- I have a new short story that aired on BBC Radio 4 – you can give it a listen here.
- I wrote a personal essay about exotic animal pets in Colombia that aired on BBC World Service’s Cultural Frontline program – you can listen to it here.
(I REALLY WISH they would correct the spelling of “Columbian,” but what can ya do. My sister says she finds typos in the NYTimes all the time.)
Boy oh boy, how could I have not read these books before? I mean, as a kid I read the adapted-for-youngsters versions, one with simplified language and with pictures – thank God for that particular series of kiddie books! Otherwise, I could not claim to know the plot of David Copperfield, Little Women, etc., etc. If I have kids (and if print books are still, like, a thing – and assuming our robot overlords will still permit us reading time), I sure do want my spawn to have copies of that specific kiddie series.
I think I’ve read Huck Finn before, for a 2006 class on Literature of the American South. Too bad I retain nothing of what was surely an interesting class discussion :/
I loved these books (am still reading Huck Finn and savoring it). Isn’t it amazing that books written so long ago are still so readable, funny, and enjoyable? Emphasis on FUNNY. I’d forgotten the sharp Orwellian directness of Mark Twain’s prose. Man, no wonder so many kids in middle school are taught Twain; too bad they’re unappreciative! (Or at least I was.)
I wonder if it does take age to appreciate these books. This time around, I was particularly taken with the Peter Pan, Don Quixote-esque nature of Tom and his friends, particularly their obsession with pretending to be pirates. I LOVE characters who are obsessed with reading, and with playing make-believe, and with pretending to be something that they’re not. Don Quixote is even mentioned early on in Huck Finn, during the scene where Tom claims books are important teachers for life: “Don’t I tell you it’s in the books? Do you want to go to doing different from what’s in the books, and get things all muddled up? … Don’t you reckon that the people that made the books knows what the correct thing to do? Do you reckon YOU can learn ’em anything?” (HF) I LOVE the replacement of ‘teach’ with ‘learn’ in the final sentence, implying that they’re the same thing (I always though so!). And I’m so interested in the book’s obsession with “what the correct thing to do” is … particularly since the main narrative thread of Huck Finn is, obviously, Huck’s changing feelings about Jim.
And major respect to Huck for his fierce loyalty to Tom, claiming that he’d even follow Tom into hell. No wonder Bolaño often cited these two books when discussing The Savage Detectives. It’s fascinating to me that both books deal with the characters “dying” and then being reborn, so to speak. Huck in particular is constantly giving himself new names, new identities, even a new gender (I can smell a thousand dissertations lurking beneath these words…).
Huck is an intriguing character for the ages: a child-man in “the cast off clothes of full-grown men”, neither child nor adult, defined by his freedom and ability to do what he likes:
Huckelberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clohtes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had. (38, TS)
Honestly, Huck’s definition of freedom and pleasure is still superbly suitable even for today’s office drone culture: the ability to go where one likes, curse, smoke, own nothing, want nothing. “Tom’s heart ached to be free, or else to have something of interest to do to pass the dreary time.” (44) Sigh. And then there’s Huck’s relationship with Jim, and the way Jim is fascinated with superstitions, signs, and symbols: he is famous for his ability to “interpret,” nothing is ever what it seems on the surface; something always represents something else. SO INTERESTING.
The last thing I want to say is that I had no freaking idea how terrifying the cave scene in Tom Sawyer is- Tom reminded me of a Bolaño character in this section, unafraid to face down the darkness and abyss, to stare death in the face and not quit fighting till the end, and even (this was the clincher for me) RETURN to the cave and RE-DESCEND into its darkness. WHOA. I was awed in general by how Tom Sawyer is consistently defined by his courage, and Huck for being a trickster, a storyteller, a liar. Huck should basically be in an MA creative writing program, you know? I would pay so much money to read an Ali Smith essay written about these two.
And that final passage about the drop of water dripping down in the cave is so beautiful:
That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was “news.” It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history, and the twilight of tradition, and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion. Has everything a purpose and a mission? Did this drop fall patiently during five thousand years to be ready for this flitting human insect’s need? and has it another important object to accomplish ten thousand years to come?
It’s like damn, Mark Twain!! DAMN.
The racism in both books hasn’t aged well, obvs – we’ll leave it at that.
It seemed to him that life was but a trouble, at best, and he more than half envied Jimmy Hodges, so lately released; it must be very peaceful, he thought, to lie and slumber and dream forever and ever, with the wind whispering through the trees and caressing the grass and the flowers over the grave, and nothing to bother and grieve about, ever any more. If he only had a clean Sunday-school record he could be willing to go, and be done with it all. (49, TS)
They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever. (52, TS) [Talk about a 2017 call to arms!]
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. (116, TS)
Personalia (Mary Ruefle)
When I was young, a fortune-teller told me that an old
woman who wanted to die had accidentally become
lodged in my body. Slowly, over time, and taking great
care in following esoteric instructions, including laven-
der baths and the ritual burial of keys in the backyard, I
rid myself of her presence. Now I am an old woman who
wants to die and lodged inside me is a young woman dy-
ing to live. I work on her.
The Kookaburras (Mary Oliver)
In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to stride out of a cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, pressed against the edge of their cage,
asked me to open the door.
Years later I remember how I didn’t do it,
how instead I walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.
Poem for Right Now (Catherine Pierce)
In protest I say the word iridescent.
In protest I say the word vesper.
In protest I say that I am in love
with this day, this exact day, this rain
on the thousands of dead leaves
in my backyard and the mourning dove
and the faint growl of the garbage truck
a few blocks over. I am in love with it.
In fucking love. It’s true that now
a mushroom cloud billows behind my eyes
all day. It’s true I fall asleep drafting letters
in my new language of pitchforks.
I know the chopping block is vast. I know
it has room and stomach for everything.
But my tongue and my head are mine.
So in protest I say the word liquefy.
In protest I say the word gloaming.
In protest I will remember how once
my friend and I walked through an alley
in a strange city, and my friend wore
a paper dragon in her hair, and the city
was five o’clock gold all around us.
In protest I say the word dragon.
There are days I’ve carried like candles
to light the rest of my life, and I will not
let the new days snuff them out, though
the new days are trying. Watch me hold
a decade-ago snow night, moon-bright
and silent, right next to my hammering rage.
Watch me house halcyon next to protocol,
lagoon next to constituent. I am trying
to become a contradiction machine.
I am poorly oiled, but every day I creak
awake again. The rain is heavy now
against my screened-in porch,
and the gutter that years ago my husband
patched with duct tape is still holding.
At this point, repaired is more accurate
than patched. It’s still holding, and in protest
I marvel over that. In protest I marvel.
In protest I say incandescent, liminal, charcuterie,
embrace. I think acquiescence is a beautiful word,
too, but in protest I put it away. There are
other beautiful words. Like lunar. Like
resistance. Like love, like fucking love.
“You’re just looking for a way not to be alone,” I told him. But Saul said, “There is no way not to be alone.”
Anne Tyler, Earthly Possessions
“People without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.”
Flannery O’Connor, in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (FSG, 1969)
“Reconnecting to art and to writing helps me believe in the goodness of other people. When I prove to myself that I can be empathetic and interested, I become less isolated in the present and far less afraid of the future.”
“Working hard and faithfully on what you love will pay off and bring quality to your life. Sitting and writing, even on the awful days, is just a glorious thing to be able to do.”
Ralph E. Rodriguez, in Laura Maylene Walter’s “Tell Me I’m Good: The Writer’s Quest for Reassurance” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2017)
Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari)
Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose… A life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions. (421-422)
Wow, another cheery apocalyptic read! I love it. What else could one ask for these days?
I think I enjoyed Homo Sapiens more, mostly because I found the chapters about the Cognitive Revolution and earliest days of homo sapiens so fascinating. But Homo Deus is still very much a worthwhile read, mainly for the way it looks towards the future. I’ve tended to avoid books like The Shallows because (to put it bluntly) I tend to avoid books that would potentially make me feel depressed about the current state of humanity. BUT what’s commendable about Homo Deus is how he narrates everything in a very calm, detached, observant, and often VERY humorous style. I guess that’s what a regular practice of vipasssana meditation will do for ya!! (Vipassana founder Mr. S.N. Goenka is thanked in the acknowledgements.)
The book has several main theses. One is that the central project of the future of humanity is to “protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power.” (23) What dangers does he think are forthcoming? WELL, let me tell you:
- An obsession with attaining eternal life.
- The rise of Dataism (a form of data-worship that borders on being a religion, and which he sees as eventually making Homo sapiens irrelevant)
- The rise of a new super-elite biologically engineered race of humans, mainly consisting of rich people who can afford to pay for genetic manipulation.
- A class of “useless” people as more and more robots replace jobs.
- The replacement of consciousness with intelligence.
- AND SO MUCH MORE
This last one was is in particular, about consciousness vs. intelligence, was very interesting to me. Hell, this whole book was interesting!! But this last point in particular. He talks about how apparently we understand VERY little of how consciousness actually works, in terms of our abilities to make memories and dreams and desires in the brain. And how so far we have been good at building robots who are intelligent, but not conscious. So ultimately, we are gonna have to make a choice – is intelligence more important to us as a society, or consciousness? “It is sobering to realize,” he writes, “that at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.” (362)
ANOTHER BIG FEAR he states about the future (or not fear, but POTENTIAL OUTCOME) is “what will conscious humans do once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can almost do everything better?” (370) I.E. BEING OVERTHROWN BY A.I. OVERLORDS. I wondered during this section if he was, like, giving Google and self-driving cars too much credit? Aren’t self-driving cars a bit rubbish? (At least at this point…) But then I think of all those articles you see floating around online making fun of shitty poetry and recipes written by robots. It’s like… it might be bad now… but what about twenty years? Twenty years ago, I NEVER used the Internet, and now I use it EVERY DAY – no joke – like everyone else I know.
He also has a lot to say humanity’s obsession with growth – mainly, is growth always good? He is no critic of capitalism, in fact, he writes “criticizing capitalism should not blind us to its advantages and attainments. So far it’s been an amazing success – at least if you ignore the potential for ecological meltdown, and if you measure success by the yardstick of production and growth.” (256) So if it comes down to economic growth vs. ecological stability, what will happen when growth is no longer possible?
My favorite thing about this book was how he linked Very Big Questions About the World with the nuances of the everyday human mind. For example, in terms of growth, he comments that, “Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger tastier.” (23) Such truth.
What else does he forecast about the future? He’s definitely super into the idea of non-organic artificial intelligence, though he calls it less of a prophecy or prediction, and more of a way of discussing our present choices. “You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine.” (76) A strong argument for Team Vegan, for sure.
Apart from talking about the future, he also talks about the past – I found his discussion of the rise of modernity and the definition and formation of liberalism and humanism SO INTERESTING, especially since I never took political science or anthropology classes in college that talked about this kind of stuff. Who would have thought liberalism was so closely linked to romanticism, to the idea of an authentic, valuable, unique self dwelling within you? What is Google and Facebook going to do to this notion of the self, if they can predict what you want and who you are better than you can?
Oh, some of his sentences in this book just slay me! Here are a few of the more shining examples:
If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing bears are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and aging Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. (33)
It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer? (39)
If a crusader Knight had actually been able to sit down to watch Survivor, he would probably have grabbed his battleaxe and smashed the TV out of boredom and frustration. (282)
The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. (320)
Can any human fathom these musical experiences and tell the difference between a whale Beethoven and a whale Justin Bieber? (417)
The wildest dreams of Kim Jon-ug and Ali Khamenei don’t extend much beyond atom bombs and ballistic missiles: that is so 1945. (438) This REALLY made me laugh… darkly…
For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become oversized ants. (423)
In the twenty-first century out personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. (397)
Eventually we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death. (401)
A highly recommended read.
I spent the bank holiday weekend in Northumberland visiting the coast–very Game of Thrones scenery. Please enjoy the photographs below.
I still haven’t finished Sapiens but have highlighted copious notes, especially in the first section (“The Cognitive Revolution”), which I have also provided below.
It’s definitely the kind of book that’s both interesting and depressing. Interesting in the sense that it really helps to open the mind up and see the BIG picture of things, like the feeling you get while camping and looking up at the stars late at night. And depressing in the sense that it occasionally sounds like passages that would be spoken vehemently and written into manifestos by the apocalypse-obsessed main character of “S-Town” (a truly excellent podcast; I have one episode left and don’t want end it to end). God.
I guess I had a similar emotional reaction watching the film Homo Sapiens (what similar sounding titles – I even saw a man holding the book Sapiens in the theatre. He kept muttering angrily throughout – did he think the film was based on the book? How disappointed he must have been!).
Sapiens quotes – Part One: The Cognitive Revolution
The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish. (so “Ishmael“!)
Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark.
The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.
Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language… But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting… But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.
Ever since to Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.
Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.
The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.
The ecological record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.
Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution
[Wheat, rice, and potatoes] domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. (Very Michael Pollan-esque here)
This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: to keep more people alive under worse conditions. (Yeah, he gets pretty doom and gloomy at times!!)
Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email… Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.
History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.
People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life.’ Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible… Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism (very “The Beach” here, as in the Alex Garland novel… I still like to travel though lol!)
I’ll share more later, maybe…
Affections (Rodrigo Hasbún)
This week I started reading the deliciously post-apocalyptic yet super Guns Germs & Steel-like Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which I hope to finish soon. I finished Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún last week, but the more I think about it, the more I admire it. It strikes me as a book that must have been very difficult to both conceive of and write–I wonder if that was the case. It was translated by Sophie Hughes, who also translated The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, another short, deeply strange and wonderful novella, which would make for powerful re-reading during these troubled times.
Even though Affections bluntly advises us that it “is not, nor does it attempt to be, a faithful portrait of any member of the Erlt family,” I highly recommend that people still look them up on wikipedia. Even though certain stories that are vaguely connected to the family don’t appear in this book – specifically Nazis helping the CIA hunt down Che Guevara (!?) – still, they are worth knowing. I mean, seriously!! Even Bolaño couldn’t make this shit up.
The story that DOES appear in this book took a while for me to get into – I started the book and put it down at least two times. But once I knew the historical background, that helped a lot. I read somewhere (who knows where, somewhere in the depths of the Internet) that the book was initially a lot longer, but the author cut it down to its bare bones. If this is true, then man, what a brave, badass choice.
Poetic, fragmentary, vignette-like: these are all good terms that could describe the book. Notes I wrote in the margins include: Werner Herzog meets The Mosquito Coast, Aguirre Wrath of God, Death in the Andes.
There’s a rotating cast of narrators: Heidi, the middle daughter; Trixi, the youngest; Monika, the oldest daughter and arguably the main character; and Reinhard, the brother-in-law (you might notice that Hans, the father and the family’s main claim to fame, is absent from that list–an interesting and inevitably significant choice). Monika’s chapters are narrated in “you” style, while Reinhard’s are narrated as though he’s responding to interview questions. We begin with the father’s expedition into the Bolivian jungle in search of a legendary lost city. We end with workers on an isolated and rural hacienda, digging what is mostly likely a grave–for who, we never know for sure (though we certainly have some guesses).
The story in here could have easily been fattened up to 300 pages, but as is, it works as a strange kind of poetry in its thinness. I underlined so many sentences in this book:
It’s not true that our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most. (135)
Maybe to become an adult is precisely this: to be ashamed of your body and its revolts and emergencies… to always fear the worst. (130)
I found nostalgia served a purpose. To feel that life had been worth it and to make the present fuller somehow. (126)
The writing is simple and straightforward, yet haunting. The grave-digging in the final chapter is, in particular, an image that will stay with me for a while.
I loved the theme of feeling out of place in this book, of not quite fitting in. The family eats sauerkraut with their tortillas, yet “on the rare occasions we were obliged to speak Spanish it felt fake.” (16) The maid is taught German recipes because no one really cares for Bolivian food. The sense of place is also well done, particularly with the descriptions of La Paz in the beginning.
There’s a big theme in the book of how to grow into your own person – how to become the kind of person you want to be. The author touches upon this idea in this interview, commenting that “in AFFECTIONS there are characters trying on different masks and disguises throughout the novel. They’re searching for themselves the whole time, and the changes they go through are quite drastic. I suppose the same thing can be said of all of us. We take a while to become ourselves, to accept who we are or can be.”
Monika’s sections especially deal with this theme:
Was this what becoming an adult was? Taking decisions and responsibility for the things you do or stop doing? … At twenty-one, can you call yourself an adult? At twenty-one, can you feel that living, when all’s said and done, means belonging to yourself, and that everything that came before was a kind of dream? Why try to forget it if it was a reasonably happy dream? … Increasingly, you feel that your life can fit into a single sentence, or at least a few. The ex-depressive, the quasi-Bolivian. A pitiful sum, whichever way you look at it. (62-64)
Alongside this narrative thread concerning personal growth and development, there’s also the concurrent theme of BIG (macro?) history, which Heidi reflects on during the jungle expedition in the opening chapter:
Part of the route had been cleared centuries ago by the Incas. It was terrifying to think of it, it was fascinating and sad. It was all of these things, too, to realize that we were lost in the heart of a foreign country, so far from home. The expedition had only just begun and it was easy to lose perspective, to forget that what we were doing day in and day out was all part of a bigger plan. (23)
Indeed, how do you maintain perspective when you tell a historical story? What details do you focus on? Is the “bigger plan” what matters? The book focuses more on the development of Trixi’s smoking habit than it does on Monika’s development into a revolutionary guerrilla. The nationalist revolution, in which Indians gain the right to vote, and armed conflicts in the mines are referred to only passingly. Who’s to say what are the things that make up a life? Who gets to tell history, and what experiences do you focus on when you’re narrating it?
I think most people might find this book challenging if they know little about Latin American history. But if you’re interested in guerrilla stories, or Latin America of the 60s, this is a highly recommended read. To me, it worked as a fascinating example of a different way to narrate historical fiction: in a highly sparse, fragmentary style, rather than detailed and sweeping.
Fever Dream (Samantha Schweblin)
I’ve been dying to read this book for ages (I’ve loved her short stories for years). Hence, it’s become yet another book purchased in my never-ending, uncontrollable kindle-addiction.
This novel has been highly acclaimed, deservedly so, and I eagerly await to see if it ends up on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. The plot is difficult to describe. It appears to be a (psychic? imagined?) conversation taking place between a hospitalized woman in a coma and a young boy sitting on the edge of her bed. The question of how she ended up there, and what her connection is with the boy, is what propels the narrative forward. Here’s the opening:
They’re like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
No, another kind of worms.
It’s dark and I can’t see. The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body. I can’t move, but I’m talking.
It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.
Because it’s important, it’s very important for us all.
As you may have guessed, the novel is deeply strange and hallucinatory. Almost a horror story. You definitely read it more for the mood and the suspense, than for specific answers. If you like books where everything is explained at the end, then this is not for you. The prose felt very cinematic to me, which makes sense, given the author’s background in screenwriting. As a reader, you are keep turning the pages due to the most base of desires: you want to find out what happens next. But be forewarned: the answers will not be specific. I’ve become less patient than I used to be with novels that withhold information and don’t explain everything, but I feel like the answers for this one are there, if you’re willing to stop and think.
The other hook in this book is the hypnotic repetition of certain phrases. Like “the worms” in the opening passage. Another is the search for “the important thing.” An obsession of a rope or “rescue distance” between a mother and daughter is another–or the time it would take the mother to rescue the daughter from danger:
I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.
“The worms” — what is up with that? Aliens? An ecological disaster? They seem to be connected with creepy white spots and flakey pink skin. And crippled distorted children. An “Invasions of the Body Snatchers” motif. That one scene with the can of peas, a brand the mother would never buy, is SO freaking disturbing. Who would have thought?
I want to read this again.
Multiple Choice (Alejandro Zambra)
What a great book! So sad, so funny. It almost read like a book of poetry at times. I liked the Reading Comprehension questions the best, maybe because they were a bit longer, so there was more to unpack. But yeah, you can definitely pick out some themes from this: death, getting old, cancer, children, angry children, angry parents, bad fathers, bad marriages, divorce (I had no idea it was illegal to get a divorce in Chile until 2004–2004!!!!)… Good stuff. Highly recommended. Definitely a great example of a book that’s “pushing the form,” “exploring the potential of writing,” etc.
Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (Horacio Castellanos Moya)
What an angry, bitter book. I LOVED IT. I want to get coffee with the narrator. What does that say about me?
This book was famously written in the 90’s by Moya, in an attempt to imitate the style of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (who I’m not familiar with). The narrator of the book is Edgardo Vega, who addresses Moya directly throughout the narrative in an angry rant. Nothing escapes his withering gaze: car thieves, plane rides, men wearing sombreros picking their noses, chubby women wiping sweat off their necks with towels that they then squeeze out, mosquitos, “sluggish servants,” writing culture, master degrees in business, “diarrhea-inducing beer,” a touristy seaport, pupusas, newspapers, the lack of arts and culture (his description of this really made me laugh).
Some of his most scathing moments are in reference to:
- the city of San Salvador (“one of the filthiest and most hostile cities, a city designed for animals, not human beings, a city that converted its historical center into a garbage dump“)
- bus drivers (“It’s incredible, Moya, the bus drivers have been pathological criminals since birth, criminals converted into salaried bus drivers, said Vega, they’re guys who were no doubt torturers and participated in massacres during the civil war and now they’re recycled as bus drivers… It’s terrifying, Moya, an experience that’s not recommended for cardiac patients; no one in their right mind could travel every day on a bus in this city, one would have to be permanently and sadistically degraded in spirit to travel every day with these recycled criminals who drive the buses”)
- the university campus (“I couldn’t imagine anything so disgraceful, it seemed like a refugee camp in Africa: crumbling buildings, a ton of overcrowded, infested wooden constructions, and defecation in the hallways of buildings that were still standing, human defecation in the University of El Salvador’s hallways”),
- and the country itself (“I’m completely sure that this country is out of sync with time and the world, it only existed when it was a bloodbath, it only existed thanks to the thousands who were assassinated, thanks to the criminal capacity, the people of this country have no possibility of demonstrating their existence in the world.”)
As Moya writers in the afterword, “With the relish of the resentful getting even, I had fun writing this novel, in which I wanted to demolish the culture and politics of San Salvador… with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry.” (86) The public reaction was intense–a friend’s wife threw the book out of the window in rage against the book’s rant against pupusas. And more seriously, while working as a journalist in Guatemala, Moya’s mother received threatening phone calls, which prevented Moya’s return to El Salvador country for years.
There are so many passages I could choose as gems from this book. Though some people might not see the point of this book (it’s basically an angry, bitter rant), I find a lot of value in it due to its ANGER. And the prose is mesmerizing and FUNNY: long sentences that build and build and build. Moya NEEDED to write this, and in turn, it needed to be read.
What taste the people of this country have for living in fear, Moya, such a morbid taste for living terrorized lives, what a perverted taste for the terror of the war turned into the terror of delinquency these people have, a pathological, morbid vice to make terror their permanent way of life. (75)
Ways to Disappear (Idra Novey)
I loved this book!
Beatriz, a famous Brazilian author, climbs a tree with her suitcase while smoking a cigar, thus disappearing from the lives of her family and the Brazilian literary scene. Her Pittsburg-based translator journeys to Brazil in order to track her down and meets with a man with a trash can tattooed on his neck, who claims that Beatriz owes him hundreds of thousands of dollars, money she borrowed to fuel an online poker addiction. And that’s just in the first eleven pages!
This book moves quickly, with the momentum of a bullet. I loved the news stories and dictionary entries it provided, and the descriptions of Beatriz’s books (I always love plot summaries of books that don’t actually exist).
I loved the descriptions of Brazil: “When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeao International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in. Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the stick sensation, the rising odours were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere.” (10)
I loved the interactions between Emma and Beatriz’s children, and how during Emma’s visit, “the living room would begin to reek of those American sunscreen lotions with an excess of zinc.” (14)
I loved the themes of translation, creativity, and foreigness:
“At first, all she could do was stare at the wall and feel futile, but that was something. Wasn’t the despair of feeling useless central to the modern human condition? Wasn’t that what Don Quijote was all about?” (82)
“Obrigada. Emma thanked him, hearing the Yankee clang of her accent in a way she hadn’t heard in years. She’d learned the language too late to ever get the r’s right. Every time she spoke it was unavoidable: she released a fleet of mistakes.” (131)
“For so long, she’d willfully sought the in-between. She’d thought of herself as fated to live suspended, floating between two countries, in the vapor between languages. But too much vaporous freedom brought its own constraints. She now felt as confined by her floating state as other, more wholesome people were to the towns where they were born.” (164)
The ending was a bit sad, but I suppose I don’t know how else the novel could have ended. Overall, this reminded me of Ali Smith, in terms of its joyous celebration and attention to language. I’m definitely very much inspired by the quick way it kept the plot moving forward, and its short chapters. One of my favorite reads of the year so far.
Ours Friends From Frolix 8 (Philip K. Dick)
‘God is dead,’ Nick said. ‘They found his carcass in 2019. Floating out in space near Alpha.’
‘They found the remains of an organism advanced several thousand times over what we are,’ Charley said. ‘And it evidently could create habitable worlds and populate them with living organisms, derived from itself. But that doesn’t prove it was God.’
‘I think it was God.’ (45)
My dear friend Philip K. Dick. He never lets me down. I’ve had an exhausting few weeks of travel and work, and while things are a little calmer now, it’s still not completely over. But that’s okay. We can deal. Especially with help from good old Philip.
Our Friends From Frolix 8 is definitely one of the finer Philip K. Dick books I’ve read (and only $5.95 when purchased at the Strand in New York, bonus). You have a futuristic society organized by men’s abilities–Old Men, trapped in dead-end, deadbeat jobs, the super intelligent New Men, who rule over society in a hierarchical, inaccessible order, and the Unusuals, who have psionic and telekinetic abilities and exist alongside the New Men in an an uneasy compromise. You have a Christlike leader of a revolution, Thors Provoni, returning to Planet Earth after years spent exploring the outer galaxies on his ship The Grey Dinosaur. And best of all, you have Morgo, the ninety-ton Godlike protoplasmic slime from the titular planet Frolix 8, who’s accompanying Thors on his mission to create a new world order. What is it with Dick’s obsession with sentient slime-molds? I LOVE IT.
‘Let me tell you a legend about God,’ Morgo said. ‘In the beginning he created an egg, a huge egg, with a creature inside it. God tried to break the eggshell open to let the creature–the original living creature–out. He couldn’t. But the creature which He had made had a sharp beak, constructed for just such a task, and it chipped its way out of the egg. And hence – all living creatures have free will, now.’
‘Because we broke the egg, not He.’
‘Why does that give us free will?’
‘Because, dammit, we can do what He can’t.’ (78)
There are so oh so relevant modern themes in this novel, from surveillance, to what the world would be like if ruled by a paranoid, arrogant, verging on insane individual, to the role of God and religion. I love Dick’s depiction of the bohemian revolutionary underclass; he is so good at evoking that deadbeat Berkeley culture of pillheads. He hasn’t been that successful at writing interesting female characters in the past, but the sixteen-year-old Charley manages to be both complex and feisty in a non-annoying way. And I found myself genuinely moved by this moment near the end:
‘To a better planet,’ Gram said, and drank the cupful down. ‘To a planet where we won’t need our friends from Frolix 8.’ (190)
Thank you, Philip K. Dick, for existing.
In terms of travel + readings, here are some photos! They are out of order, but I’m too tired to try to figure out how to fix it. So here we go :D
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.
How To Murder Your Life (Cat Marnell)
It turns out my book came out the same day as Cat Marnell’s!! How crazy is that? I remember talking about her during my first week in the MA course. And now here we both are, five years later. Que locura es la vida.
I love me a good addiction memoir and this one certainly did not disappoint, especially with its sordidness. I can’t tell which part was the worst–probably when a friend makes cracked out voice mails she leaves him available for purchase on iTunes for 99 cents. Or maybe all the mice hallucinations (which becomes one of the most interesting motifs in the book). Or when a guy asks her what’s wrong with her messed-up bikini line, and all she can do is mumble out the truth: “Self-mutilation.” Or when she sits on the floor of her crack-den room toasting marshmallows with a BIC lighter.
Basically, I thought this book was raw and amazing. I’ve always loved her writing and find her style so compelling. I especially find it interesting to think about all these campesinos in South America, making the cocaine that ravages the lives of David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, and Cat Marnell–what a strange world. What made this memoir stand out especially to me was its honestly about addiction as an ongoing condition, and something that isn’t easily resolved with the completion of a book.
Another thing I liked a lot is that despite writing a book that is very much about shame and self-hate, she is very much writing in her OWN voice, unapologetically so, and that is something I will always have nothing but respect for, and will always find very inspiring and brave. I’m sure some people will find her tone annoying and self-centered, but I found it witty, sarcastic, melancholic, sad, desperate, and yeah, just plain memorable. She isn’t afraid to tell her own story the way that she wants to, in a way that is authentic and singular to her, and that is something I will always admire in writers.
Haters gonna hate but this book was definitely my cup of tea–it gets a very big punk rock thumbs up.
Some of the parts I liked the most (talk about a distinctive “voice” in writing, amirite?):
“I mean, even writing about this period still makes me want to take a huge blunt full of PCP to the face–and it’s fifteen years later!” (pg. 60)
“Here’s a life lesson for you kids: it’s much easier to go through something upsetting when you’re on drugs. The more intense the drug, the more you forget your problems! It’s basic science, really.” (62)
“My parents were quiet in the car to the airport, but I couldn’t escape the voices in my head. You failure. You disaster. You disgusting girl. The self-loathing was like a radio station between my ears. Loser. You mess. Over time, I’d learn to turn the volume down on SHAME FM, but I could never totally shut it off.” (69)
“Bulimia attracts mice: fact.” (89)
“One morning he woke me up by splashing a glass of ice water in my face–and not even to raise awareness for ALS or anything! Just to be a dick.” (90)
“A wrinkly dog was wandering around–I mean, a really wrinkly dog. It should be illegal for a dog to be that wrinkly! It was the kind that Patrick Bateman slices open in American Psycho.” (92)
“I would go in on a hoagie like I was the monster ripping the head off that little man in the Goya ‘Black Paintings'” (119)
“I’ve had tanning-bed experiences that were more transformative.” (169) [in reference to a rehab stint]
“I’m never going to be okay, I thought.” (217)
“I was lonely. I was pathetic. I was weak. I was a loser. Most drug addicts are.” (240)
“‘Guuh,’ he sort of… gasped, and made a terrible, twisted face as the needle went in. My pussy got so wet. No, I am completely joking. It was the most unattractive thing I’d ever seen in my life! Junkies are the worst.” (246) [I think this was maybe the most extreme part of the book for me!]
“I slept like a clubbed baby seal that night.” (252)
“On the walk home on the Bowerty, I listened to ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ and tried to resist the… ennui that felt like it was about to overcome me like a cloud of poisonous gas. It’s not always going to feel like it does today, I told myself. I absolutely could not give up. I was going to get through this strange, joyless, barren patch. I was going to meet new friends. My ambition would return, too… I pulled on a Marlboro Light. I mean, I just had to be patient.” (256)
“Jesus, swimming was hard! I was out of breath so fast. Must have been all that freebasing with Marco.” (313)
“These ‘how I got my job’ chapters are extremely fucking boring to write, you know. I’m just trying to keep it saucy for all of us.” (319)
“Fucking skinny jeans! They are really contributing to this Adderall culture, I swear.” (341)
“Working out with him is better than heroin–and I’ve done, like, unbelievable heroin.” (360)
“Things could–and probably will–get bad again. Real talk!” (370) [From the afterword]
“I’ve got a hot career, a clear head, and an ice pick in my kitchen in case I need to Basic Instinct a bitch, and nobody fucks with me anymore.” (368)