Thursday, March 31, 2011

This too shall pass

I don't sleep well of late.

I spent the start of my week in the arms of Morpheus, in hospital bed with a kidney stone. I don't recommend the experience. There are easier ways to get a day off work. Although, morphine is pretty spectacular, rolling through your body in waves, rendering each segment heavy, limp, unencumbered. Weighty and weightless at the same time.

By chance, I am fortunate to be back in touch with a dear, dear friend of my adolescence. We were going to write poetry, change the world, dance however we damn well pleased. I've missed her.

I received a complimentary copy of The Saint, by Oliver Broudy, the recounting of days he spent travelling with a very charismatic man who happened to be very rich and a collector of Gandhi memorabilia, only he's not just a collector, he's a spiritual disciple, and this leads to all kinds of moral paradox: cuz there's this tension between means and ends, he's a rich man helping the poor; and it makes for a fascinating study of where ego fits in the world, and the tremendous ego required to achieve complete self-erasure; and it brings to the forefront the audacity, the crazy logic, of forsaking the value of actual individuals for some principle of greater good.

It's quite a compelling tale, and very thoughtful, and thought-provoking, and I expect I'll have a bit more to say about it yet. Among other nuggets: "age is the bitter process by which we gradually learn to aim low."

I'm suspended in this mood where I have to believe that this confluence of events holds some significance. That this stone in me is the detritus of gritty reality, that I will filter a new reality from my experience.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Planet Earth

Not sure anything can top the understated weirdness of the original video, but now it's Lynchian.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Imagination was a filter for wondrous transformations

The patient Herbert Anwaldt had survived "the house of torture", as he called the psychiatric clinic on Marien-Allee in Dresden, for already five years, thanks to his imagination. Imagination was a filter for wondrous transformations; the nurses' jabs and punches became gentle caresses, the stench of faeces became the scent of a spring garden, the cries of the sick became baroque cantatas and the shabby panelling frescoes by Giotto. Imagination obeyed him. After years of practice, he had managed to tame it to such an extent that he had entirely extinguished in himself something, for example, which would otherwise not have allowed him to survive incarceration: desire for a woman's body. He did not have to "extinguish the fire in his loins" like a sage from the Old Testament — that flame had long ago gone out.

Imagination did, however, betray him when he saw small, busy insects scuttling across the room. Their yellowish-brown abdomens flitting in and out of the gaps between the floorboards, their flickering antennae sticking out form behind the washbasin, the individual specimen crawling on to his eiderdown: a pregnant female dragging a pale cocoon, or a handsome male holding its body high on quick limbs, or the helpless young tracing circles with thin feelers — all this would lead to Anwaldt's brain being shaken by an electrical charge of neurons. The whole of him would curl up painfully, flickering feelers would burrow into his skin and he would be tickled, in his imagination, by thousands of limbs. He would then fall into a fury and was a potential danger to other patients, especially since the occasion on which he had discovered that some of them were catching insects, putting them into matchboxes and hiding them in his bed. Only the smell of insecticide would calm his jittering nerves. The matter could have been dealt with by transferring the sick man to another hospital — one less infested by cockroaches — in another town, but here unanticipated, bureaucratic obstacles wold present themselves and successive heads of clinic would forsake the idea. Doctor Bennert had restricted himself to transferring Anwaldt to a private room disinfected somewhat more frequently. In periods preceding the swarming cockroaches, the patient Anwaldt would be calm and occupied himself for the most part by studying Semitic languages.

— from Death in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski.

I'm not sure how this book first came to my attention, but it's been on my list of books-I-really-should-look-up-someday for years. And something made me think to look it up this weekend, so now I have a copy (electronic), and I'm reading and loving it.

Polish noir, they say. Morally ambiguous characters and sordid settings. Reminiscent of Simenon, only there's a little more going on in the plot department and the evidence of living in a Nazi state is a little more in your face.

Plus (as if that's not enough going for it!), it's set in Wrocław (or Breslau, as it was known prior to the end of WWII) — a town I have some familiarity with.

Double plus, I think the cover design for this series of Krajewski's novels (all set in interwar Breslau), from Quercus Publishing, is spectacular (to the point that I'm coveting actual print copies).

I'm only about 40 pages in. The murder case — involving hints of sexual perversion, scorpions, and ancient Syrian script, on a train car — has just been closed to everyone's satisfaction — everyone being the police department (chief of which is a prominent Freemason), the recently installed Nazi officials, and the victim's father (a connoisseur of esoterica) — except maybe that of the convicted Jew. I suspect we're not quite done yet.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


I found myself recently reading Caspian Rain, by Gina B Nahai, because somehow or other, the subject of Jewish Iranians came up at work. It happens that I work with a number of Iranians, and for some reason or other someone non-Iranian was saying something like, "But you don't have Jews in Iran, do you," and I thought, "How ignorant," and one of the Iranians proceeded to set this fellow straight on the matter. But it made me think, how did I know this, and is this a common piece of knowledge or is it privileged, and how did I come by this knowledge?

And I remembered having read Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, by Gina B Nahai, the story of a Jewish family living in the ghetto of Tehran, with a twist of magic realism about it. That's about all I remember about the book. That and the fact that I loved it, and oh, how it made me cry and cry and cry. I wept oceans reading that book, that summer. That was just about the time I figured out I was pregnant.

So I wondered what else she may have written, and thus I embarked upon Caspian Rain. I enjoyed it, but I can't really recommend it.

I love it for the glimpse it gives of Iranian Jewish life at a certain time and place, that place otherwise being a relatively inaccessible and mysterious one. I have a thing for the Middle East, which isn't entirely logical or explicable. I have little to no interest in the politics and history of the region. It's not exactly the "culture" that I'm drawn to, though it's to do with a poetic and storytelling tradition. A thousand and one nights, and all that. A sense of exoticism that may not be founded in anything real.

Anyway, Caspian Rain starts off as a kind of love story, and it's lovely, pushing all the right buttons with me. The narrator relates the story of her parents. About halfway through, the novel turns to centre around the narrator herself, the hardships she's suffered as a result of her parents' relationship being so strained but also because of her medical difficulty (well, let's just call it that for the sake of expediency). And then it felt like the novel was trying to be two different stories, and they just didn't work that well together. And it felt like the author was trying too hard to be poetic and vague and deep, and it stopped working for me, and the last page was terrible.

I'm currently reading A Polish Book of Monsters. I have mixed feelings about it so far, and I suspect I'll have a lot to say about it when I'm done, not least being regarding the problem of how one defines "monster."

Also, I've spent far too much time this weekend considering what ebook I should use my coupon to acquire. Should I actually get the book my boss recommended to me? I finally decided yes, because so many other people had esteemed it, and because it's set in an ad agency, which fact I hadn't recalled from the original commotion surrounding this novel but is a selling point with me. But then no, because the coupon couldn't be used for books from this publisher, so I could buy this book at any time, I wouldn't be saving any money by doing it today. (But I did buy some Polish noir.)

I'm missing loving a book right now. I need a book to really love.

But I found a plant for my office. And mostly I'm happy I spent most of my weekend hanging out with the kid, shopping for rainboots and almonds.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Solid or hollow

It's strange, how a person carries around the shadow of those that matter most to her. You can always see it — that presence, or its absence — in the eyes, in the movements of the hands, in a person's laugh. You can see it — if an old woman had a father who loved her when she was a child; if a teenage girl has a best friend she knows she can run to. You see it in the way people move and speak, in the subjects they choose and the things they avoid, in the way they appear solid or hollow, certain or plagued with doubt.

— from Caspian Rain, by Gina B Nahai.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New machine jihad

"You'll have nothing to rule."

"The New Machine Jihad does not need to rule. It needs only itself."

A thwarted kidnapping, a Japanese businessman who apparently runs his affairs yakuza-style, a Russian organitskaya boss. So far, so thriller.

Equations of Life, by Simon Morden, is set in the 2020s, some time post Armageddon. We don't know much about what happened. Nuclear strikes? Japan sank into the sea. There's a Cold War reference, which may or may not have anything to do with Armageddon times. So, vaguely futuristic, but still more thriller than sci-fi.

In fact, for the first half of the novel, there's very little of anything hinting of sci-fi going on. It's suggested when we learn Petrovitch is working on this little quantum gravity thing, and again when Oshicora-san reveals his pet project: VirtualJapan.

Our protagonist, Samuil Petrovitch, is 22 and has serious heart trouble. For a few pages I suspected this book might head in the direction of organ development and/or trade, organic or otherwise.

But no. Just the faintest whiff of science.

The cop on the case is old-school — rough around the edges, but effective when it suits his purposes to be. Then there's the amazonian nun who keeps turning up to save Petrovitch's ass.

The cast and their context, while not as fully realized as I felt they could be, were certainly compelling enough to draw me forward. It seems, however, that some of the history was previously developed in Morden's short stories, so when I say I feel like I was dropped in the middle of something, it's because I kind of am. This novel does stand up entirely on its own, though.

There's an awful lot going on here, and I had to flip back on a few occasions to keep things straight (but I'm not the most practiced at reading — or watching, for that matter — "action"; characters and events start to blur for me if the pace is too frenetic and the language is combat).

Also, I did roll my eyes a couple times in the early stages, when, for example, (I think it was) the ventilator fans "were ancient with age." As the story progressed, however, such linguistic rough spots pretty much vanished.

As far as I'm concerned, things start to get sci-fi at about halfway, when the new machine jihad begins to assert itself. And that's very cool. And then it gets really sci-fi in the final pages. And that's totally cool. And now I'm dying to read the next book in the Petrovitch trilogy (the books are being released the end of March, April, and May, respectively).

I can't stress how unsettling it was to be finishing up this novel last Friday, after having heard the news of the disaster in Japan. This is a novel in which Japan had sunk into the sea(!); the world is reeling from nuclear fallout, and London is overflowing with immigrant ghettoes. So. Yeah. Unsettling. Still. The whole VirtualJapan idea was really cool, and it's almost reassuring to believe that should any parts of our world be lost, they could be revirtualized.

This is a novel where actions speak louder than words, and that's fun, but I liked those bits best that slowed down and considered themselves.

"Is this what it's like, then?" she said, eyes closed, dreaming. "People like us, we think differently, don't we? We are different. We do all the things that others do. We go out to parties and concerts, we go to conferences and drink and talk, we play music and games and we laugh and cry. But when it comes down to it, we don't actually need anyone else. We're happy doing what we do and having obligations interferes with that. Does that make us selfish, or something else?"

"I don't know. To them, I guess it is selfish. Me? I just have such a monstrous sense of self, I don't need to feel love. I don't even feel lonely." He watched Pif's hair beads swinging slightly in time with her breathing. "Sometimes I wonder what it might be like. To be with someone, well, who isn't me. And sometimes I think we don't even need ourselves. What's most important is to find out whether we're right or not."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Despair, disillusionment, hell, reality

I like Murakami. I like that his books have libraries and music and cats, and people reading and listening and caring about cats. I love that the narrator of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World has read Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (a favourite of mine) three times.

But like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn't going anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.

Was that so depressing?

Who knows? Maybe that was "despair." What Turgenev called "disillusionment." Or Dostoevsky, "hell." Or Somerset Maugham, "reality." Whatever the label, I figured it was me.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is definitely my favourite Murakami, but Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a solid second.

Two stories, chapters intersected and running in parallel. They don't seem to bear much relation to each other at first.

One thread is set in a slightly altered almost-now. The narrator is a Calcutec; he processes data for the System, and is wary of Semiotecs; he doesn't have much of a past, but there's a Duran Duran song he keeps thinking back to. Then there's the end of the world — fairly idyllic, but as with most utopias (is this an afterlife?), something's a bit off — a true sense of self seems to be lacking. To enter the town, the narrator has to have his shadow cut off; he's assigned the job of "dreamreader" and he reads dreams by sensing them through his fingertips from animal skulls. The Calcutec has a skull too; the mad scientist who gave it to him is working on how the trapped soundwaves should enable you to reconstruct memories. Both narrators (the same narrator?) grow into awareness of their realities.

You almost don't notice how odd the plots are until you try to summarize them for someone else. Despite the weirdness, the mind-bendiness, the surreality of Murakami's novels, there's something simple and sincere, completely unpretentious, about how their told. It's honest.

"I don't understand." In fact, I didn't understand. On the whole, I'm a regular guy. I say I understand when I do, and I say I don't when I don't. I try not to mince words. It seems to me a lot of trouble in this world has its origins in vague speech. Most people, when they go around not speaking clearly, somewhere in their unconscious they're asking for trouble.

Which is why, usually, I don't say much at all. (Maybe this is why I'm an editor — ridding the world of trouble one vague sentence at a time.)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Matrix literature

My copy of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise, by Georges Perec, finally arrived! This slim little volume is exquisite!

The title has been pared down a little from the original (l'art et la maniѐre d'aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation): the art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise.

(Some of the background I set forth here is covered in greater detail by translator David Bellos in his introduction to the book.)

In 1968, a computer company set the challenge for writers to use a computer's basic mode of operation as a writing device. The outline: a flow-chart, a simple algorithm, a decision matrix.

The flow-chart is reproduced on this volume's endpapers.

By its nature, the algorithm is well-suited to being experienced electronically.

Of course, it has Oulipoian roots, as an exploration of how mathematics can be used to generate literature. In fact, I'm sure we're all quite familiar with another, very popular style of "matrix literature," an experiment in which (A Story As You Like It), by Raymond Queneau, is available online. (Hypertext literature has come a long way since the 1960s. I'm currently working through one such "traditional print" example with Helena.)

Perec reused the material from the art and craft in chapter 98 (Réol) of Life A User's Manual, which upon the learning of said fact I immediately reread.

I don't recall it having such a potent effect on me the first go around, but this time it brought tears to my eyes. Remember the Réols? — the young couple with the extravagant, expensive bed purchased on credit. And it puts me in mind of, no doubt because I've been reading so many articles related to the release of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace and his maximalist approach to literature (did he ever read Perec's Life, I wonder), in which he does not excise the excruciating minutiae of our lives and minds. I see now that Perec does something similar in Life. The chapter concerning Réol — and it can be read as a wholly self-contained narrative — tells a story through a perspective entirely restricted to the management of Réol's finances. There's the logistical problem of fixing an appointment with his boss (which day of the week his boss is likely to be in a good mood, not distracted, and so on), but mostly it's utilities payments due, rent in arrears, groceries on credit, loans, percentages, meeting the requirements for the assistance plan, etc. There is nothing about the Réols' life — no chance encounters or romantic situations, no grand parties or disastrous meals, no anecdotes about their son. And yet, financial management is life, one version of their life, and it's a full story. With a beautifully poignant (and happy) ending.

The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise is told in the second person. Story is secondary to the experiment.

either he thinks your idea is positive rich in possibilities worthwhile or he thinks it is stupid and will let you know in no uncertain terms that your logic is addled that's to say cock-eyed that's to say so devoid of understanding as to be close to either early-onset alzheimer's or congenital idiocy remember however that whether or not he calls you a nincompoop dimwit cretin nutcase crackpot woodenhead bananabrain dolt idiot or fool it comes to the same thing namely your plan will land in the wpb and you will return empty-handed to your desk while awaiting happier days it goes without saying that learning from experience you will improve your basic idea so when the day comes once again to talk with whole and open heart to your head of department he will be unable to dismiss you straight off as a nitwit so you allow yourself some months because one must always try to stack the odds in one's favour you swot up on the issue then when your plan seems perfect you go back to see mr x let's assume he's in

The text is, as is to expected given the structural constraint, repetitive and recursive, and the real-time computer-logic mood is enhanced by the lack of punctuation. (Also, it's set entirely in lowercase, but thankfully, and surprisingly, not in courier.)

I found it easiest to follow by reading it out loud. (In fact, I readily imagine the whole text being narrated and scored by Philip Glass à la Einstein on the Beach. Hey, Phil, give me a call, let's talk Perec!)

But there is a story! It's a little bit tragic even, but told with a light touch and great deal of humour.

The iterations come to be modified, and it's these variations in the phrasing that make for the funniest moments, unexpected as they are. Either they change as you reconsider them in light of all that has already occurred (the computer algorithm weights the possible outcomes and their likelihood of occurring as it acquires and learns to process the qualitative input from inside your head), or they change over time (the computer adds to the equation the actual fact of certain outcomes already having occurred).

It could be that all these thoughts pass through your neurotic head over a span of mere seconds when first you consider the possibility of asking for a raise. Or, this is a distillation of your entire career.

Either the employee is paralyzed by overthinking the situation and "we shall suppose to keep things simple — for we must do our best to keep things simple" never approaches the boss to ask for a raise; or the employees does in fact take action as governed by the logic of the algorithm, in which case years pass and the employee approaches retirement, without ever having asked for a raise. (The story does cover an approach and a request and a raise, but let's not complicate the point.)

I recommend The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise to those readers interested in experimental literature, but I suspect most readers will not find enough narrative thread to hold their attention for long. (On the other hand, it's short, and as an introduction to how a nontraditional approach to narrative can produce story it might serve you well alongside something like Calvino's t-zero stories, with which I see some similiarities in terms of the breakdown of processes into its smallest constituents, in a Zeno's paradox kind of way.)

If you have not read Perec's Life A User's Manual, I encourage you to read along at Conversational Reading.

Tomorrow marks what would've been Perec's 75th birthday.

To do
Approach the head of my department to submit a request for the transitioning of my role, and title, into Editor of Matrix-generated Literature and for the use of our proprietary decision support system to generate a novel in which the possible decision outcomes are not binary, but multiple and weighted and combined, where one can respond both a and b, or all of the above, to allow for the overlaying of choices and the "automatic" snipping and juxtaposition of appropriate segments of text, to tell a story about, say, a family's quest to acquire the perfect sofa, and while the daughter's preferences are considered they are of a different value than those of her parents, and the cat is also given due thought, all of which necessitates a careful study of how the sofa is used (playing video games, reading, napping, etc — each activity commanding different optimal bodily postures), how many people use the sofa over a given period of time to engage in those activities, and how many are likely to want to do so at the same time, budget of course being a key factor, but also available room, with an eye for spatial configuration of the entire room and allowing for the possibility of auxiliary seating (also to be determined through a similar decision matrix), no, no, it had better be more work-related, say, the design by committee and subsequent implementation of said design of the employee kitchen space, its general arrangement and furnishings, something like that.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Evil weeds

The subject of Egyptian literature came up at work today, because someone's reading something Egyptian, and he mentioned it to our Egyptian-Palestinian coworker when she stopped by my desk, thinking she might be familar with the author, but he couldn't remember the author's name, and she suggested Nahguib Mahfouz, cuz really that's the first (or only) name that usually comes to mind, but no it's someone else, and she went on a bit about having read Palace Walk, and not liking it, and how it quite surprised her, whereas I had read Miramar eons ago and the only thing I can remember about it is that it bored me, and she expressed some, hmm, let's say regret, about how she's not as culturally well-versed as she'd like to be wrt her heritage, and then we chatted kind of generically, about audiobooks, and locking yourself in the bathroom — away from family distractions — to read, and a bit about work.

And I remembered I had a book: Three Egyptian Short Stories, by Youssef Idris — a bilingual edition (published 1991 by York Press, and not readily available these days it seems). The Arabic language fascinates me, and I'd taken a couple courses, and somewhere along the way I'd plucked this slim little volume out of some bargain bin or other, my aspiration being to read it in the original language. (Hah!)

So I came home from work and went straight to my shelf. Maybe my coworkers will be interested in this book. But I should read it first (had I ever actually read it?). So I read it.

Three short, very powerful stories. Poignant. Just plain sad.

The walls were half-covered in blackness in the form of paint, while the other half was stained with gloom.

Reading these stories I'm reminded a little bit of Simenon, bleak and seamy. Not so sordid as Simenon; these characters are just miserable, and poor.

Henceforth, the square witnessed an eccentric and gloomy man, whose dry and dark face was ever frowning, who broke his silence occasionally with a stray and fleeting word, only to be dominated again by dead silence, whose trembling moustache had grown wild like a bunch of evil weeds.

The stories are "Farahat's Republic," "The Wallet," and "Abu Sayyid." I trust they are available in other collections of Idris's work. While the latter two stories are sad in a pull-at-your-heartstrings kind of way, the first story packs an existential punch.

[Perhaps I feel this way because I made the mistake of checking the news online this evening. While I try to keep abreast of world events, in a shamefacedly superficial way, smaller-scale stories, if I can call them that, to differentiate them from the big picture, make me want to cry and scream, and I avoid them. Kids stuffed in luggage, dead. Some guy on speed driving around with his wife on the hood. I like to think you can change the World. But you can't do a damn thing about the sick fuck who lives down the street.]

"Farahat's Republic" is about a police officer. Even while he betrays a rich inner life, the real crime, he states, is that the rabble at the station won't give him a minute's peace, bothering him with their "petty" squabbles.

And so I feel morally defunct and guilty this evening.

Idris was nominated several times for the Nobel prize for literature.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Sandwich guy

Every day (well, most days), sometime between 11:45 and about 12:30 (although on at least two occasions as late as 1:20), there's a guy in a ski jacket and tuque who walks briskly down the main aisle (on which I'm situated) between the desks at my office, with a big blue cooler slung across his back. He calls out, "Sandwiches," brusquely; sometimes as he's approaching, but sometimes you just hear the echo of it — you look up and realize he's already turned the corner.

It took me a couple of weeks to figure it out: the man actually sells sandwiches. And a little while longer before I actually witnessed a transaction.

What era are we in? I see them sell sandwiches from the cart on Mad Men, but I never thought I'd see anything like it in my working career.

After monitoring his comings and goings for a few weeks, I finally asked some coworkers about him. They rewarded me with a spreadsheet recording the times of his appearance over the space of a few months, about a year ago. It seems my predecessor gave him the moniker I was already using in my head, and my time-tracking observations were confirmed.

Sandwich Guy does indeed sells sandwiches; and they're pretty good, they say.

He's associated with Les Sandwichs Volants, but nobody knows definitively his relationship with that organization, or how he comes to traverse our office space on a quasi-regular basis.

There's on ongoing debate as to whether his service commands tipping, and it seems my predecessor believed firmly that it did not — which, it's alleged, may have a little something to do with his unreliability. Past a certain hour, you just can't be sure that he'll have anything left to satisfy your particular lunchtime needs, or that he'll show up at all. (Although, it's hard to know if they ever really attended to Sandwich Guy's behaviour before my predecessor drew attention to it.)

Today, was my first first-hand experience with Sandwich Guy. I tagged behind a few coworkers who were hoping to head him off before he sold out of goods at the other end of the office. Alas, no carrot cake for the translator, but the vegetarian was in luck, and so was I.

Only two meat sandwiches left. I considered roast lamb, but opted otherwise.

Rôti de porc tranché, mayonnaise, piments marinés, sauce piquants, tomates, concombres, laitue. On a foot of baguette. Delicious. For $5.50.

And he called me mademoiselle.

I'm sorry I waited till winter is almost over. I could grow to really like Sandwich Guy.