Reflection: The Lonely City

The irony of reading a book on loneliness for hours on end, even excluding myself from nearby company and chatter to do so, is not lost on me. The act of reading is an inward pursuit, as is writing, so if much of my time is spent doing one or the other, I must assume that much of my time is spent alone. Perhaps familiarity with spending time alone lays the necessary groundwork for entering and understanding The Lonely City (Picador, 2016). The author’s dedication even reads, “If you’re lonely, this one’s for you.” Despite the book’s grand subject of loneliness, its exploration is rather specific, grounded in the particular journey of its author, Olivia Laing. New and alone in New York City, Laing seeks to understand and find reprieve from loneliness through the visual arts. Each chapter highlights an artist whose work and life orbit around isolation, from the ultimate insider, Andy Warhol, to the ultimate outsider, a janitor named Henry Darger. The book also covers the effects of stigma during the AIDS epidemic and loneliness in the era of screens.
Reading anything about Andy Warhol is to be equally impressed and alarmed by the extent to which we have fulfilled his prophecies. Screen prints of Campbell’s Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and Mickey Mouse remind us that what we value most is not what is rare and unique but in fact what is most common. In 1963 he declared, “I think everybody should be a machine,” and that Pop Art is all about “liking things.” Further, that being a machine and liking things are similar because “you do the same thing every time. You do it over and over again,” the very model of behavior now encouraged on social media. Launch Instagram, like everything, repeat. What perfect machines we are.
Henry Darger, a janitor in Chicago, produced an extensive collection of paintings entirely in isolation, paintings of little girls, fairies, flowers and forests, but also of soldiers and terrible scenes of violence. That no one ever saw his work is astounding not only because of its sheer volume, but also because of how good it is considered to be. He wrote books, one of them over 15,000 pages long, and another carefully titled, “The History of my life.” He also kept a record of his day-to-day activities, one of which depressingly reads, “Saturday April 12. My birthday. The same as Friday. No tantrums.” He also kept boxes full of rubber bands, many of them held together with tape.
Those two random details from Darger’s life – “The same as Friday” and rubber bands repaired with tape – popped up in my mind for days, and I found them so sad, and that sadness bothered me. Because The Lonely City studies loneliness through the lens of art, it is easy to mistake it for something abstract, even something profound and beautiful. Loneliness is indeed worthy of examination, and to find reprieve from loneliness through art is a wonderful thing; that loneliness could even inspire art is a wonderful thing. But we must not become lost in its reverie, as regardless of the art that is born from loneliness, it is a painful place, a place from which above all we wish to pull someone out. Sort of.
It must be noted that after my earlier admission of spending time alone, my instinct was to reassure you, and myself, of something along the lines of, “Of course, being alone doesn’t mean I’m lonely. I promise, I’m not lonely. I’m really not.” Why? Laing writes, “Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly admissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.” Because loneliness makes us nervous, like we might catch it, not only do we shun those who are lonely, we also blame them for it, believing that their condition is due to some kind of personal failure or flaw. It is easy to understand why difficult emotions are so often accompanied by guilt. The Lonely City encourages us to reframe our understanding of loneliness, reframe it so that it is not something perverse, not a failure on part of the individual, but rather an individual’s natural response to the “larger forces of stigma and exclusion.” It is important to understand, to make connections and to put everything in context. But of course.
Best, Yuri
Labels: Memoir, Non-fiction, Reflections, ,

Reflection: The Guest Cat

Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (New Directions, 2014) leapt to the top of my to-read list for the most practical reason: its slim and tiny self made it ideal for slipping into the single backpack I brought to Europe. With a little luck, beauty will reveal itself within the most practical decisions, within the most commonplace, as is so powerfully depicted in The Guest Cat. Hiraide is a poet by trade, so when Chibi the cat (“Little One” in Japanese) falls asleep on a sofa, she looks “like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug up from a prehistoric archaeological site”; when Chibi runs away to avoid being touched, her “manner of rejection was like cold, white light”; and when Chibi repeatedly bumps against a window in the middle of the night, she looks “small and white, with eyes wide open, like a bird striking a lighthouse.” The poetry like prose, which is often prose at its best, goes on without pause.
In The Guest Cat, a married couple live and work in a small cottage in Tokyo, quietly alternating between writing, tending the garden and observing Chibi. Chibi is a stray cat that is quickly adopted by a neighboring family, though she makes regular visits to the couple, much to their delight. Change happens here and there – an emperor dies, friends fall ill, a job is left, a house is sold – but the overall day-to-day plays a steady beat that somehow feels far more significant than any such changes. The book embraces an ease that stems from waking up to nothing short of your everyday, and it embraces a beauty that stems from an entirely present natural world. Just three pages into the book, I began to underline every mention of the garden’s various inhabitants.
There is the zelkova tree, as well as pine, persimmon and plum; there is mistletoe, saffron, Daphne odora and reeves spirea; there is the Japanese bush warbler, Blue Admiral, cicada and skimmer dragonfly; and of course there is Chibi, Cal and Mrs. Muddy, the wayward cats. Nature is not merely a collection of props on a stage overwhelmed by the human cast. Rather, nature stars right alongside us, sharing deeply felt moments. It is noted that “the garden was like a forest to Chibi,” and indeed the garden takes on the grandeur of a forest even to the reader. The couple continuously monitors its changing colors, sizes, textures and sounds, and I dare say the world feels far less lonely when we consider all that is actually alive around us.
Best, Yuri

Labels: Fiction, Reflections, ,

Reflection: All Stories Are Love Stories

There is a special place in my book-filled heart for Elizabeth Percer, and I’ve been waiting for her latest, All Stories Are Love Stories (Harper, 2016), for well over a year. I reached out to Elizabeth after reading her first novel, An Uncommon Education (allow me the pleasure of introduction), and among the emails we exchanged during that time, she shared that she was working on a book centered around a major earthquake and fire hitting modern-day San Francisco.
All Stories Are Love Stories reads like a preemptive eulogy of San Francisco, a glorious city at the mercy of the merciless San Andreas Fault. We perceive roads, sidewalks and buildings, even people around us, to be such permanent things, carefully placed fixtures of the here and now. When those fixtures are also legendary, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Castro Theatre or Painted Ladies, they give off an eternal quality, as if lifted from the pages of a fairytale. That all of it perches atop the softest ground, under which pressure builds unabated, almost feels like a betrayal. Modern-day San Francisco may worship at the alter of technology, but ultimately answers to the unquestionable authority of nature. It is only a matter of time, and in All Stories Are Love Stories, that time is the evening of Valentine’s Day. The book spans just 24 hours, but as experienced in crises, time breaks open and behaves erratically, so that while on one page, a minute feels like an hour, on another, a millisecond changes ever little thing.
Rather than a sweeping story of a city in crises, the story zeros in on the lives of Max, Vashti and Gene. We meet all of them hours before their lives are upended, so that once the earthquake hits and the larger story of disaster unfolds, it is interrupted only by stories from these characters’ pasts. This is not about people in the midst of happily ever after when disaster strikes. This is about people in the midst of pain, confusion and heartache when disaster strikes, making it feel all the more ill-timed. You will enjoy these characters, especially Franklin (Gene’s partner), who says things like this:
Our city is dying. The soul’s sucked out of her. And I don’t care if speaking the truth makes me unpopular.
It’s a hell of a lot better than that crap you were dishing up. I mean, a twenty-first century Gold Rush? Millennial prospectors? You kids are nothing but starry-eyed naïfs with overworked vocabularies
” (107).
Perhaps rather than a eulogy, I should describe the book as an homage to San Francisco: Ina Coolbrith Park, Nob Hill Masonic Center, Grace Cathedral, Brunswick Hotel, Transamerica Pyramid and Huntington Park, among others, all make an appearance. I remember the five minute drive from my apartment in Berkeley to Aquatic Park, from where you can see both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, entry points to a floating city shrouded in fog. It is enlivening to be connected to something so grand, and though this book reminds me of that feeling, it also reminds me of all there is to lose. Whether it is a life, a relationship, a passion or a city, All Stories Are Love Stories explores the permanency of things, and offers shining examples of what may outlast even disaster.
Best, Yuri

Labels: Contemporary, Fiction, Reflections, ,

Reflection: Girl Through Glass

The trouble I have with coming-of-age stories is that I prefer to linger in the past and shy away from the present. To stay within the past is to observe a life before its turning point, before the possibilities that initially appear infinite abruptly narrow to one. In Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson (Harper, 2016), chapters alternate between past and present, so each time I arrived at a present chapter, I hastily skipped ahead to remain in the past: in the 1970s, in Mira’s youth, in the esoteric world of New York City ballet. But the present continuously resurfaced to rudely interrupt the past. Sensing such inevitability, I soon only allowed myself a peek before dutifully flipping back to the present.
Mira Able is a quiet 11-year-old whose devotion to ballet demands the utmost obsession. The book brims with knowledge of ballet, citing famous figures, prestigious schools, Edgar Degas, and the physical toll: “Her bones will knit together in new ways. Her hands will grow strong, her fingers blunt, and her feet rough and calloused as tree bark.” As Mira ascends through the ranks, she forms a relationship with Maurice DuPont, a strange, wealthy balletomane who renames her Mirabelle, and then Bella. He becomes her mentor, saying such fanciful things as, “If the dark is coming, make it your friend” and “She is not beautiful but she moves towards beauty.” Halfway through the book, it is obvious that Mira’s relationship with this older man will determine how the story unfolds, a rather uncomfortable setup. Why does the man hold so much sway? Presently, Mira is a professor of dance who goes by Kate Randell, and the author perfectly paces the stories of both past and present until they converge, revealing the much dreaded turning point.
Obsession is tireless and exhilarating, and ballet puts obsession on full display. How bizarre that ballet is some kind of girlhood rite-of-passage, when what it demands and celebrates is so specific and often unattainable, “some old dead guy’s idea of beauty.” But of course it is more than that. The strive for perfection, for mastery, is nothing short of inspiring. The author does an exquisite job of merging ballet’s many faces into one, a portrait of great beauty and greater sacrifice. Or is it the other way around?
Best, Yuri
Labels: Contemporary, Fiction, Reflections, , ,

Reflection: The Light of the World

In the quest to read the books I missed last year, I prepared a list. On that list, The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander is listed third, and next to it in parentheses, “First Lady.” I unabashedly took note of her favorite book of 2015, and upon reading its first paragraph, I felt the familiar pleasure and anticipation of knowing there is so much left to read. “Poetry logic is my logic,” the author explains, and the book is as close to poetry as prose can be. Here is the first paragraph:
“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”
The Light of the World is a moving portrait of the author’s husband, an impressive man named Ficre Ghebreyesus, her coping with his sudden death, and of course, their love story. She discusses Africa, art, flowers and food (there are recipes); she annotates poems on death; she recalls dreams; she introduces an endless stream of family and friends; she shares the most intimate details of marriage. “We shared days I can only call divine,” she writes.
As I neared the book’s end, I prolonged the inevitable by flipping back through its pages, revisiting scenes here and there. “Memories are what you no longer want to remember,” Joan Didion writes in Blue Nights, her own memoir of loss. But perhaps in their very ability to awaken the past, memories alone are redemptive. Within his wife’s prose, there is still Ficre, his presence strong. Reflections on death, especially ones written so beautifully, can be tricky to process. As a reader, it can be tempting to romanticize heartache, to become lost in a kind of reverie. But in The Light of the World, there is no such luxury. Love and loss sit side-by-side to emphasize each other, to draw out each other’s extremes. “Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere,” she explains, and the magnitude of that is felt on every page.
Best, Yuri
Labels: Memoir, Post-Reading, Reflections, ,