Winter Break Playlist: What I read over break

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 - 6:58pm

Emily Yang

Emily Yang Buy this photo

Daily Arts Writer Emily Yang delves into her winter break reads in five capsule reviews.


n+1, issue 35  


This is the only literary magazine I subscribe to in print, in part because it’s relatively inexpensive and in part because the writing it publishes tends to be both sophisticated and politically astute. It’s slightly under the radar, but occasionally individual pieces get wider attention. The piece that generated the most buzz from this issue is Tony Tulathimmute’s short story “The Feminist,” which was hailed as a spiritual successor to Kristen Roupenian’s late-2017 story “Cat Person” on at least one lit-blog. It’s a detailed psychological portrait of a self-professed male feminist. If you’ve been on the Internet for the past few years you can probably guess where that goes. This story is particularly protracted — he stays a virgin into his thirties; his resentment metabolizes into violence. The Roupenian story this reminded me of isn’t “Cat Person,” but “The Good Guy.” They both employ a close third person, narrate most of their titular characters’ lives, are way too long, start to frustrate after a while in their oil-and-water mix of character study, polemic and satire.


Another story in this issue, “Parasite Air” by Trevor Shikhaze, has a similarly polemical aim, with more of a slant — a “discouraged worker” is paid by a billionaire to “offset his carbon” in a garish parody of consumer-choice environmentalism. The writing is crisp and witty, but the story is a bit of a nonstarter: as events become less causal, you can almost feel Shikhaze struggling to turn the one-liner of a premise into plot.  


Two pieces in the second half of the issue by Sarah Resnick and Alice Abraham operate in murkier ways. The former is an oblique, loosely sketched short story about a woman in New York dating two very different men, and the latter a personal essay about the author’s mother preparing to die of cancer. Both authors write incantatory, hypnotic prose — juxtaposition and inference running alongside logical progression and deduction. Resnick’s story is full of lists that read like annotated ship manifests or archival entries, unnamed or improbably named characters, actions seemingly with no motive and anxiety that silences. Its mood is the dense opacity of an unfamiliar city. Abraham is more willing to explain herself, but has a way of undermining herself: she wanders into discussions of her dreams and her romantic relationships, juxtaposes strange images, weaves between description and deduction as if one can be an answer for the other. She writes with an acute emotional intelligence and writes strangely in a way that recalls Didion. At one point she describes a date with her boyfriend with an image astonishing in its eerie lucidity: “We’re exposed, sensing ourselves — a hetero couple sitting across from each other — repeated in an unwavering pattern across the floor plan.”  


Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Virgin Suicides”  


I felt icky after I put this novel down, as I think is right: Eugenides unapologetically seeks out beauty in cloistered female pain, turns voyeurism into a literary genre. This is, before it's anything else, creepy. What’s interesting about this is that a true literary voyeurism is only partly sexual, or at least lives in a kind of uncanny valley between sexual and nonsexual curiosity about a group of people. Curiosity about other people, and their ultimate unknowability in the face of inquiry, is a common topic for literary fiction — the obsessive passion the boys have for the Lisbon girls is, therefore, generalizable to themes common to literature as a whole 


The novel’s position in the history of both the U.S. and of literature might have informed the methods that Eugenides uses to represent voyeurism — bureaucratic, itemizing, both invasive and antiseptic. The boys that form the hivemind narrator catalog and number their “exhibits” about the girls, photographs and potholders and bed springs and the girls’ fingerprints on the grimy windows forming detached fragments of a furtive kind of knowledge. We get something resembling a police file, a fossilized outline that is repeatedly lamented for its ultimate inadequacy. I’m reminded of the critic Mara Smith’s diagnosis, after James Wood, that the defining trait of fin-de-millénaire Anglo-American literature is its “surfeit of undigested information”: its appropriative excesses. The difference between this novel and those by writers like David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith is that for Eugenides, this avalanche of information isn’t employed for texture or affect, but as a futile attempt to find real meaning. There’s a reason all of these lists are there, if only to index their own uselessness.  


Hiroko Oyamada trans. David Boyd, “The Factory”


Oyamada based her first novel on her experiences temping at a subsidiary of Toyota. Temp work is usually pretty menial, filling in the gaps of what’s necessary in an office environment; usually the work temps do has little relationship to the real goals of the organization. Oyamada’s characters at the titular Factory (never mentioned by any other name) do work like this — one shreds paper all day, another proofreads opaque internal documents, the third works on an unsupervised project cataloguing moss. They occasionally have doubts about their jobs, but invariably remind themselves of how precarious the labor market is, how lucky they are to be employed at all. It’s less bleak than it sounds — Oyamada’s style is transparent and airy, rendering the increasingly mysterious factory in small details, from the smell of soap from a laundry facility to the small annoyances of office politics. After a while, you start to notice that surface detail substitutes for character development — she doesn’t really divulge characters' backstories besides what you could get from a resumé, and instead devotes endless passages to the inscrutable, fine-grained details of the Factory, its rhythms and protocols, sometimes going as far as to resemble a piece of technical writing. It’s Oyamada’s impersonality that makes the novel such a strong, unnerving statement — we start to see her characters not as individuals but as representations of replaceable workers within a system too large to even understand, let alone escape.  


Robert Walser trans. and ed. Susan Bernofsky, “Berlin Stories”


NYRB’s collections of short fiction as “___ Stories” tracks with the place-focused trend in 21st-century fiction and thus packages a kind of reading into an edited collection. Usually, I would disapprove of this, but for a writer like Walser, it makes sense: most of the pieces collected in this book were published in the feuilleton (art criticism) sections of newspapers and were thus intended to be some kind of document of life in the city in the first person. The result is a hybrid style that could be read as a distant predecessor to autofiction, with a lot of room for reportage as well as for fictionalization and embellishment. Accordingly, his narrators are both rather transparent and totally involved in goings-on: restaurants, train cars, holidays, artistic society, the theater. The writing can be needlessly saccharine at times, but it’s possible to catch an inkling of what Walser is really capable of when he writes about the complicated and slightly tragic figure of his landlady or about the small drama of his own writing process. His defining quality is an admirably small voice: he gives the impression of someone who sees everything but lays claim to very little. 


Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Marriage Plot” 


A novel that attempts to center marriage any time after about 1960 is swimming upstream — as the jacket copy says, “the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce” make marriage a thing that isn’t as final as it was in the past. This is, to be clear, a good thing; however, if you were, hypothetically, a novelist still curious about applying the 19th-century aesthetic to any decade in the second half of the 20th century, the reactionary 1980s is probably your safest bet. For Eugenides’ recent college graduates in limbo between childhood and PhDs, radicalism and retrenchment are both in the air. The Reagan era is a wonderfully tense moment to be intelligent and heterosexual.  


Neoliberalism isn’t the same thing as aristocracy, though, and Eugenides is missing the tightly-knit milieu that can be effectively energized by a marriage plot of the Victorian or Regency variety. This might be why this novel lacks a certain structural integrity: in a nineteenth-century novel, different parties having a stake in the success of different suitors means that romantic conflict becomes social and often material. There’s endless intrigue around marriage in a novel by Austen or Wharton only because marriage is never just marriage in this world. This might be why long sections of this 400-page novel sort of stall out into pointless backstory and limpid indecision. It’s fortunate, then, that Eugenides does backstory and indecision quite well; the digression of the novel ends up being its strongest feature. In the end, the answer to the question the novel seems to pose ends up being “no, but…”.


Sappho ed. Anne Carson, “If Not, Winter”  


There’s a scene in the first episode of “The L Word” where one woman asks another if she’s read any Anne Carson. As you might guess given the show's creator Ilene Chaiken’s proclivities with this show’s writing, not even a few scenes later they’re making out in the bathroom. I somehow doubt Carson herself would approve of this scene, or of the fact that I read her translations of Sappho with a girl I’m kind of seeing. She seems to want an antidote to readings of Sappho that embellish and transform her scant surviving work, making the ancient poet a sort of blank canvas for generations of writers to project their fantasies of female artistry onto. This also applies to reading too much into Sappho’s (admittedly, rather ambiguous) sexuality: Carson writes in the introduction: “controversies about her personal ethics and way of life have taken up a lot of people’s time throughout the history of Sapphic scholarship… Can we leave the matter there?”  


Carson’s solution is to make her readers confront the abyssal gaps in the archive, as if to say fine, but here’s what she actually said. I didn’t feel acutely enough before this book the fact that only one of Sappho’s poems in its completion survives. The rest are fragmentary, pieced together from multiple sources or found on papyrus “smaller than a postage stamp,” as Carson writes in the introduction. She renders the absences of material as brackets. What’s left is nearly nothing — there’s an uncomfortable amount of space to free-associate between the small handfuls of words that remain on the page, which are often surrounded by brackets, indexing silence. Carson’s excellent notes provided a lot of context for what exists, but in the end, I found that reading these fragmentary texts mostly just inspired in me a tidal yearning for the rest of it — that which will always be out of reach but feels mysteriously inscribed on what remains.