The Mathematics of Greatness: A Numbers Game; or, Feeling the Pinch of Age, Are We?

17 10 2008

Great anticipator that I am, I was readying this quip shortly before my 30th birthday: 33 is important to Christians, of course, as a time of stock-taking and reckoning, but as an Asian, I’ll soon only have 2 years left to kick ass, take names, and leave my mark on the world, since Bruce Lee died at 32. Of course, given the pace of preceding life, I didn’t really think I’d get anything fantastic done by then, short of winning money in a lottery whose tickets I never believed in enough to buy. I have since delivered variations on the theme thereof, at variously inopportune occasions, to variously unenthusiastic receptions. It’s reminiscent of the paragraph in Snow Crash when the narrator reflects, as Hiro Protagonist speeds northward on a motorcycle, that up until the age of 25 we can all still hold onto the illusion that, given the necessary bleak conditions, like the sudden murder of our entire family, we can still plunge ourselves into ninja training and emerge the baddest badass in the known universe (Neal Stephenson, forgive the paraphrase).

I did my dutiful research for turning thirty. I delved into novels, naturally. Turning thirty, wouldn’t you know, is a pastime in American literature.

Nick Carraway, lucky bugger, turns thirty in the “large, stifling” parlor of a suite at the Plaza Hotel, on the afternoon leading up to the fateful auto accident that will decide the rest of the book, the afternoon he sees the bluff and casually cruel Tom bully Daisy into forever dashing Gatsby’s dreams. (Or is it Gatsby who asks too much?) Nick drifts into recognition of his age: “No… I just remembered that today’s my birthday.” Events have driven the occasion from his mind, yet dejection, that speed demon, does catch up and overtake him: “I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade.

“Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.”

The birthday—that annual memento mori—ends with a press of Nick’s lips to a liar’s, Jordan Baker. From this we may perhaps put forward the axiom that the woman you’re with on your thirtieth birthday is not necessarily decisive or important to the rest of your life, but is as are all warm human presences, a sure comfort in the moment: “As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat’s shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.

“So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.”

Gatsby proves the American ur-text for turning thirty, as for so many other American dilemmas. Our letters unerringly depict it as a depressing process. Revolutionary Road, which Vonnegut called his generation’s Gatsby (doubtless to the delight of his friend Yates, who idolized Fitzgerald), features another disconsolate male crossing the sorrowful threshold. The year it was published, which saw the birth of the National Book Award, Walker Percy robbed what many believed to be Yates’ cradle, so to speak, with The Moviegoer. Binx Bolling’s thirtieth falls on Ash Wednesday, no less: “a gloomy day. Gentilly is swept fitfully by desire and by an east wind from the burning swamps at Chef Menteur.

“I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies—my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.

“Nothing remains but desire, and desire comes howling down Elysian Fields like a mistral. My search has been abandoned; it is not match for my aunt, her rightness and her despair, her despairing of me and her despairing of herself. Whenever I take leave of my aunt after one of her serious talks, I have to find a girl.”

Binx Bolling, Ubu Roi. It is enough to make one wish Camus had not left us in the dark about Meursault’s age as he welcomes the world’s execrations. Truly, 30 is a time of introspection and despair. Why else would Kafka have chosen it as K’s age in The Trial? Then again, it is always alleviated by a female; however contingent the relationship between Binx and Kate, Binx’s cousin does seem a more lasting figure in his future than Jordan in Nick’s. (“A sane man thinking of death, however casually, should immediately visit a girl whether in quest of information, affinities, or carnal gratification. It’s a case of any port in a storm, mortality being, in any ace, an omnipresent hurricane.” ~ Thomas McGuane, Ninety-Two in the Shade)

Kafka at least does us readers the service of following K through to his 31st birthday, as if to assure us that however terrible the ensuing year may feel, worse sufferers than ourselves have survived it. Turning 30 is not a be-all and end-all, not even of self pity.

How do I know? I am, after all, thirty-two. I had meant to write something like this entry when I turned thirty, if only to trot out the fruits of my distracted browsing. Instead, it has taken till now to come out, still far short of the grand, morose form I’d envisioned. Yet any sadness I feel over that is too blithe even to be called dismay. The past two years have taught me to forgive so much, to let go of it and watch it wash away. You who are about to turn thirty should believe what I’m telling you. Two years can teach you so much. Listen: I am two-and-thirty, and oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

Then today I learned that Melville had produced Moby Dick by the age of 32. I lie, flat on my back in my studio apartment, pinned to the floor by the crushing weight of those pages, and that fact.

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