Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"The Closest Thing to Animals" by Sofia Samatar

An artist who makes sculptures of extinct animals out of trash, "her genius: she understood that whales are made of milk." A drug whose users "feel a ghostly presence." A city quarantined under a tent, residents depressed not only by the diminished sunlight but by the "extra blackness" at night; the solution: artificial lights "sliding down in different colors, like glittery rain [...] They hadn't tried to mimic the stars: studies had suggested that would only make people feel worse." A woman who feels herself constantly betrayed and abandoned discovers others consider her the betrayer, the abandoner: "I'm made out of cardboard." One of her former friends writes a memoir of her illness in the quarantined city, putting everything in quotes: "Like I say we made 'sweaters' out of 'yarn.' We had 'milkshakes' in the 'park.'"

Where with the last Samatar story I wrote about I said its constellation of metaphors all pointed inwards, further and further into one another, here it's more that they all flow outwards from a center that does not exist, or at least is "difficult even to imagine," as the garbage artist writes. Without animals (the "closest thing" the title refers to is other people, "with their warm weight, their softness, and their smell"; the plague, "the lanugo," covers human bodies in fur before killing them), without family (tent orphans, tent widows, all these tent losses), without home (both the artist and the abandoning-abandoned narrator are Somali expatriates), there is no ground on which a center could rest, from which one could grow; there is only this flowing outward into an alienated and alienating sea of experiences, and different ways of relating to and feeling about it all — many of which the story presents to us without enabling us to judge, with its array of "characters" and its confused, unprivileged narrator.

"What's the point of experience if you can't turn it into something else, some sign?" the narrator asks. Miguel de Beistegui writes, of reality, that "We always want it to be in its rightful place but that place is precisely where it's not, precisely where it's lacking. We would like it to be here, in front of us, in the flesh. But it’s in that very immediacy or fullness that it steals away and goes missing. Which doesn’t mean that it has in some way disappeared; rather, this absence or this lack is the key to its mystery, the secret of its functioning." As the story ends, the two Somali women, refusing mutual understanding and misunderstanding alike ("It was like peeling off skin and throwing it away"), wrap themselves up in a quilt depicting scenes from home — some explicitly violent, some not, few that could be called "happy" — and, "still falling, but more slowly," thus enfolded by "the brief lovely grotesque menagerie of our childhood" they go to sleep.

Monday, November 2, 2015

"Under a Steel Sky" by James Mapes

Prison-as-metaphor feels significantly more tasteless in a story written today than in one written before the decisive rise of mass incarceration and the PIC; the concluding revelation is hackneyed and anything but revelatory (though to be fair it is one of those clichés that made "it's a cliché for a reason" a cliché). So what's good here? What brings me to write this? Something that discussions of plot and character would never touch; something that is in part related to the notion this story allegorizes, that we all know without being told the rules of our own domination — that we all expend enormous amounts of energy keeping up with these rules, memorizing them, updating them, and always enforcing them — but which a description as literal (and politically reductive) as the one I just put between em-dashes does not quite touch. Something to do with the complex pirouette of bodies here (I can't find it now but Keguro Macharia recently tweeted something about the Marquis de Sade's choreography, that only with and after him does one find such attention to bodies-in-space, that this attention and this choreography are often boring), and the way their movements are never, not even for a moment, naturalized. Something to do with the pain and longing and loss that somehow infuses every moment of the story's language, despite its being the very definition of the phrase "workmanlike prose," as if there were something beyond or between the words on the screen. Something to do with desire, the desire shooting through the whole story for something outside: outside these rules — outside these movements — outside these walls — outside these metaphors — outside these clichés — outside these words — outside.