Ten Stories, One Outline

The opening sentence of Anna Karenina goes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That sentence very much came to mind when reading Outline by Rachel Cusk, one of the five books shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.

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The novel is a series of ten conversations that the almost invisible narrator (who remains nameless until very late in the book) has with friends and strangers when she’s in Athens to teach a summer writing course.

The ten conversations (one for each chapter) consist of all eloquent and loquacious speakers who tell the narrator the outline of their life story. She rarely interjects, rarely gets asked questions in response, rarely reveals much of her story.

All we know is she is a divorced writer with two sons who lives in London:

I said that I lived in London, having recently moved from the house in the countryside where I had lived alone with my children for the past three years, and where for the seven years before that we had lived together with their father. It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.

That quote gives you an example of Cusk’s sparse yet penetrating prose that hits you with a melancholic punch to the gut. And that’s just one sample. While there are some funny moments in the novel (usually in the form of wry observations), overall, it’s quite a depressing book.

Each conversation discusses a relationship and, most of the time, it’s a failed marital one. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of one conversation that depicts two people content in marriage. Nope. Ryan, a fellow teacher at the summer school, is the only character who is currently married, and even the way he describes his relationship sounds less than inspiring, to say the least:

They shared the work of the kids and the house—his wife was no martyr, as his mother had been. She went off on her own holidays with her girlfriends and expected him to take care of everything in her absence: when they gave one another freedoms, it was on the understanding that they would claim those same freedoms themselves. If it sounds a little bit calculated, Ryan said, that doesn’t worry me at all. There’s a business aspect to running a household. It’s best if everyone’s honest right at the start about what they’re going to need, to be able to stay in it.

Elaine Blair, referring to the book as “autobiographical fiction” in the New Yorker, sums up the author’s attitude towards relationships well when she writes: “Lovers may find reasonably comfortable arrangements together, Cusk suggests, but in one way or another each will be diminished by them.”

I was impressed with Cusk’s ability to put a cast of characters down on the page so quickly and effectively, and then even more impressed at how many different ways she told their unhappiness (that’s when the Tolstoy quote came to mind). Yet after about the third conversation that barely raised its head above cynical water, I started feeling sad for the author. I remember thinking as I was reading it, “This book could have only been written by someone who’s divorced.”

I admit that because I’m still a newlywed, my view of marriage isn’t as nuanced as someone in their mid-forties. But the way relationships are portrayed in the book implies there is no beauty or flourishing or amplification in marriage, which I don’t think is accurate.

What we get in Outline are ten monologues. You can’t really call them conversations if only one person is doing the talking. The same thing could be said of this book. All these monologues can be summarized with some variant of “relationships are disappointing.” Where’s the other side to the story?

What was so fascinating for me about the novel is the psychological/sociological undertones about how we tell stories. Each character is obviously selective and subjective with the outline they offer of their lives. And so the reader is also playing detective as we go along—is what we’re hearing true? Especially when it’s filtered indirectly through the voice of a detached and depressed narrator?

Perhaps the biggest revelation I came to at the end of the book is that I didn’t particularly care for the narrator. Her story was so faintly sketched there was no substance there to hold on to. When she summarized her response to an elderly Greek bachelor who made a pass at her, saying, “I was not interested in a relationship with any man, not now and probably not ever again” and that she’s “trying to find a different way of living in the world,” one that’s “unmarked by self-will,” I either didn’t believe her or didn’t get the sense that she was any happier for her efforts. Even though we know little about her, it becomes more and more evident that she is grieving the aftermath of her marriage but is she grieving it well?

She does need to talk and process what’s happened, it’s just too bad the people she chose (or chose her) reinforce her own disappointment.

A Poem to Picasso

Tuesday this week, I saw Picasso: The Artist and His Muses at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading (1960).

I learned a lot. And most of what I learned about the man, I didn’t like. Picasso didn’t seem very easy to love and live with. And yet there is his art, his strange, powerful, game-changing art. But his art and his life are so intertwined. And I appreciated that this exhibit focused on the six women behind so many of his paintings, making room for their stories and personalities that get dwarfed by the man who immortalized their bodies.

As is often the case when I have mixed feelings about someone, I wrote a poem.

you’re like Henry VIII
with his six wives
though you only married two

born in Spain but French
at art
and women

Fernande was your first crush
with Olga you said I do
Marie-Thérèse came blonde and bright

Dora came in tears
Françoise actually left you
and finally Jacqueline, a wife for the end

you acquired mistresses
like you finished paintings
fast, flattening every angle

here she sits
here she reads
here she weeps

here she lies
here she stares
here she is elsewhere

over six dozen
and they all start
to look
the same

the double face, changing into the next
easier to paint secrets
than keep them

a cheek was something to burn
with the butt of a cigarette
a body, something to dissect

you were a cruel
unfaithful man
but then, what to do with Guernica?

you paint it as you see it
you saw horror well
but, I wonder, is that the only story to tell?

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Photographic replica of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Sunshine Coast Road Trip

A little late, but here are the rest of our Sunshine Coast pics from our trip in May. First part is here.

The Artist and I drove the Lower Sunshine Coast all the way to the last town, Egmont, stopping at most of the small towns along the way.

Here’s a brief look at our one-day road trip:

1. Roberts Creek

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2. Davis Bay

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3. Sechelt

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4. Halfmoon Bay

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5. Madeira Park

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7. Francis Point Provincial Park

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6. Pender Harbour & Garden Bay area (view from Pender Hill)

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This short but steep hike with incredible views was one of my favourite things we did.

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7. Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park (& Skookumchuck Rapids)

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The rapids were supposed to be “medium” height but this is about as good as they got.

And last but not least, a black bear we saw from the safety of our vehicle (phew!)

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The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I would probably never have read this book if it hadn’t been voted on by the majority of people in my book club.

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The description didn’t particularly grab me, but if I had “judged the book by its cover” as the saying goes, then I would have never discovered this excellent work of literary fiction that is the best thing I’ve read since All the Light We Cannot See.

There’s not too many times where I read contemporary fiction and elevate it to a modern classic, but I would with Mira Jacob‘s brilliant and lengthy debut that took her 10 years to write.

The main character, Amina Eapen, is the same age as me, and I think that had something to do with why I liked it so much. I could relate to her, even though my family is not Indian, I haven’t suffered a heartbreaking family tragedy, I am not a photographer, and I am no longer single and getting questioned about boys.

It didn’t matter because at the heart of this novel is a story about family and relationships, of holding on and letting go and living in the delicate balance between those two doors that we can all identify with.

The novel is epic in the sense of its length (about 500 pages), scope (taking place in 1970s India, 1980s New Mexico, and 1990s Seattle), and structure: two alternating storylines that hinge on two members of the Eapen family: one concerning her rebellious older brother Akhil, the other concerning her father Thomas, a brain surgeon. Despite the palpable grief that lives in this novel, it didn’t feel weighed down by it. And even though medical conditions come into play,  it didn’t ever strike me as a “disease”-type book in the way Still Alice is, where a medical diagnosis drives the plot.

No, this was a book rich in family dynamics that made me laugh out loud numerous times, that made me reread phrases because of the deft and beautiful way Jacob described some everyday thing, and that made me poke my nose out of the book and tell my husband to listen to this line so he could agree with me that “That’s exactly what it’s like!”

As a lover of similes and metaphors, Jacob’s prose is full of them. Here are some of my favourites:

She could feel her need to get off the boat as sharply as a full bladder.

Their parents, turning and returning to the dining room table to huddle over the old photo albums like caged parrots clutching at a shared axis.

“My parents. It’s weird. They go everywhere together now. The garden, the porch, probably the bathroom for all I know. It’s like they’re dating or something.”

“That’s sweet.”

“No it’s not. It’s like having the sun set on the wrong fucking side of the sky.”

And listen to this description of something I would never think to give this kind of attention to but as soon as Jacob says it, yes. I have seen my father be that mythical beast.

“Amina?” Her father opened her bedroom door on the last school night of the year. “Can I come in?”

Why do fathers always look ungainly in their daughter’s bedrooms? Like mythical beasts wandered in from the forest of another world?

And the dialogue is a bang-on, too. I especially loved all the repartees between Amina and her mother, Kamala, (or really Kamala with anybody) whose character comes to life so much based on the way she speaks.

“Wait just one minute, Mr. Big Horses!” Kamala yelled at Chacko. “Don’t you sit there yak-yakking for me!”

Or:

“I’d love to have dinner, Mrs. Eapen, as long as I don’t put you out.”

“Not out! In. I’m cooking.”

This is a book that, for lack of a better phrase, felt very true.

And the ending, just right.

 

Looking for the Character Behind So Much Wit

Yesterday, I saw Wit at Pacific Theatre by Margaret Edson. It was moving and brilliantly acted.

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The story almost all takes place in the hospital and in the present. 50-year-old Dr. Vivian Bearing, professor of 17th century metaphysical poetry specializing in John Donne, has been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. “There is no stage 5,” she tells us.

She narrates the story for us and we watch her when she learns of her diagnosis, when she is reminiscing about her successful academic career, when she is undergoing medical exams, when she pukes her brains out into a bucket, when she is screaming and writhing in pain from the effects of the full dosage medication the doctor gives her, and lastly, when she walks from this world into the next. Through this all, we see, as the play’s description reads, “her intellectual armour giv[ing] way to her need for human kindness.”

Katharine Venour, who plays Vivian Bearing, did a thoroughly convincing job as an unrelentingly hard academic and as a cancer patient whose pain, fears, and vulnerability felt entirely believable. Her dry humour and cynicism gave her a lot of funny lines and I laughed much more than I thought I would in a play about a woman dying of cancer.

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Photo by Emily Cooper.

In pondering the play more and more though, I can’t remove the niggling feeling that something was missing.

I think it had to do with the fact that as sympathetic as Vivian was, I didn’t know her very well, and it’s hard for me to fully embrace a character that I don’t know. This is more an issue I have with the storyline.

Because Vivian is such a demanding professor who puts research above relationships, no one comes to visit her in the hospital (except at the very end, her old professor played by Erla Faye Forsyth shows up and reads her Runaway Bunny in one of the most touching and human scenes of the play).

When the young Dr. Jason Pozner doing his fellowship takes Vivian’s medical history, we learn that her parents have died and she has no siblings. This accounts for no immediate family members visiting her in the hospital, but what about an uncle, an aunt, even a cousin?  One of the best ways to know someone is to watch them with their family, but aside from one flashback between Vivian and her distant father, we aren’t shown any family. I know this is part of the point—to show how isolated Vivian is—and I know some people just don’t have any siblings—but I find it difficult to really know, and hence connect with a character (in a novel or play), if I don’t see them with people who share some common history.

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Katharine Venour  as Vivian and Dan Amos as Dr. Jason Pozner. Photo from soulfoodvancouver.blogspot.com

There’s a really funny line when Dr. Pozner asks Vivian some questions like, “Ever been married?” “Every been pregnant?” to which the answer is “no”, and then in his casually charming and completely insensitive way, “Okay, well that’s it for life history.” Vivian responds with one of her many wry asides to the audience that goes something like, “Yup, because that’s all my life history.” We laugh because of course there’s more to a person/a woman than marriage or kids, but the play doesn’t actually fill in those gaps of her life story so all we know is she’s an excellent and exacting Donne scholar and she has no family or friendships. I wanted a bit more.

On the other hand, you could say this missing piece highlights a central theme of the play in reminding us of what really matters in life (and death).

Thankfully, we witness a thread of friendship in the short relationship Vivian develops with a compassionate nurse named Susie.

Being a Donne fan myself, I highly enjoyed all the quotations and references to his work (the classroom scene was superb). His Holy Sonnet X got the most air time, and Vivian’s professor delivered a gripping speech near the beginning on why there should be a comma and not a colon between “more” and “Death” in the last line. It is not an awkward and abrupt semicolon that separates us from life and death. It is a breath, a whisper, a comma.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

My favourite audio version of this poem is in this opening to Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan‘s Move Pen Move, which, no matter how many times I hear it, moves every piece of me.

Wit is showing at Pacific Theatre until tomorrow, June 11.

They keep saying they are happy

I didn’t participate in Bike to Work this week because biking from Vancouver to Surrey along Highway 91 is a) very long and b) a little dangerous, but I like to think I made up for it by biking from Marpole, the southernmost neighbourhood of the city, to the ocean at Jericho Beach today.

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And I was so excited by what I saw on my ride home that I’m on my computer now to share it with you.

I haven’t posted about a public artwork in a while but this one stopped me full-pedal and had me rummaging through my backpack for my camera.

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This LED screen at Point Grey Road and Collingwood Street containing short, pithy statements that rotate every few minutes was right outside a residential house in the affluent neighbourhood of Kitsilano. It was strangely discreet (except for the pink Vancouver Biennale sign) and yet obviously not something you’d expect to see on a scenic route.

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I watched it for a few minutes to see about three different narratives appear on the screen.

Called Vancouver Novel, it was made by Brazilian artist João Loureiro. The description on the sign says:

Inspired by the Vancouver Biennale’s 2014-2016 exhibition theme Open Borders / Crossroads Vancouver, Vancouver Novel by João Loureiro explores the shifting boundaries between public and private life in an era marked by social media and reality TV.  Situated in one of Vancouver’s most exclusive waterfront neighbourhoods, the installation cycles through a series of 23 sentences which weave a poignant narrative of daily life.  These snippets of domesticity, by turns banal and ominous, underscore our ever-growing appetite for updated information and continuous content.  Intensely personal and yet broadcast for the world to see, Vancouver Novel asks us to consider the narrowing chasm between our public and private lives.

While I was photographing the screen, I experienced an uneasiness between the public and private spheres because even though this was “public art,” I was taking pictures of someone’s home. Something like this ran through my mind: Do the the residents know this is here? They must! The artist would have had to get their permission, I’m sure. But they must have gawkers like me all the time just standing outside their home reading this sign. How annoying!

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And then when you watch this short clip, you realize the artist’s work is a fictional story about the occupants in the house, which takes it to a whole new level of voyeurism and discomfort.

 

Yet I think maybe we are supposed to squirm a little? If we had a sign outside our home, what would our story be?

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In some ways, we each already do. It may not be an LED screen and it may not be constantly running, but most of us turn to social media to provide status updates of what’s going on in our homes and lives. We’ve already made the private public, but I think why Vancouver Novel is so powerful is because:

  • Having your private life aired on a screen like a reality TV show where you don’t control who sees it is that much more vulnerable than putting it on social media where you can still put safeguards in place around privacy and security.
  • The “status updates” on this sign aren’t the “show how cool/beautiful/exciting your life is to make everybody else jealous” type of updates most people post on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc. Some of the sentences are banal but some are acutely poignant and even dark. In 23 lines, we witness the unhappiness, the struggle, the pretense, and possibly the demise of a relationship.

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  • There’s an assumption that affluent people have perfect lives because everything on the outside looks that way: their houses, their cars, their clothes, their vacations, their kids etc. Vancouver Novel reminds us that we really have no clue what goes on behind those pretty, perfect doors. Things aren’t always what they seem.
  • Vancouver is the city everybody wants to live in. It’s come under fire more recently for its high costs and inaccessibility, but there is still this golden aura to the city. I think the artist must know something about this, or why would he call it Vancouver Novel? He’s turning the narrative of the city on its head, cracking open its shiny facade and exposing its grimy underbelly.

This is what art does—exposes things. As much as I love my city, this Vancouver Novel needs to be written. João Loureiro may have intended it as fictional story, but I think there are elements of reality to it that we are all uncomfortably familiar with.

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