Monday, February 24, 2020

Life is the thing you bring with you inside your own head

At this moment she remembers leaving a flask in Connell's car the day they drove to Howth in April, and she never got the flask back. It might still be in his glovebox. She eyes the glovebox but doesn't feel she can open it, because he would ask what she was doing and she would have to bring up the trip to Howth. They went swimming in the sea that day and then parked his car somewhere out of sight and had sex in the back seat. It would be shameless to remind him of that day now that they're once again in the car together, even though she would really like her flask back, or maybe it's not about the flask, maybe she just wants to remind him he once fucked her in the back seat of the car they're now sitting in, she knows it would make him blush, and maybe she wants to force him to blush as a sadistic display of power, but that wouldn't be like her, so she says nothing.
It's a beautiful college romance, the kind I nostalgically wish I'd had. Only it's not. It's messy, even toxic. They're together for all the wrong reasons. But when they're together, it's the rightest reason, it doesn't make sense to not be together. Only when they're outside of it does it sometimes become clear that it's reinforcing a negative pattern, it's feeding negativity, corroding the self-worth that ironically they feel only when it's validated by the other.

Normal People, by Sally Rooney, is about normal people — people who think they're not normal, who aspire to be normal, but of course they already are.

Connell and Marianne's on-again, off-again relationship is all about power. Superficially there's a lot of social cachet they're individually getting from the relationship, in different ways and at different times. But both of them know they hold power of the other, while both are in thrall to the other.

(Can two people ever love each other equally? Does one person always love the other more? Which one has the power?)
She comes to sit down with him and he touches her cheek. He has a terrible sense all of a sudden that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him. The idea frightens him so badly that he pulls his chair back and stands up. His hands are shaking. He doesn't know why he thought about it. Maybe he wants to do it. But it makes him feel sick.
Connell's a bit of jerk really. And I don't feel good about the fact that I'm willing to let him get away with it. He's certainly a better man than many in the novel (or in life) and and on the whole he's "good" for Marianne, they're "good together." He uses her. Repeatedly.
Generally I find men are a lot more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than exercising personal freedom for themselves, says Marianne.
Maybe this is the thing that bothers me about the book. You're led to believe that Connell is good for Marianne.

Is she really the not normal one in this relationship? She's certainly damaged, with a dysfunctional family who has abused her. But she's also coping, exploring her selfhood and her boundaries. Normal.
Denise decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression toward Marianne as a way of expressing themselves. As a child Marianne resisted, but now she simply detaches, as if it isn't of any interest to her, which in a way it isn't. Denise considers this a symptom of her daughter's frigid and unlovable personality. She believes Marianne lacks "warmth," by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.
Does Connell hate her? At times.
Last night he spent an hour and a half lying on the floor of this room, because he was too tired to complete the journey from his en suite back to his bed. There was the en suite, behind him, and there was the bed, in front of him, both well within view, but somehow it was impossible to move either forward or backward, only downward, onto the floor, until his body was arranged motionless on the carpet. Well, here I am on the floor, he thought. Is life so much worse here than it would be on the bed, or even in a totally different location? No, life is exactly the same. Life is the thing you bring with you inside your own head. I might as well be lying here, breathing the vile dust of the carpet into my lungs, gradually feeling my right arm go numb under the weight of my body, because it's essentially the same as every other possible experience.
The death of a friend instigates a depressive episode for Connell. Normal. Loving family, financially disadvantaged (relative to the company he keeps), good looking, academically and athletically gifted. Aspires to little more than social acceptance, including having the right girlfriend, being a saviour. Normal? Certainly ordinary.
You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.
Normal People was bumped up my reading list because it's shortlisted for the 2020 Tournament of Books, and it's in the same bracket as one of the most powerful books I've read in recent memory, Fleishman Is in Trouble. I was worried for FleishmanNormal People is compellingly readable, and sweet and smart and romantic. But ultimately, I didn't find it realistic or relatable, which Fleishman is in spades. Normal People remains lovely, but Fleishman made me reexamine myself and my world and caused great psychological upheaval. So.

The Millions: Me, Myself, and You

January 2011
March 2011

Monday, February 17, 2020

Prayers bore them

You're blaming the robots, right? That's what everyone did. The robots didn't mean to start trouble. They weren't happy about what happened. It was a mistake, and they don't like it when they make mistakes. It was no different from when a nuclear reactor blows up and for years afterward radioactivity rains down from the sky making people sick. It was better than that, even, because the robots wanted to make things better. It wasn't their fault they didn't understand the poem.
[What poem?]

Duplex, by Kathryn Davis, is one of the strangest and most beautiful books I've read in a long time.

This book is exquisitely sad, and I'm not sure why. It reminds me of e.e. cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town," only instead of being a poem, it's a string of fairytale pearls, but with robots and magic and you can't tell whether anyone's alive or dead.

I don't understand what it's about. And I want to reread it immediately.

It's set in a suburban community of duplexes, where one can hear the neighbours living their life next door. Sometimes the noises raise eyebrows, and other questions.

It's a thin wall between one existence and another, and that wall is porous. As I write this, the novel clicks into place...

Davis explores all the duplexes we live in and how their two sides seep into each other: life and death, history and mythology, dream and reality, past and future. (This novel may have affected me more deeply as I read it on holiday — my vacation world and my real life were similarly separate but interwoven.)

Duplex is neither science fiction nor fantasy, despite the drone-like scows, the mind-reading robots, and the magician.

This is a book primarily about girls and women, about their disappointments, and I can't help but feel it's meant as warning. This is the life you have. This is the life you could have. Could have had.
After she returned home the girl washed the breakfast dishes. She stood there with her head bowed, crying into the sink, leaving the nape of her neck exposed all the way through the many different layers of her house and the debris floating in the upper atmosphere to the X-ray vision of the operational apparatus of the scow hovering in the air above.

Think of them like gods, Janice said, because that's what they are. The nape of a human neck is especially easy to see through — that's why they love it when we bow our heads. It doesn't have anything to do with praying. Prayers bore them.

Unlike the boy she had a crush on the apparatus could see through the girl perfectly; it knew it wasn't meant for her but that didn't stop it. It was her fate, which had nothing to do with love. It had nothing to do with the boy and the note, either. Things just worked out this way sometimes.
It's very difficult to summarize this book, but I can give you no better recap than this one:
The main plot, if there is one, concerns a woman who, as a young girl, falls in love with a neighbor boy. A sorcerer in a metallic gray car steals the boy's soul, however, and in a Faustian transaction the boy becomes a famous baseball player. This girl, Mary, later marries the sorcerer, perhaps while hypnotized (so little of this episode is rendered in the story). Mary then becomes the mother of Blue-Eyes, a machine-daughter who started life as a yellow Teddy Bear. Mary leaves the sorcerer late in life, is transported through a wormhole, and performs admirably with poorly identified but heavy cosmic stakes on the line.
That leaves out some of the mythological elements, and the robots who live down the street, but otherwise nails it. Since the first resident we're introduced to is Miss Vicks, schoolteacher and one-time lover of the sorcerer, it seemed to me the story was told through her lens on the community. At times it seemed Mary's story was one of her lives that could have been, perhaps even directed by her.

Some reviews of this book focus on the element of time, the clockwork lives, the ticking, the surprise of aging.

Despite clocks and calendars, the big events in our lives always feel like they come out of nowhere. Even when we expect them, even when we know they must happen, even when, like old age, we constantly watch them approach.
Like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland or the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia, the duplex functions as both a physical place and a point of access to a different world—one in which past and future collide.
Washington Independent Review of Books:
As the novel continues, the boundaries between these characters become increasingly fragile, even permeable. Davis plays brilliantly on the claustrophobia of American suburbia, and the duplex houses in Mary and Eddie's neighborhood serve as an ideal site to explore the proximity that both separates and interweaves their occupants. Duplex is obsessed with halving and doubling, with hinges and doors, with places where you can go "forward and back with equal ease." Some characters split into doubles; others seem to live multiple lives.
The Rumpus:
The narrator confides, "I think the robot was trying to warn her about what was going to happen. I think this because the story of what was going to happen is also my story, the story of girls everywhere." This declaration is open to plenty of interpretations. Is Duplex also telling the story of girls in our world, outside of this odd street, where time and space connect like a hinge on the door of a duplex?
The Rain of Beads (audio)
Descent of the Aquanauts
Through the Wormhole (account required)
[Full text online.]
That's nothing compared to what it felt like. Nothing. You can't even begin to imagine. Supposedly the sound the girls made was so loud no one could sleep. It wasn't like being torn to pieces, because pieces are big. It was like having the smallest parts of your body like the corpuscles and peptides and nuclei and follicles rip loose from one another, every single one of them. The parts were so small they were practically invisible and all different colors, the main ones being red and yellow and blue. They were gorgeous if you didn't know what they were. There was nothing left of the girls. Nothing for the doctors to replace with new parts, nothing.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The mathematical irradiation of things

I have so much to say and no words for it.

— from Agua Viva, by Clarice Lispector.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

The outer edges of life

Where have you gone, Saul? All that beauty blown to bits. Who were you? What languages do you speak? Are you a son and a brother and a father? Are you an acquisition? How do you get along with your female colleagues? What is the point of them, in your view? What is the point of yourself, in their view? Are you there to do something for them? Or are they there to do something for you? Are they a foil for your ambitions or are you a foil for theirs? In what ways do you thwart, oppose, derail or support each other? Which way do you vote? Are you a good historian? Did you ever play football? Cricket? Ping-pong? Are you curious about other people? Or do you walk on the outer edges of life, indifferent, remote, tormented by the affection human beings seem to feel for each other? Are other men envious of you? Are you loving? Have you ever been loved? Yes, I have been loved and I am loving, I said to the man in the mirror, I am all those things I am I am and I need to know what happened to Walter Müller.
I find this book challenging, and I can't decide if I like it. I definitely don't love it — it doesn't resonate with me emotionally. But intellectually, there are so many interesting things to pick away at.

The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy, came on my radar a few months ago. I was feeling arty, sculpting and writing, and questioning my muse about the state of musedom: how does one find a muse, how active is the role of the muse, etc. I asked my women friends if they have or know of any male muses. "Why would anyone want a male muse?" In my research, Levy's novel came up as a counterexample that proves the rule — that musehood is a female domain, a state of grace bestowed by male artists.

In The Man Who Saw Everything, Saul is Jennifer's muse. She's a photographer, and her exhibit, "A Man in Pieces," features Saul's disembodies body parts.
"It's like this, Saul Adler: the main subject is not always you."

It's like this, Jennifer Moreau: you have made me the main subject.
Saul is unsettled when he appears at the gallery, grappling with his (in)significance. But Jennifer explains it to him clearly: "It's not about you. It's about me." Art is never about the muse.
I have never had a free conversation with my body. I have silenced my lovers with my body and controlled the kind of conversation they wished to have with their own body. I have never been free.
Then there's this element of fractured time, reminding me of books like Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Philip K Dick's Martian Time-Slip, something by Ursula K LeGuin. But it is very much set in our world.

In 1988, Saul was hit by a car at the crosswalk on Abbey Road. Jennifer breaks up with him, and he travels to East Germany for his research as a historian. In 2016, Saul is in a hospital bed, having been hit by a car at the crosswalk on Abbey Road.
I realized there was glass everywhere and that some of it was inside my head. I had gazed at my reflection in the wing mirror of his car and my reflection had fallen into me.
It's not clear if both realities can be true. How is it that in 1988 Saul can whisper to the East Germans reassurances about the future? Saul in 2016 cannot recall anything of the last 28 years, and he does not grasp the severity of his condition.
Luna's green eyes were like mirrors. I could see myself smiling in both her eyes, as if I had become a double self, which in a sense was right. I was learning to not be myself in the GDR.
There's a lot going on here, about Europe, history, male tyranny, Brexit. About dismantling states, relationships, selves.
Yet the fact that I was searching for someone who might be there, as if their absence were more threatening than their presence, as if lack of surveillance were more peculiar than constant surveillance, reminded me of how I felt after my father died. It was hard to believe he was no longer here to find fault with all I said and did and to punish me for my flaws. I think I was paranoid way before I arrived in East Berlin.

I began to regard my own eyes and ears as advanced surveillance technologies.
Atlantic: Deborah Levy's Disorienting, Captivating Fiction
New Republic: Deborah Levy's Time Warp