Archive for October, 2016

This is a short collection of short pieces, some of them very short. When I finished, I honestly felt as if I hadn’t read anything; the most characteristic quality of the text is evasion. It’s a book about the inability to express oneself, so by the end I felt as if she hadn’t. I mean, one of the longer pieces is a transcription of conversations overheard as people pass by a spot in Kew Gardens on a Sunday afternoon. It could be the beginnings of a story, the source of a novel, but in isolation, it feels as if there’s no story at all. When we sit in public and eavesdrop, it may pass the time, but it doesn’t satisfy. We get a few seconds of dialogue with no context; we may invent a story for them, as Woolf does again in “An Unwritten Novel,” but it feels fake. I once tried to get a Brazilian to tell me the Portuguese word for eavesdropping, but the best he could come up with was “lack of education,” their way of indicating “bad manners.”

Of course, this is Virginia Woolf, so there are some things we know to expect, like beautifully descriptive passages:

Now to recollect by the fireside on the white square of marble. From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate. Fallen the book; in the flame, in the smoke, in the momentary sparks—or now voyaging, the marble square pendant, minarets beneath and the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint—truth? or now, content with closeness?

Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.

But they don’t really go anywhere, here. The heron doesn’t lead us to truth. Monday or Tuesday is like having dinner with a famous writer when she really has nothing to say.

The most famous piece from this collection is “The Mark on the Wall,” a stream-of-consciousness essay in which Woolf stares at a mark on the wall and wonders what it is, letting her attention wander down different paths but without reaching any destination. She always returns to that mark, which might be a bit of soot, or a protruding nail, or a snail that wandered in out of the garden. She says a number of things that are right and true and beautifully expressed and almost instantly forgotten.

The piece that hangs in my memory most firmly is “A Society,” Woolf’s version of Rasselas. A group of women decide to infiltrate the institutions of men to determine if they produce good men and good books. Some have to go undercover; one of them ends up pregnant. But the end is alarming, and disappointing.

But more significant than the answers were the refusals to answer. Very few would reply at all to questions about morality and religion, and such answers as were given were not serious. Questions as to the value of money and power were almost invariably brushed aside, or pressed at extreme risk to the asker.

It seems clear to me that men don’t answer because it would expose their privilege in uncomfortable ways; indeed, privilege-exposing is one of the ways people use the internet a lot, but it doesn’t seem to gain them any friends. I have one friend that I felt close to in high school who frequently makes me feel ashamed of myself for white cis-male privilege, even though some of that privilege is canceled by poverty and homosexuality. And that’s a weird identity to have; spending time with the gay community makes it seem like coming out is a luxury of the wealthy. And yet Woolf’s women don’t speculate on male privilege, or how their incomes and ethnicity make them privileged as well. [Mental note: check on immigration figures in the early twentieth century. How much exposure would Woolf have had to Asians or Africans?] I can’t say for sure why these women stop talking; all I can say is that the answer to their questions, are men good and do they produce good books, eventually becomes unsayable. I suspect that the answer is no, but they don’t say it. The more Woolf’s women know, the closer they get to the sources of power, the less comfortable they feel criticizing ineffective social institutions. In this story, education and experience do not give women a voice the way that modern readers expect; they rob women of their speech. Maybe they do see their privilege and don’t yet have a vocabulary for it; maybe they see their privilege and don’t yet have a solution for creating a more equal society. Or maybe they don’t want to implicate people they’ve grown to love and respect. They say that innocence and purity are hardly worthwhile goals, but ignorance can feed self-satisfaction in a way that education and experience cannot.

Stranger still, after Woolf died, her husband rereleased this collection and cut “A Society” from it. The more I think about things, this fact seems stranger and stranger: the author of A Room of One’s Own at some point changed her name because of a man. Maybe she loved him, maybe she wanted to get out of her father’s house (when I try to think of what I’ve read about the relationship between her and her father, I get it confused with Maria Edgeworth), maybe society dictated and she acquiesced, I don’t know. But for a woman who writes so passionately for women’s voice and independence, it seems strange. Maybe it would have been just as strange to call her Virginia Stephen, since her maiden name is a man’s first name [Try starting a sentence, “Stephen says that women . . .”].

It’s a weird collection. They’re not quite stories and they’re not quite essays. They don’t really seem to fit well together. It’s like one of those Russel Stover samplers – here are some little bitefuls of Woolf. We hope you like them.

Enfin, here’s a bit from the end of the “Kew Gardens” piece:

Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue. It seemed as if all gross and heavy bodies had sunk down in the heat motionless and lay huddled upon the ground, but their voices went wavering from them as if they were flames lolling from the thick waxen bodies of candles. Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.

 

When I try to remember the house where we lived when I was young, the thing I remember most clearly is a picture of a dog with enormous eyes that was hanging high up in the living room. Not big anime eyes, big 1970s eyes, the kind when someone wants to draw a picture of a sad dog that is going to make everyone who sees it just as sad because the dog watches them with a forlornness and a desperation that they can never comfort or heal. The picture always made me feel very small and afraid. But after we moved when I was twelve, I never saw it again. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken to any of my family about it; by now, I’m not even sure if the picture really existed or if I’m superimposing this image of a depressing decoration on my depressing childhood. I’m kind of afraid to bring it up; I’d prefer not to be told I hallucinated the whole thing.

Stephen King’s short stories are what you would expect from reading his novels or watching his films. They’re him in miniature, a workshop where he can see how ideas play out. I’m interested in the number of first-person narrators he uses; like Pamela or Dracula, these stories are interested in their own production; it’s not enough to tell the story, he also has to tell how the story is told. There must be eyewitnesses telling their account.

It’s a great relief to write this down.

And as a writer, sometimes that’s true. But it’s not always a great relief to read what’s been written.

It is not surprising to me that Stephen King originally published some of his stories in the more literary pornographic magazines. I’m not saying that they’re trashy (some porn is actually well-filmed; I like it when the director pays attention to the way light reflects on skin. Light is beautiful); horror and pornography share a common ideology: There are opportunities for the fantastic all around us that most people don’t notice or take advantage of. In pornography, those opportunities are for pleasure; in King’s novels, those opportunities are for terror. But I appreciate the reminder that there are opportunities for a life that is bigger and stranger than the one I habitually lead.

Speaking of the overlap of horror and daily life, King takes a few minutes to explain why people enjoy the stories he writes:

I remembered talking with a writer friend who lived in Otisfield and supported his wife and two kids by raising chickens and turning out one paperback original a year – spy stories. We had gotten talking about the bulge in popularity of books concerning themselves with the supernatural. Gault pointed out that in the forties Weird Tales had only been able to pay a pittance, and that in the fifties it went broke. When the machines fail, he had said (while his wife candled eggs and roosters crowed querulously outside), when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.

Real life has quite a lot of horror in it already. Look at 2016. Artists who make us happy die by the truckload, while the least electable candidates are fighting for an election that a great many Americans just don’t want any part of. A workmate and I were talking about politics, and we agreed that while neither of us likes either of the mainstream candidates, I’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Trump and she’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Hillary. So when you’ve got this going on, a tiger in the kindergarten bathrooms seems familiar and reminds us that things must not be too bad if they could get this much worse.

In King’s stories, and I suspect in his mind, regular society is a pretty awful place.

The third thing that struck me was The Eye. You know about The Eye once you let your hair get down below the lobes of your ears. Right then people know you don’t belong to the Lions, Elks, or the VFW. You know about The Eye, but you never get used to it.

People are pointlessly cruel to each other, and I don’t comprehend it. For example, he tells the story of a 350-pound woman getting married. People laugh at her all the time, as if an obese woman is somehow amusing. I used to be friends with a woman who weighed more than this, but no one ever laughed at her. She always looked nice; the type of girl who never goes out without makeup and seldom wears an outfit twice. And in small-town North Carolina, she was always completely accepted. She even had a pretty busy love life. The United States today is pretty evenly divided into three groups these days: regular weight, overweight, and obese. That wasn’t the case forty years ago. People in the story are also pretty weird about race, which is more obvious to me. That was a struggle I have always been well aware of. This week, I was sitting in the university library and some kid started making Harry Potter jokes in my direction, and I kind of wanted to beat his ass and say, “Harry Potter didn’t wear a bowtie, mother fucker!” but then I remembered that all white people look alike, so he probably couldn’t tell the difference between me and Daniel Radcliffe.

I will say that Stephen King seems to honor and respect women, even though his genre isn’t known for that. For example, here’s a female character explaining the gender divide:

But in her heart what every woman wants to be is some kind of goddess, I think – men pick up a ruined echo of that thought and try to put them on pedestals (a woman, who will pee down her own leg if she does not squat! It’s funny when you stop to think of it) – but what a man senses is not what a woman wants. A woman wants to be in the clear, is all. To stand if she will, or walk . . .’ Her eyes turned toward that little go-devil in the driveway, and narrowed. Then she smiled. ‘Or to drive, Homer. A man will not see that. He thinks a goddess wants to loll on a slope somewhere on the foothills of Olympus and eat fruit, but there is no god or goddess in that. All a woman wants is what a man wants – a woman wants to drive.’

People are people, and are happier when they are treated primarily as a person. Gender is an attribute, it’s often the first one other people notice, but it’s not the most helpful in determining someone’s personality, goals, or desires. One of my sisters wanted to become an astronaut, and the other was a gifted athlete. The astronaut dream didn’t play out, but she’s now studying neurophysics, and the track star trained as a police officer. Either of them would be more handy in a fistfight than I would be, and they’re both more conservative politically. The science genius and I once talked about political labels as working more in a circle – extreme left and extreme right can actually be pretty similar if you let go of the party names. Which is why we get on so well.

That sense of doom had hung about the boy so palpably that there had been times when Richard had wanted to hug him, to tell him to lighten up a little bit, that sometimes there were happy endings and the good didn’t always die young.

The one thing that I differ from Stephen King the most on is the idea of a happy ending. I think that happy endings are much more useful than tragic ones, because I believe so strongly in integrating all elements of a society. People die in real life because they get sick or are in accidents. In real life death is random and unfair and doesn’t make sense. In fiction, people die because at some level the author believes they deserve to. Victims are in some ways as guilty as the murderers; it’s not random, it’s not an accident. The author kills them because he can’t fit them into the reintegrated world at the end of the story. So I think that horror authors must have a lot of people they’d like to kill (or parts of themselves they’d like to kill) because that’s what their imaginations enact when they sit down at the typewriter. In this collection, there are twenty stories and two poems. Happy endings, where I felt good about the story I’d just finished? Three. “Word Processor of the Gods,” which fits my own sense of justice. “Mrs Todd’s Shortcut,” where like-minded people end up together and live in a natural world of speed and divinity. And “The Reach,” where death comes as a big reunion where you sing with all your friends. Saying that the story that is most explicitly about a woman dying has a happy ending may seem odd, but I believe that death can be kind, especially when it comes to the old as a reunion with the lovers and friends they’ve missed.

So if I have such a hard time with tragedies, why do I read horror stories? Fear is familiar to me, as I’ve mentioned. But, aside from his troubles with humanity in general, Stephen King writes for someone that he loves, so when I read his prefaces and consider myself the Constant Reader, I feel that he loves me.

Grab onto my arm, now. Hold tight. We are going into a number of dark places, but I think I know the way. Just don’t let go of my arm. And if I should kiss you in the dark, it’s no big deal; it’s only because you are my love.

The language is often gruesome, but it’s also beautiful. He knows how to catch the light reflecting on skin. The skin more often covers a body that is dying horribly than on one that is fucking mechanically, but beauty is beauty, and it can be found everywhere. Find the awe, the wonderment. The opportunity is there, always. Daily life doesn’t have to be mundane. It can be ecstatic, or horrifying, or peaceful, or whatever you like. So make it what you like.