Monday, January 17, 2000

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb

I want to talk to you this morning about a book by Wally Lamb entitled I Know This Much Is True. Published in 1998, this book is now available in a paperback edition.

I often begin these little reviews by remarking that the book reviewed is one that is short enough to be read by busy city readers in a sitting or two. This is not one of those books; instead, it is a nine hundred page monster, and I think it is important to take this book on when you have the time to read it in at most weeks, at best in a few days. Few of us would think of going to a movie or renting one and then watching it in five minute installments over a period of weeks or months, and yet we often do that with books, wondering why we are unable to really get into the book. Were we to watch a movie in this way, we would blame ourselves rather than the movie if it failed to hang together for us; I suggest that we give books (especially this one) the same break.

This is a book about twins, one of whom happens to be a paranoid schizophrenic, but because of the perceptiveness of the author and the meticulous care in development of characters, it is much more than that. I doubt any of us who have siblings could read this book without being launched into memory after memory of our own growing up, of sibling rivalry and love, care and jealousy. I found myself almost constantly remembering how I was looked after and cared for by a brother two years older than I, about his nearly obsessive sense of responsibility for me. I was so close to this brother that I can remember distinctly supposing that we were somehow one person, that he knew everything that I thought, could anticipate my fears, understand my dreams. There was a price for this closeness later in our lives when his care turned to a kind of envy and anger about what he saw as special attention I received from parents and older siblings. I understood only too well how loving attention can have a flipside of envy and anger and jealousy.

I’m sure such memories will be triggered for most readers of this book, and we readers will be invited to imagine what it would have been like had this so-close other been a twin, and more, a twin who progressively loses what has always been a tenuous grip on reality. Imagine the sense of care and responsibility for this so familiar other; imagine the fear that we might soon be as adrift as he; imagine the shame we might feel if and when we dream of being released of the burden of care and fear for this ghost self.

There are so many parallel themes running through this excellent and emotionally rich book. Lamb seems to have an understanding of male anger that I have seldom seen, especially in a male author. Oddly enough, though I could see clearly that Lamb was pointing out the dangers of male anger, pointing out the tremendous damage inflicted on his mother by a tyrannical father, the awful fear and emotional badgering inflicted on him and his brother by a jealous and hard step-father, I would find myself putting the book down feeling anger smoldering in me, as if Lamb’s plumbing the depths of male anger (in warning) somehow unearthed not sufficiently repressed pools of anger in myself. I was often confused by my own reactions to this book, but I did not doubt for a second the lucidity of the author or the importance of his investigation of men's’ emotional responses.

In my judgment, this is one of the truly great books dealing with the phenomenon of male anger and emptiness that has been written in the past fifty years. My experience has been that emotional intelligence has been expressed almost entirely and only by women authors; male authors display destructive anger and emotional atrophy, but they seem seldom to understand or intelligently analyze that anger or the apparent lack of depth in their own male heroes. Lamb seems painfully aware of how often men run from grief, turn away from almost all emotional expression, or, at best, cover all responses with silence and/or anger.

Not surprisingly, it is the schizophrenic brother who is the target for most of the anger of the stepfather. Thomas, the quiet and shy twin who clutches onto his mother, who refuses to act like a little man, is emotionally battered by his stepfather who is convinced Thomas needs to be toughened in order to survive. Dominick, who attempts to protect both his mother and his brother from the battering nevertheless feels always guilty that he is able to sidestep the worst of the battering, to hide the fear and tears that invite only more and harsher attacks. By acting tough, he deflects the worst of the attacks, and, at times he is almost as disgusted by the weakness he sees in his mother and brother as his terrible stepfather is. At other times, he identifies with the weak ones, hates the stepfather, but always he keeps hidden the jealousy he feels for the attention the weak brother receives from his mother.

Often after reading a book of this size, I wish that I could have been given the chance to do a final edit, to cut out a third or a half of the book and make it better, leaner, more elegant. But throughout this painful monologue of one man trying to discover himself, trying to save his brother, find his father and somehow get back at, even destroy his stepfather, I remained convinced that he needed every page, every new detour, every painful discovery. As sad and full of anger as this book is, it is also one that convinces the reader of the liberatory and saving power of self analysis. It is a hopeful book, even a story of triumphant redemption.

So far I have talked only of the relationship of the two brothers and of their parents, but Lamb also manages to tell us a lot about why men often fare so badly in marriage, so often turn to drugs or silence or anger instead of allowing themselves to feel, to grieve, to admit their own fears and weakness. He shows us the worst in men, but always one feels that his intent is to make men better. Even the tyrannical stepfather is portrayed in a way that allows us to understand how he can act as he does though at the same time condemning his brutal acts.

This is a book that richly deserves the time commitment to read it, to enter into its world as completely as one can (in spite of the pain both from empathy and from memory). I am willing to say that it is one of best books written by a man in the last century. I am certainly going to read his other book, She’s Come Undone.

Let me give you just one little quote from the book, a quote that I thinks gets at much that is of importance in it. Thomas, the schizophrenic brother, turns to his brother, the healthy one:
“That’s the trouble with the survival of the fittest, isn’t it Dominick? The corpse at your feet. That little inconvenience.”

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