On Being Broken

“Don’t get drunk, Jake,” she said. “You don’t have to.”

“How do you know?”

“Don’t,” she said, “You’ll be all right.”

– Ernest Hemingway

When I was eight years old, my mother, Lucille Munera Galvez, died from breast cancer. I was coming back from a field trip to the King Tut museum and I looked to the sky and I knew she was gone. I was focused on the ride back. The children were loud and the sky was very blue with white clouds that traced the sky like colored pencils but I knew it was over. When the bus stopped I sat waiting to be led out at the end because I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to accept the reality that was coming. It’s very strange to be so intimate with death at a young age. There was the separation of the mind and soul. I was no longer a child in a child’s world. I became myself.

The teachers led us to the first floor of the building. I saw my dad, my sisters, and the guidance counselor staring at me, sharing the now mutual understanding that life had been unmade. The rest of the children looked at us as they went up the stairs. Then my world ended. My father spoke and told us what happened and it was everything I didn’t want to know.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the world saw its greatest disaster in the form of The Great War, lasting from 1914 to 1918. In those four years, the world saw devastation unlike any other, resulting in the staggering loss of life at the hands of each other. Those that survived were believed to have shell shock or other undiagnosed neuroses. This was the final nail in the coffin, signifying the hatred we carried for one another and how they would forever carry on through the rest of the world. Ernest Hemingway was a survivor of the war and became intimate with this sense of loss. When losing a parents to illness it feels like the end of a war. The roaring twenties began with a loss of innocence while my adolescence began with a bleeding whisper.

Ernest Hemingway has always been fascinating to me since I read The Sun Also Rises in high school. I didn’t really care about reading once I got my first Xbox in elementary school. I only really wanted to be stimulated by the things I could directly see in front of me. This mindset carried into high school but with the excitement about where I could take my life and how I could be in the future. By my senior year of high school, when I first encountered the book I was still in a bad place. I was depressed, alone, and had gotten very comfortable with relegating my feelings to substances. I fell out of love with life and people. I had a falling out with my grandmother that permanently destroyed the relationship. She was the woman who raised me after my mother. It was like losing a mother all over again. Then her son, my uncle, who I was also close with, said I was going to overdose after he smelled weed in my room.

My name is Nicholas Galvez and I’m not an alcoholic but I have problems with alcohol. I’m not a drug addict but I can’t go through the day without at least two or three bowls… but I’ll be alright.

I wanted to escape, but I didn’t want to go so far gone that I would forget who I was. I wanted something I could relate to, but somewhere that could take me to far places I could see in my life. Finding The Sun Also Rises was a pleasant surprise. I had been writing but I never had a sense of direction in what I wanted to talk about and what genre I wanted to focus on. This book was different. I never actually finished the book during my senior year of high school but I loved the idea of it. Eventually, during my freshman year of college, I read the book, and then it was over. I was in love with it. I could relate to the characters and I didn’t have to escape out of myself to feel what they were feeling. They were unrepentant substance abusers who masked different problems with certain eloquence.

Ernest Hemingway’s life was drenched in loss. His father committed suicide and he hated his mother. He traded the love of his life for someone new and it didn’t last and there was only regret. He sacrificed part of his talents to maintain an ego that will always be called into question, and he took his own life because he finally lost his talents through electroshock therapy. There is no justification for his actions or his gender politics, but he was fundamentally broken as we all are and always will be. As creatures we are all flawed, morally and philosophically. Our true thoughts often betray what we do and say to others. The same can be said for the characters in The Sun Also Rises.

Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, and Robert Cohn are a part of me as I am a part of them. The three characters are broken, addicted, and lost in the world. Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley survived through The Great War, he was a soldier while she was a V.A.D. Lady Brett Ashley lost her husband, her true love, to dysentery, and her next husband abused and alienated her from herself. She had to learn to survive with what she was given. Robert Cohn is lost and addicted to ideals. He never suffered from the war but he suffers from an inferiority complex, abandonment issues, and a lack of self. Jake Barnes was wounded in the war causing impotence. He is separated from love with the inability to reproduce or to share it with Lady Brett Ashley. He suffers from a combination of PTSD, alcoholism, and existential malaise that borders on nihilism.

Reading the novel I felt that I was there with them in a place not many people believed in. No one in my grade took reading seriously, and we had just been given ChromeBooks for online textbooks. The system was flawed and the school didn’t have any firewall systems that limited internet access across campus. During class, when we would talk about the book and I’d be distant and working on something else, I would pull up the Sparknotes of the novel so I could achieve the bare minimum of participation while others watched Netflix.

I read the book a few more times, read the rest of his novels, and then read the novel some more and I never lost that feeling of trust and intimacy. The characters presented in the novel are flawed from the beginning. They don’t try to rationalize their decisions like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, yet they’re comfortable in wading in the darkness like a novel from the French existentialist movement. The characters are human and because of this, more realized than other characters created by Hemingway’s contemporaries. This realization leads to a greater intimacy felt between the reader and the characters. Each character conveys their own sense of intimacy and familiarity with one another, making it easy for the reader to slip into the position of a passive bystander, serving as a mirror to Jake Barnes and his role in the novel.

What always amazes me is the characters’ willingness to be intimate with each other, yet constantly keeping them at arm’s length. This is emblematic in the relationship between Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes. It is a classic love story with absurdist elements. They know everything about each other except how they feel sexually and as Brett has sex with other people, you can see how it eats away at her and leads to physical desperation.

The relationship between Jake and Brett, for me, is one of the more consistent love stories in all of literature. The characters love each other and can never be with one another, and even if they could be, they’d be the reason for each other’s destruction. Because of their non-sexual relationship, they enjoy acts of mutual destruction, in a way that only disaffected people could be. With everything going on in the context of the novel it’s easy to see why.

I’m not going to sit and lie about how happy I am or how I feel content with the universe when I’ve never felt that way. I can say it with much more confidence this year than any other time before. We’re not entirely fucked but we’re kind of fucked. The characters in The Sun Also Rises are fucked too, but even at the end of the novel, as ambiguous as it is, the broken characters, and their world, get to ride off in the sunset. If those characters are so broken, yet still get the resolutions they need and deserve, then maybe we can too, or at least that’s what I’d like to believe in.

I know that on the inside I will always be broken and that no matter how much I try to drown it out it won’t ever change but there’s still some things I believe in. I believe in true romantic love, I believe in optimism amongst destruction, I find peace in the brief moments between battles where life and death intermingle on the same frequency. I believe in beauty and that there’s still so much left in the world and each other.

I know that the world is broken and there isn’t anything we can really do about it except to sit back and watch it burn. It’s always been that way but part of me is still hopeful. All of the characters in the novel drown their problems with substances, yet it makes them weaker for it. They face the world with a sense of collapsed optimism that can only come with complete and utter faith in the world that was taken away. I feel the same and I’m weaker for it. I feel weaker for relying on substances to get me through my days, even when they aren’t as bad. But the novel ends in hope.

Ernest Hemingway died with a feeling of helplessness and I’ve spent so much of my life floating through those different states of being. There’s nothing fun with being hopeless but it’s way too dangerous to be optimistic, yet, despite all of my darkness and my need to hide, I still feel that optimism in the bottom of my soul that creeps out like sunlight slipping through shades in the morning. When I look at the shattered pieces of the world, of myself, I still hope for the sun to rise and for its light to hit the right angle, for the world to be made anew. I think in the future, no matter how bleak or uncertain, especially with the way things are now, there’s still hope. There’s hope that we can pick up these fractured pieces and look inside ourselves to realize that we are the same, and, because of that we are still beautiful, no matter how broken we are.

My name is Nicholas Galvez and I’m not an alcoholic but I have problems with alcohol. I’m not a drug addict but I can’t go through the day without at least two or three bowls… but I’ll be all right.

Nicholas Galvez is an MFA Student at Antioch University. He received his B.A. from Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. When not reading or writing, he likes to sing, sleep, and water plants.