Everything I Read in 2020

Moonwise by Greer Ilene Gilman

I first found out about Moonwise through John Crowley years ago, and a minor fascination with it has been enshrined in a remote corner of my mind ever since. Finally I read it this year, and found it easy to admire, but difficult to like, enjoy, even look forward to reading. After nearly a year of cogitating on it, I do think it’s a great book in its particular, very narrow, canted, poetic way; like Finnegans Wake it is operating under an aesthetic mandate so anchorous and heavy that it crushes out all the other necessary novel-stuff like plot and characters and a certain internal reason.

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Snow Counry: stranger, more deeply dreamlike than much of the more obviously surreal stuff I read this (or any) year…it makes very raw, very common human matters like love and lies feel pale & alien & breathtakingly strange. It is so, so subtle, so seemingly simple; it’ll move through your mind’s fingers like air if you let it; Kawabata manages to bring his story to the utmost level of spareness and not a step further, so that you can hear oceanic emotions and despairs roaring underneath its porcelain exteriors.

The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

This one hardly feels like a novel – it hardly feels like anything other than what it is – and what it is, is such a rich, stately, strange, lambent book, probably a great book. Given that I read through the onset of the pandemic and was, mentally, ripped raw, I didn’t appreciate the light-giving craft on display here; Warner, in Corner, is an Illuminator, looking down into a world of her creation and showing us with aching clarity the people (not characters) living, loving, despairing, and dying in it.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Cantankerous, boyish, full of bookdust and quaint lore. Even if I didn’t know what little I know about White’s life, this book exudes all the qualities of something written by a kind of crank, a loner, one of those people who seem fated to an eccentric aloneness with their prickly personality. It’s also an honest love story of not-inconsiderable strength. I didn’t adore it overall in the way I adored specific parts of it, but it’s still very good.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

It is exactly as great as you’re lead to believe. I loved every page of this novel, and read it quickly, in big selfish stints of reading – it really is dramatic and compelling, even as it’s capital I Important. I don’t have a single thing else to say about this book, other than that, yeah, you should read it.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

A long-overdue reread, and gloriously confirmed as my favorite book. Like Anna Karenina, most of what you can say about Moby-Dick are the things that have been said about it for years, by people who’ve read it, and by people who haven’t; we’re all right about this book. To be truly great means to be truly, inescapably Weird. This book is weird as fuck and more beautiful than the ocean.

The Man Without Talent by Yoshiharu Tsuge

The only graphic novel I read this year. I still have trouble with the format, which seems inherently less…good…than the novel form. Aesthetic hierarchies aside, I enjoyed this quite a bit: it’s a patient, angry study of smallness, of small desires and small emotions – the stuff that eventually accretes into what we call our lives.

The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara

The Lost Scrapbook is a partly-successful, boundary-pushing, experimental novel. Very uneven but occasionally excellent, it made me so excited to read Dara’s other work. And I’d still like to write a longer piece on it sometime, and maybe I will, even if I’ve forgotten most of the particulars of its plot.

Marketa Lazarová by Vladislav Vančura

A violently smart evocation of a very specific time and place – so finely-etched as to recast that time’s particular darkness into something bright and universal. Its exploration of lust, both for life and for flesh, is pretty unforgettable. The fact that it’s seemingly casually narrated from the “present” gives the whole thing a leering, piratical quality that makes the inherent vitality of its violent characters even more pungent and pressing.

Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat by Ernest Bramah

Bramah is such a specific taste, I can hardly believe the Kai Lung books exist, let alone conceive of a single meaningful thing to say about them. I loved this book, probably because over time, reading certain things and developing certain aesthetic predilections, there was a little Bramah-shaped notch formed in me before I encountered Kai Lung; maybe you’re similarly marked?

Motorman by David Ohle

Tied with Past Master for best dystopian novel I read this year. And in Motorman it’s an abject dystopia, a ramshackle garbage-world of artifice and grunge, utterly pathetic, queasy, and funny. I would buy any other Ohle novel based solely on the strength of Motorman, which I read in a single day and you can too.

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty

A rip-roaring surprise. I mean, I knew Lafferty was good before now, but this messy, weird, hyperpassionate novel just kicks all sorts of ass. One of the true, oldest, and most powerful things about speculative fiction is that authors can do and show us literally anything; and not many authors take as much advantage of that fact as Lafferty.

On the Yard by Malcolm Braly

Possibly the strongest “straight novel” I read this year: no tricks, no gimmicks or anything. No strange juttings-out or caveats or unusual capaciousnesses: just a clear and compelling picture of human beings in the compact, microcosmic hell of a penitentiary.

Antkind by Charlie Kaufman

This one suuuucked. It started off so promising, but went nowhere so, so quickly. Ultimately it reads like a 700 page compendium of jokes, and that would be tiresome even if the jokes were consistently funny, which they aren’t. The sections that involve Trump are just painful and facile. Maybe it would’ve worked with lots and lots excised, at like 300 pages? I don’t know. I don’t care. A disappointment.

You Can’t Win by Jack Black

More fascinating than good, You Can’t Win showed me a side of the late 19th/early 20th century I didn’t know existed, and for that I found it extremely worthwhile. But it is kind of boring, somehow, despite its outlandish subject matter.

Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy

Fucking brill. This novel is so, so good – it’s kind of A Confederacy of Dunces‘s evil sister. It starts funny, becomes malicious, and ends on a winsome note you didn’t think it deserved, but it does. It’s so sad that this novel is so neglected.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

Very good, but not great. I don’t know, I think I came into it with an incorrect idea of what it actually was, and that (unfairly) impacted my impressions of it. It is not, actually, a prison novel at all, or even a crime novel. It’s straightforwardly, almost ploddingly philosophical, interested in earnestly chronicling its main character’s spiritual development. All good things, and all very well done – but just not what I was expecting, what I selfishly wanted.

Augustus by John Williams

It’s been a while since I read Stoner, but it is entirely possible Augustus is even better than that extremely good book. It’s measured, serene, autumnal; beautifully written, beautifully assembled; with strong characters that shrug off so much of the artificiality even very memorable characters often have. Just rich and masterful, I’ll be thinking about it for a long, long time.

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

Wrapped up this nasty little bastard just under the wire. It shambles in, drenched in bad vibes, pockets overflowing with cheap tricks and occult paraphernalia, solely interested in the darkness and bad endings; and it gets there in an unforgettable way.


I didn’t read a lot of short stories this year. I started Nine Hundred Grandmothers by Lafferty, and everything has been excellent so far, although I suspect I’ll be in the (possible) minority that prefers his novels? Also, at the very beginning of the year I read some of The Complete Gary Lutz, which deserves more than this footnote that I’m giving it. The first handful of stories absolutely leveled me with that shock that only comes every once and while, where you discover somebody doing something needful and singular, in a singular and beautiful way. Lutz is fucking great and I can’t wait to read more of his stuff this year.

IMAGE: from Eschatus: Future Prophecies from Nostradamus’ Ancient Writings, by Bruce Pennington

6/5/20: Notes on Go (II)

If I play a lot of Go, I see it when I close my eyes: my mind starts to ask itself questions in configurations of stones, like rough drafts of tsumego that may or may not have a solution. Then I play these questions out in different ways, trying to solve them. Usually I’m not able to. This solving happens at a level beneath the conscious part of my mind, at a level over which I have limited direct control, so while I say that “I” ask myself these questions and “I” try to solve them, it occurs sort of automatically; and I feel a sort of low-level, warm, almost pleasant frustration when it happens.

Go is steeped in philosophy, poetry, commentary. It is surrounded by so much lore; it’s positively encrusted with arcana, so it appeals to my innate hunger for Commentary, the base fetish of encyclopedization. And it’s also an inherently aesthetic game. Just visually, it generates beautiful tableaux effortlessly, every time. The branching shapes of black and white, frozen in a final struggle at the end of a game, are like a visible architecture of two separate trains of thought and the ways in which they intermingled with, fought and died with each other.

Games of Go against strangers on the internet can be frustrating in ways that they aren’t in person. There is no opponent to see, and so no physical gestures, no talk, no tics all ascribing their own contexts to each move, and so each play arrives as a play, with no other context, positive or negative. And I inevitably ascribe context of my own, transferring my own frustration at a loss or bad move or an exploitable weakness into a vision of my unseen opponent as a cruel, remorseless, joyless player.

They say that there are more possible legal configurations of stones on a Go board than there are visible atoms in the universe. A lovely concept, but it doesn’t take into account how many of those configurations would probably never occur in an actual game of Go; they may be legal, but they aren’t situations into which a game would be played in any realistic setting.

But, every Go game is different, with its own regions of high drama, climactic battlefields, tragic errors. And when I look through my play records on OGS and see the final board states they are as individuated to me, almost, as people are.

It’s possible to make painfully embarrassing mistakes in Go. The kind that make your jaw ache in regret, your throat dry in futile anger. I have hated myself for bad moves: times when I didn’t see stones were in atari, or that my potential for eyes was being methodically poked out by my opponent until it was too late. And then your mistakes linger on the board until the end of the game like a foreclosed building, decaying.

I don’t think Go is a perfect game, but I think it’s as close to perfect as any game I’ve ever played, and it’s hard to envision anything getting closer. And, moreover, its particular perfection (or near perfection) isn’t restrictive, in the sense that some perfect books, say, sometimes are: it doesn’t feel like it has to be small or circumscribed to be as perfect as it is. Every game feels like an epic, every finished match looks like the map at the beginning of a fantasy novel, delineating some land of wonders and conflict.

One time, at the Cleveland Go Club, I played with a guy who only occasionally showed up. He was small-framed, skinny, with glasses. He gave me a pretty sizable handicap and I still lost. He wasn’t used to handicap games and was nervous that he was going to lose. When it became clear that he wasn’t – I played a group of stones into certain death – he was visibly relieved, and became expansive and more talkative in his relief. After the game he expanded on another common analogy for what Go is like:

“The best comparison that I’ve ever heard,” he said, “Is that Go is like a conversation. Every time you play a stone you’re asking your opponent something, or telling them something. And every stone they play is a response to you. Even if they tenuki, it’s like somebody changing the topic or thinking of something else they wanted to say.”

This analogy is nice to think about. I like it, although I have a hard time “believing” it ludically, when I’m actually playing Go. As bland as it is to say, I do look at a Go board more often like a bird’s-eye view of a battlefield  – but even that doesn’t ultimately capture the narrative context of a game of Go for me.

To me, Go is uniquely about itself: small but huge, infinitely flexible and formulated for personal expression. And you wrest this expression merely from black and white stones, cruder than language, and a simple ruleset that ramifies into complexities of frankly incredible denseness.

A single stone can change the entire tenor of a game. Even in my inept play I’ve seen this. Stones that seem dead can be revived, others that are incontestably strong can be suddenly sapped of strength: potential can fade away like smoke. And sometimes you don’t see these kinds of plays until it’s too late, and even more often you don’t see them at all, so that there are certainly thousands of possible moves like this that are passed over in a career of playing Go; better states that never find expression.

6/4/20: Things

A humid day – a humid end to the week, actually, with the clarity of the earlier days turning glaucomic and heavy, wet and bleared and breathless. This afternoon it went dark and stormed, hard, but only briefly – just for the span of a few rumbles of thunder; and then, emptied, the sky turned white again, and the sun diffused through the thinning clouds, and white light reflected in the puddles of water gathered on the dark shingles of the apartment complex nearby.

I woke up this morning when it was still dark and couldn’t, for more than two hours, get back to sleep. Call it some kind of lesser insomnia. And there’s a bleak, distant comedy in it, where you lay there incredulous at your own racing mind; and also aware of the fact that the incredulousness itself is obviously a part of the reason why it’s racing, and how masterable an obstacle your own mind should be, and yet, bafflingly, exhaustingly, almost hilariously, is not.

I was laying there in this hilarious frustration, distanced from any actual anger: I entertained it like a theory; it seemed to hang in the air above me, nearby but not a part of me. In some small corner of myself I was enjoying this surreality, even enjoying my repeated efforts to get back to sleep: trying to find the right angle, the right breathing rhythm, the right comforts that would let me finally recross the threshold into sleep.

This seriocomic desperation put me at a weird remove, a particular distance from tangible reality. I felt locked into some coffinlike lesser realm where reality’s normal activities were impossible; and like so many impossible things they took on a glamour, an allure; so that, in the midst of this mild delirium, all I could think about was how much I would like to have a piece of toast with peanut butter on it.

When I was a kid, the only times I ever had trouble sleeping were when I was eagerly anticipating something the next day. My life was calendared by material acquisitions: game releases, my birthday, Christmas, even Easter (which, in my house, was like a minor Christmas, with lavish and real presents).

I was spoiled, but maybe, hopefully, gently so. I wasn’t cruel in my greed, I didn’t throw that many tantrums. But, at some point, I think that I contracted the disease of allowing things to become stand-ins for personality and self. So I think sometimes this selfishness did more damage to me than to others. And when I think of this particular damage, sometimes I’m tempted to attribute to it the fact that, in some ways, I don’t feel like my life really began until I was in college.

Before then, I wasn’t wholly unalive, but I was embryonic. There things about me moving in direction, but whole wings of myself were also in stasis, or hardly grown at all. I don’t think I resolved into any sort of real person until I was 20 or so.

It’s hard to articulate what I mean by “real person” precisely. But there’s an inescapable shallowness to who I was before that point. Part of that shallowness could be a factor of memory: I have clear memories of college and onward, but everything from high school back seems recessed into some interior fog. Or it could mean that I didn’t really understand who or what I was, or learn how to move in the direction of being who or what I needed to be, until I was older.

To put it another way: when I do remember my high school or middle school or elementary school self, it’s like I’m thinking about a different person, and not myself. There’s a clear, demarcated distance between me and me. And maybe this particular distance is the reason why it’s so hard to remember things about my distant past, other than very specific instances, usually instances of pain or fear, that are inscribed deeper, due the stark authority of those sensations. But always, in all contexts and scenes, remembering that self is like watching an actor go through a role in a play that I’ve seen before, rather than lived through myself. I’m a person I talk about, not somebody I actually was.

I was so incredibly unfinished, shambling around, filled with things and air. I didn’t listen to music. I watched movies almost at random, based on what was popular or what people I liked liked. Words from others were directives. My opinions on new games that I bought were already formed by reviews I’d read, and the playing of them just a fulfillment of what I already “knew.” I dressed like a disaster: frumpy dress shirts from Goodwill, and Crocs with little plastic emblems stuck in the holes for decoration.

Even when I read, I just followed the examples I had chosen as polestars, reading what they read or told me to read. And it’s hard to say that anything I read sunk very deep, because what was there to sink into?

The only elements, of course, that were truly rigid and defined in my life were my compulsions. They supplanted a personality and stunted my becoming, just like all those things I coveted – because what else were they besides things, inert constructs?

6/3/20: Notes Halfway Through The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara

**Note: this entry will spoil the first half of The Lost Scrapbook, so if you’re interested in reading it you probably should stop reading here.**

I’ve been reading The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara this week. I’m about halfway through.

I should make a small note about how/why I got interested in reading the book – and how I learned about Evan Dara – at all.

Last week I woke up one morning and checked Twitter and, infolded among the inferno of current events, all the reports and laments and rage there was this post from Biblioklept about Dara’s work, itself instigated by a post by another blogger, Daniel Green, an essay on Dara’s work.

I didn’t read either post, just glanced over them. I read enough to convince myself that I had to check out this writer, like, now. It’s not often I learn about a new (to me) author who seems to be working in ways that are precisely my shit – or at least in ways adjacent to my shit.

And it could’ve been that specifically, or it could’ve been just an injection of excitement into my current, general violin string-taught state, but I was immediately catalyzed and deeply convinced I had to find and buy The Lost Scrapbook.

Which I did, along with the rest of Dara’s output. I decided I would read The Lost Scrapbook without reading another word about it. Thus it would be one of the very few times in my literary life where I wasn’t bearing some burden of other peoples’ thoughts as I started a book.

I did read the blurbs, though. There are so many breathless blurbs in the front of my copy of the The Lost Scrapbook. I worry that, even though I purposely went into this book knowing almost nothing about it, they colored my opinion somewhat. It’s hard, today, (for me anyway), to negotiate all the way towards a text without being corrupted by some piece of outside information – even if it’s merely the context of an account I like tweeting about it.

It may be impossible to come to something completely uncontaminated now. Maybe it always was.

But anyway, in those blurbs on the flyleaf of my copy of The Lost Scrapbook, it’s intimated that the book is “experimental.” There are all sorts of reasons why I think this is a weird term for a work of art, but it did have the effect of making me expect the perceived tropes of experimental fiction (at least as I’ve come to understand it): a certain self-awareness or at least ironic distance, typographical oddities, etc.

The Lost Scrapbook is interesting in that its experimental elements are more subsumed than you might think – certainly more than I was expecting. I don’t know that, if I read this without the word having been put into my mind from other sources, I would’ve described it as experimental at all.

It wouldn’t be my first descriptor anyway.

The Lost Scrapbook is a series of (possibly related?) scenes. Scenes of different people doing different things: a young runaway meets up with somebody for something; a tedious professor tries to steer a student’s thesis work according to his own interests; a woman receives a letter from an adventurous friend she may or may not be in love with. Almost nobody is named directly. Scenes take place in different places: Oklahoma, Atlanta, Cleveland.

The Lost Scrapbook gets compared, constantly, to The Recognitions. Probably because it is a big, ambitious first novel. But really, in terms of construction it’s much more like J R. It’s almost entirely composed of dialogue: characters talking to one another or themselves, or to us, or to imaginary others, in hyperverbal dialogues/monologues. There are no periods in the novel; everything is connecting with em dashes, colons, semicolons, or tails off into ellipses or question marks or exclamation points.

The typography is really a sub-mechanism though; the most experimental element of the novel, to me,  is that these scenes don’t end, but transition abruptly from one to the next -sometimes in the middle of a sentence, and always in the middle of the action.

There do seem to be connections between the stories, or at least resonances that may eventually network up into something larger: Walkmen recur (this was published in ’95), as do Toyotas, and I count two instances of a joke about How do you know Jesus was Jewish?

But obviously part of the point of this polyphony is that it isn’t supposed to cohere, at least not along traditional novelistic vectors.

But it is, weirdly, a page turner. Among other things, The Lost Scrapbook, incontestably, is a celebration of narrative, of the storybuilding power of the individual human voice. There’s just a certain compulsion to these monologues and scenes, natural and effortlessly captivating. It isn’t, actually, that far removed from the narrative force you see in traditional realist novels like, say, Anna Karenina.  This energy shines through the typographical experiments. It adds a unique poignancy to the abrupt shifts in scene: you want to know how all these individual stories end, but you maybe never will. And so what would be disorienting and distancing in a more formal text is actually bittersweet here, like watching some weird little town pass by out of your car window and wondering about who lives there, and knowing that you’ll never know.

Last note: I do wish the individual voices were more differentiated – I mean, in many ways they are, but they all share a certain exuberant vocabulary and articulateness that doesn’t tally with their disparate backgrounds and personalities.

6/2/20: Zephyr: First Pass

In Kent, the culture is such that everybody – student and townie – aligns with one particular bar. They might visit other ones, maybe even regularly, but there’s always one they originate from. And in the microcosm of Kent and people who know about, live in, or go to it, these affiliations become a kind of a shorthand, a way of compartmentalizing people into archetypes that correspond to the bar’s reputation – the first of probably many subsequent compartmentalizations with which we organize the masses of people we don’t choose to get to know.

The Zephyr might be the biggest bar in Kent: three floors, two upper level patios, and a big outdoor ground level quadrangle that stretches the length of the block, cutting behind the buildings on Main Street and looking out onto Water and Franklin on either end. Situated in one of the remaining older buildings, its facade is made of red brick, and the big front windows have a big multicolored frame: yellow, red, green blue, all in slightly sad-looking, slightly faded pastelerie. The tavern-style sign hanging above  the entryway says: ZEPHYR PUB SPIRITS. The front door is red.

The first floor is snug and pub-like, always dark: even the light from the big front windows looking out on to Main, somehow, doesn’t penetrate this permanent interior darkness. And this darkness changes texture too, depending on the time and day: on the weeknights and earlier hours, when the regulars come in after work or whatever else they occupy their days with, there’s something relaxed, almost somnambulant about the darkness: it’s whispering darkness, napping darkness. But if you come late, or any night when the bar is the dominion of the students, the darkness seems nervy, tense, thinning, hung with quivering networks of chance and possibility.

There’s a big bar that dominates, made of a dark wood, thickly lacquered. A molding runs along the edge of the bartop; there are thick gouges and other marks in its lustrous surface, and if you reach accidentally underneath there are occasionally sticky spots, and dried nodules of gum or paste or something. In front of the bar, towards the big windows, are a scattering of tables, and then right against the windows there’s a raised area: a stage for when there’s a live show but otherwise filled with benches around low tables. At the other, far end of the room, there’s a pool table, around which always the few regular pool sharks play – a fluctuating cast of people of wildly disparate ages and looks. Against the back wall, close to the men’s restroom, there’s a jukebox that is infallibly dominated by someone with terrible taste; and also a methuselan cigarette machine that still functions but is prohibitively expensive.

Lately (before the pandemic), I would go for a drink in the early evening with my friend M (different M). In the years that I was away from Kent and not visiting the Zeph, M became a regular: she knows the bartenders, knows the other regulars. She’s an attentive, maybe even a good conversationalist; She remembers the quotidian data of other peoples’ lives: their jobs, the names of their pets, the upcoming barbecue they’re planning.

Our goal was always to have our drinks and get out before it got too late, when the place would pass into the hands of the students. For me, it wasn’t strictly a function of wanting to avoid their particular clamor. I felt, somehow, inherently fraudulent; as if there were some procedure I had failed to do, or choice I had failed to make, that made any sort of membership at the Zephyr, any sense of connection or ownership with it, impossible. If I was with M, during the early evening hours, her authority granted me passage in; but I was only tolerated there under her aegis; and she rarely wanted to stay late, and so we rarely did.

This sense of fraudulence created a block in me, a distance that made the other regulars nebulous. I could never remember anything more about them than their names. This same distance made it hard for me to believe what they said – whatever they said, even when what they were saying was so mundane that it was hard to imagine anybody making it up.

There was one guy who said he was a lawyer, or rather a former lawyer. He said he quit being a lawyer and was trying to get certified as an electrician. He never disclosed, or M never asked, why he stopped being a lawyer and why he was becoming an electrician. He was always in transit, dipping quickly into the Zephyr in between errands. He had a wife who was hardly ever at the bar with him, but always out running simultaneous other errands in town, and he had to reconnoiter with her; so sometimes he didn’t even have a drink that I saw, or sometimes he left it half-finished on the countertop to go meet her.

When we left at 930 or 10, sometimes I would’ve had enough drinks to be lightly buzzed. Just drunk enough to be loose and loud in my talk, and so that I had to remain vigilant, to stop myself from smiling vacantly into space. There’s something inherently absurd about getting drunk and being done drinking and realizing it’s still that early. The night stretches out, flat and draining and desert-like.

We’d walk out onto Main Street and talk about getting something to eat. Despite the college town accommodations, during the week there was always less open than it seemed like there should be.

And then I would go home.

6/1/20: Distances

I took another walk today: a long one again. Today was, improbably, even more beautiful than yesterday: because usually the weather here follows the opposite arc: the first day of fine weather is the finest, and each subsequent day degrades from there; but instead these last three days moved in reverse, flowering into purer and purer beauty: yesterday and the day before there was some debris of clouds, but today the sky was faultless from end to end, and warmer too, but not too warm, and with one of those light breezes that move like water and feel like they’re made from the same blue aether as the sky.

I saw my dad in the neighborhood, and stopped to talk with him in his driveway. He stood in his barefeet on the driveway, warming evenly in the sunlight. He was eating Total cereal dry out of a bowl that said SLURP on the outside. He threw a flake to Frank, our family dog.

Our conversation was long and it devolved, in that unpleasant sudden way that sometimes happens, into an argument, or a low-key debate.

It started when I said I wanted to leave the country, live somewhere else. And he asked me to list specific ways in which my life would be better if I did that. And it dragged on from there, in such a way that I didn’t realize how long it had gone on, or really even grasp the tenor of the conversation or the stakes, until it was nearly over.

And all my anger, all the reams of resentment folded up like protein inside me, all the thousands of testimonials I’ve accrued about this utterly fucked country, for all the hours I’ve spent fantasizing about having debates with various people (including my dad) and conflagrating them in a curtain fire of righteous fury – all this evaporated, or turned too transparent to use, and I was inarguably inarticulate, loose, confused, scattered.

So it was a defeat, and I’m not even sure how it happened. He made no points, just asked questions, asked for facts and figures I didn’t have. He was utter curriculum, snapping so decisively to rails that have been laid in him for decades. I don’t know where or how the system managed to incorporate such an infallibly complete response program into people but the way he immediately rose to the defense of the structures of power and control was tragic and frightening, even if not unexpected.

In certain circumstances there’s an inevitable distance that builds up in people, a distance that amounts to a kind of complacency, an inner blindness. It can grow in lots of ways. A modicum of material comfort is the obvious way, but other things cause it too. Overmuch sorrow, tragedy, fretting, struggle can cause it. The people in control know these methods of inculcation, and use them all with cruel lancet accuracy. They’ll get you to learn the lesson, either by breaking you down or building you up (just enough).

This distance makes you illiterate in empathy. The suffering of others is a conversation happening in a tongue you don’t understand, and don’t care to learn. And you don’t see this illiteracy as a deficiency; in fact, you don’t see it all in yourself, and when others call on you for empathy, you see it as an imposition, a weakness, or a fantasy on their part, or an assault on your philosophy. Except you don’t have a philosophy, because no philosophy can exist solely in consideration of the self – and by the self I mean your entire situation: your house, your friends, your relatives. To draw the line between these things and everyone and everything else is to make a fatal demarcation that makes, genuinely, important parts within you die.

I don’t really know if those parts, once they die, are retrievable anymore. Maybe you can fabricate synthetic versions, approximations that perform the basic function with less efficiency. But one of the weirder, harder facts of my life – and particularly my life in the last year or so – has been recognizing these dead pieces in people that I know, people that I love. There are so many millions of shades of damage and I don’t know to what degree they’re responsible for these deaths inside them, how much of it was avoidable in any practical sense. I don’t know how I managed to not die in those ways, and I don’t know if there are other deaths in me anyway that I’ll always have to work around.

Every New Year I joked that the incoming year couldn’t worse than the previous. I made that joke at the beginning of 2020; I’m sure a lot of us did. But things are so much worse than I ever imagined they could get – but actually that’s not true: I did acknowledge things like COVID, like the racism and fascism pouring out everywhere tidally, could happen, but I never believed they would. It takes a certain kind of courage to give marrow to these fears. Even right now, as I write this, there’s another idea in my head, encroaching with evening-shadow fingers  – so dark that I can entertain it lightly, because I’ve given it no weight in my head for my own mental health (because we have to scrounge our comforts where we can) – that it very much can, and very well may, get much worse.

5/31/20: Another Lake and a Picture

I’m in a bad, flat mood today, exacerbated by or maybe originating in some minor caffeine withdrawal. There’s a minor ache on the back half of each of my eyes, a ghost of a headache is haunting the front left corner of my brain. I feel depleted, brittle, light and dry like I’m made out of reeds suddenly.

Earlier I went for a walk. It was another beautiful one, and even cooler than yesterday. Overhead the sky was a map of a tropical archipelago: small islandic clouds floating serenely in the sky’s untroubled waters. I walked down a street I had never been down before and, suddenly, stupidly, felt incredibly lost and illicit, like I was doing something dangerous. One house I passed was excessively manicured, with creeping ivy over its brick facade and big sprays of blossoms and tropical grasses growing in the flowerbeds. It looked out of place, or like it was trying to be out of place: it strove to look like something that belonged in Hudson, not Streetsboro.

One time, on one of the rare times you were able to convince me to go for a hike, we found a lake: it was a small lake, in the lap of one of the big foothills and circled all around by a tan, pebbly shoreline, then resinous pine trees in two concentric rings; beyond the trees on one side, the peak of the foothill rose, bare and steep but soft-edged, with a dull point. The sky was cloudless and deep blue. The strong sunlight brought everything forward into brightness and all the million shadows were as stark as mascara.

It was the kind of place that I like to think I would treasure now, maybe treasure intensely. It was as perfect as a secret, the sort of place you eventually learn to stop expecting to see in the clutter and burden of actual life. But here it was, but I wasn’t there.

A big rock jutted out into the water a bit; we walked out onto it and sat down. The water was dark, composed of many shades of cobalt that dropped from the surface of the water down into its depths, twisting and intermingling like veils. On the surface there were reflections of trees and mountain and sky; in the uninsistent breeze these images wavered, their borders shifted and warped, but they never fell into one another.

You were wearing a purple shirt and shorts, and your Vibram toe shoes; your hair was kept away from your face with a bandanna. I was in my one and only pair of shorts, a pair of khaki Dockers I inherited from my dad. I had on the hiking shoes your parents bought me before we moved out here and high, dark socks – not good hiking socks, but the only kind I had.

At that time in my life, as at many others, I was subsumed, exiled by obsessive thoughts to a certain distance from all people and things. The parts of me that reached out for experiences were stunted and shy and drawn in like injured hands; so that good books felt flat, often, and rare sights like this left me unmoved. I understood their beauty on the level of theory, but remained fundamentally untouched.

In times like these it was easier for me find release and expression in simple, material things. I spent a lot of time wanting stuff. We never had much money, but I spent hours fixedly working out a way to acquire things I wanted. The hard reality of numbers and acquisition are cruelly amenable to obsessive thought, and I would shift and reshift all the information related to acquiring these things around in my head, over and over again, scheming. And somewhat (although unsurprisingly) perversely, this obsessive drive to acquire was counterbalanced by a second compulsion that often mandated I wasn’t, for any number of reasons, allowed to buy anything I wanted, unless a series of very specific circumstances were met.

Such were thoughts by that hidden lake, revolving in the innermost portions of my brain in the smallest circles imaginable. And this compounded distance that I labored under also made me envy anybody who didn’t have to deal with it – including you. There seeped into my perception of you at some point a low thrum of jealousy that never went away, until you did.

We weren’t alone there for long. Another couple emerged a little ways down the shoreline. The traditional Colorado couple: both athletic, in pricey but well-used hiking gear, with a big, lovable, well-trained dog loping adoringly behind them. And then another guy showed up, with a fishing pole over his shoulder and a tackle box in his hand.

So we got up to leave. I brushed the back of my shorts off and hopped off the rock back onto the shoreline. As we neared the trees you stopped and asked me to take your picture.

You struck a mild pose, with one foot on a pile of rocks. The sun was in your eyes, so you bent your head a bit and closed one eye to defray its light. Your long arms hung loose at your sides. Your smile was casual, natural, unselfconscious, like something caught with you knowing. Your skin was white, your lashes were long, and your funny shoes were black and yellow.

5/30/20: A Beautiful Day in an Ugly Country

I can hear the dryer downstairs, tossing something with a zipper on it; the zipper is lifted and falls with a small whip-crack sound, over and over again in minor monotony.

Yesterday there was a storm, a big enough one to finally wring the humidity out of the air. The heavy drops raced down like a stage curtain or cavalry charge, driving the humidity into the ground, interleaving it into the pavement and the soil. And today the sky had a washed face, a focused blue, and the benign clouds were docile, walking peaceably to the horizon.

I’m reading things about what is happening elsewhere: in Minneapolis, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in Columbus and Cleveland. There’s no easy or subtle way to broach the topic. Huge infrastructures of oppression that have been in place here since America was founded are rising and everywhere, every day more visible, like the spires and turrets of some cursed city that only rises from the sea under a sick green moon.

Here in the suburbs of the suburbs – and this desiccated place is a physical manifestation of the Fundamental American Distance – things, as usual, are quiet, and cryptic in their noncommittal silence. Yesterday when I was at the store I looked for signs of recognition in the faces of the other shoppers. Obscured by masks, I couldn’t see any. I listed for some acknowledgement, and heard none.

When I was in school they approached the topic of the United States government with a philosophy similar to that of the old joke about that guy who likes his steak rare, like really rare: “just walk the cow past the grill.” They flashed simplified schema of how the government theoretically worked in front of us. But it was just another of many numbered and fundamentally identical steps in the system, a perfunctory digestive spasm of the muscles that moved us slightly forward in our education – an intestinal system, capable only of processing, not improving, minds. Commodified like everything else, they were words to memorize for multiple choice tests (the first customer surveys), a big janitor’s ring of keys for a series of doors we were expected to pass through, before moving onto college and finding another educational institution to fail us – this time more directly on our own dime.

I grew up in complacent distances of white suburbia. It’s all I’ve ever known. Even as our family splintered, and, moving in with my mom, we moved inexorably towards lower middle class, and even now when I’m poor, I’m poor amongst the toothless niceties of the mild suburban nightmare. In some obscure inescapable way, as long as the system stays in place, matter how far I fall, there’s always another safety net for me.

Every time any terrible thing happens, one of my little vices is to wonder what people I respect are thinking about it, what they’re doing or would do about it.

What is Thomas Pynchon thinking?

What would Melville do?

I do this because I’ve been taught for years to shape my opinions from the stuff provided by authority figures.

(I also wonder what you are thinking and doing.)

I remember once, I was laying unblanketed in bed next to a partner (maybe you, maybe someone else, I can’t remember), listening to the night sounds through the window and wishing, suddenly, with an insufflating warm yearning of the heart, to be deep in despair, to be swords and swords deeper into it than anybody else, ever, so that everyone I turned towards would immediately know me solely by the visible beautiful ravages of my sorrow, and anything I touched would be consumed in the dark blue waters that rushed out from my touch.

I can see my car’s front fender through the front windows. Reflecting enough of the mild evening sky to look white.

We are all angry – all good people, I mean. We all want to write the glowing words of fire that will flash out and realign the millions of broken minds in this country and the world. Parched, scared, adjacent to incredible suffering, laboring under massive other fears too, we want regeneration. But how bad do we want it? And what will we do to achieve that change?

Because the real counterforce to bravery isn’t fear, but complacency. It would be so easy for all of us at that Fundamental American Distance to, in a week or a month from now, accept the status quo again. Everything is shifting, we’re all injured and heartbroken. But what will happen when the Offer is inevitably made, as it has been made before and before and before: the offer of the same old comforts our hearts ache for so raveningly if we just agree to slot back into our well-worn niches, like statues of saints who walk around the church at night on creaking stone limbs. Because this anger, this anger that you hope, this time, doesn’t go away, you’re also deeply afraid of it, and the cataclysm that it mandates.

Outside, the sky overhead, prelingual, maintains its eternal tongueless honesty. In the late day sunset the clouds are particular and pure and small: little more than tatters, crisply etched against the darkening blue.

The dryer’s stopped.

5/29/20: A Shopping Trip

I went to the store today. The process of going to the store right now, obviously, sucks; and while I could probably treat it more casually than I do, I treat it like an undertaking, a production. I get up early, to be there before other people start showing up. I wear a mask, gloves.When I get back I shuck off all the clothes I wore and immediately wash them, and immediately shower to decontaminate.

But of course I’m not fully decontaminated. Unsurprisingly, the ravenous detail-hunger of the obsessive compulsive mind proliferates anxieties in the face of the invisibility, multiplicity, and final irreradicability of germs and contaminants. The lack of a discernible end to the possibility of cleaning surfaces and one’s self means that the avenue of Further Action with regards to cleaning stretches out, in a very real way, into eternity. Even when you do pull yourself away from the compulsion to clean that unsolvableness rankles in the mind like a canker.

So shopping is a stressful, complicated experience. But this morning, in the face of all the complication and worry, as I was pushing my cart past the aisles, I looked at a small marquee for a beauty product. It was near the endcap of an aisle, glinting blandly in the flat flourescent store lights. The marquee itself was made of cardstock, and it was slotted into an acrylic stand or holder; the store’s flat bland fluorescent lights turned the acrylic white at the edges, and also I could see the whorls of fingerprints left in oil on its surface.

And there was a caesura in the turbulence, where I felt a strange peace inside: the kind of peace that wants to reach out and touch other things and that is almost a kind of love. I wanted to open my heart and spill the encompassing light inside it into this ragged unplace, this slice of mundanity crumbling under the new strangeness of the pandemic.

The feeling passed. I locked back into the grim business of COVID shopping, following the markers indicating which direction to entire the aisles from, and gliding in the strange silence of the uncrowded store, punctuated mostly by the loudspeaker’s automated and criminally serene refrains.

In general, something has been taken from me and I’m not sure if it will ever come back. This disaster has recolored massively the nature of my engagement with my surroundings.

The almost comforting symbolisms I used to see around Streetsboro aren’t there anymore. Like the Giant Eagle parking lot, for instance, always felt like an apocalypse and desolate to me. Daylight would fall onto its cracked asphalt, white and bland like florescents, and there would be miniature suns reflected blearily from the hoods of every dirt- or salt-stained car. More pleasantly when I walked back to my car on an evening errand I liked to watch the sun set into a bank of thin summer clouds, making them lavender and ruinous, and turning pale yellow itself like a coin of soft gold.

All across Streetsboro there were correspondences like this. All of the places I regularly visited had their particular emotions, their themes, their personal evocations. And these evocations changed over time too, or in different seasons or weathers, or even different times of day. And while they were of me, they didn’t give me a sense of ownership over any of these places. Nor did they bring me any closer to Streetsboro as a place. I don’t love it and never will (how could I?). But they provided loci, some way to ground the processes of thought in an actual place and, if not enact revenge on Streetsboro for its terminal ugliness, than at least flout that ugliness by finding some kind of meaning or possibility of meaning in it. They were an integral context.

But now, all these reliable evocations seem not present. Driving to and back from the store, there was nothing there; Streetsboro, as I normally conceived and interacted with it before the pandemic, wasn’t there. I drove through the town as if through a cardboard set. The construction workers on 43 looked like actors, out merely for my benefit. The sun was flat and hidden behind flat clouds. The parking lot looked plasticene, fake. The cars were all rentals from a massive lot in some glittering distant metropolis where the business of illusion is conducted. Barriers rose up and everything was inaccessible and unsignalling.

And so the pandemic’s dragging loss deepens. I think it’s important to make a note of this because, in another way, we’re all acclimatizing to this existence – on some superficial mental level, at least. Nothing feels normal, nothing is normal, but, lost in the practical, boring billion details of the day (of any day), my mind assumes a superficial normality, putting a distance between it and the alienation and violent internal sorrow of our situation. Unable to mend, fatigued by the constant confrontation with real catastrophe, I let in a kind of pragmatic blandness, a morphine but also, if taken uncarefully, a definite neurotoxin. And maybe, now that I think of it, this is why those old connections aren’t firing in the world around me.

When I got back, I put away the groceries, shucked off my clothes and put them in the wash, showered meticulously to decontaminate, and then lay down until I fell asleep. I slept one of those heavy, obliterating sleeps that, even if they only last for an hour or so, cause you to wake up with no recollection of who or what you are, as blank as an infant.

5/28/20: On Pictures

For some reason I feel like it’s always the 28th when I write these posts. The specific month hardly matters; it’s like each 28th follows the previous one rather than the actual 27th that come before, the way that John Crowley posits Christmases do.

I don’t like to have my picture taken. I never have, although the aversion didn’t manifest into any kind of rigorous praxis until I was in high school. That’s when I began studiously to avoid having my picture taken, except for in a few handfuls of specific circumstances. I didn’t even have any senior pictures taken. And that same refusal I also transmuted into a refusal to take pictures, in general, of anything: of places I visited, things I did.

It doesn’t come from a queasiness about how I look. I don’t really know how I look. Maybe I’m ugly. Maybe I’m so uniquely ugly that the ugliness wraps around again and becomes a kind of attractiveness in itself. People I’ve been attracted to’ve found me attractive, and that’s enough for me. I try not to think about it more than that and mostly succeed.

But I don’t like the way I look in pictures. There’s always this burden of incorrectness in me in them. I’m never in a normal pose. The light always catches me bad. Pictures bring out the worse in my face and body. In particular I dislike the goofy looseness of my smile – something I eventually realized I inherited directly from my dad; in his otherwise very different face it looks endearing, maybe roguish and charming even; but it looks inadequate in my own.

But, whether it started out entirely from vanity (and I think it did), the aversion to photography has developed other facets. I think pictures, of anything, fundamentally lie. Whatever they’re of, it isn’t the thing itself, not as I experienced it, but some approximation of that person, place, or thing from a distance and through a medium that are not mine and not me, and thus have nothing to do with me and my experience, even if I was the one taking it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that fact, but it bothers me. And it might especially bother me in terms of pictures I like. Because in their falsity pictures invite idealization. They are such perfect receptacles for fantasies, and like all fantasies they distance us from reality, making us hate it for not being as good and simple as the things we make inside our heads.

I had, briefly, a bad habit lately. I was using Google Maps to take digital walks around obscure Tokyo suburbs, little snoozy, gently run-down neighborhoods outside of the city itself.

Not a cataclysmic vice, but an empty one. It only made me hungrier for real things. Simply put, what I was engaging with, what I was seeing, was not that actual place, but a dream of a place, an ideal. And ideals are so much less, and so much better, than reality, and that’s a poisonous set of characteristics. It creates distance. Every time I engage with a fantasy of a place I’m removing myself further from the reality of that place.

This applies to pictures of people too. We’ve all seen a picture of somebody, and then later met them, and been shocked at how different they are in reality; I don’t mean to say they look better or worse, just markedly different. Can you look at a picture, of anybody, even somebody dead or that you’ll never meet, and not immediately start ascribing a personality, a story to them?

But I understand for lots of people these avenues in to fantasies are not the point of pictures, and certainly not the point of personal photos. They’re artifacts of  remembrance, not the actual memory or impression itself. Seeing a picture you took will generate the truer, internal picture you have stored in your memory, but that isn’t always easy to reach, acting in this case as a kind of Dewey decimal number for the Internal Archivist, so they can pull the pertinent volumes down from the deep stacks.

So maybe I’m losing something, by not taking or having pictures. There are definite clues to a self-caused ruin in my life.  I don’t remember much about who I was or what I did before, say, 2008, when I had an ‘adult’ brain capable of retaining and navigating longer stretches of the past.

My childhood, especially, is nothing more than a handful of memories – sense impressions, really, little snatches of time: riding with my dad to the hospital the day my sister was born; coming home from school sick and laying with my cheek on the carpet, staring at the stubby foot of the ottoman in front of me; the day I fell off my scooter in the garage and knocked the my wind out, lay gasping, calmly considering the panic that was building in my chest as I struggled to reset my breathing. don’t remember birthdays, or most of my teachers, or what my friends looked like, what we did; even more recent things like my room in high school are starting to fade and distort, and when I think of the first house we lived in when we moved to Ohio – the big house, before the divorce – it seems impossible that I ever lived in such a place, with its two-story living room and the wet wooded autumnal acreage in the backyard.