Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Allusion in We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Matthew Thomas’ fine novel We Are Not Ourselves about three generations of disappointment and hope alludes to Shakespeare’s King Lear who says, “We are not ourselves / When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind / To suffer with the body” (2. 4. 100-102).

In light of Ed Leary’s death after years of suffering from the brain’s deterioration through early onset Alzheimer’s, the title, We Are Not Ourselves, certainly refers to Ed. Other characters endure emotional and intellectual suffering as well, however. Their suffering affects their physical well-being, too, as does Lear's whose torment seems self-inflicted.

Lear is a king who decides to transfer all care and woe to his children so that the head that once wore the crown may rest easy (Henry IV, Part ii. 2. 3). Unfortunately, Lear is a terrible judge of character and narcissistic. His older daughters, Goneril and Regan, make flowery speeches in order to gain his wealth and power while his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to declare her own father reigns supreme in her heart. She grants that a husband and perhaps her own children one day will claim the greatest share of her heart.

Wounded, his hubris inflamed, Lear disowns Cordelia and throws himself on the mercy of Goneril and Regan. They in turn cast him out. Betrayal and Nature’s harsh power infect Lear. He goes mad, finding solace in the company of Gloucester’s son, Edgar, himself betrayed by a bastard half-brother and a father incapable of discerning true character. The son, also cast out into a savage world, feigns madness to protect the old man, once king.

Matthew Thomas’ Ed is Ed Leary, a character name that invokes both Edgar and Lear. Ed is a promising scientist, capable of exacting research. He’s a teacher and guide for students less able to compete at university. He grows mad after tangled plaques disturb the synapses and connections in his once fine mind. His madness oppresses the mind and slowly destroys the body. Ed, like Lear, is at the mercy of Nature, and Nature defeats both men.

Disease and adversity alter the course of our lives as heavy rains
and droughts change the course of a stream.
Photo by Al Griffin 2015
Toronto Springs, Missouri
Ed’s wife, Eileen, and son, Connell, are also at the mercy of Nature. Ed’s slow deterioration costs the family a secure financial future, easy choices, and brilliant careers. Connell, in particular, suffers because like all children, he blames himself for some of his father’s suffering.

Without doubt, Connell deserves blame. He is impatient and neglects his duties, but he is also young, given to self-indulgence like old Lear and prone to giving up in spite of his father’s desperate attempts to make Connell believe in his own prowess, in a future in which Connell triumphs.

Readers must wonder whether Connell would have embraced love and life sooner, would have found his career more easily, if his father had not been lost to disease even as his heart beat on, insisting upon life in a body broken. Thomas seems to suggest that Ed’s suffering stalls Connell’s future, especially because Connell’s mother is distracted, at times overwhelmed by her role as caregiver.

We are not ourselves, in the end, refers to those life-changing, shape-shifting challenges that define a life in spite of all ambition, hard work, and right living. These forces inexorably change the course of our life rivers, and Eileen Leary realizes this. While reflecting upon the fine home she wanted so badly, Eileen thinks the home represents the ghost of her “former future life. . . . The ghost of the life I almost had” (Thomas, Matthew. We Are Not Ourselves. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014. Kindle File)

Reading Challenge:

Read We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas.

Writing Challenge:

Narrate the story of a life force that shaped and changed you.