Saturday, September 17, 2011

03 and "you are here"

After a long string of event-packed weekends, this Saturday morning I got a few uninterrupted hours of reading. I picked up two short things, two little books I could quickly finish. Feels good to start off the weekend finishing things :)

The first book was a novella by a French writer, Jean-Christophe Valtat, 03, translated by Mitzi Angel. It's 84 pages long, composed in the form of a single, uninterrupted paragraph -- really meant to be read in one sitting, I think. I was reading it for over a month, a few sentences or pages at the time. Sometimes this was because the sentences were interesting and demanded a lot of attention; at other times, I picked the little book up between the multitude of other tasks, and flipped through the pages instead of really reading.

It's a thought-provoking novella -- a portrait of a young adolescent boy, attracted to a mentally disabled girl living in the same neighborhood. The tale is narrated by himself as an adult, from the remove of many years, maybe decades. Power and powerlessness of attraction are a major theme, as well as the binaries of uniqueness vs difference, beauty vs ugliness, suburbia vs city. Because of the way I read it, my impression of the novella falls apart into certain ideas about the quality of its translated sentences. This, for example: "Oddly, though, this made her face more lively -- she seemed really to face the world, and her gaze came at me as if by catapult." Whatever the phrase might read like in French, this noun/verb paring of face and to face works surprisingly well in English.

I related to many observations about adolescence on a very personal level. This, for example, starts with a cliche, and then dives into the depths of it: "The only good thing about childhood is that no one really remembers it, or rather, that's the only thing about it to like: this forgetting. What else could possibly lie beneath that blissful oblivion but shame: a dark knowledge of that terrible badge of weakness, that inescapable servitude (bearable only thanks to the slow revelation that we could inflict cruelty and evil on the weaker kids), a sickening awareness that just about everything there is to understand was beyond us, made even worse by the lies and inaccuracies that adults feel entitled to spread around, deliberately, or because they don't know any better, about themselves or about the nature of reality?" I love that this long sentence is a question.

The other book I read was a literary journal in which one of my own stories has been published. The magazine is called "you are here: the journal of creative geography," and it's published by University of Arizona's School of Geography and Development. (It's a print publication, and I'm waiting for them to update the announcement on their online page, but this hasn't happened yet). Their XIVth issue published over the summer was dedicated to the theme "Dislocation" that happens to define a few of my stories. What I really love about the smaller university magazines is their willingness to experiment with the genre. The editors of this magazine, for example, asked the writers for their permission to excerpt and edit the stories at will, and also to publish them without acknowledgments in the text, so the magazine reads as a work of a collective (if somewhat disturbed) mind. (Actually, it's not as radical as I thought it could've been: there's a table of contents at the back, and all the writers get their proper credits.)

My favorite part of this magazine, I think, is a poem the editors -- Majed Akhter and Tom Nurmi -- published together with a letter from an associate editor that recommended it for publication. "I want to advocate for consideration of this; given that it appears to be written by a non-native English speaker in a forced rhyme scheme. The formal layers sort of peel off from the content, as one is forced to do mundane interpretive work. ... To me, dislocation here would be linguistic, libidinal and unconscious..." I love the framework of this magazine that allows its readers to find meaning in something that's written in substandard language. I wondered if my own story in this magazine could've been interpreted in a similar way -- it's an older story, and rereading it now, I'm very aware of the extra layer of formality in every sentence that came from my lack of linguistic fluency. The story still sort of works because this peculiarity became a character flaw of my first-person narrator. First-person narrators are good souls :)