Category Archives: Literature

My MLA abstract on photography and mourning

Feedback welcome on this one… I’m excited by the idea but not wild about how I articulated it here. I could use a title, too.

Photography and Mourning in the Poetry of Anne Carson and Jacques Roubaud

The attempt to render the unsayable in language is the unending craft of writers, and never is it more challenging than in cases of mourning, when such expression is both necessary to the healing process and painfully evocative of past suffering. Including photographs in elegiac texts is a common means of giving voice to the impossible gap between experience and language. As Barthes notes in La chambre claire (1980), photographs provide an immediacy and an authenticity that written text cannot match, while also suggesting a simultaneity of past and future that always bears the mark of death.

Moving beyond the inclusion of photographs as straightforward memorials or reflections on the passage of time, poets Jacques Roubaud and Anne Carson incorporate photographs into their work in ways that accentuate the profound disconnect caused by loss. In the visually stunning Nox (2010), Carson includes photographs of her late brother among myriad other original and borrowed scraps, creating a physical space that holds both her thoughts and her brother’s. The photographs are a part of her mourning process, which she conceptualizes as translation: she studies her brother fragment by fragment, trying to reach something whole.

Roubaud also makes use of photographs and diary entries in Quelque chose noir (1986), a haunting elegy to his late wife, Alix Cléo–and yet in this case, the fragments are notable not for what they show, but for their absence. Roubaud relies on the photographs as a framework for his text–even the title refers to a series of Alix Cléo’s black-and-white photographs–and yet the photographs are excluded, becoming another element of the unsayable.

I will explore ways in which Carson and Roubaud look to photographs as key elements of the mourning process, not as memorials in themselves, but as passageways to understanding and expressing the unsayable.

Western by Christine Montalbetti

I dislike reading French books in translation, so it’s a bit my own fault for picking up Montalbetti’s novel, Western, translated into English by Betsy Wing. Despite actually having met her briefly at a reading in Boulder, I haven’t read Montalbetti’s work before, so the biggest issue about reading in translation is that I don’t know her own voice. I can’t tell whether I’m not crazy about the translation, or whether the translation is faithful but I am not wild about Montalbetti’s style. (Or, a third possibility: I’m annoyed with myself for buying the translation and can’t quite relax into the writing the way I normally would.) Whatever the reason, I found much of the prose to be choppy and forced, and I kept finding myself putting the book down or re-reading the same paragraph multiple times. This changed a bit toward the end of the book, when the style smoothed out considerably and I found it a much more pleasurable read. I’m a bit confused by my lukewarm reaction to the book, considering that two people whose book opinions I highly value–my advisor, Warren Motte, and my friend and former colleague, P–really enjoy her work.

The book’s premise is that of an old American western, but rather than being plot-driven, Montalbetti withholds the action as long as possible in favor of exploring endlessly meandering details. In one passage early on, I loved the personification of words in a conversation–those that tumble easily from the lips of a confident and relaxed participant, compared with others that fight to leave the mouth of a shy and awkward party to the conversation. This character, Dirk,

look[s] all around for words as though they already existed somewhere in a solid state and just had to be extracted from whatever out-of-the-way place they’re hiding in… and when he finds one of them, he grabs hold of it for you by the scruff of its neck and drags it, without further ado–struggling because of the weight of this cumbersome, limp individual, resisting him with all the power of its passivity–all the way up to the mouth that opens to submit the prisoner to Ted and our thirty-year-old. (44)

This slow and detailed progression repeats itself to create the book’s rhythm. Ants in the shadow of a character’s boot are explored in depth and with great psychological attention,  and similar detail is afforded to the movement of a drop of water, light in a mirror, a character on a screen. This sentence describing the boot that forms the ants’ terrain was lovely, if a bit overwritten:

The boot’s style is identifiable, with its beveled heel and the topstitching running up the leg in a wavy pattern–should we be seeing hills in all this stitching, their slopes full of game, their bucolic undulations so pleasing to the eye?–or is yours a more maritime imagination, leading you to think about the traces left by every obstinate returning wave on the sand of a beach–not the ribbons of foam that float ont eh air like fragments that have come loose from a mummy’s wrappings (something you might come across on a very windy day), but those embellished drawings, those arabesques that that same regathering wave pours over: pulling back to consider what it’s inscribed before coming again to scrawl some new figure with wild daubs of its brush, adding to its earlier lines in the sand. (7)

In the end, as I mentioned, the book surprised me in quite a positive way, drawing me in much more than it did initially. And actually, as I’m writing this now, I’m finding myself wanting to go back and give it another shot, to get another glimpse of those details so intricately explored. I’ll definitely give Montalbetti another try–but next time, I’ll read her in French.

On books that should be shorter

I recognize that this post will make me sound lazy. I’m thinking about Very Long Books. Mostly, I’m thinking about Very Long Books that Should Be Much Shorter. Double points if they are written by male authors and receive enormous acclaim before anybody reads them. It’s a huge pet peeve, and yet I’m taken in by the hype again and again.

I’m about halfway through Murakami’s (very long and highly anticipated) 1Q84, and it’s not a bad story. Murakami has fantastic imagination and weaves a compelling narrative structure, and 1Q84 does have these attributes (albeit not nearly to the same degree as Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, both of which captivated me). The prose doesn’t blow me away, but I tend to be a little more generous on translated works because it’s hard to know whether the issue is in the original or in the translation. Granted, in this case one of the problems is endless repetition of certain descriptions or details, which is doubtlessly not a translation issue. Regardless, I find the story to be good, and I do want to find out how the plot unfolds.

But, does it need to be so blasted long? As I said, I’m halfway through, and I can’t think of how the story could possibly be stretched out another 500 pages. Too much filler, too much repetition. I have very little patience for that. Where was his editor?

I’m afraid that as much as I love some of Murakami’s other work, this one may well be lumped into a pile with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.  (Franzen’s will be at the bottom of the stack; after his recent pieces on e-books and on Edith Wharton, I feel my jaw start to clench a little when I see his name.) All three of these books received great acclaim before they ever hit bookshelves, in no small part due to each author’s past success. (In the case of 2666, Bolaño’s death prior to the book’s completion also added a bit of drama to its release). And they’re all extremely long.

I don’t mind very long books. But I loathe books that should have been shorter. Lots of books are longer than they should be, but the trait is particularly noticeable in the biggest of the big. It seems to me that these books also tend to be written by men; whether that’s true (and representative of some kind of monument- and skyscraper-building tendency) or whether it means nothing beyond the fact that male authors are still far more widely represented on publishers’ lists and in critics’ reviews (even on NPR, which talks about male writers 70% of the time), I don’t know, and it bugs me either way. With these kinds of books, by the time I’m three hundred pages in, I feel like I get it; I understand the characters and the narrative and the style, and I don’t really need six or seven hundred pages more. 2666 was much more psychologically difficult than most because of the interminable list of women victims in the fourth section, but even without that roadblock, the book would have been a little much.

The big thing for me is that not all long books are like that. In some cases, the entire huge thing is finely wrought and compellingly delivered. For instance, this NYTimes review (on 1Q84) suggests that if you must read an enormously long book, might as well make it worthwhile and go for Proust. That is the gold standard for what long books should be. Infinite Jest is also like this. I recently found myself on a long subway ride with nothing to read besides what was already on my Kindle app, and I was drawn to start on Infinite Jest for a second time. A second time! The wonderful thing was that as I started back on the first few pages, everything fit perfectly. I remember the extended feeling of disorientation when I read through Infinite Jest the first time; now, every character and every episode made perfect sense and felt like it simply had to be there.

Everybody knows Pascal’s quip about lacking the time to write a shorter letter (and Google tells me that similar quotations are attributed to Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, and others); I wish more people would take it to heart. I love short stories in part for this reason: the economy of that the form imposes on the narrative often results in a wonderful density and clarity, with everything extraneous stripped away. There’s no reason to write a novel if a short story will better highlight the particular character, emotion, situation, or style that the writer wants to focus on. And there’s certainly no reason to write a novel that’s three times longer than necessary if a shorter one will suffice. When a book is so voluminous as to make it impractical to read on my commute, it also better be so good that I can’t bear not to lug it with me. That was the case with Infinite Jest, but 1Q84 doesn’t make the cut.

Heartbreak Tango by Manuel Puig

I picked up Heartbreak Tango as part of my haul from Dalkey Archive Press’s holiday book sale, and absolutely loved this first encounter with Manuel Puig. The musicality of the title (Boquitas pintadas in the original Spanish) permeates the book, with each section building to crescendos, creating and resolving tension, and riffing improvisationally on the themes of love and loss. I can’t believe I didn’t read his work sooner; it adds one more reason to a growing list of why a literary pilgrimage to Buenos Aires is a necessary part of my future travels.

Composed in sixteen “episodes,” the perspective and narrative style shift dramatically from one section to another. The various pieces work together harmoniously, though they look like scraps of stories rather than parts of a whole (letters, police reports, stream of consciousness, newspaper clippings, and more). While it lacks the strongly visual and tactile components of Nox, and is more loosely constructed, its patchwork structure somewhat resembles Carson’s technique. Where Carson’s compilation tightly focused the reader’s attention on one particular relationship and loss, though, Puig’s mosaic spins the reader’s gaze outward from a central point into increasing chaos. Circling the character of Juan Carlos Etchepare, the narrative spends little time on his own perspective, and instead traces the trail of broken hearts that he has left in his wake–which turns out to be quite a crowd indeed.

Something in the book reminds me of an Almodóvar film: colorful and somewhat hysterical characters (mainly women), driven by emotions to carry out passionate, reckless, and even macabre acts. Each episode starts with an epigraph, each one a nod to the implausible values that drive many social interactions: passionate tango lyrics, snippets of movie dialogue, and the promises and entreaties found in advertising. Indeed, Puig was highly interested in film, both as a medium and in terms of its role in popular culture; this 1989 interview in the Paris Review gives an interesting glimpse of his techniques and tastes. (In it, he also discusses the importance of writing every day, something I’ve recently started to do.) It’s worth noting that despite the novel’s nod to films and contemporary culture, Puig confesses to watching mainly movies from the 1940’s.

Throughout the work, Puig maintains a remarkable tension between the illusory and the real, the desirable and the cruel. While the veneer of the beautiful and the false seems to discount the veracity of the characters’ emotions and experiences, the subtitles that divide the book into two sections suggest that real damage is done: “A tango lingers on true red lips” and “A tango lingers on blue, violet, black lips.” Even when the characters are larger than life, the pain they cause in others is darkly genuine.

Crafting the unsayable: Anne Carson’s Nox

One of my reading habits that changed most significantly after grad school is that I tend to read books sequentially now, rather than starting half a dozen at the same time. I like this new rhythm; it feels luxurious, and reminds me of the pure pleasure of being a reader.

Recently, contrary to my post-grad school habits, I found myself reading two books at once: Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines, and Anne Carson’s Nox. The two books are not at all alike, but reading them concurrently reminded me of the serendipity of finding that one work opens up new and surprising connections in another. In this case, the connection is craft and constraint.

In Reading Machines, Ramsay explores “potential literature” as a way of understanding the  complex relationship between writing, reading, and criticism. Ramsay argues that the process of creating a text in the manner of Oulipo is a process that is at once creative and critical, and in which the reader is frequently complicit. Further, Ramsay notes that, contrary to the Surrealists’ focus on inspiration, Oulipians “emphasize the original sense of poesis as ‘making’ or ‘building'” (27). The more challenging the constraint, the more keenly aware the reader becomes of how carefully each word and line must be crafted. (Having recently read Doug Nufer’s Never Again, in which no word is used twice, I wholeheartedly agree with this.)

So, with craftsmanship and limitation and the interrelated roles of writer and reader on my mind, I come to Nox, a book more spellbinding and beautiful and unusual than anything I have read in a long time. Carson certainly takes on multiple roles in creating this piece–not only writer and reader, but also translator, curator, and visual artist.

Not only is the book complex in terms of its written form, incorporating original writing as well as translation and borrowed letters, but it’s also visually complex, with a format unlike anything I have seen, and which I’ll describe in a moment. Written as a sort of elegy for her brother, with whom she had a distant and complicated relationship, Nox is a stunning example of a writer representing the unsayable through disruptions in a written text. (This notion was at the heart of my dissertation, and I so wish that I could have explored Nox alongside Roubaud’s Quelque chose noir, Jabès’s Livre des questions, and the other works that came to mean so much to me–Carson’s work would have enriched the conversation in a beautiful way. Perhaps another project for another time.)

Returning to my reading of Nox, though. There is so much to talk about. First, and most immediately noticeable, is the construction: the book is a sheaf of continuous accordion-folded pages, unbound at the spine; the single pleated page is contained (loose) inside a hard-edged box that opens like a book. The reader can carefully turn the folded pages like a codex, or she can stretch them out from end to end, like a scroll.

Next, the language: this is why I love Carson to begin with. She is a poet, and her language makes that clear, even in prose; each word is crafted and placed with such intention. She makes me catch my breath. I loved Carson’s earlier book, Autobiography of Red, for the same reason; it is innovative and surprising and hauntingly beautiful. (For a great interview in which she discusses both Autobiography of Red and Nox, try this.)

Then, the fragments: the pages look like small collages; each one features a small scrap that appears to have been hurriedly glued or stapled onto the page. The pages are flat and smooth (being reproductions of the original constructions), but the illusion of texture led me to run my fingertips over the page countless times. Carson creates a physical space that holds her own thoughts and her brother’s, as well as elements that are hard to place or that don’t seem to make sense.

Finally, the added complexity of translation: the work starts with a poem by Catallus (#101), presented in Latin in smudgy ink. I merely glanced at it, as I don’t know Latin. But Carson makes the reader think so deeply about that poem. On alternate pages, she presents a single dictionary entry for a word in the poem. (Even the dictionary entries, I suspect, are her own; the sample sentences are too rich to be genuine reference material.) Page by page, I tried to construct the meaning of the poem for myself, and as a result, I read those lines of barely-understood Latin dozens of times. I couldn’t come to a translation, but I came to a rough understanding of the poem’s skeleton. By the time Carson included an English translation (her own), I yearned for it.

The element of translation is perhaps the most interesting to me. Carson is a translator, and she describes her mourning process in terms of translation: she studies her brother fragment by fragment, trying to reach something whole. It is, she says, an unending process. She describes the process, as well as her choice of the particular Catallus poem, in a section labeled 7.1:

I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times… I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

This is a book to re-read and to savor.

Circling back to the connection with Ramsay’s thoughts on Oulipo, Carson’s choice of form in Nox functions as a similar kind of constraint. As with the Oulipians, there is no room for anything to be out of place. Carson reads and writes and translates and interprets and designs, and she encourages the reader to engage in similarly blended acts, resulting in a rich and intense experience that I won’t soon forget.

On finally having read Maus by Art Spiegelman

I have just now finished reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I’m so late to this that the two volumes have been bound together in a 25th-anniversary edition. I don’t know why it took me so long; my dissertation focused on trauma in late 20th century literature, so it should have been on my central reading list. Somehow, it wasn’t, but better late than never.

There’s not much that I want to say about the book; it is as powerful and heartbreaking as I thought that it would be. Because I tend to think about what it means for a victim or witness to recount his or her story–why one might or might not break a silence to talk about something “unspeakable–I was struck by Art’s conversation with his therapist in part II, And Here My Troubles Began (p. 205 in my edition):

–Anyway, the victims who died can never tell THEIR side of the story, so maybe it’s better not to have any more stories.

–Uh huh. Samuel Beckett once said: “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

–Yes.

–On the other hand, he SAID it.

Vladek Spiegelman’s story is impossible to tell, not least because in a world with even the faintest touch of rationality and morality, it is impossible to understand. Art Spiegelman works against that impossibility to tell a story that breaks the silence, giving voice to the unspeakable.

These are not cheery thoughts for the holidays, so I think I’ll turn to something lighter next. Wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas with loved ones, and a happy and healthy start to 2012.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

I read very little historical non-fiction. In fact, I’m probably within a rounding error of reading none at all. So it was an unusual moment indeed when I found myself wanting to pick up The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal — and I’m so very glad that I did.

I heard about the book from the NYPL Live line up, and noticed the way Paul Holdengraber was writing about it on Twitter — he mentioned that it was a book to read slowly, with prose that should be savored. I must have been going through my Alice Munro raptures around that time, and was luxuriating in slow reading, so in that regard it made some sense that I’d be interested. Still, it’s a book about 19th century family history and art collection — not my thing. I ordered the book and wondered how long it would sit on my shelf.

The book clearly didn’t gather dust for very long. It has actually proven to be a welcome change of pace from fiction, and something I might enjoy delving into more often. (Maybe.) De Waal sets out to trace the story of how a collection of netsuke (small, carved figures from Japan, like these) came to belong to him. He traces his lineage through the Ephrussi family, who had astonishing connections in 19th century France (Charles Swann is based partly on Charles Ephrussi, a friend of Proust’s!) and amazing art to go with it.

Deep down, what I care about most when I read is style. If a writer’s style grabs me, I will happily go in for the characters or the plot or the aesthetics or whatever it is that the writer draws my attention to. That’s probably why I enjoyed this book, even though the genre is so far out of my norm: de Waal’s style is carefully crafted and quite beautiful. De Waal is a potter, and the materiality of language is strongly present in the way he shapes his words and phrases. I think that’s why the book reads slowly: there’s a carefully measured rhythm to it, always keeping the balance, like a pot being slowly pulled into shape on a wheel.

De Waal cares about the netsuke, and he cares about learning enough about the story to make it all feel real to him. The reader benefits as the generations are revived and explored, each person examined one by one like the figures de Waal removes from their display case. He doesn’t just tell about them; it’s as though he wants to know them by touch, have a sensory experience of them.

The portrait that de Waal paints looks inward as much as back through history; the reader accompanies him on a distinct journey as he researches the movements of his netsuke through generations and across borders. He relays his discoveries about his family, of course, but he also brings the reader with him into libraries and archives, through opulent family homes that have been reconfigured into insurance offices, across borders from France to Austria to Japan to Russia. His research replicates the path of the netsuke, which echoes the journeys of the family.

The family history is a painful one, and really could not be otherwise, given that it focuses on a Jewish family of Russian origin living in Paris and Vienna during World War I and II. As he learns of the events leading up to World War II — which stripped his family of all that they had built, and then continued stripping away their nationalities and even their names — de Waal comes to the crushing realization that “the family is not erased, but written over” until not a trace of them can be seen in the revised Austria (259). One of the most moving images for me was Viktor, stripped of wealth, homeland, and much of his family, spending the days of his own exile reading Ovid and concealing his emotion (270).

The family manages to rebuild itself after the war, albeit in a very different form and in many new places. That the netsuke remain with the family when so much else was lost is incredible, and their particular journey out of post-war Vienna is especially poignant — but I’ll leave it for other readers to discover.

There but for the by Ali Smith

One of the only faults I found with this immensely pleasurable novel is its title, which, for all its poetic incompleteness, is undeniably awkward to say aloud.

Ungainly title aside, There but for the is a delightful read. The prose is light and playful, embodied in many ways by a charming nine-year-old character named Brooke, whose enjoyment of language is catching and whose curiosity is unparalleled. Several nested stories unfold as Smith maneuvers around the book’s central issue: Miles Garth, towards the end of an unpleasant meal at the home of the aptly named Gen & Eric Lee, wordlessly leaves the table and disappears into an upstairs bedroom and refuses to leave or even speak… for months. The premise calls to mind Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s La Salle de Bain (1985; here’s a review of the English translation), whose narrator listlessly retreats to his bathroom and remains fully clothed in the tub for days on end. Whereas Toussaint’s narrator is weary and defeated, however, Miles Garth is energetic and enigmatic, and seems to be judging the foolishness of the world around him.

One image I loved was that of May Winch (a subplot and two degrees of separation from Miles Garth) remembering a night when, as a young woman, she had been riding her bicycle in the dark when she hit something and flew over the handlebars into the road. She is fine but shaken, mainly due to the nature of the accident:

It was the dark taking shape, going solid out of nowhere in front of her. It wasn’t like when the bomb hit the ball-bearing factory next door to the shop and she’d been blown across the room backwards and hit the wall behind her. That had been different. This had come out of nowhere and it had no sound, just the muffled thump of May being hit by the dark. The difference was that she’d just gone headlong with her eyes wide open into it, that she’d done it herself somehow, hit the dark. (164)

May’s reaction to this moment of “hitting the dark” suggests that the fears that affect us most deeply are those that are invisible and internal, when we cannot point to an explosion or any other external cause and know what caused us pain. These kinds of truths can easily feel tired or facile, but Smith introduces them with grace and a lightness of touch that imbue them with freshness.

This lightness is the book’s hallmark, in the prose as in the characters. Smith creates a small circle of witty, like-minded characters whose paths cross throughout the stories; whenever two of them meet, you can almost see the glint in their eyes as they recognize themselves in one another. Both Brooke and Miles are among them. Brooke in particular is an improbable child of pure joy and intelligence, brilliant with language and wordplay and surprisingly attuned to the world around her. Puns send her reeling with pleasure, and she is obsessed with knowing and recording the facts of her own story. The last section of the book consists of Brooke’s internal monologue, and Smith does an excellent job of it, retaining just enough of a childlike quality to the language while also conveying Brooke’s tack-sharp curiosity and creativity.

There are many more characters and storylines that unfold like the origami plane described in the book’s preamble (“Outside, on its top, it looks like a plain folded piece of paper. Inside, underneath, it is packed tight into itself with surprising neatness like origami, like a small machine” [xiii]), and the whole thing holds together beautifully. I’ll definitely be adding Smith’s earlier novels to my reading list.

Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

The motifs of entrapment, communication, and identity dominate the beautiful and emotionally intense Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk. Published in 2004 in Afrikaans, and in a skilled English translation by Michiel Heyns in 2006 (2010 in the U.S.), the apartheid-era novel tackles emotionally complex relationships among the members of a family of white South African farmers and the black servants and laborers that share their space. In particular, van Niekerk focuses attention on Milla, the mistress of the farm, and her maidservant, Agaat. The novel spans 1947 to 1994, tracing the entire period of apartheid through the story of Milla’s lifetime, from courtship to death.

The narrative jumps among several different modes and time periods. The reader encounters Milla through the eyes of her grown son; in her internal monologue on her deathbed with Agaat as her sole caretaker; in a remarkably good second-person narrative; and in diary entries, both as she wrote them and as Agaat reads them back to her in her mute and immobile old age. Agaat, of course, is present in nearly all of these threads, depicted with a varying degree of agency and richness in each. The multiple narratives work beautifully together, weaving a portrait of the two women that grows increasingly complex (or perhaps entangled)–and yet that same notion of weaving is complicated by Agaat’s literal embroidery, which is first forced upon her, then becomes a coping mechanism, and finally seals her closure from Milla as she weaves Milla’s death shroud.

As I alluded to previously, communication and entrapment oppose each other as focal points in the novel. The immediate context for these two themes is that of Milla’s end days, as she is mutely trapped within an unmoving body, her lucid mind flying among comfort and rage and pain as her fraught relationship with Agaat plays out its final notes, often without a word being spoken by either of them. The depiction of what is left for Milla is beautiful and unexpected:

As if it’s conceivable that of a whole concert only this would remain to listen to: The siffling of the sleeves encircling the wrists of the musicians, the creaking of the chairs on which they sit, the heaving of their breathing with the up and the down stroke of the bow, the riffling of the pages of the score. Only that, without the music. Harmless negative music, the soil without the cultivation. (309)

Milla’s world is diminished: Not a reduction of volume, but an elimination of beauty, leaving only the framework of the musicians’ movements. Her silent negotiation with Agaat to reduce her discomforts and meet her physical needs at times seems to be an intricate and intimate dance, but it is clear that the dance brings no joy and no beauty to either party. What the reader learns later in the novel is that the movement toward understanding through silence actually began much earlier between Milla and Agaat, and has colored their relationship over many decades.

Milla has tried to preserve everything about her life in diaries, not so much to remember it as to try and create or uncover meaning amid a pile of moments that defy her comprehension. She clings to traces of the past, especially through diaries and maps, and even tries to unearth the past in mirrors:

Does a mirror sometimes preserve everything that has been reflected in it? Is there a record of light, thin membranes compressed layer upon layer that one has to ease apart with the finger-tips so that the colours don’t dissipate, so that the moments don’t blot and the hours don’t run together into inconsequential splotches? […] So many tears for nothing? For light? For bygone moments? (137)

The tragedy for Milla is that rather than finding in these traces a pattern of meaning that had been invisible to her as she moved through each day, she is instead forced to listen to Agaat recount Milla’s own stories to her in a way that elicits more shame and bitterness than reconciliation and healing.

In her final moments, Milla, whose identity has been deeply bound with her farmland since she was a child, craves a connection with her land. Deprived of the ability to move or to speak, she cannot so much as look out the window; instead, she wills Agaat to bring her all the maps of the land that have been stowed away. Her desire is to consume the land, make it ever more deeply a part of her. She wants to swallow and digest the maps: “So that I can be filled and braced from the inside and fortified for the voyage. Because without my world inside me I will contract and congeal, more even than I am now, without speech and without actions and without any purchase upon time” (88). The knowledge that her land continues to exist and thrive comforts Milla, as she feels the land to be an extension of herself. And yet, imprisoned in her body in a sterile room, she desperately feels she must lay eyes on the symbol of the land in order to feel whole before her imminent death.

While Milla’s sense of identity is restricted by her immobility, Agaat’s reveals itself to be far more complicated. I won’t unveil the mysteries of how Agaat came to join Milla’s household or why her acts of caregiving are both conscientious and cruel, but it is clear that she has carved away a part of her identity and made it invisible, as though to protect it. When Milla spies on Agaat as a young women, we learn through her diary that she is startled and confused by what she sees:

Could the binoculars have been playing tricks upon me? Hr arm a pointer? pointing-out pointing-to what is what & who is who? An oar? A blade? Hr fist pressing apart the membrane & the meat as if she’s dressing a slaughter animal? But not a sheep, as if she’s separating the divisions of the night. Or dividing something within herself. Root cluster. (127)

Milla doesn’t know what to make of Agaat’s movements, but the heavy symbolism of Agaat being prepared as an animal for slaughter suggests the depth of the trauma that Agaat has undergone and against which she now steels herself.

Milla and Agaat struggle for power throughout the novel’s timeline, and while Agaat holds much of the real authority on the farm–even getting Milla and Jak to do her bidding in moments of urgency–Milla’s diary reminds the reader (and also Agaat and Milla as the diaries are uncovered and retold) that true power is held by the one who bestows a name. Milla had taught Agaat this very lesson as she tried to coax a young Agaat into speech: “I want Agaat to understand that if you call things by their names, you have power over them”  (439). No matter how great the extent of Agaat’s implicit power, she cannot cease to be dominated by the one who has given her her name. For me, that is the most chilling note of the novel.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Expectation is such a tricky thing. I loved Middlesex. I couldn’t wait to read The Marriage Plot because I loved Middlesex. But because I was expecting Eugenides’ latest book to make me feel the way I felt about his previous, I didn’t love it.

Perhaps I was still coming down from my Munro high and wasn’t ready to land in Eugenides’ more straightforward, less lyrical prose. The premise might also have had something to do with it; stories that center around WASP-y privilege are mildly depressing to me in even the best cases, and I couldn’t garner much enthusiasm for Madeleine (though I could relate to her feelings of intimidation when facing her first encounter with Derrida and his admiring devotees). Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book quite a bit, and had I not set the bar quite so high, I might have had an unequivocally positive response to it.

The story follows three characters, all of them undergraduate students at Brown: Madeleine Hanna, who would prefer life to look a whole lot more like a nineteenth century novel than it usually does; Leonard Bankhead, who sticks in my mind as a sort of lumbering oaf because of his name, size, and mannerisms, though he is fiercely intelligent and emotionally complex; and Mitchell Grammaticus, a skinny, smart, monastic wanderer. A more-or-less standard love triangle ties the three together: Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, Leonard’s energy is completely swallowed up by efforts to manage his manic depression.

Unlike the vast scope of Middlesex, in The Marriage Plot Eugenides keeps the focus tightly on these three figures. He explores the ways that they each respond to the impending turning point of college graduation–the ways in which they begin to see themselves as adults. Madeleine, naive in her longing to be loved, curling up daily and nightly with Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse to amplify first her love, then her heartsickness, plunges herself headlong into a marriage with issues far more adult than she is ready to handle. I found her to be a pretty flat character and was mildly annoyed by her at a few points in the novel.

Mitchell and Leonard I found more interesting and endearing characters. Mitchell embarks on a clichéd voyage to Europe and India, but his moments of self-discovery are genuine and told with affection. (Having become greatly interested in Christian mysticism, for instance, the focal point of Mitchell’s trip is a period of service in Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes. Once there, however, Mitchell finds himself shirking duties and feeling both admiration for and aversion to the other volunteers. He eventually bolts from the place, in a sequence that appeared in the New Yorker as “Asleep in the Lord” (paywall, sorry). Mitchell’s baffling and longstanding obsession with Madeleine betrays his youth, but it’s clear that he’s got (or is developing) a pretty good sense of who he is.

Finally, Leonard. Leonard lacks the luxury of “discovering himself” that both Madeleine and Mitchell can indulge in. Besieged by manic depression, Leonard’s personality, behavior, and intelligence are alternately propelled to extremes, crushed by depression, and nullified by medications. He is acutely aware of his condition, but can only sometimes surmount its effects. A moment of interaction between Leonard and Mitchell completely alters the dynamic of the triangle, and leads me to believe that Leonard, not Madeleine, is the character with the most influence over the others.

As I said, the book was enjoyable, and I cared about the characters; it just didn’t blow me away. As an aside, I mentioned that part of the book appeared previously in the New Yorker; in fact, two sections have appeared there over the past year and a half or so (the other is “Extreme Solitude”). It’s probably just personal preference, but I’m not really a fan of realizing that large chunks of the novel I’m reading are pieces that I’ve already read before. It makes it harder for me to integrate everything into a cohesive whole, for one thing; I read short stories very differently than I read novels, and it’s not always easy for me to break my associations with the stories to let them dissolve into the other threads of the novel. This happens a lot, of course, and I recognize that it’s useful to publish components of a book while still working through the full piece. Still, it’s not my favorite thing, and I almost always end up feeling like I enjoyed the stories more than the novel.

I’ve still got some fiction lined up in my to-read pile (next up: Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk), but I’m also starting to feel the urge to read some good non-fiction. We’ll see what comes next.