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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Falling Faster Than You Can Run

It goes a little bit like this...

Arrive at coffee shop. Dance with your decision to order coffee or tea since it will be the second cup of the morning. Wonder if it's actually caffeine that incites jumpy hands and a wandering mind, or just the weight of time. Think about True Detective's treatment of time and Sunday's penultimate episode. Time is a flat circle, you know. Realize it's your turn to order. Panic order a latte and bagel with cream cheese, which was never a part of the plan. Request extra cream cheese. Because, why not?

Realize there are no available seats with easy access to a power plug-in. Feel sadness, or something similar, about your inability to remember to keep your devices charged. Look at your phone. 21% and waning. Unpack your bag of tricks anyway. Computer, phone, headphones, book, second book (as if you might finish the first book in a day's work); beloved Pilot pen. See how many windows you can actually open on Google Chrome. Tweet something random. Get lost on Twitter. Read this. Think it's fantastic. Experience a fantasy daydream moment about the pulitzer prize. The image on the medal itself - how hard he must be pulling on the vestige of some ancient dream, about to fall.

Watch people - the way they move, the way they move when they know they are being watched - the way they like it, the way they don't. Realize time is waning just like your phone battery. Write a few sentences. Get distracted and then lost on a really weird Tumblr for longer than can accurately be admitted. Think about words. Yearn for your headphones to play your music even louder - the full consumption water gives when invading underwater ears. Get lost on Spotify; wonder why people don't use the private session feature more often. They should. 

Turn music even louder to drown out ladies who have weekday coffee dates sitting next to you. Turn down the music to listen to their Oscar recap. They loved Philomena and thought Lupita's dress was too low-cut since she's flat chested; so upsetting that Ellen would joke about Liza, just where was George Clooney? Sometimes people surprise you, sometimes they don't. Music turned back up for ├ôlafur Arnalds Living Room Songs. Swear you can feel it move from the middle of you and then outwards; sensations like the edges of fire or something more destructive. Think about the book sitting behind your computer. John Cheever, that Chekhovian storyteller of the suburbs - the doormen of the the Upper East Side, the illuminated houses in Connecticut suburbs where dark nights and long days reveal gin-soaked swimmers and the ghost of some summer’s past.

Vintage Cheever, Collected Stories

Feel hungry, but realize it’s an excuse to walk away. The stories we tell ourselves in procrastination or panic are far more survivalist than any real urge to feed or feel. Wonder if it's possible to create and remain invulnerable. See someone you know through the window; freeze in motion while you wonder if you should duck or wave. Press your back against the glass in hopes it might embrace or destroy you, a cool and terrifying illusion. Pray for silence, turn up the music until it hurts your ears. Take the final sip of cold coffee. Should have gotten tea. At some point in your Spotify session, rediscover Nathaniel Rateliff’s album, Falling Faster Than You Can Run. Realize (again) vulnerability is the point. Listen to the album multiple times. Make note in margin: running will do you no good, I'm going to fall, and probably should. Turn back to words. 
Falling Faster Than You Can Run
Mod y Vi Records

“A writer can be seen clumsily learning to walk, to tie his necktie, to make love, and to eat his peas off his fork. He appears much alone and determined to instruct himself. Naive, provincial in my case, sometimes drunk, sometimes obtuse, almost always clumsy, even a selected display of one’s early work will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.”
John Cheever - Preface, The Stories of John Cheever

Monday, January 6, 2014

Retrograde: A Return to Previous Themes

I suppose I should count it as propitious that I did not resolve to be timely this year. It's six days into the new year and I have to yet to fully grasp just what occurred in 2013. Not for lack of hunger or thirst, but for reticence to abbreviate and surmise. In some ways it was a cruel year, tragic and not without tempestuous clouds, but it was also a year of high notes - cultural fortitude and the undercurrent of some renaissance. Even if that's wishful thinking eventually we must always reprise to a previous theme, and it seems long overdue...

In 2013 we worshiped in CHVRCHES, praised Yeezus, and understood the bloodthirst of the Weekend vampire. Lourde told us we'll never be Royals, but baby George and the directionally confused demigod disagree. Some Twerk'ed or watched along as young entertainers sought infamy, or moments thereof, via public acts of absurdity. Actions without intention or cultural reference (even when misunderstood) are of the worst kind. We reveled in the bang of the onscreen apocalypse. Walter White went out with a whisper, as Jesse drove screaming into wild freedom. (Spoiler alert kids: he was definitely arrested one mile down the road, right?) Netflix forever changed the landscape of television consumption. Orange (and television binge-viewing) became the new black. Frank Underwood sauntered onscreen via stage left, soliloquist; reminiscent of some tragic, bloodied Scottish general. Reprise. Even in politics little was spared: secrets were leaked, the government went on vacation, and we lost many great minds including our South African, peaceful warrior.

In contemplation of the previous year and in anticipation for time still to come, I will share some of my personal highlights of the 2013 cultural landscape. They are not necessarily my critical tops, but they are pieces that continue to resonate with me. As I am perched in 2014 and ruminating on 2013, I find my first choice of song, Retrograde, very fitting.

Tune of the Year: Retrograde
Retrograde by James Blake is just plain sexy. Though Blake has created some controversy for himself by drawing a line in the dubstep sand, he is irrevocably talented and this sophomore album is so delightfully textured and full of the sounds that make him such a compelling artist: R&B, dubstep (the right kind), electronic, gospel, and solo piano. The beginning vocal loop could be the only thing on the track and it would still be the sexiest thing this year. Get into it.

Album of the Year: White Lighter, Typhoon
Originally, I thought of 2013 as the year of the female voice. From Lucius to Daughter to Haim to POLICA - all the sounds I kept returning to were female. But there was nothing else quite like Typhoon's White Lighter. A band comprised of eleven members - including female vocals and harmonies - Typhoon is more an orchestra than a band after all. Their heavy, full, sometimes clamorous sound is textured and rich and then literally collapses into reflective refrain. All of this is guided by Kyle Morton's lyrical storytelling. After a few listens you will see that in both sound and theme it is a concept album that tackles the arc of youth: growing older, gaining awareness and facing the strange and often noxious trials that rise out of that passage.

Documentary: The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Tell directed by Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz) was perhaps one of the most staggering, profoundly human pieces of art that I came across this year. Polley sets out to uncover family secrets and unbind the myths of her family's collective voices into one true narrative, but the story itself takes a hold of the feature and twists the genre into something else entirely. I will not spoil the film's most delicate surprise, which is not what it seems at all. It is deeply personal, permanently stained with nostalgia and so entirely human. Sarah's deft storytelling, immutable search for the truth, and Michael Polley's narrative carry the film through the twists and turns of a naturally messy history. In the end stories are just the lies we tell ourselves, are humans themselves are often are the most resounding anecdotes that can be imagined.

"When you're in the middle of a story, it isn't a story at all but rather a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard are powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you're telling it to yourself or someone else."

Fiction: Tenth of December, George Saunders
This short story collection will make you feel; really feel. Feel so much that you laugh and cry at the same time; you wonder how language, having come so far, can still seem so imaginative and absolutely bizarre. Though Saunder's crafts strange worlds that appear like science fiction, the absurdity itself is that these worlds and their idioms are not so far from our current human condition. It is often vast and devastating within his dark landscapes, there is still a sense of humanity and shameless humor that is not to be missed. Read this book.

Television Series: Masters of Sex
It was a strange, but good year for television; still much was clouded by the haze of Walter's blue crystals. It was a finale seen round the world and to me was a bit lacking (but that's another story). For new debuts I loved the first season of Sundance's Rectify, which has been renewed for 2014, and I am slowly digesting Jane Campion's weird and wonderful Top of the Lake on Netflix. House of Cards, of course.
But the standout for me was Master's of Sex. The strength of acting, the simultaneous restraint and immodest hungriness, and the deftly told scientific history make it a very compelling series. Every character is round and full enough to carry the show itself, and bare enough to leave you breathless. I must admit something though...I haven't seen the whole first season. Having binge watched as many possible episodes over the holidays I'm still a few episodes behind the season finale. Perhaps like the show's subject matter itself, the near anticipation of the finale has kept me in wanting. Good art models the very arc of the emotions it hopes to elicit.

Scene Stealer: Miles Teller
For years I've been wishing that we could recreate young John Cusack and keep making heartbreaking but funny coming of age movies. Talk fast, love hard, and hold that boombox so good. Thanks for listening universe.

Movie: Breathe In
I've intentionally chosen a movie I think was overlooked and only really ran on the film festival circuit. There were many beautiful films last year, but this is one that perhaps you haven't seen. Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) tells stories the way you might recall them in your mind: as a visitor - with slow reluctance, memories flooding like water, music telling the tempo, and strange emotions extracted. Performances by Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones, and Amy Ryan were strong and heartbreaking. The score by Dustin O'Halloran is so deftly felt it adds another presence to the film; it has also found a permanent home in my music rotation. Breathe In is best viewed through the lens and weight of a short story; breathe in, but don't be prepared to breathe out just yet.

Come Back Kid: Jay Gatsby
Oh sweet Jay. What can I say? I will spare you my thoughts on The Great Gatsby itself (Baz Luhrmann's version, I could write another novel about the novel itself), but I can't resist delving into a literary character revival. Jay Gatsby. The romantic, the great tragic hero, the essence of the American Dream and it's eventual disillusion. It's a story and character we romanticize, an inherent part of our natural American landscape; book sales skyrocketed this year under the imminence of the the movie release. Gatsby was first revived in film by Robert Redford (in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola) in 1974 and then again last year by Leonardo DiCaprio (Luhrmann). The story, and Gatsby himself, is perhaps the ultimate warning against retrograde - eternally moving backwards towards a girl, goal, a point, a green light.

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning--"

You know the rest, or at least you should.*

*In case you were sleeping in English class. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Memorable Shelving: The Maytrees and The Lowland

I know people that are very particular about their bookshelves, fanatically so. For those particularly bound to the stories they read, it can become a very heavy task – not just a stowing away – but a finding of refuge for something that once read becomes a part of your emotional memory and intellectual framework. How does one go about that?

Imagine a bookshelf where Homer rests heavily upon Kafka, or Franzen rubs bindings with Austen. Hempl stacked upon Palahniuk, supported by Descartes. How unsettling to find Shakespeare nestled amongst the Naturalists. Actually, Shakespeare might rest upon anything most comfortably. And then, there is Joyce and Stephen King pressed together, reticent.

Every time I go to put away a book I’ve finished, I too can understand the thirst for classification, a thoughtful tidiness. Thinking about unlikely pairings is quite fun actually. It allows for the birth of a compelling literary argument, to let certain stories lie down together. To what extent do the stories collide, or diverge so aggressively? We might even find that some would surprise us with their similar stories, a similar feel.

I read two books this past month in a fever dream of words. Perhaps because of time, but mostly because of their arresting language, setting, and similar themes they will forever resonate with me as pairing. Two books I could shelve together and rest assuredly at their placement, sounding the same as they roll off my tongue: Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees and Jhumpha Lahiri’s The Lowland.

The Maytrees was published in 2007 and is one of two fiction works by Dillard. It is slight in size, but full of what some have described as mysterious and arcane language and thoughtful, heavy themes on love and marriage. The Lowland was published this year (nominated for the National Book Award) and tells the multi-generational tale of two Indian brothers, born just a few minutes apart, but living separate existences in Calcutta and America. From any angle these may seem like two very different books, and don’t misunderstand that they are indeed, very different. But in their essence they are love stories (aren’t they all somehow?). They are love stories wrought from the bonds of brotherhood, marriage, and progeny – bound or broken by the common act of desertion. This desertion, whether decided by will or by some dire providence, alters the course of both narratives and we come to endure with those left behind. Their will for survival, the things that are done to understand or to harbor, and mostly the things that are done for the people that they love. Both stories follow the arch of the inevitable – change and aging and death – but what endues is the heaviest theme: love’s great cruelty is that it does not allow for forgetfulness.

A setting, the sea

Both stories are born in the lowest of lands, close to the flatness of the sea. The quiet, coastal aesthetic lends a balance to the tempo of the narratives, and yet at the heart of each story the tide measures out each coming sea change – a reminder that underneath quiet waters there are always movements we are not privy to.

The Maytrees is set in Provincetown: “what still seems antiquity’s surface…that exposed and mineral sandspit” – where Lou and Toby Maytree first fall in love – developing their own syncopated rhythm, learning to speak a delicate language at once their own. The sea is always a quiet third party within their marriage, a marking of intimacy and foretelling of storms, even until the very end: “here came sneaking the tide. Its raised rims caught star light that streaked along the beach like lighted eels.”

The Lowlands begins and ends near a flooded plain outside of a Calcutta neighborhood. But one of the brothers, Subash, relocates to Providence, Rhode Island for his PhD program. It is there that he becomes surrounded by the ocean: his oceanography campus overlooking the Narragansett Bay, a frequent visitor to the beach front under the Newport Bridge, and as compass to his surroundings: “Opening the door, he saw that the tide was in. The sky was bright, the ocean clam. No sign, apart from all the seaweed that had washed like empty nests up on the sand, of the storm there had been.”

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea

An act, the desertion

Desertion is the common theme that pervades these novels. It's no matter really if desertion comes by decision or divinity. Do these differ so much to the one that’s left behind?

For Lou Maytree it is an undoing – an attempt at extricating something long embedded within her skin. A relearning, for newness always requires some sense of retreat: “She would have the rest of her life to pace lost ground.” And yet, when she and their son, Petie, are asked to reopen themselves it happens with such quick, innate understanding that one would imagine that nothing was ever lost at all.

For Subash in The Lowland it is an undertaking – an attempt at salvation through understanding. Some part of him made more whole by seeking the beloved assets of his fellow. Gauri was never his, nor was she meant to be. He is seemingly made whole by the arrival of his daughter, Bela, but even that alliance is a rickety assemblage.

For Gauri it is indoctrination – the only way that she can rectify herself against remembering. Throwing herself into philosophy – chasing time –and through it coming into a treaty with herself: “Guari’s mind had saved her. It has enabled her to stand upright. It had cleared a path for her.”

For Bela it is a betrayal – made ripe in her childhood and then again, as she faces the possibility of her own progeny, she is made privy to the evolution of her own lineage. One memory that she cannot forget, one that she will never know.

An end, memory remains

In the end, it is Lou and Udyan that we hear from; the deserters. It is not their fault that their narratives in absentia so greatly affect the tides of the rest. This is the way a love story so quickly brushes up against, and makes its bed with loss and separation. For nothing that is once given, can so easily be taken away. To forget: that kind of theft would be too merciful for something that was once so consuming. How easy to recall the figure of a departed spouse, to relive a childhood memory of brotherhood adventures, how simple to summon the profile of a mother you have tried to forget, how effortless to return to intimacy. Gestures are just the shadows of relearned memories that we will always be accustomed to; they will survive longer than anyone.

A shelving, a final note

I have tried to make the discussion of storyline vague in this reading so that you will be moved to read these beautiful books. Please do. Read them today, or tomorrow, or take all of next year. I will not forget the way they, together, consumed me. Above all, I walked away with a feeling: and a terrible, but tender perch from which to discern memory.
We are elastic, or so we long to be. Bound permanently to time, but so wiling to test the restrictions of that stretch: for love, for nostalgia, for our offspring, even for the brevity of a thrill. How helpless we must look against providence, but how we kick and scream and wail and curse and fight and moan and sweat against it. In the end, when we are less elastic or tired of the stretch itself, we will revel in memory like it’s sustenance, survival. It probably is. If not, pray for amnesia. 

Now, back to where to shelve these books...