In an early David Lodge novel (I can’t recall its title), the narrator asserts that the difference between characters in novels and people in real life is that the characters have way more sex and less children.
I am hardly going to deny that contemporary novels usually feature more and better sex than most of us get to enjoy. But the more striking wish fulfillment embedded in the novels I read is the abundance of time.
In A Little Life, the main character Jude is an accomplished pianist, an astounding cook (especially of pastries), takes long walks around New York City (at least until he loses his legs), works long days and most weekends at his law firm, maintains a variety of friendships, goes to art openings, the movies and plays, and oversees the renovation of at least two apartments and one house. Not to mention the frequent trips to Europe, especially London and Paris. If only . . .
There was brief period to time in my life when I was lonely and had time on my hands, basically the first few years of graduate school. I did, in some ways, get more done in that time than I can, in memory, credit as possible. The amounts I read and wrote are staggering to recall at this late date. But even at that time I always felt pressed for time, always felt I was giving things a lick and a polish on the idea that I would return to them and give them their proper due, my full attention, at some later date.
That time in my life came to an end with the formation of some close friendships—and then my first marriage and my first job. From that day until this, I have been deeply entangled in a network of obligations and commitments that leave little time to breathe. Not that I am complaining. I wanted desperately in my “out” years to move to the center of my time (a phrase from Thomas Hardy that has always been a touchstone for me). But this busyness is always haunted by the sense of things not done, of interests left unexplored, or of tasks done in a half-assed way because of time constraints. And it is that sense of constant hurry, or a total lack of leisure, that novels fail to portray.
Like the dyer’s hand, my nature is subdued. I don’t think, at this point, that I am capable of doing something slowly, with pain-staking care. I have become habituated to doing things quickly, to an ingrained sense of what is “good enough,” thus leaving time to move on to the next thing. Just as I know that moving to the country in order to secure peace and quiet would be crazy for someone of my temperament, so the notion that I could settle into one or two activities pursued at length is most likely delusionary. My attention span might be longer than that of our perennially maligned millennials, but I don’t want to disconnect any more than they do, even if my connections are not as often virtual. I crave the constant input, the pace that is a little too fast for comfort, but frantic in ways that make me feel energized and alive. Better manic than depressed any day.