Diversify your Delusions: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End

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A parent’s folly, I thought, is to want to give a child what she does not have. A parent has to be quixotic. The word reminded me what I had forgotten all these weeks, that on the day Nikolai had died, when I had not known it would happen, I had been listening to Don Quixote on a long drive. I had been laughing to myself in the car. I had laughed at times since then, but that laughter in the car—quixotic—would never be mine again. [Does the “she” in the first sentence refer to the child or the parent? The narrator mentions Nikolai, so the answer is probably the parent. But if so, why parent and not mother? I’m interested in the push and pull between specific and general here.]

***

Are some days more special than others, or are we giving them names and granting them meaning because days are indifferent, and we try to wrangle a little love out of them as we tend to do with uncaring people?

***

Where should I go from here?

Oh you know you’re doing fine.

I didn’t know it. I wasn’t feeling fine. I had but one delusion, which I held on to with all my willpower: We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words.

A good tactic is to diversify your delusions, he said. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket kind of thing.

I couldn’t refrain from pointing out that he had used a cliché.

Whatever, he said.

Sorry, I said. Still, please enlighten me.

Oh, do what squirrels do. Dig a hole and store a handful of delusions there, and dig another one and store more. Some delusions are for today. Some are for tomorrow. Some take a few months to ripen. Keep them dry so they don’t get moldy. Keep them private so others don’t step on them by accident or dig them up and steal them. Be patient. Delayed gratification is the key to a successful life of delusions. And if you’re lucky, some delusions become self-seeded. Some even go wild like dandelions.

Are you making fun of me?

Indeed I am, he said. Nobody needs to be taught how to live under delusions. It’s like sleeping.

There is a condition called insomnia, I said.

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Some representative passages from Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End (2019).

The narrator, a writer and a teacher, conducts a series of conversations with her oldest son, who has recently killed himself. These are interspersed with meditations, as in the first two examples. Over and over the two of them return to language, playing with it, acting as guardians of it (the contest over cliché here, for example).

This is a very sad book, but wise and even sometimes joyful, though a joy always on the verge of despair. You can see it in the narrator’s claim that she is giving life to her lost child, once again, but this time in words. The book wants to believe in this beautiful sentiment, but it also recognizes it as fatuous: a delusion. (And what about that “we” in her sentence? What does her husband, the boy’s father, think? This is one of the only times the narrator mentions him.) And yet delusions might be good things to live under, especially if they disseminate, no matter how much an even brilliant teenager derides the idea. For delusions are connected, Li suggests, to imagination to thinking, to the life of the mind. And the mind—even or especially a mind in distress—can go off in all sorts of directions. Which might be a way to counter the terrible reality that time can only go in one.

Speaking of terrible reality, the book’s composure is even more striking when you find out that, like her narrator, Li had a teenage son who killed himself.

A couple of years ago I read one or two of Li’s early story collections. I found them uneven, sometimes exciting, sometimes too careful. She’s made the quite the leap in the intervening years, and I’ll be seeking out the books I missed.

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February 2019 in Review

Short month, short books. Verdict: plenty of decent reading, some even better than that. Here’s what I read in February 2019.

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Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 1] (2014) Trans. Anne Ishii (2017) Gentle manga about Yaichi, a single parent raising a delightful, rambunctious daughter, Kana. Their lives are interrupted by the arrival of Yaichi’s brother-in-law, a white Canadian named Mike Flanagan, who visits Japan in the wake of his husband’s (Yaichi’s brother’s) death. Yaichi spares no effort to welcome Mike—aided by Kana’s joy in the sudden appearance of this unexpected uncle—but his not-so-latent homophobia keeps getting in the way. Lots of secrets, lots of emotion, but all handled lightly. I was engrossed and moved and have the sequel from the library ready to go. Plus, who doesn’t like a hunky Canadian hero?

Ken Krimstein – The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth (2018) I enjoyed this comic, which combines Arendt’s biography with her political philosophy. Maybe I found the experiment so compelling because I don’t really know my Heidegger. (I’ve been avoiding him since college; my undergraduate institution was regrettably besotted by the thinker of Being.) At least that’s how I felt after reading the TLS review, which called out Krimstein for his misleading summary of Arendt’s erstwhile lover’s philosophy. I agree that Krimstein rather hurried over Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial, and maybe he does spend too much time offering potted biographies of the many intellectuals, artists, and otherwise famous people Arendt came across, but Three Escapes gave me a clearer sense of Arendt’s life, especially the years before the war, and made me thrill to the capacious generosity of her ideas. A book could do worse.

Hana Demetz – The House on Prague Street (1970) Trans. Hana Demetz (1980) Score another one for open stacks. While at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archive earlier this year, I was browsing the shelves when my eye was drawn to the cornflower blue spine of Demetz’s book, written in German and later translated into English by the author herself. Happily, my local library had a copy, which, I suspect, no one had checked out for years. Which is a shame: The House on Prague Street is really good. It tells the story of Helene Richter, who grows up in eastern Czechoslovakia in the 1930s but whose life revolves around the summers she spends in the small town in Bohemia where her maternal grandparents live in the house that gives the book its title.

Her mother’s Jewish family are successful industrialists, the classic success story of Austro-Hungarian emancipation. (The first pages might have come from a Joseph Roth novel.) Imagine their unhappiness when Helene’s mother marries a law clerk from a Sudeten German family. This makes Helenka, as she is affectionately known, half Jewish, which has important consequences for her after 1938. Unlike the rest of her mother’s family she is not deported to Theresienstadt or further east. Instead she comes of age in wartime Prague, where she experiences plenty of privations but nothing like those suffered by her mother. Imagine her mother’s anguish when Helenka falls in love with a German soldier, on leave for a few days from the eastern front. That Gerd seems to be a genuinely kind person, and no Nazi, does nothing to assuage the mother’s hurt. These scenes are riveting—the tone is different from, say, the bitterness of Ruth Kluger’s fights with her mother in her memoir Still Alive; Demetz’s bitterness is always mixed with sweetness—and only become more poignant in light of the traumas that descend upon the family.

The mother dies of a sudden illness because she cannot be taken to the Jewish hospital after curfew. Gerd is declared missing, presumed dead. The father survives the war, only to be murdered in a street fight between German sympathizers and communists in the weeks after armistice. At the end, Helene returns to her grandparents’ house, which has been taken over by Orthodox Jews returned from the death camps. They are suspicious and resentful of her; she respects their claim on the house, but has no respect for them, describing them as uncouth, even primitive. Not even genocide, we learn, will necessarily bring people together. Demetz offers no vision of Jewish solidarity. And why should she? After all, it was the perpetrators who defined the victims as much as or even more than the victims themselves.

The neatness of the book’s narrative structure—it ends with Helene on the station platform, awaiting the train back to Prague, standing under the same swaying begonias that so imprinted themselves on her mind as a child—reminds readers that The House on Prague Street is a novel, not a memoir. Yet it reads more like the latter than the former. It has the feeling of coming directly from the life of the author.  It’s not perfect, sometimes it strains a little for effect, but it’s captivating and moving. Some enterprising publisher ought to reissue it.

Anthony Horowitz – The House of Silk (2011) (Audiobook) Enjoyable Holmes novel, improved by Derek Jacobi’s peerless narration. It’s true, I did guess the ending (a subplot fooled me, though I also found it a bit silly), but the book’s real pleasure lies in its subtle characterization of Watson, nothing like the “sack stuffed with straw” so derided by Virginia Woolf. As always, Horowitz brings the stuff.

Hana Demetz – The Journey from Prague Street (1990) After so enjoying Demetz’s earlier novel I had to read its sequel, which sees Helene and her husband escape Czechoslovakia and build a life in America. Unfortunately, Journey isn’t a patch on its predecessor. Maybe the problem is that Demetz wrote it in English. But I think it’s more that the situations—infidelity, divorce, the trials of starting over in mid-life—are tired and their handling uninspired. Maybe Demetz only had one book in her. (I believe, actually, she wrote some others before House, but I don’t think they’ve been translated.)

Sarah Moss – Ghost Wall (2018) I’m writing about this for another outlet, so will only say: I liked it, sometimes quite a lot, but I wasn’t as crazy about it as so many people on Book Twitter seem to have been.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947/1986) Trans. Sharon Lynne Schwartz (1991) Brilliant, evenhanded, non-judgmental and unsparing narrative memoir (what I mean is that Millu tells her experience in Birkenau through a series of stories about other inmates, stories that have the texture of fiction—not that their made up, but that their telling is literary). I’ve written about Smoke before. How good is it? Well, this is the fourth or fifth time in the last couple of years I’ve read it, and it gets better and better. I now know it well enough that I won’t have to read it from cover to cover each semester, but I’ll look forward to dipping into it.

Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins (2011) Trans. Peter Millar (2015) My high hopes for this mystery, set in the rubble of immediate postwar Hamburg, were dashed almost immediately. The writing is pedestrian, and the murderer pretty obvious. The use of the setting is good, and I learned what people did to survive the brutal winter of 1947. I’d have been better off reading a history, though. I believe it’s a first novel, and it might be that Rademacher improves (there are two sequels plus a whole other series), but I’m not inclined to give him a chance. (Especially since I got the book from the UK.) No Philip Kerr, let me tell you.

Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem (1999) My third audiobook of the semester was the fifth in the Holmes/Mary Russell series. It looks back to the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (still the best so far), and expands upon an interlude referred to there in which the leads find themselves in Mandate Palestine. I’m really interested in that time and place, and I enjoyed learning about General Allenby, who seems to have been quite a character, but this book is much too long and much too dull. King hasn’t lost me entirely, Russell is still a good character, and I’ll continue with the series, but plan to take a break for a while.

Katherena Vermette, The Break (2016) Not only the book of the month, but the book of the year so far, and one of the best I’ve read in a long time. I want to write a proper post about it, so for now will just say that it’s about an indigenous family in Winnipeg, specifically its female members, and their response to the countless aggressions (micro and macro) they endure. (The Break is a strip of land, a hydro corridor, in the city’s North End). The highest praise I can give books is that I still remember them weeks later, and The Break passes that test easily.

Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy (2018) Wilkinson’s debut novel, conversely, does not. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, and I found its central conceit—that African Americans are like spies in enemy country, nicely formulated in an epigraph from Ellison’s Invisible Man—fascinating and timely. Marie Mitchell is an African American woman in the FBI in the late 1980s. She ends up working for the CIA in the then-newly renamed Burkina Faso on a mission to ingratiate herself with its charismatic President, Thomas Sankara. Until reading this novel I was completely ignorant of Sankara’s revolutionary Marxist and anti-imperialist program, which seems to have transformed life for the country’s poor. In the novel—and I suspect in life—the CIA wanted him gone; when Marie is sent on a mission of the kind she has always wanted she is forced to reconcile her love of the work with her feelings that the country she is working for isn’t really her own.

The sections in Africa are nicely handled: the book never feels like a travelogue. Yet even though I was impressed by what Wilkinson was trying to do I didn’t feel she quite pulled it off. There are two reasons for that: one, she’s trying to do too much, and, two, she doesn’t do the genre justice. In addition to everything I’ve mentioned the book also tells a family story, involving Marie’s divorced parents (one a cop and one, it turns out, a former spy) and her sister, who had tried to forge a path into intelligence work and couldn’t. Wilkinson ties this together with the political story, but it’s too much. As Wilkinson admits in this interview, she isn’t that well versed in spy fiction. I appreciate her efforts to queer/diversify the genre—it needs it!—but I want that effort to be accompanied by a better sense of suspense, pacing, etc.  For me, a fascinating misfire.

Primo Levi – The Reawakening (1963) Trans. Stuart Woolf (1965) (The proper title is The Truce.) Although I have taught a short excerpt from this for years in my Holocaust Lit class, I’d never read the whole thing. I read it with some students, and their appreciation of it increased my own. It’s a picaresque, describing the eleven months it took Levi to return to his home in Turin from Auschwitz-Birkenau. We enjoyed comparing The Reawakening to the much more famous Survival in Auschwitz (a.k.a. If This is a Man: Levi’s American publishers didn’t do him any favours). The sequel is markedly different in style, tone, and structure. It is ordered chronologically, for one thing, unlike its much more essayistic predecessor. “Picaresque” is misleading: it suggests scrapes and hijinks and ne’er-do-wells (all of which feature here), when in fact the book contains at least as much that is somber as triumphant. But it’s a book about coming back to life: hard, painful, but ultimately affirming. Levi is sometimes even funny, especially in his appreciation for Soviet organization, or lack thereof. At one point, describing a Soviet DP camp, he says something like (I don’t have the book in front of me), “There was no organization, but we got fed every day. It was a perfect system.” At moments like this, my students and I were reminded of the well-known encounter between Levi and a man named Steinlauf in Survival in Auschwitz. Steinlauf, a WWI veteran, perseveres even in the Lager he with a diligent regime of personal cleanliness, even though in those conditions hygiene was impossible. The point, he explains to Levi, urging him to wash in the ice-cold dirty water provided the prisoners, is to maintain one’s self as a human. Levi sees the man’s point, but he admits himself incapable of following another man’s system. This is the Levi we see in The Reawakening, a man who is finally free yet not forced to navigate the chaotic, ramshackle, uncoordinated but ultimately inescapable Allied bureaucracy.

Although short, The Reawakening is full to bursting with vivid characters and outlandish scenarios. Through a series of misadventures, Levi and the handful of Italian deportees who survived with him are sent east, through the Ukraine and almost up to Minsk, before making their way back down through Romania, Hungary, Austria, even Munich (where Levi refuses to leave the train station) and finally home to Italy. Maybe the thing that made the biggest impression on my students was how fraught the immediate months after the war were. We tend to think that liberation brought a return to normal life; Levi makes it clear, however, that this concept didn’t survive the war.

Looking back, February’s highlights were The House on Prague Street, The Reawakening and, above all, The Break. Anyone read them?

 

Secretly Canadian

Dr. Dionne Jackson, head of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at Hendrix College, where I teach, asked me to give a lunchtime talk in their monthly series on identity. I chose to write about being a Canadian in the US. Here’s a slightly cleaned-up version. It’s stilted–half speech, half notes. I ad-libbed somewhat; I think it sounded better than it reads. But I offer it here in case anyone’s interested, along with my powerpoint slides.
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I chose this title as a joke, because if you know anything about me you probably know that I’m Canadian. It’s not exactly something I hide. Many people at Hendrix have probably heard more than enough from me about Canadian awesomeness.

But I chose it for other reasons too.

One reason is the suggestion that someone—maybe some American— in their heart of hearts might wish to be Canadian. They are secretly Canadian. Of course, a Canadian would say that. Despite our irritating sense of superiority, Canadians have a total inferiority complex in regards to the US. All we want is to be acknowledged by you—and you don’t even know that we exist! (Except for weather—all those cold fronts coming down from Canada.)

Another reason is the suggestion that one could practice one’s Canadian-ness secretly. This is often the experience of Canadians abroad, especially in the US. We can pass, for the most part. Even though people make fun of me when I say “about.”

I like this idea of a kind of stealth existence. It feels subversive.

Yet it’s not enough to just hide out—at least not for me, and, I suspect, for many Canadians. Otherwise how can you can explain Canadians’ inescapable need to point out famous Canadians. (Seth Rogen… Canadian. Leonard Cohen… Canadian. Joni Mitchell… Canadian. Ellen Page… Canadian. Feist… Canadian.)

[Jews do this too BTW. So imagine how bad Canadian Jews are! (Drake!)]

Canadians even do this weird pointing-out-asking-for-affirmation thing when Americans aren’t listening. I remember when I was a kid every time the space shuttle was launched [explain space shuttle to students], the news back home would say, “The Space Shuttle Endeavour, with its Canadian-built Canadarm, launched from Cape Canaveral this morning…”

Today I’m going to say more about this paradoxical hiding in plain sight—this sense of being secretive, of being hidden, of being overlooked, all while simultaneously wanting to be acknowledged—and how it’s affected my own life.

Here for example is a well-known New Yorker cartoon from 2001:

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The implication here is that the guy isn’t Canadian. He’s probably American. He is the dominant against which the other he is faced with seems different, though, reassuringly, not too different: familiar yet somehow strange. In this sense, Canadians are queer; Americans are straight.

Notice, though, that the guy seems only mildly, even politely interested. Maybe a little bemused. Nothing in his phrasing suggests that he is obsessed with the woman’s Canadian identity.

What about her? What’s she thinking? Who knows. But if she is anything like the Canadians I grew up with, during the 70s and 80s, then she cares a lot. Then (and still to some extent now) Canadians spent a lot of time thinking about their identity. What did it mean to be Canadian? On the radio, in the newspaper: you’d here this question all the time.

This was a time when the country was threatened by Quebec separatism. There was the very real possibility the country could break up, even no longer exist. My sense is that we are lot less anxious as a nation than we used to be, but it is striking to me that Americans never spend any time worrying about what it is to be American. They just know. Rich, free, morally good. (White Americans anyway.)

You have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have peace, order, and good government.

In 1972, the great Canadian radio host Peter Gzowski organized a little competition. He was thinking about the phrase “As American as apple pie” (my crack online research reveals the phrase was apparently already in use in 1860s but gained traction during and shortly after WWII – “as American as motherhood and apple pie—at some point motherhood dropped out).

Anyway, Gzowski wondered what the Canadian version would be. What is the quintessential Canadian simile? So he asked listeners to complete the phrase. As Canadian as…

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What do you think the winning entry was?

[I canvassed the audience—various answers were mooted: “as poutine,” “as maple syrup,” “winter,” “hockey.”]

Nope, nope, nope. All plausible answers, but the actual answer is much stranger, much more delightful. The winner was: “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances

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Heather Scott was a 17-year-old student at the time. I could not find a photo of her; the image is a reproduction of a painting by the great Quebecois artist Jean Paul Lemieux.

[I counted on laughter; fortunately, there was laughter.]

Why is this funny?

  • Modesty, almost hapless
  • Dayeinu, good enough
  • passive aggressive?

[These were my ideas. The audience had better ones: the suggestion that one might have to work (perhaps quite hard) to be Canadian; the sense that being Canadian in some full sense is impossible; the sense that circumstances might work against being Canadian.]

1972 happens to be the year I was born: I am as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.

This is the kind of avowal I can get behind. An ironic patriotism. The patriotism of peacekeeping.

When I was growing the US was always equated with brashness, vulgarity, and aggression.

(All Canadians are familiar with some marginal American town/city where the US TV channels came from: in my case, it was Spokane, WA and Coeur d’Alene, ID. I can still probably tell you the names of the used-car dealerships in both those places in the mid-80s. Always shouting—that was my sense of American TV as a kid. Why are they always shouting?)

I’m not sure Americans know how many parts of the world perceive their flag as a sign of aggression, even warmongering. That’s how it felt in my childhood, and it took me many years of living in the US to get over that feeling.

[Driving from Canada to Ithaca, NY for grad school—on a trip in summer to find an apartment—every little upstate NY town littered with flags. I was freaking out. Later learned it was Flag Day…]

When Canadians ask who they are, their first answer is always, Well we’re not American.

You are so much bigger than us, you set the terms of our own self-understanding.

I’m always reminded of the famous comparison offered by former PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

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So snarky: that “beast”! He said this at the Washington Press Club!

In the metaphor, you are blissfully—though also apparently quite restlessly—asleep. Ignorant of us. But we are highly aware of you.

The Canadian mice are troubled by the elephant, but they also kind of love it.

For a certain generation of Canadians making it in the US was the ultimate goal. Again, I think that’s changing now. But I think it’s true for my generation. Or at least for me. When I applied for PhD programs in the late 1990s I really wanted to go to the US. I did not love the US. In fact, I kind of scorned it. But I felt that was where the best programs were. The best libraries. The most famous faculty. If I could make it there I could make it anywhere.

And I did come to the US. It was 20 years ago this year. August 20, 1999. I remember the date vividly because it is on all my immigration documents. I need to know it, not to celebrate anniversaries, but to keep the authorities happy.

And I got my education, and I met my amazing wife, and I got this job, and my wife and I had our daughter. I have wonderful American in-laws and they have taught me to love baseball. In seven more years, I’ll have lived as long in the US as in Canada.

It’s quite possible I’ll spend the rest of my life here.

But I’m still not a citizen, even though I’ve been eligible to become one for years.

Even with the election of Trump, when so many people in this country, immigrants and would-be immigrants especially, became more vulnerable, and as my wife and in-laws started pressing me more and more to get citizenship, I’ve kept dragging my heels. (I’ve been “getting to it” for almost a decade.)

(I recognize I am much safer than most immigrants: white male, Canadian, have Green Card, could stay on it forever, but…)

Friends sometimes ask me, more or less nicely: What’s my problem? Why haven’t you got citizenship yet? Don’t you want to vote?

The answer, I must confess, is that deep down I really don’t want to become American, even symbolically.

Every year my family spends part of the summer in Canada, and we always ask ourselves, Why don’t we live here?

I miss:

  • Sidewalks
  • Public transportation
  • Health care not tied to job
  • Politics not equal to sports—two party system turns everything into a horse race
  • Gun laws
  • Most of all, sense of public space/common good—that government can do things for you, not just ruin your life

Of course, there are wonderful things about the US:

  • Generosity
  • Can-do-spirit
  • Liberal arts colleges—America’s great gift to civilization

And terrible things about Canada:

  • Parochial
  • Chilly (I mean the people, not the weather: “old” WASP Canada)
  • Shameful destruction of indigenous communities
  • Passive aggressive
  • Smug

But my real stumbling block is internal. It has to do with me, with who I am.

As I was preparing for this talk, I realized I am governed by twin fears:

  • Fear of joining (have to take a side, stand out, which in my family = be a spectacle)
  • Fear of being lonely (not quite same as alone, but similar)

It’s almost physically painful for me to join in a group movement: I am fundamentally a-political. Partly because I am deeply introverted. And partly because I am scared of rejection. Having to ask for what I want is very hard for me. I’d rather people ask me to join than me having to ask them.

At the same time, I hate to be left out, I want to know the gossip, I have FOMO. Warhol anecdote: I don’t want to go to any parties; I just want to see what happens at all of them.

So in the end I think my situation—being a resident alien—is the response I’ve found to these competing imperatives. It suits me to be neither here nor there. Were I ever to move back home (and no one has ever shown signs of wanting to hire me…), I would probably quickly become frustrated. As it is, by being the Canadian in the US, I can assert my difference, but quietly. And I don’t have to take the risk of putting myself out there.

I ask myself: is this a critical position, a way to use the power of the minority position? Or is it paralysis, a kind of fence-sitting?

As I was writing this talk realized that maybe the reason I love Nella Larsen’s Passing so much is because that’s what my current situation allows me to do: to pass, to hide in plain sight, to be familiar yet strange.

And yet I am always avowing that hiding. Hiding itself is not enough for me. Of course, to be able to do so is a sign of privilege. Most of time passing happens, as it does in Larsen’s novel, for much more desperate motives.

And increasingly I think this privilege is something to give up. I love being betwixt and between. But I worry that maybe it is cowardly in some fashion.

What, I wonder, would it mean for me to be as American as possible under the circumstances?