Monday, January 27, 2020

As though you were dissolving

A strange notion, said Lena, that somewhere there might be another person like me. Not just someone who looks like me and is living the same life, but who thinks and feels like me as well. I think I like the idea. It's like having a best friend who knows all there is to know about you and who you know all about, without your needing to talk about it at all. No, I said, it's as though you're not a whole person anymore, as though you were dissolving. It's an awful thing. Perhaps everyone has a doppelganger somewhere, said Lena. You were just unlucky enough to meet yours.
There's something beautifully melancholic — romantic, even — about The Sweet Indifference of the World, by Peter Stamm. (I love this title.) It reminds me of Patrick Modiano, this fog of memory and haze of longing. There's a lot of mood, and it's a challenge to decide if there's any substance to it or not.
Usually I would just sleep till noon or so. I can well remember my curious afternoons when I felt simultaneously very tired and strangely alert, that sense of having fallen out of time, and following my own irregular rhythm.
Christoph invites Lena to hear his story, how her boyfriend Chris is shadowing his life, living it over again only 20 years later. Lena is herself a double of Christoph's love, Magdalena. The life of the young couple clearly reflects that of the "original" duo, at least the broad strokes.

They're not too concerned about why or how this should happen, though it does raise some troublesome concerns about primacy and agency.

It's a great premise for a story (an otherwise essentially plotless one), and it's gently executed.

But. Maybe I've read too many women authors lately, but I had trouble connecting with this book. Christoph tells us what he's feeling, but it didn't make me feel anything.

At some point, we anticipate something physical, or at least romantic, to develop between the narrator and the younger Lena. The narrator seems to want it. And then the book becomes just another middle-aged white man exercising his privilege to relive his youth. Maybe the author feels the older Magdalena's actions balance this flaw, but this element of the book just left me feeling sad and tired.
We walked through the densely clustered stacks. The books were arranged following some inscrutable system. Lena pulled a thick volume off one of the shelves and flicked through the pages, it was a rather tattered copy of an anthology of English poetry. Did you ever write poems? she asked me. Someone once said prose writers write about the world, poets write about themselves. I said. Do you think that's true? asked Lena. I shrugged. Maybe the opposite's just as true.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The creatives are rude

"That's the thing about corporate philanthropy, it's not obvious what you get out of it. You do it for a lot of reasons, like public image and employee morale. But also in a bigger sense, it's one way big business convinces people that you don't need the government to support public services. If corporations are benevolent and investing in plant-a-tree day and nice buildings then people won't pressure government to do its job and interfere. Philanthropy is the cornerstone of neoliberalism, as they say."
Oval, by Elvia Wilk, is described as reality-adjacent. It's about sustainable housing, sustainable living, the gig economy, and the redistribution of wealth. And the weather is crazy out of control.

I admire several things about this book.

Although Oval is set in a near-future Berlin, technology (very realistically) keeps breaking down. For example, they can't get the bluetooth on the speaker system to work, so it's wired, ruining the whole aesthetic. Some vital equipment is encased in a storage space with a stainless steel door, which defeats the climate sensor entirely. Technology fails us, not in disaster events, but in everyday ways.
Anja skidded down the slope, which was becoming muddy from overuse by feet. It still hadn't been paved or even scattered with gravel, since Finster didn't want to admit that the state of the pathway could no longer reasonably be called temporary. Rather than upgrade the provisional solution to make it slightly more functional in the interminable interim, it was ignored, as a signal that something better, something great — the best possible path — was coming.
This near future is a gig economy where art degrees are parlayed into consultancies — not just liberal arts, but fine art, conceptual art, performance art. (It makes Tom McCarthy's corporate anthropologist of Satin Island look quaint.) "Thinkers" in this world have more value than scientists.
His job was twofold: to generate press-garnering experiments on the edge of what could be called traditional corporate boundaries, and in the process to enhance the corporate culture and strengthen corporate values from within. He was not supposed to be tinkering with one specific issue in any specific area — say, urbanism in Lagos or sanctions against vaccines in the Philippines — he was not to make this place or that place a better place, but to make Basquiatt a better place and therefore to help Basquiatt make The World a better place. He showed the institution how to think better, how to critique its its institutionality. He kept the institution hip and fresh just by being there. His creativity was both the means and the end.
Everything is covered by NDAs. I don't recall the specific terms of my employment contract, but I suspect I talk about work far more than I should. Oval's NDAs are so vague and so broad, and their employers' reach so vast, encompassing housing and insurance and the company you keep and the borders you cross, it leaves people with very little to talk about. This goes some way to explaining the rampant recreational drug use. (Also, "Berlin, the last place on Earth you can smoke in indoors.")

Everyone's into clubbing and posturing (and I wonder if this is what it is to be young and prosperous in Berlin today).
"The only real difference between the people working in the creative industry and the people working at the airline counter is that the creatives are rude," he said. "Everyone we know assumes they're intellectually and morally superior to normal people, but our friends are just as normal, just as conservative and boring as anyone else. The main difference is that they're rude all the time. And they pan that rudeness off as authenticity."
And that's where reality TV rears its ugly head. But Oval isn't about that either.

It was all so compelling and swift and readable. I was halfway through before I realized the story had barely touched what the back cover promised. This novel is not about flipping real estate or reengineering our brain's reward centres. Not obviously, anyway. Not exactly. Not at first.

Anja and Louis's eco-house is falling apart, as is their relationship, which may or may not have something to do with his mother having died. While Louis has grief issues, Anja has body issues — she doesn't eat enough, is intensely insecure, and develops a rash. They're avoiding the house and each other.
People liked to think they were having a relationship with each other, but really they were having a relationship with the relationship itself.
Louis as an art consultant is spearheading a pharmacological solution to income inequality, a pill that makes people more generous. It turn out that people perform generous acts only because it makes them feel good (as we suspected all along), and as it's triggering economic pressure points in the brain, it's the act of spending that causes well-being, regardless of the recipient of the benevolence. It won't be over-the-counter either; Louis intends to drop it on the scene, dress it up as a street drug.
In a world where her structural critiques were cast as personal insecurities, no one would ever believe that she was politically opposed to O; they'd only believe that she was having problems with her boyfriend.
Anja's body issues felt very out of place in this novel. Ditto the occasional feminist outburst, and the melting mascara. Maybe this is supposed to be just another dimension of a fully fleshed out character, incidental to the plot. Or maybe it's intended to say something about appearances and authenticity.

After her lab was shut down, Anja is also working as a consultant, but this arrangement seems to have been carefully designed by her employer just to keep her mouth shut. Her science experiment involved some organic structural compound — it's not clear whether it's a problem or a solution that's being suppressed.

Anja goes off-grid and maybe a bit crazy, but somewhat ironically, she finds herself living self-sufficiently, resourcefully, sustainably. While Berlin burns, she ultimately find her authentic self.

Full Stop

From Chapter 1
Chapter 9 — the gym
Chapter 17 — the drug

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Tragedy belonged to other people

I didn't expect to enjoy Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, as much as I did. It's about girls gone missing, after all. Grim subject matter.

Rather than follow the investigation, the novel shows how the disappearance of the young sisters ripples through the community. The peninsula of Kamchatka is so closed off from the world that it's difficult to believe the girls could've been removed from it, whether by road, sea, or plane.

Laura Miller in the New Yorker notes that:
Dead-girl mysteries are often set in such sleepy, half-forgotten corners of the world: small towns, rural backwaters, suburbs that pride themselves on their tranquillity and safety. Dead girls don't just force detectives to reckon with their own capacity for evil and virtue; they also cause them to turn over the rocks in insular communities and expose wriggling secrets to the light.
The disappearance affects people in indirect ways. Keep your daughter close. Keep your girlfriend close. Suspect everyone; discover nothing.
Tragedy belonged to other people.
Each chapter takes a different female character's perspective, one as each month passes after the incident. With increasing temporal distance, the women are unravelling, but they are bound to their lives. They ache to go far away and go nowhere. They ache for love and sex, and for men to be responsible, to be aware of them, to treat them fairly. The men are traditional and entitled, even when they are incompetent; they are oppressive, even when they are absent.

It's also a xenophobic society, racist, with an indigenous population whose social realities and concerns are largely ignored. A native girl who disappeared years earlier was written off by authorities (and much of the community) as a runaway; nobody cared enough to look for her.

Some people pine for the Soviet era.

These are the stories of women who are smart and accomplished, with so much potential, all of them made to disappear within their own lives.
She, too, believed in the migrants' power — not the power to steal children, but the power to take a woman, to transform her, to turn her life that was growing smaller all the time into an existence that was dark and mighty.

Friday, January 03, 2020

The most fantastic and uptight and uninhibited person alive

Knots, by Gunnhild Øyehaug, is a heartbreak of insightful short stories. I stumbled upon this book in an outlet store, and it felt familiar and right to be reading it while visiting family and traveling home. It felt fantastic.

[I read Wait, Blink, a novel by the same author, just a few months ago and while I haven't (yet?) managed to write about it here, I was deeply moved by it.]

Most of these stories make me ache. Øyehaug uses repetition of certain phrases to great rhythmic effect. A few characters make appearances in more than one story. Everything is knotted together.
"Can't we sit down for a while?" she says. I nod. We find two green chairs and sit down. I look at her and think, almost in wonder, that this is the girl, this is the girl who straddled me and rode me hard on the jangling hotel bed less than an hour ago. That her fair hair had swayed back and forth above me. That she had had no one to bump into then, no boats to lose control of, no parents who thought that their child was hopeless at this, that she should let go of her inhibitions and not be so uptight. I am gripped by love, want to shake her, tell her that she's the most fantastic and uptight and uninhibited person alive. But I know that if I lean over and whisper that in her ear, and that I want to be with her for the rest of my life, that it's very likely that we'll do just that, stay together for the rest of our lives, I know that she won't say anything, her eyes will slip away, but she'll take my hand and squeeze it. That's all. Because she's not in love with me. I know that. I know she's in love with someone else in this town. Obsessed. Someone she tries not to talk about. Someone she tries not to look for on every street corner, in every gallery we go to. Someone we were supposed to meet here by the pond two days ago, but who didn't show up, someone she thinks she sees everywhere — I can feel it in the hand that's holding hers, a a faint start, she thinks she sees: a tall guy, with broad shoulders, a thin dark line. An ex. She looks at me: "Shall we go and get something warm to drink? I'm cold," she says. She's done with longing. Or rather: she wants to long a little more, as we leave the pond and she thinks that it's perhaps the last time that we'll pass this place. We stand up, and she takes my hand. Always takes my hand.
[From "The Girl Holding My Hand."]

The stories are simple, understated, short. I want to say that they're very female, but even though I read more women than men last year, I don't really know what that means. It's not the domesticity and the love and sex, but something about the matter-of-factness and the poignancy; everything is obvious and tragic. At any rate, they speak to me.

I can't pick a favourite. There are scenes of hurt and tenderness. There's death and violence. There's a deer. There's Rimbaud. Performance art and Arvo Pärt. There's when you need to pee, and when you need to run away. Longing and fear and regret. In "Transcend," a woman longs for an eternity of total fusion and considers protesting her current situation by not having an orgasm. "Meanwhile, on Another Planet" has a very Cosmicomics feel about it.

"Nice and Mild"
"It's Raining in Love"

New Yorker: A Norwegian Master of the Short Story: Gunnhild Øyehaug dramatizes the critical consciousness, by James Wood: "She can produce stabs of emotion, unexpected ghost notes of feeling, from pieces so short and offbeat that they seem at first like aborted arias."

Blog // Los Angeles Review of Books: Something Like Love but (K)not: Gunnhild Øyehaug's Radical Fictions, by Kasia van Schaik: "erotic, mysterious, awkward, precise."
It seems pertinent, even polemical, then, that the characters in Øyehaug's stories are all concerned with the need to be seen and heard. From lonely women to existential deer to two-timing husbands stranded in snow banks, Øyehaug's characters yearn for acknowledgement and reciprocity, and for the equilibrium that such a bond, or knot, promises. Most often, though, they’re denied recognition.

In the place of recognition, the characters are left with a sense of longing, paired with a deep-seeded disappointment, which announces its presence on every page of this book. Øyehaug's work constructs an ecology of longing. Of failed epiphanies. Of unsatisfied women.