Sunday, December 10, 2017

Proof that you existed

Little O noticed that boys noticed her. Although she didn't know why they did. She didn't have trouble attracting their attention the way some of the other girls did. When she would sense that a boy had fallen in love with her, there would be a peculiar feeling, a magical sort of lonely feeling. When you realized that someone was in love with you, you got to see yourself from the outside, just for a minute. You could finally have proof that you existed. You could look at yourself as though you were a fabled creature, like a unicorn.
— from "The Story of Little O (A Portrait of the Marquis de Sade as a Young Girl)" in Daydreams of Angels, by Heather O'Neill.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

If anything, I am the quitter in this relationship

I'm going to go through our texts and figure out who instigated each individual texting conversation and who was the last one to reply. I personally hate being the last one to reply in texting conversation. It's like the other person just disappears or tells you to go fuck yourself, so I try specifically now to leave most texting conversations first as a matter of principle. Except for the inner circle. Everyone who now holds membership in my inner circle always signs off a texting conversation with XO or xx or xoxo or xox or the deadly x. To get into the inner circle, in fact, you can't be a texting abandoner. That's a fucking rule.

You are no longer in my texting inner circle precisely because of these statistics. For instance, last month you instigated six texting conversations and I instigated five, but you text-abandoned me nine out of the eleven conversations. This month is different. I'm aiming for four to five abandonments at the most because I know I can quit better than you. If anything, I am the quitter in this relationship. It means that our conversations are a lot shorter and shallower but I'm not getting caught with my pants down, so to speak. Maybe I should add text-length to the chart?
I have mixed feelings about This Accident of Being Lost, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

It's labeled "songs and stories." For the most part I liked the stories — it's the songs I don't get. For starters, what makes songs different from poems? How are you supposed to read a song? Doesn't reading a song negate its very songness? So I'm not going to talk about the songs. I just don't get the songs.

The stories, however, are quite beautiful, poignant, and funny.
Topic 11: Being a Writer Sucks
Writing actually sucks. Like you're alone in your head for days on end, just wondering if you actually can die of loneliness, just wondering how healthy it is to make all this shit up, and just wondering if you did actually make this shit up, or if you just copied down your life or worse someone else's life, or may you're just feeding your delusions and neuroses and then advertising it to whoever reads your drivel.
It all feels very honest, but this is where you remember that this is fiction. It doesn't have to be real to be true.

In the Globe and Mail,
It's not possible to tell which details are lived experience and which are imagined. ... Her writing educates the reader even as it admits to not having all the answers. ... I was stunned by Simpson's generosity in sharing these experiences and inviting us to be challenged and to be lost.
As a reader, I don't know what I'm being educated about. That the reviewer is stunned by Simpson's generosity makes it clear she assumes lived experience and authenticity.

Indigenous issues do arise, and they're not insignificant.
They want a beach. We want rice beds. You can't have both. They want to win. We need to win. They'll still be white people if they don't have the kind of beach they want. Our kids won't be Mississauga if they can't ever do a single Mississauga thing.
In The Winnipeg Review,
What fascinates me about Simpson's work is not its Anishinaabe cultural roots, but its examination of intimacy and love. You can't separate being Indigenous from how we love others. It's an extension of culture and worldview.
This surprises me. In my view, the bits about intimacy and love were absolutely the best, and also the most accessible, because they're the most universal. These stories neither educated me nor helped me access an indigenous experience — they were simply relatable. This has nothing to do with native ways being confounded my modern times; I mean, who hasn't obsessed over a love interest's texts?

Reviews
Globe and Mail
PRISM International
Rough ghosts
The Winnipeg Review

Video.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

What are Basque ghosts like?

Do ghosts prefer southerly winds? Are Mediterranean ghosts calmer? They say that in Northern Europe ghosts are loud, horrifying, that their shrieks are more out of tune because of the cold. With Northern ghosts — Irish, Estonian, German, it's easy to imagine them coming at you with a knife and no explanation. Mediterranean ghosts, however, are not as gloomy, it's impossible to take them too seriously; even when they kill you, they do it in an incompetent way; Don Juan Tenorio and others like him are laughable, buffoonish, and sometime it's their own comedic candor that makes them all the more fearful; we'd risk our necks to bet that they'd rather dance to a tambourine than use a knife; Mediterranean ghosts sound like they'd be fun to have a few glasses of wine with. "Ghosts fervid for Frescuelo and Maria. "Is there a really frightening and serious ghost in Spanish literature? And in the Basque Country? Who are they? What are Basque ghosts like?
— from Twist, by Harkaitz Cano.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Perceiving the emptiness and slow lightness of its body

The unevolved axolotl is an apt pet for Javier Cetarti, although he comes to care for it quite by accident and later abandons it without a thought.
He imagined it at that moment, settled at the back of the fish tank, in the darkness of the shuttered house, wondering in its crude way at what moment a blurry shadow would come to scatter food over the surface of the water, and perceiving the emptiness and slow lightness of its body, emptier and lighter with each passing day.
Under This Terrible Sun, by Carlos Busqued, is oppressively bleak and disturbing. It's mostly the story of Cetarti who travels to a small town to settle the affairs of his mother and brother, who allegedly were murdered by the mother's boyfriend Molina before he turned the gun on himself.

The town is literally a cesspit, the water table having risen, the cesspits overflowing, shit and piss seeping up through the ground. The trees have died (so the sun is punishing), the place stinks, but people have gotten used to it. There are giant poisonous flying cockroaches.

The cop Duarte was a longtime friend of Molina; they were in the airforce together and, it's hinted, later collaborated on other business dealings. These days Danielito, Molina's son, helps out Duarte in his ventures.

In addition to simple insurance scams, Duarte has some kidnapping racket going on. He's also a connoisseur of extreme pornography, although it's not clear if he may be involved with porn in a deeper, more criminal way.
There's some pornography you don't watch to jerk off, you watch it more out of curiosity about how far the human species will go. [...] This is what I was telling you is interesting, to see the limits of what a person is capable of doing or letting others do to them.
Under This Terrible Sun is well written. The text is clear; the novel's ambiguity — and its creepiness — arises from not being privy to the whole picture. The characterization, the minimalist plotting, the sense of dread (both existential and visceral), and the pacing are excellent. If you have the stomach for it.

One of Duarte's videos is graphically described, and had it gone on for longer or were there more, I might've had to put the book aside. As it is, that scene certainly pervaded the mood of the entire book, to great effect.

Warning: there are also some vile descriptions of insects and brutality against dogs.

Everyone smokes a lot of weed. Duarte watches a lot of military history and builds model airplanes. Cetarti and Danielito appear to be cut from the same cloth (even though their characters don't interact till late in the book) in their penchant for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

There are recurring references to cephalopods, on TV and in magazine articles, which may be somewhat allegorical of Cetarti's situation as a whole.

Squid have cannibalistic tendencies: the squid that fishermen pull in often is often not the one that swallowed the lure, but a larger one eating the originally hooked squid.

Cetarti reads some details about the giant squid — three hearts and two brains — but he doesn't find what he's looking for. The monsters have never been captured alive. They live in an environment that is hostile to life. One only ever glimpses a small part of the horror at a time, never seen in its entirety.

This is the third book from Argentina I've read this year (the others being the subversive Savage Theories, by Pola Oloixarac, and the insidiously unsettling Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin). I've decided that Argentina must be a very strange (possibly depraved) place.

Reviews
Three Percent
Tony's Reading List

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ice storms always melt

If I had your undivided attention, even for five minutes, I would tell you to stop panicking. I would tell you that you have no idea how amazing freedom feels and that you should stop giving a fuck about all those things you are supposed to give a fuck a bout, even if it is just for five minutes. For one thing, you'd realize that ice storms always melt, eventually.

If I had ten minutes alone with you, I'd tell you that I love you. I'd tell you not to be scared, because it's the kind of love that doesn't want anything or need anything. It's the kind of love that just sits there and envelops whoever you are or whoever you want to be. It doesn't demand. It isn't a commodity. It doesn't threaten all the other people you love. It doesn't fuck up and it doesn't fuck things up. It's loyal. It's willing to feel hurt. It's willing to exist on shifting terms. It's willing to stay anyway. It doesn't want. It's just there. It's just there and good and given freely, sewing up the holes unassumingly because it's the only thing to do. There is so much space around it and the space shimmers.
— from "Seeing Through the End of the World" in This Accident of Being Lost, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Ruled by a network of intricate and powerful relations

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz, despite being set in an unnamed city, is clearly an allegory of revolutionary events occurring in Egypt in recent years. However, beyond that, it's difficult to pin down any sense of truth or justice or clear delineation of right and wrong, as the ambiguity of novel drives home.

The story centres on Yehya, who was injured during the Disgraceful Events, and his quest to have the bullet removed from his stomach. Bureaucratic complications arise because bullets "may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization." Dr. Tarek is reluctant to perform the operation Yehya needs. It's this special authorization that brings Yehya to queue up at the Gate. Others come to the Gate to file a complaint, get a certificate notarized, obtain a Certificate of True Citizenship, etc. But the Gate never opens.

Days pass. Weeks. A whole society springs up around the queue. The sales rep mingles with the teacher, the cleaning woman, the journalist. Prayer meetings, refreshments, phone service. Bus routes are modified to accommodate the queue.
Yehya wasn't like them. He was a different kind of man, steadfast and stubborn, and must have realized that day in Zephyr Hospital how important his injury was; he was carrying a government bullet inside his body. He possessed tangible evidence of what had really happened during the Disgraceful Events, and was perhaps the only person still alive who was willing to prove what the authorities had done.
Why do people keep queuing up? Don't they know the Gate isn't going to open?! How can they not realize it? Why don't they rise up, do something?!

Their access to news is being controlled. They're being surveilled via the cell network. People are disappeared. Dr. Tarek's file on Yehya all the while mysteriously is being updated.

Yehya's character is called into question, the nature of the Disgraceful Events is called into question. And so it goes.
Nagy had failed to convince them that everything in the world was interconnected, and that their lives were ruled by a network of intricate and powerful relations. Even things that seemed random operated according to this invisible system, even if the connections couldn't be seen. Yehya laughed whenever they discussed it seriously, teasing him that the philosophy department had corrupted his mind and destroyed his faith in human nature. Amani would laugh, too — she could never be convinced that the independence she believed she possessed was in truth no more than an accepted illusion, part of a web of relations and contradictions. The Gate itself was an integral part of the system, too, even if from the outside it appeared to pull all the strings.
What will we not normalize? What does it take to drive people to action?

Review.
While Basma Abdel Aziz's new work starts with a bullet to the gut it is also relevant to those of us stuck on hold with an insurance agent.
Roundtable including the translator, which approximates a decent bookclub experience.
Getting the tone of the ending right was one of the more challenging parts of translating the novel: working to approximate the same amount of vagueness, to not make it more concrete or more open-ended than the Arabic suggested.
Excerpt 1.
Excerpt 2.

The more I think about The Queue, the more I like it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

It's not about advertising, you idiot. It's about power.

"Why should you care? he shouts. Why should you fucking care? We're talking about intelligence gathering on an unprecedented scale. Forget data mining. This is mind rape. The end of privacy as we know it. It's not about advertising, you idiot. It's about power. Control. Sure, the marketing men might be the first to come knocking, but sooner or later this information is going to end up in the hands of agencies whose only interest is the total suppression of your freedom. In the whole of history, no system of mass surveillance had ever existed that hasn't ended up being hijacked by malevolent forces."
In Broadcast, by Liam Brown, a star vlogger is given an opportunity to test-drive a new technology. A small chip is implanted in the base of David's skull, which essentially live-streams his thoughts over the internet 24-7.

While reality TV gives us the passively reassuring and relatable everyman, and books offer a more immersive experience of empathy, MindCast then is poised to be the ultimate entertainment.

Interesting things start to happen once the implanted program starts to learn the patterns behind David's thoughts. His thoughts start to take shapes other than splotches of colour. As a vlogger, David thrived on feedback; as a MindCaster, he confronts a different kind of feedback loop when watching his own channel, that feeds and strengthens thoughts he didn't know he had. And it turns out that chip can upload in both directions.

Broadcast has the difficult task of discussing very current social and technological phenomena without making it seem dated. It wants to issue warnings regarding our social media-infused, reality TV-obsessed culture, but it's tough to do without coming off as trite or irrelevant. Or simply too late.

Unfortunately, the novel reads a little like someone of my generation trying to document the ways of my daughter's generation for the benefit of people who have spent the last decade in a technology-free zone. Vlogging had come into its stride by 2005. Reality TV for the internet. Vlogging is so commonplace these days that the book puts me at a remove when it explains it to me rather than weaving it seamlessly into the world it's trying to build.

While the technology that's core to the book is of the imagined near future, this book may have been written years ago. Apart from vlogging culture, references to Uber, mood rings, and "the static between channels on an old television set" had me puzzling to fix this story in time. Given the age of the characters, the tone and the historical timeframe all felt a little off.
"You need to understand that you're going to be a character in a book. Every character needs context. The reader has to know where they've come from, what they've been through. I'm not saying you have to be likeable. But you do have to be believable. You need substance. Dreams and desires. Hopes and fears. Emotional heft. You have feel like a real person rather than some two-dimensional cypher — otherwise why would they possibly care what happens to you?"
So says Alice, who's tasked with writing David's biography. But it's also a problem for Broadcast. So how is it that the character of David is believable even while he lacks emotional heft? Paradoxically, maybe his two-dimensionality is what makes him seem real in this day and age.

Broadcast is short novel that is fairly predictable once the main premise is established. I think it could be a good introduction to speculative fiction for those people who are wary of the genre as well as those interested in getting a glimpse of one aspect of youth culture.

The tagline on the cover is "Black Mirror meets Inception in the YouTube Age." If you've ever seen an episode of Black Mirror, this book won't hold any surprises for you. It doesn't bring anything new to the conversation we should be having about the implications of technology, but Broadcast might yet invite a few people in.

While I may sound overly critical here, I found Broadcast to be an enjoyably entertaining, non-demanding palate cleanser of a book.

Excerpt.