Since getting the job as Emerging Book Critic a few months ago, I’ve had to be very intentional about what I read because I realised I take much longer to get through a book than I used to. Working with deadlines is great in making sure I am deliberate and strategic about my reading.
I finished Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room recently, which was sensational. I felt really ashamed that I’d never read anything by her before. She has an extremely well-adjusted tenor for pacing and speech. By this, I mean the narrator’s speech—not the characters’ dialogue. The best line in the book is definitely this one: ‘Eva’s mom was white. Her dad was Filipino. Her mom was a heroin addict. Her dad was strict’. She should be given the Nobel Prize for those lines alone. It is so, so brilliant. I had it going in the car too as an audiobook. I had a cased CD set of Rachel reading it. She’s got such a girly, juvenile voice. It was weird. I found it off-putting at first, but quickly got into the tone of it. The main character, Romy Hall, doesn’t sound like someone who’d sound like Rachel. I listened to it, and read it (at different times) and liked experiencing the story like this: two different ways, both offering me something new and fresh. Ideally, I’d like to consume a book as a paperback while having it read to me. I think that’s the ultimate way to read a book. But I didn’t have a CD player at home, so I had to experience the audio version of it while I was driving.
I’m really interested in reading criticism; Janet Malcom and A.O. Scott are on my table and I go through at least one essay by Malcom every day. They’re short. My best friend also gifted me Robert Hughes’ Nothing If Not Critical, which I dip in and out of; these essays are also very short. I have been reading lots of John Updike’s art criticism. I love reading art criticism. Art feels like the hardest thing to use words to talk about. (That, and music.) I’m really interested in the role of the critic. An interviewer recently asked me ‘What is the point of criticism?’. I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately. I think one of the biggest things is coming up with interesting questions, which means offering new ways of seeing something; which means, new ways of seeing the world. I feel so much gratitude for being able to have the space to ponder this on a public platform.
I have a Who Weekly subscription, which I read not as a guilty pleasure, but as pleasure. It’s absolutely pleasurable. It’s so interesting being totally and utterly immersed in the lives of celebrity and celebrity culture; it’s a universe that feels ten folds outside of my own existence. I really enjoy it. It makes me laugh. But sometimes it also makes me confused, and angry. The amount of wealth they have!
I am obsessed with the relationship celebrities have with space, and their real estate acquisitions. It’s absolutely astounding and hilarious. I just read that Chrissy Teigen and John Legend are ‘upgrading’ their seven-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion in anticipation of their third child. According to Who, the couple ‘couldn’t wait to put their Beverly Hills mansion on the market so they can start the search for a bigger abode to accommodate their growing family’. (Obviously, this was before she lost her third child.)
I read that line, and then the entire rest of the two page spread (it’s not long) and was laughing like a manic the entire time. I just think it must be intolerably difficult to be a celebrity. All that money—what to do?
I don’t subscribe to Who because I’m interested in famous people. In fact, I could care less. I’ve met a few in my time and they’re often the dullest, least interesting humans. I read Who Weekly because I’m thinking of writing a long essay about Architectural Digest’s Open Door videos. Basically, if you haven’t seen it, it’s where famous people open up their homes, and show you around. They talk about their crystal collections, their Italian-imported tiles, their $3 million artwork by Jenny Saville. It’s just insane—that level of wealth. I’m so intrigued by this culture, space as capital and social clout.
I’m also reading Elyn R. Saks’ The Centre Cannot Hold. I’ve been trying to read as much as I can get my hands on about schizophrenia because a character in my next novel is schizophrenic. I don’t want to fuck that up. She’s Asian, too, and Asian societies have a funny relationship with mental illness. I read Esmé Weijun Wang’s 2019 collection of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, which charts her lived experience with the condition. It was okay. I didn’t fall in love with it, but it taught me some interesting, useful things about schizophrenia. I feel like the only reference point people have in the wider world is Russell Crowe’s performance of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. As always, the straight white male character is received as the emblem of a particular and specific position or condition. I want to be able to expand that. I think that’s why I’m naturally drawn to fictional stories written by those who have not historically been given the microphone. I don’t place as many rules on myself when it comes to non-fiction or essays.
Jessie Tu is a novelist and journalist based on Gadigal land, New South Wales. Her debut novel A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing was published in July 2020. She is a staff writer at the feminist publication Women’s Agenda.