Wednesday, November 16, 2022

That beautiful senseless morning

Whenever dawn caught him in motion, Gonzalo tended to feel like there was some kind of link between the birth of the light and the very fact of moving forward, as if the walker were somehow responsible for the dawn, or the other way around: as if the dawn generated the movement of feet over sidewalk. He was about to say this to Carla, but he wasn't sure he could explain it, he was afraid of getting tangled up, and he felt like anything he said could spoil that beautiful senseless morning.

We start the book believing the eponymous Chilean poet is Gonzalo, but later realize it could instead be Carla's son, Vicente. Or perhaps it is neither of them specifically, but rather a breed of poet, like the domestic shorthair, and the novel a study of the creature's history and environment, influences and influence.

(Why is there a cat on the cover anyway? Pru wants to write about the stray dogs Chile is overrun by, like the poets are dogs, and she is led by them, or maybe in fact poets are the opposite of dogs — tolerated, cared for, nurtured, loved. The cover illustration is credited to Laura Wächter and titled "Darkness," so it is clearly a portrait of the family pet, who did play a pivotal but not central role in the novel, so unless he's a poet, it's a surprising choice to feature him on the cover.) 

I was prepared to dislike Chilean Poet, by Alejandro Zambra, because it might not live up to Multiple Choice, or it would show it up for the gimmick it was and prove Zambra incapable of depth beyond gimmickry. Also, the opening pages felt very male, as if they could not have been written by anyone who hadn't been a teenage boy, and I thought, this may not be something I want to read right now.

But it's charming, that boy somehow charmed me, maybe the fact that he wanted to be a poet gave his character a layer of complexity, took the edge off the masculinity.

Usually Carla wanted to be where she was and who she was.

People say that's what happiness is — when you don't feel like you should be somewhere else, or someone else. A different person. Someone younger, older. Someone better.

It's a perfect and impossible idea, but still, during all those years, Carla generally wanted to be exactly were she was.

Chilean Poet is a love story, or two, or more. As an intergenerational drama, everyone's driven by different values, but they all simply want to get the most out of life. This novel is also a crash course in the country's literary tradition and the politics that accompany it.

"It's better to write than not to write. Poetry is subversive because it exposes you, tears you apart. You dare to distrust yourself. You dare to disobey. That's the idea, to disobey everyone. Disobey yourself, that's the most important thing. That's crucial. I don't know if I like my poems, but I know that if I hadn't written them I'd be dumber, more useless, more individualistic. I publish them because they're alive. I don't know if they're good, but they deserve to live."

"A lot of people say that poetry is useless."

"They're afraid of useless things. Everything has to have purpose. They hate pure creation, they're in love with corporations. They're afraid of solitude. They don't know how to be alone."

LitHub: Excerpt
Atlantic: A Fascinating Portrait of a Country at a Turning Point

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Where her body ends and the space around her begins

It's so much easier to know what Hashem wants for a man: not to be a woman. Unlike the blessing women say, in small print, the men's blessing appears in the regular, large typeface of the prayerbook. Blessed are You, Hashem, men say every day, Who did not make me a woman.

Raizl is having a hard time of things: she's18 years old and refusing dates set by the matchmaker, so her mother sends her to therapy, where we learn about her porn addiction. For a Hasidic Jewish family, she's already been granted a lot of liberties — allowed to work to pay for her dowry, allowed to pursue accounting at college after earning a scholarship, allowed to use a laptop for her studies, but she has a niggling, she yearns for something more, something porn has opened her eyes (legs, mouth, mind) to but cannot satisfy.

She is somewhat resentful of men, but eventually realizes that although men live more public lives, they are not more free. Men are also bound by ritual and obligation, by family and expectation, by god.

Shmutz, by Felicia Berliner, is funny. And sad. And more than meets the eye. And there's a lot of Yiddish in it, glossary included (but as with A Clockwork Orange, I didn't realize it until it was over).

It is harder for Raizl to wear jeans than to eat bacon. She finds her place among the outsiders at school, the goths who appreciate her Hasidic sense of style. She learns to sound less Yiddish. But she never wants to be someone else. It's never a question of her walking away from her constrained life. Raizl struggles to accept her world as it is and her place in it, to reconcile her ways of thinking and of being to what her god wants of her.

While there's a match on the horizon, she finally learns compassion, and maybe something like love, above all for herself.

She enjoys herself in the mirror. In her new marriage-date clothes. There is no skin showing, no collarbone and no wrists, just her face and hands. What kind of porn would that be, a video of a fully dressed woman, a long-sleeved blouse with a cotton sweater over it, not even a tight sweater, and a skirt down to her boots, not even high-heeled? The modesty-porn video. She is walking, her skirt moves, her shoulders understand where her body ends and the space around her begins. All the porn is in her face.

See also
You can judge 'Shmutz' by its cover
The under-celebrated erotic power of… hamantaschen (Felicia Berliner)
Yes, there’s a reason hamantaschen look like vaginas

Friday, October 14, 2022

Tiny orange mushrooms

I could only see a small patch of sky, the part that was left open between the treetops of the forest around me. The branches seemed like a network that in some places almost obscured the sky. Once my eyes had adjusted to the faint light, I realized that the undergrowth was alive with all manner of things. Tiny orange mushrooms. Moss. Something that looked like coarse white veins on the underside of a leaf. What must be some kind of fungus. Dead beetles. Various kind of ants. Centipedes. Moths on the backs of leaves.

It seemed strange to be surrounded by so many living things. When I was in Tokyo, I couldn't help but feel like I was always alone, or occasionally in the company of Sensei. It seemed like the only living things in Tokyo were big like us. But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well. It was never just the two of us, Sensei and me. Even when we were at the bar, I tended to only take notice of Sensei. But Satoru was always there, along with the usual crowd of familiar faces. And I never really acknowledged that any of them were alive in any way. I never gave any thought to the fact that they were leading the same kind of complicated life as I was.

Another version of myself might've been bored by this novel. 

Sitting on the sand of an Ionian island, my friend rolls her eyes at her soap-operatic beach read, all amnesia and extramarital affairs. She's relating it to me in agonizing detail, sparing me the hardship of reading it for myself.

What's your book like?, my friend asks me. It's really nice, I say, nothing happens. 

But oh, the bartender has just invited them to go foraging for mushrooms.

Strange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami, is a love story. Tsukiko frequents a bar near the train station, as does her old high school Japanese teacher. One evening they sit at the counter together, they have a moment of recognition, and the conversation begins. They share similar taste in food, but also a similar rhythm and temperament. They meet when they happen to meet; their friendship is outside of time.

I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper grown-up. I had been very much the adult when I was in elementary school. But as I continued on through junior high and high school, on the contrary, I became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn't able to ally myself with time.

Sensei is some thirty years older than her, and in their interactions always assumes the role of the master. Many months pass before it dawns on Tsukiko that their shared intimacy is something like love, although I believe Sensei knew it all along.

Despite their familiarity, their minds are still not fully knowable to each other. As Tsukiko notes of other relationships, "it was precisely because we were close that we couldn't reach each other."

What I see in the mirror is not my own lithe, naked body, more than necessarily subject to gravity — I'm not speaking to the me who is visible there, but rather to an invisible version of myself that I sense hovering somewhere in the room.

I think of all the versions of myself, the ones I talk to when I'm alone, the ones I dare show other people, the versions that have yet to materialize, the versions that past versions have grown into. They are all alive and present and always with me, not just on this rock swelling out of an azure sea.

I think of the man who might've been my Sensei. This book, and recent mythic landscapes, stir ghosts of him, I see him encountering other versions of myself in places we'd never been.

"It grows because you plant it. That's how love is. If the love is true, then treat it the same way you would a plant — fertilize it, protect it from the elements — you must do absolutely everything you can. But if it isn't true, then it's best to just let it wither on the vine."

(What do you do when you've left it to wither, and despite harsh abandonment, still all the world is green?)

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Is this what I want to be carrying in my body?

"In Japan, they say that when you can't sleep, you must be awake in someone else's dream."

Who is dreaming about me every night? Perhaps it is several people in rotation. Do they queue up to dream about me? Is it a cabal of dreamers conspiring to keep me from being rested, a kind of torture, to keep me restless? Is it true that they say this in Japan? Is it actually true, if you're dreaming, or not sleeping, in Japan? (This goes some way in explaining Haruki Murakami's novels.)

It might have something to do with the conservation of energy. Keeping the cosmos in balance.

The Wagers, by Sean Michaels, is about luck. Kind of. Luck is posited to be an actual physical substance, much like sand. Or pixie dust. Some people don't even know they have it. Others mine it and hoard it. 

After a run of luck, or coincidence, or statistics, Theo stumbles into a life outside the family grocery business. He lands a job as a processor. Luck, he learns, is all about beating the odds — in positive and negative ways. The  renegade band of weirdos across the street is determined to redistribute it.

"Processing is passive, procedural. It does not require independent thinking. At least it shouldn't! If you're thinking independently, you're doing it wrong."

[I think of all the processing I do. Events. Emotions. I think of it as active, intentional, conscious. Perhaps it's because I'm not sleeping. I should be processing my waking hours in my sleep.]

Theo definitely has some processing to do. His mother has just died. His niece won big at the track, allowing the family business to grow in different directions. He continues to flounder as a stand-up comic. And the woman he fell in love with went on retreat in the Sahara, and keeps delaying her return.

Lately I've been trying to retrain my fingers. I can still feel the habits when I lay them flat on the table: scroll, swipe. CTRL-C, CTRL-V. Open new tab. All this high-tech muscle memory, and none of it relevant to my yurt. It's useful knowledge, you'd say. Utility isn't everything, Theo. These days I ask myself questions like: Is this what I want to be carrying in my body? The itch to manipulate a web browser? To scroll and tap on a screen? I'd rather my body carried worthier impulses. What else could I carry in the places I carry smartphone swipes and copy-paste? How much more patience, self-knowledge, compassion?

So I'm retraining. You could do it too. Try. Lay your hands flat on the table, feel your fingers stretch. Palm. Knuckles. Skin. I tell my hands to forget what they aren't, and feel what they are. To feel what I am. Aches and scars, blood pulse, tremor. Fascia tautening with age. Our hands hold traces of everything we've ever touched, a thousand handshakes and caresses. Sometimes I think about my grandmother's hands. The way they felt when she clasped my hands in hers, the strength. Our bodies aren't just shapes we're wearing, clothes we put on. They're chronicles. They're wiser than we are.

[This is a good lesson and I know it to be true. I learned it while learning to sculpt clay; my fingers know things. It is good to be reminded, and to notice what they know. (I keep thinking I should go on retreat.)]

One of the charms of The Wagers is the city it roots itself in — Montreal. I swear I've shopped at Theo's store. I know those hills, and that water tower, and the cartoon logo of an elephant-turned-vacuum-cleaner. And it is magical.

We don't get to choose what we want, he thought. Only what we pursue.

Chapter 1
From Chapter 3

BOMB A Surfeit of Wondrous Things: Sean Michaels Interviewed by Tobias Carroll

Saturday, July 23, 2022

You want to be a positive nothing

But how does a person learn to see herself as nothing when she has already had so much trouble learning to see herself as something in the first place? [...] You have been a negative nothing, now you want to be a positive nothing. 

— from "New Year's Resolution," in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, by Lydia Davis.

He asks me about my summer, have I taken vacation. I mumble noncommittally. 

I feel the nitrile graze my lip as he positions his fingers inside my mouth. My lip reacts and I suppress my lip from reacting, it is like being touched without being touched, there is no tenderness but it is a gentle sensation.

I tell myself to relax the muscles of my face, around the corners of my mouth, and at my left temple. I wonder how good he is at reading faces. Can he read trepidation? Does he see pain? Has he learned to ignore it? Does he respond to it, does it influence his examination? Maybe he leans into it, tries to extrude it like a fleck of debris with his scaler.

I feel a twinge deep in the gum above an upper canine, I think I am reflexively wincing, I tell myself not to wince, I don't actually feel pain, I don't want him to see pain, there is no pain. It tickles a little.

The motor doesn't sound so loud, like I'm hearing everything through a woolen sock, only the sock is lining the inside of my head. 

I think about how like it is to the rotary tool I have to sand and finish my sculptures. He is polishing the enamel, and I am like stone, stone flesh with detached nerves, a soft core deep inside wondering how much can the body bear, when will the outer shell crack. But the vibrations are almost delicate — am I so inured, or so removed?


I receive in my inbox an excerpt from "Night Bakery" by Fabio Morábito. It begins thusly:

During my time in Berlin I just walked around and didn’t read a single book. In a way I replaced reading with walking.

I think about this for days, while walking cross my new neighbourhood. It's not mine yet, I haven't fully inhabited it. This is a temporary state. I am hovering above the world, above life, before alighting.

I think about all the nonreading and nonwriting, and this unsatisfying nonwalking, the wondering without concluding. I decide to order this book of stories — it takes what feels like hours to find this line again, to find the newsletter, to trace it to its source, to pinpoint the thing that is affecting me — but am dismayed to learn it will not be published till next spring. Time enough for me to write my own stories. I think all fiction is speculation.

I stumble across a list that looks like the bibliography of my writing project of the last two years. "The books in this list explore, inhabit, and investigate physical hunger." Is it physical?


One day I need to run an errand in the old neighbourhood. I have coffee before setting out, and browse headlines on my phone. I realize the NYRB fiction issue is out, and I think I should pick up a copy. (I want to be the kind of person who picks up the fiction issue. Do I want to be seen or known as the kind of person who picks up the fiction issue? I believe the being seen and being known are not important to me, it's the being that's important, but I can't be sure.) 

My errand becomes two errands. The original errand is crucial and time-sensitive, other people rely on its completion for their comfort and well-being, but the new errand born of impulse and frivolity becomes the day's focus.

I finally find a copy and am relieved that it feels right and familiar. This is the kind of person I am. (I know these books reviewed by authors of other books I know.)

I have not read it cover to cover. I skim the review of Batuman's Either/Or and check my hold at the library; it will easily be September before I read it, my daughter will have started university. (While on the library site, I realize I am #1 on 0 copies of a book that is not available and wonder how I was allowed to reserve it.)

I glance at the piece on Gainza'a Portrait of an Unknown Lady and hope that when I read it later it will enlighten me. What is it about Gainza's books, which I don't particularly enjoy, that inspire me to stubbornly poke and prod at things I don't understand, which — the poking and prodding — I also don't particularly enjoy?

And here, there is a review of Jacqueline Harpman's I Who Have Never Known Men, which title stops me in my tracks.

This mesmerizing oddity opens with a prefatory couple of pages about something—some sort of memoir or testimony—that the narrator has just finished writing:

I was gradually forgetting my story. At first, I shrugged, telling myself that it would be no great loss, since nothing had happened to me, but soon I was shocked by that thought. After all, if I was a human being, my story was as important as that of King Lear or of Prince Hamlet that William Shakespeare had taken the trouble to relate in detail.

I spend days thinking about the title, and thinking about what my story is, it's not one story, it's a multitude. I spend those same days reminding people around me, and myself, that while we may be the hero of our own life, we are not the centre of other people's universes. 

It's many more days before I read the review of Harpman's I Who Have Never Known Men and determine that I should read this novel, even while the review is less about the book than it is about the violent and mysterious age we find ourselves in, as Deborah Eisenberg puts it, "our current, very alarming moment." I find myself nodding. 

I am the kind of person who picks up a copy, thumbs through it, sets it aside, packs it in her bag to have something to read while waiting, opens it and refolds it, flips back to find that one sentence that caught her eye, thinks about making time to read it later. 


There is blood, as usual. I wonder how normal the bleeding is. I don't talk to people about it because I am ashamed. It is a moral shortcoming that I don't floss as often as I should.

Can he sense the tension in my jaw, or see the effects of my teeth clenching? He tells me I should take a vacation, I deserve it. 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The pain is part of the whole thing

The other evening I sit with a friend on his balcony having a glass of wine and sharing insights into our hearts and brains and those of our lovers and those whom we'd like to have as our lovers and those who will never be our lovers, and about what happens between flirtation and expectation and reality, and he said something to me about how quick we are (I mean, not us, but people in general) to back away, as soon as any perceived flaw becomes apparent, as soon as our exacting standards are snubbed by the actuality of the flawed human being before us, because they just aren't worth the effort. 

How easy it is to say no (or sometimes nothing at all), how much easier than compassion, than to accept someone's authentic self and engage in the exercise of knowing them, really knowing them, even especially biblically.

I think about how I could've said no to the man, a recent lover, whose behaviour I am now dissecting with my friend on his balcony. It's easy to say no, we have so many reasons to say no, I could've said no because of, well it doesn't matter the many reasons why, but the brave thing is to say yes, to be open to yes. I could've said no, but I said yes, but after some time he said no, I don't know why.

I don't tell my friend this, but I try to say yes as often as possible (unless it's to do with work), and for this I am proud of myself. Carpe diem and all that. The yes is almost always worth it. The yes is the good stuff, the stuff of deathbed reminiscences. Nothing is permanent, everything is temporary. Yes.

I come home late, a little drunk, but lighter, and smiling, and I fall into bed, too alive to be sleeping, I open The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I read something about something liminal as the character was trying and failing to fall asleep, while I am falling asleep, drifting between Davis's words, feeling the mostly natural chemicals coursing through my blood, feeling these words were written for me in this moment. 

And the next thing I know it's the end of the story, and there's another one, right there on the next page, "He's trying to break it down," and I urgently feel the need to break down what he's breaking down, and it reminds me of how I rationalize buying the expensive shoes, that really, if I wear them on most workdays during the shoulder seasons and then as my indoor shoes through winter, and they're quality shoes, I expect them to last, they're classic, I won't tire of them, every time I wear them will cost me barely a dollar to feel like a million bucks. And it reminds me also of Calvino, that story of the trajectory of the arrow. Only "Break It Down" is about the cost of a weekend getaway, no, it's longer than that, wait, is she a paid escort?, no, it's love, he's breaking down the relationship, he's breaking down the cost of love, he's breaking down, and oh my fucking god. 

I guess you get to a point where you look at that pain as if it were there in front of you three feet away lying in a box, an open box, in a window somewhere. It's hard and cold, like a bar of metal. You just look at it there and say, All right, I'll take it, I'll buy it. That's what it is. Because you know all about it before you even go into this thing. You know the pain is part of the whole thing. And it isn't that you can say afterwards the pleasure was greater than the pain and that's why would do it again. That has nothing to do with it. You can't measure it, because the pain comes after and it lasts longer. So the question really is, Why doesn't that pain make you say, I won't do it again? When the pain is so bad that you have to say that, but you don't.

Only, a lot of people don't remember that pain, they promptly convert it into armour, and they don't do it again, they've developed an aversion, it's not learned, it's conditioned. 

We forget how painful childbirth, for example, is, because nature wants to ensure we do it again, fulfill an evolutionary imperative. Love is an unknown compared to childbirth, it is not a process with defined stages, certainly it's not as obviously physical, love is nebulous. The experience of it rewires our brains and hardens our hearts in less predictable ways. In this way, many people learn to avoid love. I am learning to embrace it, over and over again, to go into the pain, therein lies the greatest pleasure.

I'd love to tell my friend about this story, it's brilliant.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The resourcefulness of rot, the wholeness of fungi

A forest floor, the Woodland villagers knew, is a living thing. Vast civilizations lay within the mosaic of dirt: hymenopteran labyrinths, rodential panic rooms, life-giving airways sculpted by the traffic of worms, hopeful spiders' hunting cabins, crash pads for nomadic beetles, trees shyly locking toes with one another. It was here that you'd find the resourcefulness of rot, the wholeness of fungi.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers, is about the unlikely encounter of a tea monk and a robot, centuries after the Awakening, when robots left the factories to venture into the wilderness.

Needless to say, Dex learns more about their own humanity from the wild-built Mosscap (assembled from old parts), who has undertaken an anthropological investigation into the needs of humans. In Mosscap's wisdom, they distinguish what they are doing from their reason for being.

Nothing has a purpose. The world simply is. [...] It is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don't need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.

Dex has a restless soul. They were tired of city-living when they sought a change of vocation. I'm just tired. Tired of feeling I have to justify myself. There are lessons here for me too.

[Even when I enjoy lazy days, I have to convince myself that I have earned them. Even when I have earned them, I often reframe my laziness in terms of accomplishment. Simple rest becomes an exercise in wellness, meditation, communion with nature — as if one must be active in one's passivity. Productivity is overrated. We should stop valuing it.]

As an example of solarpunk, this novella has a relatively positive outlook on our future, with humans coming to terms with their place in the world.

It is difficult for anyone born and raised in human infrastructure to truly internalize the fact that your view of the world is backward. Even if you fully know that you live in a natural world that existed before you and will continue long after, even if you know that the wilderness is the default state of things, and that nature is not something that only happens in carefully curated enclaves between towns, something that pops up in empty spaces if you ignore them for a while, even if you spend your whole life believing yourself to be deeply in touch with the ebb and flow, the cycle, the ecosystem as it actually is, you will still have trouble picturing an untouched world. You will still struggle to understand that human constructs are carved out and overlaid, that these are the places that are the in-between, not the other way around.


Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Where they show each other scars

In this humid, rusty place where women congregate, naked and wet, where they show each other scars beside their breasts and on the bellies, the bruises on their thighs, the imperfections on their backs, they all talk about misfortune. They complain about husbands, children, aging parents. They confess things without feeling guilty.

As I take in these losses, these tragedies, it occurs to me that the water in the pool isn't so clear after all. It reeks of grief, of heartache. It's contaminated. And after I get out I'm saturated by a vague sense of dread. All that suffering doesn't leak out like the water that travels into my ear now and then. It burrows into my soul, it wedges itself into every nook of my body.

— from Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I was traveling to see an old friend, and it was important for me to have some token of a gift for her, and it seemed appropriate to bring her (not for the first time) a book.

And suddenly I felt the weight of this responsibility. It should be meaningful and beautiful. One title sprang to mind immediately, but it required a special order, for which I didn't have enough time. I recalled something else, something lovely I'd read last year, and went out to buy a copy. I had it in my hands and opened it up at the beginning and realized how very wrong it was. In essence it might be perfect, but I also saw how the style could be off-putting and my friend would never read past the first page.

I always associate this friend with la dolce vita and Italian things. We met when she was late for school. Her dorm room was empty for a week, maybe two, as she had yet to return from Italy, having spent the summer term there. Rumours about her grew. She was a legend before we ever laid eyes on her. And when she arrived, she made an entrance. She looked Italian, spoke Italian, exuded an Italian fashion sensibility and an Italian passion. I think she wanted to be Italian. I think I wanted to be her.

Standing there in the bookshop I ran through a mental inventory of appropriate Italian literature, beyond what we'd already shared between us. My recent discoveries left me only with Moravia and Starnone, which while relevant to me, might not make sense to her, and could even be emotional landmines.

And so I landed on Jhumpa Lahiri, Starnone's translator, who shifted to writing in her non-primary language. But how do you gift a book you haven't read? (I'd read The Namesake and was lukewarm about it.) I had the length of the train ride to assess it. I could always change my mind.

It reads swiftly. It's meditative, a bit restless, a bit lonely. But it resonates, describing a period in the narrator's life that seemed to reflect my changing relationships with friends, family, work, lovers, myself. I believe my friend would see herself in it too.

One review eviscerates it, perceiving it to be a book of depression and despair. Clearly the reviewer has no understanding of what it is to be a woman of a certain age, where it is still the case that we spend a good deal of our life living for others, not ourselves. 

In a New York Times article, a critic asks, what did a Bengali-American find so liberating, so regenerating, in Rome and the Italian language? "Joy."

LARB: Familiar Strangers
The Rumpus: To Start Again in a Different Place

Sunday, June 19, 2022

A pleasure that's hard to describe

They say travel leads to the realization that one does not in fact exist.

So starts an auction lot description of resurfaced possessions and miscellaneous articles. Another lot of Amelia Earhart's belongings in Mariette Lydis's possession describes their encounter. When asked why she flies, Earhart replies, "To get away from myself."

I got away from myself the other weekend, to meet some friends for dinner in Ottawa. My last morning there I sat at a picnic table on the lawn of the admissions building where I went to university. I sat reading Portrait of an Unknown Lady, by Maria Gainza, when a young man asked if he could join me. Easier to roll a joint on the table surface than on a bench, he explained. He asked me about my book, and I told him about it in broad strokes. 
Characters with precisely wrought histories, linear psychologies, and coherent ways of behaving are one of literature's great fallacies. We have little and nothing: only what we are today, at a stretch what we did yesterday, and with luck what we're going to do tomorrow.

The truth is, I haven't particularly enjoyed reading Gainza's novels. I am, however, grateful for what they've opened my eyes to and made me think about.

And it was refreshing to hear this 21-year-old business student say with conviction that art is all about what it makes you feel, it doesn't matter if it's hanging on a gallery wall or valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars — it's personal. 

"It has a certain je ne sais quoi," Enriqueta would say, rubbing her hands together like a squirrel on the way to make mischief. "A pleasure that's hard to describe, no? Wars have been started, and homes broken, and careers ended just for this very feeling."

The book's Spanish title translates as The Black Light, and I think it is more fitting than the title under which it is published in English. The portrait promised to me is incomplete, and it's not clear who the subject is (it could credibly be the narrator herself, her mentor Enriqueta, the presumed forger Renée, or the original artist Mariette Lydis). The black light, though, speaks to the process of investigation and discovery. the process of authentication.

"Can a forgery not give as much pleasure as an original? Isn't there a point when fakes become more authentic than originals? And anyway," she added, "isn't the real scandal the market itself?"

Gainza's narrator issues certificates of authenticity for works of art. Her mentor, who introduced her to the business of art forgery, did not set her on the path to corruption, so much as reveal how far along it she had already gone. 

Regarding the artist: "Her portraits were not always of the prettiest daughter. In fact, she was said to prefer les jolies laides for the kind of poetic license they allowed, never the case with your stereotypical beauties." (A touch of wabi-sabi I can fully get behind.)

Figuras, Mariette Lydis, 1963.

The forger (certainly an artist in her own right): "Yes, she was intelligent, but not that coatrack kind of intelligence for just hanging ideas on; a crazier, more acute kind of intelligence."

We all make our deals with the devil.

This past week I ventured out to watch a kid play all 24 Paganini caprices, and as I marveled at his ease (although the energy required to maintain this composure was betrayed by his popping a string) and wondered at how different the coloration was from that of recordings by other artists I'd listened to at home, I came to the realization that the culture of music (and especially live music) is built on copies (even forgeries). We talk about an original Picasso in a way we would, could, never talk about an original Vivaldi. We may fetishize a particular performance, the market may value a certain pressing of a specific recording, but it's not because it's the original piece of music and all others are copies (though they may pale by comparison).

There's a great scene (among many) in Russian Doll, where 1982 Nadia as Nora walks into Crazy Eddie's and the televisions show a tv within a tv within a tv within... and then an infinite layering of Nadias and Noras.

It's called a video feedback loop. It's like standing in between two mirrors. See, the image is being reflected over and over, and you can't just point at one of the reflections and say "That one's the original." It's like the beginning of mankind.

All of these trains of thought bring me back to my relationship to sculpture.

It took me some years as a professional writer and editor to fully grasp that you have to know the rules before you can break them. I have been slow to appreciate how this extends across artforms. My understanding of music and painting, for example, was naive and underdeveloped such that I thought their magic relied on, well, magic. I thought musical or painterly talent and expression came from one's soul.

So it is with some resistance that I break from "creativity," my hands in the mud, and consider technique. I learned how to create moulds of my sculptures and how to cast them. I didn't see the point, frankly. Why would I want reproductions of my singular art? I had no inclination to disperse copies as Christmas gifts.

The primary purpose of taking a mould, from a cynical standpoint, is to be able to replicate one's clay sculpture in a material like bronze, for which one can charge exorbitant amounts of money.

But. As my stone composite shed its silicone lining, emerged from its plaster shell, a new sculpture was born. I understand now that each copy is its own original. Different pigment. Different mounting. Different material. Different finish. It expresses something different poised atop a traditional marble-like column than it will when I pour it in liquid glass. 

I have learned that a mastery of technique allows artistry to flourish. As any violinist who dares to play Paganini. As any art forger whose work hangs in place of the original.

Gainza's novel blurred together so many different identities, past and present, history and fiction. Mariette Lydis was real. Borges was real. Adolfo Bioy Casares, also real. At the end of the day, most days, I think about making progress in art, and progress in love. I think about fireworks.

They shared a hedonistic kind of love that wasn't passion but something calmer. In their official loves, it was different. 'Progress in love' — according to Wilcock — 'consists of successively finding people who are like gunshots, line cannon blasts, like nitroglycerine cartridges, like torpedoes, like atomic bombs, and, finally, like hydrogen bombs.' Oscar showed up at Montes de Oca one day, and it was fireworks.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Substance and essence

Dear Diary, It's been seven weeks since my last confession. I feel spent. Everything is good, but nothing is right.

Once swallowed the piece of paper lodges in her oesophagus near her heart. Saliva-soaked. The specially prepared black ink dissolves slowly now, the letters losing their shapes. Within the human body, the word splits in two: substance and essence. When the former goes, the latter, formlessly abiding, may be absorbed into the body's tissues, since essences always seek carriers in matter — even if this is to be the cause of many misfortunes.

Thus begins The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk. This is the first book I opened in my new home. 

I have opened many books since then. I am unfocused.

I still put store by the significance of firsts. I considered which friends I would first welcome here, the first champagne we would drink, the energy that would fill this space. The first painting I would hang. I am sentimental about the first lover I have yet to bring to this home.

I harbour other superstitions. (Since when am I such a fool?) The keys were a sign. As I pulled them from my purse that first time, the chain pulled apart, keys clattered, and the Moroccan tassel fluttered to the floor. I don't know how I got in that first day. I have a million and five keys for this house, and only two of them fit one of the locks. Later that first day, I managed to snap the key to the basement door, still in its lock.

I have been beset by a million and five setbacks — mortgage complications, tax miscalculations, delivery delays, lost shipments, miscommunications. Any one of them is a barely perceptible glitch, but together they cause interference, a disruption; they give cause to take pause, reconsider the foundations. 

I am reading, but very little. I have cast some sculptures and am eager to clear a studiospace. I am on an 824-day streak of German lessons, but my heart is no longer in it. I still work too much. I still engage in real estate porn, to reassure myself that I made the right decision. 

Things that are missing:

  • My hotel-brand bathrobe, I'm sure I saw it amid the bagged blankets, but they're essentially all unpacked now
  • The spare set of stone-carving tools, the ones in the cloth roll-up bag that I thought I could take to workshop because it wouldn't matter if any of them were inadvertently borrowed (maybe I took them that one day, maybe they were borrowed)
  • A mailing tube containing Polish poster art, including one for Verdi's Makbet, or was it Don Giovanni, I remember pulling them out of the closet in the old place, now I have wall space for them and they're nowhere, was the tube thrown out with the disassembled boxes 
  • Romance, the ordinary kind, it doesn't have to be literary or heroic  

I still feel like an essence not fully settled into its carrier, perhaps because the carrier is not clearly defined. Remnants of the previous owner linger; my essence is confused by them, grazes past them, hesitates before setting down.

This home is vast and drafty and quirky, it needs my labour and love.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

I am become the howling is become me

I know I've been using a lot of WFH time but I checked with our ops team — technically there isn't a set limit on how much you can take

doug smorin
"within reason" is the limit

look, I know you don't believe me when I say I'm imprisoned in our slack workspace

doug smorin
because it's literally unbelievable

and the firm doesn't have a disembodied consciousness sabbatical policy  

doug smorin
you're doing great 

isabella, emily

Is this real?

I kind of hope so. Thought you might know + wanted an excuse to say hi :wave:

haha wow it's real -- had to look it up. It's even Paris, not Bucharest (which was my first guess)

started reading Several People Are Typing this morning -- makes me kinda miss the office, and how slack was a complement to actual physical office space, not this separate thing that we're all swallowed up in

OMG that sounds amazing. I have a real soft spot for work/office culture novels.

I've been literally lol-ing all morning. Good things it's short though -- the slack-style will surely become tiresome after 100 pages

I miss slacking somebody while staring directly at them :lizard_stare:

/giphy stare

what is a workplace but a cult where everyone gets paid, really?


I meant to ask if a Managing Principal was higher or lower ranking than a Director.

see, that exactly my point. we have a byzantine hierarchical structure
we have a SPECIAL PURPOSE, which we call our MISSION STATEMENT and slap it right on the website
Even the language of employment is cult-y! We're not employees, we're a "team." That's only two notches away from just calling us "acolytes" or something. And the stuff we supposedly devote ourselves to, like "innovation" or "influence" of "engagement"
how is that any different from telling everyone you're a Prophet of the Coming Storm?

That would look great on a business card.


hey has anyone read Calvin Kasulke's Several People Are Typing?
(oh, look! several people are actually typing!)

Hi! I'd ask for advice about e-reader? Does anyone here use such as Kobo or Kindle. I have question like can use external pdf. What should I get as a first e reader :shrug:

emergency, drop everything :heart:

ok so this guy gerald was trying to share a spreadsheet and he accidentally uploaded himself into slack, like his physical body is comatose in his apartment, but his mind is melding with slackbot and his productivity goes through the roof, but all his coworkers think it's just a bit while they're all wfh 

:eyeroll: sanderson :vomiting_cowboy:

Boox products are good.

And then there's lydia, who may or may not exist, but I immediately pictured her as our lydia, with the attitude and the smarts, but maybe it's slackbot impersonating lydia

it's like it's coming from inside of me!!
like the echo from the constant howling is reverberating inside my rib cage??
but instead of getting softer and more distant it just grows louder and more, present??
you know that feeling??
like my skeletal structure is just an instrument for the howling to blast through and soon it'll burst through sinew and bone and rupture by flesh beyond recognition??

So I am also WFH except when I'm offline from 2-4:30!

so I don't think I can make it in today!!

I mean, dang
@lydia do you need to go to urgent care or something


sounds serious


it's like
I am become the howling is become me!!
you know!!

It's weirdly philosophical (and hilarious), there's this discussion between gerald and slackbot about sunsets, which evokes the concept of the "stuplime." so slackbot shows gerald where they keep the sunsets and he "sees" -- as a disembodied consciousness -- ALL the sunsets, and then he becomes sunset :whoa_keanu:
"psychic splintering"

/giphy sunset


highly recommend (but maybe not to people who don't use slack. or work in an office. also highly relatable re marketing department day-to-day)


Saturday, April 02, 2022

Nothing goes anywhere

"You're trying to get away? It's no use! I too was trying to get away, to ride away, to move to Lviv, or to Kyiv, to anywhere else. But you can't get away. There's a moment when cars stop driving out of town, and later you find out that commuter buses and jitney vans haven't been running for a long time, and then it dawns on you that you have remained forever where, in fact, you had been lingering merely in order to leave that place at some decisive moment. You are now stuck, you've become a hostage, a prisoner of people and circumstances, just like in the movies you used to watch, except that now you've become an unwilling actor in that movie, only to discover, to your astonishment, that there isn't and never was an art more petty, more heartless than contemporary cinema, all contemporary cinema without exception, including of course documentaries. Because when you wake up inside a work of whatever genre — comedic, heroic, documentary, military — the movie, to your astonishment, turns out to be unmoving, an infinitely protracted, monotonous, corrosive nightmare. And I would have really liked, with utmost sincerity, I would have liked to believe, as with any normal film, that this nightmare followed a plot development with a climax, an ending, and even an epilogue, but, from my observations, nothing of the sort takes place. Nothing goes anywhere. Nothing ever come close to this supposedly ancient, time-tested formulaic plotting."

— from Lucky Breaks, by Yevgenia Belorusets.

Written in Russian, but with a Ukrainian title, by a Ukrainian in Ukraine, and released by a Ukrainian publisher in 2018. 


Translator Eugene Ostashevsky writes:

My first paper copies of Lucky Breaks came in the mail last night. I sent a photo of them to Yevgenia in Kyiv, with the words "The book is out!" She wrote back an hour later: "We are under fire!" I am writing these sentences on the morning of February 24th, 2022, the day that Russia — the country I was born in — has perfidiously invaded Ukraine, the country of my ancestors. 

Artforum: Letters from Kyiv: A wartime diary by Yevgenia Belorusets 
The Atlantic: Her World Began to Collapse, So She Started Keeping a Diary

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

A gallery of monsters

If each of us drew our own body as if by dictation from our own internal perspective, we would produce a gallery of monsters!

— from The Sexual Life of Catherine M., by Catherine Millet. 

I'd been planning the third major sculpture for months. (Peter was my first; the second was my tree lady.) I wanted to develop technique. I wanted to stretch beyond what I'd been taught about form. I wanted to create art.

This project had purpose. A self-portrait. I established some objectives.

1. It had to look like me. At least in its early stages. I would allow for it to morph into something more symbolic, expressive, a distortion of me. But its basis had to have sufficient me-ness that I could not deny to myself that it was me.

2. It had to express joy. Pain is easy. It's unique, powerful, exquisite. But Tolstoy was wrong about happiness. Happiness is also nuanced. And it's difficult to express artistically without being saccharine or facile. I needed to preserve something joyous, but I needed to find it first. This was a pandemic project, after all. (I considered some secret joy, some orgasmic expression.)

3. It had to represent me symbolically. It was at this level I thought art manifested. I wanted it to be a self-portrait from the inside out. Maybe my brain spilling out. (What do my migraines look like?) Maybe my head split open and my brain obviously set wrong. Maybe in place of my brain, my heart.

This is what I thought about throughout the summer of 2020. I procured materials, I waited for winter. I broke open the package of clay in early November. It was US election night, I had the tv on, I needed art to counterbalance reality, I wondered if that made my art a political act.

For a few weeks I obsessed over cheekbones, the angle of my nose, the whorls of my ears. And then, quite unexpectedly, I fell in love, or something. I felt both seen and not yet fully seen, and that it didn't matter whether I was seen or not. Suddenly seeing didn't matter, feeling mattered. I thought more about seeing, without actually seeing.

Very coincidentally, I'd started reading John Berger's Ways of Seeing at about that time:

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. [...] 

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Love didn't last, but I had projects to keep me busy. I kept thinking about how I was seen, how I saw myself. I started seeing outside myself, in a way that I hadn't in a very long time. Among all the ways of seeing, I started seeing my way.

I learned how to handle clay, maintain its wetness. I learned how to work it when it is hard (the work of carving). I learned how to perform a lobotomy. I learned about shapeshifting. I can point to this sculpted portrait's objective faults: the face too flat, the ears too big, the mouth too thin. Too unfocused. Too ambitious. Too inauthentic, even if conceived in an authentic kind of way. 

I studied my perception of myself. I created a very long neck, not because it was realistic or particularly aesthetic. Likely this was a subconscious expression of the distance between my brain and my body.

I failed on all three objectives. (Except maybe the first. And the second and third.) I lacked patience, persistence, and discipline. (But this project served its purpose.)

I am listening to a podcast in which is discussed the drive to create beauty out of pain (and I think: beauty in ugliness and imperfection — wabi-sabi); how Leonard Cohen makes you want to die and spread your legs at the same time; how obsession with a thing is often an obsession with what the thing represents.

I am learning to refocus on form. Art will manifest itself somehow through clarity of thought. I am learning to be naked.

To be naked is to be oneself. [...]

Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.

To be naked is to be without disguise. 

This morning, I woke up and looked at it anew, and I smashed it.

Time to start again.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

The swelling of proportions

I'd gone to France for work, to a party, in a castle decked out in a way I'd never seen. I'd had a fair amount to drink, and I latched onto someone who worked for an important newspaper, unlike me in those days, when I slaved away a a meager publication. The guy was my age, I'd known him for a long time. He made me laugh all night, I drank and laughed, and for the first time, I cheated on my husband. And it was amazing, really amazing, but not the sex, I care next to nothing about sex. I remember, instead, the swelling of proportions that followed. I walked down tree-lined avenues at seven in the morning, the air was lovely, and I felt I'd grown as tall as a giant. But then the sense of swelling proportions dissolved, and I started to feel terrible. Not about my husband, honestly, I didn't feel the least but guilty. In any case, I believed I had the right to enjoy life.

I think about the care some people take, or not, with my secrets. Those intimate divulgences. Do they mull them over, mystified? How does it change their view of me? Do my secrets shock them, or do they puzzle over why I bother to keep them close? Do they hold them for me, or spill them out? I have so very few.

I think about the secrets I know about others.

I stumbled across Trust, by Domenico Starnone, on just such a day when I was wandering down old familiar streets, with a swelling of proportions, a swelling of memories, thinking about someone's secrets, and realizing I couldn't tell anybody about them. That someone would never know if I did. Nobody would care, about the secret, or about its telling; nothing would change. But it's a bond, my honour.

(His dark secret only made me love him more. It was the small secrets, the insignificant omissions, that drove a wedge between us. But I wonder if he thinks about it sometimes, the fact that I know.)

The tension of Trust depends on this pact between lovers: they confide in each other their most shameful secret, "something that would destroy your life if anyone came to know it," to bond them forever. Yet, a few days later, Pietro and Teresa break up.

We never know what they told each other. We know Pietro thought Teresa's secret awful. And Pietro lived in fear that Teresa might reveal his own shame. It's something she holds over him, even after his death.

The book unfolds in three parts, spanning decades and shifting perspectives, from Pietro, to his grown daughter, to old woman Teresa. Pietro's life is mostly unremarkable, a mostly undistinguished career, some minor celebrity, a typical family life with an ambitious but disappointed wife. 

His failings are also mostly unremarkable, and perhaps typical of his generation. Teresa was his student, and he felt threatened by her, diminished by her. In turn he diminished his wife, who was surely capable of great successes but was burdened by the traditional demands of marriage and motherhood. 

At this point I must pause for a moment to draw attention to the fact that, in that moment, I totally gave in to the truth of a cliché. I thought: we fall in love with people who seem real, but don't really exist. We invent them. I don't know this self-assured woman, who speaks to me in such clipped sentences, this fearless, scathing woman. She's not Nadia. There's the person we love and there's the real person, but as long as we love the person, we never see the real person underneath. We inevitably waste so much time, I said to myself, loving people. These past few years, I happily invented a person. I've taken great pleasure entering into the body of a pale watercolor of my own making.

Pietro did not think well of himself, and he shouldn't, though he didn't give these matters much thought. With an incomplete understanding of his inadequacies, but his sense of entitlement thoroughly offended, he rather blamed the unjustness of his lot in life on the socioeconomics of his upbringing.

A psychological descendant of Alberto Moravia's Contempt, Trust starts like this, stylistically modern, breathless. 

Love, well, what to say? We talk about it a lot, but I don't think I've used the word much, on the contrary, I doubt it's ever been of any use me, though I've loved, of course, I've loved, I've loved until I've lost my mind and my wits. Love as I've known it, in fact, is a lava of crude life that burns the refined one, an eruption that obliterates understanding and piety, reason and rights, geography and history, sickness and health, richer and poorer, exceptions and the rules. All that's left is a yearning that twists and distorts, an obsession without a cure: where is she, where isn't she, what's she thinking, doing, what did she say, what did she really mean when she said that, what isn't she telling me, was she as happy to see me as I was to see her, and feeling better now that I've left, or has my absence debilitated her instead, as hers debilitates me, annihilating me, stripping me of all the energy that her presence, on the other hand, generates, and what am I without her, a stopped clock on the corner of a busy street, oh her voice on the the other hand, oh to stand next to her, to diminish the distance between us, reduce it to nothing, erase kilometers, meters, centimeters, millimeters, and melt, lose myself, stop being myself, in fact, it already feels like I was never myself other than within her, in the pleasure of her, and this makes me proud, it cheers me up, and it depressed me, it saddens me, and then it jolts me again, it electrifies me, I care so much for her, yes, all I want is the best for her, always, whatever happens, even if she turns cold, even if she loves other people, even if she humiliates me, even if she strips me of everything, even of the very capacity to care for her. 

Shiny New Books 
LARB: The Terrible Powers of Self-Deception: On Domenico Starnone's "Trust"
Cleveland Review of Books: In Search of Self through the Other: On Domenico Starnone's "Trust" 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

A convulsive act

My adolescence as a reader became, without a break, a long and unhappy apprenticeship as an author.

The geese have returned. They've brought the rains. 

I am living amid a labyrinth of boxes. All my possessions, I am turning them over in my hands, weighing their worth. I like my things.

I am finishing repairs to the unit I will soon vacate while shopping for furniture to fill my new space. I am sick to death of my financial advisor and the notary and the customer service people of half a dozen different services. 

I spend my workday considering how we should talk about the industrial metaverse. I think: this is not reality, this is not my reality. I think: I haven't yet made peace with my profession, because writing isn't a real profession. I think: I resent my mother, my upbringing, for convincing me that pursuing artistic endeavours was nice, but not a way to make a living.

I escape into art. I am in workshop only one evening a week. But I research wire types and gauges for armatures; I make prototypes at home, testing poses, trying techniques; I amass boards and cloths; I buy litres of silicone, preparing to cast molds.

I'm not entirely pleased with my latest sculpture, working from a live female model this time. I don't think I've ever looked at a female body this intently before. The model's function is as an anatomical reference. But she has surgical scars, and acne, and razor burn. We're not supposed to notice these cosmetic details, we're encouraged to whitewash them. But I want to capture the scars, at least. They are vulnerability and strength. This is beauty. A friend tells me about wabi-sabi. (We are all broken.)

I try very hard to see what is, to not let my mind fill in the blanks. (Years of jigsaw puzzling has trained me for this.) I understand something, finally: I will show you what there is before I show you what I see. I must be able to show you what there is, so that you are ready to see when I show you what I see.

I am surprised to find that I am not enjoying books I was certain to like; clever and experimental suddenly don't seem to have sufficient substance to carry the weight of their presumptions. I am returning to modern classics to find depth of character, psychological underpinnings, plot, place in the world.

I have completed 743 days of daily German lessons, yet I find myself drawn to things Italian.

I watch The Great Beauty and The Hand of God, and I marvel at how Sorrentino frames his world, comingling the vulgar and the sublime, all of it beautiful.  

In In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, Elena Ferrante offers a window onto the reading that formed her, as she believes strongly in "the importance of the writing we've inherited."

These essays were conceived as a series of lectures, which were then curtailed by the pandemic. Despite the insights, they are dry. She is a brilliant novelist, and no doubt an accomplished academic, but while her fictions keep me up past my bedtime, these learnings lulled me to sleep. 

Anyone who has literary ambitions knows that the motivations, both great and small, that impel the hand to write come from "real life": the yearning to describe the pain of love, the pain of living, the anguish of death; the need to straighten the world that is all crooked; the search for a new morality that will reshape us; the urgency to give voice to the humble, to strip away power and its atrocities; the need to prophesy disasters but also to design happy worlds.

But importantly, I learn: "Every good character needs an other." I think about that. It helps to take me outside of myself.

I watch The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal's adaptation of Ferrante's novel. It's anxious. The camera so very female, the way it lingers on beautiful men (women too), lusts for their youth. I understand now that there is such a thing as the female gaze, and it's a thing I have, I turn it on others.

So I got in the habit of using traditionally rigid structures and working on them carefully, while I waited patiently to start writing with all the truth I'm capable of, destabilizing, deforming, to make space for myself with my whole body. For me true writing is that: not an elegant, studied gesture but a convulsive act.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Pain is the awareness of being alive

It was her Father who told her that highly educated people did nothing but complain, and that those in poverty, on the other hand, could stand more, much more, or maybe they felt less. He also said that distraction could be the best medicine, but that some medicine could be lethal if one denied all symptoms. Because pain is the awareness of being alive. One had to a little dead or a little deaf in order for the body to rest.

I'm not enjoying books I thought I would enjoy. Reading them is a slog. Writing about them is a penance. 

Maybe I've grown too discerning. Maybe I'm bored.

There were no candles in the country of the present, where the electricity never went out. Never, until it did.

Nervous System, by Lina Meruane, starts off beautifully, in a cold and clinical way. Pages like poetry. But the electricity went out for me early. It soon becomes needlessly cryptic.

Ella is self-absorbed, at the centre of a constellation of people, none of whom have names. I don't care about any of them. The Father (domineering, until he is sick, possibly dying), the Firstborn (mostly absent), the Friend, the Cousin. The Mother (biological) and the other Mother (the second wife, who birthed the Twins). Ella is working on her doctoral dissertation in astrophysics, but she's blocked, so instead she turns hypochondriac or possibly genuinely mysteriously ill. Possibly she quits.

The book is suddenly about Ella's boyfriend El (not really a name, just he to her she), who works in a  psychologically and politically traumatic environment and is severely injured on the job. But he doesn't seem to figure significantly in Ella's life, so I don't care about him. Possibly they split up.

Then it is about other people's traumas and illnesses.

Possibly someone (a Mother) had breast cancer in the past. The family is noncommunicative and dysfunctional in a fairly normal way.

Possibly there was a rape. I wish I knew so I could feel outraged rather than detached. I wish I could feel something.

Ella smiles sadly, reminding herself that those young people still live in the hopeful order of consecutive time, which had never been hers.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Not to fulfill your desires

Sprawled across Jackson Avenue is a larger-than-life lady, screaming her "I don't give a fuck" in chemical pink. We come up on her from behind; a slight torque in her repose, I can't see her hand, between her legs I think, and I feel embarrassed to catch her masturbating in the midday sun. She's monstrous and gorgeous, she looks like an armature barely wrapped in plasticine, but she's all bronze, baby. So this is Queens.

We have a few minutes to pop into the bookstore. It's a comforting place, I want to touch all the books, my hand caresses the shelf, my fingertips drag across the tabletops. I want to read all the books I haven't read, but there isn't time, so I reach for a blind date. "Read me if you like... - intense, complicated sibling rivalries/ - carnivals/ - David Lynch films/ - unreliable narrators."

It's only later that I realize I know what the book is, of course I've read it. (And the receipt confirms my suspicion.) I shouldn't play this game. I've read too many books, I read too much about books, to be blind to them. But in that moment I was happy, I must've already known what it was and I reached for it anyway, this mysterious book made me happy.

I watch The Green Knight again, because it is beautiful and dark and mysterious, and it reminds me that an instant can be a lifetime, and I can wonder for all eternity where it all went wrong, and I can't tell if it actually went wrong at all. This is what I do now, I watch this movie at every opportunity, which seems to be when I fly. Who the hell is this green knight anyway? And this time the image of him picking up his head reminds me of Medusa carrying Perseus's head, but not the bronze, rather the recreation by a live model, the photograph we drew from in art class the other week, that haughty smirk. Now I want to sculpt the green knight, but I can't yet, because I don't understand him. I wonder if cutting off my own head would bring clarity, it is my oppressor after all. (And St Winnifred too, everyone losing their head.)

A friend and I are texting about Ukraine, and she sends me a poem by Bertolt Brecht, because we live in dark times. I read it and I am gutted. (Headless and gutted, empty.)

Not to fulfill your desires but to forget them
Is accounted wise.

I can't tell if Brecht is saying it is wise to forget one's desires, or if it is thought wise but isn't. I spend a weekend in New York fulfilling some desires, yearning after others, and all in all not knowing what to do with them any of them anymore.

I have been reading Ferrante and Starnone, and I will write about them someday. I have been reading other things, and enjoying not writing about them. I am working far too much.

A drunk angry Ukrainian spews profanities on the subway platform and a rat makes for the exit. The poster in the elevator in the hotel reminds me that all my desires are worth fulfilling, even as the world burns. 

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Event-tempered against narrative repolarizations

Clara's body heaved a little, assuming the shape of a soundless sigh. Currents of emotion moved through the room.

My mother moved us to a subdivision when I was 11, a year or two before Rush immortalized the dreariness of conformant living. "Nowhere is the dreamer/ Or the misfit so alone." In my subdivision, everybody listened to Rush.

I hated it.

Subdivision, by J Robert Lennon, is weird and brilliant. Part videogame, part fairy tale. It's psychotherapy as written by Douglas Adams. It's Alice in Wonderland if it were an allegory about a grisly car accident. It's The Hearing Trumpet if it were about a young, professional modern woman.

It starts with a jigsaw puzzle. It fully occupies the massive table in the subdivision's guesthouse (why is she here?), and our protagonist is invited, even expected, to work on it. It's maybe three feet by five, but no box, no picture. Its pieces change shape, and the image appears to shift. As progress is made in some areas, other sections are undone. She must not allow things to delay her progress.

(I just bought an 8,000 piece jigsaw puzzle on eBay. Three feet by nine. The Sistine Chapel ceiling. Maybe it is a metaphor for my life. Maybe I will see the hand of god in it. I am saving it for the new house, a new project among others. I am preparing for a major puzzling accomplishment. Maybe I will paint my ceilings. I must make progress.)

"The problem ... with an itch," the man said, grunting and wheezing, "is that it isn't ... in one ... place." His voice, smoke-roughened, stirred a memory just out of reach.

"I'm sorry," I said, "I don't understand."

"An itch ... is a creation ... of the body ... and the mind." His face contorted with the efforts of his hand; the expression, again, struck me as familiar. "The mind ... expresses its need ... for simulation ... through the body. The ... body ... ugh ... tries to ... satisfy itself ... by scratching. But the itch ... is a phantom ... of thought. It moves ... to trick the body ... into gratification."

There's a shapeshifting bakemono, and a house built in a probability well, with windows that aren't event-tempered against narrative repolarizations. "Sometimes you'll see the future through them, or the past, or some alternate version of the present. But they really let the light in on sunny days."

Under the bed, our protagonist finds a marvelous pair of colour-changing shoes — a perfect fit, making her feel light, and strong. She lands a a job as a Phenomenon Analyst, which requires experience in the area of quantum tunneling, about which she knows nothing.

There's a child, who may or may not be hers. There's a solar-powered personal digital assistant, that appears to be evolving, throbbing.

It's completely surreal, and completely logical, a slow release of clues pointing the way to the obvious end, a journey through the subconscious for a reconciliation with tragedy.

The box, eventually found, reveals it to be an "8,000-piece deluxe mutable situation-specific matte-finish bilateral theta cardboard puzzle."

Subdivision will be facing off against Lauren Groff's Matrix in the opening round of the 2022 Tournament of Books in about a month's time.

His words incensed me, and it was time to give him a piece of my mind. I turned to him and said, "I don't know — maybe?"

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Sparkle like a nighttime parade

Sensei continued to stare at my arm, all the way down to my palm. His eyes on my palm, he murmured something about me not having any wit lines, even though I had several affair lines. The vertical lines that stick out above your heart line are your wit lines, and your affair lines are the ones that run parallel to your life line, along the base of your thumb. Look, I have many wit lines, he said.

Parade, by Hiromi Kawakami, is a delicate little thing.

Some mischievous sprite nudged this book just so on its shelf at the shop, that I had to investigate it. It's a beautifully designed volume, charmingly illustrated by Takako Yoshitomi. 

The wordcount of the reviews is higher than that of the tale itself. I've never read Hiromi Kawakami, but this is billed as a companion piece to her Strange Weather in Tokyo, which I'll be exploring soon. 

A folktale of tengu and childhood. Hazy memories. A lazy afternoon just after the rainy season.

Subtle, elegant, whimsical, intimate. Light. I feel touched by sparkles.

Open Letters Review: November 2019
Open Letters Review: October 2020
Tony's Reading List