has plagued my dreams, in the forms of students shouting that I do not create inclusive environments, that I never gave them the listening list, that 300 exams didn’t get printed and everyone is staring at me to get it figured out. Such dreams are the manifestation of my inadequacy anxiety, which is not a unique condition especially if you’re a professor, and your attendance is topping out at 10% every week, leading you to surmise it is you because the pressures of a free market economy only go so far in explaining absence from a class where the topics covered range from Beyonce to Rihanna to Lady Gaga and Cher. Come on.
Naturally, that semester death, one rich with suffering for which no drugs have been found to relieve the pain, is symptomatic of a larger death, that of giving a fuck. “Why don’t you guys come to class?” I ask. They answer: we are looking for jobs, you are not a priority, you are not engaging, you don’t force us to be there. I have literally danced for these people, shown them videos like this:
where artists who do still give a fuck are (I hope) changing the world. I’ve given them time off to attend education cuts protests, and discovered them eating pizza in the cafeteria. I’ve enticed them to guest lectures with bribes of essay extensions, and they don’t show up. I can’t make anyone care, and while I could beat myself up over it, there’s a systemic apathy that, like kids watching their parents stare at their smartphones, the students pick up on. You know you have to make us like you to keep your job, they taunt me silently. So, give us good marks.
You know you need to fill your classes for us not to cut sections, says my department. So, give them good marks.
You know kids don’t have time to read, says the university. They are trying to be entrepreneurs! So, pretend to make them read but please don’t actually assess them on their reading comprehension.
Okay, I say, because I would also like to have a bit of time to read myself.
And there ... is my segue. Into a book review! Because I read one book in the last two months, and I would like to write about it.
Mars Room is Rachel Kushner’s latest novel, a book which has garnered attention from those Very Important Men who set the cultural temperature when they have Very Important Conversations with each other. The book is a snapshot of a young woman’s life – life sentence, that is – in a typical American penitentiary. Kushner uses a cross-section of characters, presumably representative of those you’d come across in your run-of-the-mill jail, to sandwich main character Romy’s life as she comes to terms with her, well, term. Some of these side characters get narratives of their own, like Doc, a dirty cop with a predilection for trans women and country music, or Gordon, the supposedly benevolent anthropologist using the women he educates in prison classrooms to raise his self-estimation to ever superior levels. Mostly, though, we’re focused on Romy and her unfortunate life circumstances that led to the current situation, wherein her young son ends up orphaned on the outside and she fails to get the justice system to work in her favour. Her murder of her stalker seems calculated; as the reader, you wonder how calculated you would be in murdering your own stalker because it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a similar response. And though Kushner pushes at trying to make us understand the inherent failures of the American judicial process, she does so through little tidbits of information from her characters’ lives, leading them to small acts that eventually pile into bigger and bigger repercussions. Nobody is going to save any of them.
It wasn’t too hard to see how close contemporary academia is to your average penal colony: administrators favour the big picture metrics over the pee-ons who are exploited as an underpaid workforce to keep the whole thing from collapsing. Small bribes are handed out to the “clients” to keep any sort of simmering revolt at bay. Employees and their charges trade favours along a whispered current of illicit activity. Everyone comes out screwed up in the end, and resistant to participating in collective action because they only care about saving themselves.
In other words, dead inside.
The other thing about Mars Room is its casual treatment of death. I don’t mean death of characters, though that too passes routinely through the book without much surrounding drama. I mean death of a narrative. Kushner isn’t interested in happy endings, or any endings at all, really. You realize as the book finishes that you were just let into this world for a brief period, and shut out again, and over the course of the story not much changed. Sure there were climactic, and dramatic, moments. Yet people flit in and out talking to us, then heading on their way.
Illuminating, perhaps, the way we’re all operating now.