Book review: Hunger

After I graduated from college but before I moved to Boston, in May 2006, I went to visit Amy in Raleigh and she gave me some books:  If on a winter’s night a traveler, The man without qualities, Hunger. Maybe others. Then my dad drove me to the airport and I flew to Boston.  I was starting a job as a research assistant about two weeks later and I was subletting a room from some BU students I found on Craigslist. I had to send a cashier’s check to these people to secure the room and there was some question up until the moment they let me into the apartment about whether I had been defrauded.  Three students–Alaa, Emily, and Lauren–lived in the apartment. There was also Katie, an old friend of Lauren’s who was a student at UMass Boston and who described herself as “basically another roommate” which was what I considered an unpleasant surprise. She had purple hair and seemed even less ambitious than the other three, who all turned out to be at the center of a social network comprised of numerous losers who were all enrolled at Boston University at the time.

I arrived in Boston during an early summer rainstorm.  I thought it’d already be chilly that far north but it was humid and warm and my glasses fogged up as soon as I got off the B train at Commonwealth Ave. and Harvard St.  I was impressed by how dirty that neighborhood was. I could sense that rats were everywhere, hiding.

I was happy to be in Boston and happy if a bit nervous to have nothing to do for two weeks.  I wandered around and read Hunger in a sort of unintentional and self-aware reenactment of the events in the book.  I had to be careful with my money since I wasn’t going to be paid for another three weeks–and, again, had some vague premonition that I was going to get screwed somehow and not actually get paid for working–but I wasn’t pawning the buttons on my shirt.  I’d walk down to Espresso Royale, a coffee shop near the BU main campus, read and drink coffee until I got anxious, then ride the 66 bus over to Harvard Square and walk around there and read in whatever coffee shops I ran across. In Harvard Square there was a burrito place called Anna’s that reminded me of Cosmic Cantina in Chapel Hill so I started eating at Anna’s every day because I ate at Cosmic Cantina every day and the bus ride over to Cambridge provided some structure.

Eventually the rats started to appear.  I saw them scurry into alleyways or other places while I was walking home at night, and later one of them came into the apartment.  It was barely evening and we were watching TV in the living room that was not a separate room from the kitchen but separated from it by a sofa we all tacitly agreed was the dividing line between the two rooms.  There was rustling in the kitchen, and Katie turned around and screamed, the most strenuously engaged I’d ever see her body. The rat barely acknowledged the sound and continued digging into a bag of bread on the lowest of the wire shelves where we kept our food.  Over the next week or so, the rat came to take on a personality. It was fearless. You had to stomp near its head to get him to go back wherever he came from. Eventually Alaa or Emily bought a rat trap and caught him. He lay there dead, his spine broken and his massive gray body sprawled on the kitchen floor, like a big gray kitten.  Eric, a Steelers fan studying business administration at Boston University, was summoned to dispose of the rat. I watched Eric take the rat to the dumpster in the alleyway and I hated everyone in the apartment at that moment, including Eric, even though he’d been helpful with the rat.

A few days later I found my own place.  The rat was dead and I took that as a sign that I needed to leave, the rat’s blood transmogrified into the ink I used to sign the lease for a $995/month studio apartment on Commonwealth Ave., right next to a liquor store.  I lived in that apartment for a year and loved it. I loved the weird dangerous elevator, the floors in the foyer spongy and ruined, the gay Asian guy named Angelo who lived across the hall who always seemed a little scared when I greeted him. I liked living alone in a city where I didn’t know anybody and where I could sit in the window and smoke cigarettes and get buzzed and just listen.

 

“Ah, will you be kind enough to give me a bone for my dog?” I said; “only a bone.  There needn’t be anything on it; it’s just to give him something to carry in his mouth.”

I got the bone, a capital little bone, on which there still remained a morsel of meat, and hid it under my coat.  I thanked the man so heartily that he looked at me in amazement.

“Oh, no need of thanks,” said he.

“Oh yes; don’t say that,” I mumbled; “it is kindly done of you,” and I ascended the steps again.

My heart was throbbing violently in my breast.  I sneaked into one of the passages, where the forges are, as far in as I could go, and stopped outside a dilapidated door leading to a backyard.  There was no light to be seen anywhere, only blessed darkness all around me; and I began to gnaw at the bone.

Book review: The Argonauts

I borrowed this book from my friend Erin.  She read it when we were still co-workers and as she read it she’d underline passages or draw shapes in the margins and take pictures of the passages she liked and send them to me in text messages.  The first text had a picture of the first page of the book and she said I’d probably like to read this book because the first paragraph mentions weird sex and Wittgenstein. I’d made it clear to her these were among my interests.

So in the copy of the book that I read were many asterisks, check-marks, and smiley-faces.  I don’t have a fully satisfactory model of what features in the text predict which of the shapes. I think smiley faces are for passages that are funny or charming.  Asterisks and check-marks belong to more serious passages that I assume are more personally resonant.  I can’t discern a systematic difference in the text corresponding to each of these symbols.  Maybe sometimes she felt like asterisks and sometimes she felt like check-marks and just sampled randomly from the two. Maybe the passages that would have provided the crucial data for understanding her generative model were left unmarked because she read it when she was on the train and she’d left her pen at work, introducing bias.  I’d rather have a little bit of noisy data than a lot of biased data, my PhD advisor once said.  Hell I’m the same way. Anyway I liked the check-marks because it made it seem like Erin had graded the book and Maggie Nelson got a very high score.

Book review: Dubliners

This year I intend to read Ulysses.  But you have to do things in the right order.  I read the Odyssey a long time ago, in high school. I’m pretty sure I stole a copy from the library and read it in the woods by our house so that I could dip or smoke and because there was just a certain romance about reading in the woods.  Sometimes I’d read it in the woods above my grandma’s house and I’d see her come out on the porch and walk around. I know the dogs were barking out behind her house but I don’t remember what their barks sounded like, probably because it’s too painful to allow my consciousness anywhere near it.  Anyway I don’t remember much beyond the basic images of the story that have in any case become sort of part of the cultural common ground. John Francis told me one time while we were in college that he planned to make the bed that he and his future wife slept in with his own two hands, in homage to Odysseus.  He seemed to believe at the time that it’d be egregious corner-cutting to not make your own bed like that. As far as I know he didn’t do that but I appreciate how simultaneously neurotic and romantic the idea is. I also remember a painting in our 9th-grade literature textbook, “Ulysses and the Sirens”.  Odysseus has his guys cover their ears somehow, so they can’t hear the sirens’ song. He instructs them to tie him to the mast so he’ll be able to hear the song but unable to re-direct the ship.

 

I started reading Portrait of the Artist when I was living in Germany but didn’t make it very far in the book because I was distracted.  I also knew it was one of these books–and that James Joyce was one of these authors–that people who describe themselves as writers are into.  There was even a guy, another American, I used to see everywhere during that period of time who said he wanted to be a writer and I was dimly suspicious that he was probably enthusiastic about this book.  I’m almost certain his name was James. But I used to see him in the languages building at Tuebingen in what I imagined was completely affected contemplation, writing in a little notebook. I also saw him drinking with some people in the student bar and he was, I believed, very obviously trying to get this Polish girl drunk.  At the time I felt indignant about this but I’ve done worse, later. And in retrospect I knew nothing at all about this person. Maybe he knew the Polish girl really well and they’re still great friends. In other words pretty much everything I hated about this guy was actually some characteristic present in me to some degree.  In any case he was wearing a blazer nearly every time I saw him. So that was distracting and I think I gave the book away when I moved back to the US, unread.

 

Anyway I’ve been to therapy and had a lot of painful encounters with people and now I try not to let these projected nightmares stop me from reading books or doing other things I might enjoy.  I liked Dubliners, even if I eventually got tired of referring to the endnotes to decode the numerous allusions to statues and streets in Dublin, obscure Roman Catholic holidays, Irish expressions, as well as the impressively rich variety of euphemisms and slang for drinking and extra-marital sex.  There’s one story in particular about two boys who cut class one day and go on an adventure, out beyond the edge of the city, where they play some make-believe game in a pasture. They encounter an old man who engages in some vaguely specified and presumably lewd act. He scares the kids but they pretend not to be scared, they pretend to play until they’re a safe distance away, then run.  I think they’re not really sure what the man did. I think I felt that way a few times as a kid. I wasn’t sure what people were doing, but I knew it was weird. I didn’t want them to know I was scared. I didn’t want anyone to know I was scared.

 

There were no dogs in this book.

Fragment: Bird

What happened was I shot a bird.  I was pretending and my fantasies were varied.  I was leading a reconnaissance mission and had basically a whole other unit coming for support to outflank the enemy.  I heard movement and crouched down and with my pellet rifle I shot the bird but I didn’t mean to hit him.  I shot him and he went off, wounded.  I didn’t want to tell daddy but I knew I had to.  He’d find out about the bird one way or another.  He’d go out tagging trees and see its body lying there dead. Or one of his friends would go out there to build a deer stand and he’d see the dead bird and bring it back to the house and hold it up by its feet and look at my dad and we’d all be standing in the carport and my dad would look at me and say, “Wonder how that bird got hurt?”  So it was best to just tell him as soon as he got home.