Wednesday, August 31, 2016

They talked about day jobs in tones of horror

"I know it's temporary." But this is her secret: she doesn't want it to end. What she can never tell Pablo, because he disdains all things corporate, is that she likes being at Neptune Logistics more than she likes being at home. Home is a small dark apartment with an ever-growing population of dust bunnies, the hallway narrowed by Pablo's canvases propped up against the walls, an easel blocking the lower half of the living room window. Her workspace at Neptune Logistics is all clean lines and recessed lighting. She works on her never-ending project for hours at a time. In art school they talked about day jobs in tones of horror. She never would have imagined the her day job would be calmest and least cluttered part of her life.
—from Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.

I've only ever had one workspace that was actual clean lines and recessed lighting, but several that felt at one time or another preferable to home, so I get it. But that's changed for me in recent times; most days there's no place I'd rather be than home. (Well, except maybe Venice.)

And I think I may start referring to my job as a day job, with all that implies. Life is elsewhere, but a day job finances it.

I'm not sure what made me turn to this novel this week, and I was quite prepared to hate it as an overhyped, unmeritedly trendy, pale shadow of a proper dystopia, but I'm digging it. It's got a very Atwood vibe, with the Shakespeare and the sci-fi comic, but somehow warmer, less cynical, more naive.

It's early pages yet, and this may turn out to be the great lesson of the novel, but it seems to me that the pre-apocalyptic days are in many ways sadder than what comes later. Maybe the epidemic serves as a reset. Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Embodying the moral imperative

My mother's a news junkie. It started a few years after my father died. About the time we moved into our new house; we got cable and CNN was new. It took that long, I think, for her to come to terms, identify herself as an individual, and direct her energies for once to the external world. It made her feel alive to know what was happening all around her.

I stopped watching the news when my daughter was born. It was too terrible to bear. Not like I was an addict going cold turkey or anything. But The News was suddenly unimportant yet painfully threatening. It impinged on the internal world I was trying to nurture.

[I'm cured now, more or less. The kid is older, I have other survival mechanisms in play. I follow the news at a distance, and sometimes a bit closer, out of a sense of civic duty.]

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland, reminds me how fragile we are in this world where unspeakable horrors happen 24/7. Lena is the only transcriptionist, the last one, at a major New York newspaper.
The room is the color of old opossum or new pumice, the color of newspaper without ink. Gray.It is the room where the transcriptionist, or, in the perplexing vocabulary of the corporate world, Recording Room operator, sits alone all day with a headset and a Dictaphone and transcribes all the words that have been recorded for the Record.
She survived the news frenzy that was 9/11; what undid her was the story of a woman she recognized as having met in passing, a blind woman who deliberately, knowingly, swam to her death, swam the moat at the zoo to be devoured by lions.

Amy Rowland explains that this novel
is about one lowly worker questioning the role of the newspaper as an institution, and about how newspapers are facing the challenges and the new reality of the time we’re living in. If we tell ourselves stories about ourselves in order to know who we are, then for more than a century newspapers have been the backbone of a collective sense of community. In this new world of virtual living, what will bind us together?
There's a quirky cast of journalists and other newsroom workers. Lena also befriends a pigeon on the ledge outside her window, but even that has a seamy underbelly.

One man is devoted to preserving the files of obituaries, not mere death notices, but the paeans to the news makers, most written years in advance, in anticipation of death, as if only death gives life newsworthy meaning. Recognize it when its gone.
"Obits mark the lives that define us as a nation; they embody the moral imperative of the newspaper, one that is slipping away."
You learn things about humanity from a newspaper, but very little about individuals. Thanks to social media we now know everything about individuals but this data rarely coalesces into anything bigger than itself. The Transcriptionist gently reminds the reader to see the forest, see the trees. Seize the day, do the right thing, follow your gut, live a little.

This is a loving and tender novel, that evokes the sepia tones of a bygone era, even while it's set in this century.
Lena is always disappointed anew at the room, where instead of bald, bespectacled men typing with one heavy hand and reaching into the drawer for the bourbon bottle with the other, it is the usual corporate subdivision: well-medicated activity, soundless keypads, and clusters of low-partitioned cubicles in a rectangle that spans the entire floor.
[Where does that cliche come from, Editorial with its hands on the bourbon, surely it predates Lou Grant. I've done my best to perpetuate it in the department I work in, you never know when bourbon might come in handy. Of course, we're not dealing with the heart-crushing news of the outside world, just fighting the relatively minor but daily soul-sucking battles for editorial integrity in a company that has lost sight of its raison d'être and is quickly spiralling down the existential vortex that portends financial, not only moral, bankruptcy. Ah, bourbon.]

Some reviews that explain this short novel better than I can:
The Rumpus
New York Times
The Millions

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Right as rain

I was waiting at the bus stop, for the bus, when it started to rain,
not a downpour but it had more vehemence than a drizzle. It didn't last long;

in fact, by the time I looked up, trying to decide whether or not
to put away my electronic device, and saw people still rummaging
in their bags for forgotten umbrellas, it was over.

Only, I know it had actually rained. I know this because a small
but not insubstantial drop had fallen on the touchscreen of my ereader
with sufficient force to select a word and call up its definition: "right."

/rīt/ adj. 1 Morally good, justified, or acceptable:
I hope we’re doing the right thing | [WITH INFINITIVE]:
you were quite right to criticize him 2 true or correct as a fact

That's all I read before I closed the cover. Right as rain.

Later, in the bus, I wiped away the stains of raindrops
left on my screen. They might have been tears.
(True story. August 22, 2016.)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Choice: a possible future of storytelling

Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra, is fiction, nonfiction, poetry, something more, and something else entirely. It consists of 90 thought experiments, creating one big meta thought experiment about narrative. It is structured in the form of a standardized test (complete with a sheet on which you can mark your responses), 5 sections that cover skills like word choice, sentence order, and reading comprehension.

For example, for the following exercise, mark the answer that puts the sentences in the best possible order to form a coherent text.
31. Relatives

1. You group them into two lists: the ones you love and the ones you don't.
2. You group them into two lists: the ones who shouldn't be alive and the ones who shouldn't be dead.
3. You group them according to the degree of trust they inspired in you as a child.
4. For a moment you think you discover something important, something that has been hanging over you for years.
5. You group them into two lists: the living and the dead.

A) 1-3-4-5-2
B) 5-2-1-3-4
C) 1-3-5-2-4
D) 3-4-5-2-1
E) 1-2-3-4-5
(I answered B. Or maybe A.) Wouldn't you love to discuss this question with your family? The conversational tangents it inspires!

I'd like to present some of these exercises to my team of editors, so we could debate the subtleties in meaning between, for example, "but," "yet," and "notwithstanding," what order of facts and opinions conveys the most effective emphasis, which sentences aren't essential to moving the narrative forward.

It was a perfect read for me, the perfect time and place, serving to slow me down. In this way the book was much like poetry. Read a page, think about it, let it sink in, reconsider it. It's a short book, but it demands a lot of breathing space. It has served to make me feel really smart, and also really stupid. That's a good thing.

I rather wish that more books would not merely invite but forcibly ask me to pause and reflect on what I read.

Multiple Choice failed completely to make an impression upon people I know, some off whom are actual readers. It's as if by physically pressing the book upon them, forcing them to cast their eyes across a sample "question," was like making them sit an actual exam. One person was outraged that there was no answer key. What do you mean there are no answers!

As the author responds in one Q&A (This Week in Fiction: Alejandro Zambra):
I think that this story and the book as a whole argue against the illusion of a single right answer. But it’s also a book about the wish for that answer, the naïve or visceral desire for there to be a truth. In “Multiple Choice,” I was interested in the question of how those structures mark you: the rhetoric of options, distractor questions, the true and the false—that whole complex and crude game, deeply ideological, of exclusions and inclusions.
Reading Comprehension: Text No. 1 [excerpt]
Reading Comprehension: Text No. 3

Liminoid Magazine
The Rumpus

The Future of Storytelling
Quite coincidentally I recently visited the exhibit Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age. I see Multiple Choice easily slipping in alongside these experiences, curated by Future of StoryTelling (FoST), and all foretelling the future of storytelling.

All highlighted the significance of context: how context predominantly figures in shaping an experience for a "reader." For example:

Experiencing the last 4 minutes of JFK's life through sound and smell ("Famous Deaths") only becomes art because we know how it ends, and we're aware of its historical significance. I mean, on its own, in isolation of context, it stands as an aesthetic juxtaposition of audio and olfactory cues — but I could guess at the smells only because I could line up the accompanying sounds with footage I've previously seen. What a person brings to the experience in terms of their knowledge and expectations is what makes it a meaningful narrative. The mortuary fridge you're rolled into enhances the anticipation of death.

A video game that consists of a police database which the user can query ("Her Story") has no structure; it's driven entirely by the user's interests. When I first sat down at the terminal, I was at a loss; it felt a little bit like work. If this is a police database, I've been cast in the role of investigating officer. Where to start? I reasoned, a police database must have something about murder in it, so that was my first keyword search, which delivered some video footage, which soon had me asking, who's Hannah? and, what baby? Every session will yield a different story.

Blindness experienced through a VR headset ("Notes on Blindness") might seem like a contradiction in terms, but the flashes of light begin to take shape according to sound prompts. The experience is inspired by and complemented with the audio recordings of John Hull, a theologian who with a scientist's precision documented his experience of going blind. (The associated film, by contrast, I have no interest in seeing — the trailer leads me to expect an overly sentimental drama that emotionally manipulates its audience, playing on themes of loneliness vs connection rather than on the cognitive aspects of blindness that are so much more interesting to me.) The most poetic of the chapters in this VR experience dealt with rain and with wind. He describes the rain as a blanket that gives things shape and dimension (think: the sound of rain on metal vs glass, on the roof vs the window, in tight alleys vs open fields). Wind is the equivalent of a sighted person's clear and sunny day, bringing one's surroundings to life.

A short film unfolds according to decisions the audience makes via mobile devices ("Late Shift"). A choose-your-own-adventure movie, only you're not watching alone; the direction of the narrative is based on majority votes. Some of the decisions are straightforward yes-no scenarios, but others ask you to take a more philosophical perspective (selfish or selfless?), thereby defining character and moral context. And some questions frustratingly don't offer as an option your preferred course of action. One unsettling aspect is that the story doesn't always go the way you want it to go. You wonder who your neighbour is, do they believe what you believe, what is their motivation.

Of these examples, I feel that Death and Blindness don't entirely fit the storytelling mould — they don't tell a story so much as share an experience. Zambra's book would be a perfect conceptual fit for this exhibition, but perhaps, being print-based, it would be considered too traditional.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Becoming animal

In Vancouver a little while ago we peeked in on the exhibit Becoming Animal/Becoming Landscape at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC, which explores works "through the lens of recent philosophical ideas, questioning and breaking down old borders between the human and the non-human."

For me it expressed some ideas about our relationship to nature, and how strong a force our environment is in shaping us and our technology, but it also coalesced some ideas that were germinating in me after having travelled from Montreal to Vancouver by train, and venturing north by car and by ferry to the gateway to the Great Bear Rainforest. (Curator's talk: "...based on mapping... travelling through the landscape, and when you do that, the landscape begins to saturate you and you become the landscape." (We are becoming landscape.))

Notably, the exhibit included works by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, to whose work I'm glad to be introduced, and Emily Carr, for whom I have fresh appreciation now that I've seen the northwest landscape she strove to express.

(I must admit, I was a bit horrified to be confronting some sexual/erotic pieces in the company of both my daughter and my mother. To her credit, my mother was able to take away some insight into and appreciation of technique within the context of my brother's artwork, the whole purpose of our journey west being to scatter his ashes. (He is becoming landscape.))

One overtly bookish component of the exhibit was Marina Roy's "Thumb Sketches."

The work consists of a series of paperbacks of literary classics from the Western cannon, flayed to show Roy's ink paintings on the edges. They are scatological and lightly pornographic, but quite funny — visual responses to or subtexts of the particular novel.

In a statement on her website, Roy writes:
In the pile-up of language and spectacle which constitutes our amnesiac present, one role for art is to create a clearing within our petrified landscape, and, through a reordering all this new and obsolete stuff, through bricolage and play, construct new meanings, new conceptions of reality, shot through with historical memory, utopian aspirations, and pleasure.

Cross-disciplinary in scope, my artwork investigates the intersection between materials, history, language, and ideology. It is my hope that the work addresses the need for a post-humanist perspective, counter to the dictates of humanistic hubris and its entrapment within binary power dynamics. Art can act as a bridge between culture and nature, ethics and drive.
I'm a big fan of this intersection of language and art, and will be hunting down her book about the letter X.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

First person

For this exercise, mark the answer that puts the sentences in the best possible order to form a coherent text.

I am reading Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra, one of the more experimental "novels" I've come across in a long time. It is singular and plural.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The beauty of things is a trick

I understood only later that I can be quietly unhappy, because I'm incapable of violent reactions, I fear them, I prefer to be still, cultivating resentment.
Indeed Elena (Lena) cultivates much resentment toward Lila in this second of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, The Story of a New Name.

This novel focuses on Lila, the grocer's wife. It's the story of her marriage, its dissolution, a marriage that was over before it began, as book one had ended with the realization that her husband had essentially sold her out, trading her ideals and ideas, dreams and designs, for some thug's cash and empty promises, a man who'd once wooed her and who she'd sworn would never own her. And it's all downhill from there. This is the story of her miserable married life, with her wretched husband's name.

Elena spends these years preoccupied with the idea of escaping her fate.
Did Alfonso also conceal Don Achille, his father, in his breast, despite his delicate appearance? Is it possible that our parents never die, that every child inevitably conceals them in himself? Would my mother truly emerge from me, with limping gait, as my destiny?
Elena holds on to the belief that education is her key to leaving the neighbourhood. For someone who pursues the life of the mind, she is very much trapped by her body.
Suddenly it seemed to me that I had lived with a sort of limited gaze: as if my focus had been only on us girls, Ada, Gigliola, Carmela, Marisa, Pinuccia, Lila, me, my schoolmates, and I had never really paid attention to Melina's body, Giuseppina Pelusi's, Nunzia Cerullo's, Maria Carracci's. The only woman's body I had studied, with ever-increasing apprehension, was the lame body of my mother, and I had felt pressed, threatened by that image, and still feared that it would suddenly impose itself on mine. That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And, good God, they were ten, at most twenty years older than me. Yet they appeared to have lost those feminine qualities that were so important to us girls and that we accentuated with clothes, with makeup. They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings? Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia? Would Fernando leap from her delicate face, would her elegant walk become Rino's, legs wide, arms pushed out by his chest? And would my body, too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my other's body but my father's? And would all that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighborhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire, Anaximander and my father, Folgóre and Don Achille, valences and the ponds, aorists, Hesiod, and the insolent vulgar language of the Solaras, as over the millenniums, had happened to the chaotic, debased city itself?
Life goes on. Lena applies herself to her studies. Lila is her opposite, in every way, in everything.

And then Lena is crushed by love.
I made the dark descent. Now the moon was visible amid scattered pale-edged clouds; the evening was very fragrant, and you could hear the hypnotic rhythm of the waves. On the beach I took off my shoes, the sand was cold, a gray-blue light extended as far as the sea and then spread over its tremulous expanse. I thought: yes, Lila is right, the beauty of things is a trick, the sky is the throne of fear; I'm alive, now, here, ten steps from the water, and it is not at all beautiful, it's terrifying; along with this beach, the sea, the swarm of animal forms, I am part of the universal terror; at this moment I'm the infinitesimal particle through which the fear of every thing becomes conscious of itself; I; I who listen to the sound of the sea, who feel the dampness and the cold sand; I who imagine all Ischia, the entwined bodies of Nino and Lila, Stefano sleeping by himself in the new house that is increasingly not so new, the furies who indulge the happiness of today to feed the violence of tomorrow. Ah, it's true, my fear is too great and so I hope that everything will end soon, that the figures of the nightmares will consume my soul. I hope that from this darkness packs of mad dogs will emerge, vipers, scorpions, enormous sea serpents. I hope that while I'm sitting here, on the edge of the sea, assassins will arrive out of the night and torture my body. Yes, yes, let me be punished for my insufficiency, let the worst happen, something so devastating that it will prevent me from facing tonight, tomorrow, the hours and days to come, reminding me with always more crushing evidence of my unsuitable constitution. Thoughts like that I had, the frenzied thoughts of girlish discouragement.
It's a heartbreaking scene; Lena is betrayed by her childhood friend and by her childhood crush. She doesn't see it that way then; she lets is wash over her, and she betrays herself that night.

But ultimately, this is the experience that leads her to write, which solidifies for her a life outside of Naples.

As emotional as the romantic revelations are, what led me to tears was the possibility that Lena's education might be over, "I cried and cried, as if I had carelessly lost somewhere the most promising part of myself," that she might resign herself to a life in the civil service, in Naples.

The title of this book also might apply to Lena as well as it does to Lila. At the end of this volume, Lena's family is examining a copy of her newly published book. Her father recognizes his own name on the cover, but Lena claims it as her own. And even while she is anticipating taking her fiance's name,she intends to keep this name on her future books.

She has found some success, but she's not done measuring it.
I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that — in good faith, certainly, with affection — I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, risking tensions with her workmates, and fines, she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Perfect right here

Train travel is an exercise in suspension, of both time and space; the days blur, we are carried suspended across the land, just above it. After travelling four days by train, we arrived in Vancouver.

I wanted to visit the scholar's garden, The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.
Pond waters
mysteriously green,

Sky light
eternally enshrined
The garden was built just a few decades ago, but in honour of ancient principles. Somewhat surprisingly, plants are not the main element of a Chinese garden; they rank lower in importance than the foundational element of architecture, and the elements of rock (textured and weathered) and water (deliberately clouded, for better reflection).

It is less controlled than a Japanese garden, but no less careful. It is walled, contained. Vancouver skyscrapers are visible above the pagodas, in perfect balance; this garden belongs here.

There are couplets on the walls.
Courtyard ever green
all four seasons with
blossoming trees

Perfect right here
one fine volume
of poetic inspiration

Thursday, August 11, 2016

False starts, true beginnings

We said nothing concrete, I still have those letters [...]. We focused, let's say, on a book he had read, on an article of interest for our studies, on some reflection of his or mine, on unrest among certain university students, on the neo-avant-garde, which I didn't know anything about but which he was surprisingly well acquainted with, and which amused him to the point of inspiring him to write: "I would like to make a book out of crumpled-up pieces of paper: you start a sentence, it doesn't work, and throw the page away. I'm collecting a few, I would have the pages printed just as they are, crumpled, so the random pattern of the creases is interwoven with the tentative, broken-off sentences. Maybe this is, in fact, the only literature possible today."
— from The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante.

I should collect the false starts of blog posts.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Have books, will travel

For a cross-country train journey, people bring a lot of books. But I saw more people carrying them than actually reading them. It's too easy to be distracted by scenery, or sleep. I certainly read far less than I had hoped to.

Although it boasts an activity car, a dining car, and a panorama car, The Canadian clearly lacks a library car.

But I was heartened to see this book exchange basket at the train station in Jasper, Alberta, full of good intentions.