Time is just too swift a river for me! Already twelve days have passed since my last entry.
My first and second columns of the year are up at SF Signal, one of which is my interpretation of a “best-of” list; the other is a close reading of Lavie Tidhar’s great book Osama. Over the holidays I did not do as much writing as I had hoped to; I had the feeling that what I had read and absorbed in 2011 was still dancing around in my mind. My first column of 2012 is an effort at making sense of some of that while pondering what comes next, both in terms of my reading and in my progression as a writer. The work I mention is some of the stuff that had a genuine effect on me last year, and that I carry something of still. The second column focuses on Tidhar’s book partly as a result of that first column. I want to look more deliberately and closely at literary work in the column this year, and I think these two pieces have got me off to a good start.
I have not had the opportunity to write much about the large amount of “weird” reading that I did at the end of the year. I mention some of the books that I read in my inaugural 2012 column but I did not get very far into what they have done for my reading and writing. That comes partly from the fact that I am still processing a lot of it, and due to the fact that much of that reading has to be turned into formal writing (mostly reviews). The problem is, I am hesitating to begin the process of articulating my thoughts on some of this material, because they are somewhat inchoate and quite diverse. So, let me jot down a few incipient musings about them and chew over what I have gained from them and what makes me dither as well.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird is a massive collection, not just in page/word count or in diversity of authors/themes/perspectives/styles/idioms/concepts, but in terms of its effects on the reading imagination and the processing of literary input. Reviewers have had to resort to very basic summaries or story-by-story real-time reviews to try to grasp it. It is easy to describe (a big book of weird stories!) but difficult to understand, to grasp, to take in. Reading the whole thing in a few weeks is mind-consuming. So, of course that’s what I did.
Along with it, I read the VanderMeers’ first collection for their Cheeky Frawg imprint, ODD?. I also read the bulk of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Two Worlds and In-Between collection and began Eric Basso’s Decompositions. This is often how I read, two or three books and assorted research and shorter works all having a big party in my imagination. I usually trim off the excess when finally writing (I just did this with Osama and will shortly do it with Decompositions) but I like variety; I like being a little off-balance, a bit behind, slightly drowning. This time, I got overwhelmed with the depth, diversity, and terrifying ecstasy that emerged from all of this reading.
The immersion into all of these stories, all of these narratives and voices and conjurations was intoxicating and destabilizing. I became word-drunk and thought-staggered, not even in trying to make sense of what I was reading but in just trying to absorb each story. My mind became a jumble, a surreal hoarder’s maze in a mansion of imagination packed with stories and characters and turns of phrase and revelations and discouragements and pains and blunders and elations. I overloaded myself because I did not want to stop; I desired to see where such a maze would lead me. Of course, it was not leading me so much as I was creating a trail of my own.
This is one of the effects of reading weird fiction: it does not dictate your imaginative path, but impels you to make your own. This is one reason why I believe that many readers have such a strong response to weird fiction, either positive or negative: you are not led in either a straightforward or impressionistic way. While some stories (such as Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”) are moving towards a particular resolution, much is still left up to the reader in getting to that point, and as with all good weird fiction, there are many questions, discomfitures, and morasses along the story’s route, which is more like a map than a photograph of the territory. Reliability and mimetic reproduction are shown for the fragile constructs that they are, and the reader must come to terms with the fact that it is they who are the agent, the translator, the pathfinder, the decision-maker for what constitutes meaning and effect. To read so much writing that causes you to do this creates a realization of your own power as a reader, and the laziness and habit that has been cultivated in you by most of the writing in your life.
This is an unnerving thing to experience, although the exact measure of it can vary. Approaching a book like The Weird one story at a time allows for some adaptation to the changing conditions of each story and for absorption of the words and ideas at a moderated pace. But there’s a trap there too, an idea that you can take each story on its own terms and somehow make sense of them before moving on. What happens when you do not do that, when you let process and comprehension go and open your imagination to unceasing possibilities?
You get quite a jumble of thoughts and impressions and conundrums. Some stories did little for me (such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “The Hell Screen”) while others made me so perplexed I don’t know what to think of them (Robert Aickman’s “The Hospice”). Some sat me down and taught me a few things (Joanna Russ’ “The Little Dirty Girl”) while others screamed in my face until I put the book down to collect myself (Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “A Redress for Andromeda”). Many of them I have not really figured out, and that makes me uneasy yet energized. I avoided writing after reading a story and held off writing much until I most of the way through the book, because I did not want to “make sense” of what I was experiencing. I wanted to just imbibe the words, overdose on the stories, make myself befuddled and wandering. Settling them too quickly would, for me, limit what I could learn from them.
Reading Basso at the same time was . . . not useful, but bracing, innervating. To read about Poe and Pere Ubu and a story about a man disappearing from the world inflected my reading of The Weird. It made my mind a web instead of a sponge. I let the stories enter and trapped the things that seemed dangerous, seductive, wondrous, enigmatic. Sometimes I could not contain them, and sometimes I fed on them and discarded them, but with the knowledge that when I came back to them they would not be drained and would challenge me again. And this is the path I wanted; one I did not fully control the direction of, one across territory that I could not encompass with my vision. I made a quick, partial map so that I could explore later, and instead of conquering the text see what terms I could reach with it.
I’m starting to do that now, but not in a hermetic manner I need to enrich my reading, keep looking outside the texts as well as deeply within them, find support and interrogations from other stories. As I now start to write about The Weird (and the other material I read), I can feel the spider babies in my brain’s belly scratching to burst out and consume my thoughts in the process, spreading out across the web. Some of them I may yet capture and consume in a horrible act of cannibalism, others may bring me new morsels to try, and some may well mount a rebellion that usurps my assumptions and conclusions. These are all good things as the web becomes a spiral and trail of its own.