Gordon's hammer

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Gambling is a turn-off for me on a variety of grounds.  First, boredom.  If I make an effort, I am capable of enjoying a game of chance, but fundamentally outcomes determined by chance, rather than effort, frustrate me.  And frustration is boring.  Second, aesthetics.  Las Vegas is vulgar.  Race tracks are ugly.  OTB is seedy.  Lotteries are cheap.  

Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule overcame my prejudices -- captivated me before prejudice came into it -- by pointedly undermining both these objections.  I loved spending time in this novel -- "in" being warranted by its transporting prose that invoked a fresh imaginative space, as well as a seemingly altered physical state.  I didn't take my pulse while reading, but I bet it slowed, so relaxed was the pleasure I took in the plot's unhurried unfurling.  So: not boring.  And: not aesthetically offensive.  To the contrary, though the novel canvasses an impressively broad array of ugliness, the writing imbues life with that rare and treasured quality: beauty.

What most impressed me, though, was the novel's gentle inversion of my hierarchies.  Roughly speaking, I don't respect the way addicts deal with the world.  I recognize that not all gamblers are addicts, but I respect non-addict gamblers even less than the addicts: the non-addicts, at least, have some control over their behaviour. 

And yet what I felt for the gamblers in Lord of Misrule was not contempt, but empathy.  Luck is the nasty wild card in the pack from which we all draw.  However meritorious our hand, the unworthy get lucky, and the deserving go unrewarded.  This situation is reality.  It's also very difficult to accept.  Nor do we like to discuss it or remember it.  The role of luck in the lives of every successful person is not unlike the diagnosis of a venereal disease: unspeakable, forgotten or ignored if possible.  For this condition, Chekhov prescribed his hammer ("At the door of every happy person there should be a man with a hammer whose knock would serve as a constant reminder of the existence of unfortunate people").

Gordon discusses it unforgettably.  Her gamblers are the unrewarded.  Worthy and unworthy alike, they are undone by chance.  Gambling is part of their ritual for trying to keep it together, part of their fight to thrive.  Their stakes are no different from those of the Greek and Roman protagonists wrestling fate: life and (sometimes) death; but, even if not death, unbidden metamorphosis, radical change, upheaval. 

Yet despite the epic stakes, these gamblers have none of the distancing glamour of mythic forerunners.  Losers, all of them, they are above everything accessible.  They invite embrace and seem to reciprocate, even without being lovable, or even particularly likable.  In their company, the enormous role of luck comes to seem, if not acceptable, at least bearable.  Even, at times, beautiful.

Image of
young Jaimy Gordon from a 1983 interview in Gargoyle Magazine.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Maya published on May 29, 2012 8:27 AM.

Happy endings, horror-style was the previous entry in this blog.

Decency above courage is the next entry in this blog.



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