Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?

Those words had an unpleasant effect on me. As if she were giving dispassionate advice, she was suggesting that I separate also from my third child. She seemed to be saying: Imma would be better off and so would you. I replied: If Imma leaves me, too, my life will no longer have meaning. But she smiled: Where is it written that lives should have a meaning? So she began to disparage all that struggle of mine to write. She said mockingly: Is the meaning that line of black markings that look like insect shit? She invited me to take a rest, she exclaimed: What need is there to work so hard. Enough.
—from The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante.

Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Just another broken heart’s beaten down story

Here's a great octopus of a poem I discovered this week:
Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy

I’m reviewing a left ventriculography
from a man with chest pain, MI ruled out,
his wife dead for a post-crash hour.
The scan shows his cardiac apex
bulging with each beat, shaped
like a takotsubo, an octopus trap
a Japanese cardiologist recalled
from his childhood fishing village,
the scan just another broken heart’s
beaten down story of futility and resilience.
And I will say, “I am sorry for your loss,”
explain the image, reassure him
his heart muscle will recover in a week,
all the time wishing I could hug him
with eight strong arms instead of two.

— Richard Berlin

I am enrolled in a MOOC, Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing — I couldn't know if its focus would be more reading or wellbeing.

Week 1 was a lot of poetry, and the instructors' taste in poetry is rather old and very English, quite unlike my preferred variety. Poetry as stress management, as a means to access stillness. Slowing down.

Some great video interviews, including with Ben Okri, who made a great observation about how we reach for old favourites in times of emotional need — it's not just a comfort blanket, it's the way we know how to access an interior life.

Week 2 covered that classic mental illness, heartbreak (hence the poem above). And Jane Austen (ugh).

We left off with the question: Can literature be harmful?

(Of course! It can send people to prison, incite revolution. It can inspire wives to leave their husbands. They had to stage an intervention for Don Quixote.)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Narcon

As the old Narcons put it: "There is not space in the universe to tell the universe to the universe. Therein lies the peculiar beauty and sadness of stories: to tell it all without all at all."

The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Yeah. I don't know how to talk about this book. I don't even know what this book is about.

I can tell you:
  • This book is beautiful as an object.
  • The experience of reading this book is somewhat otherworldly.
  • I fucking love this book.
  • I wish there were more books like this in the world.
Book as object
This book is heavy. It's printed on art-catalogue-quality glossy paper, 880 pages of it. The binding is such (with pink thread) that if you open the book to any page, it will lay open.

There are full-colour plates between chapters, with epigraphs quoting the likes of Emily Dickinson, Lady Gaga, and Norm Schryer, or featuring lines from movies like Moonrise Kingdom, Blade Runner, and Chinatown.

The top corners are dipped in colour, each chapter colour-coded according to the character perspective (of which there are 9). The beginning and end of each chapter also include a timestamp, place, and date to help orient the reader.

Each chapter picks up at the second the previous one left off — the story covers 08:03:05 to 23:32:09 on May 10, 2014. It spans Los Angeles, Singapore, and towns in Texas and Mexico.

Each character perspective also has its own font (these are detailed in the credits). The text includes Russian, Chinese, and Arabic script, and lines in a few other languages.

There is a design element along the centre seam, which varies from character to character. These are fractal-like, and many forum pages are devoted to theorizing about them: they likely indicate static or frequency, functioning as a narrative ECG.

There is a lot of white space. Some pages have just a single word. On some pages, the text seems to fall away. One chapter has extremely wide margins; the text is focused in a tight block. In another chapter, the text wraps around a circular whitespace; if these pages were flippable, the orb might appear to move across the page.

On other pages, text scatters and runs sideways. This happens consistently with one character, indicating a cognitive break, or sensory overload, or the onset of one of her seizures.

So none of these design elements is arbitrary. Form reflects content.

Pages 563-578 are whiter than white, blank of many of the elements mentioned above. They are distinct from the creamy pages of the rest of the story. These are the pages of a Narrative Construct, or Narcon for short.

Book as story
This is the first volume of a planned 27-volume series. I've heard this book described as the story of a 12-year-old girl who finds a kitten. That's mostly accurate. Even though for the first several hundred pages, she's on her way to pick up a dog.

Xanther has her own thread, and her mother and stepfather each have one too, so it's easy to feel that the story centres on her. As for the other character threads, I have no idea what they have to do with anything.

And I'm fine with that.

Around the world, it's raining.
There was this moment in writing when I realized that every character was in the rain. If Kubrick was the patron saint of House of Leaves, Akira Kurasawa was sort of the patron saint of The Familiar.
The Narcon chapter helps explain things. It describes some of the formulas used to create narrative and develop character, and defines its parameters. It is self-aware but only so far as it's been programmed to be. Well, this chapter may or may not explain things.

Book as experience
This is a puzzle of a book. I love puzzles.

The discovery of all those elements noted above is a pure joy. It makes this a very visual and tactile read.

The Familiar is also full of nested parentheticals, so reading is a bit like diagramming sentences, but on a more psychosemantic level than a mere grammatical one.

Danielewski has spoken about how The Familiar is conceptualized like a ("quality," modern) TV series, like The Wire or Mad Men, in how it develops character over long-form narrative. The way it shifts character focus, the way individual character stories intersect; how small events play into a season-long story arc.

This volume includes season previews (which don't (yet) appear to be linked to the novel proper), and pages of credits at the end.

It's highly conducive to binge reading. Just one more chapter.

The formatting helps pull the reader along. It feels a little like a graphic novel in this way, like where text spans frames and physically leads you where you're supposed to go.

If the text of this novel were conventionally laid out, it would be a standard 300-page novel. I believe I read it at a slightly faster rate than my usual, because the design factors were so compelling. The only hindrance was the weight, making it a bitch to commute with, which led me to plan my reading time a little more carefully.

The future of publishing
As soon as I finished reading volume 1, I rushed out to buy volume 2. I have a couple other things to read first, but I needed to ensure that I have it, for whenever I'm ready. I need to do a little catch-up, but I expect I'll be lined up to get volume 4 the day it's released.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as gimmicky if it weren't so goddamn beautiful and narratively compelling. It must be very expensive to produce; someone must have a lot of faith in this project.

I've showed off this book to a lot of people. This book is coveted. It has been fondled.

What if publishers made books beautiful? Good book design can be more than just a pretty cover. It's the paper, it's judicious use of colour, it's white space (white space is so underrated).

So 27 volumes of 800 pages may be a bit ambitious. Books don't have to be oversized to capture attention. But there are shorter stories. There are short stories, for example. Many texts could lend themselves not just to illustration but to design-sensitive interpretation. Or serialization. Graphic novels do this to a degree, but as mainstream as they are, they're not for everybody.

I happen to love ebooks, and in general I believe that the content of a book is more important than its form(at). But there is a market for beautiful books. People appreciate fine detail.

Make people want to turn pages.

One thing I admire about The Familiar is that it never becomes a graphic novel, can never be a television show. It does not resort to incorporating artefacts or referring to complementary online material; there are no fussy envelopes or reproduced postcards; there is no CD included. This is not amultimedia production, but it is fully immersive.

It's stretching our idea of a novel, but remains contained, remains very definitely a book.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Cursing my stupid fate

"Haven't you ever noticed, Mr. Glebsky, how much more interesting the unknown is than the known? The unknown makes us think — it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It's like a fire flickering in the depths of the night. But as soon as the unknown becomes known, it's just as flat, gray and uninteresting as everything else."
Another strange little book from the Strugatsky brothers: The Dead Mountaineer's Inn. All the books of theirs I've read so far are completely different from one another. You never know what you're going to get.

For the most part, this is a detective novel. Unexplained goings-on in an isolated setting, hints of a ghost, a petty theft, and a police detective on holiday casually investigating these things. Then there's a dead body.

But I thought Boris and Arkady Strugatsky wrote sci-fi. Maybe there's a sci-fi element that picks up on the unidentified flying objects alluded to in the opening pages.

And there's the fact that this book is pretty funny. In a Shot-in-the-Dark ridiculous kind of way, only our investigator is more of a Columbo than a Clouseau.
I looked and I snooped. I clambered around in the basement, peeked into the shower, examined the garage, the boiler room, the generator room — I even took a look at the underground oil tank. Nothing. Naturally, I hadn't expected to discover anything, that would have been too simple, but my damned bureaucratic integrity wouldn't let me leave any stone unturned. Twenty years of impeccable service are twenty years of impeccable service; anyway, it's always better to look like a scrupulous blockhead rather the the slapdash man of talent in the eyes of one's superiors, not to mention subordinates. So I groped, crawled, wallowed, breathing in dust and trash, pitying myself and cursing my stupid fate.

When I made my way out of the underground tanks, upset and filthy, it was already dawn. The pale moon was leaning to the west. The huge grey cliffs were covered in a purple mist. And what fresh, sweet, frosty air had filled the valley! Damn it all!...
I would read whole series featuring Inspector Peter Glebsky.

His stay at the inn is peopled by a bunch of weirdos, and I'd happily read the novels (that don't exist) that tell their back stories, in particular that of the famous physicist, who's unbeatable at pool and literally climbs the walls.

(One "comedic" element gave me pause. It seems nobody can tell whether one particular teenage character is a boy or girl, and it's played for laughs ad nauseam, our intrepid detective performing awkward linguistic gymnastics to avoid wrongly gendering the youth. And that's just, I dunno — is that funny? This novel was published in 1970; a product of its times, maybe its humour doesn't play as well today. Or maybe it's just me. But I recall reading that the Strugatsky brothers don't write women well, if they bother at all; that they are misogynistic, both in real life and in their fiction. Which colours the humour somewhat; I can't help but feel mean-spiritedness in this circumstance more than comedic ambiguity. But what do I know? Maybe it's funny.)

Everything is mostly resolved in the end. It's not exactly straightforward, though; in fact, it's outrageously over the top, in the best possible way.

And yes, this novel really is science fiction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Survival is insufficient

There are thoughts of freedom and imminent escape. I could throw away almost everything, she thinks, and begin all over again.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, begins with a production of King Lear; the lead seemingly has a heart attack and dies on stage. Meanwhile there's a flu outbreak across the city. The pandemic ultimately wipes out most of the human population. Traffic grinds to a halt and the lights go out. This is the story of what happens 20 years later. This is the story of what survives.

Despite expecting to dislike this book, I really enjoyed it. While reading it, I talked about it all the time, recommended it to everyone I knew. A week on, however, I'm pretty hazy on the details, so I'm not convinced of its staying power. But I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a good apocalypse story.

For all its subject matter, it is a gentle, quiet book. And Mandel has an optimistic view of humanity. Senselessness is limited. Her survivors mostly choose civility. They have a sense of wonder and respect toward the accomplishments of the past. The wandering troupe of performers, the Symphony, has as its motto, "Survival is insufficient." They preserve Shakespeare. So while survivors may not be overly concerned with restoring electricity, they cultivate grace and patience, a certitude that they will regain all of any relevance that had been lost.

"Station Eleven" refers to a space station named for Dr Eleven, who features in a comic book created pre-apocalypse by the first wife of the actor who played Lear (Arthur). Although the space station is the last outpost of humanity and under threat, it is also a safe haven, in particular for its author — she retreats from her marriage into its creation. Of course, it's a metaphor for the burgeoning community of survivors the Symphony finally reaches. It is a utopia, amid dystopian circumstances.

All the characters in Station Eleven are linked to Arthur. I almost wonder if this book couldn't be read metaphorically as a judgement of him. The plague was his doing, his egotism. I see him dying as Lear, seeing his past flash across his consciousness and the extrapolation of its consequences on everyone whose life he touched. They are all stronger for having survived him. Arthur took Miranda for granted, but she threw that life away, began again, and created a Station Eleven. He feels remorse and is redeemed.

Read/hear more about what survives on NPR.

Here's a passage that struck me for reasons quite apart from the story at hand:
Viola had a harrowing story about riding a bicycle west out of the burnt-out ruins of a Connecticut suburb, aged fifteen, harbouring vague notions of California but set upon by passersby long before she got there, grievously harmed, joining up with other half-feral teenagers in a marauding gang and then slipping away from them, walking alone for a hundred miles, whispering French to herself because all the horror in her life had transpired in English and she thought switching languages might save her, wandering into a town through which the Symphony passed five years later.
I came across a similar sentiment regarding language switching earlier this year. I think I need to learn a new language, to go beyond where my current words can take me.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

One rainy day

It's a rainy day in Montreal and I'm glad to be reading this. This book is L.A., and here's a bit of noir amid the chaos.
Özgür should get out of the rain. He doesn't even have an umbrella. Balascoe sure as hell isn't sharing his. Men a lot younger than him, soaked through like this, can get horrible things in their lungs and die on a respirator days later. But Oz loves rain. Almost as much as he loves this city.

Oz has lived and worked her streets for over twenty-seven years. And one thing stays true: he never gets sick of the way she rises up at dawn, the way she grows smokier come dusk, and the way during a big storm like this she falls down and her mascara runs.

"Do not apply gendered language to urban zones," Elaine warns whenever Oz acts like some sailor talking about his ship, letting slip a feminine reference to this place where they both live. He can't say she's wrong. After all, what kind of woman contains this scene?

Because if this was mascara it was red. A seep of blood still washed over the sidewalk. The Korean woman still agape at a sky streaking indifferently down upon her.
— from The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

It's hard to say what it's about just yet. I believe the novel covers one rainy day, and I've been given to understand that it's about a girl who finds a kitten. But on page 267 at 12:33 that day, the family is planning on bringing home a dog.

In many ways it brings to mind Infinite Jest. The many characters playing out in separate chapters in different registers. I'm feeling parallels between Xanther and Hal, Astair and Avril. Xanther's considering whether a particular book can trigger a seizure, or reverse its effects. It feels like an addictive entertainment. If Wallace is footnotes, then Danielewski is all nested parentheticals.

It's a commitment, to carry this behemoth with me on my commute, but I have fallen deep into this book.

Monday, September 05, 2016

No one transcends

Her parents were too middle-aged and dull to suffer accidents or die before their time, like mountaineers or poets.
For some reason I was under the impression that this book was a comedy. It is not a comedy. It is excruciatingly beautiful and filled with great sadness.

I read Jim Crace's Being Dead in one sitting. It starts with two middle-aged zoologists, husband and wife, Joseph and Celice, on a beach, undressed and very dead.

When their daughter, Syl, arrives at their house days later, she learns that Celice has been reading Calvino's Antonyms. (I can't find any trace of such a book. Anyone?) One strand of the novella details the process of death and the decay of the bodies, over the 6 days till they were found, and this strikes me as a very Calvino-esque element, in a t-zero kind of way, so minutely microcosmically physical as to become cosmically metaphysical, the flesh of a life lived falling away.

So this decomposition is interwoven with the story of their meeting; it's quite musical really, the backwards telling and the forward, their coming together and the falling apart, and then you start to hear the hum, the drone of their current life. The murder itself is percussive, and so is the daughter's anger and resentment.

It's sad how much the daughter is like the mother, but doesn't know it, and will never know it.
How should the dying spend their time when life's short portion shrinks with every waking day? She'd walked to see mortality that Sunday afternoon and found her parents irredeemable. Her gene suppliers had closed shop. Their daughter was the next in line. She could not duck out of the queue. So she should not waste her time in this black universe. The world's small, breathing denizens, its quaking congregations and its stargazers, were fools to sacrifice the flaring briefness of their lives in hopes of paradise or fears of hell. No one transcends. There is no future and no past. There is no remedy for death — or birth — except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.
It's sad that Joseph and Celice spent their lives together, but not really together, and that they don't love each other the way they should. It's kind of sad that they ended up together, they were good for each other for a while, for that summer, but a forever should not have grown out of it. It's so sad they should die like this.
They say that hearing is the last of our proficiencies to die, that corpses hear the rustling of bed sheets being pulled across their faces, the early weeping and the window being closed, the footsteps on the wooden stairs, the ruffian departing, the doctor's scratchy pen. This is why our generation talks so quietly in the dying room. And that is why the quiverings of old were not a waste. The body hears the widow and the child, the rattle of the chimney-pot, the quiver sticks, the life unravelled backwards through the night.
Interview: The Paris Review
Review: New York Times

(For the record, I loved Crace's The Pesthouse. On the basis of that book, I have a couple other of his works lined up on my shelf. On the basis of Being Dead, I'll be getting to them sooner rather than later.)

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Then something happened and he went nuts

"Making logical assumptions and coming to a conclusion will not help you get your memory back. No, I just want to stimulate your brain. The aim of the treatment is for your memories to come back to you — naturally.

"It seems rather tedious."

"There's no other way to do this. Let's imagine that I was able to tell you what sort of person you were, what your history was, and the sort of lifestyle you led. You'd probably believe me. You'd know your name, your address, and your age. That sort of thing. But that wouldn't mean you'd have your memory back. You'd only know those particular facts — you wouldn't have remembered them. You don't need to know what actually happened in this crime for the treatment to be effective. Don't think about it that way. Your job is to remember, and that's what you need to concentrate on."

I wanted to tell him not to mess with me. I didn't want to be manipulated. The doctors and the treatment specialist must know that people with amnesia feel this way. They wanted me to remember, but I was terrified of the prospect. I trembled in fear imagining what I might see when I was able to see into my past. I wanted to run away and hide. I didn't want my memory back.

I didn't have any choice, though. We patients had no say in our treatment.
Labyrinth, by Yoshinori Shimizu, was an unexpectedly engrossing read. I came cross it quite by chance, and thought, why not? I've liked a few Japanese mysteries in the past, it's been a while since I read anything of that sort, and this novella was short enough that I figured I had nothing to lose. I did, in fact, lose a little bit of sleep over it, both staying up late to read but also puzzling over some of the novel's intentions and implications.

The first mystery posed by the novel is that of its narrator. Who is the patient? Further, what is the nature of this treatment and why must it be undergone? Who is the therapist?

The patient, as part of the treatment, is made to read various accounts of a murder, including the official police record, some newspaper articles, interviews, and a novelistic treatment of the crime.

The crime itself is a bit gruesome, but the facts of it, including the identity of the murderer, are established early on. A young professional woman is found (by her boyfriend) dead in her apartment, her genitals removed (and later found to have been preserved by the murderer). The murderer later explains that this was not a sexual act, but one of ultimate love, which he quite confuses with ownership and control. This bit of Manamis's flesh represented the core of her, of her being a woman and why he loved her, and now he could own her, love her, forever.

The real mystery is to do with the identity of the patient and his relationship to the therapist. It's not difficult to guess, but one traverses a philosophical labyrinth before arriving at any answers. "I might have just gone too far into the labyrinth of the human heart."

This labyrinth may turn off a lot of readers. There is not a lot of action or even suspense here — just questions, at every turn. Whose version of events is to be believed. What makes one source more credible than another? To what extent is motive essential to establishing a crime, or to understanding it? What constitutes legal insanity? Does identity exist without memory? Can there be culpability if there is no memory? Is the essence of a woman really her genitals? (Of course not!) Should artists be held responsible (culpable?) for inspiring crime?

My fascination with Labyrinth lies at its intersection with the works of Simenon. What makes normal people walk away from that normalcy — whether forever or just for an instant?
Can you really say that you knew a guy who committed a crime, and that he always seemed capable of doing it? Do murderers act like potential murderers from the time they are children? I really don't think so. They're probably not much different from anybody else.

And then something happens. Something that pushes them over the edge and they do it. At that point they become a different person from who they had been. I don't believe you can pinpoint a type of person as a future criminal. When he was in high school, he was nothing but . . . a gloomy introvert. Then something happened and he went nuts.

Who knows? I might be a criminal ten years from now. We don't know what causes people to go crazy. But whatever happens, criminals aren't living lives that take them directly to crime. It doesn't work that way.