Thursday, September 24, 2020

The drumbeat of juicy epithets

Madam Józefina Przełęska had woken up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. By ten o'clock, this fact had become a universally acknowledged axiom in the kitchen. By eleven, the entire apartment had broken out in such pandemonium and hullabaloo it was as if there was not just one wrong side of the bed but at least two. 

By noon, the noble residence of Madam Przełęska was pitiful scene of chaos and panic, where august antiques fought wildly in single combat, moving from place to place until, amidst unrelenting skirmishes, they were cut down with the heat of battle and remined motionless, their fashionably spindly legs sticking straight up into the air. Amidst stampeding servants, the lady of the house galloped through the apartment like a Valkyrie on the warpath. Before her resounded the drumbeat of juicy epithets, behind her billowed the flounces of her dressing gown like a burnoose sweeping over the rubble.

The vacuum cleaner growled in the sitting room, salvos of carpets being beaten reverberated in the courtyard, here the windows were thrown open because this stifling air was simply unbearable, there the windows were slammed shut because these drafts could blow your head right off.

On top of everything, the telephone rang without stopping, and the hailstorm of words pelting the mouthpiece slashed the air like a whip.

It was that very moment the doorbell sounded in the hall. It was the last straw. Madam Przełęska pivoted and darted over to answer the door personally, much to the horror of her servants, who, in their hearts, had already entrusted the welfare of this unfortunate guest to the mercy of God.

— from The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz.

Monday, September 21, 2020

I write from here, from the warehouse of unsold women

It has begun. The second wave of the pandemic. I keep thinking of it as a sociological phenomenon rather than a biological one, like fifth-wave feminism. And it is. It's second-wave pandemicism — because I wasn't angry enough and lonely and scared enough and tired enough the first time. 

It's been 202 days of German lessons, and more than 6 months of working from home. The order I put in at Ikea early this past summer, the curtains to prettify and the task lighting to enlighten, should finally be delivered next week. 

But the last few days, weeks, have been hard. It's too cool to sit on the balcony in the morning, it's more effort to go for a walk. The rituals that helped summer pass are broken.

I dreamt my period came suddenly and my shirt-tails were soaked red, I put my hand between my legs but couldn't stanch the flow, there was so much blood.

I went for a Thai yoga massage because I needed my body stretched and steamrolled. I learned that I've forgotten how to relax. How difficult to be in the body and to let go. What I like so much about this style of massage is the trust exercise of it, the surrender. And it seems I'm unable, I'm so tightly wound, on alert, ever vigilant, and tired. And when he thumbed my right forearm near my elbow, I started to cry. “The body remembers,” he told me. (And I was remembering you, stroking my arm.)

That was Friday, the day Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. I feel sadness, and hopelessness, and defeated. We are Ruthless. 

Tonight I cut my hair and dyed it blonde. Haircuts (unlike massage) are nonessential. I would do it myself. All pandemic-long, I've wanted pandemic hair. A badge of honour. I would cut my hair in protest, in solidarity, as self-mutilation. It's gorgeous.

Some books arrived today, among them, King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes:

I write from here, from the warehouse of unsold women, the psychos, the skinheads, those who don't know how to accessorize, those who are scared they stink, those with rotting teeth, those who have no clue, those that guys don't make things easy for, those who'd fuck anyone who's prepared to have them, the massive sluts, the scrawny skanks, the dried-up cunts, those with pot bellies, those who wish they were men, those who think they are men, those who dream of being porn stars, those who don't give a flying fuck about guys but have a thing for their girlfriends, those with fat arses, those who have dark bushy pubes and aren't about to get a Brazilian, the women who are loud and pushy, those who smash everything in their path, those who hate perfume counters, who wear red lipstick that's too red, those who'd die to dress like horny sluts but haven't got the body, those who want to wear men's clothes and beards in the street, those who want to let it all hang out, those who are prissy because they're hung-up, those who don't know how to say no, those who are locked up so they can be controlled, those who inspire fear, those who are pathetic, those who don't spark desire, those who are flabby, who have faces scarred with wrinkles, the ones who dream of having a facelift, or liposuction, or having their nose broken so it can be reshaped but don't have the money, those who are a hot mess, those who have only themselves to rely on for protection, those who don't know how to be reassuring, those who don't give a fuck about their kids, those who like to drink until they're sprawled on the floor of a bar, those who don't know how to behave; and, while I'm at it, I'm also writing for the guys who don't want to be protectors, those who want to be but don't know how, those who don't know how to fight, those who cry easily, those who aren't ambitious, or competitive, or well-hung, or aggressive, those who are timid, shy, vulnerable, those who'd rather look after the house than go out to work, those who are weak, bald, too poor to be appealing, those who long to be fucked, those who don't want to be dependable, those who are scared on their own every night. 

Bring it on, second wave. We are already scarred against you.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity

Sometimes I felt that my mind was a soft cloud of air around me, taking in whatever flew in, spinning around, and delivering it out into the ether.

It took me a while to warm to Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh. I couldn't at first buy into the narrator as a frail old lady. The voice (as I heard it in my head) was too much of she who told My Year of Rest and Relaxation, overpoweringly strong (nonchalant millennial). But soon enough, the mystery of the story itself took over, and I thought maybe this tone was the fist clue to the unreliability of the narrator. And besides, little old ladies have all kinds of different voices (what will mine be like, I wonder).

It reminded me of another old-lady-in-the-woods story — Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk — which, along with references to Hansel and Gretel, reinforce the idea that I might be witnessing the emergence of a subgenre of the literary crazy-old-lady category. Moshfegh's and Tokarczuk's characters are both very much a part of their communities, connected to them in ways they don't even acknowledge, while apart from them, self-isolated and grieving.

He liked to tell me that I was the source of my own misery, that I was choosing to believe that my life was limited, boring. He explained that everything was possible, and moreover, everything — every thing and scenario — existed in infinite versions throughout the galaxies and beyond. I knew it was a childish belief, but I had adopted it anyway. Imagining infinite realities made whatever nuisance I had to withstand more tolerable. I was more than myself. There were infinite Vesta Guls out there, simultaneous to me, scrolling down the TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS web page, with only one small variation: one Vesta Gul's hair was falling across her forehead in a different way; one mouse pad was green instead of blue, and so forth. In another dimension, there was a small fire-breathing dragon sitting next to me on the floor. And in another, Charlie was strangled out in the car by an eighty-foot boa constrictor. And so on. The job of the sleuth was to narrow down potential realities into a single truth. A selected truth. It didn't mean it was the only truth. The actual truth existed only in the past, I believed. It was in the future where things began to get messy.

So what truth is she trying to get at? She found a note about Magda's dead body, but no dead body, and Vesta's imagination runs with it. She writes Magda's story, conjures her out of thin air. It is a distraction from her loneliness and her grief over her dead (and abusive) husband. It's all very real to Vesta, and one wonders if she doesn't know a little too much about dead bodies — about how circumstances can lead to murder.

She turns random occurrences into clues. Her paranoia and obsessiveness make everything a sign. Is she just a crazy old lady to be dismissed? Or is something more sinister going on?

Vesta Gul. A ghoul. The vestigial remains of a woman. She mourns Magda, real or not. She doesn't even realize that she's mourning herself, what little is left of her now her husband is gone. 

I loved her the way I loved the little seedlings soon to sprout in my new garden. I loved her the way I loved life, the miracle of growth and things blossoming. I loved her the way I loved the future. The past was over, and there was no love left there. It hurt me to think that Magda was dead, life wrangled out of her body, that she'd been abandoned, with nobody but maybe Blake to attend to her corpse. It is easy, I thought, to find great affection for victims, emblems of vanished potential. There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity, a missed chance. I knew about stuff like that. I'd been young once. So many dreams had been dashed. But I dashed them myself. I wanted to be safe, whole, have a future of certainty. One makes mistakes when there is confusion between having a future at all and having the future one wants.

(What future do I want?)

New Yorker: Ottessa Moshfegh's "Death in Her Hands" Is a New Kind of Murder Mystery 
Atlantic: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Riveting Meta-Mysteries


Saturday, September 12, 2020

The majestic boom of you

(Too good to be true. It's not true. It stung me in the heart.) 


The trouble with you,
dear, is that your name
is so damn Shakespearean —
I can't tell if our fandango
is of historic import
or mere romantic farce.

Whether you be impostor
or ghost or some Greek chorus 
to illuminate the story my life,
verily my flesh gives way to
the majestic boom of you and
our irrepressibly awkward joy.

Drafted August 2020, for later review; launch date TBD. You're beautiful, AF. Thanks for showing me what joy is possible. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Fuck DRM

Cory Doctorow emailed me yesterday, following up on a note I'd sent him in 2014 about his novel Little Brother.

It's about his new book, Attack Surface (aka Little Brother 3). I like that it's a standalone, and it's written for adults. I'll read it.

The story itself sounds great. Attack Surface covers racial injustice, police brutality, high-tech turnkey totalitarianism, mass protests and mass surveillance. As Doctorow puts it, "there is something powerful about technologically rigorous thrillers about struggles for justice — stories that marry excitement, praxis and ethics." 

But Audible (an Amazon-owned monopoly) won't carry the audiobook because Doctorow took the ethical decision not to wrap it in DRM. (See here for more on digital rights management.)

Doctorow is making the unabridged audiobook (narrated by Amber Benson) available on Kickstarter. So you can get a great price and take a moral stand by sticking it to Jeff Bezos.

"This is a first-of-its-kind experiment in letting authors, agents, readers and a major publisher deal directly with one another in a transaction that completely sidesteps the monopolists."

I'm not generally an audiobook listener, but I'll make an exception.

Audiobook preview
Print excerpt

Friday, September 04, 2020

The fish in the desert

I went to a psychiatrist once. I was doing something that had become a pattern in my life, and I thought, Well, I should go talk to a psychiatrist. When I got into the room, I asked him, "Do you think that this process could, in any way, damage my creativity?" And he said, "Well, David, I have to be honest: it could." And I shook his hand and left. 

No one would ever guess at the film genius of David Lynch by his writing. He struggles to articulate the concepts he claims bear him such creative fruit, and he fails to inspire.

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity is likely a genuine effort to explain his creative process, or lack thereof, to aspiring artists. But it doesn't work on paper. Weirdly, Lynch's ideas are much more compelling when shared orally:

Keep at it 

I've moved beyond plumbing my own depths for creativity. I'm trying to understand how other people find it, use it. I'm reading about how it works for profit and for fulfilment. Ideas do not come to Lynch in dreams. Rather, he taps into the unified field of consciousness.


One morning this week I wake up feeling something graze my left breast. Maybe it was the cat's tail, maybe it was the corner of the bedsheet, but I recall the feeling of the sand insect, what I thought was a scorpion but couldn't possibly have been a scorpion, like sand trickling down my chest but in reverse, creeping upward. 

How lucky it stung my finger after I'd brushed it away, how lucky it hadn't stung me in the heart.

And so I lay in bed, dreamily happy about all my good fortune, on my cloud of a mattress, the good fortune of my job and the satisfaction and rewards it brings, the good fortune to have my family close to me (including, at long last, my mother), the good fortune to have met a man who suits me perfectly, to have taken him as my lover, and I realize it's too good to be true.

It must not be true. Somehow I have fabricated this perfect reality of mine. It stung me in the heart, I am lying in a coma in a Bedouin tent in the Sahara.

This must be why Sa'id keeps texting me. After riding camels and smoking shisha that night in the desert, he is somewhere nearby, trying to coax me out of my coma, while feeding my bliss. "Sa'id" means "happy."

There is no pandemic. My coma mind created it to quarantine me from the world and help me go into myself, to find the pain and expel it.

I have brought my mother to me, to my figurative bedside. In this fever dream, I toiled to pack her belongings and move her to another world. In that house where I grew into myself, I sifted through my own life as much as hers, as I gazed at photos, threw out meaningless school reports and newspaper clippings, fingered longheld but long-forgotten trinkets. (I kept the nugget of fool's gold.)

My friends are increasingly absent. Our paths are diverging. I don't blame them. If my friend were in a coma, after 6 months, I might stop calling too. The intensity of  the communications with my imaginary German lover has also waned, as the likelihood of meeting fades into an impossible future. Of course, he has no idea that I am trapped within my body (always trapped within the body), comatose in the desert.

Instead I am wrapped in a cocoon of bliss. My mind has concocted a near-perfect life, worked through the rage and grief and the at-sea-ness of it all, I have gone into myself and am coming out again in a foreign but familiar place. Can I die of happiness? This is not real.

This feeling of lying in my lover's arms... perhaps they are treating me with sand baths, immersing me in the magic of the Sahara, the desert is my lover.

How lucky it stung my finger after I'd brushed it away, how lucky it hadn't stung me in the heart.