Monday, August 19, 2002

Range of Motion by Elizabeth Berg

I want to talk to you this morning about another little city book. I mean by that expression, a book short enough and engaging enough to be read by busy city workers in a few days rather than a few weeks or months. I have talked about this author before, Elizabeth Berg. The title of the little book I am reviewing today is Range of Motion.

As I have mentioned before, I prefer talking to you about books that are current to me and about us, here, now. Were this not my guiding principle, I may not have discussed this book today, because I do not think it is a great book, and there are plenty of great books I might have chosen instead. Still, I think the underlying message of this book is an important one, and the author is so emotionally astute that one always gets considerable insights that are simply asides to the main story.

Iris Murdoch
, one of the truly great novelists and philosophers of the last half of the 20th century likes to remind us over and over that the world is chancy and huge and that there is no external telos—no human independent purpose for human existence. As maddening as it can be for a reader, Murdoch often takes us through some long and painful development of a character, brings that character very close to some sort of world-shaking realization, some momentous reconciliation, and then a page or two later, allows our emerging hero to die due to a fall on the ice, a traffic accident, or some other whim of chance. And while the reader may be crushed by the chance turn of events, and mad at the author for letting it happen, Murdoch’s intentions are very deliberate; she wants her novels to mirror life, and life is full of chance turns, of what is so often called luck. As the current (and I think excellent movie) “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing” reminds us, if we do not believe in luck, that is often enough simply an indication that we are experiencing a run of good luck, and we have become so used to it that we think somehow we have earned it, that we deserve it, that it is meant to be. But nothing is meant to be, and the test of our characters will occur when our luck changes, when we are faced with some sudden illness or death of a loved one.

Range of Motion is about just such a chance event. A young couple with two young children who, unlike many of us, is not only happy but aware of their happiness and of their luck in love has it all tumble down in a moment. The husband is struck by ice falling off of a roof, and from that moment, the lives of all four change drastically. In a coma that it seems unlikely he will ever awake from, his wife, Lainey, visits him daily, first in the hospital, and then in a long-care nursing home, trying to bring to him each day some part of his life that might miraculously awaken him from his long sleep. Most of the staff at the nursing home laugh at her feeble efforts; they have seen too many cases of this sort, watched confidence change to hope, hope to despair.

On the jacket of this book there is a review that calls it the love story of the year, and I suppose one could see it that way. But I doubt that is Berg’s intention. Yes, Lainey loves her husband, Jay, and continues to love him even as he lies silent and helpless. But she also wonders if she should go on hoping, if she should keep her children hoping. Is it a favor to them to keep her doubts to herself? Shouldn’t she at least attempt to start some new life, if not for herself, then for her children? And how could this have happened, to her, to them? How could she have allowed it, how could he have deserted them? And on and on with the unanswerable questions, while in her lucid moments, she sees it for what it is, simple chance. She and her children do not deserve the loss any more than they deserved the happiness that had before.

Although I have no way of knowing whether Berg has ever read Murdoch, one could easily believe that she has taken this theme of the huge and chancy world laid out by Murdoch and decided to do a kind of phenomenology of luck, show just how chance plays itself out in the lived-life of some particular family. This particular story reminding us all as readers not to be smug, not to suppose so quickly or so easily that those who are less fortunate somehow deserve their misfortune, that they have somehow fallen from grace. Our protection, our safety-net, is an illusion; we are only a chunk of ice, a traffic accident, a virus away from pain and death and hopeless despair.

Of course, I have no intention of giving away any of the particulars of the story, and even in what I quote from the book, I will quite intentionally omit any parts that give away the outcome. But don’t expect a good outcome, either in your own life or in the lives of these characters. Chance is real, destiny is an illusion. But let me have Lainey (and I am supposing Berg) speak for herself in the Epilogue:
I am living on a planet where the silk dresses of Renaissance women rustled, where people died in plagues, where Mozart sat to play, where sap runs in the spring, where children are caught in crossfire, where gold glints from rock, where religion shines its light only to lose its way, where people stop to reach a hand to help each other to cross, where much is known about the life of the ant, where [gifts are as accidental as losses], where the star called sun shows itself differently at every hour, where people get so bruised and confused they kill each other, where baobabs grow into impossible shapes with trunks that tell stories to hands, where rivers wind wide and green with terrible hidden currents, where you rise in the morning and feel your own arms with your own hands, checking yourself, where lovers’ hearts swell with the certain knowledge that only they are the ones, where viruses are seen under the insistent eye of the microscope and the birth of stars is witnessed through the lens of the telescope, where caterpillars crawl and skyscrapers are erected because of the blue line on the blueprint--I am living here on this planet, it is my time to have my legs walk the earth. ... I am saying that all of this, all of this, all of these things are the telling songs of the wider life, and I am listening with gratitude, and I am listening for as long as I can, and I am listening with all of my might.

No comments:

Post a Comment