Sunday, February 07, 2016

Lost property cupboard

This is my Lost Property Cupboard theory of the afterlife — when we die we are taken to a great Lost Property Cupboard where all the things we have ever lost have been kept for us — every hairgrip, every button and pencil, every tooth, every earring and key, every pin (think how many there must be!). All the library books, all the cats that never came back, all the coins, all the watches (which will still be keeping time for us). And perhaps, too, the other less tangible things — tempers and patience (perhaps Patricia's virginity will be there), religion (Kathleen has lost hers), meaning, innocence (mine) and oceans of time — Mr Belling and Bunty will find a lot of time in their cupboard. Mr Belling is always sitting at the wheel of the Rover, parked in the driveway, looking at his watch and fuming, "Do you know how much time we've lost waiting for you, Ruby? On the lower shelves will be the dreams we forgot on waking, nestling against the days lost to melancholy thoughts (if they paid dividends Patricia would be rich). And right down at the bottom of the cupboard, amongst the silt and fluff and feather, the pencil shavings and hair swept up from hairdressers' floors — that's where you find the lost memories. Deinde ipsa, virum suum complexa, in mare se deiecit. And perhaps we can sign our names and take them home with us.
Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum is the story of Ruby Lennox, beginning with her conception, and of various things — a button, a rabbit's foot — commemorated in footnotes, telling of the three generations of (primarily) women before her.

Atkinson has discussed the title, but I have my own ideas. There's only one scene, in the book, in an actual museum, the Castle Museum, and it references Ruby's dream about the museum at night, the secret museum, where things came to life. The museum may as well be a symbol of marriage, what is meant to be seen, and this novel's footnotes show us the secret workings.

Like her most recent books, this novel — Atkinson's debut — also had me laughing out loud, and it made me weep; we live such stupid lives and die such stupid deaths and spend so much time misunderstanding each other. If it weren't so ridiculous and random we'd die from the tragedy of it.

Saturday, February 06, 2016


All the men and women are merely players. But the world's not a stage; it's a gameboard.
At his command were seven other men, of whom two were brothers, four cousins and one they'd picked up as a child and brought along, and who suffered terribly for his lack of genetic bondage. He also had three elephants under his authority, which regarded the great turbulence of the humans about them with the patience of wily priests who have seen rebellion and heard the changing of the psalms, yet looked up and known the heavens never altered for man's delight.
Over the last few weeks I had occasion to devour Claire North's trilogy of Gameshouse novellas: The Serpent, The Thief, and The Master.

I meant to be reading other things, but I moved a few weeks ago, so books were being folded into boxes, at first in a fairly orderly fashion, almost shelf by shelf, but it quickly entropified, books were everywhere, and books were packed alongside the blankets and coffee cups they kept company with. Books I vowed not to lose track of haven't been seen in weeks, including the small book I decided to keep in my purse; at some point I must've decided that it would be safer not rubbing against the measuring tape and screwdriver that I also kept at hand in my purse — I'm confident that it will turn up eventually. Books are now spilling out of those same boxes rather randomly.

I always knew where my ebook was, however, along with my laptop and a few other "valuables." I found myself downloading books at odd hours, because, it seems, I needed them desperately. Someone told me about an article that said reading pageturners significantly reduces stress. I can't find the article, and I've puzzled over the many ways one might define "pageturner," but I've used this "research" to support my sometimes seemingly injudicious use of precious time — this was time I used not merely to read but to recalibrate my emotional and mental well-being.

I'm not sure exactly how I discovered these books. Somehow they were related to some book (which wasn't available) that I'd looked up based on some review. "In seventeenth century Venice exists a mysterious establishment known only as the Gameshouse,"and I was sold.

The Gameshouse novellas are certainly pageturners. The first book lays out the premise. What at first seems to be nothing more than a casino — a gathering place for the rich, the bored, and the desperate — is an institution that spans all of time and encircles the world, insinuating itself into the fabric of cities that hold wealth and power.

The games vary in breadth. In The Serpent, players vie to have their allotted token elected as Doge of Venice. Players are also dealt cards — representing people — which they may also bring into play.

The stakes are high. Fortunes and careers, but also memories, specialized knowledge, physical characteristics, time. The mechanism behind how these transactions are processed is never divulged, but I'd trade my funky knee for someone's facility with Sanskrit in a heartbeat. Others deal in heartbeats.

The Master is my favourite of this set of novellas. A game of hide and seek. The board is 1930s Thailand. Geographically more vast than The Serpent, the game is more intimate.
"Abhik thinks that a game can only be won with ruthlessness and calculation. Were this chess, he would be right, but you, Remy, you have the greatest gift of a higher league player — you remember that your pieces are human. At a superficial level, some might say that makes you kind, but I would suggest it makes you beautiful. To play people is a vastly more elegant skill than mere number-counting."
It also becomes clear that most games are only minor skirmishes in a much larger power struggle.

The third novella, in a modern-day setting, brought closure to the series, but I would love nothing more than an infinite series of Gameshouse game novellas, set in worldclass cities across time. It might bring a new level of paranoia to the conspiracy-minded. We are all, after all, merely pawns in the great game of chess.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My tears were falling into the pot

I was cooking halva, the special kind that's made of flour and butter after someone dies. My tears were falling into the pot, disappearing among the little clumps of flour and sugar, and with each tear that vanished, I felt like another memory was gone. Would we run out of butane gas? Should I have put a bit more meat in the vegetable stew? Whenever people got tired of crying, they came into the kitchen and lifted the lid off a pot to stare quietly at its contents. As if crying for a long time meant you could come over and see what was cooking.
I came to the end of A Strangeness in My Mind, by Orhan Pamuk, and my initial comments stand: it's mostly boring and a little sad. The character Mevlut is somewhat unlikeable, and for all the tedious detail of his life, his motivations and actions remain opaque to me.

Maybe that's the point. That no matter our upbringing and environment, no matter our experiences and outlook on issues, we still end up doing dumb things. Well, not dumb, necessarily, but we still sometimes base our words and actions on something ineffable, that doesn't jive with what our psychological makeup would indicate, or that contradicts our views, whether stated or assumed. We just muddle through life, and it doesn't always make sense.

The latter part of the novel makes a big deal of our words versus our intent. And it's still not clear to me which is meant to be more important.

So this isn't one of my favourite Pamuk books. It's two stories really — a love story, which I found intriguing, and the ongoing tribulations of a street vendor, which failed to engage me — and in my view they don't fit very comfortably together.

Between Public and Private: Orhan Pamuk on the Intentions of Words and the Heart

Friday, January 29, 2016

The furniture-shapes

Kate Atkinson's debut novel from 1995, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, has footnotes. Not the erratic footnotes of 1996's Infinite Jest that sprawl fatly and stare you down insolently with their sometime opacity. These are British footnotes, orderly and regular, if somewhat oversized, like a handkerchief drawer, each its own story interleaved with Ruby Lennox's days. But footnotes nonetheless.

Footnotes present me with great difficulty. I read them as they are noted in the primary text, which is the only right way, although often I will actually read through to the end of the sentence in which the note is cited. I have two bookmarks — one marking my place in the main narrative, the other in the footnote. I generally read on my commute of finite length; I have not always the luxury to read to the end of the chapter. The problem is knowing which bookmark is active. I've tried to leave the bookmark noting the active spot sticking out, and making sure the other bookmark was tucked all the way in, but the book itself sometimes changes its mind about these things while riding around in my purse. Suggestions?

There is also the problem of remembering to flip back, instead of reading on.
I have been here nearly a week. I don't think the twins sleep at night. I think they just lie very, very still. I can't sleep if I think they're awake and if I do drop into sleep it's always to wake in a state of terror. I clutch Teddy tightly under the covers. His hot little body is a great source of comfort to me. I can feel his furry little chest rising and falling with his breathing. The eiderdown that covers Daisy and Rose does not move at all, however, confirming that they do not have normal, human lungs. I have seen the way they look at Teddy and do not think their intentions are good.

In the dark, the furniture takes on a new malevolence — the bedroom is crowded out with furniture — big, heavy pieces that don't belong in a child's bedroom at all, not just the arctic waste of their double bed, but the huge, double-fronted wardrobe and matching dressing-table that's big enough to stow a corpse in. In the blackness of night, the furniture-shapes possess a profound ultra-blackness that hints at anti-matter.

Over in the other corner is their doll's house, a big four-storey Victorian one. It has pictures the size of postage stamps and postage stamps the size of dots; it has gilded chairs fit for a fairy-queen and chandeliers like crystal earrings and kitchen table groaning under the weight of plaster hams and plaster moulded blancmanges.

This doll's house is much coveted by Gillian who has frequently tried to persuade the twins to make a will and leave it to her. I doubt very much that they have. If it were willed me (which is even more unlikely) I would refuse to accept it. There's something eerie about it, with its microscopic plumbing (tiny copper taps!) and little, little leather-bound books (Great Expectations!). I would be frightened — I am frightened — of getting trapped in there and becoming one of the tiny ringletted and pinafored little girls up in the nursery who have to play with teeny-weeny dolls all day long. Or worse — the poor scullery maid, for ever consigned to blacking the kitchen range.

Perhaps the twins, with their galactic powers, will miniaturize me in the night and Auntie Babs will come in this room one morning and find the guest bed empty and the guest bed in the doll's house (much nicer than the camp bed) full of a doll-like Ruby Lennox clutching a teddy bear the size of an amoeba.
Of course Teddy breathes.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

In which my daughter is traumatized by a classic

My daughter came home ranting about her English exam earlier this week. Grade 7. Given that she's in the French system, even though she's been placed in an "advanced" English class, I still don't expect it to be too terribly challenging for her. But it wasn't that. It wasn't hard. It was traumatizing. I know, because she called me as soon as she got home to tell me all about it.

She'd known it would be a comprehension-type test, and the text was about cats. Well, there were three texts, and they were about cats all right. The first two were just normal texts, but the third one! OMG (yes, she said O-M-G). It was horrible! It made her want to cry! How could anyone write something so disgusting?! She's traumatized (I know, because she said so). How could the teacher give them something so disgusting? Of course, I want to hear more.

So she starts telling me about the story. It's about a man who has a cat, only the cat loves him too much and it gets on his nerves and he starts to hate the cat and he becomes an alcoholic and now he's trying to hurt the cat. How could a cat love anyone too much, how is that even possible? Who would ever want to hurt a cat? She's choking back tears at this point, telling me how the cat loses an eye, and I'm thinking this text is a little severe, her English teacher sounded pretty cool, but assigning this text may have been a lapse in judgement. Then the man hangs the cat, kills it dead, and Helena is sobbing, how could anyone write something so horrible, why would the teacher make them read this, he doesn't like cats, does he?

And Helena goes on, in excruciating detail, not only about the story, but about her emotions, and, really, her entire value system. Now there's another cat, why would the man bring home another cat, and he tries to kill this cat too, only he kills his wife by accident. Wait a minute, I know this story. I've been listening to Helena cry into the phone for about 10 minutes now, but I'm at work and my attention is divided. But suddenly, now that we're at the end, I know this story. That's Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat, it's a classic. Yes, she confirms, that's it. It's disgusting.

Worst. Story. Ever.

Teacher says they'll be doing more stories by this writer this year. I can't wait.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Il descend, réveillé, l'autre côté du rêve

It's a short flight, but I'm hoping to finish reading my book. Helena asks me about the flying turtles on the cover. My edition of The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin, has flying turtles on the cover. I can't say I even noticed them.

Oh, right, I say. They're not actually turtles, they're aliens. But they're a bit odd, as aliens go, cuz this guy just dreamed them up. He has these dreams that come true, only they don't exactly "come true," just he wakes up and everything in his dream has always been true, so nobody notices when things change. So he dreamt there were aliens on the Moon, but then it was suggested to him to dream that they weren't on the Moon anymore, so suddenly they're invading the Earth, but then he dreams that it was all a big misunderstanding. They're not really turtles, it's more like an armour, or a spacesuit so they can deal with the atmosphere. And they communicate through their left elbow. At which point I'm flapping my own left elbow up near my ear to demonstrate. And Helena says, "And you think I'm weird."

It's a terrific idea book, and I was guessing that it was from earlier in Le Guin's career, but that turns out to be not true. (It was published in 1971.) I was assuming earlier because it totally feels like it's from an earlier era — it's like Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley with a Twilight-Zone vibe. There's a naïve idealism at work, and an underlying Cold War threat of nuclear war. On further reflection though, I realize that The Lathe is a mature and even subtle novel (despite my clumsy rehash of it here) about the nature of (our) reality(s).

So George Orr is having these dreams, and he wants to stop having these dreams, so he's taking illegally obtained drugs to suppress his dream state and when he ODs, the police refer him to compulsory psychological treatment. But Dr Haber's more interested in controlling the dreams than in curing George of them, and George is pretty much at his mercy.
"You can't go on changing things, trying to run things."

"You speak as if that were some kind of general moral imperative." He looked at Orr with his genial, reflective smile, stroking his beard. "But in fact, isn't that man's very purpose on earth — to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?"


"What is his purpose, then?"

"I don't know. Things don't have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What's the function of a galaxy? I don't know if our life has a purpose and I don't see that it matters. What does matter is that we're a part. Like a thread in a cloth of a grass-bade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass."

There was a slight pause, and when Haber answered his tone was no longer genial, reassuring, or encouraging. It was quite neutral and verged, just detectably, on contempt.

"You're of a peculiarly passive outlook for a man brought up in the Judeo-Christian-Rationalist West. A sort of natural Buddhist. Have you ever studied the Eastern mysticisms, George?" The last question, with its obvious answer, was an open sneer.

"No. I don't know anything about them. I do know that it's wrong to force the pattern of things. It won't do. It's been our mistake for a hundred years."
Le Guin has drawn some great characters that are in sharp contrast to one another — George the dreamer, Haber the rationalist, and Heather, lawyer and George's love interest in some realities, is mostly just human, to bear the consequences and bring the others into relief. George has terrific strength of character; he carries an immense weight and tremendous sadness.

Early on George wonders if there might be other dreamers out there who can effect realities as he does, but no one cares to entertain this question too seriously. Apart from this ability, George is a very average guy. Allegorically this novel's message, trite but true, might be that anybody can change reality if they dream it so, and that even the smallest change can have a large impact. The simplest suggestions may have complex interpretations. And you can never go back.

Beyond this, the novel propounds a Buddhist mentality, embracing stillness over change, and being a part rather than apart. The Lathe doesn't exactly end well, but it ends mostly right; that is, it ends.

Read this excellent excerpt.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Defending poetry

Reading Eternal Enemies, a collection of poems by Adam Zagajewski.