Thursday, September 28, 2017

Fatal whirlpools

I went looking for a fragment of one poem, but found something else entirely. And when it comes to poetry, it's usually just as well.

I'm reading a mystery novel by Zygmunt Miłoszewski. The text is liberally sprinkled with pop-cultural references along with some classical ones, a lot of them very, very Polish. When he quoted Wisława Szymborska, I went looking for the source.

Instead I found "In Praise of My Sister," which I've since been reading over and over, all while (silently) actually praising my sister (for entirely unrelated reasons).
There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
but once it starts up it's hard to quarantine.
Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

My sister has tackled oral prose with some success.
but her entire written opus consists of postcards from vacations
whose text is only the same promise every year:
when she gets back, she'll have
so much
much to tell.
I love this poem.

It makes me wonder where poetry comes from. I don't think my sister ever wrote poetry; I'll have to ask her. To my knowledge, my parents weren't afflicted. But my brother was. He wrote on napkins and coasters and the insides of cigarette packages. Filled with mystical symbols and romantic angst. My attempts were more academically driven. (And far superior.) Have we opened the genetic floodgates? Pity my daughter.

But also I've been reading three different translations of this poem, and puzzling over them.

While in the fragment above (tr. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh) the sister has much to tell, Adam Czerniawski says "she'll tell us / all / all / all about it." and according to Magnus J Krynski and Robert A Maguire, "she'll tell us, everything, / everything / everything." They're none of them... perfect.

I wondered also about Peter Piper — I couldn't be sure how meaningful or not that reference was to me ("And, even though this is starting to sound as repetitive as Peter Piper," Barańczak & Cavanagh). The original Polish (see Pochwała siostry) names Adam Macedoński, an activist, artist, and (minor?) poet. One translation leaves the reference, obscure as it is, intact ("and though it sounds like a poem by Adam Macedoński," Krynski & Maguire); another evades the issue entirely ("And — this begins to sound like a found poem —" Czerniawski). And I still don't know who Adam Macedoński is, and what Peter Piper is supposed to mean.

Days like this I hate poetry, and I love it. I have too much time on my hands, and not enough.

Days like this I praise my sister for being an accountant.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt

The Goldens all told stories about themselves, stories in which essential information about origins was either omitted or falsified. I listened to them not as "true" but as indications of character. The stories a man told about himself revealed him in ways that the record could not.
The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie, is about Nero Golden and his three grown sons, living the life in New York City. It begins the day Barack Obama is inaugurated as president and ends some eight years later.

It is not the book I thought it would be.

While it mocks The Joker who eventually won the country, it takes a few jabs at Obama along the way. Nero Golden, meanwhile, is himself a kind of golden-boy caricature, one young wife after another, his spoiled progeny, so much gold it's garish.
I assumed he had brought serious funds with him when he came west, but there were persistent rumors that all his enterprises were highly leveraged, that the whole mega-business of his name was a flimflam game and bankruptcy was the shadow that went with his name whenever he took it for a stroll. I thought of him as a citizen not of New York but of the invisible city of Octavia which Marco Polo described to Kublai Khan in Calvino's book, a spider-web city hanging in a great net over an abyss between two mountains. "The life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities," Calvino wrote. "They now the net will last only so long." I thought of him too as one of those characters in animated cartoons, Wile E. Coyote perhaps, who are constantly running off the edges of canyons, but who keep going, defying gravity, until they look down, and then they fall. The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt brings about its calamitous ending. Nero Golden kept going, perhaps, because he never looked down.
I had thought Golden was meant to serve as a commentary on, or parody of, Trump. It feels like the whole novel is supposed to be doing that, yet failing to do that. It's not really about the Obama years, or about the America that allowed Trump to happen. But I can't shake the feeling that it should be.

This novel (much like our times?) is chaotic. It's told by a storyteller (I mean Rushdie, not his weak narrator), but there's not much story to it. While it's easy to get swept up in Rushdie's prose, it wears thin after a couple hundred ADHD pages.

There are some compelling narrative threads but they don't come together satisfactorily. Big themes include identity and re-invention of self.

About two-thirds of the way through,
Then a friend of mine, a writer, a good writer, said something that scared the pants off me. He said, think of life as a novel, let's say a novel of four hundred pages, and the imagine how many pages in the book your story has already covered. And remember that after a certain point, it's not a good idea to introduce a new major character. After a certain point you are stuck with the characters you have. So maybe you need to think of a way of introducing that new character before it's too late, because everyone gets older, even you.
I thought, maybe this is it, maybe this is where it gets interesting, someone new to shine a light, but no. There was no one. I had stopped caring.

The Golden House novel left me feeling bored and disappointed.

The reviews in the New York Times really nailed it.

Monica Ali in the New York Times: In Salman Rushdie's New Novel, the Backdrop Is the Obama Years
Collectively, their story lines are high-octane vehicles for observations on everything from art to gun violence, told with Rushdie's customary brio and narrative panache, and the reader is happy to go along for the ride.
Despite (or because of) all the apostrophizing, René fails to demonstrate any insight into why "60-million-plus" brought the Joker to power.
Dwight Garner in the New York Times: Salman Rushdie's Prose Joins the Circus in 'The Golden House'
All gestures here are grand gestures; all soirées are glittering soirées; all mirrors are magic mirrors; every ferocity is a genuine ferocity; every grill is a brazier; every regret a bitter one.

The effect is exhausting — and deadening. Anything can happen, so nothing matters. Rushdie is obsessed with "characters," as Alfred Kazin once said of John Irving, yet somehow does not evoke the more difficult thing: character.
LA Review of Books: Rushdie's Domus Aurea: "The Golden House" by Salman Rushdie
The point is apparent: the times have produced an arbitrary, indiscriminate form of violence, whether by an organization or a lone nut that can catch any of us anywhere. But the book sheds little light on the America that produces that violence or how it shapes human action and interaction.
New Statesman: The Golden House is Salman Rushdie's not-so-great American novel
What is The Golden House actually about? The models invoked – Nero as Captain Ahab, as Jay Gatsby, as Lucius in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass – suggest a study of hubris, with America as an all-too-willing home, but the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.

Interview with Salman Rushdie
NPR: Leaving The Past Behind — Or Trying To — In Rushdie's Latest
America clearly has some very heavy, and even dark aspects to its history. But it's not like having a couple of thousand years, or three thousand years of history. The burden of history is greater. And so one of the things that happens in this book is that people from an old country, an Indian family, a wealthy Indian family — in a way, trying to shed the burden of their own history — comes to a country in which the subject of reinvention of the self is completely central. Everybody does it. People come through Ellis Island and change their names, people move from the Midwest to the big city and try and be new people, and it seemed appropriate for people from an old country trying to get rid of the shadow of the past, to come to somewhere where it's possible to be new.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Time is a weapon

I am not a politician, nor am I an economist. I am a scientist. But it seems appropriate to hypothesize here that a future where life-extension technology is available only to those who can afford it, or to those whom society considers useful, will look very different to a future where life-extension technology is more broadly available.
This sentiment is directly pertinent this week to two instances concerning people I know and difficulty in accessing and/or affording specialized treatment. One instance ended in suicide, as the pain without treatment was too terrible to bear; the other instance may not be ended yet, but has thus far wrought nothing but misery.

Think about it. Imagine a disease that everyone is subject to. Imagine there's a cure and it's proven, not merely theoretical or experimental. But only some people have access to it. Their privilege is not based in their genes or any other innate factor (not that that should make a difference). It's based on a social construct: money. Shouldn't everyone have a right to the cure? The same access to it?

In the case of this novella, the disease is aging.

Everything Belongs to the Future, by Laurie Penny — journalist, writer, activist, feminist — has some big things to say about big pharma. Also about aging, ageism, and gerontocracy. And time.

In 2099, the Earth is still a viable habitat, due in no small part to the fact that people expect to be around in a couple hundred years. Mother Earth is no longer a problem to be pawned off on your children; you have to deal with it yourself. But it's not all easy.

Life, and death, are now, more than ever, political. One faction chooses to redistribute the cure. Other people embrace their natural lifecycle, but almost in protest.

It's a short, easy read. The storytelling is a bit workman-like, and while the story ignores many of the implications of its premise, the food for thought is worth the price of admission.
Meanwhile: consider that time is a weapon.

Before the coming of the Time Bomb, this was true. It was true before men and women of means or special merit could purchase an extra century of youth. It has been true since the invention of the hourglass, the water clock, the wrist watch, the shift-bell, the factory floor. Ever since men could measure time, they have used it to divide each other.

Time is a weapon wielded by the rich, who have excess of it, against the rest, who must trade every breath of it against the promise of another day’s food and shelter. What kind of world have we made, where human beings can live centuries if only they can afford the fix? What kind of creatures have we become?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Desperate hope for some form of contact

It was deadly quiet in the S-train care because almost all the passengers were surfing on their smartphones and iPads. Some were enthusiastic and concentrated, while others were just scrolling their thumbs over the screen in the desperate hope for some form of contact.
Who can't relate to that image?

The Scarred Woman, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, was a fantastic page-turner of a book — just what I needed!

I'm familiar with the Danish Department Q series thanks to their dramatization (watch the first three movies on Netflix). Those films were such a satisfying, if dark, binge, that I couldn't refuse the offer of a review copy of a novel when it came my way. (Also, I was thrilled to learn there are books behind these films, of course there are.)

The titular scarred woman could refer to any of several women in the novel, all of them in their way both victim and perpetrator.

The women include some unfortunates who are receiving social assistance payments but also scamming the system; their case worker, recently diagnosed with breast cancer; and Rose, a police colleague who suffered a breakdown following the last Department Q case.

All this in a book that opens with a Nazi.

There's a good deal of coincidence going on in this novel. At any other time I might've rolled my eyes, but I think the book is saved by not taking itself too seriously. It's played matter-of-factly, even for laughs in some cases, that it's completely acceptable if not wholly believable.

I found it refreshing too that this novel isn't about Detective Carl Mørck; it focuses on the crimes at hand and the people involved in them.

I'm out of practice at reading crime novels, and I had some difficulty earlier this year in following the action of some (sci-fi) thrillers, so I hesitated to commit to reading this 480-page book, but it read like a breeze. Maybe more practiced readers might find it simplistic, but I found it clear without being overly obvious, well-paced without being weighed down by action, and having moral depth without getting lost in psychological detail.

I'm glad to have discovered this series and I definitely see myself turning to other Department Q novels in the cooling months ahead.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A bigger, much harder kind of pea

The first few years of Helena's life, I used to imagine her dying. All the time. It was exhausting. Not senseless, horrific deaths, exactly. Well, yes, that, but very possible senseless, horrific deaths.

In the beginning I thought they might be premonitions, but it didn't take long to realize they were warnings.

For example, pushing her stroller down the sidewalk, I'd imagine — very vividly, I might add, almost hallucinatorily, like a glimpse of an alternate parallel existence — a random car swerving up onto said sidewalk, putting us — most importantly, her — in mortal danger. I'd imagine throwing myself in front of her, or maneuvering the stroller out of the car's path. Or I'd glance away and she'd be face down in the wading pool. Or the approaching dog would turn out to be rabid and think of her as an easy meal. Or she might decide to put a pencil up her nose, all the way up her nose. I'd see blood, all over my flesh and blood, and my breath would catch in my chest, and I'd replay the instant, over and over — how could I save her?

Now, it wasn't "obsessive/compulsive" in the sense that it didn't affect how I lived my life (our lives). I still walked down the sidewalk, went to the wading pool, sat in the park, left her unattended (for seconds, minutes?) at a time. It's only effect was to make me hyper-vigilant. And that's a good thing. I was constantly rehearsing deadly scenarios and optimizing my responses. The hormones of new motherhood fed the ninja instinct. Ninja for mommies.

The older, more self-sufficient Helena got, the fewer and farther between my imaginings. But I still have them, these dark visions.

It took years to realize I wasn't alone in this experience. It's a hard thing to talk about without coming off as crazy, but I've heard other mothers talk about imagining the worst, and how they learned to use it as a tool for creating a safe environment. It's a safety mechanism regarding the child, but also, perhaps counterintuitively, a sanity mechanism for the mother self, to assure that you have considered all possibilities and are doing everything you can for a potentially endangered child. That you are a good mother.

This is the closest I come to understanding what Samanta Schweblin means by "rescue distance" — an algorithm involving the actual distance from one's child in some measure against all potential dangers in the vicinity (calculating number, distance, severity). Distancia de rescate is the original Spanish title of her first novel.
Why do mothers do that?
Try to get out in front of anything that could happen — the rescue distance.
It's because sooner or later something terrible will happen.
There's not much I can say about Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin, other than wow.

It's an intense reading experience, and creepy, but blessedly short. It reminds me most of The Other, by Thomas Tryon, possibly only because of the creepy children, but maybe also the vaguely rural setting, the hint of something occult.

The pacing is exquisite. The urgency is masterful.

There's not much I can say that wouldn't be considered a spoiler; however, I'd skimmed through a discussion of the book and didn't feel my experience was diminished by it. But if that kind of thing worries you, stop reading now.

The story (but not the book) really starts about 6 years previous to the current narration. A 3-year-old (or thereabouts) boy, David, appears to have been poisoned. His mother, Carla, takes him to the woman in the green house, and agrees to her conducting a migration of his soul into a healthy body, bringing an unknown spirit into the boy's body, something of each of the souls remaining in the other's body. Spread over two bodies, the poison could be vanquished.

Six years later, Carla relates this to Amanda who is vacationing with her small daughter Nina...

The novel is billed as eco-horror: the ecological implications are hinted at early on but are only manifestly clear relatively late in the story. It's also a story of maternal bonding.

In my initial reading, the supernatural factor is primary; that is, the nature of David and of the transmigration process is top of mind, ever present with every turn of the page. Knowing the original Spanish title, however, changes the thematic emphasis.

Riffing on a fever dream...

1. What are the worms? When do the worms start? Are these worms signalling decomposition of the body? Or do they come earlier, in the poison that bring death? Or I they related to soul migration? They come toward the end of David and Amanda's conversation, but too soon for bodily decomposition, I think. The exact moment of the worms is significant.

2. Is David — the leading, questioning David — real? Does anyone else ever really see David? Is he inside Amanda's head? If so, is he a voice conjured out of her delirium, or did his soul migrate there?

If he migrated there, how long has he been there? Was it after his poisoning, or after Amanda and Nina's poisoning?

3. If the original David's soul was split, who else lives/lived in David's body? Could it have been Amanda? That might explain her obsession with him (Not exactly an obsession: attraction to? She is drawn to him and the story of him. Is that only because of her proximity to him now?). Would that imply her own soul/body was previously weakened.

4. Did he or did he not have all his fingers when he was born? What Carla would give for that first David, an imagined David.

5. Nina speaks in the royal "we." David likes that. (I like it too.) The self is plural.

6. Why is Amanda even vacationing in this godforsaken place? Why did her husband not come with her? She claims he was to join them later, but perhaps she was running from him. Why do I think this?

7. Why are the men so absent? Except for fleetingly, in a dream, and at the end. They are so external, powerless in the face of all this ... motherness.
My husband takes the can and turns it so I can see the label. It's a can of peas of a brand I don't buy, one I would never buy. They're a bigger, much harder kind of pea than what we eat, coarser and cheaper. A product I would never choose to feed my family with, and that Nina can't have found in our cupboards. On the table, at that early-morning hour, the can has an alarming presence. This is important, right?
8. Did Carla orchestrate the poisoning? Certainly she had no control over whether Amanda came to call before leaving town, but it seems like she was looking, waiting, for an opening. She's killing them.

9. Does Carla really take Amanda to the clinic? Why do I feel Carla may have taken Amanda to the green house? "The edge of the neck of her white shirt is stained a light green. It's from the grass, right?" But no, there's a nurse, with blister packs.

10. What's with the dirty hands, dirty with mud? First David's, later Nina's. How is this an effect of migration?

11. David pushes Amanda forward. Forward in time? Just like he pushed the ducks, the dog, the horses. Pushed toward death? A spirit guide? Is he even alive?

12. Carla's gone at the end, her husband says so. Not there just at that moment, or gone for good? Where did she go?

13. The ropes. Amanda feels a rope emanating from her stomach joining her to Nina, but it's metaphorical, an umbilical cord of sorts. David is tied down with ropes while migrating — to make sure the body stays, only the spirit leaves. At the end, rope ties most everything together, except bodies or souls, maybe just representations of them. The rope is for hanging. But when it's finally slack, the rope is a fuse.

14. What is the important thing? Really important? Why is David pushing her toward it? What does Amanda need to understand? Listen to David's father. What does he say that's so important? What did I miss?

The Guardian: Terrifying but brilliant
The Mookse and the Gripes
The New Yorker: The Sick Thrill of "Fever Dream"
NPR: Brief But Creepy, 'Fever Dream' Has A Poisonous Glow
The Washington Post: A haunting story by one of the best young Spanish-language writers

The rope between Helena and me was pulled to its fullest when we lost each other on a hike in a foreign country. The summer she was 12. We survived this. The rope is there and not there.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Uneasy about the easy

Theodor W. Adorno
I am reminded of Theodor W. Adorno: "The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home." Yes, to be uncomfortable with comfort, uneasy about the easy, to question the assumptions of what is usually, and happily, taken for granted, to make of oneself a challenge to what for most people is the space in which they feel free from challenges; yes! That is morality raised to a pitch at which it could almost be called heroism.
— from The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie.

I've spent years learning to be comfortable in my own home, to be in own skin. Reading this, then, was a bit of a slap in the face, not only that my behaviour is not moral, but that I have still further to go.

I'm not entirely sure what it means yet, but I'm thinking about it.

Do you feel at home in your own home? (What is your home?)