Falling in love isn’t really that hard to write about. People having been doing it for centuries, winding the story up as it heads towards the altar, or some exciting irremediably other place that marks the new start for the fortunate couple. In narrative terms, falling in love is a sort of ideal convergence that separates the before – complicated, fraught, yearning – from the after – fulfilled, achieved, the heart’s appetites finally appeased.
These days, of course, stories are just as likely to start in that angry, anomalous bedroom where the end of love is the real issue and the recovery of who and what the two people are, or were, is the force that drives the plot from perdition to fulfilment. It’s a fast forward – narrative breakdowns don’t hang about – but also a rapid reverse, into singleness; a harder game to play than falling in love, but one that offers a myriad of possibilities; an opening out rather than a closing in.
And then there are the stories that find their substance in love itself, that moment at the top of the helter-skelter that can last an endless second or a lifetime. It’s a harder trick to pull off, in narrative terms. Like happiness, love exercises a sort of tedium on the creative impulse. It’s nice to do, but less nice to watch, or describe. At its worse, it has a yah-boo-sucks feel to it, as the reader’s sense of deprivation, and then resentment, overwhelms the initial gratitude that such a thing should be possible and deemed worthy of record.
And then, as rare these days as beluga sturgeon, there are stories that talk of love as it is, as something that doesn’t go away and isn’t simple, and won’t behave, sexual love and familial love and the love of friends and the godawful, painful, unavoidable clutter that lies between these three, binding and dividing and generally rendering life as complicated and fulfilling as it can get. Like the stories in Amy Bloom‘s extraordinary collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out.
I bought my copy in Clifton Village, in one of those upmarket charity bookshops you find in places like Clifton Village, three doors down from a Farrow and Ball outlet. I was there with my partner and someone I loved for a long time, and still do, in my way, but I’d left them looking at paint while I browsed for something to read. We’re all friends now, although we might not have been, it’s taken work and commitment and an investment on all our parts, and it strikes me that if anyone were to set down the past three decades of my life and get it right, the mess of it and the spareness of it too, the spareness of what’s mattered to it, Amy Bloom would be the one. What her stories do, and do in an exemplary way, is show how driving and disruptive the force of love is, and how, despite or perhaps because of this, it should never be regretted; even thwarted, it brings its rewards; even the damage it does has worth.
These stories are wonderful things, the two groups of four linked stories in particular, articulating with wit and passion the twisting and unpredictable ways of the heart. The people who follow these ways, or resist them, are old friends, partners of friends, widows, stepsons; young and old, men and women, black and white – all of these factors are important; all of them, in a sense and at times, are irrelevant. If it weren’t a denial of the power of language to describe us, some of the stuff we experience as love should almost be unsayable, if anything is unsayable. One of the questions Bloom ponders, in fact, is how love can be spoken, if words are the way to do it. ‘Night Vision’, one of the second group of stories, ends like this:
She put down the broom and the dustpan and came over to me and smiled at my towel. She put her lips to the middle of my chest, over my beating heart.
“I love you past speech.”
We stood there, my long neck bent down to her shoulder, her hands kneading my back. We breathed in and out together.
“I’ll say good night, honey. Quite a day.”
She waved one hand over her shoulder and walked away.