Monday, August 15, 2011

Naive.Super

It’s funny how a casual mention of a novel in an article can lead one to a very creepy reading experience.

I saw this article on The Millions two weeks ago, which notes Erlend Loe’s Naïve.Super. After noticing the shipping time on amazon, I marched myself to the library and filled out the interlibrary loan request. Book came on Thursday, I started to read it yesterday and finished it this morning.

My first impression of the novel – as I was reading it walking through the library parking lot – was that it would be cute; right up my alley. As I started to read it seriously, though, it began to feel a bit derivative – a little too much like a combination of Wittgenstein’s Mistress (in structure), and a hero from the Jonathan Safran Foer/Jonthan Letham/Mark Haddon mold. Though that really isn’t fair, since Naïve.Super was published in 1996, and the quirky, neurotic and/or autistic characters were all created (or published) in the decade after. So maybe they are the derivative work. Don’t know. I just feel like I’ve been encountering this voice quite a lot.

But then on Sunday came the moment where I had to put the book down. This feeling had been slowly creeping up on me, but I didn’t catch it – identify it – until this moment:


TV is a good thing. I ought to watch TV more often. I get pleasantly diverted. I can’t quite tell whether the thoughts I’m having are my own or if they’re coming from the TV. Animal programmes are the best. David Attenborough explaining that nature is intricate and that it all fits together. Wasps that navigate according to the sun. they know what they’re doing, the wasps. They know a lot better than I do.
OMG this person is just like me.

Yes Yes Yes on David Attenborough. Does anyone else do this – watch nature documentaries for perspective – to feel that everything is just part of the grand parade of life? Or is it just me and this unnamed character? Is that where the feeling of derivation came from – not from Foer or Lethem or Haddon, but from my own head? I think, really, it’s a combination. Still. FREAKY.


This character is having something of a quarter life crisis. He quits college and moves into his brother’s apartment while his brother is in New York. He’s going somewhat crazy, and finds comfort in throwing a ball against a wall, playing with a hammer-and-peg set, and reading about the universe. I do that too – read about the universe that is – when I’m feeling out of sorts. Nothing, really, is more comforting for me than the stars and string theory. Have you seen the Google Sky Map app? These last few months I’ve been looking at it a lot, just moving my phone around and seeing what I’m surrounded by whether I can see them or not. Does this sound strange? Maybe. But you should try it sometime.

This is that feeling that was creeping up on me. I have never encountered myself in a novel as much as I have here. And that’s really, really freaky.

II.


“I think he’s got problems with time himself, but that he still hasn’t found out. One day he’ll be the one who hits the wall.”
Things have been weird for me the last few months, though they are working themselves out. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and a lot about how I deal with other people, and how my own limits and suspicions both protect me and hinder me.

I think quite a lot. I have very few waking moments during which I’m not thinking about anything; and usually those few moments of “quiet” are interrupted by someone asking, “what are you thinking about?” Perhaps I’m most deep in thought when I look like I’m not thinking. And vice versa. Sometimes this is a problem – when I need that quiet and am unable to get it within my own brain, or when the constant din goes off the rails and the only respite is to listen to AM radio from Quebec – the more static the better. Perhaps that makes me sound crazy.

It’s taken me most of my life to understand that not everyone thinks as much – or about the same things – as I do. That not everyone is as concerned about what the universe is expanding into, or if hell is a state of mind can you think yourself out of it? And what is color and does it exist objectively? (I don’t believe that it does – I’m a color subjectivist...there are others out there with me on this one. People smarter than me and you.) When I talk about these things which genuinely interest me and sometimes keep me awake at night people mostly just stare at me. Or tell me I think too much.

Well, damn it (here’s where my frustration of the last three months comes out…) maybe I think just the right amount. I should start telling people, “Maybe you don’t think enough.” Maybe the world would grind to a screeching halt if it were filled with people who think as much as I do, but most people could probably use a little more sincere reflection on themselves and the universe and their place in it.

So in this little crazy tornado, I came to realize that thinking too much isn’t necessarily a problem. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. I’m not an extrovert. I never will be, and it’s silly of me to try to pretend that I am or could be - or even that I understand extroverts. I don’t. I’ve given up. But by giving up on trying to be what I’m not, I’ve accepted (at least a little bit) what I am. My personality certainly has its downsides, but it also has its upsides. And I wouldn’t give one inch of my ocean of contemplation for one more extra of extroversion. Somehow Naïve.Super brought that home.

A parting thought from Loe’s too-familiar-for-comfort novel:

“There is no time. There is a life and a death. There are people and animals. Our thoughts exist. And the world. The universe, too. But there is no time. You might as well take it easy. Do you feel better now? I feel better. This is going to work out. Have a nice day.”

:-)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Alfred and Emily

I first heard about Doris Lessing’s Alfred and Emily at the time she won the Nobel Prize in 2008; she was working on a story about her parents, giving them a new life in which World War I did not interfere. Though I remember that, I do not recall what recently put it at the top of my TBR list. I’ve been reading a lot about marriages lately, so that must have been it, partially. I must have seen a brief reference to it someplace else as well, though I don’t know where. That’s the best insight I can offer.

Alfred and Emily is really one novella and one memoir. In the first part, Lessing gives her parents the life they didn’t have…a life they may have had if England had not entered the Great War. Oddly enough, though they know each other, they don’t end up together.

Somewhere I read a review of the book that essentially stated, why bother to give these people new lives if those lives are not compelling. But what was expected? Swashbuckling? Alfred wasn’t going to become the Scarlet Pimpernel. Yes, I was a little surprised that the lives she gave them were so conventional. But if any of us had been thrown off our trajectory, we would likely have ended up somewhere similar to where we are now. Character is fate, after all. Lessing could have given them more happiness, more flowers and sunshine. But she didn’t, and I don’t know why.

The second half of the book is memoir – Lessing expounding upon her childhood and her parents. When I was reading the first have of the book, the fiction, I thought it was decent. When I got to the second half, I realized how strong Lessing’s writing could be, and the novella paled in comparison. I ended up having mixed feelings about the second half, enjoying it mostly when it focused on her parents, her attempts to get out from under her mother’s influence, and must less so when she discussed insects. The structure was rather informal and conversational – I’m not sure if that’s characteristic of Lessing’s writing generally or not.

I know this isn’t Lessing’s best work; I knew going in that it hadn’t been very well received. But I seem to have a knack for entering into these relationships with writers at the most bizarre places (Coetzee’s Foe, anyone?)...don't know why. But, if this is representative of her not-so-good work, I'm really, really excited to read her good stuff. Maybe I'll have to get to The Golden Notebook much sooner...

Monday, August 1, 2011

Anagrams

"Life is sad. Here is someone."


I've said before that things are weird. I don't know how else to describe my life right now. Just weird. (Getting better, though, a bit.) I'm always particular about what books I read when, in what mood, but when things are like they are now, that selectivity is heightened. I cannot read just any book, and I will flit between ten or more books until I find the one that feels just right. For that reason, in times like this, I find myself going back to my happy places: Kerouac, Ondaatje, The Virgin Suicides,The Great Gatsby. The English Patient has been calling to me like a siren in the last few months, but I have had to resist the temptation. I know what happens when I read that book...despite what some may believe, sometimes I really do know what's best for myself. I'm not always into self-sabotage.

Anagrams was a test for me. I would pick it up, read a few pages, and put it back: "Not now." A few days later, I would pick it up again and read a few more pages, and put it back. "Not now." Well why not now, damn it? Because it's too upbeat? I want to say, yes, too upbeat, but to call this book upbeat is, well, to be Kristin I suppose. Turns out, I needed this book.


I'll admit, at first I thought I got this book. I became slightly more confused with each chapter…ok, so Benna teaches geriatric aerobics, AND teaches art history at a community college, AND is a nightclub singer. And Gerard teaches aerobics to kids AND is a nightclub singer AND in a rock opera version of Dido and Aeneas...hard economic times, you know? (FYI...Dido and Aeneas are EVERYWHERE for me right now.) It all, sort of, made sense in my mind...first Gerard must have been Benna's student, married with a daughter, then gotten divorced and started up with Benna, and eventually moved into her apartment house. Then they broke it off, but still drink near beer together every morning. But then I get to the second part, and Benna says that her friend Eleanor is imaginary. Wait – what? And where did this daughter – who is also imaginary – come from? At first I thought this was one of Benna's witticisms, because it seemed the type of quip she would make. But I kept going, and it was clear she was serious. So, I had to look it up. Duh! Sometimes I read into things too much ("I'm cool? What does that mean?") and sometimes I accept too much at face value. There must be a middle ground somewhere that I just cannot seem to find.

So here's what's really going on: Benna teaches poetry at a community college. She makes friends with Gerard. She has an affair with one of her students. She has an imaginary friend Eleanor, and an imaginary daughter. This is all learned in the second half of the book. The first half of the book is a series of short stories, really, about people named Benna and Gerard and Eleanor, etc. in parallel lives, essentially. It's derivative of reality, or nonreality since Eleanor is imaginary anyway.

The writing was amazing. Yes, this story is desperately bleak. Benna is so lonely and isolated that she makes up imaginary children. But it's funny as hell. I get this humor. I could have written this. Well, not really, but three quarters of it is stuff that would come out of my own mouth. Even in the depths of despair, sometimes, I cannot help but be sarcastically funny. Here are some examples that I underlined. (I underlined a lot in Anagrams.)



  • "Yes, well," said Gerard, attempting something lighthearted. "I guess that's why they call it work. I guess that's why they don't call it table tennis."



  • Eleanor and I around this time founded The Quit-Calling-Me-Shirley School of Comedy. It entailed the two of us meeting downtown for drinks and making despairing pronouncements about life and love which always began, "But surely…" It entailed what Eleanor called, "The Great White Whine": whiney white people getting together over white wine and whining.



  • "I think a few well-considered and prominently displayed uncertainties are always in order."



  • "...Remember: It's important not to be afraid of looking like an idiot." This was my motto in life.



  • Aeneas shouldered his guitar and riffed and whined after Dido throughout the entire show: "Don't you see why I have to go to Europe?/I must ignore the sentiment you stir up." Actually it was awful. But nonetheless I sniffled at her suicide, and when she sang at Aeneas, "Just go then! Go if you must! My heart will surely turn to dust," and Aeneas indeed left, I sat in my seat, thinking "You ass, Aeneas, you don't have to be so literal."



  • Things, however, rarely happened the way you understood them. Mostly they just sort of drove up alongside what you thought was the case and then moved randomly down some other way.



  • No idiocy was too undignified for me.



  • I didn't want my life to show.



  • He also has a cold, and has pulled the hood of his sweat shirt up over his head and tied it. "You look like the Little League version of The Seventh Seal"



  • ...feel my heart fluttering. It's a Tennessee Williams heart. A bad Tennessee Williams heart. I don't know what to say. The music urges love on you like food.



  • "I've never put much store by honesty. I mean, how can you trust a word whose first letter you don't even pronounce?"



  • It is as if our separate pasts were greeting each other, as if we were saying, This is how I have been with other people, this is how I would love you. If I loved you. Everything always seemed to boil down to boil down to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Off you would go in the mist of day and all that.



  • You have a choice," she told her class. "The whorish emptiness of lies or the straight-laced horrors of truth."



  • "You made her up? You made up an imaginary daughter?"
    "Of course not," I say. "What, you think I'm an idiot? I made up a real daughter...I don't go around making up imaginary daughters...That would be too abstract. Even for me."


Shawn has been showing more of an interest in what I'm reading; I know why he's doing it and I really appreciate it. And he's asking me about this book that I will not put down, and why it's called Anagrams, and what it's about. As I'm trying to describe it, and how it's a bunch of stories about the same people, but not the same people, etc., and he says, "like Mulholland Drive?" YES. THANK YOU. EXACTLY LIKE MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Except funnier. But the basic idea of doppelgangers living tangential lives is the same.

So, why did I need this book? I can't explain it. I love Benna. I love Gerard. I love Eleanor. I want a friend like Eleanor, who would yell out of cars at joggers, "Hey, go home and read Middlemarch." In college I had a friend who would have done something like that, but it wouldn't have been about Middlemarch. No, seriously, I need someone in my life who will yet at random people at George Eliot. Who will know who George Eliot is to begin with. That is why I needed this book. Thank you, Lorrie Moore.

    A conversation on The Great Gatsby

    SHAWN: what is the Great Gatsby was about? 
    KRISTIN: A guy named Gatsby, but that wasn't really his name. 
    SHAWN: What happened to him?
    KRISTIN: He died. 
    SHAWN: How did he die? 
    KRISTIN: He got shot. 
    SHAWN: Who shot him? 
    KRISTIN: His mistress's husband's mistress's husband.  He thought Gatsby was having an affair with his wife; but it was Gatsby's mistress's husband that was having the affair with his wife.
    SHAWN: That's complicated.