Elevator Repair Service is an experimental theater company based out of New York City. Recently, they annoyed me. They likely weren’t trying to annoy me. Probably. But they did, and then they insulted my injury by being incredibly original and talented and entertaining. OMG JERKS.
I am going to go into exhausting detail about my hurt feelings, but first, do you have a few moments to talk about Ernest Hemingway? Let’s sit down with a large glass of
straight rum lemonade and I’ll give you some tracts. Like many Earthlings, I first read Hemingway in high school. It was that time in a young woman’s life where she does what it takes to make her a woman. That’s right-I was studying the short story in an American Lit class. It was marvelous. Short stories are juicy, intense, concentrated—everything that makes reading fun but on steroids. Minimal time investment, maximum wallop.
I read Poe, and Hawthorne, and the sublime Flannery O’Connor. It was fun! “Isn’t this fun?” I said to absolutely no one because even I knew there were limits to the amount of literary nerdiness I could externalize without being scary. “A Rose For Emily” by William Faulkner. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. Dayum, y’all. It was good stuff. Then the day came when the textbook served up Hemingway.
Textbook: Here—”The Snows Of Kilimanjaro”. Go.
Me: What the hell, textbook? What WAS that?
Textbook: A classic by an American literary giant. Why?
Me: WTAF. Stahp.
Textbook: Hmm. Not your thing? Try “Hills Like White Elephants”. Everybody loves elephants!
Me: UGH I HATE THESE CHARACTERS AND NOW I HATE ELEPHANTS WHYYYYY
We read two Hemingway stories, the two that are often considered his best – “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “Hills Like White Elephants”. I had not made it halfway through “The Snows Of Kilimanjaro” when I realized the fun story party was over because HEMINGWAY. Apparently, Papa was not aware that he owed me a good time. My immediate reaction to both stories was strong and definite and it boiled down to one non-judgmental reaction: These characters are a bunch of douchebags. When it came time to discuss these stories in class, I folded my arms, exuded annoyance, and maintained radio silence. The sooner we moved past it, the better.
In “Snows of Kilimanjaro”, narrator Harry is trapped in a tent in Africa, reflecting upon the meaning of his life while dying from self-inflicted gangrene. In “Hills Like White Elephants”, a man puts all his glib charm behind an effort to manipulate his reluctant girlfriend into thinking that not only does she really want the abortion she’s on her way to have, it’s a risk-free operation that is really her idea. I rolled my eyes so much through both of these stories I lost eyelashes. They could not take the pressure and popped off like tiny champagne corks.
The people in these stories made me want to throatpunch kittens. I had not lived enough life to acknowledge grey areas, and the nuances of a confronting crisis in a less-than-solid relationship, and making the least awful choice out of an array of awful choices. Accordingly, the subtlety and subtext that are the structure and strength of these stories was lost on me. I wanted these drips* to have behavioral insight…and they didn’t. (*flagged as potentially judgmental)These stories were an incredibly frustrating reading experience that seemed rooted in passivity and indirectness. I just wanted someone to do something other than drink. Or talk about drinking. Or drink while talking. Or die slowly from gangrene. GAH.
Given my vast knowledge of everything about life and of course knowing that I was always right about everything always but most especially matters literary, I tossed Hemingway over my shoulder into the pile of Book Laundry That I Will Never Get Around To Washing. If a Hemingway book came up on a recommended list, I shrugged my shoulder in dismissal. If someone mentioned Hemingway as a personal favorite author, I sneered. (I mean, I was self-important AND smug.) (AND SMUG, you say? PLEASE COME OVER HERE AND MAKE OUT WITH ME. Stand down. I’m in the middle of something.)
In the meantime, I read other stuff. It’s not that hard to avoid Hemingway, if you have a good alarm system and take some basic self-defense training. I geeked out on popular crime novels. I comfortably read comfortable history and comfortable contemporary fiction and, God forgive me, The Bridges Of Madison County. I only read stuff I knew I would like and I was very happy thank you very much. Put brutally? I was a boring reader.
The universe, or possibly Hemingway’s ghost, was looking for a chance to knock me off my tower of Books That I Know Are Better and the perfect opportunity presented in 2012. I had to go to New York on business and realized that my trip would overlap during a time that Elevator Repair Service was appearing at The Public Theater. I was thrilled that I could adjust my trip to include seeing one of their productions. I barely paid attention to what the show was when I bought the tickets. “It doesn’t matter!” I said to myself. “I’d go see them read the phone book! And it would be brilliant! It literally DOES NOT MATTER WHAT THE SHOW IS! Also nobody makes phone books any more!” (I talk to myself in simple declarative sentences mostly.) About a month before the show, getting my calendar together, I pulled out my ticket to check what I was going to see. The show was entitled “The Select (The Sun Also Rises)”.
Me: Wait, what?
Ticket: YOU are going to see a Hemingway show.
Me: Are you fucking kidding me?
Me: This is not funny.
Ticket: No, it really is. You’re the worst.
Me: That was way harsh, ticket.
So, there I was, ticket in hand, cussing an innocent performance ensemble. The show had a running time of 3.5 hours or so. Clearly, I would benefit as an audience member if I had some familiarity with the source material. I was going to have to read this shit. “Let me recap this!” I said to myself. “I am going to go see a Hemingway show THAT IS GIVING ME HOMEWORK!” I reluctantly cracked open the book, resigned to suffering through an overrated classic. I was going to read it, but I wasn’t going to like it. Poor me.
Here is what happened when I read The Sun Also Rises:
1. I could not put it down
2. I was moved to tears
3. I made a list of my reactions
The Sun Also Rises is both breathtakingly original and utterly familiar. Hemingway’s spare, direct style is devastatingly precise. Nick and Brett are unflinchingly human. Their struggles, their disconnectedness, their isolation, are raw and real. While their story arcs are informed by the Continental post-Great War vacantness, their flaws and foibles make them timeless. This book is the DNA for so much modern American literature. Hemingway built a better mousetrap. It was so good.
I could not believe I had to put up with this crap.
It had been so easy, too easy, to build a reading world that reflected back to me exactly what I wanted to have reflected. In my complacency, I had forgotten what it was like to be challenged and to work through narratives, or ideas, or styles, that made me a little uncomfortable. The Sun Also Rises reminded me that “well-read” isn’t the same thing as “reading”. This kind of literary bitch-slap is henceforth dubbed ‘being Hemingwayed’.
Thank you, Elevator Repair Service. Point taken. I’m trying to ensure that my natural tendency to the opinionated (ahem, cough) does not prevent me from missing amazing things. Since I read The Sun Also Rises, I’ve pulled in some extraordinary reading because I went looking for it. It’s more demanding, and it’s sometimes uncomfortable, and I hope it’s made my world bigger and me less insufferable.
And for those of you wondering, yes, the show was incredible. If you ever get the chance to see it – or anything staged by this wonderful group – I can’t recommend it enough. The bullfight scene was the bomb.
I still hate being wrong though.
If you’d like to go see Elevator Repair Service, start here.