I loved Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot,” just like everyone else

One of the books I’m toting around right now is the recently published collected short stories of Susan Sontag, Debriefing. In the collection’s first story, “Pilgrimage,” the 14-year-old narrator (also Susan Sontag) has this to say about reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:

“For a month the book was where I lived. I read it through almost at a run, my excitement winning out over my wish to go slowly and savor…After finishing the last page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I started back at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the book merited, reread it aloud…”<

Sontag’s recollections of reading Mann are the near-perfect summation of my experience with The Idiot. I did not tear through Elif Batuman’s spectacular novel so much as I devoured it. And like Sontag, as I neared the end, I felt a low pang of sadness at the pages diminishing quickly beneath my fingers. I wasn’t ready to abandon Selin, the book’s 19 year old narrator, nor the sprawling, perfectly imagined cast of characters that populate the year of her life she recounts for us. I was entirely consumed by this book, completely beguiled by the unique pitch of Selin’s narrative voice, and by the exasperating clarity of Batuman’s authorial vision.

A blurb on the book’s back cover describes The Idiot as “mundane,” and I truly cannot think of a more accurate statement. To say that nothing much “happens” in the book would be true but misleading. It’s more like what does happen is so heartbreakingly normal, so small, that it barely registers as a happening. Selin, a Harvard freshman, in 1995, of Turkish-American descent, dispatches the tale of her first year in college in a voice so droll and un-impassioned it’s positively flat. An aspiring writer, Selin is observational nearly at the expense of interiority, a pair of eyes and poised pen recording her experiences with an almost journalistic adherence to objectivity. Yet nothing is sacrificed to the stark, spare, even flat quality of the prose: the characters (and there are many, encountered by Selin in Boston, in New York, in Paris, in Turkey and Eastern Europe) are all drawn with precision; the every detail zings. Freighted conversations amount to nothing, such as when Selin discovers she and her doomed love interest, Ivan (who is basically a composite of every withholding, manipulative jerk any of us has ever dated), has booked the same trans-Atlantic flight as she:

I stood beside Ivan. “Hi,” I said.
He didn’t look at me. “Happy birthday,” he said.
“I didn’t recognize you because of your haircut,” I said.
His gloom seemed to intensify. “That why I got the haircut.”
I thought that was funny, but he didn’t laugh.
“I didn’t know you were going to Paris,” I said.
“I didn’t know YOU were going to Paris,” he said.
Then we stood there not saying anything.
“Well, see you later,” I said.
“I guess so,” he said.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” asked Svetlana afterward…

The book is replete with these sort of exchanges, anti-climactic to the point of banality, and they thrilled me.

Yet the book’s simplicity is a front: this is not some frothy tale of collegiate love gone wrong; rather, this is a rigorously intellectual, deeply theoretical book about the possibilities and limits of language. Again and again Selin, whose major is linguistics, brushes against those possibilities and limitations, discovering in most instances the difficulty of communication, the impossibility of true understanding. The many languages that flit through the book–English, Turkish, French, Russian, Spanish, to name a few–some of which Selin is conversant in, others in which she is not, are the stage upon which the author’s theories are presented. The big takeaway seems to be that misunderstanding is so easy–even likely–whether or not two people speak the same language, for language is basically a trick: words taken on their own mean nothing–or, more precisely, they have multiple meanings, and in this way the meanings can be impossible to decipher. This at least seems to be Selin’s lesson, as the novel’s BEAUTIFUL and PERFECT final passage makes clear:

“When I got back to school that fall, I changed my major from linguistics and didn’t take any more classes in philosophy or the psychology of language. They had let me down. I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

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31. Fuck Your Statues

Like you didn’t think Jefferson Davis was an 80s rock band

Like they stand for anything

Like they don’t mean something

Like there’s no difference between saying “My life matters, you’re treating me like it doesn’t” and saying “My race is superior to yours and all other races”

Like some of them were good people

Like we’ve ever been in the business of honoring our vanquished foes

Like there’s glory in that flag

Like there’s glory in that south

Like they’re beautiful

Like Black isn’t beautiful

Like I’m not writing with this with my teeth gritted & Nina Simone playing at top volume

Like we need them to remember

Like being worried you might forget about slavery isn’t its own privilege

Like Black people might accidently forget that slavery happened or

how you really feel

Like racism is a character flaw we should overlook

Like the Civil War was a minor disagreement

Like the outcome was ambiguous

Like you don’t want a nigger

Like Beyoncé isn’t real

Like there aren’t history books

Like those men are heroes

Like you aren’t the replacements

Like maybe you have a point

Like white supremacy is a possibility

any open-minded, thinking person ought consider

Like there are pros and cons to be weighed

Like race isn’t a con

Like white isn’t simply the absence of color

Like white is a solution

Like Black men aren’t out here getting shot or incarcerated

Like Black blood didn’t water your poplar trees

Like tiki torches are threatening

Like you aren’t crying white tears on Youtube

Like Carolyn Bryant wasn’t lying

Like Black girls aren’t magic

Like you ain’t scared

Like Curry ain’t shit

Like you ain’t still mad about Obama

Like Black Twitter isn’t just Twitter

Like there’s a white Whitney Houston

Like you invented jazz

Like hip-hop didn’t happen

Like you know how to rap

Like you don’t love Denzel Washington

Like your wives are satisfied

Like your husbands are

Like you don’t watch Scandal

Like we aren’t post-Michael Jackson

Like we aren’t out here reclaiming our time

Like you aren’t out here looking stupid

Like we haven’t already had this conversation

 

 

 

 

30. Current Events

If this isn’t the country you know, what country did you know? What did it look like to you last week, last month, last year, your whole life?

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I grew up in Northern Indiana in a town of something like 50,000 people. Perhaps five miles south of the house I grew up in was an even tinier community called Osceola. I have no memory of a time before I associated the name of that community with outright racism, and the Ku Klux Klan in particular. There, as late as 2001, when I was still in high school, a local Grand Dragon was making headlines and neighbors uneasy for hosting nightly symposiums where he and “sympathizers” would gather to “shoot guns, play games, and burn crosses.” We’ve always said that Indiana is the south of the north, and it’s true: less than 100 miles east of Chicago, the third largest city in the nation, the KKK flourishes. This is a knowledge I grew up with, one that prevented me from ever separating the images of white men assembling in sheets and hoods I saw in history books or the sound of Billie Holiday’s voice as she sang Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze from my present existence. The knowledge kept me, as a child, from an ability to watch Mississippi Burning or American History X without suffering night terrors and fueled a scholarly interest that bordered on obsession in slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights Movement. How does anyone interpret American history as anything other than an indictment, for the record, against whiteness? It is a fact that as a child I had frequent, Roots-based nightmares about slavery. That I hung a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr., over my bed, a totem to ward off white devils.

In junior high a boy in my class told me he would never have sex with a black girl or even want to see one naked. This was the same year that Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John King kidnapped James Byrd, Jr., and beat him before chaining him to the back of their pick-up truck and dragging him for two miles to his death.

The notion that there could ever be “two sides” to a story involving white supremacist IS a racist notion. The President has basically said, “Whoa, let’s slow down, maybe they have a point.”

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Yet David Benioff and D.B. Weiss still want to make a prestige drama about the drama unfolding in our streets. I’m sorry, I mean they want to make a prestige drama that speculates, What if the slavery were still a thing?

At work not long ago I said that black men were out here getting shot simply for driving cars and a white girl who was mad about her diet said, “Oh, only for driving cars?” In a similar vein, a few days later, a different white girl put her forearm against mine and declared herself darker than me. Virtually every day someone accuses me of being sassy.

Over the weekend, a group of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Confederate traitors to the Union — not all of them bad people, according to the President — gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest, apparently, that Jews and black people and people of color exist. One of them ran down a crowd of counter-protesters with his car, killing Heather Heyer. This week on Facebook there are actual people defending all this as a matter of free speech.

Sometimes I think there is no such thing as history, only current events.

29. Selfie #7

This is my favorite song right now:

 

JANAE: Why’s it called Drew Barrymore?

ME: Beats me, except she makes a cameo near the end of the video.

Listen, you know I love me a messy girl with big hair and and even bigger voice. If this were 2002 and I saw SZA’s debut album (there’s also an EP from last year) amongst the new releases at the FYE that used to be at the University Park Mall in Mishawaka, Indiana, I’d have bought just simply for the cover art. I’m totally here for streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music (I subscribe to both, because I like to throw my money way) because it’s super fucking convenient to just have the complete discography of Mariah Carey always at my immediate disposal, and really, the $23 or whatever it is those two subscriptions cost me per month is pocket change compared to the hundreds of dollars I used to spend on compact discs each month. Still, some of my favorite albums of all time are ones I discovered by accident, purchased on a whim because I happened to see the CD on a rack at some record store and responded in some way to the cover. But I haven’t bought a CD in a years.

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As it happens, I first heard SZA on Rihanna’s Consideration, the opener of her 2016 album Anti. The song, co-written by and featuring SZA, has all the spunk, sass, and cunning lyricism she pushes to even more gratifying extremes on CTRL. Most easily classified within that burgeoning sub-genre of music known as “alt-R&B” (which I think means R&B that ostensibly “hip” white kids have decided is cool, re: Frank Ocean, The Weeknd), CTRL in fact resists labels and categorizations without quite eschewing them completely. There are, certainly, heavy elements of R&B throughout; inspirations from hip-hop are also prevalent, and there are strong whiffs of soul jazz, indie rock, and mass-appeal, radio-friendly contemporary pop. (A girl I know who has absolutely zero taste in anything, hearing Love Galore for the first time, pronounced it, “A really good song.” She’s not wrong — it’s a slick, sexy jam that contains some of the album’s baddest and most innovative lyrics, but it’s minimalist production is firmly rooted in the now.) It’s this perfect (if unruly) combination of influences that make CTRL such a pleasure. It’s specific and unique, happy to suggest all sorts of identification yet refusing to pick just one.

On the album’s inaugural track, Supermodel, SZA sings over a grungy electric guitar about, according to the Genius-powered “Behind The Lyrics” function on Spotify, “an ex-boyfriend who did her wrong.” Her vocal delivery here (and elsewhere on the album) evokes songstresses like Amy Winehouse or Macy Gray with hints of Lauryn Hill and Nicki Minaj. “I could be your supermodel if you believe,” SZA sings on the hook, “If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me.” Its poignant, somber sentiment is juxtaposed against the graphic aggression of the verse, in which she declares, “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy” and taunts her estranged lover with, “How am I so easy to forget like that/It can be that easy for you to get like that.” Here and elsewhere on CTRL, SZA reveals herself straddling the delicate balance between the fast-talking, smart-mouthed bad chick who’s down for revenge sex and sharing dudes on “The Weekend,” and the one whose loneliness might push to put up with the bullshit. The way SZA fuses these apparent contradictions, with such grace, cohesion, whimsy, and cool, reveals a creative mind as messy, distracted, interested, and exciting as the album itself, and I’m here for it.

 

28. An undated entry from a journal I kept in August and September of last year

At lunch on Tuesday S and I were talking about blow jobs. S said he liked to get them and while he didn’t hate to give them, he said he wasn’t exactly crazy about it. I said I was exactly crazy about giving them. We were at LePeep. It was mostly elderly people and the people who look after them, only not-quite elderly themselves, so we were trying to keep out voices down. There was a table nearby full of men in business suits and expensive watches–S said they all had a very “Republican vibe.” Or maybe it was, “conservative vibe.” In any case, we’d smoked a joint at my apartment, S and I, before walking down to LePeep, and we were feeling pretty high by the time we got there, and S hardly ever smokes so he kept laughing and speaking more loudly than necessary. One of the conservative-looking men–the only black guy–turned in his seat several times to look at us.

27. Short essay on eating out

I do not enjoy eating in restaurants because I work in one and I cannot bear to participate in putting someone else through it.

When I do eat out, I tip extravagantly. I’m the friend who checks your credit card receipt and has zero qualms about calling you out for leaving less than twenty percent or who just leaves an extra five or ten dollars on the table just in case. I always try to tip in cash because I know anything left on a credit card is going to get reported and split three or four ways between three or four other staff members who also aren’t getting any practical hourly wage.

When I’m working and people tell me I gave them excellent service it means nothing to me. All it means is that I fulfilled whatever haphazard, half-conceived idea they had about what their dining experience should be, which usually means modifying dishes until they are practically unrecognizable from a dinner they’d have made for themselves at home, only consumed in a setting where for an hour and half they get to confuse themselves for royalty and their servers for servants, apathetic to the messes they leave for others to clean up. The rest of what most people expect when they go out to eat they make up along the way, only deciding that the price of their meal entitles them to something at the point that they realize they don’t have it. And often it is that one intangible, formerly unneeded thing down to which comes the server’s entire night. So you enjoyed yourself. Good. So you were well-served. I’m glad for you. Can I go home now?

26. Some lame things that have already happened to me today and it’s only ten am.

The Ancestors were speaking to me this morning, and they were saying, “Stay yo ass in bed, child.”

Mornings have always been a personal struggle. For most of my life I was not a morning person. All through high school I struggled to get out of bed each morning, sleepily groping for the snooze button on my ringing alarm clock a dozen times before finally summoning enough will-power to peel myself from my mattress and feel my blindly in the morning light into the kitchen, where I’d drink coffee straight from the spout. I was the kid stumbling into homeroom several minutes after the final bell had rung, grasping a to-go coffee and rubbing sleep out of his eyes. In college, naturally, I arranged my schedule so that none of my classes were before noon–telling myself, of course, that a later start to my day meant a few hours’ buffer in the mornings that would be perfect for finishing up any homework I’d inevitably neglected to tackle in a timely manner, but knowing damn well it was because even though I was a Serious Student and Committed To My Education, I didn’t want it interfering with my habit of staying up late watching Mean Girls (ON FUCKING DVD) or reading fourfour.typepad.com and chatting about it online with my friend Charlé from the comfort of our separate dorm rooms. After college I waited tables for a while, and that was perfect because the earliest I ever had to go in was usually eleven o’clock. Then I fucked up and got a job in a public library about forty minutes from my apartment, which meant I had to get up at about six am to get there by 8:30, which rarely happened. I got “talked to” weekly about my “truancy,” and that early call time definitely factored into my decision to leave the library after a few years.

Now that I’m older, I don’t mind getting up early (meaning early for me, which is like nine or nine-thirty), but I still don’t like to go anywhere. I’m back to waiting tables now, which is a job I’m technically super proficient at but which doesn’t suit my personality (or my interests) at all EXCEPT in the since that my shift never starts until 4 pm. That’s one of the approximately four things there are to like about my job, ranking just below “cash in hand” and “shifts that last an average of five hours” but just above “atmosphere among staff of sexual fluidity.” (By “atmosphere of sexual fluidity” I of course mean that there are two ostensibly straight male servers with whom it is fun to trade sexually suggestive barbs as they fondle my rump in the server station.)

Anyway, I’ve worked out a schedule over the past couple of years. Each night I pass out drunk go to bed anywhere between midnight and two am, usually falling asleep to the sound of a VHS tape whirring and squeaking in the player, practically drowning out the on-screen action because these things are fucking antiques, bruh. Who needs a Better Image sleep machine when you’ve got a TV/VCR combo from 1993 groaning rhythmically at the foot of your bed? I keep the alarm clock on my iPhone set to three times: 8, 8:30, and 9 am. I’m still a big fan of riding that snooze button like its a surfboard and I’m Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush (underrated, btw), but I’m still kind of an idiot where my phone is concerned so I’m always hitting the “stop” button instead of the “snooze” button, and setting it to go off at three different times helps with that. By 9:30 I’m usually up and tripping over my cat Bobby Brown while I pull on whatever clothes are crumbled on the floor closest to me and either stumble toward the kitchen to make coffee or stumble out of my apartment, grabbing the biggest, most-light-blocking pair of sunglasses I own, and heading down to Chicory Café to get my coffee to-go. “Grande coffee to go, please, dark roast,” is about all the conversation I can manage first thing in the morning; then I return to my apartment where I like to browse the Internet while watching the Today show until 11 o’clock or so, when I usually try to get to work on something.

Anyway THE POINT IS today did not go quite like that. Or it did, but with disruptions–which is sometimes worse than if things just go wrong altogether. I’m not someone who is in interested in the semblance of normalcy; I want normalcy. I want my schedule the way I like it and I don’t want to deviate from it in the slightest.

some lame things that have already happened to me today

  1. Well, my cunning system with the alarm clock didn’t matter one fucking iota today because they’ve been paving the street I live on, which means that each morning bright and early they’re out there with their jackhammers and their street cleaners making all sorts of ungodly noise, and I’m a poor person who doesn’t have central air and the window unit is in the living room which means I have to keep my bedroom window open WHICH MEANS there’s absolute no buffer between me and the cacophonous noises down on the street. Noises that are keeping your from your allotted amount of beauty sleep that you can’t control because no way you’re going down there in your short shorts and kimono and head wrap and morning breath and yelling at a bunch of construction workers who would probably laughingly drown you in cement if you did, are really the worst, and one of the worst ways to wake-up. (The worst way to wake up is probably to a rapid pounding on your door and an unfriendly voice shouting “POLICE! OPEN UP!” which happened to me last week, in connection with the street resurfacing and my Scion XA that was still parked on it.)
  2. Now, there were no signs when I got home last night saying anything about not parking on the street, as there had been the past few days, so when I realized what that infernal racket waking me up was, I flew into a panic, certain I’d rush downstairs only to find that my car had been towed. Yes, panic: I could feel it pooling in my gut like hot acid, because look ya’ll, I AIN’T GOT NO MONEY TO BE GETTING SHIT OUT OF IMPOUND. Plus I’m not sure I’d even know how to go about doing that if I did have money. So obviously, I’m freaking the fuck out because even though I don’t really like driving or care about cars, I got places to go and South Bend is neither pedestrian friendly nor does it have adequate public transportation. All of the many places I absolutely have to go that aren’t within walking distance–therapeutic trips to Target to spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need, for instance, or to my weed dealer’s house–flashed through my mind as sprang out of bed and threw on some clothes.
  3. I’m sort of frantic and half-cognizant in the mornings anyway, barely functioning, but considering how dire the situation was, I was extra-clumsy, and I stubbed my toe (HARD) on a 12 lb hand weight I don’t even know why I have because I’m definitely not into fitness. (Impulse purchases are myjam.net). THE UNIVERSE: 2, ME: 0.
  4. After cursing the idiot who left that fucking weight right in the middle of my walking space (me) and grumbling to Bob about how fucking rude and inconsiderate it is of the city to commence this work at such an unreasonable hour, I hurried downstairs. Thankfully, my car was where I’d left it in the night before, and I got it in and drove the few blocks to Chicory for a cup of coffee. I was glad that there was no line of faux-happy “professional types” in their business casuals not bothering to look up from their emails to order their double no foam lattes with skim milk or whatever shit they drink, but whatever blessings I thought the universe was sending my way were quickly subsumed when I saw that the barista on duty was the one I’m certain hates me, probably because I never tip more than the change from the three dollars I give her for my $2.64 coffee. When she informed me that “We’re out of dark roast right now. Do you want to wait or is medium okay?” I knew the world was out to get me. Medium was most definitely not okay but I told her it was because the only thing I hate less than coffee that isn’t a nice, robust dark roast that gives the shakes after three sips is waiting around for anything. I begrudgingly accepted it, slightly suspicious that home girl was lying to me.
  5. Back at my apartment, sipping the sub-par coffee while my friends Al Roker, Dylan Dryer, and Jenna Bush rattled on about some new app that helps you hook up with people who are dopplegangers of your favorite celebrity crush, I navigated to newyorker.com because I’m an intellectual, only to discover, after clicking on the latest by Jia Tolentino, that I’d met my number of complementary articles for the month. Say what? But I have a subcription! (Sort of.) WHAT IN GAY HELL, I muttered, checking to make sure I hadn’t logged-out by recently purging my browser history after sifting through all the porn to find that piece I read in The Believer last week made me feel like a pervert. I hadn’t. The option to purchase a subscription or link my current one only confirmed that the day I’d been fearfully awaiting had arrived: the library I used to work at had figured out that during my tenure there I’d been using the online benefits of their subscription to the magazine. Needless to say, they cancelled that shit. I attempted to get around the paywall by opening the page in an incognito browser, but I didn’t have any luck. (Which is really weird because usually that works, right?) I sat sadly at my computer, wondering what Jia had to say about From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and why–WHY–life is so endlessly awful.

I should probably just cut my losses, play it safe, and go back to bed.

Here’s a picture of Bobby Brown lookin’ all dandy in an ascot:

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