Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
1. I have rarely trusted an author as implicitly as I trusted Edmund de Waal, after reading the preface to his book, The Hare With the Amber Eyes. The eponymous hare is carved out of ivory, and fits in the palm of your hand. It is one of a collection of 264 such figures, called netsuke in Japan, where they were carved, now owned by de Waal. The netsuke collection was passed to de Waal from his great-uncle Iggy, who inherited it from his parents, who received it as a wedding gift from their cousin Charles Ephrussi, who collected them in Paris in the late 19th century, when japonisme was all the rage. The Hare With the Amber Eyes is therefore the story of the Ephrussi family, filthy rich bankers from Odessa who sent their sons and grandsons to Paris, Vienna, and London to establish a financial empire. As de Waal says in the preface, “It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.” De Waal is a professional potter, and his impression of any environment - even a remembered or imagined one - is very tactile. When he enters a room, he notices its objects, their textures, who must have made them, and when. When he thinks of the netsuke’s previous owners, he wants to know where they kept the collection, how often they picked up the carvings and rolled them around in their fingers. He will have no nostalgic, sepia-toned portraits of Charles Ephrussi dandying around Paris. He looks into the past, at his great-grandfather’s cousin, and wonders: if this man bought these carvings a century ago, and I’m holding them in my hands, how are we connected? 2. Charles is a fine man to be connected to. Even as a Parisian transplant, living on Rue “New Money” Monceau, he worked his way to the center of fashionable society. He loved art. He collected it - Manet, Renoir, Degas - and wrote about it, as the editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. His rooms in the Ephrussi household were carefully curated, ever in flux and a la mode. Charles was known to be one of two models for Proust’s Swann - “the lesser it was said, of the two” - and intimately connected to Proust himself. I have a soft spot for Proust - I think anyone who has read his novel feels proprietary towards the world of it. Finding him and a version of Charles Swann walking around in de Waal’s family history was like bumping into an old friend. Ephrussi and Proust were friends. Charles advised him on his translation of Ruskin, let him use the library at the Gazette, and invited him to the Rue Monceau to see his collection. Descriptions of Charles’ paintings, and of his cameo in Renoir’s Boating Party (he’s the one in back in the top hat) make it into Proust’s work, but there’s no evidence in his writing or letters that he saw the netsuke, although a simple timeline would suggest he did. Among Charles’s impressive collection, the netsuke were an anomaly. Japonisme had been fashionable for a few seasons, but Charles seemed to retain a fondness for them. When his younger cousin Viktor Ephrussi was married in Vienna, he sent the entire collection, in its vitrine, as a gift. Charles and Viktor were each the youngest boy in their family - the boys that weren’t groomed for finance. From among Charles’s noteworthy collection, sending Viktor a case of odd, whimsical figures - the ivory hare, the persimmons, the turtles, the peasant woman, a coiled rope - seems like a wink. “You might find these interesting,” I can hear him say. And indeed, as the mighty Ephrussi dynasty was scattered and depleted throughout the 20th century, the netsuke were kept close to the chest - hidden by a family servant while Nazis plundered the rest of the collection, given to Iggie, Viktor’s shy, sensitive son, and finally to de Waal. We can never know the people who came before us, but we can own their dining tables, walk the streets they walked, put the Japanese knick-knacks they bought in our pockets, and infuse them with meaning. De Waal frequently carried the hare with him while he traveled to Paris, Vienna, London, and Tokyo researching the book. While hunting down the details of their lives, he had a constant reminder that it was a story leading to his own. 3. After having fallen in love with Charles Ephrussi while reading The Hare With the Amber Eyes, I learned that a painting he owned, Renoir’s Two Sisters, now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, across the street from my office. I stopped by after work one night to look at what Charles looked at. I got up close, examining the brush strokes, imagining him standing in his rooms in Paris showing it to Proust. Or perhaps the two of them in a different corner, discussing translation, while the two sisters watched silently. What does this mean, my brain struggled to conclude, what am I feeling? It was free night at the museum, which shares an ambiance with a mall food court, so the mystical me-Charles-Proust connection eluded me. But I was satisfied to know that the life of Renoir’s painting now included both Proust and myself. This may be why we love to keep things, and pass them on. As the netsuke do for the Ephrussi family, the objects that survive are what prove that we’re part of each other’s stories.
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Apéritif Michelle Wildgen had established her reputation as the resident gourmand in Tin House's New York office, where she was then managing editor, long before I set foot there in the mid-aughts. In need of obscure spices, olive oil, fresh mozzarella? Michelle would promptly send you up to 125th Street, down to Vinegar Hill, off to an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. She regaled the office with English toffee before the winter holidays, showing her behind-the scenes-mastery of the candy thermometer. Rumor of an enigmatic past as a cheese reporter in Wisconsin trailed her. It became obvious, quickly, that for Michelle, food was central as a medium, as a subject, as a way of life. She gave me recipes for dishes I loved to eat but didn't know the first thing about how to approach. Chana masala, for example, which at that point I ordered from an Indian joint in my neighborhood at least twice a week. Upon request, she also supplied me with a list of must-have cookbooks, which included Nigel Slater's Appetite, the perennial classic Joy of Cooking, and Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. Part of me still holds on to the idea of becoming a culinary goddess, but with each passing bout of inspiration I’ve learned that this desire to up the ante in the kitchen only lasts until I'm confronted by my own knives and cutting board and sink. This doesn’t diminish the pleasure I take in dining, of course, or overhearing an explicit description of a lavish feast. And so, for a while I lived vicariously while working with Michelle and listening to her mastery and enthusiasm for food, her robustness of detail. Those were hopeful years for me. Salad: Food plays a central, steady, and rather predictable role in most of our lives. Three meals a day, coffee with breakfast, nightcap before bed. Or, if that’s not right, perhaps it’s coffee for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch, dinner out, and a nip of dark chocolate after? To each her own. Continuing to consume is necessary to continue living but this ongoing cycle of hunger and feeding doesn’t usually incite a predicament in the way that narrative fiction requires. And just how many meals do characters prepare? How many do they eat? Oh, there are significant meals. There are wedding banquets and funeral meats. The tears of longing that fall into the wedding cake batter in Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate afflicts each wedding guest who has a piece. Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus ends with a banquet where the guests are served a pie filled with meat cut from the bodies of Titus’s daughter’s assailants. Marcel Proust's Swann’s Way is forever linked to the madeleine because of an ecstatic memory of a morsel of that small French cake. And that’s not Proust’s only paean to food in Swann’s Way. His description of the kitchen scullions at work and the rows of all things vegetables sent me into a deep hunger the first time I read it: I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations of their white feet -- still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed -- with an iridescence that was not of this world. Proust’s peas and asparagus evoke the 19th-century still lives of Édouard Manet, whose numerous depictions of kitchen stock and cuisine include a hare hung by the legs and a platter of raw oysters accompanied by lemon wedges. Consider also Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons and its portraits of food. The rhythm and sound come together to convey the object’s essence, making Stein’s “Asparagus” a different stripe than Proust’s. But Stein’s cubist rendering also aspires to art: “Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot. This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.” Main Course: A chef knows how to stiffen the egg whites so that the soufflé stands; a fiction writer develops a sense of how to craft sentences and paragraphs to support the narrative and its central characters. There are prescriptive recipes for many types of writing just as there are for all kinds of dishes, and yet the ability to follow directions is more skill than art. It’s only after the procedures are internalized and diverged from that both cook and writer can pull off an original concoction. Perhaps in this way, writing a novel is similar to planning a feast. Wildgen’s depictions of food hew closer to Proust’s than Stein’s in that they are indulgent and languorous. And she’s as skilled at the mechanics of whipping up a well-crafted story as she is describing how to make a béarnaise. In her essay “Ode to an Egg” Wildgen confronts the egg, a character that is both pliable and stubborn: “Faced with gracelessness, an egg asserts itself...Just try skipping the tempering of beaten yolks with warm liquid before adding them to a béarnaise and watch the egg clench its proteins like fists. You will be no more successful with a chilly egg yanked from the fridge than you will with a date you have shoved into a swimming pool.” And yes, her fiction contains an abundance of edibles, too. In her first novel, You’re Not You, the narrator, Bec, is a young college student who takes a job as a caretaker for a woman afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The novel is peppered with vivid scenes of shopping in Madison’s farmer’s market, among the cascades of vegetables, cheeses, and meats. Wildgen’s second novel, But Not for Long, is set within a food co-op, and now, her latest, Bread and Butter, is nestled firmly in the restaurant industry as it follows three restaurateur brothers. Leo, the businessman, works in partnership with Britt, the charmer who oversees the front end of their well-established restaurant Winesap; and Harry, their upstart younger brother who wants to make his mark decides to open his own, edgier place, Stray. Food is the true currency of Bread and Butter. Food is an art, a language of affection, of consolation, a way of life. The culinary imperative is present from the opening scene, where a young Harry buys a lamb’s tongue with his allowance. The long, lingering pass over the butcher’s case establishes the narrative eye as unflinching and artful: Inside a butcher’s case, denuded rabbits curled pink and trusting in white bins, while the sheep’s heads appeared chagrined and surprised by the depth of their eyeballs, the narrow clamp of their own teeth. The display of calves’ brains and kidneys, livers and tripe, repulsed Britt, struck Leo as regrettable but unavoidable, and entranced Harry who was six. The brothers’ reactions foretell much about their future adult selves, from Leo with the rational mind to Harry the adventure seeker. Their lives are defined in relation to food. This is true whether Leo and Brit worry about whether their warm chocolate cake has become outdated, or when the Harry argues for keeping a provocative dish on his menu: “you’ve also gotta give people something they haven’t tasted, something they can’t imagine and have to come in and try.” And, well, this scene also provides fair warning for readers who find so much meat unsavory, much like Momofuku’s Ssäm Bar whose the menu of which announces, “We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items.” Human behavior is observed within the context of the rules of the trade (and the rules that are broken): don’t date coworkers; the staff is young, desirable, and often temperamental; key players in the kitchen will be lured and poached by other establishments; extreme focus is required during rushes, when on a good day the kitchen and wait staff merge into complimentary sides of a well-oiled machine. And the food! If nothing else (and there is plenty else), the novel revels in its cuisine. Sentences are peppered with exquisite dishes throughout and take detailed note of the textures and presentation and garnishes, allowing reader gorge. Dishes served include pig’s ear, hard salami, putty-colored lambs tongue, rabbit ragù with pappardelle, salted brittle, and sardines. An entire hog has been butchered and transformed into barbeque and charcuterie for a staff party. This physicality grounds the brothers’ struggles, caught up in assuring Winesap’s relevance as Stray establishes its name. When Britt first tastes Harry’s signature dish of lamb’s neck with Jerusalem artichokes he’s concerned that it’s too adventurous to lure small town diners. The same dish dazzles Leo and makes him worry he’s become too complacent. It’s the kind of conundrum that plagues the brothers, as well as all forms of art and commerce -- the inspired dish won’t lure diners despite its brilliance, while the reliable dishes that sell are often staid. Dessert: Bread and Butter is a tremendous feast of a novel. Like a meal served at the streamlined Winesap, it adheres to a more classic ideal of what makes a book worth reading. It doesn’t aspire to rework the novel as form, nor does it attempt to. Instead, it achieves with excellence what it sets out to do, with its well-crafted characters and the subtle development of their entanglements, as it offers an insider’s view view of the restaurant industry, including the struggle to balance business and creativity, the intermingling of family and business, and of course, the cuisine. The food’s physicality is so palpable and inviting, and is rendered with precision and balance -- this too is art. I’ll leave you with a morsel to whet your appetite, as Harry serves the lamb’s neck: “He drew something meaty and brown, dripping, from a braising pot and set it on a metal dish and slid it into the oven. Then he arranged some crisp root vegetables and broccoli rabe on a round white plate, placed the meat at the center, and scattered the whole thing with something golden and green and finely chopped. He placed this before Britt with the air of a cat delivering a freshly killed gopher.”
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Here are the facts: Roberto Bolaño was born in Chile, but lived throughout his life in Mexico, El Salvador, France, and finally Spain, where he died in 2003 at the age of 50. A poet before all else, Bolaño only began writing fiction in the last decade of his life. At the time of his death, he had published over a dozen books in his native Spanish, but his first work in English translation, By Night in Chile, was still six months from publication. In the last nine years, however, Bolaño’s literary star has ascended as his literary estate has combed through his extensive bibliography, publishing everything possible. Now, the posthumous discovery of previously unpublished writing has led to the publication of Woes of the True Policeman, a book Bolaño spent 30 years writing, but ultimately never finished. Cobbled together from computer files and manuscript drafts, it is marketed as the author’s final book. Here is the real story: Woes of the True Policeman is by turns absorbing, challenging, fascinating -- but is ultimately a very flawed, frustrating book. Divided into five fragmented parts, which at times only tenuously connect with one another (should a reader expect any less from Bolaño?), the novel mostly follows Óscar Amalfitano, a literature professor who lives, with his daughter, a purgatorial existence in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa. “A tall, angular, white-haired figure, looking vaguely like Christopher Walken,” Amalfitano is instantly familiar to readers of Bolaño’s novel 2666, in which a character by the same name, living in the same city, and with much the same biography serves as one of the novel’s fulcrum characters. This sense of dreamlike déjà vu hangs over much of Woes of the True Policeman, continually bringing into focus characters and events from Bolaño’s past works, yet changing them in certain key details, as if the events of the novel were being viewed through the warped glass of an intertextual funhouse mirror. For instance, Woes of the True Policeman distinguishes its Amalfitano from the 2666 incarnation by sexually involving him with a young student named Padilla, one of those borderline-mad, self-contradictory, poetry-consumed characters who burn so brilliantly in Bolaño’s world. Amalfitano is instantly intoxicated by how Padilla “lived in a constant state of amorous self-expression...his feelings were extravagant but didn’t last for more than a day.” So at age 50, Amalfitano serenely accepts a newfound homosexuality, delving into an oddly bookish and belligerent love affair: According to Padilla, remembered Amalfitano, all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual. Poetry, on the other hand, was completely homosexual. Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers… nothing prevents queers and faggots from being good friends, from neatly ripping one another off, criticizing or praising one another, publishing or burying one another in the frantic and moribund world of letters. Bolaño is forever referential. Like many of Bolaño’s works, Woes of the True Policeman is really a book about characters who love books. Lives are informed, illuminated, and often crippled by literature. Poetry may bring Amalfitano and Padilla together, but it’s the chair of the literature department, upon discovering the professor’s affair, who forces Amalfitano into exile in Santa Teresa. As is often the case in Bolaño’s books, Amalfitano stands in for the author himself. Both lived as young revolutionaries in the '70s, were arrested after the fall of Allende in Chile, then suffered political and existential exile through “a succession of countries, a whirl of cities and streets that brightened and darkened arbitrarily in memory...an imaginary country called Chile that drove [them] mad.” Their biographies, however, diverge at the literary crossroads. Bolaño creates. Amalfitano embarks down the empty road of criticism. Amalfitano’s regret permeates the entire novel: Why did I translate the Elizabethans and not Isaac Babel or Boris Pilniak? Amalfitano asked himself, disconsolate, unable to escape the nightmare but still holding scraps of the dream...in his empty, frozen, transparent hands. Why didn’t I slip like Mighty Mouse through the bars of the Lenin Prizes and the Stalin Prizes and the Korean Women Collecting Signatures for peace and discover what was there to be discovered, what only the blind couldn’t see? Why didn’t I stand up at one of those oh-so-serious meetings of leftist intellectuals and say the Russians the Chinese the Cubans are making a fucking mess of things? Why didn’t I stand up for the Marxists? Stand up for the pariahs? March in step with history while history was being born? As previously shown by The Savage Detectives and 2666, Bolaño sees a void at the center of the academy. Amalfitano, “who predicted the fall of Allende and yet did nothing to prepare for it,” searches for sanctuary within the void of academia, respite from the world and the awful choices it has forced Amalfitano to make. It occurs to one, though, if this amounts to bravery: When I was an adolescent I wanted to be a Jew, a Bolshevik, black, homosexual, a junkie, half-crazy, and -- the crowing touch -- a one-armed amputee, but all I became was a literature professor. At least, thought Amalfitano, I’ve read thousands of books. At least I’ve become acquainted with the Poets and read the Novels… At least I’ve read. At least I can still read, he said to himself, at once dubious and hopeful. A generous reading of Woes of the True Policeman will see it as a sister work to 2666, a concurrent narrative that illuminates previously unseen angles of the previous work. However, a more critical look shows it to be a pale shade of the epic novel. One can just not get away from 2666 while reading Woes of the True Policeman. Bolaño unwinds almost identical plot threads through each book, changing only often superficial details. His wife dies from disease in each book, although the name of his wife, as well as the disease, is different. In Woes of the True Policeman, Padilla is obsessed with an institutionalized poet in France, while 2666 finds Amalfitano’s wife suffering from the obsession. Then we have the final section of Woes of the True Policeman, an almost blow-by-blow retread of 2666, down to multiple pages that are lifted scissors and paste pot from 2666. Or did the “self-plagiarism” actually occur the other way around? Posthumous manuscripts have the awful tendency to raise these sort of unanswerable questions about composition and authenticity. Most disappointing about Woes of the True Policeman is its treatment of the city of Santa Teresa, Bolaño’s thinly-fictionalized Ciudad Juárez. The novel barely registers its setting, aside from some brief, cursory observations, such as that its “streets...seemed somehow newborn...with a secret logic and aesthetic, streets with their hair down.” This is a positively underwhelming sentiment compared to the city Bolaño’s conjures in 2666, an ominous metropolis whose spirit has been paralyzed by a series of random female homicides, a reflection of the feminicidio epidemic in Ciudad Juárez, where over 5,000 women have been murdered since 1993. The characters and events of 2666 constellate around a 300-page middle section that graphically catalogues the atrocities, murder by gruesome murder, bludgeoning the reader with rape, torture, mutilation, and death until the prose becomes a kind of incantation that reifies the actuality of evil. Many of the hallmarks of Bolaño’s virtuosity can be found in Woes of the True Policeman: the synopses of eccentric novels that don’t exist, a mystery concerning an invented French writing school known as the barbaric writers, notes from Amalfitano’s class in contemporary literature (“Happiest: García Lorca...Strangest wrinkles: Auden...Biggest cock: Frank O’Hara.”). Yet the fragmentation, self-plagiarism, and lack of narrative development all indicate a manuscript that was very much unfinished, and is only interesting as a completist curiosity, something akin to the financial-driven posthumous discographies of Jimi Hendrix or Tupac Shakur. In the end, one wonders if Bolaño less resembles Amalfitano as he does his elusive novelist Archimboldi, the shaper of small, mysterious fictions “who overnight became a fashionable author in Spain, where they were publishing or about to publish everything he’d written.” After all, in writing about Archimboldi, Bolaño may as well be describing the vitality, the verve, and the flawed yet unceasing brilliance of his own work: ...even if all his stories, no matter their style (and in this respect Arcimboldi was eclectic and seemed to subscribe to the maxim of De Kooning: style is fraud), were mysteries, they were only solved through flight, or sometimes through bloodshed (real or imaginary) followed by endless flight, as if Arcimboldi’s characters, once the book had come to an end, literally leapt from the last page and kept fleeing.
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1. In the fall of 2010, reporter Mac McClelland was sent to Haiti to cover the country’s recovery nine months after the island’s devastating 7.0 earthquake, which affected 3.5 million of Haiti’s residents. McClelland arrived in Haiti after spending four months in New Orleans covering the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. So she was no stranger to disaster scenes. But the post-quake squalor of Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital, shocked her. Driving from the airport to her hotel, she was confronted with miles of displacement camps, tent cities where thousands of Haitians, many of them children, lived in subhuman conditions, without running water or toilets. There was not enough food and water or security. Violence, especially sexual violence against women and children, was rampant. On her first day of reporting, McClelland witnessed an act of sexual violence so shocking that she found herself dissociating, her conscious mind leaving her body and watching the scene from afar. This instance of dissociation would change McClelland’s life, although she didn’t realize it at the time: “In the moment, though it was extremely disconcerting, I didn’t have time to think or worry about it.” Instead, McClelland continued her reporting trip, during which she began to exhibit strange symptoms: she felt buzzed and shaky; parts of her body went numb and seemed to disappear; and most disconcerting, she found herself crying uncontrollably for hours at a stretch. Eventually McClelland heeded a friend’s advice and ended her reporting trip early. But at home, things only got worse. Desperate, McClelland visited her old therapist, who told her that she seemed to be exhibiting symptoms of PTSD. McClelland told her therapist that sounded “absurd” and that PTSD was “for veterans”, not reporters, mere witnesses. Irritable Hearts is the story of what happens after this “absurd” diagnosis. It’s a memory of recovery, a thoughtful and well-researched record of one woman’s experience with a subtle and often terrifying condition. McClelland delves into the history of PTSD as well as her health history, her romantic and familial attachments, her career ambitions, and her childhood. With the help of her therapist, she learns to stop seeing her breakdown as sign of weakness: “My symptoms were not a dysfunction, but an adaptation to some very dysfunctional situations, situations I hadn’t fully processed. Trauma had been perpetrated upon my body, and lived in my body. It was my body reacting to trauma.” Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is most commonly associated with soldiers. But war experience is actually not the most common cause of PTSD. Instead it is violence against women, the subject McClelland was immersed in and what she witnessed just before her dissociative episode. In her research into the history of PTSD, McClelland was startled to learn that Sigmund Freud himself made a link between sexual abuse and PTSD-like symptoms. After hundreds of interviews, Freud found that most of his female patients, the ones so famously plagued by "hysteria," were victims of sexual abuse. His theory was that their symptoms were the body’s natural response to trauma. This wasn’t something anyone wanted to hear in the late 19th century and unfortunately it’s still an uncomfortable subject for the public to explore. McClelland learned of this discomfort first hand in 2011, when she published a personal essay about her experience with PTSD. The essay detailed her sexual difficulties in the wake of her diagnosis and the counter-intuitive treatment she’d found comforting: violent sex with an ex-boyfriend. I first became aware of McClelland through this piece and no doubt many others did as well. The essay got a big response online, much of it positive, but in the way of so many online debates, the negative was really, really negative. McClelland was labeled narcissistic for writing frankly and unabashedly about her sex life. Her status as a victim was also questioned, and critics accused her of exaggeration and self-glorification. Some even labeled her a colonist. A second backlash questioned her reporting and ethics. The comments gave voice to McClelland’s worst fear: that she didn’t, somehow, deserve to have PTSD, that a tougher person, a stronger person, would have been able to witness something horrible and recover quickly, that a better reporter would not be so vulnerable to other people’s suffering. McClelland’s symptoms got worse in the wake of the essay’s publication: “I found it impossible not to feel attacked. And sorry for myself. My sorrow extended far beyond my own suffering...[I felt] sorrow for anyone who’d been traumatized and now heard trauma called narcissistic or weak because of me.” The thing is, McClelland is an unusually compassionate and strong person. This came across to me in her essay and it comes across again and again in her memoir. Even as McClelland spends much of the book detailing her mood swings and crying jags, what emerges is a portrait of a capable, independent, and resilient woman. She’s the kind of person who, when she finds herself unexpectedly saddled with thousands of dollars of debt (thanks to her father, who secretly took out loans in her name), does not wallow in misery but instead works three jobs until the debt is paid off. She’s the kind of person who decided, a few months out of grad school, that she would write a book about the Burmese refugee situation, and then four years later, published that book; she’s the kind of person who, after spending four months reporting on one of the worst man-made natural disasters, accepted a reporting assignment to Haiti. If McClellan has a fatal flaw, it’s that she doesn’t know her limits. That’s the lesson that PTSD eventually teaches her, by forcing her to pay attention to her body’s self-protective defense mechanisms. One of the positive results of the controversy surrounding McClelland’s article was that a number of sufferers of PTSD wrote her notes of support. McClelland includes several of them in Irritable Hearts and they are a dispiriting reminder of how mental illness is still a taboo subject in the U.S. Through these letters, McClelland is introduced to a community of PTSD sufferers, many of them veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there’s anyone who can understand McClelland’s shame for not being “tough enough,” it’s veterans. As one marine, Chris, writes to her: “Marines are a rare breed. We don’t ask for help when we need it. That’s why I have lost 6 of my buddies to suicide after we got back to the States.” After meeting Chris in person and hearing about his experiences first-hand, McClelland feels sheepish bringing up her own trauma, as a witness. But McClelland soon learns that within the PTSD community, people don’t tend to compare traumas: He wasn’t interested in saying to me, "What happened to you is not that big of a deal"...Any more than Chris would say to an earthquake survivor, "You know what’s really awful? War."...This atrocity hierarchy, which one’s nervous system is unfortunately unaware of, is imposed on traumatized people by non-traumatized people. This gap in understanding between the traumatized and non-traumatized, and more generally, the mentally healthy and the mentally ill, comes up often in McClelland’s reporting. Americans simply don’t have a way of talking or even thinking about mental illness without attaching stigma to it. We blame those with mental illness in a way that we don’t blame people with bodily illnesses, and in fact we don’t even specify “bodily” illness, so that the modifier "mental" is a way of putting it into a different category, one that doesn’t require as much sympathy or support. Certainly our healthcare system treats mental illness in this way, requiring people to jump through hoops and/or pay huge deductibles before supplying the bare minimum of care. McClelland describes her efforts to have her PTSD recognized by her insurance provider, but doesn't lose sight of the fact that she’s lucky to have enough savings to cover the cost of her treatments until she receives coverage. Many of the people she interviews are not as fortunate. 2. I’ve neglected so far to mention the love story woven through Irritable Hearts, and which provides the subtitle: A PTSD Love Story. In a chance meeting that seems, in retrospect, fated, McClelland kisses a French soldier on her first night in Haiti. The soldier, Nico, has his own psychological baggage and is unfazed when McClelland begins to behave erratically. The two embark on a long-distance love affair, even though little about their pairing makes sense. He’s a lot younger than her, barely speaks English, and is stationed thousands of miles away. She’s recently divorced and in the throes of a personal and mental breakdown. Yet their connection is strong. At one point they break up but promise not to marry other people until they’ve seen each other again. They want to be together but, as if in some kind of perverse romantic comedy, there are a lot of obstacles. One of the biggest obstacles is that McClelland can no longer enjoy sex. She undergoes somatic therapy, a kind of intense talk therapy that incorporates touch. A therapy that acknowledges and works with PTSD’s physical symptoms seems like a sensible course of treatment, yet most veterans still receive cognitive therapies, which can sometimes re-traumatize patients. For McClelland, somatic therapy was the only thing that worked: “My symptoms were in my body; my fears were for my body...I’d had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to rationalize my way out of it. Believe me. I’d tried.” McClelland’s writing about sex, about her body, and about her relationships is fearless and revealing. I imagine that a lot of people suffering in the wake of trauma will find this memoir comforting because McClelland does get better, and at the same time, she doesn’t gloss over the time and patience that healing requires. If I haven’t written much about McClelland’s relationship with Nico, the soldier who eventually becomes her husband, it’s only because it’s difficult to summarize. Love is simple, but people are complicated, and McClelland explores this dilemma as she describes the ups and downs of dating while mentally ill. What struck me most about McClelland’s portrayal of her relationship with Nico was just how hard she was willing to fight for it. She wants to love and be loved, she wants to do meaningful work, she wants to “feel herself in the world”. As her therapist observes, “You’re so hungry to get better.” It’s hard not to root for a narrator like that.
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1. At the end of The Snow of the Admiral, the first novella to feature Maqroll the Gaviero, or “Lookout,” the hero finds himself presiding over the remote café of Flor Estévez, “the woman who understood him best and shared the exaggerated scope of his dreams.” Situated high on a plateau, the roadside stop has a dramatic bathroom—patrons, mainly passing truckers, must walk out onto a jerry-built deck and urinate into the ravine below, which is so deep that they can’t hear their pee hitting ground. It is only fitting that an “uncommon urinal” so perched should have such elevated bathroom graffiti, a sample of which succinctly lays out the ethos behind the Gaviero’s adventures: “I am the disordered creator of the most obscure routes, the most secret moorings. Their uselessness, their undiscovered location are what feed my days.” Unlike other epic heroes, Maqroll is armed only with a small collection of treasured books and a confidence that a hidden world of signs will reveal itself to him in due time. Maqroll’s creator, the Colombian Álvaro Mutis, died last year at the age of 90 in Mexico City after a long career as a television executive, poet and, later, writer of the acclaimed Maqroll novellas, best known to American readers as collected in the NYRB Clasics edition The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. I can think of no better way to honor both the man and his singular hero possessed of an “incurable wanderlust” and a “vocation for defeat” than by quoting the latter’s bathroom graffiti, bits of wisdom written by the Gaviero in his seclusion. Some of these are gnomic: “Two metals exist that prolong life and sometimes grant happiness. Not gold or silver or anything else you can imagine. I only knew they exist.” Some convey practical advice: “Follow the ships. Follow the routes plowed by worn, melancholy vessels...Deny all shores.” And as befitting the long tradition of outhouse scribblings, women do come up, though in keeping with the fundamental gentillesse du coeur that defines Maqroll and his band of conspirators (no matter how shady their dealings), the tone is reverential: Women never lie. Truth always points from the most secret folds of their bodies. Our lot is to interpret it with an implacable paucity. Many men never can and die in the inescapable blindness of their senses. Needless to say, there are no phone numbers provided. 2. The Snow of the Admiral was spun out from a short prose poem. (Maqroll was conceived in poetry, a recurring character in Mutis’ poems before featuring in his prose works.) The novella describes Maqroll’s eerie journey up a fictional South American river and into “the half-light of the immeasurable jungle’s vegetation.” His scheme is to buy timber at a remote sawmill, whose location and very existence are in doubt, then sail it downriver to sell it a higher price. Maqroll realizes at journey’s beginning that it is bound to end poorly, and thus the drama lies less in the specific plot turns of the disastrous adventure than in the otherworldliness of the tableaus: a nightmarish orgy involving an Indian family and a Slavic “blond giant”; the life-threatening fever contracted from the encounter; the harrowing upstream navigation of the rapids in the barely functioning boat, preceded by a “barbaric” litany recited by its alcoholic captain; the sawmill in the middle of nowhere, no less illusory for being real, a “floating Gothing marvel of aluminum and glass lit by that morguish light and lulled by the gentle hum of its electrical plant”; and Maqroll’s return to the isolated café, where he pauses for several years, spiritually exhausted and nursing a suppurating wound on his leg, a stoic Philoctetes in exile. Over the next six books, a group of elect gathers around Maqroll, confreres whom John Updike astutely referred to as a kind of Arthurian roundtable: the Lebanese Abdul Bashur, partner in many adventures, the glamorous Ilona, the narrator, a zealous collector of all things Maqroll, and Alejandro Obregón, the expansive artist who seeks to paint the wind that Gaviero the Lookout has “so often watched as it comes toward the sails and then changes direction and never arrives.” There are schemes aplenty: counterfeit rugs, arms running, gold mining, a timber operation run from the middle of a rain forest, a Panama City brothel staffed by fake airline stewardesses, signal flags to facilitate pirate communications and a Quixotic quest to buy the perfect tramp steamer of one’s dreams. Moreover, casual references to past adventures and doomed schemes, some eventually recounted, some destined to remain untold, are dropped like loose debris from a speeding flatbed truck. Yet throughout the series, there is an ever-present tension between the limitless fund of stories accreting around Maqroll and his realization that all of his projects “empty into the same mudhole of ennui and bad luck.” Indeed, the serial production of the novellas works in some way to support Maqroll’s fatalistic contention that it’s all one story, that all men act the same, from the grand machinations of petty criminals to the petty machinations of the grand historical figures whom he reads about. (Maqroll’s journal in The Snow of the Admiral is discovered tucked away in a copy of Paul Raymond’s investigation into the assassination of Louis Duc d’Orléans in 1407.) The recurring character needs to be both sharply delineated and a bit of a blank. The weary but charismatic Maqroll develops a cult of personality even as he refuses to impose his will on the adventures in which he becomes embroiled with “suspicious ease”: The presence of danger, unspecified but obvious, plunged him into an all too familiar state of mind: ennui, a weary tedium that invited him to admit defeat, to halt the passage of his days, for they were all marked by a kind of venture in which someone else always profited, took the initiative, forced him into the role of the innocent dupe who served other people’s purposes without realizing it. That word innocent stands out in regard to a man, however duped, is nonetheless so experienced, so thoughtful about life and so well read in history. But as his painter friend clarifies in a different adventure, Maqroll is an innocent in the Russian sense of the word, “which means vigilant servants of truth. And that’s the most dubious state there is for people.” This “dubious state” perhaps explains Maqroll’s love affair with the past. Maqroll is a historical character, not in the sense of having actually lived but in his near Quixotic belief that he belongs to another, nobler age: “Maqroll’s ability to enter fully into another time, a world so foreign to the present, had often saved him from succumbing to the tribulations brought on by his nomadic calling.” Arrested after a brawl in Canada and asked what he does for a living, he tells that police only that he is “a Chouan lost in the twentieth century.” (A Chouan is a member of the 18th century, pro-royalist reaction to the French Revolution.) He gets a day in the cooler for his impertinence, though his curious admission is in some ways more revealing than the information on his forged Cypriot passport. Maqroll’s sense of historical displacement, of “living in a time completely alien to [his] interests and tastes,” takes another form in Mutis’ nostalgia for tramp steamers, particularly those pieces of “nomadic sea trash” whose obsolescence only heighten their mythic allure. In The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, the narrator encounters such a ship in Helsinki, the first of several encounters all over the world with the dilapidated yet dignified vessel. He immediately feels a ...warm solidarity for the tramp steamer, as if it were an unfortunate brother, a victim of human neglect and greed to which it responded with a stubborn determination to keep tracing the dreary wake of its miseries on all the world’s seas. As with Maqroll’s adventures, the tramp steamer’s demise is evident from the start; it is so covered in grime that its name, Halycon, must be inferred from the few visible letters. That end, when it does come during a storm, is memorable and violent, “like watching a prehistoric beast being torn to pieces by a voracious, inescapable enemy.” Mutis could never bring himself to finish his hero off so definitively. Death, the one experience exotic enough to rescue Maqroll form his “mudhole of ennui,” is the Gaviero’s constant, tantalizing companion. In The Snow of the Admiral, Maqroll muses: “Perhaps my own death is beginning now. I don’t dare think about this too much.” And over the next six adventures, he is half in love with easeful death; his “nomadic mania” is an extended trial, less a series of discrete tests than a lifelong readying for the right death: Each of us is cultivating, selecting, watering, pruning, shaping our own death. When it comes, it takes many forms, but its origin, the moral and even aesthetic circumstances that ought to shape it, is what really matters and makes it not tolerable, which is very rare, but at least harmonious with certain secret, profound conditions, certain requirements that have been forged by our being during the time of its existence and outlined by transcendent, ineluctable powers. Maqroll’s is an “irredeemable odyssey” precisely because it will be redeemed in a different sense — not via a homecoming or a spectacular success, but through a lifelong, moral, and aesthetic commitment to “reckless wandering.” Now does the meaning of Maqroll’s “vocation for defeat” become clear; his is a vocation in the earliest sense, a spiritual calling, the resistance to becoming a protagonist in the “old, tired story of the men who try to beat life.” In a way, Maqroll lives to die. And “die” he does throughout the novellas, multiple times, in multiple ways, his supposed end recounted by multiple sources of varying trustworthiness (including an account by Garcia Marquez, a good friend of Mutis’s). But a definitive notice proves elusive and he keeps coming back: Artists and adventurers tend to plan their end so it can never be clearly deciphered by others. It is a privilege that has been theirs since the days of Orpheus the thaumaturge and the ingenious Ulysses... It is no wonder then that on the scraps of paper collected by his chronicler on which Maqroll writes his adventures, his handwriting resembles Dracula’s Transylvanian scrawl. Like the famed vampire, Gaviero is immortal, and everyone around him knows it: “‘It doesn’t matter that you’ll die one day like the rest of us. That doesn’t change anything. You’re immortal for as long as you live.’”