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."


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?


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