Saturday, December 26, 2020

The private, exposed achievement

Here are some amazing passages from J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. Full portraits in miniature. This is a masterclass not only in crafting sentences, but in perceiving the true marks of character.

"A Perfect Day for Bananafish":

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty. 

"Just Before the War with the Eskimos":

From his breast pajama pocket he two-fingered out a cigarette that looked as though it had been slept on. [...] He lit his cigarette without straightening out its curvature, then replaced the used match in the box. Tilting his head back, he slowly released an enormous quantity of smoke from his mouth and drew it up through his nostrils. He continued to smoke in this "French-inhale" style. Very probably, it was not part of the sofa vaudeville of a showoff but, rather, the private, exposed achievement of a young man who, at one time or another might have tried shaving himself left-handed. 

And:

He spoke exclusively from the larynx, as if he were altogether too tired to put any diaphragm breath into his words.

"Down at the Dinghy":

His sentences usually had at least one break of faulty breath control, so that, often, his emphasized words, instead of rising, sank. Boo Boo not only listened to his voice, she seemed to watch it.

"For Esmé — with Love and Squalor":  

They sang without instrumental accompaniment — or more accurately, in their case, without any interference. Their voices were melodious and unsentimental, almost to the point where a somewhat more denominational man than myself might, without straining, have experienced levitation.

"De Daumier Smith's Blue Period":

The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid. Mind started to to seep through its container as early as the next morning.

[Bliss, then, might be a sublime gas. What is this thing I feel now? It is subtler and more complex than joy.] 

It's not lost on me that many of these selections are related to breath and breathing — a current preoccupation of mine.

Then there's "Teddy."

His voice was oddly and beautifully rough cut, as some small boys' voices are. Each of his phrasings was rather like a little ancient island, inundated by a miniature sea of whiskey.

While on an ocean liner, there's much made of whether what happens happens inside or outside of the mind. Teddy's a ten-year-old brat or maybe a spiritual guru. Since he was four, he's been able to get out of the finite dimensions. 

"The trouble is," Teddy said, most people don't want to see things the way they are. They don't even want to stop getting born and dying all the time. They just want new bodies all the time, instead of stopping and staying with God, where it's really nice." He reflected. "I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters," he said. He shook his head.

When he was six, he saw that everything was God — his sister was God and the milk was God and he watched her pour God into God. He claims to be reincarnated, having made some good spiritual advancement in his previous life. Clearly, according to Teddy, Adam should never have eaten the apple in the Garden of Eden — we need to vomit up all the logic.

"I grew my own body," he said. "Nobody else did it for me. So if I grew it, I must have known how to grow it. Unconsciously, at least. I may have lost the conscious knowledge of how to grow it sometime in the last few hundred thousand years, but the knowledge is still there, because — obviously — I've used it.... It would take quite a lot of meditation and emptying out to get the whole thing back — I mean the conscious knowledge — but you could do it if you wanted to. If you opened up wide enough."

I find it strangely serendipitous to have found this story so late in my life, when I am learning to open my mind and my body wider.

Friday, December 18, 2020

And wait

"Find your place... and wait."

Zgubiona Dusza, written by Olga Tokarczuk and illustrated by Joanna Concejo, will be available in English as The Lost Soul, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, in February 2021.

I read it in Polish, just to see if I still could, and it's a bit of a game for me to craft a translation as I go.

The crux of the fable is this: Znaleźć sobie jakieś swoje miejsce… i poczekać.

A simple enough phrase with subtle variations in translation:

  • Lloyd-Jones: Find a place of your own... and wait.
  • Google Translate: Find a place for yourself... and wait. 
  • Google Translate via Italian: Find somewhere for yourself… and wait.

While our protagonist, a body without a soul, sets out to a quiet house on the outskirts, I like to think the directive is less about geographic location than state of mind. Find some kind of place for yourself. Find your place.

The text can't be much more than 500 words. The book is a near wordless meditation. His soul comes back to him after he journeys into memory, a kind of organic slowness of detail.

The story, such as it is, is told through evocative illustrations — they have an old-timey, earthy folkloric feel (photos can't do it justice). 

Also: vellum overlays!

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

I am being invaded

It is a kind of miracle whenever we meet anyone who truly moves us. We don't meet many of these people in one lifetime — the people who lead us forward.

(Oh, but when we do...)

The Schrödinger Girl, by Laurel Brett, sounded promising but it never quite delivered. Set in the 1960s, it presents simplified renderings of both behavioral psychology and quantum mechanics. 

A psychology prof encounters a 16-year-old girl by chance, and becomes weirdly obsessed with her. From meeting to meeting, Daphne seems to be an entirely different person. Garrett becomes convinced that he has met four distinct Daphnes, from separate realities, that inexplicably have bled into each other. 

While his interest is primarily paternal, it is unhealthy. The fact that he had a stillborn daughter 16 years earlier may be feeding his delusion.

Sadly, all of the Daphnes — the precocious high school student, the artist's model, the trauma survivor, the social activist — fall a little flat. Garrett is having a midlife crisis of sorts. He has a love interest, and there's an old school friend, an alcoholic psychoanalyst, for comic relief and perspective ("I hate psychoanalysis without the booze. People's problems are just so boring.").

The Schrödinger Girl is not a very demanding novel, and for this I was grateful. It did, however, lead my mind to wander off in various interesting directions: alternate realities (am I living the right one?), having a muse (do I need the excuse of art to have a muse? can I be my own muse?), being obsessed, being deluded, consciousness expansion (by what catalyst?), having a spiritual guide (how is this different from having a muse?), being led back to yourself (who am I when I'm not acting myself? where else might external forces lead me?), the future embodied in the now.

"A laurel. I know. I've been reading about the myth. A psychoanalyst said that the laurel tree represents Daphne's paralysis, but I think Ovid is after something else. By becoming a laurel, Daphne gets to stay herself, even if she has to change form. Changing form is trivial. Losing oneself is much more serious. I think the laurel is symbol of self-actualization. That's Maslow's terms." She blushed. "I must sound pompous."

The symbolic Daphne is worth further consideration. I am delighted to discover Bernini's Daphne. I wonder about the meditative aspect of the art I do — is the trancelike state the process or the result of tapping a Jungian unconscious? (Why are my sculpted women trees?)

If the novel falls short of the potential of its premise, the author still manages to imbue it with sincerity; I feel it must be her lived truth.

For whatever reason, Garrett needed a guide out of his past. Thanks to Daphne, he has begun to glimpse "the spiritual possibilities lurking in the most mundane things." He discovers the Beatles and takes a stand on Vietnam. He is in pursuit of "psychedelic experiences without drugs." This, I think, has been my life's journey.

I held my breath and watched the door open a crack. I am being invaded. And then the crack widened. Sunlight streamed into the room in chunks of yellow.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

An internal necropolis

I'm good at beginnings. I've had millions of them. Beginnings are easy. Practice makes perfect. 

And most of them have had endings. Endings are often brought about by circumstances outside of myself, so while I wouldn't say I have a knack for them particularly, I'm not unfamiliar with their workings. I can recognize their rhythm. I can dance in sync or in counterpoint with the looming end of a thing, apply a slight pressure to adjust the pace or direction in which it unfurls to ensure it's more comfortable for me.

It's middles I have trouble with. Too short, too long. Some blurry, some overexposed. I overthink them, or I don't think about them at all. Too often they are merely a bridge between the beginning and the end, rarely a thing in themselves. When does a beginning become a middle anyway? Is it one of those things you can see only once you've reached the end? Maybe there is no middle, maybe it's all beginning, until the end.

It's exactly this muddle of a thought I've been chewing on over the last couple weeks, as I'm again beginning something new. 

In pandemic times, time and space keep shifting beneath my feet. Beginnings and endings, of all sorts of things, have adapted their forms. Perhaps there is a lesson here for me about standing, or moving, in the here and now.

You are here: Not in Europe, not at the office, not in someone else's bed.

Anticipating the end of the novel I'm reading, I checked the stack by my bedside for what to read next. 

Empty Set, by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, arrived some weeks ago. I was indirectly led to it through Maria Gainza's Optic Nerve and the discussions that surrounded that challenging art novel. I expected visuals, graphs. But since receiving it, I don't recall having opened it. 

So I opened it.

The dossier on my love life is a collection of outsets. A definitively unfinished landscape that stretches over flooded excavations, bare foundations, and ruined structures; an internal necropolis that has been in the the early stages of construction for as long as my memory goes back. When you become a collector of beginnings, you can also corroborate, with almost scientific precision, how little variability there is in the endings. I seem to be condemned to renunciation. Although, in fact, there are only minor differences; all the stories end pretty much alike. The sets overlap in more or less the same way, and the only thing that changes is the point you happen to see them from: consensus is the least common option, renunciation is voluntary, but desertion is an imposition.

I have a talent for beginnings. I like that part. The emergency exit, however, is always at hand, so it's also relatively easy for me to leap into the void when something doesn't feel right. To take flight toward nothingness at the least provocation. 

I skimmed the first page, let the book fall from my hands, and ran from the room.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Battalions of ants trying to line up into meaning

Stamped on a poster next to the book is the face of a handsome man, too handsome, maybe: tousled hair, a weather-scarred complexion, melancholy eyes, a cigarette tucked between his fingers.

I don't like to admit it, but faces like this one remind me abstractly of a face I once loved, a face of a man I was maybe not loved by in return, but with whom I at least had a beautiful daughter before he disappeared. This face perhaps also reminds me of future men whom I could love and might be loved by but won't have enough lives to try. Past men are the same as possible future men, in any case. Men whose rooms are spartan, whose T-shirts are self-consciously threadbare around the neck, whose handwritten notes are full of small, crooked letters, like battalions of ants trying to line up into meaning, because they never learned good penmanship. Men whose conversation is not always intelligent but is alive. Men who arrive like a natural disaster, then leave. Men who produce a vacuum toward which I somehow tend to gravitate.
— from Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli.

Men who don't open their mail. Men who have nothing but an empty carton of milk and a bloody bottle of ketchup in the fridge. Men who don't have a sofa, "Come sit beside me on the bed." Men who live in the dark. No, not those men. I want to be reminded of someone I don't know yet.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

A thing that contained you

There's something frustrating about Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam. It's so compulsively readable, so well blurbed and generally highly regarded, so polished — it left me a little cold. It feels overly manufactured, contrived; the writing is near flawless, but lacks humanity.

Maybe that's deliberate, maybe that's for effect. I could rethink my feeling as a manifestation of one of the book's themes.

It's not about the disaster; in fact, we never learn what the disaster truly consists of. It's about the people. It's about people reverting to an animal state and the effort required to prevent that from happening. This would make an excellent bookclub book. There's race and social class and a lot of privilege. 

A middle-aged couple and their two teenagers head out of Brooklyn to some nearby middle of nowhere. They're not wholly likeable people, but they're recognizable. Maybe they should end their marriage. Maybe they escape into work to feel needed and important. Maybe their kids have issues.

There's something off-putting about the way Alam writes about bodies. I found those passages jarring; they didn't fit with the rest of the story, a sudden intrusion of nipples and dicks. Not tender or sad, not erotic or disgusting. Realistic but empty. (Was it by design? I can't tell.)

Her fingers strayed to the parts of herself where they felt best, in search not of some internal pleasure but something more cerebral: the confirmation that she, her shoulders, her nipples, her elbows, all of it, existed. What a marvel, to have a body, a thing that contained you. Vacation was for being returned to your body.

(Is that what vacation is for? Maybe.)

Then one night, there's a knock on the door — the owners of the Airbnb. They're older, wealthy, and black. And they claim the power's out in New York City, that the city is falling into chaos. Would you trust the strangers at the door?

No tv, no phone connection — satellites are down. No news of the outside world. No planes overhead. No one nearby. 

(I remember April, when I turned off the television and stepped outside. Was it better not to know anything? Yes, for days at a time. Going off-grid in the middles of the city, the only way to maintain sanity. The birds chirped loudly for a while.)

The animals, meanwhile, are following their instinct. The deer are migrating. Flamingoes are reconning in the pool. Somehow, they intuit what to do. The people have more difficulty. It's a struggle to maintain the facade of civility. Predictably, it's the pubescent daughter, lost in the fairytale woods, that leads them back to themselves. (Is she most in tune with her animal self?)

Excerpt.

I couldn't put this book down, but I never really connected with it either.

Maybe no one, however much in love, cares about the minutiae of someone else's life.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Those acrylic floods

Without agreeing to do so, we made it a thing not to call anything by its name, not to talk of cocks and vaginas and not to make love the way we had both been taught. Making love is such a stupid phrase anyway: how can you make an emotional state? And why is it never referred to as making hate or boredom or despair? And yet sometimes, especially after K had allowed me to play with some of the colours in his studio and to paint on his body, when he watched me move those red and pink shades across his skin, he sometimes looked so relieved, Dr Seligman, as if something had been restored to him that he had lost a long time ago. And I always longed for the moment when he would just take a little too much purple and smear it across my face, very slowly and never any other colour. And then he would start laughing, for it's not only that he could cry like a child, he could also laugh like one. And there was something so irresistible about the freedom he took in the face of the world. It was like he couldn't remember the last time something had actually mattered to him, like he would paint over anything that stood in his way and bury it under his very own shade of purple. Like I too could disappear under those acrylic floods.

The Appointment (Or, the Story of a Cock), by Katharina Volckmer, is a riveting, stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered in initially unclear circumstances to Dr Seligman. It feels like psychoanalysis, but not quite.

It is morbidly funny. She tells him how she regaled her therapist with her sexual fantasies about Hitler. And, "Germans don't usually bother with basements — they are happy to torture people on the first floor, they are not that discreet."

It is also painfully beautiful.

At 96 pages, one might be tempted to read this in one sitting, but the raucous tone belies how meditative this book is. Better to give every page its due.

A few themes emerge, around which she runs circles. One, she is German, and she grapples with that national identity and the legacy of the Holocaust ("Don't you think that there is something kinky about genocide?"). Two, she wrestles with, and wonders at, the nature of love (as we all do, I think). And a third, that seems tangential but is really primary (or is it the other way round), might be her relationship to her body.

I wish I had known that she acted out of the insecurity most women are born with, that they are so scared of their bodies that they would do anything to look and smell acceptable, that they wear those silly little socks so their feet don't smell in summer, and that all the make-up my mother tried to smear in my face was a form of war paint, her way of trying to protect me from the world, because they all know what happens to those who rebel —  they know that the witches' stakes are still glimmering in the background. And a lot of the upset between us was down to some unnecessary performance anxiety imposed by a world trying to keep people without cocks in their place, and I wish we had both been wiser.

Related to this are the "tragedy of the female body" and how motherhood is revered (your body is no longer your own). But the narrative keeps straying to sex robots and power dynamics and Nazis.

Above all, this book spoke to me about love, and the beauty of vulnerability in love, and the beauty of the pain that can radiate from it.

I formulated a perfect summary of this book one day earlier this week when I was out walking, but it's all gone now. I walked away the urgency of it, but there's this ongoing struggle, to somehow corral sex and pleasure, when really they fully permeate love and life, if we let it. It's the paradox of the body, that to escape it one must fully inhabit it. We touch and stroke and caress and feel our blood pulsing through the body with the prize of those few seconds when we leave it.

All my reading this week is about the body... In The Lying Life of Adults, the heart trumps reason, not because it is right, but because it simply does, the body is stronger. In Leave the World Behind, people's social contract begins to breaks down and their animal nature becomes evident, food and fucking and alcoholic oblivion regain primacy. Is it what makes us human, to transcend this vessel? Or are we better to embrace it?

The Appointment asks, what if you're in the wrong vessel, can you change it? Some reviews call it bleak, it reveals emptiness and pain. I think it is brave, hopeful, magnificent.

I can still feel the difference between the different kinds of purple, and I wish I had known at the time that colours have histories and that purple is a colour of mourning and of sadness, and that K always covered me in his own sadness and that now I carry his grief with me, because I don't believe that you can actually wash your hands, or your skin. Something will have gotten into your system before you can reach the water, and our veins are slowly filling with each other's stories and dirt, each other's colours and screams; we carry each other's broken hearts under our skin until one day they block everything and stop the flow of our own blood, and everything bursts in one final moment of despair.

Excerpt.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The ugliness of banality

The time of my adolescence is slow, made up of large gray blocks and sudden humps of color, green or red or purple. The blocks don't have hours, days, months, years, and the seasons are indefinite, it's hot or cold, rainy or sunny. Even the bulges don't have a definite time, the color counts more than any date. The hue itself, moreover, that certain emotions take on is of unimportant duration, the one who is writing knows. As soon as you look for words, the slowness becomes a whirlwind and the colors get mixed together like the colors of different fruits in a blender. Not only does "time passed" become an empty formula but also "one afternoon," "one morning," "one evening" become merely markers of convenience. 

I've spent a good deal of time lately recollecting my teenage years in recent months. For days I sorted through the memorabilia of my adolescence — newspaper clippings and letters and yearbooks. I was dissatisfied, ambitious in an unfocused generic way, and convinced I knew better than anyone who had ever been an adolescent.

My daughter has just turned 18, and inevitably I compare our lives, the circumstances in which we were brought up, the factors forming the kind of people we're turning out to be. (I wonder what she would make of this book.)

I very often feel like a 12-year-old girl still, especially when it comes to love.

Love — she said, in an inspired tone and using a formula that didn't belong to her, that in fact baffled and irritated me — is a ray of sun that warms the soul. I was disappointed. Maybe I should have observed my aunt with the same attention with which she had urged me to spy on my parents. Maybe I would have discovered that behind the harshness that had charmed me there was a soft, foolish little woman, rough on the surface, tender underneath. If Vittoria really is that, I thought, discouraged, then she is ugly, she has the ugliness of banality.

The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante, vividly recalls the anxiety, aspirations and confusion of that stage of life. 

I discovered I had a space inside me that could swallow up every feeling in a very short time. [...] The bond with known spaces, with secure affections, yielded to curiosity about what might happen.

That space. I know that space.

"Enzo and I did that thing eleven times altogether. Then he went back to his wife and I never did it again with anyone. Enzo kissed me and touched me and licked me all over, and I touched him and kissed him all the way to his toes and caressed him and licked and sucked. Then he put his dick inside me and held my ass with both hands, one here and one there, and he thrust it into me with such force that it made me cry out. If you, in all your life, don't do this thing as I did it, with the passion I did it with, the love I did it with, and I don't mean eleven times but at least once, it's pointless to live. Tell your father: Vittoria said that if I don't fuck the way she fucked with Enzo, it's pointless for me to live. You have to say it just like that. He thinks he deprived me of something, with what he did to me. But he didn't deprive me anything, I've had everything, I have everything. It's your father who has nothing."

If you want to know what this novel really has to say, please read these two brilliant reviews, on ugliness and lying. 

This is a beautiful novel that I gave myself over to wholly. It's as colourful and engrossing as the Neapolitan quartet, but more focused on the intimate reality and realizations of one girl at a particular age. I think it is also more timeless — feminism and labour movements are not issues that need resolving, this book is not a statement about postwar Italy. The social mores of this community may not be quite as relaxed as those evident in twenty-first-century North America, but they still find purchase, even if they are upheld by hypocrites. 

When I was a teenager, I was booksmart. I may have been wise about the world, but I was naïve about people. Giovanna catches on a lot faster than I ever did.

At my age, I am still formulating  my relationship to ugliness and to lying. While I may gravitate toward them, I like to think I value beauty and truth. But really they are the same thing.

And then there's compunction. It's the favourite subject of Giannì's main crush. To prick the conscience to keep it from going to sleep. A needle pulling the thread through the scattered fragments of our existence. The necessity of guilt, which no character in this novel seems to have. (Take mine.) Giannì admires the idea of it but never embodies it. She's as adult as the rest of them.

As I dried my hair in front of the mirror, I felt like laughing. I had been deceived in everything, not even my hair was beautiful, it was pasted to my skull and I couldn't give it volume and splendor. As for my face, it had no harmony, just like Vittoria's. But the mistake had been to make it a tragedy. If you looked even just for a moment at those who had the privilege of a beautiful, refined face, you discovered that it hid infernos no different from those expressed by coarse, ugly faces. The splendor of a face, enhanced even by kindness, harbored and promised suffering still more than a dull face.

Excerpt.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

To ending and apocatastasis

I wondered whether, if I spent long enough with it, the machine would distill the essence of my work out of me the way I had never quite managed for myself. And if it could, was that a perfect artistic tool or the violent intervention of technology into my most human heart? How would I feel if it worked, and the machine's version of my work was better than mine?
A few words about Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway: Pretty cool, but too long.

I know my university-student-self would've loved it. As it is, it brought me a lot of diversion and some joy when I read it this past summer. It's about reality and perception, mind and body. It's a murder investigation. It's a surveillance state that offers full transparency, and no one seems to mind. It's Inception. It skips through time. It's the mathematics of high finance and videogames and St Augustine. It's a book of art and digressions. (Here's a better summary.) 
And in the end it's not real. It's perceptual.
As a novel, it's baggy, and unfortunate that its distinct threads are all told in the same voice. But it's a treasure chest of ideas. Also, I had to look up a lot of words.

I picked up my copy again this week as I'm reorganizing some bookshelves. Flipping through it and rereading all the passages I'd marked has been a delight.
In a few moments she will start work, and the  day will set her inevitably on the path to the involuted Alkahest. She is just hours from her first meeting with weird, cartilaginous Lönnrot, just over a week from her loss of faith in everything she has believed in her life. As she steps out of her slippers and begins to wash, finding in the animal business of grooming the growing understanding of her body and its place in the process that is her, she is stepping not only on the cracked with shower tray but also on to that road, the one that conducts her without let or hindrance to a point of crisis: to ending and apocatastasis. She apprehends this now with knowledge she has, from her limited vantage point inside the flow of events, not yet gleaned — but that knowledge is so significant that its echo reaches here even here, gathered in the slipstream of the Chamber of Isis and the most complex and saintly murder in the history of crime. Neith's consciousness is etiolated this morning because it touches itself irregularly along its own extension in time, a contact that makes her almost — but, crucially, not quite — prescient. Instead of foresight, the Inspector gets a migraine, and in that small difference she sets her feet on the the pattern that must eventually lead her to all the things I have already mentioned, but most fatefully — fatally — to me.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The world would be a blur of gold

The mushrooms glowed brighter, and she thought perhaps later she might touch them, running her hands against the wall and settling her face against the softness of their flesh. It would be good to rest there, skin pressed tight against their slick bodies, and maybe they'd cover her, the lovely fungi, and cram into her mouth, into her nostrils and eye sockets until she could not breathe and they nestled in her belly and bloomed along her thighs. And Virgil, too, driving deep within her, and the world would be a blur of gold.

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is classic gothic. A mist-shrouded cemetery with ghostly presences. Eccentric aristocrats. A rule-enforcing matron. A town healer. Symbolic dreams. Family tragedies and secrets. The house itself is a character ("I've never been in a house with a name.").

It's Gas Light and Rebecca and The Yellow Wallpaper and Chronicle of the Murdered House and a dash of the grimmest fairy tales whipped in a blender and strained through the racism and cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, garnished with a touch of "Notorious" — you know, for the Nazis and slow poison. 

Catalina writes that her husband is poisoning her and pleads with Noemi to come save her from the remote house so, at her father's insistence, Noemi sets aside her cocktail parties and frivolous pursuit of anthropological studies to do just that. Catalina's husband is heir to the perhaps-already-squandered Doyle fortune, built on silver mines already long dormant, and its legacy of exploitation. The ailing ruling patriarch is too interested in eugenics. What's not to love?

Some of the characterizations and dialogue felt a little anachronistic, but perhaps I'm just resentful that a woman could be oh so modern so long before me.

I read Mexican Gothic on Halloween weekend, and in fact the anticipation of it overpowered some of its clever beauty. I read it too fast, I read the wrong thing before it, I read it in an agitated state. (I wish I'd known there was a playlist.)

[As I sit in my reading chair and glance at the plant beside me, I am relieved that the mushrooms are gone, I spooned out their shriveled stalks.] 

My book purchase included "admission" to a virtual event: a conversation between Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Carmen Maria Machado, whose work and interests intersect in lively ways. I'm inspired to revisit their books with a heightened awareness of their feminist subversion of classic gothic horror tropes (did I just write that sentence?).

Definitely I will keep Mexican Gothic on my shelf to be reread nostalgically some perfectly wretched gloomy day.

"There're heavy places. Places where the air itself is heavy because an evil weighs it down. Sometimes it's a death, could be it's something else, but the bad air, it'll get into your body and it'll nestle there and weigh you down. That's what's wrong with the Doyles of High Place, " the woman said, concluding her tale.

Like feeding an animal madder plants: it dyes the bones red, it stains everything inside crimson, she thought.

Review
Excerpt

Friday, November 13, 2020

As if sex put him deeper into himself and into the world

I didn't know I needed to read this book. Three, by D.A. Mishani, was the perfect antidote to what had been a disappointing reading week (Kraft and Mexican Gothic, which are both excellent books but which weren't quite hitting the right notes for me).

Three is a a slow burn of a book, and I wish I could recall how I was led to it. When I picked up my order at the bookstore and scanned the back cover, it didn't jog any memories, I didn't remember ordering it. Then I read it in a few sittings within 24 hours last weekend.

It starts off as an ordinary domestic drama, ish. Orna is recently divorced and hesitant to dive into the online dating pool, but first time out, she meets a guy who seems nice enough. I guess this was the appeal — I continue to be interested in how modern dating finds its way in contemporary literature, both in terms of how life is translated into art and what there is for me to relate to and learn from. 

After he came he hurried to the bathroom to wipe himself off and shower, and she couldn't help remembering Ronen, who used to get philosophical after they slept together, as if sex put him deeper into himself and into the world. He could lie on the bed for hours afterwards, talking, without moving or getting dressed or wiping off the semen or sweat.

I thought maybe I was reading the wrong book; 70 pages, then 90 — I didn't see the thriller aspect of it coming. And then it came hard and it stopped. The next page was about completely different character, a different story.

The novel is in three sections, three women, three episodes. The man who links them is Gil, predatory and soulless, really — a kind of blank canvas that the women can project their desires and expectations onto.

So, a solid heart-poundingly psychological thriller, that kept me guessing till the end.

Then he'll ask about her and she'll put her wine glass to her lips as she shakes her head and say, "Never." She will add that up until a year or two ago she couldn't even contemplate it.

"Then why are you here?" he will ask, and she'll say, "Because this isn't a year or two ago, And I'm still not sure I know why I'm here. Maybe curiosity."

"Curiosity about what?"

"I can't say exactly. About you? You strike me as a strange man, Gil. Really strange. But more likely it's about what I can and cannot do. Or more importantly, what I can or cannot feel."

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The abstract splendor of the whole

Buying things requires at least a rudimentary level of optimism — indeed, why buy the most recent critical edition of Henry James's complete works in a linen slipcase if you're not assuming that life will go on, one way or another?

It didn't exactly make me feel stupid, but it did make me wish I were smarter. Kraft, by Jonas Lüscher, is one man's struggle to defend theodicy

(One chapter epigraph quotes Schelling: "Doubt the brightness of the sun, doubt the light of the stars, just do not doubt my truth and your stupidity." I do not doubt my stupidity.)

Richard Kraft, German professor of rhetoric, has been invited to participate in an essay competition with the possibility of winning a million dollars. All he need do is present an 18-minute lecture on: what is, is right.

Theodicy, according to my eight minutes of intensive Google research, is the idea that suffering and evil in the world, as a product of God, must not be so bad as we think and, while not exactly good, are a necessary and just component of the divine plan.

Kraft, both the man and the book, is funny. But also unlikeable. While the intellectual challenge of this book didn't put me off, the mood of it it did. He's a smug academic and though he pays lipservice to bucking convention, he is overly concerned with appearances. He is quintessentially male and oozes entitlement. He clearly believes he deserves to win this prize, deserves to live a carefree life with no responsibility toward his children or to the women in his life. He lies to his wife, to his best friend, to strangers. He looks down on... everybody. 

Herb, that emaciated insect, that physicist with his tide models, his flow velocities, distances to maintain, and time window; for him all these were nothing but variables in an equation from which all superfluity had been subtracted. What does a guy like Herb know about an individual's entanglements with the world, about the necessity for chance, about the beauty of the superfluous, about suffering, about humiliation? For a guy like Herb it can all be tallied, every evil offset by a good. Who the victim is plays no role, the important thing is for the equation to balance in the end. They call it elegance, those number jugglers. What does a guy like Herb know about elegance? The abstract splendor of the whole, perhaps. 

Funny and clever, but something grated. It was the throwaway comments about "Nicki Minaj's monumental rear end" and a similar appreciation he expressed, at every opportunity, for the maternal figure of his first love. Deliberate characterization or not, I stopped rooting for Kraft — he's a bit of a dick really.

Still. Favourite sentence:

István appeared intoxicated by the high mass of parliamentarian democracy and lapped up Barzel's every word as if it were sacramental wine transubstantiated to liberty.

Kraft travels to California (it's no accident that he must leave the traditional structure of Europe) and stays with István in the leadup to the competition. Flashbacks give us glimpses into his friendship with István, his politics, his past liaisons and his family life. By my reckoning, he's a lot more shallow than you'd expect a philosophy prof to be. 

That's about it. He just can't find a way into his essay. He picks the brains of his colleagues for inspiration.

What he plans to do, Ducavalier tells Kraft, is to take on the task of explaining why almost everything that is, is bad. A rather easy task, he adds, and gives a brief overview of the coming apocalypse: the impending collapse of the European Union; the return of nationalism; the new acceptability of open racism and bigotry; the democratically elected despots who turn their countries into dictatorships with their people's consent — a process that makes one doubt the usefulness of democracy itself; the rising tide of anti-intellectualism, for which the intellectuals themselves are responsible, and the accompanying legitimation of ignorance; the openly expressed longing for strongmen; the moral bankruptcy of the economic elite who behave like unrepentant secondhand-car dealers; the threat of a new economic crisis against which the central banks will be left with no possible recourse, since they can't devalue money any more than they already have, as a consequence of which they've already shot the last arrow in their quiver; a free trade policy combined with a protectionist system of subsidies that drives millions of poor people from the south to the north; the stagnation of economic growth despite the digital revolution; the lack of alternatives to capitalism even though capitalism leads inevitable to an ever greater disparity in wealth that will in turn cut the system's legs out from under it in the near future; the millions of surplus young men in China and India who are badly educated, sexually frustrated, and without hope of a future, a problem that will be most elegantly solved with a war of aggression . . . And although he is of course aware that it is an unacceptable if terribly effective simplification, he will give his explanation theoretical and narrative weight by using a cyclical philosophy of history that will allow him to evoke in his conclusion a return of the conditions that existed during the Weimar Republic, thus conjuring a third world war that will hover implacably over the assembly. Et voilà, Bertrand sat . . . all that is, is bad.

Kraft pulls a lettuce leaf from his ham sandwich. You forgot climate change, he says to Ducavalier.

Eighteen minutes, my dear Kraft, you've got to set some limits. Eighteen minutes is not enough to describe the world's depravity in full.

Already Kraft is setting on his ultimate path. Instead of committing himself to the PowerPoint presentation, he begins to stage his final act, a performance piece that embodies theodicy more than any bullet points.

This book put me in quite a funk, relieved only by the realization that the Trump era is over. A weight is lifted off our shoulders, a veil cleared from our eyes.

I keep wanting to quip, "We have normality. Anything you still can't cope with is therefore your own problem." I mean, apart from there being a pandemic on and living in lockdown. And don't forget climate change (23 degrees in Montreal today, far from normal).

Excerpt.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Fraught with humanity, with frailty, with despair

Meanwhile, I'd taken my courage in both hands, turned my first trick, at home, a chubby little guy, about sixty, who chain-smoked untipped cigarettes and talked a lot during sex. He seemed lonely, and I found him surprisingly sweet. I don't know whether I come across as gauche and gentle or seriously intimidating, or whether I was just lucky, but as time went by, it became clear: with me, clients tended to be warm, attentive, gentle. If memory serves, and I think it does, it was not their aggressiveness or their contempt I found difficult to deal with, nor any of the things they were into, but their loneliness, their sadness, their pallid skin, their wretched shyness, the flaws they couldn't conceal, the weaknesses they showed. Their age, their need to feel young flesh against their wizened bodies. Their paunches, their micro-dicks, their flabby arses, their yellow teeth. It was their vulnerability that complicated the whole thing. In the end, the johns you could hate or despise were the ones you could do while remaining completely indifferent. Maximum cash, minimum time, and afterwards never think about them again. But in my limited experience, most clients were fraught with humanity, with frailty, with despair. And it lingered afterwards, clinging to me like remorse.

— from King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes.

I have come to know this truth: there's a profound intimacy in sex founded in loneliness and pity. Too fat, too thin, or just plain ugly. It's a deeply vulnerable exposure. We all just want release from our bodies. Sex is a kindness, we can choose to be kind to one another. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

An inescapable property of reality

That was the first chapter. The second chapter is next. It is loosely related to the first, but this isn't some perfectly sequential masterpiece of order where every segue makes sense.

For the sake of trust building, the third chapter will follow the second. But then we will jump directly to chapter five, do you understand? No chapter four. Why? Because sometimes thing don't go like they should. This is an inescapable property of reality, which we all must learn to accept. There just isn't enough power in the universe for everybody to have all of it.

Anyway, the numbering structure will continue as normal thereafter. This was a charitable decision on my part, and we should take a moment to appreciate the fact that I did not explore the full extent of my power. And believe me, I could have. I could have made these chapters be any number I wanted. I could have invented a totally unrecognizable number system based on snake pictures. Shit, I could've called them all chapter 2 and refused to acknowledge that I did that.

But we are civilized, friendly people, and sometimes it is best to restrain ourselves.

When I heard Allie Brosh had a new book out, I got myself a copy the next day. Solutions and Other Problems is a lightning flash across my reality, momentarily illuminating things you'd forgotten were there and bathing everything in an aura of horror, triggering you to anticipate some heart-stopping clap of doom that doesn't come. But the lightning flickers and everything glimmers with eerie beauty.

One day the world ends, and the next morning you get up and get on with it. Wait, I don't think I'm talking about the book anymore. 

But I laughed. Loudly. At children being weird, and relationships being weird, and cats being cats, and weird neighbours, and drug trips.

I actually didn't do a good job of reading the book as I zipped through in a haze of emotional despondency due to sleeplessness and overwork. I need to read this again.

Yup, good book. Even if there is no chapter four.

NPR Interview 
The Strand event

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Staring without seeing

little scratch by Rebecca Watson was a brilliant surprise, an unexpected one-sitting read. 

instead I think        about art galleries             (a decent diversion, no?)

I decide (without much decisiveness) I will no longer go to art galleries 
with other people                    it is too much                 having to 
give an allotted time to each painting, staring without seeing, (has this painting been given enough attention? will my companion suppose I have appreciated it now?), it's not that I don't like art, naturally, it's just, I can't like it all, and I don't have the reputation that allows me to be selective, to walk into a room and examine this one, and this one, cursory glance at the rest, shake head, and move on,

sometimes I think: art is incredible                     a popular opinion

but

sometime I think: what do I actually get out of it? how much more am I getting than when I see an attractive person on the tube and take the time notice each part of their outfit, clocking through, studying the fringing on their trousers, and the way they've drawn liner across their lids, before moving back to staring into nothing, what is the difference, really, truly, honestly, yes, other times this seems to me a ridiculous argument to make, one I do not agree with whatsoever, and would not condone — would frown on if someone were to make — but I cannot stand still,

Some descriptions of this book give away more of the story than others, and I don't know how to tell you about this book without spoiling the experience of the discovery of it, I can only hope you read my thoughts here and remember to look out for this title but forget all the details. It's not the kind of book I would ever feel in the mood for if someone told me what it was about. 

In short, it's a day in the life of a woman who wakes somewhat hungover and drags herself to work and you know something's not quite right, is it the night before?, is it something at work?, something simmering just beneath her foggy consciousness, and you finally work out that she's experienced a trauma, was it last night?, was it weeks ago?, and it's always there, she's trying to name it, trying to decide how much it is a part of her, how her identity stands in relationship to it, whether she should tell her boyfriend, do other women grapple with this trauma, and she stays hydrated and meets her boyfriend after work for a poetry reading and several drinks, they fuck, and he falls asleep leaving her alone with her thoughts.

It's only when I opened up the novel that I realized just how experimental it is in its format. This almost put me off, but within a couple pages I was hooked. (The bits I've quoted here are on the straightforward side.)

The text runs in two, sometimes more, "streams" down the page, the way thoughts run in parallel, or in counterpoint. It does a remarkable job of capturing the feeling of thinking many things at once, and allowing those things to come into conversation with each other, and inviting you into that dialogue too. It's incredibly immersive, even intimate.

It manages to be funny and weird and sexy and conflicted.

There's the scratch, she keeps scratching, or trying not to scratch, the backs of her legs, behind her knees. There are recurring references to eggs and potatoes.

But I didn't roll my eyes once.

                    looking at my phone notes

(filled with the sort where a thought flies into your head that suddenly you know you must record, regardless of anything, in that moment, regardless of who's there or what is balanced in your hands, it is IMPERATIVE that you record this fragment)

    (not the phone note sort where you say

    OH YES, THAT BOOK SOUNDS MARVELLOUS!

    and put the title in you phone

    perhaps with the author's surname

    and come across it three months later

    try to recall its roots

    ignore

    a few more months later

    glimpse

    ignore

    no not that sort)

One reads                    firwqks sex sme thing a provess and end

    huh

at the time, it was                 a (!) revelation (!)

(when even was it?)

See also  
Audio excerpt (which I would've thought impossible to pull off, but it's quite good)  
"Moments Are Part of a Pattern": An Interview with Rebecca Watson (which references I May Destroy You, with which there is some thematic overlap)  
Review at Alt Citizen: "like VR for books"  
Excerpt  

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The architecture of limited possibilities

There certainly is what doctors call a "migraine personality," and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organized, perfectionist. "You don't look like a migraine personality," a doctor once said to me. "Your hair's messy. But I suppose you're a compulsive housekeeper." Actually my house is kept even more negligently than my hair, but the doctor was right nonetheless: perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.

Despite the migraines, Joan Didion packs a mean sentence. The White Album is a relatively early collection of what are commonly considered her lesser essays, among which is "In Bed," quoted above, on being perceived as someone afflicted by an imaginary illness. 

I've been dipping into these essays for months. They're too rich to consume all at once, though the temptation is there. Spanning 1968 to 1978, most of the articles hold up, though I cringe at how wrong she got feminism and I disagree with her assessment of Doris Lessing. 

Still, the essays offer a view onto American life of the time as seen from Didion's particular vantage point —a place of educated privilege. She concerns herself with water, shopping mall theory, Hollywood. She has access to celebrities and political figures, fancy hotels and Hawaiian vacations.

My favourite essay in this collection is "Many Mansions," and it owes its status to the peculiar circumstance of my reading it during a pandemic.

I have over the last seven months become obsessed with the notion of home and the buildings within which we make them. I have spent most of those last seven months inside my own home, a modern 2-bedroom condo of less than 800 square feet, shared with my daughter and my cat. 

I have spent a great deal of the almost 5 years that I've lived here channeling Jimmy Stewart. My Rear Window is less New York. It's very Montreal, overlooking a dead-end ruelle down which many people walk their dogs. I overhear French (both Quebecois and from France), Spanish, and some English. I have my very own concert pianist living just up and over to the left (though she took up the cello last spring), and over to the right is an elderly couple who listen to the radio tuned between stations at a very loud volume. The cat downstairs from them is now kept on a leash; I've seen it climb through the windows of other people's apartments. 

But my Front Window, overlooking the building courtyard, is conceptually more akin to Hitchcock's setting — children play, neighbours tend the garden and share a bottle of wine. I have watched people inside their homes play guitar, read, watch tv. I have witnessed dinner parties and seductions, and even a couple of illegal gatherings during lockdown. These days I see people carry their laptop from room to room.

I have in the past offhandedly aphorized that "home is where I lay my head" or "where I keep my stuff." Now home is also where I work, eat, play, learn, create, and sometimes die a little inside. It's where I really live. All the time.

When I'm not at home, I'm wandering around the neighbourhood, imagining what's behind closed doors and drawn curtains.

All this to say: my home is small, and I feel compelled to cross other people's thresholds, partly to expand my own domain by infringing on theirs, partly simply to understand how other people inhabit their own little boxes. The "downtime" that other people waste on social media I spend perusing real estate listings. 

My "hobby" took off in earnest when we were looking for an apartment for my mother this summer. It's not quite right for her, I would think, but this room would make a great study for the girl, and I could set up a desk in this corner.

I adjust my search filters regularly. Some days I hunt in earnest for a realistic upgrade within my means; other times my fantasy home is unconstrained. I consider what it would be like to live alone. I wonder what my life would be like if I lived across town. Would it make sense to live close to the office if I never go to the office anymore? If I had an in-home studio, could I quit my day job and support myself on my art? How long would it take me to clutterify and completely obscure a minimalist design? 

In "Many Mansions" Didion explores the official residences of the Governor of California, focusing on the monstrosity the Reagans built and never lived in.

It its simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently "democratic," flattened out, mediocre and "open" and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn. It is the architecture of "background music," decorators, "good taste." 

As I swipe photos, I realize very little of real estate is real. I saw my mother's house staged when it was listed for sale, and essentially stripped of all personality. I no longer trust listings, the words they use, the pictures they show. One roll of photos displays empty rooms and then the same rooms furnished. Another listing is a new build, not yet built, that offers imagined renderings. I recognize the layout of paintings on one bedroom wall matching exactly a room layout halfway across town, with only the mass market art reproductions swapped out.

The walls "resemble" local adobe, but they are not: they are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a rather stale yellowed cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and exposed beams "resemble" native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown. If anyone ever moves in, the concrete floors will be carpeted, wall to wall. If anyone ever moves in, the thirty-five exterior wood and glass doors, possibly the single distinctive feature in the house, will be, according to plan, "draped." The bathrooms are small and standard. The family bedrooms open directly onto the nonexistent swimming pool, with all its potential for noise and distraction. To one side of the fireplace in the formal living room there is what is know in the trade as a "wet bar," a cabinet for bottles and glasses with a sink and a long vinyl-topped counter. (This vinyl "resembles" slate.) In the entire house there are only enough bookshelves for a set of the World Book and some Books of the Month, plus maybe three Royal Doulton figurines and a back file of Connoisseur, but there is $90,000 worth of other teak cabinetry, including the "refreshment center" in the "recreation room." There is that most ubiquitous of all "luxury features," a bidet in the master bathroom. There is one of those kitchens which seem designed exclusively for defrosting by microwave and compacting trash. It is a house built for a family of snackers.

I have discovered about myself that I like cedarwood ceilings and value closet storage systems, but I don't feel strongly about whether the bathroom has a separate shower stall. I may compromise on the configuration of my kitchen but will not yield my outdoor space. I want to have room to better compartmentalize my life.

I believe that this condition of house envy is temporary. Once the pandemic abates and freedom to move and socialize in other spaces is restored, the demands I put on my home will be recalibrated. I will resume a state of domestic bliss where my home meets all my needs. 

Until then, every morning I stop by "the café" (the cappuccino machine at the end of the kitchen counter), and roll through "the office" (12 square feet in the dining room where I squeezed in a workstation) to lounge in "the library" (30 square feet by the window with a comfy chair and a pile of books) every morning, where I sneak a look at new listings between chapters.

The old Governor's Mansion does have stairs and waste space, which is precisely why it remains the kind of house in which sixty adolescent girls might gather and never interrupt the real life of the household. The bedrooms are big and private and high-ceilinged and they do not open on the swimming pool and one can imagine reading in one of them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner.

Excerpts
"The Women’s Movement" (1972)
"Holy Water" (1977) 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Free of existence's gravitational pull

She walked through the market stands with her new stride, at once lazy and confident, loose and firm, looking at everything and knowing she'd buy nothing because she and Marko now had to avoid all unnecessary expense, but not wanting anything anyway, neither fabric nor pottery nor metal bangles, simply happy as she thought she'd never been before (because anxiety had always subtly spoiled her most joyful moments, the birth of her children or the completion of her degree), feeling her healthy, familiar, faithful body move freely through the warmth, her thoughts wandering this way and that, unencumbered, weighed down by no worry, no incomprehension.

She could, if she wanted to, or if the miracle of this new outlook had not come to pass, easily find something to torment herself with, she knew that.

But it was as if, rather than deposit her in another land, the plane had delivered her to a universe apart, where she could finally feel the happiness of being herself free of existence's gravitational pull.

Is this what death is like? she wondered. Could she have died and not remembered?

But what she was feeling bore all the hallmarks of life at its fullest, particularly her awareness of her warm, rounded body, lightly dressed in pale lines, which she guided through the stands, she thought, smiling to herself, simply for the pleasure of enjoying its perfect mechanics.

Ladivine is another unsettling novel by Marie Ndiaye. It's emotionally uncomfortable — it seems so foreign until you recognize yourself in it and you wonder, am I so petty, or so proud, so concerned about what others think? Where do the standards and ambitions for myself come from? How many truths do I hide from the people closest to me? What do I hide from myself? Do I even like myself?

It's been months since I read this novel, and it's like I had to rush away from it, cleanse myself of its dark intensity. The book has very distinct phases, covering Clarisse's relationships with her mother, her husband, and their daughter, and then

The mother and daughter are both named Ladivine, but they do not know each other. Clarisse was born Malinka, but only her mother knows her by that name (until later, anyway). As a child, out of shame or disgust Malinka starts referring to her mother as her servant. At age 17 Malinka leaves for Bordeaux and reinvents herself. But her mother find her.

Her love for her mother was a foul-tasting food, impossible to choke down. That food dissolved into bitter little crumbs in her mouth, then congealed, and this went on and on and had no end, the lump of fetid bread shifting from one cheek to the other, then the soft, stinking fragments that made of her mouth a deep pit of shame.

Not exactly a loving relationship. We learn early on that Ladivine's complexion is dark, and clearly Clarisse passes for white, and I can't begin to unravel this aspect of their relationship — maybe it allows Clarisse to disconnect from her mother, her history, maybe it's self-hatred deflected onto a convenient target. Clarisse is also disconnected from herself, emotionless, but driven to become the sort of person she thinks everyone expects her to be. That doesn't bode well for love in the long term.

Clarisse marries Richard, and they are happy and successful with a beautiful home, a daughter, and a dog. Clarisse told them her mother had died long ago. Clarisse thinks the dog has her mother's eyes, and there are some incidents. By the time her marriage falls apart (Richard remarries, to a woman named Clarisse), the daughter Ladivine is emotionally distant from her and living in Germany.

Clarisse really can't figure out where it all went wrong. She still visits her mother every Tuesday.

When she meets Freddy, she doesn't reinvent herself so much as she undoes or erases her previous self. Here things go really wrong, and Clarisse, or Malinka, falls out of the story. We're only a third of the way through. The book is called Ladivine, after all. But I'm already gutted.

Growing up, Ladivine could do no wrong. Permissive parents led her to be something of a wild child. But now she's married in Berlin with two children and going on a family vacation.

They're in place they'd never dreamed of going, somewhere south, and Ladivine is repeatedly mistaken for someone else, and she loses herself utterly. Of course, Clarisse haunts her, and some stray dog always follows them.

The characters are frustratingly opaque, not least to themselves. Families are doomed to repeat their dysfunctional dynamics.

It feels hot and confused, it's surreal and uncomfortable, and I don't entirely understand why. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

What do you know about yourself?

In a man, not liking women is a pose. In a woman, not liking men is a pathology.

Sounds a little like Atwood's, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." This is Virginie Despentes. But her statement is not about how men and women behave, it's about how society perceives them. Imagine, Despentes prompts us, if a woman wrote about men the way Houellebecq writes about women.

This is not an easy book. King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes, is ferocious. Like any good manifesto, it sucks you into its worldview without giving you space to breathe or time to think. 

So I read along, yes, yes, yes! 

Little girls are bought up learning never to hurt men, and whenever a woman flouts that rule, she is quickly put back in her place. No-one wants to know that they are cowardly. No-one wants to feel that in their own flesh. I'm not angry with myself for not daring to kill one of them, I'm angry at a society that educated me without teaching me to wound a man if he tries to fuck me against my will, especially when this same society has drummed into me the idea that it is a crime I should never get over. And mostly I am fucking furious at the fact that, having been faced with three guys and a gun in the middle of a forest with nowhere to run, I still feel guilty that I didn't have the courage to defend us with a little knife.

This is the kind of feminist the world needs! Or is she? Though I was swept up in her diatribe, when I stepped back to unravel what I'd read I found myself not always wholeheartedly agreeing. For example, she defends prostitution for the agency it lets women claim over their bodies. To which I can only say, yyesss but that's nnnott exactly the whole story.

Despentes is angry. In this series of essays, she tackles rape, porn, and prostitution. Capitalism, the beauty industry, the marriage contract.

If we do not push on towards the unknown that is the gender revolution, we know exactly what we will be slipping back towards. An all-powerful state that infantilizes us, meddles in our every decision, for our own good — keeping us in a state of childhood, of ignorance, fearful of punishment, of exclusion. The special treatment so far reserved for women, using shame as the primary tool to enforce their isolation, their docility, their inability to act, could be extended to everyone. To understand the mechanics of how we, as women, have been made to feel inferior, and been trained to become a crack team that polices itself, is to understand the mechanics of control of the population as a whole. Capitalism is an equal-opportunities religion in the sense that it subjugates us all, and leads each of us to feel trapped, as all women are.

Several of her arguments are simply uncomfortable, not because I disagree with them but because I haven't formulated a stance on my own, and I'm not sure I always need to (my personal relationship with porn is near nonexistent and I don't feel compelled to change that). Despentes writes that "the true history of porn, what creates and defines it, is censorship." Clearly, society's relationship to porn is convoluted at best — to be expected of an industry that we demand reflect reality while embodying pure fantasy — and it's hard not to agree on the necessity to smash the stigmatization of porn. It's just hard to keep up with her — for example, in a paragraph on female nymphomania, she concludes that it's men "who rack up conquests in the hope of one day experiencing something approaching a real orgasm." Which, OK, yeah, but then she just moves on to Paris Hilton and how her social status trumps her gender. 

All this to say, this book is loaded with theories sprung from analyses on top of throwaway observations, and I wish some of them had a little more room.

Despentes puts a lot of responsibility on women, which doesn't seem fair, but that's the point. Who else is going to fix things?

I realize that what other women do or don't do with their clitoris is none of my business, but I'm still slightly troubled by their indifference to masturbation: if they don't get themselves off when they're alone, at what point do women connect with their own fantasies? How much do they know about what really turns them on? And if you don't know that, what do you know about yourself? What connection can you have with yourself if even your pussy is systematically controlled by someone else?

Excerpt
Author profile.
#fuckthepatriarchy

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Surviving is something to do

The ways of the heart cannot be explained. It does what it wants.

This morning I woke up and allowed myself a moment of wistfulness, I watched the hazy morning light through the curtains and thought of him, just for a second, how he'd commented on the view of naked me in the foreground with the light through the billowing curtains, and I thought how I miss waking up with someone, I haven't done that in years, I'd like that, not every day but once in a while, say, on a lazy weekend. 

But it's Wednesday and I woke up with the cat, she waits for me to put my feet on the floor before asking me to feed her, and already I'm thinking about work. I've enjoyed an extra long weekend, so I'm ready for it. I allow myself the time to enjoy the coffee, not simply consume it, and I do a German lesson, a 225-day streak.

I work steadily, productively. I join the online meditation group for a session at noon, it succeeds only in helping my mind wander. (What novel can I get for my mother? I don't know anything about historical romance. Some vaguely literary options cross my mind, but it turns out they're not available in Polish.)

I turn on the TV and despair that the US Supreme Court nominee refuses to comment on hypotheticals, and our reality consists of hypotheticals. Cigarettes cause cancer because it says so on the package, but human impact on climate change is hypothetical. 

The inspection on my mother's house comes back indicating potential mould in the attic, and the buyers are concerned. I wonder about the teenage years I spent in the room with door to attic and if the mould seeped into me then. I google remedies, for the house, that is, and costs. Any mould deep in my brain had better lie undisturbed.

After weeks of seemingly no news of the plague in the outside world, suddenly there is news, lots of it, none of it good. In Europe, record highs, school interruptions, partial lockdowns. Paris is closed.

I exchange sexy messages with a man I've never met who lives half a world away. I tell the man I've never touched how much I miss the possibility of touching him. I believe my words to be true.

Is any of this real? 

I work steadily, productively, for hours more, but I stop at a reasonable hour, before I'm finished. As is typical, I haven't even started the one thing I expected I would do today.

I watch a couple episodes of Dark (having watched the first season upon its release, I've had to rewatch it before seeing the rest of the series) and wish I could travel back 33 years, or maybe a year ahead, or maybe two months ago. My heart believes in free will, but some days it contradicts itself. I think about how random my life is with its occasional infuriating perfection.

I'm reading Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh, and it makes me laugh in the way you laugh when if you didn't laugh you would cry.

But, as long as you aren't dead, you need something to do. And surviving is something to do.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Resistant to any kind of concretion or creation

Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin, was a real treat for me this week,  inspiring the kind of just-one-more-page feeling that kept me up past my bedtime. It did not fill me with paranoia and unease the way Fever Dream did (one of my favourite reading experiences of recent years), but instead made me ache with sadness and grieve over my relationships with people I barely know. And yes, that kind of reading experience is my idea of a good time — I'm complex that way.

The novel is a collection of vignettes about the connections formed by an expensive toy, a kentuki. It's the body of a Furby with the responsibility of a Tamagotchi and the power of an Elf on the Shelf, with human sentience. Some of the stories end abruptly and are very one-sided, others are picked up over and over again, much like every toy has a unique lifecycle — they are cast aside after a day, they break, they become part of your life.

The kentuki is not a straight-up surveillance device. The watcher is not a megacorporation intent on controlling your consumer behaviour or otherwise keeping you in line legally or morally. At the other end is a person with their own motivations.

The toy is really just a limited interface between two random people; one person buys the toy, the other buys a code that gives camera access through the kentuki's eyes and instant translation that's locked on the owner. So there are two types of people: keepers and dwellers (roughly analogous to exhibitionists and voyeurs). One character is both, which gives her a rare perspective. (Which would you be?)

This arrangement grants anonymity. We see how people behave when they don't know, or they forget, that someone's looking. The society begins to grapple with the legal responsibilities the parties owe one another. Various kentuki liberation organizations arise.

There's a lot of loneliness in this book. It's people failing to communicate, failing to connect.

And that morning, after coming back from her run and flopping on the bed with her tangerines, she kept turning the matter over and over with the sense she was getting ever closer to an epiphany. She stared at the ceiling and thought that if she were to organize her thoughts to guess what kind of discovery was coming, she would have to remember a piece of information that she hadn't thought about in days: at some point the week before, she'd gone down to the the only kiosk in the village next to the church, and in her distraction she'd caught a glimpse of something she would rather not have seen. Sven's manner of explaining something to a girl. The sweetness with which he was trying to make himself understood, how close they were standing, the way they smiled at each other. Later she leaned it was the assistant. She wasn't surprised, nor did it strike her as an important discovery, because a much deeper revelation suddenly caught her attention: nothing mattered. In her body, every impulse asked, What for? It wasn't tiredness, or depression, or lack of vitamins. It was a feeling similar to lack of interest, but much more expansive.

Lying in bed, she gathered the tangerine peels into one hand, and the movement brought her to another revelation. If Sven knew all, if the artiste was a committed laborer and every second of his time was another step toward an irrevocable destiny, then she was exactly the opposite. The last point at the other end of the continuum of beings on this planet. The un-artiste. Nobody, for no one and for nothing, ever. Resistant to any kind of concretion or creation. Her body placed itself in the in-between, protecting her from the risk of ever one day achieving something. She closed her fist and squeezed the peels. They felt like a cool, compact paste. Then she reached her arm over the sheets toward the head of the bed and left the peels in a little pile under Sven's pillow.

For me, this book is less about the horrors of technology than it is about the horrors of interpersonal communication and the impossibility of knowing anyone. We only know about people what they want us to know. We only see what they show us.

Even the artiste's shocking reveal is not necessarily any closer to "truth." Although his work appears to be a grand commentary on kentuki interactions, he shows us a carefully constructed artwork to communicate his message, the materials for which were acquired and curated and created under circumstances we know nothing about. 

I can relate to these stories in terms of what they say about my online activity, particularly dating — what I choose to share or not, the slice of someone else's life I'm privy to in return, the narrative I fabricate around it, the intentions and motivations I attribute to others based on nothing but the debris that clutters my own headspace, the degree to which I immerse myself in any relationship. But really, it's as applicable to real life — simply, what we experience of someone else is always limited, and when processed through complicated sets of assumptions, it becomes clear how far away we are from each other, and we stay that way.

Excerpts 
Antigua 
Beijing — Lyon
South Bend 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

A vulgar, shady character of the very worst sort, with the morality of a cutthroat grifter

First published in 1932, The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, is well known in Poland, commonly believed to have been the "inspiration" that Jerzy Kosinski blatantly ripped off for Being There. By contrast, although he is morally and culturally bereft, Nicodemus Dyzma has a firmer hand in architecting his fate. 

"Yes. We women, we may not do it scientifically or even systematically, but we are specialists in psychoanalysis, or, I should say, in applied psychology. Our intuition is our scientific method, and our instinct alerts us to our errors."

She just goes on and on! . . . Dyzma thought.

"And that is why," Nina continued, absently flicking through the pages of the book, "that is why it's easier to guess the cipher by reading a closed book than an open one."

"Hmm." Nicodemus considered this. "But why would you have to guess when books are so easy to open?"

He'd thought that Nina, with her talk of closed books, intended to demonstrate for him how to read [Jack] London through its cover, and added,

"Nothing is easier than opening a book."

Lady Nina met his eye and replied, "Oh no. There are some who won't abide it, and those are the ones who are most interesting of all. Those who can only be read through the eyes of the imagination. Don't you agree?"

"I don't know," he answered heedlessly. "I've never come across that type of book. I've even seen very valuable editions, but I was able to open and read each one."

"Ah, that's understandable, I imagine you don't generally reach for books that aren't interesting, while those that do interest you surely open for you as if under some magnetic power. Such are the properties of a strong will."

Dyzma was amused — what kind of baloney was she talking?! — and answered "Why, even a baby has enough strength to open a book."

Dyzma is a fool mistaken for a wiseman who speaks his mind. While naively and brutishly looking out for his own best interests, he quite accidentally climbs to a position of great economic and political influence in Warsaw.

It all starts with an invitation to a Minister's banquet that he picks up off the ground — Dyzma decides to score a free meal, and he makes some friends along the way.

It's mysterious how he holds such sway. This novel goes beyond a superficial critique of the division of  classes; it's not simply the nouveau riche standing up to the old guard (with both of them having rights over women and peasants) — a very real thing in early 20th-century Poland.

It's difficult to regard Dyzma as an Everyman — he's not just uneducated, he's thick. At best, Dyzma reflects those who meet him, echoes what they say.

"Think about it," the district governor continues, "always and forever, it's been the case that simply knowing how to do things isn't nearly as important as actually making them happen. Everything was just fine when it was you, Mr. President, who was in charge of the bank." 

The story is mostly light and funny — it's astonishing what he gets away with. But there are some dark moments, including a murder (Dyzma hires some thugs to take someone out) and some violent rapes (which scenes were skin-crawlingly unpleasant). It's difficult to dismiss the violence against women as a product of its times.

Then there's the satanic sex cult of women who revere Dyzma as a god, complete with elaborate ritual preparations and peyote. Truly unexpected. Perhaps Dyzma owes more to their spells and their influence then he can fathom.

The novel has relevance today, calling into question whom we allow to rise to positions of power, what we allow to pass for wisdom, how we measure the success of an individual relative to that of the state.

Only George Ponimirski, who is Dyzma's brother-in-law by the novel's end, sees him for what he is. But he's been institutionalized before; he's generally regarded as a madman. 

"What are you laughing at?" the governor asked in an offended tone. George jumped up, his laughter trailing off, and made several attempts to put in his monocle, but his hands were shaking so much that he was unable to do so. He was agitated; this had clearly been the last straw.

"What am I laughing at? Not at what, ladies and gentlemen, but at whom?! I'm laughing you, at you! At all of society, at all my beloved fellow countrymen!"

"Sir!..."

"Silence!" Ponimirski yelled, and his pale, sickly child's face turned red with rage. "Silence! Sapristi! I'm laughing at you! At you! The so-called elite! Ha, that's a laugh! I'm telling you that your statesman, your Cincinnatus, your great man, your Nicodemus Dyzma, is nothing but a common swindler who's leading you around by the nose, a cunning scoundrel, imposter, and complete and utter moron all at the same time! An idiot who has no idea about anything, not economics, note even spelling! He's a boor, without a hint of good breeding, devoid of even fundamental civility! Look at his yokel face and his ill manner! I give you my word of honor that not only is this Oxford business all a lie, he can't speak a single language! A vulgar, shady character of the very worst sort, with the morality of a cutthroat grifter. Sapristi! Can't you see? I was wrong when I said that he was leading you around by the nose! You did it to yourself, it was you who put that swine up on a pedestal! You! You, bereft of any shred of critical reasoning! I'm laughing at you, you idiots! At you! Common rabble!...

He'd finally managed to put in his monocle. He gave everyone a look of pure contempt and left, slamming the door.

Director Litwinek, frightened and astonished, searched the faces of those present: they all wore a smile of embarrassment and pity.

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