Saturday, December 29, 2018

A person is a composite of the times they live through

A person is a composite of the times they live through — a combination of the events they have witnessed or taken part in, whether willingly or not; a collection of dreams and thoughts, whether their own or strangers'; a concoction of deeds done by themselves and others, whether friends or enemies; a compilation of stories remembered or forgotten, from distant parts or the next room — and every time an event or idea touches them, affects their existence, rocks their little world and the wider one too, a stone is added to the structure that they are destined to become [...] They will only be complete when there is nothing left of them but ruins.
I started reading CoDex 1962, by Sjón, as I was flying to Iceland, anticipating a quintessentially Icelandic epic. Imagine my disorientation to find myself in an "old-world" German village.

The first book of this trilogy is a fairy-tale love story, and it won me over entirely. A young woman nurses back to health an unexpected guest at the guesthouse where she works — Leo, a Jew fleeing from Nazis. Together they mould a baby out of clay.

The second book proclaims itself a crime story, but while the events are driven by a couple of crimes, it didn't convey the tone of crime genre at all. It did introduce a host of new characters, and felt a bit madcap. Leo has kept his lump of clay moist with goat's milk. He emigrates to Iceland, learns Icelandic, and gains citizenship after much debate over a state-approved name. He enlists the aid of a Russian spy and an American boxer to regain possession of the gold in a werewolf stamp dealer's tooth required to complete the alchemy of the golem. His son Josef will finally be born in 1962.

The third book is allegedly a science fiction story, but I struggle to find sci-fi elements in it beyond the genetics factor. It's a bit fantastical, and there's something like a Greek chorus happening.

I managed to finish this novel just hours before my library copy expired. I regret that I didn't have time to review the passages I'd noted. I loved sections of this book, many of the seemingly incidental anecdotes. Parts of it failed to keep my attention from wandering (I'm pretty sure it's not you, CoDex 1962, it's me — I have a lot going on in my head these days). And I'm still having trouble making sense of the novel as a whole.

I liked it well enough that I want to read it again. I liked its weirdness.

Reviews invoke Kafka, Borges, Bulgakov, Bruno Schulz, Günter Grass, Laurence Sterne. "Bosch meets Chagall, with touches of Tarantino." I say, Schulz yes, Grass probably.

I'm thinking Bolaño via Wim Wenders.

The third part is redolent of the fourth part of Bolaño's 2666. Minus the horror. It's the litany of deaths it recounts. (And some of the conceptions and deaths are a bit gruesome.) It's numbing. It lists birth and death dates for every girl and boy born in 1962. Many of the deaths occur within days of birth. The number of people who make it through adolescence into full adulthood dwindles. Most of this book consists of interviews with adults born in 1962.

There are plenty of angels throughout the trilogy, including most prominently the Archangel Gabriel (charged with heralding the Apocalypse), which have a very Wings of Desire vibe — their role is to observe, bear witness (and in so doing possibly ease suffering or at least the pain of existence?).

I'm not sure what the overall takeaway is. The book is narrated by (mostly?) Josef with frequent interruptions (I'm not sure by whom), and meta commentary on the nature of storytelling and narrative structure. We all have a story to tell, and every story is the story of everything.

Full Stop: CoDex 1962 – Sjón
For Sjón, one man’s story is more than the story of his own life. It is the story of Iceland, heaven and hell, or even the entire world. And in creating such a convoluted narrative, he weaves more subtle threads throughout the work that tie the novels together, around more elusive ideas than plot and genre: the nature of the soul, the purpose of storytelling, and the place of the generation born in 1962, the year that Sjón and Jósef were born.
Guardian: CoDex 1962 by Sjón review – a wild odyssey from the Icelandic trickster
Sjón is also instructing the reader, and this authorial awareness of the art of storytelling is evident throughout, not as a flaw but rather as a consolidation of his weirdly cohesive attention to detail. The reader will also require patience.
Los Angeles Review of Books: The Whole Human Tapestry: Sjón's Sprawling CoDex 1962 Trilogy
CoDex 1962 records many genres, modes of feeling, and personal histories. It splits its attentions unevenly between Leo, Jósef, and a handful of other characters, and it does not resolve many of its conflicts. However, the sprawl of the trilogy, the messiness, the tonal contradictions, the storytelling that often confuses and occasionally bores — all these qualities offer a window into the broader human story that a novel coloring strictly inside the lines could never achieve. It's a risky, funny, sexy, entirely unique book, and its odd corners make it easier to love.
New York Times: An Epic From Iceland, Complete With Unicorns, Angels and a Stamp-Collecting Werewolf
This book is a Norse Arabian Nights. Each section is a honeycomb. Stories are nested in stories and crack open to reveal rumor and anecdote, prose poems, tendrils of myth. This abundance isn’t an empty show of virtuosity but rooted in Sjon’s belief in the power and obligation of old-fashioned storytelling.
Interview (CBC: Writers and Company)


Monday, December 24, 2018

Nineteen litres of sperm

This ushered in the time of mass copulation, the conception of the 4,711 children — 2,410 boys and 2,301 girls — who were born alive in 1962: night and day, morning and evening, on weekdays and holidays, in lunch hours and coffee breaks, smoking breaks and school breaks, during mountain hikes and country dances; in the upper echelons of society as in the lower, and not least in between; outside in the open air — where the mountain's high and the valley's deep, on tender nights beside the silvery sea, when the stars begin to fall, in that good old mountain dew, when skies are grey, where skies are blue, in that twilight time, with the Northern Lights a runnin' wild, when snow falls all around, by the old dirt road, where the Hagi bus stops and goes — and inside, in garages and apartment blocks, office buildings and shops, factories and sheds, ski huts and carpenters' workshops, art galleries and warehouses, country cabins and boarding schools, fish factories and petrol stations, fishermen's huts and cinemas, net sheds and dairies, clothes shops and school buildings, knitting factories and mail-boats, reclining on teacher's desks and in grassy dells, on the floors of cloakrooms, bathrooms and pantries, on sandy beaches, living-room sofas and rag rugs, in bathtubs, hot tubs and swimming pools, under shop counters, billiard tables and birch shrubs; sitting in armchairs and dentists' chairs, on stony beaches, church pews, garden furniture and apple crates; standing against car doors, front doors and washing machines, bookcases, kitchen shelves and churchyard walls, there met in long, wet kisses the lips of electricians and schoolmistresses, air hostesses and cobblers, journalists and doctors' receptionists, actresses and milk-lorry drivers, vicars and schoolgirls, fish-factory women and paediatricians; there clothes were stripped off by fortune tellers, deckhands, bakery girls, barbers, seamstresses, joiners, midwives, bank clerks, hairdressers, warehouse managers, waitresses, foremen, cook-housekeepers and draughtsmen;while, with hesitant fumbling fingers, farmers, engineers, plumbers, bus drivers and watchmakers groped for the hooks on the bras of switchboard operators, hired hands, housewives and nannies prior to fondling their warm, soft, oval breasts; the members of 4,661 men stiffened and vulvas of 4,661 women (there were fifty pairs of twins) grew wet; husbands lay with wives, lovers with mistresses, husbands with mistresses, husbands with mistresses, lovers with wives — and also wives with mistresses, lovers with husbands, mistresses with mistresses, lovers with lovers, though these unions produced no offspring other than enduring memories of the coupling; rapists assaulted their victims; finger, lips and tongues stroked erogenous zones; penises were rubbed, licked and sucked; buttocks were gripped; backs were clawed; wet pussies enclosed hard cocks, hymens tore; ejaculations were premature; orgasms were achieved, and women took on board the nineteen litres of sperm that were required to produce the 4,711 children to which they were to give birth in 1962.
— from CoDex 1962, by Sjón. (Chapter 3 of Part 3 of the Leo Löwe Trilogy)

I love long sentences. I love lists. I love and, and, and.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


I have been experimenting with flash fiction of different lengths. Some stories simply aren't suited to 150 characters, or even 150 words. But 1,500 words can be long-winded. I've settle on an in-between but can't decide if it says too little or too much. Maybe I cut the wrong bits.

One key to effective flash fiction is the order of things. I think I've tried each sentence in every position. The conventional formula is end, beginning, middle. My beginning hints at the end, but still starts more or less at the beginning. I'm not convinced the beginning is strong enough.

Related to chronology is the issue of verb tense. I've been deliberate in my choice of past and present, but perhaps I've made the wrong choices.

Think of this as a character portrait, one of a series.

Feedback welcome.


#21. Mike.
In business sharp practice sometimes succeeds, but in art honesty is not only the best but the only policy.
The Razor's Edge, W Somerset Maugham

“Atypical businessman,” his profile stated. “What’s so atypical?” I texted. “The average person sets a pretty low bar these days!” (I’m still not sure what he meant.)

I agreed to meet him at the hotel bar. We mock our surroundings. He’s… nice. I’m not uncomfortable (it’s hard work sometimes to not be shy).

I expected a note the morning after, some kind of acknowledgement. In return I would politely, wittily, thank him for a terrifically sordid evening.

[He was beer, I was wine.]

He’d gone to university in New Hampshire. English degree. Wanted to be a journalist. Ended up in IT. Everyone’s in IT. We’re knowledge workers.

He tells me about Thanksgiving dinner at a private club in Manhattan (was it the Colony Club?). He must’ve meant last week (or maybe some recent year past?). Thousands of dollars per plate. “How did you come to be there?” He glosses over long-standing ties to a moneyed family (college girlfriend, I surmise). Kissinger was there. I don’t know why he told me this story.

I comment on the absurdity of our meeting, how I don’t like how judgemental dating apps make me feel, how I don’t think I could ever date a vegetarian (or, you know, a heroin addict). It’s not that I don’t like judging people, it’s that I don’t like to admit to it.

“You know, for some years in New Hampshire I was enamored of W Somerset Maugham’s books,” he segues cryptically.

“Oh, I read all his books!” All of them. Before I was 18.

“…and I had this thing regarding The Razor’s Edge…”

“I love The Razor’s Edge! Larry! Poor Sophie! Gawd, it’s so much better than Of Human Bondage!”

“…and I would judge girls according to whether they were familiar with the book and how they ranked it among his works.” His voice trails off and his left eyebrow arches.

Maybe the algorithm knows more than we do.

Three beers, two glasses of wine. We giggle.

We touch on the standard taboo subjects, for the sheer hell of it. Politics: He read What Happened; I have a white supremacist cousin who voted for Trump. Religion: I’m fascinated by cults; he pays Sunday devotion to Costco. [Single men don’t shop at Costco.]

I go with him to his room. We sit on the sofa and kiss. Kissing is pleasant enough, but no sparks. The whole evening seems a little duller for that. Sex will probably be a disappointment, I think. He says he feels like a teenager. He’s grinning like a mischievous boy. And I think about my friend’s boyfriend, in a hospital in Costa Rica, who was lying in a hammock when a palm tree fell on him (five surgeries and counting). And I think, what if a palm tree falls on me on my way home in the snowstorm, I may never have sex again, maybe it won’t be so bad, I should just do it, I may be pleasantly surprised, and it’ll make him so happy.

It was fine.

He’ll be coming to Montreal more eagerly from now on, he says. (He’s a little uglier now than he was before the drinks.)

No morning message, but he was working, he’d find time on the afternoon train ride. The hours wore on. Surely he was crafting a perfect love letter.

This user disabled their account.

For the man who in the throes of passion repeats quietly like a rosary oh goodness, my goodness — in the name of mediocrity, I absolve thee.
When passion seizes the heart it invents reasons that seem not only plausible but conclusive to prove that the world is well lost for love. It convinces you that honor is well sacrificed and that shame is a cheap price to pay.

Monday, December 03, 2018

The possibility of a way of being

Here in the Piazza della Rotonda, like everywhere else, it's the older women I see first. I think I'm searching in them for a sign of what I might become. I was doing this aged fifteen and I haven't found it yet. The older women on the streets don't look like the thin, tan women on the billboards I saw from the train, or like the solid, white women who have held up Roman porticos for so many years without a sigh. Because they are not answered in the architecture I know that the women walking through the square are not real women — or maybe they are real women, but the fake women on the statues and the billboards are more important. In any case I look at them slyly, knowing there's something shameful in my looking. I'm trying to catch something I recognize — the girl in the woman, how she got there, her story — but I'm also looking for something more, the possibility of a way of being. Maybe I'll only recognize it when it's my turn.
— from Break.up, by Joanna Walsh.

Am I real or not real? Less important or more important? Am I sly? Shameful? What is it I recognize? Is it my turn? What am I becoming?