Monday, September 21, 2015

"Tender" by Sofia Samatar

If — if — Samatar's work has a fatal flaw, it is that her metaphorical systems sometimes have a tendency to be just that — systems, worked out, everything corresponding so neatly and perfectly to everything else as to prohibit as full a sense of the discordance of (what I hesitantly call) reality as they seem to seek to convey. On a first reading "Tender" seemed to me to be such a story, brilliant but undermined by perfection, and I'm still tempted to say that it is, somewhat. But what interested me the second time through was to realize that these metaphors don't just line up — they all point inwards, referring deeper and deeper to themselves, to one another, a sought out claustrophobia that is deeply in resonance not only with the narrator's (chosen and inevitable) situation but also with a good deal of what I, at least (and alas), experience as life.

(There is a moment in A Leg to Stand On by the late Oliver Sacks where he describes emerging for the first time from his hospital room and realizing that long confinement has distorted his sense of perspective: everything further than where the walls had been looks "flat as a pancake, and seemed to lie like a giant Kodachrome in the air, exquisitely colored and detailed, but perfectly flat. [...] I was still enclosed, visually, in a transparent box, about nine by seven by six feet, the precise size of the 'cell' I had occupied for twenty days. [...] I could observe, even measure, the parallactic displacements which are normally seen as 'depth,' but noting this, knowing this, did not restore depth.")

Thus, as just one example, the vocationally radiation-obsessed narrator tells us about the "lovely green glass colored with uranium" that was so cheap in the 1930s that "they handed it out free at the movies"; then about her "hurt friend" who, in the hospital, looks "like a broken, greenish piece of glass" (no way to miss this one); then later, taking advantage of a readymade double meaning, points out that this glass is called "Depression glass." On top of this, the mention of Depression-era radioactive products branches off to the "Radium Girls," poisoned to death by their work (and by their at-work recreation); the color green points back to the meaningless "environmentally friendly" stickers; the glass, to the glass the narrator works behind. Even when the story reaches out and down into the earth itself it is only to set up a meaningful but surely misleading equivalence between the narrator's cyborg implants and the earth's mineral composition; even when it reaches out and out and out to the sun it is only to set up a meaningful but surely misleading equivalence between solar radiation and industrial radiation.

I no longer feel, or even comprehend, the desire for another world, that passion which produces both marvels and monsters, both poisons and cures. Like the woman in this story, I understand that there is no other world. There is only the one we have made.
A significant portion of Samatar's work seems to involve this sort of feeling: the need to come to terms with the way things are: to weep, and accept. And it seems to me that one of the questions she, and we, are struggling with in this work is how to do that without complicity, how to do it on the way to resistance. The last paragraph of "Tender" exits the claustrophobic metaphor system and just presents a past — but one that cannot be reclaimed, cannot be a source of hope or joy (which the narrator has just a moment ago associated with her beloved poison — beloved in the sense of φιλία, "nearness and dearness" in John Jones's rendering). It's cut off not only from the story's inward-facing metaphor system (which it replaces with another) but from the outward-facing metaphor that is reality. But what the narrator cannot do is not, or does not have to be, what we cannot do. It was fascinating to re-read this story while immersed in the rhetoric emerging from the astonishing Ferguson Is The Future symposium — in which Samatar participated —, so much of which revolved precisely around the necessity of imagining, desiring other worlds. To see this story as a contradiction of that would be to misunderstand art, of course; better to see it as — I'd rather not say "cautionary" — perhaps: complementary.


Molly Katz said...

they all point inwards, referring deeper and deeper to themselves, to one another, a sought out claustrophobia that is deeply in resonance not only with the narrator's (chosen and inevitable) situation but also with a good deal of what I, at least (and alas), experience as life.

This is a fantastic point. Also, I might have missed the story itself otherwise, which would have been a shame. What you say here reminds me of something I read Jacob Brogan's review of The Wake on Slate (

If Buccmaster’s language conveys his loathing for ingengas (foreigners), it also underscores his losses, in part through its limitations. That this book is readable at all is largely a consequence of its finite lexicon. Because Kingsnorth declines Latinate roots wherever possible, Buccmaster lives in a state of linguistic deprivation, every available word obliged to do the work of many. Take gan, which Buccmaster uses to mean “gone,” “lost,” “went,” and “departed,” sometimes in close proximity to one another: “all gan all was gan and so i gan i toc what i had and i gan away from my hus and land.” With each repetition, the word reaffirms the enormity of Buccmaster’s sorrows. To render this passage in conventional English would be to silence its expressive rhythm, capturing the meaning, but losing the feeling.

Truly understanding The Wake therefore entails taking on Buccmaster’s suffering, paring down the rich variety of your own language as you watch the French strip everything from him.

I haven't read the Wake yet and am not sure I will, but it's interesting to me to think about what these stories might be doing that's alike and why we seem to need them right now. Thanks for this post!

Ethan Robinson said...

Thanks Molly!

That's a fascinating bit about The Wake, and I don't think it would have occurred to me to connect it to what I'm saying here, but now that you have I definitely see it.

The reason I wouldn't have seen the connection, probably, is that in writing this I was so wrapped up in specifically the function of metaphor, which I've always felt is a major problem in fiction, and my feelings on which were recently complicated (to say the least) by Miguel de Beistegui's great, though poorly translated, book on Proust's metaphors (the one I made the word "joy" into a link to) - without which I definitely wouldn't have been able to make the observation you highlight. Don't know how up your alley it is, but at least in the interest of citing my sources I thought I should mention it. I've written about it, a bit, incoherently, on my tumblr, as well as posting a bunch of excerpts (more to come, sooner or later), under this tag - better, Steve Mitchelmore wrote a fantastic review of it on his blog, which is what led me to it in the first place

But then too there's the issue of limitation, which, comparing Proust specifically to Samatar raises the question of why his metaphors could be expansive while hers seem to require these limitations, which is no doubt a very political and also very linear-temporal question (now vs then); then comparing what that review says about language in The Wake.....I'm running out of steam but it's a lot to think about, to say the least.

Molly Katz said...

Extremely interested! Will read both excerpts and review and report back!