Dear Henry, Dear Liza: the therapy years

Interior, evening, therapist’s office. Couple sits on couch, several large, fabric pillows rest between them. Across the room, by a bookcase and desk, is a woman sitting slightly forward in a large, leather wing-backed chair.

Therapist: So. Why have you come to see me?

Liza: Not sure where things started going wrong. But we know we need help.

Therapist: What do you think, Henry?

Henry: She’s right.

Liza: [sniffs} Well, that’s the first time you’ve said that in years.

Therapist: What do you feel you need help with?

Liza: Communication.

Therapist: Can you say a bit more about that?

Liza: He doesn’t seem to hear what I say. He doesn’t listen.

Henry: I listen just fine. I hear you.

Liza: Well, you don’t act as though you hear me.

Henry: I answer, don’t I?

Liza: If you call those answers.

Henry: I do. I call those answers. You ask questions and I reply. That means I answer.

Therapist: Can we try an exercise? Let’s try to rework a conversation you’ve had recently. Can you think of one that went particularly awry?

Liza: The bucket.

Henry: What happened with the bucket?

Liza: Dear God, man, do you remember nothing? The bucket. There was a hole.

Henry: Oh, right, right. And you were snippy.

Liza: I wasn’t snippy. You were daft.

Henry: I beg your pardon.

Therapist: Hold on. Let’s back up. Let’s have the conversation just as you remember it.

Liza: Fine.

Henry: Do we have to?

Therapist: It’ll help see how you’re communicating and how we can give you both some tools to handle conflict.

Henry: Fine. [turns to Liza} There’s a hole in  the bucket.

Liza. [shrugs and inhales deeply] Then fix it.

Henry: With what?

Liza: I don’t know…with straw, I guess.

Henry: The straw’s too long.

Liza: [sighs] Then cut it.

Henry: With what?

Liza: Jesus, Henry, I don’t care. With the axe, I guess.

Henry: The axe is too dull.

Liza: Then sharpen it, for fuck’s sake.

Henry: With what?

Liza: I’m going to venture a guess on this one, Henry: the whetstone.

Henry: Easy for you to say. The whetstone is dry.

Liza: Are you trying to piss me off? I have work to do, Henry. Wet the thing and leave me alone.

Henry: With what shall I wet it?

Liza: Heaven help me, Henry, you can’t be this stupid. When I married you, you were clever and wonderful, and…Fuck! Wet it with water.

Henry: How will I get water?

Liza: The same goddamn way we always get water, jackass. With the bucket.

Henry: Yes, that would be logical. But as I said before, there’s a hole in the damned bucket!


Therapist: IS that how it ended?

Liza: Yes.

Therapist: And how do you feel about how that conversation?

Liza: It enrages me just to hear the word ‘bucket.’ He does things like this just to make me mad. If he knew there was an irreparable hole in the bucket, why fucking ask me?

Henry: To see if you could help.

Liza: Oh, bullshit. You wanted to make me feel bad.

Henry: Nope.

Therapist: Henry, how does it feel to hear Liza accuse you of trying to make her feel bad?

Henry: Sounds about right.

Therapist: You mean you want her to feel bad?

Henry: No, I mean she says that a lot.

Liza: Because you do.

Therapist: Liza, how do you know Henry’s intentions?

Liza: Because they’re obvious.

Therapist: To you, or to him?

Liza: To me.

Therapist: Let me back you both up for a minute: let’s talk about the bucket.

Liza rolls her eyes and sighs.



Minor Book Spoilers

Thought I’d come right out in the title and say there are spoilers herein, but I won’t start them until I warn you specifically.

The root cause of this post is that I want you to either listen to or read No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers. Go get them both from your library or independent local bookseller. One’s a history, one’s a novel. They’re both remarkable and I must get you to read them. Or, really, listen to them. They both make ideal audiobooks.

Back to the promise of my title…I despise spoilers. I absolutely won’t read the back cover of books or the reviews because there are so darned many clues to the book that I want to discover, not be handed. I don’t want to know before I read a text where the basic story is going. I don’t want to know how many years Mitchell’s new book spans (thanks for nothing, NPR) because even that bit of information sets up an expectation and the beginning of my calculations.

So in this post, I will warn you of minor spoilers (the type most readers don’t mind), and what I call SPOILERS, which are genuinely much less informative or revealing than any major book review is. So I’m overly careful with what I warn you about. Because I try to preserve your unsullied reading experience as much as I can. I prefer to read completely uninformed, and I assume out of kindness that you do, as well.

Completely unwitting is how I began listening to Dave Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?. I knew absolutely nothing about the novel when I downloaded. And after approximately 4 lines, I was completely hooked.

[next paragraph contains minor spoiler about format and structure]
I’m not sure I will listen to many novels on audiobook, because I prefer to read fiction so I can pause, reread, and stop on the visual placeholder of a word rather than hinging on voices. But [minor spoiler alert] Eggers’s book is entirely dialogue. This theatrical set up is very kind to the audiobook format. When I heard the title page and the list of voice actors, I was confused. It’s very rare to have an audiobook have more than one narrator. (Another minor spoiler alert: Gone Girl had two, because the novel has two narrators.) But each character needed a voice for YFWATATPDTLF to function as an aural text.

Holy gobsmacking guacamole salad, y’all. You have to hear this book. I don’t know if you have to read it. I haven’t read it. I’ve only listening to it read by highly skilled voiceover actors. The New York Times Sunday Book Review was not kind to the novel, in part because the reviewer missed several nuanced points about the characters and dialogue. And I believe the audiobook and the actors cast in the roles were the difference between my interpretation and Phil Klay’s.

[Next paragraph contains SPOILER about acting choices in the audiobook version]
The reason Klay missed something rather important may have been that he read rather than heard the book, for he seemed to have not understood that many of the characters seek to fool the main character. They agree with or disagree with him at various times with the intent of beguiling. Klay seems very angry that some of the characters would agree with wildly inappropriate speeches by a character, but the way I heard the text, those agreeing were patronizing the speaker. Perhaps the acting choices of the audiobook performers made me more aware of this. Maybe giving Eggers the benefit of the doubt for having meticulously rendered several highly flawed characters allowed me to see the dialogue for what it was: not Franzian political diatribe but nuanced interpersonal psychological chess.

[End of Spoilers, and you may now laugh at my definition of spoilers. I warned you. I want to know nothing in advance and try to give you the same courtesy.]

I highly recommend listening to Eggers’s novel. As a character study of desperation and humanity, it’s compelling. As an audiobook, it’s ideal.

I also highly recommend listening to Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time. As a historical study in the way personality flaws form the shifting sands on which history explodes, it’s riveting.

[Update and enormous spoiler, November 19, 11pm: Phil Klay just won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel Redeployment. His misinterpretation of an exchange in Eggers’s novel between the main character and the Senator lies in his misreading a suggestion for the isolation of mentally unstable people as a suggestion for the isolation of former soldiers. Eggers does not conflate the two. The main character does. There’s a big difference between the main character thinking he’s like a war survivor, and the Senator humoring him, and Eggers thinking that all war survivors are crazy. Klay simply misunderstands, an error which I believe would be solved hearing the book rather than reading it.]