Sunday, January 09, 2022

We can't feel two things at once

The other night I dream I am in Mexico again, but on the mainland, gently drifting, grazing the treetops. I think I am holding something over my head, maybe a sheet, acting like a glider. I watch the jaguar slink across the open field and think, I shouldn't set down in this tree, let me go a bit further, but I'm not afraid, I am just being sensible. I finally alight outside a hotel that is not a hotel. Someone invites me inside, and I stand on the terrace, watching an older couple lounging in the infinity pool, the milky water spilling seemingly onto these plains of Mexico where somewhere my jaguar is watching out for me, is that me in the pool in the milky future with my longtime lover? I can feel the jaguar prowling (for what?), but I know it will not hurt me.

What would my psychotherapist say?

I need to exercise my patience, I'm out of practice. Steady as she goes.

The sickness is sweeping the city. Friends are sick. Colleagues are sick. We are living in lockdown again, under curfew. There are lineups for liquor and groceries again. There appears to be a shortage of catfood, or maybe I live in a neighbourhood with a high-density cat population that is suddenly demanding more substantial sustenance. 

Practice gratitude. "Research has shown that gratitude displaces anxiety: We can't feel two things at once."

I can't read. I can't sculpt. Television bores me. I don't want to work. I tire easily. I play video games for hours on end. My eyes are tired. It's been 673 straight days of German lessons. Isabella, deine Arbeit ist zu stressig, mach Urlaub. My skin is peeling, I'm shedding the sun of Mexico, but I keep silver coral wrapped around my fingers, a new talisman. I go for short walks and smoke illegal menthol cigarettes.

I do research for work. The future is not only useless, it's expensive, I learn. 

And this is why the future, be it NFTs or Memoji or the howling existential horror of the Metaverse, looks so ugly and boring: it reflects the stunted inner lives of the finance and technology professionals who produced it.

The problem then, apart from the howling existential horror of the Metaverse: how to not be stunted, how to unstunt oneself, how to imagine something beautiful and interesting.

I am trying to understand, and embrace, Massive Change. In how I work and in how I live. In how I interact with people and with the world. Everything is a design problem. Design thinking leads by inspiration. It demands the clarity and courage of its convictions. Design is driven by purpose.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Like most humans, she had a single heart

The sense of space as a controlled substance is overpowering, except you don't know where it's going to take you.

The Silk Road is magic. I don't understand how any of it works, and I'm sure there are more elements in play than I suspect, but it fills me with awe and joy.

Next she took someone's head and lifted it like it wasn't part of a human body, a cabbage or a planet or the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is.

The book opens in the labyrinth, one woman guiding bodies on yoga mats in Savasana (corpse pose).

This was the most challenging of the poses if you took into account the fact that the room was filled with people who knew the world was coming to an end and that if we worked at it hard enough we would never die.

One of them dies (murder?). Is it a tenth body, or one of the nine "named" persons (the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Botanist, the Keeper, the Topologist, the Geographer, the Iceman, and the Cook, and Jee Moon)? Is it someone from their past — Mother, Father, or are they already dead long ago? Is it someone they even know at all? 

It's a labyrinth of memory and shared consciousness. While the environs seem to shift from a settlement in the icy lands of caribou to Le Puy-en-Velay and Aubrac, the journey is primarily interior, some spiritual plane on which they remember and commune, though some things they decided to forget. All the paths are marked by cairns.

How is it possible for the solid objects around us to melt away into the past, and for a new order of objects to emerge mysteriously from the future?

I would make the case that the entire novel takes place on their yoga mats, always in the labyrinth, a spiritual investigation, processing life and birth and death and tragedy and love and desire and heartbreak, the mystery of being, and being one with it all.

The journey along the Silk Road is not one from their memory; it is a metaphor of the human condition, travelled "for everything strange or unknown, a variety of alien gods and ideas, and unbounded universe with nothing outside it, the dung-covered eggs of the silkworm." "Everyone was using it, for commerce or as a means of escape." "What everyone had in common was lack of destination."

They had been children together — siblings, it seems. (And Jee Moon, an outsider but always present.) They squabble like children. But they are like some cosmic beings, inhabiting tubes of skin and learning to tell one another apart. One of them has two hearts. One of them may not have a heart. One of them (the Archivist?) will have the black spot on the skin, a sign of the sickness.

The Topologist visits a shrine to Saint Roch. Saint Roch was also their elementary school. There are many dogs (and fleas), and the Plague (are all plagues so much the same?).

Everyone was heading north, the sickness not having arrived there yet. Everyone knew it was a physical condition — they were that knowledgeable — but the extent of what they knew was compromised by exposure to a glut of information and rumor, making it difficult to predict anything.

The Geographer has a husband, and a child. The Cook is a widower. The Topologist met the Swede. The Astronomer fell for Jee Moon. A long time ago, the Archivist fell in love with a poet.

We all had our love stories. This was true even for the Archivist, whose misfortune it had been to fall in love as a child with a girl who grew up to be a famous poet. Like most humans, she had a single heart, and that heart had room in it for only one person — that person being herself. The spirit of the age was compounded of arrogance and inattention, the predominant humor begotten of the chylus, cold and moist.

A game of Hangman: Eight letters, two Es and an X at the end. Sardines. Tarot cards.

While she walked, the Topologist felt herself becoming aroused. It was as if whatever lay beneath her had its attention fixed amorously on the cleft between her legs. She felt like she was naked from the waist down, hungrily observed and getting wet, her breath coming faster and faster. 

Walking can do that, said the Keeper. It's perfectly normal. She was trying to be reassuring, like a mother.

Sphagnum subnitens, said the Iceman. Glittering sphagnum. All it thinks about is sex.

This novel is a puzzle I can't solve, and it's surprising and gorgeous. Expansive, boundless.

Excerpts
Fairy Tale Review
Granta 

Reviews
LARB: Journey to Death: On Kathryn Davis’s "The Silk Road"
Slate: My Soul Is Going on a Trip

Monday, December 27, 2021

They had a passion for oysters

"People want conjugal love, Rachel, because it brings them well-being, a certain peace. It's a predictable love since they expect it, and they expect it for precise reasons. A bit boring, like everything predictable. Passionate love, on the other had, is linked to a sudden emergence. It disturbs order, it surprises. There is a third category. Less well known, I'll call it the inevitable encounter. It reaches an extreme intensity, and it very well might not happen. It doesn't occur in most lives. People don't seek it, it doesn't suddenly emerge either. It appears. When it's present, one is struck by its self-evidence. Its particular characteristic is that it is experienced with people whose existence one hasn't imagined or that one thought never to know. The inevitable encounter is unpredictable, incongruous, it doesn't blend with a reasonable life. But its nature is so entirely other that it does not perturb social order, since it escapes from it."

An Impossible Love, by Christine Angot, is strange and annoying.

The title is confusing. Which love are we talking about, and what about it is so impossible? The novel starts off telling the love story of the narrator's parents, which is doomed early on. But the impossibility may lie between Christine (the narrator) and her mother Rachel. Or in the difficult relationship with her mostly absent father.

His family had lived in Paris for generations, in the seventeenth arrondissement, near Parc Monceau; they came from Normandy. In Paris, many had been doctors. They were curious about the world, they had a passion for oysters.

Classism abounds, with Rachel and later Christine aspiring to the kind of life Pierre represented. Everyone is rather selfish and unworthy. Christine was born out of wedlock; while Rachel's outlook seemed rather modern, Pierre's refusal to officially recognize his daughter felt outdated (though likely in keeping with the French laws of the time). This is a suspected work of autofiction; Angot was born in 1959. 

I was surprised to learn that Angot is a Prix Médicis laureate. I'm typically very tolerant of unlikeable narrators and other characters, but in this case it greatly diminished the sympathy Christine deserves, ruining the intended effect of the direction the plot takes. The author is clearly familiar with psychoanalytic techniques, and the narrator as a grown woman has a lot of baggage to unpack. An Impossible Love was unsubtle in reminding this reader, repeatedly and from early on, that this is a book about Christine, not her parents.  

She didn't have the banal feeling of being filled, but of being annihilated, emptied of her personality, reduced to dust.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

When you and your life's happiness part ways

"I will never do that again," she said. "Be the one who loves less."

26 Knots, by Bindu Suresh, is a love story, is several love stories, several different kinds of love, wrenched by obsession and heartache.

People walk into and out of our lives all the time. Sometimes they stay awhile. Sometimes this time you spend together is the last time. Sometimes people come back after long absences, if only fleetingly.

I was happy to discover a new English-language bookstore in the neighbourhood. It felt of warmth and kindness and love for books. I scanned every fiction shelf, smiling with approval as I recognized most titles, some favourites, some classics. I imagine, "Can I help you find something?" "Yes, I've read all of these." 

A young man comes in, a screenwriter, settles by the counter to chat with the shop assistant, about the metaverse and The Green Knight, while I land on a slim volume, an iconic Montreal view on its cover.

In English, Araceli was vibrant and cheerful; in Spanish, she was soft, maternal, with a voice from the undulating Córdoban hills; in French, she was endearingly wide-eyed and lost, tripping over her words as if they were large obstacles. Adrien liked her most, but knew her least, in his mother tongue.

The knots are drama and tragedy: language, love, longing, infidelity, pregnancy, childbirth, loneliness, your mother, your father, your past, your expectations. 

I read 26 Knots, this quintessentially Montreal story, on an island thousands of kilometres away from the island I call home. I watched The Green Knight on the flight here. I think about duty and love and tests of valour. What is it I quest for. What is foretold and what is mutable. Am I moving away from something, or moving toward something else. What sticks heavy on my heart. How easily I am led astray from what matters. When is the quest over. When is it over.

I stayed with a man for too many years, for most of which he told me he loved me more. More than yesterday? More than chocolate? More than I love you? As much as I wanted to challenge his statement, I knew that doing so might prove a point better left ambiguous. Whether or not he did, he believed he did. As I believed I loved him better. But love is not a contest. And finally I know my own mind, and I accept that it is better to love than to be loved, and I love how I can.

I think there are more than knots in the muscle of my heart that I have yet to resolve.

And then, the biggest question of all: when you and your life's happiness part ways at a forked path, when do you admit the mistake and turn back, and when do you set yourself belligerently forward?

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The vastness of confinement

I remember what's not here. An island of men who are searching for beauty and find it only in the vastness of confinement. I admit I'm sadistic. I'm always saying that nothing is possible without the soul, just as no image is possible without its other. But I have no other. I have no soul. A young lover once promised to write the fatal sign on my womb and take me away with him to fertile lands. What became of him? That night is a hundred thousand nights ago and that lover is lost. I'm still waiting for him to appear among the smoky spirals that emerge from my mouth. I've had a series of smells burnt into me: a pair of hands in the twilight, the soft skin of somebody's back, a bewitched throat. Then it was over, and they were all gone. I'm still a witch who's waiting to cast spells. Our neighbour died of a heroin overdose with his baby in his arms. The woman in the house with the boarded-up windows suffocated on the smoke of her own fire. The animals die out before reproducing. That's what death looks like in these parts. Whereas my sun-soaked nights on the island were filled with stimulating chats, daydreams, furious kisses. Whereas in those golden years of my life, everything was an ecstasy of sexual reawakening. A wave of antipathy to the world wells up from deep within me. I don't know what these animals are up to. They're forming a circle around me and watching me, dumbfounded, their jaws practically unhinged from their bodies. I fall to my knees before them. If a local were to pass by now, basket in hand, gathering mushrooms and berries, they'd think this was some kind of pagan ritual.

I ordered this book for myself in the early pandemic days, I'd read a review, maybe this one, and I thought, perfect, a book about a woman who's dying inside, a victim(?) of all-consuming lust, that's relatable, I wonder how she takes it out on her world, does she interact with her world?, but by the time the book arrived it seemed like too heavy a read, maybe I'd found a way to cope with objectless lust by then, and later I was too happy, then too fragile, but lately was just right for it.

Reading Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz, is a descent into the maelstrom.

Not even digging a hole, a pit, would be enough. It needs to be thrown into the desert and devoured by wild beasts. Desire, that is.

The jacket copy goes like this:

In a forgotten patch of French countryside, a woman is battling her demons – embracing exclusion yet wanting to belong, craving freedom whilst feeling trapped, yearning for family life but at the same time wanting to burn the entire house down. 

That seemed to encapsulate lockdown and all the contradictory impulses it elicited, I would battle demons, I didn't need to be trapped in a marriage or by responsibility to small child (again!). Trapped at home, home was the entire world, and I would tear it down around me. 

These people are going to make me lose it. I wish I had Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon for neighbours; then my son could grow up and develop intellectually by learning that there's more to the world I brought him into than opening old skylights you can't see out of anyway. As soon as all the others had escaped to their rooms to digest their meals, I heard my father-in-law cutting the grass beneath the snow with his new green tractor and thought that if I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I'd do it.

(All figurative artists, I note. Why? Because the body, I guess. And the physicality of Glenn's art too.)

I have to say, though, that there's nothing to ground this story in the countryside of France. I believe there may have been a vineyard, possibly a road to Switzerland (my memory is hazy). Someone smokes a Gauloise. A reference to the punishment for adultery in medieval France. By this evidence, the novel could be set in my hometown. So it irks me that this "forgotten patch of French countryside" is mentioned in every review, adding colour where none is needed. We know she is a foreigner (I forget how we know, but we know, and we sense it firmly).

I woke up when she crashed through the glass, a scene worth the price of admission, I picture ribbons of blood. I need to start paying attention. "Everything is one big distortion." The fights and the jealousy, the pretense and resentments.

This is a madwoman's story (that's what it was like to be a new mother). A few times it shifts perspective to that of her lover, only now I wonder if it might be his perspective as imagined by her. By the end, I felt like things were told in the wrong order. No one dies, not really. Well, a little. Crazy, desperate, sad.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

All clean lines and precise movement

I was tipsy, yes, but also I was grace itself. There is, below the surface of every conversation in which intimacies are shared, an erotic current. Sometime this current is so hot it all but boils and other times it's barely lukewarm, hardly noticeable, but always the current is present, if only you plunge your hands just an inch or two farther down in the water. This is regardless of the gender of the people involved, of their sexual orientations. This is the natural outcome of disclosure, for to disclose is to reveal, to bring out into the open what was previously hidden. And that unwrapping, that denuding, is always, inevitably sensual. Nothing binds two people like sharing a secret.

I perch on a stool at the counter this morning, large cappuccino at hand, I'll have to go out this afternoon to get milk, there's none left for tomorrow, determined to blog about the book I finished reading earlier this week, not the the one I finished in bed this morning though it's clearer in my head, a few German lessons first (a 631-day streak), I'll revisit the library book, after all I have a time constraint, it'll vanish into the ether within a few days.

My sister meanwhile messages to say Public Health just called her, she has to get tested. It's been less than two weeks since she returned from South Africa. Did she bring omicron with her, could there be a more ominous, more threatening name for a variant, chronic, chronos, it's only a matter of time, it's a time disease, one day stretches beyond capacity, one year mutates into the next. Did she bring omicron into my home, is it on my clothes or on my cat, has it found its way into my suitcase, can I still leave for Mexico in a couple of weeks?

It's not over, I knew it wasn't over, we're all pretending life is fine, it's almost normal again, it's not. I went into the office for a day this week, my first in-office workday since March 2020, with people I remember once having had lunch with, but this day the lineup for lunch was crushing. Protocols have eased. A quick flash of a completed registration, on my honour I have no symptoms, once seated at their desk people remove their masks and neglect to put them on again. I enter a meeting room and can feel the body heat of the people who left moments beforehand. By 4 o'clock the beer taps are open, there are no open plates of snacks but there are individual serving-size chip packets, the cafeteria could be the hottest nightclub in town, I literally squeeze through bodies to get to my desk and I momentarily consider staying longer, working at my desk to wait for the crowd to thin out before I have to make my way through the drunken bodies again to exit the building.

Things are not fine.

I feel overstimulated. On the commute home, I am unable to read. Someone else is reading You Are Not Your Brain. I mull over how ridiculous this statement is. Of course I am my brain, and many other things too.

Being in the company of an exceptionally beautiful woman, all clean lines and precise movement, when I'm sober it makes me feel huge and grubby and spherical, but when I'm drunk, proximity to beauty, it's like being, myself, chosen.

I google some reviews, look at the passages I highlighted, I like to compare my thoughts to those of the published critics, did I get it right, did I read this correctly, do I understand the world the way I'm supposed to. 

Topics of Conversation, by Marina Popkey, reads more like a series of linked short stories than a novel. It took a few chapters for me to understand they were threaded together. There are no passages in the first half of the book for me to refer to. I remember highlighting plenty (well, some), but when the library loan was initially set to expire, I renewed it, without having tracked my notes.

There's a lot of aimlessness and dissatisfaction, and aimless dissatisfaction, I wonder what's the thing that made me what I am, the defining moment, the event that set the trajectory to this place. It could be many events. I connect the dots of my memories.

I love that Popkey includes a list of “Works (Not) Cited,” I keep my own list of works not cited for the book not written that I'm working on. It thrills me to find so much overlap, I guess I shouldn't be surprised, after all I'm a woman, mother, daughter, feminist, single, grappling with love and desire and guilt and other people's ideas of success and how angry I am about what it means to be a woman here and now, despite how much I love being me, and I still don't know what I want from life or men, I don't know how I got here. I'm disappointed to learn that the idea for such a list of works was borrowed from Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, whose novel Savage Tongues I did not enjoy.

My sister calls to tell me Health Canada called, and they told her to tell me to get tested. They don't understand omicron. Can I still go to Mexico?

I pull up one of the reviews, I'm confused, it's about two books, this one (Topics of Conversation, by Marina Popkey) and the one I finished reading in bed this morning (Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz). How could they know?

"And Jeff told me, kept telling me, that he was going to leave his wife." Another shrug. "And I believed him. Though maybe also I knew he wouldn't because around this time I started riding subways out to the end of the line, subways and also escalators, riding them up and down and then up again. I liked being in motion."

Reviews

The White Review

The New York Review of Books: Wanting Wrong, by Anne Enright
On Miranda Popkey's "Topics of Conversation" and Ariana Harwicz's "Die, My Love"

The New Yorker: Can a novel capture the contradictions of female desire?

Excerpt

Monday, November 22, 2021

The experience of beauty

On the platform of a train station, late morning, early June: two women embracing after a separation of several months. Behind them, a tall fair-haired man alighting from the train carrying two suitcases. The women unspeaking, their eyes closed tight, their arms wrapped around one another, for a second, two seconds, three. Were they aware, in the intensity of their embrace, of something slightly ridiculous about this tableau, something almost comical, as someone nearby sneezed violently into a crumpled tissue; as a dirty discarded plastic bottle scuttled along the platform under a breath of wind; as a mechanised billboard on the station wall rotated from an advertisement for hair product to an advertisement for car insurance; as life in its ordinariness and even ugly vulgarity imposed itself everywhere all around them? Or were they in this moment unaware, or something more than unaware — were they somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper, something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world?

Sally Rooney's books are growing up. Beautiful World, Where Are You, is peopled by adults, still relatable, their college years well behind them, even it they're floundering, struggling to understand what their paths are and appreciate all they've achieved. They seem surprised that it's taken so long to settle into themselves (though it took me many years longer) and embrace the ordinary. 

It's a study in contrasts, and contrasting perspectives. The starkest opposition comes from the outsider, an uneducated warehouse worker. His presence causes the trio of old friends from Dublin to open their eyes to all their differences — on what is significant, what constitutes failure or success, how what we need and want is different from what others need and want, how none of us is speaking the same language, is seeing what another sees. How can we reach each other across these chasms? 

It feels less J.D. Salinger (striking tableau), more Rachel Cusk (philosophical conversation), in some hybrid epistolary format. Where Rooney's previous novels featured text exchanges (and this one does also), here we settle into long-form email, better suited to reflection, hypothesis, confession. Alice and Eileen expound at length about capitalism, art, memory, and the collapse of civilization as we know it. 

I still think of myself as someone who is interested in the experience of beauty, but I would never describe myself (except to you, in this email) as 'interested in beauty,' because people would assume that I meant I was interested in cosmetics. [...] I think the beauty industry is responsible for some of the worst ugliness we see around us in our visual environment, and the worst, most false aesthetic ideal, which is the ideal of consumerism. [...] To be open to aesthetic experience in a serious way probably requires as a first step the complete rejection of this ideal, and even a wholesale reaction against it, which if it seems to require at first a kind of superficial ugliness is still better by far and more substantively 'beautiful' than purchasing increased personal attractiveness at a price. Of course I wish that I personally were better-looking, and of course I enjoy the validation of feeling that I do look good, but to confuse these basically auto-erotic and status-driven impulses with real aesthetic experience seems to me an extremely serious mistake for anyone who cares about culture. 

The emails tend to go on a bit; if they were in-person monodialogues, they would be cut short. This discussion of beauty struck a chord with me, for it mirrors my own obsession, to find beauty in ugliness, to find poetry in the banal, it's always there, we just have to see it, except when it's not there, and you have to see it anyway.

I guess this idea of beauty is central to the themes of the book, or so the title would have me believe. That despite the shittiness of the world around us, it is full of hope and love. You just have to see it, open yourself to it.

It seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse. But [...], when people are lying on their deathbeds, don't they always start talking about their spouses and children? And isn't death just the apocalypse in the fist person. So in that sense, there is nothing bigger than what you so derisively call 'breaking up or staying together' (!), because at the end of our lives, when there's nothing left in front of us, it's still the only thing we want to talk about. Maybe we're just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn't it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should be reorganising the distribution of the world's resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it's the very reason I root for us to survive — because we are so stupid about each other.