Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman: to write is to know you are not home

When things turn out as you expect more often than not, do you feel more in control of your destiny? Do you take more responsibility for your life? If that's the case. why do Americans always behave as if they're victims?

Hear me on this for a moment. I wake up every morning not knowing whether I'll be able to switch on the lights. When my toilet broke down last year, I had to set up three appointments with three plumbers because the first two didn't show and the third appeared four hours late. Rarely can I walk the same path from point A to point B, say from apartment to supermarket, for more than a month. I constantly have to adjust my walking maps; any of a multitude of minor politicians will block off entire neighborhoods because one day they decide they're important enough to feel threatened. Life in Beiruit is much too random. I can't force myself to believe I'm in charge of much of my life..

Does reliability reinforce your illusion of control? If so, I wonder if in developed countries (I won't use the hateful term civilized), the treacherous, illusion-crushing process of aging is more difficult to bear.

~~~~~~~~~

If this were a novel, you would be able to figure out why my mother screamed. Alain Robbe-Grillet once wrote that the worse thing to happen to the novel was the arrival of psychology. You can assume he meant that now we all expect to understand the motivation behind each character's actions, as if that's possible, as if life works that way. I've read so many recent novels, particularly those published in the Anglo world, that are dull and trite because I'm always supposed to infer causality. For example, the reason a protagonist can't experience love is that she was physically abused, or the hero constantly searches for validation because his father paid little attention to him as a child. This, of course, ignores the fact that many others have experienced the same things but do not behave in the same manner, though that's a minor point compared to the real loss in fulfilling the desire for explanation: the loss of mystery.

Causation extraction makes Jack a dull reader.

~~~~~~~~~~~


We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you're the one person who wouldn't have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.

When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.

I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.

I am you.

~~~~~~

I like men and women who don't fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul. I like outsiders, phantoms wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle where life must be lived.

David Grossman may love Israel, but he wanders its cobwebbed halls, just as his namesake Vasily wandered Russia's. To write is to know that you are not home.

I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca.

--Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

Monday, June 09, 2014

Trashing your hometown to market your book

Katherine Faw Morris allowed last Friday in a Buzzfeed article that she can go home again, to Wilkes County, but only out of guilt, at Christmas, and that it causes her to suffer anxiety attacks and to black out in Mexican restaurants, either in her hometown or back in New York once she's made it safely back to LaGuardia.

Plus her apartment in New York is in bad shape and we are supposed to infer that growing up in Wilkes County is to blame for her don't-give-a-shit throw-bleach-at-it attitude.

Joan Didion covered these issues back in the 60s, but I guess you can't fault Morris for mainlining her like black tar heroin and reassembling her ideas now as a means of marketing Young God.

People in my hometown are very offended by the Buzzfeed article, however. The subtitle, which of course she didn't write, doesn't set well with them since she didn't grow up in an impoverished home; she and her friends went slumming way out in the sticks to score drugs.

Today Pietros Maneos has a rebuttal in the Huffington Post designed to make the locals happy (early verdict:: He's classy! He writes in complete sentences!) as well as to send some business to his vineyards and promote his own novella (you couldn't pay me to read Maneos for less than a million dollars and even then I bet you I'd skim).

I'm having a grand old time trying to keep up with it all: My mother-in-law who quit reading the book after two pages (I warned her before I ordered it that it wasn't going to suit her tastes). The classmates who feel she's skewing what the people of the county are really like. The enthusiastic reviewers and the ones who hate it because it's so dark.

So, just a few quibbles. Because Wilkes still hasn't produced enough writers for me to just say eh, and go about my business.

Morris's opinions on our hometown are her own and she can espouse them all she wants, as far as I'm concerned. I left and I'm glad I did. I'm recommending that my teenage niece get out just as soon as she can. Nevertheless, I don't hold everyone who still lives there in contempt and I don't know that she needed to go as far as she did to sell the book. I know people Morris's age back in Wilkes who don't talk like her friends, who don't use drugs, who make a total mockery of her portrayal of them.That is not to say there are not people like Morris's friends there.

I'll just clarify a few factual matters from the Buzzfeed piece. It's the former reporter in me.

Wilkes County is not a three-hour drive from "the airport." It may suit her narrative to make it seem that way, more backwoods, but anyone else would take a flight from New York to Charlotte or Greensboro and then have a 90-minute drive to Wilkesboro. Maybe she wanted to be assaulted by the smell of the paper mills outside Asheville before she smelled the chicken litter? It's not spread around as fertilizer in December, anyway.

Tom Wolfe ate with Junior Johnson and his fiance Flossie Clark "at one of the new fine restaurants in North Wilkesboro, a place of suburban plate-glass elegance."  They were seated at the very best table, according to Wolfe. What I find hard to imagine is that he had to stay at the Lowes Motel; maybe it was a nicer place back then.

Every county in the state except for eight out of the one hundred can be called "a county of murderers." Wilkes County's violent crime rate seems to be somewhere in the middle.

Morris's personal stuff is her personal stuff. It's hard to believe that she doesn't know if her best friend from high school has internet when she knows the current contents of her medicine cabinet, but she's marketing her book and she's doing what she needs to do to sell it; maybe her friend knows all about this story and not one word of it is true. Maybe the essay is mostly fiction, same as Young God.

Or maybe she's selling out everybody so that she can't go home again.

Until she has nowhere else to go.

And then she'll write about that.