Sunday, October 05, 2008

The "Hug & Kiss" Novel

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.

11 comments:

Cowtown Pattie said...

Hug and Kiss club...how original!

(I admit to getting a mental image of signs near a Washington DC subway, "Kiss & Ride".)

As for physical shows of affection, I suppose it is a good thing you don't live in Texas or the deep south - we are big huggers, and a few of us kiss as well!

I often touch the arm or shoulder of the person I am speaking to; never gave it much thought in terms of the other person's "personal space", but perhaps I should pay more attention.

Whisky Prajer said...

Perhaps a move is in order, because I am keen to "loosen up" and be more affectionate. I just don't want to look like the mid-life guy who's out for a quick grope, is all.

paul bowman said...

The huggy expressiveness of my 20s happened about shared prayer & biblestudyish getting together -- which seems a little more readily understandable, in a way, and yet in retrospect lacks the appeal of the pent-up & compulsive you call up here. But we weren't bohos, we were working-class kids in first or 2nd jobs or getting engineering undergrads & what have you.

My family are touchy-feely southerners, though. (Not Texas southern I'm afraid!) And I still like to keep in mind who the huggers in my life are, men & women alike, & not begrudge if possible. For me, at least, it does good.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love this blog?

RJW said...

Little, Big can lead to more than just hug-and-kiss, for the record.

Whisky Prajer said...

pb -- sounds to me like someone is looking for a hug!

rjw - No doubt. I suppose one of the lessons that comes with age is a cautious approach re: the intended recipients of powerful books. Speaking of which, if his blog is any indication Crowley hasn't lost any of his magic.

paul bowman said...

Hm! At the moment, staying with my brother & his family, working on their house. Two small nephews in the bargain! Besides this, spending a little time with a friend also in town, visiting from South America. Where there are three-yr-olds & amigas latinas, there is no hug shortage. Might be feeling the chill in another week or so though.

paul bowman said...

Hugs are swell, to be sure, and no-one should discourage their practice. But listening is the real trick. -- The vignette from your youthful society of letters is sweet, but it's really this turn, I should've said, that elicits the love above. : )

DarkoV said...

Opened up this blog and...A Love Fest has broken out! Kumbaya, or is that Kowabunga?
I'm from a splinter group of Hug 'N Kiss, called the Love 'N Anger group. Catch-22 , Slaughterhouse 5 (Does anyone remember its completer title, "Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade"? A cruel, cruel joke on Mr. Vonnegut's part), Blood of the Lamb will do that to you.

I'm certainly not above blubbering and hugging. Patricia MacLachlan's Baby was a most memorable moment. My wife decided to read this book aloud to our family as we were tooling toward and around Washington D.C. I would not recommend this practice as driving in D.C. is treacherous enough without having blurry tear-filled eyes.
My college and high school days were bereft of hugs as the latter was an all boys h.s. and the latter was too existential for human contact. So the most a powerful novel would elicit would be a heavy browed nod, even though a Hug'NKiss would have been better.
You have lived in magical literary times, sir.

Whisky Prajer said...

Uh-oh: sounds like someone needs a hug!

For the record, I belong to the Love 'N Anger group, too -- I just don't talk about it. But just to prove my credentials are up-to-date, the book currently being glowered over is The Futurist by James P. Othmer (A).

DarkoV said...

WP,
Hope I didn't break the Love 'N Anger Code by revealing the group's existence.

Hugs are welcome any time. Based on your on-the-right (but not as Right as Sarah Palin) "On the Floor" posting, I'd ordered The Futurist about 3 weeks past. Looking forward to the read in the near future.

Cowtown Pattie said...

OH, I almost forgot...in the South, though not as much in Texas, you should utter a phrase out loud during the physical show of affection:

"Well, bless your heart!"

My heart should be immortal from all the blessings its received from older relatives and friends.

So big cyber ((hugs)) to all and "Bless your hearts!"

Now, you may resume your regular programming. Gettin' too saccharine 'round here.