I didn’t know, when I started this book, that it was going to be about revenge.
Revenge is a funny thing. It seems to be a pretty strong human instinct. You hurt me; I hurt you. Scales get balanced and all is well, right?
Except it doesn’t work out that way. It should—eye for an eye, and all that—but it doesn’t. Because revenge fundamentally means becoming what we hate, and that in itself has consequences.
I’ve had the opportunity for revenge a few times in my life—emotional, not physical. I got in one good last shot at a cheating boyfriend, which changed absolutely nothing. I said one of those things you can’t ever take back to a family member once, in the middle of a fight—they stopped yelling at me, but my sense of triumph lasted about a millisecond before I realized what I’d done. I was able to verbally eviscerate a friend who had disappeared on me, months after she’d done it. And of course you know where people’s sympathies were after that.
I have a temper, an imagination, and a brain. Revenge should feel marvelous. And in reality, it’s a grain of sand tossed into the black hole of hurt and loss: all it does is suck more out of you, and change nothing.
Raman Çelik, in this book, is in about as good a position as a wronged person can be: he’s been assigned revenge. His ship is essentially destroyed, a quarter of his crew murdered, and his official orders involve getting the people who did it, whatever it takes. License to kill. Hooray! Except…all of his people are still dead. And his ship is still destroyed. And his professional future is still uncertain. And who is he supposed to kill? Who is behind this? Who is responsible?
Raman is the ship’s captain. He knows who is responsible. And so there is vengeance, the only thing he can bring himself to feel, only it’s not just the perpetrators that need to be dealt with, is it?
Raman is a pro when it comes to psychological manipulation. He’s the Steve Jobs guy who makes you cry in the elevator on his way to a meeting where he motivates people to create something brilliant. He’s an accomplished asshole. He knows himself really, really well. And he’s never been powerless before, and he has absolutely no idea how to cope with it.
Powerlessness is the seed of revenge. It’s a great hunger that tells you the only solution is to strike out as violently as you can. Intelligence and rationality are nothing in the face of it. It swallows everything. It’ll swallow your life if you let it.
And that’s part of Raman’s attraction to—and frustration with—Guanyin. More than anyone else he knows, she has a clear notion of exactly what in her life she does and does not have power over. She’s not always happy about it, but her anger never becomes fantasy or denial. (The fact that she’s pregnant in this story is not an accident: pregnancy is a primal way of being out of control.) She can be angry with Raman for the path he is choosing, but it never occurs to her that she can or should be able to change him.
Her clear-eyed acceptance of reality is soothing to him. And soothing is exactly what he doesn’t need.
The ultimate problem with revenge is that it doesn’t fix anything. The US prison system (to get political for a moment) is a real-world example of this: we can’t decide if we want revenge or rehabilitation, so we end up doing neither with any effectiveness, and the gaping black hole stays hungry. Revenge isn’t about justice or moving forward or letting go: it’s is about clinging to a past that is set for eternity. It’s hanging on to the rock while you sink to the bottom of the ocean.
That friend that I eviscerated so long ago. I can look back on our argument, on what destroyed our relationship, and recognize that she had culpability there. I can recognize that I did, too. I can see what led up to it, that it wasn’t a single moment of loss. I can see the people around us, some of whom bore far more of the blame than she did. I said awful things to her, and had my revenge, and I still carry the scar of losing her and knowing that I can’t go back and undo it. Ever. Because she died a few years ago, a young woman, after I had not spoken to her in twenty years, after our lives had been apart far longer than they had been together.
Without knowing I was doing it, I wrote her this book. I didn’t intend it as either an apology or an explanation, but perhaps, on some level, it is both.
And for me at least, it’s also a reminder of how important it is to let go of the rock, and swim like mad for the light.