Thursday, December 30, 2021

Like most humans, she had a single heart

The sense of space as a controlled substance is overpowering, except you don't know where it's going to take you.

The Silk Road is magic. I don't understand how any of it works, and I'm sure there are more elements in play than I suspect, but it fills me with awe and joy.

Next she took someone's head and lifted it like it wasn't part of a human body, a cabbage or a planet or the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is.

The book opens in the labyrinth, one woman guiding bodies on yoga mats in Savasana (corpse pose).

This was the most challenging of the poses if you took into account the fact that the room was filled with people who knew the world was coming to an end and that if we worked at it hard enough we would never die.

One of them dies (murder?). Is it a tenth body, or one of the nine "named" persons (the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Botanist, the Keeper, the Topologist, the Geographer, the Iceman, and the Cook, and Jee Moon)? Is it someone from their past — Mother, Father, or are they already dead long ago? Is it someone they even know at all? 

It's a labyrinth of memory and shared consciousness. While the environs seem to shift from a settlement in the icy lands of caribou to Le Puy-en-Velay and Aubrac, the journey is primarily interior, some spiritual plane on which they remember and commune, though some things they decided to forget. All the paths are marked by cairns.

How is it possible for the solid objects around us to melt away into the past, and for a new order of objects to emerge mysteriously from the future?

I would make the case that the entire novel takes place on their yoga mats, always in the labyrinth, a spiritual investigation, processing life and birth and death and tragedy and love and desire and heartbreak, the mystery of being, and being one with it all.

The journey along the Silk Road is not one from their memory; it is a metaphor of the human condition, travelled "for everything strange or unknown, a variety of alien gods and ideas, and unbounded universe with nothing outside it, the dung-covered eggs of the silkworm." "Everyone was using it, for commerce or as a means of escape." "What everyone had in common was lack of destination."

They had been children together — siblings, it seems. (And Jee Moon, an outsider but always present.) They squabble like children. But they are like some cosmic beings, inhabiting tubes of skin and learning to tell one another apart. One of them has two hearts. One of them may not have a heart. One of them (the Archivist?) will have the black spot on the skin, a sign of the sickness.

The Topologist visits a shrine to Saint Roch. Saint Roch was also their elementary school. There are many dogs (and fleas), and the Plague (are all plagues so much the same?).

Everyone was heading north, the sickness not having arrived there yet. Everyone knew it was a physical condition — they were that knowledgeable — but the extent of what they knew was compromised by exposure to a glut of information and rumor, making it difficult to predict anything.

The Geographer has a husband, and a child. The Cook is a widower. The Topologist met the Swede. The Astronomer fell for Jee Moon. A long time ago, the Archivist fell in love with a poet.

We all had our love stories. This was true even for the Archivist, whose misfortune it had been to fall in love as a child with a girl who grew up to be a famous poet. Like most humans, she had a single heart, and that heart had room in it for only one person — that person being herself. The spirit of the age was compounded of arrogance and inattention, the predominant humor begotten of the chylus, cold and moist.

A game of Hangman: Eight letters, two Es and an X at the end. Sardines. Tarot cards.

While she walked, the Topologist felt herself becoming aroused. It was as if whatever lay beneath her had its attention fixed amorously on the cleft between her legs. She felt like she was naked from the waist down, hungrily observed and getting wet, her breath coming faster and faster. 

Walking can do that, said the Keeper. It's perfectly normal. She was trying to be reassuring, like a mother.

Sphagnum subnitens, said the Iceman. Glittering sphagnum. All it thinks about is sex.

This novel is a puzzle I can't solve, and it's surprising and gorgeous. Expansive, boundless.

Excerpts
Fairy Tale Review
Granta 

Reviews
LARB: Journey to Death: On Kathryn Davis’s "The Silk Road"
Slate: My Soul Is Going on a Trip

Monday, December 27, 2021

They had a passion for oysters

"People want conjugal love, Rachel, because it brings them well-being, a certain peace. It's a predictable love since they expect it, and they expect it for precise reasons. A bit boring, like everything predictable. Passionate love, on the other had, is linked to a sudden emergence. It disturbs order, it surprises. There is a third category. Less well known, I'll call it the inevitable encounter. It reaches an extreme intensity, and it very well might not happen. It doesn't occur in most lives. People don't seek it, it doesn't suddenly emerge either. It appears. When it's present, one is struck by its self-evidence. Its particular characteristic is that it is experienced with people whose existence one hasn't imagined or that one thought never to know. The inevitable encounter is unpredictable, incongruous, it doesn't blend with a reasonable life. But its nature is so entirely other that it does not perturb social order, since it escapes from it."

An Impossible Love, by Christine Angot, is strange and annoying.

The title is confusing. Which love are we talking about, and what about it is so impossible? The novel starts off telling the love story of the narrator's parents, which is doomed early on. But the impossibility may lie between Christine (the narrator) and her mother Rachel. Or in the difficult relationship with her mostly absent father.

His family had lived in Paris for generations, in the seventeenth arrondissement, near Parc Monceau; they came from Normandy. In Paris, many had been doctors. They were curious about the world, they had a passion for oysters.

Classism abounds, with Rachel and later Christine aspiring to the kind of life Pierre represented. Everyone is rather selfish and unworthy. Christine was born out of wedlock; while Rachel's outlook seemed rather modern, Pierre's refusal to officially recognize his daughter felt outdated (though likely in keeping with the French laws of the time). This is a suspected work of autofiction; Angot was born in 1959. 

I was surprised to learn that Angot is a Prix Médicis laureate. I'm typically very tolerant of unlikeable narrators and other characters, but in this case it greatly diminished the sympathy Christine deserves, ruining the intended effect of the direction the plot takes. The author is clearly familiar with psychoanalytic techniques, and the narrator as a grown woman has a lot of baggage to unpack. An Impossible Love was unsubtle in reminding this reader, repeatedly and from early on, that this is a book about Christine, not her parents.  

She didn't have the banal feeling of being filled, but of being annihilated, emptied of her personality, reduced to dust.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

When you and your life's happiness part ways

"I will never do that again," she said. "Be the one who loves less."

26 Knots, by Bindu Suresh, is a love story, is several love stories, several different kinds of love, wrenched by obsession and heartache.

People walk into and out of our lives all the time. Sometimes they stay awhile. Sometimes this time you spend together is the last time. Sometimes people come back after long absences, if only fleetingly.

I was happy to discover a new English-language bookstore in the neighbourhood. It felt of warmth and kindness and love for books. I scanned every fiction shelf, smiling with approval as I recognized most titles, some favourites, some classics. I imagine, "Can I help you find something?" "Yes, I've read all of these." 

A young man comes in, a screenwriter, settles by the counter to chat with the shop assistant, about the metaverse and The Green Knight, while I land on a slim volume, an iconic Montreal view on its cover.

In English, Araceli was vibrant and cheerful; in Spanish, she was soft, maternal, with a voice from the undulating Córdoban hills; in French, she was endearingly wide-eyed and lost, tripping over her words as if they were large obstacles. Adrien liked her most, but knew her least, in his mother tongue.

The knots are drama and tragedy: language, love, longing, infidelity, pregnancy, childbirth, loneliness, your mother, your father, your past, your expectations. 

I read 26 Knots, this quintessentially Montreal story, on an island thousands of kilometres away from the island I call home. I watched The Green Knight on the flight here. I think about duty and love and tests of valour. What is it I quest for. What is foretold and what is mutable. Am I moving away from something, or moving toward something else. What sticks heavy on my heart. How easily I am led astray from what matters. When is the quest over. When is it over.

I stayed with a man for too many years, for most of which he told me he loved me more. More than yesterday? More than chocolate? More than I love you? As much as I wanted to challenge his statement, I knew that doing so might prove a point better left ambiguous. Whether or not he did, he believed he did. As I believed I loved him better. But love is not a contest. And finally I know my own mind, and I accept that it is better to love than to be loved, and I love how I can.

I think there are more than knots in the muscle of my heart that I have yet to resolve.

And then, the biggest question of all: when you and your life's happiness part ways at a forked path, when do you admit the mistake and turn back, and when do you set yourself belligerently forward?

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The vastness of confinement

I remember what's not here. An island of men who are searching for beauty and find it only in the vastness of confinement. I admit I'm sadistic. I'm always saying that nothing is possible without the soul, just as no image is possible without its other. But I have no other. I have no soul. A young lover once promised to write the fatal sign on my womb and take me away with him to fertile lands. What became of him? That night is a hundred thousand nights ago and that lover is lost. I'm still waiting for him to appear among the smoky spirals that emerge from my mouth. I've had a series of smells burnt into me: a pair of hands in the twilight, the soft skin of somebody's back, a bewitched throat. Then it was over, and they were all gone. I'm still a witch who's waiting to cast spells. Our neighbour died of a heroin overdose with his baby in his arms. The woman in the house with the boarded-up windows suffocated on the smoke of her own fire. The animals die out before reproducing. That's what death looks like in these parts. Whereas my sun-soaked nights on the island were filled with stimulating chats, daydreams, furious kisses. Whereas in those golden years of my life, everything was an ecstasy of sexual reawakening. A wave of antipathy to the world wells up from deep within me. I don't know what these animals are up to. They're forming a circle around me and watching me, dumbfounded, their jaws practically unhinged from their bodies. I fall to my knees before them. If a local were to pass by now, basket in hand, gathering mushrooms and berries, they'd think this was some kind of pagan ritual.

I ordered this book for myself in the early pandemic days, I'd read a review, maybe this one, and I thought, perfect, a book about a woman who's dying inside, a victim(?) of all-consuming lust, that's relatable, I wonder how she takes it out on her world, does she interact with her world?, but by the time the book arrived it seemed like too heavy a read, maybe I'd found a way to cope with objectless lust by then, and later I was too happy, then too fragile, but lately was just right for it.

Reading Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz, is a descent into the maelstrom.

Not even digging a hole, a pit, would be enough. It needs to be thrown into the desert and devoured by wild beasts. Desire, that is.

The jacket copy goes like this:

In a forgotten patch of French countryside, a woman is battling her demons – embracing exclusion yet wanting to belong, craving freedom whilst feeling trapped, yearning for family life but at the same time wanting to burn the entire house down. 

That seemed to encapsulate lockdown and all the contradictory impulses it elicited, I would battle demons, I didn't need to be trapped in a marriage or by responsibility to small child (again!). Trapped at home, home was the entire world, and I would tear it down around me. 

These people are going to make me lose it. I wish I had Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon for neighbours; then my son could grow up and develop intellectually by learning that there's more to the world I brought him into than opening old skylights you can't see out of anyway. As soon as all the others had escaped to their rooms to digest their meals, I heard my father-in-law cutting the grass beneath the snow with his new green tractor and thought that if I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I'd do it.

(All figurative artists, I note. Why? Because the body, I guess. And the physicality of Glenn's art too.)

I have to say, though, that there's nothing to ground this story in the countryside of France. I believe there may have been a vineyard, possibly a road to Switzerland (my memory is hazy). Someone smokes a Gauloise. A reference to the punishment for adultery in medieval France. By this evidence, the novel could be set in my hometown. So it irks me that this "forgotten patch of French countryside" is mentioned in every review, adding colour where none is needed. We know she is a foreigner (I forget how we know, but we know, and we sense it firmly).

I woke up when she crashed through the glass, a scene worth the price of admission, I picture ribbons of blood. I need to start paying attention. "Everything is one big distortion." The fights and the jealousy, the pretense and resentments.

This is a madwoman's story (that's what it was like to be a new mother). A few times it shifts perspective to that of her lover, only now I wonder if it might be his perspective as imagined by her. By the end, I felt like things were told in the wrong order. No one dies, not really. Well, a little. Crazy, desperate, sad.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

All clean lines and precise movement

I was tipsy, yes, but also I was grace itself. There is, below the surface of every conversation in which intimacies are shared, an erotic current. Sometime this current is so hot it all but boils and other times it's barely lukewarm, hardly noticeable, but always the current is present, if only you plunge your hands just an inch or two farther down in the water. This is regardless of the gender of the people involved, of their sexual orientations. This is the natural outcome of disclosure, for to disclose is to reveal, to bring out into the open what was previously hidden. And that unwrapping, that denuding, is always, inevitably sensual. Nothing binds two people like sharing a secret.

I perch on a stool at the counter this morning, large cappuccino at hand, I'll have to go out this afternoon to get milk, there's none left for tomorrow, determined to blog about the book I finished reading earlier this week, not the the one I finished in bed this morning though it's clearer in my head, a few German lessons first (a 631-day streak), I'll revisit the library book, after all I have a time constraint, it'll vanish into the ether within a few days.

My sister meanwhile messages to say Public Health just called her, she has to get tested. It's been less than two weeks since she returned from South Africa. Did she bring omicron with her, could there be a more ominous, more threatening name for a variant, chronic, chronos, it's only a matter of time, it's a time disease, one day stretches beyond capacity, one year mutates into the next. Did she bring omicron into my home, is it on my clothes or on my cat, has it found its way into my suitcase, can I still leave for Mexico in a couple of weeks?

It's not over, I knew it wasn't over, we're all pretending life is fine, it's almost normal again, it's not. I went into the office for a day this week, my first in-office workday since March 2020, with people I remember once having had lunch with, but this day the lineup for lunch was crushing. Protocols have eased. A quick flash of a completed registration, on my honour I have no symptoms, once seated at their desk people remove their masks and neglect to put them on again. I enter a meeting room and can feel the body heat of the people who left moments beforehand. By 4 o'clock the beer taps are open, there are no open plates of snacks but there are individual serving-size chip packets, the cafeteria could be the hottest nightclub in town, I literally squeeze through bodies to get to my desk and I momentarily consider staying longer, working at my desk to wait for the crowd to thin out before I have to make my way through the drunken bodies again to exit the building.

Things are not fine.

I feel overstimulated. On the commute home, I am unable to read. Someone else is reading You Are Not Your Brain. I mull over how ridiculous this statement is. Of course I am my brain, and many other things too.

Being in the company of an exceptionally beautiful woman, all clean lines and precise movement, when I'm sober it makes me feel huge and grubby and spherical, but when I'm drunk, proximity to beauty, it's like being, myself, chosen.

I google some reviews, look at the passages I highlighted, I like to compare my thoughts to those of the published critics, did I get it right, did I read this correctly, do I understand the world the way I'm supposed to. 

Topics of Conversation, by Marina Popkey, reads more like a series of linked short stories than a novel. It took a few chapters for me to understand they were threaded together. There are no passages in the first half of the book for me to refer to. I remember highlighting plenty (well, some), but when the library loan was initially set to expire, I renewed it, without having tracked my notes.

There's a lot of aimlessness and dissatisfaction, and aimless dissatisfaction, I wonder what's the thing that made me what I am, the defining moment, the event that set the trajectory to this place. It could be many events. I connect the dots of my memories.

I love that Popkey includes a list of “Works (Not) Cited,” I keep my own list of works not cited for the book not written that I'm working on. It thrills me to find so much overlap, I guess I shouldn't be surprised, after all I'm a woman, mother, daughter, feminist, single, grappling with love and desire and guilt and other people's ideas of success and how angry I am about what it means to be a woman here and now, despite how much I love being me, and I still don't know what I want from life or men, I don't know how I got here. I'm disappointed to learn that the idea for such a list of works was borrowed from Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, whose novel Savage Tongues I did not enjoy.

My sister calls to tell me Health Canada called, and they told her to tell me to get tested. They don't understand omicron. Can I still go to Mexico?

I pull up one of the reviews, I'm confused, it's about two books, this one (Topics of Conversation, by Marina Popkey) and the one I finished reading in bed this morning (Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz). How could they know?

"And Jeff told me, kept telling me, that he was going to leave his wife." Another shrug. "And I believed him. Though maybe also I knew he wouldn't because around this time I started riding subways out to the end of the line, subways and also escalators, riding them up and down and then up again. I liked being in motion."

Reviews

The White Review

The New York Review of Books: Wanting Wrong, by Anne Enright
On Miranda Popkey's "Topics of Conversation" and Ariana Harwicz's "Die, My Love"

The New Yorker: Can a novel capture the contradictions of female desire?

Excerpt

Monday, November 22, 2021

The experience of beauty

On the platform of a train station, late morning, early June: two women embracing after a separation of several months. Behind them, a tall fair-haired man alighting from the train carrying two suitcases. The women unspeaking, their eyes closed tight, their arms wrapped around one another, for a second, two seconds, three. Were they aware, in the intensity of their embrace, of something slightly ridiculous about this tableau, something almost comical, as someone nearby sneezed violently into a crumpled tissue; as a dirty discarded plastic bottle scuttled along the platform under a breath of wind; as a mechanised billboard on the station wall rotated from an advertisement for hair product to an advertisement for car insurance; as life in its ordinariness and even ugly vulgarity imposed itself everywhere all around them? Or were they in this moment unaware, or something more than unaware — were they somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper, something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world?

Sally Rooney's books are growing up. Beautiful World, Where Are You, is peopled by adults, still relatable, their college years well behind them, even it they're floundering, struggling to understand what their paths are and appreciate all they've achieved. They seem surprised that it's taken so long to settle into themselves (though it took me many years longer) and embrace the ordinary. 

It's a study in contrasts, and contrasting perspectives. The starkest opposition comes from the outsider, an uneducated warehouse worker. His presence causes the trio of old friends from Dublin to open their eyes to all their differences — on what is significant, what constitutes failure or success, how what we need and want is different from what others need and want, how none of us is speaking the same language, is seeing what another sees. How can we reach each other across these chasms? 

It feels less J.D. Salinger (striking tableau), more Rachel Cusk (philosophical conversation), in some hybrid epistolary format. Where Rooney's previous novels featured text exchanges (and this one does also), here we settle into long-form email, better suited to reflection, hypothesis, confession. Alice and Eileen expound at length about capitalism, art, memory, and the collapse of civilization as we know it. 

I still think of myself as someone who is interested in the experience of beauty, but I would never describe myself (except to you, in this email) as 'interested in beauty,' because people would assume that I meant I was interested in cosmetics. [...] I think the beauty industry is responsible for some of the worst ugliness we see around us in our visual environment, and the worst, most false aesthetic ideal, which is the ideal of consumerism. [...] To be open to aesthetic experience in a serious way probably requires as a first step the complete rejection of this ideal, and even a wholesale reaction against it, which if it seems to require at first a kind of superficial ugliness is still better by far and more substantively 'beautiful' than purchasing increased personal attractiveness at a price. Of course I wish that I personally were better-looking, and of course I enjoy the validation of feeling that I do look good, but to confuse these basically auto-erotic and status-driven impulses with real aesthetic experience seems to me an extremely serious mistake for anyone who cares about culture. 

The emails tend to go on a bit; if they were in-person monodialogues, they would be cut short. This discussion of beauty struck a chord with me, for it mirrors my own obsession, to find beauty in ugliness, to find poetry in the banal, it's always there, we just have to see it, except when it's not there, and you have to see it anyway.

I guess this idea of beauty is central to the themes of the book, or so the title would have me believe. That despite the shittiness of the world around us, it is full of hope and love. You just have to see it, open yourself to it.

It seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse. But [...], when people are lying on their deathbeds, don't they always start talking about their spouses and children? And isn't death just the apocalypse in the fist person. So in that sense, there is nothing bigger than what you so derisively call 'breaking up or staying together' (!), because at the end of our lives, when there's nothing left in front of us, it's still the only thing we want to talk about. Maybe we're just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn't it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should be reorganising the distribution of the world's resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it's the very reason I root for us to survive — because we are so stupid about each other.

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

A placeholder for something more valuable

Who even gets married? said Bobbi. It's sinister. Who wants state apparatuses sustaining their relationship?

I don't know. What is ours sustained by?

That's it! That's exactly what I mean. Nothing. Do I call myself your girlfriend? No. Calling myself your girlfriend would be imposing some prefabricated cultural dynamic on us that's outside our control. You know?

You know? Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney, is just what I needed. It's effortless, casual and fresh. I like reading Rooney.

There's something very Salinger about Rooney's tone, something astute and authentic, featuring characters of culture and privilege, with an educated right to be subversive, who all the while excel at the art of conversation and knowing which fork to use.

This is how privilege gets perpetuated, Philip told me in the office one day. Rich assholes like us taking unpaid internships and getting jobs off the back of them.

Frances, a 21-year-old college student playing grown-up, embarks on an adventure in relationship anarchy with a married man some dozen years older than her. This challenges her relationship with best friend Bobbi, former lover and spoken-word performance partner. 

Of course, Nick and Melissa are the type who a have a house in France available to them for the summer, so they invite Frances and Bobbi, along with another couple of friends.

Drama ensues, for all parties, and continues after France. Nick tells his wife about the affair, and when  he and his wife resume a physical relationship, Frances doesn't know what to feel.

The sex itself was similar, but afterward was different. Instead of feeling tranquil, I felt oddly defenseless, like an animal playing dead. It was as though Nick could reach through the soft cloud of my skin and take whatever was inside me, like my lungs or other internal organs, and I wouldn't try to stop him. When I described this to him he said he felt the same, but he was sleepy and he might not really have been listening.

A New Yorker profile notes, "one wonderful aspect of Rooney's consistently wonderful novel is the fierce clarity with which she examines the self-delusion that so often festers alongside presumed self-knowledge." (This is a revelation to me; I have great admiration for people with self-awareness, I wish I had more of that. But now it dawns on me: the more self-aware a person becomes, the more complex the delusions the subconscious must fabricate to keep the self placated. I wonder what my therapist would say about that. I wonder what the self-aware people in my life would say about that.)

It was hard not to notice the many references to "normal people," as if these characters weren't them but aspired to be them, or at least live among them without drawing too much of the wrong sort of attention.

My body felt completely disposable, like a placeholder for something more valuable. I fantasized about taking it apart and lining my limbs up side by side to compare them.

See also
Chapter one 
The Hysterical Hamster: Clips and astute observations
The New Yorker: A New Kind of Adultery Novel

Friday, November 05, 2021

Falling out of love is a sort of illness

We always realize things afterwards. Loneliness, for example. It's not when we think we're alone, or when we feel abandoned. That's something different. Loneliness is invisible, we go through it unconsciously, without knowing. At least that's true of the sort I'm talking about. It's a kind of empty set that installs itself in the body, in language, and makes us unintelligible. It appears unexpectedly when we look back, there in a moment we hadn't noticed before.

Empty Set, by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, is an attempt to quantify and order interpersonal associations. A cluster of relationship maps, none of them showing the most effective way through or efficient way around them. They plot out the narrator in relation to men and to her mother — psychoanalysis by way of Venn diagram.

When I first picked up this book, I was at the beginning of something. I am a different person than I was a year ago. I have come into myself, to where I need to be. But I struggle to transform all those experiences into a cohesive narrative. I continue to look for signs, everywhere. I want signposts, directions. 

The last thing he said to me was:

Something broke, I don't know exactly what, but we can't go on together any longer.

He didn't know what had broken?

But (I) needed to find out.

So (I) went back over the sequence of events again and again, cut minutes here and there, and ended up realizing what was obvious: we're constantly drawing something we can never manage to see completely. We only have one side, an edge of our own history, and the rest is hidden.

It turns out we're always at the beginning of things, we just don't know what they're the beginning of. Today is the fist day of the rest of your life. I am at the beginning of my last days in this home. I am at the beginning of another new career phase. I am at the beginning of a difficult stage in my relationship with my mother. I am at the beginning of art. We are also always in the middle of things, and at the end of them too.

Gerber Bicecci narrates a breakup and the start of what might be a new romance against the backdrop of her work. She is painting plywood boards, drawing out their grain, dabbling in dendrochronology. To pay her bills, she is archiving the belongings of a dead woman. 

Tordo(T) is a visual artist, but he would have preferred to be a writer. He used to invent a new name for me every day, as if trying out characters on me. Sometimes he'd also attempt to find some likeness between me and the actresses in the movies we watched together; he always discovered something, some detail. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a visual artist, but visualized almost everything in words. My fellow students at art school used to tell me that was really weird.

(I think of myself as a writer, yet I find myself hopelessly inarticulate and am considering the possibility that I express myself better through sculpture. I am considering the possibility that I've spent most of my life thinking I was one kind of artist, while in fact I am another kind entirely. Someone suggested to me I could be both. I'm not sure I agree. Sure, I can do both, but I can be only the one thing that I truly am. These days I am writing about sculpture. I am writing a series of artist statements for sculptures I may never create.)

Her absent mother is ever-present as she traces time.

To forget someone, you have to be extremely methodical. Falling out of love is a sort of illness that can only be fought off with routine. This hadn't occurred to me before — it was my survival instinct that discovered it. So I started searching for activities and time-tabling them. Spend the whole morning lying facedown on the huge plywood board, following the line of a grain with a brush dipped in black, white, or gray. Two or three grain lines a day, no more. A fourth, and my hand would begin to tremble and overstep the mark. Sometimes had to use an ultrafine brush, sometimes a thicker one. It was, above all, an exercise in patience.

Patience. We are always at the beginning of something. 

I quite love this novel. I don't really know what it is, and that's part of the joy I take in it. It is not merely a novel about art; it's in conversation with art. It's a non-empty set — the intersection of novel and painting.

In fact I did feel something, something strange. Not jealousy, just a sensation of disappearing; my body was becoming transparent. I didn't exist there, because in that place, I definitively did not exist. And in fact that wasn't a problem, because I didn't want to exist there, what bothered me was not being able to exist anywhere.

See also|
Verónica Gerber Bicecci and the language to come
The rabbit hole that is Verónica Gerber Bicecci's website 

Monday, October 25, 2021

These men didn't know desperation

In person, they baffled me even more. People without hope require direction, according to Dyson. But this wasn't what hopelessness looked like. I had seen hopelessness before, in messages from my clients: the women put into panics by ads, the women desperate to look completely unlike themselves, the women who sought admiration and love by amending their faces with hundreds of toxic creams and solutions: The Nuclear Options, I'd called them. These men didn't know desperation. They knew inconvenience, annoyance, frustration. They were not hopeless, and perhaps they didn't need to be. Even more than direction, hopelessness required convincing.

(What does desperation really look like?)

Wellness meets cancel culture in The Atmospherians, by Alex McElroy, at once a funny and disturbing send-up of toxic masculinity and society's efforts to rid itself of it.

Dyson decides to establish The Atmosphere, vetting the initial twelve apostles to his saviour role, a pilot program to fix men, address their daddy issues and problems with women, make them contributing members of their communities.

When he calls up childhood friend Sasha, a social media influencer, she's eager to help. She is desperate to be uncancelled, and she fears the unpredictable man hordes.

Basically, they're proud to be setting up a cult. And they have no idea what they're doing. Dyson's approach is to tear the men down before building them back up. He lures the men by promising to give them job training and teach them life skills, and then forces them into physical labor, a strict diet, and weird rituals.

But Dyson has unresolved issues of his own, and even while he wanted Sasha's input (although, it's not her social media sway he respects so much as her ties to his past, her influence over his selfhood), he is jealous that the outside world perceives her as the leader and he is relegated to the shadows. (Maybe he simply felt she would bring a feminine touch to the proceedings.)

Things go wrong. People die. The cult grows.

See also The Embarrassing Whiteness of Being in "The Atmospherians" and "Bunny."

Excerpts 
Chapter 1 
Chapter 2

Monday, October 18, 2021

Walking toward my own perimeter

Anyone who takes gentle care of a cow is someone I trust. It's a more telling characteristic of a person than taking Communion. Certainly more telling than good teeth.

I wanted to like this book. I love the idea of this book. I didn't love this book. 

I love the title of this book. I bought it in the company of my mother and my daughter. It was a joke between us. Only I would read it and be disappointed by it, but it brought three generations together, we repeatedly referenced it and laughed.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen, is about the astronomer Johannes Kepler's illiterate mother, who was accused of witchcraft (true story). Meanwhile, a plague is brewing, and politicians have sunk the Empire into a state of war (also, true story).

Galchen portrays Katharina as financially independent, strong-spirited, and respected as a healer and neighbour. Until she wasn't.

As I was returning home that night on the narrow path that runs along the side of the Junker's property, I saw a crowd of young peasant girls, eleven-and twelve-year-olds or so. Maybe one or two younger. The girls were carrying bricks to that kiln rum by Lorenz Neher. I wouldn't have thought anything of it, but, for some reason, this day I saw that I was walking to the end of my life, and they were walking into their bloom. They were walking toward the center of their lives, and I was walking toward my own perimeter. I'm not usually detained by fanciful nonsense like that. It was a curious angle of the sun, of late light. 

What a peculiar time, when science and witchcraft could exist, both equally subject to suspicion, alongside the Protestant Reformation. People were so readily swayed and could be turned against each other. The "case" against Katharina was a regular witch hunt.

According to a Vulture profile, "Galchen’s women do not tick off any of the three dominant boxes in contemporary fiction: mad, bad, or sad. What they are most frequently is unorthodox." Unorthodox women, all witches.

The novel is full of historical detail, it puts a parade of colourful villagers on display, and it's funny. I read it just after I'd read Tyll, thus possibly surpassing my quota of 17th-century Germanic quasi-magical plague-adjacent stories.

Maybe I was disappointed because my mother is not a witch. Or because I'm not a witch. Maybe I wish people accused me of witchcraft. I wish I was the kind of woman people accused of witchcraft. I hope my daughter thinks of me as a witch, as a source of strength and healing power.

"Luther said that even if the earth were to end tomorrow, he would still plant his tree. I've been thinking about that."

"Where do you get your brightness from?" I asked her.

She said she got it from me.

See also
London Review of Books
Camp TOB 2021 discussion: Part 1Part 2 
CBC: Writers and Company

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Why is this your life?

"Why is this your life? Why are you not a truck driver in Norway? Why?"

I have recovered from the sickness. I continue to feel tired, but it is a familiar languishing, not the fatigue of physical illness. Some people ask me detailed questions about my symptoms, my circumstances, my vaccinations. I am an oddity, a breakthrough statistic.

I have been attending the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma from the comfort of my reading chair.

I have watched a documentary about women who tie shibari, about how a form of torture can be transformed into a healing practice. Skills can be learned, they reassure; what matters is having a clear vision.

I have watched another, about the intersection of BDSM and Christianity, because sacred ritual interests me. But this film is too cryptic, recommending that we speak from scars instead of wounds.

I have watched a Japanese film, a triptych of bittersweet dramas, about the random nature of love, life, and consequences. In the centre panel, a mature student visits her former professor, and she reads aloud to him an erotic passage from his published novel.

I am reading You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked, by Sheung-King. In this novel, a woman tells the narrator (they are lovers, maybe partners) about Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and explains the problem of eternal return and its flipside, the burden of self-insignificance.

It reminds me also of a couple other books (more about that another time) — the feeling of drifting back and forth between possible realities. 

I remember lightness, and I remember being, and I remember how both bearable and unbearable it made everything else. I remember eating oranges naked. I remember eating oranges naked with various lovers, they were sweet. I will eat oranges naked again.

This week I bought a new home. It is a midcentury concrete bunker of a building that once housed a printing company, converted into a loft. I feel the ink in its foundations in my bones.

The other night I dream I am exploring a grocery store in my new neighbourhood with my daughter. I sign up for a random activity at a booth. When I am next in line, I see that I have committed to getting a tattoo. I spontaneously announce to my daughter that I will get a tiny black spider on my collarbone (not the octopus I have been considering in real life); she shrieks and squirms away.

I consult the internet to understand the dream. It means something about fear and fearlessness, change and permanence, setting traps and finding freedom, rooting myself in the divine feminine. Clearly it stems from my waking-life anxieties and aspirations. It may also draw on my current research into ayahuasca retreats, which has resurrected my interest in tree spirits. Everything is connected.

I am casting a plaster mould of a clementine, its segments splayed. I have a clear vision.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

We longed for ennui

Though provincial by birth, we all considered ourselves the most cultured teenagers in our town, the ones refined enough to be embarrassed by our provincialism and desperate for more civilized lives. We listened to NPR in our cars and drove forty minutes for sushi — though we ate only California rolls. We memorized the dates of exhibits at the Tate Modern and Louvre and wistfully regretted missing them. We wished we had money to go see the new show in the city, the one reviewed in the Times. We considered taking up smoking. We considered snorting cocaine. We watched films in translation and argued over what they meant and agreed they didn't mean anything: that was the point! We longed for ennui and weariness, but what we felt was deep, gullible passion for anywhere else splashing inside us like a puppy in a pool.

— from The Atmospherians, by Alex McElroy.

Remember longing for ennui, before you knew what it felt like? Yeah.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

The best salve for sadness

"Sad sells." This might sound sadistic but it's true; people want to see their sadness reflected back at them because it makes them feel connected to something and connection is the best salve for sadness. 

I was supposed to wake up in Dublin today. Instead, I'm convalescing. The cold and damp outside is homespun, familiar. I've eaten gallons of soup, and I have a hankering for stew. My week has been imbued with lilting Irish accents on screen, and pub crawls across Temple Bar between the covers too.

I meant to be reading the latest Sally Rooney. I thought I'd pick up a copy there. Instead, I'm here, #42 on the library waitlist for a digital copy. Maybe I'll manage to find my way to Dublin by then.

Today if I had my way I would be adventuring across Victor's Way, the strange and somewhat strangely erotic sculpture garden.

Instead, I stayed in bed, reading Out of Love, by Hazel Hayes.

I offhandedly wrote in a message to someone the other day that it feels like everything is happening to me in the wrong order. I feel like the plague should have cursed me a year ago, punishment for struggling to rise above it, for loosely interpreting the rules of lockdown in favour of meeting new people, daring to fall in love.

Instead, I lay here sad, weary, heartbroken, vulnerable all over again. I've been honing my skills, going back to basics, strengthening the foundation, in every aspect of my life. Careful, emotionally armoured, professionally guarded. And now, fate chooses to strike. What lesson am I to learn? I don't want to be made stronger by this, I am already strong enough, I couldn't bear to be any stronger; I want to be weak and taken care of.

I feel like I have lived my life in the wrong order. I should have started in this city, like I planned to at age seventeen. I would have moved to Europe by now. I would have met my lovers in a different order. I would be financially secure and emotionally independent and sexually confident by now. (But Isabella, you are those things now.) I am the wrong age, or it is the wrong context, or it is too late. Or too early. (Maybe I'm a stopped clock, right only twice a day.) I feel like I'm out of time, but I don't know if it's because I'm outside of time or because it's been depleted.

We're all running on separate tracks, at different speeds, occasionally intersecting, sometimes moving in opposite directions.

Out of Love
, by Hazel Hayes, is a love story told in reverse, from breakup to first meeting. Outside of love? Has everything been sourced from it? Are the stores depleted?

It's not just two people saying good-bye and going their separate ways; it's the excruciating process of untangling two lives, picking them apart like some sad surgical procedure, trying ta detach this thing from that while causing as little lasting damage as possible.

[It's been a while since I had to extricate my life from someone else's. It's been a while since my life was implicated in someone else's. I've always stayed on the periphery, maybe because it's easier to make an escape from there.]

It's a charming story, from Dublin to London, with side trips to Paris and New York. It's a writer's life, as she grows into her voice and her being.

Possibly the best thing this novel gave me was the story of Hayes' inspiration, from Nora Ephron's Heartburn. "If I tell the story, I can get on with it." I know this: I need to tell the story (I know there is art in it), so I can get on with it.

We kissed. And I left. And that was it. I felt at once lighter and infinitely heavier.

Friday, October 01, 2021

The gloomy, barely traversable depths of your own being

One day, the past calls you up on the phone and you drop everything and go to Bosnia, because your childhood friend's brother who's been missing since the war shows up. (The plot of Catch the Rabbit.)

One day, the past texts you and you reply in kind, and you leave your husband and kids to board a train at Grand Central with your old boyfriend from college. (The plot of Run.)

One day, the past sends you an email, apologizing for having been a bad friend, only you were the bad friend. (My actual life.)

One day, you send a message to the past, and it doesn't seem to get through clearly, there's too much interference, and you don't get the reply you hoped for. (The plot of the narrative of my life.)

One day you call up the past, and there's no answer, it's not there anymore. (My greatest fear.)

Find an exit, or an explanation, in every reflection. Any captured moment has backstory.

(I was supposed to be waking up in Dublin today.)

Armin squinted, as if solving a chess problem, held the cigarette with his lips (the smoke was getting into my eyes but I didn't want to close them), and reached for my hairband with both hands. Covering me like a tree, he pulled the bobble and untied my ponytail. He was gentle — like it wasn't the first time he had done it. 

My hair tumbled around my face. And I thought to myself that I wasn't twelve, but a hundred and twelve, and that I had spent that whole century waiting for Armin Begić to set my hair free.

Catch the Rabbit, by Lana Bastašić, is a road trip that meanders down the rabbit hole of memory, excavating a childhood friendship amid the ruins of the Bosnian war. 

The fact is that this was her, Bosnia, and me, and I couldn't name a single tree from the row that observed us. The fact is we exchanged just a couple of necessary sentences all the way to Bugojno — about eating and pissing — our topics never reaching beyond primary biological motives. Another fact is that a road-trip story makes sense only when the travelers, albeit wrongly, believe in reaching the finish line, the journey's end that will solve all problems and end all misery. There's no finish line in Bosnia, all roads seem to be equally languid and pointless; they lead you in circles even when it looks like you're making progress. Driving through Bosnia requires a different dimension: a twisted, cosmic wormhole that doesn't take you to a real, external goal, but into the gloomy, barely traversable depths of your own being.

Some harsh realities and hardened characters are revealed under a loving light. Comparisons of Sara and Lejla to Ferrante's Lena and Lila are warranted.

One time she told me that writers write because they don't have memories of their own, so they make some up. That was before, while Rabbit was alive, and we had just started reading books. But she wasn't right, at least not entirely. Memories might be like a frozen lake to me — blurry and slippery — but every now and then there's a crack in its surface and I can put my hand through it and catch a detail, a recollection in the cold water. But frozen lakes are vicious. Sometimes you catch a fish, other times you fall through and drown. I know from experience that all my memories of her tend towards the latter. That's why I had done my best not to remember for twelve years. And it worked. When it comes to our humanity, it's amazing the low levels to which we can sink when it suits us.

Review: LARB

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The smell of irritation and boredom

There's a Jewish joke that says God often rereads the Torah to try to understand what's going on in this world he created.

On the 561st day of German lessons, the sickness finally comes. It announces its impending arrival by text from a friend already ill. And its presence is confirmed by phonecall from Public Health.

I keep looking at the photo he took of me at Jazz Festival that Saturday evening. I look so happy. And pretty. And it warms me, to know he saw me that way in that moment. He infected me with his glance.

She wishes she could abandon her body and dissolve into everything outside.

That afternoon I'd been running errands and stopped by the old park with a coffee. But it was fenced off, under construction. How many hours I'd spent there in the cold of last winter, nipping scotch from a flask, stealing time with my old lover, under curfew. All those conversations and kisses now to be excavated. Time to find a new park.

I feel light. I have music in me, jazz, these are the good old days.

Monday, in line at the walk-in clinic, I'm reading The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier (due out in November), pretentious in its intentional stance of antipretentiousness. It is the French intellectual version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, clever but not very funny. I'm symptom-free, and nervous to be huddling among the potentially infected. But he'd messaged to say he'd tested positive, I should get checked too. Protocol 42 is invoked after a plane lands three months after it originally landed, carrying the same passengers, after experiencing turbulence, presumably a glitch — not in the matrix (the virtual manifestation fed by human energy), but in the coding of the program itself (Slartibartfast asleep at the wheel). Purportedly Oulipian in its design, this wasn't obvious to me, which may be either a strength or a weakness.

It's election day. It wouldn't be right to vote, to potentially expose others; the directive is to isolate while awaiting results. It's Helena's first election. I wait it out at a distance, she is in line for two hours, polls have officially closed and the election is already decided by the time she casts her ballot. It's late and chilly, and my throat feels a bit sore.

The passengers meet themselves three months older, with the exception of one passenger, an author who killed himself. They can see their futures, and try to change them. On Tuesday they tell me I'm already sick, but I'm not sick yet.

We must kill the past to ensure it is still possible.

My contacts are traced, and people worry illogically. How I could infect someone if I hadn't been exposed to the virus yet?

I attend my usual (virtual) meditation session Wednesday. My mind wanders; it is designed that way, our guide reminds me. I practice breathing. I'm good at breathing, I can beat the illness by breathing. For months already I have been feeling that I cannot breathe enough out. My capacity to breathe in is capped; I have first to expel what I have been holding in. There is always more to breathe out, I could breathe out forever. I visualize the viral particles expelled from my body.

She brandishes the empty bottle in her hand, leans forward in a deliciously unfocused way, and blows her warm, hopscented breath at his nose.

"Breathe it in, Adrian, that's the smell of irritation and boredom."

(What if it attacks my lungs? I need to practice breathing.)

I have permission, for the first time in about 600 days, to relax. Because I am physically sick. Never mind wellness culture; however much I try to care for my spirit, every mote of indulgence is tied to a strand of guilt. Work harder, call your mother, be productive, put food on your table, have purpose. 

I force myself to exercise my senses. I had no appetite last night, but I cook sausage so that the house reeks of it. This morning I have quince spread on baguette, just so I can describe it like grainy, tangy chocolate. I've never had quince before.

Over just a few weeks, a graphomanic Victor Miesel fill hundreds of pages in this style, fluctuating between lyricism and metaphysics: "The oyster that feels the pearl knows that the only conscience is pain, in fact it is only the pleasure of pain. [...] The coolness of my pillow always reminds me of the pointless temperature of my blood. If I shiver with cold, it means my pelt of solitude is failing to warm the world."

I spend afternoons on my balcony gazing through the trees at the sky. My temperature climbs another tenth of a degree. Will it stop now? What if it doesn't stop?

I'm fully vaccinated. The friend who exposed me to the virus is fully vaccinated. We were supposed to be allowed to live a little, again. I'm supposed to go to Ireland this week. I need a vacation. I think I have to cancel my flight. Maybe I'll read Ulysses. Maybe I'll sleep. 

There's a helicopter overhead. Maybe it's here to lift me out of myself.

I feel like I'm having weird dreams, only I don't remember them. I feel like I'm on drugs, certain sensations come into hyperfocus and time distorts. Moments of intense clarity. And then they're gone.

We're prepared to warp reality if the stake is not losing altogether. We want answers for even our tiniest anxieties and a way of conceiving the world without reexamining our values, our emotions, and our actions. 

The Anomaly: Excerpt.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Einsehen

If faced with a rock, for instance, one should stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. Then the observer should keep looking until his own center starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside him, too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, by Rachel Corbett (quoted in brainpickings). 

Me in awe of L'Age d'airain, Musée Rodin, 1991.
When I was 15, my big sister took me to Montreal for a few days. I live here now, but that was my first real exposure to the city. The details of the trip escape me. I remember drinking milky coffee from a bowl at a sidewalk café. I remember a visit to the museum: a sculpture on a pedestal, many figures intertwined, and I caressed it, at which point a looming security guard intervened. I don't remember what the sculpture looked like; I remember what it felt like.

I should have known then, recognized the draw of sculpture, the tactility of it. The best sculpture, in my view, is the kind that makes you want to touch it.

I lived in Ottawa for a time, and many a day, when sad or bored or simply free, I would stop by the National Gallery. I would gaze at the sun over Monet's Waterloo Bridge and then puzzle over one of Francis Bacon's popes. As I made my way from one to the other, I would slip past a Giacometti at the side of the hall, or it would slip past me. It might stop me in my tracks. I might take a few steps backwards, forward again, back, trying to pinpoint the exact coordinates where it switched from three dimensions to two, like a child manipulating a holographic postcard, to find where the planes of art and science were in precise alignment with humour and passion. The Giacometti would near disappear, just a line dimension containing multitudes, and unfurling in an instant. And this too manifested tactility, I needed to touch it, to grasp that it was there.

I have been to Paris several times, but I have never been to the Louvre. Given a free afternoon, I go to the Musée Rodin.

That first time I went to Paris, it was 52 hours from touchdown to liftoff, and several of those precious hours would be spent standing in awe of muscular bronze works. I'd seen Camille Claudel. (I bought a volume of Paul Claudel's poetry at a stall along the Seine.)

Despite my love of his work, most everything I know about Rodin I know via Rainer Maria Rilke's letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé, when he served as Rodin's personal secretary, and I share his respect for Rodin's ability to materialize his inner mind.

I watched a documentary about Rodin recently and was stunned to realize he'd been rejected, that his career started late, that he was obsessive.

I am coming to understand the physicality of Rodin's work. I am coming to understand why I think it matters. I am learning the art of einsehen, inseeing. I am starting to see something in myself.

I look back at photos I have taken while traveling. Sculptures everywhere, Warsaw, Rome, Barcelona, Prague. Old, obscure, under restoration, often plain weird. From Botero's cat to Černý's babies.

I am learning how to make plaster moulds. I am learning how to see the shape of white space, how to see in relief. We are defined by absence as much as by presence.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Time is water

The pills flatten me, make me into a thin scum on the surface of still water. I don't sink. Coast instead, detached from the world around me, and I'm fine with it. Time is water, and the weeks run like a current beneath me, without me.

Magma, by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir, is brave and poetic. Lilja describes her toxic relationship, in short, diary-like entries. She's in love, and all too young and ill-prepared for all the emotional abuse her beautiful, brilliant vegetarian boyfriend deigns to hurl at her.

Our love is raw. We trust each other down to the core, something nobody in my life has ever come close to. When I feel as if I've flayed myself with a potato peeler, I remind myself: Love is a spectrum. It is as painful as it is wonderful.

It's heart-breaking. It's hard for an outsider to see anything wonderful in it.

The psychiatrist lifted a gigantic notepad and, as I spoke, scribbled notes here and there on the blank pages. I told him that I'd tried to off myself. That the man I loved was a womanizer, but things had gotten better. I answered his questions as honestly as I could. Yes, I cry often. No, I don't go out of the house much. No, I haven't thought about doing it again. The doctor called me dear and sweetie — I hate it when strange men do that, but I didn't mention it. I'm polite.

And it just gets worse. No one is able to understand her, let alone is equipped to help her. It's hard to fathom that what she sees as a way out could be a way out. 

Read it in one sitting and cry.

Excerpt.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Unquenched and wild longing

Άδάμας (Unconquerable), by Sophia Wallace, 2013.

Desire, for women, can be complicated. While men are generally allowed to want openly, to covet pleasure openly, women have to be more discreet about our desires. We can be wanted but we are rarely allowed to want because if we want — if we crave — we are greedy, we are wanton, we are fallen, we are whores. If we want, we acknowledge that we yearn to be satisfied. We acknowledge that our satisfaction matters. We demand to be seen and heard.

I am interested in the silence and strictures around women's desire, how we seem to have decided, as a culture, that there is shame in wanting and believing we deserve to want. We seem to have decided that we must earn the right to want and be temperate when we dare to do so. If you must want, don't dare want too much. We can't even have a serious conversation about desire. There is always some pithy parlance framing desire as if to want means you are not just desirous and human, you are needy, desperate. These days, when we talk about want, we talk about thirst, about unquenched and wild longing. When someone is too open about their desires, they are mocked for the audacity of being thirsty, parched. If they aren't mocked, they are condescended to with rhetoric about empowerment. Look at that woman expressing her desires? Look how bold and brave she is.

The sad truth is that women who express their desires unabashedly are brave.

— from "What It Means to Want" [foreword], by Roxane Gay in A Woman's Right to Pleasure.

This book, published in partnership with Lelo (producer of the best vibrator ever) is an amazing collection of art and writings about art and pleasure. Yet, I feel I need to hide the fact that I'm reading it. We have so far to go. I have so far to go. Be brave.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The weight of myself

I'm humming a little. Softly. Just to myself. A tune I heard somewhere, can't remember where from, but it's lovely. It comes easily to my lips, and I don't usually sing. My lips are usually pressed together, bearing the weight of myself.

Did I like it? I think so. I was entertained. The writing and the story are compelling; I zipped through. I wish I knew Shakespeare better. 

Also, my big toe hurts. When I think about it, the pain in my toe, it throbs, like my mind can actively make it pulsate. I palpate the toe, but I can't find the focal point for the pain, not at the edge of the nail, not the pad, not in the bone, but the pain hangs on a thread that winds its way through my body to my brain. I'm sure the pain is a direct result of this book, like I metaphorically dropped it on my foot, and it's much bigger and heavier than I believed it to be.

All's Well, by Mona Awad, is weird. Like Bunny was weird. 

[I read Bunny almost exactly two years ago on a beach at Lake Tahoe, and any chance I could, while on a retreat with colleagues. I'd rather escape into the bullying clique-mindedness of campus life than engage in the Marketing department's labyrinth of in-groups, the obligatory assigned dinners, the feigned fun. "If you don't know everybody's name and understand what they do by the end of the week, then you're doing it wrong." Bunny was perfect.]

I never wrote about Bunny. It was too easy a read. Fluid and natural. There was nothing particularly quotable about it. It was funny and deep, and rich with insight into human character, but in a way that was easily processed; it never stopped me in my tracks. I actually mean this as high praise. It's so seamless, and entertaining and weird, you don't notice how good it is. 

I feel the same way about All's Well. I am also struck by the witchery, and trickster energy, that my summer consists of — the fiction I read is full of it, I am subconsciously choosing it, I want to be guided by it, to learn how to exorcise parts of my past, or transmute certain experiences, or embrace my goddess nature, shed the chrysalis.

Her boot tips rest at my head, stopping short  just of my temple. She could raise her boot and stomp on my face if she wanted to. Probably a small part of her does. Because that's what you do with the weak, and Grace comes from Puritan stock, a witch-burning ancestry. Women who never get colds. Women who carry on. Women with thick thighs who do not understand the snivelers, the wafflers, people who burn sage.

The plot has Miranda staging of one of Shakespeare's problem plays, All's Well That Ends Well, even while her students clearly want to perform Macbeth. Themes from both plays permeate Miranda's reality, and their characters cross over, but I can't help but wonder if her Shakespearean name isn't also pointing us to The Tempest, with its dreamlike and patriarchal elements. 

I felt a drop, I told Grace. Felt their anger in the filthy air. Felt the sword above my head. Felt my doom in the thickening night as we drove here. Three silhouettes looming in my side mirror, loping along the shoulder like wolves.

What defines Miranda is her pain, invisible as it is. And then the sudden absence of her pain. (Always the problem of having a body, wanting to inhabit it while detaching from it.)

Watch Mona Awad in conversation with Heather O'Neill.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Qui tollis peccata mundi

Above us Tyll Ulenspiegel turned, slowly and carelessly — not like someone in danger but like someone looking around with curiosity. He stood with right foot lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees slightly bent and his fists on his hips. And all of us, looking up, suddenly understood what lightness was. We understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would be like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people.

Meet Tyll, trickster extraordinaire. Self-centred, eternally childish, or perhaps wise, a disruptor of the highest order. Like the devil, he's a disappearing act.

Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann, is a somewhat picaresque novel that spans the Thirty Years' War, of which I know very little, and featuring the likes of the Winter Queen and Athanasius Kircher. It's a time of upheaval — religion wars against religion, and religion wars against both witchcraft and science. Modernity wars against tradition. There is no clear winner, and everyone is hungry.

He says: "Are we going to die?"

"Absolutely," says Korff. "Us and everybody else."

He's right again, thinks Tyll, although, who knows, I, for one, have never died yet.

The story skips across Europe nonchronologically, telling of the arrest of Tyll's father for heresy, a quest for dragon's blood ("Dragon blood is a substance of such power that you don't need the stuff itself. It's enough that the substance is in the world."), and the siege of Brno. There be ghosts, Jesuits, and a talking donkey. 

Due to the darkness your thoughts don’t stay with you alone, you overhear those of the others, whether you want to or not.

It seems wherever tragedy lies, Tyll is near, but it's never clear if he incites it, feeds off of it, or is merely happening by, a witness. Angels and demons are both light as air.

A broad lewd grin appeared on the face of the famous man. A strong power now stretched between him and the woman. He was impelled toward her and she toward him, so forcefully were their bodies drawn together, and it was hardly bearable that they had not yet touched. Yet the music he played seemed to prevent it, for as if by accident it had changed, and the moment had passed, the notes no longer permitted it. It was the Agnus Dei. The woman folded her hands piously, qui tollis peccata mundi, he backed away, and the two of them seemed startled themselves by the wildness that has almost seized them, just as we were startled and crossed ourselves because we remembered that God saw all and condoned little.

Life is such that I had difficulty fully engaging in the history and deciphering the politics in play, but there was humour and intrigue and depth at every turn.

See the enlightening interview in BOMB Magazine: Daniel Kehlmann by Álvaro Enrigue.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

The price of experience is life's great sorrows

It is a fact, though, that for some time now I have known about life. As for love, on that score there is not only no illusion left in me, but also no desire for illusions, no urge to try to make these things last which are only sweet and good because they are ephemeral . . . But then, this kind of thing is so personal, so much my problem, that it is impossible to explain it clearly, let alone to make anyone else understand me. The price of experience is life's great sorrows, but it cannot be shared.

One book inevitably leads to another. Maggie Nelson in Bluets dreams of being subsumed into a tribe of blue people, years before learning of the Tuareg (those "abandoned by God"). Nelson cites Isabelle Eberhardt: "Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off blue places, toward the bright edges of the earth."

[I recall the startlingly infinite blue of the eyes of Brahim, and occasional strangers, in a desert town in Tunisia. I remember believing they had a secret knowledge, like Fremen. Years later, lying on the dunes at the eastern edge of Morocco, I learned the desert is an ocean. Dig down, water everywhere. I'm rocked to sleep on the undulating sand, the sound of the wind through the dunes like crashing waves. Their eyes an ocean.]

An almost cold wind blew through the night, and in the dunes a murmur like that of the sea.

I was less interested in Isabelle Eberhardt's writing than in the myth of her. I realize now I might better understand her through the words she used to articulate her artistic vision. I settled instead for her tired jottings, curated and annotated by an editor with a different focus than mine. The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, features selections from four notebooks, beginning January 1, 1900. The final entry is January 31, 1903. She wrote mainly in French, with occasional passages in Russian (her mother's tongue) and Arabic (a language of spiritual interest). In October 1904, she was killed in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria.

She was educated. She published short stories under a male pseudonym. She dressed as a man. She was anti-colonialist and traveled across North Africa. She was a mystic and converted to Islam, joining a Sufi sect. She was attacked by a man who may have been a hired assassin. She had lovers. She was unbearably sad.

Apart from all (well, most) of these things, she reminds me of myself. "Even I, as someone intimately convinced that I do not know how to live." She tortured herself with becoming a better version of herself.

Seen from the outside, I wear the mask of the cynic, the dissipated and debauched layabout. No one yet has managed to see through to my real inner self, which is sensitive and pure and which rises above the humiliation and baseness I choose to wallow in. No one has ever understood that even though I may seem to be driven by the senses alone, my heart is in fact generous.

The journals give themselves over to mundane concerns: finances and the logistics of travel and lodging. She grapples with artistic insecurities. She confesses that she is often so preoccupied with the day-to-day that she has neither time nor inspiration for her writing.

While the diaries document a unique life, they don't really stand up on their own. They don't always provide sufficient biographical detail for me to understand what was at issue. What insight it offers into her character, her artistic process, is mostly meaningless without being familiar with her output. I shall have to seek out The Oblivions Seekers someday.

How could I have believed in the mysteriousness that I thought I sensed in this country, which was only  a reflection of the sad enigma of my own soul? I am condemned to carry my unnameable sorrow, this whole world of thought along with me like this, wherever I go, through the countries and cities of the earth, without ever finding the Icaria of my dreams!

I am as ignorant about myself as I am about the outside world. Perhaps that is the only truth.

The Paris Review: Feminize Your Canon: Isabelle Eberhardt

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Logic is indeed sexy

"I will submit to you today that logic is indeed sexy. Logic is fact in a world of fiction, truth in a society of lies, and light in the shadows. Logic will never betray you, deceive you, or disappoint you. It will guide you and illuminate your path ahead. Logic provides the loyalty, security, and friendship that many of you hope to find in a spouse someday. What could be sexier than that?"

The Tree of Knowledge, by Daniel G. Miller, is not about eating the forbidden fruit. Rather it maps the exciting intricacy of decision trees onto a world peopled by math professors and corrupt politicians. (And it's also a love story. [Isn't everything?])

I admire this thriller's ambition, and I loved the the idea of the puzzles (though they were rather simplistic, and would not realistically pose a challenge to students of logic), but the premise was a stretch. The characters were thin — there were a few I couldn't keep straight, many of them were interchangeable — and not believable.

Useful life lesson reminders: Break everything down into discrete challenges; it makes overwhelming goals manageable, reachable. Clear your mind of assumptions, images, emotions; focus on pure information. [But, I remind myself: Sometimes the emotion is the information.]

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Colored by a more human tragedy

I indulged in the luxury of wandering through a bookstore the other day, hoping, as I do, that some miraculous book would stop me in my tracks and beg to come home with me. And so this bright little yellow thing popped up, announcing its author as Yasushi Inoue. Why do I know that name?, I thought. Life of a Counterfeiter. Is the universe calling me out as a fake?

This, this is the question I need to confront head on, as I do ― every few months, it seems. It percolates beneath my consciousness and then erupts with a vengeance of self-awareness that washes me in a mist of confident vulnerability, and leaves me standing in a puddle of my own urine and tears. What kind of person do I want to be?

I'm reminded of that Kenneth Branagh movie, where Robin Williams tells him, "Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There's no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that." Of all the potential mes, which one is true?

I met a man who likes to roleplay. It said so, right there in his profile. But you never know what someone means by roleplay. He proposed we meet on neutral territory, a sheet of paper on a bistro table, armed only with pens. Bring your imagination, he said. I did.

I thought about how I'd like to be an objet d'art, positioned, examined, admired. I thought about the surgical gloves I have, how I could be the doctor, for once. I thought about how I might hire a reader, so at bedtime I could settle between my sheets and don a sleep mask; feeling a little jesuitical, I'd request, say, Walter M Miller, and he would pull a book from the shelf and start reading, say, Henry Miller, an honest mistake, but I wouldn't correct him, I would start to masturbate, and he..., well, I don't know, I can't see, I'm wearing a sleep mask.

He wrote on the paper just one word, monogamy, which we discussed at length, and about which we see eye to eye. I think he was wary of offending my sensibilities. He suggested that roleplay can nudge people to explore behaviour they might otherwise not engage in. I'm sure that's true for many people, I said. I didn't say, maybe for people who are afraid, but I'm not afraid, I don't need to hide behind a persona, my problem with roleplay, which is surely the appeal for many, is the artifice.

For example, he said, I could be a football player and you could be a cheerleader. Or, he continued, I could be the principal calling you, the student, into my office to be disciplined. Or, I didn't say, we could try something different, truly transgressive, and subvert your predictably suburban patriarchal tropes. I didn't say anything. I think I rolled my eyes. Use your imagination, I didn't say.

I left the rest of the paper blank, because I like blankness, I like life unscripted.

Maybe I am a counterfeiter, I think, unable to create something out of nothing, to fill my inarticulable void. I borrow words from books and string them together, inky threads that wash away. What of any of this is mine? Where am I in this? Why can't I know who I want to be? Become what you are.

And yet I find myself trying on personas. I'm thinking of taking up smoking this weekend, as I read the stories of Yasushi Inoue.

I saw Hōsen's life for the first time not as a dark, turbid stream that issued from something he had carried with him into the world, but as the tragedy of an ordinary, unremarkable man who ground himself down when the burden of his encounter with a genius proved too heavy to bear. The gloomy, fatalistic impression the counterfeiter's life had left faded away, and Hara Hōsen rose us before me in a new light, colored by a more human tragedy.