Prepare to Be Ruined
Writer and Triangle House Review Editorial Director Becca Schuh on six books she can’t stop thinking about.
There was a year, sometime around 2015, when I fell in love with nearly every book I read. I’ll try and be precise: one in three? I was living in California, serving breakfast six days a week at a diner, and had little faith that I’d ever find a concrete connection to the literary world. The books I read that year were the reminder that there was a chance of another life, that if I kept working, kept focusing, it might belong to me. It was the year I read The Folded Clock, How Should a Person Be?, The Argonauts, Nobody is Ever Missing, A Little Life.
During this time, my obsession with literature was like taking shots, consistently available, easy to rally around, and with immediate, yet temporary, payoffs in the forms of energy, communion, and love. When I started working semi-professionally with books, infatuation became harder to find. It wasn't that I loved reading less, but that ecstatic element materialized rarely.
Recently, in the course of discussing the so-called state of book criticism with a friend as research for a piece I was working on, he remarked “Most books, like most things, are bad.” I think about this comment every day now, with small variations. Most books are okay. Most books are mediocre. Most books shouldn’t be held up as monoliths, because they will inevitably disappoint you. Most books are exercises. Most books aren’t love.
Now there’s something other than love that I search for, I guess it’s like what my friends used to tell me about dating: don’t be so desperate, they can see it in your eyes. Maybe if I ignore love, I’ll find something else. These books are from several eras of my life, I would not necessarily call all of them my favorites, but they all took root inside me because they gave me something that I didn’t know I was looking for. They had resonance beyond intellectual ideas; helped me discover the use of books as a way to contextualize a social universe. Most books are bad, but these books are something all their own.
TIMES SQUARE RED, TIMES SQUARE BLUE by Samuel R. Delany
My best friend in college took a class called “Queer in Public”with a professor who later also became our friend. We went to an interdisciplinary program where everything blended together, so we were able to temporarily forget that in the so-called real world, there are very blunt and enforced lines between sex, and public life, and theory, and friendship. She gave me her heavily annotated copy of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue several years after we graduated, when I needed a sense of that blending of the separate spheres of life more than ever.
In what I like to call a social ethnography, Delany recounts his experiences with non-committal contact in the public sex theaters of New York before the city eliminated their existence, and afterwards reflects on what was lost. Reading the book eighteen years after its publication is a reminder that the desire for public sex or random sex is both older than we know and has not been eradicated.
I thought about the new dimension the work takes in the age of the internet, where our desires for random connection have manifested. Is Tinder our modern replacement for sex theatres? Is the attempt to push sex further into secrecy responsible for the high prevalence of both sex crimes and sex scandals? It’s an ode to the many different types of sex lives that people want outside of the socially accepted paradigm, a commentary on the plurality of relationships one needs to have a fulfilled life. It is a book about class, a book about contact, an anti-capitalist take on intimacy, and of course, a book about New York.
ÁGUA VIVA by Clarice Lispector
My favorite Clarice Lispector passage is actually from her Collected Stories, from the piece “Dry Sketch of Horses,” and it’s about identifying with the ‘false domestication’ of a horse. But Água Viva is the work that most reflects my dreams of what writing is capable of – it’s a book that manages to have no form and yet contain itself perfectly; it’s a book so poetic that you want to live within the scaffolding the words create.
There’s a savage and brazen core at the heart of women, at the heart of the world, and this is where Lispector lives and where she invites you throughout this short volume. It follows no traditional narrative, instead we’re led through the geometries of Lispectors mind with lines like:
“I am rudely alive.”
“Marvelous scandal: I am born.”
“And I await the orgasmic apocalypse.”
As well as such precise meditations on nature as “Can the oyster when torn from its root feel anxiety?” I’d rather read Clarice on oysters than anyone on anything else. Though she reveals little in the way of biographical details, you nevertheless believe without reservation that Lispector lived a life of secrets, of limerence, of deep communion with temporality. Near the end of the slim volume, Lispector asks: “let’s not die as a dare?” Reading this, my only thought was: please.
PREPARATION FOR THE NEXT LIFE by Atticus Lish
I spent a week last October in Italy at a workshop facilitated by Giancarlo DiTrapano and Chelsea Hodson. Giancarlo runs Tyrant Books, which published Preparation for the Next Life to landfalls of acclaim four years ago. Giancarlo, beyond being a generous and hilarious human, has a rare quality that I deeply admire and hope to one day attain: he has a specific aesthetic, precise as a laser, and the ability to curate it ingeniously. You recognize a Tyrant Book, and Preparation for the Next Life is a seminal example. Its viscerality, its raw and taut sentences, and the sense that you’re about to get wholloped in the face by the narrative to come.
When I posted on one of the social media platforms that I was reading the Preparation for the Next Life, the influx of messages was near-immediate, and the crux was this: prepare to be ruined. Seeing as I was in the midst of the melodramatic implosion of a fall fling, reading a book that would fuck me up was probably not the wisest choice, but nevertheless, I persisted.
Preparation for the Next Life is a love story: Skinner is an army veteran, Zou Lei is an undocumented immigrant from the Chinese province of Xinjiang. They meet in New York and attempt to forge lives for themselves and a life together in the outskirts of the city, both geographically and metaphorically. But insofar as the book is a love story, it is so many other kinds of stories: it is a microscope on the brutality of America, it is a novel of bureaucracy and of solitude. Skinner and Zou Lei drink vodka out of plastic cups and shove pizza boxes under the bed and walk in flip flops on the burning sidewalk and every painstakingly described motion they make reeks of survival. Just at the moments when I thought the book might render me useless, it came through with humor: “Love is hard, she said. You have to train the boy. Just like the dog. The bigger the dog, the more you have to hit him.”
A friend described the book as “perfect tragedy,” and this is true both in the romance and the stark honesty about America’s core: it contains the type of information that you don’t want to know, but that you need to reckon with if you’re going to attempt to engage with the country in the mangled state it exists in today.
MEN AND APPARITIONS by Lynne Tillman
At a book launch I attended last spring, I witnessed Lynne Tillman, who was seated in the audience, start an argument with one of the speakers. If it hadn’t been Lynne Tillman, I would have been covering my face with my hair and looking for escape routes, my usual reaction when an audience member says, “this is more of a comment than a question.” But it was Lynne Tillman, so the entire audience was rapt and engaged in the impromptu battle.
It’s a theme common to Tillman’s work: you’re not sure who else could get away with it, but thank god Tillman is up to the challenge. In the past few years I’ve found myself less and less engaged in books whose primary function is plot, I’m sick of watching the gears turn and summoning the ability to guess exactly where the narrative is going. For this affliction, Tillman’s work is the perfect cure: placing plot in the background, she foregrounds critical thought and observation for a brilliant hybrid of cultural anthropology and fiction. The protagonist, Ezekiel Stark, describes himself making field notes about his own persona: “Study yourself.” The phrase I came up with to describe this unique style: “self narration.”
Tillman invites all our favorite theory pals into the romp: Susan Sontag and Marguerite Duras and Walter Benjamin and John Cage. Her protagonist develops his own theories of image and the family while grappling with his place as a modern man and the contradictions of male feminists.
The tone alternates between challenging and colloquial, with such casual asides as “It’s hard, even when you hate people, to deface their pix.” Though I wrote, “Is it???” In the margins, I loved getting to know the giddy narrator as his thoughts oscillated from Kant to Kim Kardashian.
PERSON/A by Elizabeth Ellen
In my copy of the 616 page behemoth of Person/a, a not-small number of my annotations are simply “clue.” I became obsessed with figuring out the identity of the object of the narrator’s affection, and marked any spot that I thought might help me figure out who the elusive character was based on. Over the course of the book, though, I became more obsessed with the protagonist herself: the autofictional version of Elizabeth Ellen, or some amalgamation of Elizabeth Ellens: it’s never clear exactly who you’re encountering.
What is clear is that Ellen is fearless: “Things I think about sometimes while listening to a single sad song on repeat and smoking cigarettes in my basement: what is the least amount of minutes two people have spent in each other’s presence that have resulted in the most days spent writing that person’s name on the wall in their mind? How am I more or less whacked?” I’ve always been afraid to pen this question or it’s variations, but reading Person/a made me realize that there are more of us out here than we think: people who focus on the short-lived relationships that the social paradigm deems illegitimate. Ellen lends not only legitimacy but a kind of therapy with her words: it happens, let’s just fucking talk about it.
I hope that Person/a is remembered as a masterwork of sublimation, which Ellen defines herself within its pages: “Something I forgot to mention: Marta referred to this book, to the act of writing it, as ‘sublimation of desire.’” I had to look up sublimation when I got home. I was unfamiliar with the word, I had never heard the term. Sublimation: the channeling of impulses or energies regarded as unacceptable, especially sexual desires, toward activities regarded as more socially accpetable, often creative activities.”
PROSTITUTE LAUNDRY by Charlotte Shane
I’ve read this book twice, once on vacation in Mexico shortly after attending one of Shane’s “Bad Advice from Bad Women” readings, and once when I thought I was falling in love with someone. I wanted to give him the book, I wanted him to read it and recognize in Shane’s eloquent descriptions of human relations the fantasy I thought we were collectively building.
Rereading the book convinced me this was a bad idea, which I honestly think is a more sterling endorsement than having it facilitate a temporary love. To have a work of literature help you recognize the fault lines in your fantasies is stranger than rapture and realer than admiration (though I also admire Shane more than nearly any other contemporary writer and critic).
I offered it to him anyway, casually, as he wandered around my room examining my books. He said, “You know, sometimes if I tweet about a book, the author will DM me and offer me a free copy.”
I stared at him.
“Do you remember what kind of work I do?” I was laughing already, of course he didn’t.
He stared at me blankly. I thought about the men that Shane describes, and how you follow her as she recategorizes her intimacies with them throughout the epistolary chapters. Lying naked in my bed, I began the process of recategorizing this man as a person rather than a fantasy. Thank you, Charlotte.
Like Giancarlo, Shane is also an exemplary literary curator. Between her reading series, her small press, and her book reviews, she’s a rare critic that I trust without reservation. Prostitute Laundry began as a TinyLetter, and I’ll forever regret that I didn’t discover her work in time to engage in the delirious anticipation of waiting for a next installment. I love this book for the humanity with which Shane speaks of all types of relationships, the rigorous tenderness with which she approaches living, and the je ne sais quoi that makes her voice redolent of both genius and salve.
I kept the second copy of the book and gave it to a female friend who loved it as much as I did, which feels like the proper outcome, at least for the moment.