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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.23.2017
Book from: Personal collection

A scintillating and sensual novel about a young woman’s ingress into a fantastically strange family.

The hand of the young woman in question has been promised to the scion of a noble family. She is to make her preparations for marriage at the family’s villa, whose inhabitants have a fear of the night, books, sadness, and anything that smacks of disorder. There the unnamed young bride will be initiated into the art of seduction and will learn, one by one, each of the family secrets.

In this erotically charged and magical novel, Alessandro Baricco portrays a cast of mysterious characters who exist outside of the rules of causation as he tells a story, an adult fable, about fate, sex, family, love and the difficult job of being together.

This short novel is exquisite but arguably vacuous, depending on your tolerance/appetite for flighty, languid aristocratic types afflicted by mysterious ailments of the heart. Said type, plus dreamy surrealism, plus etc. is normally so much my thiiiing in fiction that Kakaner laughed at me, deservedly, when I picked this up at the bookstore and showed her the cover-flap copy. If you like Anaïs Nin, if you like Rikki Ducornet, this book has a seaside villa near their work. Also, actually, Wes Anderson, in the dwelling on rich people’s [over]subtle troubles and the interest in simultaneously lavish and fussy ritual.

But gawd, this book tried even my patience for featherily virtuosic writing and languorous sorrows. The glowy feeling of mystery is appealing – including that drifting obscuringly around the novel’s metafictional narrator, a nameless writer who is diverting him/herself with the work of writing this novel, while ruminating on the aftermath of some kind of immense (we’re told) sorrow and being snippy at a psychoanalyst. The Young Bride – plucky, down on her luck, a quiet survivor – is a likable-by-default protagonist, sharp and genuine enough to provide ballast for the rest of the cast, about whom one must ask repeatedly, “Are any of your problems even real?”

What ultimately tipped me over from mild skepticism into outright objection was the baffling pose that the book adopts towards women and prostitution. I tried for a while not to judge it purely along that axis, in the hopes that Baricco was going to do something more nuanced with it, but in the end I did find just stupid and piggish his narrative device of delivering nearly all of his female characters into prostitution (or discovering them there to begin with) as a sort of ultimate formative experience. Excuse me, but fuck that.

I would read this again just for the luxuriant sensations of the prose, and for the writing about writing, but the narrative content is a big ??? for me.

On the plus side, here’s my favorite passage from the narrator-writer:

I’ve noticed that, more than in the past, I like letting [my book] glide off the main road, roll down unexpected slopes. Naturally I never lose sight of it, but, whereas working on other stories I prohibited any evasion of this type, because my intention was to construct perfect clocks, and the closer I could get them to an absolute purity the more satisfied I was, now I like to let what I write sag in the current, with an apparent effect of drifting that the Doctor, in his wise ignorance, wouldn’t hesitate to connect to the uncontrolled collapse of my personal life, by means of a deduction whose boundless stupidity would be painful for me to listen to. I could never explain to him that it’s an exquisitely technical matter, or at most aesthetic… It’s a question of mastering a movement similar to that of the tides: if you know them well you can happily let the boat run aground and go barefoot along the beach picking up mollusks or otherwise invisible creatures. You just have to know enough not to be surprised by the return of the tide, to get back on board and simply let the sea gently raise the keel, carrying it out to sea again. With the same ease, I, having lingered collecting all those verses of Baretti’s and other mollusks of that type, feel the return, for example, of an old man and a girl, and I see them become an old man standing stiffly in front of a row of herbs, with a young Bride facing him, while she tries to understand what is so grave about simply knocking on the Mother’s door. I distinctly feel the water raising the keel of my book and I see everything setting sail again in the voice of the old man, who says…

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Gift from K. (<3)

Flesh and Blood is Julia Gfrörer’s first published comic, and my second-favorite of the three I’ve read, after Black is the Color. Grim, wry, blood-and-hemlock-flavored, this is highly recommended for lovers of Robert Eggers’ film The Witch.

This is so narratively satisfying, all the symmetry and the sinewy Machiavellian strength of the witch’s plotting. She’s a dark free agent, pulling snare-cords neat and tight around convenient prey. She’s not quite so dispassionate a predator as the mermaids in Black is the Color, though. Displaced romantic and erotic desire teases the otherwise calm, chilly surface of her calculations. This culminates in an uncomfortably powerful erotic scene involving a mandrake. Period.

The displacement of desire and passion – longing for what’s not close to hand, fulfillment through proxies – creates a weird kind of momentum throughout Flesh and Bone. I imagine water continually spilling from unstable vessel to vessel, never at rest, and shared between vessels only in passing.

Like all of Gfrörer’s other work that I’ve read, the comic is also an inhabitation of the experience of grief – grief that is more than sorrow, grief that wrings to the bone. This grief that strains the limits of human capability – and the teasing touches of hopeful sweetness, as expressed through longing and eroticism – all that mixed together, in one brief comic, it’s exquisite, and sublime.

Gfrörer’s work is an uncommonly raw expression of the intensity of existence. It goes deep, deep, deep, like almost nothing I’ve read or seen before, except (as I said before) Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There is nothing precious, or half-way, or untrue about her work. I think she’s a visionary not in the sense of seeing something beyond – I think she looks at human existence and sees in.

Related reading:

Laid Waste, by Julia Gfrörer (2016): review by Emera


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Date read: 11.30.10
Read: Online, via Nerve
Reviewer: Emera

Secretary - James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal

The 2002 film Secretary stars the incomparable Maggie Gyllenhaal as an emotionally fragile young woman who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with her lizard-eyed, hypercontrolled lawyer boss (James Spader): two very unhappy people who find that they are each other’s complements, emotionally and sexually. After seeing the movie twice, and both times loving its tenderness, quirky humor, rich visuals, and slinking soundtrack, I finally read the Mary Gaitskill short story (click to read) on which it was based.

Predictably, the movie and story are utterly different beasts, with the film departing from the story’s restless, sickly unhappiness. Gaitskill called the film adaptation the “Pretty Woman” version, which is apt, but doesn’t, I think, negate the film’s sensitivity and sweetness. In the film, the secretary (Lee) and lawyer (Mr. Grey) find a genuine connection, with Lee eventually emerging as the one with the strength to dictate the terms of their relationship.

In Gaitskill’s story it’s pretty clear that the (nameless, sleazily charismatic) lawyer is using the secretary (Debby in the story) for his own gratification because he knows she’ll let him get away with it. Yes, some part of her does enjoy it – after her last encounter with the lawyer, she remarks impassively (and hilariously), “I didn’t feel embarrassed. I wanted to get that dumb paralegal out of the office so I could come back to the bathroom and masturbate.” But the undertones of her identification with the humiliation that she experiences are much more troubling, and by the end of it, she returns home to be soundlessly reabsorbed into her dysfunctional family, who, given their “intuition for misery,” ask no questions.

Apart from the entirely divergent emotional experience, what struck me most on reading the story is how successful the film was in capturing Gaitskill’s written style. Debby’s narration is flattened, almost child-like, but interspersed with bursts of ungainly, oddly vivid imagery: “There were no other houses or stores around it, just a parking lot and some taut fir trees that looked like they’d been brushed.” “He clapped his short, hard-packed little hands together and made a loud noise.” And my favorite – “A finger of nausea poked my stomach.” Gyllenhaal’s Lee, with her wise-child face, shabby graceless suburbanity, and propensity for awkward remarks and fits of snorting laughter, recreates the experience perfectly, particularly when juxtaposed with the plush, hushed interior of Mr. Grey’s office. I expect most audiences will prefer the transformative love story that follows in the film, but Gaitskill’s original is stylistically memorable, bitterly intelligent, and draws lingeringly unsettling character portraits in a few terse pages.

Go to:

Mary Gaitskill: bio and works reviewed

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