26. Sugar Skull, Charles Burns

24 Sep

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 9.49.46 PM

The last volume in Charles Burns’s graphic novel trilogy that began with X-ed Outone of my favorite works of art of the past few years—ends here with a bzzzz and a whimper.

In it Doug, the Tintin-like protagonist chasing his girlfriend Sarah through alternative dimensions, is older, fatter, sober, and finally ready to grow up, at least a little. Burns neatly wraps up the stories and symbolism behind all the strange elements—the radioactive eggs, Sarah’s confinement in the hive, the depressed father watching TV in the basement of Doug’s childhood house, the man clinging to a log in a river of muck—and that was, for me, the problem.

The power of the earlier volumes relied on interrupting narrative. Doug slipped in and out of dream-states; elements changed dramatically between books one and two; some pages were populated with empty frames and clouds of smoke. In their looseness and weirdness, the books slipped into psychic spaces that realism just can’t. I’m befuddled that Burns chose to tie it all up in a bow in the end.

Sugar Skull mostly takes place in the real-world, with the parts in the hive-world offering obvious counterpoint to Doug’s real-world morality play. The wrap-up offers a legit premise—a young man is unwilling to grow up and becomes an asshole because of it. He’s the guy who, when you strip away the drama, is just stunted and eventually misses the boat on love and life. The guy whose pain is the only interesting thing about him. It feels real, but falls flat. Somehow Burns fails to animate the horror of that position. We’re still watching Doug freak out about girls and eggs, without the meta-data that this is now utterly boring and beside the point.

That’s another way of saying that somehow I feel punches were pulled. There’s a beautiful frame where we see the face of the child Doug abandoned—and the child’s face is both dazzled and sly, and we know that he will grow up to wreak suffering if not on Doug on others, and it will be Doug’s fault. This child is not the end of a story, he’s the beginning. The terrifying thing is not that he’s dead, like the tiny little baby skeleton on the cover suggests, but that he’s alive.

I am sad, because I adore Charles Burns and could live inside his lines forever.

25. Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson

16 Sep


Reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver I found myself standing by my fridge, glass in hand jammed under the ice-maker, gigantic tome in the other hand, still reading. The book was so gripping and fast-moving, it was actually impossible to put down. I don’t think I’d even realized I’d stood up.

And then I read 628 pages and decided not to finish it, so clearly this will be a tale of extremes.

Neal Stephenson books are thrillers, but they’re intellectual thrillers. Quicksilver is the first volume of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It’s sometimes called historical fiction, since it’s set in the mid-1600s through early 1700s, but is in fact science fiction, about science in its infancy, when it was still called natural philosophy and was entangled with alchemy. Issac Newton, Leibniz and Spinoza are characters. The book’s breakneck pace is even more impressive considering that it’s stuffed with historically accurate politics, city geographies (London, Paris, Amsterdam, Colonial Boston) and war histories, and makes a genuine stab at elucidating various key moments in the development of mathematics.

The first section concerns a young natural philosopher named Daniel Waterhouse, the son of a Puritan revolutionary in London, as he leaves his father’s sphere of influence (but never entirely) and immerses himself in matters of science. Which naturally become political as well. The mixture of real, recognizable science we use today and total quackery is  delightful, and of course must have been how it was.  A man invents a thermometer on one day and then the next tries to make a dead man’s head produce a universal language. Others try to figure out how our hearts circulate blood by vivisecting a dog, which is depressing even to men of science. A man struggles to create a standardized unit of measure that can be replicated anywhere in the world. (I guess I’d imagined rulers traveling on pack-mules, but this way makes more sense…). It’s immensely pleasurable to see our daily technologies being invented—I feel like kids should read this for school, and then discuss truth vs. Stephenson. As a word geek, I was also in ecstasy over all the etymologies. “Cabal” was once an acronym; realize comes from real, the Spanish currency.

But then there’s the strange conceit that Quicksilver is three books in one volume. So about two-thirds through, Stephenson drops Waterhouse, Newton, etc., for two other characters, a vagabond named Half-Cocked Jack and his sort-of-girlfriend Eliza, a young woman from some made-up islands called Qwyghlm. Jack rescues Eliza from a Turkish whorehouse, and then their adventures speed up to the point of ridiculousness (though some of the action set-pieces are jaw-dropping). Neither character feels realistic in the slightest. There are excruciating passages in verse. Jack has syphylis and is losing his mind, resulting in boring surreal action. Eliza pursues a hokey and bizarre revenge plot against the French aristocrat who sold her into slavery, known for his love of eating extremely rotten fish. (If this is a real detail, it’s not convincing.)

Part of my problem with it, probably, is the difficulty of pulling off a happy-whore character, which Eliza is, to some extent. Stephenson handles it with sensitivity, giving her some power, and a lot of circumstantial outs. But…an incredibly beautiful young woman sold into slavery as a child gives me the rape-horrors; it’s hard to read such a character in the dashing-swashbuckling spirit she’s intended in.

I can sort of understand how Stephenson came up with the radical shift of the second book, since he was going for baroque, but it doesn’t work. And he’s so very, very good at so many things, I can’t understand why he doesn’t see it himself. How could the writer of book one, which had emotions, characters and high stakes, jump into the burlesque and not feel impoverished?

I dunno. Someone tell me. Should I keep going?


24. Paradise of the Blind, Duong Thu Huong

14 Sep


What a strange, wonderful, befuddling book, the first novel of one of Vietnam’s most important contemporary writers, Duong Thu Huong—of course I’d never heard of her, given the provincial habits of Americans regarding writers in translation. (This one is also thanks to the clerk at McNally Jackson. Always trust a man who starts ranting and muttering when you ask him a question about a book, is the lesson here!) I read Paradise of the Blind through, then turned around and started it again, partially for the beauty, and partially because the culture and concerns were so alien, I’d just started figuring it out when the book ended.

The protagonist, Hang, describes herself as “a pale young woman with a lost, worried expression, stooped shoulders, and cheap maroon wool suit. A frightened human being of about eighty-two pounds.” She’s an “exported worker” in Moscow, and the novel takes place mostly in flashbacks, as she takes a train across Russia to visit a communist-party uncle sometime in the 19080s.

Her story, as she starts it, “had all happened long before I was born,” by which she means that her family’s fate was determined long before her birth, when the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communist government in the 50s forced land reform on the villages, split families, persecuted prosperous peasants, and created divisions in Vietnamese society still reverberating 30 years later. Hang’s family tree is a diagram of those divisions. One aunt is a rich peasant, who was stripped of her property during land reform, but came back much richer, and vehemently set on revenge. Her mother is a small-businesswoman (selling snacks on the street), despised by both the aunt and the communists. The mother’s life was destroyed by her brother’s (Hang’s uncle’s) ties to the communist party, yet the mother continues to love, support and serve him—because he’s older, and a man, as her culture demands. “‘Unhappiness forges a woman, makes her selfless, compassionate,'” the mother tells Hang.

Hang is caught between these forces, frightened by the competing demands of her mother and aunt, but unable to resist them thanks to the culture of self-sacrifice she’s grown up in. For most of the book she’s on a train, being passively whisked on an errand for her uncle, despite that she hates him. The tension in her story is between behaving as a traditional Vietnamese woman should, and making choices for herself. She says at the end of chapter two:

“It was then that I understood why the voice [of a Russian singer] had enchanted me. Like a call, it beckoned me to a kind of love—to revolt, the most essential force in human existence. I wrapped my arms around myself and huddled in a corner of the compartment. If only my mother could feel this revolt, if only her heart could gather a spark from this inferno.”

(I’m just realizing now that this passage is also a subtle way of explaining why the Vietnamese were attracted to communism, as an agent of cultural change.)

As an American reader 30 years later, coming from one of the most individualistic and rootless cultures on earth, I found it hard to empathize with Hang. Her sensitivity, her weeping, her self-loathing and self-sacrifice were alien, and off-putting. “Get off that train! Don’t go!,” I wanted to shout at her. But at the same time, my very negative reaction demanded a closer look. My heart denied her obligations because imagining living with them was too painful. So when I stopped, read, listened, and  accurately absorbed the forces arrayed against her, she became not weak and annoying, but tough and brave.

Duong, the author, was a political dissident in Vietnam, and some of the bravery on display is her own. The Paradise of the Blind is Vietnam, in her telling. Even this title displays the subtlety and reverberating dissonance that makes her prose, and the entire story, so excellent. I find that my brain jumps to “paradise.” The word sets up an expectation that we’re reading about someplace good. And then “blind” is layered. There’s a blind old man in the book who is not an evil character, but simply blind, and in fact a continuous and thus comforting presence in Hang’s slum neighborhood. But if we can overcome the positivity bias set up by the word “paradise,” a place that is paradise only for those who cannot accurately see it, is in fact no paradise at all.

And it’s precisely this that the young Vietnamese must struggle against—a society where all that has been set up to be good, true, idyllic and valued must be exposed and questioned, most especially the Vietnamese traditional heartland, the countryside, the most idealized and thus most difficult to examine.

Hang describes the countryside where her mother is from as “stifling” at times and of “terrifying, unnerving beauty, like a revelation,” at others.

Village life can be described like this:

“An ordinary pond, like the kind at home. A pond lost in some godforsaken village, in a place where the honking of cars and the whistling of trains is something mysterious, exotic. A place where young women bend like slaves at their husbands’ feet. A place where a man whips his wife with a flail if she dares lend a few baskets of grain or a few bricks to relatives in need. A strip of land somewhere in my country, in the 1980s…”

Or like this:

“On clear August nights, the rhythm of pestles pounding young rice rose from every courtyard in the village. The shrill jeer of women’s laughter was enough to shatter these millions of white flowers. As the intoxicating fragrance of cactus floated over the gardens, the villagers studied the moon: what did it mean, this red halo, this silvery sparkle of clouds biting into the intense blue of the sky? In winter, in the deep chill of the night, they could wake in an instant, tear themselves from the warmth of their beds, and run to the cowshed to light a fire or drag a bushel of straw to the buffalo. There are always those who are conscientious and loving, who worship what they do. Devotion like this is impossible to explain. No matter, for it was this love that ensured the survival of an entire way of life.”

Hang is from both those places, the brutal and backwards countryside, and the one tended with love. Understanding her is a gift. The book is a revelation. And I could basically read that prose forever.





23. Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

10 Aug

The UK cover is so much better, as usual

The UK cover is so much better, as usual

“Pat Barker is one of our greatest living novelists and nobody buys her anymore,” a clerk at McNally Jackson told me this weekend, while recommending Toby’s Room. I’ve read Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy several times, and Blow Your House Down, and was glad to be reminded of this wonderful novelist, and to discover that Toby’s Room was another World War I novel, like the Regeneration Trilogy, though not based on historical figures. That the Regeneration Trilogy is based on Sigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves—incidentally, all men struggling with some degree of homosexuality, long before that was ok—gives it especial power and poignancy for me. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I’ve always read it as history.

Toby’s Room tells an intertwined story about Elinor Brooke, a young female art student, her brother Toby, a medical officer on the front, and Kit and Paul, two other young painters and soldiers who get tangled up in the Brooke family’s affairs, which are of course repressed, secretive and wounded. In an early scene from Elinor’s perspective, Barker writes “She wondered about the curious mixture of poking and prying and secrecy that ruled their lives.”

The secrecy within the family is mirrored, eventually, by the great secrecy of the war. Letters are censored, the official “war artists” (both Paul and Kit, by the book’s end) are not allowed to show corpses, but mainly the men who were there find it impossible to talk about. In a chapter from Paul’s perspective, Barker writes that, “It had become a preoccupation of his—almost an obsession—working out how the war had changed him; other people too, of course. He never managed to talk openly about it…”.

The visible effects of the war that Paul and Kit bring back, are wounds. Paul has a bad knee, Kit an extremely terrible facial disfigurement. Elinor finds work in a war hospital, drawing the wounded. Paul and Kit paint landscapes to paint about the war. At one point late in the book during a conversation about painting, Kit tells Paul that “‘your landscapes are bodies,'” and Paul agrees, “‘the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.'”

Barker draws her underpinnings so delicately, and with such mastery that it’s difficult to pick any one resonance to discuss—they’re everywhere. The characters are haunted by wounds, haunted by corpses, grappling with repressed sexualities; they wish for silence and blindness and by the end must choose to speak and see. Small flashes of humanity are the only antidote to the crippling horror of the war.

I’m probably not doing justice to how gripping and fast-moving the story is, nor to the stunning beauty of Barker’s prose, in which no description fails to echo all that swirls beneath the surface. Elinor’s experience dissecting a cadaver (in an anatomy class taken to further her drawing) has become linked in her mind with a night with a lover “as if it were his body on the slab: familiar, frightening and unknown.”

After a terrible incident in the first chapter, the second begins with this description: “Every window gaped wide, as if the house were gasping for breath. Barely visible above the trees, a small, hard, white sun threatened the heat to come. Mother’s precious lawn had turned yellow, with bald patches here and there where the cracked earth showed through. Elinor chased clumps of pale yellow scrambled egg around her plate….”

I am pleased to re-discover Pat Barker, and I see that there’s another recent novel, Still Life, also about the art college in London during the war, which I’d like to read as well. So thanks, McNally Jackson guy. Wish I’d gotten your name.

22. The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

6 Aug


My review of N.K. Jemisin’s first novel was positive, but I didn’t know I’d buy and read the sequel the very next night, in a blur of delight. (I’ve also now read book three in the Inheritance Trilogy, so am officially a superfan…).

In The Broken Kingdoms, the narrator—this is a spoiler, but a tiny one—is blind, and can see only magic. She’s an artist on the streets of Shadow, which is what the City of Sky from the first book has been renamed. The action starts around ten years after the first book ended, and concerns some of the same gods from the first book, with different emphasis.

(There will be some spoilers about the first book, but I’m trying to keep them to a minimum, since Jemisin’s twisty and elaborate plotting is one of her strengths.)

Here is how the blind woman, Oree Shoth, describes a man she finds in her muckbin, whose identity and relationship to her will form the spine of the plot:

“At first I saw only delicate lines of gold limn the shape of a man. Dewdrops of glimmering silver beaded along his flesh and then ran down in rivulets, illuminating the texture of skin in smooth relief. I saw some of those rivulets move impossibly upward, igniting the filaments of his hair, the stern-carved lines of his face.”

Oree’s world creating itself out of the dark, in lines of flame or color, is a beautiful prolonged effect that thrilled me throughout the book. I was also amazed that Jemsin was writing action-adventure-fantasy, which requires so much world-building, without having access to telling us what stuff looked like. Every time Oree touched someone’s face (or wished she could), or explained how she was drawing conclusions about things she couldn’t see, or made fun of someone for having a stupid response to her blindness, I was impressed by Jemsin’s skill as a writer. She took a limit and made it into a strength, made blindness more interesting than sight.

I also realized in Book Two that employing a narrative gimmick will be a feature of the series. In Book One, there were strange conversations and artifacts, like blips in the text, that kept me guessing throughout and (spoiler) ended up being Yeine, dead, arguing with her second soul (end spoiler). In this one, there is a “you” who Oree is addressing, whose identity, revealed, made me weep.

These kinds of epic touches are the delight of reading fantasy. Another delight is Jemisin’s language, which is so flowery, dreamy and embellished, that it’s easy to miss how tightly crafted it is.  Here is Oree introducing herself (and also laying the groundwork for an important plot reveal later in the book):

“My parents named me Oree. Like the cry of the southeastern weeper-bird. Have you heard it? It seems to sob as it calls, oree, gasp, oree, gasp. Most Maroneh girls are named for such sorrowful things. It could be worse; the boys are named for vengeance. Depressing, isn’t it? That sort of thing is why I left.”

For me, however, all of the epic touches and dazzling style in the world aren’t going to be truly, deeply, exciting if a book doesn’t provide something to think about. In this case it was the portrait of people (mainly brown-skinned people) dealing with the fall-out from a fallen ruling class (white-skinned, mostly-evil people), formerly absolute dictators with the Gods on their sides, now in Book Two struggling to hold on to their power. The ruling-class God, Itempas, the Lord of Light and Right, has fallen too. (Incidentally, he surprised everyone by turning out to be brown-skinned.)

Jemisin executes this with her usual panache. The Arameri (ruling classes) live in an obnoxious palace in the sky and just. don’t. care. about anyone non-Arameri. They play roles, they cause trouble or sometimes even turn out to be not-so-bad, but Oree Shoth and the good guys are from other races, and take center stage. It’s very clever. Instead of making the princess black, Jemsin has made the princess bad (which makes so much more sense), semi-sidelined her, and created a more exciting female hero.

Even more  interesting, Jemisin calls into question the idea of a God who is always right. Wouldn’t an always-right God be kind of an asshole? Could he ever change his mind? Would he have any sympathy for imperfect humans?  What would it take for this God to become someone worthy of worship?

Overall, a fabulous book.














21. Seiobo There Below, Laszlo Krasznahorkai

5 Aug


(This post ran last week on HTML Giant.)

1. I almost laugh, attempting to write anything about the Krasznahorkai, since I’ve done an interview with the translator for The Paris Review, and feel my work is done here, and also since we are dealing with a nearly 500-page book that lashes out in chunks of twelve-page sentences, transcendent, dazzling, insane, hilarious, vicious, determinedly unexplainable and unexplained.

2. Transparency is not the hallmark of the Krasznahorkai.

3. But ok. This is the Hungarian writer at the forefront of a renaissance in Hungarian letters, an intense, experimental madman whose books are metaphysical puzzles of stunning originality and brilliance.

4. This is a man with burning eyes and a cheap suit, who shows up at Columbia to a packed house and reads…in the dark…in Hungarian…and kinda actually scares people.

5. There’s a quote from Susan Sontag on the back of Seiobo There Below that calls László Krasznahorkai “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which is intimidating, and doesn’t sound like much fun. Do not be scared away; this book is a pleasure to read, and even funny.

6. The last chapter is named “Screaming Beneath the Earth,” which is a reverse riff on the first phrase of Gravity’s Rainbow, “A screaming comes across the sky…”, and gives an idea of the author’s ambition. The book is an incoming rocket, taking on the small matter of the power and transcendence of art.

7. Krasznahorkai has the interesting idea, though I’m not sure I’m convinced, that good art is dangerous. Art in this book tends to overpower ordinary people or drive them insane. Is this pretentious? Probably, right? Real migrant workers are not often driven mad by the sight of glorious paintings.

8. But then again, I also believe in salvation through art. What is a God without destructive power?

9. Seiobo There Below is structured in a series of sections, mostly about artists making art, a few about tourists or exiles. Sections include a modern-day man visiting the Acropolis, a Japanese Noh actor speaking to his disciples, another Japanese artist making a mask, a stork hunting in a river, a Renaissance painter in his workshop, an immigrant in Barcelona.

10. Some quotes: “…to stand there, to look at this life withdrawing for all eternity into death in the human and natural landscape, and to depict what is before him when he looks up from the blank canvas: that is everything…”

11. “we hear the heavenly weight of these voices falling in infinite density, falling below from there above, like snow, and there we are in this landscape and we are amazed, and we have no words, and our hearts ache from the wondrous beauty of it all, for the Baroque is the artwork of pain…”

12. “…namely, that in place of the evil chaos of a world falling apart, let us select a higher one in which everything holds together, a gigantic unity, it is that we may select, and the Alhambra represents that unity…”

13. Supposedly Seiobo is the Japanese goddess of beauty (I’ve gleaned this more from reading about the book than reading the book itself), and my theory is that the book is her taking a moment to incarnate—across time, during all times at once and in all places—and for a moment be, divine in this fallen world.

14. There is a lot about the movement between above and below, naturally the title is no accident.

15. “…anyone can comprehend that above us and below us, outside of ourselves and deep within ourselves, there is a universe, the one and only…”

16. There are no women in this book, except for one ancient princess who is strangled in an early chapter. And possibly Seiobo.

17. I don’t tend to think that the earth, the world, creation, people, bodies are all bad, though heavens knows you can make a case for it. The very opposition between sky and earth, above and below, human and sacred strikes me as false, so I think the author and I may have different ideas of sacred, though this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book.

18. I didn’t feel much mercy from the Krasznahorkai. Maybe that’s something that happens when you un-anthropomorphize the sacred, as I suspect he does. God is art, or some kind of stern and inhuman capacity for beauty, not a nice man in the sky who loves you.

19. Another great thing was how the book looks like a collection of stories—every section is about someone different, they resonate but don’t relate—but is actually and irrefutably a novel.

20. Another quote: “Because not to know something is a complicated process, the story of which takes place beneath the shadow of the truth.”

21. We don’t really know what Seiobo There Below is about. That’s part of the beauty of it.

22 One of the things that feels so wonderful about reading this book is engaging with complex thoughts about our world, like the two points above. You don’t have to agree with Krasznahorkai’s worldview, or even fully understand it, but you can be carried along on the rushing river of the prose, stopping to focus, think, spin out.

23. And about the prose. I notice as I’m trying to quote the book how difficult it is to focus on even in small snippets. The meaning is elusive, and designed to be elusive. This is a writer using language in a totally different way, not to depict, not to explain, but to rewrite your brain, change your thought-patterns, take you elsewhere.

24. Read it, I dare you.

25. My husband and I have taken to calling our toddler The Little Krasznahorkai. Somehow it fits.

20. Something Wrong Her, Cris Mazza

28 Jul



(The following review is cross-posted today on HTML Giant)

This amazing “real time” memoir by Cris Mazza deserves a love-letter, and also a review or maybe six, written at different points while the reviewer is reading. Some would be awed and respectful, some would be infuriated, or in tears.  I was obsessed,  and ended up forming intense bonds to the characters, the love story, and the way of telling. It’s such a complex book, it’s taken me months to try to write about it, and even now….

The basic format is that Mazza sets out to explore what she characterizes as her sexual dysfunction, which she intends to both confess and try to explain (to herself and to us), through an examination of her sexual and emotional history. But as she’s working on the book, she gets back in touch with a high school boyfriend, and the story she thinks she remembers starts to change. She begins to include the story of their current emailing, along with old journal entries, earlier draft versions of the same chapters, and excerpts from her previous published books, which have fictional versions of real events, remembered and re-created at different points in time.

A strange note: The book was supposed to come out in fall 2013, and a cover was released and some advance reviews came in, but due to problems with the publisher, it was finally published with a different cover in April 2014.

Most of the other writing on the book has addressed its feminism and sexual politics—Mazza is a well-respected writer of experimental literary fiction with 17 books to her name, known for graphic sexual content and a feminist bent. A previous novel was titled Is it Sexual Harassment Yet? She edited a collection of “chick lit” before that was a term that meant a pink-shoe. And yet in this book she confesses that she has or had vaginismus (a spasming condition that makes penis-in-vagina sex painful) and has never had an orgasm. She also admits to many un-modern-feminist thoughts, like considering herself to be frigid, and thinking her body is dirty.

Her honesty is brave, rare, and hopefully might be helpful to other women who suffer from the same problems. Mazza found talk-therapy to be useless and something called Pelvic Floor Therapy helpful in decreasing the pain during sex. It’s refreshing to hear a woman—especially an older woman—speak honestly about sex, especially when she’s admitting to the uncoolness of not liking it. As she points out, we usually hear from women who are having too much sex, and though this is presented as a flaw, “isn’t the unspoken aura that these women are—for the same reasons—exotic, worldly, exciting, charismatic, provocative…or just plain cool?”

But for all its frankness and willingness to tell-all, Something Wrong With Her isn’t self-help book or a statement of sexual politics. The quest as Mazza writes it is not medical or feminist-political, or even psychological, but historical. She wants to know what’s wrong with her (in her own words) and embarks on “a memory-search for the reasons my sex life had been set on a path towards dysfunction or complete failure….” She looks at her early sexual experiences, her feelings about her body, and most of all, a handful of relationships where she felt violated or controlled by men. Early boyfriends pressured her or were rough. She was a band geek in college, and worked in the office for a band leader who she had a hero-worship crush on, which she feels was obscurely damaging. A later boss was sexually inappropriate. All of this is explored on an infinite loop of repetition and re-visiting, in obsessive detail.

Were these events damaging, or just normal?  Mazza, looking back, concludes that no real crimes were committed and that her problems are no one’s fault (but her own). I recognized many of the events as “normal” occurrences from my own adolescence, from the creepy and insinuating boss to the unpleasantly groping dates; for me, these were sexual wrong-things that happened along the way to discovering sexual right-things. For Mazza, they were something more. At one point she writes, “Mark, why don’t I ‘stand things’? Why have I never? Why am I not ‘over’ anything that’s ever happened or not happened?”

Perhaps that’s the right question, but it made me wish for a wider cultural interrogation. Nothing “bad” really happened to her, but on many levels the whole stew is bad. Our culture’s focus on “sex” as the act of heterosexual penetration is ridiculous. There is no one sex act that fits everyone; there is no correct assemblage of parts. Mazza’s sexuality bears this out, but she can’t say “I don’t like that; I want this instead,” so she considers that she’s a failure at sex. She also writes about her sense of failure at being a desirable woman, since she’s uncomfortable with femininity and dislikes her female parts. (At one point Mark asks her, “When did you start thinking of your body, there, as a wound?”) Is she a failure as a woman, or do we as a culture have an idea of “woman” that doesn’t fit everyone? If your assigned gender role makes little sense to you, maybe it’s more difficult to roll with the usual small violations and humiliations of adolescence. Mazza is in her late 50s, and the feminist theory she quotes is second-wave Erica Jong, but I’d imagine there are young women like her today, still feeling like failures because they don’t live up to “sex” and “woman” as commonly described.

Increasingly, the book turns into the love story between Cris and Mark. The reveals on this story are so brilliant (one happens, unbelievably, in a footnote, about halfway through) that I don’t want to say anything more about the plot here. Except maybe, Oh Cris, Oh Mark, Oh Cris, Oh Mark. You are killing me. We’re all waiting to see if Mark can cure her. We all want to know if it ever turns out like the fairy-tale.

(My contribution to posterity here, in case I happen to be reaching any masturbation-shy, non-orgasmic women in my humble blog post, consists of two words: bathtub faucet. You will need to find one with decent water pressure. Try it. Please.)

I had long wondered if the quality of an Internet affair (Mark is married when then story starts) could be recreated in a book, if the tension of the correspondence could be made narrative. Mazza has done it, which is funny since she’s a pre-Internet age writer often using handwritten diary entries from a time long before e-mail. Yet those diary entries capture something quintessential about how people connect online, when we so often turn other people into our diaries, when the relationship is as much an exploration of self as it is of the other. The whole book is a diary, and a correspondence, and it played for me nearly as effectively as I were part of the affair, in real time.

Some of the most poignant and beautiful lines in the book concerned that morphing between writing and life. “Basically: while I wrote this book something happened. Something happened while I was writing the book I thought I was going to write, which turned it into another book altogether.” Or, “Oh Mark, what am I going to do when I finish this book? It’s the only life I’m living. How does a person who only lives when she writes, write a memoir?

The aura of dreamy, self-absorbed storytelling that many of us recognize from obsessive e-mail correspondence pervades the book. Mazza jokes in several places that she’s going into way too much detail. “Why include this barely significant vignette of a heartbreak?” she says at one point.  And in another she mentions something that (I’m paraphrasing) “no one would care about—but Mark I know you do.” I loved her for it, and Mark too, for caring, but I would be remiss if I didn’t note that there were times I couldn’t believe what I was reading—and couldn’t believe I was still reading it—like, the time the school band went on a trip and Cris’s boss, who she had a crush on, “betrayed” her by not riding on the bus, and not calling to make sure everyone was OK after the bus broke down. Sometimes I just had to laugh. The humor was deepened by Mazza’s inclusion of comments from her writing group, who rightly point out the many reader expectations that she seems bent on frustrating. Go, writing group! One particularly funny part was someone telling her that having a crush on a high school band teacher was itself humorous. (She was indignant, and didn’t agree.)

I thought she got away with it all, partially through sheer commitment and partially because she’s a great writer with an excellent grip of pacing and suspense. Anyone wanting to write a deconstructed memoir, or include e-mail and text in a book should use this as a guide. As testament to her prose abilities, here’s a snippet from her fiction, from a story quoted in the book called “Let’s Play Doctor,” that seems representative of her lucid, risky, bold approach:

“She has a magazine in her hands and Dr. Shea moves behind her, very close, his cheek against hers. The smells from the bakery at the back of the bookstore become potent. She sees a whole pan of buttery cinnamon rolls coming from the oven. She doesn’t let go of the magazine; she can feel the slick heavy pages in her hands. Dr. Shea kisses her neck. ‘Let’s check your wounds,’ he murmurs. She’s looking at the magazine but doesn’t see anything. Dr. Shea lifts her shirt and runs his finger along the line where he had cut her open.”

I’ve written all this and not mentioned the explosive political content. Is it rape if we change our minds about it later? Can we call teenage grappling “rape games”? Do we dare admit to eroticizing our traumas? Is it sexual harassment if we want it? Mazza’s experiences with authority figures, and the men in her life, raise all of those questions in ways that aren’t always comfortable. She admits to calling situations that were or turned out to be ambiguous “sexual harassment” and “sexual excessive force.” I don’t like a world where ambiguous shit like that is legislated, and at the same time I think it right and necessary that sexual harassment and rape are illegal. It’s a mess, and this book does not help clear it up (not that it’s supposed to).

What it does—wonderfully, agonizingly—is look at one woman and her experiences with sex, in a deeper, more real, more fascinating, more exposed, more sexual way than I can recall having read anywhere, and all that in the middle of a firebomb of an Internet affair. What you want in a sex memoirist, it turns out, is not a blogger with a cute Instagram, but a hard-core old lady who has written 17 well-regarded literary books and never had an orgasm. I am only pretending to be surprised by that. I am not surprised. And I love you, Cris Mazza.


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