Life After Joe
Two times I've read it. The first time was fast because I was so enmeshed in what was happening to Matt that I couldn't slow down. It felt a little like rubbernecking at a really horrific car accident. You don't really want to see all that destruction, but it's almost involuntary that you turn to look anyway. Was it the 1st person POV? Was it the uncompromising realism of Matt's utter devastation? Was it Matt's very distinct voice that pulled me right in? Yes, to all of those. That and something else wouldn't let me go until the end. There was this uneasy awareness, a deep dull achy place that identified at first with Matt's pain and loss and depression. And then Aaron's story of his loss of Rosie just finished me. It was cathartic in a weird way to know that keeping silly notes or searching out someone who looks like the one you lost is just as much a part of the process of grief as Matt's alcohol, drugs, and casual encounters.
And then I had to re-read it because I knew I had missed some of the technical goodness when I got blindsided by the emotional impact. But even then I found myself getting caught up in the story again and not thinking, just feeling. Matt and Aaron had more in common than I first thought. They've both lost loved ones; they're just dealing with grief in their own personal and unique ways. This shared grief did a lot toward leveling out their relationship dynamics and made for a good balance, a give and take from both that isn't just compassionate but mutual healing.
There's that old adage "Home is where the heart is", and I kept noticing the home/heart metaphor running throughout. Matt describes the scent of Joe's hair as "the scent of love and home", the flat they'd bought together was "safe" as compared to the precarious existence of growing up in the council estates (the Projects here in the US), and that together they had escaped the stigma and threat of crime-ridden violent projects/council estates which meant more than mere survival but thriving. And then all of the warmth, safety, security, and love is ripped away from Matt because this life they'd built wasn't what Joe wanted after all.
For Matt, there was just Joe and their love for each other. That love was almost like another character with Joe at the "heart", the flat its "bones", and the memories of their years and shared past together fleshing it out. When the heart stopped beating, Matt was left rattling around in a "mausoleum of their life together" where Joe's favorite foods languished in cupboards, clothes hung waiting in closets ready for Joe, and a light was left on because Joe hated coming home to a darkened flat.
After Marnie's visit, Matt's encounter with the man at Exhibition Park, and his suicide attempt my heart was in my throat. Matt, feeling as insubstantial and just as fragile as a wisp of smoke, later tells Aaron about taking the pills and he says: "I...think I tried to kill myself last night" (...) "It's all right. Nobody noticed." Oh, gosh. Words on the page got very blurry right here. And doesn't depression do just that very thing? Make you feel invisible, insignificant? That you don't matter?
And Joe. What can I say about Joe that's not going to sound terrible? Not much. Because for Matt there was ONLY Joe, but for Joe there was this whole other thing going on for two years. How long had he been thinking about it before then? Completely devastating to Matt to suddenly realize the person you thought you knew/loved/trusted the best and who knew/loved/trusted you in return wasn't really that person at all. Maybe never had been. If he could lie so well and hide a relationship with Marnie for two years, what else was a lie? Did he truly love Matt at all? So it was hard to watch Matt spiral down into depression and self-immolation, but completely understandable and credible. But even though Joe was a total arsehole, I still felt kind of sorry for him. He's clearly confused and just flailing around trying to find happiness and acceptance based on what others think is acceptable/good. So even though he totally screwed Matt and apparently isn't any more happy with Marnie than he was with Joe, I did feel a little sympathy for him. That T.S. Eliot poem was as much for Joe as it was for Matt. I don't think Joe will ever be truly happy, and so that makes me a little sad.
It was a terrific twist that Matt was the stronger one in his relationship with Joe, but then that dynamic was flipped when he was on the receiving end of all the TLC Aaron gave him. But with Matt it was temporary unlike Joe who would always need to be "taken care of", I think, in any relationship he had. It's clear Marnie does all the heavy lifting there (and it sounded like Matt did also). She's the one to tell Matt that Joe wants to sell the flat. At the end when Lou wants Matt to talk to Joe, I kind of wondered if Joe was behind that request, too. Still unable to have truthful, hard conversations? I don't know.
Aaron's story is just as heartbreaking as Matt's. Because loss is the same whether it's death or having the other partner leave you for someone else. In some ways, I've always thought death of a loved one is easier to eventually accept than knowing you were left behind through choice. It doesn't make it better or lessen the grief, just easier to accept at some point and eventually move forward. Not being privy to Aaron's thoughts made his loss of Rosie even more poignant and felt like a punch to the gut. He at first seems to be a stereotypical "tall, dark, and handsome" hero, but there was so many layers to him that weren't revealed until the end. Very, very powerful.
I think that Matt would have been happy with Joe the rest of his life, but it was a relationship in which he would never experience the freedom he had with Aaron. I do think he might have begun at some point to feel a sense of lacking something in their relationship. So many things Matt did because he was protecting Joe or making sure Joe was comfortable. Matt lived in a Joe-centric world and everything Matt did, liked, disliked, believed, thought centered around Joe. And that meant it was more than a breakup. It was as if Joe took a hammer to Matt's sense of self-worth and identity and broke it up into little pieces when he left. Joe's rather flippant remark when he returned - he knew Matt would do okay without him - just totally pissed me off. That was a rationalization, a way of giving himself permission or forgiveness for hurting Matt. I loved when Matt finally began to realize he could like things and do things because it was his choice. For example Matt's distaste/dislike for conventional symbols of commitment - this wasn't really his own preference, but a reflection of Joe's dislikes. I think he said Aaron "opened the windows" and the air was more "breathable" than he'd ever experienced. Whether he knew it or not, Matt was caged in by Joe. I think he discovered that with the right person, there's this glorious feeling of freedom to be who you are, not a reflection of the other partner and his likes/dislikes.
It was also quite emotional when Joe comes "home" for Christmas and Matt notices the changes in Joe's face, once open and sweet but now "faded" with the "twist" to his smile. The "pale yellow" light threw into stark relief how Joe's duplicity and betrayal had taken a toll on Joe, just as in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
This was a great book that left me in tears at times. Painful to read in parts, too. I am impressed with the elegant multi-layered language, and how it felt almost like a short but very intense character study with the plot secondary to Matt's transformation. Loved, loved loved all the beautifully written phrases like these:
No point in an autopsy, picking over all the points at which my life had slowly died.
It was as if he carried a larger universe around with him, stars in his black hair, far
horizons in his eyes.
Another trouble with break ups - the instant loss of the dozens of daily touches, the
background tapestry of comfort, given and received.
...the arousal prolonged itself, stretched out like pouring honey...