My most beloved drama professor, Sister Carol Blitgen, used to say that all plays are about two things: love/sex and death. She would sometimes add a caveat that birth/growth could be added as a third, but that when it came down to it, the thing that most classic art of any form was about was death. "We are born astride the grave" was her favorite quote (from, I believe, Samuel Beckett) and she wasn't really as grim and depressing as that sounds, in fact, she was, and is, a vital, bristling-with- intelligence-and-life kind of person. Most of her students were in awe of her, myself included, yet my friends Monica Jenkins and Muff Larson and I would often mock her obsession with death in literature and in drama. We all thought it was because she's a nun, and her lack of love/sex meant that she thought too much, dwelled on, death.
Thirty-plus years later, after having lost my friends Monica and Muff, I can see what an oracle of wisdom the woman really was, and likely is still, though she's retired now.
In other words, I agree with Sister Carol, and I'd like to apologize to her for being a smart-ass theater major, all those years ago.
I wasn't expecting to have the above spring to mind when I read Laurie Frankel's new novel, "Goodbye For Now" this weekend. I realized, after looking at the jacket copy that I'd read her first book "The Atlas of Love" a year or so ago, and I recall liking it, and thinking it wasn't what I'd expected it to be, either.
But the brilliant Ms Frankel seems to be full of surprises, and before I wander off in my ruminations and review, let me stress that this book is as perfect a novel as is possible for an imperfect human to write, and well worth 25 dollars to acquire a hardback copy to read, right now, (Yes, I mean immediately. Run, don't walk to the bookstore.)
As with all great art, I laughed, I cried, I was amazed, dumbfounded and in love with the sheer beauty of the wordsmithing, the swift and sure plot, the characters who seem so real that I wanted to call, text or email them the minute I finished the book and commiserate that I was done with the story when I wanted it to last forever.
"Goodbye for Now" is the story of Sam the computer programmer (or "dev" short for developer, as they're called at Microsoft) who is a bored and lonely genius geek. He develops a computer program that intuits, from all available online information about an individual, who their perfect mate would be, and after being fired for it, he decides to use it on himself. He's matched with Meredith, who actually is his soul mate, and after he and Meredith move in together, her beloved grandmother Livvie dies, and Meredith is inconsolable. She begs Sam to write her a program that will allow her grandmother to continue to email her, and video-chat with her as well. Sam, never one to turn down a programming challenge (and I know a number of geeks like this), ends up creating a kind of artificial intelligence program that uses all the online information that can be found on that person, in addition to their saved emails/video chats to develop an avatar that sounds and reacts just like the deceased grandmother. Meredith finds being able to still have Livvie in her life a great comfort, and inevitably, Sam and Meredith's best friend from childhood Dashiel all decide to open up a company called "RePose" that allows others to see and speak to their deceased loved ones on the computer.
While at first all goes well, of course religious groups and the media descend on RePose, and attempt to cast the company as taking advantage of people's grief with 'fake' representations of their lost loved ones. Philosophical debates ensue, and when a doctor from a pediatric cancer ward gets involved, more than a little guilt and shame comes up, too.
Though there is a surprise death near the end of the book, it is handled with grace and beauty.
"You are the paragon of animals, my love. You aspire to such greatness, to miracle, to newness and wonder...but you forgot about the part that's been around since time immemorial. Love, death, loss. You've run up against it. And there's no getting around or over it. You stop and build your life right there at the base of that wall. There is no other side, but there's plenty of space there to build a life and plenty of company."
"We will do this forever. You will always write to me. And I will always reply. Great lovers imagine their love will outlive and outlast them in impassioned correspondence that survives in books, in museums. But in books and museums, their love is preserved, entombed. Ours grows and lives and breathes, moves and dances on the wind, becomes long after the museums have crumbled and the books have turned to ash and dust."
If you have ever lost someone you love, you need to read this book. The fact that it takes place in Seattle is only the watery icing on the cake.
I had the great fortune to meet the author, and she's as beautiful as her prose. The world needs more authors like this, more books like this. A solid A+ and a heartfelt thank you to Ms Frankel for a weekend well spent in her world.