Monday, April 24, 2017

Something secretly crafty about bar-codes

Unpacking after one of Lewis's infrequent shopping expeditions was an adventure. Lewis had a theory that there was something secretly crafty about bar-codes, that They were tracking each bar-coded item and compiling vast lists for a purpose made even more sinister and terrifying by being entirely unknown.

So trips to the supermarket inevitably ended with bags and packets piled on the kitchen table, Lewis bent over them with the scissors, cutting off bar-codes, to be burned later. When Seth first saw him doing this, he had inquired whether his flatmate needed regular medication, but it had turned out that Lewis was a relative rarity: a completely sane man whose world-view was almost entirely irrational. Sometimes, thinking about it, Seth wondered if Lewis might not actually be right.
— from Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson.

I can't recall where I heard about this book. I'm sure it was an end-of-year roundup, that may have mentioned this review at Pechorin's Journal.

I'm finding Europe in Autumn to be immensely enjoyable. A sci-fi thriller set in the not-too-distant future (about twenty years after Scotland separates), I'm still waiting for the more conventionally science-fictional aspects to kick. But it's a well imagined world of countless independent polities, and thus borders and bureaucracies and the rebel heroes that run counter to them.

I occasionally get lost in the action, but I'm appreciating Hutchinson's ease and wit.

But of course Lewis is right.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The best of all possible worlds

"So here is the question. Given that the information you have is necessarily imperfect. Given that the history of events is necessarily under-determined. The history that you choose to believe will determine the person that you are. If only in a small way. You will be a person who chose to see the world one way instead of another. And that choice will color the way you see the world, and your future, and your image in a mirror. You will never be able to determine conclusively why she acted as she did. But you can determine what kind of person you want to be.

"I can tell you this. That in the absence of perfect information, I choose to believe in the version of events that would occur in the best of all possible worlds."
Version Control, by Dexter Palmer, is a time-travel story. Only, without much time travel. And don't call it a time machine; the physicists in this story prefer "causality violation device."

This is the story of Rebecca, a customer service rep for an online dating service, and her physicist husband Philip, and all their issues. Set in the near future, Version Control covers marriage, grief, alcoholism, friendship, internet dating, self-driving cars (and the insurance implications thereof), racism, white privilege, male privilege, academia, big data, mass personalization, and secession of the Dakotas.
"If everyone could get on the same page and realize that we live in the future, we wouldn't have to deal with this bullshit."
There's a government conspiracy (possibly several). And some questions regarding free will and predetermination.

This is a future where Ronald Reagan is on the 20 dollar bill. At least some of the time.

I first heard about this novel during the 2017 Tournament of Books, where it was noted that "Version Control feels like 400 pages of realist, suburban minutiae with 100 pages of genuinely engaging science fiction slapped on at the end." The ensuing discussion sold me that Version Control was a must read.

In general, I'd say I like science fiction more than I like suburban minutiae. But I also rather like minutiae (it's the suburban stuff I'm not so keen on). What's interesting here is the effect of something as massive as time travel on the minutiae of an otherwise very ordinary existence.

So I read a few hundred pages sharing Rebecca's sense that something was out of whack, with no evidence of any kind that the time machine actually worked. And it was absolutely engrossing.

Who's to say what the best of all possible worlds is? Though the novel's ending is in some ways troubling, ultimately I find in it a hopeful message urging an acceptance of this world as the best of all possible worlds, as it cannot be proven otherwise.

Discussion of Version Control in the Tournament of Books:
Opening Round (vs My Name Is Lucy Barton)
Quarterfinals (vs The Mothers)
Semifinals (vs The Underground Railroad)

Friday, April 14, 2017


Arrogance: that featured among Philip's colleagues, too, though that was more a matter of mien than anything else. If there was one subject about which they tended to be cavalier, it was the ease of doing anything in life besides physics. They were quick to let you know that, in addition to practicing that best and most worthy of all the sciences, they were, as Philip said about himself, "intrinsically multidisciplinary": they'd casually mention that they'd just cycled their first century, or were doing a show with a local band, or were nearly finished with building a kiln. It was as if the stereotype of the physicist as a bespectacled dweeb was something they felt it was their duty and obligation to strive against. And though they never seemed to be quite as skilled at their extracurricular activities as their pride in them might have indicated, if they were perhaps unlikely to play in professional orchestras or chalk up record-beating times in marathons, then it was even more unlikely that top-level violinists and athletes were doing science on the side, as a hobby. Rebecca was never sure whether there was something about physics as an occupation that made it a magnet for the arrogant, or whether the process of becoming acclimated to the culture of physics involved developing a certain conceit about oneself if one was to succeed, but either way she got the impression that arrogance was often a benefit to physicists, rather than a liability.
— from Version Control, by Dexter Palmer.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reading for school

I'm fairly impressed with my daughter's reading list for school, and it's only natural that she's more excited over some titles than others (and that goes for me too).

When she told me a few months ago that they were reading The Giver (Lois Lowry) in English class, I wanted to read along. I should read everything on the curriculum!

Sadly, I dropped the ball before I'd even picked it up. They finished The Giver eons ago. Although in a way, I feel I didn't miss a thing; Helena shared her experience of reading it with me in excruciating detail. That said, it's her clear favourite of the required reading this year (so far), and I would like to see it close up. It's finally available at the library — I plan on digging in this week.

Meanwhile in French class, it was Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) (in French). (She's in grade 8 in the French school board, everything's in French [except for English class].) I started near the time she was wrapping up. We came to pretty much the same conclusions: interesting concept but on the whole boring. (We both like the rap though.) But I appreciate the teaching opportunities in it, and I'm glad I read it. What impresses me is the skill of the translation that ensured Helena had an equivalent experience reading the opening chapters (grammatically awkward and spelled phonetically, kind of) in French as I did in English.

The other novels covered in French class, both Scholastic publications, one a time-travel story, the other a mystery, don't particularly interest me. I don't want to read them so I'm not going to. (Why are the books for this class translated from English?)

English class has moved onto The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton). How is it that I never read The Outsiders in my youth? Wow, what a crazy book. It's melodramatic, to be sure, but it's so sincere! I cried. The kid still has a couple chapters to go before we can compare notes, though she tells me it doesn't feel at all dated.

In Latin, they've been reading The Iliad. In Latin. I'm skipping this one. For now.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Art is the shortest distance between two feelings

I headed to the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal after work last night, eager to see an exhibit before it closes at the end of the month. It's small (and beautiful), so while there I took a quick look at the other ongoing exhibits, to see if they're worth coming back for. They are.

I was pleased to note that they all have a quasi-literary connection.

Picture for an Exhibition
"For time is the longest distance between two places." This line from Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie serves as the premise for this first iteration of a series of exhibitions of works drawn from the museum's collection. Even before I placed the line, it gripped my heart. It's why I had to see this.

"Beyond Chaos, No. 7," 1998. Betty Goodwin,
What struck me when I walked into the exhibition space is that there are no labels on the walls; no titles or artist names, no lists of materials, no descriptions or concepts (these are available in a handout, but they're notintrusive). The art just is. And everything in this space works, it feels right together, it makes sense. Recurring symbols and structures, images of successive phases of motion. It made me feel freeze-framed, time-stopped.

The standout piece is undoubtedly "Measuring Stick," by Sarah Sze. It looks like the messy desk of some future anthropologist with some bizarre theory of everything (it feels very Terry Gilliam). "Measuring Stick" whirrs and flutters and flickers and trickles. It fascinates. A glimpse onto a working model of something much bigger than this life that I know.

On the other hand, it's Betty Goodwin's "Beyond Chaos, No. 7" that I kept returning to. It made me feel... elevated.

Teresa Margolles: Mundos
In sharp contrast to the previous exhibition, Margolles' works hit home only after reading the labels. But they manage to affect at a subconscious level too.

One piece in particular has a room to itself, and when I walked into it, I felt my soul being sucked out of me. And then I read about it, and I wanted to run the hell out of there. Every few minutes, bubbles fall from the ceiling, made with water used to wash dead bodies who were victims of violence.

These artworks are grim, and they are political.

The literary connection is a tenuous one, but nevertheless: some of the works are connected to Ciudad Juárez, once deemed the most dangerous place on Earth. It's immortalized for me as such in Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Teresa Margolles' work evokes in me the same visceral response that 2666 caused me.

Another piece looks like barbed wire strung across a room, but it's remnants of sutures to sew up victims of violent death after autopsy.

I was so disturbed after my walkthrough, I returned to "the longest distance between two places" — to interrupt myself, to remove myself, to restart myself.

Emanuel Licha: Now Have a Look at This Machine
What do Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, and Franz Kafka have in common? Their books are used as props in the environment of the installation, supporting the context for Licha's creative documentary film. The film has set times for English and French screenings; I'll go back another day for this experience.

The machine is that otherwise known as war.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

"Boredom is the mind's scar tissue."

"I don't actually think that ethics are derived from principles. At all." Patricia scooted a little closer again and touched his arm with a few cool fingertips. "I think that the most basic thing of ethics is being aware of how your actions affect others, and having an awareness of what they want and how they feel. And that's always going to depend on who you're dealing with."

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, is delightful. I can easily see it being quite a few people's favourite new book, and I've recommended it to some friends as such.

I was a little wary because I'm wary of magic. I just am. Don't mess with magic. Maybe because I don't believe in magic (apart from the magic principles my microwave, for example, and airplanes and the internet operate on), I think it's very difficult to write well — that is, believably.

And the ultimate showdown between magic and science, as this novel was being made out to be, just sounds simplistically grandiose.

But then the Tournament of Books happened, and there was so much love for this book, and dismay when it was knocked out of the running, and hope when it looked it might return as a crowd favourite. So I rushed to my library, and yay.

It turns out it's not really about magic or science. It's a love story. It's about misfit schoolmates Patricia and Laurence and the bonds that develop between them. Patricia is eventually whisked off to magic school, and Laurence becomes the genius scientist we always knew he would be. As adults, their lives collide. A scientist would control nature, but a witch must serve it.

It's light — that is, there's a lightness to it, lightness of touch, lightness of heart. It made me feel happy — but not because of the story, almost in spite of the story. Happy to be immersed in this kind of book. This is a book I wanted to stay up all night with. I loved the experience of this book more than the book itself.

I read it over a cold and still snowy weekend just over a week ago, and I've mostly forgotten the story. I do, however, remember the feeling of reading this story, which is sometimes more important.
Patricia had to crouch down to talk to a confused marmalade cat, who needed help finding his way home. (He remembered what his house looked like on the inside, but not on the outside.)
While it's a lovely book, I don't understand what's so original or genre-bending about this book. It seems to have cast its own spell on its readership. It's sweet and funny, with some great turns of phrase (though, I'm still puzzling over what exactly "Boredom is the mind's scar tissue." actually means).

As for the Tournament, All the Birds in the Sky won over Han Kang's The Vegetarian:
Perhaps because, political situations being what they are, I wanted to know that I was in the hands of a writer who wouldn't be falsely optimistic, but could still bring me joy.
But then it lost to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad:
Anders’s prose — pretty, joyous, and inventive — felt a little too light next to Whitehead’s. Perhaps that feeling came from my own headspace, which is currently dark and stormy. But The Underground Railroad called to me more urgently than All the Birds in the Sky. I suspect in any other year, alongside any other book, the latter would win, in a landslide. But here we are. Happy 2017.
One judge liked its hope, the other opted for a strong dose of reality (despite the liberties taken in expressing that reality).

Had it been up to me to choose between All the Birds in the Sky and The Vegetarian (the only two books of the tournament I've read), I would have talked about trees. Treeness figures in both stories: In The Vegetarian Yeong-hye wants to become a tree — plant matter is persistent, if mute. In All the Birds in the Sky, the Tree is all-knowing; nature ultimately merges with science. The oneness the tree represents is in one case internal, in the other external. Though I read it months ago, The Vegetarian took root in me, and I vastly prefer the feeling of being deeply unsettled over the fleeting flush of All the Birds.
After Laurence and Serafina drifted away, Patricia told Kevin, "I didn't really save his life. He was exaggerating."

Kevin shrugged, causing his watch chain to jangle. "It's his life. One tends to privilege personal insights in such matters."

Saturday, April 01, 2017

A tendency to form inconvenient alliances

This week I read something by Anne Tyler — The Accidental Tourist — because there it was on my reader and I was looking for something non-demanding to read, I must've picked it up for a dollar or so, thinking I should see what Anne Tyler's all about, because lots of readers seem to like her, and I recall a ringing endorsement from Nigella Lawson (even if not for this novel in particular).

If I were a different kind of person, I would've set the book down after a dozen or so pages. Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of person.
Back home, Macon had kept a stack of index cards giving detailed directions to the houses of his friends — even friends he'd known for decades. And it used to be that whenever Ethan met a new boy, Macon's first anxious question was, "Where exactly does he live, do you know?" Ethan had had a tendency to form inconvenient alliances. He couldn't just hang out with the boy next door; oh, no, it had to be someone who lived way beyond the Beltway. What did Ethan care? He had no trouble navigating. This was because he'd lived all his life in one house, was Macon's theory; while a person who'd been moved around a great deal never acquired a fixed point of reference but wandered forever in a fog — adrift upon the planet, helpless, praying that just by luck he might stumble across his destination.
I'm not even sure why I didn't like it. None of the characters are particularly likeable or admirable, but that's never stopped me from liking a book before. None of them exhibits much growth or acquires much awareness either. I simply didn't care what happened.

I found myself reading for the sake of reading — not that there's anything wrong with that. Maybe in fact it was just the thing to ease me through a tedious workweek. I mean, the story is sweet enough; the book is not offensively terrible in any way. Just... sweet. Maybe I would not have fared any differently with any other book this week.

But I think I can conclude that if this novel is at all representative — is it? — then Anne Tyler is not for me.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

That accidental closeness

I began to sweat. I was squeezed between two old women who stared straight ahead with an unnatural rigidity. One held her purse tight under her arm; the other pressed hers against her stomach, one hand on the clasp, the thumb in a ring attached to the pull of the zipper. The passengers who were standing leaned over us, breathing on us. Women suffocated between male bodies, panting because of that accidental closeness, irritating even if apparently guiltless. In the crush men used the women to play silent games with themselves. One stared ironically at a dark-haired girl to see if she would lower her gaze. One, with his eyes, caught a bit of lace between two buttons of a blouse, or harpooned a strap. Others passed the time looking out the window into cars for a glimpse of an uncovered leg, the play of muscles as a foot pushed brake of clutch, a hand absentmindedly scratching the inside of a thigh. A small thin man, crushed by those behind him, tried to make contact with my knees and nearly breathed in my hair.

I turned toward the nearest window, in search of air.
— from Troubling Love, by Elena Ferrante.

I don't know which season is best for public transportation. A stranger brushing, or pressed against, my bare skin, or someone coughing into my neck.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Tattered like the sieve of some stupid, grinning, sunflower-seed-cracking old woman

Last week's blizzard inspired me to pick up The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin. I recall treating myself to this hardcover, Christmas 2015; I was in D.C., and it was unseasonably warm and the timing wasn't right for it. Last week, however, was perfect.

Fittingly, I write this as it's snowing again. So much snow.

I love this book. It is deeply strange and funny and tragic.

You start off thinking you're reading something old-timey, à la Bulgakov. It's charming, but affected — of another era. But it's so not that.

Platon Ilich Garin is a doctor on a mission to carry a vaccine to a remote village, where an epidemic is wreaking havoc (and it's not the sort of epidemic you might expect). Garin's trying to negotiate fresh horses with the stationmaster but there are none he may be stuck there, till someone remembers Crouper, who didn't do the bread delivery so he might be available. And he has a sled, with fifty horses under the hood; the hood basically a tarp, and the horses are miniature, the size of partridges. (Other technology gets mentioned that jars you out of the mistaken belief that this is ninetennth-century Russia; this is not the world that you know.)

So the doctor and the sled driver set out.

And they encounter delay after obstacle after obstacle after delay. The blizzard itself has them moving slow, cold, blind, often in circles. There are literal obstacles, buried under the snow, like the mysterious transparent pyramid, the size of a hat, hard as steel.
"I said, where's the village?!" the doctor shouted in a voice filled with hatred, for the storm, the cemetery, and that idiot birdbrain Crouper who had led him who knows where. He was angry at his wet toes freezing in his boots; at his heavy, fur-lined, snow-covered coat; at the ridiculous painted sled with its idiotic midget horses inside that idiotic plywood hood; at the blasted epidemic, brought to Russia by some swine from far-off, godforsaken, goddamned Bolivia, which no decent Russian person had any need for at all; at that scientific, pontificating crook Zilberstein, who cared only about his own career and had left earlier on the mail horses without a thought for his colleague, Dr. Garin; at the endless road surrounded by drowsy snowdrifts; at the snakelike, snowy wind whipping ominously above them; at the hopeless gray sky, tattered like the sieve of some stupid, grinning, sunflower-seed-cracking old woman, which kept sowing, sowing, and sowing these accursed snowflakes.
There are Vitaminders. They have a Mongolian-wise-man feel about them, but more than likely they are merely corporate pharmaceutical kingpins, of the crooked variety, whatever they might be doing in the middle of nowhere.

There's a fantastic 8-page drug trip, where Garin understands everything but retains nothing; he's reduced to tears and a state of infancy (but not innocence). I mean, fucking Vitaminders. With product! It's weird.

Garin's nose — the size and the colour of it — is a recurring image; I wonder if this isn't meant to reference Gogol, though I'm not sufficiently well-read to explain the significance of it.

Tragically, Garin himself is often the reason for the delay, and he never takes responsibility for that. He'd hoped to make it by nightfall, but days go by. And sadly, the novel ends before he reaches his destination, so we never learn how that epidemic turns out.

New York Times review (a bit spoilery).

[I'm thinking it's nigh time I return to Sorokin's Ice Trilogy.]

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In the evenings I'm truly unfathomable

Of course, everybody thinks I'm no good. Actually, when I'm hung over in the mornings I'm of the same opinion. But really, how can you trust the opinion of a person who hasn't yet had a hair of the dog? Now in the evenings — oh, God, what depths I can reveal! — always assuming, of course, I've had a good skinful during the day — in the evenings I'm truly unfathomable.

Well, okay, so I'm no good, so what? In general terms, I'd say a person who feels lousy in the morning, and who's buzzing with ideas in the evening, full of dreams and schemes, is just no good at all. Rotten mornings, and great evenings, are a sure sign of a bad person. But if it's the other way round — if somebody's bright and cheerful first thing, full of hope, and then totally knackered by evening, they're nothing but garbage, narrow-minded mediocrities. Complete shits, in my view. I don't know about you, but I reckon they're shits.

Of course, there are people to whom morning and evening are all the same, sunrise and sunset equally pleasing — people like that are straightforward bastards, it disgusts me even to talk about them. Then again, if somebody feels lousy morning and evening alike, well, I just don't know what to say, that's the last word in scum, a complete dickhead. I mean, the off-licenses stay open till nine at night, and the Yeliseev's open till eleven, for God's sake, and if you're not a scumbag, you can always manage lift-off to somewhere by evening, you can surely reach some sort of shallow depths...
— from Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerefeev.

So are you a morning person or an evening person?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

She had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric

I found Troubling Love, by Elena Ferrante, to be something of a troubling novel, on several levels.

It's Ferrante's first novel. Perhaps it shows; maybe it lacks fluidity, or something like that — it's jarring. I would not recommend this book as a way into Ferrante. It's narratively less compelling than her other novels. Maybe my hesitation in endorsing it lies simply in that it's so troubling (which, of course, may be the point). This is not an easy book.

Then there's the novels subjects and themes. Also troubling.

This is about Delia, a 40-ish-year-old woman coming to terms with her mother's death. There's the problem of the nature of the death, accidental or deliberate — could it really have been suicide? There's the problem of the circumstances of the death — where she was and with whom, and dressed like that? There's the problem of the relationship of the mother, long ago separated from Delia's father, with another man, whom Delia recalls from her childhood.
It occurred to me that ever since she was a girl Amalia had thought of hands as gloves, silhouettes first of paper, then of leather. She had sewed and sewed. Then, moving on, she had reduced widows of generals, wives of dentists, sisters of magistrates to measurements of bust and hips. Those measurements, taken by discreetly embracing, with her seamstress's tape, female bodies of all ages, became paper patterns that, fastened to the fabric with pins, portrayed on it the shadows of breasts and hips. Now, intently, she cut the material, stretched tight, following the outline imposed by the pattern. For all the days of her life she had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric, and perhaps it had become a habit, and so, out of habit, she tacitly rethought what was out of proportion, giving it the proper measure. I had never thought about this, and now that I had I couldn't ask her if it really had been like that. Everything was lost. But, in front of Signora De Riso as she ate cherries, I found that that final game of fabrics between her and Caserta, that reduction of their underground history to a conventional exchange of old garments for new, was a sort of ironic fulfillment. My mood abruptly changed. I was suddenly content to believe that her carelessness had been thought out. Unexpectedly, surprisingly, I liked that woman who in some way had completely invented her story, playing on her own with empty fabrics. I imagined that she hadn't died unsatisfied, and I sighed with unexpected satisfaction.
There's the problem of love. Is the title referencing the mother's relationships? Delia's relationship with her mother (not exactly loving, yet somehow fraught with love)? Delia's love life (perhaps troublingly absent)?

There's the problem of memory. How Delia remembers her childhood, and the people and events of her childhood, and the hazy reality of it. The past is quite troubling, and she must finally confront it.

There's Delia's relationship to her own body. Her aging body. Clothes and appearances figure prominently.

The most troubling thing of all: she is becoming her mother.

See also
New York Times: Return to Naples
The Iowa Review

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The only map we have is woefully lacking

"You used a map to get to this inn yesterday, did you not? Because of that map, you are able to find our way up the road without getting lost. Likewise, in order for us as a species to walk the correct path in life, we need a very detailed map that will tell us what the world is like. Except our map in incomplete, almost entirely useless. Which is why, even now, in the twenty-first century, people are still making mistakes. War and the destruction of the environment and countless other things persist because the only map we have is woefully lacking. It's the mission of scientists to fill in those missing pieces."
A Midsummer's Equation, by Keigo Higashino, is a perfectly delightful old-school mystery story. By which I mean, no hi-tech pyrotechnics, no weird sex, no ultra violence, no obscure specialists in esoteric fields of study you've never heard of. Just a suspicious death, some good old police work, and a fairly innocuous nest of family secrets.

That's a good thing.

It also makes the "Japanese Steig Larsson" proclamation stamped across the front cover silly, though I won't dispute that Higashino deserves to be better known. I loved The Devotion of Suspect X. A Midsummer's Equation is not as innovative a puzzle, but it confirms Higashino as a reliable writer to fall back on when I'm in the mood for a mystery.

Despite physicist Yukawas's insistence on the pursuit of pure truth and knowledge for its own sake, he seems very much concerned with moral truths. It is clear that for him the right path is the one leading to the greatest benefit for humanity. While logical, it may not be strictly legal. And that makes it quite different from many of the mysteries I've read in recent years in which legal justice tends to prevail.

This novel is not thriller. It's a tearjerker.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sending out coded signals

Why do people whose existence you are unaware of, whom you meet once and will never see again, come to play, behind the scenes, an important role in your life?
So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood was originally published in French just the week before Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. No doubt this speeded along its translation.

I've read a few Modiano novels now, enough to confidently say this one is typical, if slighter.

This can easily be read in one sitting, if you don't count my getting up to fix myself a cocktail.

This book is all mood, and great to get lost in, but if you're looking to get from point A to B via a traditional story, with, you know, an ending, this book won't get you anywhere.

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood starts in the Paris apartment of Jean Daragane, an aging novelist, who receives a mysterious phonecall, which leads to a meeting with a mysterious couple and further meetings with the young woman (with a mysterious dress), and a mysterious file folder containing a mysterious yet familiar passport photo, and from there it meanders down mysterious memory lane.

The couple had asked Daragane about a specific man, but his memories of him are vague and convoluted and intertwined with equally fuzzy memories of other figures from his past. He'd used the name of that man in one of his novels, and a few episodes also had basis in his memory of his reality.
He had written this book only in the hope that she might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves.[...] He had never understood why anyone should want to put someone who had mattered to them into a novel. Once that person had drifted into a novel in much the same way as one might walk through a mirror, he escaped from you forever. He had never existed in real life. He had been reduced to nothingness...
So were they important names, or weren't they?

We never learn what really became of the figures from the past, we never learn much about the murder beyond the fact that there was one (and it's mentioned barely as much as I mention it here), we never know where the dress came from and the young woman never comes back for it. Most puzzling of all to me, we never know what happened to Jean's mother, or why he was temporarily in the care of others.

Tellingly, when Daragane goes to investigate the house of his memories, the local doctor suggests the best informant might be the little boy who was present — but this of course is Daragane himself. I mean, there are episodes from my childhood that, weirdly, my mother knows nothing about. But I know I don't understand them fully because I processed them the way a 7-year-old would.
Many years afterwards, we attempt to solve puzzles that were not mysteries at the time and we try to decipher half-obliterated letters from a language that is too old and whose alphabet we don't even know.
It's very Paul Auster, City of Glass, only more realistic. All very fuzzy and mind-bendy. The mood, and the way Daragane processes his memories, is very much exacerbated by the unseasonable heat — it makes everything urgent, sexual, restless, confused.

LA Times, Patrick Modiano's many detours into echoes, longings and tension:
It also has to do with how the past appears to rise up from the streets around us, mingling with the present until we are no longer sure where (or when) we are.
The Northwest Review of Books:
As we age, our brains accept and absorb events differently, and thus our perception of the importance of these events changes too. Storytelling often suggests clean causality, but that, for Daragane, is a youthful interpretation. For him, older and more isolated, the sheer vastness of his memory makes these connections nearly impossible to make.
The New Yorker, The Mysteries of Patrick Modiano

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

He died in the hall with the radio on

I've been working my way through a collection of short stories, Tenth of December, by George Saunders.

I have the impression that Saunders is a big deal. (I read and loved The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip a long time ago.)

The thing is, I don't get on well with short stories in general. I don't know why. Too short to connect, to develop a relationship with? But then there are several specific short stories that I have actually liked. It's the idea of short stories I don't like. That is, I like the idea of reading a story that's short. I just don't like them. Most of them are forgettable, they don't stay with me. I generally don't choose to read short stories.

With that massive disclaimer out of the way, I'll say these stories were quite all right. In fact they were just the thing, the right kind of bedtime reading this past week. I will consider reading more Saunders. The stories are very human and tragic, and several of them have a futuristic or science fiction-y aspect that while not central is essential to the backdrop of the story. Or maybe it is central. That is, the stories start off being very familiar, until suddenly they're really not.

One of the stories ("The Semplica Girl Diaries") I would've loved to experience at novel length.

Another story I loved is shorter than short. (I like really short short stories like this one; I like them better than short stories. They have a meditative aspect like poetry. All that's inessential has been stripped away.) I give it to you here in its entirety.

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he'd built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod's helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad's only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said: what's with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We'd stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom's makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.
That's it. That's the whole gut-wrenching story. Doesn't it make you just — ?

All of the stories in this collection are available online:

Victory Lap
Escape from Spiderhead
Al Roosten
The Semplica Girl Diaries
My Chivalric Fiasco
Tenth of December

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The forgetfulness of sugar

Edgar felt confused. He wanted a cookie, the forgetfulness of sugar. [...] Life was complicated, and dangerous. Edgar needed a teacher. Someone, like the aliens, who could extend long fingers into his brain and adjust the dials, rearrange the chaos of dots until the picture was marvelous and clear, and with no effort at all you would understand why you'd been born in a place where the rain of information never ceased, and where every person was a baffling conceit.
I'm not sure why I accepted a review copy of Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato.

If I'd known more about what it was about, I might not have picked it up. (I remember thinking something similar about Lodato's first novel, Mathilda Savitch.) I don't naturally gravitate toward books that deal explicitly with grief, childhood trauma, family secrets, tragedy. (I don't seem to mind when those themes are implicit, subtly woven into the fabric of a story, but when a book is about overcoming a challenge, I tend to look elsewhere.)

Edgar is an eight-year-old albino boy, Lucy's his mom, his father's gone, dead, suicide. Lucy's got a limp and she drinks too much. They live with Edgar's grandmother, who has her own ghosts to deal with, until she dies. And then Edgar goes missing.

Upon starting in, I wasn't convinced I was prepared to invest my time in 500+ pages, but Lodato's writing is hugely compelling, and comes a point you have to know how it ends. I would've cut a few pages, but in the end I was quite satisfied to have spent a rainy day last weekend blanketed with this book.


Saturday, March 04, 2017

Everything there was sliced-up nerves

Reading notes on Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H., the fourth and fifth chapters.

The first sentence of each chapter repeats the last sentence of the preceding chapter. It makes for a nice sense of continuity, maybe a looping effect. (Should I skip to the end to see the very last sentence? No.) Każdy przecież początek to tylko ciąg dalszy... [Every beginning is but a continuation...] ("Love at First Sight," Wisława Szymborska).

I wonder if these sentences stack up to have a more direct message,say, à la If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (Italo Calvino), where the chapter headings tell their own story.

In the fourth chapter, G.H. enters the maid's room to find the opposite of what she'd expected: it is orderly, clean, bright, dry, stripped bare — "as in an insane asylum."
The room seemed to be on a level incomparably higher than the apartment itself.

Like a minaret.
This is an effect of the angles and reflections, but the use of the word "minaret" connotes something spiritual yet foreign. One wonders if G.H. doesn't perceive it as higher morally, uncomfortable as the sight makes her.

This room is described so vividly, I think I can draw it. On one wall are drawn in charcoal a naked man and woman and a dog, with a coarse rigidity, hard motionlessness (p 31).
They were emerging as if they'd gradually oozed from the wall, slowly coming from the center until they'd sweated through the rough lime surface. tries to recall the maid, believing this mural is intended as a message for her, but has trouble doing so (p 32).
Abruptly, this time with real discomfort, I finally let a sensation come to me which for six months, out of negligence and lack of interest, I hadn't let myself feel: The silent hatred of that woman. What surprised me was that it was a kind of detached hatred, the worst kind: indifferent hatred. Not a hatred that individualized me but merely the lack of mercy. No, not even hatred.
G.H. describes the maid as having the features of a queen, and for this she is despised. I get the sense that the maid is physically superior, so G.H. tries extra hard to bring her down. The maid is also "invisible" (p 33). Class tensions are in play — did the maid intend the dog to represent G.H.? G.H. feels the maid, her inferior, is judging her. I'm reminded of Magda Szabo's The Door, for the force of the clashes between the employer and employee, each with a strong worldview entirely formed by where they came from.

Three old suitcases labeled G.H. are stacked along one wall. Barely noticeable. As if she herself had been boxed up, set aside, forgotten? Accumulating dust.

G.H. looks more closely at the room. Everything is dry, dusty, bleached, desert-like, in contrast to her habitual cozy, moist surroundings, their soft beauty. This is a place where things are exposed, over-exposed. "The room was the portrait of an empty stomach" (p 34). "Everything there was sliced-up nerves that had been hung up and dried on a clothesline."

Oh my god, this room is becoming an attack on all her senses. Charcoal scratching like needles on records and hissing and fingernails.

G.H. is planning on setting the room right, but she is summoning up a violent rage, the urge to kill. And then she goes i n(p 36). (She's been standing in the doorway this whole time?) She feels like the world is collapsing in on her. "Suddenly the whole world that was me shriveled up in fatigue." It's like some facade has crumbled, some pretense of being the kind of human being she'd fashioned herself to be. "And it's inside myself that I must create that someone who will understand." She's lost and needs to find herself, create herself anew.

Is it really the room that is triggering this existential crisis? Her relationship to the maid, and the existing class structures? The contrast of the room to the rest of her life that makes her question, I don't know, truth, purity, fullness? Or is it just that she's remembering how it unfolded yesterday, that now she reinterprets her perceptions then in order to make sense of her present state. The room is a void, a nothingness she's breached. She left pieces of herself in the hallway because she didn't fit.

She needs to refocus. The wardrobe. "The darkness inside escaped like a puff." The suspense! "And, as if the darkness inside were spying on me, we briefly spied each other without seeing each other." It's a Neitzschean moment, slightly sidestepped; what might you become if you saw each other? The door's blocked, move the bed over. Open the door! My god, it's a fucking horror novel!

A cockroach! Ancient, repulsive, obsolete, lurking in your wardrobe. Are there more?

"They're the miniature version of an enormous animal." What? Obviously that's not meant literally. A beast like Satan (though I don't recall him ever being described in insect-like terms)? Death? Life? Slow, patient, meaningless life? Something primal. Fear? What is this enormous animal?

Now the room is a sarcophagus, housing the roach and that maid. G.H feels herself limited, delimited by space. "I wasn't imprisoned but I was located." G.H. recalls an impoverished childhood (is she afraid of her past? ashamed of her past? afraid of denying her past?). Space and time are wholly palpable. And she needs to escape, needs to admit the danger she's in (what danger?).

"That was when the cockroach began to emerge." It really is a horror novel!

Thursday, March 02, 2017

I lost my human form for several hours

I am reading Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H. It is clearly a book that demands something of the reader. It hopes to be read by "people whose souls are already formed." I think I qualify.

I am forcing myself to read slowly, though I feel I could devour this in just a few hours. I want to document my understanding, my processing of it. I feel it's important.

The passion, the suffering. Of whom, what? Is this a Jesus story? And who is G.H.?

The epigraph is from Bernard Berenson: "A complete life may be one ending in so full identification with the non-self that there is no self to die." Wikipedia tells me that Berenson was an art historian specializing in the Renaissance. Perhaps he and Lispector knew each other. They both had Jewish backgrounds, and emigrated from Eastern Europe (though decades apart).

The novel starts with series of dashes, blanks. "I'm searching, I'm searching. I'm trying to understand." the narrator is mired in profound personal disorder, existential chaos. To the narrator, nothing makes sense anymore.

Something happened yesterday (p 4). "Yesterday, however, I lost my human setup for hours and hours." But then (p 6), "I get so scared when I realize I lost my human form for several hours. I don't know if I'll have another form to replace the one I lost." So, is the narrator currently formless? That seems to be the case in terms of the narrator's consciousness and sense of self. But is this more than metaphorical? Did something happen to the narrator physically? This reminds me a little of Lila's "dissolving margins" and "dissolving boundaries" in Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet, where the form of things breaks down to reveal some terrifying essence, only the self was somehow preserved from dissolving while experiencing the effects. Here, the self is lost too, and there seems to be trouble in regaining it.

The narrator refers to having lost a third leg, something that was essential but never existed and is no longer needed. An absence. An absence in relief, a positive absence.

The narrator has lost organization (acquired disorganization?) and lost courage (acquired cowardice?). But the narrator cannot yet feel freely, give over to disorientation.

There is something of a confession: that life is a disappointment. "Maybe disappointment is the fear of no longer belonging to a system?" Hence the fear of not being able to create order out of disorder (and disappointment when one stops wanting to try?)?

What the fuck happened yesterday?

The narrator is afraid of passion (p 7). But here, I think, the passion is in the sense of intense emotion.
Then may I at least have the courage to let this shape form by itself like a scab that hardens by itself, like the fiery nebula that cools into earth. And may I have the great courage to resist the temptation of to invent a form.
Do not make meaning. Give over to it.

Something was revealed. A secret the narrator is already forgetting. Relearning it would require re-dying. Did the narrator die? Literally?

The narrator breaks the wall so the reader can hold her hand (but I don't know yet that the narrator is a woman). But she cannot imagine a whole person because she herself is not a whole person (missing that third leg, I think).

This horror she has seen is the vastness of the truth. But truth of what? Maybe what she saw was love.

She has lost her fear of ugliness, and this is good and sweet.

"Creating isn't imagining, it's taking the great risk of grasping reality."

The narrator spends a couple pages trying to explain the difficulty of articulating any kind of truth; we've had ample evidence of this difficulty already.

"Three thousand years ago I went astray, and what was left were phonetic fragments of me" (p 14). Um, what? Is the narrator now claiming to be three thousand years old? Her consciousness in three thousand years old? Her missing third leg is three thousand years old?

Yesterday she went into the maid's room we learn at the start of the second chapter (though the chapters are not numbered), the maid who had quit the day before. She was having breakfast, deciding her day, she remembers.

She reflects on, trying to recapture, who she was before. In a photo, her face revealed a silence: The Mystery (mystery of faith?). "Courage isn't being alive, knowing that you're alive is courage." Here we are with the problem of self-awareness.

We learn that her suitcases are initialed G.H. We learn definitively that she is a woman (p 18). A so-called successful person, a sculptor. Her reputation placed her socially between men and women, "which granted me far more freedom to be a woman, since I didn't have to take formal care to be one." This was written in 1964.

More about the truth and false truths. How we reflect each other. Here personal life has "a light tone of pre-climax." Is this suggested sexually? Is that the kind of passion this book is addressing after all?
My question, if there was one, was not: "Who am I," but "Who is around me." My cycle was complete: what I lived in the present was already getting ready so I could later understand myself. An eye watched over my life. This eye was probably what I would probably now call truth, now morality, now human law, now God, now me. I lived mostly inside a mirror. Two minutes after my birth I had already lost my origins.
She describes her apartment, like herself, moist shadows and light. Elegant, ironic, witty. "Everything here actually refers to a life that wouldn't suit me if it were real" (p 22). She herself lives in quotation marks (p 23). She is a replica of herself. (Are we preparing to meet the real self?) She was devoted to not being.

The third chapter starts with G.H.'s plan to clean the apartment, starting with the maid's room. Before starting, she pauses and looks around her:
I was seeing something that would only make sense later — I mean, something that only later would profoundly not make sense. Only later would I understand: what seems like a lack of meaning — that's the meaning. Every moment of "lack of meaning" is precisely the frightening certainty that that's exactly what it means, and that not only can I not reach it, I don't want to because I have no guarantees. The lack of meaning would only overwhelm me later. Could realizing the lack of meaning have always been my negative way of sensing the meaning? it had been my way of participating.
(Participating in meaning? in life?)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Elections are sugar-coated oppression."

"You can't exist today, much less be a dodgy, widely hated world leader, and not assume that your every action is being documented."
Infomocracy, by Malka Older, describes a future world operating on the principles of microdemocracy. Every 10 years, everyone worldwide votes for a government in their centenal, a kind of riding or district of 100,000 people, a representative democracy, where the party that wins the majority of centenals, wins the Supermajority — basically, runs the world. But crossing from one centenal to the next, an individual may be subject to a vastly different set of rules.

There's a push from some factions for electoral reform for nanodemocracy, to bring global government closer to one person, one vote. The technology of the future makes this perfectly feasible.

There's a passage from David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy that has always stuck with me:
Consider the ATM machine. In the last thirty years, I can't remember a single occasion in which I have asked an ATM machine for money and gotten an incorrect amount. Nor have I been able to find anyone I know who can. This is so true that in the wake of the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, when the public was being regaled with statistics on the 2.8 percent degree of error expected from this type of voting machine, or the 1.5 percent expected from that, some had the temerity to point out that in a country that defines itself as the world's greatest democracy, where elections are our very sacrament, we seem to just accept that voting machines will regularly miscount the vote, while every day hundreds of millions of ATM transactions take place with an overall zero percent rate of error. What does this say about what really matters to Americans as a nation?
According to Graeber, it would seem, America values money over democracy. The future of Infomocracy indicates a mature global economy; money and voting as values may be seen as equivalent. Electoral technology is accurate. But it is still susceptible to tampering.

Elections are administered and monitored by an organization, a great bureaucracy, called Information. The future is chockfull of big data, and Information watches it and processes it. It's an always-on Googly-glassbook, instastats, mega-infobubble world.

Given all the election difficulties plaguing our current world, Infomocracy's future system — where nationhood cedes to community-based voting blocks — makes sense on many levels. Until you remember two things: 1. Technology can be hacked. 2. Information is power.
"Information is a public good," one of the older men says with finality. "It may fail for technical reasons, and we may strategize about the best technical approach to get it back up. but we will not withhold Information once it is in our power to make it available. We cannot give ourselves the power to see and leave everyone else blind."
So, all is good, so long as we aspire to be our better selves. But it wouldn't be much of a thriller if that were all there were to it. Remind me someday to tell you about the busride last fall when I realized that maybe people aren't basically good.
"Surely you would prefer for the election system not to exist? We are working to eliminate it, or at the very least make it more realistic..."

The open question breaks the tension, and the sheikh laughs. "Why would we want to change it? There is nothing that suits us more than most of the world believing that their will is being carried out by governments that do exactly as they please."
Infomocracy is definitely a thriller, but who wins the election is not nearly so interesting a problem as the electoral process itself and the mystery of how information is wielded. I'll definitely be looking up the next books in this planned trilogy.

Living in an infomocracy.
Excerpt. (Chapters 1-5 are available online.)

This book is like any other book

I was feeling torn about what to read next, so I let the cat decide.

Rosie says, quite emphatically, paws down: The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector.

It opens with a note "To Possible Readers":
This book is like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed.
This concerns me a little. I hope I'll be OK.

Lispector again blipped across my radar this week in a bookclub discussion of Pola Oloixarac's Savage Theories, when someone speculated whether there might be an intentional reference to The Passion in this passage:
A cockroach scuttled along the edge of the room. [...] I gave the order for Montaigne Michelle to set her ambush . . . Now! She purred toothily. The individual in question (a Blatella germanica) came forward a meter or so: Montaigne put it down with a single swipe of her paw. Flat on its back, its abdomen contracted in pain, the cockroach bent its antennae toward us. I believe that it sensed the formidable presence of its motionless adversary — perhaps, too, that of the impromptu Thucydides who sat nearby taking notes. Finally it managed to get back on its feet. And here is where this domestic tableau takes on transcendental dimensions: it was at this moment that, overawed by such brutality, irresistibly attracted to a power far superior to her own, the scene's victim advanced voluntarily toward the Predator, and bowed down to her, in a sign of Reverence.
Fittingly, it seems Lispector's novel offered itself up to the beast to be devoured in a similar way.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

She wasn't sure how to live

She used to think falling in love was alchemy, that animals had weddings, that coal was a gemstone, that mountains were hollow, that trees had hidden eyes!
The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie, was something of a disappointment.

I kept bumping up against this novel at the end of the year, and there's a squirrel on the cover, which I took for a sign. Why a squirrel would be a sign I won't explain here, but I bought a copy for my sister, and I read a library copy, hoping the squirrel had some secret wisdom to impart, to me, to us. Alas not.

The Portable Veblen is, in fact, a rom-com — not really my thing.

The New York Times sums up the novel as follows:
At 30, Veblen still surfs from one unchallenging administrative job to the next, conserving her real energy for her translation work for something called the Norwegian Diaspora Project in Oslo. She takes antidepressants every morning (Vivactil, citalopram). She never finished college. She prefers to read, bike and compile trivia about squirrels and become a secret expert on the life and ideas of the Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen, for whom she was named.

For all its charm, bounce, radiant eccentrics and diverting episodes involving drug companies and squirrels, that is what "The Portable Veblen" is about: shaking the demented ghosts of our youth so that we can bind with clean spirits to someone in our adulthood.

Or, as Veblen puts it: "A wedding is the time and place to recognize the full clutch of the past in the negotiation of a shared future. Try devoting a few pages to that, Brides magazine!"

I won't give away how the book ends. But "The Portable Veblen" is a novel of such festive originality that it would be a shame to miss.
The Guardian called it "raw, weird and hilarious." According to the LA Times, it's "deep, wise and eccentric."

I don't see it — the originality, the weirdness. Because she talks to squirrels? I've read much stranger, more original things than this.
She relaxed and watched a family at a table nearby, the parents feeding the children, wiping their mouths, cleaning their hands, a father and mother and two children, the unit of them unsettling to her, though she couldn't say why. She looked away, at an older man eating by himself, and that unsettled her too. She wasn't sure how to live.
It feels like a missed opportunity to talk about the other Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class and conspicuous consumption. This book is blah, blah, shitty childhood, blah, blah, first-world problems, blah, do I really love him, blah, do the right thing. It's all very sweet and light and nice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why we stand in line at nightclubs

— So, the human brain is designed to establish relationships only within small groups, and seeks constantly to reproduce the feeling of being "just amongst us." All attempts at socialization are intended to recreate within us a series of previously successful patterns of empathy, because . . . Aha! Because the only real human instinct is to flee into the forest depths. If this weren't the case, why would the State expend so much effort teaching us to love that which is social, and why such frantic insistence on the amorous-gregarious nature of the glorious Fatherland? Social training is an operating system composed of customs designed to minimize the pain one feels at finding oneself completely surrounded. Social aristocracies are brought into existence as a form of technology that enables the elite to tolerate the proximity of others, as another way to address the need for human contact felt by the I while simultaneously protecting it from the unwashed hordes via membership cards and club protocols. The presence of the bouncer ensures that the favored group will stay small. The charm exuded by the elite is the Ersatz of an evolutionary defect related to our genetic inability to be alone, which is to say, to rid ourselves of our fear of the forest — and to do so with sufficient speed.

The later is got, the more intense grew the couple's desire not to be turned away at the door.
— from Savage Theories, by Pola Oloixarac.

I haven't yet decided how I feel about this book. I'm only just past halfway.

At first it was quirky and clever, and I liked it.

Then it was all about sex, and it became tiresome. I questioned whether I was being a prude. (I'm not a prude.)

There are bursts that are funny and insightful, but then it gets pretentiously academic, and I feel stupid (I'm not stupid), and I wonder if the pretentiousness is tongue-in-cheek.

"Philosophy is Satan's playground."

It's not yet clear to me what Savage Theories is about. The theorizing seemed to be about sex, and the laws of attraction, and young people claiming and wielding their sexual awareness while also dissociating from it.

Then I think, it is about sex as a political act. Revolutionary. Subversive. "There couldn't be anything in this world more beautiful than working for justice and fucking in the name of the Fatherland." And then it is about power; of course it's about power. Predatory behaviour. Everyone's a predator.

Then there is the Theory of Egoic Transmissions. (I don't know.)

Also, I need a crash course in Argentine history. Montoneros and Trotskyites. The Dirty War.

So. I will educate myself on some of the issues in Savage Theories, but I'm not sure it will make me like it any better. Right now it feels a little too opaque for me to be able to connect with it.

One hundred pages to go before bedtime, and tomorrow will be bookclub, where I hope all will be explained.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The spiral of us

I don't know how I came to have this book. I've had it for some time, and I know I didn't buy it or steal it. Friends deny giving it to me. Having established that it evidently dropped from nowhere onto my stack, I took it for a sign.

My reading in January had been not exactly depressing, and not heavy, yet it weighed. It felt decidedly male. No, I don't quite know what I mean by this. Coupland, Gaiman, Pynchon, and more, all writing boys' stories. I wanted something... not gentler exactly... More measured?
The lost and found/found and lost is like a section of our DNA. In the spiral of us is the story we can't tell — the story we tell in single lines, separated from one another not by neat spaces but by torn-out years.

Emerson said that the rarest thing on the planet is a truly individual action — but I'd set the bar at a story told. It's why the nineteenth century writers favoured such long and satisfyingly plotted novels. Some of them — like George Eliot — really believed there was something to tell and that we could tell it. Dickens knew very well that we could not, but he told it anyway, glittering and bravura. It's one way of defying chaos — the kind of Chaos, with a capital C, that can't be avoided; the exuberant, unfolding, unpredictable universe, expanding when it should be contracting, made largely of something that is not something but nothing — dark energy, anti-matter. A thing unconfined. What to say when the certainties fail?

Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.
I think I found... that something in The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson, though it didn't entirely work for me.

It's too compressed a book to satisfactorily be all the things it thought about being. It's a sci-fi parable that blends philosophy, anthropology and humour, but it's suddenly a travelogue from the 1700s, deciphering the warring cultures of Easter Island, and then an urban thriller, on the run through society's fringes. Futuristic yet ancient. Space pirates. A resistance movement. A cautionary environmentalist tale. And a love story. Stories within stories. In about 200 pages.

I don't mind that the connections are somewhat opaque, and I generally love Winterson's rhythm, her way with words (sparse but pregnant). But here the change in tone from one narrative to the next, as well as from character to character, felt like a self-indulgent exercise. It's all too deliberate, built for show. Winterson's poetry did not flow naturally out of it; or the characters did not fit comfortably under the umbrella of her poetry. This book demands a lot of the reader, and I'm not sure it's rewarded.

But as one character reminds us: "Stories are always true. It's the facts that mislead."

While I didn't love The Stone Gods as a novel, it provides an endless source of food for thought and conversation. Among its topics for consideration: We have destroyed our planet, depleted its resources, and therefore must colonize a new one (first priority: build a mall). A future with predictably customized advertising and customer service. Genetic manipulation. No one ages anymore. No one gets pregnant anymore (that's what test tubes are for). What is natural? The kernel of our consciousness and "humanity." Machine learning and the inevitability of a singularity. Robo sapiens. Cultural bias, but also species bias. The eery feeling that our future may be a past that we've already experienced — this may not be the first planet we have inhabited and destroyed. The paradox that technology makes us stupid. "Love is an experiment." Is that enough?
Everything is imprinted for ever with what it once was.

Is that true?
Ursula K Le Guin in the Guardian.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The problem with doublethink

I came across an article this morning, posted to Facebook by a Trump supporter, that troubles me for reasons quite beyond the partisan rhetoric. To me it exhibits a warped way of thinking, but most troublesome is that I'm unable to pinpoint why.

Written by John Nolte, a former Breibart editor, BE AFRAID: The Left's Resistance Movement Is EXACTLY as Orwell Depicted It (click at your own risk) proclaims "how truly Orwellian it is for the Left to pretend they are on the side of 1984's angels."

There has been renewed interest of late in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

What is increasingly troubling to me is how the same "evidence" can be held by both sides to argue opposite things. I acknowledge that I live in a bubble of my own devising; my personal bias is to dismiss the other side as dimwitted. But I'm certain that from their own bubble they share the same view of me.

So, how to objectively identify the the parts of and the problems with the arguments?

Quite serendipitously, this past weekend I was sorting through the last 3 boxes — milk crates, actually — of random stuff I need to contend with after having moved a year ago, among which I found a beige exercise book filled with notes made by my eighth-grade self (who even was I back then?) on CoRT III. This unit of CoRT Thinking covers debate and conflict and employs various strategies to examine both sides (EBS) by assessing the structure and value of the arguments.

My eighth-grade self was aware of 1984. The actual year was just around the corner, and soon, my very own big brother would take me to see the film adaptation.

My critical-thinking skills aren't what they used to be, so let me channel my eighth-grade self.

Nolte writes, "Orwell's seminal work is a cautionary tale aimed directly at the king of all Leftists, Josef Stalin."

Problem 1. Equating Stalinism with today's leftists. True that Orwell took aim at Stalin, but he is not the king of all Leftists.

I don't know a single left-leaning individual (and being a reasonably average university-educated, gainfully employed Canadian, I know a few) who condones Stalin. People who vote left of centre are not Orwell's target. Orwell stated that this and other works were "written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism." Stalin was a totalitarian; I am, more or less, a democratic socialist. Very few left-leaning people would even self-identify as communists.

Problem 2. Interpreting the aims of the left as including:
  • "the horrors of an all-powerful central government (that knows what's best for us)" — Might that not describe a president who signs executive orders for the good of us all, because he knows things we don't, and he understands the law better than the lawyers do?
  • "speech and thought policing" — Like discrediting all media as fake news.
  • "endless wars" — Who wants that?
  • "the elimination of the family and gender differences" — Nobody wants to eliminate family! As for the elimination of gender differences, if there's one thing the USSR deserves credit for it's for having produced so many women doctors, engineers, scientists.
Nolte's article then summarizes (his view of) the state of today:
We conservatives are not without our flaws, but we most certainly are not the ones running around portraying a centralized federal government as the solution to every problem, policing language, brutalizing thought-apostates, seeking the destruction of religious faith, spewing anti-science nonsense about gender-fluidity, or doing everything possible to eliminate the nuclear family — including the replacement of the father with a government check. We are also not the ones ginning up endless race and gender wars based on viralized lies and hoaxed hate crimes
Problem 3. I don't even know where to start in picking apart that paragraph. It doesn't remotely resemble the world I live in or reflect the aims of people I know. Who wants the destruction of religious faith? (Perhaps those who fear Islam?) Who is spewing anti-science nonsense? (Maybe the climate change deniers?) I might concede the need to draw attention to race and gender wars, but based on the fact that gross inequalities exist. I'm guessing that John Nolte is neither black nor a woman.

Problem 4. Calling the media Big Brother is a false equivalence. Is that just misunderstanding the source material? Big Brother is the surveillance state. It's the NSA. It's CCTV cameras. It's big data without regulation. The media does not see all.
"Here we were in the middle of Reagan's golden-era. It is Morning in America and I'm supposed to worry about words being placed off limits, guys in dresses peeing next to my daughter, and the Christian Gospels being portrayed on 24/7 cable news as bigotry?"
Problem 5. Reagan's era was not all golden. I was just a teenager, but I recall it as a time of Cold War terror, living under the constant threat of nuclear war. Or meltdown. Doesn't he remember The Day After? Or Ultravox? Or Chernobyl?

Problem 6. I can no longer tell which side Nolte is on. I thought he was worried about guys in dresses peeing next to his daughter. So, he's not? Or is it just that it's thirty years too early for that worry? Is this a time-travel problem?
Now take a good long look around and what you'll see is the deeply-disturbing spectacle of the American Left using their own Resistance movement in the exact same way Big Brother did — to out dissenters, to crush the souls of dissenters, to make violence against dissent, to make an example of those who think in ways unapproved by the Party, to silence, humiliate and punish Thought Criminals.
Problem 7. My head now hurts from trying to unravel this. The Left is Big Brother, the Party, and the Resistance. But the Resistance are the Thought Criminals. So the Left is everyone.

This is the point at which I throw my hands up in the air. It's illogical. Does not compute.

Without engaging in politics, without name calling or condescension, is it possible to define the flaws in this article and argue against it?

This is doublethink: "We have a president capable of standing in the rain and saying it was a sunny day."

Wednesday, February 08, 2017


A feature film based on Tom McCarthy's mindfuckingly awesome novel. A couple showings this week at Phi Centre. I think I need to see this.
All great enterprises are about logistics. Not genius or inspiration or flights of imagination, skill or cunning, but logistics.
― from Remainder, by Tom McCarthy.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

A salad of despair

Yet at least he had believed in the cars, maybe to excess: how could he not, seeing people poorer than him come in, Negro, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bring with them the most godawful of trade-ins: motorized, metal extensions of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in a shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopelessly of children, of supermarket booze, two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or only of dust — and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10c, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the market, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a grey dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes — it made him sick to look, but he had to look. If it had been an outright junkyard, probably he could have stuck things out, made a career: the violence that had caused each wreck being infrequent enough, far enough away from him, to be miraculous, as each death, up till the moment of our own, is miraculous. But the endless rituals of trade-in, week after week, never got as far as violence or blood, and so were too plausible for the impressionable Mucho to take for long. Even if enough exposure to the unvarying grey sickness had somehow managed to immunize him, he could still never accept the way each owner, each shadow, filed in only to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of somebody else's life. As if it were the most natural thing. To Mucho it was horrible. Endless, convoluted incest.
— from The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.

The life of a used car salesman sounds terrible.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Time didn't leak away as it should

A sudden mist, a mumble of thunder over the sea, the wind scurrying along the beach with its crop of old bones and litter, was sometimes all it took to make you feel as though something was about to happen. Though quite what, I didn't know.

I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn't leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.
The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, was a real treat.

The Loney is creepy, in layered way. There's the suspicious religious community that's making a pilgrimage to this corner of England — something seems off about their dynamic, maybe they're too religious, and they definitely appear to be harbouring some secrets from the new priest. There's something the boy's not telling us about the old priest either.

Then there's the creepiness of Catholicism itself: the somber rites of Holy Week, every action steeped in prayer and tragedy. (Having grown up Catholic, this element holds a great deal of interest for me in trying to gauge what is a normal level of religiosity.)

The setting is utterly windswept and gothic, a bleak house by the sea. And the tower across the way, where hanged the witch who lived there. Secret rooms. An underground shrine. Pagan charms and strange goings on in the woods at night.
The Church of the Sacred Heart was an ancient place — dark and squat and glistening amphibiously in the rain.
The locals are mostly unwelcoming, thoroughly unpleasant.
Like most drunks, Billy bypassed the small talk and slapped his bleeding, broken heart into my palm like a lump of raw beef.
Creepy also is the disconnect between now and then. The Loney is a coming-of-age story in a way — of two teenage brothers growing up in the 1970s. Back then, Hanny was mute, and everyone prayed for a miracle. The story is told by the other brother. Something happened that drastically changed how they are today.

I don't recall how I came to learn of this book, but I'm glad I did. A perfect read for a damp blustery day.

The Guardian: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley review — horror days by the sea:
This is a novel of the unsaid, the implied, the barely grasped or understood, crammed with dark holes and blurry spaces that your imagination feels compelled to fill.
The Telegraph: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, review: 'haunted and haunting':
The Loney is certainly a book about bloody rituals and ancient survivals, but it pays considerably more attention to the mechanisms of Christian faith, and to the strange arcana of esoteric Catholicism, than it does to the half-glimpsed paganism of this timeless corner of England.