Friday, December 02, 2016

A border area between states of being

"The water's boiling." Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent-minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn't bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn't belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, is a creepy little novel, in the most beautiful way. It's completely weird and fascinating. I love this book.

Despite having read quite a few reviews of it, none of them quite prepared me. Maybe, since I was already interested in reading it, I merely skimmed the reviews in order to avoid spoilers. Basically I had the impression that this was a book about a dinner party gone wrong. (I love dinner parties! I love when they go wrong!) There is indeed a dinner party, and it does go wrong. And then there's a family dinner that goes so much more wrong. But there's more to this story than what is served and what is eaten.

Yeong-Hye turns to vegetarianism because of a dream (a horrific dream, all the more terrifying for being only vaguely described for the reader). She will not even touch mayonnaise, and later eschews food altogether. She wants to photosynthesize; she wants to be a tree.

She posits also that it's the trees' hands digging into the earth (heads buried?), their legs flailing above, crotches flowering.

The novel is in three acts, from the perspectives of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Yeong-hye turns vegetarian, her family stages an intervention, she's hospitalized; she's released, there's an interlude of peace, but not exactly normalcy, that gives way to art, maybe some kind of understanding, sublimation, acceptance; she's institutionalized.

Yeong-hye's vegetarianism is not symptomatic of anorexia. It's not about control. Despite being shackled by domesticity and refusing (or forgetting) to wear a bra (it's just not comfortable), it's not about feminism. Her actions do not have any religious motivation.

A review in the New York Times calls out some of these readings — feminist, ethnographic, sociological — as not exactly faulty or skewed but incomplete or incapable.

I don't think any isms explain Yeong-hye's behavior. Some things defy explanation. Some things cannot be explained in words. Some things can only be expressed through art.

Yeong-hye's brother-in-law is an artist. He had a vision, an artistic vision he had trouble realizing.
His silence had the heavy mass of rock and the tenacious resistance of rubber, particularly when his art wasn't going well.
Yeong-hye's sister (the artist's wife) also has dream. She tried acting on a version of it once.

The reason for these things is beyond words. Wounded bodies, strained souls.

It is somewhat mystifying that the plantlike and the animal are sometimes confounded. Of course, what joins them is their nonhumanness. Plantlike should not be taken for passive; it is persistent.
The trees by the side of the road are blazing green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage.
A poet's proclamation, "I believe that humans should be plants," was the seed of this story, but I wonder if Kang didn't then investigate the several cult-like philosophies whereby it is believed the human body can derive all its energy and nourishment via the photosynthesis of sunlight.

In a beautiful instance of synchronicity, my cursory Wikipedia research takes me from sungazing to Joseph Plateau, whose father was a talented flower painter, an entirely random yet meaningful fact.

Related concepts
Two documentaries:
Sungazing: Eat the Sun
Breatharianism: In the Beginning There Was Light

Two books come to mind, related obliquely, but which may appeal to readers who liked The Vegetarian:
The Art of Murder, by José Carlos Somoza, insofar as it relates to the human body as a canvas.
The Beauty, by Aliya Whiteley, where fungal disease takes humanoid form, kind of.

Two sources:
Excerpt of The Vegetarian [Words without Borders].
"The Fruit of My Woman" — the short story from which this novella grew [Granta].

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A library between worlds

For a book purportedly about a library, The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman, has very little librarying going on here.
"I and Mr. Strongrock are agents of a library which exists between the alternate worlds. Our task is to collect books for the Library from all those worlds, to preserve them."
That's the premise. While the laws of physics are upheld throughout the worlds, they allow for magical elements and creatures like fairies and dragons, vampires and werewolves. Each world is governed by forces of order and of chaos, in varying degrees. I don't really see how all this jives with the claim that science remains true, but blah, blah, blah, suspension of disbelief, it's just a lame excuse to tell stories about different realities.

This story covers one particular mission in one particular alternate. This world is very Victorian-era steampunk, with a murdered vampire, zeppelins, and mechanical alligators. Our librarians seem to have stepped into a conspiracy, though whether it's masterminded by the Fae folk, the Iron Brotherhood, or Luxembourg is not clear. There's a bit of penny dreadful about it, as our chief protagonist, Librarian Irene, herself notes.

The book she's after is a version of Grimm's Fairy Tales. We're treated to a small sample of it, but my sense is that the object of the chase could have just as easily been another type of artefact.

Librarians also have access to the Language, a type of magic that seems to depend on naming things very precisely, but it's mostly just mysterious and convenient.

So what is the point of the Library? Although it opens onto all the alternate worlds, librarians are careful not to interfere in the workings of those worlds. They collect knowledge, but squirrel it away without ever really using it or even understanding it.
The conversation shifted, much to Irene's relief, into a debate on poetry that lasted for most of the journey. She herself was mostly silent, being more used to acquiring it than reading it.
Which doesn't seem very librarian-like to me.

It's a fun book, but mostly forgettable. I've had trouble focusing the last couple weeks, so this book was easy, not too demanding, and provided some distraction. There were some funny bits, and it reminds me a little of the Thursday Next books, but without the clever literary references. I won't be searching out the subsequent volumes of Cogman's series.

Friday, November 25, 2016

On not buying books

Yesterday for lunch I went to the bookstore. Food for thought, food for the soul. Usually I just like to browse, just being in a bookstore brings me comfort (and I'm lucky to have recently found a non-big-box-chain store near my office — I blame the shifting streets of Old Montreal, like mischievous Hogwarts staircases, for keeping it hidden from me for so long), but yesterday, uncharacteristically, I splurged on impulse.

I have tried to keep in check the acquisition of books, but when displaying my spoils back at the office (just three books), a coworker, having witnessed me purchase books on two occasions and at other times open packages of books, called me on this delusion of mine.

Since September,
  • The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle — because a review made me want it, it's Lovecraftian
  • Le Chat, Georges Simenon — to practice my French
  • The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon — because I've been planning to read it for years, so finally now
  • The Door, Magda Szabó — because I wanted Iza's Ballad (because the name) but it wasn't available, and NYRB Classics books are beautiful
  • Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau — because it's exercises in style, so I can argue that it's related to my work
  • The Familiar, Volume 2, Mark Z Danielewski — because volume 1 was exhilarating, and it's fascinating as an object
  • The Hand, Georges Simenon — because I'd never heard of it, and since it's not available in Canada it's that much more precious
  • The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman — because it was on all sorts of books-to-watch-for lists and it cost less than 2 dollars, and it might be about a library
  • The Last Days of New Paris, China Miéville — because Miéville is one of the few authors about whom I feel I must own his entire oeuvre
  • The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley — because I had it on a list somewhere, I don't know why
  • Monday Starts on Saturday, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky — because now available in English, plus it's an excellent title
  • So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, Patrick Modiano — because I'd never heard of it, and I felt a connection to Modiano this summer, and it was shelved in the thriller section
  • The Vegetarian, Han Kang — because I've been wanting to see what the fuss is about, but it wasn't available at my library, and I know I can hand it off to someone afterward
And before September, the last time I purchased a book was August, and before that was June. If you don't count the travel guide I picked up in July, along with some other vacation-reading material.

That's not counting the books I've purchased as gifts for other people, which typically occasion an oh-I'll-just-pick-up-a-little-something-for-myself-then-too moment, which helped contribute to the above.

Some of the above books were rationalized in a my-birthday-is-coming-soon way, and then an it-was-just-my-birthday-so-of-course-I-should-treat-myself way.

I'm proud to be using the library more regularly this year (quite suddenly they have a decent selection of ebooks), and when I'm hankering for something new I'm likely to browse NetGalley review copy offerings. At least some of the books listed above are ebooks (for which I'll rarely allow myself to spend more $5). I have not listed here the free ebooks I've acquired.

But believe me when I say it's not a spending problem so much as a space problem. I've become adept at slipping books in and overlooking them mentally; physically, it's a bit more challenging. Surely I'm a victim of book creep — the steady but so-slow-as-to-be-almost-imperceptible advance of books from designated shelves and corners onto most surfaces of my living space.

Me not buying books? Not very good at it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Prospero's library

If my library were peopled with creatures rather than books, it would house polar bear memoirists, insurgent dogs, poetry-spurting robots, grieving elephants, musical dragons, literary rats (and cockroaches), dream-weaving spiders, and pulsating intelligences. Murderers, detectives, hackers, God's gardeners, librarians, artists, occultists, mothers, medieval scholars, and bureaucrats all live here.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A smell cannot lie

Wolfgang's mouth smelled of lies. There are different sorts of lies, and each one has its own smell. This particular lie smelled of suspicion: Wolfgang was probably reporting not his own thoughts but the words of his boss. Wolfgang was a liar, but fortunately he was still a young liar. His smell revealed that he was still a child, and a smell cannot lie.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, is a beautifully whimsical meditation of a novel.

Really it's the memoirs of three polar bears spanning three generations. But they are the collective unconscious of an archetypal polar bear. Each bear embodies all past bear ancestors.

The subject of that meditation is tough to pin down. It is about writing and words and politics.
"Writing isn't particularly different from hibernation."

"The smaller the newborn text, the better, because then it has a better chance at survival."

"The boss had no doubt intended to enrich this low-fat speech with a bit more semantic butterfat."

"After that I stopped writing anything political, though I'm not entirely sure what's political and what isn't."

"Rage is a sort of fuel that can't be found in the forest."
It is about nationalism and cultural identity. How language is linked to identity. It is about climate change and responsibility and responsibility for the actions of our forebears. Free will and predetermined nature. What is natural and what is learned behaviour.

The first bear, the grandmother, is a star circus performer; she rode a bicycle in the early days. When her knees gave out after training in Latin American dance, she was assigned a desk job and started participating in conferences (for example, Working Conditions Among Artists, and Working Class Pride).

So there's this polar bear just living out her life in Moscow, sweet-talking her superintendent into giving her some contraband vodka, and the super starts discussing a masterpiece of Japanese diary literature from the Middle Ages, which inspires the bear to pen her autobiography, which is well received by the public, but her celebrity leads to persecution by the state.

She defects to West Germany, where she is overwhelmed by the availability of goods and somewhat taken aback by the conspicuous and wasteful consumption of the West. The bear begins to realize that her fate is inextricably linked to that of humans and human rights.

A bookseller presses Heinrich Heine's Atta Troll on her, for which she reproaches him: "You sold me an indigestible book!" Atta Troll, A Midsummer Night's Dream, an 1841 epic poem, is about a dancing bear who makes a break for freedom, to end up as rug in Paris. (Everything I know about Atta Troll I owe to short summaries and a Google preview of Reading Heinrich Heine; it appears to be not widely known in English.) The conversation turns to censorship.

Eventually she seeks political asylum in Canada. She learns English, marries, has a daughter (Tosca); her husband wants them to flee to East Germany, to contribute to the creation of an ideal state, so they do.

And this is how this novel is. Is she really a polar bear, or is she a metaphor? She is nameless.

Her daughter, Tosca, makes her name on the stage, and eventually also works in the circus. It appears that Tosca's son, Knut, is born in captivity, in a zoo, and is also an acclaimed public figure.

Their memoirs in turn are both funny and poignant.
"Someone told me once that illness was a traditional form of theater practiced by office workers, who were allowed to put on these performances only on Mondays when they didn't want to come to work."

"It's not that I want to talk about the war, it's just that it makes me nervous to have a hole in my circus biography. A hole that big might one day become my grave."

"I wanted to wrap myself in the black woolen blanket of grief and brood over my clutch of sorrows until they hatched and flew away, but it wasn't possible."

"Knut felt powerless in the face of time. Time was a huge ice block made of loneliness. Knut gnawed and scratched at it, but without effect. When Christian complained of having no time, as he often did, Knut envied him."
Each bear gains awareness of themselves, their heritage, and the larger climate of which they're a part. Only by looking inward can one begin to see outward.

I expected gimmicky and sentimental, but this novel was unpretentious and thoughtful, thoroughly charming. It let me revel in surreal circumstances and circus stories, but gave me space to consider some very serious questions indeed. The narrations flits easily, letting my mind settle where it will.
After the death of all living creatures, all our unfulfilled wishes and unspoken words will go on drifting in the stratosphere, they will combine with one another and linger upon the earth like fog. What will this fog look like in the eyes of the living? Will they fail to remember the dead and instead indulge in banal meteorological conversations like: "It's foggy today, don't you think?"

Sunday, November 13, 2016

All our conversations compete

I don't know how to say what I have to say to you. If I say, "I find that my choice is whether to not be or to be," it'll worry you. I could maybe say, "My choice is how to be," but that leaves so much unsaid.

When a robot vacuum cleaner hits the sofa leg, it might veer left, might go right. Is that choice? I don't know yet which way I'll veer.

The time I'm talking about is just before you got that last text from me, to which you didn't immediately reply, because it was in the middle of the night and it made no sense. I know later you came to my ruined house and couldn't get in, and no one could find me. I got your messages, but I couldn't answer. I saw how you all looked.

How do I tell this?

It's hard to think sometimes amid the clamor of argument. The politics of objects. All our conversations compete.

YouTube videos might be conversing among themselves — their lists and references and cuts parts of their dialect. When we bounce from song to nonsense to meme, we might be eavesdropping on arguments between images. It might be none of it's for us at all, any more than it's for us when we sit on a stool and intrude on the interactions of angles of furniture, or when we see a washing line bend under the weight of the wind or a big cloud of starlings and act like we get to be pleased.
— from "The Dusty Hat," in Three Moments of an Explosion, by China Miéville.

Conversations in the world that have nothing to do with you are suddenly meaningful. Everything is suddenly loaded with meaning.

I'm restless this week, and so is my reading. I can't seem to settle on anything, or see anything through.

I've been dipping into this volume of Miéville's short stories for well over a year now. I have a difficult time appreciating short stories in general. Maybe not unexpectedly, short stories feel just right at a time like now.

Some of these are brilliant, others less so. (Every reviewer has a different favourite; I'll keep you posted on mine.) But all of them are suddenly loaded with meaning.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Cohen, elsewhere

In the summer of '94 I was passing through Wrocław. A friend of mine from Kraków was in town, and we arranged to meet one afternoon in the bar beside the experimental theatre. My friend introduced me to Igor, an actor — more of a troubadour really — from Russia, somewhere east of Moscow. Igor spoke little Polish, and even less English or French. My friend was quite drunk already, and tired of translating.

Igor looked at me and said, Kanada, as if to confirm. Yes, I nodded. Igor smiled and said, Leonard Cohen.

And so we sang.