Martha Cooley: “I Liked Marie”

01/31/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 13, 2011.

It’s all too easy to condemn cheaters: how dare you start an affair! How unfair to your husband/wife, especially when they’ve been diagnosed with a major illness. How selfish of you! And yet, while there are certainly people who cheat out of spite, out of lust, out of what you might call “base” desires, there are also those who are simply missing something from their lives, something they can’t address or talk about, and how dare they have to hurt the person they love and have married by confessing to an arrangement they can keep quiet and on the side? The power of Cooley’s story is that it manages to make you consider these things without sermonizing: Denise and her lover have a routine, one that’s been going on for four years, and they both know that it’s never going to be anything more than sex; he’s never going to spend the night. (“A deal: that’s how Denise viewed what they had, a deal whose provisos, though never articulated, were self-evident. Sex was the deal’s centerpiece; it was why they met weekly, what they wanted from each other, what they did together.”)

Except, it’s not really sex for Denise: it’s a matter of loneliness, which she (probably accurately) ascribes to him, as well. “A married person’s loneliness had to be greater than an unmarried person’s, she figured; an unmarried person got used to it, whereas a married person couldn’t acclimate so easily. Her lover’s loneliness was as clear as the way he liked to come: with his hands locked tightly at the small of her back.” She sees this, too, in the fact that he now no longer brings his wife to visit his mother in the old-age facility; instead, he brings Denise, whom his senile mother mistakes for Marie, the original other woman whom he didn’t marry, the one from where this story gets its title. His mother liked Marie; does he also regret, on some level, losing her? And of course, she sees this in herself: “Being alone was strange: it was invariably fine until it wasn’t, and then–for a little while, unforeseeably–it was the worst thing imaginable.” I think all of us, no matter how popular, can relate to this: there’s always going to be a moment at which everything that’s fine abruptly isn’t, though thankfully most of us understand that it’s going to be better shortly. (For someone depressed, like David Foster Wallace, then, it’s the suspicion that it’s actually not going to be better, that you’re never going to shake this pain you’re currently in.)

The extended metaphor Cooley pursues, in this case, involves sleep (and that, on some level, is associated with sex):

Denise imagined the two of them awake at night. Did they toss and turn in bed? Or did they wrap one another in an embrace that pulled them both under, so they could eventually drown together in sleep?
Drowning in sleep: that sounded good, Denise decided. She should try that for herself. A snuffing-out of thought; no waking up in the middle of the night, no 3:00 A.M. wrangling with fear or anger. Unimaginable! Yet wouldn’t someone have to push you under, hold your head below the surface? How could you drown in sleep if there was no one to perform that service for you?

Although Denise knows the deal, the loneliness comes to a head after her lover takes his wife (who is recovering from a mastectomy) to Montauk and asks Denise to refill the cats’ food and water bowls while they’re away. Until now, she’s been able to step outside his personal life, musing only about her lover’s wife’s “jaunty white” SUV. But now, learning the names of the cats he’s never mentioned before, seeing the intimate interior of their brownstone — their bedroom, with the matelasse coverlet — and familiar objects, like his favorite coat, out of the ordinary context (“on the floor next to her bed, alongside his sneakers and sweats”), she may need to cut herself off. “She wrote I liked Marie on a piece of paper, slid it beneath the stack of underwear in the husband’s armoire, turned off the lights, went back downstairs, picked up the keys, and locked herself out.” There are probably multiple ways to read this final line, but to me, “I liked Marie” isn’t a renegotiation of their deal, it’s a severing of it, a calling back to the woman that he doesn’t see any more, in favor of his wife. And then there’s that final phrase: she “locked herself out.” Out of his house, sure, but out of his life, too. She needs a man who will be there in bed with her — even though this has never helped her insomnia before, since she’s been married herself — she needs a man who will help her drown her sorrows in sleep. And if it takes an affair to do so, who among us can really cast a stone?

Farscape: “Until the Blood Runs Clear”

01/30/2012 § Leave a comment

Season 1, Episode 11. Writer: Doug Heyes, Jr. Director: Tony Tilse. Rating: B-.

“She’s gone completely farbotz,” says Rygel, with perhaps more than a hint of jealousy, watching as Zhaan all but throws herself at D’Argo. “Yes,” observes asexual Pilot, thinking more of Moya’s unborn Leviathan child, “Delvian females are unusually sensitive to ionic radiation.” To which the light-sensitive Zhaan adds, “We call it a photogasm.” Two newly coined words, more information about the bodily functions of our alien crew, and we’ve barely started the episode: did I mention that Crichton’s having a mindgasm of his own, having used this sexy solar flare to recreate the kind of wormhole — albeit an unstable one — that transported him to this galaxy far, far away? (If not for Aeryn’s presence aboard his IASA module — a 0ne-woman cold shower — Farscape might have ended right here.)

It’s unclear why D’Argo’s so eager to leave this planet — especially since he’s shown interest in Zhaan before — but he quickly runs into conflict with data-mining Crichton, who refuses to abandon his plasma-leaking module. Instead, Crichton heads to the planet’s Tatooine-y surface to find a conveniently located mechanic named Furlough . . . and a pair of feral hunters in search of the “three” escaped fugitives — D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel — for whom the Peacekeepers are offering a substantial bounty. It’s all a bit contrived and convenient, and yet, these (un)happy accidents are the meat of Farscape, in which our heroes blunder into situations they don’t understand and are subsequently forced to bluster their way out; this episode’s dynamic forces Crichton to pretend to be an alpha dog, lest his “mate” Aeryn be killed by these red-eyed, weakness-sensing Volkarian blood trackers, Rorf and Rorg.

Luckily for Crichton’s on-the-fly “Hole in the Sky” gang of rival bounty hunters — Supernatural fans, watch out for Butch (Crichton) and Sundance (Aeryn) — these Volkarians aren’t the brightest bunch of Bobas, as demonstrated by their negotiating prowess:

CRICHTON: I’ll split the bounty 70-30.
RORF: 70[menacing pause]-40!
CRICHTON: 80-40. You in or you out?

Unfortunately, he’s not a real alpha dog: that’s why he’s been so oblivious to Aeryn’s own desires to return home — feelings that rival, if not surpass, his, as we saw in the recklessness of “DNA Mad Scientist” — and why he might be underestimating the appeal of the beacon’s secret message to Aeryn: turn over the Leviathan, the fugitives, and Crichton, and she gets to retire with her full commission and her “impurities” forgiven. It’s also why he’s so slow on the uptake regarding Furlough’s unusual interest in his junky module: for all his experimenting with wormholes, he forgot to realize that other people might notice weird blue portals in the sky, let alone the numerous foreign particles spread across his ship.

But at least his experience with his father’s hounds has taught him a thing or two about the pack mentality, so when the Volkarians capture D’Argo, Crichton’s able to keep him alive by stimulating the blood (as we saw in “Throne for a Loss”). And while he may be figuratively blind, at least he doesn’t go literally blind, as happens to Aeryn when she accidentally gets an eyeful of solar flare while fending off some of Furlough’s overzealous workers (who want to steal Crichton’s flight data). Special credit to writer Heyes, too, for not taking the cheesy literary route, in which “her blindness helps him to finally see what he really cares about.”

The big development in this episode, however, comes between Crichton and D’Argo: all it took was a little torture for them to finally have a heart-to-heart. Trust doesn’t come easy to Luxans, especially one who feels as constantly betrayed as D’Argo, and Crichton’s physical similarities to Peacekeepers is rough on him. And yet:

CRICHTON: This isn’t going to work, is it? We’re never going to be friends.
D’ARGO: Friendship is a lot to ask.
CRICHTON: Then how about respect? We can be allies.

This may not seem like a lot, but as the ensuing battle between Crichton, D’Argo, and the bounty hunters shows, a Luxan never abandons an ally, regardless of personal risk. And as Aeryn and Crichton prove, risking their lives for one another, this band of fugitives are allies, even if they’re not quite friends. So yes, in the end, Crichton has to give Furlough his recently acquired data in order to pay the repair bill, which means he’s back to square one. But at the same time, as Zhaan points out, there are other planets with solar activity: he can start from scratch. And this time, he’ll have allies.

Obsessive observations: 

  • The native aliens on this planet look really cool with their bad-ass shades and Rorschatz-like faces. It’s a shame they’re so upstaged by the Volkarians and Furlough’s humanoid species. For that matter, the costume designers get points all-around for style: D’Argo’s Dead Space-like welding mask is neat, and even the pin-hole goggles donned by Crichton and Aeryn are fashionable.
  • Before he lost contact with them, D’Argo knew that Crichton was headed to Furlough’s. Why, then, does he park so far away from the settlement? He’s unaware that there are beacons broadcasting his face, but walking through the desert, alone, is just asking for trouble. There are always Jawa-like creatures in them there dunes. (It can’t just be a matter of his bullishness behavior either; Zhaan does the same thing.)
  • FURLOUGH: Why don’t you go for a nice long walk outside, take in some of the sights?
    AERYN: What sights?
    FURLOUGH: Well, if you go straight out that way, there’s a truly outstanding expanse of sand.
    AERYN: Sand, eh?
    FURLOUGH: Just as much as you could want.
  • Rygel’s poor virgin eyes: he happens upon Zhaan while she’s bathing in the buff, soaking up those photogasms, and now he’s afraid to look at her, lest she once again be naked. (“Don’t insult my eyes with your naked blue extremities. . . . Help, help, a mad Delvian exhibitionist is forcing herself on me!”) He may look like a toad, but he’s not the horny kind, I guess; and hey, now Zhaan’s got an easy way to shut Rygel up in the future.

Alice McDermott: “Someone”

01/27/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, January 30, 2012.

It’s the simplest of premises: we are, all of us, looking for someone to love us. For seventeen-year-old Marie, a girl as shy and naive about the subject as her bottle-bottom glasses are thick, she has the misfortune of falling for the first person to show her even the slightest bit of interest, Walter Hartnett. The words that set her heart aflutter, incidentally, which cause her to stand in front of the mirror, smoothing her face and saying her would-be-future-husband’s name? “What’s wrong with your eye?” Yes, Mr. Hartnett’s not exactly a catch, and although the grown-up Marie knows this (“When her daughters began dating she told them, ‘Here’s a good rule: If he looks over your head while you’re talking, get rid of him'”), she also still can’t stop talking about this first love, the too-ordinary, too-cruel, necessary-to-write-his-entire-name-for-emphasis-and-secret-longing Walter Hartnett.

That’s basically the entire story right there, with McDermott erring on the side of caution with a plethora of details and explanations, suspecting, perhaps, that a great many readers will not know what it’s like to be a swooning young girl in love — for me, at least, my boyhood crushes/romances were quite different. However, while the narrative repetition fits with the main character’s obsession, the story itself isn’t all that interesting, especially in the objective third person, which keeps the emotion out of the equation. It’s also difficult to get a sense of Marie’s feelings, given her insecurities and inexperience. Her first sexual encounter comes after an odd first date (Walter keeps looking over her head, which we’ve already been warned about), when Walter, after taking her back to his place, suckles on her breast: “She felt the momentary terror of not knowing what he was going to do as he moved his mouth toward her and then felt it increase a hundredfold when she understood. He closed his mouth over her nipple. He pulled and tugged.” Does Walter have some sort of weird fetish, or is Marie just totally at a loss? There’s evidence for both: later, she describes “her poor pale breast” as “soggy and tender, the pink nipple distended,” as if Walter’s uninterested in pleasure for either of them, and yet as the days pass, she writes that “it was all she could do not to cup her breast herself, offer it to him.” I suppose, given her religious upbringing and absent father (he died three years ago), it’s more the former: “A thrilling kind of shame that made guilt and confusion feel like pleasure, like joy.” Still, they never have another intimate moment over these next two months, until one day Walter takes her out to lunch to announce that he’s getting married to Rita Sweeney:

It wasn’t just that Rita’s family had money, he explained while he ate and the food he had ordered for her sat untouched on her plate. Although that made it better than the two of them, he and Marie–with their widowed mothers ending up alone in their top-floor avaries if they got married. It was simply that Rita was better-looking. No flaws that he could see. Not, he said, like you and me.
“Blind you,” he said. “Gimpy me.”
He said as the lunch wore on, “Don’t kid yourself that everybody’s equal in this country. It’s the best-looking people who have the best chances.”

Okay, this is an absurd scene. It’s hard to believe that anybody could be both this cruel and nonchalant at the same time; odd, too, that in a small town, Walter could secretly romance and plan to marry the judge’s daughter without Marie finding out. It’s unclear, too, why Rita would even want to marry Walter (or why the father would approve of such a shit-heel’s proposal). Most importantly, all of this is irrelevant to the story, so the fact that McDermott forces us to think about it — the motives, the scene, etc. — makes me wonder what exactly McDermott is after, especially with that moralizing line of his about “the best-looking people.” On the other hand, it’s effectively surprising: we know that this relationship won’t last, but don’t see this particular ending coming. From the writer’s perspective, however, it seems as if McDermott could have found a more realistic way of unmooring both Marie and the reader, something that might allow us to connect with Marie’s sorrow on a more intimate level and thereby snap back into yet another, entirely different story.

Yes, post-break-up, we get a metaphorical flood, as tears make “the buildings and the street lamps and the cars with their bright windshields, even the dark figures of other people, grow buoyant.” (That’s a nice reversal, too, for her mood is anything but buoyant.) She dreams of unzipping her own spine and cursing God “for how he had shaped her in that first darkness: unlovely and unloved.” And that’s not the biggest departure: her older brother Gabe, who has quit the priesthood, now shows up to comfort her. (So much for not having a father figure.) Walking is his method of soul-searching, and after Marie’s gotten a physical distraction — a blister — he tells her a story about when he and Walter were kids, one that illustrates either that Gabe, who is now good, was once cruel, or that Walter, who is now cruel, was once kind. Either way, the point is that people are changeable, nothing is permanent, and, as the last line promises, as she wonders who will love her now, “‘Someone,’ he said. “‘Someone will.'”

This, as you probably guessed from the title, is the point McDermott’s trying to make, and it’s a good one, solidly presented. But it makes much of what precedes it unnecessary: it’s not as if seeing poor, delusional Marie get her hopes up adds anything to Walter’s cruelty; he’s mean enough to any girl. Nor is it as if we’ve really seen Walter’s cruelty, given the one isolated, confusing, and unreliable situation we are given (pre-absurdity). Why not just start with Marie in tears? Most questionable of all, however, is a moment at the end where — even though McDermott’s now knows where she’s taking the story — the author has Gabe encounter a former parishioner of his. McDermott means to point out that Gabe is a three-dimensional character, but to the reader, it shows a lack of focus: do we really care more for Gabe now? Do we need to? The world is big and inexplicable: the short-story aims to zoom in on something small and potentially explicable.

Who will love this story? Someone, I’m sure. But not me.

Roberto Bolano: “Labyrinth”

01/23/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, January 23, 2012.

[Translated, from the Spanish, by Chris Andrews.]

What is the labyrinth of Bolano’s playfully vapid story? Is it life, which the author chases about as he imagines the lives of the eight people — J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Reveile, P. Guyotat, C. Devade, and M. Devade — that he has glimpsed in a photo and decided to follow, momentarily, down a literary rabbit hole? Is it literature, a hopeless pursuit of dead ends with its occasional glimpses of some central point of enlightenment; are the sentences, then, walls to hold the minotaur-like idea in long enough to catch that glimpse before it flutters away and escapes? Is it meant to be external, with the people in the photo limned by this stopped moment in time, or is it an internal thing, in which the people are limned by their own unknowable desires? I repeat the motifs of “glimpse” and “limn” here, because Bolano is working from the convention of a photo, a fragment, and so we only really have the initial description, that “captured” glimpse, before the story — if you can call it that, and not a writing exercise — spirals outward. As for the labyrinthine structure, I side with this as metaphor for life: yes, at one moment, eight different paths have converged, but from here on out — even among the married people and the secret lovers (and longers) — they will venture on their own paths.

Bolano’s rhythm at least fits his concept well: he begins slowly, with a full page of talented descriptions: “His face is round. It would be an exaggeration to say that it’s the face of a fat man, but it probably will be in a few year’s time: it’s the face of a man who enjoys a good meal.” Sherlock Holmes would get a laugh out of the deductions that Bolano draws from such observations and guesswork, he might even get aroused by Bolano’s persistent focus on sex: “At first glance she could almost be Vietnamese. Except that her breasts, it seems, are larger than those of the average Vietnamese woman. Hers is the only smile that allows us a glimpse of teeth.” Bolano continues with his close interpretation of this natural photo (one can only imagine what fun he’d have had with, say, the promo pictures HBO mocks up for new seasons of their big dramas), and once he’s exhausted the room itself, he follows the labyrinth, “a more complex and subtle web of relations among these men and women” (or life), out of it: “Let’s imagine J.-J. Goux, for example . . . . his space in the photo is momentarily vacant and we see him walking along Rue de l’Ecole de Medecine….”

One by one, he absents the characters from their initial scene and literally “imagines” where they might be, what they might do. He adds characters to the original photo — the ones who are out of the frame, implied to be there by the knowledge that a photographer is out there, along with other people, smoking at the bar (perhaps), whom our photographed heroes are staring at in various fashions: “It makes Carla Devade feel like a protective older sister or a missionary nun in Africa, but it catches at Marie-Therese Reveille like barbed wire and triggers a vague erotic longing.” He even pauses to describe the obscured strangers who sit behind our heroes, to note just how busy the photo is, if you detach yourself from its central subjects and appreciate the entirety of all these temporarily united lives. And in his moment of climax, a single run-on sentence (as is Bolano’s wont) follows all eight of them on the following evening:

And it occurs to Henric that his motorcycle is like an Assyrican god, but for the moment his legs refuse to walk on into the darkness, and Marie-Therese shuts her eyes and opens her legs, one foot on the sofa, the other on the carpet, while Guyotat pushes into her, the panties still around her thighs, and calls her his little whore, his little bitch, and asks her what she did during the day, what happened to her, what streets she wandered down, and J.-J. Goux is sitting at the table and spreading pate on a piece of bread….

Well, you get the picture (pun intended). This is about as slice-of-life as a story can get, and I respect Bolano’s ability to capture it. But I struggle, as I have with 2666, to really care about it, since he has the ability to go long stretches without having a plot, or with the intent to follow some random thread of Ariadne’s as far as he can take it before returning to the main path. This is well-written and well-paced material, but I don’t need the labyrinth of life described to me: I’m within it already it. I long for the moment at which Bolano turns a new corner and escapes his own restrictions, wanders into something new and surprising (not that his views of this octet aren’t necessarily surprising, especially given his sense of eroticism), and, most importantly, reveals something — rather than just asserts something.

Said Sayrafiezadeh: “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy”

01/19/2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, January 16, 2012.

“To get to the hill you have to first take the path,” begins Sayrafiezadeh’s story, with the plodding pace of logic laid out before it. “The path is narrow and steep and lined with trees that are so dark they could be purple,” he continues, “and so dense it feels as though you’re walking alongside a brick wall.” These descriptions are so ordinary — bricks are form-fitting, no? — that they’re immediately in conflict with the ominous title, and indeed, the next few lines are tinged with unseen worry: “You can’t see in and you hope that no one can see out. The first time I went up the path it was terrifying.” And yet, at the same time, they remain at odds with themselves: the “in” and “out” seem to be reversed, and the implication from “the first time” is clearly that the path is no longer frightening. As one who has never served, this nonetheless seems like an adequate description of what it must be like to be on high alert and yet ultimately without incident. (Consider Average Joe’s reactions to Homeland’s color-coded threat levels: fear of flying turns to frustration with TSA “frisks.”) Here’s the author’s hypothesis, then: “Fear can’t persist unless you have at least a little evidence to sustain it. Fascination can’t persist either. What can persist, however, is boredom.”

Boredom, as we’ll come to understand, is the very thing that Luke was hoping to avoid when he enlisted. Twenty-seven, slightly out of shape, working a drag-and-drop data-entry job, and casually rejected by the women he’s interested in, he unidealistically joins the military for all the “wrong” reasons (although I suspect self-improvement is in fact the only right reason), and then finds himself far removed from the “action.” He finds himself to be afraid of combat, too, flashing back to the first time he ever shot a gun with his father and decided he “didn’t want anything more to do with it,” and along with the majority of his troop, works “slowly and incompetently” on building the bridge that will lead them to the path that will lead them to the hill that will supposedly take them to the enemy. (“We had colluded in our own demise…. [The hill] looked like a place where you could easily bury fifty bodies and no one would know.”) So it comes to pass that, five months into his one-year tour, his unit is left with nothing to do, save to patrol the hill. He starts to get fatter, improves his bowling skills (there’s an alley at their camp), and stops returning his potential girlfriend Becky’s often redacted e-mails, as he’d rather use his allotted fifteen minutes of Internet to look at porn. Development, arrested: war.

But there’s a third act to this story, the one the title’s been long-hinting at. It’s the day before Luke ships home courtesy of American Airlines, and he finally notices someone — “A tall, bald, fat man, maybe fifty, maybe younger: the enemy.” Never mind that this man is 1.1 miles away (according to his toy-like gun, which “could have been a squirt gun, except for the fact that it told you things like the time and the temperature. Plus it could kill a man from a mile away”), and that he’s walking with a goat. If anything, “his nonchalance irritated me. It flew in the face of my boredom.” Luke’s entire year is so invalidated that he feels he has no choice but to shoot the man: “Poof,” goes the gun, down goes the man, only now he’s described as “the boy . . . he fell straight down as if he were melting into the ground in a puddle of blood.” And with the act so “accomplished,” he considers what he’ll tell his father, to show what he’s made for himself in the last year. “Nothing. I’ve done nothing,” he says, backpedaling in shame from his own actions, and straight to this final, dispassionate line: “The next day we flew back home in style,just like we’d been promised.”

What Sayrafiezadeh’s telling us is that war is just as human as any of us: as irritable, irrational, and ultimately flawed as any one of us. We ourselves do not know what we want, and yet we march into battle against others who are just as lost, and accomplish . . . what? Perhaps in the past, we could be proud of liberating people who wished to be free, or of preventing horrific, genocidal crimes, but stripped of those “right” reasons, we’re left with something worse than brutal: we’re left with something banal. To die for a cause is one thing, but to kill without one? Of course, much of this is me interpreting Sayrafiezadeh’s words through my own liberal filters — what’s missing from this story is a stronger sense of purpose, although I suspect that’s in many ways a reflection of Luke’s aimlessness. Then again, as with many stories whose style reflects the point, this is what I’d call Pyrrhic prose, and I wish the story were a little more active in espousing some sort of philosophy . . . or is it that in Sayrafiezadeh’s world, there’s nothing left to take a stand for?

Jonas Hassen Khemiri: “Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger”

01/18/2012 § Leave a comment

[Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles]

Here’s the best book of 2011 that you haven’t read: Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s inventive Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger, in which two narrators, Jonas and a man who claims to be his father’s “most antique” friend Kadir, collaborate and clash over both the life story of Jonas’s father, “Abbas,” who went from being a war-orphaned child in Tunisian to a struggling artist in semi-racist Sweden before succeeding (or so he claims) as a photographer. At the same time, Khemiri manages to paint a picture of a nationalistically and generationally divided Sweden with the colorful use of Abbas’s unintentionally broken Tunisian-Swedish grammar (e.g., “just memorize not to inject too many details”) and Jonas’s stylized second-person snapshots (“Then Dads look down on you where you’re Velcroing yourself to their legs”). He’s assisted here by Rachel Willson-Broyles’s flexible translation, which captures the wide palette of tonal shifts needed to maintain — as he did in his outstanding play, Invasion (also translated by Willson-Broyles) — that language itself is what creates reality. His choices in overwrought metaphors (on the same level as David Mitchell at his best) and awkward grammar (ala Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated) are justified by what they reveal: Abbas’s desperation to assimilate (to the extent that he becomes a literal lapdog of the state, as a pet photographer) is undermined by his inability to speak proper Swedish, whereas the Swedish-born Jonas is so offended by his native country’s treatment of his half-blood peers (offensively called “blatte“) that he rebels against the language that comes so easily to him. (At one point, we’re given excerpts from a young and awed Jonas’s notes on the beautiful Swedish language, which makes his later choice to twist and distort it all the more tragic.)

Thanks to the comic structure — and this is a hilarious novel — Khemiri even finds time to both make fun of and defend these choices, explaining the origins of certain motifs (like the recurrence of chestnuts) or particularly flowery sections:

He holds her hand and he smells her lavender odor and it SWOOSHES itself into his brain and the ground begins to vibrate under him, his brain is hazed, the clouds gather, the night sky is crackled with lightning and suddenly a hundred meteors fall from the sky and suddenly the horizon’s fish boats shoot artificial distress lights and sunken choirs of angels sing SYMPHONIC SONGS and organs play at BOOMING VOLUME and STRAY DOGS HOWL and THE AIR LOSES OXYGEN and VOLCANOES ERUPT and UMBRELLA DRINKS CRASH FROM BARS and ACHRAF’S PENCIL BREAKS AGAINST A NEGATIVE and SOMEWHERE IN A N UNDERGROUND RESEARCH ROOM THERE IS A RICHTER SCALE MEASURER THAT RISES AND RISES AND RISES UNTIL THE MERCURY EXPLODES ITS CHAMBER AND SPRAYS ITSELF OUT LIKE OIL AND BLACKENS THE RESEARCHER’S WHITE COATS, THE HISTORICAL FAX MACHINES, AND THE ANTIQUE GREEN-TEXTED COMPUTER MONITORS!!!

(N.B.: None of this happens in reality! This is metaphorical symbolism for your father’s strong emotions during the rendezvous with your mother.)

Ordinarily, novelists work behind and between the lines of the text to keep things connected and on point; Khemiri, in a playfully light rebellion of his own, comes out into the foreground (through Kadir) to explain what he’s doing: “Everything in life can be woven together; life is a coded pattern, and it is our task to crystallize in bookly form those small details that the people of the plurality let pass unnoticed.” Furthermore, by making himself a character and using — perhaps! — elements of his own childhood, Khemiri further blurs fact and fiction into something more; whether these things actually happened or not, is the truth of it any less potent? Couple that one step further with the novel’s choice to steep itself in the reality-capturing profession of photography (which, of course, we know can also be used to lie), and you’ve got layers upon layers, culminating in a series of dueling narratives that leave the son unable to recognize his “traitorous” father and the father unable to recognize his gangster-rapping, D&D-playing, mold-breaking son, even though the shifts between Kadir’s and Jonas’s memories paint them as more similar than either would believe. At one point, Abbas — via a letter to Kadir — explains the magic of photography: “Do you know how one photographs the most delicate portrait of a cup of coffee? One fills the cup with soy sauce filled with a few foaming drops of dish soap. Consequently one escapes the uglifying surface coating!” Montecore doesn’t have a trace of bittersweet soy or inedible soap, and yet it, too, brazenly announces that it’s cheating to arrive at a desired effect: “Photography is a true art because photography can lie.”

If you haven’t guessed by now, particularly since the novel is dealing with conflicting memories, Montecore also deals with my favorite type of narrator, the unreliable one. Many things are claimed and purported — primarily that Kadir is who he claims to be, and not, in fact, who the reader suspects him to be (Abbas) — and although Khemiri certainly implicates a certain side as being more accurate (he is, after all, one of the two primary characters), he wisely leaves it to the reader to sort everything out. More impressive is the mature distance that Khemiri achieves from his (albeit) fictional self, for this allows him to successfully give the father figure elements of redemption, especially with the backdrop of a fractious ’90s Sweden (so there’s a history lesson in here, too). The standard go-to cliche for a many-layered novel that makes you cry would involve comparisons to onions: Montecore deserves better than that, so until hybrid farmers breed an onion to have the surprisingly pulpy texture of a pomegranate, the spiky skin of a pineapple, the nested structure of a podded pea,  and . . . well, let’s forget the metaphor, say this is the sort of novel Nabokov would be proud to display in his library, and get back to reading.

Tash Aw: “Sail”

01/12/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 13, 2011.

“Shorn of their sails, the boats looked fragile, purposeless,” observes Yanzu, a self-made “comfortably” successful businessman in Hong Kong who is considering the purchase of a yacht (a rich person’s toy), so as to console himself after his failed affair with a flighty, adventurous English teacher. She was his metaphorical sail, and all the wealth in the world won’t make him feel like any less of a failure right now: a fancy dock is still a dock; he’s still beached. “Men do the stupid things when they are in love, she had once told him, laughing high-spiritedly, but he did not agree: men do the stupidest things when they are out of love, because they think they have failed.” This string of failures extends back to Yanzu’s initial pursuits as a cub reporter: he was saddled with the grunt petty crimes on the police blotters, and though he believed himself to be the visionary “outsider” who would bring scathing, illuminating op-eds to the paper, he was quickly disillusioned by his editors, by his dwindling rancor, by his settling:

He found himself looking quite calmly at the unchanging view, at the washing line sagging with wrinkled clothes, the lazy whirring fans of air-conditioning units, the families who lived in the next building, so close that he could hear their TVs, watch their young children grow up, day-by-day; and everything suddenly shrouded by the sheets of rain during the downpours that would last all afternoon in this semitropical city. These were the things that would keep him company now.
He knew he would never write again.

He manages to marry a rich woman named Violet — it’s not clear what she sees in him, given that she’s independently wealthy and apparently more intelligent and as successful in law as he is in business — but this only brings him a secret shame at his inability to converse with her in English (the “educated” language, apparently), let alone at his business, where he must rely on others to translate the words of American contractors while he smiles and nods. At home, at the office, in life, he finds himself becoming the passive onlooker, not the firebrand of a participant he dreamed of being, and so it’s no surprise that he falls for the first English tutor who shows him the slightest bit of patience and attention. For the first time, he doesn’t feel as if he’s stumbling — but he misreads the rapport between them. At first, he sees her as his equal, someone who is “alone in a foreign place,” but soon realizes that she’s merely “a foreigner, she was passing through, she was bored, she wanted adventure.” Out of hopeless romanticism, depression, whatever it may be, he nearly drowns her while they’re out on a yacht, only to pull back at the last moment, exposed and vulnerable to her imminent departure, which brings us back to the beginning of the tale, the yacht that he considers purchasing, and yet which remains one zero out of reach.

As you can probably see in the synopsis/analysis I’ve offered, Aw is consistent in his linking of elements to his central theme (and title), this “sail,” and he does a fine job of provoking empathy for Yanzu’s feelings of loneliness. In my opinion, this ability is one of a storyteller’s most essential traits — the mastery of theme, or what the photographer might call a “motif” — and yet I confess that there’s something in this tale that leaves me cold. Even though it’s been edited down to its core (the use of numbered sections proves especially efficient in cutting directly to the relevant scenes, with no real transitions required), is it perhaps too long? I’ll have to revisit this one at some point; perhaps it’s just hitting too close to home.

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