Kathleen Stewart’s “Ordinary Affects” is an Extraordinary Book

978-0-8223-4107-9-frontcoverWritten by anthropologist Kathleen Stewart and published by Duke University Press, Ordinary Affects may seem, at first glance, unremarkable and perhaps even pretentious, just another academic text published by an academic press. But Ordinary Affects, a collection of more than 100 vignettes and observations of “ordinary” American life, quietly unpacks the everyday occurrences and relations that constitute this “ordinary” in ways that are unsettling and profound. If Ordinary Affects were a work of fiction I would greatly admire it. That it is not fiction makes me obsessed with it.

Though Stewart (who refers to herself as “she” and “her” in the text rather than “I” or “me”) is present in many of the vignettes, one does not get the sense that she sees herself as a stand-in for the Everyman (or “Everywoman”) of contemporary American life. She is a woman, she is white, and she is an anthropologist. Her observations are necessarily filtered through these lenses, however, the majority of the stories collected in this work are not really about her, per se–some are about people she knows or has spoken to–an ice fisherman  or a Vietnam vet or a homeless person whose friend was struck by a train, some concern stories she has seen in the news, handwritten signs, towns she has visited, experiences remembered and relayed to her by friends and family. There are deaths, violent crimes, injustices, accidents, yard sales and traffic jams, domestic disputes and grocery stores, acts of protest and (American) dreams. Within small fragments of text bearing headings like “Dryer Sheets”,  “The TV Repairman”, and “Suburban Apocalypticism”, Stewart gently and relentlessly pursues the ordinary, revealing it as trembling with potential, multi-faceted, twining and entwined. One senses there is more there, blurry and difficult to pin down.

“The ordinary” Stewart writes, “is a moving target. Not first something to make sense of, but a sense of sensations that incite. The possibility that something will snap into sense or drift by untapped” (93). Many of Stewart’s vignettes involve those moments where that something does indeed “snap into sense”, if only for a moment, a flash of recognition, of a happening, that soon dissolves back into the shuffling and shifting landscape of everyday life. In a segment called “Pipe Dreams” (98), a group of striking miners waiting in a West Virginia health clinic have realized that their strike has failed. One of them begins to fantasize about looting the governor’s mansion–“Power grows palpable in the image of high brick walls that can be breached by a potent, collective, working-class masculinity.” A something fills the room, then is gone.

As a student in an anthropology class, Ordinary Affects (written in a lyrical prose reminiscent of the way French poet Francis Ponge wrote about objects), is a refreshing addition to the more dry theoretical texts that often dominate the curriculum. As a writer, this book is an absolute gift.

Exquisitely Crafted: Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”

9780316074315_custom-ab2793381053c909c69a0e7d56cac302350a9795-s6-c30To begin Eleanor Catton’s elegant, 832-page novel, recipient of both the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, is a daunting task. The Luminaries contains 20 important characters (helpfully charted in the opening pages), follows an astrological structure and is, as mentioned above, an intimidating 832 pages long. To settle into the opening chapter (“In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.“) is not a matter of allowing yourself to be swept away (because how can you be with a book this physically heavy?), but of making a conscious decision to begin a long journey in the rain.

This, I think, is Catton’s intention. Her opening scene, set in 1866 Hokitika, New Zealand, finds young Walter Moody rattled from his overseas journey, bogged down by fatigue and rain. Upon entering the smoking room of the Crown Hotel, he comes upon twelve men silently occupying themselves in the kind of “studied isolation” that betrays the secret council in which they were deeply engaged just moments earlier. Both Moody and the reader must decide if the glimmers of intrigue that Catton has left visible are worth the trek into the murky unknown.

The answer for this reader is yes. Though never an easy read, the weight of The Luminaries is one which begins to gain momentum the moment we know something another character does not (which happens repeatedly throughout). Catton is a master of both concealment and revelation, parceling out each in just the right amounts so that our confusion never quite overtakes our dawning understanding, and vice versa. Her style is one which assumes and speaks to the reader, and ultimately rewards them in the incredibly satisfying final chapters.

Despite the mathematical and thematic sophistication of the book’s structure and Catton’s gorgeous, though occasionally high-falutin’, prose (the men in the Crown Hotel “might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them” their “bodily silence…deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain”), The Luminaries is, at its heart, a mystery story. Like any good mystery, the beauty of the language and the elegance of the chapter headings and divisions are secondary to the characters’ (and the reader’s) quest to seek out what is hidden and to unravel what seems at first to be hopelessly twisted. The prose and the structure, significant as they are, are the vehicles in which we travel–the mystery is the terrain.

Luckily, The Luminaries‘ mysterious landscape is one the author has mapped well and one she is adept at revealing. Unlike the patronizing explanations of Sherlock Holmes, Catton’s facilitation of our understanding is as emotional as it is rational, as lyrical as it is illuminating, and as wistful as it is fulfilling.

Having quite enjoyed The Luminaries, the only reason I wish the book were not so long is so that I would be more likely to undertake the repeated readings that would allow me to tease out Catton’s carefully crafted design a little more and derive even more pleasure from her skill. Even returning to the book casually (i.e. for leafing through) for the purposes of this review revealed details I hadn’t noticed before: delicious section names like “Tar”, “Tin”, and “The Widow and the Weeds”, and the way that the title of Part I, “A Sphere with a Sphere”, comes full circle (and becomes more poetic) for the book’s final section title, Part XII, “The Old Moon in the Young Moon’s Arms”.

There is so much to notice in this novel and so much to take pleasure in that I hope The Luminaries’ size will not dissuade you. Eleanor Catton clearly laboured long and now has a triumph to show for it.

Nifty Reads: “Tuesdays with Morrie”

417px-Tuesdays_with_Morrie_book_coverThere is a small stack of books in the lunchroom at my office topped by a paper sign that says “Free” (it used to be a larger stack but it seems people, myself included, have been taking advantage of this anonymous book donor’s offer). One of the books was a small, unassuming paperback of Mitch Albom’s bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie. I knew the book was famous, I knew its size was perfect for easy carriage in my work bag, and I liked the look of it. So I took it, and I read it, and I guess I’m glad I did.

The book is both a memoir of the author’s relationship with his subject, and a series of life lessons imparted by the author’s late professor (and beloved friend) Morris “Morrie” Schwartz, collected on weekly (Tuesday) visits as Morrie’s body succumbed to ALS, a fatal and debilitating illness with no cure.

To be frank, a triumph of literature this ain’t. The language is so simple a fifth grader could read it. The book offers no literary surprises, no elegance, and only a very loose structure to keep it all together. As I began reading, I thought, how simplistic. How sentimental. How weird (this one was in reference to Morrie’s strange teaching methods in his sociology courses at Brandeis University). And yet….and yet.

This is a book the author approaches with no ego, only a tremendous love for his friend and respect for the ways in which he chose to live and chose to die. Yes, the book is simple. Yes, the book is emotional. But Albom is so earnest about this project, so sincere in his desire to share what his professor taught him, that Tuesdays with Morrie, the pair’s “final thesis” together, managed to win me over despite my snobbish cynicism.

I won’t bother sharing Morrie’s lessons here. To list them out as separate from the conversations that engendered them really would over-simplify them, and make them appear to be nothing more than the usual “love thy neighbour, love thyself” philosophies we encounter on motivational posters and internet memes and in self-help books every day.  The fact of the matter is that nothing Morrie had to say about life was anything I had not already heard or read before. The important thing is that he said them while he was dying, while his body was literally decaying from the legs up. Facing imminent death preceded by incredible pain and complete helplessness, Morrie still believed in the importance of love, gratitude, and forgiveness, and believed that he was a lucky man.

For me the significant and profound parts of the book are not to be found in what Morrie said, but in the ways in which Albom’s interactions with him in his dying months demonstrate the principles he wished to share. During his first Tuesday with Morrie, Albom is sheepish, not having seen his old professor in more than a decade (despite promising, after graduation, to keep in touch). By the final weeks of Morrie’s life Albom is massaging cream into Morrie’s feet (paralyzed by ALS but still, cruelly, perfectly able to feel pain and discomfort). He is helping his friend get comfortable in his chair (no small feat once Morrie is unable to move his body on his own), learning to hit his professor’s frail back to help dislodge the phlegm that threatens to choke him. Albom learns not to be disgusted by the smell of his friend’s dying body, or by the colostomy bag that sits on the floor beneath his chair. He hugs his friend, holds his hands. He kisses his old prof’s cheeks, without embarrassment or awkwardness. No money, status symbol, or prestigious career could have given Morrie the love he received at the end of this life. It was there for him because he was loving.

As I look forward to my wedding in August and the marriage that will follow it, I think about what it truly means to love and support another person, as if their joys were my joys and their pain were mine. I think about the fact that there is no way of knowing what the future will bring and although I hope for a bright one, there will almost certainly be dark times (not too dark if I’m lucky). Throughout the book, Morrie continuously, almost feverishly, quotes the poet W. H. Auden: “Love each other or perish,” Morrie says, and I’m beginning to understand it now. We enter life completely dependent upon the care of others, and many of us will exit in the same condition. Without love, how could any of us survive?

Now that I’m finished reading the book I understand why its language is so simple. Tuesdays with Morrie is an accessible book, and it should be. I don’t know if I will ever read it again (it was quite sad) but I’ve decided to keep it around. One day, maybe I’ll have a teenager I can give it to. I can say, “Here, read this book. It’s not long and it’s not hard. When you’re done, you tell me if your allowance is so important.” I look forward to it.