Reflection: So Much for That Winter

So Much for That Winter (Graywolf Press, 2016) includes two novellas by Danish author Dorthe Nors, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and “Days.”
“Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” is told in single sentences, one stacked neatly on top of the next. Such a format may appear to be restrictive, too rigid for storytelling, but in fact it reads as smoothly as the one-liners we scroll through every day; the headlines and status updates kindly packaged and delivered to our screens by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Our thoughts, even our ideas, are inevitably shaped and molded by the platforms through which they are expressed. Therefore, we subject our thoughts to rules of expression that are increasingly governed by private media corporations. Let us hope that we are in good hands. “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” rings familiar because we have been primed to consume text in this very way. Meet our protagonist’s ex-boyfriend, Lars, for example:

“Lars is a network person.”
“Lars makes the pigeons rise.”
“Lars has deadlines.”
“Lars introduced himself with his full name.”
These are declarations rather than subtleties, loosely connected though just enough. It is slightly unsettling that a few brief sentences allow us to become familiar with a person, or at least familiar enough to pass judgment, which we do. Perhaps we all run the risk of being summarized in a few sentences, as if none of us are as complicated as we like to imagine. But I think we are. And I think we run the risk of growing impatient of details and explanations, of reading anything of length, or of politely sitting through a friend’s long-winded story. Currently, we may prefer what is brief and to-the-point, but soon we may require it.
Of course, to assume that short declarations are inherently lacking in substance and meaning is entirely misguided. There is poetry, after all. Why use more words than necessary if one has the skill to pluck only those that are essential, to lay them out, arrange and serve to make the sharpest point. This is how we meet our protagonist’s nemesis, Linda Lund, whose assaults are as cruel as they are straightforward:

“Linda pulled out a mental machete.”
“Linda slashed a couple times.”
“Linda said, That dress will blend into the curtain.
“Linda said, What’s your name again?
“Minna almost couldn’t perform afterward.”
The story’s format also reveals how a single thought leads to the next, methodically and almost comically, as our minds continuously string together kernels of information:

“Minna’s gone for a walk in town.”
“Svaneke’s lovely.”
“Svaneke’s light yellow.”
Svaneke’s a set piece, thinks Minna.”
The second story, “Days,” dives even deeper into a woman’s thought process as she chronicles her day-to-day in a series of lists. The trivial and the sacred sit side-by-side, so that in one moment she is thinking about the dentist while boiling eggs, and in the next:

“7. wrote a crucial note,”
“8. had an attack of vulnerability from the silence that fights back.”
I select every book I read as if it were some kind of momentous commitment, like I am in it for the long haul, so it is always a surprise when a book slips in to make its mark so quickly. If forevermore we are obliged to think in headlines and status updates, let us sound like Dorthe Nors.
Best, Yuri

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

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

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