Category Archives: contemporary

Missing

Missing (Alison Moore)

How nice that would be, thought Jessie, just to make a phone call and pay a fine and get back whatever you had lost. (90)

Oh, I love a good ghost story. And this one has enough deliciousness in spades. An inexplicably broken tea mug. A hairline crack in a window gradually getting bigger. Creaks and sighs from upstairs (if you REALLY want to get the crap scared out of you, listen to this story!).

I read this a while ago, over the summer during Salt Publishing’s campaign to save itself from debt. God, I love independent publishers. Something I’ve really learned over the past six years is how much more varied and interesting the indie catalogue is. Thank God for risk-takers!

I loved the quiet, spooky domesticity of this. Sort of like the monotony of Knausgaard mixed with the creepy atmosphere of Robert Aickman. I loved the main character, Jessie, a translator. I related to her very strongly, especially in her obsession with cooking:

She liked to cook. She found it soothing – the chopping, chopping, softening, boiling down. She cooked more food than she could possibly eat on her own; she made enough to feed a family. What she could not eat, she froze. In her freezer, she had weeks’ worth – perhaps months’ worth – of shepherd’s pie and chilli; she had about a square foot of lasagne, in individual portions, which she took out, one at a time. She blasted them in the microwave. (41)

In the margins next to this, I wrote, IT ME.

I also loved the humour throughout this. God, how it made me cackle! Like the dog’s name, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Or this part:

Now that she lived alone, and seeing as she worked at home, and given that she spoke only occasionally to her family, she did sometimes imagine dying in some sudden and unnecessary way – perhaps tripping over the cat at the top of the stairs and landing broken-necked at the bottom – and nobody knowing for weeks. The neighbours or the postman would notice a smell, and after a while someone would come and find her lying at the foot of the stairs, and in the meantime the cat would have been eating her face. She did not know about the dog, whether it would try to intervene or whether it would just join in. (53)

So dark! I love it!

Reading this book reminded me that it’s possible to make great art without a lot of capitalist attention. Don’t get me wrong, this book has done very well! Lots of reviews, etc. But it ties in with the latest passage of Knausgaard that I just read (progress has been slow… I’m still only at 36% on my kindle edition). In this long essayistic ramble (there’s been QUITE a few these in the book so far…!), Knausgaard talks about the human obsession with being seen. This is a long ramble, so bear with me. Basically, he starts out talking about how rather than change his father’s name in the book due to a legal request, he instead removes his father’s name entirely, so that within the novel, his father is basically a man without a name. He them embarks upon a reflection of what names mean to people – how one of the most brutal forms of teasing a children can do is to twist around someone’s name. Somehow, our names feel connected to the core of who we are – of how we are seen and understood by others:

“Apart from material necessities, the most important need of any human being is to be seen. Anyone who is not seen is no one. The worst punishment in old Nordic culture was to be proclaimed fredløs, which is to say cast out from society, forbidden to associate with others… We strive to be seen. And when being seen means being seen by all, it gives rise to an impossible craving, since being seen by all is the preserve of the few.”

He ties this in with celebrity and social media, about how people use their names online not only to denote the core of who they are, but also as an ADVERTISEMENT of their own idea of who they are, in terms of creating a context online for their name, a furnishing, “not unlike the way in which a brand is built up or a pop star constructed.” This is my favorite kind of rant, let me tell you! If I am ever trapped in the corner by a drunken Knausgaard at a party, let me tell you, I am NOT moving.

So as a result from being surrounded by this constant BRAND BUILDING and ADVERTISEMENT that is “abstract” and “image-based”, Knausgaard sees an important role for the novel (drum roll): “what the novel can do,” he says, “and which perhaps is its most important property, is to penetrate our veils of habit and familiarity simply by describing things in a slightly different way.”

This is what I enjoy the most about books like Missing. Quiet books, that are all the more brilliant for how quiet they are. They’re not launched frenetically upon the media stage. They’re not loud. But in their firm and resolute way, they are keeping art alive. When I read passages about a woman obsessively making lasagnes and think, IT ME, god, what a comfort that is! The moment of recognition when reading Missing‘s discussion of how a missing puzzle piece (especially a corner one!) can create such a terrible mood around the house! The reflections of a translator on how bloody hard it is to communicate, on what a responsibility it is to try to say exactly what you mean! The familiarity of reading about someone who leaves notes in the margins of library books and checks them years later to see if anyone has responded! Or the way a man chopping onions is described: “He pressed the back of his wrist to his eyes. He looked as if he were acting in a tragedy.” That moment of oh wow, I never saw it put that way.

And also this idea of breaking out of our “veils of habit and familiarity,” which is very much a theme of Missing. God, I can’t even begin with this! That’s probably why I obsess so much about travel, about escape, because it feels like an “easy” fix, an electroshock to the system to make you sit up, take notice, not sleepwalk through your life but take notice of every moment. It’s so hard, as a self-critical young woman, to feel like I’m living my life the way I want to.

But what can I do, but get up, blast one of my microwave frozen lasagnes, and try to get through the day with as much compassion and attention as I can. That’s the kind of art I want to make, too. Quiet and unassuming, and mine.

“We must not contemplate the world, but act within it. We must not read, and we must not look; instead we must go. Go towards something, perhaps; something whose nature is as yet unknown to us.” (Knausgaard, Loc 7430 – WHYYYY do some of my kindle books not provide page numbers? So random and inexplicable!)

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Oxford and The End

Last week contained a bit of a treat – I was able to go to Oxford to meet one of my favourite writers (more on that soon).

This old building is now a Pret a Manger… truly, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore

I had some time to pop into a museum, where I enjoyed the writing section very much.

And T.E. Lawrence’s robes! Truly, a vintage high school obsession.

“Writing is a way to record facts, ideas, and stories. A reader can understand what you mean without meeting or talking to you.”

I really enjoyed the paintings by this female Japanese artist, who came and lived in England for a while. This was her painting of Stonehenge.

And I loved these rabbits! I hadn’t seen rabbits on Japanese art before (not that I’ve seen that much of it lol).

I also liked this old painting of Oxford’s High Street.

And of course this map of migration of Europe is always topical.

The other fun treat of my week is that volume six of Knasgaard’s My Struggle series, entitled The End, was finally released to my kindle. The last Knausgaard I read was in 2016 – can’t believe that it’s been that long! Here’s where I write about Book One and Book Two – looks like I didn’t write about Books Three and Four, which is a shame, because I really enjoyed them. Hell, I’ve enjoyed the whole lot! Who knows, maybe I’ll re-read them again someday… or Proust?

God, I love Knausgaard. I was ranting and raving about him to N. the other day as we chomped down on our hamburgers. I’m only 29% of the way through The End (god, I’ll be honest, I’m not really looking forward to the 400-page essay on Hitler, but who knows, maybe I’ll sink into it) and I’m sure there’s still a lot more in store for me. But oh, Knausgaard-world! The obsession with death. The mundanity of working with children, shopping. The constant smoking (I read somewhere online that he’s quit, and that he’s also now divorced, and living in London).

The End picks up in 2009, shortly before the publication of Book One of My Struggle. He sends the manuscript to his family members for their approval and is accosted by his uncle, who threatens to sue and contests specific facts in the book. Knausgaard himself ends up wondering what in the book is actually “true”, and what was an assumption of his – had his father fired the cleaner, or had Knausgaard just assumed it? In my head, the fact that the books are called NOVELS should release him from holding himself to a non-fiction, journalistic standard, but whatever, I guess that’s why with auto-fiction things get blurry.

This is probably the most death-obsessed book since Book One. There’s a lot of poignancy in Knausgaard’s interactions with his children, particularly since the entire series has been basically about his father’s death. He wonders constantly how his children will remember him, how they will remember this moment. I particularly loved the passage about Hamlet, and how much he has in common with dead people and ghosts. In a way, Hamlet is more immortal that “living” dead people, who can only live on in the memories of those who knew them (this is a very Coco-esque theme, I’ve just realized). But Hamlet, as a work of fiction, can live on forever. “Does he rise now in his chilly chamber? Does he climb the narrow steps out onto the roof, to the parapets? What then does he see? … What thoughts does he have? Shakespeare told us.

My favorite moment in the book so far is when Knausgaard and his daughter are running a fun run, a sort of race for children. The daughter’s friend keeps stopping and kindly waiting for her to catch up, and at one point trips and bloodies up her leg. At that point Knausgaard urges his daughter to go, go, go, beat her, cross the finish line! And afterwards all the adults are laughing and joking with him: “wow, your daughter just left her friend behind, haha, she really wanted to win!” And Knasugaard is just like… I can never tell them the truth, that it was actually ME who was so obsessed with a four year old girl winning a race that I made her abandon her bleeding, crying friend. HA!

It’s incidents like this one that make me like the “character” of Knausgaard that appears in these books so much. Constantly ashamed and snivelling, full of self-pity and disgust. Almost Dostoevskyian, in a way. Wondering if he’s a good father, and what it means to be a good person. But committed, absolutely, to his writing. And that’s maybe the most interesting theme to have emerged so far in this book. Knausgaard finds himself wondering WHY he has written this series – why couldn’t he just let sleeping dogs lie? Why is he causing so much trouble to his loved ones? Is he really this ruthless? A sort of literary vampire (“brutal and without consideration, self-seeking and egoistic“), exploiting his family? But then he muses upon how during the actual moment of writing, he never once stopped to think, should I do this, should I explore these themes. It was a compulsion; he couldn’t stop himself, and that was what made writing the books different from writing an essay, or an article: it came from pure feeling, emotions about him and his father.

I’ll try to remember how sad I’ll be when this book is finished when I’m slogging through the more “boring” bits… this statement could probably apply to life in general, too.

“Writing was such a fragile thing. It wasn’t hard to write well, but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement. When it didn’t work, which is never really did, not really, I would sit there like a conceited idiot and wonder who I thought I was, supposing I could write for others. Did I know any better than everyone else? Did I possess some secret no one else possessed? Were my experiences particularly valuable? My thoughts about the world especially valid?”

“Life was there to be felt, that was what we strove for, but why? For our headstones to say ‘Here lies a person who liked to sleep’?”

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Normal People

Normal People (Sally Rooney)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nutcase

  Nutcase (Tony Williams)

Tony Williams is an English author who (like Jon McGregor) came to give a talk at the university where I work. His novel, Nutcase, is deeply intriguing, not just because it’s an adaptation of Icelandic sagas (I wish I knew more about them; his talk definitely made me want to know more!), but because of its style. Williams discussed how what made him interested in Icelandic sagas was their lack of interiority, in the sense that reading them is akin to this happened, then this happened, then this happened. A focus on the litany, rather than the emotional. So he decided to write a novel in contemporary Sheffield, written in the style of ancient Icelandic sagas. It’s a fascinating experiment – in terms of both reading and writing. It made me think a lot about how so many novels (at least the ones I’m familiar with) are based on interiority, in terms of “showing” us the inside of a character’s consciousness.

Another interesting aspect of Tony’s talk was his path to getting published – no agent, and communicating directly with the publisher (good old Salt! Gotta love their anthologies ;)). It was a good message for the students to hear, I think. And it’s also good to witness how genuinely good art (like Alex Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation) isn’t always coming from the biggest, flashiest sources.

Tony and I and the rest of the staff got dinner after the talk (I always order the exact same thing, a medium rare hamburger, as it’s one of the cheapest things on the menu, but I am thinking of switching to the halloumi salad just for a change). I talked for a bit with Tony’s friend, who he had gone to school with. Apparently (if I’m remembering correctly) one of the parties they hosted (attended?) as youth made its way into the book – I wonder if it was the basis for one of my favorite scenes in the novel, in which a fire is started due to someone burning U2 CDs in a biscuit tin.

Reading this book reminded me of what a deeply exotic and strange country England is to me, still. There are so many little corners and worlds that I just don’t know about, never will know, though this is probably true of every single place I have ever lived (and indeed, maybe feeling not at home is what makes me feel most at home). Whenever I ask anyone where they’re from in England, I rarely know their answer (but maybe English people would have the same reaction? Part of me thinks… no). There’s so much about England I still don’t know, even though I’ve lived here for six years.

I read Nutcase in a single sitting, on my train ride home. Definitely check it out – support independent publishers!

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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

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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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