Reading the Zeitgeist: Lincoln in the Bardo

I don’t tend to follow trends. I get curious when something enters the zeitgeist, but that curiosity doesn’t often extend to invested interest. Weirdly, this doesn’t happen with movies – I’m down with the zeitgeist for movies (I’m so here for you, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2). It does, however, happen with books.

Every year, out of the thousands of titles that come out, a handful become zeitgeist books. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Gone GirlThe Girl on the Train. The Girl with All the Gifts…apparently, unless you’re Andy Weir, a book’s chances of getting lucky go up exponentially if “girl” is in the title.

When I was a bookseller, I read the zeitgeist books because people expect indie booksellers to have read them, and I think that’s only fair. But when I left bookstores and became a writer, I started digging into backlists for research and never really emerged. On the one hand, this suits me fine, because there’s a freaking ton of great books that go un(der)noticed, so dipping into that pool has a treasure hunting quality to it. On the other hand, it means that I miss out on one of the most exciting things about being a reader – discussing a popular or controversial book with a whole lot of other readers.

It’s a community thing – one that working in bookstores and libraries always facilitated for free. Unfortunately, I’ve been out of the game long enough now to have forgotten how lovely it is. It wasn’t until I scanned the media coverage on George Saunders’s debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo that I realized how much I’d missed it. Whether I stopped because my job no longer required it, or because I got lazy, or contrary, or I just fell out of touch, I don’t know, but there’s something vital about experiencing some books in real time, first hand.

Lincoln in the Bardo has prompted discussion on multiple levels – not what it felt like to read it, but actual critical discussion that made me all nostalgic for my MA days. It’s prompted discussions about history, memory, structure, interpretation, meaning and form. People have engaged it emotionally and cerebrally, and I find that pretty exciting. So I decided to read the book.

Enough has been written about Lincoln in the Bardo that anything I say will either be redundant or trite. What I will say is that the attention it’s receiving – both blazingly positive and constructively critical – is fully deserved. Some people love the structural departure from traditional prose. Other people feel it would have worked better in a less experimental form. Personally, while I felt it had some minor weaknesses, those weaknesses were more than compensated for by the sheer emotional and artistic force of the book as a reading experience.

Reading is, at it’s very best, a visceral, connective experience. It unsettles and unmoors you. It makes you feel and question. It makes you think and discuss and engage in debate. It opens you to experiences you will never have. It builds understanding and empathy. It breeds curiosity. A book can pry you out of your emotional, mental and circumstantial shell. Judging by that standard, Lincoln in the Bardo succeeds, hands down.

That’s a really exciting thing, and it’s something I would’ve missed out on if the cranky little old lady inside me had shaken her fist at George Saunders as he walked across my lawn. What a loss that would’ve been – to experience the explosion of a book on the scene, and to discuss it with people who had also just read it, and loved it, or hated it, or not gotten it, or wanted to throw it across the room.

There’s community in the zeitgeist, and if the zeitgeist brings a book like Lincoln in the Bardo to Walmart and Target, all the better. The zeitgeist isn’t something to shake your fist at and slink away from. It’s something to engage.

On Being Uncomfortable: Good Night, Beautiful Women

I try not to stop reading a book because it makes me uncomfortable. There are exceptions. I had to set aside Sophie’s Choice for all the reasons…granted, I was reading it while I was pregnant with my daughter, so the timing probably could’ve been better. Still, for the most part, if a book makes me uncomfortable, I try to slow down and stick with it.

That approach got me through some tough reads – A Little Life, Homegoing and An Untamed State kicked me in the face with the tragedy of living but, for the most part I got through them, (admittedly, with occasional skimming). This does not make me a reading-bad ass. I read to escape more often than not. It’s just that, some stories strike me as being important on a human level, and I want to try to witness and understand other people’s experiences as much as the constraints of my life and circumstances allow. That’s why it surprised me when I had to set aside Anna Noyes’s debut collection, Goodnight, Beautiful Women

Books like A Little Life and An Untamed State, which are generally considered to be  triggering or, at the very least, emotionally challenging, come at an issue of global concern from a very specific, personal point of view – kidnapping, rape and economic disparity; child prostitution, trauma and abuse…. These issues are so present in our culture that they demand social awareness and discourse. They are issues that are, unfortunately, still relevant and resonant on a wide scale in the world we all live in. You could argue that the reasons novels like The Color Purple and Sophie’s Choice can be so upsetting is that they are deeply personal novels that deal, unflinchingly, with universal tragedies.

This is not the purview of Goodnight, Beautiful Women. Noyes’s collection of loosely linked short stories is quiet and deeply personal. Rather than the effects of cultural appropriation or sexual violence, Noyes drills into the uncertain tides of personal experience, like the reverberations of memory, or the deeply personal affect of a lie on the liar. Her stories reflect on the incidental choices that redirect a life; on a mother’s absence, and daughter’s subtle decline; on an injured woman’s quiet fall from grace.

The emotional tides these stories create ebb and flow, like water through a fen – quiet and almost disturbingly subtle. That’s why I found myself getting uncomfortable in ways that I didn’t expect as I read them. This wasn’t the distress at human tragedy. This was the discomfort of seeing myself reflected in the movement of those tides.

The effect is literally too subtle for me to qualify in any kind of accurate way, but it left me feeling both attracted and repulsed. While I was reading them, I couldn’t put these stories down…but I also didn’t want to pick them up again once the bookmark was in. So, that’s how it went – stopping and starting over more than a month. At one point, I even put it back on the shelf, but found myself hunting it down two weeks later, weirdly compelled to finish it.

When I first finished the collection, I gave it a lukewarm review on Litsy. Even as I did, I knew I was doing it partially out of spite…

“It’s beautiful…beautiful writing…beautiful prose…remarkable…but I’m not clear on Noyes’s point.”

In hindsight, that was bullshit. Noyes’s point is perfectly clear – the narrative arc of a life, unlike that of a story, isn’t clean or planned. It’s random, happens in shards and hinges on understandings you can’t accurately have at the time.

I edited my review to reflect this conclusion after sitting with the stories for awhile, because that’s the effect the book has had. As uncomfortable as it made me, I find myself turning these stories over in my mind, like polished stones. There is something alchemical with Anna Noyes’s prose – she unfurled my defenses and showed me to myself. It’s a shockingly intimate and deeply uncomfortable reading experience for reasons that I still can’t properly express.

Far from he lukewarm review I initially gave it, I can now honestly say that, while I have read collections that overwhelmed me with their rawness, their greatness, or their sheer inventiveness, this is the only one that has ever held a mirror right up to my face. That’s a rare thing, and the discomfort it gave me is a strange and unsettling gift. I’ll definitely be looking forward to more from Anna Noyes.

A Ramble on Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson

img_3978It’s the first day of winter! Hooray! I love winter. I LOVE winter in all of it’s quiet, cold, freezing, icy, white, profound, dark, cozy, blinding glory. Last year, I wrote this post on my other site about why winter is the most comforting, productive time of year for me, so I won’t rehash that. Instead, I’m going to have myself a ramble on the kind of books I love to read around Christmastime, which can pretty much be summed up by Jeanette Winterson’s new collection.

Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days is the book equivalent of a dark, frosty-windowed night, and the cosy home that protects you from the cold. I do a lot of re-reading this time of year- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark is Rising, fairy tales, Dracula and The Lord of the Rings (especially Return of the King) tend to get a lot of action this time of year. They aren’t particularly wintery books, but they all acknowledge an overarching darkness and the triumph of light (or logic, or goodness) over it.

That kind of story arc especially appeals to me at this time of year, when I’m reading under a blanket in my battered leather chair. While the stories in Christmas Days cover a lot of ground subject-wise, at the heart of them all is a shadowy snatch of darkness (whether from violence, grief, or loneliness) and an effort to transcend it.

Winterson is especially good at ghost stories, and there are some amazing ghost stories in this collection. There are isolated houses, unsolved murders, hotels with questionable histories and avenging brides. I got so caught up that I got that shifty, creepy feeling in my spine, which was fun because I almost never get that feeling from a book.

Some of the stories that made my heart ache too, like “The Snowmama” about a lonely little girl, or “Glow-Heart” about a man grieving his lover, and even “The Silver Frog” a super satisfying fairy tale about a horrible woman who runs a horrible orphanage and her horribly satisfying end. Interleaved between these stories were 12 recipes that doubled as essays on everything from estrangement and grief, to being married to a Jew at Christmas.

Jeanette Winterson gets winter. She’s written articles and essays about why the quiet, dark time is important, and I agree with her on every point. Winter is a time of contemplation, for slowing down, for taking stock. It’s a time to get re-centered with yourself. Where am I in my own landscape, and where I want to go in the coming year?

The essays and stories in this collection honor that impulse. They are a cosy nest of a reading experience and they set the perfect tone for that kind of quiet, ritualistic contemplation. They’re also just a pleasure to read for their own sake, which is probably why they worked for me on that deeper level. Plus, Winterson is funny and wry and wise and totally irreverent, even while she’s being very reverent. Plus, the biryani recipe is killer. And the mulled wine…god, that mulled wine was good. So, yes. Clearly, I’ve got another book to reread next year.

Comfort Reads

Black and white photograph of a kitten covered by pie dough in a pie. For Comfort Reads by Malin James

Kitty Pie by John McEnery

A comfort read is a book, author, story or snippet that, you guessed it, you find comforting. By “comforting” I don’t mean that it necessarily makes you happy. It also doesn’t have to be inspirational or uplifting. A comfort read can be dark, superficial or random. You can read it in its entirety or take a quick dip into a specific chunk.

Comfort reads are the literary equivalent of a teddy bear and, like a teddy bear, they give you that cozy, quilted, everything-is-going-to-be-okay feeling. I have a friend who used to read H.P. Lovecraft when she felt blue or depressed. She said that the wrongness made her feel better, if only for a little while. She was a tough, pragmatic, practical woman. Lovecraft was her teddy bear, and Lovecraft never failed her.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about comfort reads and how valuable they are. Personally, 2016 has been rough. Unfortunately, a lot of other people seem to have had an equally hard time of it. Whether from job loss, divorce, death, trauma or very bad luck, I’m far from the only person who took some knocks this year. Add that to the social and political climate we find ourselves in and crawling into a book for a break sounds pretty damn good.

Of course, the thing I have to keep telling myself is that there’s a difference between a break and becoming a hermit (though my, how tempting it is…). My friend was right when she said that Lovecraft’s wrongness made things better, but that’s temporary magic. Reality will always be there, waiting for you to address it. That’s why dipping into a book that’s comforting and familiar is a great way to split the difference between taking a mental beating and completely checking out.

Comfort reads aren’t necessarily favorite books or authors (though they can be). They’re individual, self-selected bits of time out of time. They may be as long as a whole book or as short as a page, but the main thing is that they are both finite and personally comforting. They give you time and space to recharge before jumping back into reality, and that can make a huge difference when you desperately need an emotional break while handling Important Things That Must Be Done Soon.

I know it sounds obvious, but comfort reads serve an important function. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on my other blog that touched on the fact that there’s only so much stress the brain can absorb before it numbs to the stressor. Eventually, your mind gets tired of resisting so you either disengage or get swamped by whatever’s going on. It’s right about when I hit that overwhelmed place that I reach for a comfort read.

I’m an ex-bookseller and a former librarian, so my impulse is always (seriously, always) to make book recommendations, but I’m not going to do that here. You can’t really predict or recommend comfort reads. While my friend’s go-to in tough times was H.P. Lovecraft, other people probably wouldn’t get the same gentle fuzzies from Elder Gods and ichor. Conversely, no other writer of eldritch wrongness ever worked for her (sorry Clive Barker). Just like you can’t predict which blanket your kid is going to love to literal pieces, no one can predict your lexicographic woobie. You kind of just end up with it.

Personally, I have three comfort reads. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, a handful of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Mina’s chapters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While these books are some of my favorites, that’s not what makes them my comfort reads. I love The English Patient, but it’s not a comfort read – not for me, at least. Same with Neil Gaiman, Dorothy Parker, cheap romances and The Thin Man. I love those books so very much, but they aren’t the literary equivalent of a duvet and hot chocolate on a rainy night. Everyone’s comfort space is different, which is why people find theirs when they need it. Need is the driver, and it doesn’t always lead you where you think it will.

While it’s incredibly important not to check out of your life til the clouds part, it’s also important to allow yourself a little mental slack if you’re running off the rails. There are, quite legitimatley, times when you just can’t absorb anymore. That’s when sinking into something comforting and familiar can make the difference between staying engaged and becoming a permanent hermit. It’s the break you allow yourself so you can come back out and tackle the Elder Gods of life.


There is a picture of me from when I was a very little girl – right around three years old. I’m wearing a white dress covered with red polka dots, hands on hips, grinning down at the camera from the top step of a porch. It’s the last visual image I have of myself as a fundamentally happy person.

Me, situationally happy to be where I as when this was taken. (In case it wasn't obvious, this is not the picture of 3 year old me in the polka-dot dress).

In case it wasn’t obvious, this is not the picture of 3 year old me in the polka-dot dress – that’s been lost to the sands of time, otherwise known as my mother’s house.

When I say “happy person”, I don’t mean “happy” in a situational or contextual sense. I have been happy many times in my life and I have many happy memories to go with them.

I was happy the first time I was cast in a play.  I was happy when I completed my MA. I am massively happy anytime something I write gets published. I was happy the day my husband proposed, and happier still the day we got married. I was over the moon the first time I held my daughter.

Sex makes me happy. Good food makes me happy. Wide-ranging, mind-opening conversations make me happy. Letters from faraway friends make me happy. A friend’s success makes me happy, as does a person being in love. I’ve been happy reading a book on a rainy day, and I’ve been happy dancing in the middle of a bar. All of these happy moments were honestly and genuinely happy, but the happiness I felt was contextual. I was happy because something made me happy. The happiness was the result of an external influence, not a state of being.

In fact, all of the happiness(es) I’ve experienced in the decades that followed the picture of me on the porch have been entirely situational. They boosted me up out of my naturally neutral state. It’s not that I was walking around being actively unhappy – it’s just that my resting state is / was fundamentally…not sad, per se, but grave.

I know why this is and the reasons for it are good – so good that I never tried to chip down the barrier between me and the little girl at the top of the porch, which is why I was kind of shocked to realize that, for the first time in decades, I’m happy for no reason. I’m happy because my resting state is happy. I’m happy just because.

This is, to put it bluntly, a literal fucking joy, all the more so because I am, and remain, a depressive. For the first time in my (remembered) life, I feel the light, fizzy, amazing physical effects of being happy, but in a more grounded, internal way than I have ever before. It’s the difference between drinking champagne and dipping your finger into it – when you dip your finger in, you feel the bubbles, but when you drink it, the bubbles are in you. At the moment, I’ve drunk the champagne.

That said, I know from experience that nothing is as stable as change. Just as my baseline shifted from melancholy to this random, self-sustaining joy, it could just as easily move back, and that’s okay. Emotions and emotional states are, by nature, fluid, and trying to hold onto a nebulous positive is as self-defeating as clinging to a negative. So, while I’m not attached (in the Buddhist sense) to this bizarre state of fundamental, non-circumstantial happiness, it is good to know that I’m capable of it – for years I thought I no longer was. That, in its own right, is a happy thing.

It’s lovely to feel that my life is good and complete, and it’s equally lovely to know that whatever happiness comes next might add to a happiness that pre-existed it, rather than act as a bump to an immobile and subdued resting state, which makes me thing that all of this has more to do with balance than anything else.

For a long time, my scales naturally tipped towards *sadness, or neutral at best. At the moment, my scales are level because the happiness I’m feeling creates a counterweight, and, rather than neutral, my resting state is, at the moment, sanguine and content. 

While it doesn’t eradicate the shadows (because those shadows are rooted deep), this happiness is equally internalized so, for the first time, happiness carries an equal weight. I’ve no doubt the scale tip one way and the other, but it’s no longer static, and that’s a strange and happy thing.

*Side Note: On a somewhat serious note, I should explicitly state that what I’m describing isn’t the difference between being depressed or not depressed. Depression isn’t as simple as happy vs. sad, nor is depression synonymous with sadness, as any depressed person can tell you. In fact, I am, at the moment, massively depressed. I just feel the essential happiness fizzing away beneath it, which should be cognitively disturbing but, happily, isn’t.

On Dialogue

Black and white picture of handwritten dialogue by Malin JamesI posted a story on my other site yesterday that reminded me how much I love writing dialogue. A lot of my stories are fairly minimalistic, with people saying less than they strictly have to. It’s as much about what’s happening in the gaps as it is about what’s being said.

But yesterday’s story was the opposite – nearly all dialogue, driven by a comfortable, natural patter between two sisters. It was an off-the-cuff thing and it felt great. It also reinforced something that I’ve always known about myself as a writer – that my writing is informed by acting in all kinds of subtle ways.

I have no formal training as a writer. I taught myself how to deconstruct and write stories over the course of twenty years, two Master’s Degrees and lots and lots of books – good books, bad books and books I can’t even remember having read. What I do have is extensive acting training and experience working with characters on stage.

Which is why so much of my writing is character driven. There’s always a plot (because without plot, it’s a moment, not a story), but the plots are almost always fueled by a character’s internal drives and motivations, rather than external forces. This will likely change at some point because a person’s writing is almost never fixed. Like aspects of any other creative discipline, a writer’s style and voice tend to evolve over time (so long as the writer lets them).

What I don’t imagine changing is that I will always be primarily interested in the people I’m writing about, (as opposed to concepts etc). Because for me they are people – not little objects I’ve constructed – so it’s natural for me to want get into their heads and dig around. That’s where all the acting comes in handy. I analyzed and interpreted other people’s characters, from Shakespeare to Chekov, for years, so playing with my own characters is like working in a mental playground. And a natural extension of that is writing dialogue.

No one sounds the same. Even two people, raised in the same household, in the same place with all of the same frames of reference sound different because, in the end, no matter how similar they are, they are two different people. Ask any set of twins. But rather than consciously trying to make the two sisters in yesterday’s story sound different, I let their differences play themselves out.

One sister is sexually experienced and up for anything. The other isn’t so sure. So, how would a conversation about a new boyfriend’s fetish go down, especially if it happened over drinks with a hot bartender listening in?

So, you take your two people and you set them down in a context, and then you just let them talk. I know that sounds ridiculous and kind of woo-woo, but I honestly believe that good dialogue comes from being impulsive, open and trusting your gut.

That’s not necessarily the case with all things in narrative. Plot needs conscious attention because it needs to make sense (unless your Thomas Pynchon, whom I can’t stand). Other elements, however, need your conscious attention to get out of the way so your subconscious attention can go to town.

characters have an agenda because your brain has a story to tell, and sometimes you’re only 10% aware of what that story actually is. The characters are the subconscious dynamos that drive whatever that story is, so when you write dialogue without trying to consciously mold it, you’re allowing your brain to tell you the story in the voices of the characters who inhabit it.

Good dialogue isn’t “dialogue” at all. It’s a conversation. All you need is a (really) basic understanding of who’s talking, why and where, and you’re off. Sometimes nothing comes of it, but sometimes something does, and when it does, when your characters surprise you by sounding like people, not like extensions of yourself, you know you’ve written dialogue that works.

I know this sort of approach isn’t right for everyone because every writer is different. I write to find out what I’m trying to say so an instinctive approach to dialogue is natural for me. For writers who work in a more structured fashion, what I just described would probably drive them nuts. The bottom line is that, no matter how you work, dialogue should slip into the reader’s head. You want your reader to hear what’s being said, rather than think, “wow, that’s great dialogue!” Acting is just the influence that helps  me get there.

The Joy of Catharsis

Black and white photograph of a woman in a white dress lying on train tracks, for The Joy of Catharsis by Malin James

Photograph by Marco Sanges (2011)

I’m a feelings junkie. This isn’t always a healthy thing, but it is the way I’m wired and I’ve learned to work with it. I tend to feel emotion (both mine and other people’s) really intensely and, every now and then, I like putting myself in the position of feeling to nearly painful degrees.

If a book breaks my heart, or makes me snort on the train, or scares me so badly that I’m afraid of my own bed, I will love that book, and the person who wrote it, hard. Any author who can effect my cortisol levels is an author I respect. It’s all about catharsis, and the relief that comes with it.

Living life as a functioning adult requires that I maintain an even emotional keel. This is a very good thing, but it can also be a challenge, especially when you’re a highly-feely-feeler person. My big feely-feelers tend to make a mess out of things if I don’t maintain an objective perspective, so a great deal of my energy goes into being mindful of where I am in a situation and how I feel about it.

Over the years, I’ve found ways of maintaining my emotional equilibrium that let me feel my feely-feelers without A. making a huge mess of things or B. suppressing them. But this generally means that I experience emotions that don’t get verbally expressed as intensely as I feel them. Enter catharsis – the process of releasing (and thereby getting relief from) strong emotions.

My inner sadist would love for my heart to get broken so I could do something grand and tragic like throw myself at a train like Anna Karenina. While I would never actually do that (because I really want to live), I still crave the emotional catharsis that comes from those heightened emotions. So, rather than becoming one with the A-train, I read Anna Karenina and boom. I’m sobbing in bed as beautiful Anna does what my logical, even-keeled self would never do. And goddamn if it doesn’t feel good.

The truth is that I don’t care how “good” a book is so long as it makes me feel genuine emotion. Even if it doesn’t reach Russian novel levels of catharsis, I like feeling and that only happens when an author gets under my skin by over-riding my brain. I can enjoy a book without this happening, just like I can enjoy sex that doesn’t turn my world technicolor. But every now and then, I stumble over a book that digs right in and hurts. And I love it. So, if I want this, why don’t I go straight for books like The Road – books that I know will hurt to read?

Let me compare it to dating. It’s going on OkC vs. randomly meeting someone and hitting it off. There’s nothing wrong with OkC but, for me, the sparks really fly when chemistry smacks you right out of the blue. So, bringing it back to books, I know that reading Sophie’s Choice will mess me up. I know exactly how and why. Reading it would be pointless self-torture, and that’s not what catharsis is. It’s the release of emotions you have inside you, not poking a stick at things that already hurts.

This makes catharsis a really personal, hard-to-predict thing. It has as much to do with what I’m bringing to the table as it does with the book. In other words, it’s all about my context and how the book plays with it. I can pick up a book like The Natural Order of Things, (which I will eventually read along with A Little Life. Sophie’s Choice not so much), expecting a catharsis that doesn’t come, just like you can go on OkC, find a 99% match and find, as soon as you meet them, that the spark isn’t there. Alternatively, I could be reading an airport thriller and get punched in the face with it. You can’t make catharsis happen any more than you can force sexual chemistry. It either happens or it doesn’t. You’re just along for the ride.

So, cathartic books that I never saw coming….

Affinity by Sarah Waters. Holy god, I felt physically sick. It was glorious. Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons was the same thing. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, The Rogue Pirate’s Bride (don’t ask), “The Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker…they all came out swinging from left field. Each one of them wrecked me and, after the big ol’ feelers passed, I was left with a level of emotional clarity I hadn’t had before.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m after. I want my foundations rocked – it’s a way of living vicariously through words. It’s why I write character driven stories. Catharsis is an earthquake that causes a shift and I want to feel (and be responsible for) that movement. I want the pain and intensity of it, along with the happiness and joy.

Catharsis in books give me a place to put all of my emotions that have nowhere healthy to go. It gives me perspective on experiences I’ve had and a window into worlds that I will never see, and those are beautiful things. I want to be affected. I want to feel. I want to live more life than I have to live. The joy of literary catharsis is that it allows me to experience emotional intensity (and feel a sliver of its aftermath) without taking the destruction on as my own.

Everything Happens…

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Earth at the Center of It All

Today is the funeral of Alton Sterling, the man who was (senselessly and illegally) killed by Baton Rouge police last week. Yesterday, a man drove a semi-truck full of weapons into an unarmed crowd in Nice, killing at least 80 and probably more. Last month, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub.

We all know these aren’t isolated incidents. We know that, as individual tragedies, they represent thousands of under-reported human tragedies. Or, if you want to get really nasty, they highlight the violence that we, as a species, have done to each other for millennia.

And yet, whenever these horrible things happen, someone inevitably says, “everything happens for a reason.” It could be a well-meaning person’s response to a miscarriage or a lay-off or a frightening diagnosis. It could be someone’s way of wrapping their head around police brutality, drone warfare, rape, torture…you get it. It’s a comforting idea, and I almost wish I believed it. But I don’t.

For me – a person who has never had faith of any sort, who has never believed in god, or heaven or a universal meaning of any kind – it’s a lie, and I just can’t trust a lie.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about my own world view here. A lot of humanity believes that everything does happen for a reason, just as a lot of humanity believes in a god. We all engage life in individually determined ways (…which my ultimate point, but I’ll get to that). My atheist / Buddhist worldview works for me, but if you believe that everything happens for a reason that’s cool too. I’m not interested in challenging (or judging) your belief. I’m just expressing why I don’t share it.

Over the course of my life, some bad things have happened. When I was younger, I struggled with why. I clung to the idea that everything happens for a reason because I couldn’t bear for the damage to essentially be for nothing. Then I read an interview Keanu Reeves did after his girlfriend died 18 months after giving birth to their stillborn daughter. You could feel the interviewer trying to figure out how to address the almost embarrassing amount of personal tragedy Reeves had just sustained.

As part of the interview she asked him if he believed that everything happens for a reason. And Reeves, very calmly, said, “No. I believe everything happens.”

Suddenly, my attachment to the idea of a cosmic rationale dropped. Because yes. Everything happens whether it’s justified or not. Because that’s what it comes down to. It’s not about why. It’s about justifying (and giving meaning) to the unbearable things. That’s what we’re talking about when we say “everything happens for a reason”. We don’t actually mean “reason”, as in cause and effect. We mean “reason” as in, “please tell me it’s not for nothing.”

Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend died because she lost control of her car. She did not die so he could become a better Buddhist (or actor, or activist). His response was self-determined. If he became a better [fill in the blank], it’s because he chose to, not because it was meant to be.

Likewise, bad things happened to me because someone decided to do them. Not because it would make me the person that I am. My self-determined response helped make me who I am. It does not give cosmic meaning to, or justify, the events that catalyzed my response.

God does not open a window when he closes a door. There are no windows and there are no doors. In fact, there is no fucking house. There is only what we do with the horrible things that happen. That said, things do happen because something prompts them – ‘reason’ as part of cause and effect, rather ‘reason’ as higher justification. Let’s take Nice.

Nice happened because a man decided to attack an unarmed crowd. It was a random and violent example of one man imposing his will on the lives of innocent people. Those people were acted upon in a terrible, tragic way. They had no control. They are victims of a cause and effect that happened without them ever knowing. Now, in the aftermath, the survivors and family members will respond. Their responses are self-determined reactions to the individual effects of a massive tragedy. Some will find ways to a positive personal outcome. Others won’t.

I know that my emphasis on self-determination rather than on faith in a higher power may read as flimsy to those who believe in determinism. From that point of view, it would be easy to read this and say, “Ah, but Malin, what if your “self-determined” response is just part of the plan? What if the horrible things that happened did so to get you to this pre-determined point?”

Honestly, I can’t answer that because from a belief having point of view, that makes total sense. From my point of view, I respond to things based on an internal calculus that is entirely self-determined. I have no faith to trust, so I trust myself instead. So, if you find comfort in the idea that everything is pre-determined and that there is some kind of plan, do it. Take comfort. Why the hell not. Just don’t ask me to. Because, for me, there is no cosmic reason. We aren’t dominoes laid out in careful patterns. We are individual actors responding to causes and effects in a world full of phenomena that defy justification.

On Reading Sex

Sepia toned photograph of a nude woman wearing a feathered head dress. For On Reading Sex by Malin James

Photograph by Marc Lagrange. (On a side note, I love this image. It reminds me of The Story of O.)

When I was in my teens, I literally learned about sex by gobbling massive, towering stacks of Harlequin Historicals, the more bodice-rippy the better. In my twenties, I went through a period where i read everything from Henry Miller (filthy sonofabitch) and Anne Rice (kinky, pretty things) to Literotica and

Somewhere between reading erotica and writing it, something changed for me though. I started reading erotica more critically in my twenties because I was getting a Master’s Degree and I was reading everything more critically. I’m kind of a recreational thinker so that’s not the worst thing, except that the habit of reading critically cut the connection between erotica and my sex drive.

Almost as if to compensate, books that were not written as erotica were turning me on in super hot, unexpected ways. Angela Carter, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Andahazi’s The Merciful Women, The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson…I’d be reading along and suddenly get slammed with a crazy, elemental need to get off. It wasn’t that the sex was better written, it was just contextually more specific.

Stick with me – I’m going somewhere with this and it has to do with that contextual specificity.

As I got older and more experienced, I understood my sexuality more. By then, I’d had all kinds of sex in all kinds of contexts and, as a result, what turned me on was changing. In other words, what grabbed my brainstem at 15 was doing it at 25. My buttons had gotten way more specific in those intervening 10 years, and that affected the way I read sex.

The point is that everyone’s sexuality is different, so everyone reads sex differently depending on what kind of experiences or curiosities you’re bringing to the table. That’s why there is no one “right” way to write sex, and no “right” way to read it. Sure, there’s bad sex writing, but there also bad sex in real life. That’s just part of the deal, whether you’re reading it or doing it.

The other issue is one of place in life. It’s why the sex you had in your boyfriend’s dorm was the hottest thing possible at 18, but why it might not get you off at 38. We read sex differently at different points in our lives because we experience sex differently at different points in our lives, and our needs and tastes tend to reflect that. The same principle goes for audio and visual porn. It even applies to the movies you are hot, (even if they’re awful…hi, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I heart you).

It’s worth remembering all of this when you judge the value of a genre, (and genre, really). Whether or not you think they have literary value, erotica and romance serve a sexual and emotional purpose that exists beyond the standards of the Man Booker prize. It’s not an issue of the genre’s value, it’s one of the value it has to individual readers at any given time, and that value matters as much as literary merit. For some readers, it matters more.

Small Fiction: Memory Palace

Photograph of a wealthy abandoned house with broken chair in the foreground, for Memory Palace by Malin James

From Matthias Haker’s Decay series

She looked at the dripping world, dripping water, dripping skies, from clouds to green grass, against the glass and under cars into places she couldn’t see, places filled to the brim with emptiness.

His shoes were empty. And the left side of the bed and the Apple mug from the eighties and his particle physics cup – bought for nostalgic purposes. Not nostalgia. Nostalgic purposes. Because that’s the way he talked.

He liked things that had a purpose, mugs and books, purposeful things like that. Things that held memories but also did something – something more than gather dust like his mother’s porcelain squirrels.

The house full of those things now—mugs, not porcelain squirrels. The squirrels went to a charity shop, along with the decorative geese. But mugs…she had mugs. And empty shoes and half-finished books and the cord to his first cell phone. His beer was in the fridge. His tea was in the sink. She left it as it was to keep his prints on the mug.

She lived in a memory palace – a shrine to their Before. Memories dirtied dishes. They warped the floor and filled her gut. Her cells, her tissue, her teeth and bones were stony with Before. Before is what she was. Because After was in a meadow off a long winding road, under wild green grass and rain.