What I Read in October

November 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman. I bought this book at a local bookshop after enjoying Bergman’s first collection of stories, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a couple of years ago. The “almost famous women” here are real people noted for their daring and adventuresome spirit whose stories exist (certainly unfairly) on a step below most popular, male-dominated historical narratives. These fictional stories place each of these women in a dynamic new frame.

I hadn’t heard of most of them, such as motorcycle daredevil Hazel Eaton (1895-1970), featured in the story “Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death,” or British power boat racer Marion ‘Joe’ Carstairs (1900-1993), who bought the island of Whale Cay in the Bahamas after her retirement to host celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich (“The Siege at Whale Cay”). I had heard of African-American film actress ‘Butterfly’ McQueen (1911-1995), who played the maid Prissy in Gone With the Wind but wasn’t allowed in the all-white theater to watch the premiere, but not of her decision, as an atheist, to donate her organs to science, which she did after she burned to death following the explosion of a kerosene lamp (“Saving Butterfly McQueen”).

These real, capsuled lives essentially work as prompts for Bergman, and as with many prompt-written stories they take liberties of projection, extrapolating the minutiae of a life from what biographical information is known:

It’s only when she’s afraid that she second-guesses her decision, and it’s only when she second-guesses her decisions that she thinks of her daughter, Beverly, who lives in Vermont with Hazel’s mother.

Am I a terrible person for giving her up?

“I’m cold,” she says, but her face is bandaged and she can only moan. She tries to rub her arms, but maybe one of them is broken, and then she’s out again, riding a morphine high into nothingness.

Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon. All of my favorite rock bands flourished in the nineties, and now all of them (and I mean pretty much all of them) are having twenty-year reunions. Sonic Youth was an eighties band, and as such they were the band that was already doing the kinds of things your favorite band didn’t have the adventure spirit to do. They had a grown-up, seen-it-all-before vibe going on. They played long songs with wild guitar riffs. They ripped out surf instrumentals. They created moods and ruled scenes.

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were the power couple that was doing it right when Kurt and Courtney were doing it tragically. For a while I rented an apartment only a few blocks from Gordon and Moore’s home in Northampton, Mass., and though I never saw them myself, I heard about people spotting Moore walking their dog on the bike trail. People’s kids knew their daughter. I could remember when she was born because I had read about it in Spin magazine.

Gordon and Moore separated in 2011, and while that event is not meant to be the culmination of her memoir of a life of New York and rock ‘n roll, Gordon gets the explanations out of the way early: their marriage ended in about the most banal, un-rock ‘n roll way possible, with Moore seeing another woman—essentially a groupie—and Gordon confronting him after discovering a revealing text message.

She writes with a wise edge, with six decades of life behind her, cooler things to worry about than being cool. She touches just enough upon her family life, in particular her schizophrenic older brother, but the juice oozes out of the apple when she and Moore move to New York City. It was there, in Greenwich Village, that they formed Sonic Youth, and Gordon quite organically surrounded herself with a coterie of urban artists each with their own unique cachet: Cindy Sherman, Larry Gagosian, Jenny Holzer, Gerhard Richter.

The middle of the book has a perfunctory feel as Gordon devotes a chapter to each of Sonic Youth’s albums, giving her recollection of the obsessions and ambitions that went behind the writing. The best parts come when she digresses. There is a gradual understanding, given away by the title, that Gordon’s role as a girl in a band puts her in a rare position of not only embracing but recreating her own ambitions out of the sexuality that her chosen genre is designed and marketed to sell.

I remember staring endlessly at the books lining the walls of my dad’s study as a little girl. I didn’t know what a sociologist did, but the books had titles like Men and Their Work. What did that even mean? Obviously, men—and boys—spent time, most of it, in fact, engaged in an activity known as work. Keller [Gordon’s brother], for example, had his rock collection, Erector set, and assorted other boy-passions. Where whatever I made up or imagined in my own head lacked that builder’s significance or invention, and the train set I presumed would someday magically appear must have died on the tracks on its way to me. Looking back, I was clearly devaluing what women did. …

Guys playing music. I loved music. I wanted to push up close to whatever it was men felt when they were together onstage–to try to link to that invisible thing. It wasn’t sexual. But it wasn’t unsexual either. Distance mattered in male friendships. One on one, men often had little to say to one another. They found some closeness by focusing on a third thing that wasn’t them: music, video games, golf, women. Male friendships were triangular in shape, and that allowed two men some version of intimacy. In retrospect, that’s why I joined a band, so I could be inside that male dynamic, not staring in through a closed window but looking out.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Geoff Dyer. This is the first book by Dyer that I’ve ever read, though I’ve read enough of his essays to know he’s a bit of a wag. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is divided into two parts that refer to each other only glancingly; in fact, it’s not fully established that the main character in each half is the same person, though there’s enough to reason to believe so. The separate narratives seem to have little to say to each other; they sit on polar ends, drunk and sober, giddy and somber, blithe and reverent.

In part one, we meet Jeff, a veteran British journalist traveling to Venice to report on the Biennale. Dyer’s playful self-effacement starts off with a pun: when Jeff colors his hair, it doesn’t seem worth carrying on about, until you notice that it’s a wordplay invoking the author’s name: Geoff Dyer has created Jeff, who is a dyer. What kind of meta-moral math puzzle have we gotten ourselves into here?

In part two, we are treated to a first-person narration of an unnamed journalist who has traveled on assignment to the Indian city of Varanasi, on the Ganges, where Hindu pilgrims have amassed—not for a festival, but as a holy destination. Dyer’s first-person narrator offers some wry amusements, but sets back without the dance to score the superficial rush that fills Jeff’s time in Venice.

From what I know of his nonfiction, my impression is that these bipolar narratives span the range of Dyer’s comfort as a writer: He likes to go places, be both amused and confounded by them and then be amused at his own confoundedness.

British journalist Jeff meets an American journalist, Laura, and lands in an easy, almost too casual, affair with her, one with minimal complications other than the obvious adult awareness that it will have to end. Along the way, there are grand allusions, or at least one would have to assume having not read it, to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. And the debauchery of the first story is blackened and diminished in shame by the sanctity of the second.

So: two waterfront cities, with English names starting with the same letter, in countries whose English names start with the same letter. The invitation to draw comparisons does not end there. Jeff downs bellinis in Venice while the hero of the second story drinks bhang lassis. There are allusions to each city in the other’s story, plopped in unlikely moments, suggesting a telegraphing of code:

What was wrong with him? Minutes after contemplating moving to L.A. he was ready, now, to go backpacking through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Lacking any larger ambition or purpose meant that you clutched at whatever straws came your way. If she’d said she was thinking of moving to Romania, he’d have signed up for that too. Or Mars, even.

He said, “Have you been to India before?”

“Once. Top Goa and Kerala. This time I want to go to Rajasthan and Varanasi, Benares.”

“They’re the same place, right?”

“Exactly.”

“From the Sanskrit, isn’t it? Nasi, place. Vara, many. Place of many names.”

She laughed. She has perfect teeth, quite large: American teeth. “I have absolutely no idea whether that is extremely impressive or complete Ben as in bull, Ares as in shit. Which means it’s probably both.”

In a way, the Varanasi story, told in the first person, has less of a filter; there are allusions to the contamination of humans and animals as the narrator takes a piss in the Ganges and observes a cow’s “shit-caked tail was as drenched in shit as an artist’s brush in paint.” And then he goes to the other side of the river:

The bank at the other side was quite steep. Walking over it was like cresting a low sand dune. As I did so, a dark bird flapped noisily into the air. To my right, in a small bay, two dogs were eating something at the river’s edge.

A dead man.

Was being chewed by two dogs. One was eating his left forearm, the other his right wrist. The dead man was intact. He was lying face down. I could see his hair and one ear. He was wearing a filthy pale blue t-shirt, torn in several places, and shorts. The dogs looked up, looked at me, then resumed their meal. It seemed a strange place to start, the arms. Maybe they started there because it was easy to get their jaws around limbs.

I could not see the dead man properly, but I recognized one of the dogs.

The Iowa Review, Vol. 42 No. 2, Fall 2012. Food is the theme for this issue, and perhaps it’s an indication that the subject is better suited for nonfiction, because I found more satisfaction in the essays in this issue than in the stories. Naomi Kimbell’s “Bounty” is a spare and honest piece about doing good in a cynical world, and I loved the opening:

The food bank is busy this morning, and the deaf man sitting next to me is a motor-mouth. A moment ago, he hit me with one of his words. I jumped and scooted away. My chair screeched across the beige vinyl floor, and people looked at me. His ASL interpreter said the man was sorry, and I smiled at her, which I realized immediately was bad form, like the waitress who stares at the parents when it’s the child ordering the food.

Elizabeth Cullen Dunn’s “A Gift from the American People” is an honest look at the inefficacies of humanitarian aid from afar in a time of war. The place is Tsmindasqali, a settlement in the Republic of Georgia to which many South Ossetians were displaced after their homes were bombed by Russian planes. A man named Temo bemoans the contents of the food aid package he has received. “What people got to eat,” Dunn writes, “was what the World Food Program distributed: 1.5 kilograms of macaroni in a food package, along with other staples like beans, salt, and cooking oil, delivered every two weeks.”

The pasta is deplored not just for its uselessness in the kitchens of Georgian families (“in the context of Georgian cuisine, which is full of spices, walnuts, pomegranates, fresh vegetables, and meats, macaroni is hardly food at all,” Dunn writes. “It is not a staple starch, as bread or corn is … Macaroni is just calories, something that only the poorest of the poor eat.”) but for what it represents: as a meager government subsidy, it is a patchwork fix offering no real solutions to the refugees’ plight, only a distancing element from their home and identity.

The Revolution of Every Day, Cari Luna. The description of this book seemed to promise a narrative of heft: set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the early years of the Giuliani administration, it follows the trials and tribulations of a group of squatters in a gutted-out building abandoned by its landlord. As they fix it up and make the place their own, they battle with city officials who want to seize and develop the property (and gentrify the neighborhood) while dealing with drama within their own circle.

The structure would seem to suit a television series better than it might a novel. Luna hops around to each character with a third-person limited POV: Dutch immigrant Gerrit, older Steve and his wife Anne, and Gerrit’s girlfriend Amelia, whom we learn early on is pregnant from an affair with Steve. Amelia, a former drug addict, provides the book’s moral and emotional core, a believer who up to this point has been too easily persuaded by others. Now a new target of persuasion lingers: living in another squat is Cat, a veteran of the squatter scene who is lured back into addiction and with whom Amelia is smitten.

There are a lot of angles at play, and while the book does well enough to document its breakdown of a mini-society that pits itself against the outside and commits to its own rules of survival, few of those angles feel serious. That one of the squatters is a Dutch immigrant invites a clumsy analogy to New York’s 18th-century settlers, who sought to make a home in a place they cultivated for themselves before ceding it over to the English.

The free indirect style approach doesn’t suit well here since it does little to distinguish the graces of each character, so instead the narrative is a flat language of frustration, clumsy with pejoratives and swears. Clothes in a laundromat dryer tumble like “dumb pieces of cotton”; Cat wonders “whatever happened to Sailor and Slim, those goddamn cokehead twins from Milwaukee with the violet eyes?” Perhaps because it deals with what seems a forgotten era of New York, the narration is at times distrustful, explaining situations and stakes for the reader, especially through the kind of overarching dialogue that real people who live in intimate quarters and have come to know each other’s quirks wouldn’t say. For example, when Amelia and her friend, Suzie, walk past a couple of homeless drunks, they treat the audience to a summary of their existence, as though they wouldn’t be part of the wallpaper:

“Those guys, man,” Suzie says. “I can’t remember them ever not being there.”

Amelia thinks of the deep creases in the short one’s face, his eyes small and shrouded in folds of loose skin, and the weakness of the hand that saluted her, and she thinks, not without sadness, He’ll die soon.

“The tall one was gone for a while this spring,” Amelia says. “Rehab.”

“Yeah, that’s right. I thought he’d died, but then he turned up again in the summer.”

“I saw him come back. It was something—all cleaned up. I kind of thought he’d make it.”

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