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Where Things Come Back

March 28, 2012

Sometimes when it feels like things are falling apart around me, I pick up some YA fiction as comfort reading, and it usually helps me get on a more even keel. It was not, however, a good idea to pick up Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley, during the disastrous convergence of the flooding of the shelves where we kept over 7,000 of our books with my series of missteps with a former friend, all sorts of extra activities during the second of three spring breaks, and the deadlines for work that kept interfering with my ability to be home to make decisions for the three different disaster cleanup crews and to take care of all the homeowner’s insurance claim details.

Where Things Come Back is a lovely book—if you’re still an idealistic young person. I am old enough to know better, and so felt that reading this book exacerbated a few of my most exasperating tendencies—like the ostrich tendency, where I bury my head and try to pretend that if I don’t know what’s going on around me, it isn’t really happening. The fictional warnings went right by me, like this one:
“If Gabriel was being very quiet, it meant that whatever he wanted to say, which would have been the truth, was inappropriate. That is one way in which we differed greatly. I often found myself in situations where I had, without thinking, said too much to too many with too little caution.”

As the title indicates, the heartbreaking event of the book, the loss of the narrator’s brother, turns out all right in the end. At one point, the narrator, Cullen, says that he “walked into the living room to find my mom sitting alone and looking at a photo album the way a woman who has one missing child would do. I sat down beside her on the couch. She looked up at me with a sort of what-are-you-about-to-say-to-me-that-I-don’t-want-to-hear? look.” Because Cullen feels helpless to do anything to find his brother, he overthinks everything, wondering “whether or not mercy was given to someone who so continually screwed everything up” and being told that he should “learn how to just calm down and take everything in before trying to pick it all apart.” The times when a person needs to calm down the most, of course, are the times when it’s least possible. My mother used to tell me to “settle down” at least once a day, and I still find it frustrating to try when I’m already wrought up past the point of no return.

Cullen’s reaction to the way the people of his small town treat him after the disappearance of his brother is supposed to be deep and sensitive or something, but it comes out sounding over-simplified:
“I wanted to be offered help from people because they cared about me, not because they felt some strange social obligation to do so. I wanted the world to sit back, listen up, and let me explain to it that when someone is sad and hopeless, the last thing they need to feel is that they are the only ones in the world with that feeling.”

Same for the moral of the story:
“life is so full of complications and confusion that humans oftentimes find it hard to cope. This leads to people throwing themselves in front of trains and spending all their money and not speaking to their relatives and never going home for Christmas and never eating anything with chocolate in it. Life, he says, doesn’t have to be so bad all the time. We don’t have to be so anxious about everything. We can just be. We can get up, anticipate that the day will probably have a few good moments and a few bad ones, and then just deal with it.” This kind of adolescent philosophy is fine in a story where the brother comes marching home again, hurrah. What if he hadn’t? Then Cullen might feel guilty that he hadn’t been even more anxious.

I do love children’s books, and will continue to read YA fiction, but I think there are times when adults need to move themselves past their love for stories about coming of age. I’m going to try moving on to fiction that’s more complicated and harder to understand. Because what is disaster for, if it’s not a moment–as Larkin puts it—to grow wise in?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2012 6:31 am

    I’ve been dying to read this one ever since it won the Printz. It sounds like something I might really love. I know what you mean about wanting to balance more hopeful stories with ones where darkness and tragedy are what they are and we need to try to find ways to live with them, though in my experience there ARE YA novels that provide that (The Fault in Our Stars being a prime example. I really hope it wins the Printz next year).

    • March 29, 2012 8:17 am

      You’re right–The Fault in Our Stars does manage the balancing act better. This one may well have struck me as more facile in comparison to that one. It made me want to shout the line from the Firefly episode called Out of Gas: “sometimes a thing gets broke can’t be fixed.” There’s a subplot about the Lazarus woodpecker that ticked me off, especially because the characters called it the Good God Bird, rather than the Lord God Bird, which I find more evocative.

  2. March 28, 2012 8:52 am

    Interesting. Because when things get complicated and difficult for me, the last thing I want to read is complicated and difficult literature. I want to escape. Enlightenment is for the times when I can hack it. That’s not usually in the thick of things.

    • March 29, 2012 8:19 am

      Maybe it’s how long the difficult patch goes on. This has been a difficult year, and at some point a person has to get past needing comfort all the time.

  3. March 28, 2012 8:56 am

    Ditto what Harriet said. I’m loving the Percy Jackson books right now for that reason –

  4. March 28, 2012 9:05 am

    I know I told you about my obsessive compulsion to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies immediately following our first flood, notification about the condo association lawsuit and Kent’s lay-off notice while I was still unemployed. I really, really needed the forces of good to struggle–mightily–against evil and then prevail.

    But usually I reread Iain Banks. His dark (complicated) works satisfy something in me, something that’s probably very weird and a bit twisted.

    • March 29, 2012 8:22 am

      That gives me an idea. As you know, I usually see in terms of LOTR-type struggles of good and evil, but maybe this is a time when I should look for something weirder and less straightforward.

      • March 29, 2012 1:09 pm

        You know I have a lot of Iain Banks to recommend . . .

        • March 29, 2012 5:23 pm

          But I should try Matter again, right?

          • March 29, 2012 9:32 pm

            Yes. You really should. It’s not happy happy joy joy but the story is quite interesting. I’ve read it now three times.

  5. March 28, 2012 12:43 pm

    Hmmm. I do not know what I like to read when life is awful, which is odd. It’s not that my life has never been awful. I think I also like to read complicated things — things that take a while to read, like W.G. Sebald, maybe, or Murikami, or maybe non-fiction. I read somewhere once that Kafka only read biographies, because he was interested in knowing how other people had figured out how to live, and that makes sense to me. I’m a fast reader, but in my old age I’m enjoying learning how to read slowly — if you only read for 20 minutes on the bus it takes a while to finish a book, and sometimes that’s okay.

    • March 29, 2012 8:25 am

      Maybe reading complicated things is a misery loves company move. Certainly that’s why I was rereading Sherlock Holmes stories this fall (and watching the BBC Sherlock)–because the details all add up, in the end.

  6. Gwendolyn Bailey permalink
    March 29, 2012 12:17 am

    Europeans are fond of snickering about us Americans. American writers, it seems, write for therapy. I was told this often enough to force me into considering its merit.It is true, I think; but on a much more general scale–we all (even Europeans) work out issues through the written word; we deal with people–even the difficult and wonderful ones–through the written word. We even represent those things that make us feel lucky or diligent or even blessed through the written word.

    As far as the comment that was most often repeated in a looking down their noses sort of way, I can reasonably say to those arrogant enough to spout it: You are right. Americans do write for therapy, but we are not alone in that. As we are in life, as we are all experiencing the human and inhumane, as we all search for meaning and patterns, we all write for therapy.

    Is there any other reason we should?

  7. March 31, 2012 2:30 pm


    • March 31, 2012 2:33 pm

      That…was an accident. I was GOING to say, Trapunto one time made a point about how irritating it is to have a glibly happy ending to a grim book. I hadn’t really framed that idea to myself before she said it, but now I think of it all the time. It is irritating, and it’s something that has always bothered me in an inarticulate sort of way. Because yes! Sometimes a thing gets broke and can’t be fixed! (Totally my favorite episode of Firefly, btw.)

      • April 2, 2012 8:35 am

        Trapunto has a way of putting things that makes me remember them, too. This book isn’t really grim, and I can’t say it doesn’t earn its ending, which is more implied than enjoyed. It all just felt like grief lite.

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