Archives for posts with tag: postmodernism

The Verificationist book cover, Bookside Table, EM KeelerDonald Antrim’s The Verificationist is basically about a really long hug that makes a guy named Tom loose it and jump into the abyss of what seems like a prolonged nervous breakdown. Tom is a psychoanalyst, and the bear hug takes place at an informal meet-up (in a Pancake house!) of a whole university hospital department of analysts.

It’s a literally heady book, but headless too, because Tom is cognitively disembodied by this hug, and he floats up and away into the dusty rafters of the 24hr breakfast joint. He overworks his mind by tracing the map of intimacies, predominately sexual intimacies, between himself and his colleagues and his wife and the desirable young woman who has been their party’s waitress. In terms of plot, that’s pretty much it. But I think it’s a relatively successful exploration of a peculiar tendency of a culture steeped in the mumbo jumbo of psychoanalysis to develop a paralysis of self awareness, though it may in fact be more of a delusion than an awareness.

Tom is obsessed with the fulcrum point between what it means to be a son and a father, and he gets himself into the situation of the bear hug by being childlike and attempting to start a food fight with a group of child psychologists. The bear-like analyst that hugs him into submission is described as a figurative father, and Tom submits to a fantasy of being raped by this imaginary father rather than develop the maturity it would require to commit to becoming a father himself. They have an empty room in their house, and because The Verificationist is nothing if not an invitation to armchair psychoanalysis, he is afraid of painting it because he can’t commit to the idea of impregnating his wife. They fight about it. And so after the  pleasure of eating blueberry pancakes–a silly and juvenile food– he suffers a nervous down, aware that he chose the kiddish comfort food because his is unable to confront his fear of adulthood and reproduction.

And who could blame him? If he is professionally obligated to believe in Freudian bullhooey, how could he possibly choose to be the passive object of fear and hatred and homicidal feelings; wouldn’t you  rather have the active hatred of the child? Psychoanalysis, much like American culture, almost always places the higher drama and the primacy of representation in the development of the child rather than the agency of the parent. Antrim hints at this through having Tom imagine floating away to the scene of an important battle: that of the Americans against the (paternal) British. This is a site of embarrassment for Tom, and a site of mythmaking for America writ large. The battle is restaged year after year, and the trauma of separation, the shame of that original (and indeed, orginary) dependency, never quite goes away.

Antrim uses language clearly, and having the entirety of the story filtered through the obsessive lens of Tom even as he becomes fractured in the middle of his traumatic event (the hug) is fascinating, to say the least. Antrim manages to make you loath Tom as much as the character loathes himself, and you feel just as trapped by his obsessional and circuitous thinking as he does. Which is certainly a testament to Antrim’s skill, but at times I felt that the premise of the book was a bit too much of a trick. Even as it called Nicholson Baker and DavidFoster Wallace to mind, The Verificationist feels like a practice run. The idea is there, the formal constraints are set, but… What’s missing? I think it may be a sense of meaning–it maybe authenticity, on all fronts. Tom, so well versed in psychobabble, can only harken back to hollowed and cliched ideas from his discipline to give meaning to the experience of his breakdown, and because he does this in real time, it crowds out the readers ability to make anything of this extraordinary circumstance. This is not necessarily a flaw, in fact I suspect that it’s one of Antrim’s aims. It’s just that, from where I read,  Tom and the discourses of Jung and Freud are too overbearing to give you a chance read much into this story; it’s all there on the page, and doesn’t need you  at all.

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Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table, The Seamstress and the Wind book cover

New Directions, one of my favourite publishing houses, celebrated its 75th year last week. And  this past Saturday was my birthday, so it made sense that I would pick up César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind to celebrate both events.  I’m so glad I did.

Earlier this year I was dumbfounded by Aira’s marvelous Ghosts, a novel about literature and the unbuilt architecture of human life. This time around, I was a bit more prepared for arrhythmic plotting and peculiar digressions that form the base of Aria’s prose. But I was still, if you’ll pardon the pun, blown away by The Seamstress and the Wind.

The plot moves along like an uncanny nightmare, where the terror and despair that the characters feel develops out of the sheer senselessness of their circumstances. Aira inserts himself into the novel, as a character and as the authour, and actually devotes space within the text to wondering about and struggling with the story he is telling. Aira suddenly remembers to pick up dropped threads and leaves all of the seams of the novel showing, every hem unfinished and raw.

The miraculous thing is that rather than having this rawness be a flaw, Aira manages to make it a great virtue. His use of imagery is often dazzling, thanks to Rosalie Knecht’s translation, and he levels off the cheeky acrobatics with a generous helping of humour. It’s like Aira is pulling a Pen and Teller on his reader. He’s  playfully pulling back the curtain, showing the ways in which a story can manufacture despair and delight. The story itself, about a woman who gets lost in the desert of Patagonia, or “the end of the world,” looking for her missing child, is clearly an allegory for creative work.

The Seamstress and the Wind is joyous like a dream, and leaves you shaking when you’re eventually forced to wake up and put the book down.

The Obituary book cover, Emily M Keeler, bookside tableThe Obiturary is a fantastic book, but it’s hard to describe. Gail Scott has written, even at times somehow overwritten and underwritten, this rolling novel that looks at life, history, sex, love, and two-tongued Montreal through a fractured lens. The main character, if you’d even call her that, is Rosine.

Sometimes the text reflects the rhythm of her thoughts, of her memories, but sometimes the words you’re reading are coming out of a photograph, or a fly. Sometimes they come through the walls. Scott plays with the phonetic quality of letters and words, in both English and French, to great effect. It’s an unconventional novel, though it is deeply (even lyrically) sensual, evoking the sharp clean smell of oysters and approaching the use of language as if hoping to encourage a synesthetic experience. This story has a complex structure, and some of its hypertext takes the form of heart–rather than foot–notes. The heart notes offer more information, more context, and tie the strange interior life of Rosine and the fly on the hotel wall to something more conventional, like a book about a dark history. But even in the heart notes there are subtle revisions and perversions that maintain a sense of particularity rather than detached objectivity. Even the fly on the wall only sees what it sees not from above, but from the very front lines of life.

The Obituary is much richer than I’m making it seem; it is so much more than an engaging experiment with form. Or maybe, that’s not quite right either. More likely, the form this novel takes comes directly from it’s content, with its grammatical omissions and contradictions. The book weaves around the idea of intersectionality, and what it means to have so many stories contained in a person, and how those stories crash up against each other, and how they run smack into the other stories in the world. Films, books, photographs, and other records that come to be a framing device for the morphological process of talking about what a life is, or what it can be.

The novel poses the question: “Reader, you may be forgiven for asking here what is a novel life?” Scott doesn’t have an answer, but  The Obiturary gives you a few clues, describing always “what is alive + speaking within us” even as it traverses over the dead, buried, as they are, in the past.

Ghosts Book Cover, Woman Reading, Bedside Table

I have no idea what this book is. I think it’s a simple fable, but I also think maybe it’s a meditation on the role of literature in the age of mass media. Then again, I kind of think it’s just a beautiful story about a family. But it’s also a complexly clear perversion, a post modernization,  of a typical coming of age tale. And a work of architectural criticism. And a phenomenological study, a la To The Lighthouse, of what thinking actually feels like. César Aira’s Ghosts defies generic categorization.

There are no chapter breaks; you don’t come up for air. The story unfolds around a Chilean family living in a half finished apartment building in Buenos Aires, and the building’s skeleton is a frame for their experience as outsiders. They share the space with it’s own contracted  future, and naked and powdery ghosts that wander between the unfinished floors.

Elisa, the matriarch of the family and wife of the best man in the world, by her own estimation, has a problem with belief. Her fifteen year old daughter Patri is a serious dreamer, and though thoughts happen upon her like sweat in the intense and befuddling heat, her frivolous sensibilities prevail. They watch soap operas during siesta time.

And the language! I’ve never read anything like this ever before. Imagine Virginia Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie and Jorge Louis Borges were getting high as kites in Argentina, and playing a literary game of exquisite corpse.  Chris Andrew’s translation of this work is amazing; there are some subtle internal rhythms, and lots of complicated word play and serious puns that feel authentic and beautiful.

So good. So so good. Haunting and sensual and playful. If you’re gonna read it, and I hope you will, do it at the dog-end of summer, when the heat is shimmering and hallucinatory, and there’s construction all around you.

1. Sheila Heti lives in my neighborhood, well kinda. She’s a youngish white woman in Toronto worried about what art should be like, and what people should be like.

2. How Should a Person Be? is like an incredibly localized map of the neighborhood of these concerns, and Heti’s cartographic co-adventurer is her invariable friend and painter Margaux.  I definitely definitely felt like this book was a map for me, specifically, in a lot of really good ways.

3. But not an official map, more like the kind of sweetly personalized map that a friend will draw of where the good croissants are and how to get back to their house when you visit them in the city that they live in, where you don’t live and only go because you want to see them.

4. But better than that kind of map because I’ve never worried, not deeply, about where to find great croissants, but I have worried about betrayal, and lonliness, and fame, and friends, and whether or not I’m good enough at blow jobs, and what it means to be accomplished at something, like painting or cutting hair or imagining grilled cheese sandwiches. And I’ve also felt that maybe I’m not important, in a lot of ways, and I’ve agonized over my own equivocal enjoyment of that feeling too.

5. That whole business of ‘recognition’ is only part of the reason I liked this book, though. In addition to filling in a little bit of my life by way of reading about hers, this book was also funny and sad and sweet.

6. I read this book because one of my pals said the second time I met him that Sheila Heti is one of his favorite writers. He’s also a Torontonian, and he likes Trampoline Hall and other little things that make Toronto a place worth living and really local and lovable. He said that that he likes her, but is kind of wierded out by the degree of that like because she’s not only ‘from around here, but she’s from around here.‘ Which I took to mean that she’s like us, more so than other people are like us, because not only does she go to the same bars and concerts and pop-up venues that we do, but somehow she’s even more like us, in the ‘we, all of us, are having a moment’ kind of way.

7. And, not to spoil anything, but I kind of felt like that moment, the one we are all having, and by ‘we all’ I mean a very small number, in the long run, but still, that moment is kind of the answer to “How should a person be?”

8.  So I guess a person should be themselves, but throwing their hands in the air, and making a go of it, having a moment.

9. If only we could all make a go of it with the grace and humor and deceptively light touch that Sheila Heti does in How Shoud a Person Be?.

My Cousin, My Gastroenternologist by Mark Leyner book cover

So, I think that maybe you had to be there when it comes to My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. This guy, Mark Leyner, was a giant of new American fiction when this book exploded onto the scene. He was a muscle-man among gladiators; he was standing shoulder to shoulder with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. That’s actually why I wanted to read him.  And don’t get me wrong, it was pretty damn good stuff… mostly.

There were moments of real intrigue and delight! It’s billed as fiction, but there’s a picture of Leyner himself on the cover, and it reads like a gonzo memoir. Leyner even says right in the first section that it’s “An autobiography written wearing wrist weights.” And his real life wife, Arleen, to whom this book is dedicated, is a person-cum-character in this sparkplug story.

I think that part of Leyner’s project here may have been to showcase the way that corporations, commercialization, television, etc., have in some respects limited our abilities to communicate with each other. I’m not so sure that he nailed it. His much lauded prose was delivered with the shimmering delight of an over-medicated, over-caffeinated, and over-educated psychoanalyst. And I totally laughed, literally out loud, at many of his glorious one-twos. But, ultimately, there was no single punch that I couldn’t just roll with. The book lacked the heft of flesh, had no sticking power, and for all of it’s bravado didn’t make contact, and didn’t leave a bruise.

The Mezzanine book cover, Nicholson Baker

Today I rode the escalator at Yonge and Bloor, up from the North bound platform, which I do almost every weekday, without fail when the weather’s poor, though not like I did today. I felt like I was glowing, a total exuberance, swept up up and away by the gentle rhythmic machinations.  I was suddenly smiling so wide that my cheeks almost hurt, and I placed my hand on the black rubber rail and measured its motion, the tiny delay with respect to the grooved steel of the tall steps.

I had just finished Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. That man is a bad ass in the department of banalities. With clear and thoughtful language this small novel unfolds over the course of a single lunch hour, and with astounding clarity offers meditations on the quotidian pleasures and displeasures of drinking straws, of popcorn, of office bantering, and even corporate restrooms. This is a small book that deals in small things, yet the cumulative effect of a lifetime of  tiny wonders is hugely moving.

The Mezzanine dances on the border between inspired and banal, and hits you full on in the face with something powerful: Life is more than work, relationships, lunches and paper cuts. Howie, the narrator, is attempting to slog through Aurelius‘ Meditations, one of the oldest Self Help books, and at times Baker’s extremely detailed and pedantic prose  made me commiserate with Howie. I mean, it’s cool and all, but it is honestly difficult to read over 1000 words of footnooted text. But of course, Baker knows that. The physical challenge of small text, the difficulty of maintaining mental alertness through a four page in depth discussion of the different stresses on shoe laces and the possible systems that may be able to measure wear and tear are totally worth it in the end. In fact, in dealing so seriously and at length with these minor details of life, they are made into new fascinating things. This devotion to fleshing out the meaning of small and practical objects imbues the world with a freshness that is absolutely intoxicating.

Sometimes, when I’m going to a party, I stand outside for a really long time. Like, a realllly long time, and I just listen in. Then my mind starts going, and I think about all of the possible interactions and outcomes; I write the party, I mentally rehearse the party; bare shoulders and bold thumb prints on the bowls of wine glasses, condensation on beer bottles, exclamations and padding around the kitchen, always the kitchen, in stocking feet.

Mystery Guesy Book Cover, Presents

Of course, if you’re partying at Sophie Calle‘s house, chances are pretty good that you’ll find yourself drinking from champagne flutes and wearing your shoes. Then again, Sophie Calle lives in France, where a house party means something else entirely. And for Grégoire Bouillier in particular, this party takes on such psycho-symbolic significance, that it becomes in and of itself a sort of cosmic event in the small universe of his life.

The Mystery Guest is an involuted party. The pre-party preening is a whorling cortex of pain and the pathetic, wrapped around the peculiar French take on spurned love. Because Bouillier’s relationship with a woman who remains unnamed was of the type that ‘died suddenly at home,’ Bouillier spends about a third of the book attaching meanings almost ad hoc to the objects that are in his orbit; turtleneck shirts, light bulbs, bottles of wine, cut roses in a vase.

In other parts of the book, Bouillier manages to gracefully connect his own prismatic and kaleidoscopic  interiority to another famous party; he traces the outline of Mrs. Dalloway onto the remembered flesh of his former lover, and in so doing reveals anew the circuitry of the mind.

I enjoyed this book immensely! Not having anything like fluency in French, I can’t say if Paris Review editor Lorin Stein’s translation was faithful, but I can tell you that it was beautiful. Great stuff!

David Shields‘ autobiographical account of autobiography and everything else that may have happened to him sometime between then and now: Enough About You: Notes Toward The New Autobiography.

David Shield’s talks about Proust and I reflect on the fashion of loving Proust, not just A Remembrance of Things Past, but the man and his words.

Shields loves him for being a fiction within his fiction-he is at once the author and the character. Maybe, in a deconstructed world, we go back to Proust, who goes back into himself, because when our reality is in question, we realize that the answer is always ME.

The common thread to all of life in the global village is the self.

I like writing, fiction or otherwise, that dances on this border between authority proper and this other thing, this ‘reality’  that is a construct deconstructed, that is fated and is built up the moment prior to your experience of it.

The way Shields describes (with authority) the project of other autobiographers, other artists, when he really acknowledges that his authority is only over the Kingdom of himself. The ol’ Sartrean etc. We live for others, but others live for us. Or at least before us. Or in front of us?

Identity, reality and other ditties. Writing and reviewing are clichés of culture, and we try our damnedest to revive these clichés. My grandest failure is that I doubt my own authority. I can’t name the projects of others with resounding resoluteness because I am unable to really and truly discern or determine the course of my own life.

“Are these my questions, or my parent’s questions?”

David Shields in Enough About You

This is the reason I constantly talk about my Mother. Her life is mine as a pre-parable, and I have seen her from both the in- and the outside. Identity. She is a mirror that I can see my before and after in. Stuttering. Adolescence.

David Shields talks about himself as an invitation for representation, for what may only amount to his experience as experienced for others, his book born for the empathetic imagination. He says he liked John Donne in College, and I get it, because the bell tolls so loudly. That’s the best part of autobiography.