Monday, January 22, 2018

The quicksand of mental indulgence

The trees whipped past, the same trees that I had observed from a middle-aged woman's car. Now I was that woman, but I was speeding wildly and the trees flashed by so fast I felt nauseated. No limpid daughter slept in the backseat; no strange teenage girl sat next to me, stewing in her own nightmarish consciousness. (And isn't that how you become tender, vulnerable? The tissue-softening marination of your own mind, the quicksand of mental indulgence?)
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado, stormed onto the literary scene last year and was unanimously highly lauded, ending up on many best-of-2017 lists. (Just look at that praise.) It's a collection of eight short stories, which, drawing on science fiction, horror, and feminist theory, I ought to love, but all of them were a little too long (and boring) for my liking.

One story, "The Resident," describes the narrator's experience at an artists' residence (or colony) (taking up residence in the artist mind, or colonizing it? she wonders). She winds up on the floor, thinking about Shklovsky's idea of defamiliarization.

Toward the end of the stay, the artists share their work with each other, and one of them accuses the narrator of indulging in "that old trope" — the madwoman-in-the-attic story, the angry lesbian. It was nice to hear a character expressing my own feeling about the narrator's work, though I would level that criticism at Machado regarding this entire collection.

I didn't know anything about defamiliarization till I looked it up on Wikipedia — "a technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to enhance perception of the familiar." It occurs to me that maybe Machado intended all these stories to demonstrate this technique, to enhance my perception of the ordinary. But it's mostly lost on me; I wish someone could explain it to me; I just see ordinary.

These stories have some nicely constructed images, original turns of phrase, a lot of gauzy fabric, nuggets of deep thought, but I found myself plodding through these stories, not enjoying them. They were fairly predictable. These stories just weren't for me, at least not the me in my current headspace.

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