12 March 2020

Two Gems: Weather and ArtForum

Jenny Offill
The original and unusual novel, Department of Speculation, reviewed here in 2014, was Jenny Offill’s breakthrough book, written in short takes that reveal contemporary lives and challenges. Her latest novel, Weather, which deals abstractly with the climate crisis, is told in the same format and has received glowing reviews. I agree.

The protagonist, a promising graduate student trapped by 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 a book that demands underlined passages and scribbles in the margins. So much info and insight. 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 sharply observed 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.

Cesar Aira
Artforum, by César Aira, at first sight looks like an art gallery catalog, but without images, and is a novella based on an Argentinian intellectual’s obsession with Artforum magazine. Not so much the reading of them as the collecting of them. He gathers them, obsessively, into his arms and into his home for posterity, and goes to great lengths to protect them from the elements, although, in the end, nothing can be protected perfectly. Any book lover understands the compulsion to pile and shelve books. As essential as the reading.

This small gem 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.

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.