Sunday, November 15, 2009

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather

When I was growing up, my family moved a few times. The town I live in now just happens to be where I lived between the time I was six and thirteen. I didn't specifically seek to reclaim this place. My wife and I were expecting our second child and our apartment just wasn't going to work. I made it my quest that I would buy the first house I could afford and it just happened to be here.

- - The town has changed a great deal. It was once composed of almost exclusively working-class Irish and Italian families. Now though, due to its close proximity to New York, it's become somewhat gentrified with young, professional yuppie families, I guess, like my own. The small homey movie theatre where I saw E.T., is now a film arts center and the corner newsstand where my brother and I bought baseball cards and comics has become a fashion optical store. The ancient timber box church we'd once attended has been bulldozed and rebuilt.

- - But amid this makeover, I may find some artifact, a sign that's been left unchanged, a store that's been utterly unchanged through three decades. And in these small pockets I feel a transformative rush and a dizzying sensation of being neither in the present nor in the past.

In the title story of Gao Xing Jian's Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, the narrator is reminiscing about his youth as he makes his way through the town where he grew up. He has bought his grandfather a new fishing rod, a sort of prolonged replacement for one he broke as a child. But as he walks, this man is disoriented by the lack of familiar landmarks. Amid all that is unfamiliar, he is devastated by the absence of a vast lake he once knew: "...I never imagined that the fish would all die, that the sparkling lake would turn into a foul pond, that the foul pond would be filled in, and that I would not be able to find the way to my old home."

- - If I've learned anything, it's that your old home is gone. Unlike this narrator, I can easily find my old house. It still stands, renovated and expanded. But it's gone. I can stand on its front lawn for hours. But it will never come back and that time, like all time, is gone forever. The danger of nostalgia, and the danger of my living here, is that all around me lurks the narcotic possibility of losing my foothold in reality and becoming lost in something that exists only in ether. If I find myself heading down that path as I drive to work, stop into the dry cleaners, or walk my children to school, I have to keep this refrain: 'open your eyes'.

- - The rest of the stories in this book are sparse, delicately paced and filled with people lost in a world of their emotions. The spector of the Cultural Revolution hangs over all these characters. Everyone deals with their emotional lives with great trepidation, perhaps remembering the time when emotional lives were effectively bulldozed and forbidden, or like the aforementioned lake, filled in and unrecognizable.

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