Sunday, January 29, 2017

Another world's intrusion into this one

Bulgarian edition, 1990
This book is funny and messed with my mind in a most wonderful way. I have no idea what to make of it, and I loved it. The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon. This is my first Pynchon.

It preys on a paranoid sense of conspiracy, both in the protagonist, Oedipa Maas, and the reader.

How strange it is to be reading the words "REPORT ALL OBSCENE MAIL TO YOUR POTSMASTER" while standing in the metro waiting for the doors to close, and at the last moment a young man who bears a striking resemblance to Putin should jump in, squeezing in behind my shoulder. He's wearing a standard-issue Canada Post jacket. I read about the Scope bar, and upon arriving at work I'm asked to proofread an ad for a conference called SCOPE. There's bourbon everywhere. Several(!) articles I read during the week reference Stockhausen, and Bakunin.

Oedipa Maas has been named executor of the estate of an old boyfriend. As she reviews his assets, she stumbles onto a massive conspiracy regarding the American postal system extending prior to the Civil War (an alternate history of which is also presented). She finds secret signs everywhere, but she herself is not comfortable with all the coincidence, and considers that it may all be in her head.

We are treated to a Jacobean revenge play, its variant editions, and an investigation into its origins that takes Oedipa to a used bookstore, a publisher, and a university professor. There's a scheme to recover bones for the purpose of making cigarette filters. The Yoyodyne corporation. A perpetual motion machine.
"You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world's intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there's cataclysm. Like the church we hate, anarchists also believe in another world. Where revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul's talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself. And yet, señá, if any of it should ever really happen that perfectly, I would also have to cry miracle. An anarchist miracle. Like your friend. He is too exactly and without flaw the thing we fight. In Mexico the privilegiado is always, to a finite percentage, redeemed — one of the people. Unmiraculous. But your friend, unless he's joking, is as terrifying to me as a Virgin appearing to an Indian."
There's a whole wiki devoted to this novel, and I read alongside it for a while. It was the note regarding Oedipa's shrink, Dr Hilarius, that caused me to trust in my own reading. The annotation gives a summary of Pope Saint Hilarius. But I truly don't see a need to look beyond the obvious: as a name, Hilarius is plain hilarious, only slightly more latinate and therefore doctory.

At some point I had to consciously decide not even to try to make sense of it all, let it wash over me, enjoy the ride. "Like all their inabilities to communicate, this too had a virtuous motive."

It reminds me of the best of Auster and the best of Murakami, but more self-assured, smarter. Wackier, yet in a seeming contradiction giving the impression of being more grounded in the real world. It feels loaded with possibility, and with possible interpretation.

Polish edition, 1990
There are a couple odd references to cancer. "The rest of the bones were used in the R&D phase of the filter programme, back around the early fifties, way before cancer." Did cancer not exist in the early fifties? Is it a symbol for communism? Some other sickness afflicting America? (Norman Mailer said, "Cancer is the growth of madness denied.") At another point, Oedipa lumps cancer together with things she doesn't want to think about. Is she turning a blind eye to some social responsibility? Or is she in denial about a personal, physical cancer? Is that what Maas is? Maybe it's merely her marriage that is the cancerous mass.
"There's a certain harassed style," she said, "you get to recognize. I thought only kids caused it. I guess not."
One reading of the book posits that it's one long acid trip. Dr Hilarius had wanted her to take part in a study, but she didn't trust him, and didn't take any of the pills her prescribed her (but perhaps this is a wish manifest through LSD, not reflecting reality).

The titular crying is that of an auctioneer. When lot 49, the dead man's collection of forged stamps, is put on the block, Oedipa hopes it will draw out a representative of Trystero, proving its existence once and for all. But the book ends as the auctioneer is clearing his throat. So the reader will never know. I feel Oedipa crying at this moment too, the way only a painting can make her cry.

Have you read The Crying of Lot 49? Do you have a theory?

Review in The New York Times (1966).
Review in The Quarterly Conversation.
Gallery of cover art.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Dreams are built on dull facts

It has been many an age more since the crowds called for a liar. Mine is a lost art, and I shall be grateful to share it with thee." He turns aside, and lets me pass. We stand back out in the busy street.

"You're a liar?"

"The last liar," he says, slowly, sadly, observing the tower. In the light of day Thyme looks like an artefact recovered from some lost tomb. "Once, dreams were built of my tales. Quests formed by the skill of my words. But now there are only the whispers and rumours, and little room for a liar. Dreams are built on dull facts. Mine," he repeats, "is a lost art. Follow me, Manderlay, and we shall locate thy Sleepwalker." Reluctantly I do as I am told, wondering whether I have made a grave mistake.
Metronome, by Oliver Langmead, is a strange but beautiful dream of a book.

The story opens by introducing the reader to Manderlay. He's aged and living in a retirement home, but with his buddy Valentine, they still get up to some antics. Manderlay was once a violinist, and receives the occasional cheque for 40 pence in royalties whenever someone buys his album. Manderlay is lately troubled by his dreams, and the reader soon leaves the gently nostalgic blanket of the home to inhabit his dreamworld entirely.

The dreaminess is both a strength and a weakness. It allows for some very creative images, actions, and relationships, but it also falls back on dream logic to justify its course.

Manderlay's musical skills are called upon to help navigate the skyship Metronome, with a small group of righteous warriors engaged in an ultimate battle between good and evil.

I don't fully understand how all our dreamworlds intersect with each other. Each dream opens onto a collective unconscious, an evidently vast but common world, night after night.

I just couldn't buy into the workings of the dream logic. There are detailed battle scenes — something I'm simply not a fan of. I would've been happy to follow Manderlay's demise from the comfort of the retirement home, but that it not the book Langmead chose to write. The story also takes a religious turn; while not exactly didactic, I'm not entirely comfortable with the implications. I'm not one to turn away from stories just because they espouse a worldview different from mine, but in this case it posed an obstacle to my buying into the premise of the book.

Still, the scenery is steampunkishly breathtaking.
There are shapes hanging from the tower ahead of us: a tapestry of wooden walkways and scaffolding which make for a kind of peculiar set of docks. I can see the distant silhouettes of dock workers, high in the air, as if we are standing beneath crystal-clear depths of water and looking up at them. And moored at those docks is a singular ship, or mechanism, that defies easy understanding.

It looks as if someone has attempted to build a clock but did not know when to stop. It is a cataclysm of clockwork parts in synchronised motion arranged in the shape of a frigate. The ship has no sails, barely any hull beyond a few lengths of wood along its flanks, and between brass and copper lengths of girders, I can see endless cogs and cables, whirring and winding and ticking in gentle motion. The whole thing just hangs there, impossibly, in the sky.

I realise that I have forgotten to breathe.
Andromeda Spaceways
Shoreline of Infinity

Sunday, January 22, 2017

No apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic

Mujer Saljendo del Psicoanalista, Remedios Varo
In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central paintings of a triptych, title 'Bordando el Manto Terrestre', were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she'd wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there'd been no escape. What did she so desire to escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: and what really keeps here where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstitions, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disc jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?
— from The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.

As with many references in The crying of Lot 49, I didn't know if Remedios Varo was real or fictitious. Real, it turns out. Her paintings are real.

I don't recognize her work as anything I've come across in the past; how can I have lived my life without knowing her? Whimsical yet dark. Feminist. Several of her works would feel at home within the world of The Crying of Lot 49.

I have a particular fondness for Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (above), as if she's pulled the cobwebs from her mind, and they are the psychoanalyst.

Oedipa Maas's shrink, Dr. Hilarius, has been trying to recruit her for an LSD study, but she has resisted. She doesn't trust him. I haven't entirely figured out Pynchon's attitude to women, or at least to this woman protagonist. It may not be important. But I have the feeling it is.

Bordando el Manto Terrestre, Remedios Varo

Has a painting ever made you cry?

Friday, January 20, 2017

What are we reading for?

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.
— from a letter to Oskar Pollak from Franz Kafka, 1904.

Here's another thoughtful work from La Biennale de Montréal 2016 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, themed Le Grand Balcon. In Zac Langdon-Pole's My Body, poetic extracts are spelled out with enlarged ornamental letters (such as drop caps are often styled) in various typographies and with different artistic sensibilities (some are stark and modern, others cherub-laden). The different verses are introduced with epigraphic photographs; these are subdued in colour and highly reflective. Upon this visual is etched some textual excerpt, like textured text (my photo atempts can't capture it). The first framed photo here cited Kafka.

This section spells out "by the light of the axe / in my secret life / I am with him."

I really appreciated how difficult it was to decipher the text, both the photos and the initials, and their juxtaposition creates a puzzling but engaging tension. More than anything, though, I'm inspired to read Kafka's letter.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

History will ignore you

But I get this feeling —

It is a feeling that our emotions, while wonderful, are transpiring in a vacuum, and I think it boils down to the fact that we're middle class.

You see, when you're middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and since. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied.

And any small moments of intense, flaring beauty such as this morning's will be utterly forgotten, dissolved by time like a super-8 film left out in the rain, without sound, and quickly replaced by thousands of silently growing trees.
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, by Douglas Coupland — I've been meaning to read this book since 1991, and then again in 2010 when it was a Canada Reads selection and I came into possession of a copy exactly as pictured here.

More recently, we were severally drunk, in my kitchen, and someone was bemoaning the fate of the Gen-X-er, and I wondered how this could be, said bemoaner being a full decade younger than myself. And it was decided to read the book so as to know once and for all who was truly of generation X.

What came as a surprise is that the novel's narrator is almost a decade older than me.

Still, the angsty apathy, the pessimism I vehemently declare to be realism, is something I very must relate to. Or related to. As a gen-x-er of a certain age, I feel like I've grown out of it. Or rather, having acknowledged the hopelessness of where I sit, socioeconomically, historically — that hasn't changed, but I am no longer mired in the problem of it. Millennials, on the other hand, have not "grown out of it" yet, and I get the feeling that they are unlikely to.

[Whatever happened to Generation Y?]

There's not much of a plot to Generation X. I'm tempted to call it a collection of loosely connected short stories. The novel, such as it is, pivots around Andy, Dag, and Clare, who tell each other stories, primarily (solely?) for entertainment, AA-style, without judgment.
"I firmly believe," Dag once said at the beginning, months ago, "that everybody on earth has a deep, dark secret that they'll never tell another soul as long as they live. Their wife, their husband, their lover, or their priest. Never.

"I have my secret. You have yours. Yes, you do — I can see you smiling. You're thinking about your secret right now. [...] Just tell me. You may be able to help me and not even know it."
[What's your secret?]

Stories get told, and then several times we see glimmers of the "real life" that inspired those stories. Or maybe the stories inspired reality. Or maybe it's all just stories. It's easy to call the earth-colony space-poisoning incident a story, but Irene and Phil, neighbours who live permanently in the 1950s, are presumably real, even though both environments share details like a brandy snifter filled with matchbooks and a freak jaws-of-life event.

Some bits struck eerily close to home, in an entirely insignificant way.
I'd sooner have died than admit that the most valuable thing I owned was s fairly expensive collection of German industrial music dance mix EP records stored, for even further embarrassment, under a box of crumbling Christmas tree ornaments in a Portland, Oregon basement.
This on the tail end of a visit to my mom, wherein I found a crate of vinyl — including German industrial music dance mix EP records — that I'd long ago assumed my brother had pawned off. But there they were in the basement crawlspace (Sandinista! mislabeled), behind (not under) a crumbling box of Christmas tree ornaments (who knows what shape the ornaments were actually in) once temporarily stored there by a now deceased friend of the family. I mean, who even has records anymore? Except of course that suddenly, people do.

[What's the most valuable thing you own?]

Apart from the aimlessness of the characters (and of the novel), this novel leaves me with an overwhelming sense of Cold-War nuclear-arms-race paranoia. Remember The Day After? How scared we were? This book like a madeleine recalls the dis-ease that hovered over the land.
Although their background orbits are somewhat incongruous, Claire and Elvissa share a common denominator — both are headstrong, both have a healthy curiosity, but most important, both left their old live behind them and set forth to make new lives for themselves in the name of adventure. In their similar quest to find a personal truth, they willingly put themselves on the margins of society, and this, I think, took some guts. It's harder for women to do this than men.
[Is that true, that it's harder for women? Is it still true?]

One chapter is titled December 31, 1999 (I remember that day), and another, much later is January 1, 2000 (that day is hazy). Taken at face value, the intervening text may be understood to have happened overnight. And all that came before... Has it been years of roaming through dead-end jobs and meaningless parties? A lost decade? [I had a lost decade.]
"What one moment for you defines what it's like to be alive on this planet? What's your takeaway?"

[...] "Fake yuppie experiences that you had to spend money on, like white water rafting or elephant rides in Thailand don't count. I want to hear some small moment from your life that proves you're really alive."
[What's your takeaway?]

I will spend time puzzling over some of the questions the novel incidentally raises and never really addresses, more so than I will considering the actual novel.

[What's my takeaway? How many of those first thoughts that come to mind were bought experiences?]

I loved the sidebars: slogans, definitions, and cartoon panels, all complementing the themes of the main text. I wish there were more of this kind of thing in book publishing. However, I hated the squareness of the volume, which made it tough to read while commuting; the text doesn't have the gravity to demand that kind of space. And the paper quality is shit for flipping — I had to rub pages to separate them at every turn. It's not a lay-flat beautiful book, and it's not a "disposable" newsprinty comic book, which is too bad, because either form could complement this content really well.

Conclusion: This is a generation-defining novel only in the most literal way. It no longer feels fresh, but maybe as a generation we're just tired. The voice is unique only insofar as it sounds just like every other self-aware and ironic writer since the late 80s. But Coupland does have a knack for tapping into a particular slice of the gen-x zeitgeist. "I was feeling homesick for the event while it was happening."

I'm looking forward to discussing the book with my fellow gen-x-ers, debating whether we are or are not, and I have the perfect cocktail for it: it'll be "washed down with Polish cherry brandy, the taste for which he acquired during a long, sleepy earnest summer job spent behind the glum, patronless counter of the local Enver Hoxha Communist bookstore." Ahh.

Article: Generation X: The young and restless work force following the baby boom
Review: I read the book and wondered where I was
Bonus: Ready, Steady, Go!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

You must first deny, then admit and repent.

Today I caught La Biennale de Montréal 2016 on its last day at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, themed Le Grand Balcon, inspired by Genet. Our flirtation with hedonism.

My favourite piece by far was Luzie Meyer's video, The Balcony, featuring the Bishop, the Judge, the General, and the camerawoman.

This trailer doesn't do it justice — it's playful but very thought-provoking, especially when the camerawoman begins following herself. The narration/dialogue is delightful. I would readily sit through a feature-length version of this riff off Genet's Balcony, and I urge anyone who has opportunity to see the video in full (just under 20 minutes) to do so.

I'm not much for reading plays, but I have a copy of the Genet. My cousin gave it to me. He's dead now. He was a hedonist, of a very cerebral variety.

Remind me someday to tell you about the night I spent in a brothel.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A simple lack of temporal focus

Most psychic abilities are caused by a simple lack of temporal focus, and the mind of Agnes Nutter was so far adrift in Time that she was considered pretty mad even by the standards of seventeenth-century Lancashire, where mad prophetesses were a growth industry.

But she was a treat to listen to, everyone agreed.

She used to go on about curing illnesses by using a sort of mold, and the importance of washing your hands so that the tiny little animals who caused diseases would be washed away, when every sensible person knew that a good stink was the only defense against the demons of ill health. She advocated running at a sort of gentle bouncing trot as an aid to living longer, which was extremely suspicious and first put the Witchfinders onto her, and stressed the importance of fiber in diet, although here she was clearly ahead of her time since most people were less bothered about the fiber in their diet than the gravel. And she wouldn't cure warts.

"Itt is alle in youre Minde," she'd say, "forgett about Itte, and it wille goe Away."

It was obvious that Agnes had a line to the Future, but it was an unusually narrow and specific line, In other words, almost totally useless.
The books I'd come equipped with simply wouldn't do. I just didn't have the head for them — I lacked focus, temporal or otherwise.

While rummaging in my mother's basement through boxes of books that belonged variously to myself, my siblings, and friends of the family who lacked closets and crawlspaces, I came across a copy of Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, which may in itself have been considered a good omen. With Clive Barker proclaiming that "the Apocalypse has never been funnier," it seemed appropriate reading material with which to start the new year.

On the outside it looked brand new (I myself cracked the spine of this mass market paperback [do they even print those anymore?]), but the pages were yellowed and it smelled old. Pricemarked $6.99. This edition bears no sign of a subtitle, neither on its cover or in the copyright page, although the covers of most other editions seem to include one ("The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch").

It served very well for the hours-long train journey, and a couple late nights requiring the mind to be emptied, stilled, entertained.

So, the Apocalypse. The Antichrist, switched at birth, raised in the British countryside. An angel who runs a used bookshop where customers occasionally inconvenience him. A witch's descendant and a collection of mostly useless prophecies. Four Horsemen. Mayhem ensues.

Good Omens is quite hilarious in parts.
The only things in the flat Crowley devoted any personal attention to were the houseplants. They were huge and green and glorious, with shiny, healthy, lustrous leaves.

This was because, once a week, Crowley went around the flat with a green plastic mister, spraying the leaves and talking to the plants.

He had heard about talking to plants in the early seventies, on Radio Four, and thought it an excellent idea. Although talking is perhaps the wrong word for what Crowley did.

What he did was put the fear of God into them.

More precisely, the fear of Crowley.

In addition to which, every couple of months Crowley would pick out a plant that was growing too slowly, or succumbing to leaf-wilt or browning, or just didn't look quite as good as the others, and he would carry it around to all the other plants. "Say goodbye to your friend," he'd say to them. "He just couldn't cut it..."

Then he would leave the flat with the offending plant, and return an hour of so later with a large, empty flower pot, which he would leave somewhere conspicuously around the flat.

The plants were the most luxurious, verdant, and beautiful in London. Also the most terrified.
(Crowley is of course a demon, and it's hinted that the mister may contain holy water.)

But it's hard to sustain the hilarity. Maybe it's me? (Full disclosure: I think Neil Gaiman is overrated, and I've never read Terry Pratchett.)

Frankly, this apocalypse bored me after a couple days. It took longer to read than for the apocalypse to actually happen.

Little things irked, like how the teenage Antichrist's dialect is represented. I mean, what really is served by writing analoggy or rappore or could of (while other characters correctly "could have")?

And like how some descriptions are very faintly (so faint that I can't even pinpoint why they offend me) sexist. "Sgt. Deisenburger had never seen a female general like her before, but she was certainly an improvement." There's nothing wrong with that sentence, but there's something nudge-winky about it. There are only a handful of examples throughout the book, but... but really? Is it necessary? Is it funny? Are we not past this yet?

And while I'm usually a proponent of the "show, don't tell" philosophy, I couldn't help but feel I was reading a very precise description of a comedy-action movie, rather than reading an actual comedy-action novel. A good novel lets you picture it in your head. This novel ensures there is no mistaking what you picture, it is so carefully stage-directed for you. That's not exactly bad, but it feels intrusive — get out of my head. This may be the wrong medium for this particular story.

By novel's close, I couldn't even stand that old-book smell anymore.

Wow, am I ever critical! At this point you must be wondering what crawled up my butt to die. Maybe it's the back-pain-related crankiness, or the back-to-work crankiness. Maybe it's the looming gloom of the Trumpocracy. Just not feeling the funny. I'm switching back to short and angsty novels for the foreseeable future.

Friday, January 06, 2017

You may withdraw and proceed with your walk

An excerpt from All This Can Happen produced by Siobhan Davies Dance, based on Robert Walser's 1917 novella The Walk. (Discovered via the New York Review Books newsletter.)

All This Can Happen

[I am rediscovering walking this week. Montreal is a good city for walking, made all the more beautiful when it's under fresh snow.]
An Inexpressible Feeling for the World

I stood and listened, and suddenly there came upon me an inexpressible feeling for the world, and, together with it, a feeling of gratitude, which broke powerfully out of my soul.
Excerpts from The Walk, by Robert Walser.

See also Maria Popova's reflections: Robert Walser, the Art of Walking, and Our Daily Dance of Posturing and Sincerity.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Because of all the fog

The sensation of being homesick
for a place that is not my home
while being right in the middle of it


which reminds me
of another Japanese poet

who wrote how much he enjoyed
not being able to see
his favorite mountain because of all the fog.
— from "Bashō in Ireland" in The Rain in Portugal, by Billy Collins.

I'm going home tomorrow, and looking forward to a year with more poetry in it.

Billy Collins' latest volume was under the tree for me. He never fails to put a smile on my face. Reading "Dream Life," I delude myself for a moment thinking I actually could've written it.
Poetry works long hours
and rarely speaks to the tailor
as she bends to repair the fancy costumes
of various allegorical figures
who were told by Thrift how little she charges.