Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

 Source of book: I own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book certainly qualifies, as I had no idea it existed. 

Our club had mixed feelings about this book, with some liking it, and others finding a bit meh. My personal opinion is that it was a good premise, but went on about twice as long as it needed to. 


My understanding is that Haig based the book on his own struggle with depression - and decided to make the protagonist female to distance the character from himself a bit. For that reason, the book resonated with those of our club who have had issues with depression, and the gradual exit from the bad places they have been. 


The premise is similar to ideas that have been done before - between our various club members, we came up with plenty of books, stories, and television that used the same basic idea. However, it was portrayed in an interesting way. 


Nora Seed lives a kind of crummy life, particularly compared to what she had hoped for at various times. Things spiral after her cat dies, she loses her job, and everyone around her seems to be distant from her. She attempts suicide, and finds herself in the “midnight library,” a sort of place in between life and death. A quantum multiverse something, one might say. The library has an infinity of books, which are the infinite number of ways her life would have been had she made different choices. She gets to try these various lives, coming back to the library as soon as she becomes disappointed with the other life. The library is curated by a woman who appears to be Mrs. Elm, Nora’s childhood school librarian, although she is more of a stand-in for God or the Universe or whatever you believe. 


Eventually, Nora is able to do a number of things which result in her returning to her actual life with a better attitude and a chance to live. First, she gets to read over her “book of regrets.” She has a lot, shall we say. I mean, we all do, but a lot of Nora’s problem is that she tends to focus on her regrets. Ironically, these have not helped her to make better decisions. 


The thing is, as she explores these other lives, her regrets slowly disappear, as she realizes that whatever gains she may have made with other decisions, there are always tradeoffs. And, in reality, many of her “regrets” aren’t actually based on facts at all. 


The first example is her regret at not keeping her cat inside. But as it turns out, the cat wasn’t hit by a car, he died of a heart defect. So her beating herself up over his death turns out to be based on a false idea. She wasn’t actually at fault. Likewise, many of the paths she might have taken would not have led to happiness for her. The man she might have married was - as she suspected - an alcoholic. Her instinct turned out to be right. Had she stayed in her brother’s band, they would have made it bigtime. But it would have destroyed her brother. Had she continued to swim competitively, she would have been great at it, but she would have become fake and faux-happy. 


And on and on. And that is my biggest complaint. The book just kept going with scenario after scenario, when the point would have been made with fewer. The other thing that was a bit grating is that in most of the scenarios, she would have been fantastic at something. For most of us...we aren’t. We are just deeply mediocre - and that’s okay! I will never be athletic, good looking, brilliant, or rich. But an ordinary life is nothing to complain about. 


The Sylvia Plath quote that opens the book speaks to this point.


“I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.”


That’s the dilemma, right? We humans kind of do want all those experiences. But we are finite, and coming to peace with that is part of accepting who we are and embracing the lives we have. 


There is also a scenario where Nora accepts her friend’s invite to visit in Australia. Things do not go as planned, alas. The friend is killed in a car accident, and Nora spirals into depression. Mrs. Elm assures here that there was nothing wrong with her choice - it was a good one. 


“It just shows you, doesn’t it?”

“Shows me what?”

“Well, that you can choose choices but not outcomes. But I stand by what I said. It was a good choice. It just wasn’t a desired outcome.”


In this particular scenario, the bad outcome was just rotten luck. Perhaps an example of the Butterfly Effect. But there are other things that Nora cannot change because other people are...who they are. Her ex-fiance Dan is still an alcoholic with a mean streak. (And it was good judgment to end the engagement.) Her father may end up doing different things in different scenarios, but he is still a jerk. Is it “better” if he dies of a heart attack (as in the main life) or ends up cheating on his wife and marrying a much younger woman? Who knows? But the one thing is clear: he is who he is. Nothing Nora can do or could have done changes that. Part of her coming to terms with her life is to understand that truth. 


This is one I have really been wrestling with myself over the last decade. I have some regrets regarding my choices, but not that many. (I’m not impulsive, so I don’t have a history of bad decisions.) I do, however, have a LOT of regrets about outcomes. There are a lot of things about my life that I wish had gone differently. But realistically, there were no choices that I could have made that would have led to the outcomes I desired. And some of the choices that I might have made (and sometimes wish I had) would have very likely led to an undesired outcome: I probably would not have met and married my wife, which would have been tragic indeed. In thinking through these choices, some of the big things that have affected my life have come to mind, and one by one I have had to realistically examine if there were choices that might have resulted in better outcomes. In many of them, the choice was never mine to begin with, as I have realized. 


There is no choice I could have made that would have kept my parents from joining a patriarchal cult in my teens. 


There is no choice I could have made that would have prevented my parents from becoming increasingly reactionary and retrogressive in their politics and religion, starting in their late 30s.


There is no choice I could have made where my sister would not have been an abusive narcissist. 


There is no choice I could have made where my mother would have accepted and embraced my wife. Indeed, I do not think any actual human woman would have ever been what she wanted. 


 And some of the things I have wondered about - should I have moved out at 18? Gone to college out of state? Chosen a different career even if it meant taking on student debt? Those would probably have meant not marrying Amanda. Or, maybe if I had foreseen the future, I might have drawn a firmer line with my family before I married. But that would have just changed the timing of our battle. I doubt it would have changed the outcome. 


Nora also has a struggle I recognize. 


Nora had always had a problem accepting herself. From as far back as she could remember, she’d had the sense that she wasn’t enough. Her parents, who both had their own insecurities, had encouraged that idea.

She imagined, now, what it would be like to accept herself completely. Every mistake she had never made. Every mark on her body. Every dream she hadn’t reached or pain she had felt. Every lust or longing she had suppressed. 

She imagined accepting it all. The way she accepted nature. The way she accepted a glacier or a puffin or the breach of a whale.

She imagined seeing herself as just another brilliant freak of nature. Just another sentient animal, trying their best. 

And in doing so, she imagined what it was like to be free. 


In addition to accepting herself, Nora also has to accept the shitiness of the world.


Nora wanted to live in a world where no cruelty existed, but the only worlds she had available to her were worlds with humans in them.


I’ll end with a quote from near the end, where there are a couple pages of one-liner descriptions of her alternative lives. 


In one life her Facebook and Instagram only contained quotes from Rumi and Lao Tzu.


Let’s face it, if you are a middle-aged, middle-class white person, you know someone like that. At least one. I laughed out loud at that line. 


As I said, it was an interesting book, if a bit flawed. I think the strongest parts were the imagination in a few of the scenarios, and the very personal and experienced description of overcoming depression and the “book of regrets.” 

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