Undercover: Love’s Made a Fool Out of Me (12/29/77)

Thomas Farber‘s first book, Tales For the Son of My Unborn Child, was a series of understated but intense nonfiction portraits of people who found and lost themselves in Berkeley in the mid to late Sixties; it remains one of the few pieces of writing that captures anything of the essential flavor of those years. His latest, Who Wrote the Book of Love (Norton, 13! pp., $6.95), named for a line from the nineteen-year-old hit by the Monotones, is made up of twenty nine short stories. None is more than a few pages long and all are set pretty much in the present; we meet men and women confronting themselves and others through marriage, divorce, affairs, brief meetings, long journeys. There is a certain narrowness of focus: most of the people here are in their late twenties or in their thirties (a few are elderly), most live in Northern California or on the East Coast. and all but two—a celibate and a Hawaiian—are heterosexual and white.

The book is about contingency and choice, and especially about the compromises of romance. I say romance, and not sex, because while the men and women in Who Wrote the Book of Love? have their sexual encounters, the context is never really that of desire, lust or even playfulness. Rather, Farber is looking for the ways in which we try, and usually fail, to order our lives through romance, a quest that may be contradictory on its face.

Some of the stories are simply too slight; not stories at all, really, but vignettes, “slices of life,” and these reach too easily for familiar ironies: the man who cleaves to his family because he needs “someone to bury him,” the husband who thinks he has proved his love with a life-insurance policy for his wife. But all in all the collection is quietly devastating. Like no other writer I have come across, Farber, 33, understands what the shifts of value of the last twenty years have done to his contemporaries. Again and again in Who Wrote the Book of Love? one meets people, meets oneself, struggling to hold on to at least something of the grand humanism of the Sixties, that sense that life cannot be enclosed by private hopes—people who at the same time are consumed by the concessions they must make to the spirit of these times, to the Seventies: to solipsism. Farber’s men and women emerge, changed, from the wreckage of the sexual and political “revolutions” and try to live out what they have been told. They end, more often than not, that the ballyhooed consensus of the new simply is not there, either in their hearts or in those of the people with whom they become entangled, and they are thrown back upon themselves.

A woman, with no real family, finds an identity in the protest politics of the Fifties; so, it seems, does the man she marries. When, in a few years, he turns into the perfect bourgeois, they split up; after a few more years, the woman is ready to give up much to stave off loneliness. She remarries: “At the wedding, however, she still had her doubts. Looking around at the familiar faces she couldn’t help but see it was the second time around. But things changed, she thought; she’d just have to accept that. Some people were stronger than others, some had more clarity than others, but the absolutism was long gone. ‘Truth,’ justice: ‘the struggle, these words were no longer the vocabulary of their lives. Or hers. Laughter, music, decency; just a body next to hers, perhaps this would be enough. Without it, in any case, she was only growing older.” This is as deeply as most authors would cut, but Farber is not through; what he wants to tell us is that, worse than such concessions is the fact that often concessions cannot be made. The woman in this story can give up only so much of the identity she has built for herself, and her husband, by his very nature, demands far more. The break comes immediately, when he brings his things into her house; suddenly, all the selfishness, the unwillingness to see that there is more to the world than one’s self—all that she had defined herself against when her life first found shape in politics—comes home.

That afternoon he moved a soft chair into the living room. Right after he had carefidly positioned it, just so, in the corner her boy walked over to the chair and sat down to try it out. ‘”No, no, not there,” she heard her new husband say. “That’s my chair.”

She couldn’t believe her ears, but there was no taking the words back. For the next few months she measured needs against wants, she tried the mathematics of small pleasures can­celing out large hopes, she balanced what was at hand against what was beyond reach. But then one day as they argued, again hearing his words in her ears, willing now to settle for no more than what was hers, she said to her new husband: “Out, out, out of my house.”

In this story, as in many others, Farber understands the explosive power of the smallest moments in a relationship. As do so few male American writers of fiction, he writes about women as if they were real people, not goddesses or demons or cheerleaders or whores. The people in his stories stay with you, and in fact you begin to run into them everywhere you go.

Farber’s answer to the Mono­tones’ question is that we write the book of love—and that is, when you think about it, a very unsettling answer, especially given the godlike author the Mono­tones seemed to have in mind back in 1958. Times, of course, change; but the real question raised by Farber’s Who Wrote the Book of Love? is not whether we can keep up with the times but whether, in times that change simply because those who live in them grow older, we can keep up with ourselves.

Rolling Stone, December 29, 1976

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