Friday, December 30, 2016

The swamp gas of European anxiety

Mystery lingered in the air like the scent of a scorched book.
As a teenager I tried reading H.P. Lovecraft — my big brother wouldn't shut up about him. But I didn't get very far; it just wasn't for me. I tried again in my twenties. This time, with a decent liberal arts education behind me, while the concepts intrigued, I just couldn't get past the poor quality of the writing. Today, I have a passing familiarity the Cthulhu mythos, despite never having read the source material.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor Lavalle, is a retelling of Lovecraft's 1925 story The Horror at Red Hook, generally acknowledged to be not particularly good. The original story is also widely considered to be offensive in its bigoted, xenophobic attitude. (After finishing Lavalle's Ballad, I decided to skim through the source. I am ashamed to admit that the racism wasn't entirely obvious to me; if I weren't looking for it, I might miss it, not because it's not there, but because it is so much a part of my cultural context. Is the story exceptionally offensive for its time or merely a mirror of society? Am I that oblivious? I don't know.)
"Your people," Robert Suydam began. "Your people are forced to live in mazes of hybrid squalor. It's all sound and filth and spiritual putrescence."
Lavalle manages to spin the negativity and bring it front and centre, making it essential to this story of otherness, of anger, corruption, power, entitlement.

The Ballad is told in two parts, the first from the perspective of minor hustler Charles Thomas Tester, the second from police detective Malone. Malone has for some time been watching the activities of Robert Suydam, a rich old eccentric, who is apparently connected to various nefarious goings-on relating to the immigrant community of Red Hook.
Locals attributed the rumors of abduction to the swamp gas of European anxiety known to flare up with a neighborhood's proximity to Red Hook.
Tommy Tester finds his marks, picks up jobs, while playing his guitar on sidewalks. He's not very good, so why would Suydam hire him to play for a party he's giving?
The idea troubled him like a pinched nerve.
Of course it's part of Suydam's bid for world domination, and his plan to summon Cthulhu. But, surprise: things go terribly wrong.

There's a fantastic review at Fantasy Fiction that explains the story better than I ever could (but be warned, it's rife with spoilers).
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Ballad of Black Tom, and the experience has been truly enriched by reading commentary about it.

One interview with Lavalle in particular in The Lovecraft eZine gave me a great deal of perspective:
I switched to Malone for a few reasons, but one of the biggest was that I wanted to spend time with Malone and show the journey of a white character who is a passive racist. There's a private detective in the book, Mr. Howard, who is the more virulent — and easily dismissed — kind of racist. He says terrible things about black people, he’s physically abusive to black people, he kills them without any guilt. Of course he's terrible. Malone, on the other hand, seems to have a greater respect for Tommy. He doesn't say racist things and he doesn't seem to relish being brutal to black people. And yet he never stands up against the system in which he works. He sits at the same table as police who have very recently murdered an innocent black man and he doesn't object, or try to bring criminal charges against them. He's good in the sense that he isn't overtly evil but if that's the best he can do then what the hell good is he? I wanted to write that guy because I find that kind of perspective interesting. "Well I've never called anyone a nigger." Or, "But my family never owned slaves." It's that kind of person, the one who simply stays silent in the face of oppression, who in fact looks away from it when he sees it, that is as much to blame for the situation as the more overt Mr. Howard. I didn't worry about making him too sympathetic, instead I simply tried to show him as someone who was blind but didn’t know he was blind. I've known lots of people like that. I've liked many of them but that didn't make them blameless.
Lavalle's novella ends with "Zig zag zig." It kind of made sense, in a passively random this-is-the-way-the-world-ends way, but it didn't make any sense at all, so I looked it up. The last letter of the Supreme Alphabet, signifying "from knowledge to wisdom to understanding." This be the last page of the book Tommy Tester is delivering when the novella opens, a page he withheld.

This makes me want to read the novella all over again, realizing that there are other mythologies woven into this story, that there a different levels of knowledge, types of arcana — the Ballad is rich with it. The writing is compelling, the plot and characters are well crafted, and there's a wonderful sense of unease throughout, making this my kind of horror story. Plus, a new kind of swamp gas of anxiety hangs is the air, which makes it relevant.
This is how you hustle the arcane. Skirt the rules but don't break them.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Even my morality is just discipline

Once, after she'd been introduced to the tape recorder in our apartment and told that you could play back a text or a piece of music, she talked about what it would be like if someone's life were recorded and put on tape, to be rewound, stopped and replayed at will. She said she'd accept her own life the way it was; or rather, as is would be up to her death, but with the proviso that she might rewind it to any point she chose. I didn't dare ask where she would stop the machine, and still less, why there. I didn't think she's tell me anyway.
In The Door, by Magda Szabó, a writer describes her tumultuous relationship with her housekeeper Emerence. Emerence is difficult.

The title no doubt refers to the door of Emerence's apartment. No one is allowed inside, ostensibly because of the cat, or nine cats, except for the dog, because the dog is privileged. But perhaps she hides other secrets inside. Late in the novel, there's another door, inside the apartment; it's a door to a past, but it's a mausoleum really, everything turned to dust.

I recently read an interview with Elena Ferrante conducted by Sheila Heti, which helped me put into perspective the writer's relationship with her housekeeper:
In Magda Szabó's The Door, Emerence — the intelligent cleaning-woman with a strong inner code of behaviour, who keeps house for the intellectual woman-writer protagonist—reminds me a bit of Lila, and Szabó's protagonist is reminiscent of your Elena. Yet Emerence is somehow the superior of the pair, as is Lila. Is there something in the figure of the intellectual woman writer that pales in comparison (from the perspective of the woman writing) to the (comparatively) uneducated woman who yet knows and understands the world? Why do so many female writers demean the "intellectual" female figures we create? Do we still not truly value female literary work, women who work with their minds? Is it a kind of self-loathing? Why do we often portray intellectual women as having lost more than they have gained?

You pose a very interesting question; I have to think about it. Why do we invent cultivated, intelligent women and then lower their level or even their pleasure in life? Who knows. Maybe because we're still incapable of a convincing portrayal of female intelligence. We haven't completely set aside the literary model that represented us at the side of a superior man who would take care of us and our children. Thus, though we have now acquired the sense of our inner richness and our intellectual autonomy, we portray them in a minor key, as if our capacity to produce ideas and culture were a presumptuous exaggeration, as if, even having something extra, we ourselves didn't really believe in it. From here, probably, comes the literary invention of secondary female figures who possess that something extra in themselves, remind us of it, assure us that it's there and should be appreciated. We are still in the middle of the crossing, and literature makes do however it can.

Reading The Door has provoked a lot of reflection, about honour and pride and betrayal, discipline, friendship, love, about how we can never get inside somebody else's head, how other people must in some ways forever remain mysterious to us.
She's making these underhand remarks to settle the score, I told myself, but I quickly dropped the thought because I knew this wasn't true. Emerence wasn't getting even. The matter was more complicated than that, and rather more interesting. Emerence was a generous person, open-handed and essentially good. She refused to believe in God, but she honoured him with her actions. She was capable of sacrifice. Things I had to attend to consciously she did instinctively. It made no difference that shewasn't aware of it — her goodness was innate, mine was the result of upbringing. It was only later that I developed my own clear moral standards. One day Emerence would be able to show me, without uttering a word, that what I consider religion is a sort of Buddhism, a mere respect for tradition, and even my morality is just discipline, the result of training at home, in school and my family, or self-imposed.
This is a very beautiful novel, and it did put me in mind of Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet, only it's funnier, while somehow at the same time more serious. Less Latin, more Eastern European (I couldn't help but be reminded of other Hungarian works). Less telenovela, more absurdist crazy cat lady. I will definitely be reading more Szabó.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A kind of unimportant nebula

According to the back cover copy of my trashy-looking mass market paperback (exactly as pictured here),
The Accomplices is Simenon's powerful study in guilt and obsession — the portrait of a man destroyed by the consequences of sexual bondage.
That's a simplistic reading. Joseph Lambert is not a sexual obsessive per se. He lives an ordinary life. He wants to escape his mundane life, his boring wife, his predictable routine.
He was fed up with himself, fed up with being a man.
The novel opens with Lambert driving through the rainy countryside with his mistress, his secretary Edmonde. He doesn't have both hands on the wheel, and his attention is not on the road. By page 2, he has caused a deadly crash — a schoolbus full of children goes up in flames. The story follows Lambert's trajectory through guilt and self-destruction in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

One intuits immediately that the occupants of the car are the accomplices of the title.
Though they were not in love and had never acted as if they were, there was nevertheless an intimacy between them, an intimacy of another kind that bordered on complicity.
Their complicity is noted a few times, but Edmonde's complete silence about the incident makes one wonder whether she's aware of what happened at all. Doesn't complicity require some form of intent? Is she so cold or so oblivious that she does not recognize it as a tragedy at all?
What did Edmonde think about what had happened, about the way he had behaved? What did she think bout him? Had it been anyone else, he would have asked. But her — he dared not.


Was it because what existed between them was on a plane different from that of ordinary life, of life as one conceives it, as one lives it, as one wants it to be?

It was somewhat as if, at a given moment, for no apparent reason, they exchanged a signal and then escaped.

He was not modest in her presence either. They entered a different realm, a realm which resembled that of childhood rather than that of evil.
There are times when it seems the whole town is complicit with Lambert. Despite the occasional marital indiscretion, he is, on the whole, an upstanding businessman, and nobody suspects him of playing a role in the disaster. Nobody wants to suspect him, nobody wants their routine disrupted, their humdrum, provincial existence upended.

Except maybe Lambert himself.
He felt within him a refusal to return to ordinary life, and he plunged almost fiercely into a universe where all that mattered was the quivering of his senses.

The universe then drifted away until it was only a kind of unimportant nebula. Objects lost their weight, human beings were merely tiny or grotesque puppets, and everything to which one usually attached value became ridiculous. All that remained in a shrunken, warm, enveloping, an kindly world was the pounding of the blood in their arteries, a symphony which at first was vague and diffuse, then gradually became sharper, and finally concentrated in their sex organs.
There's a very specific thing in The Accomplices that put me in mind of a very specific thing in Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. Lambert's pursuit of "the click" — that's what Edmonde enables. It's a mental switch, a cognitive break from reality.

In Hamilton that break is tied up with mental illness, and blurred by sex and alcohol; sex acts as a trigger, evidence of all the dirt and filth the character needs to break from. In Simenon the break is pursued, and the pursuit of sex is a catalyst to achieving that break, kind of like the ultimate, transcendent orgasm, only it's not sexual per se — it's sensual, fully inhabiting one's senses. It mimics a return to childhood, a detachment from reality, an absence of responsibility.

It's taken me ages to read this slim little novel. I've made several false starts on this one over the couple years since I acquired it. My copy is very used, and very pungent with old-book smell. It's also sticky. Twice in the past week I've left home without a book, without this book. One might take this for a sign of illness. Or a sign of avoidance. I find reading Simenon takes a certain strength, a willingness to abandon oneself to the questionable morality Simenon probes at, book after book after book. But it's a very rewarding interior journey.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Library packed, unpacked

About a year ago now I was packing up house. I whittled down my possessions to those I truly wanted to possess, those that I would freely invite into my new home. That included books.

I gave away about half of my books. That still leaves me with too many books.

It's also about a year ago that a friend sent me a "postcard book," something she'd recently picked up in Atlantis Books on Santorini. It's a 2013 publication from Paravion Press of Walter Benjamin's essay, Unpacking My Library.

It seemed a small gem, and I kept it in my purse for a few weeks for fear of losing it in the shuffle of boxes. But then I decided I should put it in a safe place, where it would be protected from my daily rummaging. But then I couldn't remember where I'd put it, so it was effectively lost for a few months, till I found it and moved it to a more logical, more sensible, safer place. And so it was lost for another couple months. Till I slipped it back in my purse, and finally read it.

Illustration (detail) by Marie Basten
It's not really about books; it's about collecting books. It's not even really about libraries, except insofar as libraries house collections. The books here are incidental. It's about books as objects.

This shouldn't surprise me. I encountered Benjamin previously in a class on Dada and Surrealism; he had some thoughts on thingness. In this essay books are physical things with physical histories, never mind their contents.
[For the collector] it is not so much books as copies of books that have their fates. I am not saying too much: for the true collector, the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. [...] To make the old world new again — that is the deepest drive in the collector's wish to acquire new things, and that is why the collector holds older books to be closer to the essence of collecting than reprints, which are interesting for bibliophiles.
Clearly, although I have collected many books, I am not a collector.

Benjamin offers some thoughts on the book collector hovering between the poles of order and disorder "If there is a counterpart to the lawlessness of a library, it is the strict adherence to rules in its indexing." Benjamin seems to claim that this is the only respect in which a collector of books is distinguished from a collector of fine china or come other collectible. But I dispute it, having viewed finely catalogued collections of stamps, baseball cards, and geological samples.

My library of books, much reduced over the years, is in my head more than it can be defined in spatial terms. But much like a collector, the value of the books I have read is inextricably linked to the circumstances that brought me to them, the network of people, places, subjects in which they are entrenched.

I am more enamored of the idea of them than the physical evidence of them. But this is not a natural position of mine; it had to be learned. Maybe there's something to Benjamin's position that childishness permeates the collector. Simply I've outgrown it.

Benjamin's essay is a phenomenological digression, and not the paean to books that sings in my soul.

I wonder what Benjamin would make of ebooks.

Read Benjamin's essay online.

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].