Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
This is the story of Sunny, her dying mother, her husband Maxon, their autistic son Bubber, and the daughter they are expecting to be born soon. Through many flashbacks, we learn the story of Sunny’s birth during a solar eclipse in Burma, her childhood with Maxon in rural Pennsylvania, and her life with Maxon as he builds his career as a NASA scientist and she helps their autistic son Bubber function.
The book’s style is informed by Maxon’s obsession with robots, and his autistic worldview and methods of coping with neurotypical people. He thinks of himself as a robot and writes code for himself to govern his behavior. The sentences are offbeat, quirky, observant, strange.
In the author interview at the end of the book and the interview with Julianna Baggott that first led me to the novel, Netzer talks about how she determined the plot of the novel in an unconventional way: she decided that the main character had to be born in 1981 during a solar eclipse, then she looked up where there was an eclipse that year, and it was Burma, so that was where Sunny had to be born, and the story had to explain why she was there. The tone of these interviews was kind of annoyingly gleeful, as if Netzer had gotten away with something. I somewhat disagree with the interviews, which say that the Burma stuff seemed totally organic–but then it’s such a weird and ideosyncratic story that almost anything goes. Another example of a weird thing is that Sunny is bald. It wasn’t really clear why she had to be bald except to make her stand out and to provide a symbolic way of showing when she’s not really being herself (a wig).
That last bit was overly negative, because I really did enjoy the experience of reading this book. There is this long passage that I just have to quote because it gave me deep-down chills. As I think about becoming a mother in the medium-term future, I’ve realized that my biggest fear is of losing myself in the role and duties of motherhood. Netzer brought my nightmare to life and proved that I was completely right to be afraid. In this scene, pregnant Sunny is arguing with Maxon about his leaving for a trip to the moon:
“Well, you know what? I quit. I fucking quit. I say lights off. Shut it down. I want out of this sweater, I want out of this house, I want out of this city, I want out. I’ve been holding things up on my shoulders for too long, I want a break! I want to not be a mother for five fucking minutes!”
“So go out, do what you want to do, I’m here now, safe and sound. I can help you. Go take some time for yourself,” he said. He said the words “time for yourself” as if it were one word. Like bicycling.
“I can’t just go out, Maxon, and leave it. Do you not understand this? I am Mom, twenty-four/seven. It doesn’t end because I am not physically with you and your child. I am always Mom. It’s right here with me, inside me, this makes me Mom, whether I’m here or there or passed out drunk in a ditch in the city, I’m still the mom, it’s just then I’m the shitty mom. You, you leave. You’re the scientist, you’re the builder, you’re the astronaut, you’re the cyclist, I’m none of those things. I’m the mom, that’s it. I’m saying, I just want a little break to try and be someone else, but I can’t have it. It’s impossible….You don’t help me when you are here. You might as well go, be well, live on the moon, colonize space. I’ll just be here pushing around the dishes, the laundry, the dishes, the laundry, and outlining my lips, wearing my stockings, and lining up my dove gray pumps in the closet.”
“I don’t expect you to do that. No one expects that. You make yourself do that.”
“Yeah, well, what do I expect me to do? What does he expect me to do? What does this one expect me to do?” She pointed upstairs at Bubber and then to her belly. “There actually are no expectations of me, Sunny, this person. It’s just me, this slot, this role, this mother. What I’ve got to do as her, to be her, and those expectations are clearly defined. Clearly defined. You, in fact, are the only one that can’t see them. Because you don’t see anything that’s not written down in black and white! Look at me, Maxon, I am dying here! Motherhood is death, do you get it? This me that you see, this thing standing here, this is a dead thing covered in a shell. I am dead, Maxon, I’m dead!”
The ending is optimistic, so the despair of that scene isn’t shown to last forever, but it will probably always remain in my mind as an image of the smothering weight of the mantle of “Mom.”