This post originally appeared on I Read Everything
Book: Him Her Him Again The End of Him
Author: Patricia Marx
Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction
Why Did I Read This Book: The title sucked me in. Also the dust jacket popped. Never underestimate the appeal of an orange dust jacket.
Availability: Published by Scribner in 2007, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Can you love unreservedly a book that enthralls you but falls apart in the final pages? I think you can. You can love it the same way you love your cat who continually butt drags on the beige carpet. The cat is loving, adorable, a delight in every way except that terrible surprise waiting for you when you walk downstairs. It irritates you fiercely when it happens but mostly you recall all the times the beast has made you happy. That’s the approach I am taking with this book: the great fun of the book overwhelmed the unhappy surprise at the end.
Marx’s clever yet sympathetic prose coupled with an appreciation for the absurd gives us a heroine we can both root for and wish we could throttle. Her depiction of the villain in this piece may seem heavy-handed but at the same time portrays perfectly the bafflement others must feel observing any relationships women have with such men. I suspect this book will speak to mostly women of a certain age who have made shockingly dumb decisions in love, but anyone with a love of characters full of self-deprecating humor and wit will find much to love in this book.
We begin with the heroine meeting the dreadful Eugene Obello at Cambridge. An American, the heroine is working on a thesis that is never wholly finished and becomes rapt with Eugene very quickly.
“Let N represent the set of natural numbers,” Eugene said.
“If it’s up to me,” I said, “N can be anything it wants.”
She loses her virginity to him, despite the fact that anyone, from her friends to the reader, can tell that Eugene is a tool of the highest order.
I saw Eugene smile faintly, then put on a serious face. “Shall we, my precious abecedarian… proceed?” Eugene said and just as solemnly, I nodded. Talk about proceeding, my suitor had me in the bed before I knew which end was up. But then the proceeding stopped so that he could amorously fold each item of his clothes, taking special care with the trouser creases, and stack one piece on top of the other on the bedside chair, ending with his socks. He laid his watch on one sock, his eyeglasses on the other. I tried to ignore this preliminary activity, in the same way you’re not supposed to see what’s going on backstage before the show.
Yeah, don’t sleep with a man who uses the word abecedarian in reference to your sexual inexperience. I mean, you can almost deal with that level of arrogance in word selection but if he follows this by folding his clothes in an exacting manner, don’t sleep with him. At times it was hard not to shout at the pages, much in the same way I would shout at characters in horror movies when I was in junior high, hollering, “Run! Run away and hide!”
After Eugene tells the heroine, whose name we never learn, that he has been dating a new woman whom he plans to marry and that he is breaking up with her, she decides to invite Eugene and Margaret to her place and she will make them all dinner. Her friends chime in with their opinions, varying from recipe recommendations to condemning Eugene for failing to bring the heroine a gift back from a trip. However, one friend gets it right:
Libby: “You know how everyone is always saying go with your heart, trust your instinct, have the courage of your convictions? My advice is not to listen to those people.”
And of course, because he is a terrible man, Eugene does bring Margaret to dinner at the heroine’s place. Of course, our heroine misinterpreted his motives because her feckless sense of humor is only trumped by her willingness to be deluded.
When one of the heroine’s friends, Obax, finally dumps her cad of a boyfriend after finding out he got another woman pregnant, though even that knowledge was not enough to spur her to immediate action, the heroine muses on the situation with a clarity that can only come at the end of acting as another’s fool:
Why she took action at that point, which wasn’t even the lowest point, I cannot tell you. For that matter, why does anyone wake up one morning and finally clean out the crawlspace or shoot the boss or quit the tuba or propose marriage or throw in the towel or run for alderman or make any other long-intended change? Of course, if philosophers can’t figure out grains of sand, how was I, a mere graduate student, challenged even by the quest for data, supposed to answer for anything?
And while I think everyone can agree with this assessment of the confusing nature of the human condition, it still doesn’t stop the reader from wanting to poke the protagonist in the bottom and have her act in her own best interests. But if she didn’t, we wouldn’t have this book to remind us of all the dumb times we did not act in our best interests, of how we were drawn to the Eugene Obellos in our own lives, captivated by bad energy that others could sense but we blithely overlooked in a Quixotic quest that only time allowed us to see for the godless endeavor it was.
The pitiful behavior continues apace and the narrator does not cut herself any slack. The behavior that draws her to Eugene is in no way made more attractive. After Eugene marries, he calls for the protagonist:
“My singular dodo bird,” Eugene had written on a note-card. “Please do not absquatulate on me. With ardent devotion from your once-again Cantabridgian.” I would have preferred “devoted ardor,” but that’s being greedy. And it did not stop me from getting on a train that was heading to Eugene lickety-split.
Eugene spends the afternoon bragging about an expose he is writing that will devastate Elie Wiesel and dropping hints his wife is pregnant. He also, at the end of the meeting, makes it clear he called our heroine simply to return to her some items she had left behind at his place. When the protagonist runs into an old friend named Oliver at the train station as she returns home, she remembers how he referred to Eugene as her “heinous hypnotist.” Oliver had seen her with Eugene and when he sees her at the station, he wants to ride with her and talk to her but instead of being at least kind, she insults his clothing. Oliver kindly kisses her on the cheek and retreats a wounded exit. It is here that the torment of reading sort of ends, and the reader can watch as the narrator consigns her fate and her youth to the pursuit of a pedantic philandering asshole. She’s not kind and on a very basic level, perhaps she deserves what comes to her, even as she is witty and pitiful in her grovelling.
She returns to New York, begins working for a television show, but when Eugene moves to New York and calls her, she goes to see him and they begin an affair. Her friends are as appalled as I was:
Lisa: “Can I be honest? Something’s wrong with you.”
Deb: “If you’re happy, I’m happy. You shouldn’t be happy, though.”
Meg: “I’ve heard worse, but not much worse.”
Joan: “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but it’s clear that Eugene is gay.”
Pearson: “The winner in this story is Margaret. She got a night off from him.”
Buffy: “If I were a better person, this story would turn me into a feminist.”
Phoebe: “Remind me again why you like him? Is it because he’s using you or because he lies to you repeatedly?”
No matter how pathetic, slightly immoral or irrational our behavior is, many of us really want honest feedback from friends, which we then dismiss as we pursue our terrible ends. Our protagonist is no different because specific feedback doesn’t cause her to change course in any manner. One marginally acceptable sex session with Eugene and she’s back in full pursuit again, her dignity and his wife and child be damned.
Later, she meets up again with her friend Obax and their conversation is why, even when I found the protagonist so tiresome that I kept reading. It’s very easy to look at others and never see ourselves, and when we finally see ourselves, we realize how stupid and exhausting we were, and how easy it is to justify our actions.
“I can’t believe you still know him,” Obax said. “He’s a cad and a bore and a sneak and a fake and a narcissist and a braggart and I don’t like his teeth, either.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said, “but that’s just one side of him.”
“What about the married thing?” Obax said. “Don’t you feel a little bad for Margaret?”
“What does she have to do with it?” I said, and I meant it. I had met Eugene a long time before Margaret had. “Besides,” I said, “he seems to really like me this time. And he’s so smart. Being with him is getting an A.”
Unless you were born exceptionally self aware and with a sense of morality that trumped wanting what you want and damn the consequences, you’ve been in this position and seeing it presented without an ounce of pity and yet with no small amount of sarcasm will make you either hate or love this book. I myself like seeing glimpses of who I used to be before I hit my 30s and understood the idea that the bad things we do come back to us. (Oh, by the way, I’m still an idiot these days. But were I single, I am confident I would not sleep with anyone else’s husband. As you get older, your stupidity turns from the carnal to the more mundane, it has been my experience.)
And as the narrator spins her wheels, spending her life in thrall to an unethical psychiatrist who is everything Obax says he is and more, she manages to waste even more time when she is away from him.
I was working as an assistant to a celebrity whose name I had better not divulge if that’s okay with you, but I can tell you she’s fat and she’s a lesbian and that that is not as narrow a field as you might think. My job was to buy up supplies of Dr. Nougat candy bars once a week from various stores; eat a bar from each batch; then write up reports about the taste, freshness, crispness, discoloration, if any, and whether the bars were chipped or nicked. My boss wanted only the best. It wasn’t a hard job–a limo took me to each place. But you know how Karl Mark said labor can be alienating? I couldn’t agree with him more.
She’d had a good job working for a terrible television program, a job most of us would have killed for but as a woman who got an A in life because she was sleeping with Eugene, it is no surprise she slunk down to such a place wherein she did such a trivial job and became a little bitter.
And though no one could read what I have written so far about this book without realizing the situation between the narrator and Eugene could not end well, I still don’t want to ruin the ending, even though I hate the ending so very, very much. I will reveal that the narrator found out she was not the only woman Eugene was sleeping with and when she finally stands up and realizes what a cretin he is, it is both funny and sobering. She is confronting him in his office, trying to look like she is not hurt, and he takes a phone call as she struggles to remain composed.
Eugene, meanwhile, was on the telephone. “À bientôt, my only one,” I heard him say. I believe I may have glowered.
If the world can be divided into people who would have signed the Munich Agreement versus those who would have stood firm against Hitler–and who says it can’t–I would definitely have been in the former camp, giving away the Sudetenland with a smile and a cookie. I might even have offered the Fuhrer a signing bonus, for example the mineral rights to South Dakota. As you know, I am not big on making trouble. But that morning, in Eugene’s office, I had not been myself (which in my case, is not generally but sometimes a very good thing not to be). And that is why, after Eugene said à bientôt, I stood up and said, “I think it is time to terminate.”
And you hope that when this happens, it will indeed be over but we do indeed know the protagonist and of course it is not over. It will not be over until the object of her obsession is removed from the picture entirely and the strange and comedic misery continues on for some more pages. But going back to an earlier passage wherein the heroine mused on what it was that made people act, a simple French phrase used often in Britain to give a casual goodbye seems like an unlikely straw to break the camel’s back. But trivial things can often push us over the edge.
The heroine of this story, and make no mistake, as daft and lacking self-awareness as she was, she was a heroine, lays out so clearly what this sort of pointless obsession feels like, and how it trumps honesty, common sense, self-respect, familial relationships, wise career choices, or even the capacity to make the most of an overseas education. But had the book simply been a recount that told me that, it would have been unreadable. Marx adroitly mixes intolerable truths into amusing situations, clever characterization and witty dialogue. I loved this book for its capacity to remind me how being smart was never enough to prevent me from being an idiot and how the desire to be the one and only, even to a despicable man, can become all that matters.
This book is also so very funny that even if you are not a woman who understands bad mistakes and the accumulation of consequences, you can still enjoy the heroine and her friends. I find this to be a very good, intensely readable, clever book, despite how disappointing the ending was.
PS: And as a final complaint, I want to mention this line:
The one full night I did spend with him gave me insight into what it would be like to share a bed with the Gestapo.
Writers of the world, I beseech you, please stop using the Nazis in casual comparisons. Eugene was a dreadful man but I wager being in bed with him was nothing like being interrogated by the Gestapo. I’m decidedly not a stickler for politically correct language or ideas but the older I get the more I find casual hyperbole that relates to Nazis and the Holocaust to be tiresome. How come no one talks about being in bed with the Stasi? How come people don’t make humorous allusions between casual violence and the Khmer Rouge or the Armenian genocide? Maybe because it’s terribly insensitive? Maybe because the Western imagination is so impoverished that we can only remember the German Holocaust and Nazis when it comes to funny references to some of the worst social oppression ever being akin to dating a douchebag? Whatever the reason, I will rejoice when this habit stops entirely.
The passage about dividing the world into two camps of people – those who would have appeased Hitler and those who would not – doesn’t register as horrible as it does not bring into play the torture and murder of millions of people in order to make a comedic point. It’s subtle, but if you are comparing a restless sleeper to being in bed with the Gestapo, it is a far different thing than saying you are so weak you might have been the sort to appease Hitler. One implies a questioner is a torturer on scale with some of the worst torturers in history, and the other implies in the face of moral decisions one is often lacking. I hope I am making the difference clear.