Sunday, March 29, 2015

Skin deep

"You know," he said, almost dreamily, "I sometimes think that the only things really worth talking about are the things people absolutely refuse to discuss."

"Yes," snapped Isserley, "like why some people are born into a life of lazing around and philosophizing, and others are shoved into a hole and told to fucking get busy."
I read Michel Faber's Under the Skin over a month ago, but I put off writing about it, wanting to see the film adaptation. Now I'm at a loss — they are so completely different, yet also compelling and weird. They're both also nigh impossible to talk about without giving anything away.

The weight, weightiness, of them comes out of the title. We're immediately invited to question: What's under Isserley's skin? What's under Scarlet Johansson's skin? The character in both the novel and the film is somehow off, out of place, other.

The only thing seemingly clear from the outset is that we're dealing with a female predator. In the film this is highly sexualized, because ScarJo; in the novel, Isserley is weird-looking, but men are distracted by her massive breasts, because men. But she's a very good predator; she studies her prey, their habits, and their environment intensely.

The film does a great job of focusing on the predation. The novel goes far beyond female-male relations (not that the film does just that) to cover a lot more territory, a whole other culture, in fact.

Under the Skin is also very much about the relationship between hunter and hunted. What's under the skin of her victims, anyway? What constitutes our humanity?
The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

In the end, though, vodsels couldn't do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn't siuwil, they couldn't mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they'd never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.

And, when you looked into their glazed little eyes, you could understand why.

If you were looking clearly, that is.

So, that's why it was better that Amlis Vess didn't know that the vodsels had a language.
It's the sort of talk that could turn you vegetarian. The novel might also be read as a warning about the dangers of disturbing an ecosystem ("A few drops of chemical soap into such a vast reservoir of natural purity wouldn't have much effect, surely?"). The problems of overhunting. How economics factors into our moral choices.

Most reviews of the novel give away the story, and that's okay in the sense that that's not really what the book is about. However, I really loved the discovery of the story as the novel unfolded. It changed tack several times; it started off as a thriller, turned scifi, took a romantic twist, and mused on socioeconomic structures, before finally settling into an existential introspection — the problem of otherness and the impossibility of genuine communication.
That's what lying had done to the world. All the lying that people had been doing since the dawn of time, all the lying they were doing still. The price everyone paid for it was the death of trust. It meant that no two humans, however innocent they might be, could ever approach one another like two animals. Civilization!
Reviews (with spoilers)
New York Times


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bookclub, anyone?

If you're in the Montreal area and interested in meeting downtown (in person) every 2 months or so (starting at the end of May) to discuss a book of note (probably fiction), please contact me for more details.

The bookclub I'd been attending quasiregularly for about a year and a half recently had to disband (it was associated with a bookstore, and there weren't the resources to maintain it any longer).

A couple of the readers, along with myself, are interested in continuing the club, but we're looking for fresh reader blood.

The previous club had focused on books published under the NYRB Classics imprint, but had begun to branch out. Selections spanned centuries and cultures.

Future bookclub choices will very much depend on the dynamics of the group, but if your reading tastes at all jive with mine, consider joining us. Email me at

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bug music

With dusk begins to cry
the male of the Waiting-insect; —
I, too, await my beloved,
and, hearing, my longing grows.
— from Kokinshu, by Tsurayuki (~900 AD)

Graeme Revell (once best known for fronting industrial band SPK, now probably more readily recognized for his soundtracks) produced The Insect Musicians in 1987. (I listened to a lot of experimental music in the mid 80s.)

This orchestral wall of sound consists entirely of modulated insect sounds.

I owned and loved that album, and shared it and it was lost. (All praise the Internet, restorer of lost treasures!)

The liner notes summarize Revell's concept and describe the techniques used in transforming insect "noise" into "music."

To me this album signified a world of (alien) beauty at our feet, if only we cared to look, listen.

Insects feature in Consumed, by David Cronenberg, inhabiting the left breast of the woman who as the novel opens is found apparently to have been murdered and cannibalized. The book embraces entomologists and state-of-the-art hearing technology. So this music formed the soundtrack for my weekend reading.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Word neutrality is destabilizing

We were enclosed in Audio Booth 4, basically an audio recording cabinet floating on foam and designed to be sound-neutral. Words spoken in Booth 4 sounded unnaturally deadened, like inanimate objects. The walls of the booth, the floor, the ceiling, none of it added any energy or shape by reflectance or geometry to the sounds that came out of our mouths, and this had a mysterious effect on the meaning and the impact of the words themselves that was hard to calculate. It made me realize that word neutrality in human communication is destabilizing; there is a paper to be written there.
— from Consumed, by David Cronenberg.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Things my 12-year-old says

"Can it be storytime? I'll read you the story. Only, I warn you: it's more descriptive than narrative."

Apparently also she's scouring the Internet for tips on doing homework.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Two kinds of readers

Sometimes I think there are two kinds of readers: readers for whom books are bread and coffee, and readers for whom books are magic mushrooms. The bread-and-coffee people prefer to read about real life (marriage and parenthood, vocations and vacations, adultery and war), while the magic mushroom readers live for the shadow in the corner, the mysterious figure on the train, and the eerie music floating over the darkened lake.
This comes from a review of The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, an anthology edited by Marjorie Sandor. The book sounds wonderful — thirty-one stories that cover two centuries and sample the world, including a couple authors I particularly admire, China MiĆ©ville and Bruno Schulz. (You can read Sandor's introduction to her anthology here.) I'm very likely to pick up a copy to have on hand in the event of a dark and stormy night.

But it's the dichotomy of book readers that my mind keeps wandering back to. Hands down I'm a magic mushroom kind of reader. But I've noticed a disturbing trend in my reading choices of late — easily half of the year's reading to date is books directly about love gone wrong, marriages gone bad, and almost all of them tangentially so.

It was purely coincidental at first, reading I'd lined up before Christmas, before everything soured. Then it was a subconscious draw. And now I'm realizing the full value of bibliotherapy, of living lives other than mine, of living variations of my life, of examining marriage (all marriages, not just mine) from all angles. Now I'm seeking these books out. It's been somewhat cathartic, it's kept me remarkably steady, but it's becoming obsessive, like picking at a scab.

As much as I love the magic mushrooms, I think sometimes my body and mind are telling me I need bread and coffee, just for a little while, for grounding. (But not too much; I'll have to fly again sometime.)

What kind of reader are you? Are your books bread and coffee, or magic mushrooms?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Like versions of truth, like versions of love

"Is that not always the case? Given any two people in a relationship, one will always love more, the other less. Right?"
I haven't yet figured out how I feel about Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum. It's complicated. I don't like Anna. I don't like her at all. I don't feel a bit of sympathy for her. I'm also slightly troubled by the fact that I don't feel for her. I don't thinks she's sad; I think she's stupid. I want to slap her. Yet. There's something compelling about the inner drama Anna creates (and she does create it, all by herself).

The titular housewife is Anna, an American ex-pat married to a Swiss banker, living just outside of Zurich with their three children. Anna is bored or possibly depressed — although to me she seems affectless — so she goes to therapy and has affairs.

A little of this, a little of that
According to some booksellers, Hausfrau is for readers of Claire Messud and Mary Gaitskill. I've never read Gaitskill, but I can see the comparisons to Messud's Woman Upstairs, though I don't quite agree with them. Messud's novel was famously about an unlikeable character, though I liked her quite a bit, certainly more that I like Anna (whom I don't like at all). Messud's character also had my respect, for trying, for engaging, for being an interesting, deep, thoughtful, and honest person. Essbaum's Anna has none of that; she's just boring, and I can't decide if that's a novelistic flaw or if that's the bloody point.

It's "Madame Bovary meets Fifty Shades of Grey." I can't speak to Fifty Shades per se, but I can say Hausfrau offers some steamy scenes. Part of me thinks they're entirely gratuitous, but hell, sex is part of life, why shouldn't those scenes be included? Do these scenes contribute to the development of Anna's character? No, they don't let me know her any better. But again, maybe that's the point. The influence of Madame Bovary, however, is obvious. But Emma has gained my sympathy over the years; Anna, to whom I should be able to relate on some level (marriage, child, mother-in-law, transplanted residence, living in a second language), leaves me cold.

It "recalls Marguerite Duras's The Lover and Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac." I haven't read either, but it seems like a bit of a stretch, particularly as Duras experimented with form. Hausfrau gives us scenes from psychotherapy. Anna is completely inside herself; other people barely register on her.

"For readers of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train." Maybe. I dunno.

And don't forget Anna Karenina. Hausfrau Anna arguably shares more similarities with Tolstoy's Anna than with Flaubert's Emma.

According to Book Riot, "the novel itself feels more like the heir apparent to Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill." But Offill's character is highly sympathetic and observant; the novel is meditative. Anna on the other hand is merely flat.

The rest of it
The language is lovely.
That morning's German lesson left Anna pensive. The German language, like a woman, has moods. On occasion they are conditional, imperative, indicative, subjunctive. Hypothetical, demanding, factual, wishful. Wistful, bossy, of blunted affect, solicitous. Longing, officious, anhedonic, pleading. Anna tried to make a list of every mood she's ever been in but ran out of words before even half of her feelings were named.

The ending is inevitable. There's no other way for it to end. It's easy to see it coming. In principal, it is the perfect ending. In practice, the lead-up is a little over-wrought, and even in all Anna's emotionlessness it's too emotional, somehow out of step with the rest of the novel.

The Frisky:
"What I enjoyed the most about the first two-thirds of the novel was that Anna was a fairly ordinary woman with some serious emotional complications, but who wasn’t a mustachioed supervillain or an anti-hero – just a woman with lower-than-average ethics in a life situation that would be genuinely difficult for almost anyone."

The Guardian:
"I liked the fact that Essbaum gives us no sweeteners in the matter of Anna’s character. She is difficult. She is boring. She is narcissistic. She is so very sad."

The Independent:
"That, in the end, is the subversive thing about Anna: not her libido or her secret affairs, but her refusal to feel quite as copiously as women are expected to, her refusal to make herself likeable."

Make no mistake: everything has a variant. Like versions of truth, like versions of love, there are versions of sleep. The deepest sleep is meant only for children and perfect fools. Everyone else must pay each night her restless due.