Books

Spoiler Alert: Somebody Dies

As kids we tie blankets around our necks, leap from our bunks saying WOOSH!, put hands to hips, quips to lips, and rescue prone stuffed animals who have been abducted by standing stuffed animals, or maybe an evil older sibling. We collect little stethoscopes and popsicle sticks, ask a pal to lie down, poke and prod and ask What seems to be the problem? and apologize when the tongue becomes splintered, beg them not to tell on us. We fantasize about what we would do with a billion trillion gazillion dollars: swim through the loot like Scrooge McDuck; buy a mansion and fill it with all the best toys; give some money to our parents so they won’t have to work anymore, the rest to poor people so they never get sick or hungry, so the world is perfect, so no one ever dies.

As origin stories go, Naomi Feinstein’s is equal parts Batman and X-Men, mom-and-pop trauma and genetic gift. In the opening chapter of Elizabeth Percer’s debut novel An Uncommon Education, the eight-year-old Naomi is devastated by her father’s heart attack, which she witnesses from the floor of the JFK National Historic Site in Boston. Her mother’s depression—not a split-second shock like her dad’s ailment, but a steady drubbing into submission—is just as threatening, and as Naomi looks around the hospital, wondering if her father will live, she resolves to don a shiny white coat and become a hero.

If they could save lives, I would, too… I wouldn’t be just a doctor, I would be the very best of doctors—a cardiac surgeon—maybe even one who could design a replacement heart. I would keep my promise to my father and I would never let him fall again, and I would keep my mother from sinking too low to be found.

Soon after, Naomi’s power manifests itself: she has super-memory, remembers everything she reads. Between her power and her ambition (she wants to and will attend Wellesley), the sky seems the limit. Naomi repeats a caption—written by Rosemary Kennedy, one of Naomi’s dad’s “heroic crushes,” on an Amelia Earhart photo Naomi apparently stole from the JFK house—to herself like a mantra: She could fly.

But Naomi’s gift is not without its drawbacks; as Charles Xavier says, people fear what they don’t understand. After Naomi’s freakishly flawless performance in a third grade spelling bee, a classmate accuses her of cheating. Their teacher bows to the sad brand of suspicion that arises when something appears too good to be true, tells Naomi she’s better than that, and calls Naomi’s mother (who is aware of her daughter’s gift, knows she didn’t cheat).

This false accusation foreshadows, among other things, the skepticism Naomi faces a few years later from her best friend’s cold gray mother. Naomi’s best and only friend for several years is Teddy, the strange, gangly boy next door, with whom Naomi plays doctor and buries a small box of secrets—her stolen Earhart photograph, his disconcerting adoption papers, which Naomi will never forget. Naomi wants desperately to endear herself to Teddy’s mom, so she starts memorizing passages from books and reciting them over soup in Teddy’s kitchen. The plan backfires: after Naomi waxes eloquent on Einstein’s theory of relativity, Teddy’s mom pulls Naomi next door and tells her parents that their daughter is possessed.

One day at Hammond Pond, Naomi and Teddy rescue a duck’s nest full of eggs on the verge of toppling over—likely Naomi’s first act of heroism, of which she says, “For many years later, when I would recall all this I would remember the thrill of believing we could have saved anything that day… we were wind-bitten and triumphant.” But the wind isn’t the only thing biting, and that adolescent optimism lasts mere hours. Teddy’s father is taken that afternoon by heart disease—one of the villains Naomi has sworn to vanquish. After his father’s death, Teddy’s mother transplants the family to New Jersey, allowing Naomi to write letters but, her distrust lingering, forbidding Naomi to visit.

In a comically misguided attempt at consoling her—the unspoken punchline is No pressure—Naomi’s father tells her that she “‘can learn, do, be whatever you want. And with your memory! You can know everything, if you want.’” Though this type of “encouragement” has become alarmingly common in our society, it remains an insanely unfair thing to tell a fourteen-year-old, especially a vulnerable, overambitious one. Naomi’s dad might as well have said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” For the rest of high school and well into college, Naomi’s and her father’s supersized expectations will sit perched on her back like a pair of hard-to-please gorillas.

Bruce Wayne, unlike Naomi Feinstein, didn’t resolve to become a hero in response to his family trauma. Watching his parents shot to death filled him with rage, but not the righteous kind—instead a crude thirst for vengeance. It sounds counterintuitive, but, although a hero wasn’t born in that pale moonlight, Batman was. The Bruce Wayne for whom anything was possible—the Bruce whose doctor father used to check him with a stethoscope after a fall, who probably told Bruce he could learn, do, be whatever he wanted—died with his parents. Clutching his mother’s pearls on the sidewalk, and only growing more furious as the years passed, was a kid who wanted to punch people in the face, dangle them from buildings—Batman minus the strength, self-control, training, and purpose.

In the first film in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman Begins, the teenaged Batman—still lacking all of the above, and the cape, cowl, etc.—carries a loaded revolver to his parents’ killer’s parole hearing so he can avenge them. Fantasizing over this violence is the only thing that has kept the young Batman going; when a mafia hitwoman robs him of retribution, Batman says fuck it, handing over his Bruce Wayne costume and artifacts to a hobo, stowing away on a steamer, and riding it as far from Gotham City as he can.

In Asia he begins an uncommon education of his own: living off the streets, “stealing” from Wayne Enterprises to feed himself. He’s strong, he can fight, but he’s aimless and wild—until Ra’s al Ghul disappears him from prison and trains him with the League of Shadows. Because of his voracious anger and his apprenticeship under the evil al Ghul, Batman could just as easily have turned out a villain. Had Ra’s wanted to raze a corrupt city other than Gotham—one to which Batman had no personal attachment—he might well have. (Besides the role they played in his parents’ murder, this is why Batman shuns guns: to mark a hard line between himself and the bad guys, to make sure he doesn’t become one.) But hearing the League’s plan riles and inspires Batman to protect what now sounds like home. A fire lit, he escapes, returns to Gotham, becomes a symbol (purpose: the final piece of the puzzle), and the rest is history.

Naomi chose heroism within hours of her father’s heart attack; it took Batman twenty years to do the same after his parents’ fall. But make no mistake: The Dark Knight was born in that instant; it’s saving people that, much later, gave him a reason to live, a way to channel his anger and make it righteous. At the end of the first film, after he’s saved Gotham from the League, his childhood friend and the woman he loves, Rachel Dawes, says as much when she notes (to the embarrassment of Quentin Tarantino, I imagine) that Batman isn’t the mask. Bruce Wayne—the dopey, shallow playboy who’s filled his mansion with all the best toys—is the mask. He’s a character Batman has to play during the day so he can save people at night. A work of fiction.

Naomi’s sophomore year at Wellesley, a girl named Ruth quasi-suicidally ventures out onto the thin ice of Lake Waban (lakes are primo venues for heroic feats) and falls through, before being pulled out by Naomi, Ruth’s cousin Julie, and a long anonymous stick. It turns out Ruth and Julie are members of the Shakespeare Society, an unconventional clutch of women who celebrate Shakespeare’s work by performing it, among other rituals. Naomi double-majors in English and Biology, joins the Shakes, and finds both her power and her ambition tested.

Her junior year, after becoming disproportionately passionate about English and the Shakes, Naomi receives a letter from the Dean informing her that her GPA is sub-par for a potential med student. Of the slippage, Naomi explains, “It didn’t matter what I could memorize if I wasn’t willing to perform, to demonstrate my knowledge willingly.” In short, her power—like most power—is useless if there’s no effort behind it, and, though she perhaps can’t come to grips with it yet, she is wavering in her vow to become a hero-surgeon. In a subsequent meeting with the Dean, Naomi confesses, “‘It never really occurred to me that I wouldn’t be a doctor,’” that

“…somehow, something isn’t as I expected it to be,” the memory of Teddy trying to listen for my heart in my belly flashed through my mind. “I really can’t explain it otherwise, there’s just a block coming between my idea of what I wanted to be, who I’d be here, and what it’s all like, where I am now.”

It’s one thing to declare yourself a hero at eight years old, to play doctor with the kid next door or memorize an anatomy book. It’s quite another to maintain that blanket-around-the-neck level of enthusiasm over a decade or two, to hammer away at your dream until it takes a real shape—especially after a new passion has emerged to lure your eye.

Further clouding Naomi’s resolve is the dawning of a grim reality: you can’t save everyone. Teddy’s father is dead, and Naomi learns that her childhood friend now whiles away his days in a mental hospital, sketching birds, his brain broken beyond repair, no recollection of Naomi or anyone else he met prior to his arrival. (Considering Naomi’s super-memory, this makes Teddy her sad counterpart: they are, cerebrally speaking, Unbreakable and Mr. Glass.) Naomi’s mother’s health continues to deteriorate; she rarely leaves the house but remains painfully out-of-reach to Naomi, who’s trying to claw her way to a connection.

At the end of Naomi’s junior year, a close friend from the Shakes is accused of cheating by another member of the society, stirring Naomi’s dormant anger at being falsely called a cheater, even “possessed” as a child. Naomi channels her righteous anger into a cause—rescuing her friend—even though her friend explicitly says she doesn’t want or need Naomi’s help. Naomi tries to save her anyway, fails spectacularly, and in doing so potentially dooms their friendship. Reality hits her like a kick to the stomach, and Naomi adjusts her goals accordingly.

In the second and arguably best film of Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight, Batman learns many of the same lessons Naomi learns at Wellesley. There are limits to what he can do, and what he wants to do. Being a powerful symbol doesn’t just inspire heroes (most of whom aren’t cut out for the job, donning hockey pads in place of armor); it inspires retaliation, madness even, leading Batman to pine for “a hero with a face” so he can hang up the cape and cowl. The Joker, a limping lunatic with a smile permanently etched into his clowny grill, teaches Batman the hardest lesson of all when he blows Rachel Dawes to bits and turns Harvey Dent—Gotham’s idealistic D.A., its “White Knight,” and the obvious choice for hero-with-a-face—into a monster. You can’t save everyone.

The lie agreed upon between Batman and Commissioner Gordon at the end of the second film—that Batman is a villain, that Dent died a hero—allows Gotham to pass the Dent Act, an unforgiving, ethically questionable move that permits the city to lock up its most vicious criminals with no chance for appeal or parole. Crime plummets; Batman, an obsolete outlaw, goes into hiding. Saving people was his only reason to live, and now it’s not only redundant but impossible. Batman couldn’t save Rachel, the woman who had once bucked at being Bruce Wayne’s “one hope for a normal life.” In truth, she was his only hope for a life, period. With her gone, Wayne remains a fictional character (within a larger fictional world, obviously).

At the start of the final film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, the Batcave has been gathering dust for eight years. Batman’s anger has, for the most part, been displaced by emptiness, and he no longer has the energy to play the part of Bruce Wayne. Wayne Enterprises is failing on every level—in part because Batman poured half his fortune into a risky global energy project (even his non-violent rescue missions prove dangerous)—and Batman is as depressed and dead to the world as Naomi’s mother. At least, until strange new threats (Bane, Catwoman, et. al.) arise to yank him out of his stupor, his purpose renewed.

But Alfred—Batman’s closest ally and ever the voice of reason (from the second film: “Know your limits, Master Wayne”; to which Batman replies, “Batman has no limits”)—wants to revive Bruce Wayne, not Batman. What kind of life is this—hollow except in the face of annihilation, or as reaction to tragedy? Whether Batman defeats Bane or not is moot: once the battle is over, he’s dead either way. But Bruce Wayne, if the character were brought to life, would be capable of true, sustainable happiness. There could be more to his existence than punching bad guys in the face and dangling them from buildings.

In a last-ditch effort to make Bruce Wayne real again, Alfred pulls a trump card from his vest. He tells Batman about the letter Rachel wrote eight years prior, saying she would marry Dent, the letter Alfred burned to spare Batman’s feelings. (Incidentally, a concealed correspondence plays a major role in Naomi’s story, as well.) The idea is that by eradicating Batman’s belief that Rachel is the one that got away, Alfred will force him to move on, to pull Bruce Wayne off that bloody sidewalk, where he’s lain for over thirty years, and try to build a normal life. Ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t just about whether Batman will save Gotham. It’s about whether he will save Bruce Wayne.

I’ve always craved the former and cringed at the latter, but an origin story is just a coming-of-age one by a different name. I won’t tell you how An Uncommon Education or The Dark Knight Rises ends, but, spoiler alert: somebody dies. Things don’t go as planned. Being a hero/doctor/billionaire isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, if it’s even possible. This blurb, from An Uncommon Education’s book jacket, might as well apply to The Dark Knight Trilogy: “a compelling portrait of a quest for greatness and the grace of human limitations… it artfully captures the complicated ties of family, the bittersweet inevitability of loss, and the importance of learning to let go.”

The truth can’t be tucked away or set on fire; it will only emerge larger, as a revelation, more agonizing than ever. Reality can’t be kept at bay, and the reality is that most of us, someday, have to remove the blankets from our necks, quietly climb down from the top bunk, and let go.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.