Just Shelved

My Goodreads review of Duplex, by Kathryn Davis. (3 of 5 stars)

Want to know what time folding in on itself like a noodle might feel (or at least sound) like? The prose here is striking: repetitive in a good way, in a "worlding" way as it combines artificial and natural imagery. It's the ideal strategy for this melange of speculative fiction and fairy tale fiction, for menace and innocence. I think if I read this book again, more attuned to the "hinging" of the Duplex metaphor and its overt exploration in the plot, I might inflate my star rating. As it is, I was never completely engrossed in this book, and my intermittent reading only led me to feel that I had missed a few key narrative repetitions that would have matched the richness of the telling itself.

One authorial choice that feels especially apt is the ritualistic 1950's social veneer placed on gender roles and the sameness of families sharing streets and secrets with one another. Another is the focus on girlhood and its own "preparatory" rituals--sometimes it takes something fabulist to truly peel back the insidiousness of what all this can mean. Rigid social patterns are meant to protect us from chaos, but a chaotic Universe lies across that inscrutable body of water, and in the potential of every dusk. We are within it at every moment, and that comprises the most powerful symbolism in Davis' novel.

More marginalia...

On Driving Western Roads

Was it Sacajawea buried here? All the people carrying burdens to hold over the Pacific ocean. All the ways a horse can lay down its head. Roads unfurling into what? The forests of Seussian trees; the carpets of wildflowers: resourceful, jaunty. Outside of Ennis, Montana, the foothills roll into blue real hills. The real blue hills fold into real blue sky. Big Sky. Plains and glaciers. Glaciated plains with their screes of debris. Cows roam. When did you decide on blue and gold? When did you decide on green? The road unfurls into dilapidated farms. The image of a Ford driving away down the road. The image of the first timid deer over the doorstep. And they – deer and antelope and foxes – flushing out onto roads or wandering the stalks of corn. The real cowboys with their round chew silhouettes; rubbed raw, back pocket. And you can still be born and still go to high school and still die in these places. The ladies used to come and look in consternation at the lakes, fanning. You can see where the photographers brought their plate glass and curtains thousands of feet up. A bear is above you; the sunset’s unfurling below. The sunset is a cloud threading its hand over the crags. The sunset is the ring of blood on the trees. The bones of original ancestors lie here. The Blackfeet called this the backbone of the world. Even Sacajawea was buried here. Even she. 

The Year of Living Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

--Rainer Maria Rilke

Just Shelved

Pitch DarkPitch Dark by Renata Adler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bow down to the collage novel! Long live the hybrid text!

My Love Is A Dead Arctic ExplorerMy Love Is A Dead Arctic Explorer by Paige Ackerson-Kiely
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection intrigued me and I stuck with it, though in the end, it didn't stick to my ribs or blaze through with an unforgettable line. I think the more colloquial, story-telling prose poems were the most accessible of the collection, though they, too, seemed to deliberately elude a complete grasp.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alternately helpful and discouraging meditations on writing; worth it for the portions set in the Pacific Northwest alone.

The Wheel of LoveThe Wheel of Love by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit that by the end of this large collection of stories, I was praying to myself, "please don't go crazy, please don't go crazy." Madness, obsessive thoughts, anxiety, drug use, familial death, and physical disfigurements all feature heavily in these dark pieces, all originally published by 1970. These are stories of their time, too: racial integration, counterculture in conflict with suburbia, trapped housewives, the decline of Detroit.

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is by far the most famous story here, and it's really not overrated, in my opinion. I would group it among the most perfect, unsettling short stories written in the past 100 years. It's a distinctly American classic. Another classic would be "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Corrections and Began My Life Over Again." Love and sexuality loom as disruptive forces for the men and women of these stories, especially the women. Characters are paralyzed in adulterous hell or transfixed in moments of despair over a life that stretches predictably ahead. On the other side, those who choose the bohemian way fare no better. They are flying dangerously free, unmoored and despised.

Oates' stories depict a culture at a crossroads and railing within it. The smoothness of artistic production can be ripped apart by the intrusion of the other. The burden of performing personality is a sentence of permanent psychic anxiety.

From a stylistic standpoint, these are also worthwhile fictional experiments. Rather than conventional plots, many of the stories in this collection rely on snapshots in time of the same character. Sometimes, they are told backward. Sometimes, groupings of experience and advancing psychological states are captured beneath obtuse or leading subject headings. I enjoyed this organizational ingenuity and the way Oates' distinctive prose lingers on mental states and character impressions. Nothing is described dispassionately; in contrast, everything is experienced as intense, jarring, and grating on the senses. This technique does a good job in creating unease for the reader and illuminating the interiors of Oates almost uniformly troubled characters.

This was my first time reading Oates at length, but I definitely would like to read more of her fiction. I feel after completing The Wheel of Love that I've experienced that time period more viscerally than I have before.

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Green Vibrations

I am thinking over a phrase of Annie Dillard's this morning, encountered in her collection of meditations on writing, appropriately titled The Writing Life. "There is no shortage of good days," she writes. "It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading -- that is a good life."

It's an uncomfortably wise insight. Although I have never confused sensation-seeking with writerly preparation, it has nevertheless been an underlying motivator in many things I have done. I always feel an anxiety about missing things, or allowing experiences to remain undiscovered. In Jackson, it is some mythical canyon that haunts me: somehow obscure and crystalline; a field of wildflowers where no one is walking; a view from so high, that as I wrote once, "I can feel the cold on my eyes." Other places, it is about the potential of art, the potential of hitting just the right point of intoxication on food or wine, the potential that some person hides behind one of many turned shoulders, and that person has keys to unlock any number of things. It's what leaves me hungrily scanning the walls of cathedrals, looking for the original, homely paintwork, obsessed with even the humblest joints of the ceilings. I'd hate to think I missed it.

I think my assumption has always been that these moments of beauty will accrete, one layer of sand to the next, to make my soul altogether something fine and glittering, honed carefully and curated as I go. And yet, I often write so little of it. Why, I wonder.

Summer is upon us now, with its exquisite songbirds and trails, cleared at last of snow. In mid-May, it seemed that all the aspens and cottonwoods turned green at once. I thought of it as a susurration of some kind, completely undetectable to human ears, but nevertheless communicating spring through the groves, vibrating the landscape into a new incarnation of being. The green was so new; the operation itself so delicate. A miracle was gifted in a day, but a quotidian miracle, too, happening each May in a sudden sweep. And then summer. And then the sun and the obstinate eggshell blue.

It is a time of golden water in the evenings, and green trees etched in gold around it. The yellow of balsamroot flowers and the sentinels of violet lupine and monk's hood. Baby elk, tremulous on newly-jointed legs; a rather fat and pleased-with-himself marmot, like a caricature of an English friar; a miniscule duck who fed at the edge of a quiet stream, buoyantly bobbing up after each quarry.

A hard thing it is, to revise, when all of this is happening outside. The outdoors are a constant imprecation to leave the room and abandon the work. That mythical canyon taunts like a mirage. But ho hum,  another chance to gather strength and plug along anyway. To remember the life of the spirit. So many moments of muster, and then finally, I write about this color of green at last, and let go of that last nagging sensation, returning concentration to where it ought to be.