Thursday, May 23, 2019

The possibility of joy

I went out into the undimmed, Katherine-Mortenhoe-dancing-down-the-street-morning.

Spring. That day spring was special. Not just a matter of cuckoos and poetic crocuses. That day spring was special, an affair in the blood that even the largest city could not arrest, a process that enlarged one's perceptions till even oneself could be almost beautiful. In March the sun may shine and the air may be balmy, but without April in the blood this lightheartedness never catches fire. The building may purr, but the body knows better. It wears its ugly winter, summer, autumn skin and, as in all these seasons, knows no other. Only in spring is the flesh new, and the spirit incorruptible. Which made, I thought on that sweetly sad, sadly sweet, Katherine Mortenhoe morning, the spring the only bearable time for dying.
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton, skewered me.

I wept. I wept for my pathetic self. I wept for my wasted years. I wept for the children I wanted but didn't have. I wept for the novel I haven't written. I wept in self-pity. I raged against the man who cheated me of fertile years, and cheats me still of the private moments he's made it near impossible for me to find. I raged against the days that fall away.

I wept for humanity, that we are so embarrassed, ashamed, afraid to ask for what we want, what we need from each other. That it is so difficult to show kindness. That we don't know what kindness is.

I once fell in love with a man who lived so much in the present he couldn't remember yesterday and made no plan for tomorrow. I accused him of being digital. Discontinuous.

In Katherine's case, it's illness. She is dying of information overload — a breakdown of the neural circuits having exceeded their limits. It's accompanied by psychological phenomena, neural spasm and nausea best described as outrage. She becomes first by choice and then as a consequence of disease "free of context."

In D. G. Compton, Authenticity, and Privacy in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Anna E. Clark writes:
In a nod to Mortenhoe's title, Roddie says at one point that people are only true when they're "continuous" — when, that is, they're made up of things — names, desires, traits — that endure from one moment to the next. Roddie initially believes that these continuous qualities inhere in the person herself, but by Mortenhoe's conclusion we are left with the feeling that they belong not to us but to others. They are the products of the ways we're seen, the ways we're documented.
When do you cease to exist? When do you cease to exist for others? What would you do if you knew you had only a month to live? Would you live your same life? With the same people? Go to the same job? Would you sign a TV contract for a reality show? ("Certainly human behavior has changed since the coming of TV behavior.") Would you go off-grid? How exactly would you do that?
Seven hours remained. I suppose seven hours do not sound all that terrible. Neither, really, do four hundred and twenty minutes. But I counted them, every one. And they're more than enough when all your life has is an ambition you've seen through, a hope you dare not examine, and a direction you'd rather not guess. They're enough to make possibilities of joy seem, to say the least, a bit ridiculous.
Katherine's diagnosis comes at a time when disease has been virtually eradicated. It's unheard of to die of anything but old age. Katherine's 44. Perhaps it's telling that she works as a programmer of romance novels. Katherine leaves her husband, and it's not immediately clear to Katherine or the reader whether it's out of love, to spare him the ordeal.

Roddie, meanwhile, is a TV personality who's had a camera implanted in his eyes. Everything he sees is automatically captured and transmitted to the studio for review and editing. (It's like he's live-streaming. He can cut audio, but he has somewhat modified his gaze — always scanning for the moneyshot but never looking down when he pees.) His network has invested in him, intent on broadcasting Katherine's demise to a "pain-starved public."

This near-future scenario from 1974 felt a little dated at the start, with its forward-looking vision of public telephones (hah!), post offices and reams of mail (how quaint), reality TV (wait a second...), and hi-fi records (umm...). But that Philip K Dick/Robert Sheckley vibe quickly faded into the background. It became a brilliant story of two fucked-up people in fucked-up circumstances.

Katherine seems to have a clear idea of how she should come to her end, but she turns out to be confused, desperate, and lonely. Roddie is truly conflicted, remorseful, and wants to atone.

They grow very close to each other, both lying to each other, and it is profoundly moving.
The thing is, beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder. Neither is compassion, or love, or even human decency. They're not of the eye, but of the mind behind the eye. I had seen, my mind had seen, Katherine Mortenhoe with love. Had seen beauty. But my eyes had simply seen Katherine Mortenhoe. Had seen Katherine Mortenhoe. Period.
I also saw her with love.

I want to see people as continuous. I want to see the possibility of joy.

The Atlantic published an adapted version of Jeff VanderMeer's introduction to the novel.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Changing the consistency of the air around her

Another woman was already standing in my favorite spot by the rusty tracks. Her long coat had a high collar that resembled the gills of a tropical fish. On her head she wore ornaments that looked somehow extraterrestrial. Perhaps she was a singer who'd fled from the stage of an opera with futuristic sets. What could be the reason for her having hurried here without removing her makeup and changing clothes? She was older than I was, and had something extraordinary about her. Her presence even seemed to be changing the consistency of the air around her. The clear form of her lips held her flesh together like overripe fruit, and the two ends sometimes dipped down slightly, as if they were remembering a bitter taste. The woman's spine described a straight line of justice not dependent on any existing law. Each time I blinked, her body dissolved for two seconds into colorful micro-grains.

The darkness around us thickened. The woman gave me a dutiful nod, as if the two of us had an understanding. My heart began to pound violently. It was up to me to take action. Today was the chosen day. I had a vague memory of our having arrived at our agreement in a dream, though the specific terms of the the agreement were unknown to me. Suddenly the woman lay down on the tracks and pressed her face to one of the ties. I ran to her, took her by the shoulder and tried to roll her over, but she was as immovable as the spire of a temple whose root is buried in the earth. I thought I heard the sound of a train approaching from a distance — this was impossible though. There tracks had known nothing but rust and weeds for years, certainly no wheels. Then I heard it once more, the sound of an approaching train. Or was it just a streetcar heading into the city center? Or was it the drone of a refrigerator that had been implanted in the depths of my eardrums during my days of loneliness? I wanted to tell the woman to get up, but I couldn't think of any words. The old words had left my skull, I needed new words to be able to speak to her. But what were new words?
— from The Naked Eye, by Yoko Tawada.

The old words are inadequate. The new words are inaccessible.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The world somewhere else is a beautiful place

"You know, Doctor, he has some very strange ideas of purity and beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, he says. I tell him poet's eye descriptions of oil refineries at sunset are a waste of computer time. Half our readers work in them. Homo or hetero, they're all the same — they want to be told the world somewhere else is a beautiful place. Tell them the world they know is beautiful too and they'll spit in your face."
— from The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton.

Ordinary people dream of elsewhere. Only poets dream of here.

I am loving this book so far. It's both light and serious. Also, it's funny, sometimes unintentionally as it's 1974's vision of "the future."

"The real, the continuous Katherine Mortenhoe possessed the possibility of joy."

I find unreasonable joy in noticing that this novel sits on my desk in aesthetic harmony with my notebook.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Close your eyes

Close your eyes

Close your eyes
Rest your head on my shoulder and sleep
Close your eyes
And I will close mine

Close your eyes
Let's pretend that we're both counting sheep
Close your eyes
This is divine

Music play
Something dreamy for dancing
While were here romancing
It's love's holiday
And Love will be our guide

Close your eyes
When you open them dear
I'll be near by your side
So won't you close your eyes
— from Duet, by Doris Day with André Previn.

I sang this song over and over, night after night, to my baby. Because love would be our guide. Thank you, Doris.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

The personal shopping cart is a name for solitude

I'm reading Happy Are the Happy (Yasmina Reza) in the metro and feeling down, because it's cutting and harsh, if sharp. And I imagine somebody asking me what it's about, and I would say it's about husbands and wives, and mothers and sons, and lovers, and it's not about happiness at all, none of them are happy, everything is dissolving.

But maybe that's what it means to be happy: to dissolve, when the past and the future dissolve.
Apologize, she says. If she said Apologize in her normal voice, I might comply, but she whispers, she gives the word a colorless, atonal inflection I can't get past. I say, please. I remain calm. Please, I say mildly, and I see myself driving down a highway at top speed, stereo turned all the way up, and I'm listening to a song called "Sodade," a recent discovery I understand nothing of except for the solitude in the singer's voice and the word solitude itself, repeated countless times, even though I'm told sodade doesn't actually mean solitude, but nostalgia, absence, regret, spleen, so many intimate things that can't be shared, and all of them names for solitude, just as the personal shopping cart is a name for solitude, and so is the oil and vinegar aisle, and so is the man pleading with his wife under the fluorescent lights.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Erotic energy is everywhere

We think erotic energy is everywhere — in the deep breath that fills our lungs as we step out into a warm spring morning, in the cold water spilling over the rocks in a brook, in the creativity that drives us to paint pictures and tell stories and make music and write books, in the loving tenderness we feel toward our friends and relatives and children.
So here's a book a friend suggested I read: The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, by Dossie Easton and Janet W Hardy. And it's hard not to wonder what the underlying message might be as he presses it into my hands: Am I not ethical enough? Or not slutty enough?

Is this or is this not a book about sluttery? (I love that word, "sluttery.")

"Polyamory" is relatively new word in many people's vocabulary. It's hard not to think of polyamory as a mere trend. Many practitioners would argue that it's been around forever, simply not talked about openly. This is the evolution; it is becoming socially acceptable. The Ethical Slut is not capitalizing on this social phenomenon. Originally published in 1997, it's considered groundbreaking in raising awareness and has helped many people achieve sexual fulfilment. (Your mileage may vary.)

Definitely there are several ideas put forward in this book that I can readily get behind. For example, "Sexual energy pervades everything all the time; we inhale it into our lungs and exude it from our pores."

That there are various kinds of love. That there are various kinds of relationships. That no one person can satisfy our everything (this is why I have book friends, and work friends, and art gallery friends, etc.). That our capacity for love is infinite — we will never run out of love to give.

If the title piques your interest, you may want out check out this YouTube review. It's more a low-key stream-of-consciousness rant than it is a proper review (he makes a big deal of society holding a double standard for judging the behaviour of men and women, which is a tangential point in the book), but he uses the book as a springboard to discuss many of the issues implicit to polyamory and sluttery. The book itself is something of a practical guide, in general terms.

(I'd really like a book to tell me if it's OK to spontaneously sext a married man at midnight, even though most of our texts are relegated to weekday afternoons and limited to establishing meeting points. But I guess that's something I'll have to figure out with my lover.)

The opening chapters are given over to examining traditional ideas that may be founded in outdated systems (religious, legal, etc.). Several exercises are suggested (for example, make a list of all the reasons someone might want to be a slut and consider the validity of those reasons). The book goes on to describe the several different nontraditional kinds of relationships. In a very general way, the book covers everything from consent and safe sex to how to meet like-minded people for initial explorations.

But the bulk of the text is about communicating within a relationship, and would slip neatly into any relationship self-help book (the kind of book I would never read).

A few things in this book rankled my editorial sensibilities: For example, one author refers to the early years of feminism, but I'm fairly certain she's no suffragette — she means the 60s. And despite proclaiming that there's no one-size-fits-all polyamory, the authors clearly have their own worldview biases (that is, I didn't find any insight into what it means to be a single polyamorist; the predominant view is that of someone who is coupled, albeit multiply in various combinations).

The authors clearly state that jealousy is not an emotion, describing it as an umbrella that encompasses anger, sadness, etc., but on the very next page they refer to jealousy as an emotion. Now, I know what they mean, and the book has a chatty enough tone that it's easy to assume an understanding, but when such a great part of this book is given over to communication, it's a shame that they should get sloppy over defining terms.

The primary focus of the book is the value of communication in any relationship, and it's full of other good things like self-awareness, healthy body image, and overall sex positivity.

I'm not sure who this book is for, though. I don't think it will overturn the life-long beliefs and prejudices of close-minded people. As for the relatively open-minded, there is nothing new here. I suppose there's a small demographic who find reassurance in a book that gives them the vocabulary to talk about their lifestyle, new labels by which to define themselves.

So I'm here to proclaim that I'm a slut. And I try to be ethical about it.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

An eroticism still enfeebled by winter

All the young women are in shorts and sandals. The sandals' soles smack their heels with a certain resolute gaiety. What makes that sensual? Is it the slightly slack strap that lets the foot slip this way and that, and the heel slap the sole? Or is it the vision of unveiled legs? What makes it sensual, and must the legs be beautiful, must they be lustrous, smooth, and long? Or is it the beauty of the legs, knees, and ankles superfluous for the burgeoning, in the main street of this drowsy town, of an eroticism still enfeebled by winter? Is all that possible in a town this far removed from the breeziness, the rustle, the hum of the city, is it possible?
Self-Portrait in Green, by Marie Ndiaye, is a slip of a book about an elusive feminine essence, something green, verdant, lush, but potentially toxic. The woman in green may or may not exist, may or may not be a friend, may or may not be a ghost, may or may not be her mother.
And in fact the only notable difference between this woman in green and the one they used to know lay in this one's greater beauty, but it was still the same beauty, only expanded, vibrant, thanks to contentment, to money, to sexual pleasure.
Ndiaye weaves an intense mood out of almost nothing. In the present of the story (December 2003, such as it is), there is the river, its essence undoubtedly feminine, threatening to flood — "heavy, almost bulging." The narrator reaches back in time to recount encounters with various women in green:

The woman by the banana tree, perhaps waiting for her to unburden her heart, who throws herself from the balcony, who one day walks away.

The memory of a grade-school teacher who carried children away.

The woman who is one of the women whose names she always confuses, who unburdens her heart about her difficult children.

The woman who was her best friend until she married her father and imposed a hierarchy on the circle of family relationships.

The woman she knows of only through Jenny, the woman who was the wife of the man Jenny loved.
Isn't it a sign of contemptible self-indulgence, Jenny's thinking, to be caught up in a romanticism you never felt when you were young, simply because you have too much time on your hands, and because, in any event, giving into that romanticism now poses no threat, since everything that matters in life lies well behind you? Certainly, Jenny is thinking, belated romanticism is pitiful, pathetic, mediocre. But how to fight it off?
The woman who was her mother, who has lived a few lives and created intersecting families, whose joyless bravado reeks of a stingy, shabby existence.
And that's all there was to her life in those days, a round little woman, virtuous, unfailingly solemn, trotting along toward her workplace each morning, never glancing left or right for fear she might glimpse something that looks vaguely or unmistakably like adventure or novelty, for fear she might glimpse a bit of the face of someone she knew, someone she couldn't deny not knowing, who might tell her some troubling story, might reveal some intimate secret.
The woman she expects someday the half-sister her mother abandoned will become, continuing to haunt her conscience.

This book feels secretive, almost transgressive. It lacks the intense paranoia of My Heart Hemmed In (and thank goodness, because that's not a reading experience to undertake lightly), but these novels share a hovering sensation (slightly out of body, at some remove), like the narrator feels the world without being in it, or understanding it.

Self-Portrait in Green also calls to my mind Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream, for the sensee that something's wrong with the way the world works, with the children and the mothers, what the hell is going on, what the hell is the right thing to do, the right way to be.

Why is this narrator so concerned with — troubled by — the women in green? Remember that this is a self-portrait. She must be looking for herself: as a free and sexual creature, as a mother unencumbered by motherhood, as a wise observer, as someone who comes and goes as she pleases. (Does green guard against fertility? she wonders.)

[I think of all the women I've known. Which of them are this kind of green? Elaine, Céline, Lysa, Maribel, others.]

What of her own children (late in the story she is pregnant with her fifth)? What of their father, who is absent from this story?

Do the women in green represent what the narrator wishes to be or what she is afraid of becoming or what she knows is inside of her? All these things.

Reviews
Asymptote
Necessary Fiction
Three Percent