This is just to say or Why I’m not reading a Marilynne Robinson novel right now

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I love you, all of you friends who have told me how beautiful the world is, how much there is to cling to, how much hope there is to savor, how much sadness there is to weep when you are reading Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and you haven’t talked about Lila really yet, but I’m gonna put it on here. But it’s my spring break, and I’m going to read something that has been on my list since before I knew I had a list, when I was curled up on my little oversized twin bed with my flannel oversized twin sheets in my dorm room my senior year shuddering, mostly from the frosty window that let out too much heat but also because I was reading about Rastignac returning again and again to the casino bringing back to Delphine large sums of money that she said she needed to survive her marriage and about Madame de Beauséant weeping at the window of her mansion when she sees her fiançé speeding off in his coach in the wrong direction and Balzac commenting “The most horrible catastrophes are nothing but this in the great world,” which at first I thought meant “First-world problems” but then was reassured by my cousin that he was speaking the straight truth. After all, I might have been jaded. I bought my French copy of Le Père Goriot at the used books store in Lewisburg from a Marxist ex-economics professor, and there were other things I missed, as I discovered the next summer when talking to David about Thackeray and comparisons between the melancholy  solitude of his characters and the apparent, according to Barnes and Noble introductions, gaiety of Balzac’s world–it is a world, a “buzzing beehive,” an “ocean,” but I must have focused too much on the measured but still reckless-feeling cruelty of, like, Vautrin and the muddled loneliness of Eugène to notice the liveliness, the joie-de-vivre of the characters when they sit at the dinner table and dance with words and passions and possibilities, which I must have felt but which still came as a shock when, again, I read the Introductions at the front of these books I was purchasing. I had read Balzac before–Eugènie Grandet, which I recommended not once but twice: “It’s the story of a greedy,” I said the first day back in America, then corrected myself because adjectives can’t just become nouns in English. “It’s short,” I said, “for Balzac.” Crucial. And “Its redemptive.” Literally redemptive. I won’t give away the ending, but it was so firmly planted in my memory that the other day when I lay in bed listening to the Blood on the Tracks album I was certain Bob Dylan was talking about it: “Then he started into dealing with slaves / and something inside of him died.” Could have been about anyone. But reading Le Père Goriot on all those Saturdays senior year cemented two things, one was related to my ego which is obviously still blossoming, but the other was that I loved Balzac and no matter what they say he has a piece of my heart. Even if I disagree about how apparent is his gaiety. And really, considering the evidence, how could something in him not have spoken to me? It was a crisis when I thought I missed something so permanently fixed in the imaginations of his readers across the two centuries. I felt a wound.

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So, when I was in New York last November and I came across La Cousine Bette which had been recommended on Yahoo answers as a good place to start Balzac if one is not ready for Le Père Goriot–(I had great French professors, but I was in a literary and social delirium my senior year, returning again and again to that bookstore, looking for French titles, buying “Tom Jones,” feverishly writing poems I’d like to share with someone but probably never will, because of their eroticism, and I apparently couldn’t bother to find a credible source on a favorite author)–I was pleased to see on the back cover the following review from André Maurois–whoever he is–but he said: “Balzac never wrote anything more atrocious or more beautiful,” and I felt like a curtain was opened for me and André Maurois’s steady French hands were beckoning me through, not to my first love, but to a love, a very special one.

I waited patiently until Christmas break to read it, and then Ryan bought me a very nice Christmas present, Gabriel Garcìa Marquéz’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was breathtakingingly beautiful–so beautiful that I recently told my pastor that even though I was reading it in translation I felt like I was reading Spanish, which is probably a lie because the only time I’ve ever read in Spanish is when I was leaving a restaurant and the Open/Abierto sign ticked against the glass door. It was a book that began like an obligation to a dear friend and ended like a dear friend.

So I am ready to read Balzac again. Guiltily. Unguiltily. I’m still deciding. Actually the Marilynne Robinson jury is still out deciding my guilt. But I don’t think I can bear it–I don’t care how beautiful the world I’m missing is–if I have to wait one more night to be back in Balzac’s arms, to hear his radiant jokes, his whispers, to listen to his outrageous sentences on Paris (in both senses), his characterizations of the provinces and her sad pleading people, to feel the surging power some might call gaiety that he brings to the story. Some books are puddles. Some let the rain fall. Some boil. Some drip like leaky faucets. Some hiss like tea kettles. Balzac finds his stories in a giant doormat left out in the rain. With great strength he lifts the heavy mat, holds it to our faces (never his), and he rings it out–violently, tenderly, knowingly. He rings it out–the sometimes putrid, sometimes saturating dampness collecting underneath our feet–in order to tell the truth, to find the water (all truth is water), to let us into our own home.

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The article of affection: Southern Californians and their freeways

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Conversations among thoughtful people have explained the words Southern Californians use for their freeways. They were so accustomed to using names–the Pacific Coast Highway, the Santa Ana Freeway, etc.–that they kept the “the” when numbers became conventional. I’ve argued, true Northern Californian that I am, that this is the wrong way to do things. Sometimes, I’ve even felt shame when I’ve let it slip out, like this morning when I said, “Isn’t Ashland (of all places) on the 5?” I cringed.

In Northern California, along with the rest of the country, I should say, the way we refer to our freeways is like a mark of familiarity, even of affection. We say “Get on 80,” as if it were as simple as resuming a conversation with someone already in the room, “Stay on 49” as if we were looking for a place to crash for the night, “Take 101 all the way down,” in the same voice that we would say “Take Mom to the grocery store.” The highways are present with us.

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Highway 99, for instance. It clings to the morning mist and sculpts itself in wide curves through the San Joaquin Valley’s flatness. It’s also a wild ride. If it’s not the traffic, it’s the construction that was abandoned five years ago. “Pray for me, I’m taking 99 to Fresno,” we say. #99problems (@Jay-Z)

Or 70. It snakes up eastward out of the yellow valley, losing itself in chilling mountain streams and cliff shadows before bubbling out into the windswept high dessert that takes its travelers back and forth from Reno. Every moment of 70 in California is an experience of loneliness, even Marysville.

Or take 5. Maybe I-5–same vowel sound–but never “the 5.” It’s ugly, it’s massive, and it isn’t going anywhere, which is as much a reason to hit the road as it is to wait for the right time at the start of the morning.

Because the highways are always with us, writhing along with our economies and connections or converting our spirit of adventure into a roar of fossil fuels, trash, and rumpled billboards, we don’t need to insert extra words, extra letters, extra articles to call them by their own name.

A definite argument

And yet I wonder if the Southern Californian reliance on the “the” is not another form of affection for the well-known highways. I say “highways” in plural, because it seems that any place down south, however secluded, is in constant relationship with the network. No man is a Joshua Tree unto himself.

When we say “the,” when we use the definite article, we imply that we know the thing we are speaking of, and not only that, but we expect others to share this knowledge. “Take the book off the bookshelf and put it in the car.” To say this is to welcome someone into our home, into our bedroom, to take something we have touched with our hands and take it to some common space. “Look at the bird,” we say as if speaking to a child. It doesn’t matter if we do not what kind of bird it is, or where it came from–just that in this moment the two of us behold the same vision, or (can I say it?) see the same truth.

There is an intimacy in the word “the.” It is not the same closeness, the full-breathed familiarity of Northern California. Its intimacy is in the precision, the exacting of time and space within a community, not of searching but of finding some thing to latch onto. And in Southern California, where talking about traffic has become as traditional as talking about the weather (in places where the weather changes throughout the day and week), saying “the” is the very consciousness of articulating, in a dizzying world of concrete, and metal, and heat, “This is the direction you need to take to get to the place you need to be.”

The “the”: I may dispute the clunkiness, the weightiness, and the narrowness, but I do not deny it a place, especially if it comes from such a measureless source of affection that all Californians share–for better, for worse–for our freeways.