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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...

Thursday, October 31, 2013


“Speak until the dust settles in the same specific place.” – James Vincent McMorrow

James Vincent McMorrow has a voice that will break your heart. A strange falsetto that will linger in that lofty, unknown register for longer than you’d like. His debut album, Early in the Morning, was a favorite of mine in 2011. It is an album very much rooted in the folk tradition: anthemic choruses, confessional lyrics, and of course that voice. And yet, there is a quality to his music that provides various layers of listening and reveals manifold influences. We Don’t Eat and Down the Burning Ropes find extra strength with the addition of the chorus, and they also use the ostinato note that is most common in Jazz and R&B. Could you not just as easily lay an electronic beat under these songs to compliment the repetitive rhythms and notes?

With this in mind, I was delighted to hear Cavalier from McMorrow’s forthcoming album, Post Tropical (out on Vagrant Records, January 2014). The sobering sentiment of his music remains the same, but the banjo and acoustic guitar have been shelved for electronic layering and smooth soul sounds. Is that also brass I hear triumphing along with his falsetto at the end of the song? Comparisons to James Blake, D’Angelo, and perhaps even Jamie Woon are sure to arise. I can't help but hear even earlier sounds as well - sounds similar to those I grew up with. Synthesized, beat-driven, often sentimental ‘soft rock’ from the late 70’s and early 80’s. If his cover of Higher Love was any indication, I might be inclined to listen to McMorrow’s track along with the likes of early Steve Winwood or Phil Collins. And I’m certain I wasn’t the first to notice the album art for Post Tropical and it’s resemblance to Christopher Cross’ 1979 album. Flamingos unite.
In anticipation of the full Post Tropical album, I like to listen to Cavalier as inherently attributed to earlier music forms, deepened by modern soul and R&B influences, but driven further forward by rapt attention to what's come before. An understanding of (and perhaps even a tribute to) this landscape has allowed him to put notes to a boarder picture, and create a singular sound for himself.

Let’s talk about the video which is cavalier in and of itself. I heard the song before I played the video and though I didn’t expect a naked McMorrow singing soulfully from a dark empty room, I’m not certain I was expecting such a soulful song to elicit such a tragic, story-driven scene. The video is directed by Aoife McArdle, a Northern Ireland native and director/writer. She attributes most of her visual inspiration to writing and this attention to narrative is apparent in her work. The story opens at the proper beginning - the middle - with a feverish attempt at forgetting. Settings are born from the most lonesome of night spaces – a strip club, bars, bathroom, laundry mat, convenience store, and a nearly vacant bus. As if this insalubrious nighttime were a burial ground for a love story. But similar to that tale they always told us about the cream in the milk, so too will the sadness of memory rise to the top. I remember my first love.


It’s clear that McMorrow should not be pegged as a folk artist. There’s a genre-blending here that leaves me rapt for what other sounds might emerge from his new record. But if one thing is woven throughout his repertoire, it’s a sense of sweet lamentation, the loss of an idea or some fond love -and all I hear throughout is a beautiful, Irish Caoineadh song. I remember my first love.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Every Love Story is a Ghost Story"

"Every Love Story is a Ghost Story." 
- David Foster Wallace

This is not a ghost story. It is a figure, hazy like an apparition before me, moving with meaning and speaking in voices familiar. As real and warm as flesh, and yet somehow unanchored to anything at this present hour. Faceless, at least in recollection, but I take more assurance in sound than shapes. Why is it that ghost stories are always told in hushed voices, in dimly lit spaces? A feeling of intimacy so notional that fear is inspired before visions make themselves known. Perhaps it's not the presence of something foreign, but the absence of something certain that breeds fear. Upon taking past moments to mind, I find them so slippery and ephemeral that they are a vision more feared than any real or retold haunting. This is not a ghost story, it's just a memory.

I am fascinated by how we are intrinsically drawn to themes and motifs of language, whether conscious or unconscious. It's no surprise that the supernatural is a theme that prevails in current and popular art forms in many ways; it seems you can't have a modern love story without a blood-hungry vampire, or a survival guide that doesn't involve running from a zombie. Cover your veins and watch your back, these are creatures that deal with the most fearsome subjects - love and mortality. But what about the quieter, more evasive presences? Taking a recent delve into my musical repitoire, I found myself to be haunted by ghosts at every turn. Song titles, albums, subtle references, reoccurring themes. What is the source of this unsettling?

This got me thinking about ghosts as a modern artistic and literary motif. In literature ghosts appear in Greek tragedy and with abundance in Shakespeare, haunting the pages of Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III. In Macbeth, Banquo moves through crowded rooms, but is visible only to the eyes of Macbeth himself. In Hamlet, the ghost of the King appears early on the scene and changes the mental and physical course of the landscape that lies ahead; it is he who convinces Hamlet to seek revenge on King Claudius. Many of our modern stories are built on the shoulders of these tales. Then the Victorian era begot the quintessential ghost story, a blend of folklore and twisted psychology meant to inspire fear and terror. The emergence of Spiritualism and Freudian psychoanalysis led to deeper, darker provocations of the human mind and the supernatural was not only a topic of parlor conversations but prominent in literature and the arts.

Many decades later, the post-modern era shows a strong return to this Victorian gothic sensibility; ghosts haunt every turn. But before writing this off as simply neo-gothic, we should consider this haunting as a vital part of post-modern thought, and a fragment of our current zeitgeist. The ghost that I've encountered in modern music and text provides a single and profound psychological haunting. These are not ghosts that change the shape of plot lines, cause death, or induce terror. They reveal an unexpected presence, but it's more of the mind and less of the body - a dissonance between time and space, a confusion of memory. A dusty visitation from the past, a longing for something other than the present moment, an elegy to a lover long forgotten.

Each story is so wrought with longing, I couldn't help but think of the phrase attributed to David Foster Wallace, "every love story is a ghost story." In an article written by Wallace's biographer, D.T. Max questions the evolution of the phrase itself, perhaps not even originally ascribed by Wallace. The conclusion itself seems ghostlike: "hard to trace pathways" reveal little - maybe he penned it, maybe he didn't. I was also particularly struck by Max's mention of Weltschmerz. In a generation so defined by familiarity with media, a continual influx of information, and the domination of digital technologies, it's strange to come across the presence of something so dim and nebulous as the ghost. Perhaps in a word so hyper-defined, longing is all that's left. The resurgence of the ghost motif reminds us that the physical world is incapable of transcending that of the mind, or more deeply - the emotional subconscious. Even in our current environment, the most terrifying and transfixing of topics are not those that we can conjure, but those that we can't. Memory, dust, love, longing, and some unspoken whisper that reminds us that what we're touching will never rival what we're longing for. This is not a ghost story, it's just a memory.

For your listening pleasure I've complied a Spotify playlist with some haunting tunes that I will continue to add to, please feel free to make suggestions as well: Ghosts.  And yes it does include The Tony Rich Project. You're welcome. I've also included some of my favorite tracks below. Listen and be haunted.

Typhoon, Ghost Train
"You only move when I give chase, when I catch you, you dissipate."

Lord Huron, Ghost on the Shore

"Die if I must let my bones turn to dust
I'm the lord of the lake and I don't want to leave
All who sail off the coast ever more
Will remember the tale of the ghost on the shore."

Sanders Bohlke, Ghost Boy

"With our TV and radio friends, 
we colored our names in with permanent black pens, 
in momentary sentiments."

Black Rebel Motocycle Club, Some Kind of Ghost
"Oh oh oh sweet lord come home, 
Don't feel some kind of ghost."