I may have mentioned before the King County Library System 10 to Try challenge I’m participating in this year. Reading 10 books over the course of a year doesn’t present much of a challenge, but I like how the 10 different categories push me to read outside of my comfort zone.
Last year I read The Satanic Verses, a book on the banned book list that I never would have normally found. I hated it, but it was very educational and a good experience. Also, now I can say I’ve read a book that people were killed over. Can’t stay that about much literature.
This year, one of the categories to read is a book by an LGBTQ author. I’m sure I could have found a random book on a list somewhere, but in the spirit of expanding my horizons, I asked my very literary uncle for a recommendation.
He came through with A Single Man, a book I almost certainly wouldn’t have found myself. In the slender volume, the author doesn’t worry so much about plot as capturing the mood and mental state of a gay man whose partner died in a car crash not long before.
Employing almost no dialogue between characters, the story progresses through the long, long day the protagonist, George, shuffles through. It’s hard to read because the author does such a good job making you feel what George feels: depression, revulsion, disgust, sorrow, longing, and most of all loneliness — cut with the occasional burst of life, engagement with people and the world around him.
The book lets the reader feel how heart-wrenching it is to not only lose someone you love, but to be utterly alone in that sorrow because society condemns your love as wrong. To have to keep pretending everything is okay, when everything is utterly dark and lonely. I found it very difficult to read, because it evoked such real feelings in me, the reader.
After finishing the book, I got the movie A Single Man from the library (the only place I could find it), just to see how it was similar and different. The movie does a great job portraying George’s mood and temper through use of color and saturation. When he’s plodding through the motions, the picture is desaturated, still in color but just flattened and blah. Then, in the moments George comes alive, or in flashbacks that tell the story of his meeting and living with his partner, the picture takes on a saturated vividness where all the colors pop.
In the book, George meets one of his students and brings him home, but after drinking copiously, George passes out and the student leaves. George dies of a heart attack asleep in bed — but, though the book employs very technical, literary, roundabout language, George clearly died of a broken heart.
George dies alone. This made the book ending feel, not only inevitable, but like a kind of release. Although he never considered ending his own life, but nevertheless George is freed from the pain and loneliness by this mercy.
Throughout the film up to this point, George prepared to kill himself, putting his affairs in order and even attempting to shoot himself — but without conviction. Then, in the movie, he brings the student home and passes out, but wakes up to find the student tucked in on his couch. George decides he wants to live after all. He tosses out his suicide notes and goes back to bed… And dies of a heart attack.
That ending felt sadder, but in a way less satisfying. The viewer has a pretty good idea through the whole movie that George won’t make it out alive — that’s a given. But the fact that he considered killing himself, opted not to, and died anyway leaves the viewer with the sadness of life and a potential future being snatched away. Death isn’t closure, here; it’s a loss. (Although George does see his partner one last time right before he dies in a vision(?), maybe implying some kind of closure. I’m not sure there.)
But I don’t feel that George, the character, would ever have considered killing himself in the first place. He would have just kept plodding on, and on, and on, until something changed — maybe a new relationship, maybe death. I don’t feel he ever would have tried to take his own life. So it’s much less convincing when he decides to live, and then dies anyway.
This “snatching away a future” mechanism tells the viewer “you should feel sad now,” as if the only way to feel about death is sadness, and as if you can’t feel sadness about death without having a future snatched away.
This is the most jarring note of difference between the movie and the book, and it felt like kind of a cheap shot. But I’m not set in this opinion, so I’ll keep thinking about it.
And that, ultimately, is why I like 10 to Try. At least a couple of the books leave me thinking about something.