Recently, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to an image, which defined a Japanese word: “tsundoku: (n.) buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands.” I don’t buy books unless I have already read them and truly loved them. I have had many conversations with my friend Sydney, who grew up in a buying-books household, valorizing the virtues of public access that my library-obsessed family instilled in me. So my version of tsundoku is less about letting physical books pile up, and more about the endless endless lists of books that I have assembled, intending some day to trot down the street to theEPL and borrow. She’s Come Undone has been on one of those lists for the past seven years.
Before I tell you anything about the story, I need to tell you about the book. I got it at the EPL, at a library sell-off. And like many library books, it has lots of paratextual elements that make it an even richer, more enjoyable artifact. The cover art reminded me of the work of my favourite painter, René Magritte:
as did motifs which emerged throughout the story. On the back cover, an incredibly sexist review from People raved in all caps that “THIS MALE WRITES SO CONVINCINGLY IN THE VOICE OF A FEMALE, tracing her life from 4 to 40, THAT YOU HAVE TO KEEP LOOKING BACK AT THE JACKET PICTURE just to make sure.” On the inside cover I discovered a phone number with a 510 area code, which covers Alameda County, California. A name: Marina – Edmonton 2001. A yellow sticky-note: “Yes—it’s brilliant Marina, could I borrow this please? Lars :)” And in the centre of the book I found a short review of the book already written. I know I shouldn’t have read the review before reading the book itself, but I couldn’t help myself. I was Indiana Jones, and I’d found a lost historical artefact!
“She’s Come Undone – Wally Lamb. 02/22/10. I am definitely glad to be done this book. For quite some time, I didn’t like it, didn’t like Dolores. I kept reading, though, and not just from obligation. I wanted closure on here—I wanted to see her get somewhere. Most of the time I wanted to slap her out of it, and not like I do with those irritating neurotic idiots of chick lit. Mostly I didn’t understand how Dolores could live and think like she did. How she could hate herself so much. I don’t get it, really, and I didn’t like it. I’m not ashamed to say I like a happy ending and a story that doesn’t make me uncomfortable. I feel like the way I do after reading some Book List Canadian fiction—like I just want to indulge in some comforting breezy Clive Cussler. It is a lot like Can fiction—darker, weird, uncomfortable, and I did not laugh once or sleep untroubled. But Mr. Lamb, you did write a good book and you did get under my skin. It’s just not for me. (Also, every time I looked at this, I was unconsciously singing Guess Who)”
I love the fact that this person wrote their review as a letter to Wally Lamb, as if he would receive it if they slipped it between the book’s pages. And as the book wore on, I kept going back to the letter as a sympathetic friend—whenever I experienced frustration with Dolores, I remembered that my previous reader had felt the same way. And I was thus comforted. But in the end, I disagree with the reviewer. I think this book had the happiest possible ending it could have without betraying everything that came before it. The only thing that stings more than a sad ending in an unrelenting depressing book is a miraculous and false and insincere happy ending. Dolores suffers and suffers, Our Lady of Sorrow, and she earns her realistically bittersweet ending.
It’s hard to love this book with the enthusiasm I had for Slaughterhouse-Five because it was such a bleak read. But I also think that it’s one of the most authentic, realistic character studies I have ever read. Unlike my letter-writer, I understood exactly how Dolores could hate herself so much. How someone can fall into a negative spiral, where they reject anything good that comes into their life because they convince themself they don’t deserve it. Where everyone is mean to them, and so they become hardened against everyone. She’s Come Undone shows how horrible some people are towards deviance—Dolores is morbidly obese for a good part of the novel, and her descriptions of the ways people treat her as a result seem spot-on and inspire tons of sympathy and rage. I don’t know if I’d like Dolores if I met her, but I would try my hardest to be her friend. As cheesy as it sounds, all Dolores really needs is one good friend, one friendly and loving relationship. The world teaches her to distrust everyone, to expect scorn and violence and abuse. It’s a testament to her strength that she can pull herself out of her spiral (with the help of a cobbled-together family, people who have no one else) and have the ending she does.
I’m sure that today, as known serial readers, we will all receive a few books (or at least an Indigo gift card). And no doubt we will practise tsundoku with some of our gifts, for many years. But when we do finally get around to reading our long-neglected books, I hope that at least a few of them can be as heart-wrenchingly genuine, discomforting, and inspiring as Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. I think that every human being who has experienced bullying, depression, inadequacy, abandonment, self-loathing, hope, betrayal, and struggle can identify with Dolores, and get something out of this beautiful book.