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.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Habita tecum

The last day of summer is misty and smells like fermented blackberry juice, and it sticks to me and makes me gag. I sit in my room in the attic and try to read what I've been assigned. Briefly I wonder whether the non-believing daughter of a Catholic woman and a Volunteer Reserve Militiaman might still be able to join the oblates and spend a few year living in the Congregation of the Sisters in Christ's Heart, like Sister Anna or Sister Łucja, in the world of old women, where all things are determined by Mother Stanisława or a Sister Zyta, where reality intermingles with dreams, present with past, sacred with profane and the mundane with the supernatural, asceticism with eroticism, sin with saintliness; I could really learn Latin, habita tecum, delve into the mysteries of my own heart, and write, and read big books as soon as the Mother Superior gets me those entry cards she promised me for the Old Library and the one in Jasna Góra.

Sometimes I wonder. I wondered when I visited the monastery earlier this summer. I wonder when I walk past the convent on my way to Mile End. I wondered when I booked a plane ticket for my daughter; I wonder what I'll do with this time to myself, where would I go? I start checking into artist retreats in Ireland. Wherever you go, there you are, as I like to remind people whose impulse it is to run away. Where would I like to find myself? I've changed in the last year; I need to habita mecum all over again. 

Accommodations, by Wioletta Greg, is the follow-up to Swallowing Mercury. It recounts Wiola's ordeals in Częstochowa, where she's going to university, staying initially at a hostel and then in a convent. It's a big city by comparison with the shithole of a village she grew up in, and she's ill-equipped for independence. But she gets on with things. (I'm coming to believe this is a Polish trait; we get on with things.)

This novel feels like a reckoning: with the outside world — through the thuglike lives of the Russians at the rooming house; with the past — as Mother Stanisława's mind rewinds to a state of Nazi occupation; with love — when Wiola surrenders to the brutal realities of the heart.

I walk intent upon the rhythm of our steps, watching our shadows as they shamelessly slide into one another on the sidewalks.

While her village life was bathed in a kind of wonder, city life is dirtier, lonelier, more grim. One can feel Wiola's romantic notions being stripped away. Many of the episodes recounted are disjointed, as is her sense of identity; her place in the world keeps shifting. The novel ends with her screaming; I hope it is the pain of rebirth, as she shakes of the tattered chrysalis. 

Now I take a look around the city. Small balloons knocked around by the wind rock over the pavement. Older people doze off under parasols. Tipsy bandaged pilgrims in straw hats, looking preposterous with neckerchiefs affixed to their heads, trail around the monastery, the baths at the Pilgrim House and the stations of the cross. In the underground passageways volunteers give out water and condoms; pickpockets, religious fanatics and prostitutes divvy up their beats. Jehovah's Witnesses, carrying old issues of The Watchtower, announcing the latest upcoming apocalypse. Younger pilgrims, clustered in and around the pavilions, gazebos and places to grab a bite like Prasowa or Wakans or Alex, hum "Abba Father" and peruse the twenty-four-hour liquor stores and the drug dealers, who come to Jasna Góra in droves during pilgrimage season. I sit atop a low wall and, without taking off my sunglasses, I stealthily touch the hot concrete with my palm. The city swells with the cacophony of guitars, harmonicas and drums, but beneath that surface rest layers of silence, pulse underground rivers, only barely making themselves known, as though the ground were a kind of forgetting.


Monday, July 19, 2021

Condemned to a dream of romantic love

The fragrance in the room has four hearts. None of these hearts is human, and that's why I'm drawn towards them. At the base of this fragrance is soil and oakmoss, incense, and the smell of an insect captured in amber. A brown scent. Pungent and abiding. It can remain on the skin, in the nostrils, for up to a week. I know the smell of oakmoss, because you've planted it inside me, just as you've planted the idea that I should love one man only, be loyal to one man only, and that I should allow myself to be courted. All of us here are condemned to a dream of romantic love, even though no one I know loves in that way, or lives that kind of a life. Yet these are the dreams you've given us. I know the smell of oakmoss, but I don't know what it feels like to the touch. Still, my hand bears the faint perception of me standing at the edge of a wood and staring out at the sea as my palm smoothes this moss on the trunk of the oak. Tell me, did you plant this perception in me? Is it a part of the programme? Or did the image come up from inside me, of its own accord?

— from "Statement 011" in The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century, by Olga Ravn.

This book is a work of art. It opens with a note of gratitude for the sculptures and installations of Lea Guldditte Hestelund. I reconsider what it is I want to sculpt. I redouble my efforts to procure marble scraps. I reconsider what it is I want to write.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Travelling through unfathomable interiors

"A computer is only human," he used to say. "It, too, can break down."

He cancels our meeting at the eleventh hour. I am unlikely to sit on a terrasse in the midday sun drinking orange beer, as was our plan, on my own. So suddenly I have the afternoon free. I find myself walking and making up errands as I go along, things to do, things to accomplish, amid the now nothing of the day. 

At one intersection, my attention turns right, the street is barricaded, pedestrian traffic only. The shops spill their goods out onto the pavement. I move into the current of the crowd, which is not really a crowd, it's a dozen people drifting, and another dozen crisscrossing our paths in the opposite direction, but I gaze up the street, the slight incline to the north, and there I see spaces teeming with faces, colours, movement, I remember this is what it's like to be, to be among people, enjoying summer, profiting from the day, engaging in consumerist activity.

Following this path begins to lead me away from the arbitrary destination I had set, but one more block won't alter the overall trajectory too drastically. I want to reach the crowd, without being in the crowd, but the crowd is an illusion, it keeps receding up the incline of the street — that, or I can't see it when I'm in it.

I need to change my focus, stop looking at what lies in the distance, see what's directly in front of me. I duck into a shop and spend two hours trying on clothes. I have spent a year wearing a black t-shirt dress, I don't trust my fashion sense anymore. What do I want? What do I like? I enjoy the saleslady's attention, she has opinions — not the blue, this one is a better fit, too short, try this. (And this dress is so romantic, so flouncy and feminine, I can't remember if this is the sort of thing I ever wear. Do I still need to project an image onto the world?)

I spend hundreds of dollars on clothes I don't need, but the chartreuse silk is soft like a sunbeam through the honey locust, and my t-shirt dress is threadbare, I imagine I will have to wear proper clothes again one day.

When I get home, all I can talk about is the bookstore a few doors down from the dress shop, with the boxes on tables organized by genre. The sign indicates they are all 0$. I glance through the two small boxes of English books, I recognize several titles as forgettable beach reads of summers past. But one volume leaps out at me, I can't believe my good fortune, Stanislaw Lem's Tales of Pirx the Pilot, I take it to the counter inside to confirm, incredulous, is it really free?, and then nest it carefully in my bag, deep in rayon and chiffon, and I walk away, smiling like chartreuse silk.

Space has three dimensions. . . . Words without meaning. He tried to summon some sense of time, kept repeating the word "time." . . . It was like munching on a wad of paper. Time was a senseless glob. It was not he who was repeating the word, but someone else, inside him. And that someone was enlarging, swelling, transcending all boundaries. He was travelling through unfathomable interiors, a ballooning, preposterous, elephantine finger — not his own, not a real finger, but a fictitious one, coming out of nowhere . . . sovereign, overwhelming, rigid, full of reproach and silly innuendo. . . . And Pirx — not he but his thought processes — reeled back and forth inside this preposterous, fetid, torpid, nullifying mass. . . .

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Even love needs something to touch

César Aira, waits for his issues of Artforum to arrive. 

Eventually (but this happened years ago: I am trying to recover a memory that I've half lost along the bumpy trajectory of my life) I began to get tired of waiting, tired of the psychic space waiting put me in. I wanted to adopt a more virile stance. Living in a state of expectation was eroding my nerves, distracting me from my occupations or directly nullifying them. Nothing was left. Waiting is an empty waste of time.

[I learned about waiting from my mother. Events of note occur very occasionally; waiting fills the void that is the rest of her life. Maybe this is where my interest in whitespace started, trying to shape the vast in-between. One can approach waiting with either anxiety or patience. I have watched my mother be consumed by the emptiness. There is nothing left for me but patience.]

Artforum, by César Aira, is a series of anecdotes and vignettes documenting his relationship with the art magazine as a physical, print publication, distinct from its content. It is a near obsession that borders on object fetishization, but it isn't quite that. Nor is his the studied madness and attention to detail of the serious collector.

This charming book encapsulate the joy of thingness, with all the emotional connection and existential resonance a material thing can bring. It's the thrill of the hunt for an issue, it's the dogged pursuit, a logic-defying method of acquisition, faith in serendipity. 

(I think of all the times I could easily have ordered a book, but I deferred the process because I wanted to find the book, or it to find me, even this book, for example; I checked numerous online inventories, and planned a trek to the shop, scheduling it among other responsibilities, hoping it would not be too late, that no one else would buy it in the meantime, undergoing this elaborate mental process, delaying gratification, not just so I could have it, but so I could have it in my own way.)

One can say that they are only material objects, that other things bring true happiness. But would that be true? There always has to be something material, even love needs something to touch. And in my proceeds of that joyful day, the material was so entwined with the spiritual that it transcended itself, without ceasing to be material. I won't talk abut the pen, I would get too carried away. But that transcendence was pretty obvious in the magazines. They were paper and ink, and they were also ideas and reveries. They reproduced the dialectic of art, with as many or more attributes as art itself. Before, I spoke about the "material trace." It was more than that: the word is "luxury." Material made of spirit is the luxurious border where reality communicates with utopia.


Thursday, July 08, 2021

Where the past exists as an eternal disappearance

Ellie swam up to me. "Hey," she whispered, cupping her hand under my head and lifting it so I could hear her. "I was thinking about how, in the mystical Jewish tradition, reading histories that have vanished, that have been hidden from view through time's erasure, through the systemically concealed violence against our people, is considered an approximation to nothingness, to Ein Sof, to the divine. So maybe interrogating a space like Al-Andalus, like the apartment, however wretched it was — a place where the past exists as an eternal disappearance — is like entering the void itself, the place where language feels divine because it is capable of naming that which has been made to disappear, of articulating the unspeakable. Do you think that's possible?"

Do you? Because I always think about these things during casual drunken ocean swims.

Savage Tongues, by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, reads more like an extended psychotherapy session than it does a novel — it's an academic exercise, not an entertainment.

Arezu, an Iranian-American, heads to Marbella, to the apartment where she stayed as a seventeen-year-old and fell into a sexual relationship with a much older man. Fortunately, she brings along her best friend Ellie, a red-haired Palestinian-supporting Israeli, to help her clean the place.

Friendship, I thought, is a form of witness. She had received my testimony. She had held it with tenderness and love. She had taken care with my story. 

While Ellie scours the bathroom, Arezu plumbs the depth of her memory of Omar, instinctively maintaining that she was complicit in all that transpired. It's clear to anyone of this #metoo generation that Omar is a pervy predator and she'd been seriously gaslit.

I was in acute pain, lonely in ways I was too young to grasp, and there was no one around to ask me to articulate my suffering, to help me fix it in language, so I raged on like a wounded animal who knows not what to do except soothe her pain with more pain, lust after the final blow of death that will put an end to it all. I became hooked on Omar.

The protagonist is a writer and is fixated on articulating things that are as yet beyond her understanding. I thought this was my way into the novel, as I'm trying to come to terms with my inadequacy in expressing my emotional self, to accept that some experiences are inexpressible, to differentiate between what needs expressing and what doesn't. When does language help and when does it hinder?

One who comes to this novel with the wrong mindset might easily find it laughable.

The relationship between our political pain and our attraction to destructive men was not always clear; perhaps being with men who make us scream and gasp and moan takes us beyond the confines of language, back into our original pain; it allows us to explore and later confront the patriarchal and patriotic leaning of the colonial social project.

Arezu sees the value of sharing personal pain as a means of political agency, but struggles "to process your own loss of dignity without demonizing him or subjecting him to the dominant narrative of the Arab man."

The jacket copy makes comparisons to Marguerite Duras and Shirley Jackson, Rachel Cusk and Samanta Schweblin. I detect no trace of the latter pair — there is nothing easy about the writing or subtle about its social commentary. It may be a brave novel, but I found no joy in it.

This is a heavy book. The added sociopolitical layers don't add much depth to the characters, needlessly weighing down the plot with theory. The psychological exploration of Arezu's trauma feels valid and true, but its payoff as a novel wasn't worth the investment.

[I just realized I've had Oloomi's Call me Zebra on my shelf unread for a couple of years. It may stay that way for a while.]

Sunday, July 04, 2021

It had nothing to do with sex

Vernon Subutex, by Virginie Despentes, is a chaotic canvas of characters all falling into orbit around a new messiah. Convoluted as life itself.

"Don't worry, I don't want to be a burden, honestly, it doesn't bother me sleeping outdoors." They look at him as though he were insane. Normal. He would have done the same in their shoes. The real truth was that, physically, he could no longer bear to be enclosed by walls and ceilings, he found it difficult to breathe, every object was hostile, and he was plagued by a noxious vibration. The worst thing was having people around him. He could feel their misery, their pain, their fear of not being good enough, of being unmasked, being punished, wasting their lives: he felt it was like pollen, it insinuated its way into every orifice and made it impossible to breath. Which meant that no, he really, truly had absolutely no desire to move in with any of them. These days he needed space. Solitude. 

After Vernon's record shop shut down, it wasn't long before he ran out of money. He gives up his worldly possessions (or he stops caring about them), and starts relying on the kindness of strangers and old friends. He has charm, charisma, and good looks, and he spins a mean set of tunes. Overlaid with the aural experiments of a rock star friend recently deceased in possibly suspicious circumstances, the sound waves act like a drug on the masses.

The center of the room was filled with people — the silhouettes had converged and were moving, some slowly, others still entwined, or tracing circles around each other. And then she saw — not with the clarity of a hallucination brought on by acid or shrooms, but even so she saw, and could not claim it was a dream since the illusion lasted long enough for her to be entirely aware of it — light waves surrounding the bodies and she could perceive ribbons of energy, writhing and moving between people. She is a rational person. Unless on drugs, she did not expect to see colored streamers connecting people.

She doesn't like it when people read her cards, she doesn't believe in the supernatural, she's got no time for spells and curses. But here, in the darkness, she could see things that did not exist. And the most unsettling thing is that she did not deliberate, did not decide to get up — she simply found herself on her feet, hands in the air, an idiot smile plastered to her face. She was dancing. And although she was not touching anyone, not brushing up against another body, she recognized the feeling — she was orgasming. It had nothing to do with sex and yet this was the most incredible fuck she'd ever had in her life.

These are the ultimate raves, by invitation only, so the inner circle can control the vibe. The hangers on  include former musicians, a screenwriter, porn stars, a stock market trader, a rock critic, a tattoo artist, their wives and lovers, the homeless and the wealthy, Muslims and atheists. It's a panorama of Charlie Hebdo's Paris, where people are contradictions and sometimes even hypocrites.

Over three volumes clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, this was an engrossing read. Despentes is often compared to bad boy Michel Houellebecq; maybe I'm inured to provocation on the grounds of that holy trifecta of sex, religion and politics, but I don't see it. Despentes's characters are messy and offbeat, but they feel real. I'm not sure if there needs to be a social commentary underlying this thick slab of life; it's simply exuberant.

I just read and kept reading, way past my bedtime.

The brain of a person with irrational goals has greater depth of field than one that functions normally, it's always several steps ahead, it anticipates everything. It's the same thing with alcohol. Even when Véro wants to stop drinking, she knows that her brain will manage to get her into situations that leave her no option, and generally this happens unbeknownst to her own free will — in other words, she does not decide to drink, she remembers she needs to call an old friend going through a hard time, and once she is at his place, she realizes that what she really comes for is a dozen shots of pastis. The brain is devious: it plays tricks on your consciousness, it does things on the sly, that way you get exactly what you wanted while pretending you were thinking about something else entirely.

While Vernon Subutex is no lyrical masterpiece (neither is War and Peace), it holds both beauty ("She is resilient and fragile, and there is something about the tension between these things that makes her overwhelming.") and truth ("You don't batter the mother of your kids because she did something wrong. You do it because you're violent.").

Check out Jennifer Croft's take on Volume 1 with a particular eye on the quality of the translation (Croft translates Olga Tokarczuk):

Part of what makes this book so exciting to read is Despentes's ability to broach so many topics, toggling between them in seamless, almost superhuman fashion. Deftly she tackles sex, materialism, the technologies that are hastening society’s collapse, capitalism, racism, gender fluidity, wounded masculinity, wounded femininity, domestic violence, homelessness, porn, the hypocrisy of the left, and the virulence of the right. Vernon Subutex 1 is about all these things, but it is also about Paris — the people living in the city today, and in particular, those who don’t change when society changes around them.

from Volume 1
from Volume 2 
from Volume 3 

He does not say what he is thinking. He is thinking that no one is solid. Nothing. No group. That it is the hardest thing to learn. That we are tenants of a situation, not landlords.