no

Two Planes in Guterson's "The Other"

At the very outset of David Guterson’s The Other, the author presents a brilliant adumbration of not only the emotional tenor of his novel, but also its principal theme. Two high school juniors, Neil Countryman and John William Barry, compete for their respective schools in the half-mile and find themselves at the rear of the pack along the home stretch. Neither wants to finish last, naturally.
Told from Neil’s point of view, he as the runner from the more middle-class school sees that he has company as they near the finish line. His first thoughts as they run along bring out the idea that the two boys are identical: “This guy right here is a version of me” [Chapter 1, Location 77]; [Locations herein from Guterson, David. The Other (Vintage Contemporaries) (various pages). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]; “… this runner is my doppelgänger” [C 1, Loc 64]; and in the most telling statement [Loc 75]; “… we match stride … all the while throwing ourselves forward into fresh pain, so that there are two perceptions, pain and the close proximity of another.” John William, the challenging, prickly, conscience-driven scion of old Seattle money, and Neil Countryman, of a thoroughly middle-class background, stay in close proximity for the remainder of the book - well, as long as John William lives, anyway.
     The pain they feel is both their own and each other’s, meaning that the boys understand each other well enough through shared experiences and a shared outlook  (which sometimes comes from esoteric studies), but also each takes on personal challenges that cause unhappiness or even depression. And as we shall see, the partner taking on the lion’s share of pain is John William. Neil supports his friend in many ways, and sacrifices a good deal in the process.
A year after the race, they graduate high school and mark the occasion by dropping acid. In another very telling observation, Neil (the first person narrator) begins to enjoy his trip, and the tears his friend is crying seem necessary. But after a time his mood darkens in sympathy with his friend’s, and he takes up the desolate chant which his friend repeats endlessly: “No escape from the unhappiness machine … no escape from the unhappiness machine …” [C 1, Loc 632]. 
So the more deeply affected of the two, John William, sets the tone. It’s his instruction that Neil follows and echoes; he’s JW’s faithful disciple. And the religious terms and images continue, including John William’s very early affinity for the early Christian Gnostics, long condemned by the orthodox as dangerous and heretical. There was Mrs. Mastroianni, a teacher at JW’s high school, who was disturbed by John William’s “obvious affinity for early Christian heretics”[C 1, Loc 411]. These were writers and thinkers who taught that God and the devil are really identical, and life is simply a form of entrapment, a very unfunny joke on humankind.
Pause to consider this as JW’s belief system. First off, God is unknowable by humans, and any investment in faith is a pure waste. JW applies this to 1970s Seattle and the world, deciding to abjure it because of its rampant and very entrenched hypocrisy.
Mr. Guterson includes a brilliant and utterly consistent episode in Chapter 1, throwing the boys off into the darkling plain. Brash and hubristic outdoorsmen, and having just gradated high school, they travel to the North Cascades wilderness area in the company of a third boy, with only the basics of guiding materials. Things don’t go well.
In this major early episode, the boys trek in a trackless wilderness, a place in the 1970 that had no roads, no improvements, and which had had hardly any human foot traffic in its whole history. Their navigation is hampered by youth, arrogance, and marijuana. On the eighth day, they understand how fully and irrevocably they’re lost. Their map contains landmarks which they cannot be sure of identifying: Devil’s Staircase, Joker Mountain, Hell’s Basin, and Freeze-Out Peak. Neil reflects in his ever-present notebook, “there’d obviously been a lot of desolation in that region, desolation and mental-health crises in those recent days of yore, when landmarks were named by starving surveyors and prospectors with syphilis.” [C1, Loc 538] The boys’ own experience - or Neil’s recollection of it - is harrowing:

After a few days in this situation, you can come unmoored without knowing it. … So there we were in our claustrophobic wood, needles in our hair, sweaty and rank, hunkered in the gloom, bug-addled, parched, trying to fix our position by sun bearings where there was no sun … in short, orienteering in a void of sheer relativism.” [C 1, Loc 548]
It would be hard to imagine spiritual aimlessness described in better language. The monotonous gloom, the unending uniformity of the woods, the desperate search for certainty. Mr. Guterson uses the word “desolate” more than once in a short passage, and clearly this is an unhappy time for these boys. At Location 552: “ … the three of us huddled over our map, deliberating on emptiness, and coming up empty.” On more than one occasion, Neil refers to this trackless land as “our limbo.” [C 1, Loc 564] 
This episode of being lost in a desolate wilderness echoes so many other lonely treks by holy men: Abraham, John the Baptist, Jesus, Mohammed. The religious theme, and Neil’s position of acolyte to John William’s holy man stays with us: JW considers Neil’s ties to the world too strong; he chides Neil when he sees him scribbling in the notebook, calls him “minster of information for the master class.” [C 1, Loc 480] The boys do a blood pact; when Neil announces his intent to travel to Europe and write, and grieve for his lately-deceased mother, JW scoffs at the concept. He tells Neil he should go to the Andes or Mongolia instead. A few years later, Neil visits John William at his wilderness hermitage, and in the evenings after days of painful and frustrating toil, they sit down to play chess. John William has always been the superior player, winning a comfortable majority of their matches. But Neil has been studying certain tactics and has brought more determination and enhanced skills. They play more evenly matched, and finally, after yet another satisfying (for Neil) draw, JW stands up, shakes Neil’s hand, and tells him, “You’ve got it dialed in, Neil.”
“What’s that?”
“Sacrifice.”
For a word with which to grace a disciple, what term would gratify a holy guru more?

Their emergence from being lost in limbo in Chapter 1 bears further exploration. After 14 days of existence in limbo, the boys find themselves in Hope(!), a town in British Columbia. They physically stand in the road to be picked up so they can  get into town for a bite to eat. Neil’s reaction is of course, clear, and can stand as a thesis statement for the novel [C 1, Loc 606]:
After a journey like ours, people in the “real” world seemed misguided and innocent of reality, and this was true not only of the travelers I saw pumping liters of fossil fuel, but of everyone around me for a week or more afterward; and even well after a week, there was a residue of this lonely and acute perception of the organized social world as a pathetic illusion, and moments of re-embracing that perception in much of its original intensity (this happened to me while watching diners through the window of a restaurant one night in the University District, where I’d gone to meet cousins at a tavern that didn’t card.”

So the influence of John William, and the time they spent lost in the wilderness, brings for Neil a clarity: the world is maybe not so far from the trap envisioned by the Gnostics, all its benighted denizens going back and forth in their pointless lives.
Two planes

The tale is told on two levels, the point being to highlight the gulf between our daily lives and a life truly embracing the higher sphere. We will see how Neil’s life moves forward on the earth-bound plane but we have no reason to scorn Neil. On the contrary, John William, for all his idealism, manages to be rude, haughty, dismissive, and self-righteous. Is this inherent in most people who call themselves visionaries? Is Neil’s close approach to this plane the most of the rest can hope for? By placing the narrative in Neil’s mind and voice, Guterson appears to be saying this. John William is not a character who meets a favorable end. His pursuit of the life of rarified morals and ethics forces him to a hermitage, an life removed and alone, empty of society (at length even removed from Neil) - and fatal. John William dies a solitary unmourned death unless you count Neil, and even his grief doesn’t induce him to alert the authorities, or to do anything about his body, except to wrap it in cedar strips and deposit it in the small cave that he and JW hewed out of solid limestone. He feels too loyal, as though flashing lights and the hiss of static on the police radio would pollute his friend’s memory.
And there is this: The Other is a cautionary tale, a highly realistic exploration of a polar opposite example for living. And even at the end, after Neil and the world learn the John William has bequeathed his hundreds of millions to Neil, isn’t that one of the points? The lessons of the ascetic, uncompromising man: aren’t they something of immense value? And paradoxically, the one thing John William can leave with his one faithful friend, is material - the most essential material thing in this world, liquid funds. It’s a gift that leaves its recipient bemused, non-plussed. He’s old enough to understand that it really doesn’t change his life very much, not as much as knowing and helping John William did.
I would also like to point out and celebrate one of the great artistic strokes in this novel. It’s rather easy to miss - in fact almost missing it seems clearly part of the point.
Neil’s interactions with John William carry a freight of a scholarly asceticism. JW insists on certain standards in their behavior, or at least lectures Neil on certain beliefs and practices which too closely resemble or ally with “the Hamburger World,” JW’s term for modern society, with its unhealthy consumption of raw material and other species of profligacy. But Neil is underserving of scorn. He has a charitable impulse; he marries and is steadfast with wife and family; he studies and achieves a certain scholarship, and teaches English at the same high school for 26 years. In fact, Guterson spins out so many details of Neil’s biography in what I’m tempted to call a longueur, that we suddenly come to realize, and internalize through a visceral understanding, that this is what mundane life looks like. The details of traipsing through the Alps, of teaching his students, of living in a basement apartment with his wife in the early years of their marriage, and so much else - these are the events of a responsible, moral adult’s life. These quotidian details are nowhere clearer than in the litany of materials Neil brings to John William’s hermit’s quarters, in the months and years after JW has quit the earthly sphere. In a short span of the narrative (Chapter 6, “Loyal Citizen of Hamburger World”, Neil recounts [commencing at Location 2658]: 

I visited my friend a lot, hauling offerings on my back - powdered milk, toothpaste, Fritos, shampoo - none of it, I stress, at his behest. At the same time, he didn’t reject these artifacts from the real world … because in the end he couldn’t reject them and go on with his hermitry. Was that hypocrisy? I brought him gloves, lantern mantles and white gas. I brought him Playboy and Penthouse. I brought him chocolate malted-milk balls, weed, scissors, a deck of cards, M&M’s. He knew, of course, what all this meant - that, like everyone else, he was dependent on hamburger world - but what could he do about the fact that he was human? Nothing except try to to get supremely woods-wise, which is what he spent his time doing.

A description of Neil’s favorable chess-playing sacrifices follows, but then:

I went to see him the day after Thanksgiving bringing with me leftovers packed by my aunts - including two slices each from four different pies, and a Tupperware container of mashed potatoes - plus twenty packets of dried leek soup and a hundred bouillon cubes. [After trying to talk John William to come out of the mountains]: All talk of winter and its meaning was useless. I decided to leave him my sleeping bag, gaiters, gloves, stove, and parka in lieu of pleading.”
         In the dead of winter, on a second try at hiking up through snowed-in country, this time backtracking through streams to throw off any would-be followers: “I gave John William rice, pinto beans, powdered milk, pilot crackers, dried apricots, and a bag of carrots.” And later, after repairs were made to a snowmobile: “ … this time I brought John William a pair of bearpaw snowshoes, and garage-sale bow saw, a can of white gas, toilet paper, and as much food as I could stuff into my new expedition pack.”
These litanies of supplies ground us in the daily - the needs of humans living from day to day. At some peril to himself, Neil delivers these goods to the strange and more-and-more remote John William. Shopping lists and details don’t concern John William, but he takes the supplies; he appreciates them and consumes them. He hasn’t any choice because he’s a human animal, needful of certain basic supplies for living. And there it is:
As much as John William strives to live a pure, uncompromising life, he lives within the same animal limits and constraints as other people. Neil, that denizen of hamburger world, serves as personal supplier, bringing essential physical and psychological life support, and enabling John William’s singular course.  These lists and litanies (I have not quoted them all here, only some of them) give texture and depth to John William’s otherness, and are a beautiful example of the fiction writer’s prime directive, to show and not to tell.
And this split enlarges the book’s theme. It isn’t only John William as The Other. It’s John William’s life and ambitions, his dwelling among the arcane and rarified beliefs and teachings; it’s separateness of the sphere in which he lives which is the true Other in this novel. He provides a stark example of what it means to study the higher teachings, and then, by trying to live by the principles laid down in those teachings, John William becomes outré, beyond the reach of everyday society. Only the rarest individual can resist or truly escape the weight of gravity which society exerts on the individual. Neil as a very real appreciation of this. 
In Chapter 3 (“Goddess of the Moon”), Neil meets with John William’s onetime girlfriend - Neil doesn’t believe her at first, JW never mentioned a girlfriend. She convinces him to meet at a Starbucks and her tale fleshes out a good deal of John William’s background and character. She becomes emotional and perhaps regretful during the telling. And in Neil it triggers a long reflection on life’s  dual nature (a direct gift from John William). At Location 1491:

I was in John William’s frame of mind right then - everything seemed proof of something wrong with the world as it was currently configured. Yes the paper towels were an 80-percent post consumer-waste product, but what about the other 20 percent? Could humanity sustain that? When a question of this sort travels with you to the bathroom, life’s unpleasant. You aren’t going about with the necessary blinders on; your mind sees, in every scene and object, some harbinger of retribution and apocalypse. There’s then some logic in seeking a breast to rest on, just as there’s logic in abjuring social action. Why put yourself in the way? Why struggle against Jehovah? Embracing impermanence, the soul finds something that feels like rest, or at least a sustainable modicum of acceptance. Then the solitary searcher, like a climbing rose, is domesticated, and wants only a corner of the garden in which to thrive while twining, sunnily, with a complementing blossom.”

The above reflection also contains a thesis statement for living in hamburger world. One needn’t completely ignore the “harbingers of retribution and apocalypse,” but one can and must “seek a modicum of acceptance.” 
Chapter 3, “Goddess of the Moon,” partners with Chapter 8, “Periodic Irritable Crying” to truly complete the portrait of John William the human character. These chapters describe in close and unforgettable detail the difficulties John William’s mother Ginnie causes in his life. Lamentably distant and somewhat unbalanced herself, she inflicts emotional neglect and utter coldness on her unfortunate son. The conversation between Neil and Rand, John William’s father, opens our eyes and gives us a deep understanding of JW’s troubled relationship with life. It is rendered superbly in the book, in which the scene is set in the club where Rand sometimes stays. 
It occurs first in the book, but the chapter covering Neil’s conversation with John William’s paramour completes the picture of JW’s relationship with women. Which is to say, it doesn’t exist. Cindy, the girlfriend from JW’s undergraduate days at Reed, is first quite impressed by John William, but eventually cannot deal with his arch-idealism and intolerance. I commend Guterson for including these chapters in his novel; they round out the picture of this prickly individual.

So this Other, this compelling character whose conscience spoke to him more loudly and clearly than that of those around him, abjures society for its blindness and error. He absconds to a mountain retreat in a trackless wilderness, keeping company with only the person willing to make the trek. His faithful friend helps him in his last project at his hermitage, and decides to tell the tale of his unique friend. The result is a remarkably consistent, terrifically paced novel of orthodox living vs. philosophical piety, of making one’s way in society vs. complete abjuration. I was struck by how radically different one can make oneself simply by toeing a tighter line to one’s conscience and questioning the accepted modes of behavior.

No comments

Post a Comment