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Anthropology 101

Anthropology 101

Part case studies, part eavesdropping, Dan Rhodes' dissection of relationships is an antithesis of the immediate past two decades. Blame, if you must, Woody Allen, Danielle Steele or this early in our decade, Darren Starr - whose ultra-analyses of men, women, and the constant and inconstant forces that flow between them brought forth innumerable assortments of desire, detestation, torment, paralysis, and delight; vocabularies and syntaxes used to skirt around or burrow within what would otherwise have been a very technical sounding, uninspired, pithy word: love.

Ah, Love: the invariable reason for all our irrationality. The force that makes us recoil in anticipation and spring with surprises even to ourselves. More than so much has been written about this subject, and yet it always seems that so much more needs to be written. Always, behind any story of love is a burning question of why do people have to love at all. That itself is a manifold question for it straight away assumes that we have no choice but to. Yet choice or not, the questions remain: why we love, why we choose to lose parts of ourselves, only to seek its completion from others. And what does losing oneself in others mean? What does love mean in our jaded, disjointed times? Whatever the answer may be, Dan Rhodes gives no apologies for it. Listen, he says in Milestones, one of the several gems in his new book:

My girlfriend left me. I found she had been seeing lots of other men all along. She was loose, and I thought the world should know. I calculated the road distances from her house to over two thousand different locations around the country, and began to carve milestones. METE'S OPEN LEGS: 263KM. That was the first one. I laid it on a verge just outside Ulfborg. After I had planted nine hundred and forty, I realized that it was not making me any happier, that I was carving them in heart shapes, and that I missed her like nothing on earth.

Maybe Rhodes is another Allen, but sans the neurosis and strained philosophy, and with all the innocence and pure fun. Maybe he is another Starr, obsessed with seeking that which we do not understand. But unlike them, Rhodes can make us believe that what matters when we are seeking that which we do not comprehend is that we are seeking it. In other words, back to puberty; back to the time when we were learning the crude rules of relationships by trying and breaking every possible theory, and creating new ones in the process.

That the book should explore this notion and its variations over and over is not surprising. It is, after all, Anthropology (Villard, September 2000), a wonderful collection of 101 stories, each written in exactly 101 words. The previous tale is not an excerpt from one of the stories; it is one of the stories. To develop such structured, measured concise pieces about so enormous a subject is a feat in itself. To pack in that size the book can fit into your jeans' rear pocket insights that at once demand questions and enlighten the reader is an even bigger feat. Listen, again, from Bulletin:

My girlfriend is so lovely that I can't help feeling sorry for all her ex-boyfriends. I'm sure they must spend all their time thinking about her and wondering what she could be up to. So every month I send them a bulletin detailing all the pretty things she has said and done. Sometimes I enclose a discarded pair of tights, or the stub of an eyebrow pencil. I feel I should do everything I can to make up for them having lost a girl with such soft brown hair, and whose feet are so small you can hardly see them.

Lingering Poetry

Reading Rhode's tales is a recurring exercise in discovery, not so much in the joy of nosing around but in recognizing a part of one's self in a sudden, terse phrase. These are not stories in the traditional, literary sense of the word. Mostly, the characters have no apparent dilemma; there is no solid opening, no climax, and no denouement. In fact there is no time allowed for characters to develop. But these are stories, delightful accounts one overhears in bus rides or while in line for an ATM machine, waking one up to from stupor into stupefaction and to slow introspection.

If not stories, each tale is prose distilled into poetry, stripped to necessary emotional essentials. Even without the luxury of long winding character development, his characters appear concrete and whole. The color of a girlfriend's hair speaks a lot about her character. A cigarette, the rolling of her eyes, her name, and the boyfriend's silence just as effectively describe all the dynamics and stagnation of the characters in before and after the stories.

Each story carries a single word for a title, arranged alphabetically. Unlike the girlfriends whose exotic name changes, the boyfriend remains anonymous, as though each relationship for him were a confession he has to make and a lesson he has to assume.

Indeed, as an anthropology, Rhodes made concise, comparative studies of evolution, variation, classification and progression of these relationships. Page after page, tale after tale, lover after lover, he presented with surprising brevity how loving with or without reciprocation can be at once painful and exhilarating, bright and muddled, tragic and farcical.

In History, he wrote:

As part of the getting-to-know-me process, Nightjar told me all about her ex-boyfriends. She went through her shoebox full of photographs. "His penis was much bigger than yours," she would say, "but he had bad breath." Or, "He was quite old but he could still go all night." When at last she had finished, she asked me about my romantic history. I told her I had been waiting all my life for that special someone, and how glad I was now I had finally found her. "Ah. I see." She rolled her eyes. "You're one of those."

Rilke once wrote that "Beauty is a terrifying angel". It is a haunting phrase, in our constant struggle with beauty, whether in our bleak knowledge of its diffidence or in our terror of finding it when in our possession suddenly gone. Who can blame the anonymous speaker then to identify with his girlfriend's past boyfriends, even in his exhilaration of having her, when he knows that one day, he will be just one of them?

Indeed, in one other tale, he is one of them. In Support, he tells us:

Tired of her ex-boyfriends desperately trying to get back with her, my girlfriend arranges a support group for them. When she told me she loved me very much, but only as a friend, she gave me their number and I went along. We meet every week. Sitting in a big circle, we try to get over her by talking about other things. It isn't easy. Every subject we try seems to return to the warmth of her naked body beside us in the morning, or the way she flicks her hair away from her face as she smokes a cigarette.

Like the cigarette smoke that figures prominently in most of his stories, Rhodes gives us brief, fleeting characters and anecdotes. But like this smoke, the stories settle themselves all around and linger long after we finish reading the tales.

(This piece appeared in www.getasia.com.ph)