But just as often, I am able to identify primary causes of anxiety that are more substantial. The feeling of pressure is not always caused by a relatively simple matter like trying to decide which mobile phone to get (as I wrote about in the first part of this two-part blog article). After all, my mobile phone dilemma is a transitory one that can be easily resolved, or else filed away in some “do not stress” corner of my brain.
(Does my brain have such a corner? It must be full of cobwebs, if so. . . .)
Yes, pressure is often caused by dilemmas and conflicts not so easily resolved, dismissed, or even fully understood. Crissy Van Meter knows this very well. Her perceptive novel Creatures includes the following passage on the theme of pressure. The protagonist, an ocean lover named Evie, lives on an island with her (drug-dealing-and-using) dad. Her mom, who is nonnative to the island, decides, early in Evie’s life, that she cannot stand living on the island. So she leaves—without her husband or daughter. Here’s what Van Meter writes, beautifully as always:
“Once, my mother talked about atmospheric pressure. Said there was pressure all over, even in the deepest, darkest trench. My mother didn’t like this pressure, said it felt like she might explode. She closed the windows and used wooden dowels to lock them shut. I said something like, There’s so much pressure that your heart can explode. . . . When she went away, I learned this pressure, the weight inside my chest. There was the pressure of missing things, the leaving of things, the invisible weight that felt so thick, even when everything was still moving. She taught me the constant foreboding of implosion.”
Thus Van Meter describes the feeling of pressure caused by someone missing her mother: a mother who is felt to be missing even when she’s in the same room as her daughter. Evie’s relationships with her family, broadly defined, are at the heart of this novel. These relationships are so hard for her to tease apart and understand that they require the sort of abstruse language quoted above. The language is beautiful and haunting, vague and pregnant with meaning, all at once.
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Review of Books published a review of this novel that I don’t fully agree with. Specifically, I have trouble with this passage:
“The novel never seems to know what to do with Evie’s parents as characters. Her mother especially remains half-realized, her reasons and desires always out of reach. . . . The distance between Evie and her parents makes sense, but her narration’s inability or unwillingness to probe the interiority of these mysterious beings belies the sense of adult understanding and peacemaking that the novel elsewhere claims Evie has realized.”
I have not found it to be the case in my own life that any amount of “adult understanding and peacemaking” has allowed me to “probe the interiority of” those “mysterious beings” known as my own parents and others close to me. Evie’s mother seems almost as real to me as many people I know, including family members and friends, whose actions and beliefs I can’t comprehend or agree with.
And the novel is squarely focused on Evie’s feelings and understandings. It is told, after all, in the first person. If Evie doesn’t understand her mother, why should Van Meter be expected to portray that mother in an understandable way?
The main theme of this novel is the trauma of relationships that are not traumatic in any identifiably traumatic way. This is not a novel about physical abuse or emotional abuse. It is a novel about people doing their best to manage the awful pressure surrounding them, and succeeding rather miserably, and yet, somehow, in their own diverse ways, succeeding.
As I stated previously, this kind of thing is hard to write about. It’s like writing about an empty hole whose emptiness no one can explain. I understand this feeling intimately. If you don’t, count yourself lucky. In any case, I look forward to writing about something more concrete in upcoming blog posts!
What question should I ask you at the end of this blog article on pressure (I’m at a loss)?