Friday, 30 December 2022

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

It seems to me that it is impossible to describe in one paragraph, or write one blurb on what this book is about in a way that would feel accurate or satisfying - it is “about” too many things to summarise without missing or excluding something important, the light that accompanies the shade, the love and healing that sits alongside the trauma, the building that challenges the broken.

A Little Life is tremendous in each of its 720 pages. At times I wondered if it was needlessly morose: the unrelenting abuse and trauma experienced by protagonist Jude St Francis, topped with the loss of people who represent important crossroads and the possibility of shifting his narrative, and with that, the possibility of a life where health triumphs over illness, love over cruelty, togetherness and acceptance over isolation and dismissal. At other times, it felt that perhaps these life events have been necessary to the story and that perhaps some lives are just so unlucky and the question of whether life can and should be endured endlessly is the point - and that perhaps, finally, the proposal Yanagihara presents us with is not the one we’ve been taught is right, moral, healthy and yet we must now consider it. 

There is an undeniable cleanliness, relief and sensibility when Jude finally releases himself from his pain. To say there is a justice isn’t right because there is nothing just, fair or for good reason about his life experiences up until he turns 16 (and their everlasting ripple effects), and because despite the acquiring of unconditional love, the opportunity to test this love on sturdy adoptive parents in his 50s and to see them still standing, whole and begging to keep him alive, he is unable to do so. Paired with the realisation that he is loved so deeply, which represents, in some ways, a cosmic release from his torment caused by continuing to stay alive—a partial resolution of his pain—is Jude's conviction of his own debt, owed in exchange for having been chosen or loved. But for Jude, the price for his gratitude is ultimate and totalising—his life—and despite his efforts to fulfil what he sees as his obligations, his failure to do so aligns with the belief he has even at his death: that he has been deceptive about who he is and that he is undeserving of the love he has received, which could or should be withdrawn. And so, we feel he is finally at peace.  

As such, another argument runs through the book: that maybe we have wrongly valued life as living for oneself and maybe it is the people around us who love us specifically and especially that tether us to the world and maybe that is natural and normal and not ill. Throughout the book is the spectre of what ifs: if that one abuse hadn’t taken place, if that one person hadn’t died when they had, etc., could Jude’s life have been endured? And then we again face the question if life should be “endured” or “survived” at all and that some people, who are given early love and stability, confidence in their existence are just lucky and can live life, where hardships are sandwiched between happy years, while those who haven’t been so lucky must try to balance the scales to determine what is less torturous and thus what is more kind: living (enduring, surviving) or not living. It is necessary for us as a society to believe in therapy and medicine and love and that these should always provide a person with the right tools to continue working to the goal of staying alive because if we don’t unquestionably accept that these life rafts can save anybody, we open the possibility of doubt and with this doubt, comes the risk that some people may be worth giving up on. And with that shameful thought may follow the acceptance of the possible (unacceptable) death of those we love and with that acceptance comes the risk of complicity and with that, guilt and failure against this universally accepted and righteous goal. And yet, we don't give up but learn to live with it differently. 

The outcome of the novel reminded me of what Michael Pederson said to me when I asked him about his friendship with Scott Hutchison at his book reading a few months ago, which has stayed with me: that being Scott’s friend came with the understanding, acceptance, that losing him to suicide was always there as a possibility and it could happen abruptly, with no clues or opportunity for intervention and this came with the territory of loving him and and enjoying life with him for every day in which he chose to be alive.

Tuesday, 20 December 2022

Black river

The river is insistently, intensely black
fast-moving with untold depths
in process
the moment before viscous liquid becomes solid
when all motion stops.

The river is so black
the water spurns all expectation
of light and shade
in partnership
so that the darkness is endless without outline, dense: cornstarch and water.

The stress could kill me if I keep on like this.
If I keep on like this my hair will fall out
unrecoverable down the shower drain
traces of my skin will flake off leaving a trail behind me
a spectre of folkloric breadcrumbs to signpost the
direction of home or haven.

In the night in the park
I can hear more than I can see
and I don’t know which is safer.

The black river gains momentum
it has been preparing for hours
swallowing drunk men who lose their footing
petrified and preserved,
cold and still.

The stress might kill me if I keep on like this.
My skin is on fire and my arms are burning
the smell of scorched protein matter
the light is orange even in my kitchen
the sky is red and brown and furious.

I can see the dust coming through the window
which has always been there already
a sense of awe that it announces itself so suddenly and how much of it there is around us
a sense of disgust and the timely arrival of a cough
so when the particles settle on my lungs
it feels so unacceptable.

I will myself to dissolve, and it works!
I become the floating specs
I am weightless and unhindered
moving slowly, but constantly.

The day progresses and the chill arrives
a window is opened and I am transported.
The frost kicks in and the window is shut.

I land on the black water
freezing but finally freezing.
The river moves me with plan and purpose
but has me in a familiar hold:
a baby at a breast on a rocking chair
with no other intent than to soothe.

Saturday, 17 December 2022

Sunday, 27 November 2022

Carolee Schneemann at the Barbican

I really enjoyed seeing Schneemann's earlier painting work and use of reflective glass and mirrors in sculpture, which I was less familiar with compared to her performance work, notably Meat Joy and Interior Scroll

Moreover, I loved the central role of cats and intimacy with cats of Schneemann's projects - especially powerful, evocative and effective was her juxtaposition of a video of her cat in distress having been hit by a car with footage of war and conflicts across the globe. 

Schneemann is quoted saying, "The cat is my medium". 

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Doppelganger - Velázquez

Diego Velázquez, ‘Portrait of a Girl’ (detail), c. 1638-42. Oil on canvas. 51.5 x 41 cm. On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY.

Sunday, 16 October 2022

Tilly Lawless, Nothing But My Body

Tilly Lawless's feminist novel Nothing But My Body is about many things: sex and sexuality, class, race, immigration, gender, colonialism, climate change, addiction, mental health, physical health and bodily risk, femininity and masculinity, love, relationships, heartbreak, infatuation, friendship, motherhood. Like her narrator, Lawless is a queer Sydney-based sex worker and shields little from her reader, explicitly chronicling "Maddy's" (we don't learn the narrator's real name and are only given her work name) days at work, a variety of clients with different stories, bodies and treatment of her and her body. 

Nothing But My Body
's narrator challenges middle-class assumptions  about intent, desire, money as well as intelligence, as "Maddy" surprises clients with her knowledge of history (and her degree) and discussions during sex on things like GDP or medical tests and precautions. Lawless is not one for easy answers and that is because easy answers are not true or real - she pushes back against people's urge to neatly classify things as one thing but not another (such as the different shapes and forms of queerness or the inconsistent and impure workings of pleasure) bred from the impulse to facilitate their own more comfortable digesting and understanding of that which they cannot make sense of or which scares or threatens their stability or sense of self. 

This book is at once so unfamiliar to me, both personally and geographically—the Australian landscapes, animals and wildfires entirely unavailable to me in my own experience, and not readily accessible in my imagination—and yet is incredibly relatable and tender. "Maddy's" sense of humanity and compassion for the people she encounters is felt throughout and she considers the hardships or experiences of her friends, other sex workers (and how their circumstances differ from her own, for example as an immigrant or older woman), and some of her clients, such as a man who spent years at a detention centre seeking asylum. Through her capacity for love and her ultimate resolve to live, even in the face of climate change, coronavirus, and personal sorrow, "Maddy", who wants to become a mother, finds cause for hope, again and again. 

Saturday, 15 October 2022

Michael Pederson, Boy Friends

What an absolute treat to see Michael Pederson read from his beautiful non-fiction book Boy Friends alongside the brilliant Hollie McNish reading poems at Storysmith this week. I adored Boy Friends - it is an incredibly tender, hilarious and deeply human book about how Pederson dealt with the enormity of grieving the loss of his dear friend and artistic collaborator, Scott Hutchison, whose music I have adored for years. Pederson is generous with his reader, who is there with him at times, sitting at the table enjoying wine and a delicious meal with chatter and closeness of beloved friends or with a murky mind, mourning that which has incomprehensibly become gone. 

Pederson's approach to writing about grieving is largely to write about joy. He also digests the absolute loss of Hutchison this in part by revisiting male friendships of his past that, for one reason or another, are lost or no longer part of the fabric of his current life but have shaped him in a crucial way. Breaking the taboo of male intimacy and love between friends, Boy Friends offers a new proposal for male love that is compelling, full and liberating that it makes you wonder why men have wasted so much time not telling each other I love you.