Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Words you understand but a meaning you don't

Imagine, she had told Control next, that language is only part of a method of communication. Imagine that it isn't even the important part but more like the pipeline, the highway. A conduit only. Infrastructure was the word Control would use with the Voice later.

The real core of the message, the meaning, would be conveyed by the combinations of living matter that composed the words, as if the "ink" itself was the message.

"And if a message is half-physical, if a kind of coding is half-physical, then words on a wall don't mean that much at all, really, in my opinion. I could analyze those words for years — which is, incidentally, what I understand the director may have done — and it wouldn't help me to understand anything. The type of conduit helps decide how fast the message arrives, and perhaps some context, but that's all. Further" — and here Control recognized that Hsyu had slipped into the rote routine of a lecture given many times before, possibly accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation — "if someone or something is trying to jam information insider your head using words you understand but a meaning you don't, it's not even that it's not on a bandwidth you can receive, it's much worse. Like, if the message were a knife and it created its meaning by cutting into meat and your head is the receiver and the tip of that knife is being shoved into your ear over and over again..."
— from Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer.

This is from the second instalment of the Southern Reach trilogy, about Area X.

Annihilation was creepy, thrumming our unease with the unknown in our external world. In Authority, the creep factor stems from the unknown in our intimate world — an invasion into the places we live, the work we do, the people we know.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Something basic about language had started to escape me

Recalling what a joy The Idiot, by Elif Batuman, was to read. Weeks on, I'm fuzzy on some of the details, but still talking about it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Step by step until it is done

Nothing special has happened today; no one can say she was more provoked than usual. It is only that every day one grows a little, every day something is different, so that in the heaping up of days suddenly a thing that was impossible has become possible. This is how a girl become a grown woman. Step by step until it is done.
Award-winning, genre-bending feminist dystopia. Praised by Margaret Atwood. The Power, by Naomi Alderman. A huge disappointment.

A fascinating premise, and a book for our times, the execution was weak and formulaic, with characters I didn't care about.

What The Power does do quite cleverly is flip gender expectations upside-down.
Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power, or to leap on the unsuspecting, wolf in sheep's clothing.
I'm surprised this book wasn't written before now; it's as if it were waiting for its time.

Girls have evolved to have an organ of electricity; they can channel this "power" through their fingertips like lightning. It can kill.

This sets the world on fire, with women wresting control from abusers, criminal, harassers, despots. Women take back the night, and then some.

As provocative as the ideas are in this novel, it feels like it was trying to do too many things. The cross-cutting of several perspectives, the overall pacing, the graphic nature of some scenes, the "real-life" politics (mentions of military training, UN sanctions, a play for oil) — these elements give the novel the feel of a thriller, of a genre novel. I'm not proud of myself for using that word ("genre") disparagingly here (I trust most readers recognize that I read broadly and I have nothing against genre-bending), but the novel packs all this in and more to the detriment of more meaningful plot and better realized characters. I suspect the work of a marketing-savvy editor with an eye on film rights.

That being said, The Power is a worthwhile thought experiment. Beyond the role switching, the novel questions power dynamics, the nature of power itself, and the corruption of individuals who hold it and wield it.

It also questions how we come by our basic assumptions of history, biology, and our place in the world. (This is particularly evident in the novel's frame; the story is established as a work of historical fiction speculating on the events that led to the global Cataclysm — it posits a kind of pre-history. I found the framing device really jarring, but I appreciate what it's trying to accomplish.)

In the New York Times (Naomi Alderman on the World That Yielded The Power), Alderman poses some supplementary thought experiments that are key to our being in the world:
Do you think that you are so exceptional that if you had been born a German in the 1930s, you would have understood immediately that Lebensraum was a lie? That you would have tried to assassinate Hitler? Do you believe that your ethics are so exceptional that you would immediately have rebelled?

If you and I lived in a world where women were dominant, would you be telling yourself: This is very unjust; I will fight for the rights of men?

If we lived in the world of the power, I don't think I would be magically excluded from the way the world operates. I don't think I can say I would have been the enlightened person. With or without the power, I behave the way the system teaches me to behave.
Early chapters reminded me strongly of SNL's Welcome to Hell skit, from late 2017 (viewable in Canada here).
The things you don't want to know, Roxy, those are the things that'll get you in the end.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

There is nothing more diabolical than certainty

"I am not a writer, I am an atmosphere," Lúcio Cardoso quipped. Brazilian, gay, and by all accounts larger than life.

And this book is some kind of atmosphere.

Chronicle of the Murdered House, by Lúcio Cardoso, did not at first appear to be the kind of book I would enjoy. But what is bookclub for if not to push me to appreciate books I might not otherwise pick up?

The first strike against it: it's long, almost 600 pages, which I think is a little much for bookclub to demand of me.

Second, a quick scan showed it to be epistolary in nature: a collection of letters, diary entries, confessions, et cetera. Not really my thing. I find it hard to keep track sometimes of who's writing and when; I expect the author/narrator to ensure the entries are suitably "curated" — such a novel demands a strong framework (I hold it to higher standard than a "traditional" novel, and so it more likely to fare poorly).

Third, there's something florid about it. The framework contributes to the sense that this book is much older than its 60-odd years. The language is dense and musty. It feels altogether of another era.

But bookclub. What else did I have to do in the deep cold of winter?

And wow. A mere five pages in, there's a spectacular reveal. André in his diary is questioning the meaning of it all — love, life, death — and mourning his lover, Nina, a paragon of beauty and life struck down too young (although in these early pages it's not clear whether by illness or something more nefarious). It's overly sentimental. André is highly dramatic (it's not till much later that we learn he is only 16 years old).


I was hooked.

Oh, the melodrama, the scandal, the sin. Chronicle of the Murdered House is a love story, a tragedy, a family drama, a morality tale, a mystery, and a horror story.

This is the story of Nina and her effect on the Meneses family (I started pronouncing them the "menaces"). When Valdo, the youngest of three brothers, brings home a young wife (well, she arrives separately), the reader anticipates a breath of fresh air, to stir up some dust in this proud family. But I was not prepared for this.

The title is inspired and it serves the story well.

Curiosity #1: The house of the title.
The title highlights a gothic element — indeed, the Chácara, the historic family home, is a strong character. The house is dim and stuffy, preserving bygone traditions. It has an army of servants. It has its own generator, with flickering yellow lights. It overlooks what was once an impressive garden, with a pavilion. The house is gradually falling into disrepair. By novel's end it is crumbling, "an abandoned skeleton." The house of course represents the family name.
"What do you think a house ruled by the power of evil is like?" (I skated clumsily over those words — the power of evil — ignoring their poverty and vulgarity.) "It is constructed very much like this one, firm in its foundations, secure in its traditions, conscious of the heavy responsibility of its name. It isn't tradition that takes root in it, it is tradition as the sole defense of truth." [...]

"It is what we could call a solidly built home." (I could not help noticing that my voice had become singularly calm.) "There is not a single crack through which heaven can enter." [...]

"Often, in times gone by," — it was my turn now to confess — "I wondered what made this house so cold, so soulless. And it was then that I discovered the formidable immutability of its walls, the frozen tranquility of its inhabitants. Ah, my friend, trust me when I tell you there is nothing more diabolical than certainty. In certainty there is no place for love. Everything that is solid and firm is a denial of love." (p 334)
With Nina's death, the windows are finally flung open.

Curiosity #2: The murder of the title.
I won't tell you who dies. Well, yes, the house — both that which physically stands and the family that presided over the land — dies. But the title supports the framework, establishing the novel as a mystery. The book is a compilation of accounts, of witness testimony, regarding certain events. (It is not revealed till the end who has gathered these documents together.) While the accounts are not obviously contradictory, they occur in different personal contexts, they focus on different aspects, they are imbued with different emotions. All of this raises the question of absolute truth. While there is no clear murder mystery as the book progresses, the structure sets up the reader to believe there is one.

Curiosity #3: The epigraph.
John 11:39-40. It links the smell of disease and decay to resurrection, or the absence thereof. Toward Nina's end, the stink is unbearable. I read with wrinkled nose. So there is no salvation in this house. "Christ is nothing but a lie" (p 573).

Curiosity #4: The summoning of the monster.
There's a scene I found utterly monstrous, horrific, Lovecraftian. Nina's lover recounts how "down my fists and my fingers ran a liquid which was neither blood nor pus, but a thick, hot substance that dripped down as far as my elbows and gave off a foul unbearable smell," (p 468) like her rotting lifeforce. It's really weird and unpleasant, but not entirely out of place. Nina is a catalyst for something, allowing the true horror (of the house?!) to manifest itself.

When she first comes the Chácara, Nina is a breath of fresh air, but she's also trouble. (I picture Nina as Rita Hayworth's Gilda.) She's also very much a victim. As monstrous as her behaviour is, I can't help but feel sorry for her. She is a creature of her body, of sensuous pleasures — as she has no moral code, it's hard to condemn her for breaking one.
What is goodness? How could one judge or evaluate it when in the presence of a blind, impulsive being like her? [...]

She was not a simple human being, but a construct, a work of art. (p 366-7)
Curiosity #5: Nina/Ana.
They are positive/negative. Nina is colour and life, Ana is dour and gray. Nina is spontaneity and impulse and laughter, Ana is deeply unhappy and deeply repressed. Ana feels the burden of sin deep in her soul. Nina drinks champagne.

Ana is married to the eldest Meneses brother, and she is one with the house. Her confessions (to an actual priest) constitute a significant portion of the testimony in this chronicle. She figures prominently enough that one may say the novel is the story of two women, a study in contrasts.

Curiosity #6: The buried family secrets.
Senhor Timóteo is the Meneses brother nobody speaks of. An obese, cross-dressing embarrassment, he is quite literally buried alive, condemned to his room to watch life pass him by from his window over the garden.

Then there's the great aunt, whose portrait was removed from the drawing room.
It was the face of a woman, there was not doubt about that, but so stern, so unemotional, so detached from any mean, everyday thoughts, that it was more like the face of a man — a man, moreover, utterly disillusioned with the vanities of this world. There was no promise of serenity, none of the greens and pinks that conceal barely suppressed laughter or the twinkle of a sudden burst of youthful spirit — no. Everything about that face was dense and mature. The colors were the grays of tamed passions and the ochers of contained violence. It wasn't the face of an old woman, but of a woman at the outer limits of herself, with nothing to cover herself but the truth itself, whose caustic effects might or might not be dangerous.
In 1959, Cardoso was giving gay culture a place in Brazilian literature.

Curiosity #7: The snake, the wolf, the revolver.
The snake completes the Biblical allegory of the garden. The wolf is an external unseen predator, possibly imagined, a false pretext for a revolver. I'm not sure what to make of the revolver.

The Winnipeg Review
Full Stop


Some jazz: "Chronicle of the Murdered House," Part 1 and Part 2, by Larry Nozero.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Complete coherence between the things he said and the turmoil of his thoughts

It's hard to explain, especially since, in the Meneses family, Timóteo was far from being its dullest or its least unusual member, on the contrary, but to describe his personality, I would have speak not so much about what he did or felt and more about the dense, unstable, electrically charged atmosphere that surrounded him — like the atmosphere you might find in certain smoky bars. Were I to describe his actions and feelings, they would be like mere supports propping up the foggy world he inhabited. He navigated his room like some splendid, deep-sea fish in the small maritime stronghold of his aquarium. What he said could seem abrupt and disconnected to those who merely heard him speak, but for anyone who understood him, there was a complete coherence between the things he said and the turmoil of his thoughts.
—from Chronicle of the Murdered House, by Lúcio Cardoso.

For the rest of the book I will picture Timóteo as a tormented anglerfish.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"Your atom, I think it will never go back to peace"

I found myself thinking about a girl from school, Meredtih Wittman who had lived on the same floor as me and Hannah and Angela, though the few times I said hi to her, she murmured something without looking at me or moving her mouth. A graduate of Andover, she carried her books in a Christian Dior bag and had once written a feature for the student newspaper's weekly magazine about Boston's salsa and merengue scene. I happened to know, because I had overheard her telling her friend Bridey, that Meredith Wittman was doing a summer internship at New York magazine, and for a moment now I reflected on the fact that, although Meredith Wittman and I both wanted to be writers, she was going about it by interning at a magazine, whereas I was sitting at this table in a Hungarian village trying to formulate the phrase "musically talented" in Russian, so I could say something encouraging by proxy to an off-putting child whose father had just punched him in the stomach. I couldn't help thinking that Meredith Wittman's approach seemed more direct.
I love this book so much. Much more than I expected to. Much more than I recall loving any other book in recent memory. I love it in a deeply personal way. It is urging me to closely consider how I judge books.

Not by the cover. It's pink, a horrific millennial shade of it. There's a picture of rock. Too literal a representation of the title. The cover is so awful, I'm starting to like it. ("You can't just tell an ache: 'Go back into the rock.'" Neruda's atom to return to blind stone.)

Not by the title. The title is not original. The author blatantly stole it from another book, a book with its own reputation that I've never read.

By the plot? Very little happens. There is no situation requiring resolution. Except maybe the element that may be called a love story, but that element fades in and out — it's barely there.

Characters. Are not fully formed. Rather, they are fully formed representations of not yet fully formed people. People come and go. We only know them as much as the narrator gives them the time of day, considers how they impact her own life. She doesn't know how most of them fit into her own narrative yet.

So here I am thinking it can't be a very great book. It is not Dostoyevskian, I don't think. But how is it that I love it so? Why do I think of it as a guilty pleasure, that it is somehow not worthy of all my love. Is it not enough that this book brings me great joy? Why would I hesitate to give it 5 stars? Can the experience of reading the book be so much greater than the book itself? Does not the book itself earn the credit for giving me this experience?

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman, captures something delicate. I don't know if it is a universal experience, or a female experience, but it was my experience.

It takes me back to my first year at university, and dorm living, and the cafeteria, and poring over the course catalogue, trying to figure out more that what I wanted to study: what kind of person I wanted to be. Did I want to be the kind of person who read about the history of magic and witchcraft, surveyed obscure fine arts movements, or enrolled in 19th-century literature?

What even is love, and do I want to be in it? How do people even talk to one another?

Selin's summer teaching English in Hungary is some ways also reflects a summer I spent in Poland — my roommate was there teaching English (she didn't know any Polish, and she was ill-equipped to teach language; she was in an accounting program, I was the linguistics major), phones were complicated, boys were complicated, communism hadn't entirely worn off yet. It was exciting, and sometimes very strange.

I've read a lot of negative comments about this book, about its pointlessness. People who dislike Selin, so self-absorbed, why doesn't she just say something?
When Vivie apologized for eating slowly, Béla said that eating slowly was good: "If you eat slowly, you can feel the food."
"You don't feel food," Owen said, "you taste it."
"Yes," Béla said. "But I also mean more than to taste it."
"You enjoy it," suggested Daniel. "If you eat slowly, you enjoy the food."
"You enjoy," repeated Béla.
"You relish it," said Owen. "You savor it."
"Not savior — savor. It's like enjoying something, but more slowly."
"I don't know this word," Béla said, his eyes shining.
I realized that I would never have corrected somebody who said "you can feel the food." That was how Owen would end up with students who said "savor," while I wold end up with students who said "papel iss blonk."
I wouldn't correct it either. Of course you can feel the food, why would anyone correct that?

I can't help but feel that The Idiot's naysayers are people who talk too much without saying anything substantial, who don't think before they speak; they either live in hypocrisy or their existence is charmed by self-assurance and obliviousness.

I've been thinking a lot about the kind of person I was when I was 18. I don't think I've changed much. Sure I've "evolved" — I know more stuff, I've had more experience. I form (and state) opinions more readily, because I have accumulated more arguments to back them up. I still obsess about language and figuring out what people are trying to say when they choose to say things (I do this professionally). The naysayers — I am certain I would not have liked their insufferable 18-year-old selves. I would not have liked Meredith Wittman.

The Guardian describes how The Idiot is a historical novel, set at the advent of the internet but before smartphones, so this story could not have happened at any other time. At any other time, the plot would have to be different. But I think the story would be the same, youth is the same. (My university experience was pre-email. But it was the same.)

Teenage pretention, unlike its later incarnations, has always seemed to me to be a kind of thrilling, experimental optimism: Is this who I could be? The Idiot is full of that wonderful, embarrassing kind of early pretention that consists of trying on roles like coats. (Selin buys a coat because it reminds her of Gogol).
The Idiot encapsulates those years of humiliating, but vibrant, confusion that come in your late teens, a confusion that's not even sexual, but existential and practical: Where do people get their opinions from? "How did you separate where someone was from, from who they were?" How do I "dispose of my body in space and time, every minute of every day, for the rest of my life?"
Big, beautiful messy life!

Interview with Elif Batuman at The Rumpus.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

He drank his own books

In secondhand bookshops, he's sell the books he'd lovingly collected over the years in exchange for a pittance, and then he drank his own books, each day he drank one, some days as many as two, I'm drinking The Odyssey, the small change they gave me for it is disappearing down my throat, he'd tell himself, look how little I got for the paperback edition of Martin Amis's Money, he exchanged literature for alcohol, Robinson Crusoe became a bottle of Baileys, The Brothers Karamazov a bottle of Smirnoff vodka, the three gin and tonics he'd just ingested were The Life and Adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes. He got his hands on an expensive bottle of Laguvulin whisky in exchange for the leather-bound copy of James Joyce's Ulysses that Ana had given him as a gift; if, on a given day, he sold Montaigne's essays for next to nothing, he would buy himself a Bordeaux red, trying to be coherent with what he drank; if he got rid of Madame Bovary, he had to try to find a potion similar to something Flaubert might have ingested, to be able to emulate him; in exchange for Italo Calvino's Our Ancestors he'd get a Chainti or a bottle of pelaverga from Saluzzo, maybe. Whoever said that literature doesn't feed us, that it doesn't comfort our spirit or our soul?
— from Twist, by Harkaitz Cano.

Translated from Basque by Amaia Gabantxo, Twist is published by Archipelago Books, available March 2018.