Friday, November 22, 2019

The broad, noble idea of the walk

On a far-wandering walk a thousand usable thoughts occur to me, while shut in at home, I would lamentably wither and dry up. Walking is for me not only healthy, it is also of service — not only lovely, but also useful. A walk advances me professionally, but also provides me at the same time with amusement; it comforts, delights, and refreshes me, is a pleasure for me, but also has the peculiarity that it spurs me on and allures me to further creations, since it offers me as material numerous more or less significant objectivities upon which I can later work industriously at home. Every walk is filled with phenomena valuable to see and feel. A pleasant walk most often veritably teems with imageries, living poems, attractive objects, natural beauties, be they ever so small. The lore of nature and the lore of the country are revealed, charming and graceful, to the sense and eyes of the observant walker, who must of course walk not with downcast but with open, unclouded eyes, if he desires the lovely significance and the broad, noble idea of the walk to dawn on him.
The Walk, by Robert Walser, was not the kind of walk I wanted it to be. That is, it wasn't my walk. It wasn't my morning walk to the metro when I'm trying to formulate some thoughts on the book I'm reading, or the correspondence I shared; it wasn't my lunchtime meander around the office or around the office building where I try to find some new approach to a work problem; it wasn't my after-work stroll home from the metro when I blank my mind or when I replay or imagine conversations with lovers.

More manic than minimalist, The Walk is a high-detail view of very pedestrian things. Walser describes the streetscape and his encounters with the bookseller, the bank official, children, dogs, a beautiful woman, a mournful acquaintance, the tailor, the tax inspector. It's very florid but in a controlled way, without the exuberance of other writings. It rings less sincere. He holds himself apart from all people and things, like he's not really in his walk.

Susan Bernofsky writes in her introduction:
If Walser chose to tone down the first version's chattiness at certain key points, I believe it was for the sake of minimizing the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.
When I write in my head while walking, things feel alive, but by the time I commit anything to paper, it's deadened a little. I haven't read the original translation of Walser's original text, but I feel like that's what happened here, he poked and prodded the life out of it.

To be sure, walking is a part of writing (or, for some writers, sitting and staring, or cleaning their desk). I wonder if by trying to minimize the divide, he only made it more obvious.
But one realizes to be sure to satiety that he loves to walk as well as he loves to write; the latter of course perhaps just a shade less than the former.
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Saturday, November 16, 2019

The actual women weren't really people. They were just a theory.

Whatever kind of woman you are, even when you're a lot of kinds of women, you're still always just a woman, which is to say you're always a little bit less than a man.
I just finished reading a fucking amazing book and I want everyone to read it, I want to press it on all my friends, but I'm afraid that they won't get it, that they won't get me. I sobbed all morning, I sobbed into my pillow when I woke up way too early and couldn't fall back asleep, I sobbed into my morning coffee as I settled into the novel's homestretch, I sobbed over my keyboard as I swallowed up the final pages between work emails.
When I told people what I did, they'd say, "Being a mother is the hardest job there is." But it wasn't. The hardest job there was was being a mother and having an actual job, with pants and a commuter train pass and pens and lipstick.
But this is not about being a stay-at-home mom or a working mom.

I want to sob on someone's shoulder, not by myself.

I want to talk to all my friends about it, but my friends are all single and childless, or married and childless, or happily married with kids, or lesbian, or newlywed, or with a newborn, or young, so young. Not a single middle-aged divorced working mother among them (how did that happen? how do I not have friends within my own demographic?).

I want to give my ex a copy, a passive-aggressive attempt to give him a piece of my mind, to yell at him without inhibition, without fear of child support payments being withheld, to give him shit for being absent as a father to our child, then and still, and for taking so much of me and then just vanishing into freedom, not when I asked him to but when it was convenient for him.

And, oh yeah, fuck the patriarchy.

It's actually a male friend who brought this novel to my attention. It was early-going for him. He doesn't know yet.
If you don't ask too many questions and just let people talk, they'll tell you what's on their mind. In those monologues, I found my own gripes. They felt counted out, the way I felt counted out. They felt ignored. the way I felt ignored. They felt like they'd failed. They had regret. They were insecure. They worried about their legacies. They said all the things I wasn't allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or self-centered or conceited or narcissistic. [...] I realized that all humans are essentially the same, but only some of us, the men, were truly allowed to be that without apology. The men's humanity was sexy and complicated; ours (mine) was to be kept in the dark at the bottom of the story and was only interesting in the service of the man's humanity.
That's it, isn't it? The female experience. The thing I discovered just last week.

Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, is not what you think it is. It's whip-smart, it's funny, it's oh-so-relatable in so many ways, and then it turns everything you think you know on its head. Suddenly it's a whip-smart, scathing indictment of... Fleishman. But also dating culture, porn culture, smartphone culture, marriage, careerism, consumerism, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, yoga retreats, and sweatpants. That is, life today.

Poor Fleishman. On his way to divorce. He didn't know what hit him. Neither did I. He started dating. So did I. It both excited him and exhausted him. Same. The unfairness of it all. Full-time single parenting. How would he (I) even find time to date? Or the energy and commitment to better his (my) work circumstances? It takes his lawyer to point it out to him — he's the wife in all this.

Where's Rachel in all this? What the hell happened to Rachel? Rachel Fleishman only matters as an extension of her ex-husband. It's there in the title, it's there in the table of contents. I was ready for it, I knew it was coming, but still I couldn't bear it.
When Rachel and I were little girls, we had been promised by a liberated society that had almost ratified the Equal Rights Amendment that we could do anything we wanted. We were told that we could be successful, that there was something particular and unique about us and that we could achieve anything — the last vestiges of girls being taught they were special mingled with the first ripples of second-wave feminism. All that time, even as a sixth-grader, I remembered thinking that it seemed weird that teachers and parents were just allowed to say that, and they they'd say it in front of the boys and the boys didn't seem to mind. Even back then I knew that the boys tolerated it because it was so clear that it wasn't true.
The thing is: I didn't know it wasn't true. I believed it. And then I believed it was my own shortcomings that held me back. It's my own fault that my career and salary were held back when I had a baby, that's a choice I made.

[I ranted this very rant at work a few months ago, to my (male) boss no less. Somehow it seemed relevant. I work for a company that skews heavily male. This summer, allegations of inappropriate conduct were made against the CEO. I wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to talk about it. And so one day I ranted about the lie I'd been sold.]

The older women I know, they're fighting the same fight they always were, or they've shrugged their shoulders and moved on, they know what's what, and they've done what they can. The younger women — I don't think they were lied to, they just assumed it to be true, and they haven't woken up yet. They're just starting to wake up, #metoo. Me, I'm just angry.

The lie belongs to a very specific window of American history, along with the promise of a 4-day workweek, and even Freedom 55. Reaganomics ruined us.

So that's in the book too, I think.
That these men could be so delicate, that they could lack any inkling of self-examination when it came time to try to figure out why their women didn't seem to be batshit enthusiastic over another night of bolstering and patting and fellating every insecurity out of them — this was the thing we'd find intolerable.
After I sobbed for a day, I decided to find a therapist, to help me deal with my anger and resentment and how tired I am by it all. So here's the book that made me seek out therapy.y
If you are a smart woman, you cannot stand by and remain sane once you fully understand, as a smart person does, the constraints of this world on a woman.
Fleishman was allergic to crazy. That's why he fell for Rachel, not crazy, not at first. But to hear him tell it, most women are crazy. At least he stands up for his women patients, and he stands up for his daughter. But poor Fleishman, he doesn't seem to understand that that doesn't make him a hero. And he really didn't stand up much for his wife.

The narrator of this story refers to a (fictional) hero of journalism, one whom a later generation was embarrassed to teach. He was finally recognized as a misogynist, or a man of his times.
He hated women, they said, even as I could count a hundred examples in his writing of the way he worshipped them. Yes, the young women said, it looked like worship but it was actually something uglier. It was an obsession with sex and a wholesale contempt for what he saw as the condition of the sex, or its barrier, or its delivery device: the actual women. The actual women weren't really people. They were just a theory. He wrote about them the way he'd written about Vietnam — ugly, romantic, poignant, unwinnable.
Reviews
Electric Lit: The Women Who Write Themselves Out of the Story
HuffPost: "Fleishman Is In Trouble" Investigates The Gender Sympathy Gap
New Yorker: "Fleishman Is in Trouble" Turns the marriage Novel Inside Out

Excerpt.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

I felt my own body obliterating every thought

It is written that one meeting is worth ten partings. Yet one parting is of greater consequence than ten meetings. For if lovers keep regular hours, then meeting and parting are as the comings and goings to the supermarket.
Basic Black with Pearls, by Helen Weinzweig, is one of my favourite reads of the year. It comes at the perfect time for me, resonating in three distinct pillars of my current thinking.

1. There's the whole question of what makes this a feminist landmark. From the afterword:
These novels describe women not only breaking away from conventions but filled with desire and ambition that are almost too much to bear, a secret from themselves. Weinzweig had to search out these books to counteract decades of reading male-dominated narratives, which she needed to reject to construct her own style: "One of the things I had to learn after reading all this male fiction was, what do I as a woman feel like," she said in a 1990 interview. "All the literary forms were men's, all the philosophies were men's philosophies ... I had to translate these forms into the female."
[I'm still not sure I understand. Is this the female experience? This banging around inside oneself? If men live in the world, do women live in their heads, like I do? Screaming to get out. Let me be in the world the way I need to be in the world, lovestruck and emotional and responsive to stimuli, unabashed and unafraid. Let me be in my head if I want to be in my head, without having to explain myself. Is that it?]

According to Quill & Quire, Weinzweig's publisher was hesitant about her idea for the book,
but was intrigued by one of her influences: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series. Weinzweig was moved by the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere. She told Polk, "That's what I want to capture in prose."
Is that a feminist notion? Weinzweig's interpretation of the concept might be. But Snow's, I think not: "The Walking Woman was never the representation of a woman but the representation of a matrix."

Weinzweig's heroine is trying to claim some independence and adventure, turning her back on domesticity and domestic abuse. Possibly she's just flailing against a label of mental illness.

When finally she meets a new lover, he offers her some kind of heretofore unknown utopia:
There are no mirrors where I live. With me you can be whoever you are.
2. Then there's the story itself, which got under my skin in ways it may not for most readers. I find it highly relatable. [Yes, relatable; I have an imaginary lover.]
When I see that stance of Coenraad's all fears disappear: babies don't die, cars don't collide, planes fly on course, muzak is silenced, certitude reigns. That is how I always recognize my love: the way he stands, the way I feel.
What matters is the way I feel, not whether the lover is real or not.

Shirley (aka Lola Montez) and Coenraad have separate families. He's a secret agent, always in disguise. We're not sure what she is, at first, always in a black dress with pearls. Their affair has lasted decades. She has collected postcards as souvenirs of their far-flung encounters. It's an unspoken rule not to bring the domesticity of marriage into their conversation or their hotel room. He has the advantage of knowing what she looks like, always in her uniform, despite using a false name.

Does he exist? She sees him, or suspects him, in tourguides and winos. But she is never sure of him.

[I have never met my lover in person. I have seen pictures, but they change in my mind. Besides, photos are manipulable. I feel sometimes that he may be watching me, even testing me in the guise of other personas. I suspect him of being not who he says he is. But to the extent that he fills me with this feeling, he is as real as any other lover.]
In the midst of it all, just as I was concluding that I would know this man's face, this body, from now on, anywhere, with or without clothes, I felt my own body obliterating every thought.
But we are clearly outside the realm of reality and mining her memories.
Perhaps I ought to try my hand at fiction. I would have to be careful: for me the power of the written word is so great that there would be the danger of my believing what I imagined. And were it to be a love story, the hero would be Coenraad. Therein lay another problem: since Coenraad was always in disguise, in order to authenticate him, fictionally speaking, I would have to reveal him in his essential characteristics. I was not certain I wanted to do that. It was no use pretending that I could tell anyone else's story, so I might have to tell my own. For that I must rely entirely on memory.
There is something pure in this love story, that it cannot be described by its external trappings. And it points to the wider truth that we cannot validate anything that exists outside our own minds, that our reality is constructed by our experience of memory. It does not matter what is real.

3. The search for meaning is pointless. The search is random, and the meaning is nonexistent.

The novel opens with Shirley awaiting word from Coenraad ("It takes a great deal of energy to wait."). She deciphers the coded message she uncovers to mean they are to meet in Toronto. Their code is utter nonsense. They usually rely on a National Geographic to transmit messages, but as none is available, she interprets the pamphlet she finds to be the vehicle, and repetition of the word "abdicate" is a clear indication to meet at the King Edward Hotel. (Is it a simple copyediting error that the brochure is impossibly tucked between pages 25 and 26? Or is that a clue for the reader.)

She engages in all kinds of magical thinking and waits for messages that never come. She collects tribal stories of black magic. She wants her future told by the gypsy fortune teller (Coenraad believes their love was predestined; she wants signposts for what lies ahead). She ritualizes her postcards, they are a tarot that blend memories of her husband Zbigniew into shining moments of romantic fantasy with Coenraad.
This card, recalling the night Coenraad first made his appearance, filled my mind with a clarity of detail that one sees in shock, as after a blinding explosion or during a night of labor. And even when the shock is the result of violent pleasure, then the ordinary properties of wood or plastic or paint or cloth take on strange and mysterious shapes and colors. The senses sharpen as if one's very life were in danger, even in paradise.
The baker woman reads to her a letter to the Editor, from the Jewish Daily Forward. Is it laden with secret messages about Shirley's past?

What about how art speaks to us, individually, in code? Or mythology — she's desperate to understand why Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos.


Shirley goes back to her house to find her previous role has been filled by Francesca. I wonder if she is, like Lola, another alterego from whom Shirley has dissociated. Zbigniew's life has been entirely uninterrupted by Shirley's absence. Her evening in the house takes a strangely erotic turn, but a fulfilling one for Shirley, such that she can decisively leave this household behind forever, the blank canvas of her basic black replaced by multicoloured urban abstract (like a Hundertwasser).

And she recognizes that her time with Coenraad has also ended. (Perhaps Zbigniew and Coenraad are not so separate.)
I will not miss being a stranger from whom nothing is wanted and from whom nothing is expected.
[It is liberating, sometimes, to be a stranger. I would miss it. I'm not ready to leave it behind me yet.]

You can read Sarah Weinman's afterword in its entirety in the Paris Review.

New York Journal of Books:
In the end, it could be said that the most important woman Shirley meets is herself, although Weinzweig smartly complicates that cozy theory by including Shirley's history of hospitalizations and nervous breakdowns.
New York Times: Her Lover May Not Exist, but Her Doubts About the Patriarchy Are Real
The more reasons we're given to doubt whether Coenraad even exists, the more Shirley seems implicated in her own romanticized self-abnegation. And yet there's something admirably ornery about Weinzweig's refusal to deliver a straightforward novel of empowerment, a narrative of liberation, a role model — as if insisting on a flawed heroine is itself an act of resistance.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Living life more meaningfully

I mean, people have actually said to me, "Wow, I guess having cancer so young must have given you a whole new perspective on life?" And I always nod and try to look inscrutable, but in fact, if I am completely honest with myself, I have the same old skewed perspective I've always had, except now I get to feel guilty about it. Likewise with living life more meaningfully. What the fuck does that mean anyway? How do you actually do it, in reality, besides taking up yoga?
The Bus on Thursday, by Shirley Barrett, is laugh-out-loud funny, kind of dumb and possibly offensive.

Eleanor is diagnosed with breast cancer, has a mastectomy, undergoes reconstructive surgery (but not the nipple yet). When she finally feels ready to get back to work (although it's more about avoiding support groups), she take a job as a teacher in some remote village, where the previous teacher — beloved by all (that is, Eleanor hasn't got a hope in hell of stepping into her shoes satisfactorily) — had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Weirdly, no one's really bothered enough by the event to have gone looking for her.

Meanwhile, her BFF gets married and pregnant and is generally insensitive to her situation, particularly as far as dating goes. And her ex-boyfriend — they broke up because he definitely didn't want kids, and isn't it ironic that now Eleanor possibly won't be able to have kids anyway — has been dating some busty girl who is now very pregnant.

And work is just horrible. It's a one-classroom situation and she can't live up to her predecessor, she's always saying the wrong thing, and really, some of the kids, the people in this town are just shitty.

She starts "dating" the guardian, the older brother, of her problem student. A body turns up. Townspeople continue to be incompetent. Everything seems... inappropriate.

A large number of people seem to think the cancer is her own fault, to the point where she starts thinking, "Am I so despicable a person that even my own body can't stand me?"

It's a comedy horror story, which is often the way with life with cancer — it can be a real mindfuck. And then the story gets weird.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

A kind of rough sketch of it

The sound of her voice in the empty house reassures and splits her: she's both a woman preparing for lunch and a woman watching a woman prepare for lunch, objectively observing her actions, putting down a record of their purity and triviality, her innocence. Nothing to see here.
Happy Like This, by Ashley Wurzbacher, is a collection of stories about smart, perceptive, and mostly self-aware women.

The first story, "Sickness and Health," takes the form of a dissertation by a sociology student embedded within a group of students with factitious disorders. But of course, the line between the observer and her subjects breaks down. I would happily have spend an entire novel within this sociological breakdown. At first I was disoriented by the form of this story, but I found it wholly engrossing and was disappointed that it came to an end.

I'm writing this weeks after having read this book. It's probably not fair of me. But this is how I feel. These stories have promise.

I'm turning into a woman of a certain age, the kind of woman who says, but you're so young, you don't even know what love is, you don't know what death is, you just wait and see. I'm not sure I like that about myself. I've always taken some pride in being open-minded and non-judgemental.

Some stories are definitely stronger than others. The first two are excellent. But most of them, I realize now, were fairly forgettable. They are all about women, and the different forms (un)happiness takes — what they think happiness might look like. But they are about youngish women — Wurzbacher is observant, but limited. I couldn't help but think that these stories embraced a relatively naive view of love, death, relationships, happiness.

That said, I'm not a big fan of short stories in general; I think it's hopelessly difficult to pull off a satisfactory resolution to a short story. Wurzbacher at least kept me reading, while inside I might have been stewing about how she has so much yet to learn — in life, if not about writing. I look forward to reading full-length work from her in a couple decade's time.
She brought him with her to carry the machinery, and that was where it began: the two of them twisted between flannel-lined sleeping bags. He often brought along a case of beer, and on one particular night, she had drunk too much and he just enough, and they made — not love but a kind of rough sketch of it, like a rehearsal.