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books/readings

surreal estate

I just read two great books that I guess you could call…spiritual? Metaphysical? Introspective? They don’t fit neatly within genre, but I find that what I’m liking best these days rarely does. First came the novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, then I picked up Her Body and Other Parties, a short story collection by Carmen Maria Machado. At the end of Emezi’s book, they talk about a writer’s workshop where their fellow people of color said they couldn’t do what Nabokov does. This kind of stuck with me, not because of the relative Nabokov-iness of either one of these books but because of how silly it is to try to box these writers in comparisons with their forebears. I rarely assess things from that point of view anyway, but still, there was so much going on in these two books that to bog down a reaction to them by trying to find past commonalities seems pointless.

Earlier this year, I read Aimee Bender’s The Butterfly Lampshade and liked it for its similar vibes. All of these works are surreal, introspective, and haunting, but to link them by saying there’s a common theme of troubled protagonists is also too reductive. In The Butterfly Lampshade, Francie worries about peering into otherworldliness because of the genetic legacy she may or may not have inherited from her schizophrenic mother. In Freshwater, Ada is contending with her/their brain being divided up and fought over by gods as she/they attempt to enter adulthood. In Machado’s stories, the mostly unnamed first-person narrators are bound by mysterious magical ribbons and try to truck through global catastrophes; in the most powerful story of the collection, “The Resident,” the protagonist finds herself torn between past and present, wandering too closely to a darkness in herself that she winds up having to destroy, even though it’s part of her and the inspiration for her art.

As a person who has struggled with mental illness throughout my life, and has engaged in… lifestyle choices that may or may not have exascerbated it, these tales all felt close to the bone, “The Resident” perhaps most of all. In the story, the narrator goes on a writer’s retreat to an unnamed mountain range north of Philadelphia that starts with P. It turns out to be very close to a Girl Scouts camp she frequented in her childhood (aside: I went to a Girl Scouts camp in the Poconos) and the novel she’s working on involves a character inspired by the childhood traumas she winds up reliving as an adult. There’s a repeated idea in it that the point of the retreat is to allow your brain space and time to make random connections and dig up memories you didn’t know you still had. This is intended to be positive (and may be a comment on how complicated and insensitive this prompt would be for many people), but as the narrator leans into that, she’s only met with horror after horror, both physical and mental, and her traumas meld together in a way that transcends time.

I think this story resonated with me in particular because I don’t feel as besieged with emotions (and, let’s be honest, possessing of creativity) as I used to. And while part of that is due to better lifestyle choices and stability, part of it is due to having shuttered that section of myself off in many ways. And the reason for that shuttering is explored well in The Butterfly Lampshade – it’s a defense against following threads too far into a version of the world (and yourself) you might not be able to come back from. Freshwater differs in how its inevitability is clear from the start; Ada is mostly along for a ride she/they adapted to in order to survive. I have been fortunate to live with some semblance of control over my situation, but I also feel like a large part of me has been excised in return for it.

There was a time when a blank page or a blinking cursor in an empty document was never a match for the downpour of words flowing out of me, when I could sit composing music and tweaking lyrics for hours. But now I’m eating, sleeping, and making money, and I’m afraid of removing any of the load-bearing walls I’ve assembled to keep moving forward. Or maybe it’s not a matter of load-bearing, as Machado puts it at the end of “The Resident,” but a thing some of us find we must do:

Thus far in your jury deliberations, have you encountered any others who have truly met themselves? Some, I’m sure, but not many. I have known many people in my lifetime, and rarely do I find any who have been taken down to the quick, pruned so that their branches might grow back healthier than before.

– Carmen Maria Machado, “The Resident”

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