Monday, February 27, 2012

Parallel Stories, Volume One: The Mute Realm

Before I get to the Hungarian novelist Peter Nadas' behemoth novel, Parallel Stories, I think it would be nice to recommend some of the books I've read this month. Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is pretty funny. It wasn't necessarily something I would have read if it hadn't been given to me as a Christmas gift, but there are some very witty chapters, the funniest of which I'd already read in "The New Yorker". I do remember reading that article in the bus and making of a fool of myself while unsuccessfully trying to stifle my laughter. Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses is excellent and disturbing (and short!). And Julian Barnes' short story collection Pulse is full of witty but completely unrealistic dialogue. Unless all conversations in Britain really are just like the banter you hear on BBC panel shows like "Would I Lie to You?" or "QI". What I'm trying to say is, all the men in Barnes' stories sound like David Mitchell and Stephen Frye and I have absolutely no problem with that, especially since they figure in pretty much all of my sexual fantasies, which, unsurprisingly, only involve overweight British comics of questionable or outright homosexual orientation.

So back to Nadas. Here is another classic case of one book critic not reading a book and giving it a fairly positive review, misleading me into thinking I might want to read it, which eventually leads to me buying it if the circumstances are favorable, and then going home and reading it. Even if Nadas' novel weren't 1133 pages long I'd still roast it, I think, and I'm only on page 374. But it's too late. Once a book has been started it must be finished or something terrible with definitely befall me, I just know it. So I keep on.

Problem is, I really can't take this out in public, although the subway is one of my favorite reading venues. Last time I did, a cute young blond sat next to me and, assuming she's like me, would have read over my shoulder this: "He saw only female limbs, could not imagine anything else, only gaping cunts as he filled them with his cock, there were no faces, no whimpering, nothing belonged to them anymore". At this point I sort of slumped in my seat in the hopes that my hunched back would obscure the girl's view from my reading material. And you may say, "Well, that's just one sentence relatively early on in the book. Page 74, I believe?" To which I'd say, "Yeah, well, let me tell you. There is one 40-page sex scene and every single thrust, every single drop of pre-cum is cataloged for our benefit. That chapter, in case you want to avoid it, which I recommend you do, is inexplicably called 'The Quiet Reasons of the Mind'".

"They were crying, choking, sighing, panting haltingly, whining, sniveling, wailing, sobbing, whimpering, hissing and mewling into each other's ears..." Is this what copulation is really like? With the two adults involved alternatingly acting like spoiled children and bellicose cats? Have I been doing something wrong all these years? Has Hollywood been lying to me? My favorite line so far, from a different chapter, is the disturbing analogy of comparing a man and woman's copulating genitalia to "two meat-eating flowers".

Only 758 pages to go. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Road to Damascus

There's something to be said for being unemployed. ("Unemployed" being used here both despondently and self-deprecatingly as someone who willingly gave up her acceptable job to pursue happiness on more familiar shores. "Between jobs," on the other hand, is the euphemism used by the laid-off. Also, being a substitute at an independent bookstore does not count as proper employment.) I have been reading a lot. I have been reading so much that I actually feel busy, like a liberal arts college student might. It's great. My only complaint is the lack of funds. Also the fear, anxiety, and frustration at not finding work that offers health insurance. Obviously things are much better now than they were in Texas. No regrets. At least, no point now in having regrets. There are signs of land in the distant horizon, I think.

Now that I have the time, I've been reading things like the "Paris Review" and "Granta," which made for good antidotes while I was slogging through "The Girl Who Played with Fire". Finish the chapter on Lisbeth Salander's shopping spree at Ikea? Read an interview with Allan Hollinghurst in the "Paris Review" as a kind of reward. This is how I came across a piece by Claire Messud in "Granta 118". Messud being a novelist, I assumed at first that I was reading fiction. "The Road to Damascus" is, among other things, a beautiful piece about the life and death of the narrator's father, a Frenchman who grew up, in part, in Beirut. Four pages into the piece, I read this: "[A]s a businessman, he amassed, over fifty years, a scholar's collection of books on Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians, the Turks, the Middle East more broadly. Upon his death he left behind hundreds of volumes, although however many of them he read I cannot say. He left, that is, substantial traces of the life unlived, of the internal life, which we all know is both hard to discern and the only one that matters." I underlined this section because I was thinking of our friend James Wood, and hoping he would maybe come across this piece and feel shamed by the succinctness and generosity of Messud's words. Then, less than a second later, I thought "Shit. Messud's father fits Wood's description of his father-in-law, except, you know, that she writes about her father respectfully and affectionately, while Wood wrote about a man who clearly (and probably rightly) made him feel like a small man in big, "New Yorker" fiction critic, shoes. So I did what James Wood does every Sunday morning, sitting in his bath robe and flannel underwear in his office with the door locked, that is, furiously Googling himself. Turns out, James Wood is married to Claire Messud. The man Wood belittles is the father Messud (at least seems to) venerate.

I finished the piece, the father passes away. My email to Wood, which I wrote months ago by now, asking him to explain to me why he wrote and published that essay, goes still unanswered.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Great Expectations

Since the last time I wrote here Koch and I left work one Friday night, got into our car with the cats, and drove 29 hours to Brooklyn.

Actually, I just made it sound like something we might have done on a whim. Not so. Lots of planning went into this trip. Planning like failing to have a job in the city lined up when we arrived. Planning like not having a place of our own and instead invading Dad's swanky apartment, which, by the way, is 100% anti-cat. Here's a concise list of acts of feline mischief achieved in the two and a half weeks we've been here : one broken saucer, one broken full-length mirror, two broken blinds, one orchid knocked over (I cleaned this up before Dad got home. He will only learn about this if he reads my blog as much as he claims to.) Several paintings knocked over, put right, and knocked over again. One vase full of water knocked over. Thousands of claw sharpenings on the couch. Millions of litter particles tracked throughout a once-sparkling apartment. Trillions of cat hairs deposited here and there, most likely by Claudius, who likes his living space to be lightly coated in his detritus.

But I digress. What I really wanted to write about is the car trip. Before we left, Koch and I asked ourselves the question we are constantly asking ourselves: "How can we better ourselves during this road trip?" 29 hours is a lot of time to sit in a sedan listening to the same Swedish pop albums over and over again. So we took ourselves to the miserly books-on-tape section of our friendly local Barnes and Noble. Koch wanted "The Odyssey." I said, "Fuck that. I've already read it, anyway." I said "A Game of Thrones". Here's why, before you jump to any conclusions: I'd made the mistake of hanging out with two geeky librarians from work whose superhero names are "Awesome Mormon Guy" and "Fan-Fic Girl Who Is Pretty Okay". Together they are currently uniting their superpowers to organize a George R.R. Martin exhibition for next year and I figured I should get on the bandwagon before it left without me. Anyway, Koch is impervious to all these ridiculous circumstances and also said "Fuck that" to my choice. So we met somewhere in the middle of Homer's epic and science fiction's newest darling and bought Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations," read by Frank Muller.

Now, driving from College Station, TX to Brooklyn, NY takes 29 hours if you're driving a black 2004 Ford Taurus hooked up to U-Haul's second smallest trailer. You can only speed so much before the transmission overheats and you're somewhere in the middle of Alabama, and the closest thing to civilization is a Klansmen gathering going on in a nearby field. Fortunately, we didn't speed and none of this happened to us. We're not completely stupid.

On the other hand, reading "Great Expectations" out loud while doing all the voices takes a measly 15.75 hours. To be honest I can't remember what we listened to the remaining fourteen hours. Mostly it was cats meowing so piteously we got worried their hearts were actually about to explode. (They didn't.) But once we put on Frank Muller reading about Pip and Estella and Miss Havisham, the cats quieted down and listened intently, usually with their eyes closed, probably in deep concentration. Whenever a CD ended and there was brief silence, they'd start howling at us to put it back on, quick! Meow Meow Meow! Then Muller would come back on and they'd shut the fuck up again.

So what I'm trying to say is my cats are smarter than I thought. Even when they leave their shit just outside the cat box, I can remind myself, at least they like Dickens. And so should you.

The cats enjoying great literature. The net (it's actually a hammock) was hung up to keep them from going into the front seat and falling asleep on the gas pedal.