Staff Picks: Paradise Rot

Celia recommends Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval:

There’s a girl, you see. She’s away from home, in another country, in fact, where she’s a foreigner, a student, staying at a hostel where the mirror is cracked and she doesn’t know anyone. Things are normal, but dislocated. It’s her first semester studying abroad. She has to find an apartment, she has to find friends. She has to navigate how she might feel about adulthood, about sexuality, about what it means to go out and exist in the world. Sometimes men walk up to her and inform her that she looks like a lesbian, which isn’t a thing she’s thought about properly, and the suggestion, coming from outside of herself, with its undertone of prurient sexual interest, makes it impossible to think about. There is a woman that she likes, but mostly she’s a friend. It’s not like that. Things aren’t what they look like.

It took me some time to warm up to Paradise Rot, the debut novel by Norwegian musician Jenny Hval. Here, it seemed, was a quiet novel, a meditation on longing and revulsion, about a young woman who’s far from home, and lonely. There are the small disappointments of being in a foreign country, without friends, watching the people around you appear to fit in effortlessly. It’s affecting, but quieter than I expected from Hval, in whose music even the quietest moments always feel like there’s something menacing and forceful under the surface.

But, as it happens, Paradise Rot undergoes a transformation as you read further into it. More than plot, the novel relies on a kind of cyclical recurrence of images in different contexts, in a way that felt, to me, almost more like a piece of installation art than a book. Maybe this is because the book is so much about the transformation of a particular space—the loft apartment in a converted brewery where Jo, the novel’s narrator, moves in with Carral, a lonely, beautiful girl to whom Jo feels an attraction that she can’t quite articulate. The loft has been hastily converted. It doesn’t really have walls, only thin cubicles of pasteboard, that don’t reach the ceiling and allow sound to carry.

It’s a setting that forces its inhabitants to continually negotiate the line between intimacy and disgust—Jo and Carral hear each other when they wake up early, when they pee, when they turn the pages of the book they’re reading. Carral rescues an enormous bag of heirloom apples that have been discarded by the local grocery—and then the women, faced with more fruit than they can eat, leave them around the apartment to rot, attracting spiders and flies and filling the loft with the smell of decomposition. Mushrooms begin to grow out of the thin pasteboard walls of the bathroom, where they’ve been warped by humidity.

Apples, mushrooms, the smell of rot, the sound of someone pissing in another room—there’s a cycle of disgust that propels the novel, each image reappearing and becoming stranger, more dangerous and also more alluring. Hval is interested in the nastiness of bodies, the potential for revulsion, and also the uncontrolled creativity that comes out of decay. This is a queer novel that’s interested in the ickiness of things, whether that’s falling in codependent love with a straight woman, or reading embarrassing romance novels (another reappearing motif is a pulpy romance that has, uh, two of its more salacious pages mysteriously stuck together), or experiencing a transcendent vision in which the object of your affection starts growing mushrooms out of her skin. Hval tightens the loop of the novel slowly, so that what feels real, by the end, is not the outer world that everyone can see, but the mysterious, frightening, closed world inside the apartment, where the walls are alive and boundaries between bodies are porous.

Staff Picks: Anniversaries

Celia recommends Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson:

Some books you go back to. When I first read Uwe Johnson’s mammoth novel Anniversaries, I was living in New York City, about sixty blocks north of the apartment on West 96th Street that the novel’s heroine, Gesine Cresspahl, lives in with her ten-year-old daughter Marie. They are immigrants from East Germany, trying uneasily to make a life in America. I read the book on the subway, I read it lying in bed by the box fan in my window, and, as I read, the novel’s New York, the New York of 1967, became subtly intertwined with the landscape that I too inhabited. Gesine and her daughter take Sundays to go to South Ferry, riding back and forth to Staten Island on a ferry that, in those days, still had a restaurant and a bar. I rode the A train far out to the Rockaways and Jacob Riis beach with friends and a cooler full of popsicles. The city, of course, has changed immensely in the years since Uwe Johnson wrote Anniversaries, but as I read, I’d feel the ghosts return.

Of course, I was reading a somewhat different novel then. My copy was abridged, barely a third of the original 1,600-page novel. So now, in a new, unabridged translation by Damion Searls, it’s a book that begs one to return to it. You might compare it to the story of Scheherazade1: Johnson writes one chapter a day for an entire year, covering both Gesine’s present life in New York and her memories of growing up in Hitler’s Germany, her family history and her uneasiness with the politics of Cold War America. If I told you that Johnson devotes an entire chapter to riding an elevator, you might decide that this is not a book that you want to read. But he does, and it’s a small, sensory delight. For instance: “sometimes the elevator in the bank building falls a short way down as it starts up, as though genuflecting.”

Which is not to say that this is a book composed solely of beautiful and mundane details. It contains, also, a Mafia kidnapping, a secret journey behind the Iron Curtain, a runaway child, a secret agent, a Soviet prison camp, innumerable deaths.

Gesine has a routine: every day, she reads the New York Times, imagining her as a kind of august maiden aunt, dispensing advice and news from the world.2 She takes the subway to work and gets off of the lovingly described elevator on the floor of the bank that houses the Foreign Sales department, in which she works as a translator. She orders tea from the canteen in the basement, and as early as possible, she hurries home to Marie, the kind of whip-smart New York child who, at ten, is riding the subway by herself and making her own way to and from school. And then, at home, she tells Marie stories of her family history.

There is Gesine’s mother, desperately religious, the favorite daughter of a wealthy German landowner, and her father, a master carpenter with a promising new life laid out before him in England, who nevertheless finds himself drawn back into Germany with Nazism on the horizon. There are her aunts and uncles—the spendthrift who adores children and burns down his business for the insurance money, the prodigal son who, disowned, flees to Rio de Janeiro, the rebellious younger son who embraces Nazism mostly, it seems, to get out of his father’s shadow.

Gesine, barely ten at the time of the Second World War, remembers schoolchildren’s salutes to Hitler, sharing a sickbed with a refugee child after Germany’s defeat, visiting her father for lunch at the canteen of a German airfield, and she holds relentless mental conversations with the dead of her family, asking whether they can claim to have done the best they could in the face of injustice. Is that something that she herself can claim, as a witness to the Vietnam War, to the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, the death of Martin Luther King? (Don’t you like this country, Gesine? she asks herself at intervals. Go find another one.) Is it something she can claim as a child who came of age in East Germany, in the time of Stalin and the Berlin Wall, and who left her country and came to New York?

Her father, Heinrich Cresspahl (Hinrich, her mother’s family calls him in Gesine’s memory, in the accent of Mecklenburg), does the best he can under the Nazis. Which is to say: he takes a job building an airfield outside of Gesine’s hometown. He requests an application to join the National Socialist party, and then never fills it out. He tries to help a Jewish veterinarian, a friend of his, escape the country. He doesn’t have much to say about the few other Jews in Jerichow. They aren’t his personal friends. After the war, the East German government recognizes him as a hero, renames a street for him. It turns out that he’s been spying for the British, using his work at the airfield to provide them intelligence. Everyone in your family worked hand in glove with the Nazis, Gesine’s daughter Marie breaks in at this point in the story. Now you want to save the honor of at least one of them, and of course you pick your father.3

Gesine answers: Many people were braver than he was while they were betraying their country.

Cresspahl, more than a hero, is an expert survivor. In Jerichow during the Nazi regime, he makes the best of his situation, then makes the best of it, again, under the Soviets. He keeps his daughter protected from his anti-government activities, allowing her to grow up believing what she’s taught in school, and years later, Gesine is still doing the accounting for her childhood—a rhyme from an anti-Semitic children’s book she was given as a toddler, an orange that she accepted, in the lean early years of Soviet rule, from a former Nazi. She holds conversations with the dead—her father, her mother, her old neighbors in Jerichow. She interrogates her own motivations, and sometimes, too, those of her author, Johnson.4 She observes, often with dismay, how her daughter Marie is shaped by the prejudices of Cold War America—its wealth, its entrenched racism, its easy self-assurance.

She is afraid, as a foreigner, to protest the injustice she sees around her too loudly. Don’t like this country, Gesine? Go find another one. As a teenager, she laid her hope in the chance that her outward compliance might let her escape from the brutality of Soviet rule in East Germany. But the past and present are a kind of slant rhyme. There is no other country in which Gesine could live without guilt.

As I was reading this book, I sent my partner pictures of passages that I particularly liked, for their insight, their language, for the sad incorruptibility with which Johnson approaches the elements of life. And after I had finished the first volume, and started the second, he picked up the volume I’d finished, and began at the beginning. So that as we each moved forward in the book and the life of Gesine, he would come to me with chapters that he liked, or that I had marked when I was reading, and give me the chance to sit with them again.

When you spend this long with a book, you begin to build a personal relationship with it and with its author. Johnson spent more than fifteen years of his life writing Anniversaries, and reading it is an immense task, and as you do, you feel the weight of the time that Johnson devoted to it, and, perhaps, you feel as if it’s a project that you’re in together with him. In that situation, it’s easy to begin to believe that a book belongs to you in particular, that the intimacy and difficulty of the experience is a sign that the book exists only for you. But reading this together with another person made me wish that this was a book that everyone read, because it’s a book that wants to take the whole world in and account for it, that’s willing to ask what the enormous extent of our loss and guilt is, having reached this point in history, and why we go on in spite of it.

It wants to capture an entire world of experience. How vast and particular a single person’s life can be. And how much vaster are the forces that create it, the enormous movements of the outside world.

I haven’t finished reading Anniversaries yet. As I write, I’m more than 1500 pages in, and still a hundred pages or so from the end. In a few hours, if I sit with it, I’ll have read the whole thing. But what I want in this review is not to be writing at the point of completion, at the end of the year, but to still be in process, in a novel that doesn’t have to have an end.

  1. “The piece of the past that is ours, because we were there, remains concealed in a mystery, sealed shut against Ali Baba’s magic words, hostile, inapproachable, mute and alluring like a huge gray cat behind a windowpane seen from far below as though with a child’s eyes” (53). This cat, by the way, returns, if you can hold the image in your mind across hundreds of pages.

  2. The Times serves as a sort of Greek chorus in the novel, but frequently an untrustworthy one. Johnson also read the newspaper religiously, and often begins chapters with a list of news items: deaths in Vietnam, crimes or stories from New York, news about the president. These events are a constant link to the world outside of Gesine’s personal experience, but they are also inherently mediated and biased—Gesine spends days pondering an article on the representation of black people in journalism, in which the Times, after critiquing a number of other newspapers, sheepishly admits to employing essentially no black reporters or editors. The Times is the voice of common sense, of respectable opinion, to which Gesine must listen but with which she is constantly arguing, and in this, as in many other things, Anniversaries feels almost shockingly modern and relevant.

  3. Oh, how we wish she’d done that, Gesine thinks, early in the novel, about an older German acquaintance who boasts about sheltering her Jewish neighbors from the Nazis.

  4. Listen, Comrade Writer, Gesine begins, when she objects to a passage. I gave you a year.  That was our agreement. Describe the year. While he was living in New York, Uwe Johnson would occasionally mention to acquaintances that he had run into Gesine at Grand Central, on her way to work. The address of Gesine’s apartment on 96th Street was Johnson’s own address, and, in face of the enormous, humble attention with which Johnson renders Gesine’s inner world, occasionally stepping in to remind us that he is only her chronicler, this is only his best guess, it’s easy to believe that the two of them lived alongside each other in the way he imagines, and she is his ghost, or he hers.

Staff Picks: Who Killed My Father

Julie recommends Who Killed My Father by Édouard Louis:

What does it mean for a book to provoke, to register on a visceral level like a disturbing movie scene that you can’t un-see? As I read Who Killed My Father by Édouard Louis I thought a great deal about provocation, its outcomes anger, sadness, frustration, a sense of reliving emotions to a boiling point. Louis’s vivid portrait of how the class system in France chipped away at his father’s body, mind, and spirit reminded me of the state of things for so many Americans who make $7.25 an hour in 29 states including Washington DC in the year 2019. I thought of members of my own family, told by dentists that there’s nothing to be done to save their teeth. I thought about foreclosures, health insurance, food stamps and the ways in which the poor are required to submit documented proof of near destitution over and over and over again. I thought about shame.

We know what poverty looks like, but not everyone is familiar with what it does, its function on the individual as well as the family unit. Louis asks us to imagine a stage with two figures, a father and a son. The son is an interpreter for the father. The father has gone silent. The son is in charge of conveying the father’s condition. The son is gay, and this complicates their relationship further, makes it even more difficult to relay the story. “The son speaks, and only the son, and this does violence to them both.” No matter how well the son speaks for the father, tells his story, their story, estrangement is still the unfortunate result.

To see his father from an objective stance, in order to take in all the changes he sees, Louis writes to him.

He writes, “In your face I read the signs of the years I’d been away.” The son begins to make a mental note of all the changes in his father’s mobility. “When you got up to go to the bathroom, just walking the thirty feet there and back left you winded. I saw myself, you had to sit and catch your breath.” He catalogs the changes to his father’s physique. “Your body has grown too heavy for itself. Your belly stretches towards the floor. It is overstretched so badly that it has ruptured your abdominal lining.”

A letter of this sort is meant to be burned. Who Killed My Father is a book that navigates what can’t be said, it addresses liminal spaces; it drifts between present and past tense; it glides between first and second person; it eulogizes a man who is still alive. At under 85 pages the book captures so completely the atrocities committed within families when poverty pits them against one another. For Louis’s father, reading is considered weak, education effeminate. It’s only the brute strength of defiance that’s respected.

Louis writes:

For you, constructing a masculine body meant resisting the school system … constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up. Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money. Hatred of homosexuality = poverty.

Sound familiar? This sort of masculinity cannot be reasoned with. Passages such as these are brilliant for the truth they contain. At times though, Louis’s analysis is confounding. He quotes the American scholar Ruth Gilmore, who said, “racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death.” He seems to apply this definition to the plight of white working class French citizens, like his barely fifty-year-old father, forgotten by the government. He adds, “The same definition holds with regard to male privilege, to hatred of homosexuality or trans people, to domination by class—to social and political oppression of all kinds.” I just don’t suspect that Gilmore intended her definition to be this flexible. The non-specific “certain populations” I understood to mean people of color, people marginalized because they are not white. In this country, it would certainly be frightening to say that impoverished working class whites from Trump-infused red states are victims of racism (although some seem to think they are).

Called a “young superstar,” a literary wunderkind, Édouard Louis (age 26) rose to artistic fame quickly. I will admit, I became completely enamored with him and his writing, and after finishing Who Killed My Father, rushed out to get The End of Eddy and History of Violence. Both books navigate the subjects of rape, abuse, homophobia, xenophobia, racism and class, and the work does so in a way that feels utterly urgent. I can think of few young writers who manage to situate themselves so squarely within their time, as Louis does. He does so bravely, taking risks where others would be afraid. He knows, for instance, that it’s somewhat controversial to criticize Emmanuel Macron, when the Marine Le Pens of the world are salivating for more power.

I thought of The Yellow Vest Movement; Brexit; Notre Dame in flames; The Paris Climate Pact; and the surreal experience I had just weeks ago in my own homeland of being in Newark International Airport and seeing red “Make America Great Again” t-shirts and hats for sale in an over-priced tchotchke store. With a book like Who Killed My Father, the alignment with current events seems to hover at the corners of the page.