Thursday, May 23, 2019

The possibility of joy

I went out into the undimmed, Katherine-Mortenhoe-dancing-down-the-street-morning.

Spring. That day spring was special. Not just a matter of cuckoos and poetic crocuses. That day spring was special, an affair in the blood that even the largest city could not arrest, a process that enlarged one's perceptions till even oneself could be almost beautiful. In March the sun may shine and the air may be balmy, but without April in the blood this lightheartedness never catches fire. The building may purr, but the body knows better. It wears its ugly winter, summer, autumn skin and, as in all these seasons, knows no other. Only in spring is the flesh new, and the spirit incorruptible. Which made, I thought on that sweetly sad, sadly sweet, Katherine Mortenhoe morning, the spring the only bearable time for dying.
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton, skewered me.

I wept. I wept for my pathetic self. I wept for my wasted years. I wept for the children I wanted but didn't have. I wept for the novel I haven't written. I wept in self-pity. I raged against the man who cheated me of fertile years, and cheats me still of the private moments he's made it near impossible for me to find. I raged against the days that fall away.

I wept for humanity, that we are so embarrassed, ashamed, afraid to ask for what we want, what we need from each other. That it is so difficult to show kindness. That we don't know what kindness is.

I once fell in love with a man who lived so much in the present he couldn't remember yesterday and made no plan for tomorrow. I accused him of being digital. Discontinuous.

In Katherine's case, it's illness. She is dying of information overload — a breakdown of the neural circuits having exceeded their limits. It's accompanied by psychological phenomena, neural spasm and nausea best described as outrage. She becomes first by choice and then as a consequence of disease "free of context."

In D. G. Compton, Authenticity, and Privacy in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Anna E. Clark writes:
In a nod to Mortenhoe's title, Roddie says at one point that people are only true when they're "continuous" — when, that is, they're made up of things — names, desires, traits — that endure from one moment to the next. Roddie initially believes that these continuous qualities inhere in the person herself, but by Mortenhoe's conclusion we are left with the feeling that they belong not to us but to others. They are the products of the ways we're seen, the ways we're documented.
When do you cease to exist? When do you cease to exist for others? What would you do if you knew you had only a month to live? Would you live your same life? With the same people? Go to the same job? Would you sign a TV contract for a reality show? ("Certainly human behavior has changed since the coming of TV behavior.") Would you go off-grid? How exactly would you do that?
Seven hours remained. I suppose seven hours do not sound all that terrible. Neither, really, do four hundred and twenty minutes. But I counted them, every one. And they're more than enough when all your life has is an ambition you've seen through, a hope you dare not examine, and a direction you'd rather not guess. They're enough to make possibilities of joy seem, to say the least, a bit ridiculous.
Katherine's diagnosis comes at a time when disease has been virtually eradicated. It's unheard of to die of anything but old age. Katherine's 44. Perhaps it's telling that she works as a programmer of romance novels. Katherine leaves her husband, and it's not immediately clear to Katherine or the reader whether it's out of love, to spare him the ordeal.

Roddie, meanwhile, is a TV personality who's had a camera implanted in his eyes. Everything he sees is automatically captured and transmitted to the studio for review and editing. (It's like he's live-streaming. He can cut audio, but he has somewhat modified his gaze — always scanning for the moneyshot but never looking down when he pees.) His network has invested in him, intent on broadcasting Katherine's demise to a "pain-starved public."

This near-future scenario from 1974 felt a little dated at the start, with its forward-looking vision of public telephones (hah!), post offices and reams of mail (how quaint), reality TV (wait a second...), and hi-fi records (umm...). But that Philip K Dick/Robert Sheckley vibe quickly faded into the background. It became a brilliant story of two fucked-up people in fucked-up circumstances.

Katherine seems to have a clear idea of how she should come to her end, but she turns out to be confused, desperate, and lonely. Roddie is truly conflicted, remorseful, and wants to atone.

They grow very close to each other, both lying to each other, and it is profoundly moving.
The thing is, beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder. Neither is compassion, or love, or even human decency. They're not of the eye, but of the mind behind the eye. I had seen, my mind had seen, Katherine Mortenhoe with love. Had seen beauty. But my eyes had simply seen Katherine Mortenhoe. Had seen Katherine Mortenhoe. Period.
I also saw her with love.

I want to see people as continuous. I want to see the possibility of joy.

The Atlantic published an adapted version of Jeff VanderMeer's introduction to the novel.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Changing the consistency of the air around her

Another woman was already standing in my favorite spot by the rusty tracks. Her long coat had a high collar that resembled the gills of a tropical fish. On her head she wore ornaments that looked somehow extraterrestrial. Perhaps she was a singer who'd fled from the stage of an opera with futuristic sets. What could be the reason for her having hurried here without removing her makeup and changing clothes? She was older than I was, and had something extraordinary about her. Her presence even seemed to be changing the consistency of the air around her. The clear form of her lips held her flesh together like overripe fruit, and the two ends sometimes dipped down slightly, as if they were remembering a bitter taste. The woman's spine described a straight line of justice not dependent on any existing law. Each time I blinked, her body dissolved for two seconds into colorful micro-grains.

The darkness around us thickened. The woman gave me a dutiful nod, as if the two of us had an understanding. My heart began to pound violently. It was up to me to take action. Today was the chosen day. I had a vague memory of our having arrived at our agreement in a dream, though the specific terms of the the agreement were unknown to me. Suddenly the woman lay down on the tracks and pressed her face to one of the ties. I ran to her, took her by the shoulder and tried to roll her over, but she was as immovable as the spire of a temple whose root is buried in the earth. I thought I heard the sound of a train approaching from a distance — this was impossible though. There tracks had known nothing but rust and weeds for years, certainly no wheels. Then I heard it once more, the sound of an approaching train. Or was it just a streetcar heading into the city center? Or was it the drone of a refrigerator that had been implanted in the depths of my eardrums during my days of loneliness? I wanted to tell the woman to get up, but I couldn't think of any words. The old words had left my skull, I needed new words to be able to speak to her. But what were new words?
— from The Naked Eye, by Yoko Tawada.

The old words are inadequate. The new words are inaccessible.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The world somewhere else is a beautiful place

"You know, Doctor, he has some very strange ideas of purity and beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, he says. I tell him poet's eye descriptions of oil refineries at sunset are a waste of computer time. Half our readers work in them. Homo or hetero, they're all the same — they want to be told the world somewhere else is a beautiful place. Tell them the world they know is beautiful too and they'll spit in your face."
— from The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton.

Ordinary people dream of elsewhere. Only poets dream of here.

I am loving this book so far. It's both light and serious. Also, it's funny, sometimes unintentionally as it's 1974's vision of "the future."

"The real, the continuous Katherine Mortenhoe possessed the possibility of joy."

I find unreasonable joy in noticing that this novel sits on my desk in aesthetic harmony with my notebook.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Close your eyes

Close your eyes

Close your eyes
Rest your head on my shoulder and sleep
Close your eyes
And I will close mine

Close your eyes
Let's pretend that we're both counting sheep
Close your eyes
This is divine

Music play
Something dreamy for dancing
While were here romancing
It's love's holiday
And Love will be our guide

Close your eyes
When you open them dear
I'll be near by your side
So won't you close your eyes
— from Duet, by Doris Day with André Previn.

I sang this song over and over, night after night, to my baby. Because love would be our guide. Thank you, Doris.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

The personal shopping cart is a name for solitude

I'm reading Happy Are the Happy (Yasmina Reza) in the metro and feeling down, because it's cutting and harsh, if sharp. And I imagine somebody asking me what it's about, and I would say it's about husbands and wives, and mothers and sons, and lovers, and it's not about happiness at all, none of them are happy, everything is dissolving.

But maybe that's what it means to be happy: to dissolve, when the past and the future dissolve.
Apologize, she says. If she said Apologize in her normal voice, I might comply, but she whispers, she gives the word a colorless, atonal inflection I can't get past. I say, please. I remain calm. Please, I say mildly, and I see myself driving down a highway at top speed, stereo turned all the way up, and I'm listening to a song called "Sodade," a recent discovery I understand nothing of except for the solitude in the singer's voice and the word solitude itself, repeated countless times, even though I'm told sodade doesn't actually mean solitude, but nostalgia, absence, regret, spleen, so many intimate things that can't be shared, and all of them names for solitude, just as the personal shopping cart is a name for solitude, and so is the oil and vinegar aisle, and so is the man pleading with his wife under the fluorescent lights.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Erotic energy is everywhere

We think erotic energy is everywhere — in the deep breath that fills our lungs as we step out into a warm spring morning, in the cold water spilling over the rocks in a brook, in the creativity that drives us to paint pictures and tell stories and make music and write books, in the loving tenderness we feel toward our friends and relatives and children.
So here's a book a friend suggested I read: The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, by Dossie Easton and Janet W Hardy. And it's hard not to wonder what the underlying message might be as he presses it into my hands: Am I not ethical enough? Or not slutty enough?

Is this or is this not a book about sluttery? (I love that word, "sluttery.")

"Polyamory" is relatively new word in many people's vocabulary. It's hard not to think of polyamory as a mere trend. Many practitioners would argue that it's been around forever, simply not talked about openly. This is the evolution; it is becoming socially acceptable. The Ethical Slut is not capitalizing on this social phenomenon. Originally published in 1997, it's considered groundbreaking in raising awareness and has helped many people achieve sexual fulfilment. (Your mileage may vary.)

Definitely there are several ideas put forward in this book that I can readily get behind. For example, "Sexual energy pervades everything all the time; we inhale it into our lungs and exude it from our pores."

That there are various kinds of love. That there are various kinds of relationships. That no one person can satisfy our everything (this is why I have book friends, and work friends, and art gallery friends, etc.). That our capacity for love is infinite — we will never run out of love to give.

If the title piques your interest, you may want out check out this YouTube review. It's more a low-key stream-of-consciousness rant than it is a proper review (he makes a big deal of society holding a double standard for judging the behaviour of men and women, which is a tangential point in the book), but he uses the book as a springboard to discuss many of the issues implicit to polyamory and sluttery. The book itself is something of a practical guide, in general terms.

(I'd really like a book to tell me if it's OK to spontaneously sext a married man at midnight, even though most of our texts are relegated to weekday afternoons and limited to establishing meeting points. But I guess that's something I'll have to figure out with my lover.)

The opening chapters are given over to examining traditional ideas that may be founded in outdated systems (religious, legal, etc.). Several exercises are suggested (for example, make a list of all the reasons someone might want to be a slut and consider the validity of those reasons). The book goes on to describe the several different nontraditional kinds of relationships. In a very general way, the book covers everything from consent and safe sex to how to meet like-minded people for initial explorations.

But the bulk of the text is about communicating within a relationship, and would slip neatly into any relationship self-help book (the kind of book I would never read).

A few things in this book rankled my editorial sensibilities: For example, one author refers to the early years of feminism, but I'm fairly certain she's no suffragette — she means the 60s. And despite proclaiming that there's no one-size-fits-all polyamory, the authors clearly have their own worldview biases (that is, I didn't find any insight into what it means to be a single polyamorist; the predominant view is that of someone who is coupled, albeit multiply in various combinations).

The authors clearly state that jealousy is not an emotion, describing it as an umbrella that encompasses anger, sadness, etc., but on the very next page they refer to jealousy as an emotion. Now, I know what they mean, and the book has a chatty enough tone that it's easy to assume an understanding, but when such a great part of this book is given over to communication, it's a shame that they should get sloppy over defining terms.

The primary focus of the book is the value of communication in any relationship, and it's full of other good things like self-awareness, healthy body image, and overall sex positivity.

I'm not sure who this book is for, though. I don't think it will overturn the life-long beliefs and prejudices of close-minded people. As for the relatively open-minded, there is nothing new here. I suppose there's a small demographic who find reassurance in a book that gives them the vocabulary to talk about their lifestyle, new labels by which to define themselves.

So I'm here to proclaim that I'm a slut. And I try to be ethical about it.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

An eroticism still enfeebled by winter

All the young women are in shorts and sandals. The sandals' soles smack their heels with a certain resolute gaiety. What makes that sensual? Is it the slightly slack strap that lets the foot slip this way and that, and the heel slap the sole? Or is it the vision of unveiled legs? What makes it sensual, and must the legs be beautiful, must they be lustrous, smooth, and long? Or is it the beauty of the legs, knees, and ankles superfluous for the burgeoning, in the main street of this drowsy town, of an eroticism still enfeebled by winter? Is all that possible in a town this far removed from the breeziness, the rustle, the hum of the city, is it possible?
Self-Portrait in Green, by Marie Ndiaye, is a slip of a book about an elusive feminine essence, something green, verdant, lush, but potentially toxic. The woman in green may or may not exist, may or may not be a friend, may or may not be a ghost, may or may not be her mother.
And in fact the only notable difference between this woman in green and the one they used to know lay in this one's greater beauty, but it was still the same beauty, only expanded, vibrant, thanks to contentment, to money, to sexual pleasure.
Ndiaye weaves an intense mood out of almost nothing. In the present of the story (December 2003, such as it is), there is the river, its essence undoubtedly feminine, threatening to flood — "heavy, almost bulging." The narrator reaches back in time to recount encounters with various women in green:

The woman by the banana tree, perhaps waiting for her to unburden her heart, who throws herself from the balcony, who one day walks away.

The memory of a grade-school teacher who carried children away.

The woman who is one of the women whose names she always confuses, who unburdens her heart about her difficult children.

The woman who was her best friend until she married her father and imposed a hierarchy on the circle of family relationships.

The woman she knows of only through Jenny, the woman who was the wife of the man Jenny loved.
Isn't it a sign of contemptible self-indulgence, Jenny's thinking, to be caught up in a romanticism you never felt when you were young, simply because you have too much time on your hands, and because, in any event, giving into that romanticism now poses no threat, since everything that matters in life lies well behind you? Certainly, Jenny is thinking, belated romanticism is pitiful, pathetic, mediocre. But how to fight it off?
The woman who was her mother, who has lived a few lives and created intersecting families, whose joyless bravado reeks of a stingy, shabby existence.
And that's all there was to her life in those days, a round little woman, virtuous, unfailingly solemn, trotting along toward her workplace each morning, never glancing left or right for fear she might glimpse something that looks vaguely or unmistakably like adventure or novelty, for fear she might glimpse a bit of the face of someone she knew, someone she couldn't deny not knowing, who might tell her some troubling story, might reveal some intimate secret.
The woman she expects someday the half-sister her mother abandoned will become, continuing to haunt her conscience.

This book feels secretive, almost transgressive. It lacks the intense paranoia of My Heart Hemmed In (and thank goodness, because that's not a reading experience to undertake lightly), but these novels share a hovering sensation (slightly out of body, at some remove), like the narrator feels the world without being in it, or understanding it.

Self-Portrait in Green also calls to my mind Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream, for the sensee that something's wrong with the way the world works, with the children and the mothers, what the hell is going on, what the hell is the right thing to do, the right way to be.

Why is this narrator so concerned with — troubled by — the women in green? Remember that this is a self-portrait. She must be looking for herself: as a free and sexual creature, as a mother unencumbered by motherhood, as a wise observer, as someone who comes and goes as she pleases. (Does green guard against fertility? she wonders.)

[I think of all the women I've known. Which of them are this kind of green? Elaine, Céline, Lysa, Maribel, others.]

What of her own children (late in the story she is pregnant with her fifth)? What of their father, who is absent from this story?

Do the women in green represent what the narrator wishes to be or what she is afraid of becoming or what she knows is inside of her? All these things.

Necessary Fiction
Three Percent

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Now the smiling starts

Groggy commuters thread their way out from underground, heading east toward Lexington Avenue, not yet up for the battle for taxis. In the meantime, of the seven hundred faces she has seen this morning, almost all have been forgotten. Now the smiling starts.

She has learned to do it. Only rarely is she still startled by the smile that every morning instantaneously shows up on, slips aside from, and crashes down off the face of the girl at the department reception desk. She feels she is too slow for the elaborate, unvarying exchange: the hello, the inquiry into how it's going, the answer, the counterquestion, the counteranswer, the goodbye. She has trouble making it to the end of the script within the four strides of a hallway encounter. She hasn't learned that. Still, she feels that her smile covers her and she ramps it up to the point of downright merriment.
— from Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (Volume 1, August 1967 – April 1968), by Uwe Johnson.

I don't know why I'm reading this. Why am I reading this? How did I hear about it? Why did I order it? When I started, I had doubts about liking it. But before I knew it, I was zipping along — I like it quite a bit.

It reminds me of when I discovered Patrick Hamilton, quite by accident, the breathlessness, the urban rush, the outpourings of humanity, only here is the New York City Subway instead of the London Underground.

What's it about? I'm 150 pages in, and I don't know yet. Racism and fascism, Vietnam and the Holocaust, hippies and Negroes, immigrants and expats, entitlement and injustice. Possibly marriage and motherhood, family and hard choices.

It's about how the New York Times reports the news ("it helped us and taught us to accept reality with the expectations and judgments our parents had tried to inculcate" — I read this the same day the Times prints "I'm fucked" on its front page).

The novel consists of dated entries. Gesine's mother had kept a book of complaints (when she was a newlywed German immigrant to England). Now her daughter asks Gesine to make something like that for her. "Not complaints about me. What you're thinking now, things I won't understand until later. Complaints are okay too." Although set over 50 years ago, it may be everything I hoped this blog to be.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

It's we who are walking

The ice palace is a formation that builds up around the waterfall during the long, hard period of cold in rural Norway. It's ever changing and growing as water spurts are diverted, creating new ice forms: "alcoves and passages and alleyway, and domes of ice above them." The school children have been planning a visit.

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas, is a slim novel, entirely opaque. There's so much I don't understand about this book. Everything remains unsaid.

(I was prompted to search out this book immediately after reading this review.)

Two eleven-year-old girls are about to become friends. Siss is popular. Unn is new to the school, having recently come to live with her aunt after her mother died. Unn is shy, but when she's invited to join in the group, she says she can't, and "Don't ask me about it anymore." Despite this, the girls are clearly intrigued by each other, even drawn to each other. One day, in a flurry of notes passed across the classroom, Unn invites Siss to her house after school.

They gaze into a mirror together and are lost in their reflections as they seem to become each other.
They let the mirror fall, looked at each other with flushed faces, stunned. They shone towards each other, were one with each other; it was an incredible moment.

Siss asked: "Unn, did you know about this?"

Unn asked: "Did you see it too?"

At once things were awkward. Unn shook herself. They had to sit for a while and come to their senses after this strange event.

In a little while one of them said: "I don't suppose it was anything."

"No, I don't suppose it was."

"But it was strange.

Of course it was something, it had not gone, they were only trying to push it away.
What did they see?

Then Unn suggests they undress, and they do, but it's cold so they dress again. Unn tells Siss she has a secret, but then can't tell her. She admits only that she's not sure she'll go to heaven.

The next day, Unn doesn't feel ready to face Siss, so instead of going to school, she sets off for the ice palace, and fails to return.

A search party mobilizes that night, and Siss is subject to questions about what Unn might've said that evening they spent together, but Siss has nothing to tell. Unn is never found. Siss is ill for a time, and then grieving. Having promised to never forget Unn, she as good as becomes Unn, taking on the role of quiet outsider at school.

Doris Lessing in her review wrote:
The sense of mutual responsibility is so strong it is like another character in the story, as if, at any time you liked, you could appeal to some invisible council of collective decency.
But it's like there's some community code, that Unn failed to crack. And now Siss is failing to abide by it.

The thaw finally comes to wash away the ice palace and all its secrets. Siss also thaws.
Beside them glided the increasingly confused pattern of trees, houses and rock; and occasionally soot-black patches. When the latter came gliding into sight, it went straight to the heart — what's that! — in this unbearable moment; but it was imagination each time, and her heart started up again, full of the coursing blood. It's we who are walking; the pattern doesn't move.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Women whose real-life roles I was unable to determine

Between emerging from the métro and disappearing again into the darkness of a movie theater, I would see women whose real-life roles I was unable to determine. They made a point of giving off an air of eroticism, for the very possibility of appearing prudish would have been enough to render them suspect, even antisocial. The length of their skirts was chosen with diplomatic precision: two centimeters longer than might count as indecent, and two centimeters too short to risk the stigma of prudishness. When the evening sun chanced to shined down on a round white table in a café, turning it into a dazzling mirror, even one of these upstanding bourgeois ladies might get swallowed up by the mirror, never to return. In this looking-glass world, such a lady might eat pears with legs and hairy skin, gigantic Adam's apples and calluses on their heels. In return, she would receive payment from her customers in a currency that no longer existed. While the bill was being settled, her labia would flush as red as the flag that used to stand on the podium during Party meetings. Neither her husband nor her lover would have the slightest idea.
— from The Naked Eye, by Yoko Tawada.

I want to watch all of Catherine Deneuve's movies. I've see only very few of them. Repulsion. Belle de Jour. 8 Women. So many others I think I've seen, but I may not have seen. (Did I or did I not see Indochine?)

[Look at that. That's Catherine Deneuve in the pupil of the eye!]

The book is often noted for being something of a linguistic curiosity, having been written in two languages — German and Japanese — and translated back and forth between each other to develop a full text in each language (it's not clear to me how faithful they are to each other, or whether they are in any way distinct). The English version was translated from German.

There's something beautifully naïve about Tawada's writing; that is, the naïveté of her characters (she's pulled this off before). It takes a sophisticated mastery of language to convey this simplicity so effortlessly.

We see everything through the eyes of a young communist-raised Vietnamese woman, whose name may or may not be Anh. When she arrives at a youth conference in East Berlin, understandably everything feels foreign — German and at least Occidental — but slightly familiar — Russian and communist.
I always got good grades in Russian, but there was one grammatical rule to which I had a physical aversion: the genitive of negation. A person who was absent was no longer allowed to exist in the nominative case, as though he were no longer a subject.
As she moves west, and forward in time (the Wall falls), the sense of alienation increases and she belongs nowhere.

The language, the politics, the economic system, womanhood, a western way of thinking, basic human codes of conduct are all foreign to her.
This is a study in identity, of infiltrating humanity, to try to pass as human.

It's funny and tragic when Anh is trying to figure out how to get herself a room for the night. She observes someone conduct such a transaction, she thinks, but we know it's a john negotiating with a prostitute.

Then there's this description of an interview in a magazine:
Between the pages of photographs there were other pages with a text in two voices. The voice printed in boldface said little, and almost always ended with a question mark, so this person must have been filled with despair during the conversations. The other voice never asked a a question and spoke in larger blocks of text.
Not much has been written about this slim novel, but this review in Transit sums up the themes:
"The gaze of the nameless lens licks the floor like a detective without grammar." The first paragraph of Yōko Tawada's The Naked Eye is a blueprint for the novel's itinerancy, mapping out the difficulties of constructing a story that is caught in flux, between countries, between media, between languages, between political systems, between adolescence and adulthood, and between sexualities.
Anh is mesemerized by Catherine Deneuve. She's seen all her movies. She lives to see her movies. They are the highlight of her life. Much of the novel is addressed directly to Catherine, as Anh feels she knows her, despite them speaking different languages. The chapters are named for key works, progressing chronologically, and reference many of the films. Anh views Deneuve's filmography as a continuous story, populated by disparate ensembles of bit players in the story of her life, with Deneueve deftly changing names and identities. (Such is Anh's disjointed life!) Anh wonders, for example, how the Deneuve of Les Voleurs doesn't recognize the bathtub where the Deneuve of Repulsion lay the corpse of the man she murdered.
Every time we went to a movie together, he would take me out for coffee afterward and would tirelessly ask me questions that I didn't understand right away. He wouldn't give up until I'd answered them. Sometimes he was completely satisfied with my reply even though I hadn't understood his question and had just blurted something out. Perhaps not understanding or misunderstanding a question is something that often happens to other people. No one notices, though, since the answers one gives generally happen to fit the questions anyhow.

Monday, April 08, 2019

This is the era of first kisses

These emails took away her peace of mind. They evidently awoke that dormant section of her brain where those years had been stored, parcelled up into images, scraps of dialogues, shreds of smells. Now, on a daily basis, when she drove to work, as soon as she turned on the engine these tapes came on, too, these recordings filmed with whatever camera had been at hand, with faded colours or even black and white, generic scenes, moments, with no logic to them, scattered, out of order, and she had no idea what to do with them. That for instance they walk outside the city limits — the limits of the little town, more like — into the hills, to where the high voltage line runs, and from then on their words are accompanied ceaselessly by a buzzing, like a chord to underscore the significance of this walk, a low monotone, a tension that neither increases nor decreases. They hold hands; this is the era of first kisses, which couldn't possibly be called anything other than strange.
— from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

I know those memories, those memories that come unbidden (emails, notes, reminders unbidden) and fill you with longing and nostalgia and wonderment and wondering what might've been, what happened, when did I diverge from that path, how did I get here? There's a fuzziness to them, and the feeling of them takes over the smell and the sound and it blurs all the edges. What do I do with them?

Sunday, April 07, 2019

To all the polyamorists I ever loved

"It's not a cult, but the victory of reason over myth. It's not a movement of the senses, it's an exercise of the mind. It's not an excess of pleasure, but the pleasure of excess. It's not a license, but a rule. And it's a morality."
Eroticism. This is not the dirty book I expected it to be.

Yes, Emmanuelle spends the early pages having adventures with men on airplanes and with women in squash courts and other places.

She has great sexual appetite and, for the most part, celebrates it. But she also thinks about it more than she acts on it.

Then she meets Mario.

And suddenly, that great classic of erotic literature, Emmanuelle, by Emmanuelle Arsan, reveals itself to be a philosophical treatise on sensual pleasure.
"Eroticism is not a handbook of recipes for amusing yourself in society. It's a concept of human destiny, a gauge, a canon, a code, a ceremony, an art, a school. It's also a science — or rather the choice fruit, the last fruit, of science. Its laws are based on reason, not on credulity... on confidence, instead of fear... and on a taste for life, rather than on the mystique of death. Eroticism is not a product of decadence, but a progress. Because it helps to desanctify sex, it's an instrument of mental and social health. And I maintain that it's an element of spiritual elevation, because it presupposes character training and renunciation of the passions of illusion in favor of the passions of lucidity."
Mario lectures Emmanuelle on not giving herself too freely while also encouraging her to indulge herself.

He exalts beauty because it is a man-made construct. Since the reproductive act itself is so absurd, he exalts sexual acts which are against nature. Sex grounded in impulse, habit, or duty cannot be erotic.

To be erotic, sex must have an aesthetic, not a biological, purpose. Eroticism, Mario claims, demands a systematic mind.

Eroticism then is not about love or pleasure, it's about freedom from the constraints of nature, of the body, from aging and gravity. It's an exercise of the mind and of consciousness. (But how, I wonder, can you remove the body from sex? Mario's philosophy is frustratingly paradoxical at times.)

What's erotic is what's unexpected, and therefore always shifting. What's erotic is not a matter of positions, but of situations. What's erotic is the journey, not the end (a tenet of tantra).

This is where it gets complicated: there's a difference between sensuousness and eroticism. Eroticism is rational, it's what separates us from animals. But in the end I fail to see the difference between a sensuous and an erotic act. Maybe the only difference is in intent? Sensual is primal, but erotic is elevated, evolutionarily advanced.

Monogamous attachment, not unexpectedly within the code that is being laid out, is learned behaviour. Adultery is erotic because a third party is always present (in the relationship).

Over the past year, I've chatted with several men, met some of them. They label themselves variously: polyamorous, ethically nonmonogamous, sensualist, hedonist, eroticist. "Open-minded." These terms are used flexibly, to mean what they want them to mean, but by naming their outlook, they feel they have established a framework for their behaviour. They are like Mario, strong in their beliefs, but occasionally faltering in contradiction. Perhaps they are nothing more than selfish, armed with words. (Coincidentally, I have not seen the film adaptation of this book, but it seems every teenage boy of my generation has.)

Emmanuelle wonders why she can't simply do as she pleases, sexually speaking, without having to devise a moral code around her behaviour. Why should a morality founded in eroticism be better than no morality at all? (I ask myself this every day.)

And then [SPOILER] Emmanuelle and Mario smoke opium and have a threesome with the driver.

Where is love in all this? I don't know.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

He talks about irrelevant bullshit

"I regard psychology as a pseudo science, and psychological profiling of criminals is just a nice name for what a clairvoyant does. If someone repeats ten times that he can see a body in the woods, he must be right three times out of ten — after all, one-third of this country is forest, and it's easier to bury a corpse there than along the highway."

"In that case, why are we meeting with the profiler?"

"He's a smart guy. Weird, but really smart. And he's read more files than you'll ever set your eyes on. He talks about irrelevant bullshit, as they all do, but sometimes he says a thing or two that make sense."

"A thing or two?" Falk was unable to hide his contempt.

Szacki didn't comment. Falk was right, in his way, but there were some things he'd only understand after fifteen years on the job. For example, that an investigation is like a jigsaw puzzle, a really tricky one, a seascape of ocean waves at night, with ten thousand pieces. At some point you have all those pieces lying on the table, but they're damned hard to connect. And that's when you need someone who can take a look at them and say, "Hey that's not the moon, just its reflection in the waves."
Rage, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, is the third and likely final novel featuring Teodor Szacki as investigator. He's a deeply troubled guy. But also a deeply normal guy, who keeps fucking up in his personal life. And work, well, he doesn't always play by the rules. He fucks up big-time here.

I don't know why I find Szacki so sympathetic. Is it because he's good-looking and a snappy dresser? Is it something to do with his Polishness that I respond to? Do I on some level identify with him? This charismatic man in a midlife crisis is irresistible to me.

Rage is like sitting in traffic, simmering. In fact, several scenes led me to believe the novel would turn toward road rage, but instead it deals with domestic violence and vigilantism. Perhaps "outrage" would've been a more fitting title.

The case at the core of this novel is intriguing enough: what's taken for a decades-old skeleton found in a deserted bunker turns out to have been stripped of flesh just days beforehand. As plots go, it's a serviceable vehicle from which to watch Szacki's personal drama spiral out of control.

Someone is challenging Szacki to redraw the lines between law and justice, between personal and professional, between theoretical and lived experience. Rage colours everything.

[Quite coincidentally, over the last month I've been working on a large jigsaw puzzle of seascape under a blue sky. Sometimes I can't tell which way is up. There's a Polish boat in it.]

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

"Peculiarity is something true rumpling the bedsheets of assumption"

"Forget about forecasting; even nowcasting is near impossible."
The ending made me so sad. Everything just disintegrated. It made me sad for all the relationships I'd ever had where we ended up not understanding each other. That is: all the relationships.

Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, is full of atmosphere and also full of disturbances. The disturbances range from the small linguistic oddities that our narrator finds so endearing and bothersome about his wife, to cumulative cumulus effects on my psyche, such that I wonder if any person is the same person one moment to the next and all attempts to ever know anyone are doomed.
What was it that poetic charlatan Lacan said, something about how because we only see ourselves in mirrors we come to know ourselves "in the fictional direction"?
This book holds a mirror up to the reader for me to identify my own fictional direction, to know the narrative I call my life. That is, it got under my skin and affected me deeply.

Leo, a psychiatrist, is quite clearly a little bit completely crazy when he proclaims that his wife Rema has disappeared (of her own volition or possibly kidnapped) and that the woman in his apartment, in his bed, who looks like her and talks like her is an imposter, a simulacrum, a doppelganger, who may or may not be aware of her role as a fake. The longer he observes her, the clearer it is that she is displaying learned behaviour in an effort to pass as the original. Leo is an unreliable narrator extraordinaire.

Slowly Leo reveals the backstory of their life together. Rema is much younger than he is and a recent immigrant from Argentina.
I thought about saying something about Borges, but I know that I have a problem with coming off as pretentious, and I was worried that bringing up Borges might appear showy, even though every introverted schoolboy reads Borges, so it's rather ambiguous what such a reference would or should indicate. Another reason I generally don't like to mention Borges is because often a response will be to the effect of he has no emotion, and I hate hearing that said, because it is so wrong, and it's not a discussion that I like to get into. In retrospect I know that Rema would have agreed with me, but back then, I wanted to protect Rema from saying anything that might make me not like her.
There's a lot of second-guessing involved in how he relates to her. And there are a lot of gaps, both in what they know of each other, and what Leo chooses to share with us. Things may or may not be given the importance they deserve.

Meanwhile, one of Leo's patients has gone missing from the hospital. Harvey has a "conflict with the consensus view of reality"; he believes he can control the weather and works as a secret agent for a meteorological society who oppose a group known at the 49 Quantum Fathers who profit from investments based on weather fluctuations across parallel worlds.
And as I spoke — my gaze fixed on the stain on Harvey's shirt — I further estranged myself from myself, so that while one part of me talked to Harvey, another part thought about a certain shade of pale green that happened to be the exact shade of pale green that the newspaper once published as having been calculated by astronomers to be the color of the universe, after which a correction appeared in the following week's paper stating that a math error had been made, and that the astronomers now realized the universe, if you could stand outside of it and see it, was actually a shade of beige. (Willed depersonalization is entirely normal, a valid, even laudable, coping technique. Only unwilled depersonalization would be a cause for concern.)
Rema had encouraged Leo to encourage Harvey in his "delusions"as a way of controlling his behaviour. (Maybe she's gone off in search of Harvey on her own.)

It's all a bit mind-bendy. Leo goes to Argentina and discovers things about Rema's past from her mother. He encounters another Rema — but is it the original, or the copy, or a different copy? Leo goes to Patagonia to help Harvey with his work.

Two details jumped out at me, to which I can't find any reference in the published reviews. First, a child's jack under the fridge. Second, the fact, learned in passing and mentioned only the one time, that Rema had had an ectopic pregnancy, about which she'd been very calm. Both these things point to a child that never was, or was and then wasn't. The kind of thing that could break a marriage, or colour it.

There's something else going on in this novel about everyone's relationship to their father, how they forgot to mention that they did or didn't have one.

We don't tell people everything. Not even those closest to us. Maybe we would be crazy to do so.

And yet we blame each other for failing to see each other as we are.
I hate that feeling, of having a feeling within me that just vibrates but that has nowhere to go, like sound in a vacuum, never being received.
NPR: 1. On a temperate stormy night
Tablet: 3. What may be highly relevant
Guernica: 13. We exchange words, not pleasures


Sunday, March 24, 2019

The stunted but monstrous creature

Bari was considered a quiet place in the Eighties. A place where he could further his career, be promoted to captain, and so on.

It hadn't taken him long to realise that things were different.

Not only were there plenty of routine crimes — possession of drugs, bag snatching, burglaries — there were also major robberies, extortion, dynamite attacks, murders.

Something not unlike the Mafia lurked beneath the surface. Something opaque, like the stunted but monstrous creature you glimpse through the transparent shell of a reptiles' egg.
The Past Is a Foreign Country, by Gianrico Carofiglio, is a character study. It's a study of multiple characters and miraculously brings to life many people who appear on the page for even only a few paragraphs.

The main characters in question are Francesco — a card hustler, a Mr Ripley type — and Giorgio, who falls under Francesco's spell and the narrator through whose eyes their story unfolds. He jeopardizes his studies, his family relationships, and his entire moral centre of being.

Minor characters include Giorgio's sister; Francesco's mother; an Italian expat waiting tables in Spain; and several of the marks that the boys conduct business with.

Among the police officers, the lead is Lieutenant Chiti, literate and artistically inclined, plagued by migraines and a troubled childhood; his colleagues are no less colourful.

While the novel is ostensibly about a police investigation into a series of sexual assaults occurring in Bari, this is a surprisingly minor aspect of the book. Chapters concerning the progress of the case are few and far between, breaking up the story of Francesco and Giorgio. It is not certain till the very end how these two threads relate to each other. The mystery is less who is behind the crimes than how do these stories fit together, and this is less pressing than the reader's concern for how things turn out for our narrator.
"Manipulating cards, like manipulating objects, is more that just a matter of simple dexterity. The real skill of a magician is the ability to influence minds. Performing a magic trick successfully means creating a reality. An alternative reality where you're the one who makes the rules."
This is a very easy-to-read novel. What gives Francesco his power? What motivates him? Is it the thrill of a win, or is it watching someone lose? And even when we see the darkness behind someone's charm, why do we let ourselves be carried along by it? How far will Giorgio follow Francesco? How easy is it to give up everything you ever strove for? Why do we take the risks we do?

Carofiglio draws a very clear line between right and wrong, but shows us how murky the human heart is, how easily a person can slip across that line.


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?"
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."