There was an elm tree outside my bedroom window. It was there when we moved in, after the divorce, and every year its branches would grow closer. By the time I was in high school, I could reach out the window and almost brush the leaves with my fingers.

Sometimes I would stay up late, reading classic English novels, and think about the boys I had crushes on. Sometimes I would go downstairs and make myself pizzas with English muffins, tomato paste, and cheddar cheese. My mother, single for years, slept through it all. The pizzas and the novels were recognizable units, circular and rectangular. The cheese came from a bag, shredded.

My mother never dated after the divorce. I knew there were men who were interested, because they would bring presents to our house, safe things: Classical music albums or art books, neat square packages. They would stand out by the gladiolas and try to make tired conversation long after they knew it was their time to leave.

Their faces were vast, but their expressions readable. You could always tell what they were thinking. My mother wasn't afraid of their mystery, because they had no mystery. These were nice men who would never hurt her. They were wide stretches of Midwestern prairie. With them, you could always see where you were going, but still get lost.

One morning, as I was laying in bed still awake, the sun came up. I didn't see it because the neighbor's house was too close and blocked it. People say “sun” when they talk about sunlight. “You're in my sun,” they say, like they own it. But it's not sun, it's only evidence. The light warmed my face and my body, like it was touching me, only it wasn't.


My sister is Batman. I am Harlequin. My mother has sewn interlocking diamonds of various fabrics over a pair of footie pajamas for me. I don't look like the stringbean man in the posters. I'm a fourth-grade girl.

Since my father has died, I think of myself as free to not be a real person. I hop between life and death. There's nothing morbid in this. I'm only a fourth-grade girl.

None of the kids at school understand who I am, but Halloween is forgiving. Even Kyle, who dresses up as a woman, is only mildly teased. When asked by my classmates if Harlequin is real, the teacher, Mrs. A., replies, “Oh, yes,” with an air of authority so convincing that it shuts everyone up.

In the evening, on someone's front stoop, Batman sticks out her tongue at me. The night is black and she blends in as intended.

Batman has soared ahead of me in life. She's only six and her teachers are more impressed with her than they ever were with me. She can draw anything. This year I had the option to start playing an instrument in the school orchestra and I declined. At nine years old, I want to retire.

None of this seems real.

I tell adults, “I'm Harlequin.” They say, “Of course you are.” I appreciate their good sportsmanship.

The costume was the first thing I'd wanted in a long time. I arranged the pieces of fabric the way I liked them.

After trick-or-treating, I watch a science program on television. On the screen, there are detailed nature shots from around the earth, and then the camera seems to zoom out to show an aerial shot of the whole planet, dressed in ragged scraps of color.

Bourgeois Enuf 4U?: Rainy Afternoon with Benoît Duteurtre

The life of the serious but non-paid writer can be difficult day-to-day as you struggle to keep focused on what you're "supposed" to be doing.  But sometimes it's all right to trust your own instincts, to trust what you enjoy and realize that when you do something you aren't "supposed" to it might be kind of laughable as procrastination.

My boyfriend's mom once "confessed" to us that she read a lot of Scandinavian mystery novels, rolling her eyes at herself as she did so, whereupon my boyfriend exclaimed,"You're not allowed to say that in that tone of voice! That's not a thing!"

Similarly, I'm "supposed" to be working on a review right now but I spent the day (and by "the day" I mean my work day, at work) reading a short story by Benoît Duteurtre in the collection Drôle de temps about a 30ish film director who attends a wedding at which he suspects people disapprove of him and his work, only to find himself thrust into a nightmarish world where his worst suspicions turn out to be true.  I've read a couple of Duteurtre's other stories, as well as his novel Chemins de fer (featured in the Linguality series), and I've enjoyed all of them to an extent but have been left with an uncomfortable feeling that liking them, if I decided I did like them, would make me not at all hip and cutting-edge but the opposite of that.  There's a certain preciousness that makes me wince at the very idea of approaching social issues so directly in fiction: engaging the thought patterns of the young aspiring businessman or the young artist coming into absurd but predictable conflict with society.  What I mean, specifically for Americans who might need an explanation, is that if this guy was in the U.S. and writing in English, he would be on NPR all the freaking time.  They would want to interview him, plug all his books and get his opinions on things besides.  In France, though, he must be less exceptional, 'cause there's more of that kind of thing.  Americans like their light, humorous social engagement to happen in non-fiction form.  In fiction, someone had better die, otherwise what the heck do you think you're doing, anyway?

As a writer and reader, I confess that I have somewhat bought into this, which is probably why Duteurtre's work, which seems so far to me to be unconventionally cheerful, makes me uncomfortable.  There's plenty of horror involved, but it's all social horror.

As my French has improved, however, and as I flatter myself I've grown at least a little more sensitive to the nuances of the language, I've realized that Duteurtre doesn't engage social issues any more or less seriously or directly than someone like Jonathan Franzen.  It's just that his books are shorter and less family-based and epic.  The Corrections (Franzen) was one of the first "serious" modern social novels I read that I felt a sense of connection with, but in general my sensibilities are not acutely in step with the large-scale societal whoa-ness of Franzen or, say, Zadie Smith.  Or Don DeLillo.  I like things that all of these writers have done and don't necessarily like them less or more than others, but in both reading and writing I'm more comfortable with a smaller scope, like that used by Mary Gaitskill, or Don Lee, or Christine Sneed [/author name vomit], all writers who have engaged social issues in a sparer space.  Duteurtre is one of these, it seems.  He uses the dance of social behavior and the presence of physical objects and locations to reflect what's behind it.  Society, business and commerce are never far away, yet Duteurtre's attention is not going to be directly on these things so much as a parking lot, or pieces of trash.  Whether or not I ultimately end up liking his writing, I'm sure I could learn something from it.  Or it could be that all of this is just to say I'm so anti-family I would rather read about garbage than people's offspring issues.  Grr.

When Evocation is Your Avocation: Comparative Storytelling Media

I've lately been Twitter-skipping and blog-hopping through the online literary world, and I've happened to notice that the idea of books holding a certain edge over movies, at least among professed book-lovers, is still a popular one.  An offshoot of that idea has also persisted, that being that books are more rewarding than film due to the collaborative effort between reader and writer.

It's hard to deny that film and television (and by extension all visual media) have an advantage as entertainment in that they flood the senses in a way that words on a page do not.  It's also hard to deny that, at least in terms of readers having to produce a sensory equivalent, books require more imagination.

However, the simplicity of this idea (and perhaps, more to the point, its implications) bores and annoys me.  I instinctively feel that this attitude about books being somehow superior doesn't actually come from a respect for the medium itself but from habit and personal experience.

I suspect that those who profess that television rots your mind while books enhance it would not also argue that sex is inferior to masturbation for the same reason.  Or that food with too strong of a taste destroys creativity by leaving nothing to the imagination.  That said, television has always been much more heavily regulated than literature and therefore less likely to offer something that suits your personal taste.

Stock photo to keep you reading.  Does this degrade us both?

Books are associated with intellectualism.  This goes hand in hand with the notion that almost no one will care about them.  Subject matter and language that creates an uproar when it appears on television gets written into novels all the time and no one cares.  Books are sometimes banned from school libraries and that gets talked about, but this will only ever happen on a limited scale because in order for a population to get up in arms about something in a book, at least a few of them have to read it.  So when it does happen, we make the most of it.

The social climate these days is very sensitive to notions of equality and how we treat people and use various words.  For example, don't tell a mixed-race woman that she looks "exotic," as this dehumanizes her by categorizing her like a fruit or a flower.  Don't assume that someone from an "ethnic" background is somehow more "culturally connected."  So why do we assume that writers of novels or poetry are smarter or more intellectual than people who write for television or movies?  Do lovers of books not understand that this faux-respect just ultimately reinforces the separation between the "important" as opposed to the "enjoyable" and makes it harder for writers of books to get paid?

I also assume that people of the "books are superior" school of thought are likely not reading Harry Potter and watching Godard, only...oh shit, maybe that's exactly what they're doing.

Disclaimer: The idea for this blog entry was conceived while the author was in an 8 x 8 cubicle and acutely feeling that claustrophobic "arguing on the Internet" feeling.  This is not to invalidate any of the above, but simply to acknowledge that the opinions expressed are probably not very interesting for those who already agree with them and that the author is not the type to gain satisfaction simply from sticking it to those who don't agree with her, unless it results over the course of an actual, dramatic, drawn-out argument witnessed by many people and proceeds in such a manner as to make it very satisfying indeed.  Even in this case, though, victory is likely to be bittersweet, and to overwhelmingly result in that "important" but sad and spent feeling.  In other words, she might have influenced some minds, but she could have been reading Tolstoy.