After the relatively manageable opening chapter of division of labor unknown, this next chapter hits like a ton of bricks – each individual brick shot from a cannon and aimed at one’s groin. This is not a forgiving chapter, and I actually wound up stopping in the middle of it to do this post. I’m not sure how accurate my impressions of this chapter are so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if I got some of this wrong.
There are the angels, at least I think those are the ones speaking in the first person plural in a highly allusive and often playfully confusing manner. A wonderful line that stuck with me goes, “As male is to female, then moral be to femoral”, and spins out from that point. There is an expectation to keep up with what’s being said, even if it seems to be part of an ongoing conversation that we are not fully a part of. This angelic narrator(s) are the ones giving us glimpses into the lives of several other characters, though how they connect and what is going on is foreshadowed in unexpected ways.
There is talk of a power vac, which could be a household appliance or a power vacuum in the social or political sense. There is the mother who sends away her two sons but who leaves them before they have a chance. There is an opera singer and the tapeworm she eats so that she can lose weight. And the chapter weaves between them with more elliptical, abstruse bridges that seem to connect the dots but in a way that isn’t always obvious. At least, not to mere mortals.
And that seems to be the initial point of these angels: to be able to see the big pictures, to see the relatedness between matters that are disparate to humans in our everyday lives. One way we know this is that we are told about the two main characters, New York City apartment neighbors Jim Mayn and Grace Kimball, and we are told they will almost meet but not quite ever do so (and even told Jim will consider knocking on Grace’s door at one point but decide against it). That in itself is a typical scenario – even in the 1970s when this story is set, the idea of neighbors becoming strangers was becoming a modern cliche, a statement of urban anomie and existential emptiness. What makes it interesting is that we are also told that Jim and Grace’s separate relationships with other people will interact despite their immediate distance from each other, that the world is connected in a wider, more elaborate manner.
And before this post runs too long, here are the human characters we know best about and what we’ve learned. Grace and Jim are both divorced by the time they move into the New York apartments, Jim has kids but only because we are told he was a “family man”.
Grace has a Body Room at her apartment, which is amusing to the angelic narrators since all rooms are body rooms. She came from the Middle West, where she grew up, and is seeking a “clean break”. She meets her future husband while swimming, and he is really into market research.
The opera singer got her diet-directed tapeworm from her New York physician, who got it from an Ojibway medicine man who sent a fish from Mille Lacs, Minnesota. The singer has an uncomfortable run-in with an admiring South American general, who she fears knows about her tapeworm. The general does not, she is relieved to discover, but does learn that her physician may be emotionally smitten with her.
We find out Jim Mayn is the son sent away by his mother, but later that she was the one who went away in the sense that she died, not run away. This adds a different light to the earlier line about how he “does not easily tell love and separation apart and is about both together”. We also know he has a younger brother Brad who marries his childhood sweetheart, and that his grandmother Margaret – who I thought all along was the opera singer but can’t find any confirmation on that point either way – provides Jim comfort, and was also present when the Statue of Liberty was being assembled. Staring at the statue’s face, Margaret met the “Hermit-Inventor of New York”, who I’m sure is a real life person but haven’t looked up.
And there is also something about a boy learning about rotation and light and how that learning process takes place over several years. I’m not sure where that’s going at all, but like I said, I’m only halfway through the chapter so far.