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Archive for July 2012

zadie smith goes elliptical, anti-evental

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Related to the conversation that spawned my previous post, someone told me that he thought Zadie Smith’s new story (paywall, sorry) in The New Yorker was the best thing that she’s done so far. I’ve just read it, and I agree.

It’s written in an elliptical form, as a series of short numbered paragraphs, and this, I think, is part of what permits Smith to sidestep some of the problems of her previous works. Smith discusses her use of this form, which she calls a “sectional form,” here:

Well, the story is an extract from a novel, and this sectional style only appears towards the end of the book. When I was writing the book I was trying to think about how we experience time. How it really feels to be in time. And the answer ended up being different depending on who or what I was dealing with. In Keisha’s case, she has this belief that life is a meaningful progression towards some ultimate goal—in her case, “success”—and this made the numbered sections the obvious choice.

To put what she’s getting at (I think) about “time” and “how it feels to be in time” into my own words: Whether the novelist wants to or not, conventional narration gives itself not just continuity but (somewhat but not really) paradoxically, the failure of continuity, the emergence of the ostensibly new. That is to say, narrative continuity provides itself in order to be broken, to serve as the staging grown for the discontinuous event. And then one day, something unforeseen happened…

The story plays from the start with the idea of events and eventfulness. The first lines read:

There had been an event. To speak of it required the pluperfect. Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell, the protagonists in the event, were four-year-old children.

Now, discontinuous events of this sort – and in general –  and the changes that they inaugurate in the line of their stories, are often sites of ideological mystification disguised as romantic aesthetics. (If you want to read someone playing expertly with this, take a look at David Lurie’s speech to his academic bosses in Disgrace. “Eros entered. After that I was not the same.” The “event” is the alibi that is meant to explain away – or refuse to explain away – all else that has happened, the presence of motive, etc…)

And in the case of Smith’s story, the “sectional” form of the narrative opens it by the end (not going to give it away) to a fundamental revision – a revision both of the story, the nature of its central character, and the romantic ideology that is serving as a blind for the cold determinism running underneath. It as if the story says to its own protagonist:

You had the sense that you were living life in accordance with the patterns and principles of romantically-tinged romantic fictions, complete with those moments of coup de foudre in which one position as if magically, but at least spontaneously, gives way to another. That is to say, you believed that your live was structured by events: you randomly meet this person, that happens, you meet another person, and so on. This ideology is the elipsis that haunts even the most conventional of narratives. But it was not so: a logic – the logic of comparison that is at base the logic of capitalism – was running the show, your show, all along.

At any rate, I’m interested to see how this all works in the novel from which this story is extracted. As she says in the passage I quoted above, this form only comes in at the end of the book. What would it mean for a novel to evolve or devolve into this?

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July 31, 2012 at 12:44 pm

female writers, writing, etc

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Following up from the post above about Amy Sohn’s piece: had a discussion last night about why it had been difficult for me to find novels written by females for a specific (but not all that specific) syllabus that I taught from last year – and why it might be the case that that was so. (More specifically, this conversation last night was provoked by the fact that students who took this seminar have taken it upon themselves to run their own seminar / reading group during the summer focused on female authors of the same period as the mostly male authors that we handled in mine… According to reports they’re not unhappy with me, understand why I assigned what I did, we’ve talked about it at length, but still they want to do more – and I’m glad they are.) Some of it may be that the specific aesthetic itself that we were dealing with in the seminar is gendered (and that it was a gender-driven choice on my part to centre on it in the class). This is worthy of discussion – and discuss it we did.

But something else came up that’s interesting too: the institutional, structural reasons why female writers’ careers tend (NB – by tend I mean tend – there are lots of exceptions!) to follow certain paths and not others. There are both active and passive, or positive and negative reasons why women don’t tend to write a certain sort of novel. On the one hand, there are of course roadblocks and prohibitions: old boys clubs – or even young boys clubs, preconceptions about who is suitable to write what, and of course all the psychological baggage that comes of growing up and being educated and everything else as a female rather than a male.

But on the other hand – I think this is just as interesting – female writers careers are shaped (in the context of this discussion, misshaped) as significantly by the carrot as by the stick. In other words – and if you’ve spent any time with a female freelance writer trying to make it on the American scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about – there are paths that young female writers are encouraged to follow by everything from article pitch acceptances to book contracts. The form that this encouragement takes is shaped by a nexus of ideology, taste, readership, but most importantly money and markets. And no one forces female writers to follow these paths – but they often are the paths of least resistance, and in a hard world, sometimes frictionless movement forward is undeniably appealing.

To put it another way. No one, in general, wants a tell-all / roman à clef about a guy’s sex life – let alone to write the sort of Carrie Bradshaw style column that leads to one of those. With a few notable exceptions, there’s not much demand for the “my life as a dad” style book either, where as mommy-centric stuff seems to be one of the true perennials of the book trade. I could be wrong – and in fact I have the slightest bit of evidence that I might be – but I have a feeling that a male version of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation wouldn’t work – or at least receive the PR explosion that it did when it came out over here – if written by a man.

Or to put it again yet another way: take two would-be freelancers in their 20s living in Brooklyn during the 2000s, one male and one female. Perhaps both want to write highbrow pieces about international affairs, the state of American culture, domestic politics, whatever. Both of them receive rejection after rejection when they try to do so. Of course they do – they are too green, there’s lots of established experts in those fields, they haven’t yet built up the CVs and the contacts, whatever. But the female of the pair discovers that yes, there is a market for a piece comparing her life to Carrie Bradshaw’s. It’s a throwaway, but it builds her publication list, so she takes the shot. There’s not really an equivalent slot for the guy to fill, so he turns instead to a PhD, writing a long, recondite literary novel, whatever. Meanwhile, for the female, one thing starts to lead to another – the article to an appearance on television to discuss SATC, the television appearance to a series of other related articles, and one day, after being coaxed into writing a particularly spicy piece by a magazine contact, a book contract about, well, some sort of equivalent of the Sohn thing I discussed in the previous post. The guy on the other hand likely gets nowhere, or becomes an academic, or perhaps, if he’s both good and very very lucky, releases his monstrous tome and ends up a rising light of the “literary fiction” scene.

Super-reductive, all of this, I know. But in practice – with countless variations – I’ve seen it turn out this sort of way lots and lots of time. There are highbrow versions of the same phenomenon: the smart woman who writes smart stuff for the right places, but smart stuff that always requires her to insert herself into the piece in some sort of slapsticky manner, the point of what she’s after constantly receding behind a wall of Cuteness and Funniness. And so on – but for another day.

Please don’t misunderstand. There are both good and bad reasons why these “paths” develop for women, but what I am trying to get at is the way that they can in many cases be formative – shunt talented people into some success, but success that in the long run settles on a plateau of mediocrity or even obnoxiousness. In Cusk’s case for instance – and despite the fact that I liked the bits that I read of Aftermath – one really does wonder if a writer of her talents isn’t wasting her time doing this sort of thing. Making a bit of money, yes, but wasting her time when she could be doing better work. Maybe she will next – or maybe she’ll write a follow-up to this book that got her a full-spread in the culture section of every Saturday paper in Britain a few months ago.

At any rate, and for now, let this stand as my attempt to explain part of what I was trying to get at yesterday – the way that one can feel the interpolative (and ultimately mediocritizing) forces at work shaping a piece of writing like that…. And of course, there are so many things here that need more attention: what I mean by “better” work, the ways that strong female authors game with the expectations I’m describing, what happens to female authors who, to borrow a term, “opt out” of this structure, and the somewhat translucent parallel expectations that exist for men….

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July 31, 2012 at 10:19 am

Posted in gender, writing

how to write like a brooklynite, part 1: amy sohn

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OK class. The text for today’s session is this amazing piece of journalistic commentary, “The 40-Year-Old Reversion” by Amy Sohn. Let’s do a play by play – might want to open the article in another window and follow along as I point out the highlights.

1. It’s a good idea to start something like this by blithely referring to a knowing/unknowing joke about some unfortunate caste or category of people to set  the tone for the piece. This permits the readers to understand where they are, socio-demographically speaking, and where they most certainly aren’t.

Once a month I get together with half a dozen moms from Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. We call ourselves Hookers, Sluts and Drug Addicts.

Also note that the delivery of such a joke is a matter of touch. Sohn gets it just right here: Hookers, Sluts, and Drug Addicts are abstract and “funny” enough to keep things edgy yet chill. Adding “Teenage Pornstars with AIDS” or “Project Girls who Give Head for Crack” to the list would potentially bum readers out.

2. Following from that, head directly into a mildly dirty anecdote – something to give the piece a general air of… how to describe it… women staring at each other’s tits.

Sally and I hit it off right away. She had short hair and heavy lids. It turned out we had met ten years ago at the pool room in the back of the Brooklyn Inn, bantering and competing for boys.

Sally went to the bathroom and I waited in front of the door for her to finish. When she came out, I said, “Lemme see your tits.”


“I heard you got a reduction.”

She lifted her shirt and bra and flashed me. “They look good,” I said. “What did the old ones look like?”

They were too big for my little body. They were an F. After I weaned, I would roll over onto one of them in my sleep and it would wake me up and then I would realize it was part of my own body. Now I’m a D. I love them.” Then she started stroking them. A cook stuck his head out of the kitchen.

Notice, here, the way that Sohn doubles down in the final paragraph of the anecdote, moving from women looking at each others tits to a woman and a cook watching another woman massaging her own tits. Note too, at this point, that Sohn  widely sidesteps the temptation to move into fullbore sucking, lapping, or licking.

3. Once you’ve cleared ironical slurring and salacious suggestion, you can permit yourself a little vanity-mirror moment, just to register for the readers that you are in fact still desirable enough that any of the rest won’t be gross in the “ugly-old-people-having-sex” sort of way.

Later we decided to go to a bar in Boerum Hill. The restaurant owner, Dave, said he would drive us. He turned out to be a divorced dad. We all crammed into his SUV. There were car seats in the back seat and he threw one of them behind us. The other wouldn’t move so a small mom sat in it, scrunched.

As we were crossing the Gowanus Canal, Dave said, “I just want you to know that I would have sex with any one of you ladies tonight. Even the pregnant one.”

“Thank you,” we said.

3.1 But it would probably be best to tie the “guy-who-says-you’re-still-hot” digression off with a knowing, self-reflexive wink – but a wink that nonetheless you are definitely still potentially somewhat up for it and not the kind of bitch who gets tetchy about stuff like harassing comments made by restaurant owners:

The difference between twenty-five and thirty-eight is that, at thirty-eight, when a strange man says he wants to have sex with you, you feel grateful.

4. Now it’s time to disentangle yourself from digressive anecdotery about Sluts and Tits and Cougarism in order to roll out the actual pitch of the piece. And by pitch I mean just that: this is where you copy and paste the email that you sent to the editor of the web-only publication that you’re writing in now. In the course of doing so, probably best to hat-tip the massively-overexposed and over-analysed bit of pop culture flotsam gave you the idea for the piece in the first place. Nobody, after all, gets tired of pieces along the lines of Lena Dunham – c’est moi. C’est nous tous! 

When “Girls” hit this spring, I was shocked by how true the show rang to my life—not my old life as a post-collegiate single girl but my new one, as a married, monogamous, home-owning mother. My generation of moms isn’t getting shocking HPV news (we’re so old we’ve cleared it), or having anal sex with near-strangers, or smoking crack in Bushwick. But we’re masturbating excessively, cheating on good people, doing coke in newly price-inflated townhouses, and sexting compulsively—though rarely with our partners. Our children now school-aged, our marriages entering their second decade, we are avoiding the big questions—Should I quit my job? Have another child? Divorce?—by behaving like a bunch of crazy twentysomething hipsters.

4a. Above all else, it is absolutely vital to end the pitch-repeating “thesis” paragraph with a reduction of any (if any – let’s hope not) complexity you’ve generated so far into a single word brandname for what you’re describing. If you don’t do this, how will Newsweek what to put on their cover the week that you’re the star – they sure as hell won’t go with the title of the novel that you’re flogging by doing all of this in the first place.

Call us the Regressives.

Without a capitalized Name like this, how the hell would anyone know what you’re talking about? What sort of twitter hashtag would they use when arguing about whether you’re a shitter mother than the Tiger Mom or not? Most important of all, they might just start to get the sense that you’re extrapolating wildly (and hyperbolically) from a sample set that includes People who Live on My Block of Union Street, the One between Court and Clark.

5. OK – you’re just about ready to drop the name of your novel into the piece at this point. Careful – this part takes a deft touch.

My new novel, Motherland, is about five New York City parents who act out mid-life through adultery, marijuana or Grindr. The characters are inspired by my neighbors, who seek liberation not through consciousness-raising and EST the way their mothers did, but through Fifty Shades of Greyand body shots. They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff.

In another lesson, we’ll spend more time on the principles of novelistic construction that are on display in this dazzling set piece. For now: note the elegant to-and-fro of contradiction and confirmation of preconceptions are work here: moms are moms but also not because they fuck and drink, these people are made up but actually real, things have changed but really haven’t but really have, and this will have porny fucking in it, just like 50 Shades. All this in the course of a couple of sentences.

5a. This is slightly annoying, given the patently obvious universality of Sohn’s novel and this piece (and, presumably, yours as well), but it’s a good idea to underscore that universality for the haterzz by patiently explaining that the phenomenon in question is definitely not simply an insanely local case / unanchored particularity / simply evidence of the hothouse-reeking-of-egotistical-bullshit that is Brownstone Brooklyn but is in fact a global phenomenon.

(And this regression is not confined to upscale neighborhoods in New York City—I hear similar stories from friends in Los Feliz, Montclair and Rye.)

You can be forgiven if you don’t know where these desperately provincial backwaters are that Sohn mentions – why would you? I mean, the fact that they are only slightly more suburban versions of Brownstone Brooklyn, one in LA the other two just outside NYC, and are filled by exactly the same sort of people, only with bigger houses and maybe the shot at sending their kids to public school instead of having gram and gramps pay for St Anne’s, doesn’t contradict the fact that this stuff is probably happening in Omaha and rural Bangladesh. Or isn’t, as the whole piece is staked on the fact that Brownstone Brooklyn is so insane hip that…

You know what, forget it. Let’s move on.

5b. …we’ll move on save for one more thing. It will probably happen that some redneck will call you up on this Montclair or Rye thing. If so, answer with an eye-roll and the response “Oh, so I guess we don’t do irony, do we, where you’re from?”

6. Right. That’s it for the mandatory stuff. Now it’s time for the body of the piece, which needn’t be much more than a series of anecdotes about the phenomenon in question. Whether they actually add up to making a case for the existence of this phenomenon isn’t the point. Rather, the point is to deploy what you have – basically a series of mildly titillating / gross / silly things that have happened or you have “heard about” while sidestepping the fact that they may not in fact be real. One way around the later problem is to write in the present tense (“They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff”) or, even better, avoid using verbs beyond strange “it is” constructions at all:

The childbearing is over, the breastfeeding in the past, the sling donated to Housing Works. It’s the moment when a mom dresses as a Harajuku girl for Halloween, or there’s a full bar at a four-year-old’s birthday party, or two ladies step out of book group to smoke on the stoop. It’s blowjob gestures at cocktail parties followed by a-little-too hysterical laughter. It’s the mother who says, “Mommy needs an Advil because she stayed up too late last night.” It’s fortieth birthday parties at karaoke bars.

See that: through the “it’s, it’s, it’s” formulation, you’re not actually asserting that any of these things actually have taken place. Rather this is the sort of thing that would happen if this Regression thing was happening, and since you’ve said it’s happening, then they have happened too. Perfect – you’ve learned the secret of tautological spin.

7. It might be a good time, lest the reader starts to lose interest or attention, to reaffirm that this is just like the stuff that happens on her/his favorite cable tv shows.

The same Facebook moms who use kid photos as their profile pics post galleries of their binge drinking. Is the behavior really amoral? No. Does it cross a line? Rarely. But there is a wild, life-craving, narcissistic, oblivious madness to it that reminds me of Don Draper and pals in the mid-sixties. These women are the men their mothers divorced.

8. Now that you’ve done the amorphous “things that might be the case but who really knows” non-story story thing, the remainder of the piece can consist of a stream of consciousness list of mundane things that vaguely reinforce the Big Idea of the piece. Have no fear if these mundane things are really mundane and utterly disjointed, one to the next. What follows is an exhaustive list of what actually happens in the remainder of Sohn’s piece – exhaustive so that you can you can be reassured that having nothing really to talk about shouldn’t at all put you off writing a piece of this sort:

  1. Once, a woman in Fort Greene had non-intercourse sex once with a coworker.
  2. Once, a married woman with kids used coitus interruptus as her birth control method.
  3. Once, a man bought XL condoms from the Park Slope Co-Op
  4. Once, two men took Xanax while drinking.
  5. Once, a dad gave the author some marijuana.
  6. Once, the author took the subway to Park Slope once because there were no cabs on Smith Street.
  7. Once, people went back from drinks to someone’s place to do a line of coke.
  8. Once, someone said to the author that her Asian boyfriend had a large penis.
  9. Once, people at a party attended by the author smoked pot on the front stoop.

9. As you can see, the takeaway point is this: the initial “tits out and self-fondled” story is the alpha and the omega of this piece, and clears room for everything else. That along with a catchy tagword like “Regressives” will allow you to transform, as if (or, probably, in fact) effortlessly, some silly shit that happens at boring kids’ birthday parties in at the Center of the Literary Universe (i.e. Brooklyn) into a piece that not only captures the World Zeitgeist, but further even becomes a talking point during the dead-air times on CNN.

Did you catch a guy peeing against your garbage cans? Then exhibitionism in the new hip thing amongst the BoBos of Park Slope. Did you bump your head during sex with your husband? Watch out, EL James: it’s married BDSM that’s the new rage in Red Hook. Did a friend of a friend let one rip during a cocktail party? Then – as you can easily imagine – farting is the new flirting in Boerum Hill.

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July 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm

noted without comment: il più grande fabbro

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From the new edition of Stephen Spender’s journals:

To be totally honest now, I should ask whether Auden was not a bit envious of me because I had a large penis. He was certainly affected by this and mentioned it mockingly on many occasions. He explained my attraction for certain women as due to this. ‘How could they possibly know?’ I asked once. He looked down his nose with his sly boyish expression and said ‘They do.’

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July 23, 2012 at 10:09 am

Posted in bros

you you you: junot diaz, second person narration, etc…

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Just read Junot Diaz’s latest story (behind a paywall, unfortunately) in the New Yorker, called “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” Not all that impressive is the long and short of it. Postures as a true story about fucking up a relationship by fucking lots and lots of other women, and then not getting over that all that well until the narrator realises that he can write about it all. OK.

But it did make me think about something interesting. As in other works, Diaz uses the second person here – the entire story is addressed to a “you.” Of course, there are infamous problems with the second person – above all, it forces an intimacy on the reader that the reader may not want to or be capable of sharing. As Emily Gould tweeted about the story and its mode of narration, quite rightly, “like, no, bro, I definitely didn’t treat a lot of women like shit or think it was ok in the end bc it turned out 2 be grist for the ol’ mill.”

I definitely don’t mean some sort of lapse into utter perversity, a sort of tutoyering Patrick Batemanism: “As you slide your hand into the cranial cavity, you feel the still unextinguished warmth of the head amidst the soft smoosh of the grey matter between your fingers.” (For now, I’ll refrain from giving you a bit of Fifty Shades in the second person…) You are a Nazi prison guard, you are a 19th-century courtesan, you are Laura Bush. Whatever. That’d just be dumbly obvious.

But it does seem to me that there is something to be done with this form. Rather than the obvious forms of alienation-in-proximity that I just described, I mean something more  indirect, uncanny, and at-one-remove.  Something akin to the forced identification that Flaubert pioneered with the style indirect libre. In Bovary, we read a novel whose discourse forces proximity on us: we can’t tell where the narrator stops and Emma’s subjectivity takes over control of the contents of the prose. But it’s not simply that we’re presumed to be exactly like Emma Bovary. Rather, we are related to her by implication: we are reading a romance novel, just as she is informed or even wholly composed of the same sort of genre fiction. We may not be adulteresses, but we are necessarily, like her, readers of novels about adultery.

I wonder how one might go about this. The best thought that I’ve had so far – and it definitely comes of reading the Diaz piece tonight, is something like an ur-New Yorker story written in address to the demographic that generally reads the New Yorker. But it’d have to be mighty clever to be good. I’m not talking about any obvious stuff like “As you sip your chardonnay at the Hamptons beach house, flipping through the latest from Malcolm Gladwell, a strange and unsettling thought enters your mind about Renata, the German au pair you just had coptered in for the weekend, and her firm body, so unlike that of your aging, yet still assuredly beautiful, wife…”

(Or what the hell – maybe that’d work just fine. Who knows…. Am I over-complicating? It wouldn’t be the first time…)

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July 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Posted in narrative

et in acadia ego

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There was a time, not long ago, when transit systems – those urban knots of intermodal connection – held great fascination. In particular, the places where the connections were made were of special interest. From taxi cab (two bags in tow, his and hers) to Heathrow Express – and in the middle, the newspapers and the bottle of mineral water, the ham and cheese croissant, the cigarette taken sneakily in the gap where inside vaguely becomes outside at Paddington Station. Later, having arrived at the airport and having negotiated the ticketing and security procedures, there are souvenir stands and more newspapers. One purchases what one wouldn’t normally when a long-haul flight is imminent. One purchases these things without guilt or worry at the airport, as it is a special zone, an exceptional place where spending is permitted – as the purveyors of Duty Free know all too well.

The first WH Smith was at Euston Station, and wasn’t just the first WH Smith but the first train station newsstand on earth. I can remember the thrill of visiting one, and seeing the stacks of the many British and international newspapers, though that thrill is long-since gone.

There are Relais newsstands in America now, at airports, although there they are called Relay.

The only thing worse than not being able to smoke outside of a bar (because it’s in an airport terminal) is the lack of natural light in them. Windows seem to be reserved for the executive clubs.

The iPad has relieved one of the need to purchase news in newsstands. A bittersweet development, like all of the others. But that is not the only reason why the newsstand – and the transit hub in general – holds less fascination than it used to.

A trick is played upon boarding. Having been offered a window seat in trade for his middle, so that two can sit together, the canny American businessman takes the aisle instead. When he meets with resistance, he blusters through, saying that he needs to be “nearer his family.” Within five minutes, and through some rapid Blackberry exchanges, he subsequently swaps his new aisle for an aisle elsewhere and isn’t heard from again.

On the smaller jet to Halifax, the bathroom door swings open during take-off and it is promptly slammed shut. This seems to break the lock – incapacitating the only toilet on the plane – until the flight attendant comes to the door and shifts the little metal sign that reads “lavatory” which reveals a tiny button which when pressed overrides the lock. One of the smaller mysteries of passenger aviation revealed.

The rental car is upgraded for free from a “small SUV” to a “large SUV.” Which means a Chevy Suburban with three rows of seats plus a trunk.

A stop for burgers in Wolfville, the home of Acadia University. Some wondering while he steers through the town and stops at the crosswalks about what life would be, quiet and 60 miles from Halifax.

Ten years ago, Nan sold her teetering shoreside house and purchased half of her sisters plot of land to build a prefab but lovely house. From the second floor deck, one can make out scraps of blue water in the bay. The view of the surrounding hills is better.

The old house is still there, but will one day soon, probably due to the vestiges of some hurricane or nor’easter or other, fall into the sea. A family from Boston has it now for a vacation house. Likely it is filled with lawn toys and drying shells, just as it was during summer visits twenty years ago.

An awareness of mortality has entered into these trips. In fact, one of the driving reasons for the trip is this awareness of mortality. Great grandmothers do not live forever. Thankfully, she is of earthy stock and this is more a subject of humorous banter than the bilious flow about death, its mercies, and the reticence of grandchildren about it all that would come from his other set of relatives, the post-Quebecois Catholics.

He decides, over the course of several conversations, that he will keep the house when it is his. He will go there during the summers to write and relax. Perhaps, if he can, he will rent it out for ten months a year for the sake of upkeep during the harsh winters.

There is a second-hand bookshop in town – actually a nice one – called Crooked Timber Books. The proprietor of the shop owns the website When asked if he is aware of the website, he claims ignorance, but then asks if it is run by philosophers.

There are real delights in limitation. The internet is borrowed from a neighbour and intermittent, which is good. There is nowhere to shop but souvenir shops and a Canadian Tire and a Walmart, as well as two supermarkets. Each morning he picks up the Globe and Mail and a box of doughnuts for the family breakfast.

At night, after the kids are asleep, Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. A perfect choice. The cosmopolitanism of the rural, the fact that Norfolk was once the western side of the mouth of the Rhine.

What to do with imperial history when explaining it to children? All that is left out from the dioramas and posters. The English defeated the French, yes, and sent them on their trek to Louisiana, yes, which made Cajuns of Acadians but what of the others, whose descendants are ensconced on First Nation reservations. Why the reservations, at this point?

A Mi’kmak necklace, made of porcupine quills, is purchased for $60.

Nan’s maiden surname is Denton. According to a popular genealogy website, the Dentons left their farm in Jamaica, Queens, New York in 1776 to move to Digby Neck, NS. Loyalists, Tories, and above all, bad businessmen.

Fort Anne, in Annapolis Royal, looks like a port and Port Royal looks like a fort. This confuses nearly as much now as it did twenty years ago. The former is constructed according to Vauban’s earthwork principles, which you can read about in Sebald’s Austerlitz.

Port Royal was a short-lived French fur trading settlement, established by Champlain amongst others.

In Lunenburg, there is a fine museum of fishery complete with docked trawlers you can explore at your leisure. Belowdecks and above. The borders of the UNESCO World Heritage district are indicated with dotted-lines on the maps of the town. Across the small bay, a giant golf course spreads in voluptuous green.

Most of the map-marked towns in rural Nova Scotia possess nothing more than a convenience store: pop, cigarettes, gasoline perhaps, hockey cards. Some lack even that – an old church, not yet nor probably ever converted into condominiums.

Brooklyn is a maritime place. You can still hear the horns of the boats and sometimes the air carries a sniff of salt. Brooklyn was once loveable for that reason, and others, but as with the newsstand and transport hubs, it no longer solicits the affection that it once did.

Lobsters: before and after.

Someone who hid from travel through photography. Trips were for the generation of photoessays to be posted to a blog. It is hard to shake the sense that cameras are a sort of prophylactic against contamination by the places one visits and the people one visits the places with.

To stage one’s disappearance not into the diffusion of the style indirect libre but elsewhere and otherwise. Into an accumulation of blank noticings, into reading whether of printed texts or not.

Sebald on Lowestoft:

The last time I had been in Lowestoft was perhaps fifteen years ago, on a June days that I spent on the beach with two children, and I thought I remembered a town that had become something of a backwater but was nonetheless very pleasant; so now, as I walked into Lowestoft, it seemed incomprehensible to me that in such a relatively short period of time the place could have become so run down. Of course I was aware that this decline had been irreversible ever since the economic crises and depressions of the Thirties; but around 1975, when they were constructing the rigs for the North Sea, there were hopes that things might change for the better, hopes that were steadily inflated during the hardline capitalist years of Baroness Thatcher, till in due course they collapsed in a fever of speculation. The damage spread slowly at first, smouldering underground, and then caught like wildfire. The wharves and the factories closed down one after the other, until all that might be said for Lowestoft was that it occupied the easternmost point in the British Isles. Nowadays, in some of the streets almost every other house is up for sale; factory owners, shopkeepers, and private individuals are sliding ever deeper into debt; week in, week out, some bankrupt or unemployed person hands himself; nearly a quarter of the population is now practically illiterate; and there is no sign of an end to the encroaching misery. Although I knew all of this, I was unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of me in Lowestoft, for it is one thing to read about unemployment blackspots in the newspapers and quite another to walk, on a cheerless evening, past rows of run-down houses with mean little front gardens; and, having reached the town centre, to find nothing but amusement arcades, bingo halls, betting shops, video stores, pubs that emit a sour reek of beet from their dark doorways, cheap markets, and seedy bed-and-breakfast establishments with names like Ocean Dawn, Beachcomber, Balmoral, or Layla Lorraine.

The one sea-side bar in Digby is, during the middle of the summer, so overrun by mosquitos as to make sitting outside undesirable, almost as undesirable as sitting inside.

The lobsters, apparently, are caught and then penned for later use. In the pen, they are inserted into a plastic tube and chilled to the point where they go dormant – they hibernate. And then one afternoon, they are awoken.

Amazon, the Kindle app, all of those books on-line. Occasional but relatively frequent trips to London and thus the British Library and New York and thus the NYPL. In Buffalo, not even as small as this, an instantaneous sense that this is the place where real work could be done, a magnum opus.

Of course also a fantasy that develops as if instantly and without due permission. A wine bar and art gallery, with a bookshop attached. Something that would serve as a magnet. Gentrification, studies have shown, often helps the natives – at least those in a position to help themselves. The family of course are natives; Richard wants to buy the empty pier and set up a steakhouse amidst all of the seafood restaurants. So it is said, and then quickly forgotten as impracticable if not wrong – and wrong for more than one reason.

Whale-watching and the uncanniness of these mammals float along the surface, sucking fish. Fishing and the murk of the water off the wharf, under the wharf. Someone spots a young seal on a rock. Someone says the mackerel linger near the other end of floating docks.

Addiction is perverse allergy. Many people from small towns, it can easily be imagined, spin on a line of bored desperation, desperate boredom, when they finally reach the centre of the world.

Young as she is, she is not accustomed to the radio. To the fact that you take what you get from it and that there is a pleasure in that.

German tour buses roll slowly past the statue of the WWI Infantryman at the centre of town. The buses stop, as they must, to allow pedestrians to clear the crosswalks.

A hospital visit for someone’s separated shoulder. Clothes washed to avoid spreading MRSA amongst the very old and the very young.

Thoughts, nearly aspirations, of a better sort of life. A subsequent thought that the ennui (some would call it depression) isn’t permanent, essential, but contingent, locational.

A narrowly focused accounting of detail, especially that which fails or even refuses to shout out its need to be noticed. (The strange opening section of The Pale King – there but unsustained as if an object lesson, a performance, of what the book wants but cannot allow itself to have). The ditch that has opened (when? this year? a thousand years ago?) between igneous and sedimentary rocks at Point Prim, the pink Queen Anne’s Lace which is either the same species only younger or a different one altogether. The churn of the currents off the point as the Gut meets the Bay, which I point out to my daughter when she asks if we could swim.

The small salvation that comes of that, the unobtrusive detail retained, for me and for her and, if not all of us, then

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 20, 2012 at 2:35 am

Posted in canada, sebald, travel