It's been at least a month since Andy and I drove together down Anderson Mill Rd. in the pink-purple nearly-night sky to the strip shopping center where the UPS store, liquor shop, florist and wholesale furniture market daily serve suburbanites. Everyone has been to that strip mall, even if you've never been to Austin. You've been there. In fact, you can picture it in your mind now, if you'll just stop and think for a moment. There's not much there to draw you in, just the familiar facades of stores you only need to frequent twice a year, if that. I'd have never been inclined to have wasted the beginning of a perfectly lovely evening by traveling through the tedious string of stoplights on Anderson Mill if all that awaited me at the end was a packaging and shipping chain or a bottle of vodka. But, tucked in between couches for cost and bottles of Bourbon, you can find a place worth visiting. If you have a little cash and want to, for a moment on a summer evening, feel like there's more to your life than watching re-runs of The Office on your sofa with your dogs, this is just the suburban getaway for you- Half Priced Books. It is exactly what its name implies, a bookstore that sells books that other people have owned before you ever got your bargain-hunting eyes on them.
I like going to Half Priced Books, because it's less swanky than Barnes and Noble and not quite as eclectically intimidating as Book People. Barnes and Noble makes me feel like I've lost my soul in the generic flood of New York Times Best-sellers and Oprah's book list titles. And Austin's own Book People, with its collection of shabby-chic vintage chairs and sections on spirituality and organic gardening is a two-story, coffee-brewing reminder that I shop at Old Navy and live in an apartment complex in Cedar Park and really have no business inside walls meant for folks much more trendy and bohemian than me. But at Half Priced books, I can sit on the floor in my jeans and t-shirt and read snippets of poetry and feel whole-heartedly more free-spirited than I did earlier in the day when I was folding laundry, without feeling like a fraud or a sell-out.
I've bought a few things from Half Priced book. A fantastic Thai cookbook which I cooked out of a handful of times, and haven't pulled off the shelf since. Gore Vidal's 1876, a purchase I had to defend, though I hadn't read it yet, because I refuse to assume that a book must be worthless because its author is a homosexual. Most recently, I purchased a book on tape to help me pass the insufferable hours in my Focus on my way back to North Carolina. And lastly, the muse for this blog, Prague, a novel written by Arthur Phillips, Harvard graduate and master of sarcasm.
Prague is interminable. Granted, I am a terribly slow reader, seeing as I am a writer and I read books the way a chocoholic would eat a Godiva truffle. I savor each wordy morsel, moving it around in my mind repeatedly, until I'm sure I've identified the author's intention and my own enjoyment to the fullest extent. Then I finally swallow and move on to the next paragraph. It's exhausting. And so, in this way, I've been reading Prague for at least a month and have only today reached the 200th page, little over halfway through.
Even for me, this is slow. But Prague is not a truffle, it's a piece of Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake (which Lacy assures me is the best dessert man has ever made). It's almost unbearably rich. But I was almost certain that, while masterfully written, it was completely pointless. Until today.
While I was perusing more familiar authors at Half Priced Books, I paused at Arthur Phillips book because the title was appealing, as well as, of course, the cover. (Because obviously that is how one should judge a book with which you are not familiar. I am not at all joking about that.) Maybe too many loads of laundry or pointless shifts at Banana Republic had me craving the whimsical memories of the thirty-six hours I spent in Prague a few years ago. Only a city as romantic as Prague could have you remember 36 hours of tourism as something beautiful and full of passion, when the real story consists of a bus tour, souvenir shopping (lovely souvenirs, though, some of my best treasures) and a nearly harmful attack of low blood sugar. Oh, and there was that hilarious movie my brother and I watched on BBC late one night-the unavoidable result of time zone change wreaking havoc on circadian rhythms. It was a murder mystery about a woman who went out for a jog in Kensington Park, then stopped to strip and commit murder, only to resume both her clothes and her exercise after the deed was done. She killed in the nude so that she would not have any DNA evidence on her clothes- and my brother and I found this hilarious. Nude women killing people and sugar lows and water colors that are far too cheap- that's real Prague. Even so, the whole place is magical enough to entice you to read a book named after it.
And today, somewhere around page 207, I realized that the idea of Prague is Phillips's entire point. He's hinted at this mystery throughout the book, writing devastatingly smart satire about a handful of ex patriots living life in post-Communist Budapest. Phillips lived in Budapest in the early 1990's and I can only imagine that after living in Eastern Europe at that time and returning to the United States, the only thing you could do is write a book like Prague.
The beauty of Prague, both the book and the city, is the irony of the illusion. This is the reason Phillips writes a book about Budapest and names it Prague. He knows Prague will draw you in, will lure you with its picturesque bridges and rising fog from the Vltava River and its clocks and spires that are older than our country. But the reality is odd movies and food so bad that you resort to eating a Snickers for lunch- thus the low blood sugar. But (clever boy!) Phillips knows that the reality is irrelevant. It's the illusion we seek, and, in some way, need. Because life cannot always be laundry and bills and work that dulls the mind. We need fog and old clocks and places we cannot pronounce the names of.
I cannot tell you why, but all of this has made me think of marriage in a different light. As I drifted off to sleep reading Prague this afternoon, my mind alighted on a few marriages I know that seem to have never found Prague- not necessarily the geographic location, but the idea- the romantic, beautiful, passionate refuge of the mind. Or else, they've forgotten how to look for it. They are people who live in laundry and unpaid bills and stress without joy and marriage without romance. And, as the words from Phillips's verbose novel swam around my mind, I was both sad for those people and afraid of becoming one of them.
Everyone knows that you cannot live in Prague. That's why Phillips wrote this book. It's ever-elusive splendor always keeps you wanting- but that's the point, now, isn't it? Not that our real lives, in Austin or North Carolina or wherever we are, are not enough. There is much to be thankful for in quiet evenings in front of The Office, with dogs asleep at your side. But how sad, how very tragic, to never get up and leave. Because it's the search that makes it really beautiful. As reality pairs with illusion, we watch movies in the middle of the night with company we'll never forget and buy watercolors we'll frame and hang to forever memorialize a breath of time that was never really as beautiful as the memories will make it out to be. But we have to go. If we set our hopes on remaining in that elusive city, we'll be sorely disappointed- it's a mirage. But how terribly worse off we would be, if we'd never left to find it in the first place.