Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Non-Sleepy Exhaustion

 The Leftovers is a show to watch and wonder why and how one enjoys television. Alternately reviewed as the bleakest show on television, the most brutal, and even, television S&M, The Leftovers is now rightly earning recognition as the best show on television. The second season, it turns out, is even better than the first. Yes, The Leftovers is a show to be enjoyed. There is dark humor and plenty of puzzle: blackouts, ghosts, chain-smoking occultists dressed head-to-toe in white, murky histories, sane fathers, and even, in a strange throwaway moment this season, Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers. Cousin Larry, of course, is one of the non-leftovers, that 2% of the world that one day went missing and never came back. Three years later the leftovers still struggle to make sense of their absence, to grieve and hope and wonder, and essentially, to plod along in the world, alternately terrified and liberated, depending on the person, the day of the week, the place, the efforts of said occultists to never let anyone ever forget that part of the world disappeared and has never come back. It is to the show’s great credit that the event--Rapture? scientific phenomenon? hoax?--is taken as fact, documented but never explained. The periodic flashbacks to the particular day of the disappearance are less contrived and more fluid in their structure and sequencing than Lost’s similar then-now schism (Damon Lindelof created both shows). We learned what happened without ever skewing toward some ah-ha! why. Here’s hoping that Lindelof, et al, continue to let that mystery be, which seems possible, even likely, since the current season’s credits newly run to Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be,” a new recording of the old classic that previously closed down the series finale of Northern Exposure.

The persistent knock on The Leftovers is that it is exhausting and too dark. Indeed, the show is set in shades of bleakness. But that bleakness rewards its viewing with some mighty moments of catharsis and, if not quite hope, then allegorical uncertainty. Watching The Leftovers is to experience e.e. cumming's famous beach visit, that whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it's always ourselves we find in the sea. I like what Emily Nussbaum said about The Leftovers, that it is, in essence, a show about “grief and terror… [that] captures the disorientation of grief in a way that is provocative and rare for television.” I would add that the show also gives a realistic sense of how people live with loss, in that complicated range of choices that distinguish a middle ground of simultaneously living with and after. My favorite characters on The Leftovers struggle to do it well. I can’t think of the word for it. Grace seems high-handed, vaguely sacred. Withstanding, a little too self-congratulatory. Perhaps what I admire is the honesty of watching characters who live practically with grief, rolling the rock each time a little further up the hill. Certainly, they are not models of past-purging self-help, though in a clever twist, a whole cottage industry of counseling, insurance, life-like replicas, and pseudoscience thrives in the three-years-later world of the show.

Exhaustion is a key talking point among friends these days. With the kids stuck up on the play structure, or a babysitter safely installed at home, we wear our exhaustion with honor, alternately lamenting the bad exhaustion—kid is sick (again!), second and third dinners of (what else?) noodles, where can one possibly plant a succulent in the yard that it doesn’t get unearthed a few hours later by tiny hands—and glorying in the good exhaustion. How many cute photographs can one take of a Halloween pumpkin? Have we shown you the numbers chart? Did we tell you about the time our son brought over the Kit-Kat to share with Mom because he had given me his box of Dots to Dad and didn’t want her to feel left out? What empathy! Such sweet boys. Hard to believe he is the same boy who refuses to touch any part of the Chipotle brown rice that has already touched the cilantro, or caterwauls to the heavens the predictable and shocking arrival of bedtime. How else should we account for the burst of color in our monotonous and delicious mounds of salted, whole grain goodness? I suppose what strikes me in such moments is the boy's failsafe-seeming action of living explicitly in two modes. One moment, humane exemplar. The next, rice catastrophic. There seems little middle ground, which makes life intense and vibrant, and prone to enormous inflections of emotion. All healthy, normal, yes, of course. And so vivid!

I’ve been listening to Surf on a near constant loop the last couple of days. I know very little about Chance the Rapper, much less Donnie Trumpet or The Social Experiment, any of whose name I suspect could be a giant put-on; that, as soon as I publish this post I’ll get a few emails to the effect of, Oh, wow, you really fell for that one, eh? I only found my way to Chance (another fear: his fans call him something familiar, and writing “Chance” is the equivalent of that time in college I tried to impress a stranger by insisting, oh yes, I was absolutely familiar with the work of ANN-IE DI-FRAHNK-OH) because a few of my students recommended the album. Ask an honest question. I love especially “Sunday Candy,” a song about familial love, in particular a grandmother’s unwavering “president of my fan club” affections, with lovely shades of the ecstatic and spiritual alongside the grand-paternal:

“Let the Mystery Be” was the song that Amanda sang at Katie and I’s wedding. I’ve written elsewhere about going to see John Prine and Iris DeMent at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2002. I think of that song still as particularly “Katie,” one she loved, whose worldview suited hers, and whose elegant guitar accompaniment she instantly recognized. It made her smile. "Let the Mystery Be" is a song I find myself listening to around the time of her birthday, and again, in June. I don’t mean to put a particularly dramatic marker in the ground for the song, by the way. Much of my affection for it was diminished in those weeks and months after Katie died, if only that listening to it became at least as much a memory of grieving as it was of so many wonderful evenings. When I hear the song at the start of The Leftovers, I feel as though some cosmic force in the universe has twinned the wonderful and awful in an incredibly convenient and personal way: that I can hear the song, watch for all the disappeared faces and bodies in the credits, and recognize that strange mix of resignation and rawness that is sometimes thinking about one life while living in the next. I mentioned to a friend recently that it was Katie’s birthday, what would have been the start of her fortieth year (just to be clear, she would have turned 39 this past October 27), and my friend asked whether I thought about Katie still. Pretty much every day, I said. Was I supposed to say something else, I wondered? This is my life. That was, too. She's right at the heart of all of it.

I won’t admire particular moments from The Leftovers, if only to avoid spoilers for what turns out to be a very nuanced and well-developed plot. I do hope that you’ll watch it, and then tell everyone you know what great taste I have. Seriously, I really do thing its worth the investment of time and frustration, even bleakness. When I think of shows that I absolutely love—Friday Night Lights, The West Wing, Lost, The Office, Veronica Mars—I think of some unspoken and satisfied expectation that each satisfies, to make me think and feel some excess of what I think I know about the world, my life, the people I love, all of our regrets, hopes, failures, ambitions, etc. Like Lost, The Leftovers presents infinite variations on an impossible proposition. We live with or we live after. We live with and we live after. There is no moral or ethical aspect to the proposition, or even, consistency to when or where it is well-applied or ignored. But the choice shapes us. Whenever I watch The Leftovers, I’m left feeling engaged and alive, if pretty exhausted. I suppose the exhaustion is a fair indication of my own vitality. The life I return to from the week’s latest episode is recognizable and beautiful, precious and fleeting, and marked fairly by the absurdity that is loving anything, much less loving it well:

It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd. Discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Edipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men. (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)

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