Me and my old men

Living in liminality

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I relate the most to old men in tweed. Bald, British old men in tweed. Men who find themselves home alone, in the same armchair drinking the same mug of weak tea, reading the paper Sunday after Sunday. 

In literature, the monotony of their sad, grey London lifestyle is usually interrupted by a crisis of the midlife kind. This crisis spurs them on to leave the comfort of their tartan slippers and takeaway meals, as they venture groggy-headed from alcohol or bleary-eyed from years spent inside into the world. Adventure begins and the story goes from there. 

Somehow, my old men are almost always international. They are never from the United States, as I feel like American consumer culture paints men who enter into midlife crises as in their prime, instead of spiraling into disaster and depressive episodes. Think Archie Jones of Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth,” Mikael Blomkvist of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Satoru Nakata in Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore,” or even Tomas in Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

The list goes on; my bookshelves are packed with spines that always tend to be a medium tan or light green color, blending together just as the narratives of these seemingly simple characters do as well. But there’s always something lying beneath the lives of these middle-aged or older men that is bound to bubble up to the surface in their adventure. Skeletons come tumbling out of the closet, complicating the narratives and uncovering the mystery in the mundane. 

Each central character is stuck in a static crux, held back from moving on in their lives unless they engage with their respective crisis head on. They arise from cold yet comfortable dwellings, then solve a crime or drive off into the distance toward the next chapter of their lives — one that might exceed their previous monotony. For others, they sink back into their armchairs embracing stagnation but with a touch more perspective this time. 

I still can’t pinpoint why I am drawn to these stories. I am all but 20 years old, and yet, in the last few years, have been drawn to these novels more than other books focused around young queer heroines grappling with identity and love and every other impending feeling one feels at this age. 

But I’d like to make the argument that me and my old men are going through the exact same thing, just in a different location and with our physical bodies experiencing slightly different transitory symptoms. We are both thrown into liminality against our own will, and for now, we find ourselves sitting in the silence of monotony instead of actively encouraging ourselves to move past the liminal space. 

I suppose trying to grasp at a connection to a generation so greatly separated from my own is my shoddy attempt at processing my own quarter-life crisis in the liminal space without actually reading about subjects going through the same thing as me. That would be far too much for me to be faced with my own identity issues on the pages I turn to for escape. It’s easier to find comfort in the stories of elderly people who isolate themselves far from their own reality, who talk to cats and hole themselves up to write their next epic novel. 

My collection of characters have become my fondest friends in the past few years. When they fail to find love (of course, after at least two divorces) my heart breaks. When they get taunted by local London youth (a frequent motif, it seems) my cheeks get rosy and flushed. When their children, typically estranged, attempt to rekindle a relationship, I suddenly feel pangs of guilt, as if it was I who abandoned them. 

I admit that my old men are the summation of my worst qualities. These men are problematic products of their times, making them far from perfect subjects for my projection. We’re both petulant at times and completely content with being alone in our world. I can easily turn short-tempered if left alone for too long, locking myself in my room with a growing collection of half-finished cups of Earl Grey tea, cold from days before. Our attitudes may mirror each other, but the glaringly obvious distance between me and my literary confidants still remains. 

While my motley crew of midlife crisis men varies in their global location, class distinction and occupation, they are all connected by one thing: The distance from youth. In this way, I suppose my engagement with these older men is a reminder of what separates us; the fact that my prolonged lingering in adolescent liminality will eventually end, which will leave many years ahead of me for identity exploration and a set of my own adventures. It’s almost as if they’re egging me on to enjoy this liminal time of growing pains and of identity confusion, as their own entanglement with liminality might very soon draw to a close.

Francesca Hodges writes the Monday A&E column on exploring liminal spaces within art and identity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.