Transcendentalism & Airports

Let’s talk about cities.

The ones we exist in, even briefly passing through. The ones that exist only in the memories we keep to give them framework.

Some background: I’m sitting in JFK airport. It’s 4 am our time and I have flown all night without ever really sleeping. I just finished Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I started this book in Las Vegas, where I live now. I read the middle of it in the last few weeks of going back and forth to California, the place where I grew up.

I use that term “grew up” loosely. We moved a lot. I never knew what to say when people asked for my hometown, but those near-LA-suburb cities as a whole will always be where the pull feels strongest. Those are where I cheered on losing football teams, got my first degree, made my best friends, vomited in bar bathroom lines. Nobody has known me since kindergarten. My parents only know the names of two of my friends. My old bedroom is already redecorated so beautifully that when I bring Catsby over, they make me change the bedding.

But that region is so significant to me because we’ve all been all over it. Sleeping on its couches. Screaming at our GPS as we wind deeper into its folds. Crying to our friends’ mechanic husbands as our cars fall apart on its shoulders. It has such deep illusions that we’ve been going somewhere when we’ve all really been tethered to some unknown thing that keeps us there. I’ve lived so many places and so few are not there.

But then I left, again, for real this time, and it’s not home anymore but it is something. All of this struck me a couple weeks ago as I sat at the green tables (where you could always count on running into someone between classes) on ULV campus alone, reading Calvino and listening to Death Cab for Cutie’s new single, “Gold Rush.” The scene is an almost exact duplicate of the previous day, when I sat reading the same book and listening to the same song on repeat but in Claremont and let’s just say I was feeling SOME TYPE OF WAY I DON’T EVEN KNOW. I started thinking about how I would describe each of these cities if I were to try and do it like Calvino.

A note on this collection: Invisible Cities is like nothing I’ve ever read. It’s essentially a bunch of flash fiction punctuated with occasional dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan as he describes the cities of the empire. Extremely lyrical, transcendental, often environmentally charged, with strong ties to the cosmos and the idea of the afterlife (so basically my ideal book). Most of the cities aren’t real. They’re named after women and goddesses and put under distinct headings: Cities and Desire. Cities and Memory. Thin Cities. Hidden Cities. Cities and the Dead. Khan is both mesmerized and frustrated with Polo’s ethereal descriptions. He wants both to know the cities better to and see them with the grand vision that Polo does. I didn’t know what to make of how this book made me think of my cities because I hadn’t put my finger on what I was supposed to get from the book, but here in New York City, sitting in an airport, something clicked.

“Irene is the name for a city in the distance, and if you approach it, it changes. For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped in it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name; perhaps I have already spoken of Irene under other names; perhaps I have spoken only of Irene.”

-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

This comes in one of the closing sections. The idea of all our impressions set to this mold in our head of the city to which we will compare all else runs throughout the book. Where the city is doesn’t seem to matter. But it’s this idea of the places you’re expecting to find, the hopes you have for them, the cute Insta captions you’ve prepared ahead of time. Those aren’t the city at all. In that way, anywhere can be your city because no city can have you, either. Not the you that you are when you’re alone at home with your cat. Only the you that you prepared specifically for this place, building off of all the expectations your experiences have made, dressing in airport bathrooms in the specific outfits you picked for each day of your trip, annoyed because you followed the sign that said food court and it led you to literally nothing but a Dunkin Donuts. Expectations already crumbling to give a glimpse of the city you came for. The one that’s real.

“I’ve ascribed these monuments a false sense of permanence. I placed faith in geography to hold you in my memory. ((gold rush)) I’m sifting through these rubbish piles ((gold rush)) through the rubble of bricks and wires ((gold rush)) Searching for something I’ll never find. ((gold rush)). Searching for something I’ll never find.”

Death Cab for Cutie, “Gold Rush”

The Virgin Suicides, the Male Gaze, and holding on to your problematic faves

I came across this great article last week, “Does The Virgin Suicides Hold Up 25 Years Later?” by Emily Temple on @Lithub’s twitter and it really made me think, even though I couldn’t really relate to the initial argument (The first line points out that the novel debuted 25 years ago. I also debuted 25 years ago). The piece was timely, about hesitating to reread a nostalgic book in the political climate of today. She describes (apologetically, almost, as though embarrassed) reading The Virgin Suicides in high school after watching the Sofia Coppola movie version and remembering it as a book about those sexy and mysterious Lisbon girls.

Temple says, “A lot has happened in the last 25 years (honestly, even in the last 25 weeks), and much of it has rather affected the way I view the tropes that are essential to The Virgin Suicides. You know the ones: dead white girls, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, hyper-sexualized teenagers, the male gaze.” She goes on to explain that the male gaze takes on the imperative role in this book. It’s not just the narration, it’s pretty much the whole damn thing. And, most importantly, that the gaze calls attention to itself as a delusion. Upon rereading, she sees that the book couldn’t be about the Lisbon girls because they, as actual characters, are hardly in the book at all. The driving force is all from these grown men and their collective memories of infatuation with girls that they knew little about. She refers to it later as “a novel-length critique of the way men look at women.” It was really a well-done article.

I guess my surprise is that I didn’t realize that the argument needed to be made. Let me explain.

I first read The Virgin Suicides in a special topics creative writing class called “Surveillance State” that focused on works narrated by or featuring characters that were under or were performing some degree of surveillance. I knew going into the novel exactly what to look for and I had a professor and class discussions to lead me to that understanding. I guess what I’m saying is this: After a while of studying craft, you can forget that some (most) people are reading for the sake of reading. That we ourselves started off as those kinds of readers before deciding to pursue a career. Even more so, this article reminded me that I am extremely lucky to be studying in the midst of all the social reform I have grown up in. In the private-school-literary-theory bubble that was my undergrad experience, this critical view is second nature. It’s good to remember that this isn’t necessarily typical, and that interpretations outside of this can’t be dismissed. Had I read this a high schooler in the 90’s or even as a 21 year-old in 2014 that wasn’t studying writing, my thoughts on it might have been very different.

Temple says of her own revisiting, “Honestly, I thought that a novel so dependent on the male gaze would annoy me in 2018. (Like, haven’t I had enough? Why did I even decide to read this book by a white guy anyway?)” And I get it. I do. I spent the last four years in “Horsetown USA” (yes, literally) and had to drive past saloons with Trump signs on them twice a day. I managed a Johnny Rockets in a shopping mall. I know what it’s like to be tired of entitled white men—and most men, really.

Still, I think to really study craft and the reading experience and even just, like, what it’s like to be a human right now, these things have to be captured. This time we live in is important and as writers we have to believe that, regardless of what we believe in. I think it’s great that, despite her views going in, she still gave this book another chance. Especially because I think Eugenides took great pains to capture his problematic gaze as a critique on the problem without playing into the issue or feeding the characters into judgement. Perhaps the most effective part of this book is that the characters have grown and still don’t have the hindsight to see the role they played.

The only thing in this article that I don’t necessarily agree with is the statement that awareness has to ruin things for you. While that’s probably true to some extent, I think you can continue to enjoy things that you now understand to be tactless and maybe even inappropriate because they capture a time when you—we?—didn’t know better. I think those reminders are necessary to see that times have changed and don’t necessarily need to be banished to the part of our heart where we keep the guilty pleasures we pretend to shun. I also think a great writer can capture these offensive and real things in a way more advanced than villainizing them, and a good reader can understand the significance of humanizing those flaws. It is not a writer’s job to strive for moral rectitude by the resolution of their work, just like human nature does not act upon a static moral compass. We do things we know we shouldn’t. We like things and pretend we don’t. We worry about what people think. Some of the greatest writers have captured humans at their utter worst. Even worse, they make them just relatable enough that they cannot be condemned without first facing that quality in ourselves. My point? You can keep your problematic faves, but there’s no longer any excuse for pretending they aren’t problematic.

In that Surveillance class, I wrote a story in the collective first person about a bunch of lost twenty-somethings attending an engagement party of some high school acquaintances. I wanted to capture the dehumanizing observation, but I didn’t know how. I’ve revised that story so many times that I still don’t have a clue what to do with it. Since then, I’ve read a few novels that emulate this style. Alessandro Bariccio’s Emmaus, about some Catholic high school boys and the troubled wild girl they admire/objectify. We know the role of observer and we like it because we play it so often. In the faux intimacy of reality show “confessions,” watching celebrities Instagram Live Stories, the role we think we play in the lives of others. I couldn’t finish the story because I didn’t know where I fit into it.

So, would recommend: Accepting books as a magnificent works of art, reading criticism that explains to you why it was so good, and finding other things—novels, art, trash tv—that help you see it play out in real life. Then maybe, just maybe, you can finish that story you started four years ago.

xx, Tab

September Wrap

(Can I tell you a little story before while we do this? I know I said I was gonna talk about books but I mean obviously I’m also tryna talk about myself…)

Sooo, I’m in Tacoma at RWW. I just found out I got April as my mentor and I am as stoked as humanly possible. I feel I got the perfect mentor for me. And she and I, we’re both a little bit awkward (lovably, maybe?) and we were supposed to have a quick meeting discussing our upcoming mentorship year. And I’m nervous, cause she’s brilliant and stunning and aloof and cool. And then we spend two hours in a wine bar talking about writing and she gives the most beautiful impression of dating a novelist that I have ever heard. I am happy. This is going to be a good year.

And I also had just bought a lot of books! Hers included. She decided I should start with a couple of those, since I already have them. Anyway, that’s the story of how I became a devoted fangirl of April Ayres Lawson and then had to submit a critical passage on April Ayres Lawson’s short story collection TO April Ayres Lawson. Grad school. Good shit. Anyway… Read More

Monthly Wrap

I can’t believe I’m coming on six months into my graduate program! On Monday, I’m going to be mailing in my third packet of work. I wanted to take a minute to explain how that works. I gave a list of books I’d like to read* to my mentor and she assigns me three books a month. Typically, two are from my list and one is her suggestion. For the mailing, I send back one short story as well as a critical response paper (CRP) for each book. It’s a good amount of work and keeps me rather busy. Because it’s so much of my life, I wanted to find a way to share it. I get asked a LOT what I even do for a creative writing degree. I had thoughts of sharing those critical responses on here, but I assume most people aren’t interested in that kind of analysis AND no one will want to read the book once I give everything good about it away!

Instead, I decided to go for a more general Monthly Wrap. I’ve also been sharing the individual mini… (reviews, maybe? I wouldn’t necessarily call it that because I don’t rate them or tell too much about what they’re about. I just share what I liked about them and call it a day. Response is maybe a better word?) responses to each book on my new Bookstagram, @Tabithatypes. I’m a few months behind, but that ain’t no thang. September Wrap is coming up soon. Stay tuned!

xx, Tab

*list posted on featured image!

On The Wallcreeper and liking things

wallcreeper

Do you ever read something and you know you like it but you’re not sure if it’s actually good? Or is that just a problem isolated to those trying to find a place in the literary world? It’s tricky to worry about what you “should” think is good. I tend to buy more into the idea that you can like whatever you want, as long as you back it up (enter the critical essay). Overall, if you like weird and funny and feeling things you aren’t sure of, you should read this book! But if you’re going to read it, you shouldn’t read this essay that tells you what happens. What exactly am I trying to accomplish here then, you may ask? Beats me.

Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper is kitschy and quick and political and sexy all at once. It’s also annoying, at times overwrought in description and other times vague. The reader can take these as they will, but it’s hard to deny that this book is to be devoured. Read More

Ridiculously intense PLL S7|E10 summer finale got me like

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  1. It’s been about 3 minutes and I’m already irritated. We’re already calling the cops on ourselves and Hanna is shanking her hostage for not being coherent enough to answer after SHE bashed his head in.
  2. Officer Toby’s last day? Please. As if anyone gets to leave Rosewood.
  3. Worlds awkwardest cheek kiss ever omg cringing so hard for you Spence
  4. Aria is offering pie and Ezra says he’ll take a cab…?
  5. Isn’t pie their thing?
  6. (Isn’t pie all of our thing?) Read More

99 thoughts while watching Pretty Little Liars S7 | E5 “Along Came Mary”

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  1. Okay first of all, I was warned not to go on Instagram because of spoiler sso I haven’t been on social media in like 2 hours which is fine I mean whatever
  2. I can’t believe I told my “PLL Enthusiasts” group message that I’m watching the episode late because I had to catch Hobby Lobby before they close and they STILL said spoilers. PHONE IS GOING OFF.
  3. Ugh finally.
  4. How am I still so stressed out about the flashbacks. I literally watched this 7 days ago. Read More