Monthly Archives: May 2011

You Are Here

“For Mich in this brightly lit room—here’s to our being in place sometimes,” the poet signed, January 21, 2011. That day, armed with a copy of this book, I ambushed her in Ateneo after she gave a Heights talk on the poetic line (along with Conchitina Cruz and Ayer Arguelles). Shy, embarrassed, almost giddy with excitement: this is how I remember myself. Smiling, gracious, maybe a little flattered: how I remember Mabi David. Four months since, and I have just finished her book.

You Are Here records a series of scenes, stories, and moments that commemorate being at a certain place at a certain time. It chronicles the everyday metamorphosis of a city “made and remade” by its inhabitants, those of us who make a habit of “hollow[ing] the city out again / and again.” The city defines man, this we know; but here the poet tells us that man also comes to define the city. Regardless, “There was no need to make what we could / of [the world’s] unmending, welcome / becoming: / the day is full and it is / here, the day is full and it is / now.”

Solitude characterizes the personas in this collection. Describing them, the poet speaks of an individual “vigilance.” Curiosity ends in observation; each person is set apart. For, quite rightly, “Who wants to be saddled with another’s loneliness?” Yet we cannot avoid entangling ourselves with the other (a dilemma explored in The Collapse of What Separates Us). We recognize that the world is a space where solitudes collide, where what matters is not language, nor place, nor time, nor anything else, “but that someone holds / you, you are held in place.” The world may be “unmindful”—but it no longer matters.

Although I liked the project, I found it difficult to relate to or even enjoy some poems because of their specificity. I know that it’s part of the project, capturing personal moments, but perhaps therein also lies the difficulty, the distance this creates between poem and reader. I also struggled with many unfamiliar phrasings. I found constant rereading a necessity for comprehension. Because of this I think the enjoyment this collection offers is of an intellectual variety, not an emotional one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the easy-to-read “Soliloquy” series constitute my favorite poems. The first one, especially; it gave me goose bumps. I would love to read more.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Oh, brief indeed. Too, too brief. At 345 pages, this novel seems short not because it fails to satiate but because it leaves you wanting more. Contrary to what its title suggests, it does not dwell merely on the life of Oscar Wao. Rather, it chronicles the boy’s history (from his grandfather Abelard to his sister Lola), creating an outline of the destructive forces of fukú that have plagued the family for decades and continue to haunt its most recent heir. Oscar is a friendless, overweight writer-geek hoping for a chance at love—or at least sex. Having lived two decades without it, this rare Dominican virgin spends the last spark of his life in fearless pursuit, with memorable consequences.

A very entertaining lesson in continuity, this book is a riveting assortment of fact and fiction, history and hearsay. Most of the time I felt lost in a whirlwind of references, but still the humor did not escape me. Footnotes helped educate me on such personas as Rafael Trujillo, Porfirio Rubirosa, Felix Bernardino—prominent figures in actual Dominican history. But although the narrative is peppered with facts, the author remains largely self-aware of his own contrivance, pays remarkable attention to craft. The novel is well-structured, alternating between characters and perspectives, yet all the time it follows only one narrative. The protagonist varies per chapter, but this does not serve to confuse. Each character stood out clearly. Diaz’s writing easily convinced me that he knew them back and forth. His love for his characters translated into my love for them.

When I first opened this book (borrowed from Danica), I told myself I was too busy to finish it immediately. But its casual, witty tone swept me away. I placed myself completely in the writer’s hands, let him do the driving. It was a rollicking ride, wild and funny and informative. Carol Memmot of USA Today, in a review I want to plagiarize, says: “Few books require a ‘highly flammable’ warning, but…Junot Diaz’s long-awaited first novel will burn its way into your heart and sizzle your senses.” And it is true: I cannot find a more accurate description of this book. It is fiery: in plot, character, setting. I remained affected long after I finished it, scorched by the passion that obviously accompanied its writing. I am sure many others felt the same.

The next day he woke up feeling like he’d been unshackled from his fat, like he’d been washed clean of his misery, and for a long time he couldn’t remember why he felt this way, and then he said her name.

Everything about her present life irked her; she wanted, with all her heart, something else.

That’s life for you. All the happiness you gather to yourself, it will sweep away like it’s nothing. If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That’s enough.

[Belicia], like her yet to be born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.

Sambahin ang Katawan

The title leaves little room for doubt. Scandalous, intriguing, baring in all possible ways, Sambahin ang Katawan does not hesitate before exposure. It probes the depths of the human body, examining how its history entraps man and how its markings dictate his destiny. In this book as in The Gathering, fate is mapped out on the body. But while the temporal may last only a lifetime, the story it engenders however endures, flung by its irreversibility into a permanence beyond all truth and knowing.

Alvin B. Yapan’s second novel draws together four lives. Jaime Jun, Ria and Maya share a world of overlapping relationships, where the threads of their entanglement erect walls among them and divide their lives into pockets of doubt. Plagued by unshared secrets and propelled by a multitude of desires, they engage in an unmitigated pursuit of pleasure (physical and otherwise), creating ripples that affect each other’s lives in more ways than they imagine.

Various motifs proliferate in this novel. There is the idea of meeting as accident, chance encounter of the flesh, the conflation of desire in a single instant. There is also man’s relationship with the city, where everything is scaled down to the smallest size, necessitating ritual: “Kailangan ang ritwal ng pananahimik, ng pag-alala ng mga petsa ng anibersaryo, ng kaarawan, at ng kung anu-ano pang mga unang dapat huwag kaligtaan upang ipaalalang oo at hindi kailanman kalilimutan ang sinumpaang pagtitinginan.” Apart from this, the novel offers limited character information, allows mere glimpses as brief as its chapters. For here revelation takes place not through narration but through inference. Much more is revealed by way of overlaps in existence.

In this book, the supernatural exists alongside the everyday, thrives in its seeming ordinariness. A man’s history is entwined with that of animals, and a woman’s life changes are heralded by flashes of red. Yet little disbelief accompanied my reading: it was easy to let words carry me into meaning. Admittedly I read very little of Filipino fiction, but every time I come across good writing I realize how some stories can only be told in this language. Sambahin ang Katawan made me feel this very strongly, and it is this that I like most about this book, how it manages to translate life so seamlessly into language. Its words created new space within me. Closing it felt like leaving a world behind.

Gaano man kamahal, wala pa ring lugar para sa nag-iisa.

…hindi maaaring bigyan ng pangalan ang mga lihim na kasiyahan.

Hindi nga naman dapat katakutan ang mga nakakubli dahil may itinatago namang lihim ang lahat ng bagay. Pati ang kaligayahan.

Hindi marahil sapat ang buong buhay upang makilala ang kahit isa man lamang na nilalang.

Mahirap nga naman iwaksi sa katawan ang mga nakasanayan nang pangamba.

Nagtatapos sa akin ang lahat ng mga lihim. Sa akin natatagpuan ng mga lihim ang kanilang huling hantungan.

Thor (2011)

All right, it was a short-lived vow. Still, I wouldn’t have broken it for something like Thor if it hadn’t been for the sake of company. Last weekend I went to a movie theater with DA, Jes, Sarah, Marck, Ed and Ryan. I didn’t even want to watch this, but I hadn’t seen these guys in a while and online reviews say it’s pretty good so I thought, why not? Turns out theater-going isn’t so bad after all, as long as you’re seated in time for some trailers and you have a strong bladder. About everything else, you can only hope that other people get there on time as well and don’t stand up too often.

Spanning the three realms of Earth, Asgard, and Yodenheim, Thor offers a cast of immortals: Chris Hemsworth as the god of thunder, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and Anthony Hopkins as Odin. Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster, an astrophysicist Thor meets after his father banishes him to the human world. In Thor’s absence, betrayals and racial conflicts rock his native Asgard, eventually exposing an unexpected opponent he must defeat in order to restore peace.

Superhero movies tend to follow a certain formula, we all know that, and recent mass production has made stereotypes of many characters. But I like the humans in Thor. Erik, Darcy, and Jane are quirky, funny, perhaps even endearing if given enough screen time. The gods, in striking contrast, fall into the easiest stereotypes: wise father, wayward son, loyal friends. Of all of them, Loki’s character has the most potential. He has an interesting background and a complex personality, yet all this is brushed aside in favor of the title character. Unfortunately, Thor is boring, predictable. Everything about him is unconvincing: his early decisions, emotional growth, even his romance with Jane. Then again superheroes are generally like this: maybe the entire franchise just doesn’t appeal to me (except for Iron Man, but we all know Tony Stark doesn’t really have superpowers).

All in all, Thor strikes me as average. I wouldn’t call it a waste of money, but I definitely could have gone without it. The special effects are awesome, and I actually like the ending—minus some cheesy lines between father and son. It’s entertaining enough, if that’s just what you’re looking for, but it’s not something I’d want to see again, or even remember for a long time.

‘For the first time in my life, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.’

‘I have no plans to die today.’ ‘None do.’

The Gathering

It is 1999. Veronica’s drunkard brother Liam has drowned himself in the sea at Brighton. Shock, guilt, and heartache assault her, immediately and until five months after. Struggling with a thirty-year-old secret that she suspects marked the beginning of Liam’s progression towards death, she copes by writing a fictional account centering on her grandmother Ada and the two men in her life. As the Hegarty clan gathers together for Liam’s wake, Veronica reflects on their shared past and strives to accept the variedly eccentric members of her family.

In this book, healing begins with history, both real and fictive. Veronica remembers in order to understand the present, to dissolve the solid mass of her grief. “History is only biological,” she says. “We pick and choose the facts about ourselves—where we came from and what it means.” In a family as large as the Hegartys, relationships combine death and desire, love and lust, in equally painful proportions. Following Liam’s suicide, Veronica struggles to unravel these mysteries of the body, in the process uncovering many secrets surrounding her family as well as those within herself.

Anne Enright writes in a voice heavy with mourning, a slow, infinitely sad tone saturated with terrifically restrained grief. Although effective at times, I found it mostly tiring to read. Everything is sad, dramatic, emotional. Potentially poignant moments are lost in pages and pages of poetic drama. The writer’s fluid prose insists on an even poignancy, producing a slew of empty, unintelligible sentences like “I feel the future falling through the roof of my mind and when I look nothing is there.” This overly melancholic language was exactly what turned me off to this book four years ago: it bored me to no end. This second reading (undertaken because I couldn’t believe I spurned a Man Booker Prize winner) concludes with me appreciating the novel more, mostly for its technical beauty. It is beautiful, I know, but that is all. I did not feel any emotional attachment to it. The ending left me with nothing but a vague feeling of emptiness. At best, The Gathering is a moving story about love, the interrelation of bodies, lust—the terrible temporality of it all. At worst, it is a rambling monologue by a perpetually dissatisfied narrator, a melodramatic affair that even Enright herself calls “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.”

There are so few people given us to love.

There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important.

We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love any more.

I do not think we remember our family in any real sense. We live in them, instead.

…the moment I saw them together I knew two things. The first was that he did not belong to her, and the second was that he belonged to me.

We do not always like the people we love—we do not always have that choice.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Before the 2010 adaptation of Never Let Me Go, there was James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day. Released in 1993, this movie came out four years after Kazuo Ishiguro published the original novel. In the film as in the book, lifelong butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) receives a letter from a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), expressing her desire to return to Darlington Hall. In response, Stevens asks for a weekend holiday from his employer and drives out to the country to meet her, twenty years after her resignation. While traveling, he looks back on his decades of service and comes to several realizations about his relationships in life.

Mostly a faithful rendition of the novel, The Remains of the Day fulfills all expectations. It is well-made, honest, and dramatic. Unlike other book-based movies, it does not fail to encompass the plot’s entirety. No essential scene is not dramatized in this adaptation. But precisely because it is complete, the film offers no surprises. Everything happens exactly in the way I had imagined it would, almost to the point of tedium. But of course that can’t be helped; it’s not like I can blame the movie for following the book. Besides, the actors embodied their characters so well it actually added another layer to my understanding of them. I did not expect to be affected by Stevens and Miss Kenton’s relationship since I had already read about it, but my eyes still blurred over during their parting scene towards the end. Compared to this, the actual ending is less poignant and more figurative. I am not sure how to feel about its symbolic quality. At first I thought it was a bit much, but the offhand way in which it was delivered made for an ending that was unflappably casual—not at all forced—and I liked that.

The Remains of the Day distinguishes itself as a good movie adaptation, a rare benchmark others should aspire towards. But honestly I do not feel much of anything towards it. Intellectually, I know that there is nothing wrong with this film, that it possesses all the necessary qualities, but at the same time I also know that I will never love it the way I love the book. But perhaps it’s only a matter of which you encounter first, and for me, as always, it just so happens to be the novel.

‘I don’t believe a man can consider himself fully content until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer.’

‘All I see out in the world is loneliness, and it frightens me.’