Monday, May 28, 2018

It is impossible to grasp everything at once

People think they live more intensely than animals, than plants, and especially than things. Animals sense that they live more intensely than plants and things. Plants dream that they live more intensely than things. But things last, and this lasting is more alive than anything else.
People come and go. We live, we die. We're all the same, interchangeable. The things, they live without us, take on a life of their own. (How intensely do you live?)

Primeval and Other Times, by Olga Tokarczuk, is absolutely exquisite in evoking someplace mythical, an irrelevant backwater locked in time and space that finally transcends its limitations. Primeval is the centre of the universe. There is no before or after.

The book starts and ends with a coffee-grinder. We don't know exactly where it came from (somewhere in the east) and we don't know what lies ahead (the world is opening to the west), but it's passed through three generations of one family in Primeval. Life is a grind, life grinds you down, and it just keeps grinding. Things last.
If you take a close look at an object, with your eyes closed to avoid being deceived by the appearances that things exude around themselves, if you allow yourself to be mistrustful, you can see their true faces, at least for a moment.
According to Ruta, the world outside of Primeval doesn't exist. Does she truly believe this? (One day she tries to leave.) Or is it just a story she tells gullible Izydor?
He stepped back a few paces and started running towards the spot where, according to Ruta, the boundary ran. Then he suddenly stopped. He himself did not know why. Something here wasn't right. He stretched his hands out ahead of him, and his fingertips disappeared.

Izydor felt himself split into two different boys. One of them was standing with his hands held out ahead, and they clearly lacked any fingertips. The other boy was next to him, and couldn't see the first boy, or moreover his lack of fingers. Izydor was both boys at once.
Later, Ruta once again leads Izydor into the forest:
And now he realised where his sense of lack was coming from, the sorrow that underlay everything, the sorrow that was present in every single thing, in every phenomenon, and always had been — it is impossible to grasp everything at once.
There's a thing about God being present in process, transformation, change. Maybe he does not exist here, in Primeval, where nothing changes. But things change.

This book made me tear up, more than once. Not because of the story events per se, but for how it made me reflect on my own life, the people who come and go, what we do and don't have control over. How we live. Things that are so small and so big at the same time. Every book has its time and its place, and I'm living in a primeval state just now; this is the book I needed. I love this book.

Words without Borders


Sunday, May 27, 2018

The universe was a cramped heart

Standing under the flashing dome of the night sky, Wang suddenly felt the universe shrink until it was so small that only he was imprisoned in it. The universe was a cramped heart, and the red light that suffused everything was the translucent blood that filled the organ. Suspended in the blood, he saw that the flickering of the red light was not periodic — the pulsing was irregular. He felt a strange, perverse, immense presence that could never be understood by human intellect.
— from The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Self-indulgent masturbation

"At any minute, we could find ourselves in a nontemporal state without ever having realized it. If the ego and consciousness were related but separate entities, and one absented from the other or consciousness differentiated itself to a bodily degree, that would cause the ego's perception of time to alter, like in dreams. Time is a method of organizing entropy in a manner comprehensible to consciousness as perceived by the human mind through the lens of the ego," he said between sips, as if I understood a quarter of that without stopping to think.
The Lightning Stenography Device, by MF Sullivan, is one of the most self-indulgent and pretentious books I've had the pleasure of hate-reading in ages. I read it so you don't have to.

The device in question is a thought-to-text machine, saving you the trouble of writing things down, typing things out, losing all the brilliant tangents one travels down while crafting sentences, and working at the speed of thought itself. For some select individuals, the device seems to capture dreams, too. And those dreams are sometimes of the future.

Lightning Stenography Device. LSD. Get it?
"Cassius, no! Writing about writers is self-indulgent masturbation." Though behind her lurked the shut blinds of her office window and edge of a ficus she'd somehow kept alive since I'd last seen her in person three years before, she was not deterred from snatching up her bourbon. "Nobody wants to read that. Writers write for readers, not for other writers."
No, not so MF Sullivan. She'll condescend to her readers. (Is there any other kind of masturbation?)

The first half of the book is all like this:
"No author did better than Pynchon in dancing around a depiction of that which cannot be depicted. There is a certain aspect of the unconscious which, by definition, cannot be brought fully into consciousness, and it is this from which the Word buffers us. It can, however, be experienced in one form or another, for better or for worse, and communicated with a series of symbols in context. That is what life is: a narrative we build to defend our egos based on a collection of more or less arbitrary vignettes selected to provide us with the context for our own being. When we feel ourselves becoming something we cannot or do not wish to justify, we are stricken by cognitive dissonance and find ourselves forced to face that which we never expected, never considered: that the existence our shadow is dependent entirely upon our own existence.

If we did not exist, now would our shadow; if our shadow did not exist, we would not, either."
Got that? Yeah, it just goes on and on and on. I could've done with 200 fewer pages.

Note that all this intellectual masturbation is served up in the guise of dialogue, which makes it the most boring conversation I never want to be a part of.
"These things are things that come from someplace beyond human imagining. Transmitted, somehow, from someplace beyond comprehension. But that's true of all stories, of all life. Everything that is and was and will be is all eternally present, like reality was a book in the hands of something beyond perception. But we, within the proverbial book, or reading an actual book, can only live this moment, the next moment, the moment after that, in linear order. We can only read one page — one word, truly — at a time. It's the only way to make sense of it."
Also, it's weirdly religious in places. Every writer is a god. And capital G God is the ultimate author.

The last section of the novel has a different tone entirely. A book within a book. Arguably it is the whole point of the novel, with its Jungian archetypes and high fantasy, but the pieces just don't fit together comfortably.

The narrative as a whole harps on the Matrix-like construction we live in, with the layer at the core being that Jungian dream subconscious.

One troubling aspect is how the female protagonists buy into the patriarchal clichés — the farm girl rescued by her prince, that sort of thing, and in the non-fantasy "realist" section, the central woman is somehow lesser, deferring to the older men.

The author provides some background on the publisher's website (although the book appears to be self-published), but even this verbose breakdown is quite patronizing. "One of the elements most infuriating to readers who were expecting a breezy read is, no doubt, both the elements of philosophy, and the structure of the book, itself." [That's two elements, by the way.] "I have received a few low reviews from readers who were disappointed to find that this was a book which required them to think." "I will avoid connecting all the dots for you." "The God the characters of The Lightning Stenography Device address is not so much the traditional godhead, but rather me, and I, in my role as author, play to them a kind of symbol of the far greater demiurge."

Of course, we are all the writers of our own narratives, the heroes of our own stories.
Even when you and I writer and rewrite a story, when we describe events happening to a character, a fictional character is experience it and making choices as that fictional character could only ever hope to make. We as writers experience through the character in our imaginations. The same is true of the reader, who, reading a story, experiences the simulation in their brain the way they would experience the real-life event. That's why you get so sucked into the story: empathy, pathos, between you and the character, that's the key, the binding. So if you want to imagine as a model that God was a writer, or even just a reader whose conscious experience of a work brought it to life, then it makes sense that you have to experience everything you're going through. It might not be a causal thing, necessarily, but if a model is accurate enough, you can make predictive extrapolations using the model, right? This manuscript is a model for our reality; its writer is a model for God. We're pawns in a thought experiment."
But I much prefer when the story takes the form of an actual, well, story. I'm not one to shy away from philosophy, but this book has the feel of little Jungian analysis that's spiraled out of control.
What "I" was, I realized with a gasp in the arms of my lover, was naught but Consciousness. Yes, Consciousness! My one, my truest lover! Why, he had been with me all this time, my sunlight, and I had never seen it because I was his mirror; because I was that Matter upon which he cast the light by which his "I" might see!
Too bad, because I would totally read a book about a thought-to-text machine.
"Next time we talk, you had better come back with a more thorough idea than another book about writers and God and a man who loves a younger woman."

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Reconciling matter and spirit

World on a String © Markus Reugels
I'm reading Olga Tokarczuk's Primeval and Other Times slowly, contemplatively. It's a string of fairy tales about people locked in time.

I'm reading it like it holds some message for me, a key to unlocking myself from the past and opening myself to the future, another future.
Imagination is essentially creative; it is a bridge reconciling matter and spirit. Especially when it is done intensely and often. Then the image turns into a drop of matter, and joins the currents of life. Sometimes along the way something in it gets distorted and changes. Therefore, if they are strong enough, all human desires come true — but not always entirely as expected.
What do I imagine happening next? Do I desire it strongly enough? Is it human enough?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Everything was something else first

I paused, looking out at the blue merging of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and I wondered if there was a word for it, a name, a title, to indicate this strange layering that seemed to be commonplace in Tangier, where everything was something else first, and nothing was ever entirely one thing. I thought of Alice again. She was something else in Tangier too, something completely different. Hardened, distant, tired. A new Alice had been layered upon an old one, subsuming the original. But I had not given up hope. She was not simply Alice, John's wife. She had been her own person once, she had existed without him. What I needed to discover was how to get her back, how to move from Tangier to Tingis — and whether such a Herculean feat was even possible.
I read Tangerine, by Christine Mangan, on vacation. Maybe my opinion of it suffered a little for this (unlike most people, I am more easily distracted and tend to read less when I'm on holiday).

(I love the cover! I'd been dithering over what my vacation reading should be, but when I saw this cover, I had to have this book.)

It was an enjoyable read, but didn't quite meet the (very high) expectations I had of it, it having been noted on several lists of highly anticipated books.

The story switches between the perspectives of two young women, and each of those unreliable narratives skips between the present (mid 1950s) and their college days years beforehand. I found that one of the women's perspective was favoured as giving voice to the true version of events, but the opposing perspective had a force of character and a clarity of perception that cast doubt on any notion of certainty.

Essentially, the reader discovers a mosaic of intersecting and overlapping triangles, of romantic and other varieties. For more plot details, see the published reviews from established sources.

To pique one's interest, one needs little more than this blurb from Joyce Carol Oates (of whom I'm not a fan): "As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock." It's all very Tom Ripley.

One character references Paul Bowles — "You must read him, if you want to understand this place." It's been decades since I read The Sheltering Sky (time for a reread?), but my sense was that Bowles settled on reconciling to the impossibility of understanding such a foreign place. It feels a little as if Tangerine was intended as an homage to Bowles (moreso than to the other literary influences); I wonder if anyone has examined the relationship between Tangerine and Bowles's work more closely (if you have come across any such review or article, please let me know).

Despite the expectation set by the title, the city of Tangier never really comes alive, as if the author's experience of it was only through other books or movies. Nor am I confident in fingering any of the characters as the eponymous Tangerine.

For all the psychological notes it hits, Tangerine feels like an academic exercise in creating a specific type of thriller, with a superficial treatment of place and character. It lacks depth.

All that being said, I absolutely will go see the movie. (And it was a great vacation read.)

The following reviews are quite mixed but, in my view, right on the money.

Irish Times

New Yorker:
For a novel that leans so heavily on its setting, "Tangerine" rarely succeeds at evoking more of Tangier than its heat, its humidity (or dust), its "confined and chaotic streets," and its sweet mint tea. This, the novel's biggest weakness, is largely a failing of Mangan's prose, which tends to be general rather than specific, lofty rather than grounded, received rather than observed. Whether Lucy or Alice is narrating, Mangan's diction has the archaic gentility of someone incorrectly imagining how previous generations thought and spoke.
New York Times:
Mangan, who has a doctorate in English, wrote her dissertation on 18th-century Gothic literature and she knows all the notes to hit to create lush, sinister atmosphere and to prolong suspense. Unfortunately, she hits them all, and she hits them a little too hard. Both narrators periodically lapse into the language of academia, bluntly signaling how we should interpret the narrative rather than letting us figure it out for ourselves. Alice worries that her tone of voice is "wavering somewhere between lighthearted and serious, skirting the liminal boundaries between laughing and crying." In 1956, a young woman in a white pillbox hat would not have talked about liminal boundaries. When Lucy refers to the "intertextuality" that once existed between her and Alice, she uses a term coined by the French semiotician Julia Kristeva a decade after the novel takes place. At times, "Tangerine" reads as if it were reverse-engineered from a scholarly paper about suspense fiction. Happily, you can write a satisfying, juicy thriller this way, if not a blazingly original one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The situation

Did you know Iceland was occupied during World War II?

It seems the British occupied Iceland pre-emptively, so Germany couldn't. British troops gave way to Canadian and then US troops. One of the great effects of the occupation was known as "the situation," whereby local women took up with the soldiers — married them, left with them, had children by them. Many of the women were viewed as prostitutes and traitors. Many Icelanders viewed this situation as a cultural as well as moral threat.

The Shadow Killer, by Arnaldur Indriðason, for all its 360+ pages, was a surprisingly swift read set amid unique circumstances in Icelandic history. The backdrop is, for me, the star of the novel.

A travelling salesman with his head blown off in someone else's apartment — IDing him is a bit of a task. A girlfriend who strays with a belligerent army boy. A whole mess of Nazi sympathizers.

Reykjavík detective Flóvent is on the case, teamed up with military policeman Thorson, an Icelandic-Canadian with the British Forces. One wonders what interest the case has for military intelligence.

This is the second in Indriðason's wartime mystery series. It reads perfectly well as a stand-alone, and I'm curious now to search out the first one.


See also Mrs. Peabody Investigates for a review and another excerpt.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


The Particles of Existence exhibition at Phi Centre wants you to discover the universe at a non-human scale. Chalkroom is the star of the show.

Chalkroom is an immersive installation created by multimedia artist Laurie Anderson and mixed media artist Hsin-Chien Huang.

Anderson discusses the work:
The reason it's "Chalkroom" is it has a certain tactility and it's a made-by-hand kind of thing — it's the opposite of what virtual reality usually is, which is distant and very synthetic. So this is gritty and drippy, and filled with dust and dirt.
I plan on going back to experience the other "rooms" of Chalkroom to find some of the other stories hidden within. On at Phi Centre until August 18.

Faena Aleph
New York Times
Open Culture

Friday, May 11, 2018

She took the entire village into herself

There are two kinds of learning, from the inside and from the outside. The fist is regarded as the best, or even the only kind. And so people learn through distant journeys, watching, reading, universities and lectures — they learn from what is happening outside them. Man is a stupid creature who had to learn. So he tacks knowledge onto himself, he gathers it like a bee, gaining more and more of it, putting it to use and processing it. But the thing inside that is "stupid" and needs learning doesn't change.

Cornspike learned by absorbing things from the outside to the inside.

Knowledge that is only grown on the outside changes nothing inside a man, or merely changes him on the surface, as one garment is changed for another. But he who learns by taking things inside himself undergoes constant transformation, because he incorporates what he learns into his being.

So by taking the stinking, dirty peasants from Primeval and the district into herself, Cornspike became just like them, was drunk just like them, frightened by the war just like them, and aroused just like them. What's more, by taking them into herself in the bushes behind the inn, Cornspike also took in their wives, their children, and their stuffy, stinking wooden cottages around Maybug Hill. In a way she took the entire village into herself, every pain in the village, and every hope.
— from Primeval and Other Times, by Olga Tokarczuk.

I'm in the very early pages, but this is absolutely the right book for my headspace.

I'm reminded of memory eaters, dream eaters, sun eaters. Bibliophagia. We learn from the food we eat, the wine we drink, the air we breathe. Eat your words. Of course, there are more ways to absorb than via ingestion. I think of the tragedy I learned in that shitty opium den of an apartment.

The story of Cornspike gutted me.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

I read and I dream about hell

I sleep to my heart's content, day and night. Between naps, I read. A huge fatigue turns up between books, between naps. A black hole to swallow me up. The poets keep me company, I'm damned along with them, in the books and in my room in the country where I read. I read and I dream about hell and about the scarlet sky at the end of hell, like a bright border of flames.
Sometimes you find what you need. Am I Disturbing You? by Anne Hébert was that book, in a second-hand shop I'd never been to on a stretch of street I rarely walk.

Overly poetic, dreamlike, confusing, empty of plot, characters too slight to make sense, too much white space. And yet.

What I take away from this slim novella, though, the relevant thing I need to process is how someone can enter your life for so brief a period and suddenly leave it and leave an indelible imprint on you and dredge up long-forgotten (long-buried?) aspects of self, despite never really knowing each other, never having a claim on each other (that is, no explicit claim).

The story is of Delphine, evidently pregnant, and obsessed with Patrick Chemin, who has allegedly proclaimed his love for her but is recently married to the Fat Lady. Édouard and Stéphane find Delphine in the square.
There was a girl who hadn't moved for quite a while, who was sitting on the rim of the fountain with the water streaming at her back. There was something surprising about her stillness. From her entire little person there emanated a kind of obstinacy at being there in the mist from the fountain, an unwillingness to exist anywhere else — elbows on her knees, folded in on herself, slightly shocked at finding herself in the world.
Stéphane falls for her fast; for Édouard it's a slow burn. Édouard's a copywriter. Delphine has eyes only for Patrick and speaks only of her dead grandmother. Delphine never really disturbs anyone, until she does. Édouard finally dredges up some deeply painful (and painfully vague) childhood memories that explain nothing.

I have enjoyed reading Hébert in the past. Reading her now I'm reminded of Patrick Mondiano, but with characters more ephemeral, less grounded in reality.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Contrite, abject, mythic

The sight must've been high tragedy, that's what I thought. A fucking junky, dying on his ass, starving, face like a corpse, apologizing to a baby that hadn't even been born and a woman he no longer knew. Absolutely wretched. Imagine the portrait.

And there I caught myself.

I was imagining the picture, and it was absolutely romantic. Romantic like the boy who fantasizes dying on a field of war, killing a thousand enemies before being cut down. Romantic as the girl who envisions poisoning herself, leaving a corpse that'll indict the one who finds it, a plucked and corrupted rose. A man, coming to an end like mine, should perish in this pose: contrite, abject, mythic.

Is this really all I am? I wondered. A grown man acting no better than a teenager?
I've been wanting to read Victor Lavalle's Big Machine for quite some time, and it never seemed like the right time.

It's about an ex-junkie who quits his job as a janitor when he gets a bus ticket in the mail, which turns out to have been issued by a secret society that's recruiting him to conduct paranormal investigations. It turns out also that he was raised in a cult. What's not to love? This book should've been a riot.

For some reason I thought the right time to read it would be while dating an ex-junkie who believes in karma and aliens. Not so. Even more not so when he told me he couldn't see me for a while. The book cover is a perfect match for the dress I was wearing that night. (That's me. Romantic. Feeling like a fucking teenager.)

For the most part, I found I was simply turning the pages, not enjoying it. But I'm pretty sure it's not you, Big Machine; it's me and my fallow headspace.

At the sentence level, this book is terrifically well written.
I only knew Wilfred was gone because of this tongue. It hung down between his teeth, oily and pink, and it brushed against the old pillowcases under his chin. Loose, limp, a piece of stretched taffy. That one thing, that's all it took to convert him into a corpse.

But I didn't see how he could've died so quickly. He hadn't been shot or stabbed, hadn't been beat. So what had done it? Maybe none of us had actually lived through that night in the stairway so many years before. It just took some of us longer to realize we were dead.
And it's funny. (For example, "The room was decorated in a style I'll call Near-Bum, the distinction being that this mess was in a hotel and not on a cart in the street.")

For a good portion of book, I was thinking Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. I can't find the blurb that might've inspired me to think that. A lot of the blurbs evoke Murakami; I don't really see it.

I much preferred the first third or so of the book, being the set up for the actual adventure. I found the pacing of the adventure proper suffered from all the flashbacks to Ricky's youth. I would've trimmed a good 100 pages, but it did pick up toward the end.

There's a thing about guilt and parenting, and how the force of the guilt is not in letting your child down, letting whoever down, doing whatever less than stellar thing you do or don't do; it's in how easy it is to do that thing. How easy to conveniently forget your responsibility. That's a powerful distinction, and a powerful truth about the nature of guilt, about all my guilt, and this realization alone is worth the price of admission.

Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Temporal groovyness

After feeling a little lovelorn the past few days, I resolved it was nothing some expensive shoes couldn't rectify, so yesterday, having had a few glasses of scotch in the boardroom at the end of a long workweek, I went shopping.

The shoes are fabulous, but this morning I realize the bag they came in offers better therapy for my soul than does the footwear.