Thursday, October 22, 2020

The architecture of limited possibilities

There certainly is what doctors call a "migraine personality," and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organized, perfectionist. "You don't look like a migraine personality," a doctor once said to me. "Your hair's messy. But I suppose you're a compulsive housekeeper." Actually my house is kept even more negligently than my hair, but the doctor was right nonetheless: perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.

Despite the migraines, Joan Didion packs a mean sentence. The White Album is a relatively early collection of what are commonly considered her lesser essays, among which is "In Bed," quoted above, on being perceived as someone afflicted by an imaginary illness. 

I've been dipping into these essays for months. They're too rich to consume all at once, though the temptation is there. Spanning 1968 to 1978, most of the articles hold up, though I cringe at how wrong she got feminism and I disagree with her assessment of Doris Lessing. 

Still, the essays offer a view onto American life of the time as seen from Didion's particular vantage point —a place of educated privilege. She concerns herself with water, shopping mall theory, Hollywood. She has access to celebrities and political figures, fancy hotels and Hawaiian vacations.

My favourite essay in this collection is "Many Mansions," and it owes its status to the peculiar circumstance of my reading it during a pandemic.

I have over the last seven months become obsessed with the notion of home and the buildings within which we make them. I have spent most of those last seven months inside my own home, a modern 2-bedroom condo of less than 800 square feet, shared with my daughter and my cat. 

I have spent a great deal of the almost 5 years that I've lived here channeling Jimmy Stewart. My Rear Window is less New York. It's very Montreal, overlooking a dead-end ruelle down which many people walk their dogs. I overhear French (both Quebecois and from France), Spanish, and some English. I have my very own concert pianist living just up and over to the left (though she took up the cello last spring), and over to the right is an elderly couple who listen to the radio tuned between stations at a very loud volume. The cat downstairs from them is now kept on a leash; I've seen it climb through the windows of other people's apartments. 

But my Front Window, overlooking the building courtyard, is conceptually more akin to Hitchcock's setting — children play, neighbours tend the garden and share a bottle of wine. I have watched people inside their homes play guitar, read, watch tv. I have witnessed dinner parties and seductions, and even a couple of illegal gatherings during lockdown. These days I see people carry their laptop from room to room.

I have in the past offhandedly aphorized that "home is where I lay my head" or "where I keep my stuff." Now home is also where I work, eat, play, learn, create, and sometimes die a little inside. It's where I really live. All the time.

When I'm not at home, I'm wandering around the neighbourhood, imagining what's behind closed doors and drawn curtains.

All this to say: my home is small, and I feel compelled to cross other people's thresholds, partly to expand my own domain by infringing on theirs, partly simply to understand how other people inhabit their own little boxes. The "downtime" that other people waste on social media I spend perusing real estate listings. 

My "hobby" took off in earnest when we were looking for an apartment for my mother this summer. It's not quite right for her, I would think, but this room would make a great study for the girl, and I could set up a desk in this corner.

I adjust my search filters regularly. Some days I hunt in earnest for a realistic upgrade within my means; other times my fantasy home is unconstrained. I consider what it would be like to live alone. I wonder what my life would be like if I lived across town. Would it make sense to live close to the office if I never go to the office anymore? If I had an in-home studio, could I quit my day job and support myself on my art? How long would it take me to clutterify and completely obscure a minimalist design? 

In "Many Mansions" Didion explores the official residences of the Governor of California, focusing on the monstrosity the Reagans built and never lived in.

It its simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently "democratic," flattened out, mediocre and "open" and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn. It is the architecture of "background music," decorators, "good taste." 

As I swipe photos, I realize very little of real estate is real. I saw my mother's house staged when it was listed for sale, and essentially stripped of all personality. I no longer trust listings, the words they use, the pictures they show. One roll of photos displays empty rooms and then the same rooms furnished. Another listing is a new build, not yet built, that offers imagined renderings. I recognize the layout of paintings on one bedroom wall matching exactly a room layout halfway across town, with only the mass market art reproductions swapped out.

The walls "resemble" local adobe, but they are not: they are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a rather stale yellowed cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and exposed beams "resemble" native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown. If anyone ever moves in, the concrete floors will be carpeted, wall to wall. If anyone ever moves in, the thirty-five exterior wood and glass doors, possibly the single distinctive feature in the house, will be, according to plan, "draped." The bathrooms are small and standard. The family bedrooms open directly onto the nonexistent swimming pool, with all its potential for noise and distraction. To one side of the fireplace in the formal living room there is what is know in the trade as a "wet bar," a cabinet for bottles and glasses with a sink and a long vinyl-topped counter. (This vinyl "resembles" slate.) In the entire house there are only enough bookshelves for a set of the World Book and some Books of the Month, plus maybe three Royal Doulton figurines and a back file of Connoisseur, but there is $90,000 worth of other teak cabinetry, including the "refreshment center" in the "recreation room." There is that most ubiquitous of all "luxury features," a bidet in the master bathroom. There is one of those kitchens which seem designed exclusively for defrosting by microwave and compacting trash. It is a house built for a family of snackers.

I have discovered about myself that I like cedarwood ceilings and value closet storage systems, but I don't feel strongly about whether the bathroom has a separate shower stall. I may compromise on the configuration of my kitchen but will not yield my outdoor space. I want to have room to better compartmentalize my life.

I believe that this condition of house envy is temporary. Once the pandemic abates and freedom to move and socialize in other spaces is restored, the demands I put on my home will be recalibrated. I will resume a state of domestic bliss where my home meets all my needs. 

Until then, every morning I stop by "the café" (the cappuccino machine at the end of the kitchen counter), and roll through "the office" (12 square feet in the dining room where I squeezed in a workstation) to lounge in "the library" (30 square feet by the window with a comfy chair and a pile of books) every morning, where I sneak a look at new listings between chapters.

The old Governor's Mansion does have stairs and waste space, which is precisely why it remains the kind of house in which sixty adolescent girls might gather and never interrupt the real life of the household. The bedrooms are big and private and high-ceilinged and they do not open on the swimming pool and one can imagine reading in one of them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner.

Excerpts
"The Women’s Movement" (1972)
"Holy Water" (1977) 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Free of existence's gravitational pull

She walked through the market stands with her new stride, at once lazy and confident, loose and firm, looking at everything and knowing she'd buy nothing because she and Marko now had to avoid all unnecessary expense, but not wanting anything anyway, neither fabric nor pottery nor metal bangles, simply happy as she thought she'd never been before (because anxiety had always subtly spoiled her most joyful moments, the birth of her children or the completion of her degree), feeling her healthy, familiar, faithful body move freely through the warmth, her thoughts wandering this way and that, unencumbered, weighed down by no worry, no incomprehension.

She could, if she wanted to, or if the miracle of this new outlook had not come to pass, easily find something to torment herself with, she knew that.

But it was as if, rather than deposit her in another land, the plane had delivered her to a universe apart, where she could finally feel the happiness of being herself free of existence's gravitational pull.

Is this what death is like? she wondered. Could she have died and not remembered?

But what she was feeling bore all the hallmarks of life at its fullest, particularly her awareness of her warm, rounded body, lightly dressed in pale lines, which she guided through the stands, she thought, smiling to herself, simply for the pleasure of enjoying its perfect mechanics.

Ladivine is another unsettling novel by Marie Ndiaye. It's emotionally uncomfortable — it seems so foreign until you recognize yourself in it and you wonder, am I so petty, or so proud, so concerned about what others think? Where do the standards and ambitions for myself come from? How many truths do I hide from the people closest to me? What do I hide from myself? Do I even like myself?

It's been months since I read this novel, and it's like I had to rush away from it, cleanse myself of its dark intensity. The book has very distinct phases, covering Clarisse's relationships with her mother, her husband, and their daughter, and then

The mother and daughter are both named Ladivine, but they do not know each other. Clarisse was born Malinka, but only her mother knows her by that name (until later, anyway). As a child, out of shame or disgust Malinka starts referring to her mother as her servant. At age 17 Malinka leaves for Bordeaux and reinvents herself. But her mother find her.

Her love for her mother was a foul-tasting food, impossible to choke down. That food dissolved into bitter little crumbs in her mouth, then congealed, and this went on and on and had no end, the lump of fetid bread shifting from one cheek to the other, then the soft, stinking fragments that made of her mouth a deep pit of shame.

Not exactly a loving relationship. We learn early on that Ladivine's complexion is dark, and clearly Clarisse passes for white, and I can't begin to unravel this aspect of their relationship — maybe it allows Clarisse to disconnect from her mother, her history, maybe it's self-hatred deflected onto a convenient target. Clarisse is also disconnected from herself, emotionless, but driven to become the sort of person she thinks everyone expects her to be. That doesn't bode well for love in the long term.

Clarisse marries Richard, and they are happy and successful with a beautiful home, a daughter, and a dog. Clarisse told them her mother had died long ago. Clarisse thinks the dog has her mother's eyes, and there are some incidents. By the time her marriage falls apart (Richard remarries, to a woman named Clarisse), the daughter Ladivine is emotionally distant from her and living in Germany.

Clarisse really can't figure out where it all went wrong. She still visits her mother every Tuesday.

When she meets Freddy, she doesn't reinvent herself so much as she undoes or erases her previous self. Here things go really wrong, and Clarisse, or Malinka, falls out of the story. We're only a third of the way through. The book is called Ladivine, after all. But I'm already gutted.

Growing up, Ladivine could do no wrong. Permissive parents led her to be something of a wild child. But now she's married in Berlin with two children and going on a family vacation.

They're in place they'd never dreamed of going, somewhere south, and Ladivine is repeatedly mistaken for someone else, and she loses herself utterly. Of course, Clarisse haunts her, and some stray dog always follows them.

The characters are frustratingly opaque, not least to themselves. Families are doomed to repeat their dysfunctional dynamics.

It feels hot and confused, it's surreal and uncomfortable, and I don't entirely understand why. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

What do you know about yourself?

In a man, not liking women is a pose. In a woman, not liking men is a pathology.

Sounds a little like Atwood's, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." This is Virginie Despentes. But her statement is not about how men and women behave, it's about how society perceives them. Imagine, Despentes prompts us, if a woman wrote about men the way Houellebecq writes about women.

This is not an easy book. King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes, is ferocious. Like any good manifesto, it sucks you into its worldview without giving you space to breathe or time to think. 

So I read along, yes, yes, yes! 

Little girls are bought up learning never to hurt men, and whenever a woman flouts that rule, she is quickly put back in her place. No-one wants to know that they are cowardly. No-one wants to feel that in their own flesh. I'm not angry with myself for not daring to kill one of them, I'm angry at a society that educated me without teaching me to wound a man if he tries to fuck me against my will, especially when this same society has drummed into me the idea that it is a crime I should never get over. And mostly I am fucking furious at the fact that, having been faced with three guys and a gun in the middle of a forest with nowhere to run, I still feel guilty that I didn't have the courage to defend us with a little knife.

This is the kind of feminist the world needs! Or is she? Though I was swept up in her diatribe, when I stepped back to unravel what I'd read I found myself not always wholeheartedly agreeing. For example, she defends prostitution for the agency it lets women claim over their bodies. To which I can only say, yyesss but that's nnnott exactly the whole story.

Despentes is angry. In this series of essays, she tackles rape, porn, and prostitution. Capitalism, the beauty industry, the marriage contract.

If we do not push on towards the unknown that is the gender revolution, we know exactly what we will be slipping back towards. An all-powerful state that infantilizes us, meddles in our every decision, for our own good — keeping us in a state of childhood, of ignorance, fearful of punishment, of exclusion. The special treatment so far reserved for women, using shame as the primary tool to enforce their isolation, their docility, their inability to act, could be extended to everyone. To understand the mechanics of how we, as women, have been made to feel inferior, and been trained to become a crack team that polices itself, is to understand the mechanics of control of the population as a whole. Capitalism is an equal-opportunities religion in the sense that it subjugates us all, and leads each of us to feel trapped, as all women are.

Several of her arguments are simply uncomfortable, not because I disagree with them but because I haven't formulated a stance on my own, and I'm not sure I always need to (my personal relationship with porn is near nonexistent and I don't feel compelled to change that). Despentes writes that "the true history of porn, what creates and defines it, is censorship." Clearly, society's relationship to porn is convoluted at best — to be expected of an industry that we demand reflect reality while embodying pure fantasy — and it's hard not to agree on the necessity to smash the stigmatization of porn. It's just hard to keep up with her — for example, in a paragraph on female nymphomania, she concludes that it's men "who rack up conquests in the hope of one day experiencing something approaching a real orgasm." Which, OK, yeah, but then she just moves on to Paris Hilton and how her social status trumps her gender. 

All this to say, this book is loaded with theories sprung from analyses on top of throwaway observations, and I wish some of them had a little more room.

Despentes puts a lot of responsibility on women, which doesn't seem fair, but that's the point. Who else is going to fix things?

I realize that what other women do or don't do with their clitoris is none of my business, but I'm still slightly troubled by their indifference to masturbation: if they don't get themselves off when they're alone, at what point do women connect with their own fantasies? How much do they know about what really turns them on? And if you don't know that, what do you know about yourself? What connection can you have with yourself if even your pussy is systematically controlled by someone else?

Excerpt
Author profile.
#fuckthepatriarchy

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Surviving is something to do

The ways of the heart cannot be explained. It does what it wants.

This morning I woke up and allowed myself a moment of wistfulness, I watched the hazy morning light through the curtains and thought of him, just for a second, how he'd commented on the view of naked me in the foreground with the light through the billowing curtains, and I thought how I miss waking up with someone, I haven't done that in years, I'd like that, not every day but once in a while, say, on a lazy weekend. 

But it's Wednesday and I woke up with the cat, she waits for me to put my feet on the floor before asking me to feed her, and already I'm thinking about work. I've enjoyed an extra long weekend, so I'm ready for it. I allow myself the time to enjoy the coffee, not simply consume it, and I do a German lesson, a 225-day streak.

I work steadily, productively. I join the online meditation group for a session at noon, it succeeds only in helping my mind wander. (What novel can I get for my mother? I don't know anything about historical romance. Some vaguely literary options cross my mind, but it turns out they're not available in Polish.)

I turn on the TV and despair that the US Supreme Court nominee refuses to comment on hypotheticals, and our reality consists of hypotheticals. Cigarettes cause cancer because it says so on the package, but human impact on climate change is hypothetical. 

The inspection on my mother's house comes back indicating potential mould in the attic, and the buyers are concerned. I wonder about the teenage years I spent in the room with door to attic and if the mould seeped into me then. I google remedies, for the house, that is, and costs. Any mould deep in my brain had better lie undisturbed.

After weeks of seemingly no news of the plague in the outside world, suddenly there is news, lots of it, none of it good. In Europe, record highs, school interruptions, partial lockdowns. Paris is closed.

I exchange sexy messages with a man I've never met who lives half a world away. I tell the man I've never touched how much I miss the possibility of touching him. I believe my words to be true.

Is any of this real? 

I work steadily, productively, for hours more, but I stop at a reasonable hour, before I'm finished. As is typical, I haven't even started the one thing I expected I would do today.

I watch a couple episodes of Dark (having watched the first season upon its release, I've had to rewatch it before seeing the rest of the series) and wish I could travel back 33 years, or maybe a year ahead, or maybe two months ago. My heart believes in free will, but some days it contradicts itself. I think about how random my life is with its occasional infuriating perfection.

I'm reading Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh, and it makes me laugh in the way you laugh when if you didn't laugh you would cry.

But, as long as you aren't dead, you need something to do. And surviving is something to do.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Resistant to any kind of concretion or creation

Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin, was a real treat for me this week,  inspiring the kind of just-one-more-page feeling that kept me up past my bedtime. It did not fill me with paranoia and unease the way Fever Dream did (one of my favourite reading experiences of recent years), but instead made me ache with sadness and grieve over my relationships with people I barely know. And yes, that kind of reading experience is my idea of a good time — I'm complex that way.

The novel is a collection of vignettes about the connections formed by an expensive toy, a kentuki. It's the body of a Furby with the responsibility of a Tamagotchi and the power of an Elf on the Shelf, with human sentience. Some of the stories end abruptly and are very one-sided, others are picked up over and over again, much like every toy has a unique lifecycle — they are cast aside after a day, they break, they become part of your life.

The kentuki is not a straight-up surveillance device. The watcher is not a megacorporation intent on controlling your consumer behaviour or otherwise keeping you in line legally or morally. At the other end is a person with their own motivations.

The toy is really just a limited interface between two random people; one person buys the toy, the other buys a code that gives camera access through the kentuki's eyes and instant translation that's locked on the owner. So there are two types of people: keepers and dwellers (roughly analogous to exhibitionists and voyeurs). One character is both, which gives her a rare perspective. (Which would you be?)

This arrangement grants anonymity. We see how people behave when they don't know, or they forget, that someone's looking. The society begins to grapple with the legal responsibilities the parties owe one another. Various kentuki liberation organizations arise.

There's a lot of loneliness in this book. It's people failing to communicate, failing to connect.

And that morning, after coming back from her run and flopping on the bed with her tangerines, she kept turning the matter over and over with the sense she was getting ever closer to an epiphany. She stared at the ceiling and thought that if she were to organize her thoughts to guess what kind of discovery was coming, she would have to remember a piece of information that she hadn't thought about in days: at some point the week before, she'd gone down to the the only kiosk in the village next to the church, and in her distraction she'd caught a glimpse of something she would rather not have seen. Sven's manner of explaining something to a girl. The sweetness with which he was trying to make himself understood, how close they were standing, the way they smiled at each other. Later she leaned it was the assistant. She wasn't surprised, nor did it strike her as an important discovery, because a much deeper revelation suddenly caught her attention: nothing mattered. In her body, every impulse asked, What for? It wasn't tiredness, or depression, or lack of vitamins. It was a feeling similar to lack of interest, but much more expansive.

Lying in bed, she gathered the tangerine peels into one hand, and the movement brought her to another revelation. If Sven knew all, if the artiste was a committed laborer and every second of his time was another step toward an irrevocable destiny, then she was exactly the opposite. The last point at the other end of the continuum of beings on this planet. The un-artiste. Nobody, for no one and for nothing, ever. Resistant to any kind of concretion or creation. Her body placed itself in the in-between, protecting her from the risk of ever one day achieving something. She closed her fist and squeezed the peels. They felt like a cool, compact paste. Then she reached her arm over the sheets toward the head of the bed and left the peels in a little pile under Sven's pillow.

For me, this book is less about the horrors of technology than it is about the horrors of interpersonal communication and the impossibility of knowing anyone. We only know about people what they want us to know. We only see what they show us.

Even the artiste's shocking reveal is not necessarily any closer to "truth." Although his work appears to be a grand commentary on kentuki interactions, he shows us a carefully constructed artwork to communicate his message, the materials for which were acquired and curated and created under circumstances we know nothing about. 

I can relate to these stories in terms of what they say about my online activity, particularly dating — what I choose to share or not, the slice of someone else's life I'm privy to in return, the narrative I fabricate around it, the intentions and motivations I attribute to others based on nothing but the debris that clutters my own headspace, the degree to which I immerse myself in any relationship. But really, it's as applicable to real life — simply, what we experience of someone else is always limited, and when processed through complicated sets of assumptions, it becomes clear how far away we are from each other, and we stay that way.

Excerpts 
Antigua 
Beijing — Lyon
South Bend 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

A vulgar, shady character of the very worst sort, with the morality of a cutthroat grifter

First published in 1932, The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, is well known in Poland, commonly believed to have been the "inspiration" that Jerzy Kosinski blatantly ripped off for Being There. By contrast, although he is morally and culturally bereft, Nicodemus Dyzma has a firmer hand in architecting his fate. 

"Yes. We women, we may not do it scientifically or even systematically, but we are specialists in psychoanalysis, or, I should say, in applied psychology. Our intuition is our scientific method, and our instinct alerts us to our errors."

She just goes on and on! . . . Dyzma thought.

"And that is why," Nina continued, absently flicking through the pages of the book, "that is why it's easier to guess the cipher by reading a closed book than an open one."

"Hmm." Nicodemus considered this. "But why would you have to guess when books are so easy to open?"

He'd thought that Nina, with her talk of closed books, intended to demonstrate for him how to read [Jack] London through its cover, and added,

"Nothing is easier than opening a book."

Lady Nina met his eye and replied, "Oh no. There are some who won't abide it, and those are the ones who are most interesting of all. Those who can only be read through the eyes of the imagination. Don't you agree?"

"I don't know," he answered heedlessly. "I've never come across that type of book. I've even seen very valuable editions, but I was able to open and read each one."

"Ah, that's understandable, I imagine you don't generally reach for books that aren't interesting, while those that do interest you surely open for you as if under some magnetic power. Such are the properties of a strong will."

Dyzma was amused — what kind of baloney was she talking?! — and answered "Why, even a baby has enough strength to open a book."

Dyzma is a fool mistaken for a wiseman who speaks his mind. While naively and brutishly looking out for his own best interests, he quite accidentally climbs to a position of great economic and political influence in Warsaw.

It all starts with an invitation to a Minister's banquet that he picks up off the ground — Dyzma decides to score a free meal, and he makes some friends along the way.

It's mysterious how he holds such sway. This novel goes beyond a superficial critique of the division of  classes; it's not simply the nouveau riche standing up to the old guard (with both of them having rights over women and peasants) — a very real thing in early 20th-century Poland.

It's difficult to regard Dyzma as an Everyman — he's not just uneducated, he's thick. At best, Dyzma reflects those who meet him, echoes what they say.

"Think about it," the district governor continues, "always and forever, it's been the case that simply knowing how to do things isn't nearly as important as actually making them happen. Everything was just fine when it was you, Mr. President, who was in charge of the bank." 

The story is mostly light and funny — it's astonishing what he gets away with. But there are some dark moments, including a murder (Dyzma hires some thugs to take someone out) and some violent rapes (which scenes were skin-crawlingly unpleasant). It's difficult to dismiss the violence against women as a product of its times.

Then there's the satanic sex cult of women who revere Dyzma as a god, complete with elaborate ritual preparations and peyote. Truly unexpected. Perhaps Dyzma owes more to their spells and their influence then he can fathom.

The novel has relevance today, calling into question whom we allow to rise to positions of power, what we allow to pass for wisdom, how we measure the success of an individual relative to that of the state.

Only George Ponimirski, who is Dyzma's brother-in-law by the novel's end, sees him for what he is. But he's been institutionalized before; he's generally regarded as madman. 

"What are you laughing at?" the governor asked in an offended tone. George jumped up, his laughter trailing off, and made several attempts to put in his monocle, but his hands were shaking so much that he was unable to do so. He was agitated; this had clearly been the last straw.

"What am I laughing at? Not at what, ladies and gentlemen, but at whom?! I'm laughing you, at you! At all of society, at all my beloved fellow countrymen!"

"Sir!..."

"Silence!" Ponimirski yelled, and his pale, sickly child's face turned red with rage. "Silence! Sapristi! I'm laughing at you! At you! The so-called elite! Ha, that's a laugh! I'm telling you that your statesman, your Cincinnatus, your great man, your Nicodemus Dyzma, is nothing but a common swindler who's leading you around by the nose, a cunning scoundrel, imposter, and complete and utter moron all at the same time! An idiot who has no idea about anything, not economics, note even spelling! He's a boor, without a hint of good breeding, devoid of even fundamental civility! Look at his yokel face and his ill manner! I give you my word of honor that not only is this Oxford business all a lie, he can't speak a single language! A vulgar, shady character of the very worst sort, with the morality of a cutthroat grifter. Sapristi! Can't you see? I was wrong when I said that he was leading you around by the nose! You did it to yourself, it was you who put that swine up on a pedestal! You! You, bereft of any shred of critical reasoning! I'm laughing at you, you idiots! At you! Common rabble!...

He'd finally managed to put in his monocle. He gave everyone a look of pure contempt and left, slamming the door.

Director Litwinek, frightened and astonished, searched the faces of those present: they all wore a smile of embarrassment and pity.

Reviews
The Complete Review 
The Modern Novel 

Friday, October 02, 2020

spreadeagled in the empty air of existence

 Yesterday, on the 212th day of German lessons, we went back into lockdown. 

We knew it was coming. I felt it coming. I haven't been sleeping well. I'm barely reading. I'm working too much and watching the news. I make popcorn and drink wine and watch America fall apart. I haven't been sleeping well at all.

Occasionally I feel my heart leap into my throat and I panic. I don't know if it's the looming deadline I know I'm going to miss even after a 15-hour workday or mere existential dread.

Pandemic uncertainty may actually be good for your brain. It's also exhausting.

The dreams are back. He asked me if I snored (I don't know, I have no bedmate to tell me), and accused me of not wanting to improve myself. How could he, how dare he, he said I was perfect.

The restlessness is back (had it ever gone away?). I want to buy things: expensive shoes, stupid t-shirts, a new condo. One package of books may be lost in the mail.

The order I placed with Ikea months ago was finally delivered this week. We have fresh curtains on clean windows. A utility cart for my sculpting materials and tools. Kitchen gadgets.

The kid is attending CEGEP, virtually. Tonight she is finishing an assignment on Ferlinghetti's "Constantly Risking Absurdity."

   the poet like an acrobat
                                 climbs on rime
                                          to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                     above a sea of faces
             paces his way
                               to the other side of day


My self-cut hair looks great. If civilization collapses, I can get work as a hairdresser.

Pantone has a new shade of red. Period.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The drumbeat of juicy epithets

Madam Józefina Przełęska had woken up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. By ten o'clock, this fact had become a universally acknowledged axiom in the kitchen. By eleven, the entire apartment had broken out in such pandemonium and hullabaloo it was as if there was not just one wrong side of the bed but at least two. 

By noon, the noble residence of Madam Przełęska was pitiful scene of chaos and panic, where august antiques fought wildly in single combat, moving from place to place until, amidst unrelenting skirmishes, they were cut down with the heat of battle and remined motionless, their fashionably spindly legs sticking straight up into the air. Amidst stampeding servants, the lady of the house galloped through the apartment like a Valkyrie on the warpath. Before her resounded the drumbeat of juicy epithets, behind her billowed the flounces of her dressing gown like a burnoose sweeping over the rubble.

The vacuum cleaner growled in the sitting room, salvos of carpets being beaten reverberated in the courtyard, here the windows were thrown open because this stifling air was simply unbearable, there the windows were slammed shut because these drafts could blow your head right off.

On top of everything, the telephone rang without stopping, and the hailstorm of words pelting the mouthpiece slashed the air like a whip.

It was that very moment the doorbell sounded in the hall. It was the last straw. Madam Przełęska pivoted and darted over to answer the door personally, much to the horror of her servants, who, in their hearts, had already entrusted the welfare of this unfortunate guest to the mercy of God.

— from The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz.

Monday, September 21, 2020

I write from here, from the warehouse of unsold women

It has begun. The second wave of the pandemic. I keep thinking of it as a sociological phenomenon rather than a biological one, like fifth-wave feminism. And it is. It's second-wave pandemicism — because I wasn't angry enough and lonely and scared enough and tired enough the first time. 

It's been 202 days of German lessons, and more than 6 months of working from home. The order I put in at Ikea early this past summer, the curtains to prettify and the task lighting to enlighten, should finally be delivered next week. 

But the last few days, weeks, have been hard. It's too cool to sit on the balcony in the morning, it's more effort to go for a walk. The rituals that helped summer pass are broken.

I dreamt my period came suddenly and my shirt-tails were soaked red, I put my hand between my legs but couldn't stanch the flow, there was so much blood.

I went for a Thai yoga massage because I needed my body stretched and steamrolled. I learned that I've forgotten how to relax. How difficult to be in the body and to let go. What I like so much about this style of massage is the trust exercise of it, the surrender. And it seems I'm unable, I'm so tightly wound, on alert, ever vigilant, and tired. And when he thumbed my right forearm near my elbow, I started to cry. “The body remembers,” he told me. (And I was remembering you, stroking my arm.)

That was Friday, the day Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. I feel sadness, and hopelessness, and defeated. We are Ruthless. 

Tonight I cut my hair and dyed it blonde. Haircuts (unlike massage) are nonessential. I would do it myself. All pandemic-long, I've wanted pandemic hair. A badge of honour. I would cut my hair in protest, in solidarity, as self-mutilation. It's gorgeous.

Some books arrived today, among them, King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes:

I write from here, from the warehouse of unsold women, the psychos, the skinheads, those who don't know how to accessorize, those who are scared they stink, those with rotting teeth, those who have no clue, those that guys don't make things easy for, those who'd fuck anyone who's prepared to have them, the massive sluts, the scrawny skanks, the dried-up cunts, those with pot bellies, those who wish they were men, those who think they are men, those who dream of being porn stars, those who don't give a flying fuck about guys but have a thing for their girlfriends, those with fat arses, those who have dark bushy pubes and aren't about to get a Brazilian, the women who are loud and pushy, those who smash everything in their path, those who hate perfume counters, who wear red lipstick that's too red, those who'd die to dress like horny sluts but haven't got the body, those who want to wear men's clothes and beards in the street, those who want to let it all hang out, those who are prissy because they're hung-up, those who don't know how to say no, those who are locked up so they can be controlled, those who inspire fear, those who are pathetic, those who don't spark desire, those who are flabby, who have faces scarred with wrinkles, the ones who dream of having a facelift, or liposuction, or having their nose broken so it can be reshaped but don't have the money, those who are a hot mess, those who have only themselves to rely on for protection, those who don't know how to be reassuring, those who don't give a fuck about their kids, those who like to drink until they're sprawled on the floor of a bar, those who don't know how to behave; and, while I'm at it, I'm also writing for the guys who don't want to be protectors, those who want to be but don't know how, those who don't know how to fight, those who cry easily, those who aren't ambitious, or competitive, or well-hung, or aggressive, those who are timid, shy, vulnerable, those who'd rather look after the house than go out to work, those who are weak, bald, too poor to be appealing, those who long to be fucked, those who don't want to be dependable, those who are scared on their own every night. 

Bring it on, second wave. We are already scarred against you.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity

Sometimes I felt that my mind was a soft cloud of air around me, taking in whatever flew in, spinning around, and delivering it out into the ether.

It took me a while to warm to Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh. I couldn't at first buy into the narrator as a frail old lady. The voice (as I heard it in my head) was too much of she who told My Year of Rest and Relaxation, overpoweringly strong (nonchalant millennial). But soon enough, the mystery of the story itself took over, and I thought maybe this tone was the fist clue to the unreliability of the narrator. And besides, little old ladies have all kinds of different voices (what will mine be like, I wonder).

It reminded me of another old-lady-in-the-woods story — Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk — which, along with references to Hansel and Gretel, reinforce the idea that I might be witnessing the emergence of a subgenre of the literary crazy-old-lady category. Moshfegh's and Tokarczuk's characters are both very much a part of their communities, connected to them in ways they don't even acknowledge, while apart from them, self-isolated and grieving.

He liked to tell me that I was the source of my own misery, that I was choosing to believe that my life was limited, boring. He explained that everything was possible, and moreover, everything — every thing and scenario — existed in infinite versions throughout the galaxies and beyond. I knew it was a childish belief, but I had adopted it anyway. Imagining infinite realities made whatever nuisance I had to withstand more tolerable. I was more than myself. There were infinite Vesta Guls out there, simultaneous to me, scrolling down the TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS web page, with only one small variation: one Vesta Gul's hair was falling across her forehead in a different way; one mouse pad was green instead of blue, and so forth. In another dimension, there was a small fire-breathing dragon sitting next to me on the floor. And in another, Charlie was strangled out in the car by an eighty-foot boa constrictor. And so on. The job of the sleuth was to narrow down potential realities into a single truth. A selected truth. It didn't mean it was the only truth. The actual truth existed only in the past, I believed. It was in the future where things began to get messy.

So what truth is she trying to get at? She found a note about Magda's dead body, but no dead body, and Vesta's imagination runs with it. She writes Magda's story, conjures her out of thin air. It is a distraction from her loneliness and her grief over her dead (and abusive) husband. It's all very real to Vesta, and one wonders if she doesn't know a little too much about dead bodies — about how circumstances can lead to murder.

She turns random occurrences into clues. Her paranoia and obsessiveness make everything a sign. Is she just a crazy old lady to be dismissed? Or is something more sinister going on?

Vesta Gul. A ghoul. The vestigial remains of a woman. She mourns Magda, real or not. She doesn't even realize that she's mourning herself, what little is left of her now her husband is gone. 

I loved her the way I loved the little seedlings soon to sprout in my new garden. I loved her the way I loved life, the miracle of growth and things blossoming. I loved her the way I loved the future. The past was over, and there was no love left there. It hurt me to think that Magda was dead, life wrangled out of her body, that she'd been abandoned, with nobody but maybe Blake to attend to her corpse. It is easy, I thought, to find great affection for victims, emblems of vanished potential. There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity, a missed chance. I knew about stuff like that. I'd been young once. So many dreams had been dashed. But I dashed them myself. I wanted to be safe, whole, have a future of certainty. One makes mistakes when there is confusion between having a future at all and having the future one wants.

(What future do I want?)

Reviews
New Yorker: Ottessa Moshfegh's "Death in Her Hands" Is a New Kind of Murder Mystery 
Atlantic: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Riveting Meta-Mysteries

Excerpt.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The majestic boom of you

(Too good to be true. It's not true. It stung me in the heart.) 

A----o

The trouble with you,
dear, is that your name
is so damn Shakespearean —
I can't tell if our fandango
is of historic import
or mere romantic farce.

Whether you be impostor
or ghost or some Greek chorus 
to illuminate the story my life,
verily my flesh gives way to
the majestic boom of you and
our irrepressibly awkward joy.

Drafted August 2020, for later review; launch date TBD. You're beautiful, AF. Thanks for showing me what joy is possible. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Fuck DRM

Cory Doctorow emailed me yesterday, following up on a note I'd sent him in 2014 about his novel Little Brother.

It's about his new book, Attack Surface (aka Little Brother 3). I like that it's a standalone, and it's written for adults. I'll read it.

The story itself sounds great. Attack Surface covers racial injustice, police brutality, high-tech turnkey totalitarianism, mass protests and mass surveillance. As Doctorow puts it, "there is something powerful about technologically rigorous thrillers about struggles for justice — stories that marry excitement, praxis and ethics." 

But Audible (an Amazon-owned monopoly) won't carry the audiobook because Doctorow took the ethical decision not to wrap it in DRM. (See here for more on digital rights management.)

Doctorow is making the unabridged audiobook (narrated by Amber Benson) available on Kickstarter. So you can get a great price and take a moral stand by sticking it to Jeff Bezos.

"This is a first-of-its-kind experiment in letting authors, agents, readers and a major publisher deal directly with one another in a transaction that completely sidesteps the monopolists."

I'm not generally an audiobook listener, but I'll make an exception.

Kickstarter
Audiobook preview
Print excerpt

Friday, September 04, 2020

The fish in the desert

I went to a psychiatrist once. I was doing something that had become a pattern in my life, and I thought, Well, I should go talk to a psychiatrist. When I got into the room, I asked him, "Do you think that this process could, in any way, damage my creativity?" And he said, "Well, David, I have to be honest: it could." And I shook his hand and left. 

No one would ever guess at the film genius of David Lynch by his writing. He struggles to articulate the concepts he claims bear him such creative fruit, and he fails to inspire.

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity is likely a genuine effort to explain his creative process, or lack thereof, to aspiring artists. But it doesn't work on paper. Weirdly, Lynch's ideas are much more compelling when shared orally:

Introduction 
Eraserhead 
Suffering
Kubrick 
Keep at it 

I've moved beyond plumbing my own depths for creativity. I'm trying to understand how other people find it, use it. I'm reading about how it works for profit and for fulfilment. Ideas do not come to Lynch in dreams. Rather, he taps into the unified field of consciousness.

********

One morning this week I wake up feeling something graze my left breast. Maybe it was the cat's tail, maybe it was the corner of the bedsheet, but I recall the feeling of the sand insect, what I thought was a scorpion but couldn't possibly have been a scorpion, like sand trickling down my chest but in reverse, creeping upward. 

How lucky it stung my finger after I'd brushed it away, how lucky it hadn't stung me in the heart.

And so I lay in bed, dreamily happy about all my good fortune, on my cloud of a mattress, the good fortune of my job and the satisfaction and rewards it brings, the good fortune to have my family close to me (including, at long last, my mother), the good fortune to have met a man who suits me perfectly, to have taken him as my lover, and I realize it's too good to be true.

It must not be true. Somehow I have fabricated this perfect reality of mine. It stung me in the heart, I am lying in a coma in a Bedouin tent in the Sahara.

This must be why Sa'id keeps texting me. After riding camels and smoking shisha that night in the desert, he is somewhere nearby, trying to coax me out of my coma, while feeding my bliss. "Sa'id" means "happy."

There is no pandemic. My coma mind created it to quarantine me from the world and help me go into myself, to find the pain and expel it.

I have brought my mother to me, to my figurative bedside. In this fever dream, I toiled to pack her belongings and move her to another world. In that house where I grew into myself, I sifted through my own life as much as hers, as I gazed at photos, threw out meaningless school reports and newspaper clippings, fingered longheld but long-forgotten trinkets. (I kept the nugget of fool's gold.)

My friends are increasingly absent. Our paths are diverging. I don't blame them. If my friend were in a coma, after 6 months, I might stop calling too. The intensity of  the communications with my imaginary German lover has also waned, as the likelihood of meeting fades into an impossible future. Of course, he has no idea that I am trapped within my body (always trapped within the body), comatose in the desert.

Instead I am wrapped in a cocoon of bliss. My mind has concocted a near-perfect life, worked through the rage and grief and the at-sea-ness of it all, I have gone into myself and am coming out again in a foreign but familiar place. Can I die of happiness? This is not real.

This feeling of lying in my lover's arms... perhaps they are treating me with sand baths, immersing me in the magic of the Sahara, the desert is my lover.

How lucky it stung my finger after I'd brushed it away, how lucky it hadn't stung me in the heart.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Infinitely nonchalant

Traveling to another province has a postapocalyptic vibe. You see everyone wearing masks and you wonder what happened here. And then you realize that it's the same as at home, and you wonder why you thought it would be different.

My mother's basement has yielded up all its dead bodies — its yearbooks and Polaroids, record albums and memorabilia, documenting lives we'd forgotten we lived.

I find an ad mounted on plexiglass (the germ of an art project?). I can't decide if the colours have faded or if time has emboldened them.   

I wish Café Blasé were a real place, where everyone wears creamy pastels and has big 80s hair. A place where copywriters gather to pool their adjectives. An utterly worldly, other-worldly place. As if one day, we wake up fresh as daisies and collectively decide to stop caring. And we look beautiful as we go about it.

Yesterday morning I stepped out of the chaos of the house to go for a walk and get a coffee. Stupid town where pedestrians are looked upon as freaks and the only coffee option is Tim Hortons or Starbucks. I haven't lived here in 37 years. I don't think I'll miss it.

I haven't cracked a book in over four days, since before the long drive. I'm currently not reading Ottessa Moshfegh's Death in Her Hands.

Reading was different, of course. I liked books. Books were quiet. They wouldn't scream in my face or get offended if I gave up on them. If I didn't like what I read, I could throw the book across the room. I could burn it in my fireplace. I could rip out the pages and use them to blow my nose, or in the bathroom. I never did any of that, of course — most of the books I read came from the library. When I didn't like something, I just shut the book and put it on the table by the door, spine facing the wall so that I wouldn't have to look at it again. There was great satisfaction in shoving a bad book through the return slot and hearing splat against the other books in the bin on the other side of the librarian's desk. "You can just hand that to me, " the librarian said. Oh no, I liked to shove it through. It made me feel powerful.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The basement of joy

We're packing up my mother's house to move her to Montreal. I'm finding joy scattered throughout her basement. 

  • My father's typewriter (deceased)
  • A nugget of fool's gold
  • A box full of Polaroids my brother (deceased) took while bored, drunk, and/or inspired
  • The album I loved that I thought he'd sold
  • Several books to learn German
  • A note from my cousin (deceased, age 36) to tell me about the Smiths and his turntable

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Music will still do to people what it does to us now

"Songs do not change the world," declares Jasper. "People do. People pass laws, riot, hear God and act accordingly. People invent, kill, make babies, start wars."
Here's a novel that's mostly fun, if a little long (what is it with men shamelessly throwing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of their excess verbosity upon you?). Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell, is the name of a fictitious British band in the late 1960s, fusion folk psychedelic rock 'n' roll, their struggles and adventures.
"Songs like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they'll land? Or what they'll bring?" [...] "Where will these song-seeds land? It's the Parable of the Sower. Often, usually, they'd land on barren soil and not take root. But sometimes, they land in a mind that is ready. Is fertile. What happens then? Feelings and ideas happen. Joy, solace, sympathy. Assurance. Cathartic sorrow. The idea that life could be, should be, better than this. An invitation to slip you into somebody else's skin for a little while. If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world."
We get to know three of the band members quite intimately, while the drummer remains aloof. Each of them standouts in their fields, the manager brought them together with the goal of forming a genre-spanning supergroup. So it was a little less than organic, but on the whole, they're hardworking, decent people who make respectably good music; they pay some dues but find some level of success. And they at times succumb to the lifestyle excesses that come with the job.

The guitarist's story thread veers off into the paranormal. This makes me roll my eyes a little, even if I can't turn the pages fast enough; it's also classic Mitchell territory and fodder for late-night weed-fueled conversations about life, the universe, and everything.

The characters do not get equal airtime, and this felt unbalanced to me. The manager also stars in a story a two, but it's impossible to ignore the cameos. David Bowie, Brian Jones, Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, Janis Joplin, and others. Gimmicky to the point of tiresome. It irked me that Cohen mentions Toronto but not Montreal. 
"Once, I took the elevator up there." Leonard nods at the Empire State Building. "I looked over Manhattan and was seized by an absurd desire to take it. To own it. Do we write songs as a substitute for possession?" 

"I write songs to discover what I want to say," says Elf. 

"I write 'em 'cause I just bloody love it," says Dean. 

"Maybe you're the purest artist here," remarks Lenny.
Cue music. It just feels a little cheap.

Although, I thoroughly enjoyed the extended scenes with Francis Bacon, one of a few non-musicians on the London scene at the time to make their way into this novel, but likely I responded to that only because he's been a topic of conversation around here lately, his art grim and eerie and visceral. His art is not on stage here, only his lifestyle.

These walk-on parts add nothing to the story. But in a sense, they are the story. This is Mitchell's love letter to a bygone era of music that I can only assume played a significant role in shaping him.
"In fifty years," said Jasper, "or five hundred, or five thousand, music will still do to people what it does to us now. That's my prediction."
So, what does it do to us now? Music is our balm, our panacea. It can encircle you with your people, it can shut out the entire world. I think it is used more often as a distraction than as a connection. It blares everywhere, but who really listens? 
Hundreds of people pass by. Reality erases itself as it rerecords itself, Elf thinks. Time is the Great Forgetter. She gets her notebook from her handbag and writes, Memories are unreliable . . . Art is memory made public. Time wins in the long run. Books turn to dust, negatives decay, records get worn out, civilisations burn. But as long as the art endures, a song or a view or a thought or a feeling someone once thought worth keeping is saved and stays shareable. Others can say, "I feel that too."
It transcends language and creates an illusion of oneness; one person responds to a beat, another to a melody, another to the story the lyrics tell, but it taps a harmony of being. It's much more complex than a shared feeling.

Utopia Avenue is not about music, it's about its creators. It explores the inspiration for the music — love, loss, drugs, schizophrenia, otherworldly experience. Sometime the art comes about because it's a better option than not trying to make art. Sometimes it pays the rent. Art can come equally from hard work or divine luck or happenstance.  

Super entertaining and full of flavor (though some not always to my taste), but a little short on substance. It took me to some unexpected places, dramatically speaking, and it was not a terrible way to spend midsummer evenings on my balcony. Even if I can reel off better band names in my sleep.


Sunday, August 02, 2020

I water her every day

About this time last summer, my espresso machine clogged up. After several failed attempts to clean it, I gave up the double espresso filter basket for dead, and resorted to drinking singles. This week, out of the blue, as if I was waking from a stupor, it occurs to me that I might find a replacement basket online without having to replace the entire machine. Twenty-four hours and twelve dollars later, I resume double-espresso mornings. It's a productive and creative week, and also a happy week. I can't help but wonder if all my breakdowns and tirades, my crises of faith in myself and in others, my angers and resentments, and even the desperate explorations into myself — all my emotions — were simply the result of not enough coffee.

It turns out that my tomato plant is cherry tomatoes after all — pluck one, pop it in your mouth, and it's gone. I'd wanted something more substantial. After some initial disappointment, I find I am able to harvest a couple dozen at once after all. This balcony garden yields meagre offerings, though I am grateful for the herbs. I will plant more and better next year.

After 141 days of working from home, I return to the office to retrieve some personal effects. I had a scheduled entry time, with specific instructions about arriving with my own PPE, not arriving by public transportation. I walk the eight kilometres; I arrive early and wait. No one is there to verify my protective gear. No one is there to make me sign a waiver or to attest to being symptom free. No one is there except one of the porters, who looks mildly shell-shocked, like working in isolation has driven him slightly mad — the graveyard shift in broad daylight, with only the ghosts of employees to clean up after.

I recover two pairs of shoes from the cloakroom. I pick my Fluevogs out from amid several dozen sneakers, all neatly lined up expecting their owners to step into them at the start of every workday. The last time I went to the office I was still wearing winter boots.

There are no laptops on the desks, but there are monitors and wires, pens and notepads. Sweaters on the backs of chairs swiveled as if abandoned mid conversation. I am reminded of the pictures of Chernobyl schoolrooms, only this feels more invisible, less organic.

There is an uprooted plant on the floor of the cafeteria. The weeping tree in our studio looks as if it might crumble if I stroke its leaves — it's cried itself dry. Remarkably, my happy bean plant still looks happy — its arms are straining toward the window and it's thirsty, but I swear it twitched for joy as I approached, my every step sending tremors through the bones of the building.

I sit the bean in my bag atop the reference books I came for, padded out with my hoodie. I grab the office-issue headphones. I empty my drawer of instant soup packets and handcream — I may need those.

The rest of the day feels weirdly decadent: hanging out with my sister on her terrace, window shopping, lunching out at an open-air market. Is life normal again? How come I didn't get the memo? Ich will in die Zukunft reisen.

At home, one of the indoor plants continues to have the company of mushrooms. One sprouts and dies, another takes its place. 

Since lockdown, there are now four novels I have read that I have not (yet?) written about here. I continue to read essays by Didion and stories by Carrington ("A Man in Love"):
We went through a door at the back and reached a room where there was a bed in which lay a woman, motionless and probably dead. It seemed to me that she must have been there a long time, for the bed was overgrown with grass.

"I water her every day," the greengrocer said thoughtfully. "For forty years I've been quite unable to tell whether she is alive or dead. She hasn't moved or spoken or eaten during that time. But, and this is the strange thing, she remains warm."
We are overgrown — by masks and gloves and viral effluvia, by our metaphorical mushrooms — but somehow we remain warm.  

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Into the second sky

The dirt floor was warm and damp. The space inside the pigsty glowed brightly, then crumbled into little pieces, like a mosaic. Swallows greeted me with a piercing "tweet-tweet" from their nest up in the rafters. I felt a tingling around my shoulder blades. Suddenly, I became as light as a scrap of foil. I rose up and sat on the pane of the little window which had been left slightly ajar. I flew out into the yard and circled over the orchard for a while. The sky, like the lid of my jar, was pierced with stars. Through them, a different kind of lining was showing. From up high, I could the whole village, with the brownish-green forest to the north and the white circles of the dolomite quarry to the east. I had almost broken through the lid, into the second sky, when suddenly — smack, smack — someone smacked me on my feverish cheeks.
Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg, is the story of someone who wants to leave even though she doesn't know it, yet ultimately she finds it impossible to leave.

Her small-town Poland does not belong to this world. The village of Hektary in particular seems to exist outside of time. (In this way it reminds of Tokarczuk's Primeval.)

Only when Wiola mentions that her father is humming Elvis tunes do I place the story in the twentieth century. Finally she relates an anecdote from 1981. Soon the village is awaiting the Popemobile. It's a time when Communism and Catholicism are equally strong but opposing forces. Outside the village, the Solidarity movement takes hold, and martial law is imposed. Wiola's adolescence is of little concern to anyone. Yet she comes of age all the same.

The whole place is wanting, for everything from jobs to pretty dresses, but through a naive girl's eyes, there is still magic. Even the paint set Wiola wins in a church raffle is missing a tube, but the names of the colours are like distant planets (it turns out they are past their expiry date).

Wiola's paintings are taken by the authorities to be deeply metaphorical. This is the thing about Eastern European Communism, everything is deeply metaphorical.

There seems to be no great joy in this place. But it's not that it's filled with melancholy either. It feels to me, and maybe to Wiola, like a puzzle to solve, a labyrinth of ritual and tradition, politics and religion, expectations and desires, to navigate and escape.

The sequel, Accommodations, is already in my stack.

Review

Excerpts 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

She's not a girl who misses much

"In June of this year patient experienced an attack of vertigo, nausea, and a feeling that she was going to pass out. A thorough medical evaluation elicited no positive findings..." 
[...] 
The patient to whom the report refers is me. The tests mentioned [...] were administered privately [...] in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the "attack of vertigo and nausea" mentioned in the first sentence and shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times "Woman of the Year." By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.
— from The White Album, by Joan Didion.

Mushroom and Child, by Seana Gavin.
I had my own not inappropriate response to various personal events at the close of 2015. We all have our seasons. But on a societal level, surely 2020 is the year when no event can surprise us, to which no response is unexpected or inappropriate.

My houseplant sprouts more beautiful mushrooms. I wonder if there's a way to preserve them before they shrivel back into the soil. And what of the spores?

I learn: Als ich wieder zu mir komme, bin ich in einem großen Raum. I wonder if I will wake up from this.

Last night I dreamt I was in a big room, and while I was working, a man was taking impressions, like mini casts or moulds, of small parts of my back, smaller than the palm of my hand, such that most impressions were near blank, with only a barely discernible curve. 

I am watching I Love Dick, based on Chris Kraus's novel, which I am considering rereading because I feel I have yet to glean all I can from it. I want to make art of sex and desire, in the things I write and sculpt and maybe in the way I live too. 

Didion writes of the illusion that "all human endeavor tends mystically west." I think about looking for god and whether the search has any value when I know I will find nothing, I will be confronted with more nothingness, the nothingness is endless. I know the destination, but I know this journey too, I've taken it before. I think of Don Draper while I hum the Beatles and think about the taglines I need to explore for a project at work this week.

There are lights on the exterior walkway in front of my west-facing apartment. As I draw the curtains one night, I feel sorry for my tomato plant there, it must not be able to sleep. The plant is five feet tall now and has fruited several dozen green globes. It must be so tired.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The life it's tolerable to live

Nobody dies of consumption anymore.

The wasting disease of frail women. The body consumes itself. Was it cured by the mass consumption of commercial goods? Feed the body; let the mind consume itself and waste away instead.

This week I feel compelled to buy things. With the exception of books, I tend to resist this kind of consumption. I am fully aware of what I need, and the position of those needs in the hierarchy, versus what I want.

One item is out of stock and I have a meltdown. I realize it is not an immediate need after all. 

I buy clay. I have 10 kg of clay delivered to my door because it is available. For months it has been out of stock, so now I jump at the opportunity, even though it is too hot to be sculpting now, I know it will be months before I unwrap the clay. I buy sculpting tools, a set of my very own. I will worry about paint and epoxy later. I mourn the pieces I left sitting in the arts centre since winter unfinished, unworked, untouched.

I buy frivolous things. A summer dress that will arrive long after the heatwave has passed. New curtains for the apartment I want to move away from. Ingredients for a recipe that I cannot make, because other required ingredients are unavailable in my neighbourhood and yet other of its ingredients I have already eaten.

The meditation guide leads us into our breath. We make space for our breath. She assures us we have space to accommodate whatever we need room for. Later, at yoga, the goal is to also make space. What is all the space for? I am already a TARDIS, bigger on the inside, the mind folds in on itself infinitely. How much space does breath take? Don't I have enough breath already?

Why do we need more space? Why must we make ourselves bigger? Is this what we're trying to do when we consume material goods? Are we afraid of wasting away? As if we need an external footprint as proof of the vastness of our interior lives. Or we fear that we lack interior lives and struggle to disguise the fact.

(On the 131st day of German lessons I learn: Größe ist alles.)

What if I compress all my interiority into the smallest space possible, all the angels of my consciousness shimmying to a pinprick point? Am I generating a black hole, feeding antimatter inside of me, inadvertently wasting away?

One friend admits to the struggle of lockdown, having to confront herself, to admit that she is a social creature, to reconstruct herself into a viable being.

Who are you when you have no society to reflect yourself back to yourself? Is this what we're doing when we consume and expand, clamouring to be seen? What kind of person will I be when I emerge? What kind of person do I want to be?

Everything is returning to normal but it's not normal at all. Another friend says we need to start somewhere. Do we?
Like all of us, our lives unfold with the tedium of the everyday and of the obvious things of the everyday: waking, sleeping, working, eating. loving, hearing, forgiving, shopping, always safe, everything always so gentle and slow and sad, the life we construct with such fragility, ordinary life, the life it's tolerable to live, but along with that there's always this shadow, this imbalance, this possibility. Chaos is always lying in wait for us, at any moment, because we are the one who bear it, always waiting, the secret hope that something is finally going to happen , that something is going to happen and propel us toward what we longed for, what we feared, what we never had the courage to name. The first look is merely the confirmation, a reflection in the bathroom in the morning, the first look is a mirror in which we see ourselves for the first time, unrecognizable, and in wonder we notice something that's incredibly beautiful in ourselves. Do you understand? I'm finding it hard, too, but I'm trying to explain it to you. But what for, you'll say? So that you will love me? Perhaps.

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.