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. 


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?)


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.