Sunday, September 10, 2023

Everything tends towards attenuation

'What happened is the least of it. It's a novel, and once you've finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.' That isn't true, or rather, it's sometimes true, but one doesn't always forget what happened, not in a novel that almost everyone knew or knows, even those who have never read it, nor in reality when what happens is actually happening to us and is going to be our story, which could end one way or another with no novelist to decide and independent of anyone else..."

Since January, I have borrowed this book five times. On the latest occasion I renewed it a further two times. So it's been at my fingertips for twenty-one (nonconsecutive) weeks. I tried renewing it again yesterday, just in case, but somehow my request didn't register. But I managed to finish it. Finally I finished The Infatuations, by Javier Marías.

I tagged it to my library wishlist in May 2016. The first borrowing wasn't even, strictly speaking, intentional. I downloaded it as an extra, to bypass a glitch in downloading reserved library ebooks; it may as well be something I'm actually interested in reading, I thought.

I started reading it in February. Until the next waitlisted book became available. The Infatuations, it seemed, was always available. No harm in letting it expire if I could just check it out again. I read some more in April, but not in June. Some library worker might review my loan history and think I was infatuated, even obsessed, with this book. In July, I decided to read it in earnest and had to go back to the beginning.

Our protagonist is smitten with a couple, "the Perfect Couple," she knows by sight; they frequent the same café most mornings. Until one day she realizes she hasn't seen them for a while, and learns that the man had been brutally murdered.

"How easy it is for a person simply to vanish into thin air," I thought. "Someone only has to move jobs or house and you'll never know anything more about them, never see them again. All it takes is a change in work schedule. How fragile they are, these connections with people one knows only by sight."

María Dolz is infatuated with the couple, but is also a little in love with them singly, consumed by the details of the death and the imagined life of Miguel Devern, and fascinated by Luisa Alday, with whom she finally exchanges words.

Yes, there are people who cannot bear misfortune. Not because they're frivolous or empty-headed. They're not, of course, immune to grief, and they doubtless experience grief as intensely as anyone else. But they're designed to shake it off more quickly and without too much difficulty, as if they were simply incompatible with such states of mind. It's in their nature to be light-hearted and cheerful and they see no particular prestige in suffering, unlike most of the rest of boring humanity.

The couple had also noticed María as a regular; "the Prudent Young Woman" they called her. At Luisa's home, she meets Javier Díaz-Varela, and speculates about the nature of their relationship, but soon after she herself develops a sexual relationship with him, an infatuation. He in turn seems to have his sights on the widow of his best friend. 

What is fact, what is real, and what is true? What is fiction, what stories do we tell ourselves so we sleep better at night, what explanations are lazy or fantastical, what excuses result from obscure psychological motivations?

In the end, everything tends towards attenuation, sometimes little by little and thanks to great effort and willpower on our part; sometimes with unexpected speed and contrary to our will, while we struggle in vain to keep faces from fading and paling into nothing, and deeds and words from becoming blurred objects that drift about in our memory with the same scant value as those we've read about in novels or seen and heard in films: we don't really care what happen in books and films and forget about them once they're over, although, as Díaz-Varela has said when he spoke to me about Colonel Chabert, they do have the ability to show us what we don't know and what doesn't happen. When someone tells us something, it always seems like a fiction, because we don’t know the story at first hand and can’t be sure it happened, however much we are assured that the story is a true one, not an invention, but real. At any rate, it forms part of the hazy universe of narratives, with their blind spots and contradictions and obscurities and mistakes, all surrounded and encircled by shadows or darkness, however hard they strive to be exhaustive and diaphanous, because they are incapable of achieving either of those qualities.

I think about my various infatuations, how some linger, vanish slowly, others stop suddenly, with no consistency of logic. I think about the boy from the bookshop who used to come buy coffee from me every day at the bakery the summer I was eighteen, until one day I stopped working there and he was gone forever.

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Silicone mould of complex 3D object

Woman, closed, or enclosed. Encircling her own body. Pensive, head resting on knee.

I argue in favour of this pose because it's more upright than horizontal (Who has room to keep sculptures of reclining women? Sure, I sculpted a reclining woman, but then I mounted her in an upright position, it's a more effective use of space. Maybe it's me, maybe it has something to do with how tall I am or the space I live in or the precise warp in the lens that is my astigmatism, how I perceive verticality.), and therefore also more fully dimensional, almost a full 360 degrees, not a pose that has a front and no back (like the reclining woman, I had to rely on something other than a visual prompt to complete her back, her backside, the finished piece more a composite than a true depiction of the live model). 

I like that the pose is natural, not contorted. For some reason the art instructor favours extreme torsion, an expression of the artist's torment, she says, but I think it's because she wanted to be a dancer (and failed). Someone else suggests that if I want natural I should look in a mirror; we pay a live model precisely to take advantage of the poses they strike, muscled and flexed. He wants the model to to give him something, show him, inspire him. (But I, I think, am an artist; nothing need be given me, I find it, make something of it, I know where to look, how to look.) 

They want this young Vietnamese woman to embody their classical European sensibilities. Perhaps it was doomed to failure. 

I go big (well, bigger than usual), prep an armature. Determined to complete a full body, not a headless torso.

This model is different from the others, quiet, not a dancer or a circus performer, not body confident. An art student with thick ankles. I sense she is relieved that the agreed-upon pose allows her some modesty.

Suddenly I realize she is all limbs. I am looking at the space she enfolds. How do I sculpt this vast hollow she protects?

It's no longer an artistic question. It's a geometry problem.

I watch how others construct their mould, which planes they choose, which points of access. I don't want to be the first to fail, but I fail to understand how this mould will work.

Red clay woman encased in white silicone. The silicone sheathe around her thighs and buttocks is thin and loose, I had to leave it dry before I could apply another coat. In the meantime, the clay lost water, receded into itself, or gravity pulled the mass of still moist clay flesh away from her shroud.

Plaster shell designed in four parts. (This is the first time I create a mould that is more complex than a front and a back.) It's fragile, in places also too thin (Was a I rushed for time? Did I run out of plaster? Simply, did I lose my touch?), and a thin wedge snaps off, perhaps this small piece is expendable, but the major shell facet breaks in half as I pry it away. 

My blade leaves stab marks along her torso and thighs. I tug at the silicone, and it rips. Repeatedly. 

I fear I cannot save both the clay and the mould. The mould, thin and torn, may not be salvageable. If, on the other had, I preserve the clay, I can attempt another mould. But to repair the clay, I first must release it.

Neck fully broken, likely due to drying conditions, not mishandling. The head hangs on by its nervous system of scavenged electrical wires.

The left big toe comes away with the silicone. Her joints crumble, revealing the metallic understructure. 

The geometry problem becomes a matter of physics: how to remove a large silicone mass from between crossed limbs. I dislocate her left shoulder to release the solid white space that her arm describes beside her waist. 

The silicone can be reassembled, bonded with more silicone. It's messy. And if I choose to reinforce any patches, I risk the plaster shell not fitting snuggly. I think it may be usable, but only once.

I keep the clay moist, but eventually it will dry and crack over its too-robust skeleton, now too big. It would be impossible to remove this armature. (How can I keep the clay from drying and cracking?) I don't know how to add new clay to this old clay that will keep it together rather than pull it apart.

The air is too humid. Nothing will set, nothing will dry.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The lesson stone teaches

Well, the important thing's not to grasp the rule but to obey it.

Emma Donoghue has written so many books, and I hadn't read any of them. Then Haven came along, and well, monks! and plague!, so I thought it was time. And in the beginning, it was boring. But I plowed on, and still it was boring. And so it went. For fifty pages it bored me, and yet I read on. I near abandoned it, but for an unexpectedly long metro ride and nothing else to read.  

It was boring until it was infuriating, and then I couldn't stop.

Artt, the traveling scholar priest has a vison, an instruction to withdraw from the world, accompanied by two monks, and found a retreat. He gathers up his chosen ones, and with some meager provisions they set out by boat, leaving Ireland behind them.

Artt may be a respected priest, but he is a terrible human being. He prioritizes God and their worship and suffering over food and shelter. Artt's faith beggars belief. That he sacrifices his own life to God's will is his own business, but he seems determined to wear down his monks for some obscure dogma. 

What penance should he set himself to make satisfaction? He could roll in nettles, except that he's seen none here. Lie in cross-vigil? No, stand — that's harder. Or kneel — that's even better punishment. Artt crashes down, in the middle of the Plateau, and holds his arms straight out from his sides, the position of Jesus on the cross. He starts his prayers of contrition. He waits for discomfort to ripen into pain.

The man who masters himself rules a mighty kingdom. Pain is one way to do it. Those who love Christ, he grants permission to suffer for his sake. Pain's a privilege, a gift, a grace. [...] 

He'd like to level the botched high cross, first thing tomorrow, but he won't. Let it stand as a warning to himself and his monks, a sign of their imperfection, the crippling weight of it. That's the lesson stone teaches: even after it falls, it endures.

A revelation toward the end of the novel is, I think, a cheap trick to propel their circumstances to some kind of resolution. While I appreciate its necessity as a plot device, I think the characterization was hasty and deserved more breathing space, but that could've been an entirely different book. 

If you're looking to feed your hate on seventh-century Catholicism, this is the book for you.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Once the weasels show up, you're done for

"We meet at school, or work, or maybe a store. Wherever it is, there's just a random group of individuals, right? Within that group, you find your mate. If you were in a different group, you'd end up with a different mate, right? But we never dwell on that. We live our lives in the groups we have — in our cities, our countries, even thought we didn't choose them. Know what I mean? We like to tell ourselves it's love, that we're choosing our own partners. But in reality, we're just playing the cards we've been dealt."

Weasels in the Attic, by Hiroko Oyamada, is a charming triptych of stories, published separately in Japanese, but collected in this English translation. Although authored by a woman, the stories focus on a peculiarly male perspective on maturity, rescinding bachelorhood to settle down, marry, have children, move outside of the city. The order of things. The things we accept we're supposed to do. The man prefers to delay the inevitable; but the woman he chooses must be young and fertile.

It all feels a bit detached, or maybe just Japanese. Their social interactions depend on small talk, ritual, external signs of status. It's their unseen lives and dreams where things get interesting.

The exotic fish, the weasels, the meal preparation. Everything feels vaguely symbolic, as if there is real meaning in the decisions and actions we take. Pregnant with possibility, one might say, without ever giving birth — the fertility issues of the narrator and his wife form one unsubtle thread through these stories. 

At the time, he didn't know about the weasels [...] "Listen, when you think about buying a house, give it some real thought, okay? Once the weasels show up, you're done for. This never would have happened if we'd moved into one those boxy manufactured houses. Those things are airtight. A fifty-year-old house . . . What the hell was I thinking?"  

The weasels struck a chord: It put Nathaniel Rich in mind of his rat. I have a squirrel. I first heard the noises in December, around the solstice, when the cold set in. There was a scratching, and then a thumping. Frantic scrambling.

Its initial entry into the internal workings of the building was likely accidental. But now it's a known haven. I've seen the culprit; it moves with purpose. 

(Why did I choose a seventy-year-old building? Because it has character.)

The noises are random and more occasional now. It's the smell that has become predictable. Whenever the temperature rises above zero, a must wafts through the kitchen from the range hood. Probably old food scraps or nesting material. It's not entirely unpleasant — it's an organic odour, but at least it doesn't smell like death. I turn on the exhaust to reverse the direction.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Silence turns your attention away from yourself

How did silence get such a bad rap? Everybody these days things the world of their own voice, things that by raising that voice, they're doing something. Wrong. Nobody except you cares what you have to say. Silence does not equal complicity; silence equals humility and also practicality. Silence turns your attention away from yourself. Am I talking about the importance of listening? Yeah, sure, a little I suppose, but it's more inward looking, more personal than that. Just stop talking, stop posting, stop tweeting. Shut up. A lot opens up to you, to your mind and your senses, once you do that.

The narrator of Jonathan Dee's Sugar Street has as little social contact as possible, in the interest of self-preservation, but he is far from silent. There's a jarring meta moment about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrator admits to having always wanted to write a novel, and you think, there is no crime, he is not on the run, he is only disconnecting from the distractions of a banal existence so he can write, these are not his thoughts, they are his character's. 

Maybe he should just shut up. 

He's talking about radio when he says, "Something ugly is eventually released when you keep talking and talking with no idea who's listening to you." But I think the same principle applies to his output.

This novel came to my attention because it was long-listed for the 2023 Tournament of Books. For an overview of the setup, see Lionel Shriver's excellent write-up; the book starts much the way Hitchcock's Psycho does, which braces me for the potential stakes. The description, the mood, put me in mind of any number of Simenon stories, where a man walks out on his life. It felt almost fresh in its matter-of-factness, about crime, the state of the world, the inherent shittiness of people.

What a cesspool this world is. Democracy, capitalism, liberalism: all in the lurid end-stages of their own failure, yet we won't even try to imagine anything different, any other principle around which life might be organized: we would sooner choke each other to death, which is basically what we're doing.

I love my fiction with a dose of cynicism, but this book wore me down. Maybe because, still, I Need to Work, and rumours abound about mass layoffs. Maybe because it's cold and I'm tired. Maybe because he's right.

I'm not one of those people who Needs to Work. The whole culture of employment: what does it serve, really? It serves the cause of maintaining the world as it is. You're like a particle of blood circulating through the way things are, and the way things are is pretty fucking toxic, terrible, destructive, nasty, vicious, brutal, and corrosive. In exchange for some money? No. Not anymore. Pass.

So what is he doing here in the middle of nowhere, living a nothing life, without money, without people? What could have life been before for him to walk away from it?

He watches a public protest and wonders what these people were really doing.

"Well, at least we did something," everyone would feel afterward, when in practical terms they had done nothing, except to show themselves something about themselves that they wanted to see [...] so that they might later tell themselves a story about how they'd done everything they could.

Maybe that's what he's doing on Sugar Street, telling himself the same kind of story, that he did something, and that'll appease his his privileged white male conscience about the life he led until he left it.

The world is a ruined place, and that is our doing. Some of us much more that others. Still, it's a fantasy that you are somehow going to make this world better by adding something to it, bringing something to it. The only way to improve this world is to substract from it. Only subtract.

My Self in the making

I was engrossed by what I'd underlined. I read entire pages, struggling to recall the year I'd devoted to this book or that (1958, 1960, 1962, before marriage, after?). It wasn't the written conscience of the authors I was chasing after — they were often names I'd forgotten, aging pages, concepts by now no longer used in contemporary culture — but rather, my own conscience: What had seemed right to me in the past, my convictions, my thoughts, my Self in the making.

I wake up this morning and... (I woke up this morning!) think about opening my eyes, feeling the crusted remnants of sleep in the corners of my right eye and resisting the urge to bring my fingers to the socket. I feel the air glance across the slash of dried glue above my brow and wonder if I'll wince as the muscles start the work of pulling the lid upward. (It's almost a week since I slipped in the bathtub, the bruise shifting around my eye, starting to get comfortable.)

I lift my gaze slowly above the horizon of the foot of my bed, out through the sliding doors where the houses and alleyway drop away. A massive red orb hovers in the grey sky. (A bright drop of blood on a wide brushstroke of mottling.) This view won't last long. In the blink of an eye, the orb will dissolve in a flash of light. I love waking up to the sunrise here, slightly different every day.

I think to myself, I need to write today. For work. (Really, I need to produce something, to merit this paycheque.) But also for leisure. For pleasure. For me. At long last.

Oh, all the books I haven't written about.

I slide out of bed, make coffee. I can read the final four pages before I start work, the four pages I  couldn't keep my eyes open for last night, to find out how much they've resented each other, how little regard they had for each other, to find out what became of the cat.

You've finally made an unequivocal move. You didn't flinch before the judge's order, you did nothing to reclaim the fatherhood you kept invoking. You accepted that I alone would care for the children, disregarding the fact that they might need you. You've dumped their lives onto me, officially distancing them from your own. And because silence amounts to consent, these minors have been entrusted to me. Effective immediately. Bravo, you make me so proud of having loved you.

("Jerk.") It is a sad story, and it pains me to be reminded of certain chapters of my own life.

Ties, by Domenico Starnone, relates a trainwreck of a marriage, along the lines of Moravia's Contempt (oh, did I not write about that one?), but more direct, less internal, somehow breezier, they end up together after all, don't they? 

The story is told in three parts, from the perspectives of the wife, the husband, and the grown children, and by any of their accounts, there is very little redeemable about Aldo. Aldo's an immature, selfish prick, and Vanda has a harsh reality to contend with as a result. The mystery that pulls us through the novel is how they got back together, and why they stayed together. 

— I don't remember anything about us anymore.

I summoned the courage. I asked:

— About us when?

— Always: from the moment we met until today, until I'll die.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

That beautiful senseless morning

Whenever dawn caught him in motion, Gonzalo tended to feel like there was some kind of link between the birth of the light and the very fact of moving forward, as if the walker were somehow responsible for the dawn, or the other way around: as if the dawn generated the movement of feet over sidewalk. He was about to say this to Carla, but he wasn't sure he could explain it, he was afraid of getting tangled up, and he felt like anything he said could spoil that beautiful senseless morning.

We start the book believing the eponymous Chilean poet is Gonzalo, but later realize it could instead be Carla's son, Vicente. Or perhaps it is neither of them specifically, but rather a breed of poet, like the domestic shorthair, and the novel a study of the creature's history and environment, influences and influence.

(Why is there a cat on the cover anyway? Pru wants to write about the stray dogs Chile is overrun by, like the poets are dogs, and she is led by them, or maybe in fact poets are the opposite of dogs — tolerated, cared for, nurtured, loved. The cover illustration is credited to Laura Wächter and titled "Darkness," so it is clearly a portrait of the family pet, who did play a pivotal but not central role in the novel, so unless he's a poet, it's a surprising choice to feature him on the cover.) 

I was prepared to dislike Chilean Poet, by Alejandro Zambra, because it might not live up to Multiple Choice, or it would show it up for the gimmick it was and prove Zambra incapable of depth beyond gimmickry. Also, the opening pages felt very male, as if they could not have been written by anyone who hadn't been a teenage boy, and I thought, this may not be something I want to read right now.

But it's charming, that boy somehow charmed me, maybe the fact that he wanted to be a poet gave his character a layer of complexity, took the edge off the masculinity.

Usually Carla wanted to be where she was and who she was.

People say that's what happiness is — when you don't feel like you should be somewhere else, or someone else. A different person. Someone younger, older. Someone better.

It's a perfect and impossible idea, but still, during all those years, Carla generally wanted to be exactly were she was.

Chilean Poet is a love story, or two, or more. As an intergenerational drama, everyone's driven by different values, but they all simply want to get the most out of life. This novel is also a crash course in the country's literary tradition and the politics that accompany it.

"It's better to write than not to write. Poetry is subversive because it exposes you, tears you apart. You dare to distrust yourself. You dare to disobey. That's the idea, to disobey everyone. Disobey yourself, that's the most important thing. That's crucial. I don't know if I like my poems, but I know that if I hadn't written them I'd be dumber, more useless, more individualistic. I publish them because they're alive. I don't know if they're good, but they deserve to live."

"A lot of people say that poetry is useless."

"They're afraid of useless things. Everything has to have purpose. They hate pure creation, they're in love with corporations. They're afraid of solitude. They don't know how to be alone."

LitHub: Excerpt
Atlantic: A Fascinating Portrait of a Country at a Turning Point

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Where her body ends and the space around her begins

It's so much easier to know what Hashem wants for a man: not to be a woman. Unlike the blessing women say, in small print, the men's blessing appears in the regular, large typeface of the prayerbook. Blessed are You, Hashem, men say every day, Who did not make me a woman.

Raizl is having a hard time of things: she's18 years old and refusing dates set by the matchmaker, so her mother sends her to therapy, where we learn about her porn addiction. For a Hasidic Jewish family, she's already been granted a lot of liberties — allowed to work to pay for her dowry, allowed to pursue accounting at college after earning a scholarship, allowed to use a laptop for her studies, but she has a niggling, she yearns for something more, something porn has opened her eyes (legs, mouth, mind) to but cannot satisfy.

She is somewhat resentful of men, but eventually realizes that although men live more public lives, they are not more free. Men are also bound by ritual and obligation, by family and expectation, by god.

Shmutz, by Felicia Berliner, is funny. And sad. And more than meets the eye. And there's a lot of Yiddish in it, glossary included (but as with A Clockwork Orange, I didn't realize it until it was over).

It is harder for Raizl to wear jeans than to eat bacon. She finds her place among the outsiders at school, the goths who appreciate her Hasidic sense of style. She learns to sound less Yiddish. But she never wants to be someone else. It's never a question of her walking away from her constrained life. Raizl struggles to accept her world as it is and her place in it, to reconcile her ways of thinking and of being to what her god wants of her.

While there's a match on the horizon, she finally learns compassion, and maybe something like love, above all for herself.

She enjoys herself in the mirror. In her new marriage-date clothes. There is no skin showing, no collarbone and no wrists, just her face and hands. What kind of porn would that be, a video of a fully dressed woman, a long-sleeved blouse with a cotton sweater over it, not even a tight sweater, and a skirt down to her boots, not even high-heeled? The modesty-porn video. She is walking, her skirt moves, her shoulders understand where her body ends and the space around her begins. All the porn is in her face.

See also
You can judge 'Shmutz' by its cover
The under-celebrated erotic power of… hamantaschen (Felicia Berliner)
Yes, there’s a reason hamantaschen look like vaginas