Saturday, October 21, 2017

The simple moistness of the thing

Reading The Passion According to G.H. (Clarice Lispector) is an exhausting, but thoroughly rewarding, experience. I'm not sure I can maintain this slow pace. I build momentum, and start to zip along, then remind myself to stop and think. Then I reread, and absorb. What am I absorbing, though? Cockroach guts?

I've tried to summarize this book, or the experience of it, to a few people. It goes like this:

It's about a woman, an artist, who comes face to face with a cockroach. Eye to eye. Just that, really. A hundred pages in and maybe an hour has passed, maybe mere minutes, or less. She goes into the maid's room (who resigned the day previously), and the room is bright and dry and pristine white (except for the weird cave painting on the wall). But there in the wardrobe is a cockroach. And it petrifies G.H. And she tries to slam the door on it, but that only results in the white mucous spurting out. And then she confronts it.

And I'm on tenterhooks.

Will G.H. finally succeed in killing it? Will she forgive it, have mercy on it? Will she become it?

What the fuck is this about anyway? Is it about G.H. coming to terms with her classism or racism? Is there an element of lesbianism and/or homophobia vis-à-vis her relationship with the maid? Is it about getting in touch with her emotions? Her sexuality or sexual passion? Her primal being? (The language is startlingly erotic.)

Is it about fertility? What about fertility as creativity, as an artist? There is timelessness in being — the roach's being — but also in art. Is she pregnant?

And what about religious passion? Where's god in all this? (The language is startlingly religious, too.) Are we driving at some cosmic oneness? What transcendence is this?!
I don't want to feel directly in my very delicate mouth the salt in the eyes of the roach, because, my mother, I had been used to the sogginess of its layers and not the simple moistness of the thing.

Even the beauty of salt and the beauty of tears I would have to abandon. Even that, since what I saw predated humanity.
Is this about death? Does she die? (No, she can't die, she's relaying all this the next day.) Does the cockroach die?

What does this book give me? Every page has quotable aha phrases, but do they bring me anything new, anything I've not already internalizedin my life? Then why do I love this book so much?

Of all the books, this is the book I don't want to end. I started reading this book last February, I could easily devour it in an evening, but I deliberately prolong it, something tells me it's better this way, how long can I make it last?

The way it slows down time. The way it instills mindfulness, in a pre-bullshitty-coopted-by-yoga-culture way. [Maybe because I am witness to a slow parade of large black ants across my kitchen, one ant per day, each larger than the last. I kill them all, but I grow tired of my Sisyphean role. The book came before the ants, though.]

I'm halfway. I don't think I can hold myself back any longer. "Transcending is an exit." Everything becomes nameless.

This is gripping existential drama unfolding in slow motion! Feel the horror!

"Freedom is a secret."

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Comforted by its benign hum

The old woman, who was frightened of all machines, found a curious way of making the acquaintance of the refrigerator. She discovered that the fridge made a sort of animal noise, a low purr. It startled her at first, but then she imagined having a conversation with it and would sit beside it, feeling she was not alone. The noise reminded her of some kind of cat but since her last pet had been Captain, a dog, a soft thing as far as she was concerned, it represented a clumsy white version of Captain. On one occasion she spilled cherry soup in it and tried to wash it up because she was afraid of being told off. Iza went quite pale when she saw it, because of course she hadn't turned the electricity off first. "Look, my dear," said the girl. "This is not a block of ice. Never even think of cleaning it with a wet rag. Never mind if it leaves a stain." She pulled out the plug of the fridge and the purring stopped.

After that she no longer tried to make friends with the refrigerator and directed her desperate efforts to understanding how it worked, so that she might prove herself capable of operating it. The trouble was that Iza never had the time to explain and she was reluctant to ask the conductor's wife. She took much more care touching it now and simply sit beside it, comforted by its benign hum.
— from Iza's Ballad, by Magda Szabó.

Poor old woman. Poor fridge. It's like Iza unplugs it as a punishment for them both.

Mmm. Cherry soup.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A belly entirely new and made for the ground

What is there to forgive?

[Whom is she addressing as "my love"? Her lover? The reader? The cockroach? The maid?]

G.H. is compelled to organize, to organize hope. She needs some organizing principle by which to recover. She is aware that she managed to leave the room, but recovery is still required.

She lives so far above the world, she knows her life may suddenly collapse.

She questions why this happened to her. "What was it that called me: madness or reality?" (p 66).

She feels unclean. "And why was the unclean forbidden?" (p 67).

She comes to understand: "Becoming unclean with joy" (p70). Joy without redemption, joy without hope. (Is this a purer joy, or a more sinful one?)
More and more I had nothing to ask for. And I was seeing, with fascination and horror, the pieces of my rotten mummy clothes falling dry to the floor, I was watching my transformation from chrysalis into moist larva, my wings were slowly shrinking back scorched. And a belly entirely new and made for the ground, a new belly was being reborn.
What new being is this?

She lowers herself to the roach's level, and sees it as it is, beyond ideas.

And then there's more white matter spurting out! "The roach wasn't seeing me with its eyes but with its body." (p 73).

The wings are receding. "My convictions and my wings were quickly drying up" (p 73).

And she's just looking at the roach, and it's hideous and beautiful. And completely feminized: "Its two eyes were alive like two ovaries. It was looking at me with the blind fertility of its gaze. It was fertilizing my dead fertility" (p 74). Is G.H. indulging in a lesbian fantasy? [So the roach is meant to symbolize the maid, then?]

More white matter!

[How can this not be sexual?]

G.H. confides that she never experiences this — this slowing of time — by day; only at night. She is feeling pleasure in all this. "My love."

She claims to be asking for help, but it's not clear of whom or for what purpose exactly: what does she need help for?
But what I'd never experienced was the crash with the moment called "right now." Today is demanding me this very day. I had never before known that the time to live also has no word. The time to live, my love, was being so right now that I leaned my mouth on the matter of life. The time to live is a slow uninterrupted creaking of doors continuously opening wide. Two gates were opening and had never stopped opening. But the were continuously opening onto — onto the nothing?

The time to live is so hellishly inexpressive that it is the nothing. What I was calling "nothing" was nevertheless so stuck to me that to me it was... I? and that's why it was becoming the nothing. The doors as always kept opening.

Finally, my love, I gave in. And it became a now.

Monday, October 09, 2017

I, whatever that was

At long last I've returned to Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H. This book deserves focus, which I feel I can now give. Part of me has delayed this moment: truly, I do not want this book to end, and part of me does not want to know how it ends.

At this point, the novel is all potential: me (because of course the reader relates to G.H.) versus the cockroach.

When we last left off, the cockroach began to emerge.

Here it is, causing such fear, "a fear much greater than myself," a catalyst to G.H. realizing herself, her power, her "I, whatever that was" (p 46).

And, oh my god, she slams the door shut on the creature! Because she can!
Because during those seconds, eyes shut, I was becoming aware of myself as one becomes aware of a taste: all of me tasted of steel and verdigris, I was all acid like metal on the tongue, like a crushed green plant, my whole taste rose to my mouth. What had I done to myself? With my heart thumping, my temples pulsing, this is what I'd done to myself: I had killed. I had killed! But why such delight, and besides that a vital acceptance of that delight? For how long, then, had I been about to kill?
For G.H., it's not about her capacity to kill so much as what she's killed. But no, it's not dead yet! Can she slam it again? No, G.H., don't look at it! She looks at it. All is lost.

She looks at it, and it is ancient. "It looked like a dying mulatto woman" (p 49). (Like the maid?)

"What I was seeing was life looking back at me" (p 51). Something primordial, raw matter. She fears it, and she recognizes herself in it, and she hates it for doing so. (She hates herself?)

Silence opens within her, and she's looking for the courage to abandon hope. The cockroach makes her do this. What does one achieve by abandoning hope? A truth beyond conventional expectations?

G.H. is reminded of the time she saw her own blood outside of herself, recognizing herself as existing in something external. As if this cockroach too is constituent of her lifeblood.
So I opened my eyes all at once, and saw the full endless vastness of the room, that room that was vibrating in silence, laboratory of hell.
To enter the room, G.H. must pass through the cockroach. This is not physically true. Unless she means another room, of a spiritual kind. Or to earn access back to the reality of the room we already know to exist.

The room is a places beyond "he" or "she," beyond "I." The room is an existential abyss, a desert that seduces. The cockroach seduces. G.H. becomes irreducible.
I had reached the nothing, and the nothing was living and moist.
Good god, the cockroach is oozing! Something thick and white and slow. She needs to scream a secret scream that will unleash all the screams. It sounds to me like a scream of sexual awakening — abandoned. To depart civilization (enter the desert?), scientists have permission, priests have permission, but women do not.

And the tension snaps (p 59). (Did she scream or not scream?)

G.H. is in the room. She is in the drawing on the wall. She is there with her fifteen million daughters (p 60). She is finally outside of herself. And by everything looking at everything, everything knowing everything, forgiveness arrives.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

My heart was beating at a slight remove

I didn't realize it at the time, I told myself, but Ange's shadow was already very discreetly darkening this room where the three of us used to sit, happy and serene, it was already there, lurking in a corner, remaking our future, because, though I surely didn't realize it at the time, my heart was beating at a slight remove from the two others, imperceptibly less innocent, less constant, less convinced.
I read a review of this novel one morning, and bought myself a copy that very afternoon.

My Heart Hemmed In, by Marie Ndiaye, is an intensely claustrophobic, paranoid novel. I carried it with me in my soul, it weighed on me, it dragged me down.

This is how I felt all week long:

What? What's going on? Why are people treating me this way? What did I do? Did I do something? What happened? Why does everyone think I know what happened? Why don't they believe me? Why won't anyone be straight with me? Are they afraid of me? Repulsed be me? Why won't they tell me? Why has my period stopped? What happened?

This was a spiritually exhausting read. Brilliant.

It starts with Nadia and Ange, teachers, on their way home from school. As they settle in at home it becomes evident that Ange has been seriously injured. Narrated by Nadia, we're as much in the dark as she is. Who did this (and what is it exactly they did) and why?

It seems everyone — the neighbours, the pharmacist, the school principal — is well aware of what transpired. Nadia alone is oblivious. And it's hinted that it's all her fault.

Nadia admits that she and Ange were guilty of arrogance. It's also suggested that they are outsiders to this community. But is that sufficient to bring on this level of harm and ostracization?

Is she an immigrant? But she was born in a nearby Bordeaux neighbourhood. Is it because she's fat? (Or possibly pregnant?) Does her ex-husband have something to do with it? Nothing is clear.

I was sympathetic toward Nadia at the beginning, but she can be inappropriately brash (a sign of weakness?) and she makes some odd decisions. While the sentiment expressed toward her seemed to be part of something bigger, at some point I had to consider whether she as an individual had in fact brought any of this on herself.

She's not exactly likeable.
I extend an uncertain hand. She brushes hers against it, not squeezing it, and I shiver at the touch of a warm, tender skin, telling myself that my own dry, dimpled, frightened little hand must make her feel like she's touching a lizard.

"Good trip?" she asks.

But she's already turned around, uninterested in my answer, or even whether I answer, and so I say nothing, impotent and desolate, feeling my capacity for reflection and judgment and perspective being drowned by the tidal wave of unconditional admiration and painful obeisance that hadn't washed over me for so long, protected as I was by Ange's assurance, he who could never be felt to feel reverence for anything or anyone.

This reading experience called to mind a few other novels:
  • Magda Szabo's The Door, for it's depiction of "community" from one specific — and warped — perspective, as well as the narrator's way of introspection — self-probing but somehow still always at a remove or missing the point.
  • Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H. (which I've not finished), for it's distortion of time, it's urgency, but also the sense of the self being swallowed by the self — all that introspection having a deleterious effect.
  • Herman Koch's The Dinner, to a lesser extent, for that pressing sense that this story is bigger than just what happens to one or two little people — that it's important. Also possibly because I was on some level aware of the a racist element in this book.

The ending is quite baffling, but that comes after a long string of bafflements.

1. Why the italics? Is that her heart talking? Is it what's muffled, screaming to get out? Is this her innermost voice? But no, it expresses some very banal things.

2. Who is the great Noget? A writer of treatises on education, he espouses something like tough love, but his treatment of Nadia and Ange could be construes as the opposite. He coddles them, shields them. At times, it seems, with sinister purposes. Is he taking revenge on Ange, or rewarding him? Is he trying to teach Nadia a lesson? What lesson?

3. What happened to Yasmine? Nadia's mother hints at something terrible? Did Wilma devour her? Metaphorically or literally? Why must Nadia not eat the meat?

4. Food plays a role. Nadia eats Noget's food, despite feeling there's some hideous intention in his cooking. Such rich food, she's been tricked. There's the charitable food of a stranger. There's the meat, bloody meat at her son's home. At long last there's the restorative food at her parents' house, prepared by honest fingers.

5. So many smells! The ongoing and intensifying smell of Ange's putrefaction. "He can't smell the stench of his own infection, but he's repelled by the aroma of fine food." The fog, permeating the city with a metallic smell. A woman's accent like a revolting smell. Some healthy, sweet smells, and warm intimate smells. The smell of the dog's saliva, strong and sour. The way the dog reacts to her, Nadia must smell like a dog.

6. There is no humour in this book, just absurdity. Trams don't pick her up. Streets become unrecognizable. The very city seems to want to expel her.

7. What exactly happened? (I have some ideas now.) Nadia may have missed something in the news, because they don't have a television.

At heart, this is a book about owning one's self, owning one's heritage, one's past.

Oh, her poor heart!
This is a figment of my overwrought mind, and I know it. I'm perfectly sane, perfectly capable, even in my mistrust and trepidation, of grasping its outlandishness. But knowing that doesn't stop my heart, my poor fat-encased heart, from racing ach time someone pops up before me, looking slightly haunted (is that real or feigned?), and fixing me with the wide-eyed stare of someone who doesn't see the person he was expecting.

No, I'm not out of my mind. Why should I be so convinced that everything I see has some direct connection to me? I can't rid myself of the feeling the whole city is spying on me. And my heart is cornered, surrounded by the baying pack, and it's hammering on the wall of my chest, wishing it could break out of its cramped cage, my poor aging heart, my poor trembling heart.

How does one come to know one's own heart? Or anyone else's?

The heart of the city: "I've been walking the heart of this city, its black old heart, its cold old heart, for the past half century" — "its old, dark, ungrateful heart," "dark and perversely changeable, the heart of my city.""

Her son's heart: "("my little heart," I so long called him, and now here he is forsaking his mother's old heart)."

Her ex-husband's heart: "his devoted but unformed heart, his rudimentary heart."

Nadia's "petty old heart." "My stolid heart, my weakening, stolid heart, keep on bravely beating in your prison of fat!"

"I find I have to stop and rest until my heart, my scandalized, insulted heart, starts to beat a little slower." "But my heart is uneasy, the side of my heart that's still decent, appalled, and humiliated, but meek, so very meek." "My heart clenched, a heart that's not so old anymore, my old heart now young again, stupidly beating in time with what inhuman heart?"

"I feel my agitation and doubts, my confusion and hatred, flowing away with my tears, draining my fat, heavy old heart of the questions that had been choking it."

In the end, Nadia expels the tumour (whatever its nature — rancor?) growing inside her.
Because I say to myself, where could that thing — that black, glistening, fast-moving thing I saw slide over the floor of my room one night as I was undressing for bed — possibly have sprung from if not my own body? A quick, black, glistening thing that left a faint trail of blood on the floor, all the way to the door.
It's a bloody horror novel.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A sort of mute, craven respect

"This is all intolerable," I say.

I fall to my knees by the bed. I bury my burning face in the mattress, pressing Ange's hand to my forehead, my hair.

"You see, you see," I say, as softly as I can, and there's almost a rusted sound to my voice, a withered sound, "we're respectful people, my darling, and it's a fact, yes, that we couldn't help respecting even the wrongs that were done to us, yes, a sort of mute, craven respect, and we felt that respect even for those set out to hurt us, because whenever there's a rule or a semblance of a rule we respect it, that's right, and if that rule offends us, if it attacks us and makes us unhappy, we tell ourselves that rules aren't made to please absolutely and necessarily everyone, that rules, and even semblances of rules, don't have to make us happy, us specifically, and that on the other hand there are already a great many rules that do suit us, or favor us. And isn't that just what you were thinking, my love, my poor darling, when you were walking behind me, trying to hide your wound with your satchel, isn't that more or less what you were thinking: after all, nobody's expected to want to please me by treating me exactly as I deserve, there are times, unquestionably, when I have to accept being treated in ways I don't deserve, for the sake of a greater good I don't see? Oh yes, it's true, that's more or less what you were thinking, out of pride, and that's not good, that's not good at all..."
— from My Heart Hemmed In, by Marie Ndiaye.

I can't remember the last time I read a book that affected me so deeply, burrowed under my skin like this one. All week I've been feeling paranoid, anxious, weak, claustrophobic. And I know it's this book bringing be down and distracting me, it's a scab I keep picking at, I have to know what's going on.

I'm about halfway, and, like the narrator, I have no idea what's going on, why this is happening. (Although, maybe she's deluding herself.) It's a bit of a meta experience as a reader, I'm questioning my own understanding and assumptions with each turn of a page.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Living among dirt and chaos

"I don't like the fact that eventually every conversation between Catholic Poles and Jews goes back to events from almost seventy years ago. As if there hadn't been seven hundred years shared history before that, and everything after it. Just a sea of dead bodies and nothing else."
A Grain of Truth, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, is the second mystery novel featuring State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki. I stayed away from this novel for a few years precisely because I didn't want to read about that conversation.

But Miłoszewski handles it judiciously. Since World War II, and even before then, Polish-Jewish relations have been complicated and strained. The plot of this mystery hinges on those tensions, which persist today.

The murder has the characteristics of Jewish slaughter, and the story is linked to the myth of blood libel. As such, the prosecutor has to confront the anti-Semitic past of his adopted town, Sandomierz: xenophobia and violence and resurgent nationalism. The investigation delves into archives, symbols, and local legends.

A Grain of Truth also features a painting in Sandomierz cathedral, which for years was covered up with a cloth because it was considered offensive. Since the novel was written, the painting is again on display, but with an informative plaque. Here's the thing about owning your past.

Read the excellent review at NPR.

What I particularly like about these novels is the cultural touchstones Miłoszewski offers me: Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Jacek Kaczmarski. Julian Tuwim.

I'm not even sure why I know those names. My mother doesn't know those names. It's just luck that my social and educational path at one time crossed the Poland Miłoszewski references. For this reason, I find these books highly relatable. Surely someone who has no Polish heritage would also enjoy these books, but maybe they wouldn't resonate in the same way.

Szacki's failed marriage and his general uncertainty about life (in any realm beyond his profession) also contribute to the feeling of relatability. He's just a regular, fucked-up guy.

I also like how he disses both small-town life and Warsaw. I never much liked either.
All those years living in Warsaw he'd sensed that something wasn't right, that the ugliest capital city in Europe wasn't a friendly place, and that his attachment to its grey stone walls was in actual fact a sort of neurotic dependence, urban Stockholm Syndrome. Just as prisoners become dependent on their prison, and husbands on their bad wives, so he believed that the very fact of living among dirt and chaos was enough for him to bestow affection on that dirt and chaos.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Fatal whirlpools

I went looking for a fragment of one poem, but found something else entirely. And when it comes to poetry, it's usually just as well.

I'm reading a mystery novel by Zygmunt Miłoszewski. The text is liberally sprinkled with pop-cultural references along with some classical ones, a lot of them very, very Polish. When he quoted Wisława Szymborska, I went looking for the source.

Instead I found "In Praise of My Sister," which I've since been reading over and over, all while (silently) actually praising my sister (for entirely unrelated reasons).
There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
but once it starts up it's hard to quarantine.
Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

My sister has tackled oral prose with some success.
but her entire written opus consists of postcards from vacations
whose text is only the same promise every year:
when she gets back, she'll have
so much
much to tell.
I love this poem.

It makes me wonder where poetry comes from. I don't think my sister ever wrote poetry; I'll have to ask her. To my knowledge, my parents weren't afflicted. But my brother was. He wrote on napkins and coasters and the insides of cigarette packages. Filled with mystical symbols and romantic angst. My attempts were more academically driven. (And far superior.) Have we opened the genetic floodgates? Pity my daughter.

But also I've been reading three different translations of this poem, and puzzling over them.

While in the fragment above (tr. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh) the sister has much to tell, Adam Czerniawski says "she'll tell us / all / all / all about it." and according to Magnus J Krynski and Robert A Maguire, "she'll tell us, everything, / everything / everything." They're none of them... perfect.

I wondered also about Peter Piper — I couldn't be sure how meaningful or not that reference was to me ("And, even though this is starting to sound as repetitive as Peter Piper," Barańczak & Cavanagh). The original Polish (see Pochwała siostry) names Adam Macedoński, an activist, artist, and (minor?) poet. One translation leaves the reference, obscure as it is, intact ("and though it sounds like a poem by Adam Macedoński," Krynski & Maguire); another evades the issue entirely ("And — this begins to sound like a found poem —" Czerniawski). And I still don't know who Adam Macedoński is, and what Peter Piper is supposed to mean.

Days like this I hate poetry, and I love it. I have too much time on my hands, and not enough.

Days like this I praise my sister for being an accountant.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt

The Goldens all told stories about themselves, stories in which essential information about origins was either omitted or falsified. I listened to them not as "true" but as indications of character. The stories a man told about himself revealed him in ways that the record could not.
The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie, is about Nero Golden and his three grown sons, living the life in New York City. It begins the day Barack Obama is inaugurated as president and ends some eight years later.

It is not the book I thought it would be.

While it mocks The Joker who eventually won the country, it takes a few jabs at Obama along the way. Nero Golden, meanwhile, is himself a kind of golden-boy caricature, one young wife after another, his spoiled progeny, so much gold it's garish.
I assumed he had brought serious funds with him when he came west, but there were persistent rumors that all his enterprises were highly leveraged, that the whole mega-business of his name was a flimflam game and bankruptcy was the shadow that went with his name whenever he took it for a stroll. I thought of him as a citizen not of New York but of the invisible city of Octavia which Marco Polo described to Kublai Khan in Calvino's book, a spider-web city hanging in a great net over an abyss between two mountains. "The life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities," Calvino wrote. "They now the net will last only so long." I thought of him too as one of those characters in animated cartoons, Wile E. Coyote perhaps, who are constantly running off the edges of canyons, but who keep going, defying gravity, until they look down, and then they fall. The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt brings about its calamitous ending. Nero Golden kept going, perhaps, because he never looked down.
I had thought Golden was meant to serve as a commentary on, or parody of, Trump. It feels like the whole novel is supposed to be doing that, yet failing to do that. It's not really about the Obama years, or about the America that allowed Trump to happen. But I can't shake the feeling that it should be.

This novel (much like our times?) is chaotic. It's told by a storyteller (I mean Rushdie, not his weak narrator), but there's not much story to it. While it's easy to get swept up in Rushdie's prose, it wears thin after a couple hundred ADHD pages.

There are some compelling narrative threads but they don't come together satisfactorily. Big themes include identity and re-invention of self.

About two-thirds of the way through,
Then a friend of mine, a writer, a good writer, said something that scared the pants off me. He said, think of life as a novel, let's say a novel of four hundred pages, and the imagine how many pages in the book your story has already covered. And remember that after a certain point, it's not a good idea to introduce a new major character. After a certain point you are stuck with the characters you have. So maybe you need to think of a way of introducing that new character before it's too late, because everyone gets older, even you.
I thought, maybe this is it, maybe this is where it gets interesting, someone new to shine a light, but no. There was no one. I had stopped caring.

The Golden House novel left me feeling bored and disappointed.

The reviews in the New York Times really nailed it.

Monica Ali in the New York Times: In Salman Rushdie's New Novel, the Backdrop Is the Obama Years
Collectively, their story lines are high-octane vehicles for observations on everything from art to gun violence, told with Rushdie's customary brio and narrative panache, and the reader is happy to go along for the ride.
Despite (or because of) all the apostrophizing, René fails to demonstrate any insight into why "60-million-plus" brought the Joker to power.
Dwight Garner in the New York Times: Salman Rushdie's Prose Joins the Circus in 'The Golden House'
All gestures here are grand gestures; all soirées are glittering soirées; all mirrors are magic mirrors; every ferocity is a genuine ferocity; every grill is a brazier; every regret a bitter one.

The effect is exhausting — and deadening. Anything can happen, so nothing matters. Rushdie is obsessed with "characters," as Alfred Kazin once said of John Irving, yet somehow does not evoke the more difficult thing: character.
LA Review of Books: Rushdie's Domus Aurea: "The Golden House" by Salman Rushdie
The point is apparent: the times have produced an arbitrary, indiscriminate form of violence, whether by an organization or a lone nut that can catch any of us anywhere. But the book sheds little light on the America that produces that violence or how it shapes human action and interaction.
New Statesman: The Golden House is Salman Rushdie's not-so-great American novel
What is The Golden House actually about? The models invoked – Nero as Captain Ahab, as Jay Gatsby, as Lucius in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass – suggest a study of hubris, with America as an all-too-willing home, but the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.

Interview with Salman Rushdie
NPR: Leaving The Past Behind — Or Trying To — In Rushdie's Latest
America clearly has some very heavy, and even dark aspects to its history. But it's not like having a couple of thousand years, or three thousand years of history. The burden of history is greater. And so one of the things that happens in this book is that people from an old country, an Indian family, a wealthy Indian family — in a way, trying to shed the burden of their own history — comes to a country in which the subject of reinvention of the self is completely central. Everybody does it. People come through Ellis Island and change their names, people move from the Midwest to the big city and try and be new people, and it seemed appropriate for people from an old country trying to get rid of the shadow of the past, to come to somewhere where it's possible to be new.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Time is a weapon

I am not a politician, nor am I an economist. I am a scientist. But it seems appropriate to hypothesize here that a future where life-extension technology is available only to those who can afford it, or to those whom society considers useful, will look very different to a future where life-extension technology is more broadly available.
This sentiment is directly pertinent this week to two instances concerning people I know and difficulty in accessing and/or affording specialized treatment. One instance ended in suicide, as the pain without treatment was too terrible to bear; the other instance may not be ended yet, but has thus far wrought nothing but misery.

Think about it. Imagine a disease that everyone is subject to. Imagine there's a cure and it's proven, not merely theoretical or experimental. But only some people have access to it. Their privilege is not based in their genes or any other innate factor (not that that should make a difference). It's based on a social construct: money. Shouldn't everyone have a right to the cure? The same access to it?

In the case of this novella, the disease is aging.

Everything Belongs to the Future, by Laurie Penny — journalist, writer, activist, feminist — has some big things to say about big pharma. Also about aging, ageism, and gerontocracy. And time.

In 2099, the Earth is still a viable habitat, due in no small part to the fact that people expect to be around in a couple hundred years. Mother Earth is no longer a problem to be pawned off on your children; you have to deal with it yourself. But it's not all easy.

Life, and death, are now, more than ever, political. One faction chooses to redistribute the cure. Other people embrace their natural lifecycle, but almost in protest.

It's a short, easy read. The storytelling is a bit workman-like, and while the story ignores many of the implications of its premise, the food for thought is worth the price of admission.
Meanwhile: consider that time is a weapon.

Before the coming of the Time Bomb, this was true. It was true before men and women of means or special merit could purchase an extra century of youth. It has been true since the invention of the hourglass, the water clock, the wrist watch, the shift-bell, the factory floor. Ever since men could measure time, they have used it to divide each other.

Time is a weapon wielded by the rich, who have excess of it, against the rest, who must trade every breath of it against the promise of another day’s food and shelter. What kind of world have we made, where human beings can live centuries if only they can afford the fix? What kind of creatures have we become?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Desperate hope for some form of contact

It was deadly quiet in the S-train care because almost all the passengers were surfing on their smartphones and iPads. Some were enthusiastic and concentrated, while others were just scrolling their thumbs over the screen in the desperate hope for some form of contact.
Who can't relate to that image?

The Scarred Woman, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, was a fantastic page-turner of a book — just what I needed!

I'm familiar with the Danish Department Q series thanks to their dramatization (watch the first three movies on Netflix). Those films were such a satisfying, if dark, binge, that I couldn't refuse the offer of a review copy of a novel when it came my way. (Also, I was thrilled to learn there are books behind these films, of course there are.)

The titular scarred woman could refer to any of several women in the novel, all of them in their way both victim and perpetrator.

The women include some unfortunates who are receiving social assistance payments but also scamming the system; their case worker, recently diagnosed with breast cancer; and Rose, a police colleague who suffered a breakdown following the last Department Q case.

All this in a book that opens with a Nazi.

There's a good deal of coincidence going on in this novel. At any other time I might've rolled my eyes, but I think the book is saved by not taking itself too seriously. It's played matter-of-factly, even for laughs in some cases, that it's completely acceptable if not wholly believable.

I found it refreshing too that this novel isn't about Detective Carl Mørck; it focuses on the crimes at hand and the people involved in them.

I'm out of practice at reading crime novels, and I had some difficulty earlier this year in following the action of some (sci-fi) thrillers, so I hesitated to commit to reading this 480-page book, but it read like a breeze. Maybe more practiced readers might find it simplistic, but I found it clear without being overly obvious, well-paced without being weighed down by action, and having moral depth without getting lost in psychological detail.

I'm glad to have discovered this series and I definitely see myself turning to other Department Q novels in the cooling months ahead.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A bigger, much harder kind of pea

The first few years of Helena's life, I used to imagine her dying. All the time. It was exhausting. Not senseless, horrific deaths, exactly. Well, yes, that, but very possible senseless, horrific deaths.

In the beginning I thought they might be premonitions, but it didn't take long to realize they were warnings.

For example, pushing her stroller down the sidewalk, I'd imagine — very vividly, I might add, almost hallucinatorily, like a glimpse of an alternate parallel existence — a random car swerving up onto said sidewalk, putting us — most importantly, her — in mortal danger. I'd imagine throwing myself in front of her, or maneuvering the stroller out of the car's path. Or I'd glance away and she'd be face down in the wading pool. Or the approaching dog would turn out to be rabid and think of her as an easy meal. Or she might decide to put a pencil up her nose, all the way up her nose. I'd see blood, all over my flesh and blood, and my breath would catch in my chest, and I'd replay the instant, over and over — how could I save her?

Now, it wasn't "obsessive/compulsive" in the sense that it didn't affect how I lived my life (our lives). I still walked down the sidewalk, went to the wading pool, sat in the park, left her unattended (for seconds, minutes?) at a time. It's only effect was to make me hyper-vigilant. And that's a good thing. I was constantly rehearsing deadly scenarios and optimizing my responses. The hormones of new motherhood fed the ninja instinct. Ninja for mommies.

The older, more self-sufficient Helena got, the fewer and farther between my imaginings. But I still have them, these dark visions.

It took years to realize I wasn't alone in this experience. It's a hard thing to talk about without coming off as crazy, but I've heard other mothers talk about imagining the worst, and how they learned to use it as a tool for creating a safe environment. It's a safety mechanism regarding the child, but also, perhaps counterintuitively, a sanity mechanism for the mother self, to assure that you have considered all possibilities and are doing everything you can for a potentially endangered child. That you are a good mother.

This is the closest I come to understanding what Samanta Schweblin means by "rescue distance" — an algorithm involving the actual distance from one's child in some measure against all potential dangers in the vicinity (calculating number, distance, severity). Distancia de rescate is the original Spanish title of her first novel.
Why do mothers do that?
Try to get out in front of anything that could happen — the rescue distance.
It's because sooner or later something terrible will happen.
There's not much I can say about Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin, other than wow.

It's an intense reading experience, and creepy, but blessedly short. It reminds me most of The Other, by Thomas Tryon, possibly only because of the creepy children, but maybe also the vaguely rural setting, the hint of something occult.

The pacing is exquisite. The urgency is masterful.

There's not much I can say that wouldn't be considered a spoiler; however, I'd skimmed through a discussion of the book and didn't feel my experience was diminished by it. But if that kind of thing worries you, stop reading now.

The story (but not the book) really starts about 6 years previous to the current narration. A 3-year-old (or thereabouts) boy, David, appears to have been poisoned. His mother, Carla, takes him to the woman in the green house, and agrees to her conducting a migration of his soul into a healthy body, bringing an unknown spirit into the boy's body, something of each of the souls remaining in the other's body. Spread over two bodies, the poison could be vanquished.

Six years later, Carla relates this to Amanda who is vacationing with her small daughter Nina...

The novel is billed as eco-horror: the ecological implications are hinted at early on but are only manifestly clear relatively late in the story. It's also a story of maternal bonding.

In my initial reading, the supernatural factor is primary; that is, the nature of David and of the transmigration process is top of mind, ever present with every turn of the page. Knowing the original Spanish title, however, changes the thematic emphasis.

Riffing on a fever dream...

1. What are the worms? When do the worms start? Are these worms signalling decomposition of the body? Or do they come earlier, in the poison that bring death? Or I they related to soul migration? They come toward the end of David and Amanda's conversation, but too soon for bodily decomposition, I think. The exact moment of the worms is significant.

2. Is David — the leading, questioning David — real? Does anyone else ever really see David? Is he inside Amanda's head? If so, is he a voice conjured out of her delirium, or did his soul migrate there?

If he migrated there, how long has he been there? Was it after his poisoning, or after Amanda and Nina's poisoning?

3. If the original David's soul was split, who else lives/lived in David's body? Could it have been Amanda? That might explain her obsession with him (Not exactly an obsession: attraction to? She is drawn to him and the story of him. Is that only because of her proximity to him now?). Would that imply her own soul/body was previously weakened.

4. Did he or did he not have all his fingers when he was born? What Carla would give for that first David, an imagined David.

5. Nina speaks in the royal "we." David likes that. (I like it too.) The self is plural.

6. Why is Amanda even vacationing in this godforsaken place? Why did her husband not come with her? She claims he was to join them later, but perhaps she was running from him. Why do I think this?

7. Why are the men so absent? Except for fleetingly, in a dream, and at the end. They are so external, powerless in the face of all this ... motherness.
My husband takes the can and turns it so I can see the label. It's a can of peas of a brand I don't buy, one I would never buy. They're a bigger, much harder kind of pea than what we eat, coarser and cheaper. A product I would never choose to feed my family with, and that Nina can't have found in our cupboards. On the table, at that early-morning hour, the can has an alarming presence. This is important, right?
8. Did Carla orchestrate the poisoning? Certainly she had no control over whether Amanda came to call before leaving town, but it seems like she was looking, waiting, for an opening. She's killing them.

9. Does Carla really take Amanda to the clinic? Why do I feel Carla may have taken Amanda to the green house? "The edge of the neck of her white shirt is stained a light green. It's from the grass, right?" But no, there's a nurse, with blister packs.

10. What's with the dirty hands, dirty with mud? First David's, later Nina's. How is this an effect of migration?

11. David pushes Amanda forward. Forward in time? Just like he pushed the ducks, the dog, the horses. Pushed toward death? A spirit guide? Is he even alive?

12. Carla's gone at the end, her husband says so. Not there just at that moment, or gone for good? Where did she go?

13. The ropes. Amanda feels a rope emanating from her stomach joining her to Nina, but it's metaphorical, an umbilical cord of sorts. David is tied down with ropes while migrating — to make sure the body stays, only the spirit leaves. At the end, rope ties most everything together, except bodies or souls, maybe just representations of them. The rope is for hanging. But when it's finally slack, the rope is a fuse.

14. What is the important thing? Really important? Why is David pushing her toward it? What does Amanda need to understand? Listen to David's father. What does he say that's so important? What did I miss?

The Guardian: Terrifying but brilliant
The Mookse and the Gripes
The New Yorker: The Sick Thrill of "Fever Dream"
NPR: Brief But Creepy, 'Fever Dream' Has A Poisonous Glow
The Washington Post: A haunting story by one of the best young Spanish-language writers

The rope between Helena and me was pulled to its fullest when we lost each other on a hike in a foreign country. The summer she was 12. We survived this. The rope is there and not there.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Uneasy about the easy

Theodor W. Adorno
I am reminded of Theodor W. Adorno: "The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home." Yes, to be uncomfortable with comfort, uneasy about the easy, to question the assumptions of what is usually, and happily, taken for granted, to make of oneself a challenge to what for most people is the space in which they feel free from challenges; yes! That is morality raised to a pitch at which it could almost be called heroism.
— from The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie.

I've spent years learning to be comfortable in my own home, to be in own skin. Reading this, then, was a bit of a slap in the face, not only that my behaviour is not moral, but that I have still further to go.

I'm not entirely sure what it means yet, but I'm thinking about it.

Do you feel at home in your own home? (What is your home?)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Comedy and tragedy

I enjoyed Subtly Worded, by Teffi, and more so because of book club, but probably more for its value as a historical oddity than on its literary merits. This collection is career-spanning and chronologically ordered.

The stories featuring historical figures — Tolstoy and Rasputin — were fascinating to me (more essay than story?).

However, some of the stories made me roll my eyes at the obviousness of their twist endings. They were truly less than subtle. Other bookclubbers disagreed on this point. And there is indeed a cleverness in the way Teffi uses words and makes them central to her stories. The title story, for example, is about censorship — words and meaning and double-meaning. I might argue that these stories are about subtlety more than they exercise it.

Some of this material is satirical, other bits are just plain funny. She has a comedic sense of timing — knows when to keep it short and when to go long. She is a master at capturing ordinary speech.

The introduction states that shortly before her death, Teffi wrote, "An anecdote is funny when it's being told, but when someone lives it, it's a tragedy. And my life has been sheer anecdote, that is — a tragedy."

So why did Teffi fall off the literary map? Because she was a woman? And why is she back?

I can't quite put my finger on why I don't connect with most of Teffi's stories. Some are too light, others too ponderous. Some bookclubbers posited that as a woman, she may have felt compelled to write a certain way, to play into her role as socialite and play to expectations. More style than sincerity?

That said, I favoured a few standouts I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone: "The Quiet Backwater," "Ernest with the Languages," and "The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)."

Subtly Worded, and Other Stories by Teffi review – a traditional Russian form is given a good hiding
Compared to Chekhov, Colette and Now Sedaris: 'Subtly Worded' Brings Teffi to Non-Russian Readers

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


She... and here I rear back and halt myself, ashamed, prufrocked into a sudden pudeur, for, after all, how should I presume? Shall I say, I have known them all, I have seen her like a yellow fog rubbing her back against, rubbing her muzzle upon, shall I say, licking her tongue into the corners of this evening? Do I dare, and do I dare? And who am I, after all? I ma not the prince. An attendant lord, deferential, glad to be of use. Almost, at times, the Fool... But, setting aside poetry, I'm too deeply in to stop now.
— from The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie.

I'd forgotten that I'd read Rushdie before and I liked it. I'm liking the current novel, too: There's a charm and wit and intelligence that I find disarming. Although, at another time, in another place, I might find this same text pretentious and tiresome.

However, I'm only a quarter of the way in, and I'm worried about where Rushdie might be going with this tale with the makings of a presidential parable. We'll see where we end up.

But. Prufrocked! I sat up and paid attention!

I wrote a response to Alfred J. when I was 17.

[I can't find the damn poem. I can't find in anywhere. It's in a puke-beige duotang (not the boring-beige one), along with a weird essay I wrote on Pythagorean dualism. This is a thing I kept for 30 years. Or thought I kept. Did I lose it in the divorce? I mean, physically. Not like that story I lost on a bet. Did I throw it away in anger, or sheer drunken stupidity? Could I have been so careless? Maybe the poem's no good. Maybe I threw it out because it was no good, and I was so horrified by the poem's horribleness, I blocked the whole episode from my memory. Have I merely misplaced it? I grow old.)

Last week I met a boy who writes poetry. He devotes himself to it. He will be a writer. A poet.

It takes guts, being a poet.

Maybe I should've been a poet.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The ultimate shiver running up the ultimate spine

Propagating at a significant fraction of the speed of light, a frisson of alarm travelled the length of the Atlantic Space Elevator, like the ultimate shiver running up the ultimate spine.
There's a lot going on in The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod. It's a police procedural. It's science fiction. It's an ecologically challenged future where religion has been eradicated from public discourse, the Faith Wars having culminated in the discharge of nuclear arms. There's a Third Covenant on the rise in Edinburgh.

And robots are attaining consciousness.
Detecting Hardcastle might or might not be difficult, but preventing that entity from accomplishing whatever it had planned was likely to be violent and, as far as Skulk2 was concerned, terminal. It had been thrown into this unenviable position by its original self, from which its sense of identity was diverging by the millisecond. Skulk2 was still Skulk, with all the original machine's emotions and loyalties, memories and reflections, but it found itself both baffled and despondent about the decision its past self had taken — that blithe disregard for a separate being that was, after all, as close to itself as it was possible to be. Some of that resentment begin to jaundice its feelings about Adam Ferguson. The man had been as casual as Skulk had been in sending his old friend on this probably suicidal mission.

Remembering their conversation just before the copying, Skulk2 made a cold assessment of how much separate existence it could experience before it drifted so far from its original that would find the switch to self-sacrifice mode painful. This projection of a future potential state of mind was an absorbing exercise, and in itself intensified its self-awareness. The time, it discovered could be reckoned in minutes.
I read this book earlier this summer while in Edinburgh. That made for spectacular reading: wandering the wynds of the Old Town by day, and settling into our hotel to read about those same paths by night. Plus I learned a little about the Covenanters along the way, which definitely added to my understanding of the issues in the novel.

About two-thirds of the way through my interest waned a bit, partly because of the distractions of vacation, but also the story gets a little chaotic — there are just so many weighty issues in this 260-page novel that they start to suffocate a little. That said, I'd like to come back to this book someday.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Taking the Future on Faith
It's here that the capabilities of the robots and their superiority to mere humans becomes clear. It isn't just their speed and versatility, or their ability to toggle their minds from one state to another, from self-preservation to self-sacrifice. Two different characters ask two different robots whether they are saved ­— whether they have backed up their memories and mental states. On one level, it's a trite pun; on another, it's the kind of science-fictional sentence that creates a new reality by collapsing the gap between metaphor and literal act. Robots can save themselves, and can be resurrected by downloading a copy into a new body. They are, essentially, physically immortal. And it's here, too, that we begin to realize that the conspiracy Ferguson has been so doggedly unraveling cloaks the true meaning of the Third Covenant, that the real story has been happening elsewhere, and that MacLeod has ruthlessly followed the logic of his intelligent, ambitious novel to a conclusion that’s truly world-changing.
io9: Do Protestant Terrorist Robots Have Souls?
There is something brilliant in MacLeod's idea that when robots achieve human-style intelligence that they'll become as irrational as humans too.
Strange Horizons: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

See also the Complete Review for its comprehensive review round-up.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Art is not a mirror but a hammer

I googled "written on the body" and down that rabbit hole I discovered Shirin Neshat.

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian-born visual artist.

See NPR: Artist Shirin Neshat Captures Iran's Sharp Contrasts In Black And White.

(Art is not a mirror but a hammer.)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Apocalyptic body song

"There is no self and other," she said, laughing into the mouth of death, the blue light at her temple gleaming laser-like into the sky and surrounding air, the song in her head crescendoing in tidal waves and reverberating in the bones of every man, woman, and child around her, her armies plunging and rising as if carried by apocalyptic body song.

And when she rested her body down upon the dirt, arms spread, legs spread, face down, there was a breach to history as well as evolution.

And the sky lit with fire, half from the weapons of his attack, half from her summoning of the earth and all its calderas — war and decreation all at once, a seeming impossibility.
It's been a while since I read The Book of Joan, but I think I still have things to say about it.

It was not an easy read for me. Overly literary, almost poetic. That's not always a bad thing. Usually I would blame myself for not connecting with a book. For some reason, this time, I am perfectly comfortable in not taking the blame. Another time, another place, I imagine I would feel similarly, just that I might explain it away differently.

I mean, "apocalyptic body song." Come on.

While the turns of phrase are sometimes beautiful, they took me out of the story rather than propel me along by fleshing it out.

That said, there's an awful lot to think about here. The trajectory on which our planet is headed, ecologically, politically, maybe morally. "We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power." Resources. "Reproduction wasn't what we mourned. We mourned the carnal." The nature of love, gender, energy, power, narrative. "I wonder sometimes if that's why grafting was born. It restores us to the evidence of a body." Physicality and magicality. "The physical world seemed only a membrane between humans and the speed and hum of information." Rebellion.

In 2049 there is a space station colony where live — if you can call it that — Earth's last survivors, among whom 49-year-old Christine, soon to be "aged out" and thus having nothing to lose, grafts the story of Joan onto her body. "What is the word for her body?"

[It's hard not to think that I would be aged out soon, too.]

[It's hard not to think of Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body. It's been eons since I read it, I don't remember it, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say these novels share some themes and theory.]
Two things have always ruptured up and through hegemony: art and bodies. That is how art has preserved its toehold in our universe. Where there was poverty, there was also a painting someone stared at until it filled them with grateful treas. Where there was genocide, there was a song that refused to quiet. Where a planet was forsaken, there was someone telling a story with their last breath, and someone else carrying it like DNA, or star junk. Hidden matter.
Shirin Neshat. Divine Rebellion, 2012.
Los Angeles Review of Books: Retrofuturist Feminism
Now is a fine time for tales of women's resistance, which, above all else, is what The Book of Joan has on offer. Lidia Yuknavitch mines literary and political history for impressive, timely heroines based on the iconic Joan of Arc and her contemporary Christine de Pizan, the only chronicler to write during Joan’s lifetime. Yuknavitch grafts these findings onto layers of material drawn equally from contemporary critical theory, our dire political and ecological realities, and an array of speculative fiction ranging from Shakespeare's The Tempest to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the convoluted folds and counterfolds of her narrative, Yuknavitch binds these various strains together with the fates of an Earth that has not quite survived eco-catastrophe and a parasitic sky realm, CIEL, ruled over by Jean de Men, a sadistic and egotistical television-billionaire-become-dictator: "His is a journey from opportunistic showman, to worshipped celebrity, to billionaire, to fascistic power monger," a rise made possible by the "acquiescence" of the powerful and wealthy.
The Rumpus: "A Full-Throated Cry from a Clarion"
In The Book of Joan, the last members of the human race, having "ascended" to a colony in space after a violent event, have lost their sexual organs in a devolutionary process. Insects and reptiles populate the station where these semi-humans orbit a dead Earth; the bugs and lizards are neither animal nor synthetic, but something between. The relationship of Joan, around whom the book revolves, to her companion Leone, is not sexual or platonic but something else. Everything in the novel is both-and, not either-or. "Bodies in Space"
When you center a story in the body, particularly the female body, you're going to have to grapple with ideas of autonomy, consent, life and death. We like the female body when it is wet, unless that wet is urine or period blood. We like the female body when it is DTF, not as much when it is Down To Eat or Down To Fight or, Ishtar save us, Down To Think. As the book twists and turns and changes shape it becomes far less the familiar story of a young girl leading a war, or becoming a nation's sacrificial lamb, and becomes much more about women having control over what is done to their bodies. It also mediates long and hard on those people who want to assert their desire on other people, animals, or the Earth itself.
I can't imagine whom I would recommend this book to.
The beauty is all gone now — but the vastness remains, and I can almost feel beauty just under the surface of things. It hurts to look at it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What did they do?

"Who's that you're talking to? Who is it you're calling to the table?"

"Why you, Granny. And you, Grandpa."

"Then that's what you should say. There was a woman who called everyone to dinner with the words: 'Come and sit yourselves down.' But she didn't say, 'Let the baptized souls come and sit themselves down.' So anyone who felt like it came to dinner: they crawled out from on top of the stove, from behind the stove, from the sleeping shelf, from the bench and from under the bench, all the unseen and unheard, all the unknown and undreamt of. Great big eyes peering, great big teeth clacking. 'You called us,' they said. 'Now feed us.' But what could she do? She could hardly feed such a crowd."

"What happened? What did they all do?" asked the girl, goggle-eyed.

"What do you think?"


"Well, they did what they do."

"What did they do?"

"They all did what they had to do."

"But what was it they had to do, Granny?"

"Ask too many questions — there's no knowing who'll answer."
— from "The Quiet Backwater," in Subtly Worded, by Teffi.

I'm reading this because I'm interested — I've been hearing about Teffi — but also for the Reading Across Borders Book Club, which will be discussing the book Wednesday, August 23, at 7, at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly.

See also Ten Things You Didn't Know about Teffi.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Downstairs neighbour

When a door closes, a window opens.
Mmm, he's not bad looking, I think to myself. Maybe I should have an affair with him.

He smiles hello as I cross the courtyard to get to the stairs. I live on the second level.

He's married, two kids, but almost always outside on his own with a drink, smoking or vaping. Maybe even waiting for me, I begin to fantasize. Always acknowledges me, with a nod or sometimes even, Bon soir. An affair certainly would be convenient.

My key turns the lock, but the door sticks. It's been getting worse the last few days, must be the humidity. Oh, but it's really sticking this time. I bang on the door to get my daughter's attention, maybe if she pulls from the inside...

Mon voisin, meanwhile, is sitting downstairs, enjoying the evening air and his glass of wine. He can't not hear me; we'd see each other if we were looking.

The door is definitely not opening. I instruct my daughter to open the window, I punch the screen out from its frame. I pass my bag of groceries through first. Thank goodness for the bench outside, it'll give me a leg up.

My daughter is embarrassed for me. It's all so ridiculous.

Once inside, I still can't open the door.

I wonder if the neighbour looked up my skirt.

True story.

Monday, August 07, 2017


I'm still trying to wrap my head around Lidia Yuknavitch's The Book of Joan. I thought I didn't like it much — I want to say it's overwritten and self-indulgent. But I'm still thinking about this book, and I still haven't decided how I feel about it. So that's something.

I'll write more about it soon, but in the meantime, here's a TED Talk Yuknavitch delivered last year.
Even at the moment of your failure, right then, you are beautiful. You don't know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That's your beauty.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

What do we mean by love anymore?

I've been thinking a lot about love lately.

Here's an explication of the idea of love:
What do we mean by love anymore? Love is not the story we were told. Though we wanted so badly for it to hold, the fairy tales and myths, the seamless trajectories, the sewn shapes of desire thwarted by obstacles we could heroically battle, the broken heart, the love lost the love lorn the love torn the love won, the world coming back alive in a hard-earned nearly impossible kiss. Love of God love of country love for another. Erotic love familial love the love of a mother for her children platonic love brotherly love. Lesbian love and homosexual love and all the arms and legs of other love. Transgressive love too — the dips and curves of our drives given secret sanctuary alongside happy bright young couplings and sanctioned marriages producing healthy offspring.

Oh love.

Why couldn't you be real?

It isn't that love dies. It's that we storied it poorly. We tried too hard to contain it and make it something to have and to hold.

Love was never meant to be less than electrical impulse and the energy of matter, but that was no small thing. The Earth's heartbeat or pulse or telluric current, no small thing. The stuff of life itself. Life in the universe, cosmic or as small as an atom. But we wanted it to be ours. Between us. For us. We made it small and private so that we'd be above all other living things. We made it a word, and then a story, and then a reason to care more about ourselves than anything else on the planet. Our reasons to love more important than any others.

The stars were never there for us — we are not the reason for the night sky.

The stars are us.

We made love stories up so we could believe the night sky was not so vast, so unbearably vast, that we barely matter.
— from The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Electric Love • Time Lapse from Android Jones on Vimeo.

I've been thinking about love, because I'm wondering if I'm missing some. I might agree that it's a selfish impulse.

I have a few chapters to go to finish The Book of Joan — the days of this summer are long and full. On some level, the book seems to be saying that we have evolved past the narrative of love (or, we will have by the time of the novel's not-too-distant future setting). Love is not to have, it's to be. Yet it laments the private and personal.

How will this love story end?

Monday, July 24, 2017

To surrender to the crucible

To be human the film suggested, was to step into the full flurry and motion of all humanity: to bear the weight of circumstances without flinching, to surrender to the crucible — to admit that history was not something in the past but something you consciously step into. Living a life meant knowing you might be killed instantly, like one who wanders into the path of a runaway train. It was the first time I felt a sense of messianic time, of life that was not limited to the story of a lone human being detached from the cosmos.

When I came out of the theater, I said to my mother, "It's like we're stars in space. It's like space is the theater and we are the bits of stardust and everything everywhere is the story."
— from The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.

The film is not named, but surely it is Doctor Zhivago that is described. I can't say I feel the same way about this film as Yuknavitch's narrator does, but I remember having a similar epiphany (for me the film was Wings of Desire).

This book is not even a little bit what I expected it to be.

Messianic time.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Today I read the saddest poem

Today I read the saddest poem, flipping through journals at the magazine shop. It brought tears to my eyes. I stopped breathing, and my heart stopped for an instant too.

It was so sad, I had to buy this summer reading issue of Tin House. You can't read something that sad and just put it back on the rack. Plus, there's an octopus on the cover.

The poem is "Dusk" by Tracy K Smith, just recently named US Poet Laureate. Justly so.

"Dusk" starts like this:
What woke to war in me those years
When my daughter had first grown into
A solid self-centered self? I'd watch her
Sit at the table — well, not quite sit,
More like stand on one leg while
The other knee hovered just over the chair.
She wouldn't lower herself, as if
There might be a fire, or a great black
Blizzard of waves let loose in the kitchen,
And she'd need to make her escape.
I came home and told my daughter I'd read the saddest poem, about having a teenage daughter, and she asked me if I needed a hug and I said yes.
I thought I’d have more time! I thought
My body would have taken longer going
About the inevitable feat of repelling her,

Thursday, July 13, 2017

She can talk back to me, though not too much

My vacation reading went off the rails pretty early on. The book I was reading in Edinburgh was set in Edinburgh, but as soon as we settled into the train ride south, a restlessness overcame me. The books I'd brought with me were laid aside, and I picked up other reading material along the way. My London stay was defined by Tim Parks's Calm. On the last day in London I came across Tove Jansson's Letters from Klara, which seemed would make for perfect seaside reading.

(The cover image and the French flaps made this book irresistible to me.)

Letters from Klara is a volume of short stories originally published in 1991, appearing now in English translation for the first time.

Jansson is probably best known for the Moomin books (did you know there's a Moomin Shop at Covent Garden?), but NYRB has been steadily reissuing her adult fiction over the last several years.

The thirteen stories in this volume transcend time; one barely notices the absence of modern technology and the reliance on post or telegram. But they feel shrouded in nostalgia. I read these stories between naps, on the beach and on a plane, allowing each story to breathe, but one could easily devour this volume in one sitting.

These stories are mostly character portraits. They might be interpreted as reflections on a life lived; more than one story alludes to switching careers, how difficult it would be to start over. I feel scolded for both taking matters too seriously and not seriously enough.

On several occasions I found myself talking back at the book and exclaiming in disbelief ("What a bitch!"). People do some nasty things in these stories.

Other people are not we expect or remember them to be.

Above all these stories demonstrate how impossible it is to understand each other and how inscrutable our motivations are. Everyone operates by their own unique internal logic.

But they are sweet and bittersweet.
I think when I have a daughter, I'll teach her to whistle. It could be useful to whistle to each other in case we lost track of each other in the woods. If she doesn't answer, then I'll know she wants to be left alone. If she goes out in The Dinghy, I won't row after her and bring her home if it starts to blow. I won't make her pick blueberries, but she can pick mushrooms because that's fun. My daughter can wear any old trousers she wants to, and she can talk back to me, though not too much. She will look like me but prettier. Autumn is coming, so I won't write any more today.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

An abstract music of galactic desolation

Electronic music had just begun to appear at that time — Pierre Schaeffer, Klaus Schulze — an abstract music of galactic desolation that enraptured me. I wanted Karin to hear it too, but I should never have played that record. I explained that this was a new thing they were experimenting with. "Now just listen to this," I said. "It's like the pulsing of the spheres in space. Don't you think?"

"Quiet," said Karin. "I'm listening."

We listened together. The room seemed to throb electronically. Karin had gone pale and sat utterly motionless.

I jumped up to turn off the music but Karin yelled, "Don't! This is important to me!"

I should have remembered this was the moment when Dante descended into the Underworld and was met by the cries of the lost souls.

"I know," Karin said. "This is it. Now comes the voice of God."

And it came. How could she have known!? A deep, sorrowful bass that cut through the music with incomprehensible words and vanished into the galaxy amidst vibrations that finally lost themselves in silence.

"Forgive me..." I said. "You understand, this is a new kind of music they've just invented."

"No," said Karin calmly, "it has always existed. The lost souls are with us always, I know them. It's like a grey wave — any time, any place, on the street, on the train — obliterating everything. They cry for help and we sink in sin, theirs and our own. Can you play it again?"

But I didn't want to.
— from "My Friend Karin" in Letters from Klara, by Tove Jansson.

Sometime in the 80s, my brother discovered Klaus Schulze, and it was much like the times he discovered Kraftwerk and Beethoven. He rushed into the house, headed straight for the stereo, repositioned the speakers so the sound would roll over the dining table. Late for supper, again.

This was before trance music, before rave culture. This is how he would share with us his newest, his latest, religion. "Listen to this. Can you hear that? You can hear... Don't you get it?!"

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Still life

One aspect of Vipassana still bothered him, indeed had come to bother him more and more, to the point where he was now ready to stop meditating. "What does it mean, " he asked, "when they say the thoughts are not my thoughts? What can that mean? How can the thoughts not be my thoughts?"
I don't like Tim Parks.

I attended an event several years ago where he was reading, and I overheard him saying things — not publicly, but to an individual — that rubbed me the wrong way. He struck me as a man of tremendous ego. On this basis, I have refused to read his novels, and I read his columns in the New York Review of Books aggressively and antagonistically — I love to hate them and find fault with them wherever I can.

All of which makes it particularly puzzling that I should be drawn to pick up Calm, and that I should find it so satisfying.

There I was, restless and wandering the gift shops of the Tate Modern, and there were lined up all the pretty Vintage Minis, and I suddenly had to have one, I had to have a pretty little book as a souvenir, a book that was Art, and Modern, and Summer, and Britain.

And I picked them up, one by one, to see what they were about. These are slim volumes that excerpt previously published work.

But this vacation was not about love, desire, or drinking, not even motherhood or summer. I almost left with that itch to buy a book unscratched, when Calm caught my eye. Striped shades of purple. Calm. An antidote to my restlessness. By an author I dislike. A paradox like a zen koan. My own little book of calm.

(Weirdly, Calm is the book repeatedly recommended to me by the "which Vintage Mini do you need in your life?" quiz, even when I switch up my responses.)

Calm is an extract from Teach Us to Sit Still, in which the sceptical Parks attends a Buddhist meditation retreat.

Why did I think I could learn something about calm, achieve some kind of calm, via the reflections of an aging white male academic? His pains are not my pains, physical or emotional. His teachings cannot be my lessons.
Attachment with aversion was a new idea to me. But I sensed at once what he meant. It was like when I read an author I despised because I despised him, because I enjoyed thinking what a scandal it was that this man was a celebrity. Or when I kept complaining about a colleague at the university because my identity was intensified by my opposition to him. Or when I listened to the radio outside Ruggero's study in order to loathe it. Did I attach to pain in the same way? Scratching sores. Was it possible that this grand showdown with myself that I had planned and been denied actually had to do with the pain I was now experiencing? The showdown was taking place without my realising it was the showdown.
I may not have learned anything, but I found a calm satisfaction in this book. Something about the relationship between the ineffable and the tangible, inner and outer, stillness and life. Thematically in keeping with what had brought me to this book, the Giacometti exhibition I'd viewed at the Tate Modern — the problem of achieving maximal expression through a minimum of means.

Calm lends itself well to introspection, examining how we think about thought and how we transform wordlessness into words. Parks's reflections only confirm how vast his ego is, but I admire his honesty. And as much as I enjoyed this read, I confess I don't intend to read any more Parks ever.