Holiday Reading!

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Hurrah, it’s that time of year again, when I skip these shores for a couple of weeks of rest, relaxation and reading.

First up are a couple of books I wrote about a couple of weeks ago:  ‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald and ‘The Librarian’ by Salley Vickers. Next is ‘Returning to Riems’ by Didier Eribon. This was first published a few years ago but has just been reprinted in this fine Allen Lane version. It is a book which influenced Edouard Louis when writing ‘The End of Eddy’ in that it concerns Eribon, a respected writer and academic, returning to his small-town working class roots to survey what has happened to his people since his departure and how his own separation has affected him and his relations with them.

A final choice, and my attempt to read native literature when abroad, is Javier Marias collection of short stories, ‘When I was Mortal’. I don’t know much about Marias, except that he is an ‘internationally respected writer’ and that this collection of stories has been described as ‘Worldly, elegant, detached, this modern Spanish Dr. Watson discovers a lurid world of greed, lust and murder under every seemingly innocuous encounter.’ 

Of course, there may still be additions and substitutions to the list before I finally get on the plane…after all, what is a holiday without an Agatha Christie?

P.S. A day to go and, yes, another slender tome added to my haul: ‘Parfums’ bParfums (2)y Philippe Claude. I stumbled across this a while ago in a bookshop, attracted by the pretty cover…and intrigued by the premise: ‘In sixty three elusive episodes we roan freely across the countryside of Lorraine, north-east France, from kitchen to farm to a lover’s bed.’Recognising the bittersweet nostalgia of a scent that slips away on the summer breeze‘, these episodes have intriguing titles: ‘Mist’; ‘Cellar’; ‘Cemetery’; ‘Communal Shower’; ‘Umbellifers’; ‘Prison’; ‘Waking Up’ and ‘Old Age’ to select just a few.

 

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Autumn

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September

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‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ Ottessa Moshfegh

‘Oh, sleep, nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking and consciousness.’

I recently wrote about Sayaka Murata’s charming ‘Convenience Store Woman’, in which Kieko, a natural outsider, attempts to find a place in the world. I used the term ‘natural outsider’ to describe Kieko as hers isn’t a status forged by rebellion, rather by the way in which her thought patterns naively challenge the norms of society: it’s not that Keiko wants to be an outsider or escape society: she has no choice because she doesn’t understand the rules of belonging.

The narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest work is quite the opposite: a young womanslide21 who, seemingly, has it all: a private income, a New York apartment, a family home (her parents are dead) from which she receives rental income. She is intelligent and beautiful (‘I thought of Farah Fawcett and Faye Dunaway’) and has a job in a top art gallery. She has a best friend, Reva, whom she has known since college. But she has had enough of her life, of the fakes and frauds who surround her and make her feel oh, so tired…and nasty.

‘The worst was that these guys tried to pass off their insecurities as ‘sensitivity’, and it worked. They would be the ones running museums and magazines, and they’d only hire me they thought I might fuck them. But when I’d been at parties with them or out at bars, they’d ignore me. They were so slide21self-serious and distracted by their conversation with their look-alike companions that you’d think they were wrestling with a decision of such high stakes, the world might explode. They wouldn’t be distracted by ‘pussy’, they would have me believe. The truth was probably that they were just afraid of vaginas, afraid that they’d fail to understand one as pretty and pink as mine, and they were ashamed of their own sensual inadequacies, afraid of their own dicks, afraid of themselves. So they focused on ‘abstract ideas’ and developed drinking problems to blot out the self-loathing they preferred to call ‘existential ennui’

In my review of Moshfegh’s last novel, ‘Eileen’, I compared her work with that of the film maker John Waters, in that both celebrate the anti-hero, the queer and the weirdo who are unafraid to display the truth which we all hide behind our public facades: those who sniff our sticky fingers and curse our bosses and plot scabrous humiliations on all those who have ever crossed us or bullied us or beaten us to the last bar in the sweet shop. Here Moshfegh’s laser vision scans and dissects the hipster generation who, she seems to say, seem to set their stall and value by the amount of bullshit that they can muster. Imagine, if you will, Joan River’s writing Shena Mackay‘s masterful taking down of the 1990s London Art scene, ‘The Artist’s Widow’. And no one is immune from our narrator’s ire – even poor, sad, desperate Reva who clings like a baby in a sex offenders institute and receives nothing but contempt in return…until, that is, it is way too late.

Moshfegh’s camp vision of the world, like that of Waters, allows such personalities to win through, a place where such dreams of revenge really do come true. The only problem some readers may have with this is that you have to invest in a narrator who you actually don’t really like. To me this isn’t a problem as the campness of these worlds turns the toxic into titillation, the cruel into cute…and while this latest novel doesn’t come across as wildly camp as ‘Eileen’ there are moments which made me laugh out loud:

‘Around Christmas each year. she’d take me to the mall. She’d buy me a singe chocolateslide21 at the Godiva store, then we’d walk around all the shops and my mother would call things ‘cheap’ and ‘hick-style’ and ‘a blouse for the Devil’s whore.‘ She kind of came alive at the perfume counter. ‘This one smells like a hooker’s panties.’ Those outings to the mall were the few times we had any fun together.’

However, while no one  in ‘Rest…’ comes close to the wonderful awfulness of ‘Eileen’s eponymous heroine, Dr Tuttle, the deliciously flaky, scarily unbalanced and downright illegal doctor to whom our narrator goes to obtain her never ending supply of sleeping tablets, comes close and is so well drawn you can almost smell her.

‘Her hair was red and frizzy. The foam brace she wore around her neck had what slide21looked like coffee and food stains on it, and it squished the skin on her neck up towards her chin. Her face was like a bloodhound’s, folded and drooping, her sunken eyes hidden under very small wire-framed glasses with Coke-bottle lenses. I never got a good look at Dr. Tuttle’s eyes. I suspect they were crazy eyes, black and shiny like a crow’s. The pen she used was ling and purple and had a purple feather at the end of it.’

Dr. Tuttle is possibly the worst Doctor ever, give or take the odd German Nazi and British serial kilslide21ler, but she provides our narrator with what she needs: the drugs to drown out the ‘thoughts and judgements, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything.’. By now she has begun to understand that if she goes to sleep for long enough, hibernates for long enough,she will have regenerated all her cells and become, literally, a whole new person, ‘renewed, reborn’. And so it is that a pact with an ‘experimental’ artist she despises comes about: while she sleeps the artist will create works of art around his sleeping muse, all the while providing food for her when she awakes every three days or so.

Eventually, our narrator awakes and finds herself ‘soft and calm’ and everything is good in her world…

‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ is a great read, funny and scabrous and often downright dirty (a throwaway line about anal sex here, the power of Whoopie Goldberg’s vagina there). Set at the very start of start of the twentieth century it presents a picture of the state of a whole generation. A generation, in the west, in the US, spoilt (by ‘Generation X’ – no one is blameless in this) and self-centred and obsessing over the little things because the big things – war, disease, pestilence and plague – have always been ‘over there’, someone else’s problem…

…and then Moshfegh brings them down to earth, with a great big bang.

 

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Aretha

aretha

There is so much you could say about Aretha Franklin, but it all comes down to the voice. When so many singers aim for soul but end up trilling up and down the musical scales in search of the right note, packing 96 syllables into every word when only two are needed (called ‘melisma’, apparently) it becomes even more obvious that Aretha really was the Queen of Soul. She mastered and controlled her voice; it was a precise tool technically and emotionally. For God’s sake,  this is the woman who made The Beatles palatable!

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‘Convenience Store Woman’ Sayaka Murata

‘Think of me as an animal, a convenience store animal. I can’t betray my instinct’

Keiko has always been a misfit, someone whose logic is out of step with her friends and family. Even as a child her responses to incidents – such as coming across a dead bird – caused her parents to wonder…

”What’s up Kieko? Oh! A little bird…where did it come from I wonder?’ she said gently, stroking my hair. ‘The poor thing. Shall we make a grave for it?’

‘Let’s eat it!’ I said.

Following a lonely time at university, Keiko finally finds a place where she can fit in: the convenience store.

Sayaka Murata’s slender novel was a huge hit in Japan and it’s easy to see why. Strange, sinister, funny and profound, ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is a compendium of the rules of society and how these might be navigated by someone who, rather than rebelling against those norms, simply doesn’t understand them – a ‘natural outsider’, if you will. Keiko finds sanctuary in the Convenience Store because it is it’s own world, with its own set of rules and regulations which make sense to Keiko and so provide her, finally, with a sense of belonging, a belonging not unlike that provided a religion, a metaphor which Keiko herself isn’t blind to.

‘When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual’

But, despite her happiness in the Store, Keiko find that her family still worry about her: she doesn’t abide by their – society’s – rules. She doesn’t have a man or a child and is rapidly approaching middle-age in what they see as a dead-end job. As Shiraha, the latest recruit to the Store casually informs her, she doesn’t conform to the rules of ‘the village’, to them she is:

‘…like secondhand goods. Even if you are a virgin, you’re grubby. You’re like a Stone Age woman past childbearing age who can’t get married and is left to just hang around the village, of no use to anyone, just a burden. I’m a man, so I can still make a comeback, but there’s no hope for you, is there, Furukura?’

Shirara is himself a grubby, lazy creature with a serious lack of self awareness and who thinks nothing of harassing women in the Store, all the while wallowing in his own victimhood. Nonetheless, it is Shirara who provides Keiko with an antidote, and she moves him into her apartment.

‘Furukura, you’re lucky, you know. Thanks to me, you can go from being triply handicapped as a single, virgin convenience store worker to being a married member of society. Everyone will assume you’re a sexually active, respectable human being. That’s the image of you that pleases them most. Isn’t it wonderful?’
‘In other words, you play the part of the fictitious creature called ‘an ordinary person’ that everyone has in them. Just like everyone in the convenience store is playing the part of the fictitious creature called a ‘store worker’

But which Kieko will win out: ‘ordinary person’ or ‘store worker’?

‘Convenience Store Woman’ is a novel for our times: manoeuvring around a society on the cusp, between the old rules of ‘the village’ and the needs of a modern, consumerist society and the alienation which rises as a result, all the while served up with clear, simple prose which carries its complexity on a wisp of fresh air.

I loved how Murata describes the rituals of the store and the enthusiasm of Keiko, allowing convenience store work to gain a modicum of respect from the reader (‘people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.’). And then there is Keiko’s attitude to sex – it is quite refreshing to have a character in a book who just simply has no interest in sex and that causes them no misery or shame. It neither defines them nor names them.

‘I’d never experienced sex, and I’d never even had any particular awareness of my own sexuality. I was indifferent to the whole thing and had never really given it any thought. And here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t. Even if I had been, though, it didn’t follow that my anguish would be the obvious type of anguish they were all talking about. But they didn’t want to think it through that far. I had the feeling I was being told they wanted to settle the matter this way because it was the easiest option for them.’

And finally, I loved sweet Keiko who, despite her outsider status and the patronising nonsense from family and colleagues, is allowed to maintain her naivety – despite the fact that, in the end, Kieko’s choice comes down to adopting one set of rules or another: for Keiko, as for millions of others across the globe, there is and never will be a ‘third way’

 

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Chantal Joffe

This week I bought some postcards from an exhibition of the work of Chantal Joffe.

Beautiful.

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