Authors: Keith Hollihan
Tags: #Fiction, #General
To friendship, in all its states and stages
Then call it fiction instead. Append a note: “I made this up.” Then you will be guilty of betraying no one …
Milan Kundera got me laid at a particularly trying time
in my life, but it was the way he told a story that left a mark. His novel
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
is about love and freedom (among other predicaments) but it begins by exploring a premise. Building on Nietzsche’s myth of eternal return, Kundera talks about the dialectic between lightness and heaviness. If we only experience this life once, then the many things we do along the way actually have an existential lightness to them because their impact is so cosmically trivial. If, on the other hand, we’re forced to experience every moment of this life eternally, then even the most trivial actions become heavy with consequence. In such a case, the desire to buy, say, a mere cup of coffee is fraught with weight because we will be buying that same cup of coffee over and over again, forever.
In other words, that cup of coffee had better be worth it.
A life of lightness, however, in which nothing is experienced twice, means consequences aren’t worth worrying about. You can buy that cup of coffee, sleep with your best friend’s girlfriend, or, for the sake of argument, rob a few banks, and, if
you’re so inclined, let your existential worries drift away weightless as a puff of smoke. After all, time will pass, the cells in your body will eventually be replaced, memories both exciting and horrible will lose their sharpness, and life, as they say, will go on. Ultimately, you sever yourself from the thing you did, the moment in time that marked you, and even the person you were. You’re someone else now.
A life of lightness gives you permission to do whatever the fuck you want.
not often my heart starts thumping when I read something, but I remember thinking, Now that’s the way to start a novel. Begin not with a scene or an establishing shot of your hero but with a rush of ideas that serve as a petri dish for the events and emotions that get cultivated over the next several hundred pages.
Actually, I read Kundera’s novel after I saw the film. And while the film was impressive, the impact it had on me was enhanced, as I mentioned earlier, by the fact that it got me laid. I caught the movie on a whim while on a first date with a young woman who was my lab partner in Introductory Biology, a science requirement I was taking two years late. A foreign student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, she was far too exotic looking to be with me, and we didn’t have much in common—she was earnest in her desire to be a medical doctor and save the world; I had less pure motives, rounded out by an interest in books and travel, along with a smidgen of charm. But I took a reckless chance at the end of the term and asked her out. By coincidence,
Lightness of Being
happened to be playing at the revival house near campus around Christmas of 1989. She was eager to see it—I was willing to see anything as long as she was part of the evening. Afterwards, it seemed imperative to both of us, her as much as me, that we go back to her apartment for a vigorous session of sweat-soaked, furniture-rattling, consciousness-obliterating sex.
I’ve been an especially keen fan of art films ever since.
finally read the book a few months later in a hut on a beach in Thailand. I had left school, fled Halifax, and was trying to write, and Kundera’s novel impressed me at a different level than the movie. The way his motif of lightness and heaviness had been folded into the argument of the story hit my nerve endings with voltage, a stimulation that flowered what felt like brilliant new thoughts and realizations. I’m not discounting the pleasure I associated with my memory of the film and its aftermath. Indeed, if all philosophical lectures could be sensorily enhanced with sucking and fucking, classes would be full and professors would party like rock stars.
But, stimulated as I was by the horny remnants and the great writing, I mainlined the Nietzsche bits and could not help but see the things that had happened to me and Chris in an alternative way, a way that was starting to become manageable, like grief. I didn’t understand everything yet. But I knew I had a story to tell. That had always been part of the deal. My desire was not to explain, exactly, but to turn confusing memories into something narratively coherent and hopefully guilt freeing. I tried to write that then, and it didn’t work. So I wrote about
something else instead, concocting out of some heat-stroked speculation and plenty of Mekhong whiskey the tale of a couple who backpacks through Asia robbing other backpackers to keep travelling. I threw into it everything I understood at that point in my life about morality and consequence and the lightness of being and the relief of a reckless fuck. I was circumventing the original impulse or question in a very roundabout way, which is one path in the process of making fiction.
Chris, to me, was lightness. He made decisions easily. He was oriented toward action and, for all his power and force of will, he had a quick and graceful way of doing things. He was utterly confident in his capabilities. Even when he made mistakes, he dismissed all failure, shrugged off consequence, laughed lightly at himself, and strode happily to the next adventure. I was his dialectic opposite. When it comes to consequence, I am like Prometheus chained to a rock, an eagle eating my liver each day, the poor liver regenerating each night. Or like Loki—to do homage to the topless Scandinavian women on the Thai beach near my eternal hut where I remain, in some parallel universe, still typing—bound to another rock by entrails, a constant drip of acidic snake venom falling on my forehead. Each consequence, the same as the last, the same as the next. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cup of coffee, a reckless fuck, or a mad dash through a mall parking lot with a bag full of money. It doesn’t matter if I’ve already committed the crime or am only contemplating the doing. Drip. Drip. Rip. Chew.
Loki. Prometheus. Liver. Venom. Eternal return. Topless sunbathers. That’s the postcard I would have mailed.
the film I saw on that date wasn’t
The Unbearable Lightness of Being,
In fact, I don’t recall exactly when I finally saw
, though I do remember being knocked flat by the book when I read it in Thailand. But
was also foreign and had a great deal of fucking in it and was even about a writer, which was the clincher for my lab partner, so a certain mutability between the two movies occurred in my mind. Eventually, reality and the poetically plausible became indistinguishable, as often happens when you’re making fiction. Needless to say, this kind of convenient truth-making is a hazard among memoirists, compulsive liars, and the criminally minded too.
you treat life lightly, does life handle you lightly in turn? If you are heavy by nature, will you bear the weight of consequence everywhere you go? In the case of Chris and me, the evidence was so complicated I don’t know how to parse the many pieces. The light one bore the burden. The heavier one lightly walked away. Except, naturally enough, for the heavy one, even lightness had terrible weight.
It was that shift in lightness and heaviness I remember most clearly on the last free moment of our lives, one pleasant August evening. We stood on the grass outside the house where I had a basement apartment. The job was done, and we knew we would never do anything like it again. That in itself was a relief from a terrible weight, at least to me. Perhaps to him it was the shedding of lightness and the grudging acceptance of weight. He was, after all, enrolled in police academy and scheduled to
begin in a few weeks. (You should laugh here; you should blink once or twice in amazement.) We congratulated ourselves modestly, without any of the chest-thumping and fist-pumping that had characterized other occasions. We acted—if I dare connect the word to either of us—with maturity. We had no plans to party or to blow through dollars. We were calm and easy, even satisfied, a condition that felt connected to some deep sense of finality and fulfillment. I think we’d both spent so much energy over the years striving to become bigger and greater, to achieve some unspecified potential, that when we eased down and throttled back, the mood that overcame us contained within it a contented sense of accomplishment. I’ve had the same feeling when I’ve finished writing a book. For an hour or two, an abiding calm, a cessation of doubt.
I said goodbye. He said that he would see me later. We’d used my car for once but he got into his own. A black Fiero, no less, a sort of Trans Am in fibreglass. It was leased but seemed to be part of him, like his impressive mullet (this was Canada in the eighties, after all), or the loping and deceptively fast stride he had when he ran. The gym bag was on the front seat beside him. Inside the gym bag were some workout clothes, the bundles of cash, and two handguns with loaded clips. He drove away slowly, around the corner, up the hill, out of sight, and it was over. What was over, exactly? His life. It ended on the highway. And part of my life ended too.
Four months later, I asked my European lab partner out to a movie and experienced the lightness I mentioned before, but what I did not mention was that the lightness in that moment was a blessed relief, a visit by a nymph who, for one night,
chased away the eagle tearing at my liver, held a bowl over my forehead to catch the dripping venom. She was a stranger who barely knew me. No one who really knew me wanted anything to do with me. Three weeks after that, I flew to Hong Kong, my belongings stuffed into a pack that I carried like the proverbial weight on my shoulders.
Southeast Asia in the early nineties was the kind of place where you could still pretty much disappear. You could forget your own past, lie to anyone you wanted, and more or less shed your identity except when you handed over your passport.
And I was told by a reliable source even that could be bought.
of our favourite movies back then was
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
We watched it on video in my basement, using a Betamax machine my father had pilfered from the bank where he worked. Since he was the district manager, that wasn’t considered stealing.
We identified with the two romantic outlaws, who shared our grim sense of humour. Like Newman and Redford, we were both blond, virile, and irresistible to women. Although we had not yet robbed any trains, we figured we might someday, and that we would enjoy it as much as Butch and Sundance. And we knew, without declaring it, which parts we’d play when it happened: Chris the charismatic schemer with vision, me the reluctant but loyal sidekick. We even knew the differing emotions we’d experience. A persistent anxiety on my part, a love of adventure on his. A bitter-sounding but actually friendly repartee between the one with the plans and the one with the
skeptical doubts. The way desperate, arm-flailing leaps into rivers always end with a joyful splash and escape.
Actually, the ending of the film was something we argued strongly about. It was blatantly clear to me that Butch and Sundance are completely fucked when they’re holed up in the hacienda by Bolivian soldiers. Admittedly, there’s never any hard evidence of this. When Butch and Sundance reload their pistols and rush out, the moving picture fixes suddenly into an unmoving frame, and the last we see of the two friends is a shot of them side by side, locked in a running crouch, guns blazing eternally.