Nonfiction

2 Audiobook Reviews, in Which There are 4 Recommendations, the Whole Thing is Split into Quarters and Bro I am Just Vibing.

9 December 2020

Part 1. Vibing (feat. 4 recommendations and too much David Foster Wallace talk):

Who says that not doing readings for class is a bad thing? It’s an action (or inaction I guess) that’s given me my main coping mechanism for the year’s turmoil, so I’m inclined to think that maybe skipping readings is, in fact, a healthy choice[1].

It starts with ignoring David Foster Wallace[2]. We had to read one of his tennis essays for a creative nonfiction unit last semester. Actually, ‘had to read it’ is a strong turn of phrase; it was on the reader and we were told to read it. I did not. I couldn’t even tell you which one of his tennis essays it was, but to be honest who cares, it’s all tennis. All I took away from that class was his name.

Three weeks later I’m in Brunswick Bound with a hankering to satisfy my near-fetishistic book buying habit and there he is again. Twice actually. He’s there once as Infinite Jest[3] and once as Consider the Lobster, a series of essays that I added to my Goodreads TBR but left without buying[4].

Then lockdown, and no more browsing bookstores for a while[5]. I need a new book, and I need something to listen to while roller skating[6], so I decide to get into audiobooks[7]. Open Goodreads, see Lobster, its sample isn’t bad, why not? I buy it[8].

Lobster led me to more nonfiction; Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running[9] came next. I push myself harder and faster because that’s what Murakami does. I get a bruise under my toenail[10] and become fitter than I ever have been. The book lasts me five days, five one-hour-long skates, long enough to foster a habit I’ll stick to for another five months, one that will eventuate in me unpreparedly racing down a hill so fast that the bearings come within a single twist of flying off and taking the wheels and my life with them.

Books, even audiobooks, have real-world consequences, apparently.

Murakami leads me to a non-audiobook, Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami[11], which makes me feel cold and scared, but in a good way. So I end up revisiting a haunt of mine from mid-last year, flicking through my copy of Nausea as I find comfort in Sartrean existentialism, because I used to be a philosophy major before I cut that shit out.

All this is to say I listened to Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe[12]. I was still skating regularly at the time I listened to it, which makes for an odd experience. I was losing myself while skating and listening, which is normal, but now I was the one being talked about. Theory has a universality to it so that, even if it is wrong, it is at least an abstraction and theorisation of your internal life, and now that was being played over the weightlessness of skating. This was all vaguely alarming, because in this situation apparently you start to become like the ideas, your puny mortal body starts taking on a sense of abstraction. Which is to say I didn’t really get any solace from it, though that’s probably not the book’s fault.

Regardless, all that is to contextualise two reviews of audiobooks that released in spring.

 

Part 2. The Sandman and What Dreams Cost:

The Sandman is a graphic novel from the 80s which I finished reading two days before buying the audiobook, so just infer what you want about the quality of the story.

I like radio plays, which is good because that’s what The Sandman has become in its transition to audio. I like radio plays despite my only real exposure to them being back in middle school when we made them for English, though ours didn’t have realistically painful screams of abject horror. That and production value are probably the main differences, oh and talent… and narrative cohesion.

I didn’t find the comic particularly scary, even though large swathes of the first few issues are ostensibly horror (at least aesthetically), I was much too focused on the dreams, how airy they all felt, to really notice any horror anyway. This is where the major change from comic to audio comes. Dream swaps for fear.

Screams on a page are still just words on a page. They are not the voice of a real woman coming through your phone wailing about the death of her family as you scrub last night’s dishes while wearing the cartoon owl pyjamas that your grandma bought you last year, your hands too sudsy to touch your phone and pause the screaming so you’re forced to bear it out. They are just words on a page, words on a page are skimmable, words on a page do not echo ever so slightly off the white tile backsplash.

And you know what? I liked it.

I don’t like scary movies and I don’t like gore, or violence in movies or any entertainment really, but I liked it here. I think the difference was that here fear comes from the empathetic, it is fear not from a man with a knife and a hockey mask, but fear of mundanities, of existence personified.

That feels important. The unification of trauma and universality is, if nothing else, a reminder. If you’ll permit me to digress into the issues of this year for a sentence, The Sandman becomes a direct address to the idea that this year’s pain is insular. It reminds us of the universality of the human responses.

We have this way of romanticising dreams as some form of purist escapism that is almost wholly good. But there is a price. We are entirely obsessed with ourselves in our dreams and that dampens empathy. Audible’s The Sandman is the cure for this, to an extent, although it is starkly confronting in that it is forcible empathy when you might not want it.

Confrontation is fine. Good actually, a lot of the time. But the line where the wrenching shock of radical empathy becomes too much is unclear. When I have to roll to a stop and cry on the grass of the cemetery lawn because I’m flush with emotions I don’t quite understand or maybe aren’t quite my own, is that too much?

I don’t think so.

 

Part 3. The Sweetdark Cold:

In her novel Inferno, Eileen Miles says that in another life she could see herself being the kind of person who takes drugs, dances and gets up on stage at nightclub drag shows. I get what she means but I can’t relate. Like, I truly believe that on some spiritual, molecular level I’m a rank and file curmudgeon. I can honestly see myself being reincarnated as the minister from Footloose before I can see myself coming back as someone who goes anywhere near the stage in a nightclub.

But that’s okay. There is variability in all this. Even if that variability makes me a boring bastard.

That’s what Sav Brown’s Sweetdark reminds me. That it’s okay.

It’s the reminder I didn’t quite get a couple of months ago from Existentialist Cafe. That weird warm blanket of existential dread. That strange comfort in knowing it doesn’t matter and things will be okay because of it.

I love Sav Brown. She’s a YouTube poet and I find myself ever drawn back to her videos (and now her book). She never labours a point, her poetics are unique but familiar, and I miss her voice (both literal and poetic) when it is gone.

It’s fitting that a poetry collection about loneliness makes you miss it.

It’s fitting that a poetry collection about loneliness comes out this year.

It’s fitting that the whole time I was listening to the collection I was thinking about that scene at the end of Blue is the Warmest Colour where Adele is caught cheating by her girlfriend Emma, and as she’s being screamed at Adele goes in for a kiss. I’m not really sure why I kept thinking about it. I think it’s probably something about rejection and desperation. There’s this whole big undercurrent in Sweetdark that even though the reclined existential comfort is there, it’s hiding a reluctance to accept what it’s presenting as the truth, and maybe that manifests as desperation. Which sort of gets me thinking about desperation as a human emotion, like how did it even come about? In Darwinian terms, I mean. When in nature does the prioritisation of emotion over logic help? I’m sure there’s an answer to that, but I don’t really want to know, to be honest. I’d prefer to think of it as just some accident of the universe; the ambivalent mass Brown describes in Sweetdark, always inadvertently spitting out beauty in ways you wouldn’t expect.

I can’t skate when I listen to Sweetdark; I couldn’t find the WD-40 in Coles to fix the aching wheels. Maybe all the walking made me think about desperation as a beautiful thing, walking I get so desperate to go faster, to get where I want to be and no longer have to move my little legs that I see the prioritisation of feeling over fact as some human triumph.

 

Part 4. Rank and File Curmudgeon Tells You What’s What:

I didn’t mean to make this, like, depressing or anything, I read other stuff in the last few months that I probably could’ve written about (I didn’t think you’d want to hear my in-depth opinion on The Elements of Style (Illustrated)). The point of all this was not to wallow in existential dread, I wanted to try and get across some sense of peace I’ve gotten in the last few weeks.

People have been reading more and more through 2020 (if you’re a deeply interesting person like I am and you read Publisher’s Weekly, you’ll know print sales have actually been going pretty steadily up in 2020) and that’s a good thing.

When this piece gets published it will hopefully be after Melbourne’s most intensive lockdown has finished, and some semblance of real-world social interaction has begun again. People will have changed. Intuitively I keep thinking they will have changed for the worse but that’s not necessarily true.

I’ve found myself in moments of not just brutal isolation, but brutal empathy. I’ve found myself in moments of not just dreadful longing, but beautiful desperation, and I think despite how it feels some of it has changed me for the better.

That is to say, I suppose, go back out with optimism that people have become better, even if it goes against what the anxieties yell. That’s what I’ll be doing.

 

[1] Note: the author is not a doctor, they are an Arts major who can’t jog a mile, so any commentary on what is “healthy” is purely speculative.

[2] This is apparently a vogue thing to do in the literary community at the moment, I was not aware of that at the time, I was just lazy.

[3] Which comes in at 1000 pages, and that is, academically speaking, too fucking much.

[4] The English major version of blue balling.

[5] And just like that every English major went abstinent… actually, my friends in WA were able to go to bookstores… wait, was I getting cucked????

[6] Shut up.

[7] Tertiary education is paying off with problem-solving skills like these.

[8] Recommendation #1, Consider the Lobster, good to roller-skate to.

[9] Recommendation #2, it’s better than #1.

[10] Subungual Hematoma, also called runner’s toe.

[11] Recommendation #3, better than #1 and #2 put together.

[12] #4, makes thorough and attention intensive nonfiction work in audio.


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