Sunday, August 25, 2019

Slightly deranged scrutiny

I'm not sure why I decided to read Mary Karr's The Liar's Club — tragically depressing memoir is not my go-to genre. Of course, I knew about it, and it must've been recently impressed upon me that this was the mother of my generation's memoirs. And what the hell, all reading is research.

But it is good — compelling and funny and full of quirky characters and attitude. Karr wasn't just born into a memoir, she finely crafted one. It's dark and disturbing and lovely.

Read it.

Karr's a poet, and I wondered that I wasn't finding more quotable passages, but I know that poetry isn't about a choice word, it's a rhythm, it's the timing of a punchline and a punch to the gut. It turns on a dime from charming dietary quirks to alcohol-fueled danger, from naive neighbourhood antics to sexual abuse. This is not an easy book.

What's magical about The Liar's Club is that despite her traumatic childhood, there's a whole lot of love, and something like awe for the parents who neglected her and failed her in so many ways.
Much later, when Mother could be brought to talk about her own childhood, she told stories about how peculiar her mother's habits had been. Grandma Moore didn't sound like such a religious fanatic back then. She just seemed like a fanatic in general. For instance, she had once sent away for a detective-training kit from a magazine. The plan was for her and Mother to spy on their neighbors — this, back when the Lubbock population still fit into three digits. According to Mother, this surveillance went on for weeks. Grandma would stirrup Mother up to the parson's curtained windows — and not because of any suspected adultery of flagrant sinning, but to find out whether his wife did her cakes from scratch or not. She kept the answers to these kinds of questions in an alphabetized log of prominent families. She would also zero in on some particular person who troubled her and keep track of all his comings and goings for weeks on end. She knew the procedure for taking fingerprints and kept Mother's on a recipe card, in case she was ever kidnapped. Grandma even began to collect little forensic envelops of hair and dust that she found on people's furniture when she visited them. Mother said that for the better part of a year, they'd be taking tea at some lady's house, when her mother would suddenly sneak an envelope with something like a dustball in it into the pocket of her pinafore. Whatever became of this evidence Mother couldn't say. The whole detective-training deal got dropped as abruptly as it had been undertaken.

When Grandma came to our house, she brought with her that same kind of slightly deranged scrutiny.
In her introduction to the 10th anniversary edition, Mary Karr observes, "a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it." I've this summer had occasion several times over to corroborate this.

I love this story about Grandma and her spy kit because I read it while visiting relatives this summer, and my crazy aunt (by marriage) pulled out her shoebox of quartered recipe cards, on which she had jotted down everything she knew about us. Which wasn't much and was slightly wrong and oddly selective. For example, she had my ex listed as an accountant (not quite, but maybe if you squinted), and she didn't have a clue what I did for a living. So I know people, even family, do strange things for unaccountable reasons.

And Karr's family gets up to some crazy shit.

The Liar's Club is how she referred to her father's coterie — blue collar workers who drank together at the Legion and told outlandish tales. Her trips with Daddy to the Legion trailed off at puberty. She returns once when she's home from college.
Something about the Legion clarified who I was, made me solid inside, like when you twist the binocular lens to the perfect depth and the figure you're looking at gets definite. Maybe I just liked holding a place in such a male realm.
It's a peculiar thing to title this book, because it's her mother (in my view) who leads the book; with so many secrets, her mother is the biggest liar of them all.

You can read Lena Dunham's foreword to the 20th-anniversary edition at The Paris Review.

See "They're Liars, and That's Just the Least of Their Problems," by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The weight of absence

"Melancholia, as you call it, germinates in the mind, but blossoms in the body."
The Therapist by Nial Giacomelli is a slim novel with weighty aspirations. It's wholly atmospheric and a little strange.

I didn't enjoy this book much, and most of that's on me. It covers depressing subject matter, the kind of emotional drama that just isn't my jam. It's about grief, a couple dealing with grief, and I think I can just leave it at that so as not to spoil anything for you. I have yet to read a book that takes on grieving as a theme in a way that resonates meaningfully with me.
We sit beneath a painting of the sea and talk about the weight of absence. How after the accident we had both begun to see the body of our own grief. We had watched as it was born, fusing bone and knitting skin. How over the course of several weeks it had come together in the shape not of a man, but of a boy. And how gradually it had taken residence in the house, bringing with it a furious anger.
I didn't like the narrator. He comes across as a selfish asshole husband. Now, this is kind of the point, as it's very much tied up in the blame that is thrown around the guilt everyone denies or wallows in. But the aha moment came too late for me to care — I deeply loathed the asshole for being in his marriage in the way that he was and didn't give a shit about his redemption. I put this one on the author — maybe it's a question of the timing of certain revelations of the narrator's character. Maybe this is a woman's reading of his character, but I disliked him too much, too early. That is, I can appreciate what the author was trying to do with this character, but it didn't work for me.
She suffered stress headaches, much like she had as a teenager, migraines that would blossom like cactus flowers in the depths of her eye sockets. She was struck by a terrible malaise that kept her bedridden. And though I knew only stories of her youth, I was forced to watch helplessly as the wounds of her depression reopened across the geography of her body.
While grief takes up residence in their bodies, a plague is ravaging America. People are becoming transparent, until they disappear. They become one with the dead before them. Our couple lives in terror of the disease encroaching on their own remote territory. I would've preferred to focus on that epic apocalypse, or on the neighbours (the kind of Joneses you want to keep up with, despite them having their own deep troubles) rather than the intimate one. (But there's a point in here too about grief and how intensely private it is; it refuses sometimes to let the world in, it can't be fixed from the outside.)
By day we explore the geography of the continent and at night we explore the geography of each other. Two shapes that come together as one.
The metaphor was crafted to death. The words "body" and "bodies" occur more than 100 times in this 125-page story. Body-related imagery combined with geographical references abounds.
An infographic appears showing landmass consumed by an acreage of growing red dots. It looks like an X-ray, an organ riddled with tumours.
Taken individually, many of these sentences are stunning, but the whole of them felt overwritten and tiresome.
They walk like a chain gang into a makeshift compound, a shanty town of relief tents that look like white pustules against the landscape.
Shame on me, but life et cetera, and I skimmed through the final pages. Something about the incorporeality of love and what love can then embody. The resolution is not entirely clear to me, nor do I understand the nature of the eponymous therapist.

Friday, August 16, 2019

that was love but I kept on traveling

we don't do much ourselves
but fuck and think
of the haunting M├ętro
and the ones who didn't show up there
while we were waiting to become part of our century
I don't know why I picked up Lunch Poems a couple months ago
I was feeling the need for poetry I guess
but why Frank O'Hara, I don't know, I thought I'd had enough of him.

Maybe someone recently referenced him in a clever way, but I don't remember so I guess it doesn't matter
maybe I thought of him because I am working alongside a Frank these days
suddenly everyone is Frank without being frank

or I wanted something to read over lunch
they were written over lunch, shouldn't they best be read then too

I should write at lunch, only they wouldn't be poems exactly, and probably not at lunch either
lunch here is far too social for quiet time of any kind
unless I leave the confines of the office and why would I forsake the catered lunch

I could write breakfast musings, or mid-afternoon caffeine-craving ramblings.
Could I craft a collection of something that reflected my daily life and the passage of time (not unlike, say, blog entries)?
I'm writing this on my phone, in the metro, on my way to work. Maybe this is the time
for writing — I will need to strengthen my fingers

anyway, I'd been reading a poem from time to time and then I let this volume drop
until I was in San Francisco last week, my company has an office there, I'd never been, and
with a free afternoon I wandered over to City Lights

upstairs on the wall of beat poets and (essentially) no women was this very same
volume I stared at it a long time thinking about why there were no women when
suddenly someone said hello and it took a second to realize they were saying
hello to me I looked up and there was Frank from the office
saying hello to me, fancy running into you here on a free afternoon in San Francisco

there you have it so now the Lunch Poems have been my commute poems, morning and evening poems,
start-my-workday poems, metro poems, riding-through a-slice-of-city poems

I'm not sure how much I actually like the poems.
Most of them just hum along describing the city and referencing whatever might be going on in Franks's
little head, or his personal life at any rate.

I wonder how much time he put into them or did they just spill out, they certainly don't feel crafted as if
any crafting must've been in fine-tuning his thoughts rather than wordsmithing the expression of them, nary a care
for whether the reader can decipher the riddle of his lunch hour.

Though I suppose if I were to write my commute-time musings even though they might mainly be about sex and dating
they still would be sprinkled with the books I'm reading and that woman on the park bench
loudly breaking up with her boyfriend over the phone and the imagined lives of buskers in the metro.

And what's the deal with Kenneth Koch's mother, does she really only appear once she feels so present

Very few of the poems speak to me as a whole but every now and
then a line just guts me, and I think there must be more
to the poem as a whole so I reread it but no, there's nothing
more, just that line, maybe that's enough.

I was trying to explain to a friend (well, he's more imaginary than friend) that the best
poems arouse me sexually, that line you feel deep in your belly when you think a man's going to kiss
you and you want, really want, this man to kiss you, that's what a good poem is like.

But maybe I read poetry the wrong way.

How about:
Is this love, now that the first love
Has finally died, where there were no impossibilities?
and I explain to my virtual lover that it has nothing to do with love it's about
the (erotic) tension between possibility and impossibility and hell yes that turns me on

imagine seeing the world always in the rosy
afterglow of sex or with the flushed anticipation
of someone touching you, it's a good poem if it
whispers in my ear or grazes my nipple

(Maybe now he thinks I'm crazy. I don't think the word
love has ever transpired between us, that might
be awkward, our relationship is purely physical,
in an entirely non-physical way.)
and then in Harbin I knew
how to behave it was glorious that
was love sneaking up on me through the snow
and I felt it was because of all
the postcards and the smiles and kisses and the grunts
that was love but I kept on traveling
— August 16, 2019;9:43 am

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

"People in hell want ice water."

Blue had bought Lecia and me each a doll, curly-headed, near as tall as ourselves. Lecia's was blond, mine black-headed. Under the sedan's dome light, mine stared from its box on the wide back seat with an indifference bold enough to edge over into insult. A copper wire garroted her head in place. Her wrists and feet were likewise strapped down. Highway lights started streaking over the cellophane mask above her perfect features. She gazed out sullen. Her cold blue eyes announced that she wanted some other girl, not me. Well, I wanted my very own mother, and I'd have told her so, too, if the thought didn't put a lump in my throat. Instead I told her — out loud, I guess — "People in hell want ice water." Daddy said, "Say what?" And I told him I'd kill for a glass of ice water.
— from The Liars' Club, by Mary Karr.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

To awaken my sleeping soul

Often people even say: "There's a plot for one of your novels," as if I went around in search of plots for novels and not in search of myself. If I write it's in order to remember, to awaken my sleeping soul, to stir up my mind and discover its secret pathways. Most of my stories are fragments of my soul's memory, not inventions.
— from Empty Words, by Mario Levrero.

It's a strange little novel. The narrator embarks on a journey of graphological self-therapy. If he improves his handwriting, it will improve his character. Although, it's not entirely clear what needs bettering.

And it's important for him in his therapy to separate the form the content. He must focus on the form, on shaping the letters. But he can't do it. So his daily exercises tell us a great deal about his living circumstances, the upcoming house move, and especially the dog. He produces the occasional profound insight, but all to the detriment of his handwriting.
Today I failed in my grand plans to start living more healthily, with less time spent on things like reading and using the computer, precisely because of an irresistible urge to use the computer. There's always some idea I want to try out, or some mystery that needs solving once and for all. I think the computer is taking the place of my Unconscious as a field of investigation. I went as far as I could with my investigations into my Unconscious, and the by-product of those investigations is the literature I've written (although literature was also a tool I used in those investigations, in some cases at least).

To be honest, the world of the computer is very similar to the world of the Unconscious, with lots of hidden elements and a language to decipher. I probably feel like there's nowhere left to go when it comes to investigating my Unconscious; the computer also involves much less risk, or risk of a different kind.

The strangest thing about all this is the value I ascribe to investigating something that is, quite definitely, of no use to me whatsoever. And yet I clearly do see it as immensely valuable, as if there were vitally important clues hidden in the workings of the machine.
About halfway through, it becomes clear to me that the narrator is crazy. I'm not sure if he's been crazy all along or whether the graphological therapy is drawing it out of him.

The entries are dated, and there are gaps of days and later even months. What happened in the intervening time? It becomes clear that several significant life events have transpired off-screen. Our narrator prefers to leave them swirling in his unconscious than to commit a record of them to paper.

The exercises are less regular over time. But when he finally attacks them in earnest, the content is crushed out of the words he produces, to become merely vocabulary lists — no, that gives the words too much weight; they are strings of letters. We see him cross out and rewrite misshapen words. We see him unravel.

Empty Words started out as a pretentious and directionless, though mildly entertaining, exercise (and I mean the "novel," not the graphological therapy), but it turned out to be much darker, more provocative.
And so I decide to go on hoping, and every new hope exhausts me a little more, sucks a little more life from me, and dismantles my remaining self-esteem, until the only thing I have left is the pointless lucidity with which I passively observe the way I'm going under once and for all.