Wouldn’t it be weird if we lived in a parallel universe where we all had to keep a goat in our homes? Like for religious reasons and stuff? And we all had to worship the goat? Like the way that Hindus revere cows? I think it would be weird because goats are such awful, willful little creatures. With their devil eyes. And they just eat simply everything. See, because eventually we’d get annoyed with them. And that isn’t so good, since we’re supposed to revere them. And how can you genuinely revere something that you’re pissed at because it is gnawing on the edge of your couch?
One of my classes recently introduced me to an author named Lydia Davis. She primarily writes very short short stories (Some as short as a sentence). That isn’t what’s astounding about her though. What’s astounding about her is how good she is with language. She bends it like a mystic bends a spoon. Below are some of my favorite twisted utensils from her collected works.
On love and loss and sex and such:
… you’re planning it all, not in your head, really, somewhere inside your body, or all through your body, it’s all mounting up and coming together so that when you get in bed you can’t help it …
It isn’t over when it ends.
… she didn’t have to feel this was a burden, the fact that I loved her.
You can’t measure it, because the pain comes after and it lasts longer. So the question really is, Why doesn’t that pain make you say, I won’t do it again? When the pain is so bad that you have to say that, but you don’t.
And, everyone knows, to tolerate a person telling you about his childhood it is necessary to be in love with him.
We feel for such nimble rascals, such quick movers, such clever thieves.
It is in his moment of hesitation that you sense him as an intelligent creature. Between his pause and his change of direction, you are sure, there is a quick thought.
… they could wait for a person longer than a person would wait for them.
… at each moment in its life, a cat has only one concern.
On the Napoleon Complex:
Small men are often inclined to take pride in their good health.
On waiting for a woman to show up:
… and the more women pass who resemble her, or the more they resemble her, the closer I think she is, and the more likely to appear.
If she does not come it would be wrong to say I will miss her, because she is always so present in my imagination.
Her austerity sometimes borders on masochism.
On Women’s Lib:
… where henceforth will be the so-called superiority of the male man? In truth, I tell you: the time is close when women will become human beings.
This is the entire story (or is it a poem?) called The Fly:
At the back of the bus,
inside the bathroom,
this very small illegal passenger,
on its way to Boston.
And this is one of my favorites of hers. It has been stuck to my brain like napalm on skin since I read it a week ago. This is the entire story:
Information from the North Concerning the Ice
Each seal uses many blowholes and each blowhole is used by many seals. . . .
Those of you who enjoy dry academic criticism are about to have a good night! Below is a paper I wrote about Ian McEwan’s fantastic novel Atonement. If you saw the movie several years ago then you will remember that it is about a little girl who tells a lie that destroys the lives of the people around her. I don’t want to spoil it all (because it was a very good movie made by the talented Joe Wright who is a grown-up and who makes movies for grown-ups), so if you haven’t seen the movie then skip the next post.
If you’re brave enough to press on though, then you should know that the subject of this paper was defining the character of ‘the girl’ in McEwan’s novel.
Oh, and for those of you who enjoy novel adaptations, you will be happy to know that the movie is shockingly true to the book (insofar as it can be given that most of the beauty of the book takes place in the narrative). This green dress is in both:
Contradiction and Complicity: The Nature of the Girl and her Atonement
By James Bezerra
Down below the epic historical sweep of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, below the tragedy of lovers separated and of dreams forever deferred, there lies a dark question of character and of human nature. Both
stereotypically and then - ultimately - with great humanity, McEwen explores, condemns, and finally forgives the flaws of human frailty through the exploration of the character of the Girl.
There is no one girl in the novel. In fact all of the characters play their girlish roles at some point (including
the men). However it is primarily through the lens of Briony that the Girl is explored in all of her strange, self-
justifying, contradictory glory. Though the narrative moves freely through time, Briony is a girl of thirteen for half the novel and she is both more and less than the typical girl. “She was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so” (4). Her sense of order and of nearly narcissistic knowingness manifests itself in her early prolific writings. It is not until decades later – far removed from girlhood – that Briony herself understands that her writing was a manifestation of the malevolence of her own character. Of the writer she says, “There is nothing outside of her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms” (350). Even in the atonement for her crime, there is still a hint of the self-servingly superior in her voice. Yet Briony’s Girl-ness is not the only way in which McEwen reflects on the contradictory nature of the human soul. Girlhood is often conflated with childhood and shown in contrast to adulthood. Specifically the Girl is
used here as the subject to create a more supple understanding and because within the plot (as in society when viewed by a girl) maleness is often paired with sexual aggressiveness. Therefore the subject of the Girl is one that is additionally under threat more so than that of the Boy. Boyhood, in fact, is largely mocked as a state of idle helplessness, as in the case of the twin boy cousins, “Jackson and Pierrot seemed typical eager little boys who would probably do as they were told” (10). The state of the Girl however, is much addressed and from many directions; “It was an awkward age in a girl” (88) reflects the tragically doomed Robbie as he watches Briony recede away from him into the night. The contradiction here being that even as he is completely unthreatened by the girl, she is about to be his undoing. Even Briony is aware of something changing in her own Girl nature as she witnesses what she believes to be some sort of sexually abusive game play out between Robbie and her sister Cecilia, “Briony had her first, weak intimation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now” (37). Is the Girl so delicate and mysterious, so mythically pixie-esque a thing that even she mourns the death of her own girlhood?
Not as such.
McEwan does not so much seek to define what a girl is, as use the Girl as a device. This lens offers the richness and vividness and fundamentally elusive indefiniteness of the Girl to explore his characters in all of their rage and sadness, their hypocrisy and folly without having to pass final judgment on them; after all, who would presume judge a girl? What is a girl if not one who is as yet incomplete and therefore not prepared for judgment?
Ultimately it is Briony’s lie about Robbie that shatters the lives of those around her and even alters the tone of the novel itself. The complex and damning nature of Atonement is not so much borne out of that lie, but out of the irreconcilable dilemma of whether or not a girl can be blamed for a foolish lie told out of a girlishly simplistic misunderstanding of the adult world.
Patriarchal society often seems to flirt with the notion of the Girl as innocence embodied and therefore beyond the scope of serious judgment by virtue of being so far beneath it. McEwan turns that concept on its head by imbuing girlhood with subtle power and using that power to prop up Briony’s lie. If we know girls to be innocence embodied, the thinking seems to be, then we know them to be incapable of telling such an adult lie. Here again is the contradiction of the Girl that reaches beyond simply duality: idealized by society for goodness and simplicity (because those must always exist in unison, apparently) yet capable – by virtue of that supposed innocence – of changing the course of adult lives irrevocably. Here one must reflect on the contradiction of the character of cousin Lola; “who saved herself from humiliation by falling in love, or persuading herself she had” (306). Attacked and raped, Lola had been victimized, but in eventually marrying her attacker she becomes complicit in her own victimization. To reflect on sister Cecilia is to find a haughty young woman who forges her own independence not for the sake of it, but out of a loving and bottomless devotion to Robbie, which could be seen as simply a different kind of dependence. Here one must reflect again on Briony, so certain and so headstrong even though her thirteen year old self already lamented that her “life had ceased to be simple” (114). This wavering between simplicity and complexity, this oh-so pious mourning of something not even completely lost, represents a sacrosanct sort of self-absorption. “Briony inhabited an ill-defined transitional space between the nursery and adult worlds which she crossed and recrossed unpredictably” (132). It was in that ill-defined transitional space where her lie was conceived and her crime committed.
Again though there is more contradiction because it was to that same space that she would return some
fifty-nine years later in order to atone for her lie. Without that girlishly contradictory and interstitial place within herself she would not have been able to both recognize what she had done – “she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable.” (269) – and yet still seek a way to undo that unforgivable damage. Briony herself explains, “I like to think it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end” (351).
In this way the subject of the Girl is complicit in both the problem and the solution. She is both the alpha and the omega of Atonement, which is why McEwan’s narrative ultimately rescues even its own author, instead in favor of the aged dying Briony. She finds no problem being both character and writer. She finds no dilemma in herself, saying, “I still feel myself to be exactly the same person I’ve always been” (336). In this way it is only the Girl who is capable of committing the sin and atoning for it all on her own terms.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. New York: Random House, 2002. Print
Over the weekend I had to put my old cat Lilith to sleep. She had been a rescue from a shelter in San Diego seven years ago, so I had never known how old she was exactly. It was time for her though and I had maybe even put it off by a few months. She had never liked the vet and she buried her scrawny little head in my hand while she was on the table. This was her way of hiding, burying her head in my hand. This was nothing new. I made sure to look at her when the syringe of grape-juice-looking purple slid into the little catheter they’re attached. Part of me thinks that I wanted to be looking at her to encourage her in some way, It will be okay, I might have been whispering, but I wasn’t. Part of me thinks that I wanted to be there looking at her to make sure that she wasn’t afraid anymore. But I know that the real reason I wanted to be looking at her was because I wanted to make sure she wasn’t angry with me. I think that maybe I was trying to get her permission to not feel guilty.
We ascribe so much emotion and intellect to animals and quite a lot of that is just us, doing what we do. Having a cat is often just the adult way of having an imaginary friend. But I grew up in a dairy family and if cows can have personalities - which they very much do - then obviously cats can too. But is that enough? Does that mean she has the faculty to make me not feel guilty? The ability to know that she could release me from it?
Later I ended up going through old photos - always a dangerous proposition if your life has had as many hairpin turns as mine has - and I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried. And not just a little. But that’s the thing about crying, isn’t it? We try so hard not to and then once we get going, the crying seems to be self-justifying and then we just go ahead and have ourselves an emotional fire sale and we cry out whatever we need to. I’m a pretty tightly wound guy and I had a ton of stuff to cry out, so I did. And felt better afterward.
When all of that was done I was able to track down the cat pictures I was looking for. I was able to flip through them and be reminded of the way she was back before she was sick. That wiry little cat had been my companion through some tough times and though I miss her, I know that it was the right thing to do. And not just because that’s what we always say to eachother in these situations, but because it is actually true. Funny that we so seldom encounter that which is actually true unless there is some crying involved. . . .
Sitting down the happy hour bar from me there's clearly a father/son combo. Straw blonde hair and similar noses and dad in cargo shorts with Ray-bans up on his head and it strikes me - as I am one often struck by things - that lots of dudes grow up into dads and lots of sons look up to dads who are just dudes in cargo shorts and Ray-bans. And it makes me think that there's some arrogance required to be a good dad. Because, after all, you can't let your son know you're just a dude in cargo shorts. But maybe that arrogance is okay. Maybe it is required. I often wonder at the fact I don't have any kids yet. Part of me thinks that maybe that's because I'm terrified of not having all of the answers the way that a dad is supposed to. Certainly that's part of it. But also, I don't enjoy wearing cargo shorts in public. That's certainly part of it too.
So I have completed my third week of grad school and it seems that the third week is when things really get rolling. It is more work than I had thought, which might be why so few people - or so I’m told - actually finish a masters degree. As I write this I am actually just taking a quick break from a two day reading bender which I have to return to as soon as I’m done writing this.
Here are some of the things I know now that I didn’t know before:
- I am an exceptionally slow reader.
- It appears my standard workload will be reading two novels a week, reading two or three critical essays (usually relating to those novels), reading and commenting on two or three stories a week for writing workshop, and writing about some or all of that. Somewhere in there I am also supposed to be doing my own fiction writing.
- It is extremely easy to forget to shower and/or forget when you showered last.
- Even if I wasn’t in full-blown hermit mode right now (owing to the facts that I recently moved and recently started school and therefore don’t really know anyone) I would likely still be spending most of my time cooped up alone on account of the reading and writing mentioned above.
- There is a much more complex and strange and insular nature to the social circles of grad students then there was compared to undergrad students.
- I am drinking massively more water than I ever have before and the cause of that is simply mysterious to me, though it is likely a good thing nonetheless.
- The weirdly stratified and esoterically mysterious structure of the academic world is becoming more clear to me as I am starting to understand the internal logic of things like “conferences” and “presenting a paper” and “doing research” (about what, I’m still curious, does an English major do research?). This is all beginning to appear to me as if out of a mist of obfuscation because I am realizing that: 1) Academia is a tower of Babel that enjoys most having what it already believes repeated back to it, 2) Many - if not most - people in this world have barely a clue what in the hell they are talking about and so have built extremely rigid fortifications and battlements to protect their own interests and selves (I plan to lay siege to these, eventually. I just have to first figure out how.)
- Most writers are not nearly as good as they think they are (except for me, of course).
- I need to be more clear about the fact I am not bitching about life even though it often sounds like I am bitching like a little girl. My life is quite charmed right now. I get to spend my time reading and writing and learning. I will probably have to find a job soon, which will compact my current life uncomfortably, so I really am taking as much pleasure as I can in my days right now, though it might be hard to tell if you only take my word for it.
- The Rite Aid around the corner has the most illogical pricing I have ever seen in my life, probably owing to the fact that it is right next to a college and somebody at Corporate is counting cards and intentionally inflating or deflating prices on munchies and pregnancy tests.
- The rise of technology in/of the classroom has created a situation where a paper I have to finish for my 4pm Monday class is actually required to be posted to the class website by noon on Sunday, thereby robbing me of an entire day to work on it. I feel like the Grumpy Old Man sketch on Saturday Night Live a million years ago: “Back in MY DAY a paper wasn’t due until it was actually due!”
- I have learned (somewhat) to calm my nerves by reminding myself that I am only three weeks into a program that will likely last two years and that I don’t have to know everything yet and that I am doing okay.
Oh! I also learned that the Millennial generation has a much harder time getting my jokes. I blame this entirely on them. . . .
As someone who is currently being forced to read some exceedingly boring, self-involved literary criticism, I thought: why the hell not write some!
This is not so much criticism of the academic sort, but rather the sort of criticism that one receives from one’s mother.
I don’t mean to bemoan the state of modern American fiction so much as I would like to openly and actively bitch about it.
If we met at a very fancy party and you asked me who I read or who my influences are (this does actually happen BTW, and not just at parties in my own head) then I would say what I have been saying my entire life: I read Steve Erickson, I read Jonathan Lethem, I read Aimee Bender, I read Mark Danielewski, Don DeLillo, Junot Diaz, and on and on and on and I would hit all of the proper g-spots.
For those of you who do not go to these sorts of parties; imagine showing up to a new job where everyone watches Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Mad Men. And you say, “I watch all of those too!” but for effect you throw in Downton Abbey or Dexter or House of Cards, because you want to broaden the field. Or - if you really want to open it up - “I have been watching The State Within” or “I just started Skins on Netflix.”
Anyway. Point being, yes these are all good shows. Even if you don’t watch them, you probably have - at some point - seen them. And they are usually undeniably good. But are they satisfying you in a deeper way? Maybe they are. I don’t know that much about what satisfies you in a deeper way because you never comment on this blog and tell me!
Well imagine that you felt a personal investment in whether or not these shows are both good and deeply satisfying. Imagine that, while these shows are good and beyond reproach, you feel that they are missing something that there is an essential vitality and soul that just isn’t present in them anymore. That is how I have been feeling lately about the state of modern American literary fiction (what the rest of the world just calls: novels.)
I feel that there is a vitality missing, that some essential element of fear and of anger and of joy has gone out of that world.
Since we aren’t at a fancy party I feel okay admitting to you that while Steve Erickson has probably been for me the most formative novelist I have ever encountered in my life, his last two novels were almost impossible for me to get through. And Jonathan Lethem - though I love him so - seems to have been writing exclusively for the Pulitzer committee with everything he’s done since Motherless Brooklyn. Danielewski owes all of his counter-culture-hero status to House of Leaves and his work since then - I say this with all dues respect - would not have elevated him to literary luminary status. I’m fairly certain that Only Revolutions was written with the expressed (kinda D-bag-y) intent of creating an impenetrable masterwork on the assumed level of Ulysses or The Waste Land or Gravity’s Rainbow. So YAY for pedantic obfuscation! I guess.
I guess I’m in the mood to kill my idols tonight.
This is why I am terrible at academic literary criticism BTW, I have difficulty concealing my displeasure. Also, I don’t actually try to be a backbiter - I like to think that I have angels on my shoulder when I write this stuff - and lets face it, backbiting is really all that academic literary criticism is …
Well, that may not be fair. To be fair, most academic literary criticism is about coming up with a largely backbiting idea and then turning it into an abstract to submit to a conference and then if you get accept to the conference you write the paper and then present it at the conference and that goes on your CV and one day that CV will help you get a professorship somewhere and once you have a professorship you can get tenor and then that is basically WINNING! (Somebody tell the balloon-drop guys!)
But that is not my complaint here today. Every industry and profession has its own self-serving, self-justifying feedback loops.
My complaint today is the lack of verve, of energy, of zest in modern American literary fiction. I don’t specifically blame this on Junot Diaz or any of the others I’ve specifically mentioned (Although that dude got himself a MacArthur genius grant which pissed me off because he was already in the position to do nothing but write his name on cocktail napkins and he’d have been a bestseller for the rest of his life.) I blame it on all of us. I blame it on our entire culture. I blame this on a society that tells Joss Whedon that Avengers was a good movie. It was not. The first half was pretty good, the second half was for fifteen-year-old boys, which is what most of us are now. I blame it on a culture that melts the internet when Miley Cyrus goes on television and does exactly what our culture tells her to do. I blame it on adults making cultural phenomenons out of books that are written specifically for teenages.
I have no problem with escapism. I have a problem with the fact that I have nothing to choose between except escapism and the myth of meritocracy. I have a problem with the fact that oh so many years ago Jonathan Franzen had to give a fuck what Oprah thought, but I also have a problem with the fact that Jonathan Frazen’s book was stultifyingly boring, and I also have a problem with the fact that Jonathan Frazen was a dick to Oprah. How the fuck hard is it to be nice to Oprah?
By this point I have written a blog post that seems (to you) a little rant-y but to me could actually be a little career-kill-y should I ever end up in a room with the people who control America’s literary fiction world. But let’s face it, with every day that passses there is less and less chance that I am ever going to end up in that room. But, of course, there is always a chance. But I’m risking it anyway. Because that is the kind of risk - the kind of zest and verve and vitality - that I think there is too little of lately. . . .