For Christmas, my excellent brother gave me an Amazon.com gift card. Now, I’ve been avoiding the world of e-books for some time because, frankly, I’m a bit old-fashioned that way. What kind of an academic would I be without stacks and stacks of books cluttering up the house? Recently, though, some new offerings I’ve been wanting are available only in e-book form. With that in mind I decided to take the plunge, download the Kindle for Mac app, and dive into some e-books.
The first e-book title I’d like to review is Michael Kaufman’s The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars. One of my fields is Gender and Women’s Studies, and Kaufman is a well-known scholar on gender and masculinities, whose academic works I’ve used in my classes.
Given this background knowledge, it is hardly surprising that Kaufman’s novel is populated with a universe of men. Men of different ages, cultural backgrounds, and personalities, but all sharing some common themes. For one thing, all of these men suffer from communication issues and, in particular, the inability to communicate their emotions effectively. Eli Schuman, the narrator of this story, is a frustrated man of a certain age. Divorced, with two children and a sometimes less-than-inspiring career as a teacher, he feels unfulfilled. Eli dates and seems to be genuinely looking for love, but can’t find his “perfect woman.” He also struggles to communicate meaningfully with his ex-wife, his parents, his son and daughter, and even his roommate and colleague, John. John is a classic cad who’s been thrown out by his wife, and his communication problem is that he talks too much, all the time, about everything, but without ever saying anything of substance. On the other side of the spectrum, Eli’s son Daniel spends much of the story muted with teenage angst, and Eli’s father, at least where the story starts, is also a man of few words.
Discussing this book on his blog, Kaufman describes the link between masculinity, communication, and love that permeates this story:
“Too many men are raised to distance themselves from feelings and so don’t learn an authentic language of emotions; thus, they find it difficult to express and meet their deepest emotional needs; thus too many don’t have sufficient empathy to fully sense the emotional needs of others.
“As a result, the hard work of nurturing relationships too often gets left exclusively to women and too often is disparaged with words like: “why do we have to talk so much about it!”
Indeed, Eli’s inability to discover and connect with this “authentic language of emotion” shapes much of the story of his search for love. His story fixates on two women in particular. The first is no less than Marilyn Monroe herself, the fantasy woman of Eli’s youth, with whom he becomes obsessed with after a drifter claims to have seen her alive and well in a rural farmhouse. The second is Alex, a part-time baker and bookstore clerk who seems to be his ideal mate in many ways, but who also challenges his notion of what a “perfect” woman should be. As a Midwestern summer sets in, Eli finds himself keeping real-life woman Alex at arm’s length, while chasing all over Ohio after a ghost.
Yeah, Alex, as a fellow single girl, I know the feeling.
Eli’s parallel journeys, in search of Marilyn and in search of his own happiness, unfold together quite well. As life changes around him, Eli comes to a gradual realization of why he’s become stuck. His narrative is also punctuated with flashbacks to his youth and past relationships, all of it building toward an understanding about how the idea of love connects to our own identities, investments, self-image, and how it is fed by the messages society gives us about what is good and acceptable. Kaufman’s theme is one that transcends this particular story, for while Eli is very much shaped by certain facets of his identity (Judaism, his age, the place he grew up), all of us have similar features that define how others view us and how we view ourselves. Likewise, while masculinity plays a central role in this story, there’s also a message here that is very relevant for women. In an age of overwhelming media and communications, men and women alike are constantly bombarded with images of an “ideal” that we are conditioned to want in our mates, but which may be unattainable. Eli, perhaps like many of us, risks missing out on a real chance at fulfillment as he becomes more and more deeply invested in the pursuit of an image.
Kaufman’s writing style is easy and flowing, but sometimes hits you between the eyes with a beautiful passage or a profound thought that arises suddenly. Take this example, woven into a bantering discussion between Eli and a female friend:
“Things in our past challenged us, hurt us, scarred us, all that basic therapy stuff. All this festers inside until we can discover it and rout it out…
“But here’s the thing. Even before we discover our hidden problems, we’re already doing the routing. Don’t you think, when we pick our mates, we choose a person who pushes us back into our challenges?”
If pressed to come up with a criticism, I’ll say that the book’s final act drags a bit. Eli’s waffling and inability to act on his feelings persists even after he comes to understand the roots of his hesitancy. While I understand that this may be psychologically realistic, it’s frustrating in a literary sense and makes the book drag. The story’s final twist, while unexpected, also came off as a bit heavy-handed, given that the rest of the story was told with such subtlety. In spite of these shortcomings, I’d definitely recommend this book. It was a quick read for me, and can easily be tackled in a weekend. However, the questions it raises will linger long past the last page.
The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars is available as an e-book for Kindle on Amazon.com.