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.

Fairy Tale Review

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.