Book Review Musings

Philosophical Toys by Susana Medina

sad man scotty writes about being sad

TW: suicide ideation, depression, degenerative disease

Some say that the task of the philosopher is to speak about death. But I found that I had nothing to say about death. Except that it should be abolished.

Susana Medina, Philosophical Toys, p. 238

It’s taken me a while to read Philosophical Toys. Not because it isn’t good, but because I’ve slipped into one of my occasional periods of depression. It might not be obvious that it’s taken me ages to read this, because I read a shitload of books at the start of the month and backdated many, many, many posts. There are still two more to come after the day I’m typing this and I haven’t finished reading a book for well over a week. I’m i’m i’m i’m i’m

In less than two weeks, I will be leaving the country. This may not be forever, but it will certainly be for a long time. In the next few days I will buy a cheap car and get my dog’s vaccinations topped up and then, as June comes to a close, I will disappear into the sunset for a Summer of education and then a lifetime of self-sufficiency, self-fulfilment and dog owning. But, as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, I don’t really know how to do this. Life has always been unpleasant for me, and even when nothing bad has happened to me for about eight months, I’m still tentatively expecting an unprecedented negative event. But-

Philosophical Toys is a 2015 novel by Susana Medina, published by Dalkey Archive Press. Despite its confusing, out of focus cover image (which is a literal depiction of an image that occurs about halfway through the text), this is a tight, impressive, piece of literature. The narrator is a female Spaniard living in London as she completes an art degree and then begins a career at an unspecified point in – I think – the 1990s. Bouncing between engagement with the contemporary art world and attempts to develop a reputation as a [reluctant] philosopher, Medina’s narrator repeatedly visits her dying father down in the parts of Southern Spain most well known as the backdrops of Spaghetti Westerns and also seeks happiness, solace, companionship, friendship, intoxication and sex amongst the artsy people of London.

The novel is witty and emotional, perceptive and moving. It passes between descriptions of the London art scene that teeter on the edge of satire and gritty, bleak, evocations of the slow – but not slow enough – decline caused by Alzheimers. I bought this book a while ago, and I think that one of the reasons why I avoided it for so long was because I knew it had this plotline of parental ill health. My father has a similar condition to that of Medina’s narrator’s father, and there is something familiarly upsetting about this slow step by step witnessing of physical and psychological decline. Like the character here, I do not live close to my father, and thus on every occasion I see him, there is a gentle – but perceptible – step of decline. Although seeing him every month means that this change isn’t as shocking as it would be if I were to see him only every three years, these step by step changes are clearer for me than they would be to someone who saw him daily, or even weekly.

A month passes, as one watches a decline, and a person you care about cannot do one minor thing they could do before… for someone who sees them daily, the change is imperceptible. I used to feel guilty that I didn’t see my ailing father more than once a month or so, but in the periods when I have seen more of him, it quickly becomes apparent that there are things that have changed hugely, but over time, that others haven’t noticed slipping away. When did s/he stop doing x, you ask, when did s/he start doing y? And nobody knows, because the big changes happen slowly. It is time that erodes us, time that destroys us, time that gives everything we have but takes it all the fucking fuck away too.

Everybody is dying, but some are dying sooner than others.

I am doing things, many things, for the last time at the moment. This morning I collected my beta blockers and antidepressants for the last time from the chemist I’ve been collecting antidepressants from – on and off and off and on – for about six years. The last year I’ve had has been full of huge amounts of personal change, and I am ready for some kinda sense of closure. The closures that I want – apologies from the people whose interactions with me have done the most damage – will never come, and there is likely to be no easy logical closure like a fucking death or something, y’know? The closure comes from me absenting myself; the closure comes from me getting the fuck out of London: properly, finally, indefinitely.

I’m bored of being bored. I’m tired of being tired of my life. I’m sick of the city, sick of the tube and the way people speak to each other, sick of the cost, sick of the work, sick of the dirty air and the smug middle-aged fucks, sick of the other dog owners, sick of the cliques I am not clicked into, sick of the cliques that I am… sick of other people’s ideas of success, other people’s ideas of appropriate behaviours, appropriate lifestyles, appropriate lives. I am just fucking fed the fuck up of people telling me how I am expected to feel. I used to think that the only closure that could end the constant waves of deep, deep, despair that I felt over and over and overwhelming me for years was my own death, whether through fluke accident, a deserved sickness or the drastic act of self-destruction that I lacked the self-belief to enact.

Even when I stopped being depressed all the time, I still kinda wished that I had killed myself. I have half-heartedly attempted to overdose on three occasions. Twice in 2013, once in 2017. Only on one of those occasions did I come anywhere close, and it was the time in 2013 where I tried to overdose with drugs that did not come from a pharmacist. I threw up for hours and hours and hours and passed out somewhere I didn’t know. But I still woke up in the place, the house, the life, I didn’t want to wake up in. I tried harder that second time than either of the other two, but it was written off by those around me as just “getting too wasted at a party”. I wasn’t “too wasted”, I was desperate, desperate, desperate to die but didn’t have the bravery or the strength for wrists or rope. I stumbled on through life, almost finding happiness, almost finding myself a place, but never quite, never quite, allowing myself to do the things I needed to do to find a type of peace.

I felt a pressure to be a certain way, though I never quite knew what (or how) that way was. All I knew was that I was doing life wrong, and I felt that my instincts as to what was better were completely fucking off. Actually, people told me they were off. People told me not to trust myself, people told me to listen to them, to others, to people who knew better, know better, are better.

But fuck it, y’know. I wrote like 100 reasons why I don’t have to hate myself and have put the most palatable (slash least libellous) into a more poetic form and included them in my forthcoming book of poems. Philosophical Toys hit me right in the fucking sooooooouuuuuuuuulllllll because Medina discusses, with a warm humanity, many of the issues that have plagued my conscious mind for years. What is the right way to be? There isn’t one. What is the write way to mourn? There isn’t one. What is the right way to love, to fuck, to read, to create, to travel, to decorate, to relax? There isn’t one, and all we can do, all we must do, is be true to ourselves.

I didn’t kill myself when I was desperate to (obvs, otherwise I’d be writing this from beyond the grave #spooky), and now I neither want to kill myself nor do I want to want to kill myself. When it felt right, when it felt like the only possible way to feel free, to feel at peace, to feel relaxed, that was because I wasn’t listening to any of the other evidenced and irrefutable feelings within me that would have helped me to find a better, living, solution. Eventually I had to listen, but only after I’d been hospitalised cuz of the mental health stuff. I’m listening now, and what my body is saying is that this part of my life, this movement, this journey, it needs to be over. It is time for me to change, time for me to close, time for me to prioritise what I need, and not allow anyone – whoever the fuck they are and however truly they do have my best interests to heart – to tell me what to do.

My body, my heart, my soul, my whatever, tells me what is right for me and what is wrong. I don’t feel guilt or shame when I do things I want to do, but for many years I felt constant guilt and shame doing things that I was told I wanted to do, that I was told I should be enjoying, but I wasn’t.

I’m happier now, and I’m reading the books I want to read and going to the places I want to go to and spending time with the people I want to know.

Medina’s book is similar in tone to Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, I suppose, questioning and narrating a gently insider/outsider existence and coming to terms with the contentment and happiness that affords. It is an inspirational text to someone like me: contentment is possible without conforming to [dull] societal norms. So, I’m not going to conform to [dull] societal mores, not unless I decide I want to.

Listen to your body, listen to your instincts; read Susana Medina and read and laugh and weep and learn. Sorry I didn’t write more about the book, but I’m all over the place, emotionally, at the moment, and I just wanted a fucking rant.

Buy Medina’s book (which I have offered barely any opinions about) from the publisher via this link.

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1 comment on “Philosophical Toys by Susana Medina

  1. “sick of other people’s ideas of success, other people’s ideas of appropriate behaviours, appropriate lifestyles, appropriate lives. I am just fucking fed the fuck up of people telling me how I am expected to feel.”

    This bit hit a little too close right now.

    Liked by 1 person

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