Two little gems: Weather by Jenny Offill, published in February, and Artforum by César Aira, published in March.
By Randy Kraft
Jenny Offill, whose first adult fictions were on many best-of lists, has also written children’s books and co-edited anthologies. Department of Speculation, reviewed here in 2014, was her breakthrough novel, told in short takes that reveal contemporary lives and challenges. Weather, which deals abstractly with the climate crisis, is the same format and has recently received glowing reviews. I agree. The protagonist, a promising graduate student mired in her brother’s addiction, goes to work answering mail for a Q&A podcast, and ends up dealing with the most neurotic and fearful among us, from whom she too learns a few things, but which begins to unravel her core equanimity. In the end, a human life, and human psyche, is as unpredictable as weather, despite meteorologists who suggest otherwise – as variable and as fragile as the planet. This little book is one of those books you will want to underline and scribble in the margins, and I was consistently shaking my head in wonder at her wisdom, not to mention her cleverly crafted prose. It’s a gem, truly, and I suggest you read at least twice, or at least very slowly. A post-modern novel as insightful and smart as Bronté in her time.
Sylvia tells the audience that the only reason we think humans are the height of evolution is that we have chosen to privilege certain things above other things. For example, if we privileged the sense of smell, dogs would be deemed more evolved. After all, they have about three hundred million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to our six million. If we privileged longevity, it would be bristlecone pines which can live for several thousand years. And you could make a case that banana slugs are sexcually superior to us. They are hermaphrodites who mate up to three times a day.
Artforum, by César Aira, at first sight looks like an art gallery catalog but without images, and is in fact a novella based on an Argentinian intellectual’s obsession with Artforum magazine. Not so much the reading of them, as collecting them, gathering them into his arms and into his home for posterity, and protecting them from the elements. Any book lover will understand the compulsion – the need to pile and shelve books as essential as the reading. This piece of writing is an incredibly simple concept, from chapter to chapter, a life is revealed through his search for current and past editions and the people he encounters along the way. Quirky and delightful, what seems like interrelated stories combine to exemplify one man who, in this seemingly small passion, finds an opportunity to fill the spaces between an otherwise predictably linear existence. Another gem from a master.
Leaving aside such subtleties, or digging deeper into them, the craziness of buying all of them resided in the excess of pleasure, or at least, gratification. I had had a stroke of luck, there they were in my avid hands, as incredible as they were undeniable, material, tangible. We always count on having strokes of luck, but on a different and fluctuating plane in time, not in the present. Now it was the present. The present and Artforum that expressed it now coincided. That was enough to make me slightly giddy with incredulity.