How many times have I checked my Instagram feed since I attempted to start writing this review? I have lurked on the Internet and seen sulking selfies and sultry men posing with plants and a green glow framed in darkness; I have witnessed cats playing with a Ping-Pong ball, a humble brag shot of mail received and photo “memories" of past AWPs. With Wi-Fi always at the ready, we are armed during our waking hours with iPhones and Androids and multitudes of screens; we are inundated in images like no age previously. We are the “Picture People,” "addicted to images, in all their varieties,” declares Ezekiel "Zeke" Hooper Stark, cultural ethnographer, sufferer of indecision, New Man, middle son, and protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s grand and sprawling new novel, Men and Apparitions. What does it mean to come of age amongst this glut of images, and how does this alter the way we as a culture perceive? This is one of two central questions asked in Tillman’s Men and Apparitions. As a 38-year-old man, Zeke is situated on the cusp of multiple transitions—from the analog to the digital, from dark room to Polaroid to cell phone selfie. In his lifetime a photo has gone from a way of remembering and memorializing to a throwaway—something evanescent. Zeke is old enough to have a childhood immortalized in the family photo album yet young enough to be fully fluent with digital media. New media’s proliferation has brought about a more fluid and abundant display of images, expanding possibilities of self, and notably, with regard to the “Men” in the novel’s title, new tropes of masculinity. We’ve gone from the iconic tough cowboy of a Marlboro Man, then appropriated by Richard Prince, re-appropriated by Brokeback Mountain’s gay lovers, and by now signals of masculinity have morphed somewhat, though not entirely. Another transition to consider: Zeke is one among a generation of sons of second-wave feminists who have matured into adulthood. The second central question of Men and Apparitions is how has their idea of masculinity expanded, and has it expanded in commensurate ways? The answer is murky. Zeke doesn’t question the way he performs tropes of masculinity, the way he is on autopilot, with his wife and his advancing academic career, until he encounters personal failure and betrayal. His wife leaves him for his best friend, triggering a crisis (he has dissociative amnesia, wanders Europe, tells people he’s Henry Adams). This rending makes real something he already knew intellectually, that identity is fluid not static. And he starts to discover his depths, to discover his true work, doing investigative work to explore and define this new masculinity, what he calls the “New Man.” Photography plays a role in this redefinition too, Tillman implies through Zeke: “To perform gender there must be an image to base it upon: this is who a woman sits, this is how a man walks.” If nothing else in this book is clear, we are performing ideas of ourselves all of the time. Zeke is obsessed with photographs, especially their role in forming and reifying identity. In his work as a cultural ethnographer, he analyzes relationships in family photographs—birth order, gender relations, and how this is portrayed, i.e. “how does that 'fact' become an image for the family?" Through Zeke we learn of his family’s obsessions: of his mother's intense connection to her ancestry through their images, of his hatred for his insensitive brother Bro Hart (oldest), and the selective mutism of Little Sister (youngest), with whom Zeke feels a quiet and robust solidarity. We learn of their family propensity to depression and suicide through Zeke’s meandering mental cataloging, just as we learn of his ex-wife’s immunity to failure, and of the nearly mythological status of ancestor Clover Hooper Adams, wife of Henry. And yet it’s striking that in this novel so focused on images, filled with images even, we don’t ever “see” Zeke, either through his perceptions of the physical world or through photographs. While I’m inclined to interpret a photomontage before the final section as Zeke’s personal collection, and wish some of these faces to be his, it’s never defined as such. Certainly my desire to “see” Zeke influences my reading, and the novel’s consideration of images and interpretation leads me to question why I want this. That somehow this "fact" of Zeke’s existence would confirm my own intuitions. As if he weren’t a fictional character. As if the photo were evidence. As it is, we only see through him, and rarely if ever glimpse the physical world around him. Zeke, however, does describe and analyze the expressions and posturing and framing in photos, and some are included in the text. Early on he describes a series of photographs by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and specifically, one of a child standing in a crib on the lawn of a suburban house: "The picture was shot from the child’s POV, from behind his head, so the shot was low to the ground. The child looked out from his crib, the view was cone-shape, of street, houses, a car. It was a child’s eye-view, a Christina’s world. A new theoretical world, with a new eye wide open." This description provides a key to understanding the reader’s relationship to Zeke, and Tillman’s as author. I couldn’t help but read this as a nod to Tillman as author/photographer who turns the reader’s gaze toward the world with a Zeke’s eye-view, or rather, to witness through Zeke's filter of a mind, which is analytic, punny, and always thinking. It’s an authorial wink, too. Tillman has written male narrators before, though her only novel from a male perspective is an older gay man in Cast in Doubt. Women authors write men all of the time, and vice versa. What’s striking in this instance is the intimacy of voice, and Zeke’s focus on defining masculinity, his intent of reappropriating Henry James’s feminist ideal of the 19th-century’s self-made New Woman (Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer, for example) to define the 21stt century’s New Man. Or rather: Henry James wrote in drag then; Tillman is doing it now, inquiring into the status of the New Man as a second-wave feminist. Gender is performance. Writing it is too. It makes me wonder, too, what nuances Tillman as a woman perceives, what she misses too. The attempt is certainly ambitious. Much of the book's first section is a Roland Barthes-like disquisition about the image, all from Zeke’s point of view. It includes a consideration of images and photos scattered throughout the text. Zeke states: "Images don't mean as words mean, though people (and I) apply words to them." However, these images are very much a kind of language too: a transmission of postures and facial expressions and gestures and framing; they tell stories, of identities, of the eye behind the camera’s lens, of pasts, of inheritance, of how we are seen and how we wish to be seen. The photograph creates and reinforces mythologies and narratives, about members of a family or a social group and their interrelationships. It makes me think of the four Brown sisters, photographed by Nicholas Nixon every year for more than 40 years. Always standing in the same order, with subtle changes in their gestures and faces and expressions; the most striking changes are in appearances: haircuts or a change in weight. The series captures their relationships over time and forms an intimate story. While the Fox sisters aren’t mentioned by Zeke, he traffics in contemporary photography and culture (riffing on O.J. Simpson, the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, Bernie Madoff, John Cage) and a network of 19th-century Americans associated with Clover Adams (Henry Adams, the James brothers, etc., etc.) [millions_ad] As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, "All images appropriate.” Zeke too considers appropriation in many dimensions: how we fall in love with projections, our aspirational branding and signification. He doesn’t state this directly, but this fantasy of transformation is the foundation of the American Dream: “Portraits of selves reside inside or beside portraits of desirable or desired others, too. The other’s desired life is a fashion or style, there is no inner to the outer-wear. Fashion and style rule because the shopper assumes the style of the designer and imagines it’s his or her own. When in fact he or she is merely branded. (See Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)” Erving Goffman is a touchstone for Zeke, as are Sigmund Freud and Clifford Geertz and a smattering of cultural anthropologists and thinkers, but it’s through Goffman and his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that he considers performative qualities we bring to the daily interactions that define us. In effect, Zeke confirms Goffman who confirms the old Shakespearean adage—“The world's a stage" — in that the roles we play and the way we convey (and betray) ourselves is a choice, or a repetition. Habits, they make you. Or they become you. A disruption can also change you. As Zeke remarks at the beginning of Men and Apparitions, he’s been conjugating breakfast for his entire life. It seems relevant here to tie in Tillman’s writing on the gaze and the desire in Cindy Sherman’s photos, from an essay in The Complete Madame Realism: [Sherman’s] photographs are not about her. They are about us. Human beings want to look at themselves, and the ubiquity of the camera and its photographic products demonstrates that obsession. People construct ways to look at themselves and others. It is an incessant desire, impossible to satisfy, which creates more pictures. Humans stare at each other longingly, or with disgust, anxiety, curiosity. People watch people, as if everyone might live in a zoo or be a zookeeper...Sherman’s art registers the restlessness of people to see who they are, or who they might be or become. And what will happen to them. Tillman, through Zeke, is not asking how should a person be or how does the world look, but rather, how does a person become? And how do images complicate these notions of ourselves and this desire to become someone else? Zeke’s rhythm of thinking, his patois, his clipped observations, his tendency to employ maxims evoke a far different mind than the narrator of Tillman’s previous novel, American Genius, A Comedy, whose smooth recursive thoughts loop back on themselves, riffing on skin, memory, and American history. And yet, what unites their voices is Tillman’s commitment to writing the drifts and vagaries of the mind, attempting to capture the generation of ideas on the page, and to stay with them over an extended period of time—here for nearly 400 pages. The depths Tillman plumbs seem almost paradoxical to a novel so intensely focused on surfaces and photography. It’s as if Tillman is acknowledging that life is life, but the active life occurs in the interface with the mind. Thinking is life. Zeke’s inaction or as he puts it, his "Hamlet disease,” is pitted against a multitude of photographic surfaces. Zeke’s depth begs the question, how does coming to know Zeke through voice differ from knowing him through an Instagram feed? And do the profusion of images surrounding him threaten depth of character, as in, will our surfeit of images lead us to understand, or “see” character or personality differently? Think of the balderdash on Twitter, the sound bites, the seduction of social media feeds, selfies. The fragmentation already. The novel ends in fragmentation. A field study, “Men in Quotes,” was performed and collected and arranged by Zeke, but his observations merely order the responses by subjects interviewed about their roles, their love lives, their relationship to masculinity. Of the largely heterosexual pool, some are confused, some admit to repeating their fathers’ lechery, some admit to desiring partners who are equals and more independent than their mothers, some aren't mystified by women while others still are. Zeke articulates his idea of the New Man as a reappropriation of James here. too, but with a twist: Guyville in Jeopardy: The New Man is analogous to Henry James’s New Woman, but change for him isn’t about his greater independence; it’s about recognizing his interdependence, with a partner, in my study, usually female, even dependence on her…He must recognize different demands and roles for him, and for her. A New Man must investigate the codes that make him masculine, and the models for hetero-normative behavior. And make him who he is or was, make him what he never believed had been ‘made.’ This new awareness of interdependence between sexes seems all the more timely, and fragile too, given the resurgence of the strong man, partially as backlash to this new masculinity. As this recent headline in The Guardian states, there's a crisis in modern masculinity. This too is shifting, not set. “We think we can be whatever we want to be,” says one subject in Zeke’s field study. “Men in Quotes” is a collection of observations more than a summation, and it’s meaningful that the voices are not mediated through Zeke. It’s also curious to note how this section nods to the final chapter of Susan Sontag’s On Photography—“A Brief Anthology in Quotations”—which collates an assortment of quotations relating to photography; this in itself nods to Walter Benjamin’s cataloguing of quotations documenting the shift to modernity in Paris in The Arcades Project. Earlier in On Photography Sontag observes, “A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations.” Men and Apparitions, then, appropriates Sontag’s linguistic equivalent of the photo album with “Men In Quotes,” and in doing so marks its own shift in voice. Ending the novel with prismatic voices speaking to the many facets of the New Man is a deliberate opening of form to other voices, and quite literally, too. The responses from interview subjects are in fact responses to questions Tillman posed to a small survey of interlocutors identifying as male, age 25 to 45, and "Men in Quotes" features a glimpse at their candid responses with Tillman's Zeke acting as a guide. Could this making room for other voices also mark a shift towards a new form of novel? It opens up possibilities. The gesture expands upon a form used in David Shields’s Reality Hunger and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, where the proximity and ordering of quotations creates a narrative of its own. Like setting images side by side. Like in the best books, where readers' imaginations are coaxed to leap. Men and Apparitions is a loose and beautiful baggy monster of a novel that opens in on itself like a fun house hall of mirrors. What a tremendous experience it is to walk through, never quite sure who’s who or what you’re looking at.
2017, I resented you and your Twitter feeds, the obscenity of your news stream. The skyrocketing of petulance and greed. The normalization of hate. It was a year of half-read books: too difficult to concentrate. But books, they were also, for me, bright stars against the dark night of our political nadir. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book tore a hole in my soul. A semi-autobiographical novel about the break-up of a marriage: think Scenes from a Marriage, think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set with West Virginia as its backdrop. The sad, clever, and at times woefully misguided Scott chronicles the fallout of his marriage to Sarah, ICU nurse and self-appointed caretaker of helpless things. It’s a sad beautiful song of bleakness and alienation lined with sunbursts of tenderness and redemption. I loved Jess Arndt’s slender gem of a story collection, Large Animals, for its ways of seeing. Arndt's uncanny observations give life to desire, to despair, to the smallest things. In her stories, the mundane is drawn anew—waves appear "like sandwich foil that had been crumpled up and hucked away," a refrigerator's shelves, like a rib cage. The embodied sensuality lies in stark contrast to the narrators’ struggles with the physical encumbrance of inhabiting a body with breasts, and fantasies and fears associated with having them surgically removed. I've spent months teasing out relationships of teenage girls in my fiction, and sought out other fictions that depict the young girl with complexity: their surly, backbiting, tender, loyal, and vulnerable ways, the ferocity of their attachments. Megan Abbott’s Dare Me did this brilliantly well; I am loath to admit I so enjoyed a book about a team of high school cheerleaders, but, oh, I did. The girls are drawn with such intelligence and wit. Edith-May, loner and protagonist of Coco Picard’s graphic novel Chronicles of Fortune would hate cheerleaders, I imagine, as much she hates bachelorette parties, and for this (and many other reasons) I adore her. "If I have to eat a penis lollipop I'll die," Edith-May tells her roommates (who consist of a mountain that's grown in her city apartment and a crocodile she took in from the roof). Edith May's superhero alter ego comes to life after the death of her mother, though she only appears at night and suffers from ennui. Together they encounter ghosts and healers and moth populations and find ways to grieve. Kate Zambreno’s powerful, lyric processing of her mother's death in Book of Mutter is an artful encomium and stunning homage of a book that at its center conjures Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” I'm in awe of Vivian Gornick as a thinker and reader and of her powers of observation with regard to the city (New York) and of her love/hate relationship with her mother in Fierce Attachments. I'm still not over Patty Yumi Cottrell’s beautiful and devastating Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, whose narrator returns home after her brother's suicide in an attempt to piece together his reasons and instead finds her parents inhospitable and in denial. And last in this line of loss is the first Elena Ferrante I've read—Days of Abandonment—consumed in what now seems like a prolonged summer haze. Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is a brilliant book of interlinked stories that revel in wordplay, and that depict the lives of temporary workers in the UAE and their families and their interchangeable identities in the eyes of the state. In contrast, these characters are so vivid on the page—a woman tapes together workers who have fallen from tops of buildings; a son throws his grandfather’s ashes into a river; a suitcase sprouts legs, a man devours, and in devouring, becomes a plane. Dispensability is key, too, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which tracks a group of refugees housed in Berlin through the vantage point of their tutor, a recently retired college professor. We see Richard's privileged life and its relative continuity (despite the fall of the Berlin Wall), his companionship of friends who are like family and have grown old with him, and the stark contrast this poses to the lives of the refugees he befriends and attempts to help. They're survivors of genocide and oppression who escaped via harrowing journeys. They are subject to bureaucracy without rights, subject to prejudice against their skin color and origins, shuffled at the whims of the state, condemned for the burden they pose while not being allowed to work or to settle there. The disregard for the men’s lives is staggering—as is their suffering, the ways state’s intercession only perpetuates the shuffle and undercuts their humanity. Go, Went Gone, is an important book. It's impossible to read and not take a long, hard look at how we're all implicated. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]
1. Observe. Akerman. In Book of Mutter, Kate Zambreno writes of how she remembers her mother always cleaning, scrubbing the floor on hands and knees, the house her domain and her garden her reprieve. At the end of her life, when time was short, her mother laments how she had slaved for her family. Was cleaning a form of exorcism for her? Perhaps. Zambreno draws a parallel between domestic labor and the endless task of doing and undoing in art-making with a nod to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman as an example that encompasses both. It’s a three-hour film of a woman tending the kitchen, feeding her son, taking occasional gentleman callers -- the housewife in her element as durational performance. Zambreno writes: To be a housewife in the old mold, was to live by the rule of erasure. One day’s operating around pretending nothing occurred, no mark made. Ordering one’s life by rooms. But also: Akerman refuted this role too. In her first film Saute Ma Ville (Blow Up My Town), she’s a young girl unskilled at domestic labors, making a mess in the kitchen, attempting to mop but absolutely not adept, pouring wine and eating spaghetti alone, humming to herself. A misfit in the kitchen, who lights the stove and lays down her head on the burner. The screen goes dark as it explodes. It’s an exorcism of domestic labors, a deathblow to housewifery, a desire to not just to walk away but to blow it all up. Despite this domestic dismantling at the beginning of her career, Akerman continued to return to the home in her work. Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, primarily unfolds within the confines of her aging mother’s apartment, with the exception of scenes of landscape interspersed: trees flailing in the wind, the camera moving through seemingly endless barrenness. The film is a tribute to Akerman’s mother and her habitual space of existence. Through Akerman’s own restlessness and itinerancy, we see how she is anchored by her mother’s presence. And so it's important that Akerman films their Skype conversations. Her mother asks why she does this and Akerman responds, “I want to show there’s no distance in the world.” The film is a way to negate their inevitable distance approaching through death, to hold on, to make the present permanent. The film captures the gradual but marked progression of Akerman’s mother’s physical decline over months, perhaps years. It captures their patois of shared intimacies and inside jokes, their mutual adoration, as her mother loses autonomy. Soon she can’t eat by herself or swallow her food. By the end she’s barely able to stay awake. Akerman with no home but her mother makes this chronicle of her physical decline even more devastating to witness. At one point Akerman sets up the camera in a way that the image evokes a Mark Rothko with its swaths of color juxtaposed. There’s a wall, the door, and the sliver of room between, through which her mother’s body moves unaware of the camera’s eye. We hold onto this movement, watchful and meditative. The end of the film is marked by a silence. The apartment empty, dark, hollow. Akerman’s mother died shortly after the end of filming. Months after the film’s release, Akerman committed suicide. 2. Absence. Rothko. It is April, I am visiting the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. I am not sure why but I thought the chapel was a gallery and that the canvases would be more like those commissioned for the Four Seasons in his later period -- the deep red hues fiery enough to envelop if not consume, the color of Henri Matisse’s decadent "Red Studio," a color that inspired Rothko to become a painter. But the chapel is a chapel and the 14 paintings here are a variation on black, muted, somber, meditative. They draw in the viewer in a more subtle way. It takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the chapel’s dimness -- a pall pale in comparison to the tropical scene of palm trees, vivid blue sky, shrill bird calls, just beyond the doors. The colors reveal themselves slowly -- black in shades of charcoal gray soon take on distinct hues -- muted purples and deep greens. The triptych hung at the back of the chapel begins to undulate as I gaze: gray skies, purple storm, dust clouds and through them a tower, disintegration, falling away. It’s not entirely different than looking into Yayoi Kusama’s "Infinity Nets," the sense of dissolution and the eternal -- all and nothingness. I come to the chapel twice. The first time a meditative man sits in the center of the chapel, with a notebook before him. His body revolves from painting to painting in a clockwise fashion. The next day I return and the man who had been in the center the day before now sits on a bench and periodically raises his arms, his legs. I sit on a cushion on the floor, with my back to the door, and I stare into the triptych again. Sitting here conjures a dream I had the night before: I’m standing in Lake Michigan, with water all I see before me, rising and choppy with storm, engulfment. The water drawn in the same hues as the paintings. I sense the possibility of drowning. But also, a raft. Rothko conjures thoughts of my mother and of her absence. My mother is alive and yet I have struggled all my life with her absence, her depression, and mine, my fears of leaving her alone with her sadness even as a child. In some way it’s an inheritance of lost mothers -- I the inheritor of her loneliness, as her mother was institutionalized when she was a young child. An affinity for Rothko is one of the few appreciations I’ve shared with my mother in my adult life. I think of this staring into the vast openness of the painting, the canvas like a black hole, falling into absence. My aunt and mother visited me once during my years living in Brooklyn, and we went to see Red, John Logan’s play about Rothko’s life and work. I’ve come to equate Rothko’s later years with this play, this color that I was expecting to see here in the chapel. In the play, Rothko tells his assistant, “There's only thing I fear in life...One day the black will swallow the red.” Perhaps it’s fitting that I’ve forgotten the black in favor of the red: the red was the play, the red was my mother so alive that night, touched by Rothko’s idealism and passion, his arrogance and melancholy, his discipline and rage. We both recognized some aspect of my father in his character, with mutual love and disdain. My mother was so present. It dawns on me now with distance that this darkness, this black of Rothko is also her, and more familiar than red. 3. Exorcism. Zambreno. Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter is an elegy, an archive, a palimpsest of fragmented memory. The book is built around the absence of her mother, who died from lung cancer more than 10 years ago. Its writing is an act of exorcism, ostensibly, but as I read further, I realize it’s also a conjuring, a wish to make her mother’s absence present. “What does it mean to write what is not here? To write an absence,” she wonders. She wrestles with the desire to conjure and in doing so, to purge; she struggles with its impossibility. It’s like walking through a series of empty rooms, once occupied, in an attempt to reinstate the former occupants. How to move forward? It’s a Beckettian dilemma: “…I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” When she writes “I would like to see the house on fire. The crowded theater of my mind,” she evokes Akerman’s doing so. She aligns her project with Louise Bourgeois’s Cells, specifically her "Cell (Choisy)," pictured on the cover of Book of Mutter: a white model of Bourgeois’s childhood home, set behind a fence, with a guillotine blade hanging just above -- the severance imminent. She quotes Bourgeois speaking of her artistic process: To have really gone through an exorcism, in order to liberate myself from the past, I have to reconstruct it, ponder about it, make a statue out of it and get rid of it through sculpture. This book is a repository of Akerman's pondering and conjuring, which it seems becomes a process of accretion and erasure, not to rid but to write and to conjure again: “Over a decade now, my multiple attempts at reconstruction…” It’s as if the book’s language has broken with the weight of sorrow. Just as when Zambreno first recalls her mother’s white dress worn to her graduation and can’t bring herself to write that this is the dress her mother is buried in, as if in doing so she would kill her again. If Book of Mutter is darkness, intimate, fragile, poignant, a book of grappling with her mother’s death, it’s Zambreno’s first book, O Fallen Angel, that’s the exorcism, fiery with intellect and passion. A grotesque American Gothic -- filled with vitriol for capitalism, for suburban comforts, for American solipsism. It’s a takedown of the Midwest archetype, reproductive futurism. and the hegemony of Mommy, dimwitted, fat-assed, always well-meaning. Mommy here is guillotined by cruelty and in this fairytale -- she deserves it. But from the beginning, Book of Mutter is already undone. The text is fragmented, blown open as the author struggles to articulate absence, to write a book with its central figure missing. We encounter Zambreno’s mother through pieces, assemblage -- the contents of her purse (tissues, tobacco); the altar of her bathroom cabinet (Clinique lipsticks, powders, Vaselines); the photos (her mother in the floppy hat, with her ex-husband, "someone else's wife"); their matching outfits. The objects are talismans, just as her lists of female artists are potential surrogates. To find a narrative through art, through others, is one way to both elevate her mother and to share this loss, to make it closer to comprehensible. Like Sylvia Plath, like Anne Sexton, her mother a tragic figure. Like Roland Barthes, like Henry Darger, motherless, she mourns. Like Bourgeois, she attempts to break from it. But in the end nothing is “like” her mother’s death, nothing compares, nothing is or can replace her mother. It’s her loss, her grief, her own and tremendous. And yet, as author she also becomes a réalisatrice playing and replaying, flipping through her archive of memories, orchestrating -- like watching films again and again -- attempting to extract an essence. Zambreno casts her mother as lead, mysterious beauty, with cigarette, Coach purse, floppy hat. If she’s present here in literature, it seems there is the potential of moving on. And all the while Zambreno asks, is this exorcism, like her mother's cleaning, an endless pursuit? As readers we witness her interrogation of the art as she’s making, her purging alongside her memory’s refrain. It’s a mutual understanding she’s leading us through, an unearthing of how to continue while unable to. From Darger and Bourgeois she asks this too: Was art for both of them -- a form of exorcism, to be able to channel and control, their abandonment, their past?” A form of survival.
The first story of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s that I encountered was about a harsh school mistress chastising her students during a trip to the zoo. Her voice struck me as singular, her characters, haunted, abject, and captivating. They still do. But don’t take my word for it, read her “Young Robert,” read her “Peace.” She has said that when she writes she pictures herself “as a lonely old man who has just taken a room in a decrepit boardinghouse. He sits at a desk and tries to write himself out of the present moment. Anything can happen.” Yes, anything can and does happen in her stories, but also this lonely old man stands beyond time. There are switches of wood, bedbugs, and pitiable schoolmistresses. Her first novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, has garnered comparisons to Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and Robert Walser. Patty Yumi Cottrell and I spoke at length via email about her novel, her fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s houses, and the “grotesquely strange” human soul. For our correspondence, we agreed on a prearranged process: each message would be written after having taken a walk, and each message would contain an image. What follows are are the results. Dear Patty, Before my walk today I put on a jacket I haven’t worn in ages because it’s 70 degrees in February -- in Chicago. I detest the long winters here and relish this interjection of warmth, but I also can’t escape how obscene it is to enjoy this first wave of global warming. When I put on the jacket, in the pocket I found a fortune from last year. It says “You will be awarded some great honor.” And I thought, what an auspicious beginning to our conversation. Of course I am thinking of your novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, and how each time I read the book it succeeds in both destroying me while making me laugh and my heart swells with empathy for Helen as she attempts to piece together the reasons behind her adoptive brother’s suicide. I’ve never read such a delightful yet devastating novel about suicide and loss. I would posit: I think Helen would hate the phrase “my heart swells” -- she wouldn’t want it. I do think she wants to be seen, and she isn’t by her family. She is in her 30s, shares a cramped studio apartment in Manhattan with a roommate, and is estranged from her adoptive family. When her adoptive brother kills himself, her parents don’t reach out to her, they let her Uncle Geoff make the call and he emphasizes that no one expects her to come home for the funeral. She does return to Milwaukee, to seek out clues to her brother’s suicide, attempting to keep her grasp on the universe, it seems? She’s unhinged and, yes unreliable too, yet as I see it she’s perhaps the truest, sanest person in her family: unable or unwilling to play their games of social propriety, keeping up appearances, she’s blamed for not forging a connection. For her severity toward her family she was once called admiringly "a coldhearted bitch." Perhaps this ability to tell the truth, or at least her truth, and cause (their) displeasure is where Helen is/was divergent from her adoptive brother? Anne, I like what you've said here. Thank you. I don't know what's the truth or insane or sane. I wrote the book in a state of feeling unhinged and uncertain about reality. Life was unraveling. In a way, it was the perfect moment to write a book. Or to begin writing. Helen is a fairly resourceful character despite all of her flaws. Her investigation is about discovering the truth, but even that seems problematic, as if anyone can ever know the truth about a person's life and death. I think that's impossible, so the search itself is flawed. I can empathize with that choice though. She does the best she can considering the circumstances and who she is. That's pretty admirable even if she's kind of an asshole at times. Her brother is my favorite character though. He's tender, delicate, and strong. Right now I'm in the desert. It's clearing to come out here. The plants are special. Two men just walked by me and one of them said, "It's very Chinese." I kind of hate overhearing other people's conversations. Patty, I love eavesdropping, the glimpses into other conversations, intruding on an intimacy you haven’t earned, briefly, then falling out. I like peering into windows of houses for the same reason, imagining how the lives within intermingle and part. Today I walked past a large modern structure under construction, the house looks like a series of connected boxes and has large desk in the front window -- but from my vantage point the window appeared to contain another smaller, cozier house. I have been thinking so much about houses and dwellings in relation to your book: what a house means to Helen’s adoptive parents, Helen’s own shared studio that her brother thought suited her, the homeless woman in Helen’s chapbook: “How to Survive in New York on Little to Nothing.” Helen admires doorways, and her brother too says he wants to keep doors shut -- metaphorically. Can you talk about the houses in your book, what a doorway offers, the threat a door poses? What does one’s dwelling say about them? And also of your fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s house? Anne, The space of the house is one of inertia and avoidance. The furniture is off-putting, the rooms are suffocating and at the same time places of rest. No one in the house knows how to communicate with one another. I don’t know what the doors represent. It’s weird to talk about doors without thinking about the band The Doors. They’re not that cool, but when I was in high school I used to love them. A friend and I would try to smoke really gross weed and drive around and listen to them. What a recipe for disaster and trouble! I was just telling a friend how sometimes I Google street view some of my houses from childhood. I walk around the neighborhood and look at the plants and trees. I have no idea if that’s normal or not. In my favorite house, which was in suburban Pittsburgh, I had my own bathroom. There was a skylight above the toilet. I always thought that was weird. It’s my favorite house because there I was the most miserable. Every day I can wake up grateful I don’t live on Wedgewood Drive anymore, so that’s kind of a gift. I love looking at images of Thomas Bernhard’s houses in Austria, how their exteriors seem harsh and weird, like his writing. That mirroring between his houses and his writing appeals to me, maybe because I’ve been a lifelong renter, scrounging around for scraps to inhabit. You never saw where I lived in Brooklyn, but my bedroom was windowless, the walls were curved, there was a foot of space between the bed and these dressers that had been in the bedroom for years before we moved in. One day, I was cleaning behind them and I found a few bullets. Patty, Childhood misery can become such an attachment. It’s a conundrum. I just saw that Whistler’s "Mother" is on view in Chicago -- I was forced to stand in line to see it as a child, and when I actually saw it I thought people were crazy. It was so overrated, so muted. My first thought hearing of its current tour was disbelief that it’s still this thing -- but also, that I want see it. Will I have a different experience? It was the first piece of art I detested. Helen’s childhood misery is demonstrated as one long act of refusal. Makes me think of Bernhard’s misandry, but then also it’s Bernhard I think of with the balding European white male apparition. I sense an anxiety of influence but also of disconnect, that Helen isn’t his heir, can't be. He may be Helen’s father’s wet dream but as the biological daughter of a Korean woman, there's so much distance. The balding European man, too, is helpful in some way isn’t he? How do you see his role? What does Helen need? I’m also curious about writers you read as a child, and now, who are your influences/guides? Anne, I feel certain you will love that painting as an adult because it will remind you of that exact moment you realized it was possible to detest a piece of art. I like what you’ve said about anxiety and disconnect. I tried to see clearly this balding European man, but from where he came or what’s his role, I can’t say. I don’t know. I think it’s okay to admit that. Brandon Shimoda linked his appearance to whiteness and suburbia. I think the European man could be an accumulation and materialization of those suburban experiences. But I don’t really know. For me, writing this book was about freedom. I wanted to work with a voice in which anything could materialize at any point. That freedom is the main thing that compelled me to continue on, even when I had trouble. So Helen is sitting on a chair, starting to freak out a little at her inability to communicate with her parents, and a balding European man appears. In my opinion, that's perfectly reasonable. Let’s see, when I was little I liked Anne of Green Gables. I related to her situation as an orphan and outsider. As an adult I’ve probably been the most influenced by my friends who are artists and musicians. Many of them live in Milwaukee and Chicago. I admire people who have figured out a way to navigate the madness of this world. Russell Westbrook, Bill Callahan, Jesse Ball, Fiona Apple, Renata Adler, Kara Walker, etc. Patty, When put that way, I see the balding European man as a kind of proxy for Helen in her adoptive parents' house, whether imagined, hallucinatory, or not, he is a needed (albeit aloof) companion in her investigation, and an injection of Western rationality. As in, he assures her there are clues and thus a logic behind her brother’s suicide. Though I guess there is, really: Helen discovers he orchestrated his death in a way that he didn’t engage in his life. For me the suburbs surface in the blandness Helen’s brother attempts to hide behind: the white rice, the vanilla ice cream, the ways he hid his difference. I’m thinking too of lies he tells to appease: the interest in fly-fishing, the professor he told Helen he assisted. It’s generous and tragic, this denial. He’s very good at keeping secrets. To me, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is very much about navigating the madness of a world where more time and energy is spent in denying or mitigating the extent of its madness. Beauty lies in acknowledging this, and finding a way through it? I just saw Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, and I was so relieved and frustrated to see Uncle Vanya fail at any attempt of ordering his life. It was cathartic. He couldn’t even hit, let alone kill, the man he took shots at! Helen’s adoptive brother is perhaps as forlorn as Vanya, but he has agency, and, well, he succeeds. This navigating the madness of the world: is this process ever past tense? Perhaps the beauty of finding a way through it lies in showing that it’s possible? How is anyone supposed to live with anything? Helen asks this of Elena and now I ask it of you. Anne, The navigation of the madness of the world is endless. I agree with you, that Helen’s brother does have agency, and perhaps integrity, too. I don’t know how anyone lives with anything. I do the best I can, but there are days I just want to zone out and watch the NBA and listen to Royal Trux and smoke a cigarette, if I smoked cigarettes, which I do not. I used to smoke a lot. I remember Jesse Ball suggested lucid dreaming an impossibly large cigarette, to cope with the effects of withdrawal. In my opinion, the way through the madness is to see things clearly, to allow yourself to be surprised, and to have a sense of humor. Now that I’m looking at what I just typed, it sounds like advice for a marriage. Not that I’ve ever been married. Maybe another way to navigate the madness of the world is to not get married. This is what I’m thinking today. It might change tomorrow. Oh, Patty, I loved smoking too. I had my first cigarette on my 14th birthday; later that year I was caught smoking in the graveyard at school. As I recall my mother was pissed but amused -- something in line with: “The continuous work of our life is to build death.” That's Simone de Beauvoir quoting Montaigne in the opening line of her Ethics of Ambiguity, which I just started rereading. As soon I read the sentence I was struck by how it's a defining tenet in STDTP. And maybe life is like a long marriage? I feel like Helen needs new coping strategies, the waterfall coping strategy is soothing, but like bad self-help, the Fiona Apple coping strategy was perhaps more effective? Your narrators can be so severe, abject and so gripping. I’m thinking of Helen, but also the narrator of your recent story in The White Review. I know you spoke of freedom being significant to writing the novel, but what draws you to a character? Anne, That quote from Montaigne reminds me of the Bernhard phrase from his novel Correction: “deathward existence.” A page after “deathward existence” appears, there is, "The question has always been only, how can I go on at all, not in what respect and in what condition.” Out of context, that line seems dramatic, but when I came across it, I remember finding it dry and funny and serious. In general, I am repulsed by my characters, and yet, I’m drawn to them, sometimes I even admire them. I like characters who are engaged with their world, their circumstances, their flaws. I have a fondness for neurotic and delusional humans, so why wouldn’t I write about them? I think my short stories are closer to poems and drawings in terms of content and form, rather than traditional short stories with fully developed characters and plots. I draw my short stories with thin, ugly, haphazard lines. So the characters themselves can be thin and flat. They stay the same, because there’s not enough space in the stories for them to change. Patty, I’ve passed a number of sidewalk lending libraries during our exchange, and whenever I have I've peeked inside. Perhaps because I’m already thinking of your novel, I’ve been surprised by how the titles engage: Twenty Things Adopted Children Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew (I could see Helen’s adoptive parents having this book, but also it failing to bridge their distances) Contribuer à votre succès (a French, bougier version of Helen’s guide: How To Survive in New York on Little to Nothing) Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise (opening with a passage about never having known someone who killed themself, never having read a suicide note) Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena This last book I took. Most of the correspondence is one-sided, Kafka’s letters published in a series without Milena's responses. He writes of lung health and sanatoriums and Milena’s critiques of German spas. One of Milena’s essays in the appendix concerns whether letters of notable people should be published. She chastises those who are disappointed by artists lives —--“If you are disappointed by an artist, my dear girl, this is only because you haven’t understood how to find him, and don’t know how grotesquely strange the human soul is.” The grotesque strangeness of the human soul! This is what you’re saying about character, no? I then thought of Egon Schiele, the way he conjures this too. Perhaps your work is neo-expressionist? It made me wonder, which books, which visual artists/movements do you feel your work shares an affinity with? Anne, I love Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise. You should go back to the sidewalk library and get it. Go, immediately! I’m excited for her next book, The Collected Schizophrenias on Graywolf. I own Letters to Milena, but haven’t opened it. I don’t know if I’m afraid to, or what, but that line you’ve quoted makes me want to read it. It makes me sad that Milena’s responses do not exist. Isn’t that sad? You’re right about the grotesqueness of the human soul. I like Egon Schiele. I don’t think I’d align my work with any artistic movements. I pick and choose the artists I like, disregarding time or movements. So I like Brueghel, Kara Walker, José Lerma, Glenn Ligon, Allison Schulnik, Mark Bradford, Tintoretto, etc. I think my work has a lot in common with Tyson and Scott Reeder and John Riepenhoff, and many other artists from Milwaukee. They were all part of this scene at The Green Gallery, one of of my favorite places in the world. We would play basketball on the weekends and have dance parties in attics. All of this informs what I write about and how I see the world. There’s a lightness to what goes on at The Green Gallery. It’s never heavy-handed, it’s playful and fun. John Riepenhoff and his brother Joe were some of the first people who acknowledged me as a musician and artist. So I would align myself with them. Of course, I was a failure as an artist and musician, and that’s why today I write. But I’m in debt to them because they encouraged me to fail. And that’s a beautiful thing to do for another human, to encourage him or her to fail. Painting by John Riepenhoff.
Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, Kristin Hersh’s chronicle of her long and complicated friendship with the musician Vic Chesnutt, was the first book I picked up this year, and little did I know then that its title would set the tone for what was to come in the following weeks and months. “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” is a pact Hersh and Chesnutt made, with regard to their music, with regard to their lives, and through her book Hersh attempts to come to terms with the loss of her cranky, tender, and at times cantankerous friend who died from an overdose on Christmas 2009. But 2016 followed much in suit, full of broken promises, full of much sucking and dying, heralding the loss of visionaries David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen, whose lyrics and music provided a soundtrack for my coming-to. I can’t help but think their absence has set us further off-kilter as we stumble into a future aligned with Cohen’s dystopian vision: “the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul.” Books like Fanny Howe’s Indivisible offered refuge. When reading Howe, I sense the necessity of writing as if breathing, of seeking the sacred alongside the profane. “Snow is a pattern in this story,” she writes, and it is; she follows the singularity of experience against an awareness of the multiplicity, community. Protagonist Henny resists complacency; an act that causes her discomfort tells her she’s doing something right: “I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded most -- to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me.” With depth and melancholy and bitter humor, Jacob Wren’s Rich and Poor pits narratives of a greedy billionaire CEO against an impoverished laborer focused on one goal -- killing the CEO. The apathy of the wealthy and those in power, their ability to act with impunity, without conscience, and with cruelty towards laborers and those on strike resonates too deeply with the times. And now, rereading Rich and Poor in light of Donald Trump’s election brings a different clarity. The mechanisms at play have been in place, and will continue, or not, depending: The roulette wheel spins and the numbers that come up are the ones that win. If you were a left wing activist in Germany in the twenties or thirties there would be little you could do to stop Hitler. And yet it’s important to believe there is always something you can do, to lie to yourself a little, because at least then you have a shot. This may be couched from the CEO’s perspective, but the question stands: how does one reconcile the impossibility of making a difference in the world while attempting to live as if you still can? Fantasies, or rather, delusions and the way these delusions imposed upon others can have deleterious results, even a kind of violence, is what intrigued me most about Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea. I read this book while staying at my aunt’s house beside the ocean for two weeks, and I could deeply understand Arrowby’s desire to retreat from his hectic theater life to a refuge where he could reflect and write. But in doing so he fools himself into thinking what he lacks is what he desires, and he goes to great lengths wrecking havoc on other’s lives with his hapless grasping. I also read Brandon Shimoda’s Evening Oracle while staying by the sea. The ocean is filled with water and whale and fish and ships and detritus, and together they comprise its vastness, even if when we think ocean, we think body of water or perhaps its outline on a map. Evening Oracle is a collection of poems that contains the sea and herons and plums and crossing vast distances; it also features other poet’s poems and excerpts from many email messages exchanged. The plurality of voices together remain spare, taken together form a patchwork quilt of a document. Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers is a book I carried with me for much of the year. Opening its pages is like entering a portal to elsewhere, dipping in sloughed sleep from my head, or rather maybe pushed me further in. Mommy is such a tender term and yet here it’s slippery and laced with contempt: mommy is caretaker, mommy is authoritarian, and with her swarm her body multiplies. Mothers eat moons, rats devour rabbits and pigs, rats crawl through corpses, flesh is rotting, it’s a garden of earthly delights as all hell breaks loose. Perhaps this masochism and curiosity with messy and failing bodies explains too why I go to Adam Phillips for insight into human desire, motivation, fantasies, and our (at times) delightfully misguided ways. This year it seems we’re no closer to knowing what we desire, in fact as a plurality we seem to be drifting even further away. The Beast in the Nursery and Terrors and Experts go hand in hand, pitting the capacity of knowing against the ability to be absorbed, investigating what we're avoiding with the thriving business of distraction, the tantrums we throw when we feel deprived, the curiosity that drives our inquiry into the unknown, the unrelenting desire for power and control. Lynne Tillman’s story “Madame Realism’s Conscience” is a good place to start, when thinking about power and the presidency: Those who ran for president, presumably, hungered for power, to rule over others, like others might want sex, a Jaguar, or a baby. Winning drives winners, and maybe losers, too, Madame Realism considered. Power, that’s what it’s all about, everyone always remarked. But why did some want to lead armies and others wanted to lead a Girl Scout troop, or nothing much at all? With power, you get your way all the time. Madame Realism, Tillman’s alter ego, is a divining rod to offset the cartoonish post-factual state, and so I consider the newly released Complete Madame Realism as part of the antidote. And, I remind myself, with the end of this year, a new one begins. Will I read differently? Yes, I’m certain. I will start the new year with a more auspicious title, or one that’s better equipped for what’s at stake -- perhaps Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, or Patty Yumi Cottrell’s forthcoming Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? 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Who has baby fever? Belle Boggs does. Or rather, she did before she had her daughter. An attempt to understand this self-described “child-longing” during her trials with infertility treatments and her inability to conceive was one of the driving forces behind writing her book The Art of Waiting. As Boggs writes, in Scandanavia this phenomena is known as “baby fever,” and has been studied by sociologist Anna Rotkirch, who believes this desire is not a social construction but rather the expression of an instinctual longing. Rotkirch conducted a study where she placed an ad in a paper that asked people to write in with their baby fever experiences. She was flooded with letters recounting dreams of babies every night, of the need to touch onesies, of the desire borne of holding a child, of the agony of not having one. Not everyone has baby fever, thank goodness. I don’t have baby fever but I am prone to obsessive thinking and my curiosity about this specific obsession and the ways that I’m not in its thrall is part of what drew me to Boggs’s The Art of Waiting. Also, Boggs is a smart and attentive writer, and her book is championed by Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison -- two writers who’ve helped stake out a distinct corner in the medical humanities. The Art of Waiting promised to engage in a multifaceted dialogue, not just with Boggs’s experience with infertility treatments, but also with the broader cultural implications that lie at the intersection of child-longing and infertility and reproductive technologies, their benefits but also their detriment, and what this child-longing means for us as human animals and whether we have a choice in it. The first half of the book delivers on this, for the most part. Boggs offers an engaging and empathetic description of her inability to conceive, the way she felt personal failure. Excluded from the natural rhythm of life, Boggs became even more keenly aware of mating among human and nonhuman animals, the ways that some species like marmosets depend on the suppression of reproductive capabilities because of limited resources within a community. She considers too mating in captivity, how at a North Carolina zoo, one female gorilla mates to conceive while another is given birth control as she’s groomed to take over in case the child is rejected. Boggs considers the possibility of never having children, and briefly arrives at “the conscious possibility of a new purpose, a sense of self not tied to reproduction,” though with regard to the book, this is fleeting. She considers Virginia Woolf’s bareness and, as counterbalance, her creative output. Boggs writes too of the ways that her students become surrogate children -- and how they never ask why she doesn’t have biological children, because, she surmises, “they think they’re enough.” But of course they aren’t. We know this as readers, and it’s easy to consider Boggs’s dilemma with compassion. But also, she might want to go one step further and ask, why isn’t it? Boggs holds the reader close as she tells of her travails and heartache associated with her inability to conceive. She writes of watching Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the high school English class she teaches. She points to the way that George kills the imaginary son in the last scene, and wonders if this killing was cruel or necessary. Boggs looks at this tendency toward surrogates among infertile couples, how Virginia Woolf wrote in her story “Lappin and Lappinova” of a marriage held together by a shared investment in their imaginary “private world, inhabited, save for the one white hare, entirely by rabbits.” Boggs too has a place within this lineage: she writes about how she and her husband unwittingly created an imaginary stuffed animal family when they first married, how they’d bring them out for holiday meals, but that later, after not being able to have children, this seemed more like a masquerade that embarrassed and pained her, and so she stuffed them in a basket with other bric-a-brac and shoved it all under the bed. And sometimes Boggs’s imagination is too willing to shove ideas under the bed. She writes wistfully: “Nonhuman animals wait without impatience, without a deadline, and I think that is the secret to their composure.” This is an oversimplification of animal experience and it doesn’t interrogate or even attempt to consider the ways that other animal species might long to mother. Anna Rotkrich found -- as Boggs pointed out -- that a longing for children and to mother is instinctual. So why would Boggs assume another animal species would not feel this? Perhaps they’re at a loss to express it -- to her. Boggs’s interpretation gestures toward other species but is inherently anthropocentric. She conjectures rather than wonders, and this shuts down the possibility of delving deeper, to interrogate, research, consider, and perhaps even attempt to find companionship, an alliance, or at least acknowledge the mothering and longing that any animal might feel. Of course we all have limited life spans and periods of fertility, and while animals may not be aware of or able to communicate this longing and desire in human terms it doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by a similar longing. When I was a child I was gifted with a book about Koko the gorilla who was taught human sign language as part of a graduate student’s experiment. Koko asked for a cat but was given a stuffed animal. She knew the difference and signed, “sad.” When she was given a kitten she mothered it as if it were a child. How is this not mothering? And why did Boggs, when writing and researching this book, not try harder to think about the experience of the nonhuman animal beyond her own anthropomorphic fantasy? Boggs writes too with sympathy for the gorilla at the North Carolina zoo who’s forced to take birth control, but she also assumes that this gorilla doesn’t feel her longing: “To wait without knowing [one] is waiting.” Maybe not her longing, but how does she know what this gorilla thinks? Isn’t this pure conjecture? Boggs looks to the nonhuman animal, to these gorillas, seemingly to expand the conversation about motherhood beyond species. But instead she uses them as a screen for her own longings. To speak of longing: what longing must salmon feel to swim upstream from their adult habitats back to their birthplaces so that they can spawn and, as a result of this journey, die? Perhaps if Boggs had encountered Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of umwelt she might have considered that the gorilla has a distinct sphere of existence, that its methods of communication and perception don’t necessarily translate to terms she can understand. The onus was on Boggs to delve further, to have researched the ways these animals long or don’t long for motherhood. To consider what this child-longing might mean for nonhuman animals, what mothering means beyond one’s own progeny. Wouldn’t that have reinforced Anna Rotrich’s research that baby fever is instinctual? I can’t help but wonder, if this gorilla had been taught human sign language like Koko, would Boggs have been able to make the same proclamations? And if the answer is no, it seems that this is an inherent flaw. But also, Boggs’s observation denies that many human animals do wait without impatience, that we don’t measure our personal success and failures by our reproductive capabilities, that perhaps we might recognize that a child could bring personal fulfillment, but that we don’t measure our worth by it. Among those of us who aren’t natural caretakers, bringing a child into the world might signify an end as much as a beginning. I recently sat up late with friends, all of us in our late-30s or early-40s and childless and okay with it -- we realized how we would be obligated to care for a child. A child demands an investment in petty conversations at times. A child is always brilliant in its parents eyes. At least until it develops its own mind. It’s easy to talk about from the outside, I realize. I see too how a child can be a source of fascination, of seeing anew. I have seen friends' lives replenished and nurtured, a newfound satisfaction with life brought on by the presence of their children. But what about the idea of not having children? What does this mean historically? Boggs talks about how in the period after WWII zero families thought it was ideal to have no children. That’s changed now, or common sense tells me this. But has it really? Despite waiting longer to have children, the number of women without children in their early-40s is falling. The Washington Post recently featured a profile of philosopher Travis Rieder who works at the Berman Institute of Bioethics and who published a book about the ethical imperative of limiting reproduction. We can limit our carbon footprint most significantly by choosing not to have children, and, with significant climate change and its consequences in our near future, Reider offers a radical suggestion for action to take now: “Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.” Reider himself has a child, and admits this was largely a concession because of his wife’s desire to have a child. But in The Art of Waiting, these types of ethical considerations are largely superficial or left untouched. The pressure to reproduce within families is one that we need to shift, Reider argues. And this isn’t entirely different from the “reproductive futurism” and the indisputable cult of the child that Lee Edelman described as a driving force of our heteronormative society in No Future. Edelman posits that the jouissance and non-reproductive sex associated with queerness is precisely what threatens the cult of the family, this continuous process of self-perpetuation. In the 12 years since Edelman’s book, perhaps tables have reversed, so that the idea of not reproducing is now a way too to perpetuate life. But what I’m pointing to is that The Art of Waiting for all of its intelligence and care and research isn’t invested in considering the broader cultural and ethical contexts of assisted reproduction, of whether or not this desire to have children should be fulfilled. Or whether alternative forms of mothering when one can’t carry a child to term might not conform to Boggs's idea of mothering, but could be just as dynamic and fulfilling. Of the privilege of having the choice and resources to choose IVF, Boggs discusses the financial investment, how costs can reach close to $100,000, and how some states have laws that mandate health insurance cover at least part of this. Boggs’s answer is that she largely supports making infertility treatments more accessible. Of course she does. But it’s also more complicated than she’s willing to grapple with. It seems that an obstacle to Boggs’s consideration of motherhood, infertility, and medicine is that she did conceive. That her great longing was fulfilled. With the help of contemporary medicine she was able to bring a genetic child to gestation, a child that she carried within her womb. She had this child and perhaps it’s unconscionable for her to truly consider the alternative forms of mothering and meaning-making and mothering through care-taking, for children not her own genetic makeup, for other species even. She says that she and her husband consider adoption, but do they really? I don’t get the sense that this was a serious consideration -- adoption is someone else’s choice, but not Boggs’s, and despite being down on their luck, they were privileged, were able to invest in IVF and conceived a daughter during their first course. Perhaps my expectations were set because of Biss’s endorsement. Her own book, On Immunity was also published by Graywolf. As someone who’s sat through an eight-hour class on vaccination and administration schedules and live versus dead vaccines, I can vouch that the straight science is rather tedious. But Biss stumbled into a rabbit hole when deciding whether or not to vaccinate her son and with which vaccines, and accompanying her as she finds her path through this is fascinating. Her son anchors the narrative, but provides more of a stepping off point to discuss the cultural history: the ways that milkmaids didn’t contract smallpox because of their exposure to the virus through a cow’s udders. About Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, Dracula’s need for blood as a critique of capitalism, and about how choosing not to vaccinate as a privileged, less-at risk family, isn’t ethical. That immunization is about the community, and as much as we’d like to think of our bodies as distinct islands, we’re truly interconnected. While Biss states that the decision to vaccinate her son was an ethical decision, one that she felt she had to do despite its risks, Boggs also states that IVF was the best choice she and her husband ever made because they conceived their daughter. And while she may believe this personally, she says this without reflecting on its ethical underpinnings, like what this means for the habitability of our planet. Boggs talks about the ways infants vie for resources in the wild, but not the ways limited resources will play out for human and nonhuman animals in the near future. Many people are choosing not to have children for the good of the planet. Because of the carbon footprint. And to not consider this interconnection in this highly personal decision is an avoidance I can’t not think about, perhaps fixate on, in relation to this book and discussion. Maybe it is enough for Boggs herself to “[tell] the stories that don’t get told, the ones some people don’t want to hear,” of what she and her husband learned before they had their daughter -- of the little known difficulties and travails of adoption, the infertility message boards and support groups, the way that passion and pleasure are replaced with clinical monitoring and pharmaceutical intervention and hormonal regulation associated with in vitro fertilization. But The Art of Waiting isn’t memoir. It lacks the interrogation and consideration of what it truly means to mother beyond the heteronormative definitions of vaginal birth and sharing your offspring's DNA. Boggs looks to nonhuman animals for answers but lacks interspecies empathy, or openness to other possibilities -- perhaps because she doesn’t care to ask, perhaps because she now has a natural-born child, perhaps because it might cast the best decision that she’s ever made in a more muddled light? It’s obvious Boggs considers herself a success story. With patchwork she’s found a heteronormative solution, in fact, it seems that her answer is that she wishes similar luck for other who long for children. That they might not have to wait so long. This is unfortunately where the discussion rests.
If I had only one word to describe Annie DeWitt’s prose it would be “equine” not only for the elegance of her sentences but also because of their strength and poise. The threat of danger lurks too -- a subtle awareness that at any point a scene might buck and kick and tear away deep into the thicket. DeWitt’s writing has always been intrepid: I recall from the first time I read her work in a writing workshop with Diane Williams its intensity and lyricism and mystery, her characters ability to seduce, as in, to make you want to listen to. Her debut novel White Nights in Split Town City, doesn’t diverge in this sense. The book is set in Fay River, an isolated town where the closest neighbors are also the only friends, “a fact established by proximity and common denominator.” There are horses here, too, to be ridden and groomed; here nature seems boundless and because of this more fearsome too. It’s in Fay River that Jean grows up while living with her parents and sister, Birdie. White Nights is a coming-of-age tale, yes, but one that looks unflinchingly at what it means to be a young and come into one’s own, at what it means to be a woman and mother, at the responsibility and loneliness and disillusionment that so often comes with adulthood, at the varieties of feminine desire, at adolescence and the newfound thrill of sex and empowerment, at the secrets that are known and those that remain hidden. White Nights captures so tenderly this sweet spot of falling into adolescence, the first luscious taste of independence and, with it, vulnerability and endangerment too. The Millions: You mentioned in an interview with Luke Goebels for The Believer, that you are both fans of “bringing a radical eye to the page.” I’m curious to hear more about what this means for your writing and specifically in this novel. After reading White Nights in Split Town City I wonder too about the presence of a radical ear, as well as a radical “I”? Annie DeWitt: I love your point about the radical "I." And too a radical ear. I grew up learning to play classical music via the Suzuki method. I try to bring that same kind of radical ear to my work -- I am constantly evaluating the sounds of words -- both lyrically and sonically. Where do they mesh? Where does the tone or the pace shift? What section should be played "Lento," "Legato," "Fuerte," "Fortissimo," etc. My understanding of the radical ear was solidified for me in Mrs. Hull’s sitting room in front of a piano in a small split-level house in 1998. I remember the first time I sat down and played for her. Afterward she was appalled. Mrs. Hull had an air of distinction about her, or at least wanted to cultivate one. Her husband’s Dartmouth banner hung over the front couch -- even though he probably hadn't attended since the '50's. The piano was a chestnut colored baby grand and was always finely polished and covered in stacks of classical music books. She was British. Or, at least she seemed British in my mind. She was also a piano teacher. She was not a warm woman, but she did not lack imagination. She opened up one of her classical music primers and said we’d have to start from the ground up even though I'd been playing for 10 years at that point. For the following week I was supposed to practice Mendelssohn's “Song without Words.” As I played she sat next to me and dictated the piece as one would a story: “Close your eyes,” she said. “Imagine...here you are on the proscenium. The curtain is drawn. The crowd is hushed. The red velvet at your back. Then in marches the troops!” Another day she taught me how to play by thinking of the sound patterns a sewing machine makes when you press and depress the petal with your foot. I've always admired writers who embrace the radical "I." I don't mean radical in the way of "outlandish." I mean an "I" that is truthful, that hasn't been seen before. That has something to tell. This could be a very quiet "I" like in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping (which I adore). Or, it could be an entirely inventive, postmodern "I" as in George Saunders's Pastoralia. Or, it could be the kind of drunken, religious, plain spoken "I" of Barry Hannah. Or, the visual and journalistic "I" of James Baldwin or the empathic eye of Flannery O'Connor. In many ways I think the radical "I" comes down to empathy. Being an empath means that when you look at person you can't help but hear his/her story unfold. A person on the side of the road next to the bus station as you drive by. Their life, their loves, their hardships grab you by the throat and shake you. Too, I've always admired people who live fault forward. Courageously. Without fear. When I think of Baldwin writing Giovanni's Room, I am struck by his courage. Not only because he was writing about a man leaving his fiancée for another man in Paris -- but too for the depth and honesty of the feelings the book conveys which in turn feel universal. On a basic level, it's just another love story. And on another, it's about living a revolutionary act. The radical "I" is about a desire to show the backside of life -- the complexities, the places where the self falls apart -- without embarrassment. TM: Fay Mountain, where the story unfurls, is so isolated that there’s only one other younger family living within proximity to Jean’s, which means they are friends by default. I’m struck by how Fay Mountain is a character, idiosyncratic and cut off, and more vulnerable to natural woes -- infections, fires, the people who set them, failing bodies, unchecked desire. What was important to you in depicting this rural mix of feral and refined? And what writers of the rural and works do you feel your book draws from and/or engages with? AD: When I think of writers who engage with place I immediately think of the start of Hannah's story, "Waterliars:" When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The line-up is always different, because they’re always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it’s spelled on the sign. I’m glad it’s not my name. This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past. Whenever I teach the story, I always say -- what's the most important line in this opening? "I'm glad it's not my name." That says it all. The whole point of the story is that encountering the truth is the hardest thing to do. That this man is named Farte -- "with a great French stress on the last syllable" -- in this small town in the American South, immediately casts him as an outsider. It's such a small detail but it shows that he's going to be forever beholden to this fate of not fitting in with the locals. And yet, Hannah immediately turns that on it's head and says -- don't feel too bad for the guy -- "he's a great liar himself." Lying, of course, being an asset in this town. A way of "passing." I was drawn to Fay Mountain in White Nights for the same reason -- here were a lot of simple truths, and rumors, and "better paid liars" as Hannah says so eloquently, living on the small rural road where I grew up. These people were difficult to encounter and yet their stories -- plain as they may be -- begged to be told. In the middle of "nowhere" all you have is the self and the self's encounter with the world. People living in isolation understand that. TM: For me, White Nights conjures an element of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, specifically Jean’s childhood filled with silences and seemingly endless days of abandonment, and also -- much differently, a crisis with domesticity. When Jean’s mother abandons the family Jean is left to wander without much oversight. Could you talk more about the space that loneliness and vulnerability occupy for Jean, and the others too? How does it empower her too? AD: It's interesting to hear the word "abandonment" used so frequently when talking about White Nights. I think of the mother's leaving in the book as Jean's great opportunity. The thing which allows her to encounter the road, and everyone living on it for better or worse, without filter. I've always been interested in what people call "maternal instincts." We are raised to think that this is something instinctual to women. I find this to be a fallacy. There are many ways in which one can be "maternal" without having children -- one can teach, raise plants, rescue animals, become political, write, speak, sing. To me these are all "maternal" acts -- as they represent a way of caring for the world. And yet once you become a mother you are tasked with the very real challenge of raising a life. The mother daughter bond is essential. However, it sometimes fails. Think of the "Strange Situation" in which a mother leaves the room and then reenters and the psychologist watches how the child reacts in the mother's absence and then again upon her reappearance: It's the strength and continuity of this first bond which defines attachment -- how we are then able to go on and function in adult relationships. Jean is in an interesting situation. In many ways, the mother is the victim of society's expectations. I think so many women born in the '50's experienced this -- the idea that they must somehow grow up to be mothers -- that this was the imperative. I feel for the mother in White Nights, as this is an imperative which I myself have not met. As I approach my mid-30s I deal with this lingering question everyday -- what does it mean to not have children? However, for Jean's mother, this question is even more imperiled -- for her the question becomes, "What does it mean to feel the burden of having to care for the children you've already had, when society never truly gave you the choice to decide if you wanted to ‘mother’ at all." TM: I was seduced by Jean’s mother’s charm, much like everyone else in the book. But as a mother figure Ania’s ambivalence about mothering and domestic upkeep leaves something to be desired. Ania believed that interesting people lived lives “whose subsistence required very little upkeep, yet whose true thriving was provided for by acts of excess.” Inevitably, this perspective leads to a fraught mother/daughter relationship. I’d love to hear more about this tension for Ania, between her responsibilities for family and her ideal life, how Margaret’s friendship provides a foil, and the possibilities this opens or closes for Jean. AD: There is something seductive about this mother -- she "flips every switch in the house" upon her return. Margaret too feels this pull -- particularly in that scene where the mother is buttoning Margaret into her coat and runs her fingers through the elder woman's hair. White Nights is all about exploring these unprogramatic, hidden tensions -- woman to woman, adult to child. These types of taboos. To me, "attraction" is a very interesting word -- it implies something sexual, but also intellectual. The mother in this book is attracted to Margaret for her intellectual freedom, for the fact that she's British, smoked cigarettes, never had children, and is "othered" by her "purebred old world blood." For the fact that she reads Didion and Yeats. Of course, Margaret is a photographer. She is allowed the freedom to capture the world from behind a lens rather than be captured by it. She tries to teach Jean that in the scene when Jean spends the day with Margaret in the lawyer's house. And yet when Margaret asks Jean what she thinks of the photo they've developed together, Jean reads the photo literally and says, "I've never been much good at diving." In that moment, Jean experiences a great disappointment in herself -- she knows this is not the answer Margaret was looking for. Margaret is all about encouraging Jean to harness "her intelligence." To think independently. And yet, ironically enough, Margaret at one point is challenged by her own freedom -- her alcoholism. She kills Wilson with her car. I wanted this scene to represent the central question in the book -- how and when are women victims or victors of their own agency on Fay Mountain? TM: A difference in values: Father states that one’s ultimate goal in life should be “authoring something authentic” while for Mother it’s closer to the Didion quote: “Style is character.” How does this tension play out regarding art, creation, upkeep, and by extrapolation, mothering? In this way too I’m curious about her relationship to the Georgia O’Keeffe print Ania buys—it seems that she wants to be both artist and image, but can one be both? AD: The idea for the O'Keeffe print came from Didion's great essay on O'Keeffe in The White Album. What initially drew me to this essay is its humor. The section in White Nights is paraphrased from Didion directly, Margaret says to Jena's mother, Ania: O'Keeffe attended art school in Chicago, The boys there were always encouraging her to abandon her practice and become an art teacher or a live model. One even went so far as to pint over her work to show her how the Impressionists made trees. At twenty-four O'Keeffe said she moved to Texas because there were no trees to paint. The section ends with Margaret's remark: When the men asked her why she painted “Red Hills” instead of her traditional flowers, O'Keeffe replied, “A red hill doesn't touch anyone's heart." I mean -- could there be a better come back? "A red hill doesn't touch anyone's heart." I think I relate to this line so fiercely. With White Nights I didn't want to write a "feminine" book that was going to touch people's hearts -- I wanted to write a book that wasn't afraid of going to the depths of the darkness of which people are capable -- and showing that in the plain light of day. I often get the comment that my work feels "masculine" in some way. I find this humorous. Women too can see the world for exactly what it is. There's this great line in an interview between Marguerite Duras and the French journalist Xavière Gauthier which was transcribed in the book Woman to Woman. Duras is talking about her novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein. She recalls: I was experimenting with this blank in the chain. On the inside there's an extraordinary surveillance so that nothing escapes. But what's its about is simply noticing...the accidents: that is, a displacement, a voice. She calls these blanks "anesthesia's -- suppressions." TM: What seemed most radical to me in White Nights is how female sexuality is depicted so openly and variously. The reader is privy to the way that Ania’s beauty empowers her while Jean’s, as a young girl, makes her more vulnerable. We hear the sounds Ania makes having sex through Jean’s ears, and we watch as Jean haphazardly experiences her first forays into desire and sexual experience. Despite the transgressions against Jean, the novel doesn’t veer into shame or judgment -- or even dwell there. This restraint seems like an authorial call, and one that perhaps also comments on the haphazard experiences that accompany sexual awakening. I’d love to hear your thoughts on navigating all of this. AD: I recently read this quote by Lao Tzu: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” White Nights sets out to explore this distinction. To me, transgression is about the ways in which love makes you vulnerable, courageous, deceitful, intoxicated, alone. I think sex for Jean at this stage is an enigma -- one which she walks into out of a deeper curiosity about the adult desire to be both wanted and free. She understands that sexuality is a captivating and capturing force. She sees her father watch the light between Callie's rear and the saddle as she trots off down the road and remarks on how he both "fears and admires it." I think Jean too feels a kind of attraction and repulsion at the idea of adult love. She sees how it has trapped someone like Otto Hause -- his dying wife, his son who will never leave home. And too she sees how it is something which both defines and entangles her own mother -- making her the center of attention but yet harnessing her to her role as wife and mother. Jean's first encounter with the male gaze happens when Otto Hauser watches her play the piano from the vantage point of his porch in the evening. He sees her through the window and -- though he can't hear the sound she makes -- he imagines the sound based on her body movements. In that moment, Jean understands sexuality to be about a kind of "fame which nearly embraces you." This, I think, is a dangerous rubric for a young woman. To feel that her power is relegated to her physical self -- an area in which Jean feels somehow inferior to both her mother and her sister, Birdie. In many ways, Otto Hauser provides Jean the basis to "prove" that she too can be captivating. That she too can be more than a brain. That she can somehow toss off her intellect. This is what saddens me the most about this moment, that Jean doesn't realize that it's actually her intellect and her ability -- to play a sonatina -- which captured Otto's Hauser in the first place. That indeed talent itself can be a draw. I've always been interested in the Sontag quote that beauty itself is a talent. Though I've always thought of Sontag as a great feminist and one of our most inspired thinkers (and transgressors!), I think there is a danger inherent in this idea that beauty is a talent rather than simply a gift. How do you define beauty? Is it culturally relativistic, etc.? Of course it is. To me, raw physical attraction itself can never have the kind of gravitas of human intellect. But, I too am an aesthete, and am often completely subjugated in the face of raw beauty of any kind -- human, artistic, architectural, linguistic etc. -- as Sontag was. In many ways I feel like what she was saying was, "Human relations are based on attraction. Even friendships are based on a feeling of being drawn to some quality in a person which you yourself desire to possess." TM: We met in Diane Williams’s fiction workshop at the then Mercantile Library, now the Center for Fiction. I recall vividly how Diane urged us to write into spaces that terrify us and mention this now because one thing I admired most about White Nights was how scenes slipped into terror while depicted so tenderly, with such awareness. I’m wondering if this was a lesson you took to heart, or were there others? AD: One line from a recent interview on craft I did with Diane for The Los Angeles Review of Books will always stay with me. She said, "Getting up and shouting out the rawest stuff of life is a formidable business." I couldn't agree more.
Lydia Davis’s story “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman” gives a condensed history of the esteemed scientist’s life. I’ve read it so many times that in my mind Davis’s Marie Curie has replaced the historical Marie who lived and developed theories of radioactivity. Historical Marie is a series of accomplishments listed in a Wikipedia entry, with a brief interlude about her personal life. Davis’s Marie is strong-willed and stubborn, a brilliant woman who lost her partner in work and life early and unexpectedly. She also won the Nobel Prize, twice. * Davis translated a biography of Marie Curie from French, Marie Curie: A Life by Françoise Giroud, published in 1986. Her story is an extraction from this, quite literally a winnowing of the biography. The story was first published in McSweeney’s and was accompanied by an exchange between editors and author, where the author acknowledged this. The text, factual as it may be, when compressed becomes a story. * It’s an erasure story: the elisions far outweigh the text that remains. What other stories could have been made? * What does it mean to write a story with a historic writer, artist, figure at its center? There must be an attraction, some kind of affinity, recognition; something within their words, their work, their life, must beckon. I also think it must be a bit like acting: with the character and arc already determined, the author must find a way to inhabit the role. * Sean Penn transformed into Harvey Milk in the biopic; his gestures became Milk’s gestures, his gruffness replaced by Milk’s sensitive, effeminate, conscientious presence. When I think of Milk now, I think of Penn’s body, its contours, flowers around his neck, arm in the air. Milk’s identity is suspended between the historical figure and the image that moved across the screen. * Director Frances Bodomo’s film Afronauts presents a vivid reimagining of the failed Zambian space program. Bodomo spoke after a recent screening at the Graham Foundation about how images from archival footage must exist for these moments to live on in cultural memory. Like with Apollo 16 -- man on the moon, space suit, barren landscape, American flag implanted -- we’ve all seen it. * Imagination must be fed, or perhaps when it’s fed it perpetuates a fantasy that becomes conflated with history. * When memories are retrieved, they’re brought into the present as if they’re happening again. In these moments, memory can shift before it’s archived. This new information embeds and co-opts memories over time. * In fiction, words are like gesture, observations are filtered through a singular perspective, a character’s inner life accompanies action, so that the reader observes through another’s consciousness. To write a character fully, to inhabit it, the writer must insert herself. * Carole Maso writes in her author’s note to Beauty is Convulsive, her prose poem devotional to Frida Kahlo, that “As my own words and concerns intertwined with hers, the book also became a deeply personal meditation: an attempt to be in some kind of dialog with her across time and space -- and with myself. The desire was for distance and earth to diminish between us.” Danielle Dutton says of her experience writing Margaret the First, a novel about 17th-century authoress Margaret Cavendish: “I had to let myself into Margaret, and Margaret into me.” * Kahlo’s star still shines in cultural memory, evinced by Julie Taymor’s recent biopic Frida, and the ubiquity of Kahlo’s self-portraits, making her determined brows, her emboldened beauty iconic. Kahlo is remembered as a central figure of 20th-century art -- yes, because of her (ex-)husband Diego Rivera, but also and mostly because of her energy, her intensity, her paintings. She is female artist hero. She has entered the realm of myth. * To say Cavendish has receded from cultural memory assumes she had a foothold to begin with. We don’t read many 17th-century writers these days, and among them there were pitiably few women. Virginia Woolf brought Cavendish into the 20th-century imagination in A Room of One’s Own, (however disparagingly) and also in her essay, “The Duchess of Newcastle.” It seems the only other place one is likely to encounter Cavendish is the university, and perhaps not even there. * Margaret Cavendish was a 17th-century authoress, the Duchess of Newcastle, wife of William, who kept company with the likes of René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. She was a fiction writer, philosophizer, with a vast imagination and no formal education beyond what she gleaned from her brother’s tutors. * Cavendish is also the subject of Danielle Dutton’s second novel, her third book, Margaret the First. * Margaret the First reads like an attentive diary, giving glimpses into Margaret’s imaginative mind, though in the last third of the book the perspective switches to third person. This is also the period where she returns to England after a long exile, when she reaches maturity as a writer, and later descends into madness -- maybe. The shift allows for more ambiguity and distance. * Each sentence in Margaret the First is like a piece of sea glass, exquisite and unyielding. The sentences stand out for their crafting, not overly ornate or precious, but determined, assured. The language conjures Gary Lutz’s lecture “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” -- it occurs to me that these are the kind of sentences he speaks of, each sentence a feat, “a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummate language -- the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.” * The novel shows a restraint and confidence that perhaps Cavendish’s writing lacks. Virginia Woolf criticized Cavendish for her childish mind, “The impetuosity of her thought always outdid the pace of her fingers,” and “the wildest fancies come to her and she canters away on their backs.” Woolf accused Cavendish of lacking logic, of consorting with fairies. These deficiencies can be construed as qualities of imagination in Margaret the First, where a young Margaret watches lightning from a window as “a ghostly army of silhouetted trees fought against the sky.” Or when she observes her own states of mind: “There were little green-patterned moths dashing around the attic, bumping at the glass. I thought I felt like that. I dreamed the moths crept up inside the surface of my mind.” * While reading Margaret the First, I get the sense of looking at paintings, of stillness animated while turning pages. The immersion becomes almost meditative, like sitting before a Mark Rothko painting and melting into its colors. * In an interview, Dutton speaks of the kind of writer she has become -- once fast, now slow, interested in “attention as a radical act.” * Maso writes of devotion in her author’s note to Beauty Is Convulsive: “I see Beauty as a book of devotions. At its heart is Frida’s devotion to the image, to the vision, to the broken self, and to dream despite everything to be free.” Kahlo’s guiding theme in her work was to extract and depict “my sensations, my states of mind, and the deep reactions life has been causing inside me.” For Kahlo, painting is a lyrical distillation, to live is to experience deeply. * In Margaret the First, in Beauty is Convulsive, Dutton and Maso write the lives of Margaret and Frida, and in doing so wrestle with what it meant to be a female artist, how Cavendish and Kahlo grew into their writing and art, and nurtured their imagination despite the cultural forces opposing this, despite (and because of) their extraordinary circumstances, despite the expectation of producing children rather than manuscripts or paintings. * Fertility treatments didn’t work for Margaret, perhaps with relief. Later in life she “fears instead bareness of the mind.” Despite wanting children, Kahlo’s accident, her fractured hip and spine made her unable to carry a child to term. * And yet with the accident she began painting. * I write as if it were a triumph for her, a consolation. It was also a deep sorrow. * It’s an erasure story: the elisions that overshadow the text. What other stories could have been made? * I wonder about the child (missing from the) equation, how children would have influenced, inhibited, supplanted Kahlo's and Cavendish’s creative work. I often wonder about children and women artists in general, how with a child the balance shifts, but in which direction? the way children heighten a sense of wonder and freshness and meaning, the way children drain resources and time. I wonder about this equation in my own life. * It’s not an either/or equation, I realize. And we are living in different times. * Cavendish’s books were received warmly, though with more criticism than warmth. She measures herself against men, the illustrious thinkers who would visit her husband, the ones whose names 400 years later still pepper our intellectual conversation -- Hobbes, Descartes, Robert Boyle. Margaret is aware of the strikes against her, her sex, her lack of formal education, the way she must thrust herself, by writing, into the conversation. * Perhaps she did not realize the ways she benefited from proximity, from wealth and class, the ways she acquired a great deal of knowledge from intuition and access to her brother’s tutors, from listening in on discussions between brilliant minds, from reading pamphlets, from her active mind. This was so much. But it wasn’t enough. What was a woman to do with ambition? Bury it, it seems; she wouldn’t. Among men she was aware of her unequal footing. This, it seems, must be one reason why writing was so freeing. * In a world inhospitable to a woman’s imagination, Cavendish, in a sense, births herself. * She writes books, of course, they become an archipelago for her mind. She quite literally devises a world of her own in The Blazing World, a fantastical philosophical novel, a science fiction adventure in the discoverer mode. The book begins with a lady captured by a merchant and stolen away by boat, but along their journey the merchant and crew freeze and die. The lady is only one left to encounter this new world, peopled with bear-men and bird-men and worm-men, among other strange beasts. * In her introduction to The Blazing World, Cavendish anoints herself “Margaret the First,” the phrase taken as the title for Dutton’s book. In her imagined world, woman reigns. Perhaps the then not-so-distant Elizabethan era had helped Cavendish envision this: That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet I will endeavor to be Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet rather than be mistress of the world, since Fame and Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own. * Dutton’s depiction of Cavendish gives her life, so much so that I find myself considering scenes from Margaret the First as if it were a primary source. This is testament to Dutton’s description, the generosity of spirit invested in Margaret. Dutton’s account weaves the tendrils of history with her own vivid imaginings. * For example: when Margaret sheds her first menstrual blood, she is expected to act the role of a woman, which means she must do some dreadful things like wear chicken-skin gloves at night and “not spend [her] time writing little books.” The same day Margaret’s brother arrives home with a hawk, and she feels at a loss for her sex:” It is nobler to be a boy, I thought -- and looked back with nostalgia, as if I had just been.” * Does it matter how this scene unfolded? The detail is fictive, partially, perhaps entirely, but now supplants historical memory -- or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it appends or even amends the narrative. * And yet, what strikes me in this scene is that Margaret had to write her own escape, she had to give birth to an imaginative place where she could be free to think. In the novel, Margaret wishes she could extend her singular existence beyond corporeal limitations: “She wanted to be thirty people...To live as nature does in many ages, in many brains.” * Is it ironic or is it consoling that through Dutton’s depiction, Cavendish achieves this again? * This also Dutton’s feat -- these images, these imaginings and observations within Cavendish’s mind sprung from hers. I envision their worlds existing as a series of concentric circles, with Dutton’s Margaret the First the outer circle, Margaret Cavendish existing within, and Cavendish’s The Blazing World falling within the two. And yet, that’s a fiction too. Margaret Cavendish lives on through her own words, the text of The Blazing World is widely available online, easy to find and read, and Dutton’s Margaret the First may send curious readers back to the source. Perhaps it’s more accurate to envision Cavendish’s and Dutton’s writing existing within their own circles, corresponding as in a Venn diagram: their boundaries overlap and therein lies Margaret the First. * Then again, this may have nothing at all to do with drawing circles. * Words intermingle, conversations merge, the authorial voice gives life to characters in the reader’s imagination. “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” Cavendish/Dutton writes. Frida/Maso’s ecstatic cadences now belong to both, “ I have a cat's luck since I do not die so easily, and that's always something.” Fiction becomes artifact, author and subject merge. * With Davis’s Curie, it’s curious to observe how her style deviates so dramatically from the lushly imagined Cavendish or the impassioned urgency of Kahlo. Curie, too, is terribly ambitious, but she’s steadfast and stubborn, a minimalist. A scientist. And suitably, her demeanor, like the linguistic play in Davis’s stories is cerebral if somewhat removed. * To inspire means literally “to breathe in or into.” The subject must take hold of the author, quite literally breathe life into in order to run away with, to merge; the essence must embed. To breathe in and to breathe out, to inspire through writing and then to be rewritten, is one way to live as Cavendish wished, “as nature does in many ages, in many brains.” * An author must continue to be read, and if not read, then considered in order to stay alive; if her work lies dormant, there’s the possibility of being rediscovered and, through this, revived. It’s a reciprocal relationship, not so different from Isaac Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. * Margaret and Frida, through their thoughts and words in Margaret the First and Beauty Is Convulsive become real (again) through this intimacy with their reimagined lives. And yet the thoughts and words contained within these books belong as much to Dutton and Maso as they do to Cavendish and Kahlo. Who births whom, who inspires, who through inspiration breathes life? What does it mean to be a female artist, or really an artist of any kind? Like Athena emerging from Zeus’s head fully formed, Cavendish and Kahlo emerge from these books as mentor-mothers, born again in imagination and time. Image Credit: LPW.
Inevitably this year, as every year, when the darkness creeps in on both sides of the day and the snow begins to fall and remain, I become newly aware of the weight of unread books in my vicinity: the pile on my desk growing, having spread to the table beside my desk, multiplied into stacks on the window ledge and the chest of drawers, and eventually creeping out into the hallway. They’re in a holding pattern, beckoning to be read before being returned to the shelves. Collecting and its relationship to hoarding and of both to loss, is the subject of a wonderful, rambling essay by Douglas Coupland in e-flux, which touches on collecting across varied art forms. He writes about how the acquisition of objects fills an emptiness, a longing. This is true for my desire for books, as I imagine it is for many of you. And it’s many other wondrous things too, but come December the growing stacks become a commentary on the passage of time; the awareness of another cycle passing and outpacing me. Soon with the new year, these shortcomings will be transformed into new resolve and focus, the possibility of remaining abreast. But for now I hunger for these books to devour me too. Which isn’t to say I haven’t read and adored a number of books, this year. I have. The books that stayed with me seem so intrinsically entangled with these ideas of time’s passage, of regret, of collecting and fracturing narratives, of the need to live through art and the desire be devoured by it. A heightened awareness of the passage of time and to the arc of a life carries Jenny Erpenbeck's elegant and gorgeously observed The End of Days. The protagonist dies within the first pages as a baby, her parents filled with regrets, with could’ves and should’ves. The narrator is resurrected again and again, and so she dies again and again, too, the cycle of loss never-ending, and the characters always prisoners to time. It’s a novel too of marveling at life’s ephemerality and the objects (the books!) that outlast; it’s filled with the wish to defy time, to reverse it, to manipulate the ways the unseen future slips into a past riddled with loss and regret. Janice Lee’s Reconsolidation is an elegy for her mother, a laconic meditation in line with Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary. Writing the book was a way of engaging with the obscene presence of her mother’s absence. And yet, as the book’s title suggests, there is a looming awareness and sadness that this act of conjuring only further distances and distorts her memories. Included too is the soon-to-be published translation of Argentenian poet Alejandra Pizarnik's Extracting the Stone of Madness, a bilingual collection of the poet’s middle to late work. Pizarinik died of a deliberate drug overdose at the age of 36. Her poems portend this with their gnawing desire for solitude and death and birthing poetic bodies. Her words and imagery conjure a terrifying beauty best described by Rainer Maria Rilke: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure.” Suzanne Scanlon's Her 37th Year: An Index is an emphatic, fiery examination of female aging, art, longing, and desire. As she writes under the entry DISCOURSE: “I don’t want to write a mommy narrative or a menopause narrative. As Eileen Myles said, I want to...[be] punk about aging. I won’t fit into what is allowed.” And she doesn’t. The book confronts loneliness, infidelity, and boredom that intermingles with restlessness, depression, inquiry: “Does it mean that, like Fanny Howe, I believe that art must show that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t?” Scanlon retools the female narrative with language and observations that are at times piercing, and yet at others so tender. Consider JOY: “Four-year old musing & inquiry; for a moment I wish that Magoo would be four years old forever, that I might spend a life in this room...There are times it feels like Heaven, to have this life.” On its surface Jesse Ball's A Cure for Suicide is a tale about the relationship between two people, a claimant, who awakes with no memory, though is told he was sick and almost died, and an examiner, who teaches the claimant how to live in the world again. Their dialogue waxes philosophical, almost Socratic as they discuss the nature of being and interaction: what is an organism? what is a city? are twins different people? how to interact? Later we learn of a tender love story that ends with overwhelming loss and a potential cure, and asks the question, is it possible to start over? Dodie Bellamy's never-complacent essay collection, When the Sick Rule the World, contains her iconic essays “Barf Mainfesto” and “Phone Home,” which is where I first recall encountering her writing: a tender essay about dealing with the loss of her mother, the way they overcame differences and distances and how the movie E.T. became mythic within this context. Bellamy writes of her conflicted admiration for icon Kathy Acker, even after her death -- “I didn’t touch the ashes. I didn’t want to and she wouldn’t have wanted me to” -- and laments witnessing her San Francisco neighborhood’s gentrification. Also and significantly, too, she writes of her Midwestern roots and the burning desire for art that’s shaped her life: With her mother in the kitchen her father cussing and smoking, she with her notebooks and writing dreamed of escape: “hover[ing] above the world craneless, educated and beautiful, with a mind lofty and brilliant enough to defy.” Paul Beatty's The Sellout breaks the mold. It’s the most roiling, irreverent, and raucous ride of a novel, with blunt-toking Bonbon Me at the helm, child subject of his social scientist father’s racial experiments, and with his father’s death he takes over the family farm in the L.A. outpost of Dickens, Calif., (with hopes of catering to the new fad for ostrich meat). The book opens with Bonbon’s case being heard by the Supreme Court: he’s violated the 13th and 14th Amendments by reinstating segregation and by owning a slave, and why? Because he’s lost faith in the system and so he “did what worked.” The book blows up every black stereotype, leaving the detritus in his wake: Bonbon’s just trying to figure out who he is and how to be himself in a world that’s always trying to label him. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? 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The Size Queens re-conceptualize the album with their release of To The Country, a hybrid iBook/album whose “interpenetrations of song, text, and image” aim to generate new narrative forms. Band member/author Adam Klein writes: “We create these imagined worlds together, simultaneously uncontaminated and corrupted, through metaphor and code. ‘The country’ and the new world of applications are always polyvalent; it is impossible to make them remain at our service.” Also! This textual/aural collaboration features original stories by Lynne Tillman, Rick Moody, Maria Bustillos, and Joy Williams (first line reads: "Daddy didn’t want to be a social being and he didn’t want us to be social beings so here we are.") Download To The Country here (it’s free!) and read/listen/weep.