Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The moon will be fine

It's been twenty days of working from home. I feel flabby and sluggish. And there is too much to do.

This evening I turned my bathroom into a spa, tried to melt my muscles with epsom salts. My new work environment is clearly non-ergonomic.

I miss my commute, my reading time. A few mornings last week, I sat in my nook with my morning coffee and read. I need to reinforce this ritual.

But tonight I read in the bath. Weather, by Jenny Offill. It's off to a terrific start. It's a short book and I want to savour it. I need to slow down.

Despite not having as much time to read, I feel I've been racing to get the end of too many books lately (though, sometimes legitimately so, before my library ebooks expired into the ether).

I'm a person who likes slow things, like the boy in Lost Children Archive has reminded me to be, even if I generally manage to keep up.

The narrator said her brother "missed drugs because they made the world stop calling to him." Calling to him for him to intervene? Or to succumb? I wonder if the world called to my brother too. Crazy, fucked up world.
The moon will be fine, I think. No one's worrying about the moon.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Like anthropologists studying cosmogonic narratives

I thought about writing stuff down in a notebook for you to read one day, but you are a bad reader still. level A or B, still read everything backward or in a mess, and I have no idea when you'll finally learn to read properly, or if you ever will. So I decided to record sound instead. Also, writing is slower and reading is slower, but at the same time listening is slower than looking, which is a contradiction that cannot be explained. Anyway, I decided to record, which was faster, although I don't mind slow things. People usually like fast things. I don't know what kind of person you will be in the future, a person who likes slow things or one who likes fast things. I kind of hope you are the type of person who likes slow things, but I can't rely on that. So I made this recording and took all those pictures.
I wonder if more books shouldn't come with instructions.

Or something like artist statements. It's a common practice at art galleries, for example, to post alongside any given piece not just the title of the work and its materials, but a note about its composition — its inspiration, intention, or context. However, I dislike the layout of many of our local galleries for positioning this supplementary material such that many people gravitate to it before they see the art. I prefer to come to art cold, try to figure how I feel about it and then check the signs, to validate my interpretation, fill in the blanks, and hopefully expand my understanding.

It's rare to have this kind of reference point for works of literature. An "exhibition catalogue" of novels might be curated by an academic expert, but to know the artists' intentions, one typically must search out several secondary sources.

Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli, includes notes on the works cited. She wants to make sure we're not reading this as idiots who think she's merely name-dropping or that the allusions are decorative — they "function as intralinear markers that point to the many voices in the conversation that the book sustains with the past." She goes on to explain the echoes in the novel's structure and the threads that hold it together. She's not interested in intertextuality as a performative gesture but as a method of composition.

I was readily drawn into Lost Children Archive, and this supplementary material helps me admire the skill and craft that brought this book together. But thank goodness the notes come at the end, else I would've gone into this book believing she was an annoyingly pretentious know-it-all bent on setting herself above writers who write mere stories.
Our mothers teach us to speak, and the world teaches us to shut up.
The references, for the record, are many and varied, and not so obscure that I didn't recognize some, and introduced me to The Gates of Paradise, a novel about the Children's Crusade of 1212 consisting of two sentences (the second one being five words long, the first comprising the rest of the story), a copy of which I am now struggling to track down, by Jerzy Andrzejewski, whose name I've quite coincidentally encountered a couple of times this week in the context of him being a highly popular Polish post-WWII novelist who is sadly not so well recognized outside of his native country, despite having written Ashes and Diamonds, which Andrzej Wajda masterfully adapted for film.

Lost Children Archive starts with so many moments recollected to explain this beautiful thing of a family they've built, and the rest of the book is a roadtrip of a novel across its dissolution.

I had no trouble slipping into the car beside them, the tragedy of it all quite palpable.

It's about a sound documentarian (Pa) setting out for the Southwest on an Apache project, hunting for echoes, with family in tow. Ma is a more journalistic documentarist who is pursuing an migration crisis story in general while looking for a Mexican woman's two daughters in particular — young girls who were sent across the border to reunite with family. In the back of the car are the ten-year-old boy (his) and the five-year-old girl (hers), who are also witnessing their family fall apart while being part of it.
The children have always wanted to listen to stories about themselves within the context of us. They want to know everything about when the two of them became our children, and we all became a family. They're like anthropologists studying cosmogonic narratives, but with a touch more narcissism.
One of the lovely things about this book is that it has had, for me, the mysterious power to evoke echoes of my being, reminding me of the kind of person I once was, wanted to be, could be still. It reminded me of what it was like to be a new mother and be head over heels in love with my child, of trying to see the world through her eyes, and falling in love with the world all over again, in a grown-up way. It reminded me of Lisbon Story, which would have been my first exposure to acoustemology (my brother and I experimented with sending audio letters around the time that movie was released, but how? did we really mail each other mini cassette tapes?).

Acoustemology is a sonic way of knowing and being in the world.
Sound and space are connected in a way much deeper than we usually acknowledge. Not only do we come to know, understand, and feel our way in space through its sounds, which is the more obvious connection between the two, but we also experience space through the sounds overlaid about it.
This book is a composition of multiple texts, scraps, transcriptions, with photographs and lists. No sound, but a written record of echoes of sound. (I am reminded, at times, of Clarice Lispector's incantatory attempt in Agua Viva to write the way music is composed.) So the book itself is a kind of artefact while functioning as an archive, boxing the family members' experiences.
I suppose an archive gives you a kind of valley in which your thoughts can bounce back to you, transformed. You whisper intuitions and thoughts into the emptiness, hoping to hear something back. And sometimes, just sometimes, an echo does indeed return, a real reverberation of something, bouncing back with clarity when you've finally hit the right pitch and found the right surface.
Halfway, the book switches from Ma's perspective to the boy's. I did not at first warm to the boy's voice, but gradually it becomes fairytale-like as the children set out on their own, without breadcrumbs, avoiding danger and performing trials on an almost mythological quest.
They had walked, and swam, and hidden, and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains, like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard this last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky into a full arch, and time had also bent back on itself. Time, in the desert, was an ongoing present tense.
Review
The New Yorker: Writing about writing about the border crisis

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Microchemical raptures

"The parting was vague, because the separation still seems unreal."

This last line is underlined in pencil, then circled in black ink, and also flagged in the margin with an exclamation mark. Was it me or him who underlined it? I don't remember. I do remember, though, that when I read Sontag for the first time, just like the first time I read Hannah Arendt, Emily Dickinson, and Pascal, I kept having those sudden, subtle, and possibly microchemical raptures — little lights flickering deep inside the brain tissue — that some people experience when they finally find words for a very simple and yet till then utterly unspeakable feeling. When someone else's words enter your consciousness like that, they become small conceptual light-marks. They're not necessarily illuminating. A match struck alight in a dark hallway, the lit tip of a cigarette smoked in bed at midnight, embers in a dying chimney: none of these things has enough light of its own to reveal anything. Neither do anyone's words. But sometimes a little light can make you aware of the dark, unknown space that surrounds it, of the enormous ignorance that envelops everything we think we know. And that recognition and coming to terms with darkness is more valuable than all the factual knowledge we may ever accumulate.
— from Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli.

I resisted reading this book. I hadn't liked The Story of My Teeth, despite its accolades; I assumed this Archive would be similarly overrated. But thus far (about a quarter in), I am loving it. It's touching me in all the right ways, caressing my brain and poking my heart. I want to know more about acoustemology and private languages. It makes me want to read Susan Sontag.

Those raptures for me, these days: Clarice Lispector, Olga Tokarczuk. This book too seems to be full of raptures.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Nothing but absences and holes

"What will happen?" he murmured.

"I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?" I asked him.

He nodded and furrowed his brow, like someone suffering from a headache.

"What can the people on this island create?" I went on. "A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy, bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books no one reads... Poor, unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing — and the energy that goes along with them. It's subtle but it seems to be speeding up, and we have to watch out. If it goes on like this and we can't compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absences and holes, and when it's completely hollowed out, we'll all disappear without a trace. Don't you ever feel that way?"
The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, is described as an Orwellian dystopia. The premise is that, in this closed island community, things — objects — are disappeared from their reality overnight. One day it's birds, another roses.

The Memory Police enforce these bans, and take away anyone found to be preserving "banned" objects. They also search out genetic anomalies, those few people that for reasons unknown retain the capability to remember things that have been disappeared.

While I love the idea of this book, I found this to be an incredibly frustrating read. I haven't read Ogawa before. This is one of her earlier novels (1994) only just recently translated into English; I can only hope her writing has matured since then.

Neither the reason behind or the mechanism for the disappearances is ever explained. Why one thing and not another? There is no warning or proclamation (although the narrator later claims to have premonitions). Citizens simply wake up and know what it is that's being removed from their lives. They don't need instructions; they simply dispose of those things. I don't mind a bit a magic hand-waving, but it doesn't hold internal consistency.

For example, in the past, boats and ferries disappeared but the physical objects remained — only the concept was undone. These masses continued to exist at the river's edge (the old man lives on his stalled ferry), but the idea that they could be used as transport or floating recreation is gone. By contrast, calendars later disappear, and the island inhabitants duly dispose of the their agendas and desk props, yet people continue to track time and mark days (if a little less precisely).

How does the narrator remember things well enough to write about them disappearing? Though the novel starts with her memory of her mother, who preserved lost objects and clearly wanted to convey their importance to her daughter, it took me a few chapters to understand that the narrator was not one of the gifted (perhaps using a third-person omniscient narrator would've made this clearer). Fruit disappears but they persist in images and in her descriptions.

It's suggested that when we run out of memories, we will have nothing left to talk about. Is that all that connects us? A common past? A commonly agreed-upon past?

And why doesn't the old man have a name? Even the dog has name. The neighbour has a name. Is this a commentary on the namelessness of the things closest to us? That a name can't contain what he was? But, "the old man" is also an inadequate label that becomes cumbersome and even silly.

Officials are, unsurprisingly, privileged. One bureaucrat serves our narrator a strange, bitter tea that keeps her awake that night — for some reason he has access to coffee, which has apparently vanished. But at the end of the novel, it seems they too may be subject to the laws behind the disappearances.

Then there's the matter of R.
"He's my editor. The first person who reads my work. He's the friend who knows the self that I put in my novels better than anyone else."
It's deeply unsettling that she should build a secret room in her house, where he's meant to stay forever. There are indications that he is capable of remembering, but why is the need she feels to protect R so deep? Does he ask for help? No, in fact, he's confused by it. Why does he suddenly change his mind and decide to leave his pregnant wife. Her argument was not particularly compelling. Her motivation, to keep him as her editor, is entirely selfish. And why is the planned disappearance so elaborate? Could they not simply have had a collegial meeting from which he never returned? And despite the sudden raids the Memory Police are known to make, it seems unnecessary to confine him to the room at all times.

She is clearly in love with him. His editing abilities are a pretext for this kidnapping. Unless, knowing it's impossible to hold on to forgotten objects or to remember them, she feels the next best thing is to hold on to someone who can.

Her treatment of him is cruel and unusual. When his baby is born, she withholds the news for hours. Yet I have the distinct sense that we are supposed to feel sympathetic toward her, even to cheer on the possibility of romance. I can't tell if that's masterly writing or simply chaotic.

Her manuscript in progress is also disturbing, and it is in many ways the opposite of her lived reality. The novel is about woman who loses her voice and resorts to typing to communicate with her lover, who was her typing teacher.
For a long time I have wanted to watch him in the act of typing. It must be very beautiful to see. The glittering, carefully maintained machine, the snow-white paper, his perfectly straight back, his expertly placed fingers. The very thought of it makes me sigh. But I've never seen him type. Even now that we have become lovers. He never types in front of other people.
Eventually her typewriter breaks; he tricks her and keeps her captive. He absorbed her voice, and later the rest of her fades away.

Writing becomes particularly difficult for our narrator when novels are disappeared. The manuscript, even when her writing is stalled, is a creation out of nothing. The opposite of disappearing.
"How does it feel to remember everything? To have everything that the rest of us have lost saved up in your heart?"

"That's a difficult question," he said, using his forefinger to push up the frames of his glasses and then leaving his hand at his throat.

"I'd imagine you'd be uncomfortable, with your heart full of so many forgotten things."

"No, that's not really a problem. A heart has no shape, no limits. That's why you can put almost any kind of thing in it, why it can hold so much. It's much like your memory, in that sense."
Everything that disappears is burned or goes into the sea. Not much is created to replace what's lost. Except snow. It seems the snow will never disappear. The snow is one big blanket of forgetting. It also feels like a metaphor for something.

Perhaps I didn't approach this book with the right state of mind. I typically embrace ambiguity and surreal effects, but this novel's construction feels haphazard.

We shouldn't have to destroy the old to make way for the new. Body parts begin to disappear. What purpose does that serve? What does it make room for?
"If we do remember something," said the old man, struggling to find words, "what do we do then?"

"Nothing in particular. We're all free to do as we choose with our own memories," R said.

"I suppose memories live here and there in the body," the old man said, moving his hand from his chest to the top of his head. "But they're invisible, aren't they? And no matter how wonderful the memory, it vanishes if you leave it alone, if no one pays attention to it. They leave no trace, no evidence that they ever existed."
I struggle also to understand why it's so wrong to relinquish the past, particularly in its material aspects. Why not live entirely in the now?

Excerpts
Chapter 1
Chapter 2

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The tears you couldn't waste time crying before

The SanctuCare women went over and welcomed them and said, "You're her now, it's all right," and the Gilead women started to cry. At the time I thought, Why cry, you should be happy, you got out. But after all that's happened to me since that day, I understand why. You hold it in, whatever it is, until you can make it through the worst part. Then, once you're safe, you can cry all the tears you couldn't waste time crying before.
Last week I read The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. It's a good book.

I had little interest in it in the lead up to publication — I was dytopiaed out, having finished watching the related TV series. But I was curious how Atwood would treat a sequel — in what timeframe and through which characters would she continue her story?

On publication day, a copy made its way into my house (a gift), and while I wasn't ready to read it yet, I read a review. I learned that this was Aunt Lydia's story. And then I read an excerpt, and thought twice before setting it aside.

I don't need to tell you to read this novel. You will or you won't. You know that it can't live up to its predecessor. You know that you can't come to this novel cold — you already know too much.

You know that, no matter what Atwood wrote, we won't know how the story ends until it ends. You know. The real story happening around us.

The Testaments is not a great work of Literature. It is not deeply philosophical. My daughter had The Handmaid's Tale as assigned reading last summer (going into grade 11), and I will encourage her to read the follow-up. It's a thriller with great characters (some greater than others). And it's important for other reasons.

Unlike the television show, it doesn't make you want to slit your wrists. It shows a way out.

It's also Atwood taking back her story, her characters, and having the final word, to say what she wants to say. Queen!

#fuckthepatriarchy

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The spaces inside women

Bun in the Oven, ©Amelia Biewald
Do you know what carrying a child inside you does to your idea of space, of what you own? Even the poorest man takes for granted that he holds clear title to the space inside his skin. Oh, but ask a man about a woman, and he'll tell you that her body is so very different from his, that it holds empty spaces that stretch and hold mysteries, that measure time with strange and bloody clocks — whose empty spacer are those? Who holds their precious title? Ask a man again, and he'll argue that the case is not so simple when the sex is switched. The mere pockets of air inside men that erupt in belches and farts are of little account, but the spaces inside women are meant by God for so much more that women's ownership of them is clearly only ever provisional. Those empty spaces cannot be left unoccupied for no reason — they are intended to be penetrated, colonized, stuffed to bursting. The rule of men: all spaces must be filled.
— from Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, by Dexter Palmer.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Saving your life by destroying your story and writing a new one

The dictionary tells us that to be interested by someone is to feel "attentive, concerned, or curious." Curiosity is a friendly emotion and even a moral position. Those whom we make the objects of our curiosity we don't prejudge or condemn. We don't fear and loathe them. My therapist, in our time together, often urged me to "stay curious" and it was a nice thing for him to try and make me do, unsuccessful as he was, because curious is a nice way to feel.
I'm not very good at psychotherapy.

I thought I was going to be the sort of person who goes to psychotherapy, and says things like, "My therapist says [insert something enlightening here]." Instead, I'm the kind of person who dreads going to a session because I have nothing to talk about, and afterward dissects it with friends, making snide comments like, "You wouldn't believe what my therapist said." Skip the session and go straight to the drinks, I say.

[I attended only three sessions, not counting the appointment I made for me and my ex when our marriage was falling apart, only it wasn't supposed to be about our marriage, it was supposed to address his anger and his drinking, but then he bailed at the last minute; I went anyway — it was an opportunity to vent, which I needed, and I came away feeling like I knew what I was doing, which maybe I didn't. That was a cognitive-behavioural therapist, and I wonder if it makes a difference. I know CBT is a form of psychotherapy, at least, so claims the current psychotherapist whom I'm no longer seeing. But I still don't have a grasp of what kind of help would benefit me, and the only clarity she offered is that "it's all psychotherapy — all therapists, counsellors, psychologists engage in some kind of psychotherapy..." Anyway, the first session was underwhelming, predictable the way her eyes lit up when I told her my father died when I was seven. The second session was a little more emotional and made me feel inadequate as a parent. But the third session was deflated, like we didn't know what to talk about, I just rambled on about my recent vacation.]

One thing about psychotherapy: it made me feel kind of stupid, that I wasn't careful with my words, that my definitions of things like, say, emotions was a little sideways, which is quite possibly true but a dangerous hole in my ego to pick at when I make my living from words — people pay me to pay attention to them and fix them and make them better. But maybe I've been doing it all wrong. 
To David, love meant declaration. Wasn't that the whole point? To Sarah, love meant a shared secret. Wasn't that the whole point?
Reading Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi, is a lot like psychotherapy, and a bit of a trust exercise in itself, one which didn't really pay off for me. I just couldn't bring myself to care about it. Maybe if I tried harder I could find something meaningful, significant, worthy of my worry, but I just didn't care. 

(The book is described as being set in the early 80s, but I think that's a bit early for the Morrissey t-shirts and Sade references.)

It did lead me to reminisce about high-school drama club, and all the drama that went along with it. I was surprised to find that most of my class were overthinking, Smiths-listening introverts like me, only a couple attention-seekers among us. The drama teacher, Billy, insisted we call him Billy. He wrote that play we put on about teenage pregnancy, very eye-rollingly after-school special. I remember the cast party where I made out with that guy I didn't even like and got very drunk. The star, Billy's pet, what was her name? I heard later that they'd been having an affair, but then she dropped out of school and married Billy's student intern from the university.

Trust Exercise is kind of like that too; when you're a teenager everything seems boring and exciting at the same time. Exaggeratedly so. Then there are the teenagers who turn into adults who haven't ever gotten over high school.

It's a #metoo kind of book, but I don't think it has anything important to add to the conversation, and I'm surprised by the accolades it's received.

Whom do you trust? Trust the teacher, your friends, witnesses? Trust your memory, trust in yourself? Why should you trust the author? The novel has three distinct parts that tell the same story through a different filter. They can't all be true, not in the same way.
Therapy can seem like revision of memory. It can seem like you're saving your life by destroying your story and writing a new one. It can seem like therapy won't get its goddamn grubby mitts off you. At best therapy demands uncomfortable humility from the person with total recall, and at worst it can remind me of my mother — the difference being that therapy wants the emotional truth, while my mother runs screaming from any emotion or truth that's not hers.
What is the truth? Does it even matter? I don't care.

Excerpt.