Pre-Christmas reading feels

Nothing between human beings isn’t uncomplicated and there’s no way to speak of human beings without simplifying and misrepresenting them.

– Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys 

Updates on my progress re Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys – I’ve finally finished it, and believe it or not, the last 50 pages flew by pretty quickly, which goes to show that there are rewards to be reaped from bibliographic perseverance, or just that Oates didn’t do that great a job with her overall narrative architecture in this book.

Either way, I think it’ll probably be quite some time before I pick up another family saga. Still, I give mega creds to Oates for her stylistic elegance – there’s no denying that this prolific lady has a way with words.

She’s worth reading, maybe just not at urban speed.

Over this period of sluggish struggle with Oates’ book, I happened to have re-read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which is a considerably shorter classic about the life of two American labourers during the Great Depression era.

I was surprised by how much it touched me, especially when I don’t recall feeling much the first time I read it. Then again, I didn’t even register that Pride and Prejudice was a love story when I first read it at 10, so perhaps first impressions gained at a time of literary immaturity usually aren’t reliable.

Having read and loved his short stories, I maintain that John Steinbeck is the American realist par excellence, perhaps second only to John Updike (my all-time favourite DWM*), and that his works are sine qua non for the personal library of any self-professed 20th century literary lover.

Exploring Lennie Small – a giant who is anything but small 

In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s portrayal of the mentally retarded Lennie Small is masterfully heartbreaking, because he paints Lennie as a walking paradox who has very little agency over what he does, says or feels: he is a child trapped in a man’s body, a purist in a practical world, an animal lover who kills animals and doesn’t realise it until he does, and a male labourer who is even more sentimental than the only woman in the book.

Lennie is so pure in mind and so untainted in soul that he emerges a saintly anomaly when compared to all the ruthless, wily, worldly characters around him.

Notice how people who are radically ‘different’ often meet two fates: if eventually accepted by the masses, they will be haloicized (e.g. Jesus); if ultimately rejected, they will be persecuted (e.g. Othello). As the adage goes, fortune favors the bold, so those who are not endowed with the confidence of asserting their ‘different-ness’ (because the word ‘difference’ doesn’t suffice to underscore just how different these characters are) would naturally fall to the sidelines of the marginalized, deemed freaks of nature or specimens of failure.

In Of Mice, Lennie almost always steps on toes, and it is precisely because his mishaps are such bumbling examples of comic awkwardness that they are so heartrending, and that he is able to incite such sympathy on the reader’s part.

A. C. Bradley, one of the seminal Shakespearean scholars, was often criticized for commenting on dramatic characters as if they were real people, but I sometimes wonder how it’s possible for anyone not to conceive of fictional constructs as real people, because isn’t that ultimately the point of literature – to use novels as interpersonal sandboxes, to imagine the fictional as stand-ins for the real, and as such, to strengthen our capacity for empathy?

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Granted, it’s difficult to imagine myself as a mentally retarded person (for which I’m incredibly thankful), but there are definitely times when I have felt like the inadequate moron in the corner, or the sore thumb that’s grossly unaware of her unwelcome presence.

The thing with Lennie is that he doesn’t mean for his presence to be so glaringly unwelcome; most of the time, this Steinbeck character is genuinely sorry and helpless about his physical ineptitude, which all the more compounds his sympathy quotient in the reader’s eyes.

Lennie

John Malkovich as Lennie Small in the 1992 film adaptation

A good example of this is when George, Lennie’s understanding but also understandingly irate sidekick, tells him off for picking up stray mice and secretly hoarding them as pets:

“You gonna give me that mouse or do I have to sock you?”

“Give you what, George?”

“You know damn well what. I want that mouse.”

Lennie reluctantly reached into his pocket. His voice broke a little. “I don’t know why I can’t keep it. It ain’t nobody’s mouse. I didn’t steal it. I found it lyin’ right beside the road… I wasn’t doin’ nothing bad with it, George. Jus’ strokin’ it.”

George stood up and threw the mouse as far as he could into the darkening brush, and then he stepped to the pool and washed his hands. “You crazy fool. Don’t you think I could see your feet was wet where you went across the river to get it?” He heard Lennie’s whimpering cry and wheeled about. “Blubberin’ like a baby! Jesus Christ! A big guy like you.” Lennie’s lip quivered and tears started in his eyes. “Aw, Lennie!” George put his hand on Lennie’s shoulder. “I ain’t takin’ it away jus’ for meanness. The mouse ain’t fresh, Lennie; and besides, you’ve broke it pettin’ it. You get another mouse that’s fresh and I’ll let you keep it a little while.”

Lennie sat down on the ground and hung his head dejectedly. “I don’t know where there is no other mouse. I remember a lady used to give ‘em to me – ever’ one she got. But that lady ain’t here.”

George scoffed. “Lady, huh? Don’t even remember who that lady was. That was your own Aunt Clara. An’ she stopped givin’ em to ya. You always killed ‘em.”

Lennie looked sadly up at him. “They was so little,” he said, apologetically. “I’d pet ‘em, and pretty soon they bit my fingers and I pinched their heads a little and then they was dead – because they was so little.”

Killing something without meaning to: this has got to be one of the greatest moral dilemmas known to man. Without intention, can even the greatest of crimes be forgiven, despite the irreversibility of the act?

Lennie’s ‘crime’ is that he is too big, and as such, his force is often too great for most delicate creatures to bear, as they die beneath the burden of his lethal Midas touch. Lennie, this big-hearted bumbling bloke and poor child of deterministic tragedy, is a serial killer, albeit an unwilling one.

mouse

Can you, then, sympathise with this accomplice of Death, notwithstanding the complete lack of control he has over his deadliness?

* * *

On a merrier note, Christmas is in the offing, and if tradition stands in the Chan abode, soon the turkey will also be in the oven. In a capitalist haven like Hong Kong, this festival is really just another excuse to go shopping, not that I take too much issue with that, being a native product of a product-crazed culture.

I wonder when I’ll be able to experience a white Christmas again – I miss winter in England, although when I was there, I would often curse my toes off so much from the cold I didn’t need frostbites to remind me which part of the Northern Hemisphere I was in.

Have a happy, happy Christmas, everyone. Read a book or something, or failing that, spend more time with your loved ones. Actually, reverse the order, because as much as virtual living procures its own enjoyments, it is never worth letting imagined figurines get in the way of real flesh and blood, chock full of love and hugs.

christmas twin

 

*Dead White Male: a controversial term for Caucasian male authors who have gained eminence and been posthumously canonised in Western literary history (used tongue-in-cheek here) 

Photo credits: The Paris Review, Unsplash, MGM
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This is what vulnerability looks like (a brief note)

It’s difficult to write without inspiration, and lately, I’ve been experiencing a dearth of inspiration.

Usually, this means that everything has been going rather swimmingly in life, because otherwise I’d be a bundle of complicated ‘feels’ dying for an outlet for emotional outpour.

Tis the Catch-22 of writing: there’s no writing without experiencing some degree of distress. And yet, not being able to write for extended periods of time stresses me out as well; it’s a hollowing feeling, not having ‘output’, even though most of what I write is just diaristic catharsis masquerading as erudite essays. Ha. 

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The one thing that underlies misogyny

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

– ‘Daddy’, Sylvia Plath (1981)

Fun fact: It was International No Bra Day yesterday.

i support no support

If you already knew that, more power to you, sistah (or brutha!) Until I caught it from the airwaves yesterday morning on my bus ride to work, I wasn’t aware that we had a commemorative day for bralessness, so it was with a tad bit of wistfulness that I missed out on a chance to legitimately unbound myself from the lady diaphragm wall, albeit for just a day.

What I have been aware of, though, is the Harvey Weinstein expose that’s been at the top of my BBC reader for the past week.

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When traveling starts at home

To flit…
From high to low, from low to high, yet still
Within the bound of this huge concave; here
Must be his home, this valley be his world.

– William Wordsworth, The Recluse (1888)

Who doesn’t love traveling?

I honestly don’t know anyone who doesn’t. From the anticipation of jetting off to another place to the experience of seeing and tasting new things, there’s no denying that traveling is one of the greater joys in life.

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How women show their strength

What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.

– Susan Sontag

Back in October last year, I took up strength training as part of my fitness routine.

Since then, I have been lifting weights every week in full badass mode; headphones in, West Coast hip-hop on, huffing and puffing while I bust out 20 squats with 20-pound dumbbells in each hand.

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Not the most flattering self-portrait, I know, but no one looks flattering when they’re working out. And if you disagree, you’ve either not worked out before, or you weren’t actually working out when you thought you were.

#FACT #sorrynotsorry #keepinitreal

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Lessons & impressions from my trip to Shanghai

Shanghai people are distilled from traditional Chinese people under the pressure of modern life, they are they product of a deformed mix of old and new culture. The result may not be healthy, but in it there is also a curious wisdom.”

– Eileen Chang

In the past month, there’s been a fair few shake-ups in my life, hence the silence on this blog.

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At some point, I know imma have to retire the ‘life gets in the way’ excuse, but the fact of the matter remains that life keeps getting in the way – of writing, of thinking, of sleeping, and sometimes, even of living.

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I’m breaking up with sugar, and it’s been hard

Endless conveyor belts of sickness or litigation poured clients and patients into these midtown offices like dreary Long Island potatoes. These dull spuds crushed psychoanalysts’ hearts with boring character problems. Then suddenly Humboldt arrived. Oh, Humboldt! He was no potato. He was a papaya a citron a passion fruit. He was beautiful deep eloquent fragrant original – even when he looked bruised in the face, hacked under the eyes, half-destroyed.

-Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

Everyone has a drug.

What’s your drug?

Before you answer, I’ll clarify what I mean by ‘drug’: I mean anything that you find addictive – substance, food, drinks, activities, people.

But no, this post isn’t about that kind of coke; instead, it is tenuously related to the (marginally) less harmful kind one finds on supermarket shelves, because I’ve recently discovered that one of my biggest ‘drugs’ is sugar.

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