Wednesday, August 08, 2018

There's a situation vacant

Book acquired: Shada (Doctor Who: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams), by Gareth Roberts.

It starts this way:
At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways — with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, Wait a second. That means there's a situation vacant.
I had this revelation at the age of four. I was sitting in church, humming. I definitely felt relief, mostly because this meant it was merely parental authority compelling me to attend mass on a weekly basis, not anything higher. This was something I could work with.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Exactly what a young girl dreams love can be

The years I spent getting high and reading library books I do not regret. It wasn't a bad life, even if I would probably never go back. I had an income from stripping and could afford to buy what I wanted, which was drugs, and if you have never tried heroin I have news for you: It makes you feel good about yourself, especially in the beginning. It makes you feel good about other people. You want to give the whole world a break, a time-out, a tender regard. There is nothing so soothing. My first dabble in it was morphine, a pill that someone else melted in a spoon and helped me inject, a guy named Bill and I hadn't thought much about him or what the drug would be like but the careful way he tied off my arm and found my vein, the way the needle went in, so thin and delicate, the whole experience of this random guy I never saw again shooting me up in an abandoned house was exactly what a young girl dreams love can be.

"This is a pins and needles high," he'd said. "It'll grab you by the back of the neck." It grabbed me by the back of the head with its firm clench, rubber tongs, then warmth spread down through me. I broke into the most relaxing sweat of my life. I fell in love. I don't miss those years. I'm just telling you.
— from The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner.

Here we go with the heroin, again.

Monday, July 30, 2018

World canot be grasped

World was in the face of the beloved—,
but suddenly was all poured out.
World is outside. World cannot be grasped.

Why, when I raised to my lips the full,
beloved face, did I not drink in world,
which was so near I tasted its bouquet?

Ah, I drank. Insatiably I drank.
But already I was overbrimming
with too much world, and as I drank I spilled.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Edward Snow)
[Another translation here.]

I'm putting this volume of poetry to bed.

It's a beautiful edition. I love having the German side by side with the English. I love pretending I can read it aloud competently. If nothing else, it gives a good sense of the rhyme and rhythm of the original.

I don't like all of Rilke's work — much of it even bores me — but that which resonates with me utterly transports me.

I much prefer his later uncollected poems, which I would characterize as more spiritual and more sensual both, less identifiably about anything.

I've been dipping into this volume for years, but gave vast sections of it a more concentrated look this summer and now I feel glutted.

Too much world.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The goby and the shrimp

"The pistol shrimp digs out a little hole to live in. But every once in a while, something else comes and sets up camp in the shrimp's hole — a little fish, called a goby. The goby isn't a freeloader, however. In exchange for a place to live, he hangs out at the entrance to the hole and wags his tail whenever enemies approach, letting the shrimp know what's coming. It's what biologists call a symbiotic relationship."
In Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino, Detective Sasagaki has been watching the shrimp for twenty years, hoping to catch out the goby.

It starts with the murder of a pawnbroker. The shrimp is a little girl at the time, whose mother has an undefined relationship with the victim. And grim events seem to follow the girl throughout her life. She grows into an enterprising woman whose calm demands respect, or fear.
"You know how the sun rises and sets at a certain time each day? In the same way, all of our lives have a day and night. But it's not set like it is with the sun. Some people walk forever in the sunlight, and some people have to walk through the darkest night their whole lives. When people talk about being afraid, what they're afraid of is that their sun will set. That the light they love will fade. That's why you're frightened, isn't it?"
It's a mostly enjoyable read that covers a lot of aspects of a changing society, from dance clubs, tea ceremonies, and matchmaking services to booming financial markets, pirated video games, and fringe sex trade operations.

This book sprawls more than the other Higashino books I've read, and has a large cast of characters. Apparently, the novel was originally published in a serialized fashion, which goes a long way toward explaining the pacing. Every chapter switches to a new scene, and for the first part of the book to a new set of players. To my mind the chapters were overly long and bogged down in stage-setting unnecessary to the main story. It makes sense for serialization but as a novel it could be tighter — it shouldn't take 200 pages to get one's bearings and feel invested in the outcome.

Still, the characters are mostly well drawn, and the at-times heavy subject matter is balanced with moral insight and good humour ("It was Akemi's stated belief that a life lived in fear of stinking like garlic wasn't worth living."). The title remains enigmatic to me.

An interesting perspective in the South China Morning Post:
Journey Under the Midnight Sun isn't a whodunnit or even a whydunnit but a what-exactly-is-being-dunnit. It is also an extraordinary work of popular fiction. You could read it as a potted history of modern Japan, an exploration of a crumbling social order (gender, class, money, obedience), a ludic literary puzzle that plays with genre expectations: Higashino's many allusions veer from mysteries to "classic girl's school story". But at no point does he forget his fundamental raison d'ecrire: to provide a tantalising mystery that keeps the pages turning.
See Contemporary Japanese Literature for a fantastic review that covers the problematic elements of this novel — notably the author's treatment of women and the detective's less-than-credible obsession with the case. While I definitely noticed these flaws, I chose to overlook them in my pursuit of entertainment.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The air itself is one vast library

What a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! Every atom, impressed with good and with ill, retains at once the motion which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man’s changeful will.
— from The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, by Charles Babbage.

This quotation serves as a springboard for appreciating the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The exhibit Unstable Presence is showing at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) until September 9.

In Vicious Circular Breathing, for example, the participant steps into a glass box and breathes, breathing in the air breathed by previous participants. The breath is represented by bellows which, via respiration tubes, inflate and deflate a number of brown paper bags.

Other works are more purely sound-based. You can step inside a sphere and here all of Bach's works at the same time. In another room voices are "translated" into light and layered on top of each other.

I am reminded of a couple of Wim Wenders' films — the angels that perceive everything at once (Wings of Desire); sound that is removed from its context, distilled (Lisbon Story).

All of which stands to complement my reading of Rilke...
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The mezzanine of parentheses

Rilke to Tsvetayeva, May 10, 1926:
You, poet, do you sense how you have overwhelmed me, you and your magnificent fellow reader; I'm writing like you and I descend like you the few steps down from the sentence into the mezzanine of parentheses, where the ceilings are so low and where it smells of roses past that never cease.
— from Letters: Summer 1926, by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

I am finding Rilke's correspondence more interesting than his poetry.

Most of his poetry no longer resonates with me the way it once did. Perhaps I feel the glut of it; I feel the pull of only rare scraps. Most of it feels too much like a riddle to be solved.

How my mindset has changed over the years. Today I seek clarity (even if it is parenthetical).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What I fall in love with when I read dating profiles

[Actual lines from various profiles across several dating apps. A found poem of sorts.]

Dear future girlfriend,

Fantastically flawed human being looking for same.

Two-time winner of Monopoly beauty contest.

Spicier than vanilla. Often accused of being addictive, even in small doses.

Mostly happy with occasional spurts of go-lucky.

Passable credit.

I want a princess by day and complete submissive whore behind closed doors. Ultimately looking for long term.

Research shows the best way to know if you'll want a second date is to go on a first date.

I live on my own, and I smell nice.

Epic poet.

You agree with Socrates that the unexamined life isn't worth living, but also value life enough not to share the hemlock with him.

Life without music is pointless.

You: [this space intentionally left blank]

Please don't message me if you're a scammer who expects me to send you money. Had 2 of those already in my first 3 days here, and I wasn't born yesterday. It won't work.

Looking for friends on this planet.

Reassure me that you do, in fact, exist.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Redolent of coffee

When he got home he found in the mailbox a postcard from Claire that had been sent from Bonifacio the preceding week. The news was out of date but the thoughtfulness pleased him. In fact it was this time lag that made the card valuable, as if the words had mellowed in the space of a few days. The e-mails were precious because they provided almost instantaneous reports, but they would never have that slightly aged flavor. On a postcard, the words had been weighed while staring into space and chewing on the pen. They were laid down with care and measure, since there was limited room. The cards were redolent of coffee and fruit juice drunk on a terrace, the perfume of flowers in the shade of a public park. The e-mails smelled of a dirty keyboard and a poorly ventilated office.
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored. This has got to be one of my favourite titles ever. Because cats! In summertime!

The story itself, a mystery set in Southern France, is somewhat quiet. Methodical, both in laying out the crime and investigating it. It's credible, not gratuitous in the slightest. Which makes it nice and easy. This novel succeeded in gently easing me back into reading fiction.

Inspector Gilles Sebag is a very ordinary cop who enjoys spending time with his family, lounging by the pool, eating, making love, sleeping. He is a coffee connoisseur. He finds time for work, but has the best work-life balance of any investigator I can recollect. He doubts his abilities.

And he is drawn into a game of cat and mouse. Somebody's life is at stake, and this finds the right priority amid office politics and potential marital troubles.

I am these days somewhat preoccupied with the phenomenon of the midlife crisis. "Where did adultery begin?"
When you know each other by heart, you can read your partner's body language, smiles and grimaces. You start by no longer needing to look at each other and end up not seeing each other at all. You no longer even bother to look up.
The subject is treated here in a mature and altogether French way.

There is only one actual cat in this book, belonging to Gilles' neighbour, whom he lures over to his side with bowls of milk. The other cats must be metaphorical. I guess they're bored.

I am pleased to note that Philippe Georget has written more novels, and some are available in English. I'll be watching out for them.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Something long and difficult to fathom

Navoi lived for four years in Samarkand: a city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse. But before Navoi himself transformed the Old Uzbek vernacular into a literary language, all of this poetry was written in Persian. In his Muhakamat al-lughatayn, or Judgement of Two Languages (1499), Navoi mathematically proved the superiority to Persian of Old Uzbek, a language so rich that it had words for seventy different species of duck. Persian just had duck. Impoverished Persian writers had no words with which to differentiate between a burr and a thorn; older and younger sisters; male, female, and infant boars; hunting and fowling; a beauty mark on a woman's face and a beauty mark somewhere else; deer and elands; being adorned and being really adorned; drinking something down all at once in a refined way, and drinking slowly while savouring each drop.

Persian, Dilorom told me, had only one word for crying, whereas Old Uzbek had one hundred. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to, for being caused to sob by something, for loudly crying like thunder in the clouds, for crying in gasps, for weeping inwardly or secretly, for crying ceaselessly in a high voice, for crying in hiccups, and for crying while uttering the sound hay hay. Old Uzbek had special verbs for being unable to sleep, for speaking while feeding animals, for being a hypocrite, for gazing imploringly into a lover's face, for dispersing a crowd.

It was all just like a Borges story — except that Borges stories are always so short, whereas life in Samarkand kept dragging obscurely on and on. In Borges, the different peculiar languages yield up, in a matter of pages, some kind of interesting philosophical import: the languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlon have no nouns, a circumstance that immediately turns out to represent an extreme of Berkeleyan idealism whereby the world is perceived as a sequence of shifting shapes; the Chinese encyclopedia has different words for animals drawn with a fine camel's-hair brush and animals who have just broken a flower vase, which dramatizes the impossibility of devising any objective system of classifying knowledge.

By contrast, whatever it was that you learned about Uzbeks when you studied their language, it was something long and difficult to fathom. What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek has a hundred different words for crying? I wasn't sure, but it didn't seem to bode well for my summer vacation.
— from The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman.

Friday, June 29, 2018

How shall I keep my soul from touching yours?

Love Song

How shall I keep my soul
from touching yours? How shall I
lift it up beyond you to other things?
Ah, I would gladly hide it
in darkness with something lost
in some silent foreign place
that doesn't tremble when your deeps stir.
Yet whatever touches you and me
blends us together the way a bow's stroke
draws one voice from two strings.
Across what instrument are we stretched taut?
And what player holds us in his hand?
O sweet song.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Edward Snow)
I'm reading Rilke again. Never a good sign.

Three books have come together:
So it'll be another summer of Rilke. I hope this ends better than the last one. What is wrong with me?

Writes Tsvetayeva to Rilke, inexplicably:
I know what time is and what a poem is. I also know what a letter is. So there.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The feeling of only half understanding

While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for?
Batuman is a joy to read. She's funny, smart, and sincere. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, takes the reader from Stanford to Samarkand by way of Russia.

A familiarity with Russian literature is not required to appreciate this memoir, though if you understand the mindset of what it is to revel in these thick and intricate Russian worlds, so much the better.

However, for example, I've never read Babel, to whom the whole of chapter one is devoted; but I think I might want to read Babel now ("Whenever Babel meets anyone, he has to fathom what he is. Always "what," not "who."). I have no knowledge of the Uzbek language or its literature, and I'm quite convinced that it's not necessary for me to pursue the topic further. So I guess what you need to bring to this book is an openness to hearing the stories of people who pursue literature, and its more obscure aspects, as a field of study.

(The scholars seem to agree that Babel lived life as a source of material. I suppose a lot or writers are "guilty" of this.)
I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory. The Uzbek language truly was related to both Turkish and Russian, by either genetic origin or secondary contact... but that didn't make it a reconciliation between the two. When you studied Uzbek, you weren't learning a history or a story; all you were learning was a collection of words. And the larger implication was that no geographic location, no foreign language, no pre-existing entity at all would ever reconcile "who" you were with "what" you were, or where you came from with what you liked.
What may not be obvious about The Possessed, even though Batuman states it clearly, more than once, is that it's about love. The state of being possessed has love at its core. "What is it you love, when you're in love?" This is difficult enough to answer when the object of love is a person — their body, their soul, their attributes, their worldly goods. But when love's target is more abstract, so too are its defining characteristics. What do you love when you love a language or a literature or a body of work?

Batuman exposes some of the tedium and absurdity of academia. But through it all there is love and joy!
When I came back from Samarkand, I almost entirely lost the ability to read poetry. It was like a language I didn't speak anymore. What I used to enjoy in poetry was precisely the feeling of only half understanding — a feeling that is intensified, as Tolstoy once observed, when the poetry is written in a foreign language:

Without entering into the meaning of each phrase you continue to read and, from the few words that are comprehensible to you, a completely different meaning arises in your mind — unclear, cloudy, and not in accord with the original phrasing, but all the more beautiful and poetic. For a long time, the Caucasus was for me this poem in a foreign language; once I deciphered its true meaning, there were many cases in which I missed the poem I had invented, and many cases in which I believed the real poem was better than the imaginary one.

After Samarkand, the beauty of cloudy, poetical meanings conjured out of associations and half-grasped words — the beauty of things that don't appear on the page — somehow lost its charm for me. From that point on I was interested only in huge novels. I started researching a dissertation on the hugeness of novels, the way they devour time and material. And although I suppose it's just coincidence that Tolstoy compared the subjective charms of half-understood poetry to the Caucasus in particular, nonetheless, I was finished with them, too — with the Caucasus, the Russian East, and the literatures of the peripheries.
Meanwhile, I have lost the ability to read fiction, I hope only temporarily. Between salving my heart, confessing my soul to paper, and walking — the endless walking — fiction has become an interference, reading an irritation. Sigh.


Review: Salon
The fact that I could never quite understand what was going on put me off of Russian novels; for Batuman, it's a prime attraction.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Inviolate to the ravages of time

Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?
The White Book, by Han Kang, is a difficult book to talk about. It's billed as fiction, but it reads like something between memoir and poetry. It's less book than art. Being so experimental in form, it is difficult to synthesize.

I read it about a month ago, in one sitting. I promptly forgot its details, but the mood of it washed over me and lingered. I revisited portions of it last week in preparation for book club discussion, but again the substance of it has washed away.

It's a beautiful book as object. It's crisp, stark. French flaps. White space. Blank pages. Black and white photos (greyscale, really).

On the whole it leaves me cold (like frost). It's sterile and antiseptic (like salt).

It starts off as a formal exercise, a list of white things. I expect a meditation on whiteness and its associations (a philosophical inquiry à la William H Gass). I am relieved that there is no discussion of race, but other bookclub participants are outraged that there is no discussion of race; how could anyone call their book "The White Book" and not at least acknowledge the issue of race?

The narrator walks through a foreign city. The city is never named. The very first review of this book that I read identified the city; in fact this knowledge piqued my interest in the book. It's a city that I know, and that I don't particularly like. I wonder if I would've been able to identify the city without having been told. I think so. It's a city that was destroyed and rebuilt. It looks old, but it's brand new. It feels... disconnected.

The story, such as it is, is about the narrator's older sister, whom she never met. (Or it is about her relationship with her older sister.) The baby had lived only an hour or so. The heart and soul of the book is the narrator's imagining of her non-sister's non-life. It is a life reconstructed, resurrected; but it's not the real thing. Her sister is a kind of ghost, realized in this city of ghosts.

Whiteness tends toward innocence, purity, peace, and hope. Also blankness, a kind of neutrality. White is all colour.

The narrator has migraines. So do I. I was the only one in our discussion group who has migraines. Statistically, I thought there'd be one more. "I concentrate on simply enduring the pain, sensing time's discrete drops as razor-sharp gemstones, grazing my fingertips." White pain, like white noise.
Clean, cold light that had bathed her eyes, scouring her mind of all memory.
The book's whiteness is punctuated with colour: a bead of blood, red brick wall, black earth's reflection, the blue tinge of a sluggish dawn, a gunmetal sea.

Fog: "can we really call it white? That vast soundless ululation between this world and the next, each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness." Is translucence white?
Blizzard: "This vanishing fragility, this oppressive weight of beauty."
Bed linen: "Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of."
Laughing whitely: "Laughter that is faint, cheerless, its cleanness easily shattered. And the face that forms it."
Bones: "That human beings are also constructed of something other than flesh and muscle seemed to her like a strange stroke of luck."

This book will not advance your understanding of whiteness. It may or may not have achieved any resolution of memory, or guilt, or writer's block.

The end inspires some hopefulness, that all will be whiteness (all will be all colours?), that the narrator will see clearly with her non-sister's eyes. It confirms connection through detachment.

This book is not a story, it's an experience.

Asian Review of Books
The Irish Times
There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The impossibility of forever

Incandescent bulb

Her desk had been swept bare. There is only the incandescent bulb above it, giving off light and heat.
All is still.
The blind has not been lowered, and headlights can be seen moving along the main road at sporadic intervals now that midnight has passed.

She is sitting at the desk, like someone who has never known suffering.
Not like someone who has just been crying, or is about to.
Like someone who has never shattered.
As though there has never been a time when the only comfort lay in the impossibility of forever.
— from The White Book, by Han Kang.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Emptiness is a type of existence

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, takes its name from the problem of physics to do with gravitational systems and the predictability of the movement of those bodies. Finally I'm motivated to read this book, as it's up for discussion at bookclub.

What I did not expect was the background of the Cultural Revolution, a physics professor persecuted for teaching the (reactionary!) theory of relativity (developed under "the black banner of capitalism"), and a woman traumatized by the experience of seeing this man, her father, die.

(The author claims he's not interested in social commentary; the stories of science are far more profound. Maybe it's true, or maybe it's just something he says.)

I did not expect to be confronted with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring:
It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.
Nor did I expect to be fully immersed in a virtual reality game, encountering historical personages and simulating famous mathematical conundrums (and with an homage to Flatland).

Also this sentence, which I keep rolling over, trying to make sense of it: "A woman should be like water, able to flow over and around anything."

And Buddhist teachings: "Emptiness is not nothingness. Emptiness is a type of existence. You must use this existential emptiness to fill yourself."

And bits of poetry: "This kind of experiment is akin to looking for a raindrop of a slightly different color in a summer thunderstorm."

This is a massive story, and it feels like it's barely just begun (this is, after all, just the first part of a trilogy of books). The plot proper ostensibly opens when Wang Miao, a nanotech researcher, is called in to assist in the investigation into a rash of mysterious deaths of several prominent scientists.

He has occasion to meet Ye Wenjie, astrophysicist and mother of the latest victim. Much of the novel is devoted to Wang learning about Ye's past, including how she had watched her father be executed and herself was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.

And then, wow, contact. And that first message is a warning, or maybe a threat, or maybe a cleverly laid ruse.

Much of the rest of the novel is consumed with Wang playing the VR game, trying to solve the three-body problem, which turns out be a very real problem for a very real planet with three suns. The Trisolarans have adapted to their extreme environment — their bodies can dehydrate and be stored during chaotic periods — but the end is imminent and they must find a new home.

I finished the book despairing over humanity, not so much concerned over its ultimate fate as disappointed in our actions along the way — how many betrayals against our species along the way, whether at an individual or community level or on a planetary scale.

I am torn between resistance and welcoming our alien overlords.

It was quite the humbling realization to realize we are but bugs before them, but...
Look at them, the bugs. Humans have used everything in their power to extinguish them: every kind of poison, aerial sprays, introducing and cultivating their natural predators, searching for and destroying their eggs, using genetic modification to sterilize them, burning with fire, drowning with water. Every family has bug spray, every desk has a flyswatter under it . . . this long war has been going on for the entire history of human civilization. But the outcome is still in doubt. The bugs have not been eliminated. They still proudly live between the heavens and the earth, and their numbers have not diminished from the time before the appearance of the humans.

Friday, June 01, 2018

The spawn's heartbeat

Ruta once heard the life of the mushroom spawn. It was an underground rustling that sounded like a dull sigh, and then she could hear the gentle crackle of clumps of earth as the thread of the mycelium pushed its way between them. Ruta heard the spawn's heartbeat, which happens once very eighty human years. Ever since she has been coming to this damp spot in Wodenica, and always lies down on the wet moss. If she lies there for a while, she starts to sense the mushroom spawn in another way, too — because the spawn slows down time. Ruta falls into a waking sleep, and sees everything in a completely different way. She can see individual gusts of wind, the slow and graceful flight of insects, the fluent movements of ants, and particles of light that settle on the surfaces of leaves. All the high-up noises — the warbling of birds, the squealing of animals — change into booming and rumbling, and glide along just above the ground, like mist. Ruta feels as if she has been lying like that for hours, though only a moment has passed. So the mushroom spawn takes time into its possession.
— from Primeval and Other Times, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Like a dull sigh. Takes time into its possession.

Monday, May 28, 2018

It is impossible to grasp everything at once

People think they live more intensely than animals, than plants, and especially than things. Animals sense that they live more intensely than plants and things. Plants dream that they live more intensely than things. But things last, and this lasting is more alive than anything else.
People come and go. We live, we die. We're all the same, interchangeable. The things, they live without us, take on a life of their own. (How intensely do you live?)

Primeval and Other Times, by Olga Tokarczuk, is absolutely exquisite in evoking someplace mythical, an irrelevant backwater locked in time and space that finally transcends its limitations. Primeval is the centre of the universe. There is no before or after.

The book starts and ends with a coffee-grinder. We don't know exactly where it came from (somewhere in the east) and we don't know what lies ahead (the world is opening to the west), but it's passed through three generations of one family in Primeval. Life is a grind, life grinds you down, and it just keeps grinding. Things last.
If you take a close look at an object, with your eyes closed to avoid being deceived by the appearances that things exude around themselves, if you allow yourself to be mistrustful, you can see their true faces, at least for a moment.
According to Ruta, the world outside of Primeval doesn't exist. Does she truly believe this? (One day she tries to leave.) Or is it just a story she tells gullible Izydor?
He stepped back a few paces and started running towards the spot where, according to Ruta, the boundary ran. Then he suddenly stopped. He himself did not know why. Something here wasn't right. He stretched his hands out ahead of him, and his fingertips disappeared.

Izydor felt himself split into two different boys. One of them was standing with his hands held out ahead, and they clearly lacked any fingertips. The other boy was next to him, and couldn't see the first boy, or moreover his lack of fingers. Izydor was both boys at once.
Later, Ruta once again leads Izydor into the forest:
And now he realised where his sense of lack was coming from, the sorrow that underlay everything, the sorrow that was present in every single thing, in every phenomenon, and always had been — it is impossible to grasp everything at once.
There's a thing about God being present in process, transformation, change. Maybe he does not exist here, in Primeval, where nothing changes. But things change.

This book made me tear up, more than once. Not because of the story events per se, but for how it made me reflect on my own life, the people who come and go, what we do and don't have control over. How we live. Things that are so small and so big at the same time. Every book has its time and its place, and I'm living in a primeval state just now; this is the book I needed. I love this book.

Words without Borders


Sunday, May 27, 2018

The universe was a cramped heart

Standing under the flashing dome of the night sky, Wang suddenly felt the universe shrink until it was so small that only he was imprisoned in it. The universe was a cramped heart, and the red light that suffused everything was the translucent blood that filled the organ. Suspended in the blood, he saw that the flickering of the red light was not periodic — the pulsing was irregular. He felt a strange, perverse, immense presence that could never be understood by human intellect.
— from The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Self-indulgent masturbation

"At any minute, we could find ourselves in a nontemporal state without ever having realized it. If the ego and consciousness were related but separate entities, and one absented from the other or consciousness differentiated itself to a bodily degree, that would cause the ego's perception of time to alter, like in dreams. Time is a method of organizing entropy in a manner comprehensible to consciousness as perceived by the human mind through the lens of the ego," he said between sips, as if I understood a quarter of that without stopping to think.
The Lightning Stenography Device, by MF Sullivan, is one of the most self-indulgent and pretentious books I've had the pleasure of hate-reading in ages. I read it so you don't have to.

The device in question is a thought-to-text machine, saving you the trouble of writing things down, typing things out, losing all the brilliant tangents one travels down while crafting sentences, and working at the speed of thought itself. For some select individuals, the device seems to capture dreams, too. And those dreams are sometimes of the future.

Lightning Stenography Device. LSD. Get it?
"Cassius, no! Writing about writers is self-indulgent masturbation." Though behind her lurked the shut blinds of her office window and edge of a ficus she'd somehow kept alive since I'd last seen her in person three years before, she was not deterred from snatching up her bourbon. "Nobody wants to read that. Writers write for readers, not for other writers."
No, not so MF Sullivan. She'll condescend to her readers. (Is there any other kind of masturbation?)

The first half of the book is all like this:
"No author did better than Pynchon in dancing around a depiction of that which cannot be depicted. There is a certain aspect of the unconscious which, by definition, cannot be brought fully into consciousness, and it is this from which the Word buffers us. It can, however, be experienced in one form or another, for better or for worse, and communicated with a series of symbols in context. That is what life is: a narrative we build to defend our egos based on a collection of more or less arbitrary vignettes selected to provide us with the context for our own being. When we feel ourselves becoming something we cannot or do not wish to justify, we are stricken by cognitive dissonance and find ourselves forced to face that which we never expected, never considered: that the existence our shadow is dependent entirely upon our own existence.

If we did not exist, now would our shadow; if our shadow did not exist, we would not, either."
Got that? Yeah, it just goes on and on and on. I could've done with 200 fewer pages.

Note that all this intellectual masturbation is served up in the guise of dialogue, which makes it the most boring conversation I never want to be a part of.
"These things are things that come from someplace beyond human imagining. Transmitted, somehow, from someplace beyond comprehension. But that's true of all stories, of all life. Everything that is and was and will be is all eternally present, like reality was a book in the hands of something beyond perception. But we, within the proverbial book, or reading an actual book, can only live this moment, the next moment, the moment after that, in linear order. We can only read one page — one word, truly — at a time. It's the only way to make sense of it."
Also, it's weirdly religious in places. Every writer is a god. And capital G God is the ultimate author.

The last section of the novel has a different tone entirely. A book within a book. Arguably it is the whole point of the novel, with its Jungian archetypes and high fantasy, but the pieces just don't fit together comfortably.

The narrative as a whole harps on the Matrix-like construction we live in, with the layer at the core being that Jungian dream subconscious.

One troubling aspect is how the female protagonists buy into the patriarchal clichés — the farm girl rescued by her prince, that sort of thing, and in the non-fantasy "realist" section, the central woman is somehow lesser, deferring to the older men.

The author provides some background on the publisher's website (although the book appears to be self-published), but even this verbose breakdown is quite patronizing. "One of the elements most infuriating to readers who were expecting a breezy read is, no doubt, both the elements of philosophy, and the structure of the book, itself." [That's two elements, by the way.] "I have received a few low reviews from readers who were disappointed to find that this was a book which required them to think." "I will avoid connecting all the dots for you." "The God the characters of The Lightning Stenography Device address is not so much the traditional godhead, but rather me, and I, in my role as author, play to them a kind of symbol of the far greater demiurge."

Of course, we are all the writers of our own narratives, the heroes of our own stories.
Even when you and I writer and rewrite a story, when we describe events happening to a character, a fictional character is experience it and making choices as that fictional character could only ever hope to make. We as writers experience through the character in our imaginations. The same is true of the reader, who, reading a story, experiences the simulation in their brain the way they would experience the real-life event. That's why you get so sucked into the story: empathy, pathos, between you and the character, that's the key, the binding. So if you want to imagine as a model that God was a writer, or even just a reader whose conscious experience of a work brought it to life, then it makes sense that you have to experience everything you're going through. It might not be a causal thing, necessarily, but if a model is accurate enough, you can make predictive extrapolations using the model, right? This manuscript is a model for our reality; its writer is a model for God. We're pawns in a thought experiment."
But I much prefer when the story takes the form of an actual, well, story. I'm not one to shy away from philosophy, but this book has the feel of little Jungian analysis that's spiraled out of control.
What "I" was, I realized with a gasp in the arms of my lover, was naught but Consciousness. Yes, Consciousness! My one, my truest lover! Why, he had been with me all this time, my sunlight, and I had never seen it because I was his mirror; because I was that Matter upon which he cast the light by which his "I" might see!
Too bad, because I would totally read a book about a thought-to-text machine.
"Next time we talk, you had better come back with a more thorough idea than another book about writers and God and a man who loves a younger woman."

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Reconciling matter and spirit

World on a String © Markus Reugels
I'm reading Olga Tokarczuk's Primeval and Other Times slowly, contemplatively. It's a string of fairy tales about people locked in time.

I'm reading it like it holds some message for me, a key to unlocking myself from the past and opening myself to the future, another future.
Imagination is essentially creative; it is a bridge reconciling matter and spirit. Especially when it is done intensely and often. Then the image turns into a drop of matter, and joins the currents of life. Sometimes along the way something in it gets distorted and changes. Therefore, if they are strong enough, all human desires come true — but not always entirely as expected.
What do I imagine happening next? Do I desire it strongly enough? Is it human enough?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Everything was something else first

I paused, looking out at the blue merging of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and I wondered if there was a word for it, a name, a title, to indicate this strange layering that seemed to be commonplace in Tangier, where everything was something else first, and nothing was ever entirely one thing. I thought of Alice again. She was something else in Tangier too, something completely different. Hardened, distant, tired. A new Alice had been layered upon an old one, subsuming the original. But I had not given up hope. She was not simply Alice, John's wife. She had been her own person once, she had existed without him. What I needed to discover was how to get her back, how to move from Tangier to Tingis — and whether such a Herculean feat was even possible.
I read Tangerine, by Christine Mangan, on vacation. Maybe my opinion of it suffered a little for this (unlike most people, I am more easily distracted and tend to read less when I'm on holiday).

(I love the cover! I'd been dithering over what my vacation reading should be, but when I saw this cover, I had to have this book.)

It was an enjoyable read, but didn't quite meet the (very high) expectations I had of it, it having been noted on several lists of highly anticipated books.

The story switches between the perspectives of two young women, and each of those unreliable narratives skips between the present (mid 1950s) and their college days years beforehand. I found that one of the women's perspective was favoured as giving voice to the true version of events, but the opposing perspective had a force of character and a clarity of perception that cast doubt on any notion of certainty.

Essentially, the reader discovers a mosaic of intersecting and overlapping triangles, of romantic and other varieties. For more plot details, see the published reviews from established sources.

To pique one's interest, one needs little more than this blurb from Joyce Carol Oates (of whom I'm not a fan): "As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock." It's all very Tom Ripley.

One character references Paul Bowles — "You must read him, if you want to understand this place." It's been decades since I read The Sheltering Sky (time for a reread?), but my sense was that Bowles settled on reconciling to the impossibility of understanding such a foreign place. It feels a little as if Tangerine was intended as an homage to Bowles (moreso than to the other literary influences); I wonder if anyone has examined the relationship between Tangerine and Bowles's work more closely (if you have come across any such review or article, please let me know).

Despite the expectation set by the title, the city of Tangier never really comes alive, as if the author's experience of it was only through other books or movies. Nor am I confident in fingering any of the characters as the eponymous Tangerine.

For all the psychological notes it hits, Tangerine feels like an academic exercise in creating a specific type of thriller, with a superficial treatment of place and character. It lacks depth.

All that being said, I absolutely will go see the movie. (And it was a great vacation read.)

The following reviews are quite mixed but, in my view, right on the money.

Irish Times

New Yorker:
For a novel that leans so heavily on its setting, "Tangerine" rarely succeeds at evoking more of Tangier than its heat, its humidity (or dust), its "confined and chaotic streets," and its sweet mint tea. This, the novel's biggest weakness, is largely a failing of Mangan's prose, which tends to be general rather than specific, lofty rather than grounded, received rather than observed. Whether Lucy or Alice is narrating, Mangan's diction has the archaic gentility of someone incorrectly imagining how previous generations thought and spoke.
New York Times:
Mangan, who has a doctorate in English, wrote her dissertation on 18th-century Gothic literature and she knows all the notes to hit to create lush, sinister atmosphere and to prolong suspense. Unfortunately, she hits them all, and she hits them a little too hard. Both narrators periodically lapse into the language of academia, bluntly signaling how we should interpret the narrative rather than letting us figure it out for ourselves. Alice worries that her tone of voice is "wavering somewhere between lighthearted and serious, skirting the liminal boundaries between laughing and crying." In 1956, a young woman in a white pillbox hat would not have talked about liminal boundaries. When Lucy refers to the "intertextuality" that once existed between her and Alice, she uses a term coined by the French semiotician Julia Kristeva a decade after the novel takes place. At times, "Tangerine" reads as if it were reverse-engineered from a scholarly paper about suspense fiction. Happily, you can write a satisfying, juicy thriller this way, if not a blazingly original one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The situation

Did you know Iceland was occupied during World War II?

It seems the British occupied Iceland pre-emptively, so Germany couldn't. British troops gave way to Canadian and then US troops. One of the great effects of the occupation was known as "the situation," whereby local women took up with the soldiers — married them, left with them, had children by them. Many of the women were viewed as prostitutes and traitors. Many Icelanders viewed this situation as a cultural as well as moral threat.

The Shadow Killer, by Arnaldur Indriðason, for all its 360+ pages, was a surprisingly swift read set amid unique circumstances in Icelandic history. The backdrop is, for me, the star of the novel.

A travelling salesman with his head blown off in someone else's apartment — IDing him is a bit of a task. A girlfriend who strays with a belligerent army boy. A whole mess of Nazi sympathizers.

Reykjavík detective Flóvent is on the case, teamed up with military policeman Thorson, an Icelandic-Canadian with the British Forces. One wonders what interest the case has for military intelligence.

This is the second in Indriðason's wartime mystery series. It reads perfectly well as a stand-alone, and I'm curious now to search out the first one.


See also Mrs. Peabody Investigates for a review and another excerpt.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


The Particles of Existence exhibition at Phi Centre wants you to discover the universe at a non-human scale. Chalkroom is the star of the show.

Chalkroom is an immersive installation created by multimedia artist Laurie Anderson and mixed media artist Hsin-Chien Huang.

Anderson discusses the work:
The reason it's "Chalkroom" is it has a certain tactility and it's a made-by-hand kind of thing — it's the opposite of what virtual reality usually is, which is distant and very synthetic. So this is gritty and drippy, and filled with dust and dirt.
I plan on going back to experience the other "rooms" of Chalkroom to find some of the other stories hidden within. On at Phi Centre until August 18.

Faena Aleph
New York Times
Open Culture

Friday, May 11, 2018

She took the entire village into herself

There are two kinds of learning, from the inside and from the outside. The fist is regarded as the best, or even the only kind. And so people learn through distant journeys, watching, reading, universities and lectures — they learn from what is happening outside them. Man is a stupid creature who had to learn. So he tacks knowledge onto himself, he gathers it like a bee, gaining more and more of it, putting it to use and processing it. But the thing inside that is "stupid" and needs learning doesn't change.

Cornspike learned by absorbing things from the outside to the inside.

Knowledge that is only grown on the outside changes nothing inside a man, or merely changes him on the surface, as one garment is changed for another. But he who learns by taking things inside himself undergoes constant transformation, because he incorporates what he learns into his being.

So by taking the stinking, dirty peasants from Primeval and the district into herself, Cornspike became just like them, was drunk just like them, frightened by the war just like them, and aroused just like them. What's more, by taking them into herself in the bushes behind the inn, Cornspike also took in their wives, their children, and their stuffy, stinking wooden cottages around Maybug Hill. In a way she took the entire village into herself, every pain in the village, and every hope.
— from Primeval and Other Times, by Olga Tokarczuk.

I'm in the very early pages, but this is absolutely the right book for my headspace.

I'm reminded of memory eaters, dream eaters, sun eaters. Bibliophagia. We learn from the food we eat, the wine we drink, the air we breathe. Eat your words. Of course, there are more ways to absorb than via ingestion. I think of the tragedy I learned in that shitty opium den of an apartment.

The story of Cornspike gutted me.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

I read and I dream about hell

I sleep to my heart's content, day and night. Between naps, I read. A huge fatigue turns up between books, between naps. A black hole to swallow me up. The poets keep me company, I'm damned along with them, in the books and in my room in the country where I read. I read and I dream about hell and about the scarlet sky at the end of hell, like a bright border of flames.
Sometimes you find what you need. Am I Disturbing You? by Anne Hébert was that book, in a second-hand shop I'd never been to on a stretch of street I rarely walk.

Overly poetic, dreamlike, confusing, empty of plot, characters too slight to make sense, too much white space. And yet.

What I take away from this slim novella, though, the relevant thing I need to process is how someone can enter your life for so brief a period and suddenly leave it and leave an indelible imprint on you and dredge up long-forgotten (long-buried?) aspects of self, despite never really knowing each other, never having a claim on each other (that is, no explicit claim).

The story is of Delphine, evidently pregnant, and obsessed with Patrick Chemin, who has allegedly proclaimed his love for her but is recently married to the Fat Lady. Édouard and Stéphane find Delphine in the square.
There was a girl who hadn't moved for quite a while, who was sitting on the rim of the fountain with the water streaming at her back. There was something surprising about her stillness. From her entire little person there emanated a kind of obstinacy at being there in the mist from the fountain, an unwillingness to exist anywhere else — elbows on her knees, folded in on herself, slightly shocked at finding herself in the world.
Stéphane falls for her fast; for Édouard it's a slow burn. Édouard's a copywriter. Delphine has eyes only for Patrick and speaks only of her dead grandmother. Delphine never really disturbs anyone, until she does. Édouard finally dredges up some deeply painful (and painfully vague) childhood memories that explain nothing.

I have enjoyed reading Hébert in the past. Reading her now I'm reminded of Patrick Mondiano, but with characters more ephemeral, less grounded in reality.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Contrite, abject, mythic

The sight must've been high tragedy, that's what I thought. A fucking junky, dying on his ass, starving, face like a corpse, apologizing to a baby that hadn't even been born and a woman he no longer knew. Absolutely wretched. Imagine the portrait.

And there I caught myself.

I was imagining the picture, and it was absolutely romantic. Romantic like the boy who fantasizes dying on a field of war, killing a thousand enemies before being cut down. Romantic as the girl who envisions poisoning herself, leaving a corpse that'll indict the one who finds it, a plucked and corrupted rose. A man, coming to an end like mine, should perish in this pose: contrite, abject, mythic.

Is this really all I am? I wondered. A grown man acting no better than a teenager?
I've been wanting to read Victor Lavalle's Big Machine for quite some time, and it never seemed like the right time.

It's about an ex-junkie who quits his job as a janitor when he gets a bus ticket in the mail, which turns out to have been issued by a secret society that's recruiting him to conduct paranormal investigations. It turns out also that he was raised in a cult. What's not to love? This book should've been a riot.

For some reason I thought the right time to read it would be while dating an ex-junkie who believes in karma and aliens. Not so. Even more not so when he told me he couldn't see me for a while. The book cover is a perfect match for the dress I was wearing that night. (That's me. Romantic. Feeling like a fucking teenager.)

For the most part, I found I was simply turning the pages, not enjoying it. But I'm pretty sure it's not you, Big Machine; it's me and my fallow headspace.

At the sentence level, this book is terrifically well written.
I only knew Wilfred was gone because of this tongue. It hung down between his teeth, oily and pink, and it brushed against the old pillowcases under his chin. Loose, limp, a piece of stretched taffy. That one thing, that's all it took to convert him into a corpse.

But I didn't see how he could've died so quickly. He hadn't been shot or stabbed, hadn't been beat. So what had done it? Maybe none of us had actually lived through that night in the stairway so many years before. It just took some of us longer to realize we were dead.
And it's funny. (For example, "The room was decorated in a style I'll call Near-Bum, the distinction being that this mess was in a hotel and not on a cart in the street.")

For a good portion of book, I was thinking Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. I can't find the blurb that might've inspired me to think that. A lot of the blurbs evoke Murakami; I don't really see it.

I much preferred the first third or so or the book, being the set up for the actual adventure. I found the pacing of the adventure proper suffered from all the flashbacks to Ricky's youth. I would've trimmed a good 100 pages, but it did pick up toward the end.

There's a thing about guilt and parenting, and how the force of the guilt is not in letting your child down, letting whoever down, doing whatever less than stellar thing you do or don't do; it's in how easy it is to do that thing. How easy to conveniently forget your responsibility. That's a powerful distinction, and a powerful truth about the nature of guilt, about all my guilt, and this realization alone is worth the price of admission.

Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Temporal groovyness

After feeling a little lovelorn the past few days, I resolved it was nothing some expensive shoes couldn't rectify, so yesterday, having had a few glasses of scotch in the boardroom at the end of a long workweek, I went shopping.

The shoes are fabulous, but this morning I realize the bag they came in offers better therapy for my soul than does the footwear.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sinking into a tapioca hammock

For people who've never shot up or snorted or smoked heroin, it can be hard to understand the allure. Catch sight of a man or woman whose arms are purple from old needle bites, look at the sunken face of a long-time user, how could anyone want to end up that way? But that's like passing a car accident and wondering why anyone, anywhere, drives. Don't focus on the mishaps; consider the pleasures instead. Taking heroin is like sinking into a tapioca hammock. If that doesn't sound good, then congratulations, you will not enjoy heroin.
— from Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.

I'm lucky, my expensive mattress gives me that delicious tapioca hammock feeling.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A stone like a misplaced comma

I had always found it unpleasant to have guests in my apartment. They filled up my rooms with strange sentences I would never have formulated in such a way. Today I found the sound of these sentences particularly unbearable. Sometimes I tried to follow only the sense of the conversation so as not to hear the sounds of the language. But they penetrated my body as though they were inseparable from the sense.


At midnight the guests began to dance to disco music. I couldn't hear the music, but saw the wine glasses vibrating. Apparently it was very loud. No one was allowed to miss a beat. The guests weren't dancing at all, they were speaking to one another. When someone stuttered, the other spoke more quickly so the interruption wouldn't be noticed. The rhythm was set by a computerized drum set, just like in disco music. The people breathed, as it were, mechanically, rather than taking irregular breaths whenever they felt like it. My heartbeat and my sighs were ridiculously soft, no match for the powerful speakers. In these black refrigerators, the mass of sounds is frozen. There weren't any speakers in my apartment, and there wasn't any music playing. People were talking. I wanted to transform myself into a stone. Wanted to become a stone like a misplaced comma, to interrupt the clatter of conversation.
— from "A Guest," in Where Europe Begins, by Yoko Tawada.

Where Europe Begins, by Yoko Tawada, is short enough that one could ride along the dream narrative to the end in just a few hours. I feel rather lucky that I rather accidentally chose to read this over a couple months, extending the experience, embodying it.

It's a meditative, highly surreal text that grapples with the intersection of language and reality.

Language as a physical thing, our tongue in our mouth, sound waves.

Language with a physical representation, scratches on paper.
I asked the man who was standing there hawking his wares in what language the book was written, since I don't know of any language whose letters are arranged in a circle. He shrugged his shoulders and said it wasn't a book, it was a mirror. I refused to look at the thing he was calling a mirror.

Maybe it isn't a book, I conceded, but I would still like to know what's going on with this writing.

The man grinned and replied: To our eyes, you look exactly like this writing. That's why I said it was a mirror.

I rubbed my forehead from left to right, as if rewriting my face.

Everything is translation, and all translation is interpretation.

I previously responded to a couple of the pieces in this book:
The Bath
Canned Foreign [text]

To date, this is my favourite of Tawada's books and I see myself returning to it.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

We sparkled like mica in granite

Maybe because I feel twenty again, maybe because I'm in love, maybe because we are old, maybe because I hear music ringing, I'm so happy to have discovered this poem.

It's not that the old are wise
But that we thirst for the wisdom

we had at twenty
when we understood everything

when our brains bubbled
with tingling insights

percolating up from
our brilliant genitals

when our music rang like a global siege
shooting down all the lies in the world

oh then we knew the truth
then we sparkled like mica in granite

and now we stand on the shore
of an ocean that rises and rises

but is too salt to drink

— Alicia Ostriker
Our brilliant genitals! We're sparkling!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A new species of human being

On tree day maybe the cherry tree in the schoolyard will fall on top of me and crush me. Almost all trees are sick these days, even if they look healthy their trunks are hollow, so all it takes to make them fall over is a sight from someone standing next to them. That's why all those signs say "Do not sigh near this tree." I can see it now — a whole row of cherry tree falling like dominoes, starting with the one farthest away. I run away.
The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada, is a slight novella that poetically hovers over many interesting themes without ever touching down.

I'm hard-pressed to explain what The Emissary is about. It takes place in a future, post-disaster Japan, where children are helpless and frail and wheelchair-bound and elders are robust. (Is this not the way the world is? Or is it upside down? Is it the elders or the children who have wisdom?)
Assuming he had knowledge and wealth to leave to his descendants was mere arrogance, Yoshiro now thought. This life with his great-grandson was all he could manage. For that he needed to be flexible, in mind and body, with the courage to doubt what he had believed for over a century. He'd have to slough off his pride like an old jacket and go around in his shirt sleeves. If he was cold, rather than buying a new jacket it would be better to think of ways to change his body so that it would grow a thick coat of fur like a bear's. He was not really an "old man," but a man who, after living for a century had become a new species of human being, he thought, clenching his fists again and again.
Japan has quarantined itself from the rest of the world.
Having been among the first countries to withdraw from the global rat-race in which huge corporations turned underground resources into anything they could sell at inhuman speeds while ruthlessly competing to keep production costs lower than anyone else's, South Africa and India now kept to a policy of supporting their economies by exporting language alone, discontinuing all other imports and exports. The two nations had formed what they called "The Gandhi Alliance," which was gaining world-wide popularity. They got along so well that other countries were beginning to envy them. South Africa and India fought about soccer and nothing else, their positions on humanity, the sun, and language being perfectly matched. Contrary to the predictions of foreign experts, the economies of both were growing steadily. Like these two nations, the Japanese government had also stopped importing underground resources and exporting manufactured goods, but with no language it could export, Japan had come to an impasse. The government hired a linguist to write a paper proving that the language Okinawans spoke was linguistically unrelated to Japanese, to promote its plan to sell the Okinawan language to China for a good price, but Okinawa refused to let this underhanded scheme go through. They came back with an ultimatum: If Japan insisted on selling their language to China, then Okinawa would stop all shipment of fruit to the main island of Japan.
Old man Yoshiro had once written a novel, Ken-to-shi, Emissary to China, which manuscript he'd buried because there were too many foreign place names.

Meanwhile, Yonatani, the teacher, is tasked with selecting the child most suitable to be an emissary. (Emissary to where?) "All he could teach them was how to cultivate language. He was hoping they themselves would plant, harvest, consume, and grow fat on words." He has his eye on Yoshiro's great-grandson, Mumei.

The Emissary imagines a future where the past (our now) doesn't make any sense. Tawada is as playful and surreal as ever. The story, such as it is, is grounded in the intergenerational interplay, but I lost my bearings when trying to understand the big picture, Japan's place in the world, or the new human's role.
"So in another hundred thousand years we'll all be octopi?"

"Maybe so. A long time ago people would have thought of that as devolution, but it might just be evolution after all."

"In high school I used to envy people with bodies like Greek statues. I was trying to get into art school, you see. Don't know when I developed a liking for entirely different bodies — birds, say or octopi. I'd like to see everything from an optical point of view."


"No, I meant octopus. I want see through the eyes of an octopus."
Hyperallergic: A Dystopian Fairy Tale Reflects Challenges of the Present
New York Times: After Disaster, Japan Seals Itself Off From the World in "The Emissary"
Words without Borders: Yoko Tawada’s Dystopian Novel "The Emissary" Delivers a Bitingly Smart Satire of Present-Day Japan


Thursday, April 19, 2018

The war and the revolution are inseparable

I have no particular love for the idealized "worker" as he appears in the bourgeois Communist's mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.
I read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia on my return from Barcelona. I would've liked to read it beforehand, but I realize that no matter how much time I would have given myself to process Orwell's explanations, I would be no closer to understanding the politics of that time and place. He admits that he didn't understand it himself. "The war and the revolution are inseparable," he writes, and that is as much clarity as one can hope for.

The book recounts Orwell's experience fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. While the politics is confusing, the account of his time in Spain — of life in the trenches, of hospital condition near the front line, of being shot at and being shot, of being under surveillance — is starkly vivid and insightful. It's also often funny, even in grim circumstances.
The days grew hotter and even the nights grew tolerably warm. On a bullet-chipped tree in front of our parapet thick clusters of cherries were forming. Bathing in the river ceased to be an agony and became almost a pleasure. Wild roses with pink blooms the size of saucers straggled over the shell-holes round Torre Fabián. Behind the line you met peasants wearing wild roses over their ears. In the evening they used to go out with green nets, hunting quails. You spread the net over the tops of the grasses and then lay down and made a noise like a female quail. Any male quail that was within hearing then came running towards you, and when he was underneath the net you threw a stone to scare him, whereupon he sprang into the air and was entangled in the net. Apparently only male quails were caught, which struck me as unfair.
I suspect Orwell's text if read deeply would shed light on current Catalonian struggles for independence.

It's interesting to note, also, how Orwell's experience must've informed Nineteen Eighty-Four in terms of the dissemination of information, disinformation, and propaganda, how one party could be an ally in the cause one day but an enemy the next, and the dread that anyone might be an informant ready to report you for anything.

The book ends with a poignant ode to England:
And then England — southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage underneath you, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth's surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
Prescient, no? Yet we keep falling asleep.

Etext: Homage to Catalonia

See also:
Christopher Hitchens: Why Orwell Matters
George Orwell's Prelude in Spain
George Orwell's Spanish civil war memoir is a classic, but is it bad history?

Saturday, April 07, 2018

This is the kind of place to linger in

I notice that my reading and viewing material over the last week is full of suicide. This concerns me a little: Is the universe trying to tell me something? Has the universe always been trying to tell me this thing and I'm just now noticing?

About behaviour completely incomprehensible to me.

[I don't mean to suggest anything in common among these works apart from this broad subject, but 2 novels (Hotel Silence and The Zero and the One) and 2 films (The Sense of an Ending and The Child in Time) have circled round each other and brought me here.]

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, is a slight novel, about a man in the grips of midlife crisis. Perhaps "grips" is too strong a word. More like he's nudged up against some uncomfortable emptiness. Maybe this is crisis for some people. [I'd've thought that the Icelandic disposition had an affinity for emptiness.]

Though Jónas is not sensitive to it, his friend Svanur is also in crisis.
I hear him say that he suspects Aurora has started to read poetry.

"When I slipped past her through the bathroom door last night, she said that I was eclipsing her horizon."

He shakes his head.

"Sometimes I feel it's better to think about Aurora than have her beside me. She'd never understand that."
(As if poetry were some kind of disease!)

Jónas buys a one-way ticket to an unnamed country in the aftermath of war, the perfect setting for the act he intends to commit, ostensibly to spare his daughter the trouble of finding his body. But Jónas unexpectedly finds himself outside his own head.
"Will you be gone? In ten days' time?" she asks with feigned nonchalance.

I reflect on this. In the land of death there isn't the same urgency to die.

"No, I don't expect to be gone," I say. And I think, this is the kind of place to linger in.
He doesn't exactly find purpose, but he gains perspective on his troubles and on those of others, perspective on what matters (spoiler: kindness!). (This plays into the question of whether depression is a first-world problem, but doesn't explore, or exploit, the issue — to the novel's credit, I think.)

Favourite sentence:
She slides against me and I feel her closeness grow like a full moon.
I'm somewhat surprised that this novel should have received the accolades it has. Thank goodness it steers clear of sentimentality; its stillness saves it. It's quiet, somewhat unfocused, ultimately tragic in a totally unexpected way. Perhaps like most of our lives.