Monday, March 11, 2019

Desperate, detestable, and unhappy

I never could grasp why Polish literature had such bad luck. Looking at it logically, there are few nations who have so many chances for good literature as we, the Poles, do. We've got everything: misfortune, political assassinations, eternal occupation, informers, mystery, despair, drunkenness. By God, what else could you ask for? When I was Israel, I lived with the scum of the earth, but still I never met people as desperate, detestable, and unhappy as in Poland.
— from Beautiful Twentysomethings, by Marek Hłasko.

I was a beautiful twentysomething myself when I first heard of Marek Hłasko. I had stumbled across The Eighth Day of the Week while trying to reclaim my Polishness, but amid literature and memoirs that were more wartime (say, Gombrowicz and Herling) and thus more relatable to my own family's experience, Hłasko failed to make an impression.

And then I met a whole klatch of Polish beautiful twentysomethings down at the pub, for whom Hłasko was a hero. Poland's angry young man. For them, Hłasko was the epitome of Polishness: he forsook communism for the American dream, even if accidentally, to die tragically young and mysteriously, without having accomplished much of anything. His persona, I think, was greater than his talent, the legend larger than his life. He drank a lot. He played with the gods. His claim to fame: writing a novel censored by the authorities. His greatest trick was looking like James Dean, and exuding that rebel attitude.

Perhaps that's a harsh assessment. Perhaps it's because I don't understand him. (How could I ever hope to understand those beautiful twentysomethings!?) But that's precisely the problem, with him, and the whole of Polish literature. An outsider can never understand, and the Polish ego is such that it dismisses the outsider as incapable of understanding.

One of the more interesting chapters of book tackles the subject of "the unrequited love of Polish people for Americans," though it fails to reach any satisfactory conclusions.

This memoir amounts to not much more than a curiosity, and I don't see it having wide appeal. Hłasko recounts tales of looking for work and circumventing red tape. There's a lot of name-dropping of names I've never heard of. It has no particular style or humour or grace such as would substantiate a literary giant.

In its way, it is entirely representative of the people of a certain era. Like all the beautiful twentysomethings: suffering delusions of grandeur.

There are only occasional glimpses into the problem of art, creation, and critical thought in an oppressed society. But they are beautiful.
All the fellows I started out with, they knew it was fatal, but they waited all those years just to be able to write one poem, one story, just to be able to paint one surrealist painting or make a sculpture that didn't resemble anything. There were people — despite the facts and despite everything going on around them — these were people who kept faith that the moment would come when it would be possible to say: "No."

We — losing our hair, no longer beautiful, twentysomethings not more — we had our moment of glory. Some of us turned out better for it, some worse. There weren't any masterpieces made in those days, but maybe the works will be useful as a chronicle of the past, as proof of misery and lack of talent, as evidence of the powerlessness of a person living in a nightmare who doesn't have the inner strength to recognize it as such. But like I said, there were people who believed they'd one day be free to say the single most important word in every individual's life: "No."

When I meet beautiful twentysomethings today and I talk with them, one thing scares me: they all know things are bad in Poland. Nobody has any illusions about the occupation of Poland. On the other had, nobody's really concerned about it. One of the most beautiful girls I've met recently wants to become a computer engineer. Another handsome twentysomething is studying the archaeology of the Mediterranean Sea. There's one who's a metals engineer. Not a single one of them wants to be writer, painter, or sculptor. None of them are holding their breath for the day when they'll be free to say, "No." If a painter, writer, or director defects to the West, years of anguish and sporadic work are waiting for him. Nights spent in fleabag hotels, women who pay the bills, and personally I don't know of a case besides Miłosz where the artists who fled from behind the Iron Curtain didn't get bumped down a social class. These new beautiful twentysomethings won't have those problems. After seeking asylum, they'll work as doctors, engineers, God knows what else. They won't be tormented by boredom or hunger or by a longing for the homeland they've left behind and which never caused them any suffering. And these are the new beautiful twentysomethings.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Anything is possible in the present tense

All I want on the screen, Arlo said, is the present tense. Anything is possible in the present tense. Failure and love and stillness and change.

He's an artist, Davi said. Artists are mercenaries.
What drew me to The Third Hotel, by Laura van den Berg, was the promise of walking in the footsteps of love (where did it go?), an attempt to retrace and delimit a relationship.

What hadn't registered with me when this novel first came on my radar was that it has horror story elements — but then what love story doesn't?

Her husband Richard was a horror film scholar; he recently died in a car accident. So Clare ventures to the film festival in Cuba on her own. And there he is. (Did he really die? Why is he here? Where do the dead go?)

Weird things happen in this book.
Visitors longed for not a dislocation of reality but an insulation from reality — yet these layers of insulation were supposed to be invisible, imperceptible. People did not like to be too sharply reminded of their status as tourists.
I've often explained to people that one of the things I love about traveling is the opportunity to become someone else — in a place where nobody knows you, you can be anybody. But conversely, traveling lets you shed the baggage of your everyday life, to become more yourself. I think about this a lot when I travel, and I hold both these things to be true. This is my dislocation.
The traveling self was supposed to be temporary, disposed of when it was time to go home — there, how could this self be held responsible? But maybe a person became even more themselves when away, liberated from their usual present tense and free to lie. Maybe travel sent all that latent, ancient DNA swimming to the surface.
Clare has a secret self, the one that goes on the road alone for work. She's not working in Cuba, but she gives everyone who asks a different name. (Who is she really? Does she even know?) She suspects her husband had a secret life too.
Clare struggled to imagine what, forty years into a life, would cause a person to suddenly change the way they walked. There were alien, interminable silences when she called from the road, and when she was home he took long, solitary strolls in the evening hours, a symptom that would eventually lead to his demise.
There's unease simmering beneath every page. I'll leave analysis of the horror-story tropes to the academics, but there's the thing about the order the girls get killed in, the girls are always killed. There's the girl who goes missing. There's Clare being followed, and Clare following. (Will Clare be killed?)

I liked the idea of this book more than the actual book. Clare's past didn't interest me so much as her present with un-Richard.
In the lobby of the festival hotel, a mural of a forest spanned the length of a wall. On her first night, in the middle of a reception, she found herself standing in front of that mural. She peered into the shadows, imagined the secrets living in there. She rubbed the green leaves. The paint was smooth, the treetops tinged with gold. She licked a tree and tasted chalk, feeling wild.
Is she crazy? Has she always been crazy? Did she kill him? What is past and what is present?

(Apparently this novel owes quite a debt to Yoko Tawada's The Naked Eye, which quite coincidentally I have queued up on my shelf. Stay tuned.)

See also
Entropy: What Quivers Under the Surface of Laura van den Berg's The Third Hotel

The Paris Review: The Vocabulary of Tourism: An Interview with Laura van den Berg

Tin House: To Thicken and Complicate through Linear Time: A Conversation with Laura van den Berg

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Careerists always salute those who lack ambition

The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman, was unexpectedly engrossing. I knew absolutely nothing about it, hadn't even glanced at a plot summary, I don't know why — perhaps because from the moment I heard about it I already planned to read it. It's not about an Italian teacher at all. At least, not in any conventional sense.

So here's a book that was absolutely the right book at the right time for me. It gave me a great deal to think about, given some of my current circumstances.

There's the tension between art vs craft (in my own life, my chosen profession is the craft of editing, perhaps at the expense of the art of writing). There's what we perceive others' lives to be, and the reality of their lives behind closed doors. How we define art. How we define success. How we fight or fulfil others' expectations of us.

There's how we think our lives are going to turn out, and how far off the mark we end up. It's about what we become when we're not paying attention.
Careerists always salute those who lack ambition.
There's very little Italian about it, apart from the opening scenes. There's nothing "exotic" about it; it's Toronto and London. And the "teacher" aspect is incidental. This is a novel that surprised me repeatedly in where the plot took me and the insights it offered. I looked forward to my commute to see what came next.

It's also a book about art and the art world, and I have a soft spot for those. Determining the value of Art is to me an endlessly mystifying fascinating thing, a volatile algorithm weighing the work itself, its objective quality, sometimes the subject matter, the artist, the artist's personality and celebrity and reputation (and these are different things), whether the artist is living or dead, basic supply and demand, the perceived rarity of the work, the perceived interest in the work, the zeitgeist, et cetera.

There's the problem of what is art:
Potters get so exercised about art versus craft. But the older I get, the more I prefer craft. With craft, you know if a piece is right. It the pot so cumbersome that the farmer's wife couldn't lift it? Is my glaze poisonous? A pot is either correct, or it is not. Whereas art is never quite good or bad. Art is simply a way of saying "opinion."
And what is great art:
"If men were beautiful, Marsden, why is beauty always portrayed as a woman?"

"Because artists are servants of the rich, and the rich are men. They've always wanted their pinup girls."

"Great art is not a matter of sex."

"My dear friend! What else would it be?"
This novel is not about a great artist, as some plot summaries might have you believe. It's about his son Charles (otherwise known as Pinch), growing up in his shadow, waiting be be acknowledged.

The novel spans Pinch's whole life. We undoubtedly see far more clearly than he does the effect of his father on him, how overbearing — thoughtless and cruel — the father and how sad — pathetic — the son.
Nothing sadder than those who declare themselves artists when not a soul cares what they create.
Pinch does finally develop a secret life (I was rooting for him!). His motivations are complex (revenge against his father, vindication of his mother, personal fulfilment, financial security for the 16 other children fathered by the artist, spite against the world, et cetera), and it's debatable whether he achieves success in his project. You decide.
"Why impress anyone, if not the people you don't care for?"
Reviews
Chicago Review of Books: In 'The Italian Teacher,' Art Is Sex

Guardian: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman review – great art and monstrous selfishness

Washington Post: The art of rebellion: The son of a famous painter tries to reframe his life
With his own artistic aspirations, he's constantly torn between exploiting his relationship to the famous man or proving that he can succeed on his own merits. In the end, Pinch can't do either, which is just the kind of slowly grinding humiliation that Rachman's wit captures so tenderly.
In interview on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers:

Thursday, February 07, 2019

I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem

Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them, I like the movies too.
And then,
Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it's all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love's life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet's feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That's part of personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It's a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.
— from "Personism: A Manifesto," by Frank O'Hara.

Lucky poem.

Be gratified. Be the poem.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Mistress of my own text

Am I doing the right thing by telling stories? Wouldn't it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs? I could use quotes and footnotes, I could in the order of points or chapters reap the consequences of demonstrating step by step what it is I mean; I would verify an aforementioned hypothesis and ultimately be able to carry off my arguments like sheets after a wedding night, in view of the public. I would be the mistress of my own text, I could take an honest per-word payment for it.

As it is I'm taking on the role of midwife, or of the tender of a garden whose only merit is at best sowing seeds and later to fight tediously against weeds.

Tales have a kind of inherent inertia that is never possible to fully control. They require people like me — insecure, indecisive, easily led astray. Naive.
— from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

I am too naive. Weeds thrive in my garden, as do insects and vermin and fungi. What kind of mistress am I?

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Normality — however messy — is far more comprehensible

"Furukura, you're lucky, you know. Thanks to me, you can go from being triply handicapped as a single, virgin convenience store worker to being a married member of society. Everyone will assume you're a sexually active, respectable human being. That's the image of you that pleases them most. Isn't it wonderful?"
It's the image the characters of this novel strive for. It's what most humans aspire to (or is it?).

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, is a quirky little book that I wish I'd liked more. I found it difficult to connect with — it's the wrong book for my headspace right now, despite it having interesting things to say. However, the novel's emotionlessness may very well be the point — the narrator is a 36-year-old convenience story worker for whom being human and acting naturally doesn't come naturally at all.

Furukura has spent most of her life trying to fit in, playing the role of a normal person, with varying degrees of success. Her job as convenience store woman, which she's held for 18 years, thrills her because it came with a manual. The training included facial expressions and tone of voice to use. She watches her coworkers, what clothing brands they wear, learns where they shop.

She's not stupid — she's perceptive and adaptable; simply, she can't rely on her own instincts regarding acceptable behaviour — this is something she studies closely.

The tone of some reviews is quite condescending toward the main character, and this bothers me. We need people to work in convenience stores. Some people are perfectly suited to working in convenience stores. Clearly such ambitionlessness is frowned upon in Japan and elsewhere. I wonder to what extent some reviews are coloured by this prejudice, therefore misunderstanding Furukura's drive and courage.
I find the shape of people's eyes particularly interesting when they're being condescending. I see a wariness or a fear of being contradicted or sometimes a belligerent spark ready to jump on any attack. And if they're unaware of being condescending, their glazed-over eyeballs are steeped in a fluid mix of ecstasy and sense of superiority.
The twist is that she meets someone, someone unlikable, even despicable. But it suits them both to be perceived as being in a relationship. They are establishing a "marriage" of convenience. They are relative equals in laying the groundwork of the relationship. Furukura initially treats him as a pet. Even though he's a jerk, part of me almost wants to this relationship work, to pull one over on Japanese societal expectations.

In theory, this is the kind of book I should be all over, so I am somewhat puzzled by my response to it. I question my own abilities at work, motherhood, etc. But for the most part, I have stopped caring about what people think. This is clearly not the case for Furukura, whose efforts are all aimed at acceptance. Also, I am fascinated by Japan's asexual generation, but I cannot relate to it in the least. So I found the novel quirky, but not funny, and a little bit off-putting. It sits uncomfortably with me, and I don't know if it's me, the book, or Japan, and I don't know if I'll ever get around to resolving it.
She's far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has lot of problems, then she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For here, normality — however messy — is far more comprehensible.
See also the review in the New Yorker.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

It's very arresting, happiness

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh — I love this book! I'm not entirely sure why. It's hilarious and dark, and unexpectedly complex. I guess that's why.
Oh, sleep. Nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness. I was not a narcoleptic — I never fell asleep when I didn't want to. I was more of a somniac. A somnophile. I'd always loved sleeping. It was one thing my mother and I had enjoyed doing together when I was a child. She was not the type to sit and watch me draw or read me books or play games or go for walks in the park or bake brownies. We got along best when we were asleep.
[I love sleep!]

She just wants to get some sleep. A little more sleep. She's not sleeping enough. She resorts to sleeping in the closet at work. But you slowly learn that she's sleeping like seventeen hours a day, what do you mean that's not enough?! She needs more sleep?! So she finds herself a quack doctor to prescribe her sleeping aids and other things. By lying to the doctor! About everything!
Sleep is key. Most people need upwards of fourteen hours or so. The modern age has forced us to live unnatural lives. Busy, busy, busy. Go, go, go. You probably work too much." She scribbled for a while on her pad. "Mirth," Dr. Tuttle said. "I like it better than joy. Happiness isn't a word I like to use in here. It's very arresting, happiness. You should know that I'm someone who appreciates the subtleties of human experience. Being well rested is a precondition, of course. Do you know what mirth means? M-I-R-T-H?

"Yeah. Like The House of Mirth," I said.
(Which takes its title from Ecclesiastes 7:4. "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.")

But gradually it emerges that she's dealing with grief. In the last few years, her father died of cancer, and months later her mother did herself in. And then there's the less than healthy "relationship" she's been having with an older man. Our protagonist (she's messed up, but I'm rooting for her!) drops breadcrumbs leading toward her emotional reality. And clearly the doctor's not listening at all.

Because she's young, thin, blonde, and rich, she gets a pass on her behaviour, at first anyway. But her social contact is truly limited.
The next day, I filed for unemployment, which Natasha must have resented. But she never called. I set up a weekly pickup with the Laundromat and automatic payments on all my utilities, bought a wide selection of used VHS tapes from the Jewish Women's Council Thrift Shop on Second Avenue, and soon I was hitting the pills hard and sleeping all day and all night with two- or three-hour breaks in between. This was good, I thought. I was finally doing something that really mattered. Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart — this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then — that when I'd slept enough, I'd be okay, I'd be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.
That's quite the wish fulfilment fantasy, in part why this novel is so engrossing. Who doesn't want to take a year off from it all and just watch dumb movies and nap? Our narrator has the funds to do so. And she's beautiful, so we know nothing bad will happen to her! The year is 2000; 9-11 is on the horizon (wake-up call to the nation), but the text early on hints that she survives that day.

Her only friend is Reva, a bulimic having an affair with a married man. She drops by now and then unexpectedly and drones on about clothes and clubs and her dying mother. But Reva! — un rêve, a dream! Reva serves as a foil, maybe an alter ego. At some point I began to question her objective existence, outside the narrator's own hallucinatory perception.

Incredibly, this book about a young woman who sleeps away a year of her life is highly compelling. Much like dreaming, although nothing much happens in the material world, there's a lot going on below the surface, if not for the narrator (it's debatable) then for the reader.

We discussed this novel at book club last night, and I almost wish I'd managed to finish jotting down all my thoughts here beforehand, as now I'm in the position of reconsidering everything I thought I knew about this book and wanting to reread it closely.

This book is certainly about white privilege and wellness culture. Social class and authenticity. Appearances and consumerism, and how we sleepwalk through our existence. It's about empty art and cultural icons.

A lot of people agreed this was a book about depression and thus discussion very reasonably turned to how difficult it is to recognize mental illness and get suitable help. I didn't get the chance to voice and develop this thought: she's not suffering from depression so much as grief, which is a temporary condition. So maybe she wakes with her grief resolved, but when 9-11 happens, a new grief cycle begins, again with personal losses but also shared on a national scale.

(Something about the pills and questionable reality and frantic tone put me in mind of The Crying of Lot 49, and I mean that in a good way. I guess I should reread that someday too.)

What else to say? Highly recommended.
"People would be so much more at ease if they acted on impulse rather than reason. That's why drugs are so effective in curing mental illness—because they impair our judgment. Don't try to think too much."

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Her glorious, whiplash despair

In a chapter about feminism, on Dorothy Parker:
Finally, through Woollcott, I come face-to-face with the holy Dorothy Parker, who I feel had been waiting for me forever, in 1923, with her lipstick and her cigarettes and her glorious, whiplash despair. Dorothy Parker is monumentally important because, it seems to me at the time, she is the first woman who has ever been capable of being funny: an evolutionary step for women as major as the development of the opposable thumb or the invention of the wheel. Parker is funny in the 1920s and then — I am led to believe — no other women are funny until the eighties. Parker is the Eve of female humor.

Robert Johnson invented the blues, at midnight, at a crossroads, after selling his soul to the devil. Dorothy Parker invented amusing women, at 2 p.m. in New York's best cocktail bar, after tipping a busboy 50 cents for a martini. It's hard not to draw conclusions as to which is the brighter sex.

But Parker also worries me, because half the funny stuff she writes is about killing herself: funny doesn't seem to be working out as well for her as it does for, say, Ricky Gervais. And it cannot be ignored that it takes nearly 60 years for any women to be funny again after her. The trail she blazed stayed notably untrodden.
— from How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran.

I love Dorothy Parker! Or so I thought. The fact is, I barely know her. I know her aphorisms, a poem or two, and her reputation. It's time I change this.

So this week I read Alpine Giggle Week, a letter Parker wrote to her publishers from Switzerland, by way of excusing her late delivery of the Great American Novel she was purportedly working on.
It's damned near impossible to write from this place. I must be seen to be believed. It's so out of joint with any other form of life that you can't tell about it. The Magic Mountain is the nearest thing to it, and even that is an understatement. (Scott, by the way, is incensed that Thomas Mann has already done that book, because he wants to do one about a tuberculosis colony; having been her three days, he feels he is an authority.) My attitude toward the sicks has changed, since last Winter, when I spent too damn much time in being sorry for them. Now they disgust me.
It's fresh and frantic; it recounts plenty of drinking and drops a lot of names. It's funny. But it's a letter; it wasn't crafted with care and sarcasm — it's off the top of her head.

I've started in on Parker's short stories. They are incidentally witty, but they are primarily dark, with feminist leanings. "Such a Pretty Little Picture" describes the epitome of suburban domesticity, from which a man walks away. It calls to mind the Flitcraft parable in Hammett's Maltese Falcon (but predates it), and any number of Simenon's novels — it's unusual, though, to read the story as framed by a woman.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The empty drift

In the elevator, the silence made her arms itch and she was relieved when the foreman broke it, until he informed her that he had just observed her soul leaving her body. Apparently souls left bodies all the time — what entity didn't need a break every now and again? He believed this was only a problem if the soul in question lacked a reason to return. He explained that he had seen her soul climb right out of her chest — he stepped forward and pressed a freckled hand against her clavicle — and perch like a gargoyle on her shoulders, and when it was clear that she was utterly oblivious to what was transpiring, well —

The foreman sighed and shrugged, as though the departure of a soul was a terrible shame, but a situation for which there was little recourse. She told him she was under the assumption that souls only left bodies when people died, and he began to laugh and — his tone pivoting to indicate this was among the more idiotic things he'd heard in his life — said, You thing that's what happens when people die? [. . .]

The foreman had been possessed by a completely different notions of how the spiritual realm operated and he had spoken about it with a confidence that seemed preposterous in the moment, but who could say for sure that he was wrong, that the empty drift that gripped some people at certain moments in life was not in fact due to their souls — perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently — abandoning their bodies.
— from The Third Hotel, by Laura van den Berg.

How often does your soul leave your body? (What if another soul crept in while your body was "empty"?)

Monday, January 21, 2019

The city walls of feminism

We need the word "feminism" back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist — and only 42 percent of British women — I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of "liberation for women" is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? "Vogue," by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?
I feel somewhat conflicted about How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran. There are several things in it I don't agree with or can't relate to; yet, I am recommending this book to a lot of people because it is highly readable. It's light, without making light. And it's angry-making too, shedding light on all sorts of ways patriarchy insidiously stains my life.

I know several smart women who hesitate to call themselves feminists, and I really want that to change.

Moran tackles — with varying degrees of depth and seriousness — puberty, body hair, body image, pornography, workplace sexism, love, sex workers, marriage, the fashion industry, motherhood, abortion, and Lady Gaga.

It's all framed chronologically, autobiographically, according to how Moran encountered these issues in her own life. So it doesn't take long to realize that, even while she speaks in generalizations, however gingerly and with some disclaimers, she is describing a very singular experience. That is, Moran's relationship to her own breasts is different than mine, because we have very different breasts. The decision whether to have children or not, whether to have an abortion or not, is a highly personal one, and Moran cannot speak for all women. To be fair, Moran makes no such claim, but the more personal her writing is (and therefore more narratively compelling), ironically the more alienating it may be to readers and thus more divisive in the realm of what does it mean to be a feminist anyway and why should feminism address Moran's first-world problems when in developing countries "real" political and social change is still so far away.

Moran has some interesting things to say about hardcore 21st-century pornography and its availability. Porn constitutes a large part of our sex education, informing our understanding of the mechanics of sex but also our imagination. So it's problematic when "the vast majority of the porn out there is as identikit and mechanical as refrigerators rolling off a production line," and there's no joy in it, so little joy for women, where is the joy in pornography!?

Moran observes that overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and thus primarily of women. "It's a way of fucking yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to," and "slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn't inconvenience anyone."

I like how Moran shows the economic impacts of patriarchy, in everyday terms, to drive home the unfairness of it all, how women spend fortunes over a lifetime on tampons and waxing and reproductive care and ridiculous underwear.

Moran makes Lady Gaga sound like our redemption, I want to listen and dance and learn more and change the world.
Any action a woman engages in from a spirit of joy, and within a similarly safe and joyous environment, falls within the city walls of feminism. A girl has a right to dance how she wants, when her favorite record comes on.
I'm torn about sharing this video clip, because it's not particularly funny (I mean, it's somewhat funny, but not OMG-I-have-to-share-this funny) and it's not entirely representative of the book and you may get the sense that it's dismissive of "serious" feminist issues, but it gives a taste of how feminism is part of the day-to-day and should not be restricted to the purview of angry academics.



Say it with me now: "I am a strident feminist."

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Any book, when read at the right moment...

Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, by Jane Mount, is whimsical and lovely, a true miscellany.

I kind of love it for its lists and groupings, for its bookishness, for its celebration of books — not just their subjects, but their design, and the rooms where they were written and the libraries where they're held and the cats that hold counsel over them.

I hate it for neglecting some of the books I treasure (and how dare it include books I don't like!), for too much of this and not enough of that.

For example, there are six spreads related to food: Regional Cooking, Reference Cookbooks, Novel Food, Everyday Food Inspiration, Baking & Desserts, and Food Writing. Too many? Perhaps not enough for some people.

But only one spread addresses reading in translation; at a stretch, some entries touch on this through A Sense of Place and Journeys & Adventures. So yeah, that's one criticism — very anglocentric.

It's a fun and pretty book but short on substance. At times I thought rather than see all these mentions of books, I'd prefer to be actually reading one of those books. But then I was delighted to recognize an old favourite, and see that my local bookstore was included.

Although, one feature of the book I adored was not about books at all, but rather the chairs one might sit in while reading them. I want a whole book about that, please.

Clearly this project was a labour of love, and it reflects a very singular experience of books.
I know that any book, when read at the right moment, might make my life better, might give me a greater understanding of the universe and the other people in it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Cracking up the concrete like claws

I was reading in the metro this morning and I read a sentence that reminded me of another sentence. I made a mental note of the sentence and read on. Something made me want to check the author’s resources — I’d noticed that she includes research notes at the end of the book. That something — I don’t recall now what is was — was possibly not fictitious, but a reference to something (a book, a movie) in our nonfictitious lived reality.

The sentence was this:
From the Third Hotel, the closest CADECA was on La Rampa, on a street corner shaded by a banana tree, the roots cracking up the concrete like claws.
And the sentence it reminded me of was this:
It's just one of those pieces of Rome that cracks through the concrete of the present day like a bad memory, a way in for grass, for all kinds of untidy thoughts.
And it made me think of the difference between a horror story and a love story, and it made me think that maybe they're the same thing.

I am reading The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg, which put me in mind of one little sentence from Break.up by Joanna Walsh, whose Hotel was listed in the notes. Coincidence, of course, like the coincidence of all horror stories.

There's this thing about how horror springs up when someone's compass is taken away, leaving them unable to navigate the world. Rural horror tends to rely on some literal abyss or dislocation from "reality"; whereas urban horror relies on a different kind of gap in our reality — abandoned lots, alleyways, cracks in sidewalks.

The Third Hotel and Break.up are indeed very similar, women traversing an urban landscape, tracing a lost love, following their footsteps, repeating their words. So they are both horror stories. (The horror of a break-up?) How are they different?

[Possibly I should spend more time writing about books while I'm reading them instead of waiting till I'm done.]

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Once you agree it's love, something about it is over

Love stories are a confessional whispered to a third party, not the lover, because once you agree it's love, something about it is over.
This is not a love story. It's a story about a love story.

When I read a review of Break.up, by Joanna Walsh, early last summer, I thought it might help me process a difficult breakup of my own. I ran right out to buy it, but for some reason delayed reading it. I was feeling a sense of urgency, both regarding getting over this guy, R, but also about writing about that experience and my various epiphanies, but I think I wanted my closure to be pure, uncoloured by this kind of autofiction.

I left Break.up lying on my coffee table all summer. Sometimes it would admonish me to just get on with it, get on with all of it... the writing, the living, the loving.

When months later I finally got around to reading it, I was processing an entirely different lovelife state. What I hadn't known when I acquired Break.up was that I was then exchanging the initial text messages with M, what is no doubt my strangest (and still ongoing) "relationship" to date. Months on I was struggling to pin it down, I wanted to fold it up and put it in a box, tuck it away. For my own good, really. But I let it flutter on, too impalpable to be described.

R was my spring, long gone before I started reading Break.up, and quite unexpectedly, and just as I turned the final pages, he appears to be back in my life.

O was my autumn, a potential romantic interest, then an occasional lover, then a friend. But Break.up cast light on that relationship too. And as I turned the final pages, the friendship cracked.

But it was the summer (the year?) of M. I've never met M in real life. Sometimes I wonder whether he really exists as he's presented himself — maybe he lives in a basement around the corner from me, maybe he's someone I already know. Does it even matter if he exists as anything at all outside my own head?
Your tongue in my mouth: did we speak truer when we spoke online, without bodies, sounding tinkling with the tongues of angels?
The men who counted last year amount to a trinity, my trinity of men — my R, O, and M — my read-only memory.

I met them all online.

And this is the point of Break.up: the strange state of text-based relationships.

I had 13 face-to-face encounters with R. Fewer than that with O. None at all with M. Yet the messages we exchanged number many thousand.
But I don't like phone-talk: so breathily intimate, my ear up against someone's mouth, the crackly physical proximity of my parents' era. I remember everything you said out loud. It's my own words I didn't hear. When I talked they echoed round my skull, or down the line, but didn't stick. As I pushed them out I couldn't hear myself speak. I wonder what I said to you. Type, at least, had memory. Give me the cold keys of my aluminum laptop and I'll play them like a Belleville piano. What's more, writing gives me time for some elegance of response, (elegance is refusal), for some esprit d'éscalier, in the timelapse. An object qui parle, naturally there were things I held back. [sic]
I think of myself as a text-based person — and here I mean literary text as opposed to phone text. I think I'm better "on paper." I like to think about my words before I commit them to paper, before I commit to them, before I commit them. I have never written so much as I did in 2018, drafts of stories and character sketches, poetic outpourings, notes to boys. And never have words been so inadequate.

She considers the rules of the game: the correspondence takes turns. Is it my turn to respond? How long can I take to respond? The gap between messages widens. What if you don't respond?
Now each word has more edges, and they are sharp: your works are more defined now because, though you still write to me, there are fewer of them, and they come less often. All those words we used to have, and now we're monosyllabic! Each stands out, sparser therefore more distinct, changing the focus, making it difficult to judge how far away you are from me.
Walsh travels across Europe for the length of this text.
It's just one of those pieces of Rome that cracks through the concrete of the present day like a bad memory, a way in for grass, for all kinds of untidy thoughts.
When R and I broke up, I walked back and forth across my city, saw the ghosts of us everywhere, back and forth.

Walsh writes things that are eerily similar to lines among my own post-break-up scribblings last spring. Walsh writes: "You, for instance, are not here now, and you-not-being-here accompanies me wherever I go." "Love's not analog, it's digital." (Although, I argued the opposite.) "What I miss is desire."

As I mentioned previously, I didn't entirely connect with this book. The syntax is precious, surely the result of writer's workshops.

Despite the subject, it's emotionally distant, almost alienatingly so. It's too personal to be a universal experience for a reader to automatically embody.

But I love the fragmented nature of this book, travelling from place, to memory, to place. I love the quotes scattered throughout: Breton, Heidegger, Barthes, etc. (I saw a girl reading Nadja on the metro, I wanted to hug her.)

It's important that there's very little about him in this text at all. It's not about him, not really.
In the last year I've read everything I could find about love. What did these books tell me? All about what it is to be a lover, next to nothing about the beloved, in any case, nothing that matched your own specific oddness, or maybe I mean my own. But I have found that writing is not a tool that can be turned upon anything: I have not chosen what to write about, I have only decided whether to write about what I have. Writing is not transferrable, perhaps.
I too have been doing research, reading everything I could find about love, I read this book about love. I've learned nothing.

It's about a year ago that I read Elif Batuman's The Idiot. It's shortly thereafter that I started online dating, and the mood of that book lingered, coloured my experience.

Here's what I've learned in the past year, from real life and from the books:
  1. Relationships happen inside one person's head, they are forged and broken there.
  2. Love does not exist between two people, love is one person's attitude to the world (and with any luck, it coincides with that of another).
  3. Words are inadequate, no matter which words, no matter how many.
Reviews
In the Guardian, Break.up by Joanna Walsh review – the end of a virtual affair:
What I feel in the end is admiration without pleasure. Walsh places feelings on display, yet keeps them austerely inaccessible, and I see the point of this without enjoying the effect.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fighting for Emotional Liberty in Joanna Walsh’s “Break.up”:
Break.up is as much about the loss of emotional liberty in a world that relies more and more on digital connection as it is about the loss of love.

Friday, January 11, 2019

High and melancholy and just a little off-key

"Are you ready?" he asked.

"No," she said. "I told you, I don't want to listen to your stupid tape."

"Yes, you do," he said. "You just don't know it yet." He reached up and slid the headphones over her ears. She could smell his body odor, a mix of cigarette smoke and sweat and sour breath. She was about to snatch the headphones off when she heard a dusty crackling, like the static at the start of a record, and then a man singing, accompanied by rough strokes of acoustic guitar. His voice was high and melancholy and just a little off-key. It reminded her of the way she's felt after she'd drunk the vodka, as though an entire planet were pressing on top of her, holding her down.
— from "Look at Your Game, Girl," in You Know You Want This, by Kristen Roupenian.

Did you read "Cat Person" last year? Go read it now, and be horrified by the prospect of online dating and the impossibility of knowing someone via text.

Since reading this collection over the holiday, several of these stories have faded from my memory already. But some of them are standouts. That includes the now renowned "Cat Person." I would put "Look at Your Game, Girl," and "The Good Guy" in the same of category, maybe "Bad Boy." Insightful, uncomfortable, effective.

I think Roupenian is at her best when exploring sexual dynamics, the mysterious gaps between people. She exploits the uncertainty between people, the failure of trust. You know you want it, but do you know what it is you want so bad? That thing you want — it's dark, aggressive, transgressive.

Other stories border on weird horror, had supernatural elements. Those stories are weaker in my view. Possibly because the space between natural and supernatural elements is so much wider than the chasm between men and women; the tension is not so tightly contained.

Stories online
Cat Person
Bad Boy
The Good Guy (on Medium, members only, but you may be allowed a free article)
The Night Runner (I didn't much like this one)
Don’t Be Scarred (an earlier version of "Scarred," which I liked at first, but then it felt too obvious; I kept waiting for the twist, but the twist was too obvious)

Reviews
Boston Globe
The New Republic

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Thoughts I've had and that I've forgotten to think

Out browsing books, I couldn't resist bringing home A Climate of Fear, by Fred Vargas. It's been a while since I read Vargas. I vaguely recall bingeing and having had my fill, with nothing else to fill the void. But that was years ago. She's still writing.

This mystery starts off with two victims of apparent suicides. They're definitely not suicides. And these two individuals knew each other, having both been on expedition in Iceland years before. Their group had been lost in the fog, stranded for weeks on a remote island — afturganga territory.

But it turn out they have another connection: both were members of a reenactment society, performing the speeches of Maximilien Robespierre.

(And then more apparent suicides ensue.)

So it's in keeping with Commissaire Adamsberg's methods that I should read this, explore the meaning behind the novel's coincidental surfacing on my metaphorical bookshelf. I mean: I've just been to Iceland, am engrossed in all things Icelandic. And I'm also currently re-embroiled in the French Revolution, Assassin's Creed: Unity style, just because it felt like the right way to kick off the new year. These two all-consuming yet disparate interests somehow bound together in this novel in front of me.

I love when books collide with life in unexpected ways!
"You ought to be able to work it out. Try. It was a thought that came to you and you hadn't finished thinking it. You shouldn't lose thoughts like that, hombre. Have to be careful where you put things. And your second in command, the commandant, does he feel the itch as well? Or that one with the stripy hair?"

"No, neither of them."

"That means it must be a thought peculiar to you. It's a pity thoughts don't have names, isn't it? You could call them up, and they'd come and lie down at our feet, crawling on their bellies."

"I think we have ten thousand thoughts a day, or millions we don't know about."

"Yeah, agreed," said Lucio, opening his second bee, "it would be chaos."

Adamsberg went inside to the kitchen, finding there his son, who was eating bread and cheese, as he worked on the jewellery he had started making to sell.

"Are you going to bed already?"

"I need to look for thoughts I've had and that I've forgotten to think."

"Oh, I see," said Zerk, with perfect sincerity.
Vargas's writing is elegant and witty, her characters subtly charming. How quintessentially Parisian.

[Why do I read about Paris? Another all-consuming interest. I miss his voice, the delicacy of his dirty words, utterly non-Quebecois. The power of his gentle kiss on my neck. Ah, Paris.]

Thursday, January 03, 2019

A personal bond with his whisky

You never know what kind of bond an American may have with America, one not only American but also German, not only German but also a pianist, that not only but moreover a composer, not only him but actually anyone at all with America, it's a mystery this bond any Tom or Dick can have with America, the pianist's America was measured out in bourbon, topped up with water and chilled with ice, that was the only way to appreciate whisky in its American incarnation, which is what I was missing, I was sticking with my well-known good taste not innate but belatedly acquired, in the context of an apparently successful marriage which had led me to encounter though not necessarily recognize all kinds of whiskys, single and pure malts, and to despise fans of blended whisky, those drinkers being not enlightened enthusiasts but a lower class of consumers, as conceded by all true enthusiasts distinguished by their refusal of admixture, consumption combines while good taste defines, this is what I'd learned in the context of my marriage, my objective then: success founded on the theoretical knowledge of whisky, I therefore pursued the single-mindedness particular to good taste which cannot be learned for lack of a particular upbringing. These were my prejudices around taste, acquired belatedly and still channeling my judgment in accordance with conventions whose universally relative nature I didn't always understand, I judged without considering the pianist's capacity to judge which had enabled him serenely to sip his tall blended whisky on the rocks without in any way snapping back at this my anti-American sarcasm of the lowest kind, the most questionable sarcasm given the knee-jerk anti-Americanism that the pianist was always condemning and which I'd never meant to be part of, in which I was participating despite myself, which I made no attempt to resist: pro-Americanism would have been equally poorly received, the pianist has never been pro-American, has never supported America for America's sake nor America versus the rest of the world, he has more than once taken a stand against America but without anti-Americanism either knee-jerk or of any other kind, ordering a blended whisky on the rocks was not a pro-American decision and called for no further anti-American critique, yet I criticized the pianist's choice without first taking a deep breath and counting to ten or any other number, criticism he thought uncalled-for, being first and foremost a pianist-composer well up on America, better informed than he is hard to find. The pianist's bond with blended whisky was in some way loaded, so I gathered from the nervy way the pianist had placed his order, as if it were quite a complex order and called for lengthy explanation to the Kaiser's waiter, who it seemed did not serve tall blended whiskys on the rocks every day, the way he snatched up the glass and made the ice swirl inside it. Doubtless the pianist felt a personal bond with his whisky [...]; at the Kaiser Café the pianist was neither between heaven and earth nor between one drink and the next, simply keeping up his unalcoholic bond with blended whisky, an intimate and precious connection, perhaps even more intimate and precious than the pianist's bond with his car, a relationship one doesn't enter into just like that, in open comradeship, but that remains for ever mystical and personal.
— from Blue Self-Portrait, by Noémi Lefebvre.