Medea by Catherine Theis

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I got the feeling that you have to be in a certain frame of mind to do justice to this play – when I first read it about two months back, I was unable to grasp it, which had more to do with the mood I was in than with the play itself, so I came back to it after a while and now I felt I had bigger success understanding it (even though I harmed no spouse or offspring in the intervening months).

Besides my earlier mood, my initial failure was partly due to the fact that I’m not up to date on my mythology, so at first I thought that doing some reading about Medea might be beneficial. I did that, but when I realized how big and far-reaching this myth is, I decided to stick to my favorite reading method: just read what’s in front of me and try to interpret it on its own. So that’s what I did in the end – and it turned out to be rewarding.

Theis’ play is a feminist tragedy or a tragedy of female self-realization (or perhaps not a tragedy – perhaps it’s just facing the truth, which can be ground-shaking enough), where Medea’s been together with her husband for about a thousand years, and their relationship is characterized by all the little pains and little boredoms of thousand-year marriages.

You know, by the kind of frustrated boredom and by the kind of feelings where you’d just love to discuss unimportant but extremely interesting topics, but your spouse is at that moment busy dealing with the bills and his official correspondence (and not just at that moment – but always, it seems), so the highest form of intimacy you can hope to get is licking the stamps your spouse will stick to the very important letters.

Medea is thus a frustrated wife – and I can deeply understand her feelings, even though I’m not frustrated and I’m not a wife. There are so many wonders in the world. There’s so much, both inside and outside, you could show to the other person. There’s so many experiences you could have together. You could – but in reality you won’t. The husband will never bother teaching Medea to drive a car; he will never really think it through whether he’d like taste an ant covered in chocolate; he will never take the time to get to the end of Medea’s wildly associative trains of thought.

(Naturally, the husband probably has his very own frustrations and little pains, but this play is not about him. Suffice it to say that here the husband tries to build himself an easier life with another woman, but – as far as we learn – his lover also possesses uncomfortable depths.)

Anyway, after a while, desire and anger erupt from Medea, and after that nothing remains the same.

Is this a tragedy – the destruction of dysfunctional relationships, the eruption, the great desire for truth, the real or metaphoric murder of everything that’s lifeless, routine, silent?
I don’t think so. I think it’s utterly thrilling and uplifting.

I don’t know how big a price you should pay for this (and fortunately I’m not in a situation now where I’d have to wonder about this), but Medea’s new, independent life (unprotected by the gods but swarmed in butterflies) feels like something that’s worth it.

If I were Medea, I hope I’d be strong enough to choose that.

There But for The by Ali Smith

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Words are all we have – said Samuel Beckett once, but I don’t know where he said it and in what context. Anyway, I agree with him, being a fanatic of words myself.

And Ali Smith is a fanatic of words, too. Sometimes she does get on my nerves (I’m not such a devoted fan of puns and word-plays as she is) but mostly I just look (and experience) with awe and wonder what she does with words.

For example, on the day when I wake up and suddenly realize the connection between the short story the main character had written once in his teens and the thoughts of an old lady about some awful event her daughter told her about a long time ago. I don’t want to go into details – suffice it to say that I was leaning to the kitchen table for a good long while the morning I made the connection, and I very much wanted to go back to bed, curl up, and cry, because it breaks my heart to think how one can make beauty out the horrible. (Must things be horrible before there can be beauty?)

Words are all we have. Imperfect, sometimes false, sometimes true.

And our lives are all we have. Imperfect, false, true, unknowable, impossible to share.

As far as I know her work, Ali Smith always writes about this. About unknowable lives – like here, about a man called Miles, who goes to a dinner party, and in the middle of the party he excuses himself, proceeds to shut himself in the spare bedroom, and doesn’t leave it for months.

Certain questions arise:

Who’s this Miles?
What the hell does he want?
Why doesn’t he leave the room?
And who are the other people in his life?

Words are all we have. Certainty – we don’t. So all we get by way of answers is:

He’s an average middle-aged guy.
I don’t know, perhaps he doesn’t, either.
I don’t know, perhaps he does.
Just people – nothing special.

More questions:

Why’s this good to read?
And what’s all this, anyway?

More possible answers:

It’s good to read this because this story is just as accidental as any life, and life’s accidental quality and randomness always fascinates me. And anyway – perhaps tomorrow you will shut yourself in a room. And perhaps you’re already shut in a room today.
And what’s all this – a celebration of imagination and of the power of words, words, words – most of all.

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

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As it often happens, it was enough for me to read the first couple of sentences to feel that I want to read this immediately.

The novel starts like this:

„Darlings! Welcome! And you must be Danielle?” Sleek and small, her wide eyes rendered enormous by kohl, Lucy Leverett, in spite of her resemblance to a baby seal, rasped impressively. Her dangling fan earrings clanked at her neck as she leaned in to kiss each of them, Danielle too, and although she held her cigarette, in its mother-of-pearl holder, at arm’s length, its smoke wafted between them and brought tears to Danielle’s eyes.

And this here is perfect, and it showcases the greatest talent of Messud: she has an amazing ability to capture the mannerisms, role-plays, and the games people play in elegant society, and to characterize people with their mannerisms.

And from this perspective, the first sentence is not the only perfect and enjoyable one – there are a great many descriptions of such details, and they never feel redundant. Sometimes I wonder when I read novels whether I really need to know what brand of pencils a character prefers (this is a detail from one of Stephen King’s novels), and I often find that: no, I could live without this, because it doesn’t add anything to the humanity and complexity of the character.

Here, though, these kind of details are essential – it does say something about a character when we learn what kind of tea she likes to sip during the evenings – and it says even more about her that she compulsively shares her sophisticated tea-drinking habits with her friend, this way subtly indicating that she is indeed in possession of the elegant habits of the New York elite, even though she hails from a no-name small town.

One of the reviews quoted on the cover says that Messud is a bit like Jane Austen – and as you might guess from the tea-drinking incident I just mentioned, this comparison is not off the mark (even though Austen is more ironic and sharper than Messud). In any case, here, as in Jane Austen’s works, the appearance of things is crucial – the characters are obsessed with the question whether their acts are elegant and socially acceptable, and whether they create the right impression in the observer. The story, however, is much more chaotic than in any novel by Austen – because here there’s no obvious goal the characters could strive for.

Messud’s characters, of course, want success and love, but they are not entirely sure what kind of success and love they want, so despite pushing 30, they are not an inch closer to their goals than they were 10 years earlier, but they are starting to realize that the kind of deliberation, procrastination, eternally childish behavior, and their whole existence based on the knowledge that mom and dad will surely help out – all that was cute and adorable when they were 20 isn’t quite so cute and adorable when they are already 30.

And though the novel is a lot more than that (an ironic love letter to New York, social criticism, and so on), for me it’s mostly a story of disillusionment, through the course of which every character finally loses their sense of entitlement, and learns something important at their own expense. As for the question, though, of what they do with this knowledge – fortunately, that remains open.

John Dies at the End by David Wong

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David Wong is the editor-in-chief of Cracked, and even though I don’t specifically remember reading his articles, the magazine’s style is quite unique and distinct. It’s very modern, deeply embedded in pop culture and American culture, intelligent, sarcastic, nerdy and it doesn’t shy away from cheap jokes, either – and somehow this combination appeals to me.

This novel feels very much like Cracked. It’s a horror (parody) with a lot of blood, with horrible monsters and with all the stock elements of the genre, plus it also features a million dick jokes, and besides all this, it’s nerdy to to core, so it’s entirely possible for the protagonists to argue whether it’s correct to use the apostrophe in the word „Morrison’s” when it’s displayed on the nameplate on someone’s front door.

And in a strange way, this is one of the most American novels I’ve recently (or perhaps ever) read. It’s American in the small details – for example, in that someone here once eats chicken fried steak. I’ve never encountered the concept of chicken fried steak in books before, I’ve only heard about it from an American acquaintance, and it was weird to see it in a novel.

It made me think how much is inevitably lost in translation – and I mean translation across cultures here – and my guess is that a lot. Because, for instance, chicken fried steak might have all kinds of cultural connotations, and if you’re American, you’ll probably immediately have some ideas or prejudices about the person who eats a chicken fried steak. Perhaps you’ll get an idea about his background, his home state, and so on. And here I come and read this as a European, and just maybe I understand the significance of this particular thing, but I’m sure I miss the significance of a whole array of other very-American details.

Anyway, the novel offers lots of American trivia and cultural and lifestyle details – which is something I like as I’m deeply interested in things American.

But on to the question of how this is as a novel – it’s pretty good. It works. It’s about two young slackers who somehow get involved in a very dramatic situation after taking a drug called soy sauce. The drug’s users gain special abilities and extremely sharply tuned senses, and in the case of the protagonists, this leads to some bizarre events where they have to face terribly horrifying unearthly creatures, and they also have to assume to role of superheroes.

But in the end this is too much for me – it’s too long, too dense, and after reading it I feel the same way I feel when, on certain nights when I’m only capable of passive consumption, I read Cracked way too long. I have a good time, and I even think through stuff while I’m reading, but after getting to the last of my 63 open browser tabs, my main thought is usually that: oh my god, I should have gone to bed hours ago, because this is smart, funny, and even thoughtful, but certainly not such a life-altering and fantastic experience that would justify staying awake until the wee hours.

Problems by Jade Sharma

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I kept wondering while I was reading this novel whether there are other novels about drug addiction and kicking the habit out there that feature a female protagonist.

A couple of examples about alcoholism came to mind immediately, but none about drug addiction, and as Maya, the protagonist says once when she compares her drug habit with her husband’s alcoholism, drinking is much more accepted socially than doing drugs. Add to this the fact that drinking is much more accepted when it’s a man who drinks, so if you think about a woman doing drugs, then it’s something truly and absolutely inexplicable and unacceptable.

I’ve never read about this topic before through the eyes of a woman. If I bring up my memories about drug novels, they usually only feature females in minor roles, for instance, there might be some junkie whores in a drug novel, or something like that. And who would think that those junkie whores are also persons? They are.

There’s Maya here in this novel – a female addict who’s initially still on the surface of things despite being a junkie (in fact, I would argue she’s way above the surface: she has her own flat; she has an extremely patient – though alcoholic – husband; and she even manages to hold down a job), still, the problems are just waiting to happen, and when the problems come, they come from all directions at once: Maya suddenly finds herself in the face of a marital crisis, a job crisis, and an increasingly loose control over her addiction.

And it’s interesting here, whether her problems arise because of her addiction, or whether her addiction was an answer to the problems in the first place (or a way to run away from them). My guess is the latter because Maya’s troubles started very early in her life, and if I want to simplify things (a lot), they arose because Maya never learned to exist alone, and she’s never had the chance or ability or desire to develop an individual personality. And from all this you can get (not necessarily in a straight line, but in a weirdly logical line nevertheless) to the concept of always depending on something – be it a husband, a lover, drugs, or useless but at least still living parents.

So in the end it seems to me that this is in fact not a drug novel, but a feminist novel; all the addictive behaviors and dependencies displayed here are only symptoms, and the real question is how to learn to be a separate – well – independent person if you’re a woman (and whether it’s possible at all).

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

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There are all kinds of layers and themes to this novel. It deals, for example, with the difficulties of immigration and integration (turns out that moving to a new country is especially difficult if you have a very different color, religion, and cultural background than the majority of people living there); with the family ties and social background that can determine what you do and what you can do with your life; and then with a bit of contemporary history, and Muslim and non-Muslim tensions (9/11, demonstrations and anti-demonstrations).

I think the story-line that deals with history and with the tensions of society is the weakest one in the novel. I noticed already a few years back, when I was reading In the Kitchen, that Monica Ali is much better when she concentrates on individual lives and expresses big and important ideas through those individual lives than when she writes about intangible, faceless organizations, like in this novel – all I can make of this Muslim and non-Muslim story-line here is that a group called Tigers and another group wage a pamphlet-war in the neighborhood and organize who-knows-what-kind-of demonstrations and marches, with a pretty much unknown goal in mind.

But all this is just an aside, because what made me endlessly intrigued here was the story of the novel’s protagonist. Reading her story often reminded me of Kate Chopin’s Awakening, and it made me realize that not much has changed in the past 100 years.

The protagonist is Nazneen, a village girl from Bangladesh, who is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man from Bangladesh living in London. Nazneen is a good and obedient daughter with a strong desire to do her duty, and with an equally strong belief that everything is controlled by Allah/Fate, so everything that was meant to happen will happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

There’s an interesting contrast between Nazneen and her younger sister, the beautiful Hasina, who decides to take her fate into her own hands (which leads to catastrophic results, by the way, as we learn from the letters the eternally absent Hasina sends to her sister). Hasina, who violently rejects the mentality that we’re here on this earth to stoically withstand the amount of suffering that was destined for us, leads an entirely different kind of life than Nazneen, but her successes and failures don’t indicate that, after all, Nazneen’s road was the better choice. And they don’t indicate, either, that Hasina’s road was better. (Fortunately, there’s very little moralizing in this novel.)

The story is basically about how the ever-obedient Nazneen very slowly gains her independence and learns (and accepts the responsibility) to lead her own life. Nazneen’s slowly awakening desire for independence and her first small independent actions are very natural, there’s no big breakthrough or anything dramatic here. Nazneen isn’t exactly a feminist, her husband is not an abusive brute from whom she is forced to run away, and if we only look at the surface, her life in London isn’t bad at all – so theoretically, there’s no reason for her to rebel. And yet – there’s a curiosity in her, and a small (and then bigger and bigger) desire to see what she can do on her own. Which is wonderful and very human.

And the way Monica Ali describes Nazneen’s awakening right from the beginning is very subtle. For example, once Nazneen goes for a walk in big and sinful London, she gets lost, she has to pee, and anyway, she’s just a Muslim woman who isn’t even supposed to walk about on her own – so of course, Nazneen panics, but then she manages to solve the difficult situation, she’s proud, and she’d like to share her moment of triumph with someone. Or later on, she gradually discovers her body and she even entertains wild thoughts about shaving her legs. And still later, she becomes bold enough to open her mouth and say what she wants.

And this whole story of awakening is drawn very sensitively and gently – and it doesn’t for a moment seem that there’s a fixed end to it.

And just by the way: this is a very funny novel, too, with a bunch of great characters who look like caricatures yet remain alive, authentic and understandable, and it’s also a novel with a lot of smells and colors, which make me want to walk down on Brick Lane.

Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee

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Michael K is a perfect nobody, and even though he’s spent his life shut in and shuffled between institutions of one kind or another, it’s still as if he didn’t even exist.

The novel is about how Michael K gradually disengages himself from everything that’s institutional, moves away from the world and puts a distance between himself and reality with which – he claims – he has nothing in common.

First he quits his job, and then he quits the city in order to fulfill the last wish of his ailing mother and take her back to her idolized rural birthplace, and then, after the death of his mother, he slowly quits his own institutional self, too – he loses his documents, and partly intentionally, partly incidentally loosens then tears forever the few ties that tied him to society – that made him real in society’s eyes.

Everyone in the novel tends to think that Michal K has a screw loose, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his mental faculties. His passivity, silence, and dumb acceptance of every wrong done to him is just the surface.

Is he really passive? He isn’t. If he makes up his mind to get his mother away from the city, he does it. If he wants to achieve something, he takes action.

Is he really silent? He isn’t. He speaks when he has something to say. He speaks when the thoughts he harbors inside are expressible. And he knows perfectly well that there’s so much that’s impossible to express – and then he doesn’t even try to express those things.

Does he really dumbly accept everything? He doesn’t. If he’s fed up with the way he’s treated somewhere by someone, he ups and disappears.

The oft-mentioned Kafkaesque quality and the references to Kafka’s works are quite obvious but not particularly intriguing to me. I’m not sure if there’s a hidden importance to the fact that the protagonist is called K and that he’s moved around at the whims of others in an absurd, cruel, and bureaucratic nightmare of a world, or to the fact that a mysterious Castle is mentioned here once or twice. Sure – the significance of these details is that they make the novel Kafkaesque, but I’m not convinced whether they signify something else besides this.

There are other parallels here, though, which are more interesting and rewarding for me. First, Michael K’s simplemindedness (not in the sense of feeble-mindedness but in the sense that he is really only concerned with a simple thing: living on and from the earth, as the most natural thing in the world, freely, without leaving a single track after himself) reminds me of Thoreau’s Walden. Michael K wants so little. So little to give and so little to take. His simplicity, his lack of needs is un-human, humanless – it doesn’t allow for deep human bonds – after all, what kind of bond would be possible with someone who doesn’t want anything? And because of this, I was also often reminded of Camus’ The Stranger. Michael K seems to feel a little more deeply towards his mother than Meursault, still – the relationship tying him to his mother feels like an artificial bond, an institution forced upon him by the world, and life’s burden feels lighter after the mother is gone.

And ultimately all this is awfully unsettling – I always end up feeling terrible when I read such distant-sounding, impersonal, unapproachable, reclusive novels. Of course the way I feel is a judgment not about the quality of the novel, but about its effect. And Coetzee sure can write deeply unhinging novels.

Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

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Kathy Acker’s book is a lot of things at once: a nightmarish, surreal collage/novel/text/drama complete with drawings and doodles; the life story of a bodily and emotionally damaged, brutally exploited girl, told sometimes in the first and sometimes in the third person; a whole lot of social criticism and analysis, mostly from the perspective of power and who has it; and connected to this last one: an exploration of all the (possible) ways a woman can be vulnerable (with abundant, extremely graphic details).

The story is very fragmented, but mainly it’s about ten-year-old Janey, who lives in an incestuous relationship with her father until he chases her away from home. Janey then goes to New York, where later on he gets imprisoned by a Persian pimp who turns her into a whore. Finally Janey somehow ends up in Morocco, and she dies not long after.

The story is, by the way, strangely impersonal – I can hardly find a word for this quality. Janey, for a long time, hardly even possesses a sense of self or an identity of her own, because her identity has always been defined by her relations with men, and she has mostly come into contact with men who were eager to tell her that – being a woman – she’s even lower on the hierarchy of beings than animals.

There is, however, a kind of development in the novel – as time passes, Janey slowly awakes to herself and she wants to get out, wants to get away from – from men, from capitalism, from mechanical sex – but she doesn’t stand a real chance, and she cannot be (is not allowed to be) other than what she is: a totally dependent and vulnerable girl/woman who is forever denied even her most basic needs (food, shelter, love), a woman who channels all her desires and needs into sex because that’s the only thing she’s known from time immemorial and the only things she’s always been given – but only until the men in her life realize that Janey uses sex to express and experience all her emotions. As soon as Janey’s elemental need for love surfaces (and this doesn’t take long, usually – she’s unable to control her emotions), men even deny her the relief of sex.

The text – like Janey’s life – is often full of vulgarity, there’s a whole lot of cocks and cunts here, Janey’s mind is constantly filled with erect penises and violent sex, but I think the reason for all this is that Janey only has words for this. It’s not detailed, but it’s very probable from the text that Janey’s been a victim of sexual abuse from a very early age. What we learn is that her mother died when Janey was one year old, and from then onward she depended on her father for everything and used his father to fill all the roles – friend, boyfriend, brother, sister, father – in her life.

Throughout the story, by the way, Janey learns a language, too – a different one from the language of sex – this is also a part of her development, her increasing self-awareness – and the most unsettling part of the novel for me is when she writes/translates poems for the Persian pimp with whom she falls in love, for lack of a better option. Her poems are filled with rage, pain, desire and destructive love – they are devastating and beautiful.

And as regards the whole book: it’s unbearably real, brutal, upsetting, and extremely sad – reading this was a similar experience as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.