Wednesday, July 08, 2020

What do you want from us?

When companies posted open recruitment notices for the second half of the year, Jiyoung felt as though she was standing in a narrow alley clogged with a thick fog, which turned into rain and fell on her bare skin.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-joo, is an unexceptional telling of an unexceptional story. However, it is an important book, and the fact that Kim Jiyoung's life is wholly ordinary, typical of her countrywomen, is a problem.

This novel charts one woman's life from her birth to the birth of her child and documents the iniquities she faces along the way.
Perfect pieces of tofu, dumplings and patties were the brother's while the girls ate the ones that fell apart. The brother had chopsticks, socks, long underwear, and school and lunch bags that matched, while the girls made do with whatever was available. If there were two umbrellas, the girls shared. If there were two blankets, the girls shared. It didn't occur to the child Jiyoung that her brother was receiving special treatment, and so she wasn't even jealous. That's how it had always been.
A female student dared to question the criteria university departments used for selecting candidates to recommend for job interviews at companies with recruitment activities at the school. 
The most demoralising answer came from the department head himself: "Companies find smart women taxing. Like now — you're being very taxing, you know?"

What do you want from us? The dumb girls are too dumb, the smart girls are too smart, and the average girls are too unexceptional?
Unusually for a novel, the story such as it is is framed by statistics and abounds with references. Gender inequality in South Korea and worldwide is well documented, and the citations leave no room for reader doubt. 

As a novel, I think this book falls short on character and heart. But it serves a higher purpose and deserves the widest possible audience of women and men, girls and boys, many of whom are unlikely to read Labor Market Reports or scholarly articles on gendered expectations and the disparities in income and opportunities.

Although since 2008, it is legal to designate the mother's surname for a newborn, at the time of Jiyoung's wedding (~2012), there had been only 200 such cases.
The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn't actually changed at all.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Part of you wants to flee, screaming

The Woman is well dressed and clean, but there is a high, manic gleam in her gaze, and her bright, cheerful voice sounds false. No one is ever that happy. She's clearly Not From Around Here. Maybe she's an immigrant, too — legal, of course. Maybe she's a Canadian who has been driven mad by the cold and socialized medicine.

The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin, is a timely, topical love letter to New York City. It's a fun book —  Lovecraft meets Sense8. A kind of superhero adventure, where a city comes together to battle an invisible evil. 

The monster is insidiously infecting New York; it might be better known as intolerance. The White Woman is a not so subtle metaphor for straight white privilege — her name might be Karen.
She's not looming anymore — not as much, anyhow — but the air of patronizing concern that she radiates isn't much better. Aislyn stares at her, still trying to figure out whether she should be insulted. The Woman leans closer. "That's why you're afraid of the ferry. Half the people on the island absolutely dread crossing that water every day. They know that what awaits them on the other end isn't the power and glamour we can see from here, but bad jobs and worse pay, and prancing manbunned baristas who turn up their noses at making just a simple goddamned coffee, and prissy chink bitches who barely speak English but make seven figures gambling with your 401(k) and feminists and Jews and trannies and nnnnnNegroes and liberals, libtards everywhere, making the world safe for every kind of pervert. And the other half of the island is the baristas and chinks and feminists, ashamed they can't afford to live there and leave Staten Island for good. You are them, Aislyn! You carry the fear and resentment of half a million people, so is it any wonder that part of you wants to flee, screaming?"
A city can awaken, can be awakened. I love that this city is so diverse, and that its parts channel music, art, math. There's a bit of magic hand-waving at the end (or maybe I dozed off), but it's all very optimistic. I'm interested to know the personified stories of other cities.

Listen to N.K. Jemisin in conversation with her cousin W. Kamau Bell at the New York Public Library.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Love can't even save us from love

Everything feels off today. Yesterday was brilliant, but today is off, like I got up on the wrong side of bed today, only it's the same side I always get up on, well, most of the time. Some days I get out on the other side of the bed, just because it's more practical, depending on how I've moved in the night, other days I deliberately get out of bed on the other side, just to, you know, mix things up. Today I got out on the right side of the bed, and it was the wrong thing to do.

Maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere. I walked into the bakery last weekend and discovered an insect on my arm, something winged and long, vaguely beetle-like, and I thought of the time beetle on Donna's back, and I had a déjà-vu-like flash of another insect on me not so long ago (Was it in the Sahara? No, not the scorpion, or the nonscorpion. It was something beetle-like.) that also reminded me of the time beetle, that I was also supposed to write about. I flicked it off my arm, there inside the bakery, and part of me actually expects my neighbourhood to slowly collapse around that point zero.

(Although. That insect that wasn't a scorpion, that pinprick in my finger, in the night in the Sahara, the night we smoked shisha in the bright night of the Sahara, and I thought you trickled a handful of sand down my top, only your hand was on my back and the sand was crawling up, it looked like twigs, like frayed straw, and I shrieked and scooped it off my chest, brushed it away, and something pricked my finger. That night when I thought my finger might fall off, my hand, my arm, when I thought I might die, and you said it was nothing, not a scorpion, maybe an insect, I rejected you and returned to my tent, and as I lay on my bed in my tent in the Sahara I remembered how Pierre had told me to go into the pain, but I hadn't known pain like this, and I thought if I went into the pain, I would die. But I had to go into the pain to be the pain so I could control the pain, push the pain back into the tip of my finger. And still I think it was a scorpion. It was 17 hours before I could feel my finger again, and still I thought, it left something inside me, still I thought I might die, or maybe it gave me a superpower. Maybe I can point my finger and wither false bluster or exact truths. Maybe it was a time scorpion, maybe my path diverged that bright night in the Sahara. ) 

I wanted to sit down this afternoon to write about the books I've read lately, but even that's not going to plan. Maybe I don't care enough about them to say anything. (Truly, I don't have much to say about The City We Became or Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982.) Other books, like Blue Flowers, I care too much about. Maybe. Maybe I don't know how to write about books anymore. I don't know how to write. 

I've been watching Fleabag, because I now have a trial of Amazon Prime. I thought it was supposed to be a comedy, and I suppose it is, but it's grim and painful and real. There's this bit at the end of season one where the bank manager mentions how cafés are a difficult business, and it unstoppers her outpouring.
I also fucked it into liquidation. ... And I fucked up my family. ... And I fucked my friend by fucking her boyfriend. ... And sometimes I wish I didn't even know that fucking existed. And I know that my body, as it is now, really is the only thing I have left, and when that gets old and unfuckable I may as well just kill it. And somehow there isn't anything worse than someone who doesn't want to fuck me. I fuck everything. Except for when I was in your office, I really wasn't trying to have sex. You know, either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they're just not talking about it, or I'm completely fucking alone. Which isn't fucking funny.
I feel like this a little bit, and sometimes I try to talk about it, and sometimes it wears me down — the feeling and the talking. I think about how I passed up a chance to fuck in the dunes of the Sahara.

I have Amazon Prime because I ordered a desk. I feel like I've made a pact with devil, both in ordering from Amazon, as the easy, logistically expedient, cheap thing to do, and in succumbing to the need for a desk. It's been made clear that the office will not be returning to normal anytime this calendar year. I think I've always known this, but refused to accept it. I don't like it, I hate it, I don't want to work from home, I don't want the work in my home. But the only way to cope with it now is to relegate it to one ugly little corner where after hours I may render it invisible, somehow filter it out of my perception. The ergonomic chair, however, not Amazon, as yet has no confirmed delivery date.

It's been a 121-day streak of German lessons on Duolingo, and I'm starting to tire of it. Some days I almost forget. It's been two years that I have an imaginary German lover whom I've never met, and every day I consider what lengths I would go to, what risks would I subject myself to, to touch him, kiss him, fuck him.

This week I'm dwelling on the things I meant to do while under stay-at-home orders but haven't: the violin that sits in the middle of the living room but which I haven't played; the sculpture for which I've yet to acquire clay (I want to sculpt time beetles, or time scorpions); the piece on male muses I started writing last winter for which all the tabs have stayed open; the shoebox of papers to sort.

This week I feel like an exceedingly selfish person. I wonder if I'll ever be less selfish. I wonder if I'll ever love someone to the point that I'll put them first. (To be clear, the responsibility and love I have for my daughter is quite outside of this equation.) 

There are bits of Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra that echo Clarice Lispector's Passion According to G.H. (that's the cockroach I want to sculpt, to claim), the reference to something ancient, something primal and primeval. There are bits of blueness, and love, that touch me.
I was thinking about this yesterday, about love, about this insistence on love, as though love could save us from everything, as though love could save us from hate, from madness and even desire. Whoever came up with that idea? Love can't even save us from love.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Chalk dust supernova

Days are getting shorter. Like I'm running out of time for things.

We're having a heatwave. The city phoned me yesterday with an automated message to tell me so, and remind me to stay hydrated. I'm tired of drinking water, I want to hydrate from the outside. Thunderstorms this evening have turned the outdoors into a sauna. Maybe it will break by morning. Maybe not.

On Friday we took the metro to visit my sister. The ride itself was mostly fine — not nearly as many people as I'd feared, though only about half were masked. It's only on coming up from the platform that my daughter felt the heat of the day and the closeness of her mask and she fainted in my arms. I struggled to ease her to the floor without smashing her heavy head. A worker cautiously offered, from several respectable metres away, to call someone for help but I waved him off. In time, a long time, more than an hour, we walked the few short blocks to my sister's place. Hours later we called an Uber, all our exposure-risk aversion outweighed by the simple desire to be home. 

Saturday morning I popped out to the bakery for fresh croissants for breakfast, and a baguette for later. Like the world was suddenly normal and I could do what I want.

I've been feeling ill myself. Today is the sixth day. It's my period, but it's not my period. It's not a dehydration headache, it's not a tension headache, my head barely hurts at all. I want to call it a migraine but it's not, it's a feeling of overwhelming nausea radiating from the tension in my back. Maybe I just need a massage, someone to touch me, someone to fuck me. I am self-diagnosing existential angst, and prescribing something I can't have.

I catch myself worrying that the mushroom is sentient and has deliberately released spores to infect my household with a malleable and unnameable condition from another century.

I feel like there was a lesson to be learned in lockdown, and we missed it. Our minds are fogged. We're not thinking clearly.

The pool in the park is open for business, and I'm mildly horrified. Already at its revised reduced Covid-era capacity, over a dozen people awaited their turn to go in. I feel like I'm underwater.

There are remnants of egg on the sidewalk a few doors down. I thought someone must've wanted to see just how hot it was, but then I realized this pastey mass was surrounded by millions of fragments of shells; someone dropped a single egg. Over the days, the matter has diminished, as if it has sunk into the pavement, the ground has drawn all the water out of it, all that remains is something like a chalk dust supernova, coated in a glistening golden eggwash with a shell mosaic halo. I feel like the egg.

I've been watching things. I May Destroy You makes me wonder about things I may have forgotten. Normal People, much like the novel, makes me want to be at university and in love (yes, I know that's not what it's about). And then there's the little Polish Netflix series that keeps flashing back to the summer of 1994, the summer I was actually in Poland, and I drink my wiśniówka and sing along, wondering what reality I left behind there.

I have acquired a stack of quarantine books. These are them, all the books ordered and picked up or delivered in the 104 days I've been staying home. I have spent the evening fondling these acquisitions in a desperate attempt to distract myself from ordering more.

So far, I have read but one of them. In the meantime I read something big and sprawling (Gnomon), and now I need to finish a library book (The City We Became) before it vanishes into the ether, and another library book (Kim Ji-young, Born 1982) has just been checked out to me. 

There isn't enough time. I am stockpiling for the second wave.

Friday, June 19, 2020

I have walked myself into my best thoughts

You're not built from the soles of your feet up — it's more like your head is a "castle in the air," with scaffolding reaching down to the ground.
I started reading this book in pre-pandemic times, and set it aside to focus on other commitments. When I did pick it up from time to time, it made me angry. Trying to write about it now makes me angry. For all the wrong reasons. But I'll get to that.


In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It's Good for Us
, by Shane O'Mara, is an informative and even inspiring book. I first heard of it some months ago when I stumbled on an article confirming what I've always felt, ‘It’s a superpower’: how walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier, which excellently summarizes the ideas the book puts forth and may be enough for some readers. 

A good portion of the book is very sciencey, exploring the evolutionary necessities and advantages of walking.
We are exceptional walkers, possibly the best walkers of all species. 
And then it gets neurosciencey, explaining the brain activity that accompanies this particular form of physical activity, and why it's good for your well-being, bodily and mentally. The subprocesses at work even get a little metaphysical.
But the extra factor that helps us find our way is that humans are good at ruminating on our pasts and imagining alternative futures — a capacity that is probably unique to us. The brain's GPS system taps into this and allows us to engage in mental time travel — via memories, or imagining alternative futures. This is a map of time, rather than space, but it is equally essential. 
Walking is a way of being in the community. It is a social and a political act. It can mean to walk with someone and for something. It can be an end in itself.

The greatest achievement of this book is to serve as an argument for city planning to consider pedestrianism and "walkability: cities must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting."
A more walkable city, in straight, is a city that benefits us all in so many obvious and occult ways — obvious, because walkability adds to our health and well-being; occult, because walkability has so many hidden benefits for creativity, productivity and enriching our societies.
I was happy to learn that those dirt trails we tread into the grass have a name: desire paths — the beaten path from here to there that eschews poorly planned pavements, betraying the fact they were designed by people who think of public space as ornament, by people who live in suburbs, by people who prefer to drive.

[Unleash my body and my soul to imprint all their desire paths on the world.]

For a meandering view of walkability, see The Guardian's series, Walking the City.

O'Mara notes that Kierkegaard wrote that "Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it." Kierkegaard grappled intensely with the existential despair of life and love; he did not, however, have to contend with the conditions of pandemic lockdown.

I miss walking. I walked to go places, and I walked for pleasure. The city under quarantine was encouraged to get out for some air, some exercise, and suddenly my world was invaded. My private pastime, my secret pleasure, was appropriated by everyone who used to work and dine and drink without taking particular note of their trajectories.

Walking is different now. Avoiding walkers and joggers, people lined up on sidewalks at pharmacies and hardware stores, people on sidewalks stopped to talk with people in their doorways. To maintain physical distance is engaging other brain functions — logistical calculations, risk assessments. Coupled with a general pandemic-onset panic reflex, walking is exhausting. And clearly, there are not enough sidewalks and green spaces for all of us to enjoy as we should.

I want to walk again, let my mind fly.
But mind-wandering is not mere idleness or time-wasting, at least by the common understanding of the term: rather, it is a necessary part of mental housekeeping, allowing us to integrate our past, present and future, interrogate our social lives, and create a large-scale personal narrative. If mind-wandering is idleness, it is a peculiar and active form of idleness — we are behaviourally quiescent, but mentally vigorous.
I do my best critical thinking and emotional processing when walking. I synthesize my reading, I formulate my writing. I find myself, and I own the ground I walk upon. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Malice, saved up against the day

I am unable to concentrate on work this past week. I sit and stare at my laptop for hours. Not cooking or cleaning or distracting myself with productive (if personal) endeavours, I sit and I stare, and I stew about it.

I continue to learn German on Duolingo. I haven't missed a day in a over a hundred days. But even this I don't do during work hours. Diese Katze ist mein Chef, nicht mein Haustier. 

Something catches my eye at the base of the large houseplant, I've had it for years, like a crocheted cat toy that might've flipped into the pot. Only we don't have such cat toys. It's a mushroom, slender-stemmed, pale yellow. My research yields conflicting information — it's dangerous to the plant and the immediate environment and must be eradicated versus it's a healthy symbiotic relationship that should not be disrupted. Where did the spore come from? Did it pry its way through the window screen? Did it sneak in one morning when I opened the front door to greet the day? It puts me in mind of a passage in Tokarczuk's Primeval, and I wonder if it came purposefully to slow down time for me. Perhaps it imbues my tiny queendom with a magic power I've yet to discover, perhaps it will lull me into a quiet death.

I don't read much. I don't blog. Occasionally in the evenings my eyes wander over the jigsaw puzzle — Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights in 2000 pieces. I look at each piece as it constitutes the whole, and marvel at the weirdness of tangled limbs and futurist architecture. Why would birds care so much about these naive humans to feed them? 

On Thursday I went for a walk. It was windy. The wind makes me restless, so I walk and walk. When I walk around the lake in the park, the trees bow down to slap me. Early afternoon and the park is reasonably sparse. Some people sleeping on benches. Some people staring into the void. 

It's hours before I return home. I give up on work for the day. I sit on the balcony and read Gnomon. The wind roars along the ruelle like a sea monster, I feel like I sit just below the current, barely safe. I want to take off all my clothes and let the wind ravish me, but the wind doesn't even know I'm there. 

Across the way, a woman is yelling into a void, what would you do without me, how would you take care of her, you do nothing, you think lawyers' fees are more important than spending time with your daughter, you should be fighting to spend time with her, you come and go at your convenience, what if something happened to me, what would you do. I saw him once on the balcony with the baby. It's heartbreaking, and I cry for her, and for me too, thanking her for saying the things I should've said years ago. 
I lean across the table and kiss him lightly upon the brow in benediction, and feel something unknot in me that I hadn't know was tied. Malice, saved up against the day, but never really anything I wanted. I let it go. 

Benedicite, Augustine. You silly arse. 

It's like releasing a heavy sack. I feel muscles in my chest open and unlatch: freedom. I catch my breath at the feeling.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Leaving made a velocity

I, Hazel Brown, eldest daughter of a disappearing class, penniless neophyte stunned by the glamour of literature, tradeless, clueless, yet with considerable moral stamina and luck, left my family at seventeen to seek a way to live. It was the month of June in 1979. I was looking for Beauty. I didn't exactly care about art, I simply wanted not to be bored and to experience grace. So I thought I would write. No other future seemed preferable. Let me be clear: I did not want to admire life, I did not want to skim it; I wanted to swim in it. I judged that to do this, I had to leave, and to write. I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time, but without paying.
This is how The Baudelaire Fractal starts. I'm stunned by it, it's stunning. This is what happens when a poet writes a novel, Lisa Robertson, I should look her up. 

It's also beautiful, printed on Zephyr Antique Laid paper, whatever that is, kind of creamy, textured almost lined, makes me want to run my finger along all the words, manufactured acid-free from second-growth forests not far from where I now sit.
Prodigal, undisciplined, with an aptitude for melancholy, I left houses, cities, lovers, schools, hotels, and countries. I left with haste, or I left languidly. Also I was asked to leave. I left languages and jobs. Leaving made a velocity. I left garments, books, notebooks, and several good companions. Sometimes I left ideas. After the leaving, then what? I suppose I would drift. I had no money and no particular plan. Cities exist; hotels exist; painting exists. Tailoring also, it exists, as anger exists, mascara exists, and melancholy, and coffee. I liked sentences and I liked thread. Reading surely and excessively exists; also, convivially, perfume and punctuation. I had a fantasy and my diary. I had my desire, with its audacity, its elasticity, and its amplitude. I carried a powder-blue manual Smith Corona typewriter in a homemade tapestry bag. I was eager, sloppy, vague. I wore odd garments. I carried no letter of introduction, and I knew no one. I was only a girl bookworm. I wasn't to stay. None of this troubles me much. The nervous fluid of a city is similar to a grammar or an electric current. Loving and loathing, we circulate. I myself did not exist before bathing in this medium. Here I become a style of enunciation, a strategic misunderstanding, a linguistic funnel, a wedge in language. Here I thought I'd destroy my origin, or I did destroy it, by becoming the she-dandy I found in the margins of used paperbacks. What do I love? I love the elsewhere of moving clouds.
I started reading this while resting in the new park I discovered, a sunny afternoon under cottonpuff clouds. I don't know how I came to stumble on this novel, don't ask so many questions.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

They got on with it

Well, here was my first lesson: it had almost nothing to do with computers, the modernity I was trying to understand. Computers were the bones, but imagination, ambitions and possibility were the blood. These kids, they simply did not accept that the world as it is has any special gravity, any hold upon us. If something was wrong, if it was bad, then that something was to be fixed, not endured. Where my generation reached for philosophy and the virtue of suffering, they reached instead for science and technology and they actually did something about the beggar in the street, the woman in the wheelchair. They got on with it. It wasn't that they had no sense of spirit of depth. Rather they reserved it for the truly wondrous, and for everything else they made tools.
— from Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway.

What is it I'm trying to understand? What modernity am I too old to grasp? It's true, they get on with things. Some things. But in other regards they're clueless, not even aware that there are things to be got on with.

Time moves differently when you're swimming in it.

I think twice before popping into a shop just to pick up the cocktail tomatoes that will satisfy a craving (and then I don't do it, because I shouldn't do groceries for another week, I'll manage without). Elsewhere, I line up and wait and sanitize before I'm allowed to ask for batteries. Yet I can have exotic mango salads delivered in time for lunch. How is it that I can refurnish by balcony on a whim, but I cannot stock up on household paper products? A strange blend of excess and shortage. How difficult it is to understand what it is I need, and what I want.

My government has exceeded the pace of bureaucracy to effect change, hopefully lasting change. Something approaching a universal basic income. Recognition of the the fact that no one should ever go without food or shelter. Sick leave.

But the mood outside is chaotic. Everybody is living in their own world, some oblivious, some nothing-left-to-lose reckless, some simply testing the theory of their immortality. (The fearful are staying home.)

I am loving Gnomon. It's big and surprising, rich with allusion, playful. I imagine it as a video game through which I'm leveling up. (I'm more than 200 pages in, almost a third of the way through.) I needed this book, I needed it now.

It's awakening a sense of creativity within me, how I use words, how I look at art, how I relate to technology, where I fit in society, how I want to shape my life.

Very unexpectedly, this book is strengthening my relationship to my work and my workplace, at times echoing the mission statement and values of the company I work for. When it talks about reshaping the world and taking on hard problems — not only technical ones but challenges with a moral component — it clarifies for me what a very cool company I work for, with an admirable ethos, valuing what everyone has to contribute — everyone's perspective informs the whole. We just do things.

It makes me want to do things again.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Close-packed human chaos

Writing, I'm convinced, is often nothing but revenge — a way of twirling one's mustache, donning buckler and sword and feathery hat, shaking one's gauntleted fist at the gods.
I thought I could use some laughter in dark times; Geoff Dyer's recommendations of funny books came just when needed. He reminded me that I've been meaning to read Eve Babitz, but of all the books he listed, the library had only Terry Castle.

I got off to a rocky start with The Professor and Other Writings. This collection of essays opens with a piece on World War I, which I found neither funny nor particularly interesting, so I was a little wary of what I'd gotten myself into.

While I wouldn't call these essays funny exactly (certainly not in an uproariously side-splitting way), Castle certainly knows how to tell a story.

There's a piece on Susan Sontag, about whom I know shamefully little, and pieces about Agnes Martin and Art Pepper, about whom I'd known nothing at all (and now want to know more).
I realize there may be a few lost souls who've never heard of him. Forget the overrated (and vapid-looking) Chet Baker. Art Pepper (1925-1982) was an authentic American genius. One of the supreme alto saxophone players of all time, Charlie Parker included. A deliriously handsome lover boy in the glory days of his youth. A lifelong dope addict of truly Satanic fuck-it-all grandeur. A natural writer of brazen, comic, commanding virtuosity. A proud long-term denizen of the California prison system. And now, no doubt, a tranquil if desiccated corpse.
In "Home Alone," Castle shares her "shelter mag obsession" and highlights how the industry was traumatized by 9/11, when the idea of "home" was attacked and our sense of "sanctuary" threatened. She later turns a bit morbid considering the furnishings of death and evokes the avian-flu epidemic of 1918-19, noting that bird-to-human influenza viruses were much in the news at the time of writing in 2006. It was somewhat eerie to be reading this against the backdrop of quarantine. In 2020, with virus on all the airwaves, home is our only safespace — it is our office and our entertainment and it circumscribes our whole life. Remind me to check out a home decor magazine next time I pass the newsstand.

Ostensibly the star of the show, is "The Professor," about Castle's relationship with a teacher when she was in grad school. Perhaps because this essay is the longest and most personal, my feelings toward it are ambivalent. It's got some great lines: "Cathy and Heathcliff were like old acquaintances — my weird second cousins or something." But it is also self-indulgent — Castle's old journals are a springboard to the 70s, an emotionally juvenile time. The drama of the affair feels out of proportion, despite the morally questionable behaviour (a student-teacher relationship of this sort today might be judged much more harshly).

Castle's lesbianism is a constant presence, and if not central, then certainly significant to some stories. It made me wonder to what extent is my sexuality present in my writing, even when not the subject of it. Castle's references throughout to therapy also has me reconsidering whether I should give psychotherapy another try. (Why should I? What is it that fascinates me? Why do I feel I'm not good at it? Why do some people get so much from it, and why can't I be one of them?)

All in all, this is the kind of book I'd prefer to have in print, to pick up and browse at my leisure. A bookful of Castle is a lot of Castle. Were this not a library book with a due date, I'd've approached it differently. I'd rather take an essay at a time now and then.
Sometimes in raucous old bebop recordings from the late forties — the grotty straight-ahead bootleg ones with murky nightclub sound, people talking and glasses clinking in the background — the music doesn't end properly, with the usual reprise and nail-it-down final chord. It just breaks off abruptly in the middle of a solo or chorus as if someone had knocked over the mike. You're left with the sense of a close-packed human chaos, now terminated. Art Pepper is a kind of mannequin or decoy, I guess, the sort of mummified icon that even a person as terrified by mortality and other people as I am can latch onto and worship. It's true: I love his deftness and valor and craziness, and the exorbitant beauty of his playing. I love the quick, creamy sound he gets out of his alto. I love his shame-free storytelling. I love his handsome young male face.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Kissing is inadvisable

Some days are better than others. I am walking more.

It seems to me that, in my neighbourhood, vehicular traffic has increased, while foot traffic has decreased. The parks are full, however. People are sitting and enjoying, but too many of them, too close. After drinking or smoking, they walk recklessly. Traversing green space feels more like a high-stakes video game than a pleasant stroll.

The concrete ping-pong tables are wrapped in yellow police tape, with signage that makes them completely unplayable.

Already it feels like the cleaner air of the last weeks has been reversed. Construction and roadwork have resumed. People are driving. Where are they driving to? There is so much dust in the air, parts of city look to be suffering some post-apocalyptic neglect.

The downstairs neighbours have regular visitors this week; they sit outside, drinking and smoking, about a metre apart. The single schoolteacher at the end of my floor brought two mask-wearing people into her home today.

Along with masks, I think everyone should be issued a measuring tape. This is the real problem: people are shitty at estimating lengths. People have no idea how far two metres is. Signage with arrows implying a certain distance is inadequate; you need to show people exactly.

Another dead bumblebee on the walkway approaching my door the other day. I meant to collect it as a specimen, to use as a model for a sculpture. I looked out later, but didn't see it in the dark, in the rain. The following morning, it was still there, looking somewhat bedraggled but potentially still useful to me. I began to scoop it up, but a leg twitched. I brought it a pinch of sugar, watched it feed itself, and flip itself, and turn hobbled in clockwise circles, and ejaculate some liquid or maybe just wring the wet from its body. It turned to lie on its back, and revved its wings in 10-second spurts. Later it was gone.

I am puzzled by the many men who have turned to meeting people on dating sites. Why would they think lockdown is a good time to meet people? Do they suddenly find themselves confronted by their own unbearable loneliness? Or are they bored? What were they so busy doing just months ago that they didn't realize they were alone? What do they think happens next?

Quarantine Fatigue Is Real:
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and physicians at Harvard Medical School each created guidance on sexual health during the coronavirus pandemic that could provide a road map for a harm-reduction approach to socializing, work environments, schools, and other settings. They communicated the urgent need for physical distancing and the idea that, as the New York document puts it, "you are your safest sex partner." At the same time, the New York and Harvard guidelines implicitly acknowledge that some people may choose to have sex within or outside of their households and offer tips to reduce harm in different potential scenarios, making the risk continuum clear.
Still No Plan:
These days, the safest way to go on a first date is to pick an outdoor activity and to stay at least six feet apart — sadly, one public-health expert I spoke with recently said that kissing someone new would be "inadvisable." If you go on a bunch of dates with someone and feel like the relationship could have some longevity, that's when you could have a candid conversation about who else each of you is exposed to in the course of a day. The question then becomes whether you like each other enough to take on the serious risks of increasing your number of close contacts during a pandemic.
Last night I had a work dream. I'd edited an article on paper(!); the developer who wrote it reviewed my changes, correcting me like a teacher would, in green pen, docking me points for neglecting to fill in the vast swaths of code he'd left out. He graded me 1 out of 6. I woke up when I noticed how dirty my fingernails were (a clear symbol of poor self-worth, or self-neglect).

My eyes are tired. My whole face is tired. I need to get my eyes checked; I'm overdue for an exam, and the ergonomics of my work setup are causing a lot of eyestrain. I need more sleep. I need to decrease my screentime.

This weekend is better. More walking, more napping. Planting. More reading and resting. Yesterday we saw a massive hawk gliding overhead.

No ping-pong. No kissing.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Life was rotting or regenerating itself

You can't help but take walks in the Appenzell. If you look at the small white-framed windows and the busy, fiery flowers on the sills, you get this sense of tropical stagnation, a thwarted luxuriance, you have the feeling that inside something serenely gloomy and a little sick is going on. It's an Arcadia of sickness. Inside, it seems, in the brightness in there, is the peace and perfection of death, a rejoicing of whitewash and flowers. Outside the windows, the landscape beckons; it isn't a mirage, it's a Zwang, as we use to say in school, a duty.
Sweet Days of Discipline, by Fleur Jaeggy, is cold, controlled, and very Catholic. It is tough to extract any sweetness from this bleak and barren novella.

There's a weird tension about this book. We have a few glimpses into the day-to-day goings on of the Swiss boarding school, just enough to suggest the hierarchies of the social structure and the politics of friendships, the suppression of any real emotion, a submission to the greater order of things.
The school was cloaked in a subterranean wind, life was rotting or regenerating itself.
The narrator, a nameless fourteen-year-old girl who has lived her life at boarding schools is under the spell of the new girl, Frédérique. "I wanted to conquer her," "I had to conquer her," "I must conquer her, she must admire me." She wants to consume her, to be her, and it starts by mimicking her affected handwriting style.
Her handwriting slept as if on a stone in this paper wall. Practising patiently, I had learnt to copy her handwriting, I had perfected perfection itself, with the discipline of falsehood.
There's something vaguely erotic about the intimacy of a girls' boarding school and their desires. But also something ethereal, in denying the body. In the tension between obeying the rules and the will to defy them. In the deference shown the headmistress or mother superior, according to the school she was at for the year.
Though holding her hand between thumb and index finger, my lips did not touch the skin; a sort of repugnance at our shared carnality crept over me.
For the narrator, the bulk of life has to do with going through the motions. The diaries girls keep are houses of the dead, unfinished and lacking — these most intimate repositories are future hazy memories, insubstantial, for an idea of a future self, empty.
I liked German expressionism and the thought of the life, the crimes I hadn't yet experienced.
She goes for morning walks at Lake Constance, in the cold air.
The universe seemed mute. [...] Up on the hill I was in a state you might describe as "ill-happiness." A state that required solitude, a state of exhilaration and quiet selfishness, a cheerful vendetta. I had the impression that this exhilaration was an initiation, that the sickness in the happiness was due to a magical novitiate, a rite. Then it went wrong. I didn't feel anything particular any more. Every landscape constructed its own niche and shut itself away there.
One paradox follows another, the pleasure she takes in sadness and disappointment, "idyllic, desperate adolescence," the sweet days of discipline, and around her the dreary cheerfulness, girls saving themselves up for a future life, nostalgic for death.

Everything is restrained, and once it is free, it stands still.

She meets Frédérique by chance years later, age twenty or so.
I thought of this destitution of hers as some spiritual or aesthetic exercise. Only an aesthete can give up everything. I wasn't surprised so much by her poverty as by her grandeur. That room was a concept. Though of what I didn't know. Once again she had gone beyond me.
What kind of idea of a life is she still struggling to become?
We hadn't been educated to live like this.
See also
New Yorker: The Austere Fiction of Fleur Jaeggy
LARB: The Single Most Pristine Certainty: Fleur Jaeggy, Thomas Bernhard, and the Fact of Death
Literary Hub: About the cover design
Excerpt

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mutating like a virus

It's Mother's Day, quiet outside except for the wind. Delicious breakfast in bed — I'm so lucky. My mother will have to leave her bed to collect delivery at the front door.

It's day 60 at home, and I'm on a 68-day streak of German lessons on Duolingo. Es hilft nichts.

The workweek was long. Apart from the usual stresses — underestimating the time required for one project, misreading the deadline on another — I made a great mistake in judgment. We had a townhall meeting, over the lunch hour, and for some reason I thought I'd like to leave my workspace, such as it is, at the end of the kitchen counter, to curl up in bed with a blanket to watch it on my laptop. So I did. And at some point I found myself monitoring communications on a particular project. And I looked around me and started crying. Not only has my job invaded my home, it managed to infiltrate my bed and made me think it was my idea.

Last night I dreamt about work, a rush project handed to me in a physical file. The editing work was simple, but the instructions for transmission were byzantine — changes needed to be described according to a precise formulation, handwritten into the boxes on the form in triplicate (ensuring the carbon copies were legible) and delivered by fax. I had to take a bus (the 125 past the university — meaningless to me in real life) and I waited in a parking lot for a very long time. The work was done just before deadline, but the form took several more hours to complete and it jeopardized my employment.

In another dream this morning I went to the spa but everyone was breaking the rules, bringing food and drink and their pet dogs. I had a key (I'd taken it from someone) but no one would help me find the locker it belonged to. The neighbourhood was still in lockdown but the spa was crowded, and I was appalled by the lineup for the public toilets (it looked a little like the cloister in Marrakech). I couldn't understand why the authorities would've shut off the beautifully sculpted water fountain.

Fuck the Bread. The Bread Is Over.
What does it mean to be worth something? Or worth enough? Or worthless? What does it mean to earn a living? What does it mean to be hired? What does it mean to be let go? [...]

And maybe the bread, as I've always understood it, really is over. The new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in. Our touchstone is changing color. Our criteria for earning a life, a living, is mutating like a virus that wants badly to stay alive. I text a friend, "I can't find bread flour." She lives in Iowa. "I can see the wheat," she says, "growing in the field from outside my window." I watch a video on how to harvest wheat. I can't believe I have no machete. I can't believe I spent so many hours begging universities to hire me, I forgot to learn how to separate the chaff from the wheat and gently grind.
I participated in a research study that aims to understand the psychological impact of the current pandemic. Asked to respond to "My life has meaning and purpose," I replied, not at all. I firmly believe my life, all life, has no purpose, but this is no bad thing. I find this beautifully liberating in fact. If there is no purpose, one cannot fail to achieve it.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

The apparent triviality of it is unnerving

I walk to the lodging.

The key to the front door has slid inside the deadbolt. But I have no recollection of this action ever taking place. Though banal, the apparent triviality of it is unnerving. I'm holding the key between my thumb and index finger. I didn't realize I was holding it with such a tight grip, not until I thought about it. The unexpected frustration leaves me standing, weighing whether or not to give the key a turn — a simple enough decision, which has strangely taken on a much weightier mental process.
Billed as a mystery, The Transaction, by Guglielmo D'Izzia, certainly is that. I don't know what it is that I read.

This book is heavy on atmosphere, which I usually adore. It just didn't seem to be in service of anything.

De Angelis is on his way to the far outreaches of Sicily to close a real estate deal, but the party whom he's to meet has been murdered. He finally reaches his destination, but is treated with scorn and suspicion — a real outsider.

I found the plot, such as it was, hard to follow. The inscrutability of the characters and the environment make the mystery seem impenetrable. As a reader, I also felt like an outsider; if it's a deliberate effect, it was taken too far. De Angelis's behavior and motives are also mysterious — he never invites me into the novel.

Commendably, the sense of heat and nausea are overwhelming. Our protagonist faints from the sun, and the discomfort is palpable. He focuses obsessively on food but has no appetite.
The two men men waste no time and throw themselves at the food, as if famished. They practically inhale it and pick through the bones like scavengers. They don't even bother wiping their mouths, which have reddened with sauce and collected bits of shredded meat. They are almost through with their food, and I haven't even started with mine yet. I gaze down at my plate — trying not to think about the barbaric, bordering on nauseating, scene unfolding before my eyes — and take a stab at it.

The meat itself is pretty tender, but the tomato sauce is so thick and oily that it has turned orange. A few bites and I can already feel my intestinal walls getting coated with grease, and no amount of water can wash it off. I have no choice but to resort to wine; its acidity is the only thing that cuts through it. By the end of the meal, I am inebriated.
I read this book a couple months ago, but I think it was the wrong time, the wrong place for me.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Vibrating on the retina

On Agnes Martin:
Making art seems to have been a kind of meditations for her: she meant her paintings as aids to contemplation — "floating abstractions" akin to the art of the ancient Chinese. And it's true, though they are built up line by line, by almost imperceptible increments, that after a while her pictures begin vibrating on the retina with strange energy, flipping gently back and forth between metaphysical registers like one of Wittgenstein's playful visual paradoxes. The sense of calm they evoke in the viewer is similar to the liturgical mood Rothko's wok can produce, but Martin is less morbid, theatrical, and self-consciously "profound." Facing down the void, Rothko can at times be downright bombastic. Martin is more humane and in some way stronger: smaller in scale, indifferent to sublimity (though her paintings achieve it), uninterested in making statements. It's the difference, perhaps, between Lowell and Bishop.

Yet there is no doubt that Martin's work will always be caviar — the very palest of pale fish roe — to the general. [...] Martin is the sort of artist show-offs show off about, know-it-alls know about. I think I like her — the whole chaste package — because she was so obviously unlike me, so seemingly unencumbered by envy or the need to strategize. Thinking about her has a soothing effect, like imagining myself reincarnated as a smooth and shiny pebble glinting in sunlight at the bottom of a cold, clear mountain stream.
— from "Travels with My Mother," in The Professor and Other Writings, by Terry Castle.

Monday, May 04, 2020

We all carry our lives in us

Still in the process of becoming, the soul makes room.
Here's another meditative, highly interior novel that I find difficult to write about: Indelicacy, by Amina Cain. (I love the cover of this book, though possibly I like the US edition a little bit more.)

It's narrated by Vitória, formerly of the cleaning staff at the art museum where one day she met her wealthy husband-to-be. Vitória has always had ambitions to write, specifically to write about herself looking at paintings.

It's impossible then to not draw comparisons to Maria Gainza's Optic Nerve, which, while it didn't resonate with me emotionally, poked at something much deeper in me that I want to explore further. Ganza's narrator approaches art quite academically from the particular viewpoint that her educated privilege affords her. That is, she wants to write about paintings, and in so doing we learn something about the character, the life, that informs her understanding of art, but Optic Nerve to me was more about the art. Cain's narrator is the opposite — she comes to art cold (so in this way maybe she's more relatable). For her, art is a doorway into herself (in Gainza, even though it's a window onto the self, it's an escape from the self?). Vitória uses art to find — to create — her own story.
I am always fooled by these suggestions of other rooms we might go into, but never can, never will. Another space, but it is closed to us, even if it feels open. Thought of in a different way, if it is all suggestion, what is in the rooms is ours.
Cain describes and even names some paintings, but don't expect to learn about art here. This is not that book.
"You don't have to prove anything," he said over dinner, some kind of fancy stew. "You've been working since you were twelve. Try to enjoy yourself."

The sound of my fork on my plate was loud. I made it louder. Now I was eating a salad. "I am trying to enjoy myself."

"Well, then try to relax."

"I'm afraid I'll get bored."

"Then get bored. You deserve it."

I had never felt I deserved anything, and if I was to begin, I couldn't start here. Still, I ate my stew. I ate my salad. In a way no one would have predicted, I began to consume my husband, but it would a long time before either of us understood any of that."
Vitória spends time adjusting to her new life, reveling in it, but it's not long before she finds it unfulfilling and even distasteful, and eventually she turns her back on it.
If I'm bored, at least it's not coming from outside my own life. I chose the boredom I'm a part of.
When the novel opens, Vitória is alone, but we don't know the circumstances that brought her there. That would be the indelicacy in question — revealed late, it pervades the mood from the start. Is it to do with class boundaries? Is it how the writer intrudes on others' space, or the lengths a writer will go to for a story? Is it sexual?

The epigraph, from Clarice Lispector's The Apple in the Dark, begins "It's as if something that should happen is waiting for me..." Lispector's novel also features a Vitoria who lives alone in the country, as Cain's Vitória finally does. I've read only two of Lispector's books and some short stories, but they've had a profound effect on me. I can see a clear influence here. The relationship between the narrator and the maid, for example, is similar to that in The Passion According to G.H. The way Cain describes space and time also evokes The Passion, along with the presence of "plump insects."
It's strange being alone again. In the afternoons there's a spaciousness larger than I've ever wanted.
In Agua Viva Lispector's narrator wants to write the way a musician composes, guided by instinct and emotion; in Indelicacy, Cain's Vitória aspires to write like a painter.
I didn't want someone to wait on me. I wanted to walk on the beach. I wanted to look at things in the distance, be faced with the water; I wanted to swim. I had never spent time at the ocean before. Finally I saw it at night when I closed my eyes to sleep.
I find it curious that she sees things when she closes her eyes, after it's happened, after it's been considered and resolved. That's when you see something as it is, and in peace.
She's carrying with her that other time. We all carry our lives in us, not just our problems or nightmares, but something of what we were before.
Related
Excerpt:the opening scene
Excerpt: a scene with Antonietta
Interview: The Paris Review
Review: The Soul Makes Room in LARB

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Minds immobile in the silent vat of our skulls

Day 50. I'm getting sick of this, really today I just want to cry, I'm tired of planning breakfasts and of planning dinners and of rationing whatever it is, I should save that egg so I can bake something nice on the weekend, I won't have a second cappuccino today because I'm afraid of running out of milk too soon, I'm tired of planning when and where to do groceries, I'm tired of planning when and where I can just go for a walk.
But we are not just minds immobile in the silent vat of our skulls: we are minds in movement, and we find movement intrinsically rewarding and motivating. So, the developmental move from crawling to walking illustrates in a deep way the theme of cognitive mobility as necessary for us to fully understand and participate in our physical and social worlds. The experience of walking, of movement, is the experience of a brain and mind moving through the world. And this movement in turn changes our experience of the world because the mechanisms of brain and mind are more fully engaged by movement.
Reading Shane O'Mara's In Praise of Walking is a kind of torture right now. As someone who would regularly daily rack up 8km by just, you know, going places without even going places, I feel curtailed. Walking to the mailbox or the recycle bins in the building's garage exhausts me. I am demonstrating O'Mara's theory in reverse: I am disengaging from the world and devolving.

I'm tired of rationing the sparkling mineral water, I'm tired of not being sufficiently hydrated, I should just get myself a soda maker, but of course it's sold out in this country, and the shipping charges are more than the cost of the appliance.

I'm tired of not being able to get down to work in the morning, of not getting comfortable, I still haven't figured out where to sit, where should my office be, at the kitchen counter or the dining table, I'm tired of my back hurting. My head hurts, not every day, but a lot of days. Sometimes it's after I've been for a walk, it must be allergies, my sinuses are pulsating. But I'm also overdue to have my eyes checked. My laptop screen is too small and too low, but then I shift it and I end up squinting and straining my neck. I ordered myself an ergonomic laptop stand, it shipped over two weeks ago, it may be another four weeks before it arrives.

I'm tired of doing yoga. It seemed like a good idea to sign up for the introductory offer, a limitless month. But I have limits. I can't do yoga every day. Who has the time?

I'm finding working from home extremely stressful. There's no escape:
One big problem is there's no escape. With nothing much to do and nowhere to go, people feel like they have no legitimate excuse for being unavailable.

Then there’s the fact that people have turned their living spaces into makeshift offices, making it nearly impossible to disconnect.
I'm not so bad at being unavailable. Mostly I just feel guilty about it.

I resent work for invading my life.
Then there's the fact that aspects of our lives that used to be separate – work, friends, family – are all now happening in the same space. The self-complexity theory posits that individuals have multiple aspects – context-dependent social roles, relationships, activities and goals – and we find the variety healthy, says Petriglieri. When these aspects are reduced, we become more vulnerable to negative feelings.

"Most of our social roles happen in different places, but now the context has collapsed," says Petriglieri. "Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents or date someone, isn't it weird? That's what we're doing now... We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis, and our only space for interaction is a computer window."
I feel like I processed all these difficulties and emotions weeks ago, in the early days. I feel somewhat vindicated now that major news outlets have articulated them, I am validated by being part of a vast social trend.

Last night I dreamt I was in the office, it's where I work, but I didn't recognize the space at all and it was a team of people I'd never worked with before, I don't know what we were trying to get done, but someone recognized a photo on my dating app and couldn't believe anyone would be interested in Jerdkhgarwa — I couldn't catch his name, we've been messaging a while, but I don't know his name — he works there too, a real weirdo they thought, but I was interested in him and wondered why I hadn't run into him before at work. It was crowded and there was champagne at lunch. One woman accused me of procrastinating on the training she was giving me but I really had to go the bathroom.

I can't focus today at all, I'm so tired, I just want to cry.

I guess I won't be going to Paris anytime soon. I miss being kissed.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The life lived in the external or internal world of a writer

When promotional material for Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know fell into my inbox, I couldn't resist comparing its contents against my own mental list of quirky writers and literary obsessions.

Written by Ian Haydn Smith and illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia, this volume covers a decent cross-section of slightly off-mainstream literature available to the English reading public. Some of the writers are better known for their poetry or essays, but all had authored at least one novel. (For those interested, the publisher's page reveals the full list of writers.)

Note: The contents of my digital review copy differ slightly from the public list (swapping out five entries). I truly hope Eve Babitz and Joan Didion made the final cut over Joseph Heller and James Joyce.

I've read 32 of them, and obsessed over several of them throughout various phases of my life (though only one served as namesake for a pet cat).

Women writers are relatively well represented (23 of the 50). Regarding language, 18 of them do not write in English. All but 12 writers are dead.

Only one author had I never heard of (Juan Rulfo).

Each entry is topped by the writer's name and dates, with a pithy descriptive label, like "Chronicler of the Weird" (Murakami) or "The Literary Outlaw" (Genet) or "The Experimenter" (Lessing). Some of these are repetitive, not particularly insightful, arguably not even accurate, but I'd be hard-pressed to come up with better options — that's a tough exercise.

The entry covers a combination of biography, publication history, and public reception — it sticks to objective fact rather than attempt to offer insight. There is little attention to any particular work, but in most cases a style is attributed to the author — "Southern Gothic" (McCullers) and poetic Confessionalism (Plath) — and their work is described in broad thematic strokes. Every entry is complemented by an illustration of the author (that's Bulgakov below, and can you guess who it is on the cover?), and some of them feature quotations.

The book is indexed (mostly people, institutions, publications, and prizes) and includes a list of key works for each writer.

But how do you define the cult status of a writer anyway? Without setting hard and fast criteria, Smith focuses on the fervour of their readership and their transgression of genre boundaries.
However, for all its focus on their work, this book is ultimately about the creators. Which raises another question: is a cult writer defined by the work they produce or the life they have lived? As you will glean from the portraits included here, the answer is: both. More specifically, it depends on the life lived in the external or internal world of a writer.
(Umm, what? I think I disagree.)

I would dispute the status of some of the writers included (and here my own biases will be laid bare).

One stumbling block for me is that I don't think it's enough to have authored a cult book to be considered a cult writer. To me, you're only a cult writer if, having experienced your work, I'm compelled to search out and devour everything you've ever written.

By my thinking, JRR Tolkien does not fit the bill. The world he created is massive and influential; Middle Earth inspires worship, but Tolkien does not. Besides, he is too obvious and too present in our culture to be a discovery — cult status is reserved for the special, beyond mainstream.

Pauline Réage authored but one book, The Story of O. She is, I think, unfairly labeled here as "the sado-masochist author," diminishing the sexual paradox of liberation in slavery that it explores and the controversial brand of feminism it inspires. While I think her novel is an important one and it enjoys elite status, the author, anonymous for years, remains essentially unknown.

Ken Kesey. Really?

And Ayn Rand. Does anyone read her seriously after high school?

But I was pleased to see Chris Kraus in this company (whose work I only recently discovered, and yes, I am compelled to explore more).

And then there are the inevitable oversights.

Smith justifies some of his choices in the introduction: "Thomas Pynchon stands in for other experimental writers such William Gaddis, Roberto Bolaño and David Foster Wallace." Even while they're all postmodernists, and often maximalists, they're quite different. I suspect Pynchon is less prevalent on college campuses today than the others. But maybe not. (Smith acknowledges, "Times are changing and so should this list.") Since the entries tend toward the biographical with only a minimal attempt to place these figures on the literary landscape and describe their significance and influence, the idea that one writer might stand for a group isn't strongly conveyed. (I would've chosen Bolaño to represent this group, because he resonates more strongly with this millennium's readers.)

Smith nods at a few other writers that didn't make the cut (I would have included Mark Z Danielewski over several of the others).

The one writer missing who, in my view, absolutely ought to be here: Clarice Lispector.

Despite my quibbles, I love lists, and I think Cult Writers makes for a great coffee table book. It has smallish dimensions but the illustrations are a lot of fun. It's not the kind of book you read cover to cover; you flip through and learn a random fact, reminisce over the copy of Cortázar your ex gave you, be inspired to finally read Train Dreams.

I'd happily bestow this book on the right college student, possibly annotated to better mould their mind.

Whom would you include in a list of cult writers everybody needs to know?

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The one realm of free expression

Most mornings I wake with my body full of tension, as if I've been clenching my jaw and my fists all night.

One night this week I dreamt I went to a party. It was in something like a gallery space. I was only there because a man I have a crush on (but who is off limits) was in attendance. But I wouldn't leave the ground level because I refused to take the elevator, which I assumed would be virus-infested. Which meant I was essentially acting as greeter for people I didn't know at a party I didn't really want to be at. I stepped back from all the air kisses, puzzled that no one was talking about the elephant of the plague, as if it had never existed.

I recently stumbled across an article on How Dreams Change Under Authoritarianism, and it has spurred a new obsession — investigating my dreamlife. That life is typically closed to me — for most of my life, I have slept deeply and do not remember my dreams. My sleep over the last year or so has become restless — light, often interrupted, and inadequate — an effect of various stresses and preoccupations but also of aging and my changing body. But this month I am dreaming more.

Charlotte Beradt collected dreams in Nazi Germany, which were finally published in 1966.
The links between waking life and dreams are indisputable, even evidentiary. In an afterword, the Austrian-born psychologist Bruno Bettelheim notes the collection's many prophetic dreams, in which, as early as 1933, "the dreamer can recognise deep down, what the system is really like."
See also Sharon Sliwinski's discussion, adapted from Dreaming in Dark Times.

Beradt's dreamers "grappled with collaboration and compliance, paranoia and self-disgust, even as, in waking life, they hid these struggles from others and themselves." I suspect we are also dreaming about compliance and paranoia. I don't mean to suggest that our quarantined lives are in any way comparable to the terror of the morally repugnant Third Reich. But pandemic means health and economic crises, with everyday stresses to cope with and moral imperatives to contemplate.

Surely the collective psyche of our society is in turmoil. Are we dreaming of life under lockdown, or after lockdown? Of our old life, or a better life?
At times, The Third Reich of Dreams also echoes Hannah Arendt, who saw totalitarian rule as "truly total the moment it closes the iron vice of terror on its subjects' private social lives." Beradt seems to agree with this premise — she understood dreams as continuous with the culture in which they occur — but she also presents dreams as the one realm of free expression that endures when private life falls under state control. Under such conditions, the dreamer can clarify what might be too risky to describe in waking life.
How does the stress of physical distancing with its associated enhanced need for emotional connectedness present in dreams?

Yesterday, there was a puff of a bee outside on the stairs up to my apartment, dead I thought, but when I went back down to bring up another load of bags, I noticed it was still moving. When we went out for a walk later in the day it was gone. That must be how the bees got into this morning's dream. There was a bee on my mother's kitchen counter, it was slow, like it was drunk, but I managed to wave it through the front door. Then there was another that emerged from between the fruit on the counter, it looked bright and young, but it struggled to fly at all, I trapped it under a glass and took it outside. I started turning over everything in my mother's kitchen. I knew the bees were back from wherever they'd disappeared to, but they are all sick and dying.

What are you dreaming these days?

(Deborah Levy dreamt a pangolin walked into her bathroom.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

How much I am a person

Now that I have so much time to myself, I wonder at my times of happiness, why I've been allowed them, even now when I am lonely. Why I can walk and how even walking, at the right hour, in this temperature or that one, the lights just coming on, or the sky lightening, I am able to love it. How much I am a person.
I am zipping through Indelicacy, by Amina Cain.

I wonder why everybody says they have so much free time now. Were they always out at bars and restaurants? Or at the gym? Have I always lived slower than them? Or less fully?

Arguably I have less "free time" now than before. I cook more, I clean more. At first I resented this. But now I am feeling fine. Happy, even. Perhaps introverts are better equipped for lockdown. After some initial sleep disturbances, I am starting to feel remarkably rested. I have books to read and things to learn.

Yesterday, Poland reopened its forests.

Yesterday I took delivery of a dozen samosas and a mango salad. And a fresh baguette.

Yesterday, we watched a movie about a sinister religious cult that was even weirder than we'd hoped.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Ideologically opposed to her own despair

I choose what I want to see. I know I am imagining this. I, in the here and now, am willfully abstracting my own history. Because? There are a number of answers to this but today's will be: I can never find my past where I think I've left it and, in his designated role as catalyst, he is the worst offender of all. He will never just lie down where he lay. I keep discovering him wandering around inside me again.
Strange Hotel, by Eimear McBride, is another in a series of slim, meditative novels I appear to be drawn to these days.

The prose is beautiful and easy, but this is not an easy book to read. One has to work to assemble the story.

Strange Hotel is a little like a pared down version of Helen Weinzweig's Basic Black with Pearls (but ultimately very different). One review says it's reminiscent of Joanna Walsh's work, including Break.up. Deeply interior.

We know next to nothing about the narrator — not her name or profession or why she's travelling so frequently to international destinations. We don't know what her days are like. We have only glimpses of hotel-based evenings, mornings, and middles of the night.

There's a neat thing McBride does in switching form third person to first person, I barely noticed it at first, but it is very deliberately meaningful. It's a lovely interplay of the past and present, how we become who we are. (And it tells me that if I'm aware of that, I've got a better shot at authoring my own future.)
She scans her body for some distracting wound to press but it's pretty well; even her mouth is not, currently, in need of a dentist. Her skin, despite her revels, bears not the slightest nick. Her shoes may be nondescript but fit so she has no grazes or blisters to attack. In short, she possesses no immediate means by which to hurt herself back into the clear. How she longs for that sky to be blue. But, ideologically opposed to her own despair, she contemplates a heavy blow to the wall instead. And the ameliorating effects of such an activity are: the gratifying click and bruise of knuckles. The pain shooting its ferns up into her arm. The slightly amazed exhalation, then the clarity behind. All very tempting, yet she does not permit herself this. There remains the matter beyond the door, and only with careful deliberation will she ensure it becomes appropriately resolved.
I'd been meaning to read McBride for years, and this new novel felt like the right place to start. I'd heard or read an interview that basically covered what's documented in this exchange in The Quietus:
I was writing about a middle-aged woman – which makes sense because I am a middle-aged woman – and how angry and bored I am by the tropes about, you know, what it's like to be a middle-aged woman and what our preoccupations are, the things we worry about and how we're supposed to behave.

So, yes, I really wanted to take back the notion that a middle-aged woman going to a hotel room to have some anonymous sex with someone is an act of self-hatred and self-harm.
So, being a middle-aged woman who is somewhat preoccupied with the notion of a middle-aged woman engaged in and enjoying casual sex, how could I not read this?

I was a little disappointed, then, to find this book was not so subversive as to let its narrator simply take pleasure. She satisfies a physical need while applying an emotional analgesic. (But I forgive McBride. After all, this is not my story.)

We learn that she's known heartbreak and grief, but we're never told the full extent of it.

While it's not exactly self-destructive behaviour she engages in, it carries an element of undermining her own pleasure, if not her happiness. It's not unconnected to her emotional past, and it's a conscious effort to maintain her current level of emotional well-being. She's afraid of falling in love again (I'm not), because it would be a betrayal of her "true" love, because it would be an act of forgetting, because it would open the door to the potential for fresh loss.
She has lingering concerns about whether anything exists beneath what she is standing on. And, let's face it, there's nothing like the threat of the abyss to make one reluctant about purposefully striding across an unfamiliar floor.
Reviews
Frieze
Pi
Interview: The Quietus

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A creature of oil and mess and stain

Day 35. No baguette. My mistake: Too early to the grocery, before they'd received their bread delivery.

I am starting to find my groove. Yoga, jigsaw puzzle, German lessons. Work. Watch a movie, read a book. I could almost enjoy lockdown. Except for the part where I have to procure provisions.

Yesterday I ventured to the pharmacy. Hands sanitized, but stopped at the door. Questioned, instructed, and allowed in. (I hesitated, wondering if my list really warranted a trip. What did I need here that I couldn't get on my weekly grocery trip?)

Approach the counter, let the employee know what you want and he'll go get it for you.

Extra-strength Tylenol. Small or large?

Hair conditioner. Brand? I don't know. Whatever's on sale. (Can I smell it first?)

Cortisone ointment, I brought an empty tube. But I want the higher percentage.

Pads, do they still call them maxi pads? Mini pads? I need a pack of regular, and pack of long, or heavy flow. Brand? I don't know. I usually stare at the shelf for ten minutes wishing I had the gene for brand loyalty and trying to remember what I bought last time. (Have I really been doing this for more than 30 years?) He brings me a package. No, I want thin. (They still make non-thin?) No, not panty liners. Yes, that'll do. And a pack now for heavy flow.

Maybe toilet paper. How much is it?

And on it goes.

Some things, like cat litter and kleenex, I decide can wait till I'm browsing grocery store shelves myself.

Do they have any Easter chocolate left? Am I allowed to ask that? There are now two women waiting behind me. (Well, one woman is two metres behind me; the other is standing near the entrance, to ensure appropriate physical distancing.)

It's not often I have to articulate my shopping list and the micro decisions regarding size, brand, quantity. And in another language to boot. [I remember needing bandaids in Portugal, 1993. (And a corkscrew.) Everything in Poland, 1994.]

Still reading Eimear McBride's Strange Hotel.
While she may not consider herself to have achieved any particular greatness in life, it's been hard enough to keep on clocking those decades up. To get to her late forties has taken a lot of ploughing through. There may have been considerable work put into forgetting too — sometimes with more success than she cares to admit — but without those accumulations displayed in plain sight it would be as if she had never lived at all. She'll not stoop to clichés about the blank canvas of youth — despite, generally, subscribing to their truth. She's just not unhappy about being a creature of oil and mess and stain. She has been bitten and will bite and there is a life in her home, even when she is not around, which bodily exists and is true.
I regret not asking for smokehouse almonds. They're hard to find.