Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wittgenstein's Mistress

I'll be honest. This abandonment of the reading desert is not without its catalysts. By far not. It's been spurred by a whirlwind in my head, the kind that makes me want to shut myself off from the rest of the world and listen to AM stations out of Quebec with a lot of static. It's been part injuries and illnesses and potential illnesses – my own and others –overbooking myself, and living with a toddler who is intent on driving me absolutely bonkers for an hour and a half about eating breakfast (or, really, pretending to eat breakfast…and dinner, and every other time I try to feed him), and then asking for a bear hug and a kiss. Maybe also that for a month or two, my part of the world suddenly assumed Seattle's climate, without the perks of a really great scene and coffee shops on every block, and now suddenly it's Louisiana.  It's part other stuff too.

Usually I feel this way in the fall and early winter even numbered years, but for some reason here I am in spring of an odd numbered year. Which is disorienting in itself. I always look to books for bearings, but strangely, the books I look for are fractured themselves. Now is not the time for funny, or upbeat. (Do I ever do upbeat, though?)

I tried to read Wittgenstein's Mistress last year (of course, in the fall/early winter of an even numbered year), but it didn't work for me at the time. Sometimes you have these things. So I've been flitting from one book to the next lately (literally with piles stacked next to my bed of maybe 15 books), but this time WM stuck. It's fractured, too, and feels like a cocoon. Which is what I really need right now.

Kate, the narrator, contends that she is the last person alive – or at least as far as she can tell. We have to take her at her word for it, because she's all we've got.  Every review I read for the novel said we are "lead to believe" that Kate was the last person, leaving me to expect some clues in the end that she really was just insane.  Yes, some devastating things happened to Kate (the death of her child, etc.) and some of these reviews suggested that with that devastation, Kate lost it and therefore we cannot take her word for the state of the world.  It's possible, of course, but there isn't anything particular hinting one way or the other.  We can take her at her word, or not.


WM doesn't have a plot.  The idea that she's the last person alive is just the starting point for Kate's thoughts.  This isn't a story about she is became the last person alive, or how she has dealt with being the last person alive.  It's Kate, alone, in a house on the beach perhaps a decade or more after she stopped looking for other people, typing her disjointed thoughts, which are not about her life but about philosophy, art, music and the Trojan War.  This may seem odd, but I thought it was perfectly normal.  When you're disjointed – as one might be if one were the last person alive, or, of course, if one is crazy enough to think one were the last person alive when really one isn't – these are the types of things that may come up.  Sometimes, in such situations, it's much, much easier – and more soothing, more calming – to think of facts, to think of things completely unrelated to anything, independent of you, the feeler, instead of focusing on what is happening in that moment that has made one feel disjointed. Here, Markson perfectly captures what happens to our brains when we – ok, I – feel isolated and alone.  It's perfect pitch.


What's most amazing about WM is that it works even if you don't know anything about Wittgenstein (though it works much better if you do).  Though I read The Odyssey, I haven't read The Iliad, or many of the other ancient Greek works that are referenced here – that would have heightened my understanding, but it worked even without it.  This novel made me want to put away Arabian Nights and get my Bulfinch's Mythology out again. 


I loved this book.  It was everything I expected it to be, which is often not the case.  I'm sure that when once again I get to another fall/winter of an even numbered year, I will pick it up to find my bearings in the color of the cat Kate saw at the Coliseum.  




Sunday, May 8, 2011

New York Trilogy

The City of Glass

At first, I really enjoyed this novel. Daniel Quinn, a writer of cheap detective novels, gets a phone call in the middle of the night. The phone call is for Paul Auster (someone Quinn doesn’t know – how clever, no?), but it’s so intriguing, Quinn pretends he’s Auster and thus gets mixed up in the strange affair. The call was from Peter Stillman. Peter had been locked in a basement by his father for years; his father was trying to get him to speak the original language of god, or something like that. After a fire, Peter was discovered and Stillman Sr (also named Peter) went to prison. The deal with the phone call to Quinn/Auster was that Stillman Sr was getting out of prison, and Stillman Jr and wife thought he was going to come and kill Jr. Quinn was to pick up Sr’s trail at the train station and keep him from getting to Jr.

Quinn follows Sr all over New York, day after day, to no avail. Nothing happens. The guy just walks. Turns out, though, that he was spelling something on his walks that had to do with his thesis on language (total bull so I won’t elaborate). Quinn finally tries to talk to the guy, which he succeeds at doing, but Sr is a total nut job, and every time Quinn meets him, he gives him a different name and Sr. doesn’t seem to notice. Or does he notice and pretend not to? Turns out it doesn’t really matter.

And then one day Quinn loses him. Sr. doesn’t appear outside his hotel one morning, and it turns out he had checked out the night before. So Quinn is stuck. He looks up Auster in the phone book and goes to see him. Turns out he’s a writer and is a complete dead end. Quinn tries to call the Stillmans, but their line is constantly busy. For days. Finally (rather, you know, than going to see what is up), he sets himself outside the Stillman Jr apartment building and waits. After literally months, he runs out of money and so calls up Auster. Who tells him that when Quinn lost Sr, the guy had jumped into the Hudson and died. He goes back to his own apartment, to find all his stuff gone and someone else living there. So Quinn finally goes to see the Jr, and guess what – the apartment is completely vacant.

So what does he do? He strips naked and hangs out there for quite a long time (days? weeks? months?). Eventually Auster goes to find Quinn, and he isn’t there – just his notebook.

My favorite comedian, the late Mitch Hedberg, used to do the following bit:

You know when you go into a restaurant, and it gets busy and they start a waiting list, and they start calling out names, "DuFresnes, party of two." They say again, "DuFresnes, party of two." But then if no one answers, they'll just go to the next name, "Bush, party of three." Yeah, but what happened to the DuFresnes? No one seems to care. Who can eat at a time like this? People are missing! And they're hungry! That's a double whammy! "Bush, search party of three!" You can eat once you find the DuFresnes!
I kept thinking about that when I got to the last 30 pages or so, when Stillman Jr disappeared. Why was their line busy? Where did they go? And then Quinn disappears. Where did he go? The novel ends with the suggestion of, “well, he’s out there somewhere.” Yeah – naked. Clearly I was very disappointed in this.


This second story in the collection was why I bought the novel in the first place. Blue is a private detective, hired by White to trail Black. White pays for an apartment with a view of Black’s apartment, and Blue commences watching. But nothing really happens. He has no direction in terms of why he’s watching Black. The end was bizarre and like City of Glass, disappointing.

The Locked Room

The third and final part of the Trilogy centered around an unknown narrator (who is supposedly the author of the other two novels) who is contacted by his childhood friend’s wife when the friend disappears. He is tasked with going through the friend’s (Fanshawe) papers and novels to see if anything is publishable. It is, and in the meantime the narrator ends up marrying Fanshawe’s wife and adopting his son. But Fanshawe isn’t really dead, and the narrator knows it, and goes on a hunt to track him down. Names that appear in the other stories – Peter Stillman, Quinn – appear here as well, but I’m not sure if they are supposed to be the same people, or if they are just another play on names and mistaken or interchangeable identities. The writing of this section was markedly different (as in, not as good) from the previous sections, and was a little annoying. Unlike in The Piano Teacher, I found myself rolling eyes a few times.

I don’t know why I was so disappointed in these stories. My first reaction is that I didn’t like the ambiguity, the unanswered questions. But that can’t entirely be true. For years, I’ve been searching for novels that are like David Lynch’s films. In New York Trilogy, I recognize this long sought after novel. My central question, though, is how can I love love love Mulholland Drive and hate New York Trilogy when the central themes of identity and doppelgangers, puzzles and locked rooms or objects, etc. are so similar?

Reading some scholarly reports on New York Trilogy, (as well as some help from Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, which I started this weekend), I’m beginning to see my problem.

In Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous character (appropriately a sort of stand-in for Coetzee himself) is giving a lecture on realism, in which she states, (paraphrasing here) if I say there is a table in the hall, I mean there is a table in the hall. I think for some reason I’m stuck there in realism when reading. Perhaps it’s because I have problems processing information that I read, which is why I read so slowly – that’s the explanation that makes the most sense. It’s easy for me to see symbolism when I know it’s symbolism (The Metamorphosis for example), but less so when it’s subtle, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to take things at the author’s word or not. But then again, I loved The Trial. Where does that fit in, since it’s certainly more subtle than Gregor Samsa becoming a bug? I don’t know…this is an evolving theory on myself.

But in the end, I suppose, my reaction to both is the same. When I first saw Mulholland Drive, I couldn’t stop thinking about it to the point where I bought the movie and started to watch it over and over again. I didn’t expect to figure it out, but its puzzles wouldn’t leave me alone, and that feeling in Club Silencio when Diane/Betty finds the key in her purse still gives me the chills. In the same sense, I am pestered by this sense that I inherently didn’t get these stories – I know that there are layers there that I just didn’t delve into – perhaps because I was too distracted by the image of Quinn wandering New York naked. Maybe it comes down to expectations. I was not expecting a typical novel here, but I wasn’t expecting what New York Trilogy actually offered. So I wasn’t prepared for it, like I was with The Trial. I’m sure, in years to come, I will come back to this book, hopefully after I’ve read more Auster so I get all, or at least some of, the self referential stuff. This return won’t be any time soon. Unless, like Mulholland Drive, it really begins to bug me. In which case, I may be back reading it next week.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Great Gatsby

There are some books that it’s difficult to write about, not for lack of things to actually say about it, but because writing about it feels like exposing the innermost reaches of one’s core. There are a handful of books that make me feel this way, The Great Gatsby being one of them. I’m not sure that there is a book that I feel more connected to – that I feel is more personal to me and my own story; only The English Patient comes close. The Great Gatsby feels like a road map of my own heart – and heartache. It’s hard to know where to begin in this review, because it is so intertwined with my life, I don’t know how to tell the story of The Great Gatsby without telling my own. This isn’t a “review” of the novel. This is my story of The Great Gatsby.

I have to take a big breath just to begin.

Gatsby came to me in 10th grade Honors English. I was 15. A romantic 15. I had already been in love twice. The third time came when I was 15…it had probably already arrived by the time we got to Fitzgerald (though #3 was really just trying to recapture #1). Perhaps you may think I’m being melodramatic, to say that three (out of four!) of the times I have been in love with someone occurred by the time I was 15, but looking back even now, as I approach 30, it’s true. There were two other times – at 18 and at 21 – when I thought I was in love, but in hindsight I know that I wasn’t. But if those first two times I fell in love were not love, than I don’t know what love is. (Do not cue Foreigner here). This was the lens through which I was reading Fitzgerald – three unrequited loves, and only 15 years old!

When I was 12, I fell in love for the first time. The person I fell in love with was much older than me. I don’t know if he ever even knew I existed, though I made every attempt possible (in the pre-internet days when I couldn’t cyber-stalk him) to make myself noticed. I was a non-entity, as 12-year-olds tend to. That whole situation has colored my entire life since. I will go no further into details. But I was an incredible fool (“colossal vitality of his illusion”). I was reading Romeo & Juliet for god’s sake. I believed that if only I had enough faith, if only I tried hard enough, IF ONLY, we would be together. I believed we were “meant to be” in a way that only an innocent child can believe such a thing and not be incredibly creepy. And you cannot argue with a 12 year old who is convinced of something, especially one as stubborn as me. (“It was an extraordinary gift for hope…”)

When I realized it wasn’t going to work out the way I had planned, there I was – Gatsby reaching out to the green dock light across the Sound. There I was, setting up my entire life so that this person would happen to someday show up at my party. That is where Gatsby really began for me, where he entered my life. I was Jay Gatsby before I ever knew of him.

I’ve been revisiting the novel in the last few weeks, reading it to Brendan at night as he falls asleep. This might be close to the tenth time I’ve read this novel. I find myself tearing up at certain passages. Though this book has always moved me, something about reading it out loud, 17 years down the road, has brought tears to my eyes more than once. I can feel Gatsby’s longing over the years…I can feel his heartbreak that hot afternoon at the Plaza. I mean that I can literally feel it. My heart is breaking for him as I write this. And in a sense, breaking for myself at 12 at the same time. The images from The Great Gatsby have become part of my own personal mythology.

Here are some of the quotes I’ve underlined in the book over the years. Some are fabulous sentences, some evocative images and some have just spoken to me as if Fitzgerald just got it. It’s the best I can do in terms of a review.

  • It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

  • On Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages alongshore, the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.

  • The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

  • The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.

  • A pause; it endured horribly.

  • He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity.

  • Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

  • No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (My.favorite.line.from.a.novel.ever.)

  • But the rest offended her–and inarguably, because it wasn’t a gesture but an emotion. She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented “place” that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village–appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short cut from nothing to nothing. She saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand.

  • He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.” After she had obliterated three years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house–just as if it were five years ago.

  • “I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

    “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

    He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

    “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”

  • He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. . . .

  • Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.

    "You always look so cool,” she repeated.

    She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw.

  • ”An Oxford man!” He was incredulous. “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”

  • But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.

  • There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.

  • He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him.

I appreciate a good book, a well written book. A book that sucks you in with its language and paints for you a world that you know, or don’t know; gives you a new light, or illuminates an old one. But then there are books that speak to you – that feel as if they were plucked secretly out of your heart. In Gatsby, it seemed as though Fitzgerald had beautifully rendered in poetry my own experience. To feel that someone gets what you’re going through so much that they can turn such pain and despair into something as magnificent as Gatsby is an amazing, amazing feeling. When I was younger, Gatsby was a comfort, providing a kindred spirit – a story, a despair, a drive, that I was intimately familiar with. Now it serves as a reminder of and connection to some core self that has been wrapped and buried under layers and layers of years and experiences I once never could have conceived of.

Once upon a time, when I was 12, I had a nightmare that I still vividly recall 17 years later. This person I was in love with was visiting – not visiting me, but back in the area. This person was “20 minutes away,” and I couldn’t get to him. No one would drive me to where he was. There was my chance – if I could only get there – and I couldn’t. It’s a feeling of complete and utter helplessness…one’s future is waiting just out of reach, and you just cannot get to it.

Last year I heard through the grapevine that this person was coming back – literally 20 minutes away. And I could have easily found my way back into that situation, once again seeking out the opportunity to say, “Does my name mean anything to you? Did you ever know that my life revolved around you, and that its trajectory is entirely because of you?”

Inside of me, my 12 year old self is always tugging at my sleeve, still looking for answers that at 29, I know will never come (“He’s afraid, he’s waited so long”). And to some extent, I don’t know that I want to know the answer. The likely truth would no longer be helpful. But she – the little lost girl still cowering inside me – still seeks those answers.

I thought about taking that next chance to find answers, if only for her, in honor of who I once was. But my life is at a good place now and I do not want the emotional implosion that always comes along with these questions – from opening up these old wounds again. At some point, I had to take Gatsby as a lesson rather than a reflection. At some point, I had to learn to ignore the green light. The light will always be there, since it’s myself – my past, the life I once believed I would have but never did – that is glowing across the Sound. But I have learned that I don’t need to stand at night and reach out to it. At some point, I had to just turn around.

Gatsby pursued Daisy, believing he could go back into the past and fix it, only to have reality shoved in his face at the Plaza that hot, hot day. (A day that feels more palpable, more real to me than any day I’ve ever read of in fiction.) For me, in the end I decided not to try once again to find answers, since I know what they will likely be. All of this is kept in a tightly closed box inside me, and I now prefer to keep it that way. That chapter of my life is best not reopened.

I found out that he had a baby girl recently (and gave her a dumb, dumb name). I felt nothing. At last, I realize, it’s behind me.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Piano Teacher

So. The Piano Teacher was not AT ALL what I expected. What I thought was going to a teacher/pupil love affair story turned into something much darker, much stranger than I ever imagined.

Erika Kohut is a piano teacher in her mid-30s. She’s drab, maybe frumpy, exacting and particular. She has no friends, she has no life besides music. She was trained to be a successful concert pianist, but was never much more than mediocre and so became an instructor at a conservatory in Vienna. From the outside, she is a picture of respectability. But after work, she roams the seedy districts, visits peep shows, and engages in a variety of other voyeuristic activities.

Erika lives at home with her creepy, domineering mother with whom she often has hair-pulling fist fights over what time she came home and what dress she bought. Did I mention Erika is approaching 40? And that she and her mother sleep in the same bed, despite the fact that Erika has her own room? Mrs. Kohut has always believed her daughter was the best – or at least did everything she could to convince Erika of it – and has constantly been disappointed with her daughter’s inability to realize her full potential. She wants to keep her daughter all to herself.

And then along comes Walter Kelmmer, a handsome, blonde engineering student who is also a talented pianist and taking lessons with Erika. Walter sees a challenge in Erika and begins to pursue her. He thought he bargained for a woman who was just waiting for someone like him to come along and help her loosen up, I suppose. He didn’t want anyone to know of his affection for his teacher for fear it might hurt his reputation with the other ladies – especially those his own age. But he had no idea what he was in for.

Erika catches on that Walter is interested, and while at first it sort of serves as a joke between her and her mother, she eventually begins to see the possibilities. In a moment of jealousy, she puts shattered glass in the pocket of someone she thinks Walter is also interested in (another student). Because, you know, that’s what normal people do, right? After a good start in a bathroom, the “relationship” gets on a strange trajectory when Erika writes Walter a letter detailing all the, ah, peculiarities she has been saving up for.

Walter reads the letter and keeps asking, “Are you serious?” But oh yes, she is – she shows him the box of accoutrements.

I don't want to give the rest away, because I was pretty surprised by the ending, and by what lead up to the ending. I didn't see any of that coming. Nor had I seen Erika's box coming. Nor, I suppose, had I seen The Piano Teacher coming.

The novel to me to revolved around power – who had the power. Mrs. Kohut wants to maintain absolute power over her daughter, but isn’t able to. As the authority figure in the relationship, one would typically conclude that Erika has the power in her “relationship” with Walter. As the male, Walter feels he has the power. Erika believes that by allowing Walter to believe he is in the power position, it will really be her. She tries to set the rules of the relationship with her letter, giving him the physical power but on her terms. And Walter does what she asks, but of course it doesn’t turn out to be what she wanted. Walter knew that would be the case, and of course with that knowledge, and with his act, he felt that he was in control. And with her final act, Erika has put herself back in control. Sort of.

Something about the text was a bit odd, with its drawn out and sometimes awkward metaphors; at times I wasn’t sure if that was the fault of the translation or the original text. Things like that can get extremely annoying and distracting, but I didn’t find it so in this case. The descriptions are lengthy, though there wasn’t a point where I wanted Jelinek to get on with it, and despite the graphic depictions of everything, I never found myself rolling my eyes. In 1988, the New York Times reviewer saw Erika’s violent fantasies as having been concocted by the author just for the shock value. I didn’t get that at all. Nothing seemed out of place, and I never thought to myself that something seemed contrived to get a reaction, in the way that American Psycho did.
What struck me, at least for the first two-thirds or so of the book was how little happened, without it seeming like nothing was happening. The bathroom scene isn’t until more than half-way through, and it isn’t until the last 50 pages that any action really gets going. It reminded me of real life - the fact that the overarching story of ourselves and the events that make up those stories are really few and far between. That the majority of our lives are mundane and average. Perhaps that's why I didn't feel that the long descriptions or the lack of action for most of the novel was out of place. It felt like reality.

I’m still not sure what to think about The Piano Teacher – as in I’m not sure if I liked it or not. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, but I found myself not wanting to put it down, which should say something. I was surprised by the ending; I was surprised by lead up to the ending; I was surprised by Erika, which again is saying something. The novel was made into a film in the last decade, which won a number of international awards. I don’t think that I want to see this novel visually, though. Reading it was enough for me.