It is October. A cool morning that settled into a pleasantly warm Saturday afternoon, the way an October Saturday does in San Diego. Around the house, the Halloween decorations have begun going up, and the kids are excited. They have only recently finished being excited about a birthday, and soon they will be excited about Christmas. Every season has its presents or candies to look forward to. Sometimes both.
By this time she is three, but on the wall she is still a baby, and her brother is barely done being a toddler.
There above the dining table she is still a baby today, younger than her baby sister. And—for now—she is the same age as the brother that smiles above the spot where she used to eat her cereal. The brother that eats his cereal in the living room these days is, of course, still her senior.
If the shift in tense is confusing, just stop and consider the layers of "now" that are in that kitchen. An October afternoon. A morning in May. An April weekday as I write this. Whenever it is that you read it. Photography is weird.
Dept. of Speculation
In the first half-hour of reading this book I found myself reaching for my phone over and over again. I kept wanting to clip out lines for Twitter or Tumblr, or so that I could put them into the inevitable review I’d write. But I realized I’d be copying the whole damn thing. Every single shimmering, truthful line has my heart gripped in its little serifed fist.
Fucking hell, this book. I type into my phone. I mean, fuck.
I’m thirty pages in and already I know: I will never write anything this good. Never.
Back in January I attended a photography workshop, one evening of which involved the students all showing each other their portfolios. Afterwards, I was chatting with one of the other photographers there, and I mentioned how struck I was by his work.
“I always find it so impressive to see someone conjure up an image, to construct something that didn’t exist before, completely from your imagination,” I said.
“But that’s what all art is,” he responded. “Making something out of nothing.”
“Well, I guess,” I said. “But it can also be taking one thing and turning it into something else, right?”
I asked Juliette the other day if she thought I was observant. She cocked her head and thought a moment. “You can be,” she said finally. “Sometimes you can be kind of oblivious, but you notice a lot of things that I don’t. And I think you’re really good at articulating things in a way that other people don’t think of, but that make you say, ‘Oh yeah, that is what I think.’”
This little bit of narcissistic despair, it’s not quite right. That is, I do write things like this. Some of these short paragraphs feel so familiar, intimate. Like a line from a poem that I haven’t quite thought of yet, but was maybe just around the bend. The difference is that everything I write, every picture I make, they come from life. If I have any talent or skill, it’s in awareness and analysis, not imagination. I can notice a detail and pluck it out and show it to you, and on a good day, maybe I can do that in such a way that you’ll see something new. But making something that wasn’t there before, that’s something that has always eluded me. It does not elude Jenny Offill.
How could somebody imagine this? I could write lines like these, but I could never invent them. There is too much detail, too much truth in the detail. How could you know a life, the little bits of a life, the emotions and nonsense and asides. The little in-between moments where we all really live. How could you know something fictional so specifically? I can’t understand it.
I have this theory that you can break down most writers and photographers into two groups, based on how they work: builders and explorers. (Why just writers and photographers? Well, that’s all I know how to do. Maybe it works for painters and sculptors and musicians, too. I don’t know. Or maybe photography and writing have a particular something in common that other art forms don’t. I don’t know that either.)
Builders are the ones who construct new worlds. The studio photographer. The novelist. The compositor. The poet (sometimes). They start with an idea, see it in their heads, and then bring the elements together until the desired result has been realized.
Explorers often don’t set out to make something specific. They go out into the world to see what’s there, whether it’s to a far-off land or just down the hall. The landscape photographer. The street photographer. The essayist. The raconteur. What goes into the work is what was there, perhaps with some embellishment, some creative editing, but it all starts from a lived experience.
And, of course, most people will fall somewhere between. Ideas often come from life, and life often needs some scaffolding before it becomes art. It’s probably not even a spectrum, but rather a volume, a space with axes going off in all directions. (What’s the origin point, I wonder? The basis? Where is that? What does it even mean? Probably nothing; let’s not extend the metaphor further than it can go.)
I’m an explorer. Is Jenny Offill a builder? I don’t know what her process is, but Dept. of Speculation is presented as a novel, as fiction. So, let’s call her a builder. And if we call her that, maybe we’re going to have to call her a genius, too. A motherfucking savant.
Why have I spent so much time talking about my silly little taxonomy? I don’t know. Perhaps it is just that impressive art is all the more impressive to me when it’s something I can’t do.
There are, of course, explorations that have moved me, changed me, found a back room in my mind and stayed there, popping out to say hello to my conscious brain from time to time. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Bits of Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. It’s not just the builders who have a claim to my admiration.
Dept. of Speculation is the story of a marriage, from the breathless, youthful sweetness of its beginnings through a jagged crisis and beyond. But in some ways it’s hardly even a narrative—certainly it’s not a conventional one. Rather, it reads like an extended prose poem, a series of vignettes and asides and emotions. Offill doesn’t come right out and say what happened, like a novelist “should.” She relates the plot by showing you the way each thing affects her narrator, her responses to the events, the things before and after. Things get slippery; the perspective shifts from “I” to “she,” and tenses slide around from now to then. Bits of famous authors’ poetry and historical factoids pepper the pages, and it’s up to you to infer their relevance.
It’s not straightforward, but neither is it a slog. It never feels like work. It took me perhaps four hours to read through the slim volume, and I never wanted to put it down or take a break. How do you do that? Make a book that’s both obscure and accessible? I don’t know, but apparently Jenny Offill does.
Have I gushed enough? Weighed this “review” down enough with my tangents and navel-gazing? Just go read this book. It’s really something.
The boy took one look at the new floors and started to cry. "I think I'm going to throw up!" he said. I always thought that my sentimentality and resistance to change had to do with the fact that we moved so many times when I was a child, but he's the same way—perhaps even more so.
The girl took a few steps in, turned her head to take it all in, and with a sunny smile declared, "I like them!" Though, it was not immediately obvious whether she actually liked them or was just saying the opposite of what her brother said.
The baby hasn't given an opinion yet, nor do I expect her to. By the time she's able to say anything, she will have long since forgotten that there was ever carpet in the living room—if, indeed, she hasn't already. Her knees slip a bit more when she tries to crawl in her pajamas, but she takes it all in stride, like everything. Onward and upward, that's her motto.
April Review Round-up
The Autumn Republic, by Brian McClellan: In the round-up I wrote on my 2014 reading list, I said about Brian McClellan’s then-unfinished Powder Mage Trilogy, “I tore through the first book, picked up the second the day it was released, and am now impatiently waiting for the finale …” As it happened, I ended up buying the last chapter just as promptly as I did the middle, and read through it as voraciously as I did the first. The Autumn Republic delivers in every way I would have wanted: action, intrigue, epic scale, old gods, and new regimes. A very satisfying ending to a highly entertaining series. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Birdman: In her Oscars round-up post back in February, NPR’s Linda Holmes had this comment about Birdman:
Birdman is an offbeat film in many ways and has real visual inventiveness, but it also has hugely familiar themes: the lone struggling genius misunderstood by the world, yelling at his daughter about social media and defending the importance of real art. (IMDb)
The thing is, I’m not sure Birdman is that movie. I mean, it might be. Certainly the main character, Riggan Thomson—played by Michael Keaton—would describe himself as a lone struggling genius, and his story as one of defending art. But then, the film also goes to great lengths to show Riggan’s insecurity and ego, and ultimately his patheticness. When his daughter (Emma Stone) verbally takes him apart, shouting that he is irrelevant, so get used to it, she’s completely right.
So, which is it? Does Birdman praise the independent artist or skewer a self-important blowhard? It swings back and forth between the two, and the famously strange ending doesn’t really help resolve the question. I think, in the end, it’s going to be whatever you want it to be, and so while I found it interesting, I can’t say I really loved it.
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss: Long-time readers may have picked up on the fact that I have a lot of anxiety about my eventual death. So the fact that the opening chapter of this book describes the daily routine of an old, lonely man who is basically waiting around to die very nearly put me into a panic attack. I had to put the book down for a few days and come back once I’d calmed down. I’m glad I did come back, though.
The History of Love is the name of a book that the old man, Leo Gursky, wrote when he was young. It is also the name of a book written by a Polish emigrant to Argentina named Zvi Litvinoff. It is also the name of a book, the main character of which provides the namesake of a girl named Alma. Throughout The History of Love, we follow these three viewpoints—Leo, Litvinoff, and Alma—as their stories unfold and eventually converge.
The Litvinoff sections read like something out of Borges or Kundera. The Alma sections reminded me a bit of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake—in feel if not in the details—or perhaps some of John Irving’s teenage longing. It is, as the title suggests, about love. But it’s about more than that. It’s about the human desire for connection, the ways that we try so hard to know the people near us, and the ways that they nevertheless remain a mystery to us. It’s a beautifully written, very affecting novel, and although it was at times difficult for me to read, I highly recommend it. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi: I’ve been reading military SF since middle school, and though my tastes have broadened a lot since then, I still find myself coming back to the genre. It’s just so much fun. This one, John Scalzi’s first novel (published back in 2005), is energetic and entertaining, just like I’d want from a space war story. It does hew a bit close to Starship Troopers structurally, but trades the semi-Randian political philosophy for a sardonic sense of humor and a lot more sex. It’s a quick read—I finished the whole thing in a day—and after finishing The History of Love it was exactly what I needed. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham: One of the things that Daniel Abraham does really well is write characters who are flawed—sometimes deeply so—but still somehow relatable. The central characters of this series are a young woman who is a brilliant banker with scrappy, underdog beginnings and also a certain lack of empathy or self-awareness and a tendency to drink too much; a mercenary captain who is highly skilled but tends only to thrive when he’s at his worst; and a bookish young nobleman who turns out to be a self-deluding monster. Each of them—as well as a few others—get time as the viewpoint characters, and because we see things from their perspective, there’s a natural tendency for each to become sympathetic. Especially in the latter case, that winds up being seductive but misleading; the guy really is a terrible person.
Another thing that Abraham does well is find new ways to come at existing genres. In The Long Price Quartet that meant coming up with a very novel magic system and a setting that wasn’t a stand-in for medieval Europe. In The Expanse series, that means incorporating tropes from a different second genre into the overall science fictional arc with each new book. And in this series, it means taking all of the hallmarks of traditional epic fantasy and entwining it with a highly nonstandard motive force: money and banking. Abraham has said before that a big part of the origin of this series came from his research into Renaissance banking practices, and it makes for a pretty interesting take on a kind of story that’s been around for quite some time. The first four volumes of this series are well-paced, interesting, and populated with great characters, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens in the fifth. (The Dragon’s Path: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The King’s Blood: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Tyrant’s Law: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Widow’s House: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)
City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett: Man, this was a good book. I’m not sure how to describe it in a way that makes sense, though. It’s a fantasy novel, but set in a world that’s roughly technologically equivalent to the 1920’s. This is a world where the gods were real, and their power allowed one nation to enslave the entire world. But it’s also a world where the gods were vulnerable, and were killed in a slave uprising that overthrew the existing order, and whose deaths caused a cataclysm that reshaped an entire continent. But all of this is backstory.
Yes, it is a fantasy novel. But in its plot, City of Stairs is really more of a cloak-and-dagger thriller. In the aftermath of the uprising and war I mentioned before, the former slaves have come to rule their former masters, burying the old oppressors’ attempts to rebuild their civilization under a mountain of bureaucracy. Eighty years later, a visiting professor who is investigating the history of the Divine and their old empire winds up dead under questionable circumstances, and a woman—an operative—named Shara arrives to investigate. But the more she uncovers, the more huge the conspiracies become.
City of Stairs features amazing world-building, wonderful characters, and not a little commentary on the nature of politics and nations and power, but all of that is done so skillfully and naturally that it never feels forced or heavy-handed. If you like contemporary fantasy, I can’t recommend this book any more highly. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Having taken a little time off to regroup, I've decided to start up my print sales again. This month I am tweaking the format a bit: as before, each month I'll offer a new print. However, I'll no longer automatically be taking the print down at the end of the month. Depending on how it's going, I may keep a print going for a few extra days, months, or even make it available permanently.
Additionally, I'll be offering each print in a selection of sizes and price points. All prints will be in an open edition, but signed and numbered.
This month I'm offering a new one from my "Wash Before Next Use" series, creatively titled "Color #63." Check out my prints page for all of the details.
A year ago, when this photo was taken, her hair was longer and they were both smaller. But already they barely fit into the bath tub together. How is it that they still manage to squeeze in there, side by side, today? Somehow, they do. Not for too much longer, I think. But perhaps by the time he's finally outgrown bathtime with his sister, the baby will be ready to take his place.
Friday morning I went to a funeral for a nine-year-old.
Walking into the church, I shook the dad’s hand and gave the mom a hug. “You took our last family photos,” she said with a sad smile.
“That was a good day,” I said, but there were more people behind me and each of them needed to be seen. I moved along into the pews and sat down.
I had taken their pictures, last summer. And it had been a good day. It was toward the end of July, a sunny day that didn’t have the oppressive heat that August and September can have. There was a nice breeze coming in off the bay, and the paths at the resort where they were staying were shady and quiet. Both parents remarked several times how good a mood he was in that day, how well he was doing. It was hard for me to tell, but I believed them. And right at the end, as I was packing up to leave, the mom gasped and said, “Oh look, he’s smiling!”
I just barely caught the moment. Today the photo was on the back of the program.
They wanted the day to be a celebration, so I tried not to cry too much. But it’s hard to see a nine-year-old die. He had been declining for the whole time we’d known them, victim of a rare genetic disease. By the time I took their pictures last year he couldn’t sit up, hold things, eat, or even make eye contact. Maybe we knew this day was coming. That doesn’t make it any easier.
I could see the pain in the way his mom clutched his stuffed Spider-Man to her chest, in the lay of his dad’s white-gloved hand atop the casket as they walked it down the aisle. But there was determination, too, to remember his life more than his death.
Just after the family entered the room, I noticed a man walk up one of the side aisles carrying a pair of big SLR cameras. I recognized the rig: the standard event photographer’s kit. I wondered to myself, if this were me, if this were my son’s funeral, would I want there to be pictures? Wouldn’t I want the memories I looked at to be the good ones? But then, I’ve lost a lot of people in my life, and I’ve never stopped thinking about their memorials either. What would I give to have a photograph of the day we scattered my grandfather’s ashes into San Francisco Bay, or of the way the synagogue looked at my friend Aaron’s funeral when I was ten—even just to remember clearly what he looked like. I do remember the other parts, the parts that made me smile or laugh. But these ones matter too.
As the ceremony began and the priest’s voice rose and fell in chanting, my mind wandered. I remembered the weight of my great-grandfather’s casket, walking with my dad and his cousins as pallbearers. The old men who walked behind us, stooped and shuffling. The way my grandfather looked in his hospital bed on the day he died. I wanted to be present, aware, paying my respects in the here and now, but perhaps we’re all selfish creatures on some level.
The ceremony was nice. The man who led the congregation in song had a beautiful voice. And then it was over. I left, went to work, and tried to focus on the next thing. One foot after the other.
How do you move on, though? I’ve been to more funerals than I can remember now, and I know I have gotten past the grief, the feeling of life being different, distant. But I don’t really know how it happens. Nor when. Nor when it should.
There are so many things I don’t know. I don’t know how to tell them that I feel for them, that their loss makes my heart heavy, or even if I should; they don’t need to bear the burden of my feelings on top of their own. I don’t know what I can do for them.
What have I ever done? Organized a charity event, once. A few visits, here and there, a few conversations. Donated money to research for a cure for their son’s disease. Took their family pictures. Sent flowers. Showed up at their son’s funeral. A handshake. A hug. Is it enough? How could anything ever be enough?
I don’t know what the right thing to do is, for them, for me, for any of you reading this. I can hold them in my heart, and think about the fact that their son had a life. A hard one, yes, a short one, but a life nonetheless, and one that I can remember had good times, too, and love. He passed peacefully, surrounded by family and friends, which is as good an end as any of us could hope for.
And there’s this: I know that his parents would appreciate it if you took a moment to learn a bit about Tay-Sachs disease, and, if you can, help support the research efforts with a donation. You can also donate directly to the family’s memorial fund here.
Life is short, for all of us. Hug your kids, call your parents, spend time with your friends. Be mindful of the good things you have, and give thanks for them.
Jan, Ferd, Audrey, we love you.