Literary Greats Always Cheat at Golf

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I finished The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao today. It was utterly fantastic. Reminded me of The Corrections in some ways, although I don't think it's quite as compelling, simply because the main character's and the narrator's flaws were not as compelling for me. When I read The Corrections I felt tremendous sympathy for every single character whereas there were many, many points in the story where I wanted to smack Oscar and tell him not to be such a little bitch. But kudos to Junot Diaz for making me want to enter a book to do violence to his creation.

What I seriously love best about the book is the language, which combines Dominican spanish, gamer and fantasy nerd vocabulary and... I don't know what to say that doesn't sound too nerdy... hip-hopish urban english?

"So anyway, guess who decided that she was the love of his life? Who fell head over heels for her because he heard her playing Joy Division up in her room and, surprise, he loved Joy Division too? Oscar of course. At first, dude just stared at her from afar and moaned about her "ineffabtle perfection." Out of your league, I snarked, but he shrugged, talked to the computer screen: Everybody's out of my league. Didn't think nothing of it until a week later when I caught him putting a move on her in Brower Commons! I was with the boys, listening to them grouse about the Knicks, watching Oscar and La Jablesse on the hot-food line, waiting for the moment she told him off, figured if I'd gotten roasted she was going to vaporize his ass. Of course he was full on, doing his usual Battle of the Planets routine, talking a mile a minute, sweat running down his face, and homegirl was holding her tray and looking at him askance-- not many girls can do askance and keep their cheese fries from plunging off their trays, but this was why niggers were crazy about La Jablesse. She started walking away and Oscar yelled out superloud, We'll talk anon! And she shot back a Sure, all larded with sarcasm."

And one of my favorite exchanges, partly because it reminded me of a friend's ex and also my nerd dad (who I randomly remembered last night named a pet fish Ho Chi Minnow):

"He seemed the same to me. Still massive-- Biggie Smalls minus the smalls-- and still lost. Still writing ten, fifteen, twenty pages a day. Still obsessed with his fanboy madness. Do you know what sign fool put up on dorm door? Speak, friend, and enter. In fucking Elivish! (Please don't ask me how I knew this. Please.) When I saw that I said: De Leon, you gotta be kidding. Elvish?
Actually, he coughed, it's Sindarin.
Actually, Melvin say, it's gay-hay-hay/"

So the book is about a cursed family, basically, and to tell you that Oscar meets an unfortunate end is to tell you nothing that the title doesn't already. But what made me angry at him was that his problems were mainly self-inflicted, but in his thrashing about to fix the fact that he's a mid twenties virginal nerd, he seriously damages other people, for the most part his family but also the women he becomes fixated on.

The book purports to be about the tragedies of Oscar's life, as if these events are the culmination and climax of a decades old curse, but the problem of being lonely and obsessive really doesn't amount to a hill of beans compared to being raped by a neighbor at eight years old, as his sister is, or being tortured in prison, as his grandfather was, or burned with oil and beaten to the point of miscarriage and near death by a dictator's gang, like his mother was. It just ended up reminding me of bitter nerdboys from my own life who make their own lack of romantic luck out to be some macbethian tragedy and use it as an excuse to be pathologically careless with the people around them.

I feel like I am obligated to mention something about "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," but everything of think of is pretty superficial. They both have lions in them! I guess that when Oscar Wao comes down to it, it's much more accurate about who, ultimately, is more a danger to whom. For Hemingway, women fuck you to get your money, fuck around on you, then kill you. In Oscar Wao, it's a much more complicated picture. In a world that commodifies women in this particular case very literally, and in which men don't listen to what women explicitly say they want or need, it's easy for someone who means well, but who is ultimately self-centered to mak e a serious disaster for a lot of people

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was an interesting read, but not what I would call a fun read. I picked it up from a friend's shelf with no idea what the book was about or how to go about reading it. Around page 200 I cracked and looked it up on the internet to see if someone could tell me what was going on. I wish I'd done so sooner.

The way to read the book is to decide early on that you're not going to struggle with it, that you're just going to relax and give in to it and let the rules of this literary world just dawn on you as you go.

The book has a dreamlike quality where times, places, and character aren't fixed, even the character the book's main character, who seems to be half character, and half unacknowledged intermittently omniscient narrator.

I'm glad I read it, I suppose, but I've preferred other Ishiguro.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Freakonomics on Attraction

I’m currently the last person on earth reading Freakonomics, which I’ve been meaning to pick up since I first heard the charming one on NPR.

A small section on online dating (something I loathe and you can’t talk me out of it, even though I understand that in the future, when are children no longer have individuated fingers and ask us “Mommy what’s typing” it will be the new “met in a bar,” but we’re not there yet as a people. Except for the gays.) talks about profiles:

“Most impressively, fully 72% of the women claimed “above average” looks, including 24% claiming “very good looks.” The online men too were generous: 68 percent called themselves “above average,” including 19% with “very good looks.” This leaves only about 30% of the users with “average” looks, including a paltry 1% with “less than average” looks—which suggests that the typical online dater is either a fabulist, a narcissist, or simply resistant to the meaning of “average.””

(Pg 74)

This has some problems which seem to me rather obvious. The first is that attractiveness is difficult to quantify, but more profoundly, attractiveness is not made up of a specific and universal set of physical characteristics, how could you ever expect these to curve out like a bell? There are certainly some near universal indicators, youth and health among them, but not where healthy is a secret code word for rail thin (Getting to that soon). Additionally, I would think people encounter some sampling error in their lives. How many times have you ever told someone they’re unattractive? How many times have you told someone they’re attractive? I think it’s actually encouraging news if people feel that they are attractive, it indicates to me that maybe we do a pretty decent job of reassuring each other.

Backing up to point one for a moment. Nearly everybody gets laid at least once, which would seem to point out fairly clearly that nearly everyone is found attractive by someone. I wouldn’t think the idea otherwise would be so persistent. But I’ve had the hairy Jewish men of my acquaintance tell me I’m “fucked up” for finding hairy Jewish men attractive. That’s really sad and insulting. What is the insinuation? That I value my own qualities so low that I’ve chosen to focus on the trolls of society?

During fashion week, a number of the fashion blogs I read were lauding actresses like Sophia Bush, Mandy Moore, and America Ferrara for daring to be real-sized women. There are two problems with this. First off, Sophia Bush wears a size four, Mandy Moore is a size six, and America Ferrara (who I once saw referred to as “adorable chunkster”) is also a size six. Last I knew, more than 50% of American women wear a size 14 or larger. These women are not pioneers into the land of beautiful plus size women in the way say, Toccara from ANTM is.

On the flip side, I was discussing this with a very slender friend the other night and she pointed out how grating the rhetoric is on the other end. “I am also a “real” woman,” she said. I hadn’t particularly thought about this angle before because, well, that cheese isn’t going to eat itself, but it’s grating to assume that women who are naturally slim are somehow unreal, or to ascribe the desire to be thinner, exercise, or watch food consumption as some sort of caving in to the patriarchy. I’m not a fat activist here, I think obesity is a big problem in the US and causes a lot of serious health issues, and a lot of people (self included) would be well served by enjoying a salad and then going for a walk.

But I don’t think that if you don’t do these things you should give up on being seen as beautiful or that it’s risible if you think you are, or that the men who find you to be attractive should feel strange about that. A good friend here was describing the girl he has a crush on, and he’s like, “I know it’s weird, because she’s kind of a fat girl, but 20 lbs. ago she was probably really attractive.” This was ludicrous to me. First of all, the girl wears maybe a size eight or ten. Second… if you want to sleep with someone, they are attractive. You are attracted to that person. How can this be so hard to see?

The Food Network is now only showing Nigella Lawson from the waist up. Because she’s you know, so fat. We certainly can’t show the woman who prepares food for a living weighing more than the typical TV host. No, ladies, even if you have a gorgeous, classic hourglass figure, your tiny waist means nothing until you get rid of your breasts and butt.

For my own part, if I make myself quantify it, I’d say that I was “more attractive” when I was nineteen than I am now. But I certainly get a lot more attention now than I did then, there are certainly more people telling me, on a routine basis that I look nice. Also, importantly, I didn’t feel more attractive then. I felt fat, big-nosed, too top-heavy, and like no one would be able to see past my rather prominent scar from cancer. I felt self conscious when I was naked with someone. More or less the same exact things that trouble me now. So was I wrong then? Am I wrong now? Or can we just all agree that attractiveness is both subjective and fraught with problems? I attract people. Thus… attractive. Maybe you aren’t attracted to someone, that’s fine, but they’re not deluded if they think they are.

There needs to be a decoupling of the discussion of health and the discussion of attractive. There are many things we do every day that are dangerous to us. Getting in a car, for example, has its risks. But there are a few things that some of us choose to accept the risks of—smoking cigarettes is another good example—that turn into moral issues. It’s not that you’re making a poor choice, it’s that you’re “bad” or that you “have no self control.”

I really wish I didn’t feel a need, here in 2008 to type these things out, but that’s, as they say, the war.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

That's it for now...

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it.” Rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” (188-189)

My perspective on this will, inevitably, change, but trapped as I am in this kind of preemptive grieving process I was interested to see it addressed in one of my mopey death books, even if the passage doesn't reflect the way my mind is working at all.

First, I suppose Didion isn't talking about the kind of pregrieving you do when you have actual evidence to indicate that you will lose a loved one, she seems to be talking about the more soap operatic obsessive melancholies you indulge in when driving in the car. Sucker as I am for melodrama, there's a certain level of satisfaction I've found in imagining the funerals of my loved ones-- what I will wear, what I will say, how moving I'll be, how sad I'll be. Not that I wish them dead at all, god, not at all. I imagine the correlation of imaginary funeral to the real is like that of pornographic, fantasy rape to the ugly, real thing. This kind of musing is a lark, like crying at a book or movie, there is nothing at stake.

Because I've been morbid in this way for ages and ages, it's hard for me to imagine a funeral for real, but honestly, it doesn't strike me as the really upsetting part for just the reason Didion mentions. No one expects you to acquit yourself well, everyone caters to your emotional fragility. You (or I suppose, I) will be surrounded by the clumsy affection of everyone who loves you (or me) best.

What I have a difficult time approaching is the lack there will be after. I can't stop coming close to thinking about this. I say coming close because my aversion to it is so strong that I end up trying to immediately distract myself I have trouble sleeping now, and when I lie in bed I can't keep myself from the same obsessive rhythm. How can I be in my family without my mom? Will we still have Christmas at home? Will my Dad die soon after, I hear that happens a lot, but mainly with old people, then again, his health isn't awesome... Will I go crazy? Will I ever be able to do anything without thinking about this? I'm going to miss my mom so much. There are things about my mom I don't know, darker things that I have hints of. Do I ask now and have to know forever? Or do I not ask and decide to never know? Which way is better for my mom? Better for me? At a certain point I will have no more options. The past, once it becomes the past, is completely unchoosable.

A point Didion hints to, but doesn't pursue (fairly, since it doesn't apply to her situation) is how little comfort it is for grief to be prolonged and not sudden. I'm not suggesting that sudden death is easier to bear, I really wouldn't know, but it's difficult to manage the twin pressures of appreciating the time that my mother is alive and not acting like it's over and sinking into depression but at the same time recognizing the gravity of the situation and treating it seriously.

Another thing the book captures well is the rapid fluctuation of one's perception of grief. An ordinary moment can turn in an instant. A sad moment can turn boring and ridiculous. The pressure to feel a certain way at certain times is intense and unreasonable, but how is anyone else to track my veering twists my rapid contortions? The number of times I have started a conversation about my mother only to realize that I was too bored of myself to want to finish it is unreal and doesn't seem to me the mark of a really sane, stable person.

Which all points up to another capital-I-Natalie Issue: Why is it so important to me that I be interesting all the time? Part the first, it's not a standard I hold my friends to, especially when they have it rought. Part the second, I'm sure I have already lost your interest many times before when I didn't even think I was being boring, and yet, you're all still here with me. (Aren't you?)

I suppose that's something I have to be more comfortable with. The fact is, grief and mourning are things that take a long time, and like anything that takes a long time they will tend to stretch over a variety of emotional states, some of which are boring. It's probably not pathological, just time consuming.


Saturday, September 29, 2007

Heaven's Coast by Mark Doty

"I no longer think of AIDS as a solvent, but perhaps rather as a kind of intensifier, something which makes things more firmly, deeply themselves. Is this true of all terminal illness, that it intensifies the degree of what already is? Watching Wally, watching friends who were either sick themselves or giving care to those who were, I saw that they simply became more generous or terrified, more cranky or afraid, more doubtful or more trusting, more contemplative or more in flight. As individual and unpredictable as this illness seems to be, the one thing I found I could say with certainty was this: AIDS makes things more intensely what they already are. Eventually I understood that this truism then must apply to me as well, and, of course, it applied to my anxiety about the future."

The first of many passages that arrested my attention in this beautiful, sad, heartbreaking book. Mark Doty wrote this while his lover, Wally, was dying and after he was dead. I have been looking for what I should read to prepare me for what's coming. Even though as Doty, and everyone else on earth notes, no preparation really works, the only way out is in and through. There is so little written about what it is to lose a parent when they are young, when you are young. People have written about what it is to lose a parent when you feel the weight of things unsaid, but I say things to my mother all the time. (Although I have a very difficult time expressing my love for her unironically. But I am sure she sees through me. I am the kind of girl who can say "I love you" to all her friends but not to the one she really loves. Unless it's through a mouth full of food.)

I am worried about what it will be like to lose the person in my family I am closest too. I don't know how to be in my family without my mother. My father and my sister without a doubt love me, but they also, clearly, like each other best. I don't know how it will be when there's no one there to really keep me in my family.

I am reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking right now. I suppose it's a little creepy that my research is mostly centered on what it's like for your lover to die, but as the grief doesn't tend to center on missing a sweet ass to nail, I find a lot of it applicable.

Illness and grief are intensifiers. I keep finding myself focused on the unnattractive things which are heightened. The strength of my neediness, my loneliness, my anger and insecurity, but there are other emotions that are highlighted as well. Familial love often feels like it takes a back seat to other sources of affection. Rarely does love of a parent feel urgent. Right now my love for both my parents feels terribly real. In a way far apart from loneliness, it raises my awareness of the capaciousness of love.

My friends have risen to this task, not that I say it to them enough. The violence with which I need bothers me, the fact that I am insufficient to save myself is scary. I find myself trying not to test its limits, but my friends, when I have allowed it, have created a a network for me, a series of connections that I perceive more than I ever have before. On the other hand, the depth to which I am scared of being dependent, to which I am bothered by the vulnerability of connection is worrisome. I have never admired people who submit themselves to the obliterating neediness of love, but in some ways it seems an enviable immersion. Will I always miss out on this because of fear?

The intensity of this period has shaken me out of what felt like a long, dreamy spell of depression. The sadness I feel is now much more and much more urgent. I am miserable now. In a way the strength of it is almost relieving, because misery of this level is ultimately unsustainable. I have felt better from feeling this terrible before.


Monday, August 20, 2007

A Grief Observed

In A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis published his diaries from the period after his wife died of bone cancer. In the edition I read years and years ago, he wrote that he did not expect any results, but that he had been in the habit of observing his own mind for his entire life and integrating his life experiences into his deeply intellectual, and philosophical Christianity.

I have spent my entire life integrating my life experience into narrative. I really am I consummate researcher. I don't seem to be that good at the production of information, but I find real pleasure in research and I have a need to understand the specific social, historical, theoretical, theological (and so on) context of my interests and my life experiences. I suppose then, that it's expected that I end up reading and trying to find a context to put my mother dying into.

From the age of ten until thirteen I was being treated for my own cancer and I had a very difficult time contextualizing this and crafting an understanding of the world and of religion that I can work with. I think it's hard for people who know me now and didn't then to imagine, but I did grow up in a really Catholic household. My dad continues to be a man of serious faith, and I was really interested in church things. (Because I was a dork.) So in those years I read, together, C.S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain which is just Lewis's take on the question, "If God is omnipotent and benevolent, then why does he allow pain?" and A Grief Observed which basically went over my head, except for his preface which said that although he didn't think it could be done, he had moved through grief by writing and observing himself.

We have not reached the same conclusion, obviously. We both start from the same place, an undeniable experience of the numinous combined with a freaked out fear of the bigness of the universe. Through a series of small leaps Lewis arrived at Christ while I've ended up somewhere a lot more confused and ecumenical. Also, unlike Lewis, I really can't abide the thought of an intervening God. I'm good with clockwinder, I'm good with odd gnostic emanations of knowledge God, but I am so not okay with intervening God. This was, in fact, the subject of a legendary disagreement with my mother, who has told me on a number of times that she thinks God (not jesus though, we're not really of the jesus believing in persuasion, my mom and I) has personally intervened to save her life and that she feels a very personal sense of connection with God. While I feel totally embarrassed and Bad Religion Scholar! about it, I am still a little shocked and pissed off that she believes God is handing out favors and decided to smack me around with cancer as a fucking child. I know my stance on this is problematic, but for me is not theoretical, it's personal.

Still, I would really like to some day really believe in something less fluid, but hopefully not something that makes me into an asshole. (As my friend Rose has deadpanned: "Yes, Natalie, it would be a real shame if you turned into an asshole.")

Anyway, today at the library I reread A Grief Observed and it was just such a nice articulation of some of the really ugly emotional parts of the experience. He writes that he desperately wants everyone around him and everyone to leave him alone at the same time. That it would be ideal if they could just talk around but not about him. This is something I want too. Just people around but not so active all the time.

"Why do I make room in my mind for such filth and nonsense? Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as thought I shall feel less? Aren't all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won't accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not be pain. It doesn't really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist's chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.

And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn't seem worth starting anything. I can't settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty sucessiveness." (45-46)

I wonder this too. Are my attempts to rationalize this, to fit it into something, to prophylactically fix this through the acquisition of knowledge and contexts all essentially useless? For whom am I building this body of research, what is it really doing for me? And time, that is the part that kills me. It is hard to talk about without sounding suicidal, which I am not, remotely, but until I was 23 I had a panicky sense that my life could never be long enough, that I would never get to read everything I wanted to, and learn enough languages to be satisfied when it ended. In the past few years I have mostly felt like... Are you serious? This is the way it's going to be for 50 more years? I have fifty more years of this to fill up? How will I find enough to pack that time up. Time has a definite shape, time has a definite end, and its inertia makes it meaningless and makes this meaningless, and ultimately makes me meaningless. There is a sense of reaction in the place of action that is just terrifyingly stripped of any sense of purpose. And I suppose there is no real reason that the tone of all of this needs to be suffering, but it doesn't seem likely to not be.

Lewis is writing a diary, so he doubts himself a lot and doubles back, the effect is not polished but it tends to ambush you. I'm not sure why I decided to read this at the library where reactions are better controlled.

"[She] was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God's patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter.

But oh God, tenderly, tenderly. Already, month by month and week by week you broke her body on the wheel whist she still wore it. Is it not yet enough?" (54-55)

Leaving aside the Christian guilt guilt guilt sin sin sin, which is not something I'm worried about, the second part just hit me so hard. It just make me remember being with my mom in the hospital lying in bed with her, like spoons. It's not a very appropriate way for adult daughters to lie down with their mothers, but the situation was so far from normal. It is very disturbing to see your mother fucked up on drugs for weeks, to see her just reacting in pain, constant constant pain to things. To see her nightgown pull up. Scars on her chest and her abdomen, the freakish sight of your mother without nipples. It was like, the most horrible thing I have seen. I still cannot believe how vulnerable, and fragile my mother looked and how hurt she is. It is so disgustingly barbaric to me that we still fucking cut things off of people. I mean, we can put tiny robots in people, shouldn't we be done with this by now?

It's just such an honest plain begging. Please stop this, please treat my mother gently, this has been enough, we are all done, we exhausted by this, we are so hurt, I can't see the point in hurting us more than this. Isn't it enough?

I don't expect any answers to come out of this. This may just be sophisticated wallowing or bargaining, but there is a comfort in remembering that this happens to everyone, and that it was always going to happen. Everyone's mother is going to die. I don't love that the process is in motion for my mother now, obviously it is horrible and painful and just so big. But it isn't new territory, and I don't have to start it from scratch, I think.

Two more things from the book that are mysteriously of note to me:

"I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can't give it: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear." (58-59)

"When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'No answer.' It is not like the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but wiving the question. Like, 'Peace , child; you don't understand.'" (81)

I'm hoping for, but not expecting, that.