It all makes me think about inheritance. His name was Gene. His son had a disease that was passed on through blood. There's the box of stamps and coins that he gave to me before he died.
The first time I started thinking about all of this was when I was in a class on Dostoevsky in the second semester of my first year in college. The novels were impossibly long and I got impatient with them. I went to school in Virginia and by early March the daffodils were already coming out of the ground. It was impossible to read these gloomy, philosophical novels when it was so beautiful out.
But then we got to The Brothers Karamazov and I was entirely entranced. The idea of the Karamazov -- the unthinkable inherited rage and depression that looms over the family across generations -- stuck with me. He had been angry at the end. Angry and depressed. Not thunderous like Ivan. He sat in his rocking chair in the bedroom and ate popcorn. We weren't supposed to disturb him.
These things, they sit in my mind like oatmeal. Like sludge. The depression that afflicted him. The undiscussed grief. The anger at everyone who misunderstood him. They fascinate and terrify. If I'd been born Russian, maybe it would make sense to write about all of these things. Instead, in my hands, they seem to fall to dust -- like ancient stamps that I've mishandled.
I read most of The Brothers Karamazov in a night toward the end of that spring semester. I had made it through almost an entire year of college and hadn't pulled an all-nighter. So I decided to do laundry and read all night -- or at least until I couldn't stand it anymore. And I remember more about the feeling of accomplishment than about the novel itself -- more about the sense that it spoke to my own family and the stiff winds of predestination that I had always sensed.
I emerged from the dorm laundry room in the early hours of the morning with the birds chirping. Not quite an all-the-way all-nighter, but I had at least made it to sunrise.
I wrote my final paper for that class about redemption, cramming stray observations about Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, and Brothers Karamazov into one paper. I had no idea how to write then, and as I get deeper into the recollections, fear that I haven't really learned any lessons when it comes to the possibilities of narrative compression. Put differently: my themes always outstrip my stamina for slow development.
One second I'm in my grandfather's basement watching him read the letter that I found slipped into a shoebox full of stamps. The next, I'm folding socks in Dunlingston Dorm as the birds start firing up for the day. What does it mean to get any of this under control? I still have no idea. But for the moment, it seems to bring some measure of peace to admit to the messiness of the crossed narratives.