Women We Read This Week

Joanna Walsh’s “In Cyberspace: a love letter” in Granta

Here is a thoroughly modern love story, largely enacted online, in “the place we all live now – that overcrowded tenement where each one of us knows a little of the other’s business,” dealing (in a beautiful, dreamy tone) with themes of space, place, and time in the Age of the Internet. “Am I asking the wrong question?” writes Walsh, “Maybe it’s not ‘Where am I’ but ‘When am I?’ That’s what the Internet seems to do with time and space. It makes one look like the other.” This idea of a sort of spatial/temporal tangle runs through the piece, and writing, or reading, or connecting, become ways of exploring, or controlling, or letting go:

Sitting at the station I am entirely present yet entirely absent. Love, like hope, slips continually from the present tense. I live (I love?) mostly in the clumsy ‘future perfect’, where love exists, or when it will have existed.

The future perfect is also the tense of train travel: ‘En cinq minutes ce train sera arrivé à la Gare du Nord’. As though saying it could guarantee against delays, accidents…

Georges Perec wrote that words – after all only the arrangement of marks on a 2D page – give the ‘illusion of movement’ a bit like the way that, looking out of a train window, the landscape appears to move and the traveller feels still. Conventionally we read from beginning to end and, unless we’re the type to skip ahead, to flick, to guess the weight of story to come, a tale will reveal its ending only in its own good time. Reading is time travel both in a straight line (the time it takes to read a story) and in unexpected directions (the timezones the story covers, which may be minutes or many years). We read to stitch up gaps in time, to pass the time as we wait, or as we travel.


Christine Smallwood’s “The Counterlife: Lionel Shriver’s speculative fictions” in The New Yorker

Writers often revel in disaster reading, in looking for traces of wreckage in the lives of other writers, searching for stories that will prove that persistence, in the face of overwhelmingly unfavorable odds, can eventually lead to SOMETHING. Like, hey, if she was a drunk, heroin addict, maniac who only ate doughnuts and struggled with depression….and she made it….then surely I can too. Smallwood’s article on novelist Lionel Shriver was a particularly satisfying read because it speaks of persistence in such a pure way (the article has no relation to the drugs or doughnuts mentioned above). After I read it, for at least a few hours, I had renewed faith in writing for writing’s sake. As Smallwood describes,

“It took the American novelist Lionel Shriver a long time to get our attention. Her first six books, published in the course of two decades, were met with a critical shrug and sales that Shriver later described as ‘in the toilet.’”

In the toilet. It’s only the first sentence of the article, and I know Shriver is my kind of writer. In her novels, Shriver explores what it means to try your hardest and still fail, to be passionate and good, but still not end up where you dreamed you would.

In Shriver’s new novel, Big Brother, the protagonist, Pandora, says,

“Only gradually do you come to appreciate that the occupation you aspire to is harder than you thought, that the supply of other young, self-anointed apples of their own eyes is inexhaustible, and that you’re not as uniquely gifted as you thought.”

And I am reminded that all that is left is to dig in for the long haul, to find some peace of mind in the writing process, and to forget about doughnuts & drugs, distractions and illusions of success. — Alice

Leslie Jamison’s “What Should an Essay Do?” in The New Republic

“What drives the essayist toward these acts of assemblage? What abiding hungers make us want to link the Big and the banal?” Leslie Jamison asks in this piece, a gorgeous example of complicated thinking rendered with ringing clarity. Jamison is reviewing Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby and Michelle Orange’s This Is Running for Your Life, mining comparisons between the two books for a deeper understanding both of their form – how does the associative thinking that drives the essay function at book-length and work as a form of storytelling, how is collagistic technique informing these books’ larger ideas – and of the emotional impulses behind that form: what drives such restless thinking, such relentless juxtaposition? For both Solnit and Orange, the answer is longing. Jamison observes, “excavating analogies everywhere is a form of generosity but also a symptom of hunger: for sense, for connection, for accumulation.” This piece contains too many thrilling sentences to quote here, so I’ll leave you with one wee expression that should make you want to go read immediately: “mythic ticker tape.” There. Go. Sarah


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