Monthly Archives: August 2018

Normal People

Normal People (Sally Rooney)

“One night the library started closing just as he reached the passage in ‘Emma’ when it seems like Mr Knightley is going to marry Harriet, and he had to close the book and walk home in a state of strange emotional agitation. He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him.”

I’m home right now, listening to my wannabe DJ neighbour blast his godawful techno music – not gonna lie, I am NOT going to miss that particular soundtrack after I move. I made my new landlord CONFIRM OFFICIALLY that my new neighbours will be quiet!! N. tells me that one of Natsume Soseki’s symptoms of madness and depression after he moved to England was paranoia and inability to tolerate noise – sure hope I am not going down that road…

Anyway, I’m happy that I was finally able to get around to reading my copy of Sally Rooney’s new novel, Normal People. FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve met the author because we’re both published by the same publisher, were once nominated for the same award, and share a mutual friend. This… is the funny thing about maintaining one’s 10-year-old book reviewing blog. Who reads blogs anymore anyway, right? My minimum expectation at this point is to not be stalked and harassed like I was in fall of 2015, lol. And in 2008 I was definitely not, like, contemplating the “ethical” quandaries of discussing a book by someone I “know” (however tangentially). But isn’t the purpose of this blog (other than to amuse and entertain me – or, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, to “fart around”) that of keeping track of books that made an impression on me? And that’s exactly what this book did! It made an impression on me! There it is: it moved me.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this for AGES. It’s actually really touching how many people I know who’ve said that they’ve been dying to read this! Is this… what being a Star Wars/Harry Potter fan like? In terms of enthusiastic anticipation? And yet what I found most interesting about this novel were the passages discussing the ‘purpose’ and ‘function’ of art, in a very Savage Detectives-esque vein:

“Everything about the event was staid and formulaic, sapped of energy. He didn’t know why he had come. He had read the writer’s collection and found it uneven, but sensitive in places, perceptive. Now, he thought, even that effect was spoiled by seeing the writer in this environment, hemmed off from anything spontaneous, reciting aloud from his own book to an audience who’d already read it. The stiffness of this performance made the observations in the book seem false, separating the writer from the people he wrote about, as if he’d observed them only for the benefit of talking about them to Trinity students. Connell couldn’t think of any reason why these literary events took place, what they contributed to, what they meant. They were attended only be people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.”

“Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book was really insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything. Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt the old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal… Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.”

I found these passages very bad-ass – especially in terms of thinking of literature as valuable because, like football, it doesn’t serve a “utilitarian” purpose in society (assuming you cut out all the related commercial functions… or the consideration of football as a ritualistic outlet for aggression – ok, maybe this wasn’t the best comparison, but whatever, I never claimed to be a great essayist!). But yeah, literature as valuable precisely BECAUSE it is so useless. Useless in the sense that it can be made and given away, by you just writing in your notebook, for no one but yourself. Now that’s a stance I can really get behind. (This piece also very much supports my philosophy, in terms of how The Work Is All There Is. And this piece supports my philosophy about how Art Encourages Uncertainty and Openness, as Opposed to Capitalism)

What I probably found most touching (thematically) in this book was its emphasis on the importance of depending on others. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot – because in so many ways, the novel is a very ‘I’-obsessed form. If you think of the novel as a creation of a voice, a personality, a presence… that’s a very pro-U.S.A. mentality, in a way. To focus on the individual, rather than the group or the community. IDK. These articles (by Viet Thanh Nguyen and a New Yorker piece about Julio Cortázar) provided a lot of food for thought, back in the day when I read them.

Overall, I found this book incredibly thought-provoking, and it’s not often a book makes me feel that way.

“Marianne wanted her life to mean something then, she wanted to stop all violence committed by the strong against the weak, and she remembered a time several years ago when she had felt so intelligent and young and powerful that she almost could have achieved such a thing, and now she knew she wasn’t at all powerful, and she would live and die in a world of extreme violence against the innocent, and at most she could only help a few people. It was so much harder to reconcile herself to the idea of helping a few, like she would rather help no one than do something so small and feeble.”

“No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on other people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”

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Filed under books, contemporary, fiction, pondering

Being Dead

It was a quiet week. I went to Sheffield on Wednesday and saw the house I’ll be moving into. I went to a barbecue on Sunday and brought the hosts a potted succulent as a housewarming gift. We talked about how difficult it is an artist to make time, to use time. Is it pretentious of me to call myself an artist? It feels like a form of self-protection. But I also agree with it. Also at the BBQ, I met someone who’d traveled to Colombia, and when I said I’d grown up in Cali, his face changed and he said, “Oh. I felt really unsafe there.” (This happens, often.) N. and I watched a Japanese film, The Great Passage, about the editors of a dictionary. Life is very quiet and slow and still. September lurks like a beast on the horizon. I am trying to keep my head down and my nose clean. But time passes, constantly, and I fret and worry.

Being Dead (Jim Crace)

There was a book I read earlier this summer that’s been on my mind: Being Dead by Jim Crace. I’ve read one other Crace novel (Quarantine – apparently I read it both in Colombia and Ecuador). Being Dead is very much a book about time – namely, the end of it. I don’t remember how I first came across it – maybe in my research about 2666. Because there are passages through Being Dead that very clearly parallel Bolaño’s famous style:

Their bodies were discovered straight away. A beetle first. Claudaus maximi. A male. Then the raiding parties arrived, drawn by the summons of fresh wounds and the smell of urine: swag flies and crabs, which normally would have to make do with rat dung and the carcasses of fish for their carrion. Then a gull.” (36)

The plot follows a married couple, Joseph and Celice, two zoologists. In the opening chapters, they are brutally murdered in a random, senseless act, by a madman carrying a hunk of granite (the chapter narrated from his perspective is not one I’m going to forget anytime soon). Their bodies lie on the beach for six days. And so death – and the beetles, and the gulls, and the maggots most of all – sets in.

[The beetle] didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time. It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets. He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality. Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche. Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life. He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions. He wanted to escape, and to feed. That was his long-term plan, and his hereafter.” (37)

(After rereading the passage above, part of me is kind of like… but AREN’T beetles afraid of death, in the sense that they want to instinctively avoid it? Lol what do I know)

In college and high school I flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a biologist. My grades were never good enough (despite taking the class, I didn’t dare take the AP Biology exam), but I’ve always loved the subject. For “Career Week” (a week we had to spend working somewhere), I even interned with my dad’s friend Tony, an entomologist. Though I think I mainly chose to do that because I didn’t know how to do an internship with a fiction writer, which deep down inside is what I wanted to be. But whatever, as if the busybody Career Counselor was going to let me get away with that! Rest in peace, Tony! You were the best!

“Zoologists have mantras of their own: change is the only constant; nothing in the universe is stable or inert; decay and growth are synonyms; a grain of sand is stronger and more durable than rock.” (81)

During and post-college I mainly dated scientists (both medical, social, and biological – LOL “scientists” is really stretching it, let’s be real – most of them were BUMS and ABUSIVE LOSERS. BUMS, I tell you). I think I’ve channeled that love of biology mainly into listening to Radiolab, for now. But! I love being outside. I vaguely flirt with notions of “learning about the local plant and wildlife” (though after living here for six years, I am moving, again). I do feel, though, akin to Tori Amos and the film Mother!, that it is within the natural world where our salvation (and our destruction) lies. Maybe this is just the result of getting older, of seriously asking myself questions like do I WANT to bring a child into this world, like that poor guy at the beginning of First Reformed.

In this sense, this was a worldview that Being Dead very much champions. That this world is what IS – it’s what we have and it’s what we are. That’s it. There is nothing else. Nothing.

‘Anyone who studies nature must get used to violence. You’ll have to make yourselves companionable with death if any of you want to flourish as zoologists.’ She meant that fear of death is fear of life, a cliché among scientists, and preachers too. Both knew that life and death are inextricably entwined, the double helix of existence. Both want to give life meaning only because it clearly has none, other than to replicate and decompose. Hard truths.” (40)

I did find this interview with the author extremely interesting, especially in his discussion that the book was a response to his father’s death – specifically, his atheist father’s insistance that there be no ritual after his death whatsoever. The Crace family just got on with their lives. Which was deeply unsatisfying to little Jim Crace. And so (as he says in the interview), Being Dead was his attempt at creating a sort of response, a non-religious ritual for facing death. And consequently that ritual is… accepting that decay, and change, and death is inevitable, and constant, I suppose. You’d think this realisation would make me get off my butt and, like, go RUN THROUGH A FIELD, but whatever.

Whatever philosophical claims we might make for ourselves, human kind is only marginal. We hardly count in the natural orders of zoology. We’ll not be missed. [Insects] might not have a sense of self, like us. Or memory. Or hope. Or consciences. Or fear of death. They might not know how strong and wonderful they are. But when every human being in the world has perished, and all our sewerage pipes and gas cookers and diesel engines have fossilised, there will still be insects. Take my word. Flourishing, evolving, specialising insects.” (86)

I won’t say too much more about the book, except that even though it’s a bit slow in parts (I liked the corpse chapters way more than the ones focused on the daughter, because I am morbid), it is an extremely impressive achievement, in terms of structure and theme. Some people might find it a bit cold, icy, distant, but this kind of style is what I just plain ate up. I plan on reading more of him.

Zoology was a far kinder companion that cosmology. How much more heartening it was to contemplate and bring about the capture of a bladder fly, like some great god, than to view the huge and distant streakings of the sky. How greater than the death of stars was this wet universe, its grains of sand and liquid films, its mites and worms too small to see but swimming, feeding, dying, breathing in massive miniature. These tide pools were a meditation, too.” (75)

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Filed under books, British, death, review

You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames)

Yesterday, while N. and his brother played vintage games (such as Street Gangs, and one that involved a knight wandering around a castle, killing bats and snakes), I bought a book on the kindle app on my phone and read it. We’d gone out the night before for N’s birthday, during which I had a very long and interesting conversation with someone about an Indonesian Christian who praised the coming of colonialism (I know…). So the next day I wanted something easy to read, relaxing, perfect for a Sunday afternoon of lounging about, like ya do. So what better choice than a novella filled with VIOLENCE, GRIMNESS, and THE TRAUMA OF AN ABUSIVE CHILDHOOD?

I wanted to read this book because I loved the film (one of the best I’ve seen this year, along with First Reformed and Netflix’s I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore). The film genre of “Joaquin Phoenix plays a lunatic” is one that I decidedly enjoy, and I also loved how it reminded me of Taxi Driver. The book definitely did not disappoint, though (SPOILER WARNING): the book is decidedly different from the film – most specifically, the book ends MUCH earlier than the film does. The film also gives more dialogue and presence to the kidnapped girl, which is good. I did read an interview with the author somewhere (who incidentally used to date Fiona Apple, and had a song written about him) that he’s writing a sequel – I wonder how similar the sequel will be to the film, or not… if it’s a George RR Martin kind of situation…

I was surprised by how much this book reminded of The Remains of the Day – not only in the sense that Joe, the main character, is somewhat of an robot, but in the sense that (like Stephens the butler) he was deliberately CONDITIONED to be that way (in Joe’s case, by the Marines and FBI). This… is something that fascinates me about masculinity, about young men who are purposefully PROGRAMMED to be mindless killing machines. Or unknowingly allow themselves to be. As Homo Deus would put it, putting the lizard brain over consciousness.

Overall, You were Never Really Here would be perfect to teach in a novel writing or crime course (and indeed, I might very well use it this academic year): it’s very short, very well-written, and very readable. What I found particularly interesting about the book, in contrast to the film, was how much we were able to go inside Joe’s head – whereas in the film, you’re just “watching” him (or seeing his flashbacks). OK, this is a very Basic Creative Writing 101 observation, but it’s true. Joe’s interiority is presented in a very matter of fact, almost deadened way that I often found very funny (because I’m a dark, sick person):

“Joe lay in bed in his mother’s house. He thought about committing suicide. Such thinking was like a metronome for him. Always present, always ticking. All day long, every few minutes, he’d think, I have to kill myself.”

“He was aware that he was not completely sane, so he kept himself in rigid check, playing both jailer and prisoner.”

“Joe tortured himself, imagining what McCleary’s toes must look like. He thought of putting them in his mouth. Joe hated his own mind. He wished he could be put down like a dog.”

Yeah. So clearly, self-hatred and trauma are a big element of this character. There’s something brutally comical about how he approaches every situation so logically, so coldly: “He thought of burning the house down, but he didn’t want to risk killing any neighbours. The house would have to be left intact.” He’s even explicitly compared to a weapon at one point. Is this… the future of humanity? In terms of automation?

Another impressive achievement of this book was its handling of action scenes, or “choreography,” as my students like to call it. Not that I’ve ever tried writing a complicated action scene, but what made the ones in “You Were Never Really Here” compelling (and there are indeed quite a few setpieces) wasn’t just the force of the violence, but these beautiful, unexpected observations, like this one.

You break your adversary’s fingers, you have an immediate advantage. It frightened even the hardest men to have their fingers snapped, and in a fight, like a dance, you often held hands.”

Comparing a fight to a dance – wow! Never thought of it that way before. Playful and memorable.

What was also very interesting to me were the parts where the narrator is just so DIRECT with the reader about Joe. In the sense that it’s the narrator who’s giving us information, as opposed to Joe himself:

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started.”

At his core, Joe was a very angry boy who had never gotten proper vengeance on his father, which is what a boy like Joe needed. Though it’s not always vengeance; sometimes it’s justice.”

So explicit! Some of my students would definitely be like… YO, this is TELLING, not SHOWING. But I think it creates a lot of pathos for Joe. SEE… WRITING HAS NO RULES… U CAN DO ANYTHING…

The last thing I want to say about this book is that there are two VERY interesting moments in which we leave Joe’s head and enter the consciousness of two other characters – this is something we definitely don’t (and indeed cannot) see in the film. I won’t spoil it, but both moments tie in very beautifully with this passage (I know I’m sharing a lot of excerpts here, but I can’t help it):

Joe knew that all human beings are the star of their own very important film, a film in which they are both camera and actor; a film in which they are always playing the fearful and lonely hero who gets up each day hoping to finally strike upon the life they are meant to lead, though they never do.”

These brief forays into the other two non-Joe characters are like sneaky glimpses into these other films – and the idea that everyone thinks they’re the star of their own story, when they’re really just… cannon fodder. It reminds me how I used to feel curious as a teen about the nameless and faceless henchmen who get massacred in films, like those poor dudes getting killed by raptors in the long grass, in that one The Lost World scene.

Overall, this was exactly what I want out of fiction: down, dirty, and readable.

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Filed under contemporary, fiction, review, violence

Beowulf

I’m at N’s family house for a few days while he gets his car fixed, a sort of mini-retreat, mini-vacation. N’s grant is taking him to Japan for three months in the fall, to research Soseki’s archives and eat lots of omurice. I’ve rented a room in Sheffield for that same period because I spent so much of last academic year being sick (did I have the Australian flu? Was it spending so much time on the train?) – I need a break from the commute, and without N in Norwich I want/need a change of scene. If someone had told me in 2012 that I would still be in Norwich, six years later, my jaw would have slowly but surely dropped open. I like Norwich a lot, though. Am I staying in England, now that my PhD is finally finished? I miss my parents – they’re getting older (my mom has a milestone b-day coming up), and I want to spend time with them. I don’t know how they do it – travelin’ round the world like a couple of youngsters. I guess it helps that they don’t buy plane tickets that involve two stops!

One of the nicest things about staying at N’s house is the opportunity to examine his bookshelves (not a childhood bookshelf, unfortunately, more like university era). The antique book his grandfather bought in Japan in the 1950’s. The 2005 Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook he bought when he was trying to decide between teaching English there or in Japan. And his Oxford MA books. So many editions of Chaucer! So many Icelandic tales! (I had no idea Iceland had such a rich literary history *embarrassed shrug*) And the Beowulf translation by Seamus Heaney, which I pulled from the shelf since it seemed like a nice follow-up to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, one of the most pleasant reading experiences I’ve had this year (though it was technically auditory, as it was an audio book – God, does Neil Gaiman have the most soothing voice!). As a bonus connection, Gaiman was apparently involved in writing the screenplay for that weird Beowulf movie in which Angelina Jolie is kinda (digitally) naked but kinda not.

I read the Introduction first which immediately spoiled the “plot” in the second paragraph. Fine by me! I’m the kind of person who still googles movie spoilers (but only of films I plan on NEVER seeing, such as the new Star Wars, which I tend to end up watching on airplanes anyway). N. tells me about how in his Oxford class on Beowulf, he was the only non-Oxford alumni, and thus the only student who hadn’t already read it in the original Old English. He had to teach himself Old English! (It sounds very strange when read aloud) He also tells me about how the only copy of Beowulf was almost destroyed in an 18th-century fire (how many other works of literature have been lost in such random ways? A truly Bolaño-esque question), and how a lot of Beowulf critics sneer at Heaney’s translation for taking “liberties” to be “accessible” to the “layman.” To this I say: Thank you very much, Seamus! And a big, big thank you to whoever wrote the line notes in the margins, helpfully providing clarifying explanations of the text (the ones about genealogy were especially helpful: The Danes have legends about their warrior kings. The most famous was Shield Sheafson, who ruled the founding house.)

As an absolute novice with no knowledge about epic poetry whatsoever (um… is this an epic poem? :O), I thought this translation was absolutely fantastic. Very readable and stark and lovely. In the introduction Heamey talks about how he was inspired by the men of his Irish family, how a simple sentence like “We cut the corn today” could feel incredibly solemn and weighted with meaning. And hence his decision to translate the first word of the poem as “So,” as opposed to “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” “attend,” “listen,” etc. God, isn’t translation nuts? N. told me that the original Old English word for “ocean” is technically “whale road,” which I think is so beautiful! But not exactly layman speak, so makes sense that Heaney didn’t include it.

What a strange ass story this is! Here’s a list of things I found strange (contains spoilers):

  1. Grendel is killed REALLY quickly. Like… in the first third of the story!! I thought Beowulf was ABOUT Beowulf vs. Grendel! What on earth is going to happen next, I wondered.
  2.  Answer: stories within stories! Isn’t it nuts how this is such a common theme of ancient poetry? And yet in contemporary fiction it’s like “lol u r so experimental.” Reading the Introduction first was very helpful in this regard, as it helped me be prepared.
  3. Beowulf is… kind of a dick? He brags about swimming through the ocean with his sword and armour (UM, not possible, she says snarkily). And after killing Grendel’s mother, he CHOPS OFF Grendel’s head when Grendel is already dead, just to bring a trophy back. Not very sportsmanlike!
  4. Beowulf is basically the story of a life – the contrast between a young warrior, and then a warrior past his prime, at the end of his days. Did not expect this!
  5.  The balance between warrior heroic culture and Christian morality. OK, I sort of stole this observation from N., who wrote an essay about it for his Oxford degree (ermagod, so smart rite). Basically… there is this weird juxtaposition throughout the poem between Beowulf being obsessed with his honour, his legacy, his name, with dying a “good” death as a hero, and between characters jumping in and saying “Oh it’s all thanks to the Lord that this was able to happen!” The written version we have of Beowulf was transcribed just as Christianity was an up and coming religion, but the ORIGINAL version of Beowulf was almost certainly pagan. So it’s almost like the story can’t decide what it wants to be. Because if you believe in Jesus… why would you care so much about your name existing with honour, when going to chill with J.C. in Heaven is supposed to be the most important eternal reward? It is… weird. But as Heaney says in the introduction, it is this contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty, that helps make Beowulf a work of art. I like this idea, that something is more artful when it ISN’T cohesive, when it has these jagged, rough edges.
  6. Parts of this poem are really very beautiful! Especially the parts about death. There’s a big theme of “money and power will not make you happy.” This makes me feel better about my churchmouse income bracket.

All in all, I feel richer for having read this. Ancient stories, man. Why does everything always have to happen in three’s? Can’t wait fo Elon Musk to write an algorithm that explains THAT :/

I also feel incredibly grateful for my university education, and the background it gave me in the classics, even though I certainly wasn’t the best student at the time.

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Filed under books, classic, pondering the future, review