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Book Review: This is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan
Basically, find your kernel of joy and revel in it.
I’ll preface this by saying the book meanders, but in the meandering you’ll find enough random outbursts and comical indignationfrom the writer-narrator that you’ll be instantaneously okay with the meandering, and eventually with the constant thought in the back of your head whispering “I still don’t get what this is about.”
When the observation — “I still don’t get what this is about” — finally subsides, toward the end of the book, mind you, once you’re done with each preceding chapter that once cradled but then quickly dashed your expectation that this is it, this is the chapter where you’ll finally get it, you realize it was all a set-up mirroring your own life. Never mind the writer is a middle-aged woman with two kids. There’s an inherent relatability to the narrator’s unwavering interrogation of her interest/object of affection/okay, okay, obsession.
Why do we like the things we like? Why, and how, do we become fans of certain things? Why do we feel guilty about being a note too passionate, and why do we feel inappropriately mismatched, age-wise, gender-wise, cutting-oneself-short-wise, with the opportunity for ‘play’— the thing that comes with the cost of having no purpose, no point, other than the flag upon which you plant the slogan ‘play for play’s sake’ and then immediately feel guilty over it as soon as there creep thoughts of wasting your time, being unproductive, falling short of real responsibility, what will others think of me, etcetera etcetera?
Well, in one fell swoop of F-you, albeit as endearing as it can get, the narrator reminds us there’s beauty in “I still don’t get what this is about.” You just have to go with it, go for it, ride the wave.
Rilke put it eloquently, “Live the questions now,” . . . damnit . . . so that you may have the chance to one day “live your way into the answer.”
Carvan takes this and turns the ‘why’ into a non-necessity. Consider her your permission slip in adulthood to find rapture, the playful kind, and to revel in it. ‘Find a way to lose control,’ she says. Because there comes a time when you realize that external modules of success have a tendency to rob you of the freedom to choose your own priorities. Take, for example, the poem by Mary Oliver — the one that garners quotable Instagram posts signaling the person posting has discovered the meaning of life and is gracious enough to share it with you, distilled and all. You might have an inkling of the one Carvan is about to talk about: the quote, ‘Tell me/what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?’ When we take just these few lines, the essence of the poem seems to have been either deliberately changed, or accidentally misdirected, into making one think you gotta find theeeeee purpose of life, youuurrrrrr purpose as an undeniably unique inhabitant of this Earth whose destiny is, if not preordained, then certainly set up for the shiny winnings after a scavenger hunt.
The rest of the poem, Carvan points out, of course hasn’t been deemed worthy of Instagrammable quoting. But therein lies the problem. Because the rest of it, when you read it, goes as follows and changes the entire trajectory of the poem: it talks about observing a grasshopper, attentively, and being idle in a field, and not necessarily finding that one big calling, but rather, paying attention to life. ‘Tell me, what else should I have done?’ asks Oliver, and Carvan echoes, because here is our one wild and precious life, and what is one to do but to pay attention to whatever it is that moves us? To allow ourselves the grace to do so? Uninterrupted. In rapture. Being open to levitating, being swept away, whether in love or in one’s hobby or toward a goal. It matters not what, but the making of the journey whilst being deeply in love. And staying open to that kinda chorus, because ‘lightning could strike.’ And how grand and exciting that is.
Here’s Anthony Hopkins putting it eloquently in Meet Joe Black.
Meaningful side notes for me included Carvan’s observation on the age of print—how it spearheaded the idea that creativity was defined by originality (because how else does one’s imprimery make loads of money on printing copies of what only it could print — a novel idea), whereas in medieval times, originality was simply the ‘recombination of inherited ideas.’ Another thought to digest was Carvan’s point on young women being pressured to seem sexy, and being the object of another’s desires, thereby stifling their own learning process and recognition of their own sexual desires, in essence failing “to consider, at a fundamental level, the nature and object of their desires.” I paired this thought with what Carvan calls “the joke of motherhood” down the line, what she describes as not getting “to have children and be yourself” because “[w]hen you eat pizza, you eat pizza as a mother. Every day—hundreds of times a day, every day—you give up what you want and how you want it in so many tiny little ways, that whatever squeezed-out orange-half remains of you, that’s who you are now. It’s fine, really.” Is it possible for a mother to see herself as anything else? I don’t know, but Carvan thankfully does.
Take, for example, the bit where the writer recounts, “I remember a phone conversation with my mother, who said Benedict Cumberbatch looked like the underside of a stingray.” Or the hilariously relatable bit where she writes, “On my son’s birth certificate, it was extremely optimistic of me to declare my profession as “writer.” When I did the same thing on my daughter’s birth certificate less than two years later, it was straight-up fiction. Which is a kind of writing, I guess?” And one more for good measure: “Like, just now, I considered referring to “the Benedict Cumberbatch years” as “the BC era” but then I thought, No, it’s probably not okay to liken him to the Son of God, even though Benedict Cumberbatch is absolutely the first thing that comes to mind when I see those initials”