Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is like nothing I have ever read. It is not (even though I spent the first half of my reading experience trying to make it so) about the immigrant experience, the migrant experience, or even the African experience (directly anyway) – its narrators immerse themselves in the entire body and soul of a young woman who was sexually abused and beaten as a child, and who has evolved an elaborate set of defense mechanisms to cope.
- My quick overview limits – in an almost generic sense – the ways in which this novel might be perceived. It does not read like the haunted memories of a woman trying to keep her sanity. Instead, with only two exceptions chapters are told from the point of view of the gods and goddesses who ride her, and who enable her to survive, and they are living, breathing characters (often to their chagrin, as they sometimes endlessly lament)…
- Emezi in the essay at the end of the novel describes it as “metaphysical,” so they (their preferred pronouns are they, their, theirs) are asking us to treat these big questions from a religious and spiritual standpoint, in addition to the psychological one.
- The borders – between body and soul, between religious identities, between genders – that we usually imagine are solid (if not rigid) do not exist in this novel, and Emezi clearly wants to examine them. They describe their work as existing in a liminal space, and those types of spaces are rife with conflicts, power, and energy.
- The use of many different embodiments of human personas in the form of a pantheon of all kinds of gods had me engaged (and possibly even immersed). There are no hints until about two-thirds of the way through the novel just what these various forms are, but there is lots of conversation of how they mean to both protect and annihilate Ada, the main (human) character.
- And the two extremes are not that far apart…
- As Ada deals with her own trauma, and jousts with the spirits inhabiting her, I never wondered about what parts of her were human. I am curious about that now – why did I so easily buy that these were gods inhabiting her body, mostly Nigerian or Yoruban? Was I imagining this novel was simply one of possession? Admittedly, that alone would be pretty cool…
- Finally, Emezi’s willingness to experiment is frightening in its precocity. This could have gone very wrong, and the fact that they also work in video and other art forms, according to the Internet goddesses at Wikipedia made me wonder if Emezi was simply too full of ideas to execute any of them.
- Answer – nope. They’re definitely talented enough to pull this off – it is one of the rare novels that I couldn’t wait to finish but which also didn’t find me rushing through and having to re-read because I had become impatient.
Big Mouth is an animated series about teens that is definitely not to be seen by them. It’s a hilarious, sex-positive, sensitive look at what it means to be a teenager and be nearly crushed by the chemical madness in your body. My wife and I enjoyed it, laughing so much that we often missed lines.
- I’ve not been a fan of Kroll, but this series made me rethink that. His pre-teen self is witty and yet really small physically, something of a nerd. His friend, Goldberg, is physically more mature but emotionally sort of a wreck. Throughout, their friendship waxes and wanes as they sort through the craziness of being a teenage boy.
- And Kroll voices a ton of characters, in and of itself a huge accomplishment.
- There are episodes discussing all sorts of perspectives – girls liking sex, kids respecting each other’s limits, masturbation, identifying LGBTQ – and much to my surprise no one is put down or disrespected. Even characters who are not the nicest people are given motives and reasons for acting as they do, except for the episode on toxic masculinity, which was still brilliant.
- Perhaps the most brilliant creations (as in all good sit-coms) are the side characters. Coach Steve is this innocent guy who somehow manages to go along day-by-day without either learning too much about the world or betraying his own general good-heartedness, and all the sets of parents are very fun and very odd.
- The best, though, are the hormone monsters, voiced by Maya Rudolph and Kroll. They are animated, furry critters (they are featured prominently in the trailer below) who make all of our hormone-driven-decisions-gone-bad real, and usually incredibly funny.
- Finally, I knew this series was good when I heard students talking about it. Lots of them watch it, and while that alone doesn’t speak for the series it doesn’t hurt.
The Mountain surprised me. We saw it recently at @nightlightakron, and on the surface I expected it to be an expose of the horrors of psychiatry in the 1940s and 50s, a worthy enough subject but one that has been done (and enables us to pretend that we are so much more civilized now). Instead, it was a bunch of films in one. I’ll try to characterize them here…
- Its color scheme invoked camouflage – characters tried to fit into horribly unnatural settings, hiding as much as possible despite the insane brightness of the often all-white interior.
- Spoiler alert – hiding is not possible, even for a once-renowned lobotomist who has now been proven to be a quack.
- The film abruptly transitions from interior to exterior spaces (and back), with almost no focus on the liminal space crossed. We see an inordinate number of doors opening and closing, but the transition happens with no muss or fuss.
- My guess is that the film argues that these spaces are really one and the same, and that the distinctions that we make are useless (until they’re not, when the young lovers see the mountain).
- The inability to communicate dominates. Tye Sheridan is almost mute, and Jeff Goldblum’s doctor is best when he’s drunk.
- Inarticulation is a theme – the one long rant we get is from a drunk Frenchman (who seems to make a living as a hypnotist, and we know that he knows that what he does is bullshit and his clients are morons) – and the rant is almost incoherent, as he tries to make a spit-flecked, alcohol-fueled argument for the uselessness of love.
- Typical of the film, after suffering through this rant Sheridan’s character then does the only act in the film that shows evidence of love, as he essentially gets himself diagnosed as needing a lobotomy – and gets one – in order to be one with the only person he has made a connection with (who gets lobotomized at the instance of her father, the drunk Frenchman).
- The fact that we are given a character to sympathize with, even if he doesn’t make sympathizing with him easy, works against our common notions of film viewership, and even, perhaps, what makes us sympathetic to each other.
- I kept hoping that he’s going to punch someone (anyone), but unfortunately he does not.
- It’s not an easy film in any sense of the word – but it has stuck with me for a long time…
I recently read Newitz’s Autonomy, and I wondered how she could so accurately describe the paths that our technological development might follow. Having read Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction, I now understand, because as a science writer and editor of io9, she has been in this conversation for a long time and knows a lot about scientific trends. She extrapolated some fascinating ideas based on that knowledge…
More thoughts below:
- Newitz’s approach is far different from most who write about our future destruction – she thinks humans, as agile, problem-solving, incredibly smart creatures, should survive. She does not ignore the problems we cause – she links us to cyanobacteria as the only organisms to negatively impact the planet enough to bring about a mass extinction – but she thinks that ultimately we are worthy of moving onto the next step in our development.
- As if any of this is linear, of course…
- In the book she charts both mass extinctions from the planet’s geological history *and* stories of how humans have scattered, adapted, and remembered, and thus survived.
- Her description of the ways that Jews have survived is particularly interesting, as she talks about the importance of culture, narrative, and story.
- Her view is remarkably non-anthropocentric – by positing humans in what she argues (with help from a bunch of scientists) is the beginning of the next large mass extinction, she identifies our place in the universe as a little smaller and more fitting than how we ordinarily think of ourselves.
- The last section of the book is probably too short, but it was fascinating as she discussed how humans will probably adapt (breathe methane, have skin that can survive acid rains on other planets, and so on) and the immediate technological developments we will pursue (algae-derived energy, space elevators, and so on).
- She doesn’t simply talk about all this from her own “research” as that is defined now – glorified Google searches. Instead, she shows us what powerful science writing is by incorporating interviews (that she’s done) and research from the scientific communities involved in this discussion – disaster preparation as well as well energy derivation and space exploration.
- As someone who occasionally thinks that maybe a meteor strike wouldn’t be a bad idea, I appreciate her rational, pragmatic, and organized look at ways that we might actually survive (and heavens forbid learn from) the coming destruction we are doing to the planet…
Tommy Orange’s There There feels drenched in the violence that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of Europeans, and that immersion feels icky to someone like me who has benefited from white privilege.
That’s how it should be.
More thoughts below:
- This novel feels related in a familial way to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, in both the brutality of the narrative and its multiple-perspective form. One of the key differences is that Orange does not try to recreate language patterns like James does, and he can pull this off since his narrators are not often first-person.
- Another key difference is the mini-essay that Orange begins There There with, a meditation of sorts on the Indian head from US-issued coins. I’m assuming that the essay is as close to Orange’s voice as we will get, and it is apologetic (to the reader at least) for the material that it covers while also setting out clearly what the novel hopes to accomplish. The directness of this felt refreshing, especially since Orange argues that the best way to communicate the disruption and violence that the Indian community is subjected to is through a disrupted narrative, and yet he wants readers to not be discouraged from reading it by his approach.
- The storyline kept me reading as much as did the narrative approach. It clearly builds to a climax that is both tragic and seemingly inevitable. It also points to the smallness of the circle that is the Native American community after generations of degradation at the hands of white America, as at the powwow this convergence leads to long-separated family members suddenly recognizing each other, often in uncomfortable ways.
- Orange makes transparent his desire to broaden the perspective of what we think of as the Indian experience, introducing his audience to both the “Urban Indian” and the Native American who looks white. In this sense passing becomes a strange phenomenon – a couple of his characters are enrolled members of tribes, and yet they look white enough to find trouble in being accepted into the native community. Passing as white is not something that they desire.
- The references in this are polyglot in all the best ways. The novel’s title comes from a Gertrude Stein diss of Oakland – “there is no there there,” but it also could be a way that we try to comfort children through language. The novel itself references Plath and Stein, and also Erdrich and Alexie, but Orange is comfortable enough with pop culture to include films and music, including Native American rap…
- Orange’s interest in sound is clearly portrayed in this novel, both in the rhythm of his dialogues and the power in the powwow as well.
- As with many of these novels, it feels most clearly the absence or lack – Orange early on describes cities as doubly-fraught-with-tragedy spaces for Native Americans, since they both represent a place that is difficult to survive in and a landscape that used to be far different before whites arrived. The lack is a powerful metaphor, and one that dovetails jarringly with the fascination that canonical Western texts have with wide open spaces as lacking civilization (and thus better proving grounds for masculinity or for reclaiming some lost utopian primitive space).
- Read it. The novel makes the occasional difficulty in identifying which character is which well worth the trouble.
Homesick for Another World is a collection of Otessa Moshfegh’s short stories, and it works differently than her novels. Novels reward those who are patient, both writers and readers, the observer who identifies details and winnows important observations from those that do not contribute to the text’s mission. Short stories tend to be far more of an exercise in immediate gratification. In particular, short story characters can tend to be more outrageous since there is no time to develop them.
- Moshfegh does not cotton to this strategy – even in this format her characters don’t reveal much of themselves, and only sometimes.
- This approach makes them even less sympathetic in some ways, and forced me as a reader to do some work. Rather than pile characters into those categories that I often resort to – I like them, I don’t like them, I like them sometimes – I had to look more carefully at the brutalizations that they both inflicted and endured.
- I also had to look at the validity of my own reactions – is this a way to read fiction, as a judgment on characters? I try not to do that even in real life, so my guess is no…
- Her approach to these characters also meant that the narrative voice often felt arrogant in ways that I did not feel comfortable with. That discomfort is good – arrogance among the brutally unaware is a feature not a bug, I think…
- I also found myself reading for redemption, which I would argue is a common way for audiences in the US in particular to read. We want happy endings, and if the character is not a good person we want them to at least admit that they are indeed not a good person.
- This does not happen in Moshfegh’s work.
- So, are these arrogant, irredeemable characters worth reading about? Yes, absolutely, although I am struggling with the why. There are probably two reasons that are compelling…
- From a metafictional perspective, this type of character (and they run a wide range of genders) works to subvert what we expect in fiction, and Moshfegh offers a much wider variety than say Bukowski, whose characters all seem to be some version of himself.
- Character portraits of folks who are not historically evil but simply not very aware of the damage that they do are way harder to pull off and damaging to the general lack of self-consciousness and intentionality that we often think of as a critical element in fiction.
- We all want to be Emma, in some ways, capable of both growth and recognizing the need to grow. There are no Emmas in what Moshfegh is doing…
- Finally, the last three stories in this collection (yes, I’m a rules-follower and read them in order) were different – nostalgic in the title of the collection sense, rife with a sense of alienation that in my mind helps to establish the narrator’s credibility as a reliable source of all these types of personalities. Moshfegh’s ability to write in so many voices is uncanny, and kept me wondering what the hell was coming next…
- In that sense, this collection fits snugly with Eileen, a novel in which I kept waiting for the character to do something horrible, a tension that is never paid off directly but instead contributes to the general sense of daily horror that comes from this sense of having no reason to keep going forward (and yet we keep going forward anyway).
The New Me feels like the ultimate gig economy novel, a The Devil Wears Prada without the pretension, redemption, or hope. I enjoyed it, from the manic narrator and her constant wild mood swings to the step-back chapters that featured how those who work with or know Millie look at her from a third-person perspective.
- My expectations of Millie actually shrunk as the novel progressed. I felt certain that this would progress like a McInerney or Jamowitz or Easton Ellis, with characters who are ultimately lovable and redeemable by the end of the novel despite the stuff they have done and big city settings that feature young people trying to figure stuff out.
- Butler doesn’t do that – I won’t spoil it, but the novel ends far less redemptively or with the narrator having some newfound sense of intentionality than those novels did. The narrative voice moves to third-person even for Millie, and the frantic, desperate, and hopeless tone becomes one of calm resignation. The sense of having given up struck me, hard.
- I’m struggling trying to reconcile the narrative voice with these usual narrative arcs, or with my idea that gig economy texts need to somehow be either redemptive (the protagonist reconciles their place in a messed-up system by doing some sort of relatively good work, like Rob Lowe’s character in About Last Night gentrifying Chicago (but in a good way), or they fight the power as happens in a Cory Doctorow novel. I much prefer Cory Doctorow, by the way.
- Instead, Butler’s novel lets the anger and despair seethe below the surface, never letting either Millie’s intelligence or self-loathing completely go away.
- Butler seems to be compared to Otessa Moshfegh, but that comparison does neither a lot of good. I’ve read a lot of Moshfegh, and this is the first novel of Butler’s that I’ve read, and Moshfegh is much less willing to take responsibility for her characters, much less likely to inhabit them and make them autobiographical. Both methods work, I hasten to add, but the comparison seems misplaced to me.
- I also admire the way that Butler has Millie absorb the idea of the new me, as she is completely enmeshed in the language of self-improvement, occasionally awakening from her spiral to berate herself for not following the new methods of making herself better that she has pulled from the Intertoobz.
- The socialization of women into this culture feels to me like a critical element of imbibing us all in the joys of the gig economy.
- Finally, in my mind both Butler and Moshfegh (as well as many others of course) offer valid strategies for trying to understand contemporary lived experience. We seem aeons away from James Wood’s critique of Pynchon, DeLillo, and mostly Zadie Smith (see Wikipedia’s page on hysterical realism for a primer), and closer to the Beats (who both lived and foresaw where we were going), the frantic energy of the eighties, and a zeitgeist that feels real to me, one in which we try to create filters that enable us to make a modicum of sense of the constant bombardment that we have created and now face.