I would like to recommend to you all Aliens and Anorexia by the American avant-garde writer, editor, and filmmaker Chris Kraus. Published in 2000, it was her second novel, and I think it more successfully realizes the goals set by another recent American novel, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. (This isn’t the place for my thoughts on Kushner’s accomplished, but ultimately disappointing, novel, but if you want to read those you can find some of them here.)
What is at the heart of these two books? Modernism, femininity, feminism in the avant-garde art world, transgression, transgressive aesthetics, and revolutionary politics.
Aliens and Anorexia begins with the narrator on a mission to show her film at the Berlin Film Festival. She has attempted to find a distributor for the film before, and it has not been well received. She knows it is a longshot, and an expensive one at that, but she feels she must try. She arrives in Berlin and immediately feels lost, confused, an outsider; she arrives at the Festival and is causally insulted. She soon fears this has all been a big, expensive waste of time, dignity, and money, of which she has very little.
The film the narrator wants to show is called Gravity and Grace—the author Chris Kraus also made a film by this name. Also like Kraus, the narrator has a husband named Sylvère Lotringer who is a French theorist. Doubtless there are other similarities that I’m either forgetting right now or did not acknowledge.
The title “Gravity and Grace” is taken from a book by the French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil, although the film (we do eventually learn what it is about) has little ostensibly to do with Weil’s book. Weil is a big influence on Aliens and Anorexia. Throughout Kraus recounts much of Weil’s strange life, her interactions with the other major female French theorists of her time, Simone de Beauvoir, and her writing. There’s also the matter of Weil’s strange death: the narrator, an anorexic, tries to understand why it was the Weil starved to death while working a British desk job in an attempt to contribute to the war against Hitler (earlier, Weil had wanted to go behind the lines as a spy). History has given us a medical answer to this question, but the narrator wants an emotional one.
In addition to Weil, the other famous woman that the narrator uses as an emotional sounding board and inspiration is Ulrich Meinhof, member of the infamous Baader-Meinhof Group terrorist group active in in West Germany in the ’70s. On May 9, 1976 Meinhof was found dead in her prison cell, ostensibly by hanging, although there has always been some question as to whether she committed suicide or was murdered. Kraus repeatedly returns to the moment of her death, linking it to an utterance she attributes to Meinhof:
Within moments of her death in 1976, Ulrike Meinhof became an Alien. “It’s only at the moment of death when an earthling can achieve the quality and intensity which aliens start with.”
These words are referenced throughout the book, as is the theme of aliens and abductions, which Kraus returns to briefly, but never explains beyond some insinuations and imagery. Aliens also come into play once we finally learn about the plot of the narrator’s film, Gravity and Grace.
In addition to all of these, Aliens and Anorexia also tells the story of the life and art of the controversial installation artist Paul Thek.
So what we have in Aliens and Anorexia is a series of narratives joined together and nested into one another in various ways. Kraus makes it all work extremely well. Each sub-narrative is compelling in and of itself, and Kraus wears her considerably erudition lightly. This book is just over 250 pages, and I read it in a single day. There is much depth and theory here, but Kraus keeps her narrative moving, and her prose is very tight and propulsive.
What I most appreciated in Aliens and Anorexia is how it brought me in to the life of its narrator—an outsider artist, an ill person, and one who is very much looking for something that I can’t quite define but that has to do with sex and love (one plot strand covers her S/M relationship via anonymous telephone with another filmmaker living in Nairobi). Kraus makes it all feel organic, the various pieces of the narrator’s intellect that are mutually reinforcing, as though they are all reflections and/or aspects of one another, even though they are at times ostensibly very different.
She is also very philosophic in Aliens and Anorexia. Fascinating observations and intriguing theories spring off virtually every page in this book. I would say her philosophic subject here might be the perils and necessity of empathy, particularly as it relates to the arts. And to the life of the narrator.
Aliens and Anorexia tells a story, and it is satisfying on the level of plot (you could even call it a page-turner), but I still feel that it’s very avant-garde for the way it approaches its subject, and for the things that it tries to bring into conversation with one another. It’s a book that takes risks with subject matter and prose. It’s also a very beautiful, touching, heartfelt novel.
After my posting last week that I was going to try and make this blog a little more writing-centric and less linky, there were some lamentations for the bygone era of the links. My best response to this is follow me on Twitter. You get all the links and much more.
But I know many of you aren’t the social media types (which I understand) so I added in a Twitter widget to the sidebar on the left. Now you can have all the goodness of my Twitter feed without actually having a Twitter account or even leaving this website. Hopefully this will be a good compromise between keeping links for those of you who value them and doing more longform writing as the meat of this blog.
From Anne Carson’s “fictional essay” The Beauty of the Husband.
Repression speaks about sex better than any other form of discourse
or so the modern experts maintain. How do people
get power over one another? is an algebraic question
you used to say. “Desire doubled is love and love doubled is madness.”
Madness doubled is marriage
when the caustic was cool, not intending to produce
a golden rule.
I thought this was a very successful book. I read it in a couple of hours over the Atlantic. I’m not quite sure what the term “fictional essay” means, or where Carson got it from, but it does look to be her doing (as opposed to something the publisher tacked on at a later point), so I’m taking it as part of the aesthetic statement of the book.
The 29 poems (or “tangos” to again quote Carson) deal with an unreliable husband, plus the eventual end of the marriage and drifting apart. This story is told from the perspective of the wife (who narrates most of these poems). Carson is very successful in getting across the wife’s mixed feelings—her husband is a jerk and a serial cheat, but one’s feelings for an ex are not so simple. The poetry throughout is very minimalist (many lines are made up of a single word) although also very emotionally penetrating, and, as I think the above shows, philosophically deep.
This is the third work by Carson I’ve read, after the pamphlets Nay Rather and The Albertine Workout, and I’m very much looking forward to my next Carson book. I’ll also soon be seeing a theatrical production of Carson’s translation of Sophocles, found in her book Antigonick.
Hey guys, it’s 2015. This blog first went online in 2004. In Internet time, that’s several geologic eras. In 2004, Google AdSense (and web advertising) barely existed, there was no Twitter or Facebook, Amazon was struggling for profitability (well, some things never change), and much of the mainstream press enjoyed stigmatizing this whole blog fad thing.
Anyway, point is, things are different now. The way the Internet exists has changed, and the way that I (and, I would guess, you) use the it is different. Also, I’m in a pretty different place in my life. I’ll spare you . . . continue reading, and add your comments
From Oulipian Frédéric Forte’s Minute-Operas, translated by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (more info here)
I emerge from the frigid depths of the winter holidays to offer you this link to an interview I conducted with the Guatemalan author Rodrigo Rey Rosa. It is part of a stellar all-translation issue of The White Review put together by Daniel Medin.
I began reading Rey Rosa in late 2013 when Chris Andrews’s translation of The African Shore arrived in English. That book is fantastic, and soon I had read everything else of Rey Rosa’s I could get my hands on.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Jorge Luis Borges is a major influence of . . . continue reading, and add your comments
Some love for two of my favorite journals at NPR.
From The White Review, a fantastic quarterly arts journal in print and online, to Electric Literature, which is known for its features, masterful interviews, and brilliant design, there is much to discover. Then there’s a personal favorite, Music & Literature — the brave new kid on the block, highlighting exciting writers and musicians we might otherwise never come across. Each issue is a gem, and especially useful for those interested in breaking their parochial American reading habits and looking more globally.
“The support of curious and ambitious . . . continue reading, and add your comments
This came out about a year ago, and I have a feeling I may have even linked to a review at The New Inquiry already, but, anyway, it’s worth another look.
This is an encyclopedic dictionary of close to 400 important philosophical, literary, and political terms and concepts that defy easy–or any–translation from one language and culture to another. Drawn from more than a dozen languages, terms such as Dasein (German), pravda (Russian), saudade (Portuguese), and stato (Italian) are thoroughly examined in all their cross-linguistic and cross-cultural complexities. Spanning the classical, medieval, early modern, modern, and contemporary . . . continue reading, and add your comments
Verso ebooks are 90% (yes NINETY PERCENT) off until Jan 1. But a few. Like some Franco Moretti, or some ZIZEK, or this fascinating book about Anonymous, or Simon Critchley.
If you don’t eread, the print books are 50% off and free shipping worldwide.
So, wow, if you can’t find something to enjoy there you might be on the wrong blog.
I’d just like to make a year-end plug to ask that if you value this site, the please contribute a little toward shoring up my bottom line. You can do this very easily at PayPal.
Basically, I’m asking because the way you make money online these days is by generating lots of clickbait, writing pandering headlines designed to go viral, and generally specializing in the sort of lowest-common-denominator content that is irrelevant to anyone’s life and leaves your head as soon as it has entered it. You certainly don’t do it by writing about obscure and esoteric . . . continue reading, and add your comments