I know someone must have compared Deathless to matroyshka dolls ages ago, but the image is so damn apt I must begin with it.  I loved this book at the level of theme.  I love that Deathless is openly about sex, described in all its slippery, messy glory.  The phrase “to see the naked world” is a drumbeat throughout, since that’s both a perfect aesthetic statement to describe Catherynne Valente’s work, and a sly-wink nod the book’s open sensuality.  It’s about the difficulty of multi-partner relationships.  It’s about war, and death, and how war turns women in cogs in a hideous patriarchal machine.  And there’s wonderful S&M dynamics in which Marya has the upper hand for an appealing length of narrative time.  Delicious.

I also love that Valente’s such a brilliant formalist.  She’s a tactician with words and the structures that contain them (sentences, paragraphs, all lyric/poetic permutations thereof).  Chapters 21 and 23 were particularly elegant, but all of the stories within stories count.  The sisters–you’ve almost forgotten about them, even though their repetition is the hook of the intro.  And then, right when they’re needed, they appear to deliver gold, frankincense and myrrh to drive the engine of plot all the way to the end.  The war chapter was stunning in its withholding; Valente writes a dying child without sentimentality.  And the competing stories of 21: Valente’s totally willing to let any given chapter speak its shape to her.  There’s never a fear of “perhaps a reader will not make this leap, won’t understand the POV shift, won’t know why the inserted ITAL.”  No.  Fuck that.  Story says jump, you jump.  Fearless prose, every time.

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry and a primer on Russian history are the key pieces I’d need to acquire in order to do a serious critical interpretation.  But for all that, this book is a gentle read, and you can love it without its demanding of you extensive additional research.  More like, it invites you to plumb its depths later, but will forgive a surface read.  (In this, I feel that it is the most generous of Valente’s books since Fairyland—forgiving of the inattentive reader, I mean.)  Not that inattention’s possible, or you’ll miss the way her syntax tells you how to interpret any given moment.  Her repetitions are always, always intentional and fruitful—when something returns, a bird-voice cries in the back of your brain: “mind the signpost, that’ll be important later.”  The joy of Valente is that she always rewards attention—the content/form mirrorings unfold endlessly–see matroyshka dolls above.

There’s a way in which communism isn’t theorized in this, that that’s not what’s at stake in choosing this historical moment to fabulize.  The book is interested in people, in relationships, in the social fabric of reality.  The critic part of my brain goes, wa-hah?  All that propaganda is brought in and held up for ridicule (affectionate, but still), and the savagery of starvation is writ large, but it both is and isn’t an indictment of the politico-economic situation that produced such phenomena.  Which is so counterintuitive that I’m not even sure how she’s accomplished it.  Russia in 1942 was horrific, but it was always a problem of power, not of ideology, seems to be the text’s argument.  All this to say, Valente enacts the role of the artist in producing an aesthetic object.  Her fidelity is to versimilitude, not mimesis, no argument necessary—that’s not art’s role anyway.

Here is the index poem of my notes:

Naganya is what steampunk wishes it could be

a critique of systems 116

Bureaucracy is a dragon 136

Morter-erotica 152

Reversed Red Riding Hood 154

Just like the girl in Legend 200

A desire not capitalist/anti-capitalist but of the body 204

Becoming Baba Yaga in order to survive/invoking incest

Eroticized pain 207

“see the world naked”

machine of war’s effect on women—they are rendered cogs 213

red scarf as sign of belonging

Marya repeats and rewrites her own abduction 226

reverse bluebeard 250

ekphrasis of entire narrative in mural form 265

bad luck as plot spur, perfectly placed

Vampirism 279

Cannibalism 280

The Tsar of Death is blind; he must lift his eyelids to see 282

Chapter 21 is perfect: fragmented/competing/complementary narratives

Chapter 23 is perfect: war/trauma/testimony

Life is like that, death is like that, both untrustworthy always

Wife linked to death/Birth linked to death by syntax–repeated sentence structure

Competing pasts held in a body

Written truth and lies 319


So I saw Catherynne Valente read last night.  This was a come-to-Jesus moment for me.  Patty and Matt went with, and they were amused by my rampant geekery.  Apparently I’ve gotten better at hiding it?  Which I have mixed feelings about, like I’ve sold out.  There was a boy at the reading who reminded me too much of Giando.  He even managed to spill a beer into my lap, and all over my brand-new shiny book.  What is it about science-fiction/fantasy circles that attracts the awkward?  He was very apologetic, so no harm no foul, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my undergraduate and M.A. social circles, and how much I’ve always had a tribe of such people surrounding me (with all their accompanying clumsiness and oddity), and how much I miss that, and don’t miss it all at once.  I feel terribly isolated in my program, with rare exceptions–one woman who I admire muchly actually studied with Samuel Delany at Temple, and her work speaks to my atrophied, brittle soul.  But everyone wants to write realism, or to attack capitalism, or to do experimental stuff involving found language.  I like and admire my colleagues’ work, and it is undoubtedly challenging mine, and changing it for the better.  But oh, I miss playing monkey-on-the-ground drunk at 2am on the playground.  And improv.  And talking YA fantasy.  And doing theater.  And world-building.  And speaking in Joss Whedon references, instead of Kantian/Adornian ones.  But I don’t miss interminable D&D games wherein nothing happens.  Or listening to boys pontificate about their novel, or Warhammer army, or Magic cards.  I do not miss the antifeminist aspects of geek culture, but oh I miss the childlike wonder of it all.  I miss feeling like people liked my shit, yo.  Graduate students are known for their criticism, not their joy in life.

Where was I?  Catherynne Valente.  She straddles both worlds–geekery done right, to me at least.  If Kaufman’s right and aesthetic experience is that moment of stretching when a work moves beyond itself, opening to new possibilities, then I can SO defend her work to all comers.  He broke that down (this is a miserable paraphrase, but I’m going to try) into the reader feeling simultaneously like he or she could have written this text/is writing this text in the act of reading, while knowing that he or she did not in fact write the text, that it’s an object outside the self–creation and noncreation all at once, and/or the understanding of the self within a relational frame.  Which is how I feel reading Valente–like she’s writing words I’ve already written or want to write, like she speaks my language, even while she’s translating the world for me into a language I can understand.  And there’s the quandary of aesthetic experience, because I’m sure her work doesn’t resonate for everyone (certainly not the many flavors of my colleagues as listed above).  But for me, her prose is magical.  Hearing her read aloud, her work is even funnier than it is on the page (she’s always witty, but her cadence set up her jokes perfectly).  She was unassuming and very kind, and (most impressive in a formal social situation like a reading) remembered my name when I went up to get my book signed.  My memory-full-of-holes is deeply envious of people who can do this.  She has a wonderful, deep reading voice–the red velvet couch of voices, you just fall into it.  She was an utter, inspiring delight.

And late that night, two of my Chicago girlfriends sent me sweet emails, one about aesthetics, and the other about shared misery (implicitly, though, about kindness in the classroom).  My tribe may be smaller and less prone to drunken abandon, but it is still lovely.  Maybe we’re just getting older.

They love me. They really love me.

Whoa.  I got…a lot of money from the Clarion foundation.  It is still a large chunk of change coming out of my bank account next week to pay the remainder of the amount, but they’re covering a substantial portion of the fee.  More than I’d dared hope, in my wildest dreams.  So I’m definitely going, and now I feel extra pressure to be super brilliant.  Going to see Catherynne Valente read at the Book Cellar tonight, which is certain to be inspiring, since I love her like Borges.  I submit my draft of the imaginary friend story to workshop today, too. We’ll see how it goes.  That may be my first submission to Clarion, if it’s savaged lovingly.

On seriousness.

I have thoroughly neglected this blog.  But this is my birthday week, which is when I take stock of things and hold myself accountable, when I set goals publicly so that there’s at least some shame in failure.  Also, there has been exciting, my-world-altering news of late.

After four times applying, I finally got into Clarion UCSD, class of 2011.  Scalzi, Bear, Johnson, Hoffman, Durham and Kessel.  I could not be happier to get in with such a lineup.  I first applied in…I think 2005?  Which means I would have been 23.  I got waitlisted, but no one dropped that year.  Then I proceeded to fail for the next six years.  I thought my writing was improving, but each time I applied and didn’t even make the waitlist, my wrathful brain would taunt, “Stupid girl, you’re getting worse, not better.  Why do you bother writing at all?”

This is when I complete the redemptive arc and mention something about persistence.  Except that that would be dishonest.  I am not persistent in the least.  I write fiction rarely, and when I do it comes with difficulty.  Or, I write constantly, but usually nonfiction or academic argument.  I miss speculative fiction, and whenever I write it, I remember that I love it more than anything.

Getting into Clarion has made me think very, very hard about what it is I want.  It’s expensive, very much so, and only worth doing with head up and eyes open.  Here’s the dilemma:

I’m not NOT going to Clarion; that’s not even on the table.  But what Clarion does is inspire.  Everyone I know who’s gone to Clarion generally rides high, for a month to years later, on the euphoria of it.  I know Clarion is going to leap my writing forward years, in only six weeks.  If you give yourself to the experience, that’s just what it DOES, judging by all anecdotal evidence.

And then I’m going to waste all that inspiration, because it is exam year in my doctoral program.  I return to Chicago and I need to read three hundred-some-odd books, which will be predominantly theory and nonfiction.  I could do a magical realism/fabulism/mythpunk list with Luis, and some of my experimental fiction list will have speculative ties, but I can’t do what I want, which is write a YA novel and revise my short fiction into a manuscript (fantasy, natch) and submit individual stories to build my pub record.  Nevermind the languishing novel.  What I want, some days, is to postpone for a year.  Refuse to go into more debt.  Spend a year post Clarion working and writing instead of reading for exams.

This line of thinking is idiocy, because 1) people who leave rarely come back.  2) I am super jazzed about exams, because I am a sick monkey like that. 3) there’s a pay raise involved if I pass. 4) I ought take them as close to coursework as possible, before all the theory I’ve already read falls right out of my head.  5) I DO want the PhD.  It’s just that life is too short, and even packing it all in everything slips through my fingers.

I wish I could do everything all at once, and it’s unpossible.  I’ve never minded being overcommitted, but this summer will be liek whoa–possible guest lecturing on playwriting at my old institution, the usual copyediting, reading for exams, driving cross country, Clarion.  I can and will do the best I can at all of this, while hating myself for everything I’m not doing.

I also hate my online persona, I’ve come to realize, and I’m not sure how to go about fixing this.  Given that I’m ostensibly a nonfictionist, this is both bizarre and disturbing.   It makes me think, perhaps I am more abrasive in person than I ever considered, because I read my own words and think, “This person, she is so arrogant and insecure, with so much to prove.  Try a little less hard, sweetie.”  Which is perhaps why I let all social networking sites languish as soon as I’ve set them up.

I want to be better about this.  I want to review the books I’m reading, post exam notes, engage the deafening Internet silence.  Maybe this will be my year?

Blech, post-birthday melancholia.