Tuesday, June 18, 2013

2 books by Pema Chodron

The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Pema Chodron

            Last night I came home from work and I didn’t feel good. I was tired and my eyes were glazed; I felt brain-dead and a little sad. Anxiety about time and losing it, and a familiar associated feeling of guilt and fear started up their regular rotation in my brain. I recognized that I was on the edge from which I have so often fallen into a pit of depression. This time, though, was different. This time I remembered what I’ve been reading in Pema Chödrön’s books about gentleness, curiosity, and non-judgment, and I decided not to feel bad about feeling bad (I didn’t even try to stop feeling bad, just to stop feeling bad about feeling bad). I remembered that instead of being angry I could make friends with myself and notice with a friendly curiosity how I was feeling and maybe why, but I didn’t have to condemn myself for it; I didn’t have to fall into the trap of thinking there was something wrong with me just because I didn’t feel great. As soon as I remembered this and relaxed into my feelings, allowing them to be what they were, they changed. The negativity seemed to break apart, dissipate, and pop like carbonated bubbles in the air. I felt lighter, better. Such is the power, when we’re strong enough to use it, of a Buddhist approach to life’s everyday trials.  
            This is why I study Buddhism, at least in part. The other, even better part is that the benefit is not only personal. In this case, because I felt better I didn’t pick a fight with my husband when he came home. Because I was relaxed, I was able to go out and be kind to my friends and to strangers. Because I was at peace I could smile and pass that peace on to others, instead of infecting them with depression. Buddhism teaches this mutual benefit, and Chödrön reminds us of it in The Wisdom of No Escape: “… we are actually needed. Individuals who are willing to wake up and make friends with themselves are going to be very beneficial, because they can work with others, they can hear what people are saying to them, and they can come from the heart and be of use.” This is the other reason I study Buddhism - because, selfishly, I want to help the world.
I say that wanting to help the world is selfish because the state of the world often causes me a great deal of fear and anxiety and guilt. So, selfishly, I want to change things so that I can get rid of these unpleasant emotions in myself. But what I’ve learned from Buddhism is that actions driven by fear and anxiety and guilt cannot generate peace and happiness and love - they will only perpetuate more fear and anxiety and guilt. I (we) need a way to find peace and gentleness inside of ourselves before we can expect to produce those qualities in the wider world. I’ve read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh in the last six years, and he has taught me this. Like many westerners, TNH has been my introduction to Buddhism and, through his books, my spiritual teacher. I love him and am so grateful for his work, which has quite literally changed my life. At the same time, though, I decided it might be a good idea to diversify my spiritual diet, to diverge from my comfortable habit, so to speak. My sister, who has been studying Buddhism too, lent me these two books by Pema Chödrön, and I have benefited greatly from them both. I don’t think you have to have studied Buddhism previously to benefit, though a little bit of background could definitely help.
            Neither of these books gives a general overview of Buddhism or its teachings, and neither is focused around a single topic, as Hanh’s sometimes are. Instead, both books are comprised of the transcripts of short talks by Chödrön: Things Fall Apart from various talks between 1987-1994, and No Escape from a one-month meditation retreat in Nova Scotia in 1989. As such, Things Fall Apart is somewhat less cohesive and harder to follow than No Escape.            Despite When Things Fall Apart’s lack of obvious progression, it is a very worthwhile read. If you’re new to Buddhism, you might read it slowly, over the course of a few weeks or a month. If you read a chapter or two at a time, and then stop to let them sink in, it doesn’t matter as much that each chapter is completely new, and in a “plot” sense (though definitely not a spiritual one) unrelated to the last. Perhaps it’s even appropriate that the book is a bit jumbled, a bit here and there; life is like that, too. We encounter this and that and the other thing all the time, all at once, and presenting each point separately might in fact give us an unduly simplistic view of the teachings. A lot of the stuff discussed in this book was familiar to me already, but one topic was completely new, and extremely enlightening and useful. That is the practice of “tonglen.”
Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation technique that means “sending and receiving.” “It is a practice of taking in pain and sending out pleasure and therefore completely turns around our well-established habit of doing just the opposite.” Chödrön, who was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala meditation centers, and Naropa University, talks over and over again in both of these books about our tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This habit, she suggests, actually contributes to our pain. In running away and attempting to wriggle free from pain we defeat the purpose of the pain, which is to understand it. Tonglen is a method for staying with and addressing the pain we see around us. “When we see a woman and her child begging on the street, when we see a man mercilessly beating his terrified dog, when we see a teenager who has been badly beaten or see fear in the eyes of a child, do we turn away because we can’t bear it? Most of us probably do. Someone needs to encourage us not to brush aside what we feel, not to be ashamed of the love and grief it arouses in us, not to be afraid of pain.” Instead of getting away from these unpleasant feelings, Chödrön advises us to do the exact opposite – to actually open further to the unpleasantness. “Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy. It’s a practice that allows people to feel less burdened and less cramped, a practice that shows us how to love without conditions.” This idea struck me right away as revolutionary, and very practical. Off and on, (definitely with less than ideal discipline) I’ve been trying to cultivate it as I move about the suffering-filled streets of NYC. It’s not at all easy; it requires opening rather than closing. But what I like about it is that it offers a solution: instead of being bitter and angry about injustice, which only makes things worse, we can be gentle and loving towards those who suffer, which might just help us all.

            The Wisdom of No Escape, the second Chödrön book I read, was shorter and a little bit easier to read. It hangs together better because she’s talking to the same group of people over the course of one month. In both books I really like Chödrön’s voice. She is humble, gentle, and not overly cute. She often tells seemingly banal stories about how she failed to uphold her own ideals and how she (and we) can learn from that. For example, if you intended to only eat one cookie, and then you ate three (as I did the other day), you can respond in a variety of ways. You could get angry at yourself, or depressed, or say “Screw it; I’m going to eat badly for the rest of the day, because now it doesn’t matter,” or any number of less-than-useful reactions. Or, you could respond with a gentle curiosity about why you overate. Obviously it wasn’t about being hungry; perhaps you were upset about something or feeling scared, or tired, or put upon in some way. You can notice and not judge, instead of spiraling into a pit of despair. These are the kinds of stories Chödrön tells because these are the kinds of “problems” we so often have. Ridiculous problems! And yet if we don’t address them in a positive way, they can become very big, very real problems. If we don’t figure out why we made the choice we did, we will just carry on with our habits that lull us into sleep when we need to be awake. And if we can’t react well to a small problem, we’re certainly not going to do any better when shit really hits the fan.

It’s very important that we are awake to our own thinking because “by the way that we think and by the way that we believe in things, in that way is our world created.” Chödrön is not saying that she has it all figured out, or that Buddhism will tell us what is true and what is false. Actually, what she’s saying is that it’s problematic to believe anything to the point that you no longer question it. She refers to a Buddhist teaching that says, “‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha.’ This means that if you can find Buddha and say, ‘It’s this way; Buddha is like this,’ then you had better kill that ‘Buddha’ that you found, that you can say is like this. … when you see that you’re grasping or clinging to anything, whether conventionally it’s called good or bad, make friends with that. Look into it. Get to know it completely and utterly. In that way it will let go of itself.” This kind of advice – to “look into it” – is very Chödrön. It’s very Buddhist. It’s also very hard, and often, as the title of one of her final chapters reflects, quite “inconvenient.” It’s a lot easier to let someone else tell you what is true and what isn’t, but figuring that out for yourself is the only way to see clearly what is. Chödrön’s books are extremely helpful tools in that endeavor. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Travel Reading

Hello! It's a sunny day here in New York City, but it hasn't been that way much lately. It's that time of year when we all get really tired of winter, and start daydreaming about the easy days of summer: flowy dresses, flip flops, rum cocktails, walking in hot sand... Like many of you, no doubt, I don't plan to wait for June to enjoy such luxuries. To get our fix quicker, my husband and I are going to Negril, Jamaica at the end of March. I've never been to Jamaica, and I can't wait to go swimming (look at that water!!) and soak up some sun.

As I've been told that Jamaica, while incredibly beautiful, is perhaps not the safest place on Earth, I don't plan to bring any electronics to entertain me. (I hate the way they heat up in the sun, anyway). So, it will be old fashioned books all the way. (I'm making silly excuses; it's pretty much always old-fashioned books for me.) So, I need to know what to read! When I travel, I like to read things about the country I'm in, or that seem related to the environment in some way. I'd love to hear suggestions for the right thing to read in Jamaica. I've recently watched the documentary, Life and Debt, about how the IMF and the Worldbank have, to put it delicately, screwed Jamaica over, so I have a teensy bit of knowledge about the country's history, but I'd love to know more. Also, as I tend to gravitate to the heavy, philosophical stuff, additional recommendations for light-hearted beach reads would also be appreciated.

I hope you have a spring fling planned yourself! Let me know if you need book recommendations!

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Great Month for Books

It has been a great month for books so far in the Morgan household! Since school has been out I’ve been collecting books like they’re going out of style, which of course you and I both know will never be the case. Here’s a run-down of some of my recent good biblio-juju.

Alabaster Books, NYC          
The first great book day was a couple of weeks ago when I went to meet a friend for coffee in Manhattan. While we sat sipping our small black brews in the window of Think Coffee on 4th Ave near Union Square I noticed a small, unassuming book shop across the street with an unusual name: Alabaster Books. Not that either of us “needed” any new books, but we both love them and were in no hurry so decided to do some browsing. Alabaster is a small, jumbled place that felt quaint and inviting on a Sunday morning before the hordes had ventured out. We spent a long time in there and both walked away with some very nicely priced items. I got Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, which I've never read before, and Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, which I've read a lot about but also never read. We headed to The Strand after that and had a wonderful hour browsing in there, but I resisted buying more because the prices weren't as good as Alabaster and I remembered that my dearest step-dad had sent me a gift card to Amazon.com for my recent birthday…

Of course, I used my gift card to buy books. I got: Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee (just finished reading it from the library but decided I needed to own it, too), Virginia Woolf: A Biography, by Quentin Bell (to compare), Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, by Virginia Woolf, The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, and Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. It’s amazing what you can get for $50 on Amazon! So cheap, but much more fun to go browsing at The Strand and little shops like Alabaster. Anyway, so far I’ve received all of my purchases except for Fun Home, but haven’t started reading any yet because right now I’m on Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang by Hunter S. Thompson, which I borrowed from a friend. Also, in case you’re wondering, yes, I have a Woolf (and also Wolfe) project in the works.

Propeller Books, Portland, OR
I love getting books in the mail! I love it even more when they’re beautiful, as the titles from Propeller Books always are. Because I’ve been writing a recurring column (titled Mostly Novels, wouldn’t you know) for their online magazine, www.propellermag.com, the good folks at Propeller saw fit to send me a couple of their books that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. The story collections, Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women, by Mary Rechner, and Disorder, by Dan Deweese, arrived in my mailbox a few days ago, and I can’t wait to get started on them. Everyone says this about Propeller Books but I’ll just go ahead and repeat because it’s so true: they are beautiful objects. The covers are soft and supple, the papers are crisp and smooth, and the designs are uncluttered and soothing to the eye – all of this combines so that the experience of reading is elevated beyond the intellectual to the sensual. It all makes you want to arrange the rest of the reading experience to match – smoking robes and low light and just the right cup of tea. I know this because I did read another book published by Propeller, A Simple Machine, Like the Lever, by Evan P. Schneider, which is beautifully sparse and sad, and about which I have been meaning to write a post for far too long now.

The Dude
As I told you in my last post, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to make better use of New York City. As such, I’ve joined a email list that provides information about free and cheap things to do around town. This email let me know (as did New York magazine before it, my subscription to which is part of the same plan) that The Dude from The Big Lebowski, aka Jeff Bridges, and Zen Master Bernie Glassman have written a book together called The Dude and The Zen Master, which they would be discussing in person at Barnes and Noble Union Square on Tuesday night. So off I went. I had to buy the book to get a seat (this was not the case when I saw Candace Bushnell there seven years ago), but it was worth it to see and listen to Jeff Bridges up close and personal. The talk was a little haphazard, but so far the book is nice. Not too heavy, man, but still deep, you know?

So now I need to buy more bookshelves, and/or find a bigger apartment.       

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Reflections: Doing What's Best for Me

 Happy New Year, novel readers! As is customary, I am spending today reflecting on the past year. 2012 was a big one for me: I got married, moved back to NYC, and turned 30. In addition to all that, I think I’m finally moving in a positive direction in my career. Writing, editing, and teaching jobs keep coming my way, piling up slowly but steadily. I feel more focused and engaged in my work than I have in a long, long time, and I couldn’t be happier about it. This is a result of other changes, of course – there’s a lot less partying in my life these days, a lot more cooking and running and writing and sleeping, but that’s as it should be as one grows older, or so I’m told. Which brings me to what I want to talk about today: how things, or rather how we, “should” be, and what that means to me lately. In the past few months, with the holidays and the end of the semester swarming all around me, I’ve come to realize a few things about “should” that I thought I would share with you.

First of all, Christmas. You should be with your family at Christmas, right? Well, I’m from Iowa, my husband is from Oregon, and we have family all over. We both love our family and treasure the time we get to spend together, but with the prices for plane tickets at Christmas astronomical, and the expectation of gifts nearly as high (expected by “society,” that is, not by our family necessarily) Brian and I decided that we were just not going to do it this year. We’ve had a big year, and, truth be told, New York and our jobs have been wearing us out. We needed sky and air and trees and rest, not events and presents and all day eating fests. So we went skiing in Vermont for five days, just the two of us, and it was perfect. It was exactly what we needed, and when we came back to New York we were rested and rejuvenated, not fat and exhausted. This is not to say that next year we won’t want to go home, or plan a joint trip with our family. It’s also not to say that if you went home and sat around eating for five days that you did it “wrong.”  It’s just that we knew that right now, this year, flying far away didn’t work for us, and so we didn’t let anyone else’s idea of what we “should” be doing deter us from what we really wanted to do.

I should clarify something – the “should” in this equation is, in a sense, not real. No one actually said that we should do anything in particular at Christmas. No one literally told us to travel anywhere or buy anything. Our family were 100% supportive of our plans. The “should” I’m referring to is, mostly, in my head. It’s some little voice inside me that tells me what other people are going to say, either to or about me. Yes, there are the advertisements; those are real. There are the Christmas songs, and those are real too. But I knew (or at least I expected) that our families would be fine with our Christmas plans; it was only my inner critic that was hounding me, a critic based on my real or perceived understanding of American traditions that I seem to have been cultivating all of my life, to my own detriment. Let me give you another example.

What are you supposed to do on New Year’s Eve? You know the answer – wear a sparkly hat, blow a noisemaker, and get drunk, right? But what if you don’t want to? What if you live in New York City and you just want to go out and get dinner with your husband in your quiet Brooklyn neighborhood? Is that okay? According to my inner critic, and plenty of real people I have heard over the years, it is definitely not okay, not if you want to be cool. On the other hand, according to the new, older and wiser me, who’s learning to ignore that bitch, it’s totally okay! And so that’s what we did. We hung out with some neighborhood friends and chatted and drank very little and had a relaxing, if not terrifically exciting, New Years Eve. Maybe next year I’ll feel like getting drunk. Or maybe I’ll feel like staying in and going to bed at 10 o’clock. Either way it will be okay, as long as I’m doing the best thing for me on that day, and not living my life based on other people’s ideas of how it should be done.  

Figuring out what works best for me does not mean that I have to go against convention; it also means that I don’t have to follow it. It does not mean doing the hardest thing, and it does not mean doing the easiest thing. It definitely does not mean being selfish – I’m not saying I’m doing what’s best for me at the expense of everybody else. I’m doing what’s best for me so that I can better love and cherish and appreciate and inspire everybody else. Taking care of ourselves is good for each other. You taking care of yourself is good for me.

Obviously, the hard part is figuring out what’s best for me. It doesn’t come in a daily email; there’s no app. It’s hard for the same reason that writing is hard – because it changes every single day, every single moment, because you have to constantly accept new data and reevaluate. But that’s where reading comes in handy. I know that a big part of the reason I’m coming to these realizations at all is because of what I’ve read, both fiction and not, and because I’ve been reading extensively (some might say excessively) since I can remember being alive. Books have taught me that there is no standard response to life’s complexity. From reading novels I have learned that people do things differently, feel things differently, have different religions, and different priorities. But underlying all of these differences are general truths – kindness and generosity are universally acknowledged as positive forces. Forgiveness of self and others seems less obviously a shared value in our everyday culture, but in novels it is. I have traveled near and far, but most of what I know comes from reading novels. One thing I know is that judgment, both of self and of others, is a negative force that helps no one. This is something that I’m going to try to do a better job of remembering in 2013. May I read books that remind me of it, in a million different ways.

A few other things I want to do in 2013 are:
See more live music
Do more yoga
Make better use of all NYC has to offer
Write more posts for Mostly Novels!

Thank you so much for reading my blog. May you know what is best for you this year, and have the strength and faith to act on that knowledge.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cloud Atlas, Mitchell

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell

Plenty of authors are willing to tell us how bad things are. Literary fiction readers lack not for doom and gloom. Even that former harbinger of a comedic, post-racial society to come, Zadie Smith, seems to want to tear down hope in her latest tome, NW. Maybe I should be okay with that. And maybe I’m just getting old, but I admit – I want literature to offer a silver lining of hope even at the bottom of a dark truth cloud. Like I tell my students – it’s easy to point out what’s wrong; it’s a lot harder to figure out where we go from here. Cloud Atlas, a beautiful, dense, “Russian nesting doll” of a book, manages to do both.

Cloud Atlas is about reincarnation. (If you’re not sure just watch the movie; it is impossible to miss). The lives of the six characters it follows don’t overlap so much as brush up against one another. Luisa Rey swears she’s heard the Cloud Atlas Sextet by Robert Frobisher somewhere before. Robert Frobisher reads Adam Ewing’s diary. Zackary of Baily’s Dwelling worships Sonmi as a god. Sonmi is influenced by a film made by Timothy Cavendish. Timothy Cavendish reads mystery novels written by Luisa Rey. And so on. The book begins in 1845 and moves chronologically through time to the two futuristic narratives – Sonmi, a “fabricant” in a “corpocratic” society in 2144, and Zackary, a goat herder in Hawaii in a distant future after “the fall.” After this outward movement, the book moves in again, like clouds wafting in a never-ending progression across the sky. The cyclical rotation is highly thematic. David Mitchell wants us to know that he’s talking about recurrence, repetition, eternity, the way the Earth rotates, and our continuous cycles around the wheel of the Earth, from birth to death to birth again. Though he mentions Christian, secular, and scientific ideas, as well as Buddhist ones, Mitchell suggests that Buddhism is the most useful because it acknowledges reincarnation and interbeing (that we are reborn as different people in different lifetimes, and that we are connected to everyone else in unexpected and unseen ways). Despite several mentions of Buddhism and strong thematic connections, Mitchell isn’t merely proselytizing; the book is entertaining and unique enough at the level of story that it avoids being polemical (many have written that the movie does not succeed in this regard; I would agree, but think that it’s fun to watch anyway. Then again, I agree strongly with its claims).

On the one hand, the message of the text is obvious – déjà vu comes up in every section and, in case you didn’t get it, each character has a comet shaped birthmark, suggesting that they might be one of the others reborn. This is all familiar to me from my study of Buddhism.  But something Robert Frobisher, the character from the 1931, says complicates my understanding of Mitchell’s concepts of reincarnation and time. The composer, Frobisher says, “Rome’ll decline and fall again, Cortes’ll lay Tenochtitlan to waste again, and after, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.” According to Frobisher, not only will we be reborn to another life on Earth, but maybe into the very same one. The structure of the book also indicates that we are doomed, if not to literally return to the same time, place, and body, then at least to repeat the same patterns “for an eternity of eternities.” Is there no Nirvana, no extinction, no respite from the cycle to look forward to?

Cloud Atlas is not only about reincarnation but also about the nature of that recurrence. The book suggests that though we progress, we also fall back. The struggle between the forces of good and evil is ongoing. While Mitchell doesn’t offer a lot of hope that evil will ever be permanently abolished, he does hint that good could be. So, while it seems we are unable to permanently “fix” the world, in fact it takes our very best efforts just to maintain the status quo. As these things tend to go, the movie is more uplifting than the book, showing a vision of interconnection that dwells more on the heroic acts of extraordinary individuals than the negative doings of the masses. Still, Mitchell leaves us with a tentative hope. At the very end the 19th century notary, Adam Ewing, expresses disgust with the world, and the desire to create a better one for his son. To do this, he proclaims, he will work for the Abolitionist cause. He imagines that his father-in-law’s response to this will be that it’s an admirable but impractical goal; people will never change; Adam’s actions will be nothing more than a drop in the ocean. To this hypothetical critique Adam replies, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” Adam wants to end slavery and, indeed, chattel slavery was abolished. On the other hand, the book questions the “once and for all-ness” of an idea like the “end” of slavery, since, in the future sections, slavery returns, albeit in a different guise.  The indication might be that the equally strong forces of good and evil are at work at all times. Sometimes the good is heavier, and sometimes the bad. What we do, Mitchell suggests, does alter the course of history, even if it doesn’t do so permanently. We may not be able to change the nature of people in general, but if we change the way we are, we will affect the quality of our own and others’ worlds right now. Stasis may be the only progress available, but it’s not nothing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

NW, Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith

“Happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.”

            Zadie Smith has always been good at writing about her particular time and place. What we loved about White Teeth, in addition to its comforting “warm-heartedness,” was its ability to capture the complex nature of life in the mix of London’s population at the end of the 20th century. On Beauty gave us the dense but endearing world of academic Massachusetts, and her newest novel, NW, brings us back to London, smack in the middle of right now. But whereas those other books ultimately delivered some kind of hopeful truth about life beyond their particularity, NW doesn't seem to do that or, if it does, it’s not enough of a prize for so much time spent with this lackluster cast of characters.
             NW begins with a section called “Visitation,” in which Leah Hanwell, a white woman of Irish descent, is visited by that common London feature, someone out to scam her for money. In this case the interaction with the young woman brings up feelings of empathy as well as lust for the protagonist; we learn that she is struggling with the fact that her husband wants to have a baby while she does not, though she hasn’t actually told him so.
This section is followed by “Guest,” in which we get to know Felix (unrelated to Leah though from the same NW London neighborhood) as he visits his dad, a guy about a car, and an ex-girlfriend. Leah’s section is moody, hazy, dream-like and often disjointed, while Felix’s is far more straightforward. Both Felix and Leah talk about a past fueled by drugs and sex, but Leah wants to hold on to that past, while Felix is grateful to finally be moving on. Juxtaposed with one another, it is hard to like Leah as much as the friendly, resilient Felix, who grew up in the projects with a Rasta father and a mostly absent, alcoholic mother.
After Felix’s short chapter comes the longest section of the book. In “Host,” we meet Keisha (later Natalie) Blake, a black girl, and Leah’s best friend, from NW London. Natalie’s section feels the most laborious to read, because it’s the longest but also because it’s the “flattest” in terms of character. We are told over and over again that Natalie does not have a personality, that she has no desire except to appear successful and well-adjusted to those around her. She is well aware of her posing, especially as she compares herself with Leah: “That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer. Look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know.” (Natalie’s beliefs about Leah differ slightly from my own. To me, Leah is “consistent” only in that she does not feel the need to make anything up at all, and therefore is drifting, rootless, while Natalie clings to reality, “albeit a contrived “reality.” Leah pushes all such grounding as far away as possible.) Natalie vaguely knows that she wants something real, but is conflicted about how to find it.
The novel suggests that Natalie is unaware of how much she has been shaped by the world outside herself, and that she fails to recognize anything inside as having value or meaning. “Natalie Blake and Francesco De Angelis [her husband] had opposite understandings of this word ‘choice.’ Both believed their own interpretation to be objectively considered and in no way the product of their contrasting upbringings.” It’s as if Smith wants Natalie to both actually be a stereotype, a stand-in for something larger than herself, and also a warning that modern life has a tendency to create such shells out of what might have been human beings. (“Something about Natalie inspired patronage, as if by helping her you helped an unseen multitude.”) Smith suggests that modernity is to blame for this predicament. In one example, Natalie hopes to find “the Real” through giving birth, but instead opts to medicate her pain away, such that she is barely even present at the births of her own children, and certainly not “conscious,” in the way Felix claims he is trying to be. “Pregnancy brought Natalie only more broken images from the great mass of cultural detritus she took in every day on a number of different devices, some handheld, some not.” Pregnancy, for Natalie, becomes yet another way to consume and internalize manufactured ideas of what life should be like.
Another example occurs when Natalie begins to seek sexual encounters via the internet. She actually goes to a few different houses in order to have sex with people she meets online. In one such encounter, she has hopes of having sex with two young men, but instead the men continue to jack off to “live” images on the internet, seemingly afraid of “the real thing right there in front of them.” All of this suggests that though Natalie, in our “post-racial” world, can now be the “host,” presiding at her own table, the leader of her own world, instead she slowly begins to realize that the world that has been sold to her is no more hers now than it ever was; it is only a story she has bought into, often quite literally.
The final section of the book is called, “Crossing,” and focuses mostly on Natalie’s long walk with Nathan, a man both she and Leah knew at school. All of the threads – Leah, Felix, Natalie, and Nathan – link in the end in an unexpected way. This union ultimately reinforces, rather than resists, the status quo, however. Leah and Natalie are no longer victims of the system, but enforcers of it.
Smith is excellent here, as she always is, at evoking the splendors and horrors of modern life – mentions of Amy Winehouse, a recurring gag about “the year people started saying --,” and Craig’s list ads all make an appearance. Reading the book on a malfunctioning e-reader on the packed, sweaty NYC subway, NW sometimes hit uncomfortably close to home for me. Such contemporary themes seem to emphasize the idea that some redeeming truth will soon be imparted. But if comfort is what I’m after, I’d better look elsewhere. Smith no longer seems willing to play the healer. Here she is, is quoted in a Guardian article from 2000:  "When I was little, we'd go on holiday to Devon, and there, if you're black and you go into a sweetshop, for instance, everyone turns and looks at you. So my instinct as a child was always to over-compensate by trying to behave three times as well as every other child in the shop, so they knew I wasn't going to take anything or hurt anyone. I think that instinct has spilled over into my writing in some ways, which is not something I like very much or want to continue." In NW, I think, we can see that child finally battling back against the need to be “three times as good.” I might not like what she’s doing, but I do admire the will and tenacity it must have taken her to do it.
I agree with what Lana Wachowski said in The Village Voice recently; creating art is inherently an optimistic act. And so I’m inclined to look for that shred of optimism in NW, even as it resists such a reading. Did I enjoy NW? Not really. Do I think what Smith is doing here is bold, inventive, and important? Yes. Her novel never implores but instead hints that we should resist standard readings; that we should fight against the corporatization and digitization of society; that we should create our own paths or, if nothing else, refuse to follow one at all. In light of such a message it makes sense that Smith refuses to tell us another pretty story from which we can walk away with a smile and a laugh. She wants something from us, and those of us who hear and respond to that call will be anxiously awaiting her next work, hoping that in it she will have further developed the ideas and insights she began here - in another important, and perhaps more enjoyable, book.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut

Hey everybody! Now that I'm writing for Propeller magazine I'm finding it difficult to get posts up here as well as there. So here is the latest, in which I discuss Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle in terms of today's disturbing environment of nuclear proliferation, and just how we're all supposed to deal with all that bullshit, man. To be found at Propeller via the following link:

Meanwhile, I've finished NW by Zadie Smith and have a review of that, too. Shall I post it up here? Would you like that? Say that you would...