Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The ugliness of banality

The time of my adolescence is slow, made up of large gray blocks and sudden humps of color, green or red or purple. The blocks don't have hours, days, months, years, and the seasons are indefinite, it's hot or cold, rainy or sunny. Even the bulges don't have a definite time, the color counts more than any date. The hue itself, moreover, that certain emotions take on is of unimportant duration, the one who is writing knows. As soon as you look for words, the slowness becomes a whirlwind and the colors get mixed together like the colors of different fruits in a blender. Not only does "time passed" become an empty formula but also "one afternoon," "one morning," "one evening" become merely markers of convenience. 

I've spent a good deal of time lately recollecting my teenage years in recent months. For days I sorted through the memorabilia of my adolescence — newspaper clippings and letters and yearbooks. I was dissatisfied, ambitious in an unfocused generic way, and convinced I knew better than anyone who had ever been an adolescent.

My daughter has just turned 18, and inevitably I compare our lives, the circumstances in which we were brought up, the factors forming the kind of people we're turning out to be. (I wonder what she would make of this book.)

I very often feel like a 12-year-old girl still, especially when it comes to love.

Love — she said, in an inspired tone and using a formula that didn't belong to her, that in fact baffled and irritated me — is a ray of sun that warms the soul. I was disappointed. Maybe I should have observed my aunt with the same attention with which she had urged me to spy on my parents. Maybe I would have discovered that behind the harshness that had charmed me there was a soft, foolish little woman, rough on the surface, tender underneath. If Vittoria really is that, I thought, discouraged, then she is ugly, she has the ugliness of banality.

The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante, vividly recalls the anxiety, aspirations and confusion of that stage of life. 

I discovered I had a space inside me that could swallow up every feeling in a very short time. [...] The bond with known spaces, with secure affections, yielded to curiosity about what might happen.

That space. I know that space.

"Enzo and I did that thing eleven times altogether. Then he went back to his wife and I never did it again with anyone. Enzo kissed me and touched me and licked me all over, and I touched him and kissed him all the way to his toes and caressed him and licked and sucked. Then he put his dick inside me and held my ass with both hands, one here and one there, and he thrust it into me with such force that it made me cry out. If you, in all your life, don't do this thing as I did it, with the passion I did it with, the love I did it with, and I don't mean eleven times but at least once, it's pointless to live. Tell your father: Vittoria said that if I don't fuck the way she fucked with Enzo, it's pointless for me to live. You have to say it just like that. He thinks he deprived me of something, with what he did to me. But he didn't deprive me anything, I've had everything, I have everything. It's your father who has nothing."

If you want to know what this novel really has to say, please read these two brilliant reviews, on ugliness and lying. 

This is a beautiful novel that I gave myself over to wholly. It's as colourful and engrossing as the Neapolitan quartet, but more focused on the intimate reality and realizations of one girl at a particular age. I think it is also more timeless — feminism and labour movements are not issues that need resolving, this book is not a statement about postwar Italy. The social mores of this community may not be quite as relaxed as those evident in twenty-first-century North America, but they still find purchase, even if they are upheld by hypocrites. 

When I was a teenager, I was booksmart. I may have been wise about the world, but I was naïve about people. Giovanna catches on a lot faster than I ever did.

At my age, I am still formulating  my relationship to ugliness and to lying. While I may gravitate toward them, I like to think I value beauty and truth. But really they are the same thing.

And then there's compunction. It's the favourite subject of Giannì's main crush. To prick the conscience to keep it from going to sleep. A needle pulling the thread through the scattered fragments of our existence. The necessity of guilt, which no character in this novel seems to have. (Take mine.) Giannì admires the idea of it but never embodies it. She's as adult as the rest of them.

As I dried my hair in front of the mirror, I felt like laughing. I had been deceived in everything, not even my hair was beautiful, it was pasted to my skull and I couldn't give it volume and splendor. As for my face, it had no harmony, just like Vittoria's. But the mistake had been to make it a tragedy. If you looked even just for a moment at those who had the privilege of a beautiful, refined face, you discovered that it hid infernos no different from those expressed by coarse, ugly faces. The splendor of a face, enhanced even by kindness, harbored and promised suffering still more than a dull face.

Excerpt.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

To ending and apocatastasis

I wondered whether, if I spent long enough with it, the machine would distill the essence of my work out of me the way I had never quite managed for myself. And if it could, was that a perfect artistic tool or the violent intervention of technology into my most human heart? How would I feel if it worked, and the machine's version of my work was better than mine?
A few words about Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway: Pretty cool, but too long.

I know my university-student-self would've loved it. As it is, it brought me a lot of diversion and some joy when I read it this past summer. It's about reality and perception, mind and body. It's a murder investigation. It's a surveillance state that offers full transparency, and no one seems to mind. It's Inception. It skips through time. It's the mathematics of high finance and videogames and St Augustine. It's a book of art and digressions. (Here's a better summary.) 
And in the end it's not real. It's perceptual.
As a novel, it's baggy, and unfortunate that its distinct threads are all told in the same voice. But it's a treasure chest of ideas. Also, I had to look up a lot of words.

I picked up my copy again this week as I'm reorganizing some bookshelves. Flipping through it and rereading all the passages I'd marked has been a delight.
In a few moments she will start work, and the  day will set her inevitably on the path to the involuted Alkahest. She is just hours from her first meeting with weird, cartilaginous Lönnrot, just over a week from her loss of faith in everything she has believed in her life. As she steps out of her slippers and begins to wash, finding in the animal business of grooming the growing understanding of her body and its place in the process that is her, she is stepping not only on the cracked with shower tray but also on to that road, the one that conducts her without let or hindrance to a point of crisis: to ending and apocatastasis. She apprehends this now with knowledge she has, from her limited vantage point inside the flow of events, not yet gleaned — but that knowledge is so significant that its echo reaches here even here, gathered in the slipstream of the Chamber of Isis and the most complex and saintly murder in the history of crime. Neith's consciousness is etiolated this morning because it touches itself irregularly along its own extension in time, a contact that makes her almost — but, crucially, not quite — prescient. Instead of foresight, the Inspector gets a migraine, and in that small difference she sets her feet on the the pattern that must eventually lead her to all the things I have already mentioned, but most fatefully — fatally — to me.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The world would be a blur of gold

The mushrooms glowed brighter, and she thought perhaps later she might touch them, running her hands against the wall and settling her face against the softness of their flesh. It would be good to rest there, skin pressed tight against their slick bodies, and maybe they'd cover her, the lovely fungi, and cram into her mouth, into her nostrils and eye sockets until she could not breathe and they nestled in her belly and bloomed along her thighs. And Virgil, too, driving deep within her, and the world would be a blur of gold.

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is classic gothic. A mist-shrouded cemetery with ghostly presences. Eccentric aristocrats. A rule-enforcing matron. A town healer. Symbolic dreams. Family tragedies and secrets. The house itself is a character ("I've never been in a house with a name.").

It's Gas Light and Rebecca and The Yellow Wallpaper and Chronicle of the Murdered House and a dash of the grimmest fairy tales whipped in a blender and strained through the racism and cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, garnished with a touch of "Notorious" — you know, for the Nazis and slow poison. 

Catalina writes that her husband is poisoning her and pleads with Noemi to come save her from the remote house so, at her father's insistence, Noemi sets aside her cocktail parties and frivolous pursuit of anthropological studies to do just that. Catalina's husband is heir to the perhaps-already-squandered Doyle fortune, built on silver mines already long dormant, and its legacy of exploitation. The ailing ruling patriarch is too interested in eugenics. What's not to love?

Some of the characterizations and dialogue felt a little anachronistic, but perhaps I'm just resentful that a woman could be oh so modern so long before me.

I read Mexican Gothic on Halloween weekend, and in fact the anticipation of it overpowered some of its clever beauty. I read it too fast, I read the wrong thing before it, I read it in an agitated state. (I wish I'd known there was a playlist.)

[As I sit in my reading chair and glance at the plant beside me, I am relieved that the mushrooms are gone, I spooned out their shriveled stalks.] 

My book purchase included "admission" to a virtual event: a conversation between Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Carmen Maria Machado, whose work and interests intersect in lively ways. I'm inspired to revisit their books with a heightened awareness of their feminist subversion of classic gothic horror tropes (did I just write that sentence?).

Definitely I will keep Mexican Gothic on my shelf to be reread nostalgically some perfectly wretched gloomy day.

"There're heavy places. Places where the air itself is heavy because an evil weighs it down. Sometimes it's a death, could be it's something else, but the bad air, it'll get into your body and it'll nestle there and weigh you down. That's what's wrong with the Doyles of High Place, " the woman said, concluding her tale.

Like feeding an animal madder plants: it dyes the bones red, it stains everything inside crimson, she thought.

Review
Excerpt

Friday, November 13, 2020

As if sex put him deeper into himself and into the world

I didn't know I needed to read this book. Three, by D.A. Mishani, was the perfect antidote to what had been a disappointing reading week (Kraft and Mexican Gothic, which are both excellent books but which weren't quite hitting the right notes for me).

Three is a a slow burn of a book, and I wish I could recall how I was led to it. When I picked up my order at the bookstore and scanned the back cover, it didn't jog any memories, I didn't remember ordering it. Then I read it in a few sittings within 24 hours last weekend.

It starts off as an ordinary domestic drama, ish. Orna is recently divorced and hesitant to dive into the online dating pool, but first time out, she meets a guy who seems nice enough. I guess this was the appeal — I continue to be interested in how modern dating finds its way in contemporary literature, both in terms of how life is translated into art and what there is for me to relate to and learn from. 

After he came he hurried to the bathroom to wipe himself off and shower, and she couldn't help remembering Ronen, who used to get philosophical after they slept together, as if sex put him deeper into himself and into the world. He could lie on the bed for hours afterwards, talking, without moving or getting dressed or wiping off the semen or sweat.

I thought maybe I was reading the wrong book; 70 pages, then 90 — I didn't see the thriller aspect of it coming. And then it came hard and it stopped. The next page was about completely different character, a different story.

The novel is in three sections, three women, three episodes. The man who links them is Gil, predatory and soulless, really — a kind of blank canvas that the women can project their desires and expectations onto.

So, a solid heart-poundingly psychological thriller, that kept me guessing till the end.

Then he'll ask about her and she'll put her wine glass to her lips as she shakes her head and say, "Never." She will add that up until a year or two ago she couldn't even contemplate it.

"Then why are you here?" he will ask, and she'll say, "Because this isn't a year or two ago, And I'm still not sure I know why I'm here. Maybe curiosity."

"Curiosity about what?"

"I can't say exactly. About you? You strike me as a strange man, Gil. Really strange. But more likely it's about what I can and cannot do. Or more importantly, what I can or cannot feel."

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The abstract splendor of the whole

Buying things requires at least a rudimentary level of optimism — indeed, why buy the most recent critical edition of Henry James's complete works in a linen slipcase if you're not assuming that life will go on, one way or another?

It didn't exactly make me feel stupid, but it did make me wish I were smarter. Kraft, by Jonas Lüscher, is one man's struggle to defend theodicy

(One chapter epigraph quotes Schelling: "Doubt the brightness of the sun, doubt the light of the stars, just do not doubt my truth and your stupidity." I do not doubt my stupidity.)

Richard Kraft, German professor of rhetoric, has been invited to participate in an essay competition with the possibility of winning a million dollars. All he need do is present an 18-minute lecture on: what is, is right.

Theodicy, according to my eight minutes of intensive Google research, is the idea that suffering and evil in the world, as a product of God, must not be so bad as we think and, while not exactly good, are a necessary and just component of the divine plan.

Kraft, both the man and the book, is funny. But also unlikeable. While the intellectual challenge of this book didn't put me off, the mood of it it did. He's a smug academic and though he pays lipservice to bucking convention, he is overly concerned with appearances. He is quintessentially male and oozes entitlement. He clearly believes he deserves to win this prize, deserves to live a carefree life with no responsibility toward his children or to the women in his life. He lies to his wife, to his best friend, to strangers. He looks down on... everybody. 

Herb, that emaciated insect, that physicist with his tide models, his flow velocities, distances to maintain, and time window; for him all these were nothing but variables in an equation from which all superfluity had been subtracted. What does a guy like Herb know about an individual's entanglements with the world, about the necessity for chance, about the beauty of the superfluous, about suffering, about humiliation? For a guy like Herb it can all be tallied, every evil offset by a good. Who the victim is plays no role, the important thing is for the equation to balance in the end. They call it elegance, those number jugglers. What does a guy like Herb know about elegance? The abstract splendor of the whole, perhaps. 

Funny and clever, but something grated. It was the throwaway comments about "Nicki Minaj's monumental rear end" and a similar appreciation he expressed, at every opportunity, for the maternal figure of his first love. Deliberate characterization or not, I stopped rooting for Kraft — he's a bit of a dick really.

Still. Favourite sentence:

István appeared intoxicated by the high mass of parliamentarian democracy and lapped up Barzel's every word as if it were sacramental wine transubstantiated to liberty.

Kraft travels to California (it's no accident that he must leave the traditional structure of Europe) and stays with István in the leadup to the competition. Flashbacks give us glimpses into his friendship with István, his politics, his past liaisons and his family life. By my reckoning, he's a lot more shallow than you'd expect a philosophy prof to be. 

That's about it. He just can't find a way into his essay. He picks the brains of his colleagues for inspiration.

What he plans to to, Ducavalier tells Kraft, is to take on the task of explaining why almost everything that is, is bad. A rather easy task, he adds, and gives a brief overview of the coming apocalypse: the impending collapse of the European Union; the return of nationalism; the new acceptability of open racism and bigotry; the democratically elected despots who turn their countries into dictatorships with their people's consent — a process that makes one doubt the usefulness of democracy itself; the rising tide of anti-intellectualism, for which the intellectuals themselves are responsible, and the accompanying legitimation of ignorance; the openly expressed longing for strongmen; the moral bankruptcy of the economic elite who behave like unrepentant secondhand-car dealers; the threat of a new economic crisis against which the central banks will be left with no possible recourse, since they can't devalue money any more than they already have, as a consequence of which they've already shot the last arrow in their quiver; a free trade policy combined with a protectionist system of subsidies that drives millions of poor people from the south to the north; the stagnation of economic growth despite the digital revolution; the lack of alternatives to capitalism even though capitalism leads inevitable to an ever greater disparity in wealth that will in turn cut the system's legs out from under it in the near future; the millions of surplus young men in China and India who are badly educated, sexually frustrated, and without hope of a future, a problem that will be most elegantly solved with a war of aggression . . . And although he is of course aware that it is an unacceptable if terribly effective simplification, he will give his explanation theoretical and narrative weight by using a cyclical philosophy of history that will allow him to evoke in his conclusion a return of the conditions that existed during the Weimar Republic, thus conjuring a third world war that will hover implacably over the assembly. Et voilà, Bertrand sat . . . all that is, is bad.

Kraft pulls a lettuce leaf from his ham sandwich. You forgot climate change, he says to Ducavalier.

Eighteen minutes, my dear Kraft, you've got to set some limits. Eighteen minutes is not enough to describe the world's depravity in full.

Already Kraft is setting on his ultimate path. Instead of committing himself to the PowerPoint presentation, he begins to stage his final act, a performance piece that embodies theodicy more than any bullet points.

This book put me in quite a funk, relieved only by the realization that the Trump era is over. A weight is lifted off our shoulders, a veil cleared from our eyes.

I keep wanting to quip, "We have normality. Anything you still can't cope with is therefore your own problem." I mean, apart from there being a pandemic on and living in lockdown. And don't forget climate change (23 degrees in Montreal today, far from normal).

Excerpt.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Fraught with humanity, with frailty, with despair

Meanwhile, I'd taken my courage in both hands, turned my first trick, at home, a chubby little guy, about sixty, who chain-smoked untipped cigarettes and talked a lot during sex. He seemed lonely, and I found him surprisingly sweet. I don't know whether I come across as gauche and gentle or seriously intimidating, or whether I was just lucky, but as time went by, it became clear: with me, clients tended to be warm, attentive, gentle. If memory serves, and I think it does, it was not their aggressiveness or their contempt I found difficult to deal with, nor any of the things they were into, but their loneliness, their sadness, their pallid skin, their wretched shyness, the flaws they couldn't conceal, the weaknesses they showed. Their age, their need to feel young flesh against their wizened bodies. Their paunches, their micro-dicks, their flabby arses, their yellow teeth. It was their vulnerability that complicated the whole thing. In the end, the johns you could hate or despise were the ones you could do while remaining completely indifferent. Maximum cash, minimum time, and afterwards never think about them again. But in my limited experience, most clients were fraught with humanity, with frailty, with despair. And it lingered afterwards, clinging to me like remorse.

— from King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes.

I have come to know this truth: there's a profound intimacy in sex founded in loneliness and pity. Too fat, too thin, or just plain ugly. It's a deeply vulnerable exposure. We all just want release from our bodies. Sex is a kindness, we can choose to be kind to one another.