Crudo by Olivia Laing

January 19th, 2019

Near the end of Crudo, the book’s protagonist, Kathy, is having a conversation about plagiarism, which doesn’t concern her, and we get this: “You take what you find, it’s all material, I mean what is art if it’s not plagiarising the world?” (121). Which is a pretty good thesis statement for the novel as a whole, which is full of bits of actual life: people’s tweets, bits of news headlines, details from Kathy Acker’s life and quotes from her writing, and details from Olivia Laing’s life, too: moments from the summer of 2017, twined with fiction to make a novel about the anxieties of that particular moment, both globally/politically and personally for the protagonist (who is on the verge of marriage when the book opens and not sure she’s suited to it). It was interesting to read this book so soon after I read Laing’s The Lonely City: the proximity in time of my reading experiences made the points of overlap between the texts stand out to me—little things like references to Basquiat, or the Alphabet City location of Ninth Street Espresso, but also bigger themes of how people relate to each other.

I liked both books, but I liked Crudo more, the style and pacing of it, the narrative playfulness, the prickliness of the protagonist. (From page 2: “Was Kathy nice? Unclear.”) So, plotwise: Kathy is 40; Kathy is getting married. Kathy and her husband-to-be are in Italy together, and then in England, where they live. They are preparing for their wedding, and Kathy is preparing for a trip to New York, and it kind of feels like the world might end. I like how the narrative looks at Kathy’s personal happiness and how it contrasts with her unease with the state of the world and also looks at her personal unease, the question not only of how to be happy/in love when it seems like the world is falling apart, but also the question of how to be happy/in love when one is perhaps a difficult person, and when solitude/loneliness has been, or has seemed to be, a key part of one’s identity. I like passages like this:

You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone, but you don’t, you believe you are a calm untroubled or at worst melancholic person, you do not realise how irritable you are, how any little thing, the wrong kind of touch or tone, a lack of speed in answering a question, a particular cast of expression will send you into apoplexy because you are unchill, because you have not learnt how to soften your borders, how to make room. You’re selfish and rigid and absorbed, you’re like an infant. (65-66)

Bilgewater by Jane Gardam

January 10th, 2019

Early in Jane Gardam’s 1977 novel, Bilgewater, Marigold Daisy Green describes herself as a “strange, thick-set, hopeless adolescent, friendless and given to taking long idle walks by the sea” (11). She’s good at chess and math, started reading quite late (but loved being read to, and quotes Keats and Chaucer and Coleman and Blake), is farsighted, and lives at the boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire where her father works. Her father is Bill, so she’s Bill’s Daughter, or Bilgewater, and this book is the story of her last year of high school, in which she’s seventeen and doesn’t much understand other people or herself, until, eventually, she does. We see bits of her life at school, where she’s surprised, partway through the year, by the return of Grace, a girl she was friends with when they were young who’s been away at boarding school. And we see bits of her life at home, where she lives with her sweet/absent-minded father (her mother died when she was born), and where we see her interactions with her father and his friends and the boys at the school, who are at first just there but then become a source of romantic interest/possibility.

I like the style of Bilgewater’s narrative voice, how she describes people and situations in ways that are funny but also concise and illuminating. She describes Paula, for example, as “always running and usually towards you” (19). Of the school’s headmaster’s wife, after Bilgewater sees her with one of the older schoolboys in the town’s lovers’ lane: “She was given to sofas and thinking. Some people said that she suffered from melancholia, others from her husband” (35). That said, I found the start of the book somewhat slow-going, but am glad I stuck with it: partway through, Bilgewater’s romantic concerns/travails become central to the story, and the mix of teen angst and ridiculous/humorous situations, which I don’t want to spoil by describing, totally works for me.

My reading experience of How to be both felt slower and more scattered than I would like—I started it while getting ready to move, and finished it after moving, and there was a lot of packing and unpacking boxes and generally being stressed in between—but it’s Ali Smith, and I pretty much always think she’s great. This is a dual-narrative novel in which the two sections can be read in either order, and the book was printed so that some copies have one section first, while others start with the other section. Mine started with the “camera” section, which focuses on George (short for Georgia), who’s an English teenager whose mother unexpectedly died a few months before the story starts. George remembers a trip she took to Italy with her mother and brother, and remembers, in particular, the frescoes they saw at Palazzo Schifanoia. (A detail from one of the scenes in the fresco is what prompted the trip to begin with.) We see George’s daily life: her experience of loss and grief, the way she thinks about her mother, her relationship with her father and brother, conversations she has with a school counsellor, and her relationship with a girl from school, H (short for Helena). Then comes the “eyes” section, which is narrated by the ghost/spirit of Francesco del Cossa, the artist who made those frescoes George and her mom saw. del Cossa is unexpectedly conscious, and in England (and watching George, in fact—they’re somehow tied together). We get del Cossa’s memories of working as a painter and living in Italy in the 1400s and also del Cossa’s observations of England, and of George.

I like the bothness of this book a lot, the way it looks at past and present, art and life, death and life, grief and love, and other dualities besides, and I like how it’s full of Ali Smith’s usual combination of playfulness and empathy and grace and intelligence. I’m glad I read the “camera” section of the book first: it’s more of a straightforward narrative, and while I probably liked the “eyes” section more, I might have felt adrift if I’d opened the book to it, and I like the way that the start of the “camera” section raises questions that are very relevant to the “eyes” section. (George and her mother in the car in Italy have this conversation, where George’s mom is telling her to imagine a hypothetical situation where George is an artist asking for more money: “Is it happening now or in the past? George says. Is the artist a woman or a man?” and then: “Past or present? George says. Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other. Who says? Why must it? her mother says” (9).) I also like the way this book explores different aspects of paintings, and of stories, and of what art does/how art works.

This book, which was originally published in Japan in 1988, contains two pieces, a novella and a story, or a novella and a shorter novella. “Kitchen”, the first piece, is the longer of the two; “Moonlight Shadow” is shorter. They’re both about love and loss and grief and loneliness and hope and connection, and I think when I first picked this book up, I read through both pieces too quickly and didn’t fully appreciate them. On a reread, I paid more attention to the things I liked about them, especially the things I liked about “Kitchen,” and enjoyed the book as a whole more.

“Kitchen” is narrated by Mikage, who was raised by her grandparents after her parents both died young. Her grandfather died when she was about to start junior high; when the book opens she’s been going to university, but has been taking time off after her grandmother’s death. Her life becomes intertwined with that of a boy named Yuichi who’s a year younger and works at a flower shop her grandmother used to frequent; after Mikage’s grandmother’s death, Mikage ends up going to live with Yuichi and his mother, Eriko, for a time, then moves out, then reconnects with Yuichi after he experiences a loss of his own. A lot of the book is about the distance between people, and how that distance is magnified by grief, and also about the tension between the inner world and the outer one in general: there are lots of passages where Mikage is looking out a window, and that sense of the self being separated from the rest of the world by more than just glass keeps recurring. And then there’s the kitchen, the room of the book’s title: it’s Mikage’s favorite place, and it’s a place of warmth and comfort and food and the possibility of connection. Mikage finds herself feeling heartened by just the sounds and steam from a kitchen she passes on her way home on a night when she’s feeling sad and adrift; she and Yuichi bond, when they reconnect, after she cooks him an elaborate meal.

A lot of the passages about looking out windows are really pleasing to me, like this, when Mikage is looking out the window on her first night at Yuichi and Eriko’s apartment: “Suspended in the dim light before the window overlooking the magnificent tenth-floor view, the plants breathed softly, resting. By now the rain had stopped, and the atmosphere, sparkling, replete with moisture, refracted the glittering light splendidly” (16).

Or this: “The sky outside was a dull gray. Waves of clouds were being pushed around by the wind with amazing force. In this world there is no place for sadness. No place, not one” (23).

Or this: “I watched the rows of windows in the tall building across the street from the bus stop, suspended, emitting a pretty blue light. The people moving behind those windows, the elevators going up and down, all of it, sparkling silently, seemed to melt into the half-darkness” (33).

“Moonlight Shadow” is about love and loss and hope, too: the narrator, Satsuki, talks about how she’s recently taken up jogging as a way to cope with the sudden death of her boyfriend, Hitoshi, who was only twenty. The same accident that took his life also killed his younger brother Hiiragi’s girlfriend; we see the ways Hiiragi grieves and tries to cope, too. While jogging one morning, Satsuki meets a girl who’s around her own age, or a little older; the girl startles her and Satsuki drops her thermos off the bridge that she runs to every day, which separates her neighborhood from Hitoshi’s. The girl, Urara, tells Satsuki about a mysterious event she might be able to see at the bridge in a few days’ time. Urara, and that mysterious event, end up bringing a sense of closure and hope to Satsuki, and maybe to Hiiragi too. It’s a pleasing little piece, though overall I think I liked the length and descriptiveness of “Kitchen” more.

I read an excerpt from There There in the New Yorker several months ago, and I liked it a lot, but one thing that wasn’t apparent from the excerpt was the way the book is structured—which, luckily, I also liked a lot. There There keeps shifting perspectives, with different chapters focusing on different characters. Some of those chapters are in narrated in the first person; most are in the third; all focus on Native American characters whose lives intertwine in various ways. A lot of the characters live in Oakland, and in the first chapter we learn about an upcoming powwow that’s going to be held there, and about a plan to rob that powwow. So there’s tension built into the narrative: you’re reading to learn more about each character’s story and about how the characters are connected to one another (some are related, some work together, some just cross paths in the course of the powwow being planned and organized) but also to find out what exactly is going to happen at the powwow itself. There’s also a prologue and an interlude, both of which add context and background and moments of Native American history: King Philip’s war, massacres of villages of Pequot people perpetrated by colonists in the 1600s, the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people.

There There is about family and memory and history and identity, and I like how the different characters have different relationships to the idea of being Native American: one point the book makes is that there is no single way of being Native, just like there’s no single way of being anything else.

Sing, Unburied, Sing opens on a boy named Jojo’s 13th birthday, which is also the day his mom gets a phone call from his dad to say he’s getting out of Parchman, the penitentiary where he’s been for the past three years. It’s a book about transitions (between childhood and adulthood, between life and death, between freedom and incarceration and vice versa) and family and memory and stories and history, and what we can and can’t do to protect people from the world, and it’s really well-written and sad and beautiful and there was a scene near the end that totally had me sitting on my couch in tears. The chapters are all narrated in the first person, mostly by Jojo and Leonie, though there are a few chapters narrated by another character, Richie. (I guess I’ll be vague about Richie and how he fits into the story, though the flap copy of the book isn’t.) The first-person narration really worked for me: I loved Jojo’s character/voice, but also liked that the book included Leonie’s perspective: she’s not a great parent to Jojo and his little sister Kayla, but it’s good to see some of her awareness of that, to see some of how she feels about that. (And it’s not like she’s in the easiest situation: she’s a Black woman in a relationship with a White man whose family won’t acknowledge her or her children; she had an older brother who died violently; she got pregnant young; her partner is/has been incarcerated.) I like how the action of this book takes place over the course of just a few days, even as we get a lot of backstory; I like the way this book combines a really tight focus on a few characters with a much bigger sense of family and history and the passage of time. And I like the lyricism of Ward’s style, like when Jojo describes the landscape he sees from a car window like this: “I like the heat. I like the way the highway cuts through the forests, curves over hills heading north, sure and rolling. I like the trees reaching out on both sides, the pines thicker and taller up here, spared the stormy beating the ones on the coast get that keeps them spindly and delicate” (63).

When I picked up Starlings I thought it was a collection of short stories, but it isn’t, not quite. For one thing, it also includes poems and a short play. And as Walton puts it in her introduction, the short fiction here is itself varied: there are short stories but also “extended jokes,” exercises/experiments, first chapters of unwritten books, and “some poems with the line breaks taken out” (20). The pieces vary in length and in style: there are some very short pieces (like those aforementioned extended jokes), and some longer ones; there are pieces with a fantasy/fairy tale feel, and pieces that are set in space, or that are about artificial intelligence. (There’s even a noir/hard-boiled detective story.) While I liked some pieces more than others, I had a whole lot of fun with the book as a whole. I liked the shifts in setting and tone and narrative style, and even though I don’t tend to read very many stories set in space, the ones in this book were pretty enjoyable. My favorite piece in the book, though, was probably the first one, “Three Twilight Tales,” which is gorgeous and full of magic and possibilities, and which is itself very much concerned with the shape of stories and the power of stories. Other highlights for me were “Jane Austen to Cassandra”, which is fun and funny, and The Panda Coin, whose structure I like a lot. And because I’d previously read Walton’s Small Change trilogy, I was glad to read “Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction” (though it feels weird to say I was glad to read something so dark).

Border Districts is one of those books that I admire, even though I didn’t love it: it feels well-constructed, and there’s a lot I appreciate about Murnane’s style, even as I feel like I’m maybe not the ideal reader for this book. It’s very much in its narrator’s head—if you’re looking for something plot-driven, look elsewhere—and it’s very concerned with memory and reading and thinking and seeing, with the life of the mind and with the imagined inner lives of others. All of which is pretty appealing to me, but there were times when I felt like this book was a slog, though it’s pretty short, and I’m not sure I can articulate why. It’s narrated by an older man who has moved from an unnamed Australian city to a more remote town; it’s full of recurring images and themes: stained glass, light, color, sight, interiority. The narrator thinks about praying in chapel in his days as a schoolboy at a Catholic school, and how he compared his own known thoughts/experience to the unknown thoughts/experience of his fellow-students: “I was never satisfied with my attempts to pray or to contemplate, and I often wondered what exactly was taking place in the mind of my devout-seeming classmate” (5). He thinks about “the life and death of mental entities” (17): how he remembers some bits of stories he read decades ago, or how he still has certain mental images relating to Catholicism even though he’s no longer a believer, or how other formerly-religious people end up realizing that they “no longer considered sacred some of the persons, places, and things that they had previously deemed so” (18).

Some of the narrative feels very dry and a bit tedious to me (like when the narrator is describing a mental image he had that was prompted by an author photograph on the back of a book), but I found other sections to be a delight, like this:

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints. Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine… I was too clumsy as a child to paint with my moistened brush the scenery that I would have liked to bring into being. I preferred to leave untouched in their white metallic surroundings my rows of powdery rectangles of water-colours, to read aloud one after another of the tiny printed names of the coloured rectangles, and to let each colour seem to soak into each word of its name or even into each syllable of each word of each name so that I could afterwards call to mind an exact shade or hue from an image of no more than black letters on a white ground. (54-55)

Animals Eat Each Other is short and dark and intense, the kind of book it was easy to read in a day, even though being immersed in its narrator’s world made me feel a little queasy. It’s a story about obsession and insecurity and need and emptiness, and if you’re bothered by the idea of reading about people in their late teens/early twenties drinking and doing drugs and getting tattoos and having kinky group sex, this is not the book for you. It’s a story about post-high-school indirection and suburban boredom: our narrator, “Lilith,” whose real name we never learn, works at RadioShack, sneaks pills from her mom’s supply of painkillers, and drinks cough syrup for a good time. She also embarks on a relationship with a male/female couple around her age to whom she’s introduced by a friend, sleeps with her manager at work, and ends up having sex with her closest female friend, too. As the title of one chapter puts it, “the thing about boundary issues is that you end up fucking your friends or maybe everyone you know” (29).

The story is told with the benefit of distance (an older Lilith looking back at her younger self), but you get the sense that she’s self-aware in the midst of it, too. “I was more attracted to a person’s interest in me than to the particulars of their personalities, or the things they liked to eat, or what they liked to do when they weren’t texting me or sleeping with me,” she says at one point (22). And then, later: “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk” (61). Even as Lilith is trying and failing to use sex and relationships to feel validated and wanted and needed, she can see how she’s messing things up, and that, rather than the subject matter, was what made me feel queasy: that uncomfortable combination of self-knowledge and self-destructiveness, that sense of compulsion.

(Note: though Eileen Myles used the pronoun “she” at the time this book was written, they now use the singular “they,” so that’s what I’m using here.)

Near the end of Inferno (which is split into three sections, each one loosely corresponding to a section of Dante’s Divine Comedy), Eileen Myles writes that “poetry is most of all a mastery of places, not the world but the weather of the states that form in your life and what you read and how things were taken and what came back” (260). That’s also a pretty good description of this book, which is an autobiographical novel about the narrator’s coming of age as a writer and a queer person. It’s also about New York in the late 1960s and 1970s (and onward), and it’s smart and wryly funny and really satisfying, maybe especially the first section, which mostly alternates between the narrator’s experience in a literature class at U Mass Boston and a story about going out on a double date of sorts with a near-stranger and two visiting Italian businessmen, fairly early in the narrator’s NYC life. The second section is partly structured as a grant application, partly as a series of vignettes about being a writer (among other things); the last section is another series of vignettes, about being a writer and sex and life.

I love Myles’s descriptions of New York: “Millions of little covens. It’s not a big city at all,” they write (51). Or, later in the book: “It’s the way New York is: all the realities blinking next to each other” (203). Myles captures a feeling of possibility related to being young in the city and to being a writer and to being queer, and that feeling is probably all the more pronounced because of the way that New York’s openness contrasts with the narrator’s Boston-adjacent childhood and adolescence. Myles writes this, about Catholic school: “the nuns enclosed the world with sanity and god. The rules flowed up and down the calendar and around the clock and in the day the sky, the world was rules—known by god the nuns said” (8). And then Myles writes about the city, about “being completely open to the world” in a “temporary way,” “notebook open to all the light coming in” (33). I also love this, about poetry readings at the West End bar by Columbia: “The light poured in from Broadway behind the poet so you could see it was winter and the trees were skinny and the cars on Broadway were moving fast and a reading was going on. The world was a movie” (53).

(I also totally love the sweet and tender and observant way Myles writes about their dog Rosie in this book—I’d already wanted to read Afterglow, Myles’s “dog memoir”, and now I’m even more excited about it.)