Sometime in the last several years (my memory is mushy, call it 2005) I decided that I would no longer pose for photographs (meaning, in this case, those huddled group affairs, the "we're people at a place who can smile" sort of things). In addition, I resolved that I would no longer take posed photographs. Why? Because they are a lie.
"A lie, huh? That's pretty strong, there, Josh. Aren't you being a little too acerbic?"
No, imaginary counterpoint, I'm not. (And big ups for using a fancy word like acerbic and not just saying asshole. You could have. You'd probably be right.)
Here's why: When we're out in public, out enjoying ourselves, we're in a groove, a moment of pure us-ness. When you ask us to pose for a photograph, we are taken out of that rhythm of honesty and forced to enact a fraud, namely that we're all smiling and huddled together at some point, primped for a camera. The camera, a stand-in for a narrative eye if there ever was one, acts on the behalf of others, depicting a view they've missed but that is captured for them, a moment in time to be later reflected upon. The problem with posed photographs is that these moments never really happened, nor would have happened, outside the intervention of the photographer.
The real advent of this decision came via a wonderful little piece of slipshod technology: the cellphone camera. By removing the indicator of capture, that bulky Nikon, and replacing it with a clever little ubiquitous spy, one can move past the inherent feeling of being captured, of preemptive primping and breath-holding, and allow for moments in time to be cut out of the air for posterity. When you don't know you're being watched, you tend to be more honest, and honesty is so much more intriguing than artifice. Not that cellphone photos are ideal, mind you, but their method of capture sure happens to be. They may be dark, they may be grainy, they may be blurred, but they are true.
Now, this isn't to say that I can't be cajoled. I've appeared in photos that weren't purely captured moments, because, let's face it, pretty women make pouty faces that I just can't say no to. But I still refuse to cooperate fully. I photobomb my own likeness, to assure the audience, though more than likely only myself, that I'm not doing this by choice. I'm acknowledging that I know this is a farce and that I'm willing to play along, but damn it, I don't have to like it. Am I accused of ruining the occasional photo? Yes. Do I give a flying fuck? Not in the slightest. It isn't my job to help you lie, dearie, so don't act so put out when I refuse to.
Here's what it comes down to, really: pictures should be capturing the truth, raw and real and revelatory. There's enough fake in the world, and enough fake-makers to populate it. Why be another one?
(A footnote, since I don't know how to make pretty looking footnotes quite yet: if you are pictured here and object, let me know and I'd be glad to replace your less than flattering photo with a different one. I have others that would work just as well.)
Well, see, there are a bunch of reasons. For one, because it is, in fact, a science fictional story and because it is, it is also a story about who we are as seen through another lens. Science fiction, or at least all good science fiction anyway, is an askew view of the normal, a way of looking into things by looking at what they are, are not, could be, could not be but are hoped to be, wanted to be, or even desperately hoped never to be, even as they seem more and more to be that way, at least a little further down the line. They are an extrapolation that points not forwards and not really backwards but at the now and what the now portends.
For another, because it is a time travel story, and to do a time travel story well, as this story most definitely was, one must take some serious forethought into it. Charles Yu has done his homework and shows us that he has without showing us that he did. I know, I know, it's all a bit roundabout, but it doesn't make it untrue. The best sorts of speculative stories adhere to Hemingway's Iceberg Theory. Yu's just happens to be one whopper of an iceberg. A bow breaker of an idea.
For a third, because in the bends and loops and twists that Charles pulls us through, he arrives at these truths that are so true that we know them to be so, know them to be so obvious that we nod along with them, both in acceptance and also in a little inward sort of anger, anger at ourselves for not having thought them before, or thought them so simply or so eloquently as he has. For instance:
"Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years."
See what I mean?
But why, beyond all that, did I love this book? Because it is the kind of story I love the most, a story about fathers and sons. My own impetus toward writing has a great deal to do with, and a great stemming outward from, the conception of the father figure and the role that plays in the construction of the son. What motivates the father also tends to motivate his son, in such a way that we want so badly to be what we know to be good in our lives: what our fathers are, or to be what we know to not be good in our lives: what our fathers were. This struggle between two sorts of ideals, two conceptions of who we are as blurred copies of what we came from, drives young men to greatness and ruin, and has for ages and ages. Stories of fathers are stories of triumph writ large upon the tableau of their sons, and the interaction between the two, especially here, most definitely here, echo the same forces that all young men come to deal with at some point in their lives, whether they prefer to or not. We are our father's sons, either in reflection or in opposition, but that voice drives us in ways we have trouble understanding or accepting. This story was a great example of such.
Pick it up. I highly recommend it.
We have a complicated relationship, you and I. For the longest time I denied you. Held you out of my life as a demon, a mistress of whispered blisses and joy-blind slides down torn and turgid tracks. I heeded the authoritative klaxons, was even awarded for their echo. I was, as defined, good.
I saw you, sure, saw your smirk upon the faces of my friends, your scent on their fingers, turned tightly through their hair, leeching from their pores. I saw your scattered path upon the grass. I wouldn't walk there, though. Not for anything.
Curiosity is a hard thing to brook. When possibility lingers there, always just off the end of your fingers, the current it conjures can overwhelm. So I dipped my toe in the water. I let you whisper on my lips. I didn't feel anything. Not hot, not cold, not happy, not sad. Merely throat burned and muddled, confused. "That's what I was missing, what I was being warned away from? I don't feel anything."
"It's common, the first time, not to. Try it again."
I did. I kissed again.
"This! This is what I was missing! This is what they warned me about? This?!"
I'd been hoodwinked. Again and again I walked that foggy path, our fingers entwined, and again and again I did not die. Didn't ache, didn't hurt, didn't crave through clenched teeth or turn toxic in my need. It wasn't anything but a key to a door I didn't know was there, a door to your little chamber inside myself, a room with a particular sort of view.
It was a beautiful bloom.
We met in parking lots. In alleys and between dumpsters. In rooms with toweled doors and scented candles. Even, when we were feeling frisky, out among the open skies. We were lovers without a love nest, making do with where we were, what we had, who we were. We were young. We were in love.
It has been a rocky romance. You've cost me, dear, cost me more than you've ever paid. You became not merely a jealous lover but a crutch, a method for coping with a world that, whether through your tint or not, I do and can not know, looked harder and harder to exist within. But you were there. Your arms were always open and always so inviting, so warm to the touch, so tender upon the lips. You made it easy, or at least easier.
What one doesn't notice, however, when they depend upon a crutch, is how they tend to atrophy toward its continued use. You were so easy to love that you grew hard to set aside. I brought you everywhere with me, all the time. You were always on my mind, a peach whose nectar flavored everything in reach until the only thing I tasted was your honeyed lips upon my own. I was lost in bliss. And I have to find my way out.
See, here's the thing: It's not you, it's me. I can't go on like this, living like you and I are all there is. Because we're not. I'm not. I'm so much more than this, than our little corner of this great big world. And I'm holding myself back, if only to be with you. I can't anymore. I'm sorry.
Look, we knew it would be this way. That it couldn't be forever. I set dates, drew lines, and yet broke them and crossed them to be with you and you alone. But I can't any longer. This can't go on. It has to end here.
We'll go our separate ways, you and I, walk our separate paths where they diverge, here, at the tips of our toes. I'll walk along a while, feeling our ways wander apart across each passing mile. I'll be alright alone. I will.
I won't say I won't miss you. That I won't look back. But I must be Orpheus and you my Eurydice. You must stay and I must trudge on, alone, and even empty a while, but whole again.
Goodbye, proud Mary, goodbye.