Category Archives: contemporary

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.

Leave a comment

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

Homesick for Another World

I leave tomorrow for a weekish-long trip in the U.S., visiting friends and family in D.C., North Carolina, and New York, and launching “The Lucky Ones” in Brooklyn alongside Lisa Carey (who I can’t wait to meet) on February 21st–if you’re in the neighborhood, do come!

It’s sunny today (for now), but the seasonal affective disorder has been strong in me, just like the Force in extremely talented Jedis. I hope it is sunny in North Carolina. England!! What else can I do but shake my weak puny fists at your grey, grey sky?

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh was a good book to read after the Cat Marnell memoir, and a good book to read during February, the roughest of months to me (thank goodness it has such few days!). In many ways, both books have similar themes: the body, women moving through space and the way men look at them, drugs, addiction, how to be good, the meaning of being “better.” I love Moshfegh’s writing (especially this essay, which I find encouraging and authentic) and would definitely teach these short stories in a short fiction class. I find her sentences so dark and twisted and memorable. You could say these stories are “grotesque,” and are obsessed with the body: blackheads, rotting teeth, ingrown hairs, acne. You might also say they have a “dark view” of humanity. IDK, maybe it’s just the lack of sunlight speaking through me, but maybe it’s an accurate view of humanity?? What does it mean to be crazy, the book seems to be asking, or fucked-up or weird… Don’t we all have our problems?

Overall, I really liked the journey these stories take us on, from the first story (“Bettering Myself”) to the last (“A Better Place”). It definitely feels like a trip from self-hatred to a weird kind of peaceful acceptance. Overall, highly recommended, but you should know what you’re in for and brace yourself for an uneasy ride.

Here are my notes on the individual stories, so that I don’t forget what each one was about!

“Bettering Myself” – Definitely one of the highlights in the collection and a strong opener. I really sympathized with the narrator, a teacher with a drinking problem who decides she’s going to quit her job.

Half my clothes, books, unopened mail, cups, ashtrays, half my life was stuffed between the mattress and the wall. (6)

Anything good I could think to do I did. I was filled with hope. I bought new sheets and towels. I put on some music. “Bailar,” I said to myself. Look, I’m speaking Spanish. My mind is fixing itself, I thought. Everything is going to be okay. (11)

“Mr. Wu” – Another standout. One of the few stories not set in the U.S. This piece really highlighted to me how effectively a short story can follow an unlikeable character. It also brings up one of the themes (IMHO) of the collection, that of disgust. I loved the ambiguity of the ending.

The woman had one flaccid hand that reminded Mr. Wu of a large prawn. He shuddered and gagged whenever he saw it. He felt sorry for the child, held and fed by that twisted, thin, limp, and red-skinned tentacle. (19)

“Malibu” – Wow, what a sad story. Again, I  really felt for the pimply narrator, and how handsome he kept insisting he was. This story reminded me of the scene in the Cat Marnell book, where she falls asleep during Eyes Wide Shut and when she wakes up the movie has gone on playing on a loop and is back again, on the exact same scene, playing again. In other words, this story made me feel very trapped (but in a good way).

As good-looking as I was, I was scared nobody would ever marry me. I had small hands. They were like a girl’s hands, but with hair. Nobody marries men with hands like that. When I fit my fingers down my throat, it’s easy. My fingers are thin, soft. When I put them down there, it’s like a cool breeze. That’s the best way I can explain it. (41)

He was just like me: anything good made him want to die. That’s a characteristics some smart people have. (42)

“The Weirdos” – I think I initially read this in the Paris Review and it was thus the first piece of work of hers that I encountered. It is a CLASSIC, and not just because of the way it plays with that famous Chekhov quote about bringing a gun onstage…

“A Dark and Winding Road” – This may be one of my favorites in the collection and it is also very sad. A married lawyer you could easily imagine voting for Donald Trump goes to a cabin in the woods where he runs into his brother’s hook-up, a girl who’s there to smoke meth (or maybe it was crack). I loved the ending of this one (most of the endings of these stories are very abrupt and ambiguous, just my cup of tea). By the time the narrator in this story says, “Twenty years later, I still felt that the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to someone else” (87), well, it just about broke my heart.

“No Place for Good People” – Another stand-out. A widower volunteers with a group of mentally disabled men and says things like “You can call them “retarded”–that word doesn’t offend me as long as it’s used the proper way, without pity.” (88) Yup.

“I rarely interacted much with anyone back then who wasn’t retarded. When I did, it struck me how pompous and impatient they were, always measuring their words, twisting things around. Everybody was so obsessed with being understood. It made me sick.” (98)

“Slumming” – A story about a high school English teacher who spends her summer vacations doing drugs in a dead-end town that would have also definitely voted for Trump. She hires a young pregnant teenage girl to clean her house, who eventually starts hemorrhaging. The narrator’s reaction to this really made the story for me, especially in terms of the whole “dark view of humanity” thing.

“An Honest Woman” – This one took forever for me to finish. For whatever reason, I found it very difficult to be inside the main character’s head, a sleazy old man. He has an encounter with a neighbor, the honest woman of the title, but her dialogue felt a little too much like a speech for me. But I loved his obsession with buying discounted vegetables: “He’d been doing it for so long that the very sight of that neon orange discount sticker could make his mouth water.” (139)

“The pale, swollen, spotted hand on the girl’s knee was inert, like a fat, sleeping lizard that could at any moment awaken and claw up her soft thigh.” (153)

“The Beach Boy” – Wow, definitely one of the collection’s highlights. I don’t want to spoil it, as the funnest thing about this story is its VERY unexpected twist. Basically, it’s about an elderly married couple and their days back in New York, having returned from an island-getaway vacation, where the beaches were populated with the titular beach boys, or male prostitutes. Along with “The Weirdos” I think this would be a very interesting story to teach, if only for the scene where the main character pretends to be deaf in a drugstore. This story definitely feels like a turning point in the mood of the collection, perhaps because of its upfront confrontation with death, and the way it questions how well we truly really know anybody, and what does “normal” really mean.

“‘Why tell stories?’ he wondered aloud. “As soon as something is over, that’s it. Why revive it constantly? Things happen, and then more things, inevitably, happen next. So?” (172)

“Nothing Ever Happens Here” – This story follows another young male narrator, this one from Utah, who moves to L.A. and dreams of becoming an actor. I liked how this story wasn’t afraid to stay in the head of someone who is arguably unsympathetic.

“Dancing in the Moonlight” – A man with a shopping addiction buys an ottoman online so that he can try to get a girl at an antique furniture market to fall in love with him. Talk about a parable for America.

“So much of my life I’d been faking my reactions, claiming to myself and others that I liked what I liked because I believe it was good for me, while in fact I didn’t like that shit at all. This woman could see that I wanted to be ruined. I wanted someone… to come and destroy me.” (238)

“The Surrogate” – Hmm, is this the happiest story in the book? I don’t know if I have much to say about this one. It definitely felt like a story that attempted to explore the idea of finding acceptance, via a young woman with an unsightly medical condition who gets a job in which she must pretend to be someone else.

“Life can be strange sometimes, and knowing it can be doesn’t seem to make it any less so. I know I don’t have any real wisdom. I don’t have any wonderful ideas. I am lucky to have found a few nice people here and there.” (261)

“The Locked Room” – One of the shortest stories in the collection, two members of a music school orchestra are locked in a practice room and must plan their escape. The main male character is described by the narrator as “fearless, like he could do anything he wanted to do, even if it was disgusting,” (266) which feels like a nice description of the collection itself. Oh, he also carries around a small knife with him for “mutilating himself,” so there’s that too. And his hand tastes like “baby powder and excrement.” Yup! The final paragraph of this story reads as a prayer of sorts for all the characters in this book:

“But I never did try very hard to please my mother. In fact, I never tried hard to please anybody at all after that day in the locked room. Now I only try hard to please myself. That is all that matters here. That is the secret thing I found.” (272)

“A Better Place” – The final story and another stand-out. A sister and her brother believe themselves to be aliens, and the only way to get back to the place where they belong is through killing someone. Gripping and memorable, this story exhibits an amazing control over voice and a limited, skewed viewpoint.

To end here are two quotes by the author, the first from the essay linked above, and the second from this interview:

Most of the time, I feel pleased that I’m living my purpose on this planet… We make art about our own ineffectuality, and in doing that, somehow we are no longer ineffectual. That’s the good news about being a human: We are creative. We feel compelled to make something new, to forge new paths through consciousness and grow. Nobody is going to save me—that’s how I’ve always felt. It’s up to me. It’s either do or die, and I decided to do. Maybe we’re going nowhere, but I chose to find meaning anyway.

*

I also feel that everything I’ve written has had a predetermined destiny. As author, I’m just figuring out what the correct version of it is, sweeping the dirt off the gravestone, and I know that I’m right when it feels just so, when it’s undeniable. And it can be really hard to sit with something and go through my stupid thinking and make lots of mistakes and go down the wrong road and throw out pages and pages and feel like I’m wasting my time. I’m writing a new novel now, and I’m back where I started a year ago. And I’m not happy. I’m totally depressed as I’m writing this thing. At the same time, it’s a complete joy. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. There’s nothing else more important to me. It’s the joy of living your purpose. So I’m not regretting this suffering. It isn’t a waste of my life.

Leave a comment

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

My Name is Lucy Barton

I bought this book as a Christmas present for my 90-something (and still going strong!) grandmother, but after reading it decided I should get her something, um, a little more cheerful. I LOVE dark melancholy books with very little plot though, so this novel was basically perfect for me. I’d read Olive Kitteridge and loved it, and now My Name is Lucy Barton has firmly placed Elizabeth Strout in the camp of masterful authors I will consistently seek out, read, and feel awed by. There’s no better feeling than ending the year having read an excellent book that makes you feel like you’ve learned something about life and writing both.

What most impressed me about this book is Lucy’s steady, unwavering voice. Oh, and yet there is so much under the surface! Especially in her interactions with her mother. The style is what you would call “Hemingway-esque,” I suppose, but never annoyingly so. The language is so simple, yet so effective: it really builds on you from how understated it is. Excerpts don’t quite do it justice:

I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

*

Do I understand that hurt my children feel? I think I do, though they might claim otherwise. But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.

I feel like I learned so much from reading this book about the value of silences, of implied but never shared information. The book is all the more powerful for what we end up not knowing, as it’s directly linked to what Lucy herself chooses deliberately not to share (what she wishes she didn’t even know).

The novel opens with Lucy Barton being hospitalized due to a case of appendicitis. Her mother, whom she has not seen in years, unexpectedly comes to visit her for five days. The mother shares gossip about folks back home in Illinois, and in doing so, reveals not only uneasy details about Lucy’s childhood of extreme neglect and poverty, but also Lucy’s somewhat disturbing dependence on pleasing her mother. I thought this was something the book did very well–making us see Lucy’s (at times painful) desperation in having her mother approve of her. It’s a brilliant evocation of an unreliable yet very human narrator.

There are so many interesting themes and motifs in this book: mothers and daughters. Wives leaving husbands. The legacy of World War II and Nazism (Lucy’s father is a Battle of the Bulge veteran, and refuses to speak to Lucy’s husband, the blond son of a German soldier). Men and war, what it means to be a man. Writing, courage, and ruthlessness. AIDS and 9/11. And then there are disturbing references to things that are never expanded upon. What Lucy calls “the Thing,” her father’s episodes in which he lost control of herself, the times in which she was locked up for hours in her father’s truck, her uncontrollable terror at hearing the word “snake”–we don’t learn much more than these details, but they’re enough to deeply unsettle us. It doesn’t help that Lucy’s siblings seem quite worse off than her: whereas Lucy moved to New York and became a writer, her brother sleeps in a barn next to pigs who are about to be slaughtered and develops an obsession with the Little House on the Prairie books, while her sister complains over the phone about her useless husband and sends Lucy requests for money to pay for yoga classes.

This is definitely one of the best books I read this year, and one I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under books, contemporary, review, women writers

Some Rain Must Fall (Karl Ove Knausgaard)

Some Rain Must Fall (Karl Knausgaard)

I am now officially finished with all the My Struggle books that have currently been translated. What will I read next on long train rides when I’m crammed into my tiny seat, dying to pee but too weary to get up and disturb the coffee-drinking person sitting next to me? Maybe Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy will be a good choice.

This has been a tough year for UK-US-Colombian affiliated people. Not gonna lie. What a hell of a game of Bingo. What a dystopic nightmare. I read the news obsessively, cry, turn it off, call my parents, listen to Tori Amos and R.E.M. songs, cry, feel stupidly helpless, ashamed, enraged, grieving. I went to Stratford-on-Avon for a weekend conference, went for a long walk and saw an owl, which felt eerily prescient, thanks to this poem. My sister sends Leonard Cohen lyrics via What’s App and I read César Vallejo. And I finally finished reading Knausgaard.

Having gotten this far, I can now safely say that a lot of power from these books comes from the chopped-up chronology. The depiction of the father in Book Five–embarrassingly fat, distant, pathetic, no longer a beacon of fear–feels far weightier than it would be if we hadn’t already read of his death in the squalid house in Book One, or his reign of terror in Book Three. Book Two we had the marriage and kids, Book Three was childhood, Book Four teens and early adulthood. In Book Five, Karl Ove moves to Bergen, begins a writing program, and falls in and out of love. Chronologically, this book proceeds so that in the last two hundred pages we race through the aftermath of Book One, and end at the moment where Book Two begins. Book Five is maybe the one that most closely reflects my current age/stage in life: finishing up a writing program, trying to be a writer, trying to look ahead and figure stuff out.

For me, a lot of the power from Knausgaard comes from how mindlessly I can read him. And yet it’s undeniable, the man knows how to build suspense. And so I read on and on, frantic to learn what will happen during the dinner in which he prepares spaghetti carbonara for a date but pours in too much sweet wine, or when he throws out a still-living rat caught in a trap but wonders if it will continue to live on in the garbage, eating the scraps it finds, growing larger and larger, pulling itself along on its little rat arms.

By Book Five the books are dense enough that the details are all blurry in my mind; much of what happens in this book you can easily forget, in the same way you sometimes look up with a dazed look of terror and say Where the hell did the day go? What did I DO today?! Little moments in the narrative stand out: he lives in Norwich with a giant anaconda dwelling downstairs, he lives in a disgusting flat in Bergen, his father grows fat and absent, he works at the radio station, he falls in love, he commits adultery, he interviews authors and writes scathing book reviews, he gets too drunk and cuts his face with glass, he wakes up in prison and bushes, he works in a care home for Down’s syndrome patients, he works suicide watch shifts for the mentally ill, he attacks his older brother, he gets drunk and stamps on a duvet on the floor, shouting “There’s a mink in there!”, he wonders whether he should submit a poem to workshop in which the word CUNT is repeated hundreds of times.

These moments keep relentlessly accumulating: the shopping, the drinking, the trips to drink coffee, the awkwardness of trying to wave down a bartender so that you can get a beer. The books he reads and loves! The albums he listens to! (I particularly liked the Siamese Dream shout-out). And then you have moments in which Karl realizes with a terrifying certainty how short life is, how he musn’t waste it, the danger of what he might become. These moments wouldn’t have nearly as much impact as they do if the book itself wasn’t so long. I can’t think where I’ve read a book where it feels more true to every day, lived experience, in which those tiny moments of illumination are sandwiched in between daily tedium. It’s like that Virginia Woolf quote:

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

I think it’s this balance between non-being and being in these books that is so captivating for me, as well as the author’s unrelentingly honest depiction of himself. The Karl Ove in these books is so helplessly flawed, and yet he keeps struggling on and enduring, trying to be better, trying to change. This raw, unabashed frankness towards his shortcomings reminds me a lot of what I admired about George Orwell’s writing, in terms of its honesty and straightforwardness. For this particular reader, it was hard for me not to root for him, and to wish him well.

Selected quotes I highlighted from my kindle (which sadly does not provide page numbers):

It was such a terrible time. I knew so little, had such ambitions and achieved nothing. But what spirits I was in before I went!

Writing was a defeat, it was a humiliation, it was coming face to face with yourself and seeing you weren’t good enough.

You can write about boredom, but it mustn’t be boring.

I brandished authors’ names the way medieval knights brandished flags and banners.

Such was my experience of reading Naipaul, like reading almost all other good writers: enjoyment and jealousy, happiness and despair, in equal portions.

Everything is woven into memories, everything coloured by the mind… Once we were seventeen, once we were thirty-five, once we were fifty-four. Did we remember that day? 9 January 1997, when we went into REMA 1000 to do our shopping and came out again with a bag in each hand and walked down to the car, put the bags on the ground and unlocked the door, placed the bags on the back seat and got in? Beneath the darkening sky, by the sea, the forest behind, black and bare?

The trivial incidents that make up all lives and can suddenly shine bright in the dusk of meaninglessness.

What my aim was, well, it was to escape from the minimalistic, into the maximalistic, something bold and striking, baroque, Moby Dick, but not in an epic way, what I had tried to do was take the little novel, about one person, where there is not much external action, and extend it into an epic format, do you understand what I mean?

I’m going to listen to the song below now, and try to figure out what I’m going to do next.

Leave a comment

Filed under contemporary, fiction, review

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)

2 Comments

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

Hot Milk


If this book was an art film, I’d definitely turn to my companion during the end credits and say something along the lines of “What was up with THAT?” But in a good way, of course!

I love the unusual, sweaty, sexy language and setting of this book. Freud would definitely have a field day with this. The narrator of Hot Milk is Sofia, a 25-year-old drop-out of her anthropology PhD program, who now works at a coffee shop serving artisanal espressos. She has traveled to southern Spain with her invalid mother Rose, who suffers from a mysterious and unpredictable paralysis of the legs and is seeking out the help of a famous doctor. The seaside town where they’re staying has been invaded by dangerous jellyfish, their neighbor has a tied-up dog who won’t stop barking, and the famous doctor Gómez and his mildly alcoholic daughter-assistant Nurse Sunshine seem to provide more questions than answers for Rose and her daughter. Sofia herself seems strangely adrift, so used to helping her mother that she often adopts her mother’s limp when she walks by herself (see what I meant about Freud?).

This is essentially a book in which you need to accept its mysterious, sultry, unpredictable mood. Hallucinatory is a good word to describe it; shimmery and hypnotic are others. You never know what is going to happen next, and that is a feeling I love. This is the kind of book in which Sofía is instructed by Dr. Gómez to steal a fish from a market, or you get sentences like “We dressed as if there wasn’t a dead snake in the room,” (123) and it makes perfect sense.

What I enjoy most about Deborah Levy are her tremendous sentences, her offbeat and surprising perspective that makes her view the world in a new way. “Whiskery langoustines” at an outdoor market are described as “the professors of the ocean.” (77) While looking at the galaxy screen saver of her smashed laptop, Sofia observes that one of the constellations “looked like a calf. Where will it find grass in this galaxy? It will have to eat stars.” (126) Unfinished hotels are “hacked into the mountains like a murder.” References to the European financial crisis are constant: “My lips were still cracking. Like the economies of Europe. Like financial institutions everywhere.” (135) I found these references to contemporary Europe the most interesting, especially when Sofia touches base with her long-gone father, and compares herself to a creditor coming to reclaim her debts.

What to make of this? What’s up with the sensually purring white cat who gives birth to kittens in the end? Is the Hot Milk of the title a reference to the coffee shop where Sofia works? What to make of the eerie open ending, those final sentences comparing the jellyfish drifting like refugees? What about all those moments in which Sofia feels like she is turning into a monster, Medusa-like (medusa is also the Spanish word for jellyfish). I haven’t touched on Sofia’s affairs with the beach shack nurse (who seems to be the narrator of strange, disjointed stand-alone chapters in which he is watching Sofia and having the same dreams as her), and the Spanish woman who likes to wear men’s shoes. Is the novel ultimately the story of Sofia’s coming-of-age, of journeying from girl to woman?

In the end I’m really not sure (I hope someone writes a dissertation about it and finds out for themselves), and I also don’t care. I loved letting this book wash over me like too-hot water from a bathtub. I also liked how the main character was sexy and alluring, yet also thoughtful and intriguing. Much like the often-naked Kitty in Levy’s previous novel Swimming Home (which was also fantastic and deserving of a reread), I like how Levy gives us these female characters with interesting minds who also often don’t wear clothes, as if she’s daring us to deal with a female character who is often sexy, vulnerable and exposed, yet also the driving force and ultimately most powerful figure in the novel.

Yes, some things are getting bigger, other things are getting smaller. Love is getting bigger and more dangerous. Technology is getting smaller, the human body is getting bigger, my low-rise jeans are cutting into my hips which are round and brown and toned from a month of swimming every day but I am still spilling over the waistband of these jeans not made for hips. I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?

I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap. (202)

Leave a comment

Filed under books, contemporary, review

Short, Ghostly, Fragmented

I’ve read two short, ghostly, fragmented books recently that left quite an impression on me. Short books!! What’s not to like? You can read them in a single sitting, over a pint or a cup of coffee. Like a poem, every word counts, every page is tight tight tight, and you can pretty much assume that they’ve been edited like hell, trimmed of all unnecessary, inessential fat. And of course the fragmented form is something I’ve been interested in for a while.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers (Max Porter)

“Any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project.” (99)

This book is everything everyone says it is (specifically ALL OF THE AWARDS people here in England!) and more. Talk about well-deserved accolades! Not quite a novella and not quite a poem either, Grief is the Thing With Feathers is dark, funny, apocalyptic, sad and thrillingly innovative. I can’t think of the last time I encountered a voice as enjoyable as Crow’s in this book.

The story is simple, with lots of blanks left for the readers to fill in and figure out for themselves. There are three narrators (helpfully indicated by titles above each fragment): Boys, Dad and Crow. Dad is a grieving Ted Hughes scholar, struggling to finish a book about the infamous Crow poems; Boys are his sons, confused and adrift after their mother’s sudden death. And Crow is their unexpected babysitter, a sudden apparition stalking the pages with his chaotic, messy rants. Much of the book’s power comes from Crow’s dual presence: first as an actual physical being, a creature with blinking black eyes bugling like football-sized testicles picking at his feathers and claws clattering on the floor, and secondly as a metaphorical embodiment as a figure of grief, pain and nihilism. He is both a ghost and (in his own words) “the god-eating, trash-licking, word-murdered, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker” (70) of Hughes’ original vision. Crow does “little squitty shits” in random corners around the house, encourages the boys to engage in strange competitive activities, shares his bad dreams, and fights a door-knocking demon that is maybe one of my favorite scenes in the book.

I found the similes and language of the writing incredible; I was constantly underlining like the most brutal book vandal there ever was: The knotted-string dream of other people’s performances of woe. (5) Crow’s rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast. (6) Our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes. (39) The pain of them being so naturally kind is like appendicitis. (46) His mouth was slack grey and collapsed like a failed Yorkshire pudding. The amazing writing, even more than the concept, is what truly made this book for me. Every word is so well chosen, every sentence so carefully connected, it’s like following a trail of stones across a river that have been laid out in just the right way so that you don’t end up slipping and drowning.

Strange, plotless, beautiful books like this one make me glad to be alive. Also, in the interests of full, honest disclosure, this book and I share the same publisher and editor, but I honestly don’t see why that should detain me from exclaiming about it….

“Perhaps if Crow taught him anything it was a constant balancing. For want of a less dirty word: faith. A howling sorry which is yes which is thank you which is onwards.”

Faces in the Crowd (Valeria Luiselli)

Holy crap, did this book blow away. What a head trip. I often didn’t understand what was happening (in the sense that I didn’t know who was narrating) but guess what, THAT IS THE POINT. The two narrators swirl and blur into each other, ghosts from the past and future, slowly but surely swallowing each other up until you’re not sure who is alive, who is writing, who is creating who.

Told in brief fragments, we get three stories (I actually read one review that claimed there are three narrators, which I hope isn’t true because then WOW, I totally misunderstand the whole novel). One is of an Emily Dickinson-like mother retreating in her Mexico City apartment, gradually becoming obsessed with the works of Gilberto Owen, a marginal figure during the Harlem Renaissance in the 20s and 30s. Her obsession reaches the point that she even believes to have glimpsed him in the subway, in a manner similar to the Ezra Pound poem on which the English-language title is based (the title in Spanish was apparently originally Los ingrávidos, The Weightless Ones). Narrative Thread #2 is purportedly the work of fiction the woman is working on, memories of her time as a young woman in New York and her Savage Detectives-like romps (I found the satirical comments in these fragments about middle-class Mexicans and scathing observations about gringos who were convinced they were “special” for having lived abroad in Latin America for a time particularly hysterical). Narrative #3 appears latest in the book, the voice of Gilberto Owen himself, as he frets about losing weight and “disappearing,” fading from photographs even as his friendships with folks like Lorca and José Limón deepen.

The image of people staring at each other from two subway trains running on parallel tracks besides each other is a key image for the novel, as is a dead orange tree in a pot, discovered at two different points in time. Ultimately we’re left with the question of was writing who, of how literature can bleed into and create/become history. Are both the narrators dead, ghosts glimpsed by each other? How Borgesian.

God I wish I could write like this…!!! Maybe in 30 years :) … For me, this was such a treat to read: a genuinely avant-garde, mind-blowing work, truly expanding the capacities of the form. I learned so much about the writing from reading this, which for me is the best feeling there is.

The other thing I will say is that I’m glad I read absolutely no reviews of this book before reading it, because it made everything that happened as it unfolded a complete surprise. I also highly recommend this article by Luiselli, if only for the following absolutely priceless quote about the writing process: “A novel requires a bit of intelligence, and a lot of saliva, sweat and shit.” Words to live by!

If you have recommendations for other books either told in fragments or narrated by ghostly/otherworldly creatures, do let me know!

4 Comments

Filed under books, contemporary, review

Books Read in January, a Recap

The Girl on the Fridge (Etgar Keret)

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It was a good, fast, neat clean read. It reminded me a lot of Kafka; that is, a 21st-century Kafka who listens to MGMT and wears lots of bright colors. I like how only one of the stories in this collection are more than 4 pages long. My favorites are “The Real Winner of the Preliminary Games,” the title story, “Cheerful Colors,” “So Good,” “The Summer of ’76”. Some of the stories are a little cutesy (“The Night the Buses Died,” “Monkey Say, Monkey Do”) and read a little too much like they sprouted from a “What-If” exercise in a writing workshop, but overall none of them were annoying. Other stories are disturbing (“Vacuum Seal”), some are just plain WTF weird (“Not Human Beings,” which totally explodes in the last page into hardcore social commentary on Israelis-Arab relations ). I never got the feeling like Keret was trying to show off how clever he is, even at his most experimental (“Alternative,” “Cramps”). Overall these stories remind me of the 2-4 page summaries I write in my journal sometimes when I’m trying to remember what I dreamed last night, due to that trippy, surreal, brief quality. My Abandonment (Peter Rock)

Liked this one too, a good solid read. Attacked it in one sitting, one rainy afternoon. Written by a former creative writing professor of mine. It was pretty fun reading a book in which I recognized the majority of the settings–Forest Park, Goose Hollow, downtown Portland. Reminded me of “Into the Wild”. Google-fu in search of the original Oregonian articles describing the true-life story on which this novel is based instead led me to this interesting interview that definitely made me rethink of a couple of things I thought about the book, especially conceiving it as a YA novel. I also liked his comments about writing, especially about the “practice” novels. This interview also made me curious to read more in the Pete Rock canon, since apparently there is overlap with characters in different novels. How very Onettian! Super Sad True Love Story (Gary Shteyngart)

I liked this book. Reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut. Didn’t find the love story totally credible though, and Eunice (the main female character) never felt as fully developed to me as Lenny (the main male character). Even though I understand the purpose of her character and personality, she still rankled me a little bit, kind of like the brother’s slave-like girlfriend in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Still, can’t complain too much. The book reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad lots of commentary on the overuse of technology here. Twit, twit, twittering away. I liked how the characters were obsessed with using their “apparati” (what a great word) and ranking their own and others’ “fuckability” scales. Totally credible. My mom loved reading the summary inside the bookjacket; she laughed aloud with glee as she read the sentences about the Chinese creditors seizing America. I definitely thought the ending of this book would be a lot more apocalyptic than it actually was. Still, this is a book that seeks to both entertain and to provide relevant social commentary, a satire in the best sense of the term. So yeah, like I said before, can’t complain too much. I looked forward to reading this every time I picked it up, which also says a lot. I was definitely upset when I misplaced it for two weeks (especially since it’s my sister’s Xmas present copy!!), and thrilled when I found it again (in my backpack–who’d have thought, especially when I’d emptied it and shaken everything out various times?) Wittgenstein’s Mistress (David Markson)

This is the kind of book where I enjoyed its ideas more than the actual act of reading it. In fact, the more days that pass after having finished this book, the more I like it, even though I really didn’t enjoy the physical act of reading it too much. Snuggled under blankets in the guest bed of my grandmother’s house, I had to force myself to turn off The Dark Knight or Cupcake Wars so that I could tackle another 20-40 pages of declarative sentences about Homer and German philosophers. The idea of “enjoying” is a funny one, especially when used in reference to avant-garde, experimental fiction. Can you “enjoy” Beckett, or do you just appreciate the experience? I know for a fact that I enjoyed DFW’s “Girl With Curious Hair” (and DFW was apparently a HUGE fan of Markson!) so I guess I’m not a completely hopeless case…!

I definitely feel like I don’t know enough about Wittgenstein to fullyappreciate this novel. I do love that quote of his that was used throughout Respiracion articificial: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” So I guess one of the big themes in this book is Language, and How Do We Use It, and How Is It Possible to Communicate. This question of communication is made especially complicated in the novel, considering that the narrator is the only person left in the world. As far as this genre of girl-left-alone-in-post-apocalyptic-world goes, Z for Zachariah still takes the cake for me, but this book is really not trying to be a post-apocalyptic novel at all. Instead it’s interested in exploring big ideas about Language, which here seem to be very deeply related to culture. Basically all that Kate (the main narrator) seems capable of talking about anymore is about Books, and Art, and Philosophers. Her son and lovers are briefly mentioned, but forget about knowing exactly what happened to them. Or what was going on when she was “mad,” as she calls it. Is she still mad? Is that what this whole book is supposed to reprent, the stream of consciousness ramblings of a madwoman?

……………. this book really should have its own post, maybe. Let me just say that I really love the first sentence, and have found myself repeating it to the myself, under my breath, during unexpected moments throughout my day: “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” I don’t know, this whole novel feels like a sort of message in the street for me. A message in the sand. Maybe that’s all that culture and art is, messages in the sand that will eventually be swept away. Oh, my. A Heart So White (Javier Marias)

My first Javier Marias book, a Spanish author oh so critically accalimed in the literary blogging sphere. I sure wish I had read this in Spanish, but I’m so lazy about going to my alma mater’s library (the easiest and most convenient place for me to get books in Spanish, since the Multnomah County library’s system is pretty lacking). Wow, I liked this book a lot. It was pretty intense. It had lots of great underlying themes and motifs. I loved how the narrator and his wife were translators for a living. “Translators”–there’s just so much you can do with that, as a metaphor. Translators as interpreters, as manipulators of language, as filters, etc. The first chapter, describing a suicide (the central mystery around which the book rotates), is one of the most captivating openings I’ve ever read. I really like Javier Maria’s structuring of the book: every chapter doesn’t seem like it would be connected to the one that came before, but believe me, they are. An anecdote about listening to a couple’s fight through the thin hotel walls in Cuba is connected to a crippled woman’s search for love via personal ads in New York. It felt very honest and true to life for me. I also really liked how Marias never really tried to judge, explain or analyze any of his characters. It feels like a very “classic novel” stance, in the sense that the novel is purely there to Depict and Observe, not to Moralize or Prosethylize. Marias and the wonderful Umberto Eco have a very interesting conversation discussing this conception of the novel as something that must deliver a “message” in this interesting interview. I am definitely going to read more of Marias in the future. Maybe that way I will get through writing a review without accidentally writing his name every single time as “Javier Bardem” (another top-ranked favorite Spanish man of mine!).

2 Comments

Filed under books, contemporary, Javier Marias, review

The Whole Story

I love Ali Smith. The first work of hers that I read was a novel called “The Accidental,” for a literature class called “Fiction and Time,” during my semester abroad in England, at University of East Anglia. I’d never read anything like it. I loved it, and list it on my favorite books list on this blog. I went on to read “Hotel World,” which I also loved, in all its “Mrs. Dalloway” canon-like homage, and then I read this short story collection, “The Whole Story,” while I was recovering from a pretty nasty break-up. After finishing two Lorrie Moore collections, I was still in the mood for some good old female-penned fiction, so of course Ali Smith was one first to come to mind. Not only does she remind me how fun it is to read stuff written by women, but how fun it is to read contemporary writers. I really should do it more often, if I can ever get myself back into a stable reading rhythm again… oh well, baby steps, right?

I like the quote that precedes the collection, by a Brazilian author called Clarice Lispector: Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It makes me think of Molly Bloom’s closing monologue in “Ulysses,” and then in turn of the sexy Kate Bush song: “mmmm, yes.” I feel like this quote is relevant to the collection because it seems to be asking when does the “story” truly begin: with the creation of molecules? With prehistory? With the prehistory of prehistory? With the “yes” uttered by God… Sophia… quantum physics… oh man, who knows.

The opening story (called “The Universal Story”–its place at the beginning definitely doesn’t feel like an accident!) is a good way to set up these themes for the rest of the book. The story asks good questions about when does a story truly begin, by using a series of false starts. “There was a man who dwelt by a churchyard. Well, no okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.” (1) And then it goes on from there, to a woman who lived by a cemetery, to a woman who lived by–no, in–a second-hand bookshop, to the life of an edition of The Great Gatsby, to the life of a common domestic house fly, to the customer who comes in to by a copy of the book because his sister is a performance artist building a boat made solely out of editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American opus. Using the Great Gatsby is an appropriate choice, as not only is it a reflection of the book’s closing lines (“beating back ceaselessly into the past” or so on), but it’s also a nice image: a boat made entirely out of books, carrying us away (not to spoil anything, but it unsurprisingly just ends up sinking in the English channel).

Maybe this summary doesn’t make this story sound like much. In this case, I would say that this story is a good example of how it’s not so much what a story is about, but rather how it is about it. I’m really not the kind of person who’s delighted by the trumping of style over substance… in fact, I would say that I’m pretty much over magical realism altogether, unless it is very, very well done. But for some reason Ali Smith pleases rather than frustrates me. She makes reading fiction fun. These stories make me feel good about myself and happy to be alive–I really can’t think of a better reason to recommend her other than that. They’re just delightful. They’re fun to read!

For example, take the story “May,” which has one of the best examples of Smith’s enviable ability to write killer opening lines: “I tell you. I fell in love with a tree. I couldn’t not. It was in blossom.” (45) Oh man! This may very well be my favorite story in the collection. There’s just so much to unpack here, about nature and technology and alienation and capitalism. One of my favorite parts of the story is also a good example of one of my favorite things about Smith in general: she has this technique where 1) we don’t know the gender of the narrator, 2) the narrator constantly refers to an unnamed “you,” their romantic partner, and 3) the 2nd half of the story is narrated by the subject of the previous narrator’s “you,” so that the new “you” becomes the first narrator. I just find this technique to be a really unique and powerful way of narrator–what is storytelling, if not talking to a “you”? And how awesome is it that the “you” character gets to narrate themselves, at the end? So in this case, after listening to the first narrator expound upon how he/she fell in love with a tree, the 2nd half of the story is from their partner’s perspective, which is even more interesting: how do you deal with your boyfriend/girlfriend, if they claim to be in love with a tree? This is an example of a magic-realism element that is handled quite well by Smith, in a way that is sweet and realistic rather than annoying. What’s so weird about falling in love with a tree anyway? In the story it isn’t treated all too differently than if the character was having an affair with a person. I also like how Smith puts people/tree relationships in context by referring to other stories and myths, such as the one with Daphne, which in turn makes it seem less weird.

Pretty much all my favorite stories in this collection are the ones that use this “you” mid-story switching technique. The one where the narrator is trying to get home on the Tube, and thinks that they see Death (“You know he’s Death because when he smiles, your cell phone goes dead.”). The one called “Believe Me”, which opens with these lines: “I’m having an affair, I said. No you’re not, you said.” (119) There’s other stories, too: the one where the main character is haunted by a band of Scottish bagpipers in full regalia (this is the most magical realism story of the lot). The one about the three Scottish sisters, and their random dead-end jobs working in fast food restaurants or as the coffee-drink vendor on a Loch Ness monster tour ferry. The weirdest story to me is “Erosive,” which is divided in three sections, “middle,” “end,” “beginning,” but still doesn’t seem to have any order: I can’t figure out if this story is about killing ants that are killing your apple tree, what it feels to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, or some weird combination of the two.

My favorite passage in the entire collection comes from “Believe Me,” which reminds me of something out of a Sarah Kane monologue:

“I can read you like a book and because the thing about a beloved book, if it’s a good one, is that it shifts like music; you think you know it, you’ve read it so many times, of course you know it, of course the pleasure of it is in how well you know it, but then you hear in the background, the thing you never heard in it before, and with the turn of a page you see a combination of words you know you’ve never seen before, you thought you knew this book but it dazzles you with the different book it is, yet again, and not just that but the different person you have become, the different person you are now, reading it again, and you, my love, are an excellent book for me, and then us both together, which takes some talent with rhythm, but luckily we are quite talented at reading each other.” (127)

Aaaah! Talk about making my heart stop… man, imagine someone writing that in an e-mail for you, or a text message, or a postcard. It makes my heart hurt just to think about it. I wanna write something like this myself, but for me, rather than for some stupid boy. Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to Ali Smith is that she makes me feel inspired enough about fiction that I want to pick up my pencil and start writing again, myself. I’m getting there… it’s like that Buddhist expression: “Wherever you go, there you are.” You have to make YOURSELF the unattainable, idealized “you” that you long for and address and narrate to… you know? It’s like what one of the many, many self-help books I have read in the past two months said: YOU have to make yourself the hero of your own story, rather than some random other person who is supposed to swoop in and save the day and make everything all better with a band-aid and a cookie and a kiss on the cheek. The things that you long that have in a relationship, the qualities that you long to see manifested in other people, are typically the qualities you want to see manifested in yourself. The best thing about this is that YOU CAN DO IT YOURSELF, rather than wait for someone else to do it FOR you!! Like: don’t wait for someone to write a poetic love letter to you comparing you to a well-read book… do it yourself! What an important realization, to think that YOU are that person to whom you are narrating and addressing and directing your life towards… not someone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ali Smith, books, comfort food, contemporary, quotes, review, short stories