June held room for fewer books than I’ve been reading lately, yet somehow the individual reviews ended up being a lot longer, maybe because I was ruminating in preparation. But hey, if you don’t wanna read ’em then DON’T. This is for the curious. Here they are:
A General Theory of Oblivion – José Eduardo Agualusa
7.5 / 10
A heartening intersection of African lit and the always-on-point publishing house Archipelago, AGTO was translated from the original Portuguese and has since been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. Brought to you from Luanda, it is the story of an agoraphobic Portuguese woman (Ludo) who, along with her sister and brother-in-law, moves to Luanda just before the Angolan War of Independence. After the latter two disappear, Ludo blockades herself in the apartment – for good. Interwoven with this are the stories of a Portuguese army captain, a case of mistaken identity, a dog named Phantom, and a fate-heavy pigeon. This is a book of bizarre, completely unbelievable coincidences that, far from feeling contrived, are so simple and elegant that they render the question of mere belief far beside the point. It’s lovely prose, and one could read it as a light story were there not so much weight behind each event, each object, each character. Really, I would say more about this, but it’s one to simply sit down and enjoy.
The Red Parts – Maggie Nelson
7 / 10
I’m a reluctant Maggie Nelson fan. I can’t really describe why. She’s everywhere, and it’s kind of annoying. She’s a little pretentious. She’s a little more-pc-than-thou. At least that’s what I thought when The Argonauts came out last year, when I was still working in a bookstore. Sales were constant and we kept it on display for months. Eventually I read it – begrudgingly, though. I read a bookstore copy at work, half-hidden behind the computer at customer info. I wouldn’t buy it. Too trendy. About halfway through, I was no longer deluding myself that mere snide curiosity was driving me. Maggie Nelson has the rare combination of being a maximalist, a freewheeling thinker, while also possessing extreme precision and incisiveness. (Argonauts could be a whole other discussion, but if you’ve heard of Nelson, you’ve undoubtedly heard of that title.) Maybe I was just jealous, after all.
I selected The Red Parts while searching for something to read aloud to my near-blind grandmother, which I did over the course of several sessions (a selection based on her obsession with True Crime, and mine with good writing, though imho too rarely the twain do meet… A description of how surreal this experience was will have to wait for another time). The book discusses the Forensic Files-esque trial surrounding the murder of Nelson’s aunt, a murder that happened more than thirty years prior to the trial or the writing of the book, and that was reopened due to a DNA match in the era of biological evidence. Oddly, Nelson had at the time of the trial just finished a manuscript entitled Jane, a series of poems dealing with the murder and with Jane herself. (Seriously, you couldn’t make this shit up.) And in true Nelson fashion, she discusses the trial every which way – the gory photographs shown to the jury; quotes from the detective on the case; the specter of violence overhanging a family (she thinks) marked for doom; her own father’s death; the biological probabilities relating to DNA evidence; the sexualization of murder; the likelihood that a certain 4-year-old can be placed at murder scene. It’s a slim volume and a quick read, but it’s certainly not cursory or evasive, and (as with many of her other books) could just as easily belong to five or six literary categories. Nelson always leaves me with the teasing notion of just how vast any given thought has the potential to become, and the unpretentious, comforting idea that ‘interdisciplinary’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s solid yet palatable work. Read it to your grandmother.
Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl – Tiqqun
4.5 / 10
Tiqqun is a French philosophical journal (who knew?), and it is under this umbrella that Young-Girl is presented to the world. There is little to no context or even a clear statement regarding its purported aim or philosophical situation. Certainly, it has been oft-taught; however, as I’ve never been assigned it, I’m having to shoot in the dark. Therefore, this may be a little pseudo-philosophical on my part, but only because there’s very little to go on, textually. In fact, I feel a bit odd conferring a rating on this one at all, as I’m out of my depth, and as surely any cursory depiction of my own politics and reasoning will not go unpunished, but I ended assessing it simply based on my enjoyment and whether I learned from it. Enjoyment: minimal. Learning: perhaps. I rated based on enjoyment, if you couldn’t tell.
Aside from an extremely irritating propensity towards excessive hyphenation, theoretical jargon, and cryptic offerings, the book is presented largely as a series of disjointed (and artily distinguished through font changes) statements and observations. For instance: “The Young-Girl confirms the psychological import of consumer semiocracy.” Or: “New breasts for my 18th birthday.” That’s all we get. In fact, many of these text-chunks are less than thought-provoking, too easy to agree with. Who would disagree with an attempt to disembowel human commodification by modern culture and capitalist enterprise? My main actually cogent complaint would be that it’s somewhat difficult to take seriously an examination of a single category of existence in the face of intersectional academia; though the Young-Girl can supposedly be anyone, we readers –shockingly! – picture her as a young white female for most of the book.
Perhaps the most poignant sound bite I found that allowed me to situate anything within this book was the snippet: “the Young-Girl always-already lives as a couple, that is, she lives with her image” (59). Instantly, an essay of John Berger’s appearing in his art world classic, Ways of Seeing, came to mind (essay #3). Berger states of the artistic nude, and of portraiture in general: “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female.” In this way, “she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.” I’d have to submit that Berger has said it better, and more applicably.
None of this is too new or too thorough, and I’m a bit glad I don’t know the precise magnitude of all I’m surely leaving out. But Young-Girl, though it taxed my patience, was mercifully brief, and poses at least some intriguing stuff I’d love to have explained to me by a curious reader with greater intellectual resources. For now, I’ll gladly maintain my standoffish distance wrt philosophy.
One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway – Åsne Seierstad
7.5 / 10
The big bite I took this month, One of Us is the story of an obscene horror told from the inside. Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist better known (though not by me) for her foreign and war correspondence, takes a look at Breivik, a few of his victims, and what that may have led to the infamous act of domestic terrorism in Norway in 2011.
Seierstad herself states in the epilogue that she tries to adhere exclusively to the events rather than editorializing. Even the most private thoughts of the gunman, as portrayed in the book, have in some way come from his own documented words. True to this admission, the book reads like an extensive journalism piece, meticulously researched, yet told with a fairly narrative style. The events in and of themselves are so ghastly, so chokingly devastating, that Seierstad’s personal reaction interwoven with them might be too much. The Norwegian populace in general, never before exposed to such an event, seems to have found the event completely unbearable. Modern lit-god-heartthrob Karl Ove Knausgaard, himself Norwegian, admits that he cried upon hearing the news. So Seierstad’s take seems pragmatic at the least. Stick to the facts and report them. In this case, the facts speak for themselves, quite loudly.
Knausgaard’s touching admission appears in a piece for the New Yorker last year, in which he also stated of Breivik: “The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland, and Germany.” After reading One of Us, I’d say that this interpretation seems correct. Breivik, though a self-proclamed political terrorist, has much more in common with the isolated, sniveling, angry teen boys who perpetrate school shootings than with the ideological, militant members of ISIS or al Qaeda. The latter are totally absorbed by a social group; the former, totally outside of any social group. Or at least, that’s how they feel.
This take on the school-shooter essence of Breivik’s allows the application of a typically off-kilter article on school shootings put forth by Malcolm Gladwell last year (also in the New Yorker). Gladwell describes a psychological phenomenon that, he believes, may explain the almost exponentially increasing frequency of these types of attacks. He cites a well-known sociology study by Mark Granovetter, which he distills as conveying that “social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he [Granovetter] defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.” (Gladwell also mentions this study in an episode of his podcast, Revisionist History.) In a riot, for example, who throws the first rock through the storefront window? That person has a threshold of zero; they don’t need the comfort of example. Who’s next to throw a rock? How long until everybody is doing it? Similarly, massacres like these were begun, blueprinted, by people (many of whom are often cast as certifiable ‘psychopaths’) with extremely low thresholds; the rest, the vast majority, are more or less simply following suit. (The implications of this idea for the future of these attacks is, obviously, grim.)
I link both of these articles because their insights into the phenomenon of non-organized / single-perpetrator / non-ideological domestic terrorism, are enlightening to the extent that they are the baseline arguments to which I returned, again and again, while reading One of Us. Human beings crave, need human connection. Stating this may seem an obvious and oversimplified factor, but the consequences are undeniable. Loneliness as a form of disenfranchisement, especially among young men, makes a person much more susceptible to the type of phenomenon Gladwell describes. (One might even call it a Donald-Trump-effect type of disenfranchisement, similar to that so readily witnessed among white American men today – a discussion of the expectations of masculinity is for another place). As Knausgaard characterizes the prototypical shooter: “a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to ‘‘show” us.” The fundamental immaturity and disconnectedness necessary to commit such an act may in fact be primed for by modern society: violent video games, perhaps; isolation and affluence, certainly. The tipping point (I couldn’t resist) may simply be personal threshold.
Seierstad explores none of this explicitly. And one respects her for it, to a great extent. It is too easy to vilify, to speculate, to try to pin down a reason. Breivik speaks for himself, and as Knausgaard points out, the pathetic-ness of the man is seen as almost an affront to the serious devastation of his crime. Yet Breivik’s unremarkable life is a testament to the deep isolation that can affect anyone, and the quandary of inadvertently immortalizing as monsters the mere humans who carry out these devastating crimes. Seierstad’s account (and I suspect there will be many more) is an informative and balanced picture of Breivik and his victims, the events of that day, and the trial that followed. Well worth the reading investment.
Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata
5.5 / 10
Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve been working my way, slowly, through a long-overdue, self-curated list of 19th and 20th century Japanese classics. Kawabata, by all accounts, occupies an imposing space on this shelf. Snow Country, the first of his I’ve read, is the story of Shimamura, a wealthy man, and Komako, a poor geisha in a hot-spring house in (you guessed it) snow country, the mountainous western region of Japan. As the introduction states, for “the hot-spring geisha, the pretense that she is an artist and not a prostitute is often a thin one indeed.” Komako grapples with this in the face of the affections she and Shimamura share for one another. Though married, Shimamura returns again and again over the years, and watches as Komako transforms.
However, the aforementioned affections, to me, were fairly banal and nearly invisible, seemingly typical of a businessman and his favorite geisha… though to be fair, I wouldn’t really know what that relationship looks like. I am unsure as to whether the translation was simply very rough, or whether there should be an annotated edition for people unfamiliar with this time period in Japan (as far as I know, none exists). Whatever was going on between these characters as blurbed by the cover (and throngs of critics since it was published), I wasn’t getting it. Cryptic dialogue fell on unenlightened ears in this case. The interplay between Komako and another woman, Yoko, was mysterious to the point of meaning nothing. The prose is sparse and soothing, even in this translation (which for all I know may be the most heralded translation in existence). The descriptions are enticing, the surreal, if misogynist, thoughts tumbling out of Shimamura’s head are intriguing. Probably, at some point, I will read Thousand Cranes, the other supposedly indispensable Kawabata. For now, in a word, I’d just say that this one was fine.
Baho! – Roland Rugero
7 / 10
One of two books I have ever read with an exclamation point in the title, Baho! also has the distinction of being the first novel from Burundi ever translated into English (though originally in French, not Kirundi). It’s a quick read, a pleasantly small design topping out at 91 pages, another title from the LitHub list that pointed me to Blackass (as discussed last month). This find was, happily, rather more rewarding.
Baho! details the misadventure of Nyamugari, a young man, a shepherd, orphaned, and most significantly, a lifelong mute. A village has been plagued by violent crime, and rape in particular over the preceding months. When Nyamuragi gestures at a young girl about where to use the bathroom, she believes he is pantomiming rape, screams, and he covers her mouth in terror. Too late, of course; they’ve been seen and heard, and soon a vicious mob trails him across the countryside. The third-person narrative shifts between Nyamuragi, a one-eyed old herder woman watching the events from afar, and a man leading the crowd, seemingly after Nyamuragi’s blood.
This was similar to AGTO in that it is easy to enjoy and cries out to be reread. Baho! has the feel of a fable with none of the naïve sermonizing. Its adept, gentle social criticism gives depth to the broad humanism enswathing the narrative. It’s a comfort to know that books and authors like this can make it across the pond, though it happens all too rarely.
And that’s it for June. Next month: I continue my Taste of Norway and my (extremely) porous exploration of the 20th century Japanese canon. Peace and solidarity, all.