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.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Triumphs of artifice

The Zero and the One, by Ryan Ruby, is imperfect, but I loved it. It's a college novel, and a pursuit of a rare book, with a heavy dose of philosophizing. The novel starts with a suicide and the rest of the book uncovers how we got to this point, through flashbacks on the school year at Oxford and muddling through the funeral aftermath in New York City.

Obvious comparisons for The Zero and the One are Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr Ripley. I'd add a dose of Patrick Hamilton's Rope. It doesn't have the emotional or moral heft of these, but I was perfectly satisfied to be immersed for a couple days in student life in Oxford and NYC, with a side trip to Berlin.

Owen (like "one") is on scholarship and is consumed by his studies, until Zach (like "zero") zooms in from America and enlists Owen's help in getting a girl. Zach gets the girl, Owen gets her friend. Zach develops an obsession with philosopher Hans Abendroth. Everyone revels in academia. Until they don't. Then Owen meets Zach's twin sister.

My favourite sentence:
A typical late winter sky, dull and grey as an oyster shell, hung like a Rothko in the window frame.
Structurally, each chapter is headed with a passage from Abendroth, who turns out to be entirely fictional. His rare collection of aphorisms, Null und Eins, is at the centre of this novel, which could be described as an investigation into the ethics of suicide. The sensibilities expressed in The Zero and the One borrow heavily from Dostoevsky.
Stupidity is not just the result of false consciousness and organized oppression. It's the natural condition of the vast majority of mankind. It's the one thing that is equally distributed among the rich and the poor. Solving our political and economic problems will do nothing to answer the question, Why bother? In fact, all evidence suggests that it will only make that question more difficult to answer.
The Paris Review gives us a biography of Hans Abendroth with an extensive extract of his work.

Some aphorisms from Abendroth:
  • Never and nowhere is man truly at home. In order to experience this all he needs to do is to return, after even a short absence, to the city of his birth.
  • Happiness, when ill timed, can maim a life just as thoroughly as sorrow.
  • The difference between being in the world and reading the world breaks down and woe to the man who does not recognise which story he is living in!
  • The use people make of their freedom is the best argument against allowing them to have any.
I'd be quite happy to spend many more meditative hours with this book within a book.

Review at The Rumpus: The Story Is the Concepts: Philosophizing with Ryan Ruby.

Abendroth thought parks and gardens belonged in the same conversation as novels and paintings. They are all, he writes, triumphs of artifice.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The clitoral look of raspberries

The Angst-Ridden Executive, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, is a madcap romp of a mystery, Catalan-style. (Is that a great cover design or what?)

The story bounces from LA and Vegas to Barcelona and its Catalonian environs. Pepe Carvalho met a fellow Spaniard, a bigshot executive, on a flight in the States. Years later, the executive's wife asks Carvalho, ex-communist ex-CIA private investigator, to solve the mystery of his murder.

I wanted to like this novel more than I did, if for no other reason than to set the mood for my visit to Barcelona in a couple weeks. I would not say the streets of the gothic quarter line this novel — that is, the city is not a character in her own right. But there's a (distinctly Catalonian?) lusty grab-life-by-the-balls spirit that envelops the book.
When Gracian wrote that "a good experience is doubly enjoyable when it's short-lived", he can't have been thinking of food. Or, if he was, then he must have been one of those intellectuals who are happy living on alphabet soup and eggs that are as hard and egg-like as their own dull heads.
This book has breasts and blowjobs (in a strangely matter-of-fact and completely incidental way), cigars, drink, and food, glorious food. Also poetry (meet Luis Cernuda) and politics. Often all these things in the same breath. It has a frenetic energy that I associate with things Spanish. It's smart and it's funny.
He enjoyed the clitoral look of raspberries, and their fleshy texture and acidity, which was less gritty on the teeth than the mulberry, and with more of a physical consistency than the strawberry.
There's the ex-con who works for Carvalho (they once shared a prison cell) — a kind of office manager sidekick. There's the friend obsessed with the idea of setting up an anti-fascist resistance movement in the mountains who acts as research assistant. The boot-black with his ear to the street.
Wide awake and relaxed, he contemplated the bookcase in the corridor, where an irregular array of books was taking up space, sometimes upright and tightly packed, and sometimes falling all over the place, or with their titles the wrong way up. He hunted out Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sholokov's Quietly Flows the Don and Sacristan's Essays on Heine. He went over to the fireplace, tearing up the books with the relaxed expertise of one who is well practised, and arranged the dismembered tomes in a little pile, on top of which he placed dry twigs and kindling wood. The flames caught at once and spread rapidly, and as the printed matter burned it fulfilled its historical mission of fuelling fires that were more real than itself.
What this book doesn't have a lot of is easy-to-follow plot. But I'll take the blame for this one — maybe it's there, I'm just too distracted of late to find it. I have no idea whodunit. Despite this, I really enjoyed my time with this book. There are some great set pieces — even if I couldn't get the thing to hang as a whole in my currently fuzzy reader brain.

I'm completely open to trying more Montalbán; I just need to find the right headspace for it.
"Poetry isn't progressive. Or raspberry-coloured. Or anything at all. It's just poetry, or it's nothing," the poet said, without anger, but with all the dignity of a Flemish burgher.
Crimespree: Review.
The Guardian: Notes from Barcelona's dark side.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The words are here


This line is the present.

That line you just read is the past
(It fell behind after you read it)
The rest of the poem is the future,
existing outside your

The words
are here, whether you read them
or not. And no power on earth
can change that.

Joan Brossa (translated from Catalan by A.Z. Foreman)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

To live in Barcelona is to live in Europe!

"To arrive at a bar where the principal spectacle is the clientele..."

Reading The Angst-Ridden Executive, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and getting in the mood for an upcoming trip to Barcelona...

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fight the peace with stories

Hopelessness was no impediment to hope.
American War, by Omar El Akkad, is not my kind of book. Or maybe it is.

That is, I would not have picked it up on the basis of its synopsis alone. But on top of various best-of-2017 accolades, it was longlisted for the 2018 Tournament of Books and is a current Canada Reads contender, two distinctions I can really get behind.

So I reserved the library ebook and it was checked out to me before I was ready for it. I started reading it in a stressed and resentful way, but was determined to at least skim it. For this reason, maybe I missed some important bits in the early going.

The war is between the North and the South. I wasn't entirely clear on the reasons for the war or the general conditions of the state of war, but it was something to do with continuing use of fossil fuels (which apparently are still available in 2074).

In 2074, the world is a different place. Climate has changed. As a result, geography has changed. Entire ways of life have changed.

The Middle East has extended its boundaries and is now the Bouazizi Empire. That doesn't affect Sarat on a day-to-day basis, but it's a fact of the world.

This novel isn't really about the war. It's about Sarat Chestnut and her family and the hardships they endure. It is about how Sarat becomes the person she ends up being.
"The first thing they try to take from you is your history."
It is about living as a refugee, and about recruitment and indoctrination to extremist ideologies.

Says Sarat's mentor:
"I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they're fighting for — be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness — you can agree or disagree, but you can't call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they're fight for, they'll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather. I'd had enough of all that. You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind."
Much in the early portion of the novel is made of the protagonist Sarat being a tomboy. This struck a wrong chord with me. I'd like to believe that we live in gender-enlightened times, and that in 2018 the concept of "tomboy" is already outmoded. I'd like to believe that by 2074 the concept would be meaningless. Sarat is contrasted with her fraternal twin, who wears pretty dresses and fusses over her hair. This might make sense if in wartime the only viable means of survival for a woman meant relying on her womanly wiles. But the author never builds a case for that. In fact, most of the women are no-nonsense, and do whatever it takes. So this characterization of Sarat didn't work for me and pulled me out of the story. I don't think it's necessary in order to make the rest of the story work.

Yeah, I have some petty gripes about this book, and I was grumpy about reading it.
There existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early.
It's a much subtler, smarter, more accomplished book than I initially gave it credit for. I think this book came at the wrong time for me to fully appreciate it.
You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.
Listen to Omar El Akkad in conversation with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

A screw loose and tough as nails

Happy International Women's Day!
Portrait of a Woman

She must be a variety.
Change so that nothing will change.
It's easy, impossible, tough going, worth a shot.
Her eyes are, as required, deep blue, gray,
dark, merry, full of pointless tears.
She sleeps with him as if she's first in line or the only one on earth.
She'll bear him four children, no children, one.
Naive, but gives the best advice.
Weak, but takes on anything.
A screw loose and tough as nails.
Curls up with Jaspers or Ladies' Home Journal.
Can't figure out this bolt and builds a bridge.
Young, young as ever, still looking young.
Holds in her hands a baby sparrow with a broken wing,
her own money for some trip far away,
a meat cleaver, a compress, a glass of vodka.
Where's she running, isn't she exhausted.
Not a bit, a little, to death, it doesn't matter.
She must love him, or she's just plain stubborn.
For better, for worse, for heaven's sake.

— Wisława Szymborska (tr. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)
I spend months believing the poetry gene came from my father's side. Yesterday my mother recalls how her mother would recite epic poems by heart at bedtime.

So the poetry gene skipped a generation.

She was tough as nails.

[But that line, "A screw loose and tough as nails." In Polish, "Nie ma głowy na karku, to będzie ją miała." More literally, She has no head on her shoulders, so will have one. So maybe, An airhead, with a real head on her shoulders. Or, Where is her head, her head's on straight. Or, She loses her head, but headstrong.]

Monday, March 05, 2018

I might have read this foreign city like a text

Often it sickened me to hear people speak their native tongues fluently. It was as if they were unable to think and feel anything but what their language so readily served up to them.
— from "Canned Foreign," in Where Europe Begins, by Yoko Tawada.

"Canned Foreign" is a brilliant little story (well, it's not really a story; vignette?). I love this idea, that too-easy language is simple, inadequate, wrong. It reaffirms me in my shortcomings, my own inadequately communicative behaviour, grounding me in a comprehensive philosophy of language and theory of communication.

Clearly my reading this year is proving the inadequacy of language:
Clearly we need to read to learn to read the world. But then what? My reading is also leading me to attempt to articulate . . . something inexpressible.
Once, in the supermarket, I bought a little can that had a Japanese woman painted on the side. Later, at home, I opened the can and saw inside it a piece of tuna fish. The woman seemed to have changed into a piece of fish during her long voyage. This surprise came on a Sunday: I had decided not to read any writing on Sundays. Instead I observed the people I saw on the street as though they were isolated letters. Sometimes two people sat down next to each other in a café, and thus, briefly, formed a word. Then they separated, in order to go off and form other words. There must have been a moment in which the combinations of these words formed, quite by chance, several sentences in which I might have read this foreign city like a text. But I never discovered a single sentence in this city, only letters and sometimes a few words that had no direct connection to any "cultural content."

Saturday, March 03, 2018

How else will we read the world?

Hello, he said. What you reading?

Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.

Does it look like I'm reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we're not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
Autumn, by Ali Smith, is a joy.

There's so much joy in this book, despite some heavy matters throughout, like Brexit and dying and the inability to effect change and the absurdity of our day-to-day and how feminist icons have been dismissed by the establishment and how we forget, but Smith's writing is so light and gentle and funny, and there's hope and love and joy. And wordplay. It's about how we tell our stories. There's fear and awe (and love and joy) in discovering that people have lives quite apart from the narrow contexts in which we know them.

The novel follows Elisabeth, a lecturer in art history, and traces her relationship with Daniel, an old songwriter and art collector, her next-door neighbour when she was a little girl, who is sleeping away his final days at a care facility in the town her mother has moved to. Because Elisabeth visits Daniel regularly, she sees more of her mother too. The United Kingdom has just voted to leave the European union, and there's something in the air.

I read Winter, the second book in Smith's seasonal cycle, first. I don't think that matters — they're set more or less contemporaneously, with a small bit of character overlap. Both books brush up against Shakespearean tales. Both books describe acts of protest and resistance.

Both feature long-forgotten women artists, in Autumn's case, Pauline Boty. Many readers see the discursions on art as incidental, but I suspect they're quite central to this cycle. I think Smith is reminding us to listen to what women say through art, that it could be quite different than what you think it is, and it is important.
A great many men don't understand a woman full of joy, even more don't understand paintings full of joy by a woman.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

I'm tired

I'm tired, she says.

It's only two miles, Elisabeth says.

That's not what I mean, she says. I'm tired of the news. I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of the selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. I'm tired of how we're encouraging it. I'm tired of the violence that's on its way, that's coming, that hasn't happened yet. I'm tired of liars. I'm tired of sanctified liars. I'm tired of how those liars have let this happen. I'm tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I'm tired of lying governments. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to anymore. I'm tired of being made to feel this fearful. I'm tired of animosity. I'm tired of pusillanimosity.

I don't think that's actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I'm tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.
—from Autumn, by Ali Smith.

Post-Brexit novel, indeed.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The farthestmost point

There's a place that as kid you called the farthestmost point — the most distant you could get, the place that when you stood there you could pretend you were the only person in the world. Being there made you wary, but it also put a kind of peace into you, a sense of security. Beyond that point, in either direction, you were always returning, and are returning still. But for that moment, even now with Whitby by your side, you're so remote that there's nothing for miles — and you feel that. You feel it strongly. You've gone from being a little on edge to being a little tired, and you've come out on this perfectly still scene where the scrublands turn to wetlands, with a freshwater canal serving as a buffer to the salt marsh and, ultimately, the sea. Where once you saw otters, heard the call of curlews. You take a deep breath and relax into the landscape, walk along the shore of this lower heaven rejuvenated by its perfect stillness. Our legs are for a time no longer tired and you are afraid of nothing, not even Area X, and you have no room for memory or thought or anything except this moment, and this one, and the next.
— from Acceptance, by Jeff Vandermeer.

This is from Book 3 of the Southern Reach trilogy, about Area X. Each book is very different in tone, with a distinct kind of horror.

I'm almost at the end now. I have great admiration for this series.

I have no room for memory or thought or anything except this moment, and this one, and the next...

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Words you understand but a meaning you don't

Imagine, she had told Control next, that language is only part of a method of communication. Imagine that it isn't even the important part but more like the pipeline, the highway. A conduit only. Infrastructure was the word Control would use with the Voice later.

The real core of the message, the meaning, would be conveyed by the combinations of living matter that composed the words, as if the "ink" itself was the message.

"And if a message is half-physical, if a kind of coding is half-physical, then words on a wall don't mean that much at all, really, in my opinion. I could analyze those words for years — which is, incidentally, what I understand the director may have done — and it wouldn't help me to understand anything. The type of conduit helps decide how fast the message arrives, and perhaps some context, but that's all. Further" — and here Control recognized that Hsyu had slipped into the rote routine of a lecture given many times before, possibly accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation — "if someone or something is trying to jam information insider your head using words you understand but a meaning you don't, it's not even that it's not on a bandwidth you can receive, it's much worse. Like, if the message were a knife and it created its meaning by cutting into meat and your head is the receiver and the tip of that knife is being shoved into your ear over and over again..."
— from Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer.

This is from the second instalment of the Southern Reach trilogy, about Area X.

Annihilation was creepy, thrumming our unease with the unknown in our external world. In Authority, the creep factor stems from the unknown in our intimate world — an invasion into the places we live, the work we do, the people we know.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Something basic about language had started to escape me

Recalling what a joy The Idiot, by Elif Batuman, was to read. Weeks on, I'm fuzzy on some of the details, but still talking about it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Step by step until it is done

Nothing special has happened today; no one can say she was more provoked than usual. It is only that every day one grows a little, every day something is different, so that in the heaping up of days suddenly a thing that was impossible has become possible. This is how a girl become a grown woman. Step by step until it is done.
Award-winning, genre-bending feminist dystopia. Praised by Margaret Atwood. The Power, by Naomi Alderman. A huge disappointment.

A fascinating premise, and a book for our times, the execution was weak and formulaic, with characters I didn't care about.

What The Power does do quite cleverly is flip gender expectations upside-down.
Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power, or to leap on the unsuspecting, wolf in sheep's clothing.
I'm surprised this book wasn't written before now; it's as if it were waiting for its time.

Girls have evolved to have an organ of electricity; they can channel this "power" through their fingertips like lightning. It can kill.

This sets the world on fire, with women wresting control from abusers, criminal, harassers, despots. Women take back the night, and then some.

As provocative as the ideas are in this novel, it feels like it was trying to do too many things. The cross-cutting of several perspectives, the overall pacing, the graphic nature of some scenes, the "real-life" politics (mentions of military training, UN sanctions, a play for oil) — these elements give the novel the feel of a thriller, of a genre novel. I'm not proud of myself for using that word ("genre") disparagingly here (I trust most readers recognize that I read broadly and I have nothing against genre-bending), but the novel packs all this in and more to the detriment of more meaningful plot and better realized characters. I suspect the work of a marketing-savvy editor with an eye on film rights.

That being said, The Power is a worthwhile thought experiment. Beyond the role switching, the novel questions power dynamics, the nature of power itself, and the corruption of individuals who hold it and wield it.

It also questions how we come by our basic assumptions of history, biology, and our place in the world. (This is particularly evident in the novel's frame; the story is established as a work of historical fiction speculating on the events that led to the global Cataclysm — it posits a kind of pre-history. I found the framing device really jarring, but I appreciate what it's trying to accomplish.)

In the New York Times (Naomi Alderman on the World That Yielded The Power), Alderman poses some supplementary thought experiments that are key to our being in the world:
Do you think that you are so exceptional that if you had been born a German in the 1930s, you would have understood immediately that Lebensraum was a lie? That you would have tried to assassinate Hitler? Do you believe that your ethics are so exceptional that you would immediately have rebelled?

If you and I lived in a world where women were dominant, would you be telling yourself: This is very unjust; I will fight for the rights of men?

If we lived in the world of the power, I don't think I would be magically excluded from the way the world operates. I don't think I can say I would have been the enlightened person. With or without the power, I behave the way the system teaches me to behave.
Early chapters reminded me strongly of SNL's Welcome to Hell skit, from late 2017 (viewable in Canada here).
The things you don't want to know, Roxy, those are the things that'll get you in the end.