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."

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