Sunday, September 18, 2022

Is this what I want to be carrying in my body?

"In Japan, they say that when you can't sleep, you must be awake in someone else's dream."

Who is dreaming about me every night? Perhaps it is several people in rotation. Do they queue up to dream about me? Is it a cabal of dreamers conspiring to keep me from being rested, a kind of torture, to keep me restless? Is it true that they say this in Japan? Is it actually true, if you're dreaming, or not sleeping, in Japan? (This goes some way in explaining Haruki Murakami's novels.)

It might have something to do with the conservation of energy. Keeping the cosmos in balance.

The Wagers, by Sean Michaels, is about luck. Kind of. Luck is posited to be an actual physical substance, much like sand. Or pixie dust. Some people don't even know they have it. Others mine it and hoard it. 

After a run of luck, or coincidence, or statistics, Theo stumbles into a life outside the family grocery business. He lands a job as a processor. Luck, he learns, is all about beating the odds — in positive and negative ways. The  renegade band of weirdos across the street is determined to redistribute it.

"Processing is passive, procedural. It does not require independent thinking. At least it shouldn't! If you're thinking independently, you're doing it wrong."

[I think of all the processing I do. Events. Emotions. I think of it as active, intentional, conscious. Perhaps it's because I'm not sleeping. I should be processing my waking hours in my sleep.]

Theo definitely has some processing to do. His mother has just died. His niece won big at the track, allowing the family business to grow in different directions. He continues to flounder as a stand-up comic. And the woman he fell in love with went on retreat in the Sahara, and keeps delaying her return.

Lately I've been trying to retrain my fingers. I can still feel the habits when I lay them flat on the table: scroll, swipe. CTRL-C, CTRL-V. Open new tab. All this high-tech muscle memory, and none of it relevant to my yurt. It's useful knowledge, you'd say. Utility isn't everything, Theo. These days I ask myself questions like: Is this what I want to be carrying in my body? The itch to manipulate a web browser? To scroll and tap on a screen? I'd rather my body carried worthier impulses. What else could I carry in the places I carry smartphone swipes and copy-paste? How much more patience, self-knowledge, compassion?

So I'm retraining. You could do it too. Try. Lay your hands flat on the table, feel your fingers stretch. Palm. Knuckles. Skin. I tell my hands to forget what they aren't, and feel what they are. To feel what I am. Aches and scars, blood pulse, tremor. Fascia tautening with age. Our hands hold traces of everything we've ever touched, a thousand handshakes and caresses. Sometimes I think about my grandmother's hands. The way they felt when she clasped my hands in hers, the strength. Our bodies aren't just shapes we're wearing, clothes we put on. They're chronicles. They're wiser than we are.

[This is a good lesson and I know it to be true. I learned it while learning to sculpt clay; my fingers know things. It is good to be reminded, and to notice what they know. (I keep thinking I should go on retreat.)]

One of the charms of The Wagers is the city it roots itself in — Montreal. I swear I've shopped at Theo's store. I know those hills, and that water tower, and the cartoon logo of an elephant-turned-vacuum-cleaner. And it is magical.

We don't get to choose what we want, he thought. Only what we pursue.

Chapter 1
From Chapter 3

BOMB A Surfeit of Wondrous Things: Sean Michaels Interviewed by Tobias Carroll

Saturday, July 23, 2022

You want to be a positive nothing

But how does a person learn to see herself as nothing when she has already had so much trouble learning to see herself as something in the first place? [...] You have been a negative nothing, now you want to be a positive nothing. 

— from "New Year's Resolution," in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, by Lydia Davis.

He asks me about my summer, have I taken vacation. I mumble noncommittally. 

I feel the nitrile graze my lip as he positions his fingers inside my mouth. My lip reacts and I suppress my lip from reacting, it is like being touched without being touched, there is no tenderness but it is a gentle sensation.

I tell myself to relax the muscles of my face, around the corners of my mouth, and at my left temple. I wonder how good he is at reading faces. Can he read trepidation? Does he see pain? Has he learned to ignore it? Does he respond to it, does it influence his examination? Maybe he leans into it, tries to extrude it like a fleck of debris with his scaler.

I feel a twinge deep in the gum above an upper canine, I think I am reflexively wincing, I tell myself not to wince, I don't actually feel pain, I don't want him to see pain, there is no pain. It tickles a little.

The motor doesn't sound so loud, like I'm hearing everything through a woolen sock, only the sock is lining the inside of my head. 

I think about how like it is to the rotary tool I have to sand and finish my sculptures. He is polishing the enamel, and I am like stone, stone flesh with detached nerves, a soft core deep inside wondering how much can the body bear, when will the outer shell crack. But the vibrations are almost delicate — am I so inured, or so removed?


I receive in my inbox an excerpt from "Night Bakery" by Fabio Morábito. It begins thusly:

During my time in Berlin I just walked around and didn’t read a single book. In a way I replaced reading with walking.

I think about this for days, while walking cross my new neighbourhood. It's not mine yet, I haven't fully inhabited it. This is a temporary state. I am hovering above the world, above life, before alighting.

I think about all the nonreading and nonwriting, and this unsatisfying nonwalking, the wondering without concluding. I decide to order this book of stories — it takes what feels like hours to find this line again, to find the newsletter, to trace it to its source, to pinpoint the thing that is affecting me — but am dismayed to learn it will not be published till next spring. Time enough for me to write my own stories. I think all fiction is speculation.

I stumble across a list that looks like the bibliography of my writing project of the last two years. "The books in this list explore, inhabit, and investigate physical hunger." Is it physical?


One day I need to run an errand in the old neighbourhood. I have coffee before setting out, and browse headlines on my phone. I realize the NYRB fiction issue is out, and I think I should pick up a copy. (I want to be the kind of person who picks up the fiction issue. Do I want to be seen or known as the kind of person who picks up the fiction issue? I believe the being seen and being known are not important to me, it's the being that's important, but I can't be sure.) 

My errand becomes two errands. The original errand is crucial and time-sensitive, other people rely on its completion for their comfort and well-being, but the new errand born of impulse and frivolity becomes the day's focus.

I finally find a copy and am relieved that it feels right and familiar. This is the kind of person I am. (I know these books reviewed by authors of other books I know.)

I have not read it cover to cover. I skim the review of Batuman's Either/Or and check my hold at the library; it will easily be September before I read it, my daughter will have started university. (While on the library site, I realize I am #1 on 0 copies of a book that is not available and wonder how I was allowed to reserve it.)

I glance at the piece on Gainza'a Portrait of an Unknown Lady and hope that when I read it later it will enlighten me. What is it about Gainza's books, which I don't particularly enjoy, that inspire me to stubbornly poke and prod at things I don't understand, which — the poking and prodding — I also don't particularly enjoy?

And here, there is a review of Jacqueline Harpman's I Who Have Never Known Men, which title stops me in my tracks.

This mesmerizing oddity opens with a prefatory couple of pages about something—some sort of memoir or testimony—that the narrator has just finished writing:

I was gradually forgetting my story. At first, I shrugged, telling myself that it would be no great loss, since nothing had happened to me, but soon I was shocked by that thought. After all, if I was a human being, my story was as important as that of King Lear or of Prince Hamlet that William Shakespeare had taken the trouble to relate in detail.

I spend days thinking about the title, and thinking about what my story is, it's not one story, it's a multitude. I spend those same days reminding people around me, and myself, that while we may be the hero of our own life, we are not the centre of other people's universes. 

It's many more days before I read the review of Harpman's I Who Have Never Known Men and determine that I should read this novel, even while the review is less about the book than it is about the violent and mysterious age we find ourselves in, as Deborah Eisenberg puts it, "our current, very alarming moment." I find myself nodding. 

I am the kind of person who picks up a copy, thumbs through it, sets it aside, packs it in her bag to have something to read while waiting, opens it and refolds it, flips back to find that one sentence that caught her eye, thinks about making time to read it later. 


There is blood, as usual. I wonder how normal the bleeding is. I don't talk to people about it because I am ashamed. It is a moral shortcoming that I don't floss as often as I should.

Can he sense the tension in my jaw, or see the effects of my teeth clenching? He tells me I should take a vacation, I deserve it. 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The pain is part of the whole thing

The other evening I sit with a friend on his balcony having a glass of wine and sharing insights into our hearts and brains and those of our lovers and those whom we'd like to have as our lovers and those who will never be our lovers, and about what happens between flirtation and expectation and reality, and he said something to me about how quick we are (I mean, not us, but people in general) to back away, as soon as any perceived flaw becomes apparent, as soon as our exacting standards are snubbed by the actuality of the flawed human being before us, because they just aren't worth the effort. 

How easy it is to say no (or sometimes nothing at all), how much easier than compassion, than to accept someone's authentic self and engage in the exercise of knowing them, really knowing them, even especially biblically.

I think about how I could've said no to the man, a recent lover, whose behaviour I am now dissecting with my friend on his balcony. It's easy to say no, we have so many reasons to say no, I could've said no because of, well it doesn't matter the many reasons why, but the brave thing is to say yes, to be open to yes. I could've said no, but I said yes, but after some time he said no, I don't know why.

I don't tell my friend this, but I try to say yes as often as possible (unless it's to do with work), and for this I am proud of myself. Carpe diem and all that. The yes is almost always worth it. The yes is the good stuff, the stuff of deathbed reminiscences. Nothing is permanent, everything is temporary. Yes.

I come home late, a little drunk, but lighter, and smiling, and I fall into bed, too alive to be sleeping, I open The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I read something about something liminal as the character was trying and failing to fall asleep, while I am falling asleep, drifting between Davis's words, feeling the mostly natural chemicals coursing through my blood, feeling these words were written for me in this moment. 

And the next thing I know it's the end of the story, and there's another one, right there on the next page, "He's trying to break it down," and I urgently feel the need to break down what he's breaking down, and it reminds me of how I rationalize buying the expensive shoes, that really, if I wear them on most workdays during the shoulder seasons and then as my indoor shoes through winter, and they're quality shoes, I expect them to last, they're classic, I won't tire of them, every time I wear them will cost me barely a dollar to feel like a million bucks. And it reminds me also of Calvino, that story of the trajectory of the arrow. Only "Break It Down" is about the cost of a weekend getaway, no, it's longer than that, wait, is she a paid escort?, no, it's love, he's breaking down the relationship, he's breaking down the cost of love, he's breaking down, and oh my fucking god. 

I guess you get to a point where you look at that pain as if it were there in front of you three feet away lying in a box, an open box, in a window somewhere. It's hard and cold, like a bar of metal. You just look at it there and say, All right, I'll take it, I'll buy it. That's what it is. Because you know all about it before you even go into this thing. You know the pain is part of the whole thing. And it isn't that you can say afterwards the pleasure was greater than the pain and that's why would do it again. That has nothing to do with it. You can't measure it, because the pain comes after and it lasts longer. So the question really is, Why doesn't that pain make you say, I won't do it again? When the pain is so bad that you have to say that, but you don't.

Only, a lot of people don't remember that pain, they promptly convert it into armour, and they don't do it again, they've developed an aversion, it's not learned, it's conditioned. 

We forget how painful childbirth, for example, is, because nature wants to ensure we do it again, fulfill an evolutionary imperative. Love is an unknown compared to childbirth, it is not a process with defined stages, certainly it's not as obviously physical, love is nebulous. The experience of it rewires our brains and hardens our hearts in less predictable ways. In this way, many people learn to avoid love. I am learning to embrace it, over and over again, to go into the pain, therein lies the greatest pleasure.

I'd love to tell my friend about this story, it's brilliant.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The resourcefulness of rot, the wholeness of fungi

A forest floor, the Woodland villagers knew, is a living thing. Vast civilizations lay within the mosaic of dirt: hymenopteran labyrinths, rodential panic rooms, life-giving airways sculpted by the traffic of worms, hopeful spiders' hunting cabins, crash pads for nomadic beetles, trees shyly locking toes with one another. It was here that you'd find the resourcefulness of rot, the wholeness of fungi.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers, is about the unlikely encounter of a tea monk and a robot, centuries after the Awakening, when robots left the factories to venture into the wilderness.

Needless to say, Dex learns more about their own humanity from the wild-built Mosscap (assembled from old parts), who has undertaken an anthropological investigation into the needs of humans. In Mosscap's wisdom, they distinguish what they are doing from their reason for being.

Nothing has a purpose. The world simply is. [...] It is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don't need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.

Dex has a restless soul. They were tired of city-living when they sought a change of vocation. I'm just tired. Tired of feeling I have to justify myself. There are lessons here for me too.

[Even when I enjoy lazy days, I have to convince myself that I have earned them. Even when I have earned them, I often reframe my laziness in terms of accomplishment. Simple rest becomes an exercise in wellness, meditation, communion with nature — as if one must be active in one's passivity. Productivity is overrated. We should stop valuing it.]

As an example of solarpunk, this novella has a relatively positive outlook on our future, with humans coming to terms with their place in the world.

It is difficult for anyone born and raised in human infrastructure to truly internalize the fact that your view of the world is backward. Even if you fully know that you live in a natural world that existed before you and will continue long after, even if you know that the wilderness is the default state of things, and that nature is not something that only happens in carefully curated enclaves between towns, something that pops up in empty spaces if you ignore them for a while, even if you spend your whole life believing yourself to be deeply in touch with the ebb and flow, the cycle, the ecosystem as it actually is, you will still have trouble picturing an untouched world. You will still struggle to understand that human constructs are carved out and overlaid, that these are the places that are the in-between, not the other way around.


Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Where they show each other scars

In this humid, rusty place where women congregate, naked and wet, where they show each other scars beside their breasts and on the bellies, the bruises on their thighs, the imperfections on their backs, they all talk about misfortune. They complain about husbands, children, aging parents. They confess things without feeling guilty.

As I take in these losses, these tragedies, it occurs to me that the water in the pool isn't so clear after all. It reeks of grief, of heartache. It's contaminated. And after I get out I'm saturated by a vague sense of dread. All that suffering doesn't leak out like the water that travels into my ear now and then. It burrows into my soul, it wedges itself into every nook of my body.

— from Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I was traveling to see an old friend, and it was important for me to have some token of a gift for her, and it seemed appropriate to bring her (not for the first time) a book.

And suddenly I felt the weight of this responsibility. It should be meaningful and beautiful. One title sprang to mind immediately, but it required a special order, for which I didn't have enough time. I recalled something else, something lovely I'd read last year, and went out to buy a copy. I had it in my hands and opened it up at the beginning and realized how very wrong it was. In essence it might be perfect, but I also saw how the style could be off-putting and my friend would never read past the first page.

I always associate this friend with la dolce vita and Italian things. We met when she was late for school. Her dorm room was empty for a week, maybe two, as she had yet to return from Italy, having spent the summer term there. Rumours about her grew. She was a legend before we ever laid eyes on her. And when she arrived, she made an entrance. She looked Italian, spoke Italian, exuded an Italian fashion sensibility and an Italian passion. I think she wanted to be Italian. I think I wanted to be her.

Standing there in the bookshop I ran through a mental inventory of appropriate Italian literature, beyond what we'd already shared between us. My recent discoveries left me only with Moravia and Starnone, which while relevant to me, might not make sense to her, and could even be emotional landmines.

And so I landed on Jhumpa Lahiri, Starnone's translator, who shifted to writing in her non-primary language. But how do you gift a book you haven't read? (I'd read The Namesake and was lukewarm about it.) I had the length of the train ride to assess it. I could always change my mind.

It reads swiftly. It's meditative, a bit restless, a bit lonely. But it resonates, describing a period in the narrator's life that seemed to reflect my changing relationships with friends, family, work, lovers, myself. I believe my friend would see herself in it too.

One review eviscerates it, perceiving it to be a book of depression and despair. Clearly the reviewer has no understanding of what it is to be a woman of a certain age, where it is still the case that we spend a good deal of our life living for others, not ourselves. 

In a New York Times article, a critic asks, what did a Bengali-American find so liberating, so regenerating, in Rome and the Italian language? "Joy."

LARB: Familiar Strangers
The Rumpus: To Start Again in a Different Place

Sunday, June 19, 2022

A pleasure that's hard to describe

They say travel leads to the realization that one does not in fact exist.

So starts an auction lot description of resurfaced possessions and miscellaneous articles. Another lot of Amelia Earhart's belongings in Mariette Lydis's possession describes their encounter. When asked why she flies, Earhart replies, "To get away from myself."

I got away from myself the other weekend, to meet some friends for dinner in Ottawa. My last morning there I sat at a picnic table on the lawn of the admissions building where I went to university. I sat reading Portrait of an Unknown Lady, by Maria Gainza, when a young man asked if he could join me. Easier to roll a joint on the table surface than on a bench, he explained. He asked me about my book, and I told him about it in broad strokes. 
Characters with precisely wrought histories, linear psychologies, and coherent ways of behaving are one of literature's great fallacies. We have little and nothing: only what we are today, at a stretch what we did yesterday, and with luck what we're going to do tomorrow.

The truth is, I haven't particularly enjoyed reading Gainza's novels. I am, however, grateful for what they've opened my eyes to and made me think about.

And it was refreshing to hear this 21-year-old business student say with conviction that art is all about what it makes you feel, it doesn't matter if it's hanging on a gallery wall or valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars — it's personal. 

"It has a certain je ne sais quoi," Enriqueta would say, rubbing her hands together like a squirrel on the way to make mischief. "A pleasure that's hard to describe, no? Wars have been started, and homes broken, and careers ended just for this very feeling."

The book's Spanish title translates as The Black Light, and I think it is more fitting than the title under which it is published in English. The portrait promised to me is incomplete, and it's not clear who the subject is (it could credibly be the narrator herself, her mentor Enriqueta, the presumed forger Renée, or the original artist Mariette Lydis). The black light, though, speaks to the process of investigation and discovery. the process of authentication.

"Can a forgery not give as much pleasure as an original? Isn't there a point when fakes become more authentic than originals? And anyway," she added, "isn't the real scandal the market itself?"

Gainza's narrator issues certificates of authenticity for works of art. Her mentor, who introduced her to the business of art forgery, did not set her on the path to corruption, so much as reveal how far along it she had already gone. 

Regarding the artist: "Her portraits were not always of the prettiest daughter. In fact, she was said to prefer les jolies laides for the kind of poetic license they allowed, never the case with your stereotypical beauties." (A touch of wabi-sabi I can fully get behind.)

Figuras, Mariette Lydis, 1963.

The forger (certainly an artist in her own right): "Yes, she was intelligent, but not that coatrack kind of intelligence for just hanging ideas on; a crazier, more acute kind of intelligence."

We all make our deals with the devil.

This past week I ventured out to watch a kid play all 24 Paganini caprices, and as I marveled at his ease (although the energy required to maintain this composure was betrayed by his popping a string) and wondered at how different the coloration was from that of recordings by other artists I'd listened to at home, I came to the realization that the culture of music (and especially live music) is built on copies (even forgeries). We talk about an original Picasso in a way we would, could, never talk about an original Vivaldi. We may fetishize a particular performance, the market may value a certain pressing of a specific recording, but it's not because it's the original piece of music and all others are copies (though they may pale by comparison).

There's a great scene (among many) in Russian Doll, where 1982 Nadia as Nora walks into Crazy Eddie's and the televisions show a tv within a tv within a tv within... and then an infinite layering of Nadias and Noras.

It's called a video feedback loop. It's like standing in between two mirrors. See, the image is being reflected over and over, and you can't just point at one of the reflections and say "That one's the original." It's like the beginning of mankind.

All of these trains of thought bring me back to my relationship to sculpture.

It took me some years as a professional writer and editor to fully grasp that you have to know the rules before you can break them. I have been slow to appreciate how this extends across artforms. My understanding of music and painting, for example, was naive and underdeveloped such that I thought their magic relied on, well, magic. I thought musical or painterly talent and expression came from one's soul.

So it is with some resistance that I break from "creativity," my hands in the mud, and consider technique. I learned how to create moulds of my sculptures and how to cast them. I didn't see the point, frankly. Why would I want reproductions of my singular art? I had no inclination to disperse copies as Christmas gifts.

The primary purpose of taking a mould, from a cynical standpoint, is to be able to replicate one's clay sculpture in a material like bronze, for which one can charge exorbitant amounts of money.

But. As my stone composite shed its silicone lining, emerged from its plaster shell, a new sculpture was born. I understand now that each copy is its own original. Different pigment. Different mounting. Different material. Different finish. It expresses something different poised atop a traditional marble-like column than it will when I pour it in liquid glass. 

I have learned that a mastery of technique allows artistry to flourish. As any violinist who dares to play Paganini. As any art forger whose work hangs in place of the original.

Gainza's novel blurred together so many different identities, past and present, history and fiction. Mariette Lydis was real. Borges was real. Adolfo Bioy Casares, also real. At the end of the day, most days, I think about making progress in art, and progress in love. I think about fireworks.

They shared a hedonistic kind of love that wasn't passion but something calmer. In their official loves, it was different. 'Progress in love' — according to Wilcock — 'consists of successively finding people who are like gunshots, line cannon blasts, like nitroglycerine cartridges, like torpedoes, like atomic bombs, and, finally, like hydrogen bombs.' Oscar showed up at Montes de Oca one day, and it was fireworks.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Substance and essence

Dear Diary, It's been seven weeks since my last confession. I feel spent. Everything is good, but nothing is right.

Once swallowed the piece of paper lodges in her oesophagus near her heart. Saliva-soaked. The specially prepared black ink dissolves slowly now, the letters losing their shapes. Within the human body, the word splits in two: substance and essence. When the former goes, the latter, formlessly abiding, may be absorbed into the body's tissues, since essences always seek carriers in matter — even if this is to be the cause of many misfortunes.

Thus begins The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk. This is the first book I opened in my new home. 

I have opened many books since then. I am unfocused.

I still put store by the significance of firsts. I considered which friends I would first welcome here, the first champagne we would drink, the energy that would fill this space. The first painting I would hang. I am sentimental about the first lover I have yet to bring to this home.

I harbour other superstitions. (Since when am I such a fool?) The keys were a sign. As I pulled them from my purse that first time, the chain pulled apart, keys clattered, and the Moroccan tassel fluttered to the floor. I don't know how I got in that first day. I have a million and five keys for this house, and only two of them fit one of the locks. Later that first day, I managed to snap the key to the basement door, still in its lock.

I have been beset by a million and five setbacks — mortgage complications, tax miscalculations, delivery delays, lost shipments, miscommunications. Any one of them is a barely perceptible glitch, but together they cause interference, a disruption; they give cause to take pause, reconsider the foundations. 

I am reading, but very little. I have cast some sculptures and am eager to clear a studiospace. I am on an 824-day streak of German lessons, but my heart is no longer in it. I still work too much. I still engage in real estate porn, to reassure myself that I made the right decision. 

Things that are missing:

  • My hotel-brand bathrobe, I'm sure I saw it amid the bagged blankets, but they're essentially all unpacked now
  • The spare set of stone-carving tools, the ones in the cloth roll-up bag that I thought I could take to workshop because it wouldn't matter if any of them were inadvertently borrowed (maybe I took them that one day, maybe they were borrowed)
  • A mailing tube containing Polish poster art, including one for Verdi's Makbet, or was it Don Giovanni, I remember pulling them out of the closet in the old place, now I have wall space for them and they're nowhere, was the tube thrown out with the disassembled boxes 
  • Romance, the ordinary kind, it doesn't have to be literary or heroic  

I still feel like an essence not fully settled into its carrier, perhaps because the carrier is not clearly defined. Remnants of the previous owner linger; my essence is confused by them, grazes past them, hesitates before setting down.

This home is vast and drafty and quirky, it needs my labour and love.