Last week was pretty damn trying, both personally and work-wise. Routine disruption made it even worse. There were a couple of days where things I usually do at certain time of the day did not get done, and for some reason it really became an issue by the end of the week. Yesterday I found a nice reading space by the National Gallery of Art and tried to catch up on both reading and writing.
I started John Wray’s Lost Time Accidents a week or so ago and then realized I could only read it on days when I had stretches of uninterrupted time. It is a novel that I guess would be described as ‘literary genre’. In this case, it is a genre novel both because it is a historical novel and because it speculates on the nature of time. Charles Yu wrote a review of it for the Sunday edition of the New York Times Book Review, and I am glad that NYT chose a sci-fi author to do the review of what is not a strictly sci-fi novel. He is pretty on point in his review – it is a complex novel, and by virtue of being extremely sprawling, its complexity does not always work, but I am enjoying the novel’s messiness and detail (besides, it is far from a plodding read). I am a sucker for long historical novels with weird things in them, particularly if they include elements from both history of science and science fiction. There is also a fictionalized version of a sci-fi writer named Orson Card Tolliver who might be an amalgam of Ron L. Hubbard and Andrew Offutt.
It’s unusual for me to stretch my reading of a fiction book over a number of weeks. I think the last time I did this was with Nicola Griffith’s Hild (for much the same reason, I needed uninterrupted time to pay attention). I am now more than a halfway through, and unless it really goes down south, I recommend this one if you are a fan of big books full of family sagas, physicists, possibly time-traveling Nazis, and narratives that attempt to cover both decades and infinities.
The first fifty pages (and to be honest, I feel the pattern will hold for the entirety of the volume) are an odd mix of borderline unhinged pronouncements (of the ‘I’m getting messages from aliens’ type) and simply examples of someone trying to figure out where thoughts, visions, and creativity come from, and trying to explain it in terms both neurophysiological and mystical. At least for me, the beginning of Exegesis is peculiar but not outrageously so. Perhaps it is because at one point I myself lived on a somewhat steady diet of mystical literature, from myth analyses to Jungian alchemical essays. Perhaps it is simply recognition that this is another human mind trying to figure out itself, though PKD’s take on it might be more peculiar than most.
Peculiarity here is mixed with a dose of self-importance, which might be inflated because most of this was not written for others’ eyes. The idea that one’s novels are predicting the future, coming true, and, in fact, forming said future is a great science fiction concept. And therein lies the Exegesis rub. Is PKD living in a PKD novel? Is he writing non-fiction for some distant future? Are his novels, upon leaving his mind and typewriter, go on to change the fabric of reality itself? He seems to believe all or some of these things.
And for those of you who are wondering whether this volume is a slog: it isn’t. It is, oddly enough, quite readable, something which a few of us in this read along pointed out. I have a feeling we are all going to come after having reached page 300 or thereabouts and renounce our words, but we’ll see. Is it worth your time? It depends. If you think you will enjoy not-intended-for-publication self-examination ramblings full of religious and philosophical references, then I think you’ll have a blast.
I used to have no weekends. I had two days off, one weekday and one weekend day, and I loved it. There wasn’t enough time to get away from it all, I could visit almost entirely empty museums, and it was easier to come back to work after just a day. Now that I have a weekend, I both sort of enjoy having two days off to myself and hate the fact that I am once again part of the masses who resent Sunday night and don’t want to go to work on Monday.
This week has been annoying to say the least, and now Umberto Eco died, so it is not ending on a high note either. What I would really like to do is to spend an entire day tomorrow re-reading Foucault’s Pendulum, the book with which I used to obsessed at one point in my life. Yet for some indescribable reason, I no longer have a copy, so I am going to settle for another example of strange historical fiction, John Wray’s Lost Time Accidents.
To continue with the historical novel theme, here’s a great interview with Alexander Chee about his new novel, The Queen of the Night, and about how historical novels are still seen as lower-class fiction. You can replace ‘historical’ with any other genre fiction descriptor and it would still apply. The interesting thing mentioned therein is that realism fiction is seen as superior, but only if it’s produced by Northern American writers (so see, Eco was not in this category and thus got a pass to write whatever the hell he wanted). Read it, it’s a very good interview. And read The Queen as well, especially if you, like me, love your novels long, vivid, and detailed.
Speaking of historical scribblings, where would one submit historical weird horror? Asking for a friend.
Scattered reading time these days, mostly due to the fact that my brain decided it would rather spend time writing. It is obviously bored with whatever life I have now and thinks we could do better. You go, brain. Living the creative life for the first time in years. Mind you, nothing published has come out of it yet, but I keep telling myself that submitting is an enormously big deal and most people don’t even get to that.
Apart from filling a creative void in my life, writing is one of the few things I need to do to prevent myself from becoming an unpleasant human being (others are reading and running). Writing is both so emotionally exhausting and so necessary. Despite this new Hamilton-esque almost-graphomania, writing is hard and does not make my brain go into the ‘flow‘ mode easily. It takes a while for me to get there, by which time, you guessed it, I am emotionally exhausted and ready to give up. Yet even this exhaustion is not altogether terrible, because there are parts of me I want to exhaust. There are parts of my brain that I want to wear down so that they don’t wake up at four o’clock in the morning and start telling me terrible things. I am temporarily out of commission running-wise, so scribbling is now the primary type of amateur therapy.
I am hoping to get reading back on track with Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, which is a peculiar mix of memoir, true crime, and personal essay. I did not think this book was going to be my cup of tea at all, but Maggie Nelson is so good at self-examination, observation, and putting it all into beautiful words, that anything she writes is hard to put down. The Red Parts is about a reopening of a 35 year-old murder of Nelson’s aunt, an occurrence that plunged her family into grief anew. She documents months in the courtroom as the case is reexamined, during which time she conducts an examination of her own, of her family and how it was affected by this terrible and up until now unsolved tragedy. I love writers who write in the liminal areas, whose books give catalogers nightmares, because that is how my mind works as well. I loved both Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Argonauts as well, although for personal reasons the latter affected me much more deeply than the former. Start with Argonauts if you have never read her non-fiction, but be prepared to find yourself seeking out everything she has ever written, including books you thought were not your cup at all.
Nicolette at Book Punks started a rather brave and possibly unsound quest to read Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis in a span of one year, accompanied by a selection of his novels. You can see the schedule here. A few similarly courageous souls signed up for this, and I am joining the crowd a few weeks late, but early enough to catch up.
In a strange twist of fate, as these things go, I am not entirely unprepared for this journey. Once upon a time I took a rather unusual college course. It seemed to be at odds with the rest of the faculty’s offerings (this was Department of Psychology), and I still can’t easily describe what it was about or why I took it. It is still taught, by the same professor, a fact that doesn’t really surprise me, because it was one of the highest-rated courses on offer, and probably still is. On the surface, it was an attempt to explain how we view the world and the models we use to do it. What it actually consisted of was an overview of everything from neurophysiology to myths to studies on anxiety and fear to Jungian theories to alchemy to the Bible, all tied and brought together in a variety of ways, with assignments that required us to write personal narratives and readings ranging from Dostoyevsky to articles from neuroscience journals. It sounds like a hot mess, but oddly enough, it wasn’t. In fact, it’s probably the only course that stayed with me past college. Maybe we were all drinking Kool-Aid, maybe we were all rebelling against strict reductionist tendencies of the majority of the department, maybe we were genuinely interested in learning something that seemed almost mystical, or maybe the professor was rather persuasive. It was the same course that later led to burying myself in books on Jung and alchemy, and now I am reminded of it again, as it makes my diving into PKD’s Exegesis both oddly familiar and exactly the kind of thing I would want to do.
We are momentarily back to winter here in our nation’s capital, with adorable little snow but also abominably cold wind. I would love to venture out to Capitol Hill Books for their second-Saturday wine and cheese shenanigans, but only if the district magically extends metro service right into my room. So at the moment I am on the couch with a blanket, writing about north sea and whales.
Speaking of writing, I have files in my Google docs I call ‘writingdumps’. They each comprise a month. They are places to write random thoughts, from how I feel about some book I’ve just read to gender woes to whether the medical insurance jumping hoops will be the death of me. They are essentially a diary that I could never successfully keep until I could type it.
I read a couple of blogs whose owners update every day or nearly every day. If I attempted to do this, would anyone read my everyday notes? I doubt there are enough people who’d read my daily weirdness, but I also wonder how my blogging would change if I did it every day. Would it devolve into weather notes and menu listings, or would I start doing something strange yet cool like writing a poem every day? Who knows. It seems like an interesting experiment, but to be honest, I don’t think you need to worry about getting my daily blueness-of-sky updates in your feed any time soon.
In reading news, I have an early copy of Kat Howard’s first novel called Roses and Rot, and you should get ready to be extremely excited about it when it comes out in May. In the meantime, go read her short fiction because it is very, very good. I won’t say much more about the novel because I have not finished it yet (and there’s still a ways to go till it’s out), but I’m loving it so far.
If you could visualize yourself in your perfect reading mode and place, what would that look like? Being completely immersed in an amazing new book, whizzing through it at eighty pages per hour, or slowly savoring some delightfully dense old classic?
I always have this conflicting vision of me either reading five galleys in a day and loving them all, or sitting down with a paper and pencil and deconstructing some truly amazing short story so I can still that writer’s powers. It is quite clear that I cannot do both these modes of reading at the same time. I suppose I can try and do these two things in one day, but that almost never happens. I am not saying that one mode of reading is more important that the other. I occasionally come across some misguided opinion that the only good reading one can do is ‘deep’ and ‘serious’ and ‘thoughtful’, as if there is no thought involved at all in reading some good erotica (quoting Jon Stewart on the subject of books, ‘it’s like a movie you get to direct in your own head!’).
Breezing through upcoming releases for work and doing some reading for what is essentially research seemed like mutually incompatible modes of reading until I came across writer Lisa L. Hannett quoted in Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer (which I only half-jokingly called ‘my bible’ the other day on Instagram): ‘”Frivolous” reading is as important as creative play. Reading for fun, reading to feed your imagination, reading to revel in the childlike wonder of being elsewhere’.
Reading for fun here is the same as reading to feed your imagination, but in my mind, one could easily argue that close, deep reading of something is also the type of reading one does to feed one’s imagination. When I dissect someone’s story, I want to see what makes the author tick and hope that maybe it will also contribute to my own clockwork. Sometimes this dissection leads me into my own direction and helps me make something new (I’m talking about inspiration, not plagiarism).
In the end, I don’t think it matters how one reads, or if one reads more “frivolous” books as opposed to serious ones. Hopefully, it’s all good fodder for fun or work.