Fore-Side Chats: June Edition
Welcome to the latest installment of Fore-Side Chats, a monthly series where I take stock of the books I’ve read, bringing you my highs and woes. June was full of real-life adventures, like road tripping up to the Scranton Zinefest and seeing Beyoncé perform on a sweltering night in Baltimore. I got kind of stuck in two books this month, Bluets and High-Rise, and it took a lot to get through them. Not my best reading performance to date on those two. But here we go, onwards and upwards!
1. Bluets – Maggie Nelson (Wave 2009)
What a beautiful cover, and what a thoroughly well-talked about book. A lot of people have loved this one. I picked it up, excitedly, for its hype. But then, I slogged through it. What I thought would be a quick first read of the month took me about two weeks of picking it up and putting it down to work my way from cover to cover. More than a few others I talked to have also read it at a leisurely pace; it seems that, for the majority, this works—but for some, it feels sluggish at best. I was unfortunately in the latter camp here. While the topic (an essay on color) and non-traditional format (numbered ‘ideas’) overtly appeal to me, I would choose to re-read Tessa Laird’s A Rainbow Reader (Clouds 2013) in full or Evangeline Riddiford Graham’s essay “Pinktum” in Reading, Walking, Writing (The Physics Room 2015) before Bluets.
The structure of Bluets is circular. The numbered design might suggest Maggie has plotted her course beforehand and is working toward something revelatory but, whether intentionally or not, I don’t think Bluets really works like that. Instead, the numbered bits do feel like just that—bits or scraps, thoughts plucked and tucked away, and as such there are some she comes back around to recurrently: her friend the paraplegic, her lover with the blue tears, her main two scholarly sources; if she is obsessed with blue, she’s obsessed with them as well. Bluets is self-indulgent to be sure—as is A Rainbow Reader—and not altogether scholarly or profound, but that’s not why I slogged. There’s no real sense of propulsion, no moving forward here. Her stasis left me stagnant, but in some odd way maybe that’s the point? I’ll be reading The Argonauts, and in this way I’m keen to give Maggie a second try.
2. 100 – Jackson Nieuwland (Self-published 2016)
I had the pleasure of watching Jackson’s work on this chapbook progress out of the corner of my eye this year. Our transition to life in America has been less than smooth, but through it all, Jackson has been writing things down and reading bits of them out to me. Some of these bits relate to our life. Not all of them appear in 100, but some do, and I appreciate that. I also have the pleasure of knowing Jackson’s working on a few more things they’ve designed for Gumroad, and that makes me feel very warm and fuzzy. Like Bluets, 100 is a series of numbered scraps. Unlike my experience of Bluets, 100 sets up and executes a structured project, with 10 poems containing 10 items each, where the recurring parts are very much intended. The design of the ebook is also 100% Jackson’s handiwork. 100 is short, but it bears re-reading, and it can be downloaded here.
3. The Beauty – Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories 2014)
As you can tell from the website, this one has made the rounds on BookTube. This British novella is very strange, both in topic and structure. The premise is, we’re in a kind of alternate world where all the women in this ‘back to nature’-style commune, including newborn babies, have died of some sort of fungal infection that blossomed from each of their vaginas. So we start out in a ‘world’ populated by men, but within the first few pages this expands to fit the Beauty—a new species(?) referred to individually as ‘it’, though given female names such as Bee and Bella—that literally blooms from the women’s graves. At just under 100 pages, Aliya Whiteley packs a lot in here.
I read this in one and a half sittings, and enjoyed it but found the writing style to be a little less beautiful/ vivid than I’d hoped, from the genre and the hype. In fact, I would have preferred she flesh out her ideas a bit further rather than relying so much on coincidence and circumstance to carry the heaviest plot points. That said, The Beauty was imaginative and worth the read. I’ll definitely be picking up her latest, The Arrival of the Missives, also from Unsung Stories, if only because it promises to be another wild and mysterious ride.
4. Teen Surf Goth – Oscar d’Artois (Metatron 2015)
I asked for Teen Surf Goth as my consolation prize for entering and not winning the 2016 Metatron Prize. The generous and individualized feedback the editors give for each manuscript was reward enough, but let’s be honest—of course I took the book, too. And yes, it did console me. Teen Surf Goth feels like a collected work of poetry. It is well-constructed, well-ordered and the voice is consistent throughout. And maybe this just had to do with where I was when I read it, but it is an oddly comforting read. It also has an intermission, which I generously used to go to the toilet, take a snack break and have a nap.
My three favorite poems were “depresnyak”, “my life is full of what’s not here”, and “turns out keiko the whale died at the age of 27 coincidence i don’t think so”. The best lines not in these poems include: “ok, excuse me, i have to go throw myself into a well// wait, no, come back, I’m only kidding// i meant i have to go throw myself into waterskiing/ my true passion/ waterskiing up & down the beaches of former czechoslovakia// i’m just kidding again, i don’t own skis/ also, czechoslovakia is landlocked” and “ok but LISTEN/ if mountain lakes are really just/ giant puddles/ then whose cosmic fly/ do i have to get on my knees/ & unzip/ so i can dive thru/ the reflection of the clouds/ & into the motherfucking sky” and “’a cool game u can play with desire is/ try saying u want a thing/ u think u want/ out loud/ then watch as/ the opposite becomes true’// is a recurring thought i also thought/ while i was walking alone by the river/ on a sunny/rainy day”. All three of these poems and all of my favorite lines come after the intermission. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
5. High-Rise – J. G. Ballard (Jonathan Cape 1975)
I saw the film version of High-Rise (directed by Ben Wheatley) this year on a very big screen TV in my parents’ house while it was still playing in some theaters around the States (just none of the ones near me.) It was a strange film, and possibly an even stranger book. What the film doesn’t do—character development, plot, motivation—from the perspective of Tom Hiddleston aka Dr Laing, the book also rejects, but from the perspectives of three adult cis white men (Laing, Wilder, and Royal). Therefore, an already ‘rugged’ and masculine premise just gets ramped up more and more out of control as the book/film develops.
Watching the film was a jarring experience. Things happen with very little reason or explanation given. In part, that’s why I was keen to read the book. But seeing the film first turned out to be far less of a setback than I’d suspected while first watching it. I expected some holes in the narrative to be filled by a more omniscient narrator than the lens of the camera, which was partially true of the novel. But this is no revenge plot, and there are no motives here; the micro-level post-apocalypse that ensues within the walls of the high-rise is just as mysterious in origin in both texts, in that it is fairly well chalked up to human nature.
If I’m being serious, I enjoyed this film most for the brief glimpses of Hiddleston’s penis. And while there’s an equal emphasis on Wilder’s exposed genitals in the book, as it turns out I enjoyed Ballard’s version mostly for its unexpected deference to the power of women. To be sure, women haunt the fringes of Wheatley’s film, but they play a much richer, more nuanced and sinister role in the book. I was initially dismissive of this book as largely misogynistic, but now that I’ve read the ending I’d like to give it a re-read at some point in the future to focus more on the dynamic of the women and their quiet but evolving influence in the building throughout the novel.
Made it this far? Want more? Check out my other reviews for Real Pants and elsewhere. Leave a comment below specifying which, and I’ll write up a more focused review of any of the books I read in June. And stay tuned for my July wrap-up on August 4, where I’ll have been reading from a sailboat all month. I’ve packed at least 17 books into my small berth with me, and I have high reading expectations for the days ahead.