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literature [ & being critical ]

Lost in the Art of Capture

04-poble-nou0bcn.graffiti copia

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.

– Rebecca Solnit


The Batuman Saga: Final Chapters

somewhere in the Andes...

From my latest post on The Millions, Adventures in Reviewing Elif Batuman’s The Possessed:

Far be it for me to skive off my part in what was now clearly a swiftly escalating literary collaboration. “You drive a hard bargain, Batuman,” I muttered to myself…

collaboration, Part II

[Parul] Sehgal finds herself often writing reviews in conversation with her younger sister, rather than back to the author or to the reader like most other critics. Elaborating on her method, Sehgal said that she reads the work over first to eliminate any “knee-jerk responses to techniques or topics.”

From “A critical look at criticism with Parul Sehgal, SOA ’10”

A Literal Translation of a Literal Translation*

Ex-Carcel, Valparaiso, Chile

Having been a writer for something like three days, I now consider myself sufficiently equipped to start dispensing advice. Gather ‘round.

I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I purchased The Corrections years ago with a Barnes and Noble Gift Card I received, read close to 100 pages in, and then returned it for cash (for some reason, they allowed me to do this back then). In fairness, this was motivated by equal part lack of chemistry with the novel and equal part the urgent need for $21.99, not a negligible amount of money for me as an undergraduate. Or even now, sadly. So I won’t presume to recommend or abuse fiction’s favorite son, but I beg anyone writing or aspiring to write fiction today to read this (not exactly laudatory) review of Franzen’s Freedom by B.R. Myers for The Atlantic – not because its analysis of the novel is necessarily apt (I wouldn’t know) – but because it highlights flaws universal to so much contemporary American fiction that have made me really bloody fed up with it.

Pressed for time? At minimum, read the following sentences and swallow them whole. If, like me, you are occasionally guilty of the same crime, let them deconstruct and reconstruct how you use the English language, because B.R. Myers sees right through us:

…a good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates. But… one need read only that the local school “sucked” and that Patty was “very into” her teenage son, who in turn was “fucking” the girl next door, to know that whatever is wrong with these people does not matter… There is no import in things that “suck,” no drama in someone’s being “into” someone else… The result is boredom. The same narrator who gives us “sucked” and “very into” also deploys compound adjectives, bursts of journalese, and long if syntactically crude sentences. An idiosyncratic mix? Far from it. We find the same insecure style on The Daily Show and in the blogosphere; we overhear it on the subway. It is the style of all who think highly enough of their own brains to worry about being thought “elitist,” not one of the gang. The reassuring vulgarity follows the flight of pseudo-eloquence as the night the day. Like the rest of these people, Franzen should relax. We don’t need to find a naughty word on every page to know that he is one very regular Joe. (emphasis mine)

For macro-level writing advice, Myers notes that:

…the Social Writer thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family “typical” enough to hold everything together. The more aspects of our society [the author] can fit between the book’s covers, the more ambitious he is considered to be.

He expands on this by offering several passages from Freedom where sex, marriage, rape, etc., are described flatly, stupidly, or worse yet – falsely. His point is simple: sex, marriage, and rape are indeed everyday aspects of our society. If you are writing a “social novel,” it may seem like a good idea to mention them. But please, resist this urge if you have nothing interesting or powerful to say about them.

Finally, for a quick serving of racial indignation, Myers quotes this little snippet from Freedom, apparently about one of the main characters, an older, married white male, who falls for his young Indian female assistant:

To throw away his marriage and follow Lalitha had felt irresistible until the moment he saw himself, in the person of Jessica’s older colleague, as another overconsuming white American male who felt entitled to more and more and more: saw the romantic imperialism of his falling for someone fresh and Asian, having exhausted domestic supplies.

Again, I haven’t read the book. But I’m having trouble imagining a context where that passage would not induce feelings of nausea. Says Myers:

If his love is not strong enough to counter an access of political correctness, nor strong enough for him to see Lalitha as a woman first and an Asian second, why should we care about it? As for the vile phrase “having exhausted domestic supplies,” Walter, who has so far been faithful to his wife, has no reason to apply it to himself.

I hope we have helped.

*This title is in reference to a joke that may or may not have been made by Pierre Menard, as recounted in Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” in Ficciones. If anyone picked up on that, we should talk. Seriously.

Thy Fearful Symmetry

Street art in Valparaiso, Chile

Read my latest piece for The Millions: In Search of Iago

It’s a cliché that nothing is more interesting to people than other people, but in essence, those of us who ask about Iago do so because he is not so different a puzzle from human beings. He is only a more tantalizing one, because his author has deliberately controlled what we see and know of him, as though dispensing clues. But the prize for solving a literary conundrum is the same as for solving a human one: if I can figure out Iago, I can figure out Hamlet, I can figure out anyone and I can figure out you.

Of Human Limitations

San Telmo, Buenos Aires

“I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman on a bet from my mother when I was eleven years old. A voracious reader, my mother proclaimed the book to be among the dullest she had ever encountered. “You’ll never be able to get through it,” she said. “Fuck if I won’t,” I thought (or might have thought, had my penchant for expletives been the same then as it is now) …”

Read my first piece for The Millions here!

In Which I Am Forgiven By Elif Batuman

Dear MS. Batuman,

I’m currently interning at the literary website “The Millions,” for which I occasionally post “Curiosities” – little links to articles on the web that our readers might enjoy – and I recently posted the following: “At the Paris Review Daily, Elif Batuman walks us through part one of HIS 12-hour blind date with Dostoevsky. (via Book Bench)” (emphasis added)

Shortly afterwards, “Alison” posted the following comment: “Elif Batuman is a woman.”

Doom, I thought, for several reasons. First and foremost, I myself do not possess an anglo-sounding name, so to me such mistakes are personal. Of course, my name ends with an “a,” which makes things a bit simpler for everyone, but my sister’s name ends with a consonant, and there is a good chance that the U.S. government is yet to realize that she is a she.

As waves of shame from cultural insensitivity washed over me, I comforted myself with the fact that I did not make the hetero-normative assumption that just because you were on a blind date with a male in your piece, you must obviously be female. So there! I will tell THAT to my detractors.

But doom I thought again, after I spent the better part of the morning trying to gauge the approximate level of your fame and influence online (and thus the approximate size of my gaffe).  My research reveals that your level of fame and influence is, in short, high.  And to make matters worse: you are funny and you smoke.  Doom indeed.

Please accept my apologies.  I will make amends by reading The Possessed, and by correcting all those who confuse your gender in my presence, forever.

With humility,
Ujala Sehgal

Dear Ujala,

Thanks for your kind and entertaining note, and for reposting on The Millions.  I do get the gender mistake a lot, and actually find it kind of flattering, since I interpret it to mean that I don’t have a girly style.  You must have mistaken me for one of these hard-hitting gay theater writers who are carrying on the tradition of Hemingway and Dos Passos. Re: your unawareness of my tremendous fame and influence, I will forgive you completely if you purchase The Possessed.

Best wishes,

Postscript: In Which Elif Batuman Continues To Acknowledge My Existence!

“[…] Naturally, I was delighted by this testament to the virility of my authorial voice, which is evidently such that young people would sooner believe me to be a gay man than entertain the possibility of my not having a penis at all.”

Romance, at short notice.

Jeffrey Eugenides has a short story in The New Yorker, “Extreme Solitude,” that is a study on love for writers, academics and all those predisposed to either tell themselves stories, or to look too cerebrally at matters of the heart.  Madeleine, his protagonist, is a naive college coed struggling through the texts of Derrida and Eco in her Semiotics seminar, while ultimately learning how Semiotics works outside the classroom, when it starts to work on her.

There are a few aspects of the story that I take issue with, chief among them that Madeleine struck me as a ridiculous – and possibly even unkind – caricature of precious, privileged, Amelie-esque little girls lost.  “Madeleine,” like the little French girl in two straight lines, loves clean sheets and peanut butter but hates tobacco and her roommate’s diaphragm. She’s an English major because she just, gosh, loves stories! but is snubbed by the weirdos in her Semiotics class, who prefer reading about subjects like Hermaphroditism (is that a deliberate dig coming from the author of “Middlesex”?) Really, each additional sliver of information about her prompted a renewed “What the fuck?” from me, and by the end of the story, when she frolics over to her boyfriend’s apartment in an apple-green baby-doll sundress with a bib, I barely registered the fact that, yes, the author actually put her in a bib.

But I’ll overlook the absurdity of Madeleine because the subject of the piece, Semiotics, specifically Semiotics and love, is so rich in and of itself.  There is a self-indulgent lure to philosophizing about love (as anyone who has read the essays of Alain De Botton would have observed first hand), so I’ll try to refrain from doing so myself.  But I think Eugenides’ story alludes to the idea that because we have all been assured that love is the definitive cure to “extreme solitude,” we seek it in desperation, and we have to fight the tendency to delude ourselves into believing we have found it.  And somewhere along the way, we have come to believe that the process of finding love is the weighing of signs – if we only knew which signs to pay attention to.

What signs does Madeleine interpret in her relationship with her boyfriend, Leonard? She (and the story) pay only cursory attention to signs which might otherwise be considered fatal for any budding relationship:  the obviousness of their incompatibility; that he doesn’t want her to leave her things at his place; that he deliberately makes her uncomfortable; that he is only too sure of her feelings for him.  Nonetheless, she becomes convinced that she is in love based on other signs:  the coincidence that she understands Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse” when she waits for him to call; that she is more concerned about his sexual pleasure than her own during their first night together; that he makes her anxious; that he pulls away.

There are two ways to read this, as I see it.  First is to focus on the fact that Leonard is sort of a jerk and, typically, that is precisely why the insecure Madeleine foolishly “falls” for him.  Leonard no doubt establishes himself as a jerk at the end, but not through his smirking rebuff of Madeleine’s “I love you.” Rather, because in that same scene he discloses that he, unlike Madeleine, understood their situation perfectly all along – both his own feelings as well as hers – yet let their sexual/romantic relationship progress without any sort of compassion or responsibility towards (what he knew to be) her misguidedness.

But I think this reading is wrong; it degenerates into a sort of misogynistic “He’s Just Not That Into You,” a warning for other silly young women. (more…)