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I Know This Much is True ()


The Image Top 100 Books of the Century

It was Oprah's Book Club and the selection of Wally Lamb's prior novel, She's Come Undone, that catapulted him into the rank of mega-bestselling authors, but it's in this novel that he really achieves the apotheosis of Oprahfication.  This encyclopedia sized (901 pages), fatalistic, disease-of-the-week compendium of every hot button issue that's ever been discussed on an afternoon talk show, is supposed to sum up the history of men in the past half century.  What it really does is to make the female argument for what men should be like, which, of course, is that we should be more like women.

The story is narrated by Dominick Birdsey, a school teacher, later a house painter, from Three Rivers, Connecticut.  He and his twin brother Thomas were born on opposite sides of New Year's Eve in  1949.  Their mother Concettina, besides being hare lipped, was the kind of powerless doormat of a woman who makes even a troglodyte like me thankful for feminism.  No one will tell the boys who their real Father was, and their step-father, Ray, brutalized the whole family, verbally and physically.

As the novel opens, Thomas, who is paranoid/schizophrenic, cuts off his hand in the local library as a kind of sacrificial propitiation to halt the coming Gulf War.  He ends up institutionalized and Dominick works to get him released, having promised his dying mother that :

    I'll take care of him for you, Ma.  I'll make sure he's safe.  You can go now.

Meanwhile, Dominick starts seeing a therapist, Dr. Patel, and she forces him to deal with a variety of problems, mostly stemming from the anger he's bottled up inside over the course of his forty some odd years, anger at the Father he doesn't know, his harsh step-father, his mother and the favoritism she showed towards Thomas and towards Thomas himself.  Finally, on page 660, they have a breakthrough :

    All that writing she'd been doing the last couple sessions was making me nervous.  When she
    looked up again, I nodded down at her pad.  'What are you working on there?'

    On me, she said, my dilemma.  My fears were becoming clearer and clearer to her.  She had just
    then been listing them.  Did I want to hear her list?

    Unsure whether I wanted to or not, I said I did.

    First and foremost, she said, I was afraid that the shadow of my brother's schizophrenia would
    descend on me--of course I was.  As an identical twin, how could I not fear it?  Second, I
    seemed to be--and she would use my phrase, she said--'scared s***less' that the world would fail to
    recognize the distinctions between my brother and me--understand that we were two separate
    people.  'And then there is your third apprehension.' she said, 'the one which I am just now
    beginning to better understand.'

    'Yeah?' I said. 'What's that?'

    My third apprehension, as she saw it, was that there were, perhaps, fewer distinctions between my
    brother and me than I would like.  Than I had acknowledged.

    ...

    'What I suspect,' she said, 'is that you share some of your brother's sweetness, his gentleness and
    vulnerability--his weakness, as you put it--and that that has frightened you.  And that, perhaps, it is
    the constant denial of those qualities in yourself which has exhausted you.  Made you sick.'

    ...

    She saw it over and over again in her male patients, she said--it could probably qualify as an
    epidemic among American men: this stubborn reluctance to embrace our wholeness--this stoic
    denial that we had come from our mothers as well as our fathers.  It was sad, really--tragic.  So
    wasteful of human lives, as our wars and drive-by shootings kept proving to us; all one had to do
    was turn on CNN or CBS News.  And yet, it was comic, too--the lengths most men went to to
    prove that they were 'tough guys.'  The gods must look down upon us, laughing and crying
    simultaneously.

(Notice that those three quotes are separated by my insertion of ellipses, indicating that excess text has been deleted.  You don't stretch a book out to 900+ pages by getting to the point.)  Now bear in mind that we also learn the boys mother was fond of dressing Thomas up in girls clothing and playing with him in a special way in private.  This would presumably have contributed significantly to his mental problems, though Lamb seems to be suggesting that his schizophrenia comes from the hostile reaction of Dominick and Ray to his bifurcated nature, part male and part female.  And Thomas eventually commits suicide after Dominick succeeds in getting him deinstitutionalized.  At any rate, it's awfully hard to credit the idea that Dominick would be better off if he were more like his mother and brother.

Assume though that Lamb is trying to make the broader point that men need to embrace a feminine side of themselves.  This is the emotional and emotive side of the personality and as such is ultimately self-centered.  As opposed to reason, it filters all of life exclusively through the lens of the self and, therefore, is subjective, fatalistic, self-indulgent, and self-pitying.  As Dominick says at one point :

    Life didn't have to make sense, I'd concluded: that was the big joke. Get it? You could have a
    brother who stuck metal clips in his hair to deflect enemy signals from Cuba, and a biological
    father who, in 33 years, had never shown his face, and a baby dead in her bassinet . . . and none of
    it meant a . . . thing. Life was a whoopee cushion, a chair yanked away just as you were having a
    seat. What was that old Army song? We're here because we're here because we're here because
    we're here.

This all may even be true as far as it goes; perhaps each of our lives is a wholly self-contained existential tragedy, if for no other reason than that we end up dead.

On the other hand, what we'll call the masculine side (given the dynamic of this story) looks at life objectively and places the self in some broader perspective.  You and I will end up dead, as our fathers and grandfathers and mothers and grandmothers before us have or will, but together we are all achieving something, as a species and as a culture we are making thrilling advances in science, medicine, standards of living, etc.  It is not that the self is unimportant, rather that the self is most important in combination with all the other selves out there.  Life is not a tragedy, it's a triumphal progression, which we're lucky to be a part of and have a chance to contribute to.  Maybe it's just me, but I'm not seeing much that's attractive about the feminine side.

I honestly just don't get this perverse desire of women to wallow in the difficulties that life throws up at us, but here are just a few of the topics covered and ailments present in this book :

    deformity

    insanity

    AIDs

    diabetes

    SIDs

    rape

    homosexual rape

    lesbianism

    incest

    wife battering

    child abuse

    police brutality

    war

    murder

    suicide

    divorce

    adoption

And so on and so forth, ad nauseum.  As if all of these personal problems the characters face are not overblown enough, they are also obsessed with things like the "injustice" of our war with Iraq, the "brutality" of the Rodney King beating, the Cold War, the economic dislocation caused by the end of the Cold War...   How do people like this get out of bed in the morning?

Finally, Dr. Patel tells Dominick what the whole novel has been about :

    In ancient myths, she said--in stories from cultures as far-flung as the Eskimos and the ancient
    Greeks--orphaned sons leave home in search of their fathers.  In search of the self-truths that will
    allow them to return home restored, completed.  'In these stories, knowledge eludes the lost child,'
    she said.  'And fate throws trial and tribulation onto his path--hurls at him conundrums he must
    solve, hardships he must conquer.  But if the orphan endures, then finally, at long last, he stumbles
    from the wilderness into the light, holding the precious elixir of truth.  And we rejoice!  At last, he
    has earned his parentage, Dominick--his place in the world.  And for his trouble, he has gained
    understanding and peace.  Has earned his father's kingdom, if you will.  The universe is his!'

Okay, I'm with him so far; after all, one of the main sources of this myth is Christianity, with Adam being expelled from Eden and the presence of the Father.  But who is Dominick's father?  Well, c'mon, who else could it be?  In a bit of authorial wish fulfillment which calls to mind Frank Conroy's Body and Soul and Joe Klein's Primary Colors, the boys father turns out to be half-Black, half-Native American.  It's so politically correct it makes your teeth hurt, or maybe I've just been grinding mine.

Here's an idea that you've probably not heard expressed much recently : perhaps men are actually fine just as they are and it's women who need to become more like men.  Western Civilization, humankind's greatest achievement to date, with it's emphasis on freedom and progress,  is after all predominantly a product of the masculine side of the human equation.  It's greatness lies mostly in the fact that it is outer directed.  Politically, economically, and religiously it is concerned not with the self but with the interaction between self and others--the freedoms that are enshrined in capitalism, democracy and Christianity are not freedoms of the self but freedoms to interact with others.  Underlying these freedoms is the idea that humankind is progressing towards some goal, that life is improving and is perfectible.  I find this idea and the institutions we have created to help realize it to be magnificent.

In the final passages of the book, Dominick says that : "the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things."  This idea is harkens towards the tao and Eastern religions and the suggestion that each of us can be complete in and of ourselves.  It is a philosophy of the self and of stasis.  It is fundamentally selfish and inner-directed.  It's attraction is understandable, particularly for women, as it offers personal security and an end to the rough and tumble of social competition, a competition which men have dominated for thousands of years.  But think about it for a moment, at what point would you have stopped the competition, which after all has been the engine of Western progress?  Freeze things seventy years ago and compare them to today.  Sure you avoid the long and destructive struggle between democracy and totalitarianism and between capitalism and socialism, but who was better off then than they are now?  No one.  Nor is there any reason to believe that this progress will halt any time soon, so long as we jealously guard our current freedoms and reclaim those that have been surrendered to the Social Welfare State.  The only real threat to human progress lies in the kind of turning inward to focus on one's emotions and the demands for security, as opposed to liberty, which Lamb celebrates here.

Here's a final proposition : perhaps the ideological tension between men and women is perfectly healthy and tends towards a productive equilibrium : maybe both genders are fine as they are, actually, as they were.  The past several decades of feminization of Western culture have not been terribly efficacious.  This has been a period of declining moral standards and reduced political and economic freedoms.  The theoretical trade off was that the government, would create a more egalitarian society, one in which we could all, but particularly women, be more secure about our economic well being.  But seventy years into that experiment it would seem to be time to declare it an unmitigated disaster.

The post-Cold War boom has coincided with the dismantling of Socialist and Social Welfare state and with the rise of an almost fetishistic worship of Free Markets.  At the same time, there is a gathering consensus that the West has reached a stage of genuine moral crisis.  Institutions like the Church, the nuclear family and the community which were tossed by the wayside, as central government permeated all aspects of daily life, are staging an impressive comeback.  All of them, not coincidentally, stand for the proposition that humans are responsible for their own behavior and owe some duty to the others around them.   In this sense, they too offer the promise of security and can vindicate the concerns of women.  This fact should not be surprising to us.  Though it's a central doctrine of feminism that women were powerless bystanders for the first few thousand years of human history, it is a position that flies in the face of reason and of what we know of human nature.  It is much more likely that these institutions, where women were allowed to exercise power, offered an effective bulwark against the worst excesses of men, acting in the political and economic spheres where women's power was admittedly more limited.  The massive social engineering efforts of feminism may in fact have been responsible for weakening, even destroying, these very institutions which had done the most to protect women in the past.  It is one of the signal lessons of the past century that such attempts to re-engineer human beings and institutions will often produce unintended consequences that are much worse than any original injustice that they were meant to rectify.

Perhaps we should recognize that women are fine when they're feminine and men are fine when they're masculine, and society functions best when there is a respectful tension between the two genders as they try to vindicate their unique concerns.  At any rate, it's preferable to let men be men and women be women than to follow Wally Lamb's (and Oprah's) prescription and try to make one gender more like the other.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (F)

  

Comments:

I think you may have misread most of the content in I Know This Much is True. You obviously are a bit of a fool, and failed to look past the most important element of this book: an excellent story. Concerning your belief that the book is centered around gender roles and ailments, you are wrong; they only add to the reality of the book. Sure, the book deals with serious issues, that are "nauseating", but if that is difficult for you to handle, perhaps stick to Horton Hears A Who, as I'm sure it will not break your bubble of ignorance, and sugar coated existence. You completely missed the whole point of the book. And as for it being centered around christianity...I don't know WHAT to say to that. Did you even READ the book? You know, I would call you a dumbass but it's much too easy to state the obvious. Good day.

- Rosemary and Aubrina

- May-20-2005, 17:06

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this is ihe greatest i've read so far. lookin' forward to read more of lamb's masterpieces. throughout the story, i've come to know parts of me that i've never imagined of them existing. thanks. i feel whole, for now

- seimaru kaede

- Jul-16-2003, 10:22

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I've no doubt the novel would be powerfully affecting for an 18 year old girl. Sadly that does not make it worth reading for most of us. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

- oj

- Jan-09-2003, 19:36

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I find your opinions on wally Lamb's novel, "I Know This Much Is True", to be pig-headed, pretentious, and offending. I am only 18 years old, I am still a highschool student, and I may not be as smart as you think you are, but it seems to me like you have just scratched the surface of that novel and what it implies. I admit, Lamb may not be as thought provoking as Huxly, he isnt delving into any timeless issues, but he is an admirable author. His novel brought many ideas into my head that were positive, and i put the book down with a different outlook on certain issues then when i started. Isnt that what great art is supposed to do to a person? One is not supposed to walk away the same person as when they first laid eyes on it. And I firmly believe that litterature is art. That change that I experienced is better then your overly cynical views, which, by the way, seem even more seedy and overdrawn then the themes shown in "I Know This Much Is True." If you have any comments for me, I welcome them. nads_101@hotmail.com Thanks

- Nadine Pigeon

- Jan-09-2003, 18:52

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