13 January 2023

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V. E. Schwab

The old gods may be great, but they are neither kind nor merciful. They are fickle, unsteady as moonlight on water, or shadows in a storm. If you insist on calling them, take heed: be careful what you ask for, be willing to pay the price. And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.

She is at odds with everything, she does not fit, an insult to her sex, a stubborn child in a woman’s form, her head bowed and arms wrapped tight around her drawing pad as if it were a door. And when she does look up, her gaze always goes to the edge of town. “A dreamer,” scorns her mother. “A dreamer,” mourns her father. “A dreamer,” warns Estele. Still, it does not seem such a bad word.

There is a rhythm to moving through the world alone. You discover what you can and cannot live without, the simple necessities and small joys that define a life. Not food, not shelter, not the basic things a body needs – those are, for her, a luxury – but the things that keep you sane. That bring you joy. That make life bearable.

Addie has had three hundred years to practice her father’s art, to whittle herself down to a few essential truths, to learn the things she cannot do without. And this is what she’s settled on: she can go without food (she will not wither). She can go without heat (the cold will not kill her). But a life without art, without wonder, without beautiful things – she would go mad. She has gone mad. What she needs are stories. Stories are a way to preserve one’s self. To be remembered. And to forget. Stories come in so many forms: in charcoal, and in song, in paintings, poems, films. And books. Books, she has found, are a way to live a thousand lives – or to find strength in a very long one.

Once upon a time, she loved this kind of story. When she was still a child, and the world was small, and she dreamed of open doors. But Addie knows too well now, knows that these stories are full of foolish humans doing foolish things, warning tales of gods and monsters and greedy mortals who want too much, and then fail to understand what they’ve lost. Until the price is paid, and it’s too late to claim it back.

But here is the danger of a place like Villon. Blink—and a year is gone. Blink—and five more follow. It is like a gap between stones, this village, just wide enough for things to get lost. The kind of place where time slips and blurs, where a month, a year, a life can go missing. Where everyone is born and buried in the same ten-meter plot.

Towns and villages are easily conquered. A week in Villon was enough to walk every path, to learn every face. But with cities like Paris, London, Chicago, New York, she doesn’t have to pace herself, doesn’t have to take small bites to make the newness last. A city she can consume as hungrily as she likes, devour it every day and never run out of things to eat. It is the kind of place that takes years to visit, and still there always seems to be another alley, another set of steps, another door.

A used bookstore, judging by the name, and the windows brimming with stacked spines. Addie’s pulse thrills a little. She was certain she’d found them all. But that is the brilliant thing about New York. Addie has wandered a fair portion of the five boroughs, and still the city has its secrets, some tucked in corners – basement bars, speakeasies, members-only clubs – and others sitting in plain sight. Like Easter eggs in a movie, the ones you don’t notice until the second or third viewing. And not like Easter eggs at all, because no matter how many times she walks these blocks, no matter how many hours, or days, or years she spends learning the contours of New York, as soon as she turns her back it seems to shift again, reassemble. Buildings go up and come down, businesses open and close, people arrive and depart and the deck shuffles itself again and again and again.

Being forgotten, she thinks, is a bit like going mad. You begin to wonder what is real, if you are real. After all, how can a thing be real if it cannot be remembered? It’s like that Zen koan, the one about the tree falling in the woods. If no one heard it, did it happen? If a person cannot leave a mark, do they exist?

Henry Strauss has never been a morning person. He wants to be one, has dreamed of rising with the sun, sipping his first cup of coffee while the city is still waking, the whole day ahead and full of promise. He’s tried to be a morning person, and on the rare occasion he’s managed to get up before dawn, it was a thrill: to watch the day begin, to feel, at least for a little while, like he was ahead instead of behind. But then a night would go long, and a day would start late, and now he feels like there’s no time at all. Like he is always late for something.

“I don’t mean in that normal, time flies way,” Henry’s saying. “I mean feeling like its surging by so fast, and you try to reach out and grab it, you try to hold on, but it just keeps rushing away. And every second, there’s a little less time, and a little less air, and sometimes when I’m sitting still, I start to think about it, and when I think about it, I can’t breathe. I have to get up. I have to move.”

So much of life becomes routine, but food is like music, like art, replete with the promise of something new.

Muriel put gum in David’s book and I had a cold, and my parents were fighting right up until the flash went off. And in the photo, we all look so … happy. I remember seeing that picture and realizing that photographs weren’t real. There’s no context, just the illusion that you’re showing a snapshot of a life, but life isn’t snapshots, it’s fluid. So photos are like fictions. I loved that about them. Everyone thinks photography is truth, but it’s just a very convincing lie.

Time doesn’t work like photos. Click, and it stays still. Blink, and it leaps forward.

Choosing a class became choosing a discipline, and choosing a discipline became choosing a career, and choosing a career became choosing a life, and how was anyone supposed to do that, when you only had one? But teaching, teaching might be a way to have what he wanted. Teaching is an extension of learning, a way to be a perpetual student.

But she is already losing the sound of her father’s laugh. She cannot remember the exact color of her mother’s eyes. Cannot recall the set of Estele’s jaw. For years, she will lie awake and tell herself stories of the girl she’d been, in hopes of holding fast to every fleeting fragment, but it will have the opposite effect—the memories like talismans, too often touched; like saint’s coins, the etching worn down to silver plate and faint impressions.

Ideas are wilder than memories. He meant it as a barb, no doubt, but she should have seen it as a clue, a key. Memories are stiff, but thoughts are freer things. They throw out roots, they spread and tangle, and come untethered from their source. They are clever, and stubborn, and perhaps – perhaps – they are in reach.

There are days when she mourns the prospect of another year, another decade, another century. There are nights when she cannot sleep, moments when she lies awake and dreams of dying. But then she wakes, and sees the pink and orange dawn against the clouds, or hears the lament of a lone fiddle, the music and the melody, and remembers there is such beauty in the world. And she does not want to miss it – any of it.

“My uncle had cancer, when I was still in college. It was terminal. The doctors gave him a few months, and he told everyone, and do you know what they did? They couldn’t handle it. They were so caught up in their grief, they mourned him before he was even dead. There’s no way to un-know the fact that someone is dying. It eats away all the normal, and leaves something wrong and rotten in its place. I’m sorry, Addie. I didn’t want you to look at me that way.”

“Nothing is all good or all bad,” she says. “Life is so much messier than that.”

He is all restless energy, and urgent need, and there isn’t enough time, and he knows of course that there will never be. That time always ends a second before you’re ready. That life is the minutes you want minus one.

They teach you growing up that you are only one thing at a time – angry, lonely, content – but he’s never found that to be true. He is a dozen things at once. He is lost and scared and grateful, he is sorry and happy and afraid.

The details are simply fading, as all things do, glossing over by degrees, the mind loosening its hold on the past to make way for the future. But he doesn’t want to let go. He is trying not to let go. He lies in bed at night, and closes his eyes, and tries to conjure her face. The exact curve of her mouth, the specific shade of her hair, the way the bedside lamp lit against her left cheekbone, her temple, her chin. The sound of her laughter late at night, her voice when she was on the edge of sleep. He knows these details are not as important as the ones in the book, but he still can’t bear to lose them yet. Belief is a bit like gravity. Enough people believe a thing, and it becomes as solid and real as the ground beneath your feet. But when you’re the only one holding on to an idea, a memory, a girl, it’s hard to keep it from floating away.

The world is wide, and he’s seen so little of it with his own eyes. He wants to travel, to take photos, listen to other people’s stories, maybe make some of his own. After all, life seems very long sometimes, but he knows it will go so fast, and he doesn’t want to miss a moment.