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[369] Force of Gravity – R.S. Jones

” In his other life, the simplest details had stumped him. He could not imagine how he might shop, work, do his banking, unconsciously, as others did. He did not know how to free himself from what he had become. ” (III 3:281)

Force of Gravity is nothing like Walking on Air, the psychological study of a man with terminal illness who fears his two closest friends would abandon him. Both novels are character-driven, but Force of Gravity, the debut of late R.S. Jones, takes readers into the mind of a clearly crazy person, Emmet Barfield—and stuck right there. He never gains a greater understanding of his world, which he finds surreal, oppressive, and claustrophobic.

From the time he was a child, Emmet had sensed an oddness about himself that made strangers wary. (I 9:77)

Paranoid, OCD, and yet reasonable and meticulous, he is strange from the beginning. He does grocery shopping at night when the market is slow to avoid prying eyes of others. He has the compulsion to document every happening in the city and position with thumb-tacks on the map. He knows all violation codes by heart. He records phone conversations. He adopts a cat from the shelter to keep his dog’s company. After a break-in at his dilapidated apartment, he diverts mails to an address in Casper, Wyoming to dodge letters from his landlord demanding. To bill collector he informs that Emmet has died in the robbery.

He was afraid to bring him to his room. Emmet was ashamed to be tainted by the delusions of the others, as if even in the hosiptal ward, he might keep his brother from believing he was mad. (II 9:240)

Emmet is going crazy—without his knowing, but Force of Gravity is less about what it means to be sane than about what it means to be human. He who thinks with shame and horror about everything is both so out of touch with the world and is keeping in pace with it. He is ultra sensitive to the most trivial details. Sanity is after all relative and there exists a subtle difference between madness and insanity. Madness is ubiquitous, penetrating even into daily lives and working of the government, wielding power that those in possession of none can only conform. Madness is more outrageous than crazy, because madness is tolerated and becomes something people are inured to, like background drone.

Although the book doesn’t indue my sympathy or gratitude, and certainly doesn’t live up to the satisfaction from Walking on Air, it portrays a reality more real than what we choose to see and believe. Substitute “patients” with “people” and change “ward” to any public venue like “mall” or “the street” (maybe even “zoo”?) and that would be the reality for most of us. Does that reality make us more sane? Maybe insanity is when one spirals further and further away from ordinary reality, the “majority” reality to some extraordinary reality that hardly anyone can relate to.

320 pp. Perennial softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[348] Walking on Air – R.S. Jones

” He had liked to think that the bargain he made in surrendering to William was to trade the ruptures of the past that once played him for days that slipped easily into the next. But now he felt that he was becoming lost along with William, or that he might be falling ever faster, because he held onto a life that spun recklessly about him, while William slept to his own, find end. ” [28:227]

Grief has a long memory for those who survive the dead. And those who are true friends to the dead have no choice but to learn the secrets that the dead know. Far more dreadful than death is how the living have to bear with such menace of death that seems far enough from their own life. Walking on Air is the survivor’s story of one who did not survive; it’s also the story of the awful burden placed by the dying upon those who love them.

He came to hate their awkwardness, the cheap bouquets of flowers they brought, or the boxes of candy he would never eat. Sometimes his mind howled with fury at their abandonment, daring them to endure half as well as he had the long assault of a terminal disease. Sometimes he was kept awake by waves of hatred and resentment, wishing each of them would die. [17:140]

William Addams is dying. Caught in the twilight between life and death where he needs no identity beyond his disease, his unhappiness is so great that it knows no bounds. Estranged from his family, William is consumed by his fear that his two best friends, Henry and Susan, will abandon him. Although deserving of profuse sympathy, he is flawed to a terrifying degree, especially in the ways he inflicts his long, drawn-out dying upon his friends. As if it were a test of his friends and lovers and our moral meaning, William’s slow dying, asserting nuances of pain and ailments, forces his final caregivers to endure humiliation, frustration, moral struggle and guilt, as he demands, somewhat manipulating, a level of devotion that transcends the commitment of even a next-to-kin, to the point where they almost wish for his death to come. On the edge of a nervous breakdown, Henry, an elementary school teacher who makes a scarce living, reflects that he has surrendered his own life to caring for his friend, who in turn cheats him out of everything Henry has believed in their friendship.

(Henry) knew the dean assumed he meant his boyfriend, his lover, his companion, his mate—whatever term he used to describe a sexual relationship. William was none of these things to Henry, or not in the sense a stranger would intend it, but he wanted to leave that impression because there didn’t seem to be a category of platonic friend who deserved the degree of mourning or care due a lover, a parent, a wife, or a child. [18:148]

Written in a quietly menacing prose, with sharp dialogue often separated by prolonged, deep ponderous prose, Walking on Air in keeping our parameters of devotion in check, it invokes inevitable consequence of terminal disease/death that is often left unaddressed, out of fear and disgrace. It ponders how the illness has stolen from the afflicted the ignorance upon which promises were built. Although the context is AIDS, never for once is this mentioned in the novel—implying the universality of the subject matter: We all are likely someday to find ourselves either in Henry’s position or in William’s and in many cases both. It all boils down the one simple question: Are we going to die alone? Invoking a gamut of emotions that sometimes make the book very difficult and depressing to read, this is a moral story well told.

253 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]