My housemate plants sunflowers for the summer and they all bloom in a row and all die in a row and then a few months later, in late autumn, a single sunflower shoots up all alone. One day, late May, he finds me in the kitchen, spilling an early coffee. He gestures outside, points down low.
Here is the last one, he says.
We watch it wobble in the wind, unseasonably warm.
It begins maybe like this. In fourth grade, when my father is diagnosed with cancer, something pulls me inward, holds me in place. I spend the year in other worlds. I read at recess, I read in the car, I read in the waiting room, sitting in sticky plastic chairs.
My mother remarks, two decades later, you still read everything. It’s not so much interest but compulsion, to read appliance manuals and hotel instructions and license plate numbers. She asks me when the pool will close and I say, 8PM.
I’m walking with a friend along a huge drain, or maybe it is an artificial river, or both. Sometimes we see ducks and ducklings there, and once, an old office chair, stuck in algae.
He says, last week, I watched a time-lapse of the world collapsing. He clears his throat. It set me back a few days. I want to ask him where I can watch it, but I don’t.
Here, there are concrete slabs for miles, cracked through with foliage. The drain is framed with wobbling gumtrees, newly-planted native grasses, spray paint, dog shit. The occasional jogger breathes past us. The water in the drain flows slowly, it hasn’t rained for weeks. We slip under a six-lane freeway, sounds deferred as cars bump over. I see his name freshly painted on concrete and he poses in front of it. The word both his and not.
He says, the world is ending, it’s true. At the same time—we hold so many truths. I wake up each morning, I make coffee, I work. To do this, I have to ignore, in many ways, that the world is ending. He sighs. But also, the world is ending.
I’m reminded of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, where the character Ben, who both is and is not the author, walks with a friend, who both is and is not his friend. In walking side by side, they see parallel visions of the city. In writing this piece, I should be clear, I am splicing my friend with another, the two together holding the apocalypse in one hand, and this moment in the other. As we walk, we see parallel visions of concrete, cracked through.
I haven’t read 10:04 for years but these two words remain firm in my mind, well after I read the book: unseasonably warm.
The year I read 10:04, I am in London. I read it for class, one which is taught by a Professor who later will be asked to take leave, on account of him Being Inappropriate. We are surprised but not surprised when we learn this. We know he is brilliant, we know he is a sleaze. Sometimes you put up with it. He is wildly intelligent, and I like him until I don’t. A PhD student tells us to check if your supervisor keeps the door open or closed for your meetings. Then you’ll know. He kept his door closed, and when we met, I sat in the far corner, as thick coats hung over the door, muffling any sound.
In the seminar I pull out the phrase—unseasonably warm—and the Professor says, yes, pauses, looks at the page—maybe this is how the world is now. Maybe it’s not that it’s unseasonable. Maybe that’s what Lerner’s saying: these are the seasons now.
Maybe this is how the world is now: what books do we read to prepare for what has already occurred? Or, maybe: what do we read in this season of loss.
I am reading the weather, unseasonable. I am reading empty grocery aisles. I am reading and re-reading text messages I send to my sister day after day for weeks, saying, please come home, New York is not safe, please come home, please, until it is almost too late. I am reading my body, now perpetually tense, until one morning I wake up to my phone with a message that says I’m coming home and six hours later it says I am on the plane and 20 hours after that it says I am at the gate where are you.
Lately, I have been scrolling the internet until it spills over. I wonder if maybe the best way to write about reading on the internet is in physical movement. ‘She sat down at her laptop. She scrolled. Six hours later, she got up.’
It is too bleak, or maybe just too boring, to say, I am reading relations between people, in this moment. But when I walk up to a crosswalk and a man jumps back like he has hit a forcefield, the force being me, in a soft grey jumper + a mask, I feel winded. I press the button with my elbow.
My body [our bodies] now seen as viral, the way my ancestors were seen as virus-ridden, the way their bodies [my body] were formed and deformed simultaneously. I am reading the graphs that show that every time that man uses the term Chinese Virus, acts of racial hatred spike. I am reading histories that show these violences are far from an anomaly: that viruses and plagues have often been attributed to the Other, which functions sometimes as a diseased vessel, sometimes a disposable body, one whose existence is always conditional.
A cartoon drawn fifteen years before the White Australia Policy was enacted: an octopus with a caricature of a Chinese man’s face drawn on (1886)—the first time I see it, I think, we share the same nose. The man’s tentacles are wrapped around white people, in varying states of despair. On one of the tentacles it reads, Small Pox and under it, Typhoid. 133 years later, and yet.
Jennifer Nguyen, ‘I am always doing the leaving’— Today is a day where everything looks the same.
In conversation with Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace talks about fictional clicks, which are, in his words, an epiphany in Joyce’s original sense […] an experience of what I think Yeats called ‘the click of a well-made box.’ I love this concept of the click. He cites Barthelme and DeLillo and Nabokov as writers who click. Barthelme’s ‘The Balloon’ is one of my favourite short stories too, and sure, I like Nabokov for his fancy prose style, or whatever. But in DFW’s often extensive lists he rarely cites a woman writer, though he makes an effort to use her universal: The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. It’s a different kind of heavy when I recognise his many predilections.
Mary Karr, on DFW breaking her table in violent rage, paying her for the damage, then demanding the physical remains: all you bought was the brokenness.
I read DFW in the same way I read Lerner: at remove. Of course, there are no diseased or immoral or even regular Chinese bodies in either man’s fiction, but that’s just it: both men seem to have disposed of race altogether. I have been carved out of their imaginary. I grow so used to sitting in this hollow of myself that when I come into contact with depictions of myself, I feel uncertain.
James Baldwin writes about facing similar hollowness in Notes of a Native Son:
Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building… These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I would have to appropriate these white centuries. I would have to make them mine.
It takes reading Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You to feel this; Alexander Chee’s How To Write an Autobiographical Novel to know this; and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to recognise, truly, the real depth of ‘representation’, which itself is an inadequate signifier, barely a scrap, when it truly shifts the way one moves within the world.
I’m still not sure if someone who hasn’t been Othered for most of their life could fully comprehend ‘representation’. It is a bodily recognition, a visceral knowing.
It is as though—for your whole life you have been covered in a thick cotton wool—and yes you could still feel the impact of Good Art—but each time you collided with it, the impact was understandably softened—nothing to write home about.
And then—after years and years of feeling so far from anything, suddenly someone swoops in—slices through—cuts you to the bone. You don’t have to write home because you are home, and that’s when you know.
I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings and she makes me remember what writing can do. I am moved. In Minor Feelings, which I really am re-reading as I am write this, Hong writes of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Myung Mi Kim, her literary forebears—Not only did they share my history, they provided for me an aesthetic from which I could grow.
Last January, Scott tells me to read Ling Ma’s Severance. When I read it over the summer, it feels heavy under sunlight, an underwater feeling. It is the first thing I read for 2019 and it makes me think of Patricia Lockwood: The first necessity is to claim the morning, which is mine. If I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day. Did Severance become my brain last year? I repeat actions over and over. I wake up each morning, I make coffee, I work. I wake up each morning, I make coffee, I work. I wake up.
Set in a near or distant future, fiction of the apocalypse often feels too distant. We’ve been living in it for a while now. Severance makes sense because it happens almost—now: we didn’t know how to do anything so we Googled everything. I don’t know how to do anything, it’s true. I wonder if I were to read Severance now—would it cut me clean.
Maria Tumarkin—I am Jewish so the idea of ‘waiting for orders’ is pure poison for me, I absolutely cannot abide it… I think there are many people in this country who carry different histories in them, first and foremost First Nations people. They will not look to the institutions to lead or to protect or make wise decisions.
I move house just before lockdown, leaving any new flowers for good. In the move I pack up thirteen boxes of books and feel inexplicably exposed. When I express trepidation over bringing the thirteen boxes of books, my new housemate, Isabella, flings her arms out and yells, bring them all! We carry boxes one by one into the living room. We spend days moving books around. Lately, we have been reading each other excerpts over breakfast. We compare editions and share favourites, we combine book orders to save on delivery and laugh when the winding sentence of Ducks, Newburyport, comes in its very own parcel. We work on the same round kitchen table, marking up books; she’s reviewing, I’m editing; she’s reading, I’m researching; and on.
One morning, we’re working in silence until she says, I hate bad metaphors. She reads one to me and we can’t stop laughing. A good metaphor is hard to find.
I am becoming a palimpsest of my friends’ best words. Have you ever seen a flower before it turns to the sun?—Laura’s knotted feelings, camellia waxy in my palm. Reading Ellena, on my phone on the tram: her letters, and then later, Blueberries clutched to my chest, a book that feels lucky before I even begin. I am reading Khalid writing about reading, and waiting for his book; reading Alison’s Blakwork,—This is a poem about not suffering. I am reading Chi’s I occupy space, which is to say, i am always grieving, which is now out of stock, so I take careful photos of the first poem to send to a friend. I am reading Ella’s book that both is and is not her own, everything but her name on the cover. I am reading Ursula’s Noonday, and then Harry’s poems over their shoulder. I am reading Jack’s drought: the water, seeping into dry earth, I am reading the violences of Rachel’s Happy Valley.
And then—pixellated, Darlene reads me their new words, and I try not to cry.
What books we read at the end of the world is a different question to what books would you bring to a Desert Island, and of course my answer is—I would take all of my favourites. But to tell you my favourites would be to admit too much. And so, this.
Maybe this is how the world is, now. There is a hill in San Francisco that looks out at the whole city. On the hill is a bench with a small metal plaque, with a line from Tennessee Williams—The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks. The bench looks out at a swing, and if you sit on the swing, it will take you over the edge, high above the city.
Leah Jing McIntosh is a writer and photographer. She also edits Liminal.