Monday, February 25, 2013

Review of Carissa Halston's The Mere Weight of Words

A review by Sarah Wolf

The Mere Weight of Words by Carissa Halston is a heavy examination of difficult relationships.  Written in the first person, the narrator is a young woman named Meredith whose passion is language, something she uses as both a shield and as a sword.  Her estranged father is in the film industry, something she seems to roll her eyes at throughout the novella.  Theirs is a strained relationship long before they take a twenty year break from each other, only reunited when she learns he is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  “I am rankled over my inability to remember a single turning point that soured my father in my mind. . . No monumental signal…outshines the collective slights he paid us,” Meredith admits.  Yet, still, her father punches an overwhelming and highly negative impact on her self-esteem, her career path, and even her romantic attractions.  Too late, she realizes she’s entangled with a man named Patrick who essentially is her father, and this hefty conclusion sours her already dark spirit.  “We’d never be all together separate.  If I could have explained, I would have told him that was the biggest reason he reminded me of my father.  And that, sometimes, was a comforting evil,” Meredith admits.  Patrick is fixed in her life, swimming through her blood, the sense of normalcy that she knows best. 
Almost in defiance of these controlling men in her life, Meredith opts not to do what anyone expects upon graduating from college and takes a job teaching English in China.  While she’s there, half of her face goes slack and, just like that, she is a woman living with Bell’s Palsy, which, in her case, does not correct itself over time, as it sometimes does.  She returns to the States, stubbornly refusing to tell anyone what happened to her as she makes her way in New York until a friend from college convinces her to return to her native Los Angeles and face up to her parents.  This isn’t traumatic with her mother but with her father, Meredith fears his reaction.  Either he will declare her decision to go to China an epic failure of her own creation or he won’t care at all – and both outcomes terrify her.  But what she gets upon facing that fear is a father who expresses concern and offers to help in any way he can.  Meredith seems unprepared for this response, so she lashes out and storms away, convinced he’d rehearsed his empathy, convinced he is still a father who doesn’t care about her.  Of course, this leads her running straight to Patrick, likely seeking the reaction she didn’t get from her father.  But even Patrick disappoints her by simply asking how he can help and to hear the story of what happened.  Meredith overflows with rage once more, refusing to tell anyone what happened to her, a seemingly odd decision since, frankly, nothing happened to her but a stroke of bad luck.
Meredith and Patrick fall back into their routine when they wind up in grad school together at UCLA while her relationship with her father falls completely off the radar, except, of course, in her heart where it’s a festering, unquenchable fire.  She resumes her study of language and speech and the ways of words, lulling herself with patterns and pronunciations and variety in terms of how language is used from culture to culture and beyond.  She applies these patterns to her routine with Patrick and laments their inevitable incompatibility, still knowing they will never be fully apart.
And when the inevitable day comes that she finally stands face-to-face with her father, now on the brink of dementia, she realizes she is still afraid of this man, still afraid of his power over her, still afraid he is judging her to be a failure, though he never speaks those words to her.  “His legacy brainwashed me.  I was scared to be his successor, scared of being someone different, someone detestable,” she says.  Standing in front of him, she feels every bit his daughter, someone built in his image, tragic flaw for tragic flaw, and this cacophony of emotions causes a fight or flight reaction as she spins on her heels and leaves him almost as quickly as she came to stand before him, likely for the final time in their breathing lives.  On her way out the door, she thinks, “I didn’t need him, didn’t want to admit to needing anyone.  He didn’t—doesn’t—need me.  He never did.  That, but little else, I can respect about him.  That, but little else I understand.”  But in a twist of irony, she calls Patrick and entwines him back into her life, thus aligning herself with her father in a surrogate fashion, something that doesn’t bring her happiness but it does bring her a sense of stability and assurance in her ongoing path.
Halston’s novella is written with a great deal of sour angst and an overriding feeling of gloom – Meredith’s unhappiness seeps through the pages as her dry sense of humor and irony play out from scene to scene, memory to memory.  It’s unclear what brings this woman joy at all – she seems to spend her time simply trying not to be miserable, and often failing even at that.  Hers is a lesson in grudges and unresolved emotional trauma – hers is a case where she allows herself to live on with visible wounds, something manifested in the form of Bell’s Palsy.  Like any emotional trauma, some people recover more than others, much like her physical disfigurement, and for Meredith, her scars are what define her, not what help her transcend.  This is her ultimate tragedy – her biggest enemy is herself.

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