The Ugly World and Real Things

The Ugly World and Real Things


To my brilliant friend, 


I think I’m going insane. Or I’m not but I’m probably starting to, like that book I told you about where the main character thinks everyone is trying to kill him. That’s my fear, I’ve told you about it: having some sort of schizophrenic break in my twenties. Or worse, the possibility that I’m already in one, and everything now is just an elaborate hallucination. 

The good thing about you is that you’re crazier than me. You get scared easily and you’re paranoid. You always think I’m lying to you. You swear your mom puts cameras in your room, and you’ve looked for them. You think that every time you open a door and close it there’s a chance that when you open it again it’s not going to be the same place. You believe there’s a man standing behind you at all times who moves so you can never see him, and that there are bugs under your skin, and that at night people will enter your house and kill you. You stay up to listen for them. There were three days I had to comfort you because Lucy was scaring you, and another time when your grandparents convinced you I was a fake person (I got mad at you about that.) I think maybe the thing you say the most besides “I’m gonna kill myself” and “I love you” and “I’m going crazy” is “I’m not real,” which is kind of a joke now because that’s what Nick says all the time. I mean maybe we are both basically just Nick, and we need not just mental help but some kind of special ed treatment. 

I don’t know. I don’t think that’s a wrong way to bond, to both be crazy. It’s how I made friends with Eunice and Tracey, and how I first ended up liking you, because you were so unhinged and weird that it comforted me, to see the same bad feelings I had reflected in you.

There’s a book I had to read for class that talks, sort of, about this, about the bond you create from having the same crazy, paranoid thoughts. I told you about it already, I read part of it out loud. It’s the Italian one, the memoir, the one where the main character reminds me of you. Elena. And my favorite part is when Elena loses her doll. It starts like this: 


I got sick, had fevers, got better, got sick again. I was overcome by a kind of tactile dysfunction; sometimes I had the impression that, while every animated being around me was speeding up the rhythms of its life, solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers or swelled up, leaving empty spaces between their internal mass and the surface skin. It seemed to me that my own body, if you touched it, was distended, and this saddened me. I was sure that I had cheeks like balloons, hands stuffed with sawdust, earlobes like ripe berries, feet in the shape of loaves of bread.1


A couple years ago in the Bad Arc, when all I did was lay in bed, I felt exactly like this, felt like if I touched my face my fingers would sink into a pool of grease. Again you can relate. You get sick constantly and you like to complain: of your body feeling gross and your face feeling gross and your urgent need to peel your skin off. But I think we never really found a way to articulate it beyond that, to say much besides just saying “I feel bad.” So that’s why I like the specificity in that passage, how for Elena it’s not just a feeling of discomfort and grossness in her body, but something worse: a failure of her senses to interact with the world. While everyone else is going somewhere, she lugs behind, slowed by the inflamed spaces inside of her. And it’s not just her own body that’s disgusting, it’s the bloat around her, the “empty space between [the] internal mass and the surface skin” of everything she touches, which makes it so that she can’t ever really touch at all, ever feel or reach that “internal mass.” The world loses its solidity and takes on the texture of sludge. 

Elena goes on to imagine that this bloat has extended beyond what she can’t see, that there are two giant bubbles in her neighborhood, one in the sky and one underground, squeezing and compressing her. The nausea this gives her passes in a few pages, but it gets echoed again later, when Lila experiences something similar at a New Year’s Eve party. In what’s maybe an anxiety attack or dissociative episode, she experiences something she calls “dissolving margins.” Just like Elena, whose world is swallowed by bubbles, the margins of Lila’s world are eaten by a substance, “something absolutely material, which had been present around her and around everyone and everything forever”2 which causes the outline of things to break down and blend together. This “dissolving margins” event is strikingly similar to the nausea Elena feels as a child and experiences, in some form, throughout her life. Maybe that’s why Elena clings to this experience of “dissolving margins.” It’s another way to relate, an affirmation that she sees the world the same way as Lila: untouchable, repulsive. In Lila’s case, people become simply “bodies in movement, their bone structure, the frenzy that shook them.”3 For Elena, the people around her are “plebs that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth.”4 Everything is reducible to their purest physical qualities: people becoming bodies, bodies indistinguishable from each other and the dirt they walk on. 

Disgust is partially specific to the places that nauseate you. An overwhelming New Year’s Eve party, a disappointing wedding, the overall backdrop of Elena and Lila’s neighborhood, which is poor and violent. But it’s just as much a matter of these places being nauseating as it is the disgusting (and disgusted) qualities of their internal selves, which causes the neighborhood to take on that nauseating affect.

At least I like to think of it that way, because it makes the experience easier to translate. I might not be able to picture the 1950s in Southern Italy, but I can picture a mass without outlines, and I can change it to fit the shape of any other nauseating place. 

The first ugly place I think of is where you used to live with your mom. The videos you sent to DFACS of the trash in the bathroom and the mold on the walls, and how on rainy days you always had to play games with water pooling at your feet. Or I think of your grandma who never shuts up and the white trash people who go to your school and how half of your whole world is parking lots, and I see, now, why you like me. It’s about the escape—a better place, a better life. You like me, of course, but I think you like most the dream attached to me: snow in New York and swimming in Marseille, somewhere trashless and dirtless and far.

For Elena, her Marseille is a dream of writing books, getting rich, leaving the ugly mass of the neighborhood. She sees in Lila not just a relatable disgust, but a way out of it. This way out doesn’t just manifest itself as a hopeful future. Instead, even just spending time with Lila seems to reconfigure Elena’s world, to elevate it out of ugliness. When they are children, and they skip school to run to the sea, Elena says:


I felt as if she had everything in her head ordered in such a way that the world around us would never be able to create disorder. I abandoned myself happily. I remember a soft light that seemed to come not from the sky but from the depths of the earth, even though, on the surface, it was poor, and ugly.5


Following Lila makes the world appear beautiful. It’s a really sweet contrast, between the nauseous, distended spaces that Elena describes usually and this bright, ordered world. It’s a sweet idea, too, that with the right person, the world becomes softer and easier to live in. It reminds me of Mochi’s apartment, which in my memory is always a fuzzy orange. When we were there I remember feeling light, like there was no space between what I was thinking and what I was saying, an open dream I could abandon myself into. And yet abandon is a harsh word. It can feel like loss, or worse it can feel like laziness, the kind of laziness that can easily twist itself back into the original ugly you were trying to escape from: the horror of abandoning yourself. I guess what makes the difference is that you lose yourself not into familiar murky chaos, but upwards into clarity. Elena sees Lila’s mind as a guardian against disorder, someone who can both fix the world and light it up. Although the journey to the sea is wordless, Elena finds this feeling again through their grown-up conversations, where, instead of margins dissolving, margins are emphasized. Their neighborhood drama is organized into clear narratives, a game they can navigate and control. Instead of language being something incomprehensible, simply “words bathed in the liquid of saliva,”6 it becomes beautiful. The ugly world disappears into just: “she and I and all those well crafted words.”7

What these conversations give Elena is “a pleasure so intense that I planned to devote myself to her totally.”8 But it’s not just pleasure that’s the source of this devotion; in fact, the true source of Elena’s devotion is the fact that Lila gives Elena’s life meaning, that she creates in her a feeling that the world actually has importance. It’s a feeling she searches for in Lila throughout their entire lives.

This feeling is stronger, I think, than just liking or even loving someone. I know this from personal experience; to be obsessed with someone for this long, for them to actually define your life and not just be a working part in it, interchangeable with anyone else, then it can’t be just the pleasure of being with them that sustains you. Habit, of course, helps—Elena had been obsessed with Lila so long it might have ended up just another routine, like biting your nails—but habit is still not devotion, and ultimately it’s meaning that Elena clung onto. Whether they are getting along or not, whether Elena is jealous of Lila or hates her or is mistreated by her, Elena’s mind always stays on her, because all of these emotions, even jealousy and hatred, order the world into something that is holdable.

So, even though I always repeat that you stress me out and make me feel bad, which you do, sometimes, it’s true that even these irritations give my life weight, clarity. The world—which usually feels somewhat fake and hallucinatory to me—feels real because of you, which is more important than just making me happy or sad. It’s the same for you, I think. Probably worse.


“I realized that with those last words she had admitted that I was important to her, and I was happy.”9


So, what happens when you’re gone?

For Elena, who defines her life in terms of Lila’s, it’s interesting that they spend so much time apart. Their relationship might have lasted their entire lives, but it’s unreliable: their interactions are rare and, as the novel goes on, they seem to grow further apart. This depresses Elena. As soon as Lila withdraws her interest in her, as soon as “her voice withdrew from things, the things got dirty, dusty.”10  When Lila and Elena stop sharing a common dream, Elena struggles, and then the world returns to its usual ugly state. 

I don’t think I relied on your interest as much as Elena does on Lila’s. It’s disappointing, sometimes, that although you’ve told me you want to know every detail about me, I don’t really believe it. I’ve learned to separate our conversations and my other life, to pause and unpause. But the funny thing was, when our conversations did disappear from my life, in the period that we didn’t talk, it wasn’t a clean extraction. It seemed, like with Elena, to ruin everything else, like the ordering, skeletal structure of my life had been removed, draining any interest from the rest. Things were thinner, flatter, there was a plastic undertone to everything people said to me and everything I did which I never told you about anyways somehow also lost its meaning. Mostly I wondered what you were up to. 

In that sense, I guess I’m just like Elena, who, when she’s not talking to Lila, has a constant stream of anxious questions. This is the nonstop work of figuring out what Lila is thinking: “Why was Lila looking back? Why had she stopped talking? What was wrong? … Did she like this space? Why didn’t she ask me to come with her? Why had she left me with Carmela? Why did she talk to me about how soles were ground and not about what she read?”11 On and on and on. In a weird way, these questions become her way to stay connected with Lila, even when they don’t talk. They give her a substitutive kind of meaning, a way of ordering the world in Lila’s absence. She talks to herself; she “[discovered] connections…especially if they concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise.”12 This is a game Ferrante continues, even years later, just by writing the book. It’s her way to fill the gaps: all the things that sixteen-year-old Elena didn’t know about at the time, about the dissolving margins or the events in Lila’s life that were only revealed to Elena years later, are stitched into the narrative. The book becomes the response to all her anxious teenage questions about what Lila is thinking—a way to make everything clear, after the fact. Writing is the replacement for their living relationship, its opposite: the book can only be written after Lila disappears completely.

In this way it’s a book that reveals its own distance. Although Ferrante tries to operate in real, chronological time—she avoids spoiling, jumping ahead—it’s still written in her own, grown-up language, with her bias, her reflection. It’s a reconstruction, and, like all reconstructions, it’s separated from the past, from the real immediacy of her once-relationship with Lila. The book itself opens with this concession: the image of Ferrante, aged, over a typewriter, recording what she remembers, drawing out the “convergences and divergences” of her life. 

Ferrante’s exercise reminded me of diaries. It reminded me of how, in the time we didn’t talk, I filled pages of them. I thought if I wrote enough about you I would somehow arrive at a solution, like Elena, tracing her relationship from beginning to end, or like an essay, whose arguments will lead up to one neatly written conclusion paragraph. It was a habit I’ve kept from when I was a kid, you know about it, a weird obsession with constantly recording and analyzing things and then hoarding all those records, this gross amount of notebooks I keep, now, in my crawlspace. I wanted everything to be drawn as accurately as possible, to not forget anything to time. But it’s impossible to hold everything in your head, and the more I tried the more distant I got. At first I thought that the distance was a good thing. If I could walk away for a while—be like Ferrante, writing about things several decades later—I could see the whole thing as it was, without sentimentality, the distortion of closeness. I would have time to figure it out, to record. But the more time I spent remembering the more things I forgot, like the sound of your voice. 

Maybe just forgetting all of it is the best way. You have holes in your head, that’s how you manage it. You enforce your bad memory. While I’m always trying to make things into a coherent, ordered line, you let it go, keep it simple. One dog, one cat, you’ll stay at home and clean. And while I don’t think you mind how I’m constantly talking—you like my voice—the good thing about you is I could finally shut up. I could get away from the constant stream of words, abandon myself happily into the present. I don’t have to write the “pages and pages of apprehension, joy, the wish to flee, intense foreshadowing” that Elena records for Lila, in a letter. Like all letters—and maybe all writing—it just shows its distance from the person it’s about. For me to sit down and write this, you would have to have been gone for a long time. It’s not good, in the end, to talk to yourself for that long. You get lost. 

I hope I never have to actually write you a letter. You don’t like to read long things anyways, you don’t have the attention span.

So I’m probably just going to leave it at that.

  1. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2012), 57.
  2. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 90.
  3. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 90.
  4. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 301.
  5. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 76.
  6. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 90.
  7. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 103.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 119.
  10. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 100.
  11. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 77-100.
  12. Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 257.
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