Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013 (Originally Allen Lane, 2012)
October 21st, 2014
The structure and subject of and tone of Unmastered—prose in numbered sections, sex, the mix of the personal with semi-academic meditations—made me think of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, though I am not as in love with this book as I am with that one. Which isn’t to say this book is bad, just that it didn’t hit me quite like Nelson’s did. Unmastered was a quick read for me (there’s a lot of white space) and I read it twice over the course of a week, finding myself struck by different bits each time.
The book is, as the subtitle says, about desire: about Angel’s own desires and experiences with desire, and also about sexual desire more generally, women’s and also men’s. Though Angel quotes Virginia Woolf on the androgynous mind— “‘It is fatal,’ wrote Woolf, ‘to be a man or woman pure and simple'” (95)—this book looks at and thinks about desire in very gendered terms. “I am proof of your masculinity,” Angel writes (30). And “I lock him into his masculinity. I am anxious to protect it, for it pains me, it pains my femininity, to see it fragmented” (109). And “he puts down anchor in me, and finds his masculinity there. I put down anchor in him, in his masculinity, and find my femininity there” (112). All of which is interesting to me, but feels very removed from my own experiences. (My gender identity is basically “tomboy,” and I’ve dated both men and women, and I’m more comfortable with the idea of gender as a spectrum than a binary thing.) When Angel writes about things like pornography, or domination and submission, it’s mostly in a gendered way—even when she flips things and talks about a woman being dominant, it’s still in relation to the idea of a dominant man and a submissive woman, which isn’t really how I think about these things. Angel writes about women’s experiences in contrast to men’s experiences: she writes about the entitlement men may have, while women may find it harder to know/voice/own desire. She writes about the way society, women included, can work to contain women’s sexuality, to contain women’s bodies and wants. She writes about the “unruly, lustful body,” and how we react to things like unplanned pregnancy and abortion (264).
I think I like this book best not when Angel is quoting Virginia Woolf or Susan Sontag (this book’s other guiding spirit, in a way), but when she’s writing about her own experiences, in and out of the bedroom. “I have become a body,” she writes, and “I have sounds, but I have fewer words” (42). “When he grabs my hair, when he presses my throat, when he holds my hands down, I know—because I feel—that this is pitch-perfect” (90). I like writing that captures the experience of feeling open, feeling awake to the possibilities of pleasure, and when Angel does this, she does it really well, as in this, one of my favorite passages in the book:
Crossing Waterloo Bridge, that spritely spring, that razor-sharp spring, looking over at St. Paul’s, I sniffed pleasure—openness—light—in the air.
I could feel it in my hips. (332)
October 18th, 2014
I picked up this book because of the flap copy, which starts like this: “This book is unique as no other novel can claim to be: one of 109,027,350,432,000 possible variations of the same work of fiction.” As the flap copy goes on to explain, the book “comprises ten chapters, and the fifteen pairs of paragraphs in each of these are shuffled anew for each published copy. No two versions are the same.” In his foreword to the book, Umberto Eco says this: “If we wanted to arrange the pieces of an infinitely variable story, it would be better for the textual blocks to be ‘prepared,’ like pieces of Lego, each already designed to fit together with other pieces in multiple ways. Such is the case with Balestrini’s book, whose game is ‘regulated’ in the sense that it does not aim to celebrate fortuity so much as the possibility of an elevated number of possible outcomes” (ix).
Unfortunately, the experience of reading Tristano was more frustrating than not. It’s a short book, but I’m with Josh Coblentz, whose review on HTMLGIANT describes “the annoyed trudge that was the experience of reading this book.”
I am not necessarily a plot-driven reader, or a character-driven one; I can sometimes enjoy a book for its mood, its language, its concept, its setting, its descriptive passages. And I get that Balestrini is playing with what a novel is, what meaning is, how meaning is created: there are lots of moments where the text could be describing itself. “A huge pile of sentences that don’t mean anything. The making and breaking of language” (69). “All this seems to mean something but in reality it has no meaning whatsoever” (55). “Many sentences recur” (18). “You could even start from another episode and obtain a slightly different story. Though the question is rather irrelevant” (5). “Without any sign of organisation or notions of the beginning or end of a logical development” (43). But there just wasn’t enough to interest me. There are people in this book, but all the proper nouns (people’s names, places) are replaced with the letter C, so it’s hard to figure out what’s going on: it seems like there might be a woman and her husband and another man she’s sleeping with, but who knows. I leave you with this passage:
One thing transforms into another by means of a leap. Signs that are surprised and cut by the vital system of the current communication. Only individual parts but not the whole. I don’t know what that means. C turned round completely naked. Where are the things. There’s nothing else in the mirror. The completely empty wardrobe. There would be many other things to add but it’s not worth it. (58)
October 13th, 2014
I have a hard time with John Ashbery’s poems, but I keep trying anyway. I think the problem is that I like to read poems that are more recognizably set in this world; I like poems that are “about” everyday life but told in a way that focuses on luminous detail, or that somehow makes things sing—I’m thinking of poets like David Lehman and Mark Doty, who are stylistically different but who both, I think, do this. Ashbery’s poems are doing something else, and I’m not sure what. His tone is often conversational, and he’s got a great ear for speech patterns, for everyday language; he sometimes uses bits of other texts (from a line from Gammer Gurton’s Needle to a phrase from “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). But poems that start by feeling straightforward end up going elsewhere. Look at the first poem in this book, “Words to That Effect”: that great “slow then fast,/then slow again,” and the image at the end of the first stanza, and how at the end, in the third stanza, things veer weirder.
There are some striking passages in this book, things like this, from the title poem:
the landscaped sucked in its breath,
taking its time as always.
And there’s humor, like this, in “Recent History”:
They were early, as usual. Can’t you guys ever
be late, we wondered, though one wouldn’t
necessarily want that either. [...]
My favorite poems in this book are probably “How I Met You” and the prose poem “Homeless Heart”. I smiled at the wordplay elsewhere in the book, “census” and “sensory” in one poem, and “cavity” and “caveats” and “tocsins” and “toxins” in the poem called “Far Harbor,” which ends with this:
[...] The broad petals of language
are stiff and may get very bad.
They make it very bad
in our language tutoring.
but I often felt like, in any given poem, I couldn’t quite find my way in. “Everything remains invigoratingly at sea,” writes Charles Bainbridge, in this review in the Guardian, but I’m not sure I found it invigorating.
October 8th, 2014
Pietr the Latvian, which was originally published in serial form in French in 1930, is the first of Georges Simenon’s novels featuring Detective Chief Inspector Maigret, and is the first of Simenon’s novels that I’ve read. It’s no cosy mystery: it’s a gritty police procedural (albeit light on procedure) that moves back and forth between Paris and the port town of Fécamp, where Maigret goes in search of clues. Maigret is meant to be trailing Pietr the Latvian, said to be the head of an organized crime ring that specializes in fraud, but when the train that Pietr was on arrives in Paris, there’s a dead body on it, a man matching Pietr’s description who was shot at point-blank range. But by the time the body’s discovered, Maigret has already seen another man matching Pietr’s description leave the station. So what’s going on, exactly?
The pleasure in this book, for me, wasn’t so much in the plot/crime as in the atmosphere (uh, other than the atmosphere of anti-Semitism), and of course Maigret himself, who’s a big taciturn guy with a fondness for beer, sandwiches, his pipe, and the warmth of the stove in his office, though he keeps getting dragged away from it. I like descriptive passages like this:
It was November and it was getting dark. Through the window he could see a branch of the Seine, Place Saint-Michel, and a floating wash-house, all in a blue shroud speckled by gas lamps lighting up one after the other. (3)
Wind and rain blew in squalls over the platforms of Gare du Nord despite the monumental glass canopy overhead. Several panes had blown out and lay in shards on the railway tracks. The lighting wasn’t working properly. People huddled up inside their clothes. (4)
The Grands Boulevards looked as scruffy as they always did at 11 pm. The shafts of rain lit by the streetlamps were thinning out. The audience spewed out of a cinema which then switched off its lighting, brought in its billboards, and shut its doors. People stood in line at a bus stop, beneath a green striped lamp-post. When the bus came there was an argument, because there were no number-tags left in the ticket machine. (58)
And oh, Maigret. Some of the book’s action takes place at a fancy hotel where the man from the train station is staying; the manager is less than thrilled to have a big police detective in his lobby: “Maigret persisted in being a big black unmoving stain amidst the gilding, the chandeliers, the comings and goings of silk evening gowns, fur coats and perfumed, sparkling silhouettes” (15). At another point, in the same hotel, there’s this: “But Maigret had already moved off and was standing all clumsy and awkward in the middle of the lobby. He looked like a tourist in a historic church trying to work out without the help of a guide what there was to inspect” (85).
October 5th, 2014
Landline was a fun, quick, funny read for me: I finished it in one delicious Saturday, and kept interrupting my boyfriend’s TV-watching to read him parts I liked. The book is the story of a marriage having a rough patch, or maybe it’s been having a rough patch for a while. Georgie McCool is in her late 30s, and she’s a television writer; she’s married to Neal, who is a stay-at-home dad who takes care of their daughters, who are seven and four. At the start of the book, Georgie comes home from work late, like she often does, and Neal heats dinner for her, like he often does, only on this particular night, Georgie has big news: a network might be picking up the show that she and her writing partner have been working on for years, but the catch is that they have a meeting on December 27, in ten days, and they have to write four episodes before then. Neal is not thrilled: they’d all been planning to go to his mom’s house in Omaha for Christmas. “I thought we could all skip Omaha,” Georgie says (5). But Neal isn’t having it, and says he’d rather take the kids to Omaha himself, while Georgie stays in LA and works.
As it turns out, though, getting work done with everyone gone is easier said than done. Georgie’s mom (who’s been divorced twice and is now happily married to her third husband) has Georgie’s younger sister Heather call her. “She says your marriage is over, and you need our support,” Heather says (20). But Georgie’s marriage isn’t over, right? But what if it is? Should it be? Georgie can’t seem to reach her husband on his cell phone, and not talking to him is stressing her out: is he avoiding her calls on purpose? She talks to his mom, and to her kids, but she can never get hold of him, except when she calls his mom’s landline from her mom’s landline. But then, bizarrely, Georgie realizes that when she’s talking to Neal on the landline, she’s not talking to him now: she’s talking to him in December, 1998, another time just before Christmas when he went to Omaha and she thought he was leaving her. She doesn’t know how to take this: is she crazy, and is this a hallucination? Is it magic? Is she meant to be fixing something in the past? Christmas 1998 is when Neal proposed to her: is she supposed to make sure he doesn’t? Or, wait, is this the way it’s always been, with future-Georgie talking to past-Neal, in which case, well, maybe the fixing is meant to happen in the present?
The narrative unfolds from December 17-25 in the present (2013), but also includes Georgie thinking back to the past, to when she met Neal in college, to when they started dating, to what things were like at the start of their relationship. This means we get to see what brought them together, and the ways in which they’re good together, and also early intimations of their current tension: at one point Neal tells Georgie he’s “not usually good at wanting things,” and Georgie replies that she’s “extra good at wanting things”: “I want enough for two normal people, at least,” she says (147). There are scenes of the good moments in their marriage, too, including a great bit about Georgie getting plot ideas for her show in the middle of the night, trying to find paper to write them down, and Neal saying he’ll remember them for her, then writing the key points on the steamy mirror when she’s in the shower in the morning.
I like that the charm of this book isn’t all in the love story part of it: there are some really great scenes with Georgie’s pug-obsessed mom, and with Georgie’s eighteen-year-old sister from her mom’s second marriage, and with the pugs themselves, who Georgie says she doesn’t like but clearly kind of does, albeit somewhat grudgingly. And oh, man, lines like this: “Watching a pug run down stairs is a lot like watching a pug fall down stairs” (204).
October 2nd, 2014
The Paying Guests is part romance, part crime story, but isn’t only either of those things: the first book Waters mentions in her Author’s Note is Nicola Humble’s The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism, and I wonder how this book reads to someone who has read a lot of the authors whose work Humble explores. I read this book mostly for plot, and as a plot-heavy book, it’s pretty satisfying: some of the plot points are obvious, but I didn’t care; the suspense and tension of other things drew me along.
But maybe the plot isn’t really the point. The story centers around Frances Wray, a “spinster” in her mid-twenties who lives in a too-large house in South London with her mother. It’s 1922; Frances’s brothers both died in the War, and her father is dead as well. Because her father mismanaged the family’s money, Frances and her mother have to take in lodgers, the “paying guests” of the title. The lodgers, Lilian and Leonard Barber, are a young married couple, and Frances finds her life entangled with theirs after she and Lilian begin a friendship that’s tentative at first. There’s lots about, well, class, domesticity, and gender in the novel (and a little bohemianism, too); there’s a lot about the structure of society, and personhood in relation to the larger world.
Frances has given up her dreams in deference to her mother and a sense of duty: when she was twenty, she had a love affair with a woman a year younger, and was planning to move in with her, but after her father’s death she felt she had to stay at home to take care of her mother and the house. At the start of the book Frances comes off as a little uptight: her life is so much drudgery, cleaning, worrying about money; there seems little room in it for joy. But there is, sometimes: she describes feeling an “electric charge” when walking through London alone:
She never felt the excitement she that she felt now, seeing the fall of the shadow of a railing across a set of worn steps. Was it foolish, to feel like that about the shadow of a railing? Was it whimsy? She hated whimsy. But it only became whimsy when she tried to put it into words. If she allowed herself to simply feel it… There. It was like being a string, and being plucked, giving out the single, pure note that one was made for. How odd, that no one else could hear it! If I were to die today, she thought, and someone were to think over my life, they’d never know that moments like this, here on the Horseferry Road, between a Baptist chapel and a tobacconists’, were the truest things in it. (36)
Maybe those two things are really what the book is about: moments of electricity and questions of truth, the question of what the truest things are.
September 23rd, 2014
Can’t and Won’t is made up of five numbered sections, each containing between twenty-three and twenty-six pieces, for a total of one hundred and twenty two pieces, many but not all of which are quite short. I really like the everydayness of these stories, and their crispness, and their humor, and how poignant some of them are, and how sharply observant many of them feel. Some of the stories are “dream” pieces (based on Davis’s own dreams, or dreams of friends), which are sometimes funny/weird/interesting and sometimes slightly flat; there are also several pieces translated from Flaubert’s letters and “slightly rewritten,” as Davis puts it in the notes at the end of the book. There are some longer pieces, including “The Cows,” which I loved when I read it as a standalone chapbook and still love, even without photos illustrating it, and “The Seals,” which is probably the most conventionally narrative piece, about a woman remembering her dead sister. (The narrator of “The Seals” is a passenger on a train, and some of my favorite bits of this story include descriptions of the view from the train windows, including this: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes—out the window. How many advertising slogans will I stare at out the window today? Now there are poles falling over into the water with all their wires still strung on them—what happened to them, and why were they left there?” (149).)
You can read the first five stories in the collection over at Book Keeping: I really like “The Dog Hair,” and “Circular Story” is pleasing, too. Other highlights of the book for me included “The Landing” (which you can read on the Telegraph’s website), “The Language of the Telephone Company” (which is one sentence, in two lines), “The Woman Next to Me on the Airplane” (which features crossword puzzles) and several list-like stories, including “How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues of the TLS,” “I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable,” and “Local Obits.”
September 15th, 2014
Full Fathom Five is the third book of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, and it’s definitely my favorite, partly but not entirely because it features repeat characters from the first two books in addition to entirely new ones. I like that each book so far has been set in a different place in the world Gladstone has created: this one takes place on Kavekana, a Hawaii-like volcanic island. Kai Pohala, one of the protagonists, is a priest in an order that builds and maintains idols, rather than worshipping a god. (Kavekana’s gods left to fight in a war and, the story has it, never returned; foreign gods are banned on the island, but idols work as an investment strategy. In the world of these books, gods gain power from being worshipped and lend that power to others through legal/magical contracts; idols work the same way but for people who would rather not do business with gods.)
When the book opens, Kai learns that one of the idols her order has created is about to die; she tries to save the idol and is badly injured in the process, and transferred to a sales job while she recovers. She’s shaken by the fact that she heard the idol speak before it died: idols aren’t meant to be sentient, shouldn’t be able to talk. Meanwhile, Izza, a fifteen-year old street kid/refugee from elsewhere, is introduced to us as she’s buying incense to mourn the death of a goddess she and other street kids have worshipped, a goddess they call the Blue Lady. Izza and Kai’s stories intertwine, of course, and their paths cross. There is lots of plot in this book, and it doesn’t feel useful to try to summarize it, but it’s great: Kai’s story and Izza’s mostly alternate, in well-paced chapters, with Kai trying to figure out what’s going on in the pool where idols are made, and Izza making plans to leave Kavekana, because there’s nothing for her to stay for, except then there is.
Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin
Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich
New York Review of Books, 2014
September 6th, 2014
“I must accept this fate of being abandoned and betrayed; I must accept my helplessness. There’s no way for me not to lose. There’s nothing I can do for myself” (50). So writes the narrator of Last Words from Montmartre, in one of the twenty-one numbered letters that make up the bulk of the text of this book. (It’s more formally experimental than that, though: some of the letters are fragmented, not all have a clear recipient, and it’s not always even clear who the narrator is. The letters are not printed entirely in numerical order, and there’s a note at the beginning saying that “readers can begin anywhere.”)
The narrator is lamenting a lost love, a failed relationship, a betrayal, and the narrative is often very interior, and somewhat circular and abstract. It’s uncomfortable to be with the narrator in these first-person loops of thought, the obsessive writing about the beloved, about the pain of living. “I don’t like it that there’s so much wounding in the world. If there persists in being so much wounding in the world, I don’t want to live in it,” the narrator says (8). And then: “I want to become someone else. This is the single best thing I could do for myself. I know that I have to change my identity, live under an assumed name. I have to cry. I have to live by transforming myself into someone else” (9). “Your inner life and mine are symbiotic,” the narrator says (19). “Unless you want to shut it down completely—to castrate it—your inner life will never be complete with anyone but me” (ibid.). And later: “Whether our love is worth it or not is irrelevant. So what if there’s someone nicer than you or prettier than you— it doesn’t change a thing. Come and hurt me more. You still mean the same to me: I belong to you” (73).
There are moments of hope and energy: I like this, which appears at the start of the sixth letter: “All of a sudden my new life is like a field overgrown with strange flowers and exotic grasses or the shimmering, starry sky of my unbridled imagination” (30). And I like the concrete moments of joy or delight, passages about the larger world and the narrator’s existence in it: when she talks about going to see the films of Theodoros Angelopoulos, or about a lover swimming naked in the Seine, or about walking through the Latin Quarter with friends on a drizzly night, or a visit to Tokyo in cherry-blossom season. In the afterword to this translation, Ari Larissa Heinrich writes this, which I think captures a lot about how this book feels: messy, and uncomfortable, and true:
Qiu refuses to edit the ugliness out of a text that is also sublime in its sensitive portrayal of someone’s quests for truth. Her accomplishment is precisely that her novel does not shield us from ugliness; it is raw self-exposure and we are meant to see it, ride the awkwardness of it, feel the self-hatred and anger and ambivalence behind it even as we are invited to identify deeper into the novel. (160)
September 1st, 2014
In this 2003 piece in the Guardian, Susan Hill is quoted as saying this: “It’s not plot that interests me, but setting, people in a setting, wrestling with an abstract subject.” So it’s apt that the atmosphere and setting of this book were what made it a pleasure for me to read, while the plot, particularly the ending, felt less compelling. It’s presented as a story within a story: a nameless narrator talks about spending an evening at his Club and the conversation turning to ghost stories; when he leaves, an older Club member approaches him and says he’s got a ghost story of his own, if the narrator would like to read it. The narrator accepts his offer, and much of the book consists of that ghost story, as written by the older Club member, James Monmouth. Monmouth writes about returning to England at age forty, after having been sent abroad at the age of five, presumably after the death of his parents. He had grown up in Kenya and then elsewhere with his Guardian, and continued traveling after his Guardian’s death, often making a point to travel in the footsteps of one of his heroes, an earlier English traveler/explorer named Conrad Vane. He decides, in England, that he will try to find out about Vane’s early life, and perhaps will write a book about him, but along the way he starts seeing the ghost of a boy and experiencing other strangeness, and also keeps getting dissuaded from learning too much about Vane by basically everyone he asks about him. He’s told that Vane is evil, but scoffs: even if he was evil, he’s been dead for twenty years, and besides, no one will tell him any specifics about what Vane did, exactly. When he visits the school Vane attended, though, he learns of the death of another pupil there during the time when Vane was a student, and realizes the boy-ghost he’s seeing must be this boy, who, it turns out, shares Monmouth’s last name. Monmouth isn’t sure if this is just a coincidence, but realizes it can’t be: the boy is from a place called Kittiscar Hall, and Monmouth has a prayer book from his early childhood inscribed with the name of that same place. So, after a Christmas visit with new friends, and after recuperation from an illness that may be tied to the ghost and Vane, Monmouth decides to visit Kittiscar for himself, where the plot gets wrapped up in a rushed and vague way: we learn how Vane is connected to the Monmouths, sort of, but it doesn’t particularly make sense.
But the specifics of the plot aren’t necessarily the point. Monmouth is trying to figure out his past, and his future, and how they’re connected. He’s trying to figure out how/where he fits into the world, and into England, and as a character adrift, an orphan, his life is particularly his own to make. So he does, and that’s part of the book. And then there’s the setting, which is really perfectly atmospheric: there are wonderful descriptions of London rain, and early spring in the countryside, and Monmouth’s first time seeing snow as an adult, and how the open moorlands of the North make him feel. I loved this, from the very start of Monmouth’s story, about his arrival in England:
Rain, rain all day, all evening, all night, pouring autumn rain. Out in the country, over field and fen and moorland, sweet-smelling rain, borne on the wind. Rain in London, rolling along gutters, gurgling down drains. Street lamps blurred by rain. A policeman walking by in a cape, rain gleaming silver on its shoulders. Rain bouncing on roofs and pavements, soft rain falling secretly in woodland and on dark heath. Rain on London’s river, and slanting among the sheds, wharves and quays. Rain on suburban gardens, dense with laurel and rhododendron. Rain from north to south and from east to west, as though it had never rained until now, and now might never stop.
Rain on all the silent streets and squares, alleys and courts, gardens and churchyards and stone steps and nooks and crannies of the city.
Rain. London. The back end of the year. (15)