How it All Began by Penelope Lively
(I’m pretty much done writing my last novel about roller derby so I’m back to reading and reviewing books.)
If you ever come across a book that is written by a Booker Prize winner, you’ll be guaranteed it will be about some morose, sentimental upper-middle class twit preaching to the choir. This novel is difficult to read, not because of its intelligence but rather it’s simply boring, a meandering, muddled-up, overly self-conscious journey through several acquaintances’ lives. It’s all about the Butterfly Effect, how one seemingly trivial event like an old lady being mugged by a 14-year-old boy somehow impacts the lives of many other people. I suppose it’s some testament to how we are all somehow unconsciously interconnected. However, I would rather argue that it’s more impactful to make a lasting, meaningful connection with someone which will be more resonant than some trivial, happenstance event that in my mind, may change the future, but not as much.
The story follows a bunch of old folk going through end-of-life crises, a divorce, a difficult marriage, business problems, health problems, and perhaps only one redeemable story of a woman teaching English to a migrant. There is one interesting note about how time flies faster when you’re older. I have my own theories. First of all, I think our memories and processing speed deteriorate over time. You don’t recollect clearly what happened a week ago, a month, a year, so you tend to underestimate how long things lasted. When you encounter something hurtful as a kid, the pain can linger, because you can clearly recall it happening as if it happened only a few minutes ago. As you get older, you forget how painful something was a week ago, a month ago. Second, as we get older, we tend to get a routine down, and we don’t tend to remember routines as much as climactic events. Also, we tend to reduce the dramas in our lives which are high points of memory. In other words, we tend to become start living unmemorable lives so it only seems like time flies faster the older we get. We just don’t bother to remember boring things that fill our later lives. Finally, we tend to acquire greater freewill and choice later in life whether through wisdom or wealth. As kids and young adults, we are forced to do a lot of things we do not enjoy, and when we are forced to do things, time lingers forever. So it only seems like our youth lasted longer, because we were often closely watching the clock.
Any which way, a tale of old people is predictably boring and I had to skim most of the book so as not to waste my time. See how that works? If I was younger, I might have forced myself to read every sentence closely and be bored out of my mind, and I would have remembered the sheer and utter boredom of reading the entire book, and time would have seemed to be very, very slow. Instead, I blew through the book. The dangerous lure is to put your life in cruise control in middle age, to find your comfort zone, your plateau and try to maximize your time there. The problem is, your life descends whether you like it or not, and it often descends into a childish, selfish, egotistical state of entitlement and pettiness. At the beginning, one of the characters in the book laments about how in old England, life was better without the influences of all these new immigrants. Yes, they conveniently ignore how England raped and pillaged the world to gain a level of luxury and comfort in England at the expense of the rest of the world. This is why I often hate reading about old English people especially the upper and upper middle class, and why I ultimately detest this book. It shouldn’t be called, how it all began but rather how it all ends, pathetically.