Monthly Archives: July 2016

Pond

Pond (Clare-Louise Bennet)

My first day as a volunteer in Tijuana ten years ago, I spent the afternoon painting white lines on a basketball court. It was a task assigned to me by Martin, the beady-eyed Austrian volunteer who was working at the parish. It felt so peaceful at the time, shuffling up and down that court, mechanically dabbing a paintbrush. I didn’t need to focus on or think about anything else. I had fled from my undergraduate college in Portland, where I’d turned in all of my papers that semester extremely late. In contrast to a semester that had caused me to write things in my journal like “I feel like butter scraped over too many pieces of bread” (quoting LOTR, naturally), the act of doing something so simple, so straightforward, as painting a dirty court felt like a kind of magic to me.

I thought of this moment in Tijuana, and of all those afternoons spent in the Boys & Girls Club playing UNO or scraping gum off the underside of desks, while reading Pond. In this book, the narrator finds a similar refugee, as she spends a great deal of time deriving pleasure from small, simple actions. Much of the book consists of descriptions of eating oatmeal in the mornings, gathering firewood, weeding, going for country lane walks, and taking out the compost. “That’s right,” the narrator thinks while burning what she refers to as “evil-looking” holly during Christmas: “suffer, damn you to hell.” (146) Or during her frenzied, indiscriminate weeding: “Perhaps I really hate all this stuff and it is a very normal and human thing to wish to crush it.” (140) So yes, she is that kind of person: the kind of person I’d love to be best friends with, basically.

This is a novel that isn’t a novel. Or maybe it’s a collection of stories that aren’t really stories–more like flash fiction or prose poems. Essentially, this book is an example of my favorite thing in the world: the novel-story hybrid. The narrator is a woman living by herself in a shabby, rural cottage. We never learn her name. We assume she is somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, since she refers to the Atlantic Ocean and to Dublin. We know that she has dropped out of a PhD program, where she has written thousands of words for an unfinished dissertation. She refers to different friends, some who may be lovers; one is married with children. In one paragraph she discusses a phone call with her father and their conversation about his “new,” younger family. That’s pretty much it. How she supports herself, how old she is, how long she’s been out here, living in this cottage, we never learn. This is a novel (and I keep calling it that, because it definitely read like a novel to me, with a clear arch and journey experienced by the character) that is very resistant to naming things, to pinning things down.

I was initially afraid that I wasn’t going to like this book, based on the description on the back cover and my own high expectations.What if I just wasn’t smart enough for it? What if I found boring, ranty, pretentious, overly lyrical and philosophically inaccessible?  Thankfully, the book is none of these things, saved by its engagingly readable style, deliciously dark humor, and above all else (for me personally, at least) the hysterically relatable misanthropic worldview. This is the kind of narrator who says things like the following: “I like worms and have no problem picking them up, which is unusual and thus gives me a clear advantage in certain situations because it means I can fling them at people if I feel like it and that never fails to cheer me up.” (26)

Or this: “What a sexy and beautiful thing it is to look at someone and decide suddenly and for no reason at all that I will for a while give them the cold shoulder.” (49)

Or this: “I rarely acquire any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk.” (55)

Or this (my personal favorite): “One has to have illustrated links with the fair to middling ranks of reality I should think in order for something like Christmas to really work out otherwise it just seems odd and sort of accusatory.” (147)

Actually I take that back, I like this one the best: “In any case, gigantic joints of meat notwithstanding, there’s not much room in a Baby Belling oven so I should think the possibility of comfortably shoving one’s head into it is pretty slim.” (90) (Is it just me or is this hysterical?!)

(I could go on and on, but will stop there!)

The title of the book comes from the story “The Big Day,” about a party that the landlady is throwing. The landlady places a damp piece of wood with the word POND scrawled across it, next to the pond in question, which infuriates the narrator to no end:

One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable. As if the earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go. (41)

This is the kind of passage that I would like to give to my undergraduate students and say something like “hurrrr ok the signifier vs. the sign in this passage discuss ok go.” Basically, I love how the narrator feels like naming things is crude and insufficient. This specific story ends with her throwing an item away into the Pond, something she never specifically describes but wants to get rid of fast: “a broken, precious thing. I dropped it into the water and it did not sink and go on sinking. It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible.” (51) What a classic, invaluable technique—the not-naming makes the thing so much more intriguing.

One needs to be careful with names,” (84) the narrator says in another story, in which she is reading an apocalyptic novel about the last woman alive on earth (apparently this book really existsThe Wall by Marlen Haushofer—I must track it down and read it!). The apocalyptic feel of Pond was something else I very much enjoyed and appreciated, even though the narrator herself is not that isolated (she bikes to a store to buy expensive cheeses, and even throws a party herself). I loved the sense of retreat in this book, how there’s only a few references to texting; it’s obviously a contemporary book but at the same time feels quite timeless. It is a very anti-instant gratification book—anti-Instagram, anti-Twitter, anti-humblebrag, anti-resume culture. The narrator refers consistently to her “persistent lack of ambition.” (166) “It’s quite true,” she says languidly, “I don’t do anything really,” (133) which is an apt description of the book itself. It doesn’t “do” anything in the sense of a traditional, satisfactory plot or journey, but it is this not-doing that makes it valuable and interesting. Talk about an antidote to the kind of permanently judgmental culture described here!

So what’s up with this narrator? What is she running from (if anything)? In the last few stories, there are many references to a monster, a rising sense of terror, to a feeling that reappears from time to time “just to remind you, perhaps, what you are living with, even if you almost always forget.” (154) Forget what? In one of the most striking stories (see how I refer to them as stories even though I consider it a novel? TAKE THAT boring straightforward out-of-date genre considerations!!), the narrator is passed by a young man in a field, and imagines what it would be like to be raped by him. Did something happen to her? Is that almost a too easy explanation? Can’t a woman just want to hide away and like, chill, without it being the result of something traumatic? Even so, there definitely seems to be something there in the last few stories to me, which helps the book feel like it’s traveled towards something, even though whatever “it” is ultimately (thankfully) remains unnamed. “Sooner or later,” the narrator thinks, “you’re going to have to speak up,” (154) and one of the cool things about this book is that you feel like it goes on living even after you’ve finished it, that its complete story can’t quite be contained by its pages, that the narrator isn’t going to allow us to see what happens to her next. “I just don’t know if I’ll ever get the hang of it if you want to know,” (172) she says at the end, while contemplating a trip to Brazil or Bail, but somehow, that feels heartening rather than worrying.

Basically, I think this book is an incredibly achievement, and should be taught on contemporary literature courses for the next bazillion years, alongside Knausgaard and Thoreau. I have been waiting for YEARS for a book written by a woman to be as acclaimed as the ones written by Sebald and Teju Cole and so on, and with Pond I thus feel officially satiated.

Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that’s not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream… So even though it sometimes feels as if one could just about die from disappointment I must concede that in fact in a rather perverse way it is precisely those things I did not get that are keeping me alive. (112-113)

Some other quotes I liked:

It was very nice I must say to every now and then take a break from cobbling together yet another overwrought academic abstract on more or less the same theme in order to set down, so precisely, how and where I’d like my brains to be fucked right out. (25)

I’d sit at my desk from time to time, but that was all over with. That’s right, I’d thrown in the towel at last. It hadn’t worked out. I stopped doing what I wasn’t really doing. (25)

A lack of enthusiasm for a project makes me very clear-headed indeed. (44)

I don’t understand the past—I don’t understand the way the past is thought about, I don’t know why but it makes me wild with anger, to hear the ways the past is thought about and made present. Enforced remembrance is, I think, a most stultifying thing. (46)

The large-scale changes were in fact of no interest to me at all; it was the small things that remained constant which sort of attracted me. (47)

[While describing the dark green, porous bathroom walls] It was as if I might actually be able to glide my hands and arms and the rest of me so far into the wall and enter some other place that requires small sharp weapons and a hunk of kick-ass cheese. (134)

Even looking away was looking. (164)

I don’t want to be in the business of turning things into other things, it feels fatal for one reason. (165)

Once a word was written it was quite irretrievable, as if abducted. (154)

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Filed under apocalypse, books, contemporary, review, short stories, women writers

Two Story Collections

Hot Little Hands (Abigail Ulman)

Along with Anna Metcalfe’s Blind Water Pass (written by a fellow PhD-er, this is an excellent, extremely relevant collection about migration and borders, very Lydia Davis and Kafka-esque), Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands is one of the strongest short story collections that I’ve read this year. Thematic links are young girls, sex, Australia, Russia, San Francisco, and not knowing what to do with your life. This is definitely the kind of book I would buy for my female friends.

Here’s a brief commentary on each story:

“Jewish History” – I really enjoyed this one. Kind of like “Mean Girls” written by a melancholy Emily Gould. Very powerful closing sentence. I liked the narrator’s perspective, a Russian girl in Australia who doesn’t quite speak English yet, and the oblique yet effective way the story conveyed this.

“Chagall’s Wife” – the first of many “mature” young girls that appear in this collection. Man, none of the girls in this book would have wanted to be friends with me in middle school; they’d have found me such a hopelessly boring square. The girl in this story runs into one of her teachers at a coffee shop, spends the afternoon with im in an art museum, before the story concludes with them going to the movies. Basically, us readers feel very, very nervous during the entire story about what’s going to happen next. I love the interrupted, in-the-moment, suspenseful ending (quite a few of these in the book).

“The Withdrawal Method” – the first of three stories in the book about Claire, a twenty-something finishing her PhD in film studies in San Francisco, playing in a band and “flailing around” (as one might say). In this story she has an abortion. I liked these three linked stories a lot; they add up to a pervier, more punk rock version of The Wonder Spot.

“Warm-Ups” – possibly my favorite in the collection. It’s also possibly the darkest. It’s about thirteen-year-old gymnasts who go to the U.S. for a performance (not going to say more than that). What a heartbreaking, gut-twisting ending. This story uses slow build-up of dread very well.

“Same Old Same As” – another great story, with a divisive lead character. Ramona is in therapy and starts telling everyone that her stepfather has sexually abused her, enjoying the attention that she gets from her classmates. It’s an ambiguous story right till the end and is definitely one that would challenge readers who need to “like” a main character. I found it very honest.

“The Pretty One” – the second story with Claire, about her relationship and break-up with a younger man. I like how she found solace working in her dissertation (lol). Kind of like The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, with a lot more drinking (wow, that’s the second reference to Melissa Banks that I’ve made so far…). I found the descriptions of San Francisco hipsters listening to bluegrass music, juice cleanses and too many facial piercings painful to read. I found the ending a bit too sweeping, like it was trying to sum everything up, but isn’t that what the fall-out of relationships is sometimes like?

“Head to Toe” – maybe the strangest story for me. Very understated. It’s narrated in a distant style: “this happened, this happened, this happened,” with little interiority of the two main female characters. Two sixteen-year-old best friends grow tired (as in existentially so) with their partying lifestyle. They return for a week or so at the horse camp they used to attend as children. The story ends with them returning home and then going to a guy’s house where one of them has porn-style sex while listening to Kanye West. This was a story that made me go “what?” but I definitely kept turning the pages, with a sense of trainwreck fascination.

“Plus One” – my other favorite story in the book. Twenty-two-year-old Amelia can’t finish her collection of essays, so she decides to get pregnant with her gay friend instead. This story made me think of Lorrie Moore and Jenny Offhill. What a devastating ending. This is another story I found extremely honest.

“Your Charm Won’t Help You Here” – I won’t spoil it, but basically this story describes why Claire ends up having to leave San Francisco. I found it compulsively compelling. I’d love to know how the author did research for this one.

All in all I would highly recommend this book and await the author’s next work with great interest.

Lovers on All Saints’ Day (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

I bought this book at The Strand in New York, where it had a different title than in the UK (The All Saints’ Day Lovers–what’s up with that?). At one point in the final story of the collection (which I’ll talk more about in just a bit), the main character watches the weather report on mute, and thinks about the upcoming news: “The one o’clock news was part of Oliveira’s routine, his day incomplete without the most recent scandal from the Assemblée Nationale or the images of the dead in Algiers, more or less sophisticated forms of violence that vindicated his desire to leave, to hide away from the world.”

I find the phrase “more of less sophisticated forms of violence” very interesting, and perhaps key not just to the collection overall, but to Vásquez’s other novels, which also approached violence as a main theme. Vásquez writes in the introduction to this book that he was inspired by Tobias Wolff, in that “a book of stories should be like a novel in which the characters don’t know each other,” which perhaps explains many of the eerie repetitions. In these seven stories we see the same scenes or images reoccurring over and over again: hunting trips with large groups of men, rural settings in France and Belgium, love affairs gone wrong, exile (both emotional and physical) and yes, shocking moments of violence (usually at the end). Are the intimate, emotional, personal-level forms of violence we see in these stories unsophisticated forms of violence, in contrast to the “sophisticated” scenes that tend to broadcast on television, make national news? And yet it’s these unsophisticated forms of violence, the kind that take place between lovers, that tend to impact us all, regardless of class, geography, etc. It’s this idea of emotional violence as a unifying force, more than anything else, which links this book in my head to Vásquez’s other works, especially The Sound of Things Falling.

The majority of these stories begin sloooooowly and build up to killer endings (a patience-based form of pacing similar to many of Bolaño’s works). The ending of “The Solitude of the Magician,” for example, makes a simple pencil have an emotional impact that you just plain would not believe. “At the Café de la Republique” is another standout, in which a  husband and wife reunite six months after separating, and the husband decides he wants to get back together (an medically inexplicable lump in his jaw is a major factor in his decision).

My favorite story by far was the aforementioned final one, “Life on Grimsey Island,” the darkest and one of the longest. In this story, a man whose father has recently died meets a veterinarian, whom he agrees to drive back to her home in Paris. During their journey (which is, believe it or not, full of unexpected twists and revelations) she tells him about the titular island north of Iceland, near the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sets: “so no one is afraid, no one feels the horror of having a fear of the dark.” It runs the risk of being a heavy-handed metaphor (dark = death, light = love + connection, etc.), but in the end, the story earns it, devastatingly so.

At another point, the main character stands in front of a map: “He approached the map on the wall and looked for Iceland. It was a violet-colored country. France, where he still was, was saffron red. Portugal was green, an intense green similar to the color of the van … Rootlessness had no color, however. It makes no difference to live in one place or another and being born here or there was an accident. One was a chameleon, countries and people mere scenery.” Oh boy, talk about a passage that one can relate to…

Overall, I’m impressed by Vásquez’s understated writing style, and his ability to show how violence and greed can split people’s lives open irregardless of the promise of love.

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