so it turns out being told your mom has cancer feels like triggering vagal shock
I am on the earliest bus my line has to offer, so I can get out of work early enough for physical therapy. The first bus crowd is very different from the later ones. We are all young on this bus, most of us clutching caffeine in some form. We are inadequately dressed for the sudden cold. The men have the patchy, not-yet-a-sign-of-resignation young man stubble on their cheeks. We talk to each other, startlingly, in this state where no one talks to each other. We agree that it is cold, and too early. For what, we don’t have to say.
I open this way because this bus trip is life-affirming in a way The Master is assuredly not. I would rather take the first bus for the rest of the year than sit through that movie again. True, I had my cards stacked against it from the start, given my distaste for Paul Thomas Anderson as a pretentious and self-indulgent filmmaker, way overhyped. But he managed to disappoint even my meager expectations. I expected people I was uninterested in to do things that mean far less than the shiny-eyed critics say they do with their declarations of “epoch-defining” and “best filmmaker of this generation.” What I got were characters I detested wandering around aimlessly and a fetishization of the “broken” (I say it in quotes because few of these people speaking loudly of broken or damaged people know jack about it beyond their desire to claim some parcel of the island of misfit toys for themselves) that is anything but original.
As many as I can bear to bring up anyway.
The age difference between Freddy and Doris was gratuitous. Taboo for the sake of being taboo. I cannot respect that. PTA couldn’t get us to care enough about people we could relate with, so he had to warp the human personality into a pastiche of itself and them claim any failure on our part to empathize with the guy was our mundanity, our inability to think outside our narrow, non-pedophile lives. “You just don’t understand the complexities of this man,” the film harrumphs at us. Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware seeing women everywhere as mere tits and ass was a terribly rare or complex symptom. My bad.
The sixties: America needs to get over its collective sixties boner. Use some educated hindsight, people. Do I enjoy reading about the Regency, the Edwardian era, the 20s? Sure. Am I foolish enough to forget for a moment how shitty my lot would be if I lived during those times? Absolutely not. I am tired of listening to people sing the praises of the fifties and sixties, crying “people knew how to dress.” Because what that translates to has to do with sex and class and boundaries and never crossing those boundaries, ad it’s bullshit any thinking woman today should know better than to pine for. Appreciate your options, girls. You have heard of honor killings, have you not?
And of course, our grand finale: he finally gets laid. Fanflippingtastic. No meaningful relationship, no closure, no healing, just a quick screw in a foreign country. Bravo, sir. I sure am glad I waited 137 minutes to watch you reach this deeply moving goal.
Ugh. I want my Sunday afternoon back.
Why are we using this phrase again? Let it die. That last link’s picture? That’s what that connotes. I don’t care if it’s been in vogue since 1980. It’s anachronistic. The ability to talk at length about political issues does not banish you to some separate frippery class outside of the usual hierarchy, deserving of scorn. We have the terms “wonk” and “pundit” and can leverage all the pleasure or distaste necessary into those terms in their delivery. We do not need this agonizingly 19th-century-sounding phrase. We don’t have money for drawing rooms anymore, didn’t you get the memo? We watch Downton Abbey because if we had the money for a drawing room or a dress snaking glimmering beads down our backs we’d be using that money to pay off student loans or to get surgery for messed-up parts of our bodies or to move closer to our dying parents. And then we still wouldn’t have the damn drawing rooms. So enough with the “chattering classes” already.
You know how it’s a widespread phenomenon, the recurring dream where there is a class that you forgot you were signed for and then suddenly it’s exam day and you’re completely unprepared? I can’t provide a link from a phone post, but it’s a common experience, even decades after one has left college.
I too have those dreams, though they only ever apply to one class—a course on Arabic literature I signed up for near the end of my graduate program, then subsequently dropped because the professor was a genuine British imperialist expat who still lived as though he wore a white safari hat and dungarees. I only attended two sessions before discovering there was still time to drop it, and drop it I did.
That’s the class, though, that I keep dreaming I missed the entirety of; that I’m being tested on. Perhaps, in a knee jerk move of incredible ethnocentric vanity, my subconscious is insisting that had I only bothered I learn a damn thing about the Middle East, I’d feel less overwhelmed by the bullshit it enacts.
The Siege if Krishnapur is not about the Middle East. But the British Empire is a great black hole in my historical knowledge, and I suppose I thought that if I tried to come to terms with one instance where large numbers of foreigners were being slaughtered, perhaps the present state of affairs would…I don’t know. Maybe I’d feel less in the dark.
What I did not expect, though, was the biting criticism J.G. Farrell is able to bring to this in 1973, even while writing like a Bronte sister. He’s narrowing his eyes at the British Empire over the perfectly sculpted rim of a cup of darjeeling, managing also to say a lot about writing and what it’s supposed to be able to do for us (vs. what it can actually do) while he does it. He never drops his mask, never slips into artless jabs; but he speaks right through it without a blink. It’s hugely enjoyable, even if I suspect it will become grim in short order.
(Yes, I suspect. I do not know. To the one historically-minded person who reads this blog and has a way to contact me—please don’t tell me anything about Krishnapur. I imagine it will be Rourke’s Drift, but with civilians, and a failure. Don’t tell me anything though!)
I am good for one story. One story at a time. In a novel I have time to think. Time to propose hypotheses about characters and see if they pan out; time to change them if necessary.
In short stories there’s no time. You’re all “what did that—” and then bam, you’re done. I knew this writing short stories. It was supposed to be a strength, this very American, very Hemingway man-of-few-words medium, but it felt like an unfair advantage. “Didn’t see what I did there? Well you’re probably just not good enough at short story close reading.” It felt like cheating.
I just read the next story in Sweet Talk, the one that shares the title of the collection. And it was wasted on me, because I was still trying to figure out the previous story from this morning. Had she been trying to be cruel, when she called out after him by the river? It had never dawned on me that she was. I thought she was just 12, and confused. I didn’t care about this new couple, not until the end, by which point I’d been paying too little attention (more enthralled by the land described, all of which, except for Reno, I know intimately) to know what had actually transpired. The short stories I’ve touted in recent years have all come to me singly, outside of their collections, powerful. Transatlantic, Dog Heaven, Katherine Comes To Yellow Sky. The collections are blurs of aphorisms. Interpreter of Maladies: losing your child kills your marriage. Unaccustomed Earth: keeping your child can kill your marriage. Half In Love: your petty grudge will get you killed messily out on your deck. I Was Told There’d Be Cake: basically the entire plot of HBO’s Girls was written a decade beforehand. Girls minus terrorism, if you will.
The lone stories last. I should just read one every few weeks or something. The rest are just sliding past like scenery.
Oh, that was a good story. I laid The Waves aside because my marginalia of eight years ago was too pretentious to stomach after a while. So I got Stephanie Vaughn’s collection of stories instead. ABCD is not as good as Dog Heaven, but even if my bus ride had been long enough to read that last, wonderful story, it would have set a sad tone for the day. I have to deal with doctors today; I pride myself on being jocular and unsqueamish with them; I do not want to don the white paper gown weighed down with a sad story. I dislike when people I don’t know peer at me and tell me to cheer up or smile or something; it feels invasive. They’re not asking you outright to tell them anything, but your options are either to smile plasticly or snap a defense of your facial expression. Neither feels good.
I tried to install a currently-reading widget to spare you these staccato book updates, but this theme does not seem to support it and I like this theme. So short and piecemeal it is.
I had never seen it. It is fantastic. Saw the pilot on three separate occasions but that meant never the intro—now that I’ve been gifted the first season I’ve seen it five times. How perfect is that? Showing her growing up and spending her whole life watching extensive media coverage of horrible things happening to people who could have been people she loved. Her fierce desire to keep that from happening again. Its very clear effect on her. What kind of effect did you think that was having on us? Did you think it would pass us by and leave us unscathed? Did you think we would take it lying down?
(Aside: Do you know how many people my age I have met from this state who know what the USS Cole was? None. My forgiveness is slow in coming. When they mention it, in the intro, I feel that little gulf open between myself and the people here, and I bristle.)