Literary Commentary

ideas || i know who you are because of the words you use | The Midnight Library and my own emotional voice

I just finished reading The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, and filmed a short IGTV which I posted to Instagram yesterday. But there’s one thing I briefly touched upon in those five minutes that I need to dive deeper into.

There was something about his writing.

The book incorporates the science-fiction delight of parallel universes in tackling themes of depression and regret.

So obviously, I was a bit nervous doing the review.

Okay, mainly it was because I was standing up, and I never film standing up, and I think it triggers me to think I’m giving a presentation to hundreds of people – which, in some weird internet way, I am.

But also mainly because I felt like I was being critical of a state of mind, which I knew was hypocritical because I have more in common with that state of mind than I’d like to let myself realize. Or let others find out, for that matter.

In my review, I said “He’s dealt with depression and mental health issues. A lot of the perspective of the book came from that lens, and you can tell.”

No, this is not a post to say I have depression or mental health issues. In truth, what I was trying to say by that was that the writing was dripping with emotion. That was the perspective the book was written from, and the mental health issues are just an added element. Often found together, but not always. Complimentary goods, in simple economic terms, if you will.

Nora Seed didn’t just scroll through her phone, she “sat on her dilapidated sofa scrolling through other people’s happy lives, waiting for something to happen.”

Nora Seed didn’t just open the door. She “wondered for a moment if she shouldn’t get the door at all. She was, after all, already in her night clothes even though it was only nine p.m. She felt self-conscious about her over-sized ECO WORRIER T-shirt and her tartan pyjama bottoms.”

Nora Seed didn’t just say hi. “She’d been feeling lonely. And though she’d studied enough existential philosophy to believe loneliness was a fundamental part of being human in an essentially meaningless universe, it was good to see him. ‘Ash,’ she said, smiling.”

In another take I filmed of my IGTV video, I specified that the main character seemed to “notice only the bad things in the world around her.” But that’s also not quite the full picture. Sure, leading up to midnight, when she decided to take her own life, the writing focused on all the negativities of the scene. What writer wouldn’t, if they were trying to paint a bleak and depressed character?

However, the same tone of emotional language persisted throughout the book. The very way in which this character lived was imbued in emotion.

Halfway through the book, she didn’t just notice her brother smile. “Joe smiled. It was a genuinely happy smile. She hadn’t seen him smile like that for years.”

Putting aside the slightly sad twinge to every minuscule amotion that receives attention in the book, the writing in general can be described as deeply psychological. Intimate. Emotional.

What’s inside your basket, Dorothy? (Art by Banksy)

I know what it’s like to think like that.

For all the labels I consider to belong to, “over-thinker” and “analytical” and “over-analyzing” are just a few I’d nod my head to.

I recognize the soul of the writer who wrote those words. From all the fiction books I’ve read – many from the same authors – it’s pretty clear that while the story can be different, the lens through which you see the world is hard to shake.

So I recognize how your inner state must feel to lead you to write like that. It’s a state in which you’re practically suspended in a jello tub of feeling. One where you seem to notice every single emotion – the severely painful and the beautifully blissful – and although you can choose to stop looking at any time, you just can’t take your eyes off of it.

Can you tell I’m trying really hard to demonstrate what that writing looks like?

Which brings into context the other statement I made – somewhat provocatively – in my IGTV about this book:

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch did it better.

After reading this book, which was so incredibly similar to Dark Matter, I let the notion sink in that maybe some people are just better suited to tell certain stories. Certain stories are meant to be told emotionally. Some less so. I respect Matt Haig’s stories, and his How to Stop Time was incredibly perfect. But maybe Blake Crouch’s voice was just better for telling the parallel-universes-regret thing better. (In my not-so-humble opinion.)

One thing that 2020 has done for everyone is to make us reminisce over old pictures a lot more. (Come on, tell me that’s not true.) In my case, I have a whole library of old videos to dig into. And as is the case with photos, and even more so with video, they really transport you back to that period in time.

Specifically, some of my old videos – where my notes were insanely organized and I made lists about everything and I talked about psychology and growing up and confidence – transport me back to my high-school alter-self who would have written like Matt Haig. Okay, not as good, but with just as much of an emotion-prioritizing, inward eye.

That version of me would have looked at someone’s smile and thought,

“A smile means they must be happy. Why are they happy? Maybe they like what I’m saying, or they relate to my story. Wait. Maybe they’re pretending to smile. How do you know when someone’s smile isn’t real? How do you deal with those intricacies of conversation? Conversations are an exchange of ideas, but what if the other person is holding back? How can I convey that I like relationships that are authentic and open? Am I someone that people can be open with? But…maybe if they truly said what they meant, I would actually take it personally. Maybe I need to really reflect on that first. In fact, do I even really want to be someone who people can feel open with? Will that make me appear less confident and respectable, because I’m more vulnerable?”

Haha. I wish I was kidding. But I’m literally not.

One person I know from high school knows this side of me – or this past of me? – very well. And vice versa. I appreciated those conversations so much. If you’re reading this, I’m grateful.

But looking back at those videos, and remembering these things I used to spend ages thinking about, I can’t help notice how much has changed since then.

It was almost like going to university was to be the Big Switch. Specifically, the Big Off Switch. And it worked! With a lot of effort – and a couple teaspoons of simply growing up – I turned off many of those squeaky, high-frequency voices and grew out of them.

“Be gone, nasty voices!”

Reading Matt Haig made me remember them. Surprisingly, I felt nostalgic for them. A part of me misses seeing everything, before the switch turned off, because a part of me liked feeling like I was thinking the think and analyzing the life and doing the best I could possibly do at constant information collection.

Reading Matt Haig and relating to his voice (not his character, mind you – I talked about that in my IGTV review) makes me realize that I’ll always have those voices lurking somewhere in my mind, just deemed unnecessary for how I live my life. Seeing them this way makes me realize that they’re more than just monsters that over-complicated my teenage years. Rather, they’re a small quirk in the way I see things, which I tried to get rid of in order to de-intensify my experience of the world.

But as I said, it’s double-edged. It’s both an intensification of the negative emotions as of the positives. It’s my emotional side, my anxious side. It’s my romantic side, my see-the-beauty-in-everything side. It’s my long-walks-on-the-beach side, and it’s my oh-no-the-worst-could-happen side. It makes it hard to be in my company, but also (I hope) sometimes beautiful.

Sounds like every human being, ever.

In many ways, the world is just that much smaller in high school.

This year specifically, I’m finding myself increasingly called to put this lens to use by writing. I haven’t much, yet, because keeping busy with “Real Work” is one strategy developed throughout the Big Switch, that serves the secondary purpose of keeping me Focused. But the inner voices – those highly creative, squeaky ones, that delight in painting neon colours on top of the Renaissance painting of reality – are nothing more than another lens.

We’ve all got our lenses.

Thankfully, my next read – Anxious People by Fredrik Backman – tackles just that. The everyday, unique quirks of individuals.

If everyone thinks they’re weird, is anyone, really?

And to tie this back to storytelling and The Midnight Library and being nice to one author at the expense of another in the book review I posted yesterday:

Is there a perfect balance of voices, or is there just YOUR balance, made for telling a certain type of story at a certain time?

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