1000 Serpentinen Angst

I highly recommend the debut novel by Olivia Wenzel.

“Etwas, das damit einhergeht, eine neue, gesunde Angst in dein Leben zu lassen – eine Angst, tief, wärmer und zerreißender als jede Angst um dich selbst, dein Leben, deine identitären Beffindlichkeiten es je sein könnten: eine Angst, gebunden an eine Liebe, so stark wie alles, was du bisher kanntest, mal 1000.”

“Something that goes hand in hand with a new, healthy fear in your life – a fear that is deep, warmer and more tearing than any fear of yourself, your life, your identity sensitivities could ever be: a fear bound to a love, as strong as anything you knew before, times 1000.”

1000 Serpentinen Angst is the great first novel by Olivia Wenzel. While browsing a bookshop recently, a friend recommended the book to me, especially referring to the book’s treatment of racism experiences of a Black person in Germany. And the novel is about that – in part. It’s also about (Black) life, (Black) joy, (Black) insecurities and (Black) fear in Germany. I was most impressed by the passages on the main character’s struggle with anxiety and the impact the disorder had on her normal life, her friendships and love. I recognized some of it, but the experience of being a Black queer woman in Germany adds extra layers of fear and complexity to the illness. 

The story is told through constant dialogues between the main protagonist and a constantly shifting counterpart. The narrative form is fantastic, slightly experimental and really successful in transporting these complexities, more so than an omniscient narrator or inner monologues could. This narration of the protagonists life and her complex relationships, particularly to her loving yet racist grandmother and her ill and mostly absent mother, creates a tremendous pull. Fantastic.

The Nickel Boys

“The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.”

Colson Whitehead’s book after Underground Railroad tells the story of a reform school, the Black boys in the school, the devastating impact of the school and the system that enables it.

This novel has similar strengths (based on a true story, the concept, the research and historical truth behind the concept, the heft of the prose in the best parts) and weaknesses (underdeveloped secondary characters, the sometimes less inspired prose in transitional plot phases) as Underground Railroad. It’s still a great book that is important and deserving of its success and accolades.

But it also made me realize how the important, successful, critically acclaimed, powerful ™ books by and about Black people too often focus on (historical) hurt and pain. I could use some recommendations for important, successful, powerful ™ books about  Black joy. Not because books like Nickel Boys or Underground Railroad make white people like me uncomfortable – that’s the best part about Whitehead’s work – but because stories of joy and success need to be celebrated and supported, too. Especially in these times.

Wole Soyinka in Conversation With Henry Louis Gates

The New York Review of Books published a long, wide-ranging interview of Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate in Literature, by Henry Louis Gates. The conversation touches on Trump and why Soyinka cut up his green card, the African diaspora, desegregating motel swimming pools, Obama and burdening a leader with a Peace Prize, federalism in Nigeria, classism in South Africa, women’s rights and fundamentalism, and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. I can only recommend reading it in full:

There’s One Humanity or There Isn’t’

Image: Frankie Fouganthin (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Vietnamese American Literature Recommendations

Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, compiled a reading list of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American authors for Lithub. I read lê thi diem thúy’s coming-of-age novel The Gangster We Are Looking For in college and can recommend it. Closing the list is Ocean Vuong’s 2016 poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I can only agree with Viet Thanh Nguyen:

“Ocean Vuong is the Walt Whitman of Vietnamese American literature. Lyrical, expansive, sexual, provocative, he sings of the Vietnamese body and of Vietnamese history.” 

I’m keeping my eyes open for the other picks on the list.

 Additionally, Viet Thanh Nguyen recently talked to Seth Meyers about the difference between immigrants and refugees, and what we can learn from the Vietnamese-American refugee experience in these troubled times.

Western society habitually presents itself as the society of the rights of man, but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself such and to be considered such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly the art of the novel which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differs from his own.

Milan Kudera, quoted in this JSTOR Daily article on literature as resistance. There is a lot to this argument, and it is also a reason why diverse literature is so important:  The more stories of e.g., trans people,are told in literature, the more the public can imagine this group as a part of society with individual, civil rights.

In literary fiction, male writers who use lightness and humor, who spin wildly in the space between one sentence and the next, who push against what’s expected, are described as “wry” or “satirical” or just plain “funny.” Women are bestowed a tiny, glittering bless-her-heart tiara of “whimsy.” Reflexive condescension absolves us from serious engagement. Miranda July is a woman, and a very serious writer who is also very funny. She’s challenging. Feed “whimsy” to the birds.

Lauren Groff makes an excellent point about “whimsy” in her review of ‘The First Bad Man,’ by Miranda July on NYTimes.com.

The Colorless Murakami

Here are a few thoughts I had while reading Haruki Murakami’s current novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. A book I didn’t hate, but didn’t particularly like, either. This includes hints at major plot points, so be warned if you care about spoilers. 

This is the first time the prose of a Murakami book feels dull, overdescriptive, bland, to me. Most of the points I disliked about the novel might be intentional to make the “colorless” point, but I’m not sure if I can buy in. The book is an engrossing, fast read but not that enjoyable or riveting, barely moving at all.

The characters of the original five friends are really conservative in more than one way.  Characters are repeatedly frowning when confronted with anything that is connected to homosexuality. Abortion is dismissed as killing a living thing. However, this is not a flaw but the design: The five friends are simple bland grownups in simple bland grown up lives with simple bland reactions to life and it’s problems. Even their deep revelations are grown up simple and bland. The big relationship reveals are also so so simple, bland, conventional.

The book is about what simple real everyday people find to be genuine weirdness. Not only the main character, but also the narration has an unnecessary, annoying fixation on female body parts and sex. It uses sex in the way that Real Literature™ uses it: omnipresent, slightly creepy, and always out of place and out of touch. The way critics love it in Roth, Houellebecq, Schlink. All the dirty old men. I’m fraid Murakami is turning into a dirty old man, too. 

The strongest passages of the novel are also its most unsettling and most problematic (as it so often is.) The theme of connecting to old friends after a long time is the best part of the book, but only develops towards the end. Increasingly unsettling is Tsukurus obsessive dreaming about very young and/or dead Yuzu. The obsessive dreaming is almost entirely sexual.Yet here is also where Murakami is at his best: Tsukuru does and doesn’t question reality. His obsession leads him to ponder the possibility that there is a deep darkness in his colorless heart. In these passages there is the split between alternate realities, both probable within the context of Murakami’s Tokyo. But they are only passages, glimpses, embetted in overwhelmingly repetitive and bland obsessive sexual dreams.

The ending is kept open, is even hopeful. But after what has happened before, and especially by the world Murakami has created around colorless Tsukuru, an actual happy ending seems unlikely. Were the guy to get the girl, they would merely be enveloped by the increasing absence of color. Ultimately the novel leaves you dead certain that if only enough time passes, we all become empty, colorless vessels.

Have you read the book and have a completly different feeling? Feel free to disagree with me