Real Life

I read Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. It is a stunning book. I found it somewhat overwhelming because it was so clearly set at UW Madison and it brought me back to graduate school in such a visceral way. I miss shopping at Savers and trying out bikes at Goodwill and long runs by the lake and in the arb but I do not miss graduate school social life, not at all.

I’m happy to have read this novel in a year I’ve spent trying to feel feelings. It’s kinda what the novel’s about: the reality of feelings, even when denied or unexpressed. It’s about so much more of course–trauma, being a Black person in a white space, the toxicity of white feminism, the wonders of tennis, desire, science, labor, graduate school grossness. I really liked the tennis scenes and it reminded me that although I think of tennis as a new thing in my life, I did have weekly drop-in tennis for a stint in Madison and also would often play with my brother. It’s funny the things we forget.

I like that the novel doesn’t have a complete narrative arc or easy resolution. Just accumulation of experiences and shifting perspectives. And I love what it says about real life:

“Eventually, they are all just people going about their lives, shopping and eating, laughing and arguing, doing what people in the world do. This too is real life, he thinks. Not merely the accumulation of tasks, things to be done and sorted, but also the bumping up against other lives, everyone in the world insignificant when taken and observed together” (246).

Orange Horses

Tramp Press has done so much for Irish literature. They’re publishing great new books by women writers and publishing books that are experimenting with genre in such exciting ways. They also have re-issued books that are out of print and, my god, Maeve Kelly’s Orange Horses should have never been out of print. What a collection of stories.

These stories are fierce and unapologetic as they capture anger, shame, feelings of smallness, minor forms of resistance that often end in nothingness. They express the many indignities that women face as a matter of course, and how women register and respond to such indignities.

Reading these stories recently, I couldn’t quite believe the wonder that is “Parasites.” This story is about a woman who leaves Ireland for England, writes crisp, autobiographical novels, easily finds an audience and achieves success, and then falls in love with a poet. Loving the poet, she loses interest in her writing and her life, until she realizes that he is going to destroy her and calls him a parasite. His petty response to an admittedly harsh truth makes her lose her love for him and return to writing. The story ends, “She got out her typewriter and inserted foolscap. It would be a new story” (93).

The wonder of this story is partly its categorization of a particular type of man–the parasitical poet of this story certainly is familiar to many women–but also because of the way that it articulates a relationship between happiness, knowledge, and love. This woman is happiest when she’s writing. The time spent composing her first novel “were the happiest few months of her life” (88). And she’s unafraid of learning–the success of her writing results from her willingness to probe and dissect her experience. Presumably her experience with the poet will be the next thing to be analyzed by her pen. But she can’t quite figure out how to have knowledge, happiness, and love at the same time. When she lives with her love, her happiness ends. When she shares her knowledge with the poet, her love ends.

I read this story in two ways. First, as warning readers to be wary of love that makes you renounce your happiness or silence your knowledge. Second, as suggesting that although love can’t quite be grasped or captured by words–contemplating it, subjecting it to a probing gaze, representing it doesn’t quite work–it still can’t be left behind. The story suggests that leaving Ireland, this woman left a certain relationship to love. And it will haunt her until she claims it once again.

The Professor’s House

It’s been hard for me to concentrate these days, so it feels quite lovely whenever a book pulls me in and lets me focus. The Professor’s House did just that–from the very beginning I was transfixed. Maybe it’s because it’s a novel about moving and resistance to moving, writing academic books and resistance to academics, love and its loss. It could also be because I’ve been reading so many “mid-life memoirs” these days and this book hit in that kinda way, although certainly it could be argued that St. Peter is at the end rather than the middle of his life. Missing the midwest, I could be drawn to this book because of the way it talks about lakes and trips to Chicago.

It’s a novel about making new worlds (slowly, over time), about the great happiness of being at one with the world (which can’t possibly last), and exhaustion. It’s hard to evoke exhaustion and make it beautiful but Cather pulls it off:

“And now I seem to be tremendously tired. One pays, coming or going. A man has got only just so much in him; when it’s gone he slumps” (143).

Having read oh-so-many nineteenth-century novels of development, it’s incredibly comforting to read novels about slumps and finite resources.

Palestinian Walks

I just finished reading Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape. It does an especially good job narrating how walking the land conveys the realities of occupation while nevertheless raising questions about how attachment to land could signify otherwise. He begins his narrative by quoting from travel narratives by nineteenth-century writers like Thackeray and Twain, juxtaposing their stories of a land devoid of people with his narrative that centers his perspective as a Palestinian. He is especially critical of the Oslo Accords.

One thing that was incredibly clear throughout his story is how the idea of the public and public needs is fundamental to Israel’s settler colonial project. He talks, of course, about the roads that destroy Palestinian villages in the name of “public need” (Palestinians can’t drive on these roads). He also talks about how the idea of “public land” is a way of taking Palestinian land. At the same time, however, the “public” records of the Land Registration Department are no longer open to the public:

“they have been out of reach, secret. The Israeli official responsible for the Palestinian Land Authority, with the help of his Palestinian employees, was conducting a survey of the types of land to determine what percentage was registered and what sort of registration documentation existed. This information was vital for the success of the settlement project and it was carefully guarded. Since that day the Palestinian public have been denied access to the land records” (42).

It is not at all surprising, but striking. The vision of the public–“public needs,” “public land,” “public records”–is a vision of a land without people.

Permanent Temporariness

2019-05-06 10.11.17

A checkpoint separating Ramallah from Jerusalem (note how the term “crossing” re-writes the reality of this space, and the lights for Ramadan)

In my work on nineteenth-century novels, I think about time. How narrative time is political–demarcating between modern and seemingly backward characters and establishing a known, imperial future as the horizon for futural imagining. But I also suggest that even as narrative time works to differentiate people and places and consolidate a narrow vision of the future that extends existing social arrangements, other temporalities–and other visions of politics–persist.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the things I found myself thinking about while in Palestine was time. Questions of time are ever-present. They are present in understanding Palestinian memory and history: the long duration of inhabiting the land, the disjunction between past and present (although Palestinians in the West Bank whose families are from the sea may never see the sea, the sea still shapes their sense of place), the memories of people and places that no longer exist but still shape one’s consciousness. They are also present in the settler colonial practices of the Israeli state: uprooting olive trees and planting white pines in their place, creating national parks where Palestinian villages once were, establishing outposts that become settlements–the Zionist investment in what Edward Said calls “a future wish” not only eliminates Palestinian people, it erases their histories (The Question of Palestine, 9)Questions of time are also more quotidian: checkpoints make the time of travel uncertain, showing that while the settler colonial structure remains constant, how it impacts one’s life constantly shifts. Famously, the Israeli state never declared its boundaries, so the conventional wisdom that states transform time into space doesn’t quite apply here: state-space is constantly shifting over time.

Eyal Weizman is particularly good at thinking about time in Hollow Land (2007). Studying the “permanent temporariness” of occupation, he writes:

“the use of the term ‘occupation’ for the forty-year-old Israeli military control and administration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip may thus itself be complicit with the legal charade on which its entire system rests. An ‘occupation’ is understood as a transitional state, in process of being resolved or terminated politically or militarily” (104)

Recently, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, have thought through this concept in an exhibition and book.

A colonial system grounded in the ever-shifting temporal scales of permanent temporariness, of course, produces exhaustion. The temporariness of occupation means constantly facing new obstacles and unexpected challenges while its permanence makes envisioning an alternative future or connecting with the past more difficult. Or, to frame this through my work on nineteenth-century novels: unlike the narrative time of realist novels which works to consolidate a narrow vision of an imperial future by representing the shared time of modern institutionalism (a shared time that always depends upon differentiation), the time of occupation/settler colonialism at work in Palestine seeks to consolidate a narrow vision of the future (and past) by constantly improvising with time. The instability of time and space make it difficult to represent reality in Palestine, but also difficult to create and cultivate collective life. Or, in other words, it is easy to feel the temporariness of occupation in Palestine, but hard to construct other visions of permanence (take, for instance, home demolitions, where Palestinians are forced to destroy the very homes that they have built and lived in over time).

Conversations with Friends

I finally read Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. The reviews made me think I wouldn’t like it–it’d feel too contemporary, too gimmicky, too young. But the novel feels so effortless and easy and I loved it, reading it in a single day. I think it’s a novel that would be difficult to write about though–how does one capture the feeling of reading this book? What’s good about it doesn’t seem to come up in the reviews and I certainly can’t explain myself.  One thing that I really liked though was the gap between characters’ experiences and their interpretations of experience–they were always interpreting experience, of course, but they never had all of the information. Over the course of the novel, there are always new interpretations, new perspectives, new dimensions of the narrator, Frances so that what has already happened is not quite stable. What results is a sense that interpretation, itself, is always ongoing rather than fixed and that is why friendship in all forms is so valuable–that it helps you revise and rethink what you thought you already knew about yourself, your shared experiences, and the world.


I just finished Anna Burns’s Milkman. It was negatively reviewed in the New York Times–the author claimed, among other things, that if Edna O’Brien had written this story, it would have been a 20 page short story. So ridiculous and so telling: Edna O’Brien is read entirely in relation to James Joyce, and all subsequent women writers from Ireland and Northern Ireland are read in relation to her.

This comparison between Burns and O’Brien is frustrating in part because the novel, itself, refers many nineteenth-century novels that the protagonist/narrator reads: IvanhoeCastle Rackrent, Jane EyreMartin Chuzzlewit (!?!), an unnamed novel by Thomas Hardy. As the protagonist puts it:

“Every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, I preferred to walk home reading my latest book. This would be a nineteenth-century book because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century” (5).

The review takes a passage like this to mean that the protagonist wants to escape “the horrors around her” and also sex. The nineteenth century, in this review, is a safe, sexless world. But as a twenty-first century reader with my own predilection for nineteenth-century novels, I want to think about the presence of all of these novels in this novels differently. The protagonist seems to express a desire for the “ordinary” or a desire for realism: a fantasy of a self-contained and stable world produced through the nineteenth-century novel. The nineteenth century is not safe and certainly not sexless, but it can produce and export a vision of ordinary life that seems fundamentally at odds with the everyday life that the protagonist inhabits. Wanting to be able to tell her story in the realist register, the protagonist is constantly thwarted.

As the book unfolds, however, it seems that the differences between the nineteenth century and the twentieth century become less stark as realism seeps into her story. When Somebody McSomebody’s youngest brother falls from the window in a senseless accident, the community invents all kinds of story: that he had jumped purposefully or jumped because he thought himself to be a super hero. As one character explains:

“that was the thing people invented here because you couldn’t just die here, couldn’t have an ordinary death here, not anymore, not of natural causes, not by accident such as falling out a window, especially now after all the other violent deaths taking place in this district now” (145-6).

In other words, community stories reject realism but we get it all the same: Somebody McSomebody’s brother’s death is an accident even if it is never narrated that way. The protagonist seeks realism through nineteenth-century novels to escape her present but realizes that the rigid division between past and present, suggested above by the “not anymore,” isn’t so rigid. In the midst of extraordinary political violence, ordinary life persists in both good and bad ways (ordinary life is not safe: it too has violence). Or, to put it slightly different, instead of thinking of the protagonist’s reading-while-walking as different from our own act of reading (she reads to escape the very politics that perhaps draws us to Milkman, she reads classic novels while we seek experimental novels–or, as the New York Times might put it, she reads plot-driven novels while we are stuck reading a ‘difficult’ novel), the novel encourages us to read in relation, to read with and through–not simply against–the protagonist; to see the nineteenth century at work in the twentieth century.

Barnaby Rudge

I just finished Barnaby Rudge, apparently called Barnaby Rubbish by Victorian people because they disliked it so much. I get that it’s a really weird novel, but I don’t know if it deserves all the hate. It’s *way* better than Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance.

I especially liked the ending of this historical novel, which focuses on the raven, Grip. The narrator writes in the final paragraph: “as he was a mere infant for a raven, when Barnaby was grey, he was very probably on talking to the present time” (688). The suggestion, of course, is that the events of the past are not really past as the conclusion moves between biographical, historical, and ecological time.

But I also liked the crowd scenes and its somewhat contradictory reflection on the law. At the peak of the riots, “The crowd was the law, and never was the law held in greater dread, or more implicitly obeyed” (521). Such a sentence shows the power of the crowd: rebelling against the law, the crowd becomes a law onto itself. But it also raises questions about what the law is for. Is it supposed to be held in dread? It is supposed to be obeyed?

Mr. Dennis, the hangman, has the strangest relationship to the law. He happily joins the riot and works to free the prisoners of Newgate, but stops short of freeing those prisoners condemned to die. As they beg to be released, he tells them, “laws have been made a’ purpose for you; a parson’s kept a’ purpose for you; a constitootional officer’s appointed a’ purpose for you; carts is maintained a’ purpose for you–and yet you’re not contented” (543).  His logic here is so familiar: think how much care the state shows you as it condemns you to death, how dare you desire to live? The phrase “laws have been made a’ purpose for you” is especially telling, suggesting that laws exist to produce criminals, for criminals. Contentment, here, means accepting a social order where you are doomed to die long before you commit a crime (Hugh’s fate seems to reinforce this point).


The Uninvited

It has been such fun to read more fiction while on sabbatical. In addition to the regular nineteenth-century summer reading (i.e. Trollope),  I’ve read Maeve Kelly’s Necessary Treasons, Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited. I’ve enjoyed them all (probably Kelly the most), but Macardle is really sticking with me. It’s a story of a perfect house by the sea in England that ends up being haunted by two women: Mary, a ‘perfect’ wife and mother, and Carmel, a young foreigner who had an affair with Mary’s artist husband. Over the course of the novel [SPOILER], we learn that Mary is the dangerous ghost precisely because she upholds the social order in a violently repressive way. Knowing that Mary is threatening rather than angelic frees her daughter. As the narrator declares in a heavy-handed statement, “You can be yourself now, not [imitate] Mary any more” (303). It’s lovely to refuse what the novel calls “dead virtue, dead standards, dead taste” and favor living women, with all their flaws (134).

But the thing that sticks with me is that the novel sets up this home as the perfect house for the two protagonists–as fated–only to question the idea of ownership and property. Looking for a place to escape London, the protagonists have a series of disappointments until they stumble upon Cliff End. The narrator “was seized by covetousness” and they quickly buy the house (8). Their overwhelming desire to live and work in this house is rewarded–the narrator’s writing, long somewhat dull criticism, takes a thrilling creative turn–even as the haunting begins. When the haunting begins, the idea of “covetousness” looks differently: instead of an expression of connection or fate, it is a violent desire for acquisition, “an intrusion” (87). The narrator realizes, “It was an intrusion; this house was old; long before we were born it had its occupants, living and dying here. We were aliens and trespassers in their hereditary home” (87). The novel does a remarkable job of both banishing the ghost and authorizing it, of representing haunting as a threat and an important, necessary reminder. Mary may be a danger, but haunting is not: it shows that the very feeling of belonging and desire can be one of erasure.


Bleak Liberalism

Amanda Anderson is an incredible scholar and writer–clear, purposeful, argumentative. Her book, Bleak Liberalism, shows these skills in action. It also shows just how depressing, and hella white, Victorian studies can be (Of course, the scope of this book exceeds Victorian studies).  What does it mean to engage in critiques of liberalism without engaging in critiques coming from critical race theory? What does it mean to read Ralph Ellison through Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling? What does it mean to say that Joe Cleary gives too much importance to imperialism, before cataloguing a whole series of historical events and developments that were also tied to imperialism? How can you talk about liberalism without discussing slavery? How can you discuss liberalism without considering how it emerges through theories of property (which, in turn, are tied to slavery, race, and settler colonialism)?

I ask these questions because I think it shows how disciplinarity, which separates out liberalism and postcolonial/critical race theorists’ critiques of liberalism, can be a way of protecting ignorance, of perpetuating old arguments, of moving to innocence.