Monday, September 16, 2019

At the intersection of truth and wishful thinking

Then he'd gotten back up, and walked some more. For hours.

[...]

He only stopped when he'd met himself again. The Armand who'd been standing on the side of the quiet road, in the middle of nowhere, waiting. At the intersection of truth and wishful thinking.
I showed up at bookclub a couple years ago, for a book I hadn't entirely enjoyed. The usual bookclub host was out sick and couldn't make it — she'd asked one of the other bookstore employees to fill in, someone who hadn't read the book. One other reader showed up. It was a quiet evening at the shop, so the bookstore clerk on duty sat down and had a beer with us.

That other reader though. I want to say her name was Marion, it was — she was — of another era. She must've been seventy-something, elegantly grey, incongruously carrying a plastic shopping bag to haul some notes, a shawl. She couldn't possibly have ever worked, apart from arranging tea or some fundraising down at the club. She was visiting from Texas, and had a night in Montreal before embarking on her adventure. What better activity than attending a book club about a book she happened to have recently read. The book in question was short stories by Teffi, but that doesn't matter.

She drawled loud and slow, her head bobbing gently. And she told us she'd stopped in Montreal on her way to Three Pines. Of course she knew it was a fictional place; but she needed to see the village that inspired it. Marion was on her way to the Eastern Townships to meet Louise Penny, and to celebrate the launch of the latest instalment of the Inspector Gamache books. That would've been Glass Houses.

This is only the fifth book I've read of the series, now fifteen strong. But it's peopled by characters so familiar, in a place just down the road. They don't call these cozy mysteries for nothing.

Louise Penny is a frightfully astute observer of the human condition.
Men and women going about their lives. Apparently quite normal. On the outside. Their skin stretched across the void inside.
Glass Houses has two main narrative threads. The "present day" courtroom drama in a sweltering July, and the events of the previous November, including the murder for which someone is now standing trial. We don't know the nature of the crime, who the victim is or who the perpetrator, until we are quite a way into the book (some readers may find this frustrating).

As is typical of Penny, there's a healthy dose of real-life Quebec politics thrown in, this time a drug crisis, the organization of the drug's trafficking within Quebec and across international borders, and the failure of authorities to clamp down — all issues in the news in recent years.

At the core of the book is the concept of the cobrador, a debt collector who dresses like Darth Vader (or Death, or a plague doctor). Penny's version is a collector of moral debts. It turns out almost everyone believes the cobrador could be there for them.

Gamache and others have to decide if their job is to uphold the law or to do what's right. Gamache is Churchill allowing Coventry to be bombed, for the greater good.
And Lacoste remembered the advice given to Mossad agents. Advice Lacoste had found abhorrent, wrong on every level. Until it had been explained.

The instruction given the Israeli agents, if they met resistance during an assault, was kill the women first.

Because if a woman was ever driven so far as to pick up a weapon she would be the most committed, the least likely to ever give up.

Kill the women first.

Lacoste still hated the advice. The simplicity of it. The baldness. But she also hated that the philosophy behind it was almost certainly true.
To be honest, I thought Marion at bookclub was crazy. Maybe because I'm afraid of becoming her. But I haven't forgotten about her. In fact, I rather admire her. Why shouldn't I be like her, following the paths of my favourite imaginary people?

And let me admit now how much I loved to be enveloped in the world of Three Pines. I could stand to spend a little more time there. I'm going back to read the ones I've missed.
It wasn't really, he knew, about less fear. It was about more courage.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Sex short circuits all imaginative exchange

C: Ann thought it was a great project, more perverse than just having an affair. She thinks it'd make a good book! When Dick calls shall we tell him we're considering publication?

S: No. The murder hasn't happened yet. Desire's still unconsummated. Let the media wait.
It didn't occur to me when I started writing letters a year and a half ago, unsent, that I was working within an already established art form. In fact, I didn't think of art or work at all. It was therapy.

What makes it a letter and not a diary entry is intention and direction. I needed to say something to someone in particular. At first it was the recovering heroin addict ex-boyfriend. But as those feelings resolved themselves, I wrote to some version of myself. Finally the letters became stories I tell my (mostly) imaginary lover.

This is not quite how I Love Dick unfolds, but Chris Kraus has done something similar, projecting an impassioned love affair on a man she barely knows.

So. Highly relatable.

Chris and Sylvère, together some ten years, are dining with Dick, an academic acquaintance of Sylvère's, and they go back to Dick's place and drink some more, by which time Chris is totally crushing on Dick, and when she confides in Sylvère the next day, they begin writing letters to Dick that they never send. They create ménage à trois where none existed, and explore its outcomes, without any basis other than Chris's love (imaginary or real?) for Dick.

My coworker noticed it on my desk — she's read it — asked me how I liked it, but when I said relatable, she gave me a funny look.

I mean the imaginary love affair part. I have no idea what else this book has in store. Oh god, they joke about a murder, maybe that goes somewhere. I hope she doesn't think I plan murders.
Have Chris and I spent this past week in turmoil just to turn our lives into a text?
(Yes!)
On the car ride home I started reading Research Into Marriage, then underlining, footnoting and annotating all the passages that could relate to me and you. It's an exercise both adolescent (me!) and academic (you!) ... my first art object, which I'll give you as a present.
I want to go back to the beginning and annotate this book as it relates to my own imaginary love affair. So badly. Every bit that makes this book so relatable. I will make an offering of it.

I'm about halfway through this book when I start rereading, pencil in hand. I had been swept away by this book as a model of what I could do with my own writing; I want to slow down to better understand it. On rereading, this book is not what I was experiencing at all. The text was merely, magically, a trigger for my own interior experience, but already it's not a story I recognize, it's telling a different story from the one I thought I was reading. Those lines of insight I thought would stay with me, the passages I wanted to mark when no pencil was in reach — I can't find them anymore.

There's a comment about Schoenberg and I remember the lovely novel I read last winter that I never got round to writing about.

I Love Dick. I Love Dick. I Love ... (I need to make this book my own.) I Love Marc. Making My Marc. Making My Mark. (That's not clever, it's cheesy.)

[How would he react to having his name changed? I don't think he'd like it, it's no longer the truth. Maybe he'd rather remain anonymous. Of course, him being imaginary, I don't even have to tell him, he'd never find out about this. I'll tell him. Of course I'll tell him. I tell him everything. That's almost the fucking point. Does he know that he's now an art experience? Maybe I've always subconsciously known that that's what he was meant to be, what we were meant to be. He has no agency of his own, only that which I bestow upon him. I create him.]
And then Chris went alone into her room and wrote a letter, thinking she would send it, about sex and love. She was all confused about wanting to have sex, sensing that at this point if she slept with Dick the whole thing would be over. THE — UNEXAMINED — LIFE — IS NOT — WORTH — LIVING flashed the titles of a Ken Kobland film against the backbeat of a carfuck 1950s song. "As soon as sex takes place, we fall," she wrote, thinking, knowing from experience, that sex short circuits all imaginative exchange. The two together get too scary. So she wrote some more about Henry James. Although she really wanted both. "Is there a way," she wrote in closing, "to dignify sex, make it as complicated as we are, to make it not grotesque?"
And this makes me sad because it becomes clear to me that she does not understand sex the way I do, it is complicated and not grotesque and it is entirely cerebral, my imaginary lover and I agree that creative juices and sexual juices flow into each other, the nature of exchange need not be verbal, it becomes something else.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Slightly deranged scrutiny

I'm not sure why I decided to read Mary Karr's The Liar's Club — tragically depressing memoir is not my go-to genre. Of course, I knew about it, and it must've been recently impressed upon me that this was the mother of my generation's memoirs. And what the hell, all reading is research.

But it is good — compelling and funny and full of quirky characters and attitude. Karr wasn't just born into a memoir, she finely crafted one. It's dark and disturbing and lovely.

Read it.

Karr's a poet, and I wondered that I wasn't finding more quotable passages, but I know that poetry isn't about a choice word, it's a rhythm, it's the timing of a punchline and a punch to the gut. It turns on a dime from charming dietary quirks to alcohol-fueled danger, from naive neighbourhood antics to sexual abuse. This is not an easy book.

What's magical about The Liar's Club is that despite her traumatic childhood, there's a whole lot of love, and something like awe for the parents who neglected her and failed her in so many ways.
Much later, when Mother could be brought to talk about her own childhood, she told stories about how peculiar her mother's habits had been. Grandma Moore didn't sound like such a religious fanatic back then. She just seemed like a fanatic in general. For instance, she had once sent away for a detective-training kit from a magazine. The plan was for her and Mother to spy on their neighbors — this, back when the Lubbock population still fit into three digits. According to Mother, this surveillance went on for weeks. Grandma would stirrup Mother up to the parson's curtained windows — and not because of any suspected adultery of flagrant sinning, but to find out whether his wife did her cakes from scratch or not. She kept the answers to these kinds of questions in an alphabetized log of prominent families. She would also zero in on some particular person who troubled her and keep track of all his comings and goings for weeks on end. She knew the procedure for taking fingerprints and kept Mother's on a recipe card, in case she was ever kidnapped. Grandma even began to collect little forensic envelops of hair and dust that she found on people's furniture when she visited them. Mother said that for the better part of a year, they'd be taking tea at some lady's house, when her mother would suddenly sneak an envelope with something like a dustball in it into the pocket of her pinafore. Whatever became of this evidence Mother couldn't say. The whole detective-training deal got dropped as abruptly as it had been undertaken.

When Grandma came to our house, she brought with her that same kind of slightly deranged scrutiny.
In her introduction to the 10th anniversary edition, Mary Karr observes, "a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it." I've this summer had occasion several times over to corroborate this.

I love this story about Grandma and her spy kit because I read it while visiting relatives this summer, and my crazy aunt (by marriage) pulled out her shoebox of quartered recipe cards, on which she had jotted down everything she knew about us. Which wasn't much and was slightly wrong and oddly selective. For example, she had my ex listed as an accountant (not quite, but maybe if you squinted), and she didn't have a clue what I did for a living. So I know people, even family, do strange things for unaccountable reasons.

And Karr's family gets up to some crazy shit.

The Liar's Club is how she referred to her father's coterie — blue collar workers who drank together at the Legion and told outlandish tales. Her trips with Daddy to the Legion trailed off at puberty. She returns once when she's home from college.
Something about the Legion clarified who I was, made me solid inside, like when you twist the binocular lens to the perfect depth and the figure you're looking at gets definite. Maybe I just liked holding a place in such a male realm.
It's a peculiar thing to title this book, because it's her mother (in my view) who leads the book; with so many secrets, her mother is the biggest liar of them all.

You can read Lena Dunham's foreword to the 20th-anniversary edition at The Paris Review.

See "They're Liars, and That's Just the Least of Their Problems," by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The weight of absence

"Melancholia, as you call it, germinates in the mind, but blossoms in the body."
The Therapist by Nial Giacomelli is a slim novel with weighty aspirations. It's wholly atmospheric and a little strange.

I didn't enjoy this book much, and most of that's on me. It covers depressing subject matter, the kind of emotional drama that just isn't my jam. It's about grief, a couple dealing with grief, and I think I can just leave it at that so as not to spoil anything for you. I have yet to read a book that takes on grieving as a theme in a way that resonates meaningfully with me.
We sit beneath a painting of the sea and talk about the weight of absence. How after the accident we had both begun to see the body of our own grief. We had watched as it was born, fusing bone and knitting skin. How over the course of several weeks it had come together in the shape not of a man, but of a boy. And how gradually it had taken residence in the house, bringing with it a furious anger.
I didn't like the narrator. He comes across as a selfish asshole husband. Now, this is kind of the point, as it's very much tied up in the blame that is thrown around the guilt everyone denies or wallows in. But the aha moment came too late for me to care — I deeply loathed the asshole for being in his marriage in the way that he was and didn't give a shit about his redemption. I put this one on the author — maybe it's a question of the timing of certain revelations of the narrator's character. Maybe this is a woman's reading of his character, but I disliked him too much, too early. That is, I can appreciate what the author was trying to do with this character, but it didn't work for me.
She suffered stress headaches, much like she had as a teenager, migraines that would blossom like cactus flowers in the depths of her eye sockets. She was struck by a terrible malaise that kept her bedridden. And though I knew only stories of her youth, I was forced to watch helplessly as the wounds of her depression reopened across the geography of her body.
While grief takes up residence in their bodies, a plague is ravaging America. People are becoming transparent, until they disappear. They become one with the dead before them. Our couple lives in terror of the disease encroaching on their own remote territory. I would've preferred to focus on that epic apocalypse, or on the neighbours (the kind of Joneses you want to keep up with, despite them having their own deep troubles) rather than the intimate one. (But there's a point in here too about grief and how intensely private it is; it refuses sometimes to let the world in, it can't be fixed from the outside.)
By day we explore the geography of the continent and at night we explore the geography of each other. Two shapes that come together as one.
The metaphor was crafted to death. The words "body" and "bodies" occur more than 100 times in this 125-page story. Body-related imagery combined with geographical references abounds.
An infographic appears showing landmass consumed by an acreage of growing red dots. It looks like an X-ray, an organ riddled with tumours.
Taken individually, many of these sentences are stunning, but the whole of them felt overwritten and tiresome.
They walk like a chain gang into a makeshift compound, a shanty town of relief tents that look like white pustules against the landscape.
Shame on me, but life et cetera, and I skimmed through the final pages. Something about the incorporeality of love and what love can then embody. The resolution is not entirely clear to me, nor do I understand the nature of the eponymous therapist.

Friday, August 16, 2019

that was love but I kept on traveling

we don't do much ourselves
but fuck and think
of the haunting Métro
and the ones who didn't show up there
while we were waiting to become part of our century
I don't know why I picked up Lunch Poems a couple months ago
I was feeling the need for poetry I guess
but why Frank O'Hara, I don't know, I thought I'd had enough of him.

Maybe someone recently referenced him in a clever way, but I don't remember so I guess it doesn't matter
maybe I thought of him because I am working alongside a Frank these days
suddenly everyone is Frank without being frank

or I wanted something to read over lunch
they were written over lunch, shouldn't they best be read then too

I should write at lunch, only they wouldn't be poems exactly, and probably not at lunch either
lunch here is far too social for quiet time of any kind
unless I leave the confines of the office and why would I forsake the catered lunch

I could write breakfast musings, or mid-afternoon caffeine-craving ramblings.
Could I craft a collection of something that reflected my daily life and the passage of time (not unlike, say, blog entries)?
I'm writing this on my phone, in the metro, on my way to work. Maybe this is the time
for writing — I will need to strengthen my fingers

anyway, I'd been reading a poem from time to time and then I let this volume drop
until I was in San Francisco last week, my company has an office there, I'd never been, and
with a free afternoon I wandered over to City Lights

upstairs on the wall of beat poets and (essentially) no women was this very same
volume I stared at it a long time thinking about why there were no women when
suddenly someone said hello and it took a second to realize they were saying
hello to me I looked up and there was Frank from the office
saying hello to me, fancy running into you here on a free afternoon in San Francisco

there you have it so now the Lunch Poems have been my commute poems, morning and evening poems,
start-my-workday poems, metro poems, riding-through a-slice-of-city poems

I'm not sure how much I actually like the poems.
Most of them just hum along describing the city and referencing whatever might be going on in Franks's
little head, or his personal life at any rate.

I wonder how much time he put into them or did they just spill out, they certainly don't feel crafted as if
any crafting must've been in fine-tuning his thoughts rather than wordsmithing the expression of them, nary a care
for whether the reader can decipher the riddle of his lunch hour.

Though I suppose if I were to write my commute-time musings even though they might mainly be about sex and dating
they still would be sprinkled with the books I'm reading and that woman on the park bench
loudly breaking up with her boyfriend over the phone and the imagined lives of buskers in the metro.

And what's the deal with Kenneth Koch's mother, does she really only appear once she feels so present

Very few of the poems speak to me as a whole but every now and
then a line just guts me, and I think there must be more
to the poem as a whole so I reread it but no, there's nothing
more, just that line, maybe that's enough.

I was trying to explain to a friend (well, he's more imaginary than friend) that the best
poems arouse me sexually, that line you feel deep in your belly when you think a man's going to kiss
you and you want, really want, this man to kiss you, that's what a good poem is like.

But maybe I read poetry the wrong way.

How about:
Is this love, now that the first love
Has finally died, where there were no impossibilities?
and I explain to my virtual lover that it has nothing to do with love it's about
the (erotic) tension between possibility and impossibility and hell yes that turns me on

imagine seeing the world always in the rosy
afterglow of sex or with the flushed anticipation
of someone touching you, it's a good poem if it
whispers in my ear or grazes my nipple

(Maybe now he thinks I'm crazy. I don't think the word
love has ever transpired between us, that might
be awkward, our relationship is purely physical,
in an entirely non-physical way.)
and then in Harbin I knew
how to behave it was glorious that
was love sneaking up on me through the snow
and I felt it was because of all
the postcards and the smiles and kisses and the grunts
that was love but I kept on traveling
— August 16, 2019;9:43 am

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

"People in hell want ice water."

Blue had bought Lecia and me each a doll, curly-headed, near as tall as ourselves. Lecia's was blond, mine black-headed. Under the sedan's dome light, mine stared from its box on the wide back seat with an indifference bold enough to edge over into insult. A copper wire garroted her head in place. Her wrists and feet were likewise strapped down. Highway lights started streaking over the cellophane mask above her perfect features. She gazed out sullen. Her cold blue eyes announced that she wanted some other girl, not me. Well, I wanted my very own mother, and I'd have told her so, too, if the thought didn't put a lump in my throat. Instead I told her — out loud, I guess — "People in hell want ice water." Daddy said, "Say what?" And I told him I'd kill for a glass of ice water.
— from The Liars' Club, by Mary Karr.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

To awaken my sleeping soul

Often people even say: "There's a plot for one of your novels," as if I went around in search of plots for novels and not in search of myself. If I write it's in order to remember, to awaken my sleeping soul, to stir up my mind and discover its secret pathways. Most of my stories are fragments of my soul's memory, not inventions.
— from Empty Words, by Mario Levrero.

It's a strange little novel. The narrator embarks on a journey of graphological self-therapy. If he improves his handwriting, it will improve his character. Although, it's not entirely clear what needs bettering.

And it's important for him in his therapy to separate the form the content. He must focus on the form, on shaping the letters. But he can't do it. So his daily exercises tell us a great deal about his living circumstances, the upcoming house move, and especially the dog. He produces the occasional profound insight, but all to the detriment of his handwriting.
Today I failed in my grand plans to start living more healthily, with less time spent on things like reading and using the computer, precisely because of an irresistible urge to use the computer. There's always some idea I want to try out, or some mystery that needs solving once and for all. I think the computer is taking the place of my Unconscious as a field of investigation. I went as far as I could with my investigations into my Unconscious, and the by-product of those investigations is the literature I've written (although literature was also a tool I used in those investigations, in some cases at least).

To be honest, the world of the computer is very similar to the world of the Unconscious, with lots of hidden elements and a language to decipher. I probably feel like there's nowhere left to go when it comes to investigating my Unconscious; the computer also involves much less risk, or risk of a different kind.

The strangest thing about all this is the value I ascribe to investigating something that is, quite definitely, of no use to me whatsoever. And yet I clearly do see it as immensely valuable, as if there were vitally important clues hidden in the workings of the machine.
About halfway through, it becomes clear to me that the narrator is crazy. I'm not sure if he's been crazy all along or whether the graphological therapy is drawing it out of him.

The entries are dated, and there are gaps of days and later even months. What happened in the intervening time? It becomes clear that several significant life events have transpired off-screen. Our narrator prefers to leave them swirling in his unconscious than to commit a record of them to paper.

The exercises are less regular over time. But when he finally attacks them in earnest, the content is crushed out of the words he produces, to become merely vocabulary lists — no, that gives the words too much weight; they are strings of letters. We see him cross out and rewrite misshapen words. We see him unravel.

Empty Words started out as a pretentious and directionless, though mildly entertaining, exercise (and I mean the "novel," not the graphological therapy), but it turned out to be much darker, more provocative.
And so I decide to go on hoping, and every new hope exhausts me a little more, sucks a little more life from me, and dismantles my remaining self-esteem, until the only thing I have left is the pointless lucidity with which I passively observe the way I'm going under once and for all.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The date — 26 possible outcomes

He lives in Germany (he says), but will be here on business this week. We've been messaging for over a year, but we've never met face to face. There are too many ways this could turn out.

1. He cancels his trip at the last minute. (Like last time.)

2. There never was a scheduled trip.

3. He lets me know he's arrived as scheduled and gives me his room number. I grab a cab and am stuck in traffic for two and a half hours. Even though we're messaging all the while, at some point he stops responding, succumbing to jetlag I assume. I finally arrive but when I knock on the door, there's no answer. He is dead from a heart attack on the other side of the door and I will never know.

4. He lets me know he's arrived as scheduled and gives me his room number. I grab a cab and am stuck in traffic for two and a half hours. Even though we're messaging all the while, at some point he stops responding. I finally arrive but when I knock on the door, there's no answer. I turn around and go home. He messages me days later and sweeps it away as a misunderstanding. I eventually learn that he found the company of other women in the bar. We continue our correspondence as ever.

5. He lets me know he's arrived as scheduled and gives me his room number. As I’m packing up at work, I receive word that Helena has had an accident and is in hospital. I rush to her bedside, and remain there for days. She's going to be fine. But he and I – we failed to meet this time. We continue our correspondence as ever.

6. As I'm packing up at work, I receive word that Helena has had an accident and is in hospital. Tragic things unfold. I am plagued by guilt and I never write to him again. I cannot erase him from my mind, but I blame him.

7. He lets me know he's arrived as scheduled and gives me his room number. On my way to catch the bus, there's an incident on the bridge crossing the canal. I am required to give a statement to the police. Amid the chaos, my purse — with my phone and credit card — is lost in the water. I return home well after dark. I message as soon as I can, and we set a new date for the following day, but due to his work obligations, it never materializes. We continue our correspondence as ever.

8. On my way to catch the bus, I am struck by a car. I come out of the coma in early 2020. Somehow, he seems less important.

9. I come out of the coma in early 2020. Somehow, he seems more important. I become obsessed with living life to the fullest. I'm not sure how to approach him after all this time. I move to Germany and once I am settled, I resume a correspondence with him, but he is cold and more distant than ever.

10. He lets me know he's arrived as scheduled and gives me his room number. On my way to catch the bus, any one of an infinite number of random acts of violence or of God prevents us from meeting. We continue our correspondence as ever.

11. On my way to the catch the bus, any one of an infinite number of random acts of violence or of God brings my life to an end. He will never know.

12. He lets me know he's arrived as scheduled and gives me his room number. I make my way to his hotel, to his room, and I knock. He opens the door. He is not what he presented himself to be. He is old and lecherous. I don’t know what to do.

13. I knock. He opens the door. He is not what he presented himself to be. He is a cave-dwelling troll. A recluse genius who lives in deep Quebec. It has taken him a year to find the courage to travel to the city. He touches me tentatively and it stirs my sympathy. The room is charged with erotic energy and we have an immensely satisfying and honest evening. We never contact each other again.

14. I knock. He opens the door. We smile at each other. We try to kiss but start laughing uncontrollably. We drink. We barely touch. It feels wrong and awkward. I drink too much, I am sick from nerves. He passes out. I leave. We never hear from each other again.

15. I knock. He opens the door. We smile at each other. He pulls me inside. He lifts his fingers to graze my face, gently pulls my hair, tilting my head as he kisses my shoulder, tongues my neck up to my ear. He whispers to me in German, it sounds dirty.

16. I knock. He opens the door. He looks me up and down, and closes the door, leaving me standing in the hall. I knock again. He doesn’t respond. I walk away.

17. I knock. He opens the door. He pulls me inside, closing the door behind me. He has invited two of his colleagues to join us.

18. I knock. He opens the door and pulls me inside. He throws me onto the bed and ties me down. He violently rapes me and sodomizes me. I'm not sure if I like it.

19. I knock. He opens the door and pulls me inside. We kiss. We kiss. We kiss.

20. I knock. He opens the door and pulls me inside. He politely invites me inside and asks me about my day. I honestly tell him how shitty it was. Not shitty — hard. No, not hard — challenging. I pour myself a drink and admit how out of my depth I feel at work. I throw myself on the bed; I curl up and break down. He strokes my hair and tells me it’ll be ok.

21. I knock. He opens the door and pulls me inside. We kiss. We talk. He tells me he is married, unhappily, and he is cheating on his wife. I have an ethical crisis and walk away.

22. I knock. He opens the door and pulls me inside. When I leave after midnight, we agree to a repeat rendezvous the next day. After returning home to Germany, he realizes he cannot live without me — I am his sexual obsession. He returns to Montreal regularly. He sabotages his career, his finances, to be with me. He bores me. I am bored.

23. I knock. He opens the door. He is not what he presented himself to be. He is a local writer who has created a persona to explore the psychology of online dating and sexuality. We talk for hours, there is so much to say, and we fuck like crazy. We can't get enough of each other. We buy a condo together, in the heritage building on Marquette, and he inspires me to be more disciplined about my writing. I strike a deal with Random House for three novels and finally decide to leave my job. He is jealous of my success as a writer and is drinking far too heavily. I kick him out.

24. I knock. He opens the door and pulls me inside. We fuck. No one ever made me cum like this before. We continue our correspondence, but I cannot bear to be so far from him. Within a year, I transfer to the Copenhagen office. We see each other most weekends. I feel sexually sated. But Anders at the office woos me and we plan our retirement together. Marc is disappointed and goes back to his ex. Anders and I move to Reykjavik, and I write a novel.

25. I knock. No answer.

26. I knock. He opens the door and pulls me inside. This changes everything. I don't know how yet, but this changes everything.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Self-observation rots the human soul

Each of them had his own special relationship to mirrors. The one suffering from a broken heart could gaze at his reflection for many long hours. He did so when he thought he was alone, but sometimes I, Grandmother, or one of the other waiters might chance upon him.

"Are you staring yourself in the mirror again?" Grandmother once asked.

"No, I'm not staring at myself in the mirror, " the waiter replied.

"What are you doing, then?" asked Grandmother.

"I'm looking for something of myself that I think has gone missing," came his reply.

One of the other waiters thought that mirrors were dangerous objects, for they were one of the places where demons were housed. When a person stood in front of a mirror she opened herself to her own reflections, and that's when the demon slunk inside her. From there, it would cultivate the West's worst characteristics inside that person: egoism and self-centeredness. The person reflected would then be heading slowly but surely toward a painful and entirely self-fulfilling demise. Like rust corrodes iron, self-observation rots the human soul, the waiter would say, and one wondered which books he'd read that made him say such a thing.

The third waiter had more of a political angle. He was of the opinion that mirrors were spies. He said that in all societies there was an evaluating authority, and nowhere was it as well developed as in wealthy countries — where people had been taught to observe themselves. Mirrors constituted one such evaluating authority, and there was no need for enforcement, for people subjected themselves to this evaluation of their own free will and even enthusiastically. Several times a day, you'd measure yourself in front of the evaluating authority, suspending yourself dutifully, of your own accord, and you'd do it gladly. And if your reflection did not elate you, as it almost never did, you didn't give up, you set to work on a plan to become exactly what was expected of you.

"Keeping people in check is as easy as hanging mirrors everywhere, because there is nothing stricter," said the waiter, "than the way you gaze at yourself."
— from The Polyglot Lovers, by Lina Wolff.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Freedom is a bottomless abyss

I feel compelled to put closure on this book (possibly on this year of love) — My Year of Love, by Paul Nizon. Published in 1981, it has the feel of sexual memoirs from an earlier era, but no, Nizon represents a very unevolved male attitude of the 1970s. I damn near hated it, it bored me so much.

And yet. I am reminded of it most mornings. I wake up enveloped in a greenish haze of light, much like one Nizon described. Of course, I'm unable to track down this specific passage, I wonder if I imagined it. Or I read something he wrote about curtains while I was half asleep, and I later reshaped it into the sheers billowing around me, I see the trees through this mesh of silver.

I thought he was writing about the prefect writing space, but as this passage doesn't exist, I must accept that this is some expression of my subconscious attitude to the space and light I live in.

This novel is about a man trying to write, and while he sits at his desk he watches the old man in the apartment across the courtyard feeding the doves on his windowsill. So he writes about the dove man, and the dove man's wife, and his mother, and the tenants in his building (other writers), and the landlady, and his dead aunt, and his dalliances with women, past and present.
I like the confidential aspect of such relationships, which by the way are very casual, very lightweight. I like the complicated solidarity, because here, where everything is influenced by venality, the extras, the little votes of confidence, do have the nature of beautifully shining kindness. I've always had this special relationship to so-called loose women, this offhand relationship that also incorporates closeness.
He leaves out the transactional element of his dealings with prostitutes. He extols these relationships for their simple, casual nature and for their kindness, and I feel, momentarily, that I can relate, I appreciate the beauty of such a contact — to have a lover, no strings, it is the ultimate, intimate, kindness we bestow on each other. But it never once occurs to him that he has paid for this experience, that it might be less than authentic.

This troubles me immensely. Not that he frequents prostitutes (though that is problematic), but that he seems incapable of noticing the difference between these relationships.

He even argues that there's more sincerity in one that is transactional, no false promises or expectations to manipulate, whereas taking a girl to dinner or a movie he would feel he was buying her attentions.

We gradually learn about the marriage he broke for the sake of an encounter with another woman, and so he left for Paris where he might experience true love, by which he really means sexual freedom.
I kept a lookout for her from behind the mask of my sunglasses, I didn't even really know if I liked her, I couldn't ask myself that question, because I was dependent on our being in love, dependent on this atmospheres as if it were a drug, that's why I was dependent on her, whether I wanted to be or not. I couldn't be without either. That's why I wore the sunglasses.

[...]

I only wanted to experience LOVE with her and excluded her as a person.
For all the women in this book, none of them are people, not even (especially) his wife. No one exists except in relation to his male ego.

But he arrives at a conclusion I came to myself about a year ago. Love isn't what happens between two people; it's what happens in one's own mind. It is a completely solitary state of being, and the person beside you is almost completely irrelevant.

Passages from this book are achingly insightful and poignant, but it's all infuriatingly male and so much self-pitying, solipsistic bullshit.
Write something or pull it to shore, that is, put it on paper, otherwise you'll get sick in this freedom, it's unlimited, I would never have believed that freedom could be form of captivity, freedom can be like a primeval forest or like the ocean, you can drown in it or disappear and never, never ever find your way out again. How can I make it to shore in this freedom, or how can I enjoy it? I have to parcel it out for myself, plant something in it, cultivate it, I have to change it, at least a little, into an occupation, freedom is a bottomless abyss when it present itself in this totalitarian form.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Subtler, almost invisible

Sometimes, as if carelessly, Michel's and Louise's looks met. The warned each other not to stay too long. In fact, their eyes touched, as lightly as birds, while an expression of almost childish contentment spread across the Rumanian's face as he hurriedly bent over his plate.

The change on the young girl's face was subtler, almost invisible; it wasn't joy. There was no sparkle in it, it was more like a look of serenity and satisfaction.

It was as though she had matured, as though she suddenly felt a great potential richness inside her.
I'd almost forgotten how much I love Simenon. My reading of late has felt pretty blah; maybe that throws Simenon into relief. I love Simenon!

I loved Account Unsettled! I love that I found this book in Prague! I love that it's my daughter who pulled me into this shop for some inexplicable reason! I love this book's funky smell! I love its atrocious cover!

The cover — the description in combination with the illustration — might lead you to believe that this book is about a crime of passion with a woman at its source. But there is no passion in this crime; it's very cold. And the woman has nothing to do with it.

This 1953 novel is one of Simenon's romans durs and does not feature Maigret. It opens in Liège, and then quite unexpectedly shifts in time and space to Arizona some decades later. From the claustrophobia of a house marked by hunger and chills to the gluttonous emptiness of resort in a vast sweaty desert. A study in contrasts.

Page after page we have been waiting for Elie, a poor, ugly Polish-Lithuanian Jew pursuing a doctorate in mathematics, to gun down Michel, the handsome, charming, womanizing Jewish Rumanian of means.

It's not a matter of jealousy, it's justice, Elie convinces himself. But did Michel even ever give him a second thought?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Honest

Today we arrived in Prague. We made our way from the airport to downtown via public transport. We found our hotel.

The only mission for this first day, apart from getting ourselves fed and hydrated and libated, was to soak up some atmosphere and track down a copy of Honest Guide Prague. Which we did! And we also almost got lost! Twice! I'd say the day is a success.

It was weeks after I'd booked the flights that Helena remembered to tell me about this YouTuber she follows. I'm not sure we ever would've made it out of the airport without him. The videos are a treasure trove. And now the team has released a book in time for our trip.

It's full of great advice like:
You can't judge a book by its cover, and you can't understand a building unless you go inside.
I'd just like to take a moment to geek out over this binding! (Coptic stitch? Waxed!)

Monday, June 17, 2019

A kind of flood of the flesh

I leaned over and kissed him. Ruben's lips parted, barely, but then he pushed me away.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I saw a film once," he said. "In Italian. A woman says to a man: Sodomizzami. Sodomize me. And he wanted nothing more, he'd dreamed about it forever, but he doesn't understand what she's saying. He's too uneducated. He doesn't understand, do you understand?"

We looked at each other, the two of us chuckling. I thought that maybe this was what is was like when intellectual people went to bed. Elegant and stiff, like someone with good posture eating mussels with a knife and fork, discussing film and quoting things in different languages even though you know you're facing ruin, a flood that is about to roll in and ravage everything all at once, a kind of flood of the flesh. This whole situation had lost its charm.
— from The Polyglot Lovers, by Lina Wolff.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Used her up

I feel somewhat blocked lately, in writing and reading. I tell myself it's because I'm busy with work, I'm still adjusting to my (no-longer-so-new) job, basking in the joy of work that is wholly engaging. But I don't want to be that person — I know there's more to life than work. I tell myself I'm living a balanced life, but neither am I being particularly social; I'm not dating much, it just doesn't seem worth the effort at the moment.

So I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm tempted to explain that it's not you, novels, it's me — it's not the right time and place for us. But rationalizing it, taking the blame, actually makes me angry, it's such bullshit. Why should it be my fault? One novel I'm working through is fascinating really, but just so damn big — it weighs on me — and I can't be bothered to carry it on my commute. The other novel I finally finished, but it was plodding — I didn't even have the strength of character to dump it.

My reading life and my dating life are somehow merged over the last year. I am for the most part attracted to books about sex and love and joy. Because I think they will help me process the sex and love and joy in my life. But sometimes they confuse me.

Maybe sometimes I confuse them. Sometimes I date the books and read the people, and I'm not sure I'm doing either the right way. (I should've dropped the book, not the guy.) Sometimes I challenge myself in the wrong ways.

Maybe I'm just tired and need a break.

**********

The bookstore emailed about the next bookclub meeting, but with only a week's notice, and by the time I got my hands on a copy of the book, I only had four and a half days to read it. I made it halfway in time for the discussion (but yes, I read it through to the end in the ensuing days).

I was grateful for the push to read something I wouldn't ordinarily pick up of my own accord: An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon.

It's science fiction of the generation ship variety. The ships decks reinforce the caste system; the ship is powered by slaves. The protagonist is queer and neuroatypical; Aster is also a healer.

Despite some serious social criticism and horrific violence, it's a story brimming with loving relationships beautifully described.
Aster said sister because she knew sisters could not choose to unsister themselves when their lives diverged dramatically. Friends who hated each other were no longer friends. Sisters who hated each other remained sisters, despite long silences, feuds, and deliberate misunderstandings.
The science behind the predicament of the ship is a little shaky, but this is a very rich novel in all other aspects.

Mostly it's a commentary on racism, with violence against women that's hard to stomach. One character, fathered by a lieutenant, passes as white and so he managed to climb to the position of Surgeon General and thus has privileged access to areas, people, and knowledge. But we see other characters slip between levels, whether it's using off-limit passageways, networks of family and nannying arrangements, or (essentially) black-market means.

The novel presents a very fluid perspective of gender, while integrating issues of mental illness and exploring how knowledge and history are preserved. The ship is also developing its own myths (a deep-seated sense of sin) and evolving languages on different decks.

One of the aspects I found most interesting is that while this is ostensibly occurring in the future, the ship society seem so backward. It leads me to speculate on how and why that might happen.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is very easy to read in the sense that the writing style is breezy, but it is very difficult to read for the harsh realities of its characters' living conditions. This clash woke up all my reading sensibilities.

It had the magical effect of taking me out of myself (even if it took me to some very grim places), when these days I tend to ask books to take me deeper into myself.
The bigness of her earlier mannishness was nowhere now. Short-lived. All that was left were taunts, and crack of Scar's knee, and the past swooping in, an unkindness of ghosts. Her old life had possessed her, strengthening her, but like everything, used her up and then was done.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The erotic sense of simply being alive

I think that in my case the erotic awareness of life, or, rather, its awakening coincided with the awakening of my urge to write; the two occurred simultaneously in a wave of sensuality, in a corresponding confusion of my senses.

[...]

I think it was the erotic sense of simply being alive that enticed and directed me into daydreaming. It's a preliminary stage of visualization, imagination, and has to do with the creation of another, second reality, another life — and yet, early on, I was more than a little ashamed of the inwardness that gave rise to this other reality.
— from My Year of Love, by Paul Nizon.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It both bores me and fascinates me. I find the narrator repulsive for reasons I have difficulty pinpointing, but also highly relatable.

I need to write more. Why am I not writing?

Monday, May 27, 2019

She said it apodictically

Apodicticity
She said it apodictically, without directly addressing anyone, so that one was faced with the alternative of either saying nothing, of ignoring the remark and going past her without saying a word, or of taking up the topic, and it made me angry every time.
If you perceive that I have adopted an apodictic tone, it is because I am so taken with this word (new to me) and must orchestrate circumstances such that I may use it, not because I have taken a stance of apodicticity as if it were a moral imperative.

It sparks in me a new interest in the novel I earlier in the day proclaimed to be boring. When I came across My Year of Love, by Paul Nizon, in the shop last autumn, it seemed a literary imperative that I read it, and understand it. It would be the perfect male counterpoint to the emotional landscape backgrounding my own year of love experienced from my decidedly female perspective. It could offer a steady Swiss neutrality, something reasonable and potentially bland (wholly unlike my Swiss lover).

I've been reading it for days, but it seems I was merely turning the pages. Now this word has turned me around, it has me turning back the pages to find a city of certainties kept secret from me.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The possibility of joy

I went out into the undimmed, Katherine-Mortenhoe-dancing-down-the-street-morning.

Spring. That day spring was special. Not just a matter of cuckoos and poetic crocuses. That day spring was special, an affair in the blood that even the largest city could not arrest, a process that enlarged one's perceptions till even oneself could be almost beautiful. In March the sun may shine and the air may be balmy, but without April in the blood this lightheartedness never catches fire. The building may purr, but the body knows better. It wears its ugly winter, summer, autumn skin and, as in all these seasons, knows no other. Only in spring is the flesh new, and the spirit incorruptible. Which made, I thought on that sweetly sad, sadly sweet, Katherine Mortenhoe morning, the spring the only bearable time for dying.
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton, skewered me.

I wept. I wept for my pathetic self. I wept for my wasted years. I wept for the children I wanted but didn't have. I wept for the novel I haven't written. I wept in self-pity. I raged against the man who cheated me of fertile years, and cheats me still of the private moments he's made it near impossible for me to find. I raged against the days that fall away.

I wept for humanity, that we are so embarrassed, ashamed, afraid to ask for what we want, what we need from each other. That it is so difficult to show kindness. That we don't know what kindness is.

I once fell in love with a man who lived so much in the present he couldn't remember yesterday and made no plan for tomorrow. I accused him of being digital. Discontinuous.

In Katherine's case, it's illness. She is dying of information overload — a breakdown of the neural circuits having exceeded their limits. It's accompanied by psychological phenomena, neural spasm and nausea best described as outrage. She becomes first by choice and then as a consequence of disease "free of context."

In D. G. Compton, Authenticity, and Privacy in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Anna E. Clark writes:
In a nod to Mortenhoe's title, Roddie says at one point that people are only true when they're "continuous" — when, that is, they're made up of things — names, desires, traits — that endure from one moment to the next. Roddie initially believes that these continuous qualities inhere in the person herself, but by Mortenhoe's conclusion we are left with the feeling that they belong not to us but to others. They are the products of the ways we're seen, the ways we're documented.
When do you cease to exist? When do you cease to exist for others? What would you do if you knew you had only a month to live? Would you live your same life? With the same people? Go to the same job? Would you sign a TV contract for a reality show? ("Certainly human behavior has changed since the coming of TV behavior.") Would you go off-grid? How exactly would you do that?
Seven hours remained. I suppose seven hours do not sound all that terrible. Neither, really, do four hundred and twenty minutes. But I counted them, every one. And they're more than enough when all your life has is an ambition you've seen through, a hope you dare not examine, and a direction you'd rather not guess. They're enough to make possibilities of joy seem, to say the least, a bit ridiculous.
Katherine's diagnosis comes at a time when disease has been virtually eradicated. It's unheard of to die of anything but old age. Katherine's 44. Perhaps it's telling that she works as a programmer of romance novels. Katherine leaves her husband, and it's not immediately clear to Katherine or the reader whether it's out of love, to spare him the ordeal.

Roddie, meanwhile, is a TV personality who's had a camera implanted in his eyes. Everything he sees is automatically captured and transmitted to the studio for review and editing. (It's like he's live-streaming. He can cut audio, but he has somewhat modified his gaze — always scanning for the moneyshot but never looking down when he pees.) His network has invested in him, intent on broadcasting Katherine's demise to a "pain-starved public."

This near-future scenario from 1974 felt a little dated at the start, with its forward-looking vision of public telephones (hah!), post offices and reams of mail (how quaint), reality TV (wait a second...), and hi-fi records (umm...). But that Philip K Dick/Robert Sheckley vibe quickly faded into the background. It became a brilliant story of two fucked-up people in fucked-up circumstances.

Katherine seems to have a clear idea of how she should come to her end, but she turns out to be confused, desperate, and lonely. Roddie is truly conflicted, remorseful, and wants to atone.

They grow very close to each other, both lying to each other, and it is profoundly moving.
The thing is, beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder. Neither is compassion, or love, or even human decency. They're not of the eye, but of the mind behind the eye. I had seen, my mind had seen, Katherine Mortenhoe with love. Had seen beauty. But my eyes had simply seen Katherine Mortenhoe. Had seen Katherine Mortenhoe. Period.
I also saw her with love.

I want to see people as continuous. I want to see the possibility of joy.

The Atlantic published an adapted version of Jeff VanderMeer's introduction to the novel.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Changing the consistency of the air around her

Another woman was already standing in my favorite spot by the rusty tracks. Her long coat had a high collar that resembled the gills of a tropical fish. On her head she wore ornaments that looked somehow extraterrestrial. Perhaps she was a singer who'd fled from the stage of an opera with futuristic sets. What could be the reason for her having hurried here without removing her makeup and changing clothes? She was older than I was, and had something extraordinary about her. Her presence even seemed to be changing the consistency of the air around her. The clear form of her lips held her flesh together like overripe fruit, and the two ends sometimes dipped down slightly, as if they were remembering a bitter taste. The woman's spine described a straight line of justice not dependent on any existing law. Each time I blinked, her body dissolved for two seconds into colorful micro-grains.

The darkness around us thickened. The woman gave me a dutiful nod, as if the two of us had an understanding. My heart began to pound violently. It was up to me to take action. Today was the chosen day. I had a vague memory of our having arrived at our agreement in a dream, though the specific terms of the the agreement were unknown to me. Suddenly the woman lay down on the tracks and pressed her face to one of the ties. I ran to her, took her by the shoulder and tried to roll her over, but she was as immovable as the spire of a temple whose root is buried in the earth. I thought I heard the sound of a train approaching from a distance — this was impossible though. There tracks had known nothing but rust and weeds for years, certainly no wheels. Then I heard it once more, the sound of an approaching train. Or was it just a streetcar heading into the city center? Or was it the drone of a refrigerator that had been implanted in the depths of my eardrums during my days of loneliness? I wanted to tell the woman to get up, but I couldn't think of any words. The old words had left my skull, I needed new words to be able to speak to her. But what were new words?
— from The Naked Eye, by Yoko Tawada.

The old words are inadequate. The new words are inaccessible.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The world somewhere else is a beautiful place

"You know, Doctor, he has some very strange ideas of purity and beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, he says. I tell him poet's eye descriptions of oil refineries at sunset are a waste of computer time. Half our readers work in them. Homo or hetero, they're all the same — they want to be told the world somewhere else is a beautiful place. Tell them the world they know is beautiful too and they'll spit in your face."
— from The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D.G. Compton.

Ordinary people dream of elsewhere. Only poets dream of here.

I am loving this book so far. It's both light and serious. Also, it's funny, sometimes unintentionally as it's 1974's vision of "the future."

"The real, the continuous Katherine Mortenhoe possessed the possibility of joy."

I find unreasonable joy in noticing that this novel sits on my desk in aesthetic harmony with my notebook.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Close your eyes

Close your eyes

Close your eyes
Rest your head on my shoulder and sleep
Close your eyes
And I will close mine

Close your eyes
Let's pretend that we're both counting sheep
Close your eyes
This is divine

Music play
Something dreamy for dancing
While were here romancing
It's love's holiday
And Love will be our guide

Close your eyes
When you open them dear
I'll be near by your side
So won't you close your eyes
— from Duet, by Doris Day with André Previn.

I sang this song over and over, night after night, to my baby. Because love would be our guide. Thank you, Doris.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

The personal shopping cart is a name for solitude

I'm reading Happy Are the Happy (Yasmina Reza) in the metro and feeling down, because it's cutting and harsh, if sharp. And I imagine somebody asking me what it's about, and I would say it's about husbands and wives, and mothers and sons, and lovers, and it's not about happiness at all, none of them are happy, everything is dissolving.

But maybe that's what it means to be happy: to dissolve, when the past and the future dissolve.
Apologize, she says. If she said Apologize in her normal voice, I might comply, but she whispers, she gives the word a colorless, atonal inflection I can't get past. I say, please. I remain calm. Please, I say mildly, and I see myself driving down a highway at top speed, stereo turned all the way up, and I'm listening to a song called "Sodade," a recent discovery I understand nothing of except for the solitude in the singer's voice and the word solitude itself, repeated countless times, even though I'm told sodade doesn't actually mean solitude, but nostalgia, absence, regret, spleen, so many intimate things that can't be shared, and all of them names for solitude, just as the personal shopping cart is a name for solitude, and so is the oil and vinegar aisle, and so is the man pleading with his wife under the fluorescent lights.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Erotic energy is everywhere

We think erotic energy is everywhere — in the deep breath that fills our lungs as we step out into a warm spring morning, in the cold water spilling over the rocks in a brook, in the creativity that drives us to paint pictures and tell stories and make music and write books, in the loving tenderness we feel toward our friends and relatives and children.
So here's a book a friend suggested I read: The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, by Dossie Easton and Janet W Hardy. And it's hard not to wonder what the underlying message might be as he presses it into my hands: Am I not ethical enough? Or not slutty enough?

Is this or is this not a book about sluttery? (I love that word, "sluttery.")

"Polyamory" is relatively new word in many people's vocabulary. It's hard not to think of polyamory as a mere trend. Many practitioners would argue that it's been around forever, simply not talked about openly. This is the evolution; it is becoming socially acceptable. The Ethical Slut is not capitalizing on this social phenomenon. Originally published in 1997, it's considered groundbreaking in raising awareness and has helped many people achieve sexual fulfilment. (Your mileage may vary.)

Definitely there are several ideas put forward in this book that I can readily get behind. For example, "Sexual energy pervades everything all the time; we inhale it into our lungs and exude it from our pores."

That there are various kinds of love. That there are various kinds of relationships. That no one person can satisfy our everything (this is why I have book friends, and work friends, and art gallery friends, etc.). That our capacity for love is infinite — we will never run out of love to give.

If the title piques your interest, you may want out check out this YouTube review. It's more a low-key stream-of-consciousness rant than it is a proper review (he makes a big deal of society holding a double standard for judging the behaviour of men and women, which is a tangential point in the book), but he uses the book as a springboard to discuss many of the issues implicit to polyamory and sluttery. The book itself is something of a practical guide, in general terms.

(I'd really like a book to tell me if it's OK to spontaneously sext a married man at midnight, even though most of our texts are relegated to weekday afternoons and limited to establishing meeting points. But I guess that's something I'll have to figure out with my lover.)

The opening chapters are given over to examining traditional ideas that may be founded in outdated systems (religious, legal, etc.). Several exercises are suggested (for example, make a list of all the reasons someone might want to be a slut and consider the validity of those reasons). The book goes on to describe the several different nontraditional kinds of relationships. In a very general way, the book covers everything from consent and safe sex to how to meet like-minded people for initial explorations.

But the bulk of the text is about communicating within a relationship, and would slip neatly into any relationship self-help book (the kind of book I would never read).

A few things in this book rankled my editorial sensibilities: For example, one author refers to the early years of feminism, but I'm fairly certain she's no suffragette — she means the 60s. And despite proclaiming that there's no one-size-fits-all polyamory, the authors clearly have their own worldview biases (that is, I didn't find any insight into what it means to be a single polyamorist; the predominant view is that of someone who is coupled, albeit multiply in various combinations).

The authors clearly state that jealousy is not an emotion, describing it as an umbrella that encompasses anger, sadness, etc., but on the very next page they refer to jealousy as an emotion. Now, I know what they mean, and the book has a chatty enough tone that it's easy to assume an understanding, but when such a great part of this book is given over to communication, it's a shame that they should get sloppy over defining terms.

The primary focus of the book is the value of communication in any relationship, and it's full of other good things like self-awareness, healthy body image, and overall sex positivity.

I'm not sure who this book is for, though. I don't think it will overturn the life-long beliefs and prejudices of close-minded people. As for the relatively open-minded, there is nothing new here. I suppose there's a small demographic who find reassurance in a book that gives them the vocabulary to talk about their lifestyle, new labels by which to define themselves.

So I'm here to proclaim that I'm a slut. And I try to be ethical about it.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

An eroticism still enfeebled by winter

All the young women are in shorts and sandals. The sandals' soles smack their heels with a certain resolute gaiety. What makes that sensual? Is it the slightly slack strap that lets the foot slip this way and that, and the heel slap the sole? Or is it the vision of unveiled legs? What makes it sensual, and must the legs be beautiful, must they be lustrous, smooth, and long? Or is it the beauty of the legs, knees, and ankles superfluous for the burgeoning, in the main street of this drowsy town, of an eroticism still enfeebled by winter? Is all that possible in a town this far removed from the breeziness, the rustle, the hum of the city, is it possible?
Self-Portrait in Green, by Marie Ndiaye, is a slip of a book about an elusive feminine essence, something green, verdant, lush, but potentially toxic. The woman in green may or may not exist, may or may not be a friend, may or may not be a ghost, may or may not be her mother.
And in fact the only notable difference between this woman in green and the one they used to know lay in this one's greater beauty, but it was still the same beauty, only expanded, vibrant, thanks to contentment, to money, to sexual pleasure.
Ndiaye weaves an intense mood out of almost nothing. In the present of the story (December 2003, such as it is), there is the river, its essence undoubtedly feminine, threatening to flood — "heavy, almost bulging." The narrator reaches back in time to recount encounters with various women in green:

The woman by the banana tree, perhaps waiting for her to unburden her heart, who throws herself from the balcony, who one day walks away.

The memory of a grade-school teacher who carried children away.

The woman who is one of the women whose names she always confuses, who unburdens her heart about her difficult children.

The woman who was her best friend until she married her father and imposed a hierarchy on the circle of family relationships.

The woman she knows of only through Jenny, the woman who was the wife of the man Jenny loved.
Isn't it a sign of contemptible self-indulgence, Jenny's thinking, to be caught up in a romanticism you never felt when you were young, simply because you have too much time on your hands, and because, in any event, giving into that romanticism now poses no threat, since everything that matters in life lies well behind you? Certainly, Jenny is thinking, belated romanticism is pitiful, pathetic, mediocre. But how to fight it off?
The woman who was her mother, who has lived a few lives and created intersecting families, whose joyless bravado reeks of a stingy, shabby existence.
And that's all there was to her life in those days, a round little woman, virtuous, unfailingly solemn, trotting along toward her workplace each morning, never glancing left or right for fear she might glimpse something that looks vaguely or unmistakably like adventure or novelty, for fear she might glimpse a bit of the face of someone she knew, someone she couldn't deny not knowing, who might tell her some troubling story, might reveal some intimate secret.
The woman she expects someday the half-sister her mother abandoned will become, continuing to haunt her conscience.

This book feels secretive, almost transgressive. It lacks the intense paranoia of My Heart Hemmed In (and thank goodness, because that's not a reading experience to undertake lightly), but these novels share a hovering sensation (slightly out of body, at some remove), like the narrator feels the world without being in it, or understanding it.

Self-Portrait in Green also calls to my mind Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream, for the sensee that something's wrong with the way the world works, with the children and the mothers, what the hell is going on, what the hell is the right thing to do, the right way to be.

Why is this narrator so concerned with — troubled by — the women in green? Remember that this is a self-portrait. She must be looking for herself: as a free and sexual creature, as a mother unencumbered by motherhood, as a wise observer, as someone who comes and goes as she pleases. (Does green guard against fertility? she wonders.)

[I think of all the women I've known. Which of them are this kind of green? Elaine, Céline, Lysa, Maribel, others.]

What of her own children (late in the story she is pregnant with her fifth)? What of their father, who is absent from this story?

Do the women in green represent what the narrator wishes to be or what she is afraid of becoming or what she knows is inside of her? All these things.

Reviews
Asymptote
Necessary Fiction
Three Percent

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Now the smiling starts

Groggy commuters thread their way out from underground, heading east toward Lexington Avenue, not yet up for the battle for taxis. In the meantime, of the seven hundred faces she has seen this morning, almost all have been forgotten. Now the smiling starts.

She has learned to do it. Only rarely is she still startled by the smile that every morning instantaneously shows up on, slips aside from, and crashes down off the face of the girl at the department reception desk. She feels she is too slow for the elaborate, unvarying exchange: the hello, the inquiry into how it's going, the answer, the counterquestion, the counteranswer, the goodbye. She has trouble making it to the end of the script within the four strides of a hallway encounter. She hasn't learned that. Still, she feels that her smile covers her and she ramps it up to the point of downright merriment.
— from Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (Volume 1, August 1967 – April 1968), by Uwe Johnson.

I don't know why I'm reading this. Why am I reading this? How did I hear about it? Why did I order it? When I started, I had doubts about liking it. But before I knew it, I was zipping along — I like it quite a bit.

It reminds me of when I discovered Patrick Hamilton, quite by accident, the breathlessness, the urban rush, the outpourings of humanity, only here is the New York City Subway instead of the London Underground.

What's it about? I'm 150 pages in, and I don't know yet. Racism and fascism, Vietnam and the Holocaust, hippies and Negroes, immigrants and expats, entitlement and injustice. Possibly marriage and motherhood, family and hard choices.

It's about how the New York Times reports the news ("it helped us and taught us to accept reality with the expectations and judgments our parents had tried to inculcate" — I read this the same day the Times prints "I'm fucked" on its front page).

The novel consists of dated entries. Gesine's mother had kept a book of complaints (when she was a newlywed German immigrant to England). Now her daughter asks Gesine to make something like that for her. "Not complaints about me. What you're thinking now, things I won't understand until later. Complaints are okay too." Although set over 50 years ago, it may be everything I hoped this blog to be.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

It's we who are walking

The ice palace is a formation that builds up around the waterfall during the long, hard period of cold in rural Norway. It's ever changing and growing as water spurts are diverted, creating new ice forms: "alcoves and passages and alleyway, and domes of ice above them." The school children have been planning a visit.

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas, is a slim novel, entirely opaque. There's so much I don't understand about this book. Everything remains unsaid.

(I was prompted to search out this book immediately after reading this review.)

Two eleven-year-old girls are about to become friends. Siss is popular. Unn is new to the school, having recently come to live with her aunt after her mother died. Unn is shy, but when she's invited to join in the group, she says she can't, and "Don't ask me about it anymore." Despite this, the girls are clearly intrigued by each other, even drawn to each other. One day, in a flurry of notes passed across the classroom, Unn invites Siss to her house after school.

They gaze into a mirror together and are lost in their reflections as they seem to become each other.
They let the mirror fall, looked at each other with flushed faces, stunned. They shone towards each other, were one with each other; it was an incredible moment.

Siss asked: "Unn, did you know about this?"

Unn asked: "Did you see it too?"

At once things were awkward. Unn shook herself. They had to sit for a while and come to their senses after this strange event.

In a little while one of them said: "I don't suppose it was anything."

"No, I don't suppose it was."

"But it was strange.

Of course it was something, it had not gone, they were only trying to push it away.
What did they see?

Then Unn suggests they undress, and they do, but it's cold so they dress again. Unn tells Siss she has a secret, but then can't tell her. She admits only that she's not sure she'll go to heaven.

The next day, Unn doesn't feel ready to face Siss, so instead of going to school, she sets off for the ice palace, and fails to return.

A search party mobilizes that night, and Siss is subject to questions about what Unn might've said that evening they spent together, but Siss has nothing to tell. Unn is never found. Siss is ill for a time, and then grieving. Having promised to never forget Unn, she as good as becomes Unn, taking on the role of quiet outsider at school.

Doris Lessing in her review wrote:
The sense of mutual responsibility is so strong it is like another character in the story, as if, at any time you liked, you could appeal to some invisible council of collective decency.
But it's like there's some community code, that Unn failed to crack. And now Siss is failing to abide by it.

The thaw finally comes to wash away the ice palace and all its secrets. Siss also thaws.
Beside them glided the increasingly confused pattern of trees, houses and rock; and occasionally soot-black patches. When the latter came gliding into sight, it went straight to the heart — what's that! — in this unbearable moment; but it was imagination each time, and her heart started up again, full of the coursing blood. It's we who are walking; the pattern doesn't move.
Excerpt.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Women whose real-life roles I was unable to determine

Between emerging from the métro and disappearing again into the darkness of a movie theater, I would see women whose real-life roles I was unable to determine. They made a point of giving off an air of eroticism, for the very possibility of appearing prudish would have been enough to render them suspect, even antisocial. The length of their skirts was chosen with diplomatic precision: two centimeters longer than might count as indecent, and two centimeters too short to risk the stigma of prudishness. When the evening sun chanced to shined down on a round white table in a café, turning it into a dazzling mirror, even one of these upstanding bourgeois ladies might get swallowed up by the mirror, never to return. In this looking-glass world, such a lady might eat pears with legs and hairy skin, gigantic Adam's apples and calluses on their heels. In return, she would receive payment from her customers in a currency that no longer existed. While the bill was being settled, her labia would flush as red as the flag that used to stand on the podium during Party meetings. Neither her husband nor her lover would have the slightest idea.
— from The Naked Eye, by Yoko Tawada.

I want to watch all of Catherine Deneuve's movies. I've see only very few of them. Repulsion. Belle de Jour. 8 Women. So many others I think I've seen, but I may not have seen. (Did I or did I not see Indochine?)

[Look at that. That's Catherine Deneuve in the pupil of the eye!]

The book is often noted for being something of a linguistic curiosity, having been written in two languages — German and Japanese — and translated back and forth between each other to develop a full text in each language (it's not clear to me how faithful they are to each other, or whether they are in any way distinct). The English version was translated from German.

There's something beautifully naïve about Tawada's writing; that is, the naïveté of her characters (she's pulled this off before). It takes a sophisticated mastery of language to convey this simplicity so effortlessly.

We see everything through the eyes of a young communist-raised Vietnamese woman, whose name may or may not be Anh. When she arrives at a youth conference in East Berlin, understandably everything feels foreign — German and at least Occidental — but slightly familiar — Russian and communist.
I always got good grades in Russian, but there was one grammatical rule to which I had a physical aversion: the genitive of negation. A person who was absent was no longer allowed to exist in the nominative case, as though he were no longer a subject.
As she moves west, and forward in time (the Wall falls), the sense of alienation increases and she belongs nowhere.

The language, the politics, the economic system, womanhood, a western way of thinking, basic human codes of conduct are all foreign to her.
This is a study in identity, of infiltrating humanity, to try to pass as human.

It's funny and tragic when Anh is trying to figure out how to get herself a room for the night. She observes someone conduct such a transaction, she thinks, but we know it's a john negotiating with a prostitute.

Then there's this description of an interview in a magazine:
Between the pages of photographs there were other pages with a text in two voices. The voice printed in boldface said little, and almost always ended with a question mark, so this person must have been filled with despair during the conversations. The other voice never asked a a question and spoke in larger blocks of text.
Not much has been written about this slim novel, but this review in Transit sums up the themes:
"The gaze of the nameless lens licks the floor like a detective without grammar." The first paragraph of Yōko Tawada's The Naked Eye is a blueprint for the novel's itinerancy, mapping out the difficulties of constructing a story that is caught in flux, between countries, between media, between languages, between political systems, between adolescence and adulthood, and between sexualities.
Anh is mesemerized by Catherine Deneuve. She's seen all her movies. She lives to see her movies. They are the highlight of her life. Much of the novel is addressed directly to Catherine, as Anh feels she knows her, despite them speaking different languages. The chapters are named for key works, progressing chronologically, and reference many of the films. Anh views Deneuve's filmography as a continuous story, populated by disparate ensembles of bit players in the story of her life, with Deneueve deftly changing names and identities. (Such is Anh's disjointed life!) Anh wonders, for example, how the Deneuve of Les Voleurs doesn't recognize the bathtub where the Deneuve of Repulsion lay the corpse of the man she murdered.
Every time we went to a movie together, he would take me out for coffee afterward and would tirelessly ask me questions that I didn't understand right away. He wouldn't give up until I'd answered them. Sometimes he was completely satisfied with my reply even though I hadn't understood his question and had just blurted something out. Perhaps not understanding or misunderstanding a question is something that often happens to other people. No one notices, though, since the answers one gives generally happen to fit the questions anyhow.