Sunday, September 13, 2020

There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity

Sometimes I felt that my mind was a soft cloud of air around me, taking in whatever flew in, spinning around, and delivering it out into the ether.

It took me a while to warm to Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh. I couldn't at first buy into the narrator as a frail old lady. The voice (as I heard it in my head) was too much of she who told My Year of Rest and Relaxation, overpoweringly strong (nonchalant millennial). But soon enough, the mystery of the story itself took over, and I thought maybe this tone was the fist clue to the unreliability of the narrator. And besides, little old ladies have all kinds of different voices (what will mine be like, I wonder).

It reminded me of another old-lady-in-the-woods story — Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk — which, along with references to Hansel and Gretel, reinforce the idea that I might be witnessing the emergence of a subgenre of the literary crazy-old-lady category. Moshfegh's and Tokarczuk's characters are both very much a part of their communities, connected to them in ways they don't even acknowledge, while apart from them, self-isolated and grieving.

He liked to tell me that I was the source of my own misery, that I was choosing to believe that my life was limited, boring. He explained that everything was possible, and moreover, everything — every thing and scenario — existed in infinite versions throughout the galaxies and beyond. I knew it was a childish belief, but I had adopted it anyway. Imagining infinite realities made whatever nuisance I had to withstand more tolerable. I was more than myself. There were infinite Vesta Guls out there, simultaneous to me, scrolling down the TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS web page, with only one small variation: one Vesta Gul's hair was falling across her forehead in a different way; one mouse pad was green instead of blue, and so forth. In another dimension, there was a small fire-breathing dragon sitting next to me on the floor. And in another, Charlie was strangled out in the car by an eighty-foot boa constrictor. And so on. The job of the sleuth was to narrow down potential realities into a single truth. A selected truth. It didn't mean it was the only truth. The actual truth existed only in the past, I believed. It was in the future where things began to get messy.

So what truth is she trying to get at? She found a note about Magda's dead body, but no dead body, and Vesta's imagination runs with it. She writes Magda's story, conjures her out of thin air. It is a distraction from her loneliness and her grief over her dead (and abusive) husband. It's all very real to Vesta, and one wonders if she doesn't know a little too much about dead bodies — about how circumstances can lead to murder.

She turns random occurrences into clues. Her paranoia and obsessiveness make everything a sign. Is she just a crazy old lady to be dismissed? Or is something more sinister going on?

Vesta Gul. A ghoul. The vestigial remains of a woman. She mourns Magda, real or not. She doesn't even realize that she's mourning herself, what little is left of her now her husband is gone. 

I loved her the way I loved the little seedlings soon to sprout in my new garden. I loved her the way I loved life, the miracle of growth and things blossoming. I loved her the way I loved the future. The past was over, and there was no love left there. It hurt me to think that Magda was dead, life wrangled out of her body, that she'd been abandoned, with nobody but maybe Blake to attend to her corpse. It is easy, I thought, to find great affection for victims, emblems of vanished potential. There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity, a missed chance. I knew about stuff like that. I'd been young once. So many dreams had been dashed. But I dashed them myself. I wanted to be safe, whole, have a future of certainty. One makes mistakes when there is confusion between having a future at all and having the future one wants.

(What future do I want?)

New Yorker: Ottessa Moshfegh's "Death in Her Hands" Is a New Kind of Murder Mystery 
Atlantic: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Riveting Meta-Mysteries


Saturday, September 12, 2020

The majestic boom of you

(Too good to be true. It's not true. It stung me in the heart.) 


The trouble with you,
dear, is that your name
is so damn Shakespearean —
I can't tell if our fandango
is of historic import
or mere romantic farce.

Whether you be impostor
or ghost or some Greek chorus 
to illuminate the story my life,
verily my flesh gives way to
the majestic boom of you and
our irrepressibly awkward joy.

Drafted August 2020, for later review; launch date TBD. You're beautiful, AF. Thanks for showing me what joy is possible. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Fuck DRM

Cory Doctorow emailed me yesterday, following up on a note I'd sent him in 2014 about his novel Little Brother.

It's about his new book, Attack Surface (aka Little Brother 3). I like that it's a standalone, and it's written for adults. I'll read it.

The story itself sounds great. Attack Surface covers racial injustice, police brutality, high-tech turnkey totalitarianism, mass protests and mass surveillance. As Doctorow puts it, "there is something powerful about technologically rigorous thrillers about struggles for justice — stories that marry excitement, praxis and ethics." 

But Audible (an Amazon-owned monopoly) won't carry the audiobook because Doctorow took the ethical decision not to wrap it in DRM. (See here for more on digital rights management.)

Doctorow is making the unabridged audiobook (narrated by Amber Benson) available on Kickstarter. So you can get a great price and take a moral stand by sticking it to Jeff Bezos.

"This is a first-of-its-kind experiment in letting authors, agents, readers and a major publisher deal directly with one another in a transaction that completely sidesteps the monopolists."

I'm not generally an audiobook listener, but I'll make an exception.

Audiobook preview
Print excerpt

Friday, September 04, 2020

The fish in the desert

I went to a psychiatrist once. I was doing something that had become a pattern in my life, and I thought, Well, I should go talk to a psychiatrist. When I got into the room, I asked him, "Do you think that this process could, in any way, damage my creativity?" And he said, "Well, David, I have to be honest: it could." And I shook his hand and left. 

No one would ever guess at the film genius of David Lynch by his writing. He struggles to articulate the concepts he claims bear him such creative fruit, and he fails to inspire.

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity is likely a genuine effort to explain his creative process, or lack thereof, to aspiring artists. But it doesn't work on paper. Weirdly, Lynch's ideas are much more compelling when shared orally:

Keep at it 

I've moved beyond plumbing my own depths for creativity. I'm trying to understand how other people find it, use it. I'm reading about how it works for profit and for fulfilment. Ideas do not come to Lynch in dreams. Rather, he taps into the unified field of consciousness.


One morning this week I wake up feeling something graze my left breast. Maybe it was the cat's tail, maybe it was the corner of the bedsheet, but I recall the feeling of the sand insect, what I thought was a scorpion but couldn't possibly have been a scorpion, like sand trickling down my chest but in reverse, creeping upward. 

How lucky it stung my finger after I'd brushed it away, how lucky it hadn't stung me in the heart.

And so I lay in bed, dreamily happy about all my good fortune, on my cloud of a mattress, the good fortune of my job and the satisfaction and rewards it brings, the good fortune to have my family close to me (including, at long last, my mother), the good fortune to have met a man who suits me perfectly, to have taken him as my lover, and I realize it's too good to be true.

It must not be true. Somehow I have fabricated this perfect reality of mine. It stung me in the heart, I am lying in a coma in a Bedouin tent in the Sahara.

This must be why Sa'id keeps texting me. After riding camels and smoking shisha that night in the desert, he is somewhere nearby, trying to coax me out of my coma, while feeding my bliss. "Sa'id" means "happy."

There is no pandemic. My coma mind created it to quarantine me from the world and help me go into myself, to find the pain and expel it.

I have brought my mother to me, to my figurative bedside. In this fever dream, I toiled to pack her belongings and move her to another world. In that house where I grew into myself, I sifted through my own life as much as hers, as I gazed at photos, threw out meaningless school reports and newspaper clippings, fingered longheld but long-forgotten trinkets. (I kept the nugget of fool's gold.)

My friends are increasingly absent. Our paths are diverging. I don't blame them. If my friend were in a coma, after 6 months, I might stop calling too. The intensity of  the communications with my imaginary German lover has also waned, as the likelihood of meeting fades into an impossible future. Of course, he has no idea that I am trapped within my body (always trapped within the body), comatose in the desert.

Instead I am wrapped in a cocoon of bliss. My mind has concocted a near-perfect life, worked through the rage and grief and the at-sea-ness of it all, I have gone into myself and am coming out again in a foreign but familiar place. Can I die of happiness? This is not real.

This feeling of lying in my lover's arms... perhaps they are treating me with sand baths, immersing me in the magic of the Sahara, the desert is my lover.

How lucky it stung my finger after I'd brushed it away, how lucky it hadn't stung me in the heart.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Infinitely nonchalant

Traveling to another province has a postapocalyptic vibe. You see everyone wearing masks and you wonder what happened here. And then you realize that it's the same as at home, and you wonder why you thought it would be different.

My mother's basement has yielded up all its dead bodies — its yearbooks and Polaroids, record albums and memorabilia, documenting lives we'd forgotten we lived.

I find an ad mounted on plexiglass (the germ of an art project?). I can't decide if the colours have faded or if time has emboldened them.   

I wish Café Blasé were a real place, where everyone wears creamy pastels and has big 80s hair. A place where copywriters gather to pool their adjectives. An utterly worldly, other-worldly place. As if one day, we wake up fresh as daisies and collectively decide to stop caring. And we look beautiful as we go about it.

Yesterday morning I stepped out of the chaos of the house to go for a walk and get a coffee. Stupid town where pedestrians are looked upon as freaks and the only coffee option is Tim Hortons or Starbucks. I haven't lived here in 37 years. I don't think I'll miss it.

I haven't cracked a book in over four days, since before the long drive. I'm currently not reading Ottessa Moshfegh's Death in Her Hands.

Reading was different, of course. I liked books. Books were quiet. They wouldn't scream in my face or get offended if I gave up on them. If I didn't like what I read, I could throw the book across the room. I could burn it in my fireplace. I could rip out the pages and use them to blow my nose, or in the bathroom. I never did any of that, of course — most of the books I read came from the library. When I didn't like something, I just shut the book and put it on the table by the door, spine facing the wall so that I wouldn't have to look at it again. There was great satisfaction in shoving a bad book through the return slot and hearing splat against the other books in the bin on the other side of the librarian's desk. "You can just hand that to me, " the librarian said. Oh no, I liked to shove it through. It made me feel powerful.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The basement of joy

We're packing up my mother's house to move her to Montreal. I'm finding joy scattered throughout her basement. 

  • My father's typewriter (deceased)
  • A nugget of fool's gold
  • A box full of Polaroids my brother (deceased) took while bored, drunk, and/or inspired
  • The album I loved that I thought he'd sold
  • Several books to learn German
  • A note from my cousin (deceased, age 36) to tell me about the Smiths and his turntable

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Music will still do to people what it does to us now

"Songs do not change the world," declares Jasper. "People do. People pass laws, riot, hear God and act accordingly. People invent, kill, make babies, start wars."
Here's a novel that's mostly fun, if a little long (what is it with men shamelessly throwing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of their excess verbosity upon you?). Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell, is the name of a fictitious British band in the late 1960s, fusion folk psychedelic rock 'n' roll, their struggles and adventures.
"Songs like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they'll land? Or what they'll bring?" [...] "Where will these song-seeds land? It's the Parable of the Sower. Often, usually, they'd land on barren soil and not take root. But sometimes, they land in a mind that is ready. Is fertile. What happens then? Feelings and ideas happen. Joy, solace, sympathy. Assurance. Cathartic sorrow. The idea that life could be, should be, better than this. An invitation to slip you into somebody else's skin for a little while. If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world."
We get to know three of the band members quite intimately, while the drummer remains aloof. Each of them standouts in their fields, the manager brought them together with the goal of forming a genre-spanning supergroup. So it was a little less than organic, but on the whole, they're hardworking, decent people who make respectably good music; they pay some dues but find some level of success. And they at times succumb to the lifestyle excesses that come with the job.

The guitarist's story thread veers off into the paranormal. This makes me roll my eyes a little, even if I can't turn the pages fast enough; it's also classic Mitchell territory and fodder for late-night weed-fueled conversations about life, the universe, and everything.

The characters do not get equal airtime, and this felt unbalanced to me. The manager also stars in a story a two, but it's impossible to ignore the cameos. David Bowie, Brian Jones, Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, Janis Joplin, and others. Gimmicky to the point of tiresome. It irked me that Cohen mentions Toronto but not Montreal. 
"Once, I took the elevator up there." Leonard nods at the Empire State Building. "I looked over Manhattan and was seized by an absurd desire to take it. To own it. Do we write songs as a substitute for possession?" 

"I write songs to discover what I want to say," says Elf. 

"I write 'em 'cause I just bloody love it," says Dean. 

"Maybe you're the purest artist here," remarks Lenny.
Cue music. It just feels a little cheap.

Although, I thoroughly enjoyed the extended scenes with Francis Bacon, one of a few non-musicians on the London scene at the time to make their way into this novel, but likely I responded to that only because he's been a topic of conversation around here lately, his art grim and eerie and visceral. His art is not on stage here, only his lifestyle.

These walk-on parts add nothing to the story. But in a sense, they are the story. This is Mitchell's love letter to a bygone era of music that I can only assume played a significant role in shaping him.
"In fifty years," said Jasper, "or five hundred, or five thousand, music will still do to people what it does to us now. That's my prediction."
So, what does it do to us now? Music is our balm, our panacea. It can encircle you with your people, it can shut out the entire world. I think it is used more often as a distraction than as a connection. It blares everywhere, but who really listens? 
Hundreds of people pass by. Reality erases itself as it rerecords itself, Elf thinks. Time is the Great Forgetter. She gets her notebook from her handbag and writes, Memories are unreliable . . . Art is memory made public. Time wins in the long run. Books turn to dust, negatives decay, records get worn out, civilisations burn. But as long as the art endures, a song or a view or a thought or a feeling someone once thought worth keeping is saved and stays shareable. Others can say, "I feel that too."
It transcends language and creates an illusion of oneness; one person responds to a beat, another to a melody, another to the story the lyrics tell, but it taps a harmony of being. It's much more complex than a shared feeling.

Utopia Avenue is not about music, it's about its creators. It explores the inspiration for the music — love, loss, drugs, schizophrenia, otherworldly experience. Sometime the art comes about because it's a better option than not trying to make art. Sometimes it pays the rent. Art can come equally from hard work or divine luck or happenstance.  

Super entertaining and full of flavor (though some not always to my taste), but a little short on substance. It took me to some unexpected places, dramatically speaking, and it was not a terrible way to spend midsummer evenings on my balcony. Even if I can reel off better band names in my sleep.