The New Me by Halle Butler proves that it is possible for a book to simultaneously confirm all our worst fears about the meaninglessness of modern life and to also serve as an argument for why it’s (mostly) worth living.
Millie is a thirty-year-old temp starting yet another low-paying office job as an assistant receptionist at an upscale design studio. She dislikes all of the women she works with and spends her considerable amount of free time overhearing their conversations and basking in how much more vapid and frivolous they are than her. She spends her evenings at the messy apartment her parents pay for, watching Forensic Files on a loop, eating the sad dinners that she can afford on her $12 an hour salary, and getting drunk on booze that she bought with money she could’ve used for food instead. If reading any of this is making you feel like a mirror is being mockingly held in your face, you are part of a gloriously miserable troupe known as Millennials. With infectious mirth Butler hits on the ceaseless anxiety, manic rage, and chronic helplessness that is existing in the 21st century.
Things We Lost In The Fire by Mariana Enriquez was a unique reading experience. I distinctly recall being left somewhat disappointed by a number of the stories in this collection, especially the first few. They all would end with an explosion of nightmarish and violent imagery with complex supernatural elements, definitely following the end-with-a-bang mentality. And this endings would be a let down because Enriquez did such a good job building the atmosphere, sending the reader deeper into her characters’ nightmares, and you’d know that something horrifying was looming ever-closer. The endings just didn’t seem to add as much to the story as I had hoped, and took on the quality of a lot of shock and flash lacking substance. But at some point in the collection the complex themes and ideas of the stories started to align fantastically with the deeply disturbing imagery that Enriquez is so gifted at creating in every story.
Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. was published when he was twenty-six. V. is sprawling, overwhelmingly complex, and clocks in at a nimble 547 pages. I turned twenty-six this year, and what life’s work can I place next to Pynchon’s at the same age? Well, I’ve written a handful of messy and pretentious short stories, and many messy and pretentious book and film reviews, and only the latter was published by anyone other than myself, albeit on tiny websites. But enough with the existential crisis this is causing me, writing about this book will be challenging enough.
At twenty-six, Pynchon had a comprehensive knowledge of a staggering amount of historical and technical information, which he expressed through V., with some of the novel’s most significant examples being: the British intellectual and political communities in Egypt at the end of 19th century, espionage in Florence circa 1899, German expatriates in 1920s South Africa, the Herero wars, Malta in the midst of the Suez Crisis and under German bombardment in World War II, and, lastly, the bohemian scene of 1950s New York City (although Pynchon did see this first-hand).
There is no overstating the greatness of The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary revolving around a series of the perpetrators of Indonesia’s state sanctioned mass killings of suspected communists in 1965-66. He interviews a number of the killers, many politicians and other prominent figures who were either witnesses or participants. But the central figure is Anwar Congo, an eccentric and disarmingly charming former killer. He is known by all as one of the most prolific killers. The film follows Anwar around during his daily routine of reminiscing with other former killers and attending prominent political events where he is treated like a hero, and during this we get stirringly impromptu moments where Anwar admits to suffering from nightmares stemming from a moral reckoning that seems to be taking a increasing toll on his mental state. Contrasted with this, Oppenheimer devises a scheme to get Anwar and his brood of accomplices and hanger-ons to recreate scenes of torture and violence against suspected communists in the style of popular Hollywood genres.
The Bridegroom Was a Dog by Yoko Tawada is enormously strange and wonderfully perverse. Set in an Asian town that feels modern yet classical, the anonymity of the town is what makes the casually bizarre happenings of the story so easy to accept. There is this clash between the traditional value-focused mindsets of the community and the bizarre eccentricities of the central characters. Tawada captures something about human nature that is timeless and seems to have only gotten truer. We are so willing to accept people’s strange qualities, and in doing so pat ourselves on the back for being so open-minded, as long as those qualities remain at a distance, preferably out of sight, and don’t directly involve us. We love to humor belief in the out-of-the-ordinary and fantastic, imagine the world as an exciting and incredible place, but we want our own lives to remain simple and contained within our own determined boundaries. And this describes the various housewives’ reactions to Miss Kitamura and her strange new house guest. The housewives hear from their children about various quirks of Miss Kitamura’s, who is their day school teacher, and are morbidly fascinated by this strange woman, but as long as their children don’t seem negatively influenced by her sporadically strange behavior they are more than willing to explain it away as the product of their children’s active imaginations. But when quiet and pretty Miss Kitamura suddenly has a strange man living with her and seems unwilling and unable to explain her new situation, her strangeness becomes an alarming potential influence on their children.
My main issue with The Collected Schizophrenias was Esmé Weijun Wang’s reliance of putting on a tough and unemotional front while recounting her horrifying experiences with schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. But yet I feel guilty for this quality of her writing bothering me as much as it did. Wang’s illness has rendered her unreliable emotionally and mentally in the eyes of most people her entire life. She has been misdiagnosed (as bipolar before her psychologist diagnosed her as schizoaffective in a flippant email), and then diagnosed with a condition that many doctors consider unverifiable (late-stage Lyme disease). She has had to make herself appear well and stable to keep people from righting her off as crazy.
I know all these things, yet while reading The Collected Schizophrenias I couldn’t stop wishing that she would stop working so hard to portray herself as tough and composed and embrace the vulnerability she felt during her horrific experiences with hallucinations and involuntary hospitalization. She writes about her journey with her illness like Joan Didion writes about losing her husband and daughter one after the other, but the problem with that is Wang doesn’t give us the painstakingly introspective look into her mind during her experiences that Didion does. This makes sense, Didion wrote about her experiences in The Year of Magical Thinking (focused on the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the illness of her daughter Quintana) and Blue Nights (focused on Quintana’s death) essentially as they were happening. Much of Wang’s experiences she is writing about are over a decade past. And the impression we get is of her writing about them from a distance, not completely detached but definitely distanced from the raw emotion she was feeling at the time. It made me want to scream Let me in! While many memoirs lately bask in the opportunity at victimhood, often not entirely earned, Wang has earned sympathy and understanding yet tries so hard to avoid coming off as a victim. Most of all, though, she has earned the right to be angry – at the illnesses that have made her endure more than most people ever could, and at the fallibility of science and the mental health industry.
It is a special satisfaction to finally read a book that has been on your list for as long as you can remember. It’s an even special-er satisfaction when that book lives up to your expectations, as was the case with The Haunting of Hill House. However, now I am faced with the challenge of writing about a book that has been extensively written about by writers far more suited to the challenge than I am (Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Miller, Carmen Maria Machado, Neil Gaiman, etc). I’m going to give it a crack nonetheless, but will keep it brief and to the point. Continue reading “The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson”→