The impossible choice: Kramer vs Kramer

Kramer vs Kramer

Has everybody seen Kramer vs Kramer? I watched it again about a year ago, as part of my research for my (nearly-finished) work-in-progress, which is partly about the aftermath of a custody battle. I was talking about it with a friend in a cafe a week ago when something unusual happened: the guy at the next table chipped in to tell us how that film had changed his life.

I’d just been talking about how I’d gone back to the book on which the film was based, and the case it makes for how, under some circumstances, the father should get primary custody after a split. Our neighbour at the next table was American, about my age – a 1970s child. He told us his parents had split up around the time Kramer vs Kramer came out and he had been about the same age as the boy in the film.

The original plan had been for him to live with his mother when everything was settled, but he had been living with his dad for a few months when his mum came to him and asked him who he wanted to live with: her, or his dad? And he chose his dad.

She’d asked him because she had seen the film and had been so affected by it. ‘A boy needs his father,’ she said.

So how had all this worked out? All right, it seemed – though it had meant the boy had to get on a plane to see his mother, which happened around three times a year.

Looking back from an adult’s perspective, he wondered if he’d understood the question in the way that she had meant it, as a choice between his parents. Perhaps he had really thought she was asking, ‘Do you want to stay here with Dad in the place you’ve got to know, or come with me to a place you’ve never seen?’ and, as children do, had plumped for what seemed most familiar, the least upheaval, at the time.

Stories are powerful things and sometimes they change lives…

The two types of love story and After I Left You

love

Aphrodite, by my daughter


Here’s a narrative rule about love stories (but rules are made to be broken) – they usually work in one of two ways:

1.)    The romance. Boy meets girl, or man meets woman, but they are separated by apparently insurmountable obstacles: pride and prejudice, for example, or social inequality and a mad wife in the attic. Eventually the obstacles are overcome and the couple are united. Jane Eyre is my favourite example of this kind of story – it’s my Ur-romance, the one I read first.

2.)    Is the inverse of 1.) The couple come together some time before the end, and the drive of the story, as it turns out, is towards separation, as insurmountable obstacles come between the lovers and force them apart.

It can be (should be?) hard to tell which kind of story you’re reading till the very last page. Both use your uncertainty and doubt, and the suspense that creates, to hook you in and pull you through. Will they or won’t they?

My second novel, After I Left You, uses two timelines to give the same two people two different love stories. In the present, they meet long after the end of their relationship; many years earlier, they encounter each other for the first time. It’s not will they or won’t they, so much as: why can’t she (or shouldn’t she)? It’s not due to be published till January 2014, though, so if that’s piqued your curiosity, there’s a bit longer to wait to see how it turns out in the end.

Love and un-love, from Casablanca to Gone Girl

I have been told that readers, and viewers, like conclusive endings, and I think that is true, but some stories make a virtue out of uncertainty. Gone with the Wind is an obvious example: will-they-or-won’t-they remains as a final hope, a grace note, conferring a tentative immortality on the sparring lovers by raising the possibility that they may one day rebound together yet again.

Here are some other classic films that fall into the second type (where the lovers fall apart rather than together):

  1. Casablanca. Here the obstacle is War, the epic backdrop against which the troubles of three people don’t amount to more than a hill of beans. But as far as we’re concerned, of course, the individuals are epic, and the war is reduced to a horizon line, its details smoothed and miniaturised by distance.
  2. Brief Encounter. Surely one of the most heartbreaking of love stories. Here the lovers are up against not just society and its values, but also their own morality – the imperative to be good and sad rather than bad and briefly, selfishly happy. I agree wholeheartedly with Zadie Smith’s assertion, in a review published in her essay collection Changing My Mind, about what makes this film so distinctively English: when the couple decide they must part, most of their agonising final encounter is given over to politely passing the time of day with a busybody acquaintance. There really is no escaping other people.
  3. Love Story. Girl meets boy, they fall in love; then she gets sick. There is nothing like definitive loss to define what has been lost.

Every love story needs opposition – whether it’s war, ill health, other people, death – to tell us what love is. But love can be so mixed up with un-love (separation, isolation, anger, fear) that it is difficult to tell them apart. Gone Girl (which might more accurately be called a hate story than a love story) gets plenty of mileage out of our instinctive understanding of this: what possibilities lurk in the un-love we might prefer not to acknowledge?

When I studied Romeo and Juliet at school, our teacher pointed out how shrewd Shakespeare was to introduce a Romeo who professed to be in love with some other random girl, and was teased by his friends for being pathetic about it. When Juliet comes along we are in no doubt that this is suddenly the real thing. It’s mutual, for a start. It’s eloquent (it speaks in sonnets). The lovers are inspired, and transformed… but the odds are stacked up against them, in direct proportion to the strength of their feelings.

A blood feud is certainly an unpromising beginning to in-law relations. Not to mention the dawn that brings the lark and not the nightingale, the charm that works all too well, the message that fails to meet its destination, and, ultimately, mortality, the conclusion that waits to sever all lovers in the end (though in art at least, even that can be overcome).

What do we talk about when we talk about love?

Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a brilliantly concise, and oblique, answer to the questions that all love stories ask: what is love, really, and how do we know when it’s real?  The story introduces two couples, who are going to discuss the subject for us by invoking the stories of other couples, all the while knocking back stacks of booze.

First up is Terri, who is, as her husband Mel says, a romantic ‘of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school’. Terri describes an ex who beat her up one night: ‘He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, I love you, I love you, you bitch… what do you do with love like that?’ Terri is convinced this was love – ‘he was willing to die for it. He did die for it,’ but Mel is not so sure: ‘I’m not interested in that kind of love… If that’s love, you can have it.’

So then it’s Mel’s chance to have his say. What does he talk about when he talks about love? Well – I urge you to read the whole story to find out (it’s only 13 pages long), but here’s a taster: ‘It seems to me we’re just beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don’t doubt it… But sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too. But I did. I know I did… How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone would tell me.’

Also, if you haven’t yet, read (or re-read) James Joyce’s short story The Dead, about another lost love. See where it ends. See where the promise of love can take you. And see if the hairs don’t stand up on the back of your neck.

Catching up on the fun stuff

A friend of mine has a phrase for the way the rest of your life goes by the wayside when your kids get sick: she calls it ‘falling down the mummy hole’. That’s when you can’t leave the house, or see or chat to anyone on the outside, and the most you can do is just try to get through whatever bug they’ve got.

Sometimes I end up doing the writing equivalent of this – falling down the writing hole. Boy, writing can eat up the hours… Novels are like time machines than suck in real time from their writers and their readers, and convert it into the imaginary time that we all get to spend somewhere else.

Then, in the end, you come back up to the surface and oh dear, the garden’s full of weeds and you have a gazillion practical things to attend to. But also, you get to catch up on fun stuff. Like what’s on telly.

The other night I watched two of Channel 4’s new-ish American comedy imports, 2 Broke Girls and Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23. What an eye-opener! They’re both anti-children of Friends – they’re about friendships that aren’t always friendly. And about being skint, and living somewhere that’s not all that great, with someone you wouldn’t ideally choose to be with.

2 Broke Girls had a slightly Paris Hilton-ish blonde, the posh one, who couldn’t afford to keep her horse any more, and a cute deadpan brunette, the normal one, who’d fallen for the horse but had to say goodbye to it too. At the end off they went to console themselves with cut-price booze and a video of a cat on a piano on youtube (or something like that – I paraphrase, but you get the idea).

Remember how in Friends they lived like bankers in a swish apartment, but actually they did stuff like waitressing/archaeology/being a chef/going to auditions? By rights they should have been squished into a grotty dump of a place, and much too poor to afford all those lattes. The Broke Girls really are broke – at the end of each episode a message flashes up telling you how much $ they have got left now.

On to the B****, and what a peculiar, but likeable, programme this is, and what a great job it’s doing of reformulating the career of James Van Der Beek, who plays a down-at-heel version of the former Dawson’s Creek star. This episode was all about James Van Der Beek’s sex tape. He was quite up for it coming out, thinking it might help him win the public vote on the reality celebrity dance show he was involved in. But he was worried that the weird lip-licking thing he did through most of it would put people off. So he wanted to re-shoot.

This show is not only the anti-child of Friends, it’s the anti-child of Sex and the City – lots of suggestive rudeness and less glamour to take the edge off it. What does your flatmate get up to in the bathtub? You may not want to know – but the B****, who is a scruple-free marvel of disinhibition, is most definitely interested. The B**** prides herself on being nasty. Friends was so not nasty, ever. It didn’t feature a pastor who paid for her nose-job and office refit by selling on a sex tape, either.

In the ad break there was a trailer for a film called Magic Mike, which looks like a US Full Monty, with the likes of Matthew McConaughey in it. Men taking up stripping because they can’t find work, broke girls tallying their $, making the best of flat-sharing with a B****… I guess we’re all counting our pennies and wondering when, and how, things are going to look up.