“There is a code of behavior, she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort it behooves the woman, whatever her occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs of his vanity, or his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old, maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames. Then she thought, I should certainly expect Mr. Tansley to get me out. But how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did these things? So she sat there smiling.”
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
How would it be, indeed. I am reading this book for the first time, and I am glad I am only reading it now. It seems, halfway in, to be all about ego and social pressures and insecurity and loneliness and regret and failure and bitterness, and our choices in the face of other peoples’ choices. And how finding a bit of time to think to yourself, and a stubborn insistence upon your own happiness amid all of that, is an ongoing battle. I’m not sure I could have fully appreciated all that until fairly recently. (Ha?)
Or maybe that’s not at all what it’s about but I’d see that in every book I read.
In any case, above all it feels wonderfully rebellious in its long sentences and refusal to make any sacrifices at the altar of absolute clarity of communication. Reading this after spending my days writing clear, concise, economical, defensible sentences day in and day out — it’s sort of like how I felt watching this 60’s-ish woman in the airport security line this morning. They told her her bag was to big too carry on and she flung it around the snaking line, slammed it on its side, yanked out her pearls, and yelled at the poor airport employee. All of us were a little embarrassed for her, wanting to say, hey, you can’t behave this way. You can’t do that. But also a little bit thrilled. She did look great. Her husband remained stoic, picking her purse up off the ground and staring straight head, moving forward in the line.
A few minutes later they called final boarding for my flight - I was still taking my shoes off, putting my laptop in a bin — and I paced nervously, whispering c’mon c’mon c’mon under my breath, panicking, wishing I could fling my bag onto the ground and scream at someone.
But Virginia Woolf: she gets to do it. She can write the long winding sentences that are hard to follow, and we follow her. Or some of us do. And I like that.
1:40 pm • 15 February 2013 • 73 notes
I don’t read much writing by men these days. I guess I am pretty unapologetic about that fact, considering I dunno, the CANON and what have you, but I don’t even do it on purpose. I am a woman writer and I write like a woman and look up to women writers and are fascinated by how they do it. And this is very gender essentialist and so pretty problematic, not to mention limits my point of view fairly significantly. So no. Try again: what I try to do in my reading is follow a thread. Trying too hard to follow it is a mistake, too, so I won’t attempt to articulate it here. But given the kinds of books I tend to gravitate towards, deliberately or no, I don’t often read books that are so primarily concerned with, or concerned at all with, um…
If I had to call this book anything, that’s what I would call it. A dad book. Not in its intended audience but in who it breathes life into, sheds light onto, spends time with, thinks inside of, moves in, etc etc. I mean, it’s all about feelings and language and interiority so in sensibility, not a dad book — hi! sorry! problematic again! — so much as reckoning of dads book. Revisiting your childhood through the eyes of a man who has his own children. Revisiting your young father self through the eyes of your older father self. You having-not through your having. All that trying and how much it meant, and what you couldn’t admit then, gone back and admitted. Pathos all painted over people who we thought just had no time for pathos, but it turns out were fucking swimming in it, were busy treading water and had no time to stop and write about it in their daily dad journals or whatever.
Duty, dignity, status anxiety, striving, looming failure, then super looming failure, then failure in real time, then the after-effects thereof. Inability to please wife, make wife proud, make wife safe — understand wife seemed to be there, which was nice — make kids feel loved, inability to fucking cope, to be okay, to feel good about how things are and were and will be.
From the story, “Puppy” (which: fuuuuuuck):
“And then, because she hadn’t made his life harder by being a smart-ass, they had lain there making plans, like why not sell this place and move to Arizona and buy a car wash, why not buy the kids Hooked On Phonics, why not plant tomatoes, and then they’d get to wrestling around and *she had no idea why she remembered this) he’d done this thing of, while holding her close, bursting this sudden laugh/despair-snort into her hair, like a sneeze, or like he was about to start crying.
Which had made her feel special, him trusting her with that.”
(Which made ME feel special, George Saunders, you trusting me with that.)
That story is a devastating one and they all are in their way, so baldly open and urgent yet banal — often written in the most familiar, trite voices (oh my god), filled with likes and funny turns of phrase and sounding often like reality television, or high school. But it’s not a distraction somehow. Or ever too cruel (to me at least, though my tolerance for cruelty in pretty, uh, high (catholic school, ya’ll)).
I read this book very slowly, as my psyche seemed to demand, only able to take in so much fucking pathos and bitter reality at once. I read a little bit each train ride, then every night before bed (laughing quietly, remarking out loud, driving my essentially male partner crazy — I haven’t read a book that’s this funny in a really long time), and then, I read it once at lunch, alone. I sat by myself at a restaurant for an hour during the work day for the first time in my life, thinking, Oh, so this how people get by.
Long lunches and then reading books by people also concerned with getting by and how we do it — people who write sentences like this,
“Coatless bald-headed man. Super skinny. In what looked like pajamas. Climbing plodfully, with tortoise patience, bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two bare white branches sticking out of a p.j. shirt. Or grave.”
Or conjure images like this, that are so on point they’re still with me weeks later,
“When Eva tiny, had big head of black curls. Would stand on couch, eating cereal from coffee mug, dancing to sound in head, flicking around cord from window blinds.”
[Mostly because YES: aren’t kids always flicking around the cord from window blinds? How much time did you spend with that cord and the plastic thing at the bottom of it when you were a kid? The straight up MAJORITY of your time? Exactly.]
Death-renderingly hilarious and accurate turns of phrase aside, the final story (and by far the best, anyone who disagrees is wrong and needs to learn how to READ, obviously) transforms from a confusing experiment in fucking Virginia Woolf-type of switching POV, stream of consciousnesses, into fucking “This is why we have art” levels of brilliance (IMHO!!). I haven’t been wrecked so, uh, significantly (??) by a story, nay, book since WILD (page 29ish of Wild is now the barometer for crying-while-reading).
And yes I would like this guy to write me a novel, as if that were how art works, as if we were owed anything. It’s not and we aren’t, but yes a novel would be cool. THAT SAID, George Saunders could print out a packet of beautiful, exacting sentences he’s written and I would pay $28.00 for it*.
Take this little passage, for example, which I read out loud to my boyfriend as he got ready for bed, prefaced with the fact that it’s a scene with a guy cleaning out the dregs of a pond with a shovel and accidentally killing a bunch of almost-frog tadpoles, flinging them about the yard. Soon he becomes complicit in it, and so:
“It was like either: (A) I was a terrible guy who was knowingly doing this rotten thing over and over, or (B) it wasn’t so rotten, really, just normal, and the way to confirm it was normal was to keep doing it, over and over.”
I read that out loud to Dustin and he was like BOOM and I was like, “And there it is. The secret of the universe. What underlies everything, revealed.” And he’s like, yep, and wow and I’m like, “The reason why you ate the entire bag of cookies while I was at work today!” And he was like, “Actually I was thinking more of the Holocaust!”
So think about THAT.
* Actually, come to think of it, maybe ideally George Saunders would have a talk show, and there would be a live audience, and we could go to it (too much energy / fear involved in actually talking to him one-on-one). It would just be him sitting there and thinking really hard with a white board and maybe his wife (I mean, this is my fantasy ok let me go there) and they cry and talk about their lives and show pictures of their kids and talk about all the hard decisions they’ve made and we could just sit there and watch him and maybe submit a question every once in awhile.
Guilt! Shame! Duty! Failure! Dad stuff!
8:27 pm • 27 January 2013 • 92 notes
2012 through books.
I’ve never taken a step back from my life and said, “I need to spend more of my life sitting indoors reading books.” Instead I want to wake up earlier, to run more, to write more, to cook more, to go on dates, to see my friends more, to call my mom. All of these things make me feel like I am taking initiative and control of my life and my happiness and all other sorts of deluded things. The thing is though I do want to read more, but when I say that and am really meaning it, I mean that I want more to be transported and feel known and have my conception of how people move in the world expanded, or at least I want to put cracks in it, more. Reading is basically just the easiest way of doing that, and it’s very important to me. It buoys. And this year it kinda sucked.
Dustin stopped working at a bookstore halfway through the summer and I only like books that I pick out MYSELF and you see, there all these baby blogs out there of women talking about their lives in this hopeful, alien way, and sometimes great tragedies befall them and it’s all very compelling. Anyway I fear I’ve lost my mojo. I think my book-Saturn is returning. Something.
Luckily the good thing with the book thing still happened a few times, for which I’m very grateful. Here is what stopped me this year, what made things feel right and preordained or just were a great comfort/distraction:
- I inhaled Sarah Manguso’s Two Kinds of Decay and felt swept up in it and needed more. Luckily she had a new book out this year, The Guardians. The first one I liked better, because it is more deeply terrifying and personal, and affecting (at least according to my brain). The death is closer! Though rest assured they are both about death. Everything is about death, people. Everything I care about. But I read both of these immediately, and felt lucky to have them. Decay on Saturday and The Guardians on Saturday night. Life had meaning!
- Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home I also read quickly, and I was ecstatic the whole time but also somehow at peace, on my work retreat (just to take a minute to clarify: “work retreat” is actually an oxymoron and some sort of childhood nightmare come to being). Everyone tie-dyed shirts and did yoga and paddled in paddle boats and I sat in a corner reading this, relishing it. It was the kind of book where you are off doing other things and remember you have it off in your room, just waiting for you to get back to, and you feel great comfort. “I may hate myself and not know how to play ping pong or talk to people but I have this book!” You have your life then you have this other life, one which makes the first one easier (the book is the other one, the consolation). Her new book is not as good (what a cruel sentence, as if I’m some sort of agent or hollywood producer). An echo of the first one. Which is really, I think, what it sets out to be. And so it’s still really interesting, and I wasn’t ready to leave Alison Bechdel and there you go. I am happy to hang out in her brain.
- I read the Grace Paley book I hadn’t read yet, Later the Same Day, and I think there may be one more, but all of her titles sound the same. Anyway I am utterly convinced this woman is brilliant, a cut above, and her voice and her writing feels so utterly familiar, as if it were in itself part of what writing is — central to it. I just adore her. I do. If you haven’t read much of her, do it, and know you will be schooled. I am afraid to really pin down what I have read of hers and what I haven’t for fear there is nothing more.
- I read a Jo Ann Beard book and a Bobbie Ann Mason book — both short stories, too — and they sort of blend together for me. Not because they both have these three-word southern names, which, okay yes, probably that is why. But they are both deeply feminine voices in a way that is familiar to me and in a way that I love. Bobbie Ann Mason is the very southern poor, a little quirky, domestic one. Really fucking on point. And Jo Ann Beard is also trenchant, but more urgent, crying out. Maybe I want them to fuse into one. They both carried me, though, and I want more of both of them. And more like them.
- Also Laurie Colwin, Laurie Colwin, Laurie Colwin. Growing up I didn’t let my mother teach me anything, at least not explicitly. In fact I would lose my shit when she tried to tell me how to do anything or offer me help in any way. I’m sure this does not reflect accurately on my character in any way whatsoever. Ha! Anyway now that I understand my own inherent weakness and mortality, I actively seek help and crave wisdom and know-how and I want women to teach me things, I inhale books like this. I read Home Cooking and went back to Word the next weekend for More Home Cooking, feeling so happy and filled with purpose. Maybe soon I will swallow my pride enough to ask my own mother for advice, cooking and otherwise.
- And in the interest of admitting when I am wrong, I started out really mad about and annoyed by D.T. Max’s David Foster Wallace biography (do I just hate biography? The jury is still out), I got totally sucked in and really loved it. This happens to me all the time with reading, actually. I start out hating it and then by about 50 pages I have “met the writing on its own terms” (I put quotes on it not because someone else said it but because I know I sound shitty when I say it) and accepted it for what it is and really enjoyed it. Not every book needs to be the book I would write. Right? Agh.
- I need to chill the fuck out this year.
- You’re all wrong about How Should a Person Be.
10:11 pm • 3 January 2013 • 103 notes
The best/worst thing about Building Stories is that it added up to absolutely nothing. Sure, there are minor arcs, imposed narratives — you find out things, other things are resolved, but nothing beyond the petty dramas and frustrations and longings and nostalgia and regret, etc., of everyday life. Which is you know, the ultimate devastation (refusal of grandiosity, meaning). Well, at least to me.
I am new to comics and know pretty much nothing and no one besides the Fun Home, Persepolis, Maus stuff and really liking whenever they do comics on the Hairpin (ha! For real though). But something about comics (just, overall?) is really, specifically appealing. I won’t even pretend to be able to articulate it in the way it deserves, or to sum up an entire genre. But (OKAY FINE I WILL), it reminds me of poetry a bit, in a way, in the way it, er, spends more time with each thought. By its nature we spend more time with each sentence. There’s a picture there! Everything feels very deliberate, and therefore a little meditative. Important. And yet what we linger on and what we explore and what we see, are often sort of goofy looking little pictures. Not to diminish them! I can’t even begin to parse the artistic choices being made here or comment on a style and the way it subconsciously sets a tone or makes us feel this or that or how long it takes to be able to do something like this (a long fucking time, I imagine?). But — and especially with Chris Ware — the drawing itself feels very (for lack of a better word) vulnerable. Exposed in its… bare-boned-edness. There is not a lot to hide in here:
I goddamn hate this baby. It is so weird and pink and bold and takes up so much space (clearly) right here in the middle of this page. Why aren’t there more lines in it? Why does it look like a fucking image vector? It hurts to look at too long, and especially at night. I tried not to.
He said in this A+ Rookie interview that, “comics seemed (and still seem to me, actually) an unpretentious potential vessel for solitary authenticity.”
A refusal of pretentiousness. I think that’s what that baby is. Ugh it hurts to look at.
But anyway what I was getting at earlier was that I know nothing about comics and nothing really about Chris Ware (besides what I learned in that Rookie interview) except that his stuff is allegedly really, very SAD. “Devastating.” Sad Boys love it, blah blah. And you know, what I find sad and what sad boys find sad is usually very different. They’re easy targets — too easy. And their sadness usually seems very safe. [I dunno, that seems flip and irresponsible to say but fuck it, that’s not what this is about — this is about narrative!]
BUT THIS IS NOT SAFE.
Not because any of the plot points (if you can call them that. I mean one of the threads i a cartoon bee, so.) are remarkably sad: loneliness, creative frustration, body hatred. All fairly straightforward and clumsily, quickly told (Chris Ware in his writing also seems to refuse the slick reveal or the showing vs telling etc. More of a bumbler. Which might be the worst in prose but in comics works I guess.).
What feels so dangerous is that when I say it really adds up to nothing, I mean it. There are, if you haven’t read or seen things about this (Pierce’s post about it was what got me to finally throw down the $50), a bunch of different pamphlets and broadsides and little books and littler books and one big thing that folds out like a game board. When I read them I read them as they came out of the box. One after the other, without noticing what time it was. Dustin read half of it standing up over the coffee table, forgetting to sit down. You expect a certain degree of wonder & awe when you unwrap this thing (surely that’s half the point of it), but that wonder & awe is no less meaningful and genuine when it does come. It springs forth anyway. Like two kids at Christmas (give it to someone for Christmas, someone like me who usually cries in the shower that they can never recover the good Christmas feelings of their youth). And you shout out things about it to each other and pass bits along and the order gets mixed up and then you realize there actually is no order.
The characters repeat their stories at different moments, just like life. They bring up old boyfriends or revisit events (redrawn, too), and depending what order you read the pieces in, the backstory might have more or less meaning. You can reread things and suddenly think, “Oh so that guy was the guy who,” and it makes a little more sense (not that it didn’t make sense the first time), not unlike the way we learn things about people and everything clicks into place in retrospect. The stories balloon out and out and go back and sideways and you see them from different perspectives. All of this but not in a movie way. There is no narrator hovering above all this. Chris Ware is not there winking at us. You don’t finish the book and say, “Ah, this means ___.”
I genuinely kept waiting (and really, just, hoping) something would be revealed that would “make it all make sense”. The book is incredibly straightforward and pretty much makes sense the whole way through, but I wanted some sort of meta-commentary or some sort of reveal — something like, And surprise, this whole book was written by the baby the whole time! Or, like, we are on some other planet where the banal trivialities of our lives are stamped onto paper goods, or god fucking knows. But it never came! There was literally no end. And no start. Just some overlapping stories about really pretty boring and typical people’s lives — that was pretty interesting and fun to read! That’s it. And that is…horrifying. See: that’s what I want. I want Chris Ware to be like, “The point of this book is that there is no point. No linear narrative. And this was necessitated by the form of blah blah blah.” But no. I think it was just fun. A delight. Maybe the ultimate sign you’ve made it, too: your publisher lets you print a big fucking box of crap in a dozen different ways, and charges $50 for it. And people buy it. And that’s it! Our lives are small and mean a lot to us but don’t really have any bigger meaning, and that’s it. Noooooooo.
Oh, also, the 2nd most devastating part was (see above) the way this husband and wife duo is always looking at their computers and phones :(
7:57 pm • 1 December 2012 • 80 notes