Hauling the Load to the End

I rarely give up on a book, even if it’s exasperated or offended me from the beginning. (For example, the mere fact that I made it all the way through the violent celebration of misogyny and colonialism otherwise known as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Mafarka the Futurist should give an indication of just how difficult it is for me to set aside a text without finishing it.) But that quirk presents a problem when I’d like nothing better than to be done with a volume that seems to be adding on an extra page for every one I read. Such is the case with Norman Rush’s Mating, an award-winning piece of fiction it feels as if I’ve been dragging around now for months.

Political cartoon from Library of Congress, on Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not that the novel is boring, or badly written; it’s neither. At first, I was surprised not to be outright digging the author’s deployment of decades’ worth of GRE vocabulary lists; after all, I love new words, and new occasions for using old ones. Maybe, though, Rush’s insertion of Latinisms and wittily-wielded academicisms is part of what’s getting to me. This whole story, or the package in which it’s delivered, is so heavy; my reading is slowed down by the weight of what seems to be the narrator coping with her insecurities via highly articulate and jaunty self-deprecation. Less an analysis of academic culture (though it is present), Mating seems sort of like Oscar Wilde went to grad school and continually had to joke about his awe and love of the whole thing by pretending to play it cool and to be less serious/intelligent/whatever than he (or in this case she) really was– while also using big words to belie the act.

I’ll admit: my irritation may be due to the fact that it’s hitting home– that I’m being faced with myself in grad school, among so very many serious people around whom I always felt like a child. Like any number of comics using their ability to get laughs as a defense mechanism, my own sarcastic dumbing-down was the only way I knew to deal with institutional egotism and senseless power games. Given, it was the wrong strategy– and that may be why I’m so frustrated with this character, crafted in the hands of a male author.

Because in spite of this nameless narrator’s pretty good overall construction as a character, Rush also tends to put gender-based generalizations into her mouth that irk me, one representative example being, “I always remember titles and authors, unlike women in general.”* This sort of thing could be a device that fits her jokey pooh-poohing of self, but it gets old incredibly quickly.

At any rate, I’ve reached the point of speeding up my reading rate, finding myself back as a high school sophomore trying to complete that week’s assignment of being X words farther along in the book I’d chosen than I’d been the week before. I’m pretty sure I have such a bad specific memory of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (See? Title and author firmly implanted in my female brain), in spite of having loved it, because that was one of the books devoured in the hall over lunch, just to be able honestly to report I’d fulfilled my word quota for the week. We did have to give a plot update as well– but had I been allowed to savor the thing, I’m confident I’d currently be able to give at least a few details about why I found it worthy of praise.**

Hence, I know I’m not exactly practicing the most responsible method of completing this book. But in addition to being sick of it, I’ll be traveling soon, and I really, really do not want to haul its literal or figurative weight onto a transatlantic flight; slow-going as getting through it is in regular life, I can only imagine it would make the fourteen hours or so of my journey feel like a week spent in a hell of canned air and cranky humanity. Fingers crossed, then, readers: I’m hell-bent on using my holiday weekend to get through this chunk of literary molasses.

 

* Normal Rush, Mating (New York: Vintage International, 1991): 91.

** I also (now) fondly recall having misread a syllabus, and after plowing through 258 pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology in one evening (again: name and title solidly in place), having an infinitesimally fleeting blast of total cosmic comprehension shortly before midnight. Sort of like the world’s shortest and soberest trip, with follow-up visions of fat translucent spheres engaging each other in battles to the death for positions of mastery and servanthood.

Perverting Professional Usage

I should sit down and ponder sometime why it is that I’ll occasionally respond to grocery-store cashiers’ casual questions as if I believe in their pretense of interest. When the bearded youth asked me last week what I’d been doing with my day, it might have been his earnest look– someone so obviously as-yet unjaded by life couldn’t be totally insincere, after all– that prompted me to admit, “Finance,” followed by the qualification (I have to protect my liberal-arts cred, after all) that I never in the most implausible scenarios I’d imagined for my life ever thought I’d be saying that. Turns out (surprise, surprise) we were both frustrated writers, and I went on my way as the wordsmith of Trader Joe’s asked the next customer the same question.

But enough with the evidence of failed human connection; let’s talk this crazy numbers stuff I confessed to have been dabbling in. Much as I’ve learned about– and enjoyed– budgeting and non-profit financial management over the past few months, my eyes still assume they should glaze over when faced with a new quantitative concept or piece of loosely-defined jargon (“best practices,” anyone?) that could almost mean anything you’d like it to mean. I’m not an entirely stupid person, but even with all my fancy education and newfound fascination, this stuff can be simultaneously tricky and tedious. Hence, based solely on the technical ideas involved, I’m unsurprised that history has been filled with banking scandals, spectacular economic crashes, and difficulty in regulating the whole mess– and that’s without taking into consideration a lamentable human baseline of greed and childish competition.

The non-secular hand’s about to wreak havoc on your concepts. Guildford Cathedral, courtesy of Gordon Lawson on Wikimedia Commons.

Currently, I’m making my mostly comfortable way through a standard on institutional investment– and I’ve been pretty pleased with how straightforwardly written and clearheaded it’s been. But then I came across this gem: “Combining the tendency of a high risk premium to mean revert with the observation that the equity risk premium seems to decline secularly, justifies an assumption of U.S. equity returns of 6 percent real with standard deviation of 20 percent.”* Say what? Right: it sounds like something that came right out of the artificially constructed language in Václav Havel’s The Memorandum, and we could all get in a few chuckles about this clumsy chunk in general. But here’s what I zeroed in on: “the equity risk premium declin[ing] secularly.” Yeah, yeah, Investopedia‘s keyed me in to the fact that “secular” here just indicates “a long-term time frame,” so my snarky grin had to disappear in the face of legitimate word usage.** But student of culture and religion that I am, this phrase is loaded with rich and telling possibilities – as in, when dealing with wily securities, the best form of hedging might be prayer– or a reconsideration of just what sorts of benefits the transcendent could offer, especially upon realizing that the systems we’ve created and kid ourselves are “natural” are just as prone to error and irrationality as are the humans who crafted them.

In short, I’m having all sorts of dorkily speculative fun in moving this specialized terminology across disciplinary boundaries– and I haven’t even gotten around yet to toying with Adam Smith’s oft-cited and ofter-misunderstood concept of the “invisible hand.” You can be certain, though, that that appendage will be just as eager to wreak ill-informed havoc in my imaginary economic universe as some of its extreme fans are still doing in our current one. To asset allocation, then! Who knew it could be so creatively philosophical?

 

* David F. Swensen, Pioneering Portfolio Management: An Unconventional Approach to Institutional Investment (New York: Free Press, 2009), 111. In case you’re wondering, the chapter in which this gets thrown down deals with asset allocation.

** Massive props to this website, which has allowed me to understand a whole welter of concepts without driving my mentor to check himself into an asylum. I’m still going to do some etymological investigation of how this particular usage came about; why use “secular” to deal with longer terms, instead of “sacred” or “immortal”? You’d think something of a secular nature would have to do with the very non-eternal– and hence, shorter-term– reality of buying and selling and borrowing.

Time’s Possible Reconfigurations

I’ve been making my way at a glacial pace through Mark Strand’s Selected Poems. Plodding of this sort tends to happen with me and poetry; I’m usually so wary of careless gorging on line and meter that a thin volume could take months for me to get through.

I found this copy in a new-to-me used bookstore at the beginning of the year; it was the first of this poet’s works I’d ever picked up, although I’d gone to a reading of his. The piece that convinced me I couldn’t do without the book was “The Coming of Light”*– but what I’ve come back to ever since I grabbed it from the shelf is the author’s photograph on the front cover, a black-and-white shot of a handsome man in confident middle age, assured of his place in the world, maybe a bit cockily so. I continue to be struck by the totally conventional portrait, because I would never have recognized the man staring out at me; that reading I attended, mentioned earlier, took place only a few years ago, right before the poet’s death at age eighty. The thirty-four years that intervened between my book’s publication and the night I watched him discuss poetry and libretti with Renée Fleming meant, of course, a marked change in physical appearance. And I could be incredibly wrong, but I’m guessing the mellow gent who seemed unconcerned with letting the opera star take over would have looked with a bit of amusement upon his younger self’s relaxed photographic pretension.

Photo by Miriam Berkley, via Blackbird.

I thought of that (possible) difference when reading “Old People on the Nursing Home Porch.” The title makes it evident whom we’re observing here– and I have to wonder if the Strand who would have been one of their peers might have shaken his head at the vaguely arrogant assumptions the younger Strand had made in the prime of his life, about the “dullness” of their past, and their “ending up with nothing/Save what might have been” in “the wasted/Vision of each one.”** Did this slightly pitying observance contain the fear of a possible personal future– and perhaps because of that fact, make it impossible for the observer to imagine these seniors as they once were, as presently happy, and/or as more than the sum of their slow rocking? Or might the poetic voice (and not necessarily the poet) feel itself immune to this variety of ravaged fate? I wish I’d known more (anything at all, actually) about Strand’s work before listening to him talk not so long ago; he seemed approachable, and I might have felt comfortable enough to ask him about that earlier piece. Now, though, I’ll have to settle for a more discomfiting, because less theoretical, search for answers: namely, coming back to this particular dilemma, and asking myself the same sorts of questions, if I’m lucky enough to be able to do so another three decades or so down the line.

 

 

*     “The Coming of Light”

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

Mark Strand, Selected Poems (New York: Atheneum, 1980), 115.

** ibid., 8.

Gold Mine!

Take heed, fair readers: in the realm of unexpected traces left in a book by previous handlers, owners, borrowers, and the like, I’ve come across a rare bit of treasure: a visible link to someone at least (or most likely) connected to the person who opened up the pages before I got my hands on them.

 

Yes, actual photographs!!*

I had to refrain from posting immediately about this magnificent find; the pictures fell out of a volume I was sending someone as a gift– and I didn’t want to destroy the surprise of either the photos (which I replaced, so that she, too, could marvel) or the knowledge that she’d soon be the owner of a copy of Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography. With confirmation that the package arrived, I can now officially celebrate the pretty-much-perfect insertion of unintentionally goofy pictures into an ironic-nostalgic take on an old subgenre of kiddie lit.

Devouring those artless adventures in elementary school, I could only have dreamed of coming across a mysterious clue as significant as this pair of snapshots. Had the possibility been realized, I undoubtedly would have viewed it as evidence of some low-grade variety of transcendence attempting to communicate something very interesting, maybe even important, to yours truly. Decades later, I can’t imagine there being anything world-historical about these human-canine portraits falling into my lap– but I’m still curious about why the shots were taken. Was it the very owner of NPH who, featured in the picture, either set up a camera on automatic timer, or had someone else take these photographs– and if so, why? For whom? Also, where did that blanket come from, and did it ever induce seizures in anyone who looked at it in the wrong way? Did this person successfully complete one version of Mr. Harris’ autobiography, and if so, was it a satisfying end to the narrative arc that had been occurring up until then?

And there you have it: suddenly, I’ve been sucked into a very mundane version of escapism, losing myself to unanswerables in lieu of, say, the evening study round I should have started an hour ago. Now, if a Polaroid of Putin and his dog shows up in today’s chapter in my Russian text, I’ll definitely take that as a reasonable excuse to stop my review of the conditional– but the adventurous path that would take me on would undoubtedly be much darker than the apple-pie images I’ve been discussing. In real life, I would definitely choose that safer, if less interesting, of the two options.

 

* With the face of the human, at least, blurred to protect identity. I’m hopefully correct in assuming the dog won’t mind being given a negligible amount of exposure; if that’s not the case, I hereby humbly beg for forgiveness.

Pressing Fictions

Courtesy Comic Vine.

Overheard on my volunteer shift in the bookstore the other day: one member of a couple declaring very seriously to the other, as the duo browsed the $5 bestseller table, “I’m just opposed to time travel in general, you know?” I was unable to crane my head around the computer without it becoming obvious I was eavesdropping, so I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation– but it did go on, giving the impression that there was much of urgency to discuss, in the way of real-world possibilities (and their attendant merits, ethical dilemmas, and so forth) of leapfrogging from one era to another.

Sure, this topic has provided grist for literature and film both great and inane; I’ll admit to finding the first Bill and Ted movie, well, excellent, maybe because it could really qualify for membership in both of those categories at the same time. And why not discuss time travel seriously; not too long ago, space tourism was inconceivable, and now we’ve got bazillionaires chomping at the bit to spend a few hours in oxygen- and gravity-free zones, rather than throw down some of that cash on, say, the alleviation of global poverty or at least something that won’t pollute the atmosphere with a sloshing tank of rocket fuel and other detritus.

But I digress. Maybe confronting supposedly impossible scenarios, such as time travel, could act as a training ground for development in mature civil discourse. After all, getting shouted down and insulted by your opponent regarding the ethics of popping into your parents’ teenage years is far less likely than being (emotionally, at least) mauled by an ideologue at a town hall meeting. I’m certainly not going to base a curriculum in civics on the possibility, but maybe because there’s less at stake in digging into far-fetched hypotheticals, people are more willing to entertain each other’s conflicting views and arguments– and if they realize they can get along even in a heated debate about worm holes or the risk of retro- (or would it be pro-, here?) actively annulling your own existence, they could take it to a real-world level and be willing to work together to confront anything from potholes to prison reform.

That rosy little pipe dream is probably akin to the faith I want to have in kids– and adults– who really took Harry Potter, especially volume 5, to heart. If those readers can remember that particular volume’s beautiful elucidation of how ideology works– and the entire series’ wrangling with the noblest way to confront very difficult, very terrifying situations, and apply it to their own world, I’m willing to refrain from throwing in the towel just yet. And if an examination of magical worlds can do that for us, well, so, too, can a variety of other apparently frivolous conversations. Carry on, then, with your bookstore conversation, sci-fi couple. Carry on.

Another Page-bound Bread Crumb

It’s happened again, although in less interesting fashion: not all that far into Sjón’s The Blue Fox, I was confronted with the leavings of a previous reader. My predecessor apparently forgot about or had no interest in the promotional offer that ceased to be of value almost three years ago, choosing to use this key to what I surmise would have been some natural nosh as a bookmark instead, or maybe even sticking this little coupon between the pages, not having had any other place to put it at the moment of receiving it, and almost immediately erasing the knowledge thereafter that it had ever come into her/his possession.

               

It did give me brief pause to wonder who the one-time holder of this card had been, and why s/he donated this excellent book. (Was it deemed not good enough to keep? Was this just standard practice, after having finished a volume?) But there really was no air of mystery about this bright-hued promo, or none worthy enough, at least, to be cast alongside the tale’s characters, or its really spectacular ending.

The Blue Fox was one of two books I finished on lengthy train rides this weekend– the final of which provided me with a chunk of time large enough to also get a solid way through Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I plucked off the bargain shelf of a suburban St. Louis used bookstore before my return journey home. It proved to be magnificent train reading, feeling as it does somewhat like Sebald lite. That lo-cal adjective isn’t in any way meant to disparage the project; de Waal’s exploration of family treasure is, so far, beautifully engaging– but its poetic history is less overtly haunted by spirits that may or may not still be hanging around the author’s own life. Hence the “lite,” as in, less burdened* by the demands of continuing pasts, even as it searches about in days gone by to explain what the author holds in his hands in the present.

Well. I’m now back in the super-short train trips that make up my daily commute, and so there’s no romance of long-distance rail travel to enhance de Waal’s family history. There’s a possibility, though, that a trace of a past reader somewhere in the pages could still pop up, if I’m lucky.

 

* This term, too, is not employed in any negative way; Sebald’s tendency to carry the weight of simultaneous pasts and presents in his writing constitutes one of the most beautiful and deeply satisfying writing styles I know.

Intratextual Gifts

I’ve discussed before the joy that ensues when I turn the page of a used book and find something left there by its previous owner. Child of the Cold War that I am, these little surprises throw me right back into the belief that the presence of any object could be something other than the result of negligence or coincidence– that if you know what to look for, and how to go about it, that seemingly insignificant castoff could take you down a wild rabbit hole of adventure and mind-bending.

The postage sticker I found this weekend tucked in between two brittle, yellowed pages of my copy of George Mills gave off precisely that sort of aura. Its probable origins in Germany or Austria or Switzerland (what about the delicious possibility of Liechtenstein?) means that my book itself may very well have spent time on foreign soil, and in a place where the grudging default to tourist-aimed English was bypassed in favor of French. It’s just the sort of thing the spy I wanted to be as a child might have used, especially since the backing for this airmail label, as time-yellowed as are the pages that had apparently cradled it for years, might be old enough to have been printed back in the days of perestroika.*

I don’t often let go of books once they’re in my possession. But the next time I donate a volume or two, I might just stick something in between the pages, hoping to pass along to the text’s new owner the simple pleasure of finding hidden treasures someone else has left behind.

 

* Given the current, weird mélange of affinity and hostility being displayed between old-enemy world powers, maybe, in line with my desire to see greater meaning in found objects than they actually possess, the appearance of my very hypothetically-dated sticker may constitute a significant message about to be revealed!