Joanna Ruocco, Dan. (Dorothy, a publishing Project. 2014) This is a book that I am reading aloud in my household.
Something is rotten in Dan, population unknowable, topography shifting, even the bakery where heroine Melba Zuzzo is employed is selling cheese Danishes with no recognizable trace of Denmark. Recognizable traits of any kind are suspect in Dan, where identity seems largely debatable, and grantable only thru a consensus of gentlemen. Men get the say in Dan, these men of authority—policemen, landlords, doctors, high school principals, husbands, fathers, these members of a secret men’s club—and they are constantly charging Melba with nonexistence, or demanding that she provide proof of her own being. In Dan, a job is grounds for existence: bakery worker. But even this requires corroboration from multiple witnesses, even while Melba is standing in the bakery, in an apron, taking hot pretzels out of an oven. A place in a family is grounds for existence: sister or mother, though daughter seems to carry the least evidentiary support, and even Melba’s mother seems doubtful of Melba’s true commitment to being. Why does everyone want Melba to believe she is not? Melba has a true and open spirit, and she approaches the world with a trust that there are things worth considering beyond Dan. Things like islands. She is sure they exist. And she tries to see everyone’s point of view about Dan in a spirit of human empathy and camaraderie. She is very good at seeing all the points of view of Dan. But even this is a threat to Dan. This outrageously hilarious book is also a warning against how others will happily use our hope, our empathy, and our imaginations against us, in the service of annihilation of any selves outside their selves, even while they are eating our hot pretzels.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman, 1926. Available to us now, from NYRB. This is a book that I return to, and which I am using to write something for myself.
A perfect companion to Ruocco’s Dan, Lolly Willowes is a similar excoriation of the ways in which female identity falls victim to its own familial categories: wife, mother, sister, auntie. Lolly finds that even at a ripe age, her role as maiden Aunt Lolly is the only thing that defines her. But that is not entirely true, since she has a rich inner life, and since she is good at research, so she knows that Maiden Aunt isn’t really the only thing that defines her, but that it is the thing that confines her. As long as she can slip outside the family, a staggering notion, she might be able to simply exist in her own quiet way. So she flees to the village of Great Mop, in a beech forest, where it is possible to walk endlessly and freely, not as anyone’s aunt. But her family seeks her out, and her nephew relocates to Great Mop, and so there is nothing to be done but to summon the devil. The belief that there is something universal in Lolly’s thinking—that sometimes there is nothing to be done, or that the idea of gaining a bit of autonomy is so impossible, that one’s only option is to summon evil incarnate—this is endlessly soothing to me, no matter how many times I read this book.
More soothing, however, is the devil himself, who having lived eternally, has no real interest in life or death or souls per se, nothing against god, is an easy going master with no favorites among his servants, a man who speaks demurely, and who has the romantic perspective of knowing that even in the midst of development and advancement everything, eventually ends in a ruin. Such incredible succor! It is a book that must be frequently recited aloud as if an incantation.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Vol. 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, 1913. This is a book I have been reading with a reading group for three years. We will complete the saga sometime in 2015.
This is the volume in which Proust begins to think about homosexuality in terms of biological metaphor. It is also the volume in which the narrator returns to the seaside grand hotel at Balbec. And it is the volume in which the narrator goes to a dinner party in which the etymology of French words, and French place names particularly, is discussed for about 150 pages.
In college, I read two volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, the Moncrieff translation. When I began Proust Group, I reread the first volume, Swan’s Way, from the Lydia Davis’ translation while working painful through the text in French. Now I am reading the D.J. Enright revised translation of Kilmartin’s revision of Moncrieff’s translation, in which the title shifts to In Search of Lost Time. Volume 4 of this novel formerly, in the Moncrieff, was called Cities of the Plains, but it shifts to Sodom and Gomorrah in the edition I am reading. I am listening to a recording of the Kilmartin translation, in which the title is still Remembrance of Things Past, but in which Volume 4 is already Sodom and Gomorrah. I often am listening to the Kilmartin, while following along in the Enright, or I am reading the Kilmartin “in the body” quietly at home, and will have reached one page in the body, but then will be in another place in the recording. Then I am listening to sections over and over again while on a treadmill, because, in a separate experiment, I am trying to figure out things about how much I actually am ‘reading’ when I am ‘listening’ but also, I am curious about how much I am able to read-through-listening while also running. In my household, I also read aloud, along with my partner, who is also in the Proust Group. We are not competitive about our reading: we wish to read together! But there are not enough hours in a week or month to complete our Proust Group assignments aloud, even though my partner reads beautiful and fluidly at a quicker pace, and with his slight British accent, but as it turns out I don’t hear beautifully and fluidly at a quicker pace, or I hear, but I do not read-through-listening.
The fact that this text can endure this amount of manipulation: amazing. But we knew that.
Lucy Corin, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, McSweeney’s, 2013. This is a book that I am teaching.
Apocalypses small and large. In small and large fonts. In forms which are both realist and absurdist. Situations in which horror and humor are inseparable. In the fable “Eyes of a Dog” money is a tinderbox. A purse is a body part. A mother is a witch. We can easily see quick reductive symbolic relationships, but Corin lets the fables snowball (fables and fairy tales are after all plot generating machines, everything is cause and effect) and then she lets their structures and forms rupture and hemorrhage, so that all the possibilities of a fairy tale run in one side column on the page while the body of the text deals with all the intangible non-plot generating things like emotion, confusion, and ambiguity. These exchanges cancel each other out, and there are no discrete symbolic transactions. By blurring and juxtaposing narratives (in small and large font, visually formally displaced on the page) she explodes the forms. Mouths and purses are all that mouths and purses can be, so by the end a story the horror of a mouth on another mouth is operating on so many levels, cultural-political critique of gender, of capital, of family values), light sexual innuendo is present, but so is bodily trauma—so that just the statement “mouth to its mouth”, a phrase that normally we association with resuscitation now through its reiteration is an apocalypse. If all these stories are apocalypses, the apocalyptic comes in part from this disruption of the symbolic. All forms, any form in Corin’s hands, is an apocalypse.
Paul Verhaeghe, What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society. 2014, Scribe. This is a book that was recommended by a leftist editorial in The Guardian Weekly.
I am not far enough along in this book to say anything genuinely coherent about it because when I read a few pages I instantly go into a panic. The book itself, however, is not meant to be panic-inducing, but is meant to be a kind of intellectual self-help book for those of us who are feeling annihilated by marketing and consumer practice. The Guardian article promised the book would debunk the myth of meritocracy while also linking the performance anxieties caused by our belief in meritocracy to neoliberal policies. So far, it has mostly been pointing out the various kinds of identity annihilation while also reporting political and cultural atrocities that have taken place in The Netherlands, which are frankly shocking. Typically, I am distrustful of books that point out our anxieties, anxieties that I am certainly experiencing, and then point out some additional anxieties that I hadn’t yet considered.
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