Yesterday while I was frying crepes at the cafe a young co-worker told me of a book she'd just read. She waxed on about the profound effect the novel had had on her. I finally said, “It sounds to me like this was a Hug & Kiss Novel.”
She asked what that was, and I told her of an incident I'd experienced in university. I was walking the halls to my next engagement when I encountered a friend who surprised me by giving me a long, warm hug and concluding that with a kiss. Prior to this embrace I hadn't thought of my friend in amorous terms, and I somehow had the impression she hadn't given me any reason to change my thinking. “What was that for?” I asked.
“Oh, I just finished reading the most incredible book!”
And so a group of us began the Hug & Kiss Book Club, which had some of the same rules as Fight Club (we never talked about it) but none of the unpleasantness. We were touchy-feely boho-types, and most of us lived downtown. The odds of finishing a wonderful book and immediately encountering a friend were pretty good, so we gave the first friend we encountered a Hug & Kiss.
Many of the authors were the usual suspects. The friend who started this off had just finished reading The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting by Milan Kundera (A). Herman Hesse frequently inspired the Hug & Kiss. So did Paul Auster's Moon Palace, I Served The King Of England by Bohumil Hrabl, Crowley's Little, Big and poetry by Jim Harrison. Two weeks after I finished Don DeLilo's Underworld, I found myself sitting on a downtown bench and clearing the tears from my eyes because of a deluge of connections I'd just made. I was in my 30s now, and my friends had all moved on: there was no-one I could trust with the Hug & Kiss.
“That's it exactly!” said my co-worker. Her novel was Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels — a gorgeous, frequently heartbreaking and finally life-and-love-affirming book. “I fell in love amid the clattering of spoons....” Shapely material indeed for the Hug & Kiss (A).
As she enthused, I silently wondered what had happened to my Hug & Kiss impulse. I've read some beautiful novels since Underworld, and more than a few have brought tears to my eyes. But the effect isn't the same as it was in my 20s and early 30s. My guess is when we were younger we read in fear that our lives were constricting in predictable and not always welcome ways. The world surrounding us conspired in this constriction. These books were a wild affirmation of sorts, and we were young and flaky enough to respond physically.
Some of the novelists we encountered when we were younger have aged as well. It's not uncommon to discover that their current material acknowledges limits the younger novelist did not see. They have changed; we have changed. Our response changes in kind.
I've also become too much the Mennonite as I grow older — puritanically chaste in my physical contact with others. In my aversion to emotional complication I too frequently eschew physicality altogether. My loss. Others' too, I suppose.
The world continues to conspire and constrict. Fortunately there remain books that encourage openness. The last such for me was Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (A). I slowed down a bit after reading that, and tried to listen to the people who make me impatient. Not exactly a Hug & Kiss, but if the people around me were to be honest this was probably the more welcome response. Hugs are swell, to be sure, and no-one should discourage their practice. But listening is the real trick.
If I ever get the secret to listening, I'll pass it along. In the meantime, I'll keep reading. And if properly nudged I may even return to the Hug & Kiss.
Endnotes: Here are my thoughts on Moon Palace. Here, Gilead.