Sunday, December 31, 2017

It makes no sense to continue

Lucio finds Fede bent over an Albrecht Dürer catalog. It looks like he's inhaling, sniffing it, even, bringing the image of the painting closer to his eyes with a gigantic magnifying glass.

"Look at this, it's astonishing..."

Fede shows him an etching from the book Melencolia I, from 1514, which some experts say marks the start of the Renaissance. Melancholy is represented by a sitting angel who looks tormented. Behind them, an unfinished house; in front of them, a multitude of objects: an hourglass, a feather, an empty scale, an inkwell, a ladder... objects that speak of a half finished job. He says:

"Back then melancholia was not what we understand it to be today: it was the least appreciated of the four temperaments... "

"Indeed. It was related to madness, to the color of the earth, to the fall, to the north wind, to cold weather and drought, to Saturn, which seems to influence creative types so much... it was also related with the time in life when men turn sixty years old..."

"With our time in life, therefore."

"Melancholia was always associated with laziness... but that's not the case in Dürer's etching. Look: it's true that melancholy has abandoned its work, but it's not doing it because of laziness, but because it's realized that it makes no sense to continue."

"The strangest thing is that we don't have a Melencolia II or Melencolia III..."

"Lost works of art..."

"I am not so sure... I have always believed that the I not a number, but an invocation."

"An invocation?"

"Yes: Go away, Melancholia! in Latin... Out of here! It's the desire to say goodbye to the dark Middle Ages and embrace the light of the Renaissance..."

"It was around that time that our beloved Aldus Manutius showed the world his first book using the Bembo font..."

"Garamond also emerged around the same time. Do you know what, Lucio, I've just realized why I prefer the Bembo font to Garamond: The Garamond font has smaller eyes, as if the eyes of the letters a and e were half closed..."

"As if they'd just woken up from a long sleep..."

"The Bembo font, however, has wide open eyes... The Bembo font is the first font that remains alert, attentive and vigilant. The Garamond font suits the sleepy, those who haven't quite woken up yet, who are still dormant... It's a bleary-eyed font... After looking at this painting by Dürer, I believe my conscience is clear and I am ready to go blind."
— from Twist, by Harkaitz Cano.

Bembo versus Garamond. I love a book that steps away from the plot to geek out over font. This novel does so regularly.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The mind of a creature this alien

I don't know how to review nonfiction. For that matter, I'm not sure I know how to read it very well. Plain old fact just doesn't interest me much.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery, is short on plain old fact, but deep in personal anecdote and light philosophical speculation.

Reading it doesn't feel like reading nonfiction at all, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Did I learn anything? Not much. I find octopuses fascinating; I've probably picked up a thing or two about them over the years, but I'm not an expert. This is not book to learn facts about octopuses. For that, see Wikipedia.

This book is for those people, like myself, who think octopuses are amazing but completely alien creatures.
Nagel concluded, like Wittgenstein before him, that it is impossible to know what it is like to be a bat. After all, a bat sees much of its world using echolocation, a sense we do not possess and can hardly imagine. How much further from our reach is the mind of an octopus?

Yet still I wondered: What is it like to be an octopus?

Isn't this what we want to know about those whom we care about? What is it like, we wonder at each meeting, in shared meals and secrets and silences, with each touch and glance, to be you?
Does this book answer those questions? No. But I think it knows at the outset that these are unanswerable things. It's not about consciousness per se. It's more about, as the subtitle suggests, glorying in the wonder of it all.

Octopuses are weird.

They taste with their skin. Can they taste our sadness, our pain?

Most of their neurons aren't in their brains, but in their arms. Is that what it takes for effective multitasking? Arms that can think independently?

Technically colorblind, how do they achieve camouflage? It's been suggested they see with their skin.
Assessing the mind of a creature this alien demands that we be extraordinary flexible in our own thinking. Marine biologist James Wood suggests our hubris gets in our way.
The book tours Jules Verne, Descartes, Antonio Damasio, Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau. Theory of mind and scuba diving lessons. It touches on the behaviour of animals of all kinds.

I may not have learned anything material, but I spent a few days in the excellent company of this naturalist and her engrossing stories of her several vertebrate and invertebrate friends.

"Deep Intellect," Orion Magazine.

Sy Montgomery: The Soul of an Octopus (59:25)
Do animals think and feel? (16:40)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

To feel free of doubt

She gave the boy across the street a haircut. All the tufts of hair fell down around him, like some birds had been shot out of the sky and now were falling and falling. It looked terrible. And later in life, when women were yelling at him that he was a loser, that he wasn't any good, that he didn't do anything for anyone on earth and that he had never come close to making anyone happy, he would close his eyes and remember this haircut.

Because it was when he was having this haircut that he had been able to know for absolute certain what it was like to feel free of doubt.
Twice I've had the pleasure of seeing Heather O'Neill in conversation, and twice, despite copious note-taking and some photos, I've failed to write about it. I don't know why that is.

I got my copy of Daydreams of Angels about two and a half years ago, when Heather O'Neill launched the book to a packed house at local bookstore. (So packed I missed the first 10 minutes or so of the convo because I had to wait for some people to decide to leave before I could squeeze in through the door.) My book is personally, friendlily (is that a legit adverb?) inscribed.

Daydreams of Angels are short stories. Fairy tales for grown-ups. There's a childlike wonder in her characters and the narration, but also a worldliness that often spins that naïveté into tragedy. O'Neill herself is disarming, and while she may draw on her own upbringing for material, she can talk academic circles around any male gaze or literary theory.

[That childlike wonder — that ability children have to imbue their world with magical creatures and comforts and treasures — that's a rare thing for adults to hold on to without any artificial aids (kids don't need Disney the way their parents do). The best poets have it. O'Neill has it.]

I recall her speaking about angels as aristocrats. A little like the angels in Wings of Desire, walking among us, hanging out, only British. "The shadows became as long as pulled taffy."

One theme throughout O'neill's work might be a leveling of class structures, the way only children can break those walls down.

From an excellent article in the Montreal Gazette:
"I'm interested in the layers of storytelling that happen in a family. You know, it's kind of a shame — the golden age of lying is dead thanks to the Internet. Our grandparents were able to basically BS us. They could weave anything they wanted. There was this wonderful sense of a family mythology being created. You'd love it until a certain age and then you'd just be like, "Yeah, right. Shut up,'" she laughed.
There are stories about the war, stories about gypsies and dolls and heroin addicts and clones of Rudolf Nureyev. Stories about Jesus and welfare families and about where babies come from.

There's some Escheresque recursiveness going on. And I get from these stories also a sense of fatalism, that things are as they need to be, they couldn't be otherwise. I can't say I subscribe to that worldview, but I don't dispute that these stories are exactly as they should be.

The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec appears in this collection. I adore this story, and in fact it was my introduction to Heather O'Neill when I first heard it on Wiretap.

2017 CLC Kreisel Lecture with Heather O'Neill: My Education. "On unusual muses and mentors. And how I had to teach myself everything in order to cross the class divide."

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Proof that you existed

Little O noticed that boys noticed her. Although she didn't know why they did. She didn't have trouble attracting their attention the way some of the other girls did. When she would sense that a boy had fallen in love with her, there would be a peculiar feeling, a magical sort of lonely feeling. When you realized that someone was in love with you, you got to see yourself from the outside, just for a minute. You could finally have proof that you existed. You could look at yourself as though you were a fabled creature, like a unicorn.
— from "The Story of Little O (A Portrait of the Marquis de Sade as a Young Girl)" in Daydreams of Angels, by Heather O'Neill.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

If anything, I am the quitter in this relationship

I'm going to go through our texts and figure out who instigated each individual texting conversation and who was the last one to reply. I personally hate being the last one to reply in texting conversation. It's like the other person just disappears or tells you to go fuck yourself, so I try specifically now to leave most texting conversations first as a matter of principle. Except for the inner circle. Everyone who now holds membership in my inner circle always signs off a texting conversation with XO or xx or xoxo or xox or the deadly x. To get into the inner circle, in fact, you can't be a texting abandoner. That's a fucking rule.

You are no longer in my texting inner circle precisely because of these statistics. For instance, last month you instigated six texting conversations and I instigated five, but you text-abandoned me nine out of the eleven conversations. This month is different. I'm aiming for four to five abandonments at the most because I know I can quit better than you. If anything, I am the quitter in this relationship. It means that our conversations are a lot shorter and shallower but I'm not getting caught with my pants down, so to speak. Maybe I should add text-length to the chart?
I have mixed feelings about This Accident of Being Lost, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

It's labeled "songs and stories." For the most part I liked the stories — it's the songs I don't get. For starters, what makes songs different from poems? How are you supposed to read a song? Doesn't reading a song negate its very songness? So I'm not going to talk about the songs. I just don't get the songs.

The stories, however, are quite beautiful, poignant, and funny.
Topic 11: Being a Writer Sucks
Writing actually sucks. Like you're alone in your head for days on end, just wondering if you actually can die of loneliness, just wondering how healthy it is to make all this shit up, and just wondering if you did actually make this shit up, or if you just copied down your life or worse someone else's life, or may you're just feeding your delusions and neuroses and then advertising it to whoever reads your drivel.
It all feels very honest, but this is where you remember that this is fiction. It doesn't have to be real to be true.

In the Globe and Mail,
It's not possible to tell which details are lived experience and which are imagined. ... Her writing educates the reader even as it admits to not having all the answers. ... I was stunned by Simpson's generosity in sharing these experiences and inviting us to be challenged and to be lost.
As a reader, I don't know what I'm being educated about. That the reviewer is stunned by Simpson's generosity makes it clear she assumes lived experience and authenticity.

Indigenous issues do arise, and they're not insignificant.
They want a beach. We want rice beds. You can't have both. They want to win. We need to win. They'll still be white people if they don't have the kind of beach they want. Our kids won't be Mississauga if they can't ever do a single Mississauga thing.
In The Winnipeg Review,
What fascinates me about Simpson's work is not its Anishinaabe cultural roots, but its examination of intimacy and love. You can't separate being Indigenous from how we love others. It's an extension of culture and worldview.
This surprises me. In my view, the bits about intimacy and love were absolutely the best, and also the most accessible, because they're the most universal. These stories neither educated me nor helped me access an indigenous experience — they were simply relatable. This has nothing to do with native ways being confounded my modern times; I mean, who hasn't obsessed over a love interest's texts?

Globe and Mail
PRISM International
Rough ghosts
The Winnipeg Review


Tuesday, December 05, 2017

What are Basque ghosts like?

Do ghosts prefer southerly winds? Are Mediterranean ghosts calmer? They say that in Northern Europe ghosts are loud, horrifying, that their shrieks are more out of tune because of the cold. With Northern ghosts — Irish, Estonian, German, it's easy to imagine them coming at you with a knife and no explanation. Mediterranean ghosts, however, are not as gloomy, it's impossible to take them too seriously; even when they kill you, they do it in an incompetent way; Don Juan Tenorio and others like him are laughable, buffoonish, and sometime it's their own comedic candor that makes them all the more fearful; we'd risk our necks to bet that they'd rather dance to a tambourine than use a knife; Mediterranean ghosts sound like they'd be fun to have a few glasses of wine with. "Ghosts fervid for Frescuelo and Maria. "Is there a really frightening and serious ghost in Spanish literature? And in the Basque Country? Who are they? What are Basque ghosts like?
— from Twist, by Harkaitz Cano.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Perceiving the emptiness and slow lightness of its body

The unevolved axolotl is an apt pet for Javier Cetarti, although he comes to care for it quite by accident and later abandons it without a thought.
He imagined it at that moment, settled at the back of the fish tank, in the darkness of the shuttered house, wondering in its crude way at what moment a blurry shadow would come to scatter food over the surface of the water, and perceiving the emptiness and slow lightness of its body, emptier and lighter with each passing day.
Under This Terrible Sun, by Carlos Busqued, is oppressively bleak and disturbing. It's mostly the story of Cetarti who travels to a small town to settle the affairs of his mother and brother, who allegedly were murdered by the mother's boyfriend Molina before he turned the gun on himself.

The town is literally a cesspit, the water table having risen, the cesspits overflowing, shit and piss seeping up through the ground. The trees have died (so the sun is punishing), the place stinks, but people have gotten used to it. There are giant poisonous flying cockroaches.

The cop Duarte was a longtime friend of Molina; they were in the airforce together and, it's hinted, later collaborated on other business dealings. These days Danielito, Molina's son, helps out Duarte in his ventures.

In addition to simple insurance scams, Duarte has some kidnapping racket going on. He's also a connoisseur of extreme pornography, although it's not clear if he may be involved with porn in a deeper, more criminal way.
There's some pornography you don't watch to jerk off, you watch it more out of curiosity about how far the human species will go. [...] This is what I was telling you is interesting, to see the limits of what a person is capable of doing or letting others do to them.
Under This Terrible Sun is well written. The text is clear; the novel's ambiguity — and its creepiness — arises from not being privy to the whole picture. The characterization, the minimalist plotting, the sense of dread (both existential and visceral), and the pacing are excellent. If you have the stomach for it.

One of Duarte's videos is graphically described, and had it gone on for longer or were there more, I might've had to put the book aside. As it is, that scene certainly pervaded the mood of the entire book, to great effect.

Warning: there are also some vile descriptions of insects and brutality against dogs.

Everyone smokes a lot of weed. Duarte watches a lot of military history and builds model airplanes. Cetarti and Danielito appear to be cut from the same cloth (even though their characters don't interact till late in the book) in their penchant for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

There are recurring references to cephalopods, on TV and in magazine articles, which may be somewhat allegorical of Cetarti's situation as a whole.

Squid have cannibalistic tendencies: the squid that fishermen pull in often is often not the one that swallowed the lure, but a larger one eating the originally hooked squid.

Cetarti reads some details about the giant squid — three hearts and two brains — but he doesn't find what he's looking for. The monsters have never been captured alive. They live in an environment that is hostile to life. One only ever glimpses a small part of the horror at a time, never seen in its entirety.

This is the third book from Argentina I've read this year (the others being the subversive Savage Theories, by Pola Oloixarac, and the insidiously unsettling Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin). I've decided that Argentina must be a very strange (possibly depraved) place.

Three Percent
Tony's Reading List