Last night I went to book group again and the evening went much better than our April meet. Firstly, since I hadn’t chosen the book, I didn’t feel under any pressure for it to be a “good” choice. Secondly, the choice of The Other was, some members of the group said quite cerebral, rather than a gripping thriller, which meant that I didn’t feel shy coming forth with loads of ideas.
Having said that some of us found it difficult to get through, our “chooser” for the evening, Michael, introduced the book by describing the way he had been gripped by the extensive detail with which the outdoor life in Washington State was recreated, and by the compelling warnings about the state of modern day America.
The Other is about two young men from different schools and walks of life, who meet at an athletics event. One of them, John William Barry, is the privileged heir to a fortune and one, the narrator Neil Countryman, is from a blue collar background. The two teens get up to teen type things, including hiking around in the mountains, learning to fend for themselves and experiencing outdoor brushes with disaster. As they grow up, Neil goes through the mechanics of a conventional life, while John William retreats more and more into an outdoor life as a hermit, renouncing material wealth. He does a bit of hunter-gathering, but in the bleak and unyielding landscape, it is the visits from Neil, and the provisions he brings, that keep John William alive. Neil represents “hamburger world”, as John William puts it, while John William is aspiring to a purer, unmaterialistic, ecologically negligible form of living.
Someone said they were shadowed throughout reading it by the thought “It’s the same book!”, referring to the many thematic similarities between The Other and my choice of last month, The Sense of an Ending: male friendship between a brilliant character and a pedestrian one, coming of age, the lack of emotion.
We discussed many things about it and, similarly to Sense of Ending, this was sparked by the different possible readings of the book. It was variously interpreted as a plea to ecological responsibility, a homage to the wilderness, a call to the reader to make a conscious choice about life, and a question of what is sanity when you think that the world itself is insane?
I found, regarding the question of John William’s sanity and ability to look after himself, that the book had certain similarities to Leaving Las Vegas. When I watched it with my husband, I said, “Why doesn’t she do something to help him?” And my husband said, “Because that’s not what he wants. Because she cares for him, she lets him have what he wants.”
I didn’t understand that at the time, but I do now.
I also found it very thought provoking when someone said that they felt John William exhibited signs of arrested development due to the difficulties he had suffered in childhood. They put his inability to empathise and his self-centredness down to his having missed out on vital parts of the childhood experience, leaving him unable to move on. On the way home in the car, I talked about this with Luke, who I was dropping off. We both felt that we had suffered from being “stuck” at various stages in childhood. For me, this manifested itself in a constant need for approval, a need to find standards and measure myself up to them. And selfishly, this came ahead of what other people close to me needed, as I was determined to make their needs fit in with mine.
Luke said he thought how lucky people were who had had an upbringing that made them feel secure. Although we can never say that a particular upbringing is any guarantee of an outcome, I agreed wholeheartedly in that I would like to know how that feels, mostly out of curiosity, although from time to time I do feel rather envious of those people. It’s just a bit harder when you have to work it out for yourself.
Talking about the drive home, I did think that if I had had to wait for the bus, and especially if it were winter, that would be rather a drab end to an evening. So maybe I am not ready to give my car up if I move to town. Also, the larger family house that I had been planning to view got bought! It only went on the market in March, the rush for houses in Lewes is just crazy…