Category Archives: apocalypse

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Talk about post-apocalyptic. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and deserves to be highlighted in this blogspace. Apocalyptic and terrifying. Like Rachel Cusk, Bolaño, and the very worst visions of Philip K. Dick thrown together into one nighmarish blender.

I love the oral history format of this book – it’s such a haunting, affecting style. The book is basically a collection of monologues, spoken by people connected to the Chernobyl disasters. The monologues were collected and arranged by the author, who is a Belorussian journalist. I did find myself wondering if the monologues had been transcribed verbatim, or if they’d been rearranged/reinterpreted by the reporter. The speakers of the monologues include children, wives, firefighters, members of the clean-up team. The anecdotes involving abandoned pets were particularly upsetting.

The deaths of loved ones are described in gruesome detail: tumors growing all over the body, eyes pointing in different directions, noses engorged. Resettled children from Chernobyl are teased by others, said to “glow” and nicknamed “shiny”; instead of playing School or Store they play Hospital. Entire villages are buried underground, smashed down by cranes; radioactive earth is buried in earth. Looted houses, abandoned villages, herds of cats and dogs and boars. As the radioactive cloud rises, people stand in the streets in skirts and sandals, selling pies and ice creams and pastries, unaware of what’s happening. People choose to stay, refuse to leave, buy expensive salami, hoping that it would be made of good meat; “then we found out that it was the expensive salami that they mixed contaminated meat into, thinking, well, since it was expensive fewer people would buy it.” (182) “The frightening things in life happen quietly and naturally,” one voice observes, and that theme is what I found most affecting in this book.

A must-read for the 21st-century. I underlined SO MUCH of this; far too many quotes to choose from to include here. So instead I’ll include a link to an excerpt.

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Filed under apocalypse, non-fiction, review

Sci-Fi Escapism

It’s so humid here in England (i.e. barely humid at all in comparison to the East Coast of the U.S. or Colombia’s Caribbean coast, but after such long bleak winters anything over 20-degrees C is open-toed shoes weather). Perfect for sci-fi escapism!

Eye in the Sky (Philip K. Dick)

Think the multi-leveled world of Inception mixed with the demented bodily fluids of Rick and Morty. I.e., totally whack. Any summary of this book is a bit of a spoiler, but so it goes. Basically, a group of people (a young boy, his conservative mother, an even more conservative old man-military type, a schoolmarm type lady, the African American tour guide, our hero Jack Hamilton, and his potentially undercover Communist wife) are caught in a lab accident. At first, it appears that they’ve been transported to a seemingly parallel universe, one controlled by an Old Testament-like God (who prefers to be referred to by the term (Tetragrammaton) – yes, the parentheses are intentional), complete with biblical plagues, punishment, prophets based in Cayenne, Wyoming, and a very straightforward reward-by-prayer system. However, it turns out the reality of their situation (believe it or not) is a lot more strange. A LOT.

The first-place most insane scene in this book involves this sentence: “The house-creature was getting ready to feed.” The second-place most insane scene involves characters disintegrating into conscious, bloated, wiggling blobs as essential chemicals (certain metallic salts, specific nitrates, iodine and so forth) are eliminated from the world, in the most crazy game ever of who-can-outdo-who, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t. It’s hard to explain, but take me at my word: you won’t forget it.

Nobody does it like Dick does, especially in terms of writing about illusions vs. reality. Absolutely mental. What will I do once I’ve read all his books? Kill myself in despair?!

The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)

I loved this! Definitely up there with one of my favorite reads of 2017. I couldn’t put it down! It’s a great book to read on a plane (I read it almost in one sitting). Apparently Faber wrote this when his wife was dying of cancer, and has said he will never write another novel again. Very sad.

Overall, this combines quite a few of my interests: aliens, apocalyptic collapse, cats, religion… I thought it was very interesting how thoroughly the book inhabits Peter’s “missionary” perspective. I can’t think of many other books that seem genuinely interested in exploring a religious mentality, as opposed to just criticizing it. The way the novel brings in Peter’s past is also very well done and subtle; what an effective way at conveying backstory without bogging us done in a bunch of flashback scenes. I loved all the scenes with the aliens, and found Peter’s final interaction with them very moving, especially in terms of the aliens-vs-humans theme (the ability to heal, have scars, move forward) . And I loved the letters exchanged between him and his wife, which really were the heart of the book for me.

I found what this book says about love very powerful – how do you stay close while going through very different experiences together, while very far away (in the book’s case, light years)? How do you keep going forward when the world goes to shit? Will future generations even care if they don’t know what things were like before?

A strongly recommended, entertaining read.

The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)

I love me a good book about the end of the world! Apparently this is going to be made into a film by Benedict Cumberbatch – I sure hope they don’t dumb it down. For example, a dumb way of pitching this would be The Road with a pregnant woman. Ugh, pitches, so gross. But I enjoyed this (again, read it in one sitting): it’s well written, short, and easy to read. I definitely kept turning the pages. And there’s a nice checklist of appropriately apocalyptic moments (tin food, radio fragments, flooding, etc). It’s written in a very anecdotal, fragmentary style – vaguely Coetzee-esque – very appropriate for short attention span of the Internet age. And what’s also interesting about this book is the theme of return and rebirth – it’s not “just” about this terrible even that causes everything to disintegrate and fall apart; it’s more looking-forward than that, which is pretty unique.

When I first read this, I wanted to know more about the husband and what he went through, but now that some time has passed I think I’m okay with not knowing. It feels more realistic in regards to relationships – you don’t always know what a persona has gone through, does anybody ever really “know” anybody, etc. Ultimately I like books that don’t describe or explain everything, and despite my occasional craving as a reader to have more narrative satisfaction, despite my initial reaction I now think it’s smarter of the author to deny us that. Kudos to the editors too for not shoe-horning in a boring explanation.

The Hot Zone: the Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Richard Preston)

Not a sci-fi story but shit, it might as well be! Apparently this book was the “inspiration” (in the vaguest possible sense of the term) for that 90’s classic virus film Outbreak. And apparently Stephen King called the opening chapter of this book one of the scariest horror openings he’d ever read. I’d agree with him on that, especially about that scene in the place where the guy starts bleeding… :/ Dark and gripping. As my sister said, I wish there were more books and movies about virus outbreaks… it’s like this weird cathartic need…

The Transmigration of Bodies (Yuri Herrera)

In regards to killer viruses, another book worth quickly commenting on (again, not specifically sci-fi) is The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera. This book combines the majority of my obsessions: apocalyptic plagues, crime fiction, the Mexican border, violence, Latin America, simple dirty prose…. it definitely gets a gold star. I especially loved how an apocalyptic plague is used as a metaphorical stand-in for the violence in Mexico. So brilliant! I find this way of writing about Latin America SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING than, like, straightforward storytelling (wow, I love how articulate I’m being right now, but whatever, it’s hot and my brain is mush). I loved the dirty grimey Raymond Chandler-meets-Mad Max crime vibe, particularly in the prose style (what a translation!). I liked the strong women characters, like the nurse Vicky. I loved everyone’s nicknames (the Neanderthal, the Dolphin, the Mennonite – so badass!). I was a bit alarmed by the very graphic sex scene at the beginning, and I’m sure some with weaker constitutions than me could potentially be like “eeeeew exploitative,” but I DUG IT. Like the final story of Álvaro Uribe’s Hypothermia, the sex here is presented as this liberating, powerful antidote to a society that is otherwise falling apart. Bring on the pervey women and men, I say!

A good read, specifically for those who are interested in border/Latin American literature. Short, strange, and beautifully translated.

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Filed under apocalypse, books, contemporary, Mexico, non-fiction, Phillip K. Dick, review

Homo Deus

Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari)

Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose… A life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions. (421-422)

Wow, another cheery apocalyptic read! I love it. What else could one ask for these days?

I think I enjoyed Homo Sapiens more, mostly because I found the chapters about the Cognitive Revolution and earliest days of homo sapiens so fascinating. But Homo Deus is still very much a worthwhile read, mainly for the way it looks towards the future. I’ve tended to avoid books like The Shallows because (to put it bluntly) I tend to avoid books that would potentially make me feel depressed about the current state of humanity. BUT what’s commendable about Homo Deus is how he narrates everything in a very calm, detached, observant, and often VERY humorous style. I guess that’s what a regular practice of vipasssana meditation will do for ya!! (Vipassana founder Mr. S.N. Goenka is thanked in the acknowledgements.)

The book has several main theses. One is that the central project of the future of humanity is to “protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power.” (23) What dangers does he think are forthcoming? WELL, let me tell you:

  • An obsession with attaining eternal life.
  • The rise of Dataism (a form of data-worship that borders on being a religion, and which he sees as eventually making Homo sapiens irrelevant)
  • The rise of a new super-elite biologically engineered race of humans, mainly consisting of rich people who can afford to pay for genetic manipulation.
  • A class of “useless” people as more and more robots replace jobs.
  • The replacement of consciousness with intelligence.
  • AND SO MUCH MORE

This last one was is in particular, about consciousness vs. intelligence, was very interesting to me. Hell, this whole book was interesting!! But this last point in particular. He talks about how apparently we understand VERY little of how consciousness actually works, in terms of our abilities to make memories and dreams and desires in the brain. And how so far we have been good at building robots who are intelligent, but not conscious. So ultimately, we are gonna have to make a choice – is intelligence more important to us as a society, or consciousness? “It is sobering to realize,” he writes, “that at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.” (362)

ANOTHER BIG FEAR he states about the future (or not fear, but POTENTIAL OUTCOME) is “what will conscious humans do once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can almost do everything better?” (370) I.E. BEING OVERTHROWN BY A.I. OVERLORDS. I wondered during this section if he was, like, giving Google and self-driving cars too much credit? Aren’t self-driving cars a bit rubbish? (At least at this point…) But then I think of all those articles you see floating around online making fun of shitty poetry and recipes written by robots. It’s like… it might be bad now… but what about twenty years? Twenty years ago, I NEVER used the Internet, and now I use it EVERY DAY – no joke – like everyone else I know.

He also has a lot to say humanity’s obsession with growth – mainly, is growth always good? He is no critic of capitalism, in fact, he writes “criticizing capitalism should not blind us to its advantages and attainments. So far it’s been an amazing success – at least if you ignore the potential for ecological meltdown, and if you measure success by the yardstick of production and growth.”  (256) So if it comes down to economic growth vs. ecological stability, what will happen when growth is no longer possible?

My favorite thing about this book was how he linked Very Big Questions About the World with the nuances of the everyday human mind. For example, in terms of growth, he comments that, “Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger tastier.” (23) Such truth.

What else does he forecast about the future? He’s definitely super into the idea of non-organic artificial intelligence, though he calls it less of a prophecy or prediction, and more of a way of discussing our present choices. “You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine.” (76) A strong argument for Team Vegan, for sure.

Apart from talking about the future, he also talks about the past – I found his discussion of the rise of modernity and the definition and formation of liberalism and humanism SO INTERESTING, especially since I never took political science or anthropology classes in college that talked about this kind of stuff. Who would have thought liberalism was so closely linked to romanticism, to the idea of an authentic, valuable, unique self dwelling within you? What is Google and Facebook going to do to this notion of the self, if they can predict what you want and who you are better than you can?

Oh, some of his sentences in this book just slay me! Here are a few of the more shining examples:

If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing bears are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and aging Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. (33)

It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer? (39)

If a crusader Knight had actually been able to sit down to watch Survivor, he would probably have grabbed his battleaxe and smashed the TV out of boredom and frustration. (282)

The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. (320)

Can any human fathom these musical experiences and tell the difference between a whale Beethoven and a whale Justin Bieber? (417)

The wildest dreams of Kim Jon-ug and Ali Khamenei don’t extend much beyond atom bombs and ballistic missiles: that is so 1945. (438) This REALLY made me laugh… darkly…

For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become oversized ants. (423)

In the twenty-first century out personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. (397)

Eventually we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death. (401)

A highly recommended read.

 

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Filed under apocalypse, books, history, non-fiction, review

Notable Books of 2016

Here are some notable books I read in 2016 that I didn’t have a chance to discuss on this blog:

Annihilation trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

I read this trilogy while I was sick on my deathbed with the worst flu of my life during my Christmas holidays and it was definitely good escapism. I miss reading sci-fi, and this trilogy cured the itch for now. I first became interested in reading this trilogy when I read a profile about the author in the New Yorker. Overall, it’s very innovative sci-fi. The first book, Annihilation, would most likely be the most beloved among the readers, with its short length and succinct premise, the slow creepy build up of everything that had to do with the Crawler (even the name gives me shivers), the sense of mystery surrounding Area X, and the reserved reticence of the narrator.

There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout all three books, like when a scuttling sound is heard on the roof, or a plant that won’t die is discovered, or when the videos of the failed expeditions into Area X are watched. I like how ballsy the trilogy is in terms of not explaining everything, even if it meant I was confused or frustrated sometimes with not getting all the answers. But the more I think about it, the more I admire the book’s refusal to give me what I want. Please, Lord, don’t let the HBO adaptation dumb it down. I especially liked all the different perspectives in the book, and its overall (potentially anarchist?) message about nature.

I Hate the Internet (Jarett Kobek)

I first heard of this book because I read an interview with the author on (where else?) the Internet. The interview was basically a scathing rant that I found hysterically funny, so I read this book to find more of the same. In that sense the book doesn’t disappoint. It’s basically a howl in the dark. Reading this for character or plot is not the best mindset with which to approach it. I read it because I enjoyed reading sentences like “Miley Cyrus’ songs were about the same six subjects of all songs by all pop stars: love, celebrity, fucking, heartbreak, money, and buying ugly shit” (264) or “Arcade Fire was a Canadian band which experienced minor popularity in the early 2000s before transforming into a market commodity that aging parents used as a theoretical reference point with their Internet addicted children.” (275) LOL.

This is the kind of book in which Twitter is described as “a mechanism by which teenagers tormented each other into suicide” (130), the Internet as “a wonderful resource for sexism, abusing the mentally ill, and libeling the dead” (196) and as a way “to create content based on inflamed emotion for the sake of selling advertisements,” (212) and Instagram as “the first social media platform to which the only sane reaction was hate… Mostly, Instagram’s users uploaded photographs of things on which they’d either spent money or wished to spend money.” (76)

I dug it.

This book reconfirmed my belief that I do not want to live in the Bay Area.

Other brutal satire moments:

“On the Internet, you could be right. On the Internet, you could be wrong. You could love racism. You could hate racism. It didn’t matter. In the end, everything was just money.” (211)

“Expressing concern about racism was a new religion and focusing on language rather than political mechanics was an effortless, and meaningless, way of making sure one was seen in a front-row pew of the new church. They prayed not from any hard earned process of thought or genuine faith but because failing to bow and scrap before the shibboleths of the moneyed political Left might hurt their job prospects. And poor job prospects meant less money to buy consumer electronics built by slaves.” (212)

“The illusion of the Internet was the idea that the opinions of powerless people, freely offered, had some impact on the world. This was, of course, total bullshit.” (213)

“Global warming and climate change were the methods by which the human species, plagued by guilt and unacknowledged depression, committed suicide. The mechanisms of this suicide were eating too much beef, operating too many electronics and driving too many cars.” (184)

“I am moving back to Los Angeles where gentrification barely works because everything is a hideous strip mall and there is nothing worth destroying!” (270-271)

The Friend Who Got Away (ed. Jenny Offill & Elissa Schappel)

A good collection of non-fiction essays that at least three different people in my PhD program recommended to me (IDK if Elena Ferrante is making female friendships a hot topic for literature or what, but anyway, I finally got round to reading it this year!). It felt a little East Coast, private college, Brooklyn writer heavy at times, but what can you do. It made the essay set in Jordan really stand out. The pieces that most stood out to me were “End Days” by Jenny Offill (religious childhood friend), “Toads and Snakes” by Elizabeth Strout (very powerful tale of a long term friendship fading), and “Want” (about a copycat friend). The essays two estranged friends wrote about each other were also a cool concept. I would definitely recommend this to people.

Autumn (Ali Smith)

A fun, fast read. It was a unique read in the sense that it’s interesting to read a book that was written very quickly, about such a recent moment (the Brexit election). So it was very trippy to read a chapter set in November 2016 in November 2016 (!). I will always like Ali Smith, especially how she always attempts to do different things with her books. I liked the surrealistic dream sequences in this one. One thing I will say is that I was glad before reading this that I knew the following: 1) it is the first book of a planned four-book sequence, each named after a season (otherwise I think I would have found the ending a bit underwhelming and “whaaaaat?”), and 2) one of the main plot threads of Autumn follows an undiscovered woman artist from the British Pop Art period–it’s explained near the end who she is, but if I hadn’t known before that she was going to feature, I would have found her sections in the novel confusing. Overall, I enjoyed reading this. The sections where the main character is trying to fill out a passport application are particularly memorable, in a painful “have I ever been there” kind of way.

Beast (Paul Kingsnorth)

Definitely a stand-out of the year–hallucinatory, hypnotic, and strange. A man lives alone on a west-country moor and is stalked by a mysterious beast–gripping stuff. I am definitely going to read Kingsnorth’s previous novel, The Wake, which is apparently a precursor to this one.

I liked the disorienting way we jump between dreams, visions, and the present moment–basically, Beast is a book in which you are never sure if what is happening is “real”, and if that kind of thing frustrates you, this may not be a good choice for you (it was for me, though!). I liked how the style of the book reflected the content (it reads almost like a free verse poem at times). I also liked the slow way that the beast’s horror is unveiled–very rewarding for me. And I liked all the Stone Age, The Dark Is Rising imagery, mixed with apocalyptic doom. This book made me want to wear a wolf skin, speak to ravens, run on the moors naked, and drink the blood of my enemies.

White Tiger on Snow Mountain (David Gordon)

What a great story collection! I loved The Serialist and I loved this one too. The five star stories (discussed below) truly elevate it to an exceptional collection that I enjoyed reading very much. It explores similar themes as The Serialist: writers, writing, genre, horror, growing old, losing love… if you are a fan of funny, readable writing a la Lorrie Moore or Roberto Bolaño, then I recommend this book.

Stories that stood out to me included the opener, “Man-Boob Summer,” and not just because of its excellent title. I related to the main character a lot, an aimless postgrad, and the simple scenario explored by the story (he goes swimming in the pool of his parents’ apartment complex and gets a crush on the lifeguard). A very melancholy ending.

The second story, “We Happy Few”, was also one of my favorites in the collection. This one explores themes of addiction and recovery as a recently fired teacher gets a job escorting an up-and-coming addiction memoir star, trying to keep him clean and off drugs before his appearance on Oprah. The satire in this story about the writing-as-entertainment world is pretty killer. I also liked how the story explores questions of why we write, and who for. Also, the way the ending jumps forward in time is brutal, and really makes the story.

“Today I am remarkably healthy, considering. I do yoga (stiffly) and run (slowly). I eat vegetables and fold the laundry. I water my neighbor’s plants. I even quit smoking. But I didn’t write a word. I tried at first, but I couldn’t get started. Then I took a break. Then I decided it didn’t matter anyway. The world wasn’t weeping for my unwritten books. Now when people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a teacher.” Or: “I proofread legal documents.” Or: “I hand out jalapeño hummus dip at Trader Joe’s.” I say to myself, mostly: “I’m alive, motherfucker.” What else do you want?” (20)

“I read to disappear and carry books like spies carry cyanide in their teeth.” (103)

I think my very favorite story was “I Think of Dreams”–WOW. Again, the use of time at the end (in terms of the abrupt flash forward) makes this story BRUTAL. What a lesson. Basically, two teenage boys take acid on a camping trip and things are never the same. I read this story with my mouth falling open. The title story is another star of the collection. You’ll never think of sexting the same way after reading this. Poignant and horrifying. And then you have “Literature I Gave You Everything and Now What Am I?”–what a title, right? I liked how the narrator of this story is such a jealous, petty asshole. The plot follows his attempts to write in a coffee shop that becomes occupied by a writer’s group that he finds extremely annoying. The final story is (I think) the longest, “The Amateur”, a layered story reminiscent of Borges and Bolaño in which the narrator listens to a story told by a man he meets in Paris, a story that takes a decidedly unexpected turn. A highly recommended collection.

“Hence the most important question facing any young writer may well be: How often should I masturbate and when? (It also brings up the second most important question: How much coffee should I drink? But here the answer is clear: As much as you can without dying.)” (235)

Best author I discovered this year was Alex Garland (Coma and The Beach, both great novels, what a shame he has moved away from fiction-writing into filmmaking). In terms of my new Ferrante-Knausgaard (i.e. author I read obsessively), I think Barbara Comyns (The Vet’s Daughter and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths) might be the strongest contender for 2017.

Books I read this year that I did not enjoy as much as I thought I would were El Sicario by Charles Bowden (while the concept of having a book constructed solely out of a sicario’s words was interesting, the book would have benefited from more contextualizing paragraphs to break up the monotony of the voice), and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (I liked the memoir elements of this book, but the literary criticism ones went over my head).

Onwards and upwards to 2017! I am now about the same age (if not a bit older!!) as Adrian Mole in The Cappuchino Years, except I have no illegitimate children and have yet to be comissioned to write a book based on my reality TV show, which I consequently fail to turn in and have to hire my mother to ghostwrite for me. There’s still time!! :D

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Filed under Ali Smith, apocalypse, books, non-fiction, review, short stories, women writers

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

10:04 and The Wallcreeper

10:04 (Ben Lerner)

Well, this book is really something else. I was blown away, I tell you—BLOWN AWAY, hurricane-style, by the apocalyptically desperately angry force of it. I liked Leaving the Atocha Station well enough, but 10:04 is in another category altogether. What an achievement! What a book! What a world we live in, with so many good books out there to read! Forget Pokemon—how are we ever going to catch them all?! I felt short of breath by the end of this, like I was about to have a panic attack. This is a real page-turner.

One of the coolest things about reading this book is how contemporary it is. How mundanely ordinary (at least for white middle-class people living in the West :D). The narrator eats baby octopuses that have literally been “massaged to death”, experiences two hurricanes that are underwhelmingly apocalyptic, tutors an undocumented elementary-school student about dinosaurs and extinction, frets about surveillance, goes to museums, reads about Walt Whitman, accidentally takes ketamine during a writer’s retreat in Texas, goes regularly to the hospital to take tests for a potentially fatal medical condition, and is asked by his best friend to help her conceive a child. Why should this feel like such a treat, to read a book so focused on a very particular kind of 21st-century experience? Why don’t more books try to do this? How does it feel so immediate and urgent? Is it the way it blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, between criticism and narrative?

Despite the eerie way it blurs with form (fittingly enough, I’m pretty sure that JM Coetzee has an uncredited cameo early on), this still feels very much a novel. The narrator is our conduit for meeting a number of characters during his “emotional journey” and is our vessel for hearing a series of fascinating stories. At one point, his co-worker in the Brooklyn co-op (I’ve been there, and his description of its slow registers, epic lines and dry fruit-filled aisles are absolutely spot on) tells him a story about how she discovered that her Lebanese father was not actually her biological dad. Does this mean she is still justified in considering herself Arab-American? We hear another tale from the narrator’s best friend’s dad (that’s a mouthful!), who once had a girlfriend who lied to him about having cancer. These themes of fradulence and trickery are reminiscent of Atocha Station, a book in which the narrator spent the majority of the time lying about how his mother was dead. I was initially tempted to read 10:04 as a sort of sequel, but it is decidedly different in tone and theme: it’s definitely more interested in finding moments of sincerity, rather than exploring the weird double situation that arises from pretending to be someone you’re not.

One of the most fascinating themes in this book is that of time. The epigraph is attributed to Walter Benjamin and is often referred to throughout the narrative:

The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come… Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.

This idea of the future being the same but different, or of having the present and the past existing at the same instance, is one that comes up repeatedly. The narrator’s interest in Walt Whitman also connects with this theme, as Whitman was very much a writer who was obsessed with making his writing project into future time, directly addressing citizens of the future. The title 10:04 is also (obviously) time-based, referring to the moment in Back to the Future (a film still unseen by me, a status that may have to change very soon) that lightning strikes the courthouse clock tower and allows Marty to return to 1985 in his magical car or whatever it was.

At another key point in the book, the narrator and his best friend go see an art exhibition called The Clock, which I was in shock to recognize—I went to see it when I was in Lisbon!! It is totally nuts: basically, the artist spent years creating a 24-hour film made out of clips that either shows watches or clocks (Big Ben is especially popular), or has the characters referring to time. When I watched it in Lisbon, I had no idea this was the case, and it took me a while to figure out that the movie time and the “real” time on the phone that I kept checking were actually one and the same, real and fictional time fused and synthesized. Is this fusion something that 10:04 itself was attempting to do, with its weird non-fiction hybridity?

Another important theme in the book is that of connection, an overwhelmingly 21st-century theme. Roberto, the boy the narrator tutors, is afraid of Joseph Kony due to YouTube videos, a fact that the narrator marvels at—what a day and age we live in, when an undocumented Salvadorean in Brooklyn fears a Ugandan dictator. During another key moment, while shopping for canned goods and emergency supplies for Hurricane Irene, the narrator slips into a meditation while holding a can of instant coffee:

I held the red plastic container, one of the last three on the shelf, held it like the marvel that it was: the seeds inside the purple fruits of coffee plants had been harvested on Andean slopes and roasted and ground and soaked and then dehydrated at a factory in Medellín and vacuum-sealed and flown to JFK and then driven upstate in bulk to Pearl River for repackaging and then transported back by truck to the store where I now stood reading the label. It was as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it as they were threatened, stirred inside their packaging, lending it a certain aura—the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself now that planes were grounded and the highways were starting to close. (19)

What an ordinary moment! How simple and recognizable! How miraculous and horrifying!

The book ultimately finds a certain redemption in Walt Whitman-esque moments of connection, moments that (as Lerner says in this interview) are maybe the only thing we have that are free from the monstrous nightmares of commodification, surveillance, drone-warfare, etc., etc., etc. Here’s the specific part from the interview that really stuck with me:

Interviewer: The epigraph to 10:04 is a Hassidic story about how the “world to come”—the redeemed world—will be just like this one, only a little different: where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. This idea occurs on many levels throughout your book—when the narrator holds a can of instant coffee on the eve of a storm, when he considers time in Christian Marclay’s The Clock, when he looks at a piece of “totaled art,” he evokes this idea of a world that’s just slightly different, but somehow totally transformed. What thoughts do you have about this parable?

BL: I think the parable is a peculiar way of saying that redemption is immanent whether or not it’s imminent, that the world to come is in a sense always already here, if still unavailable. I find this idea powerful for several reasons. For one thing, it’s an antidote to despair. Many of the left thinkers that really matter to me—that formed a big part of my thinking about politics and art—emphasize how capitalism is a totality, how there’s no escape from it, no outside. We all know what they mean: every relationship can feel saturated by market logic or at best purchased at the price of the immiseration of others. But I’m increasingly on the side of thinkers like David Graeber who are talking back to this notion of totality and emphasizing how there are all kinds of moments in our daily lives that break—or at least could break—from the logic of profit and the modes of domination it entails. Zones of freedom, even if it’s never pure. And I like to think—knowing that it’s an enabling fiction—of those moments as fragments from a world to come, a world where price isn’t the only measure of value.

Or as the narrator puts it in 10:04, following a climatic conversation with a potentially mentally ill (or maybe just overtly sane?), Philip K. Dick-like graduate student:

“I agree it’s a crazy time,” I said. “But I think in times like these we have to try to stay connected to people. And we have to try to make our own days, despite all the chaos. We have to focus on feeling comfortable in our own skin, and we need to be open to getting help with that.” I was desperately trying to channel my parents. (218)

What a book! How lucky we are, that stuff like this is getting written, let alone published. What a century we live in…. D:

The Wallcreeper (Nell Zink)

This is another contemporary, highly critical acclaimed book that absolutely deserves the attention. BELIEVE THE HYPE. The individual sentences are shockingly well-written; the plot is mundane, everyday, and more gripping to me than any airport thriller. Aside from Lydia Davis’ The End of the Storythis book has maybe one of the most honest portrayals of a relationship in literature I’ve ever read. I especially loved how the fact that they both kept ****ing other people was, like, the least of their problems. How are we supposed to genuinely love each other in this devastatingly modern day and age?  How are we supposed to connect with other individuals when we can barely connect with ourselves?That’s what this book ultimately became “about” for me, I think. I haven’t even mentioned the environmental terrorism theme, but there ya go!

In terms of minor issues, I had trouble telling the two boyfriends, Olaf and Gernot, apart. I also sort of zoned out by the end during the long paragraphs talking about specific dam-building policies of Germany. But GOD-DAMN, what a risky, prickly, brilliant little book. As a bonus, it is also extremely short.

Those killer sentences! “His awkward hands reminded me of the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake.” (13) “I felt like generations of bluesmen whining about women they shot to death.” (53)

The WTF humor! “We had loving, beautiful sex just as soon as we could get ourselves to stop talking–loving and beautiful in the expressionist, pathetic-fallacy sense in which you might say a meadow was loving and beautiful even if it was full of hamsters ready to kill each other on sight, but only when they’re awake.” (38)

The political-environmental-social commentary! “Why exactly twenty-somethings are considered so vital to protest movements, I never figured out, seeing as how they never vote and have no money.” (94)

The dark-dark, oh-so-real intimate moments between the narrator and her husband! “Stephen said, “Come over here so I can beat the shit out of you.”” (65)

And this is maybe one of my favorite similes EVER: “The crows walked spread out in teams like policemen looking for a corpse in the woods, turning their heads from side to side, staring at the grass with one monocled eye and then the other.” (76)

If nothing else, read this book so you can get to the part about Brighty the donkey in Albania. That’s some funny shit.

As a bonus, here’s a Paris Review interview with Nell Zink that gives you a fairly good gist of her jammin’ style.

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Filed under apocalypse, books, review, time

Genius Children’s Literature

Sometimes I think I would be happy if for the rest of my life I was forbidden to read anything other than children’s books. That isn’t really true. But sometimes it feels like it could be. Here are some works of children’s literature that are also works of genius:

Watership Down (Richard Adams)

Oh my God, it really doesn’t get any better than this. It really doesn’t. The movie is equally genius and highly recommendable. In terms of the movie, what does it say about U.S. versus English kiddie films, if in the U.S. stories like Beauty and the Beast, the Little Mermaid and Pocahantus becomes love stories with happy endings, while in England a bunch of cute cuddley rabbits turn into this:

Yeah, that just about sums it up. Except no, it really doesn’t!! This book is so much more than that! Here are just some reasons why this book is genius:

1- It creates an incredibly rich, Tolkein-like universe by giving the rabbits their own vocabulary, religion and myths.

2- The way it invokes Joseph Campbell and mythology in general (like the hero’s journey, the descent into darkness in order to gain knowledge, the role of the seer, etc.)

3- The comparison of rabbit society to early primitive humans, especially in the role of storytelling and oral tradition, and how that helps them cope with and make sense of traumatic, violent experiences.

4- The environmental message, which basically consists of how humans are destroying the planet. Or as one rabbit puts it at one point (Captain Holly, to be specific–ha! ha! ha! That’s right, I knew without needing to check!!): “There’s terrible evil in the world and it comes from men. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals. They destroyed the warren just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves…”

5- The parallels with contemporary politics and culture. Is General Woundwort’s warren a commentary on fascism? (This is particularly strong in the movie, where the rabbits from his warren all have blue eyes, in stereotypical Nazi Germany style). Is Cowslip’s warren a commentary on modern humans who are fat, lazy and completely alienated from nature and their original purpose? I found the passages about Cowslip’s warren and the way they invented these weird rituals and symbols for themselves ESPECIALLY fascinating in the context of all the books I’ve read about religion this year, in terms of how religion helps humans cope and make sense of their experiences.

This list is just skimming the surface of how deep the waters run in this book, of course. Watership Down is an absolute classic and one of the best ones ever written, and I’ll fight anyone to the death (Bigwig-versus-General Woundwort style) who dares to contradict me.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien)

This book is genius, I tell you. GENIUS. The movie is also really good but I can’t find a good version of it on youtube. It’s weird how the movie invents a crazy subplot about this magic red stone, which is how Mrs. Frisby ends up moving her house because, like, she has a really pure heart or something? I can’t remember. But anyway, the point  isit’s weird how the movie ended up with this big magic subplot, because the book is ALL about the science. Did you know that NIMH actually exists?!

Reading about how this book was written sent me down a rabbithole of research that eventually led me to discovering the behavioral sink experiment, a research study involving mice that apparently inspired this book. It is some CRAZY stuff. It is so fascinating to me that I cannot stop myself from summarizing: basically, this scientist built this mouse utopia, in which they would have all they would ever want or need in terms of food, water and lack of natural predators (paralleling the existence of most modern humans). The only thing that was limited was available space. Initially the mouse population exploded, but then some really weird things started happening:

Normal social discourse within the mouse community broke down, and with it the ability of mice to form social bonds. The failures and dropouts congregated in large groups in the middle of the enclosure, their listless withdrawal occasionally interrupted by spasms and waves of pointless violence. The victims of these random attacks became attackers… Other males, a group Calhoun termed “the beautiful ones,” never sought sex and never fought—they just ate, slept, and groomed, wrapped in narcissistic introspection. Elsewhere, cannibalism, pansexualism, and violence became endemic. Mouse society had collapsed.

I highlighted the parts in bold because oh, I don’t know, they reminded me of something.

That was a long digression, but anyway, this is a great book. Similarly to Watership Down, it has another very pro-environmental, anti-human destruction message that I am not embarrassed to admit that I found very powerful. I also found the scene in which the rats invade a library (not included in movie) very moving:

What I liked best was history. I read about the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, and the Dark Ages, when the old civilizations fell apart and the only people who could read and write were the monks. They lived apart in monasteries. They led the simplest kind of lives, and studied and wrote; they grew their own food, built their own houses and furniture. They even made their own tools and their own paper. Reading about that, I began getting some ideas of how we might live.

We wondered. If rats had stayed ahead, if they had gone on and developed a real civilization–what would it have been like? (pg. 133-134)

Another big difference between the book and the movie that I’d forgotten about is that in the book, JUSTIN DIES (or at least it’s strongly implied that he does). Wow, was I bummed!! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then I am sorry for you, and I urge you to take steps to amend this situation.

Z for Zachariah (also by Robert C. O’Brien)

Not only is this book a genius work of children’s literature, I think it could easily be considered a classic in the post-apocalyptic novel genre, period. No matter how many times I read this book it never gets old. It’s suspenseful and tightly plotted (even though I’ve read it SO many times it still makes me feel so nervous and tense when I read it, like the jittery wiggling around kind of nervous–this is why I can never read suspense novels). It is also still extremely relevant and contemporary. Like I said, a work of genius.

The Dark is Rising series (Susan Cooper)

These books are still the main reason I want to visit Cornwall (apart from the fact that it’s Tori Amos’ ‘hood, of course). Apparently the second one got turned into a movie (?!) that sounds absolutely DREADFUL. Thank God my radar missed it.

These books are genius for the way they seamlessly combine Arthurian legend, Celtic mythology and English & Welsh history with a rocking and rollicking kid’s adventure story. Most of the plots in these books involve QUESTS to solve riddles and find things like swords and chalices and golden harps. Who doesn’t love a quest, especially when your only clue is a rhyming poem?

I especially loved these books when I was young because I loved the idea of getting trained or taught to be a wizard (who knows, if Harry Potter had come out just a few years earlier, would I have been an obsessive Harry Potter fan? As it was I think I was a leetle too old for them–I liked them, but I was never SUPER into them). When I was really little, I always had this secret daydream about learning how to be a Jedi Knight. Basically I just wanted to dress in black and move things with my mind and cut stuff up with a cool glowing sword. Oh my God, I just had the thought that maybe that’s why I’ve been getting into meditation this year, because it’s my adult substitution for Jedi Knight Mind Training. Gaaaah! Craziness!

Anyway. So there’s no Jedi Knights in the books but you do get the Old Ones who are like immortal wizards. My favorite of the five books in the series is…… hmmm, that’s a tough one. I guess it’s a tie between the first and second (Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark Is Rising respectively). Over Sea, Under Stone is good because it’s basically a straightforward detective story–there’s virtually no magic, which makes it a somewhat interesting introduction. The Dark is Rising is cool because it’s all about wizard training, oops I mean Old Ones training–whatever, same thing. I think David Mitchell (in a recent NY Times interview) encapsulated this book’s appeal better than I ever could:

Many children are natural fantasists, I think, perhaps because their imaginations have yet to be clobbered into submission by experience. When you’re 10, there is still an outside chance that you might find Narnia behind the wardrobe, that the fur coats could turn into fir trees. The state of childhood resonates with life inside a fantasy novel. If you have no control over how you spend large chunks of your day, or are at the mercy of flawed giant beings, then the desire to bend the laws of the world by magic is strong and deep. I don’t mean that kids can’t distinguish fantasy from reality — the playground bully will clarify the matter gratis — but fantasy offers a logic to which kids are receptive, and escapism for which kids are hungry.

These books made me very fond of England when I was a child, and as I re-read them recently, that same fondness glowed like a tiny little fire in my shriveled expat’s heart. England! What a crazy country! I went for a walk for today, for example (NOT a hike, which is called a “trek” here in England–nope, here what you do is WALK, homeboys), and I stumbled onto a field filled with–wait for it–DONKEYS and SHETLAND ponies wearing pink and purple coats that said things like COTTON CANDY and CANDY CANE in delicately stitched white cursive letters. It was the single most amazing moment of my life, basically. And the best thing is that it’s not even that far from my house, so it won’t be too difficult for me to return with apples and carrots. Ponies!! I love ’em. England; what a crazy country, with their Welsh myths, Arthurian swords and Old Ones-Jedi knights.

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Amulet

The opening lines of this book are as follows: “This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.”

So what is this crime? No questions in Bolaño’s books ever come with easy answers, but what first comes to mind is the most obvious scenario, the central scene around which the rest of the story rotates: Auxilio Lacouture, the novel’s narrator and self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry”, is reading a book of poems in her lap while sitting on the toilet of the fourth floor of a Mexico City University, when the army and the riot police invade campus and start seizing students and professors. Auxilio (whose name translates into the Spanish phrase for “help me!”), an illegal immigrant in Mexico without a real job, spends twelve days hiding out in the woman’s bathroom, eating toilet paper, reading poems, watching the moon move across the tiles and remembering scenes from her bohemian past, as well as dream-like hallucinatory visions of the future.

Bolaño’s narrative voice is very strong throughout this novel… it feels a lot more like the rolling and rollicking Bolaño of The Savage Detectives and 2666, as opposed to, say, By Night in Chile or Nazi Literature of the Americas. The latter two are also good books, but read more like Bolaño learning how to write in the style of what we would now consider “Bolaño-esque” , via the lens of Borges and Cortazar. In Amulet, it really feels like he’s hitting his stride, as though he’s like “I know what my themes are, I know what my style is, and I am gonna show it off and make it shine in yer faces, bee-yatches!” It’s quite glorious, really. I would definitely consider Amulet as the first in a trilogy, followed by The Savage Detectives (which has a chapter that basically tells the same story as Amulet) and concluding with 2666, which is eerily referenced here in a section where the main characters are walking down Avenida Guerrero (every city in Mexico has a street with this name): “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968 or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” (86) Who knows what this passage means, in terms of Bolaño’s future works, and the apparently very personal significance of the numbers 2666? The reference to the “eyelid of a corpse” makes me think of all those bodies, listed one after another, in that Juarez-like section of 2666

I’ve been really fascinated by the poet/artist archetype figure lately. Maybe it comes from having rewatched I’m Not There again recently; still a good movie upon third viewing. This time around I was especially into the Arthur Rimbaud character, who serves as a narrator of sorts throughout the film.

The monologue from this clip is based on passages from this Bob Dylan poem, which has the wonderful title of “Advice for Geraldine on Her Miscellaneous Birthday.”

Anyway, so I’ve been thinking recently about The Poet and Artists As An Archetypal Figure, and lately Rimbaud has been the subject of that interest. When I was in high school I used to jokingly say that while I had crushes on Franz Kafka and Holden Caufield, I would never want to date them, because they would probably make horrible, horrible boyfriends. I don’t know much about Rimbaud, but I have a feeling he would probably fall in the same “do-not-date” category, even without the whole gay thing. Anyway… it’s interesting to me, thinking about Artists and Poets, since my whole New Year’s Resolution this year was to Make More Art. I’ve sort of gotten that off the ground with my weekly Wednesday writing class, which definitely has and will continue to feel like a really big and important step to me. And, of course, Bolaño is always one of *the* authors to read, when thinking about Art and Poetry and Life and Violence and how it all fits together.  For instance: Auxilio spends the entirety of the Tlatelolc massacre hiding in the bathroom, reading poetry: was this cowardly of her? Or was it (considering the circumstances) the only thing she COULD do, the only thing that makes sense? Why not spend a massacre, one that will go down in history as one of the most horrifying events to have happened in Mexico, reading poetry? When I was in Nuevo Laredo, I read Henry James and John Steinbeck, and ate spaghetti with meatballs and vegetarian sopes. My sister spends her job reading all day about crime rates and gang activity in Colombia and the Mexican border, and informed me recently that if she knew then what she knows now about what’s currently going on in Nuevo Laredo, she would have been like “OMG ARE YOU CRAZY.” But you know, I was there for three whole months… I’m not saying I should have gone out to actively fight poverty or crime whatever instead of reading The Wings of the Dove, but that’s what’s interesting to me about reading and writing and literature: it can just seem and feel so DISCONNECTED sometimes what’s going on in the world! People getting killed, raped, murdered, the oil spill, etc. But maybe literature is the only effective filter there is that will help us absorb these horrible experiences. Maybe that’s the point Bolaño was trying to get at with that horrifying section in 2666, mechanically naming dead body after dead body, until I would just put the book down in my lap and stare numbly out the Max train window, the Hillsboro scenery rushing by.

That’s why it’s interesting how in Amulet, the writing style is less like a newspaper reporter, and more like a helicopter or a camera lens, endlessly circling and circling around its central subject (the massacre) without directly naming it (the word “Tlatelolc” appears nowhere within these pages). It’s like what Auxilio says about Arturo Belano (the stand-in Bolaño character who also appears in Detectives) after he returns from his arrest and imprisonment in Chile under Pinochet: “What I mean is that everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people had expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn’t give a shit.” (77) I feel like this sentence describes EXACTLY what Bolaño does stylistically in Amulet: he denies us our gratification for “news from the Horror Zone,” and instead delves into a technique that’s a lot more interesting, one that doesn’t refer directly to the horror of which it speaks. It reminds me a lot of Piglia’s approach in Artificial Respiration, which is best summed up by the Wittgenstein quote that is used extensively throughout that novel: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” Piglia used this sentence in AR as a way to encapsulate the novel’s approach to history, in the sense that there are some things that are just so horrible, so inexplicable and incomprehensible, that words cannot do them justice. Thus in the same way AR avoided making any references to torture victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship being thrown out of airplanes, Amulet makes no reference of university students being massacred, or of Belano’s experience in prison under Pinochet, or any other violence that is so fundamental and key to Latin American history. It’s an interesting technique, to tell a horror story by not talking about the horror…

There’s definitely plenty of references to the role of violence in Latin American history throughout the book. Even Che Guevara has a walk-in part: “And what was Che Guevara like in bed, was the first thing I wanted to know. Lilian said something I couldn’t hear. What? I said. What? What? Normal, said Lilian, staring at the creased surface of her folder… I admit I would have liked to know what Che Guevara was like in bed. So he was normal, OK, but normal how?” (122-123) At another point Auxilio refers to what she calls “another recurring and terribly Latin American nightmare: being unable to find your weapon; you know where you put it, but it’s not there. That’s just our luck.” (67) She’s specifically referring to being unable to find her knife in her purse while walking the Mexico City streets at night (oh how this reminds me of frantically fumbling for my pepper spray on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, every time a too-dark or looming figure crossed over to my side of the street!), but she could be talking about the role of writing in terms to violence in the novel. Can poetry and writing be a weapon against the horrors of our modern age? Or is it just a salve, a way to numb and distract ourselves, a pretty lie? (“Beautiful bourgeois art,” says the Rodolfo Walsh quote in the sidebar of this blog).

I could say a lot more about Amulet, easily: about Auxilio’s hallucinatory, Phillip K. Dick-like visions of the apocalyptic future (Dick’s influence is insanely prominent through Amulet!). I especially love the passages describing what books and authors will be read, and when, and how: “Cesar Vallejo shall be read underground in the year 2045. Jorge Luis Borges shall be read underground in the year 2045… Virginia Woolf shall be reincarnated as an Argentinean fiction writer in the year 2076.” (159) About the crazy section in which Auxilia meets a character called Carlos Coffen Serpas, who spends at least a chapter and a half summarizing the Greek story of  Erigone to her. About the surreal final passage, in which Auxilio has a vision of hundreds of children, marching towards an abyss (another must-have image for Bolaño bing0!) , while singing songs: “And although the song that I heard was about war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of Latin Americans led to sacrifice, I knew above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure. And that song is our amulet.” (184) Hmmmmmm.

But instead I’m going to end with two things: 1) a quote about books from Amulet that I really liked, and 2) an excerpt from an exercise written in my Wednesday writing class, written in response to a prompt in which we were asked to envision two characters getting off of a bus together, who have come to give a gift.

(I) Quote

Leave those papers alone, woman, dust and literature have always gone together. And I would look at them and think, how right they are, dust and literature, from the beginning… I imagined books sitting quietly on shelves and the dust of the world creeping into libraries, slowly, persistently, unstoppably, and then I came to understand that books are easy prey for dust (I understood this but refused to accept it)…  the dust was never going to go away, since it was an integral part of the books, their way of living or of mimicking something like life. (5)

(II) Exercise

“Poems. I have a ton of poems for you. Pages and pages of them.” The skinny, Arthur Rimbaud-like young man, in his scruffy woolen suit, the sleeves ending far above his wrists (his bones look like small bumpy sparrow heads), his hair like a tousled bird’s nest, pulls out sheets of typed white paper from a white manilla folder tucked into his armpit. It’s hard for him to do so, due to the small blond girl he’s holding in his other arm. “Stop squirming now,” he says into her ear and ends up with a mouthful of blond hair.

I sigh. It is exceedingly hot on this stretch of the highway and I have to hold my hand over my eyes like the visor of a cap.

“Oh man, I just know I had more of them here somewhere. If you could just–” and he pushes the sheets into my hand, where they crumple lightly in a sound reminiscent of Christmas wrapping paper. “Celia, shake your book up and down.” The little blond girl obliges, shaking the pages of her book violently up and down, just aggressively enough to make me wince a little at seeing a book treated that way. I can’t read the title but it’s a small paperback book with yellowing pages and a picture of a brown terrier dog on the cover.

“Nothing,” the girl, Celia, says. I take a second to admire her blue dress and the white apron thing she’s wearing on top. I envy her rocking Alice in Wonderland look.

“Damn–I mean, darn.” He pulls his black sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and stands there blinking in the bright sunlight. They both stand there without saying anything, looking expectantly at me.

“Okay–gee, you guys–thanks–” I slowly shuffle through the papers. The paper is very thin-feeling, like the kind of paper a receipt is printed on, and the font is just small enough to make it hard for me to read.

“They’re all for you!” the little girl shouts, and the poet, Arthur, flashes me and embarrassed grin full of crooked teeth with rounded edges.

“Well, sort of. There’s one in there that I really like. It’s called ‘Advice for Margarine on her 23rd Birthday. It’s written list-style, like, and it’s got a whole bunch of surreal images and crazy language in it.” He pauses. “I’m really quite proud of it, actually,” he says, sounding almost surprised. His tone catches me off guard, and makes me wonder when was the last time I said the same thing in the same tone about myself.

“Thanks,” I say again, feeling a little dumb for not being able to think of anything wittier to say. Neither of them say anything for a moment and instead they both just stand there smiling at me. The little girl swings her leg lazily back and forth like a tire swing hanging from a tree branch, Arthur the poet holding her casually with one arm at his hip, and her black buckle shoes accidentally kick into his hip bone.

“Ouch,” he says. “Careful there, girl.”

I start folding the pages, getting ready to put them away somewhere, even if it’s just to stuff them into my sports bra. Too bad I’m wearing a sundress and don’t have any pockets. There won’t be another bus here for hours and hours, probably. It’s just the three of us, standing by the grey concrete highway, desert scrubland all around us, like someone plucked us up and plopped us into the middle of a dramatic photograph of American desert scenery.

“I actually think that might be a line in the poem,” he says, looking up at the sky. “Careful there girl!”

“Good advice,” I say, finally able to think of something. I turn my body slightly more in the direction of the little girl: “Can I see your book?”

Without a word she hands it over to me; I let out a cry of surprise when I read the author’s name. “Oh wow! This guy is one of my favorites! I read him all the time when I was a kid.” I flip through the yellowing pages. It even reminds me of the same copy I myself used to own, with the red splotches from spaghetti sauce (eating at the dinner table was perhaps not the best habit for my siblings and I), pieces of dried food clinging to the pages like petrified insect eggs and holes through which termites had eaten their way through the paper. When I flipped the pages I could see an animated movie of their journey, burrowing through.

“Maybe it is your copy,” the little girl says, and I don’t respond, don’t want to tell her the other reason why this book might represent so much to me: at the age of 7, I wrote the writer a letter, postmarked from Colombia to England, in which I drew a picture of one of his main characters (a Tawny Owl) and wrote “When I grow up I want to be an Arthur like you.” Author, A-R-T-H-U-R.

The writer at age 23

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Filed under apocalypse, Bolaño, books, fiction, Mexico, Rio Plata, writing

ishmael: thinking about gardens


It’s Week 5 (beginning Week 6) here in Nuevo Laredo, which means my time here is rapidly approaching the half-way over mark. TIME! How do we go about measuring and conceiving it?? Every week that passes, I greet with astonishment: “Gosh, I can’t believe I’ve been here for three weeks. Holy cow! A whole month in Nuevo Laredo! Hijole. Five weeks, over as quickly as it came…”

I’ve been a little obsessed with time lately. Time management of the present moment, how we conceive time and how we measure it personally. It’s been a theme this year of mine, to flip through old journal entries and feel fascinated as I read what I did on the 2nd day of last month, two months ago, six months ago. Man, how crazy is it that I can read journal entries from 2006, or god forbid, 2005 or even further back than that, and recognize this distinct “voice” I had, as though I were reading a narrator in a novel! Within that recognition is also the acknowledgment that this voice of 2006 and backwards is no longer me: it was me, but it is no longer the voice that I use now. I guess this means in ten years, when I’m reading this blog entry (I wonder how that is going to work, exactly) I’m going to be freaking out even more.

The main event that got me thinking about time is fairly simple: I watched The Full Monty, the amusing British comedy lent to me in a stack of DVDs by my boss. The last time I watched The Full Monty was in 1997, when it first came out, when my sister and I were first really getting into seeing movies and renting them from blockbuster. Twelve years ago, I was twelve. When I was twelve, I couldn’t even SAY the sentence “I remember twelve years ago when…”, because I would have remembered nothing! So this is one of the first times in my life when I could say “I remember twelve years ago…” What is it going to be like to say “I remember thirty years ago”? Or forty? Fifty? That was the main thing I wanted to ask my grandma, when she was showing me old photographs of her with her high school boyfriends. Did you ever think you would end up here Grandma? I wanted to say. Did you ever think you would be a Grandma? Did you ever think you would be eighty-five? Time, dude. It’s a puzzler.

What else did I do when I was twelve? I was in sixth grade. I saw Titanic. I got really into reading all the movie reviews in the New York Times. I remember playing a game with my sister, where we would go to a page and then we would have to pick the one movie out of all the adds listed there that we wanted to see. (During Oscar season this game was fun, once February and March hit it definitely became an exercise in the lesser of two evils.) I guess I would say sixth grade was the time when I sort of became aware of culture, popular culture, and began wanting to integrate myself into it. Sixth grade was also the year I bought my first CD (the Titanic soundtrack—thanks, Mom!). I think it was also the summer before sixth grade that my sister and I first began buying music for ourselves in the form of cassette tapes: the Backstreet Boys, Hansen. Cassette tapes, dude!! Fortunately, we bought a cassette tape of Grammy nominees of ’96 and Paula Cole, Fiona Apple and Shawn Colvin were on it, and our path for preferring sensitive female singer-songwriters with pianos or guitars seemed to be set.

Another thing I did in sixth grade was read Ishmael. My brother was reading it for a class of his—social studies? World History? God knows, some hippie Canadian teacher assigned it to him. I always read my older brother’s books and textbooks; I read one huge English Lit textbook of his from cover to cover, starting with Milton and ending with the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank. Reading “older kids’ books” always felt tremendously exciting to me. I would always sneak into his room when he wasn’t there and read them while lying on my stomach on his bed, my chin hanging off the edge and the book on the floor (I still read like this sometimes, but it makes all the blood rush to my head).

I was definitely way too young for Ishmael at the time. I think the only part I really “got” was the part about the creation myth, in the first 40-50 pages. I thought that was really clever, when the jellyfish said, all proudly, “And then, there were jellyfish!” as its conclusion to its story about the creation of the universe. It was an eye-opening moment, to say the least. I’d definitely never really thought about the world like that before, that we had a specific way of narrating about our place in the world. Even during Humanities 110 class, years later, in between the slides of the Greeks and Romans projected at the front of the auditorium, I would still think every once in the while “and then there were jellyfish…”

So these were some of the things I thought about while re-reading Ishmael in the Estacion Palabra reading cultural center, while little kids shouted and whooped while making Halloween decorations in the children’s sections. At some point a girl dressed up as a pirate walked up to me and offered me candy; I took a green lollipop which broke as I was trying to unwrap it (I ate it anyway). I rushed through the last 60 pages in fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish it before it got dark; I wanted to walk home while there was still some light outside.

It was a good book, and I enjoyed reading it. Ishmael places an interesting emphasis on how the control and use of food supply is so important for defining culture and the formation civilization. It feels very much ahead of its time for a book written in 1992, especially Quinn’s commentary about First World farmers fueling Third World population explosion. It’s missing the specificity and urgency that Michael Pollan brought to the argument, but it’s definitely there. It feels very relevant.

It’s an interesting book to read at this point in my life, as well as in this point of history. I love reading the articles about food and good eating and urban farming and agriculture that seem to be consistently appearing on the NY Times and Salon and Slate and so on… When I walked into Powell’s to buy The Wings of the Dove and The Brothers K and other huge books to lug along with me to Mexico, in the front displays there was book after book about permaculture and bike riding and green living and good eating. It made my heart feel really warm. It made me want to believe that our consciousness is changing, that a very definitive, clear shift is taking place… I don’t want to think that it’s just Portland, either (though Portland is definitely a place where a lot of good things happen!)

I also think it’s interesting how Ishmael focuses so much on this idea that things can’t continue on this path for much longer, or else we’re pretty much doomed. Doomed in what sense? The apocalypse is pretty scary to think about (I can’t watch zombie movies for exactly that reason) but I find it SO interesting that the more people I meet who are interested in things like gardening, permaculture, gathering culinary mushrooms and sustainable development also seem to be very much comfortable (not sure if that’s the right word? Aware, maybe) with the idea of apocalypse. I could go on a rift about apocalypse that adapts themes from my postmodern fiction class, but I think I will leave it at that and take it up in another blog entry.

The last thing I want to say about reading Ishmael is how freaking interesting it was to me to read this book and be like yup, this is definitely how I feel; yup, this is definitely a conclusion that I’ve reached. Consuming the world as our prison industry that keeps us trapped: check. Man belongs to the world instead of the other way round: check. Human settlement isn’t against the law, it’s subject to the law: check, check. Teaching is enough, you can’t begin anywhere unless you begin changing people’s minds: triple check unto infinity. I would even go so far that you can’t begin anywhere unless you begin changing your mind. Oh my God, how can I possibly go about helping others unless I know how to help myself?! I think more than anything, this is the biggest lesson that I have learned in the past three years. It sounds so basic and self-explanatory, right? And yet, it is really revolutionary, but once you begin practicing kindness to yourself, it proceeds to open the door to oh so many other things…

I also REALLY liked how Ishmael tried to be positive at the end, so that I wasn’t left with this feeling of “Great, we’ve messed up this planet and now we’re screwed, start building the bunker.” Instead he does a good job of trying to make us feel good. He mainly does this by saying that we need a new vision of ourselves that’s more inspiring that being scolded about how we need to recycle more and pollute less. Somehow, it’s more helpful to view all of this as necessary. This lesson can be personal: If we didn’t go through all of this, then we wouldn’t have learned. It’s more helpful to think that humans needed to go through all this, to be “the first species to experience it without being the last,” as Quinn puts it, in order to KNOW how to do things DIFFERENTLY. So instead of beating ourselves up about the past and thinking we’re screwed, instead we can LEARN from our EXPERIENCES. How’s that for constructive thinking?!

What I like best about this mentality is how well it works in regards to viewing ourselves as individuals. We can view our flaws and mistakes as these terrible things: “God, I’ve messed this thing up, this one side of my personality is like this, so now I’m basically screwed!” But instead of this vision of ourselves, we can have a vision of seeing these flaws as necessary. If you didn’t have these tendencies, then how would you learn? And you can always learn. Now is never a better time.

The one last thing I want to say is that I found it incredibly ironic how after reading this book I went home to my apartment ate some ramen, the only food available in my apartment. Definitely not part of the Slow Food movement. But I figure that you gotta accept the gifts that are available to you… There’s a time and a place for certain things. For example, in Portland, I can learn about gardening and permaculture and botany from Corey, who has really been quite influential and formative in setting me down this path. Oh, to date a botanist…
Urban gardening in Nuevo Laredo appears mostly in the form of papaya trees in people’s front yards. Homegrown chiles are definitely the most popular.

Some songs about gardens:

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Filed under apocalypse, gardening, nature, perspective, time