APRIL 13, 2017
“THE PRINCIPLE WHICH CONTROLS IT,” wrote Virginia Woolf of the modern essay, in 1925, “is simply that it should give pleasure. It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last.” Canadian writer Durga Chew-Bose’s debut essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood, which draws its title from a Woolf diary entry, is a skilled and evocative contribution to a genre that has long frustrated definition by critics and practitioners alike. Characterizations of the essay commonly reject the concrete in favor of the abstract or intuited: “a poetick march, by leaps and skips” (Montaigne), “a meteorological journey of the mind” (Thoreau), “an ambiguous genre in which analysis vies with writing” (Barthes), “a great meadow of style and personal manner” (Hardwick), “everything a prancing human voice is capable of” (Sontag), “a warm body” (Ozick). And so on.
Regardless of its slippery, enigmatic nature, what most concur — and what is in abundance in Too Much and Not the Mood — is that the essay privileges movement, process, thought as it unfolds, the working through of an idea or problem, often in deliberate absence of any conclusion. The essay is riddled with curiosity and desire, attention to detail, affinity for the elaborate and extended metaphor. It is a mind in motion — and a body and a heart, too: it expands and contracts, breathes, beats, doggedly endures. Chew-Bose’s collection bristles with slow and tender inquisitiveness, carefully wrought anecdotes and character studies, devotion to detail, and nuanced structure in which form engages with content. Narrative, extended visual description, idiosyncratic critical and cultural analysis burn slowly and gather heat, suffuse and flicker with internal reflection and insight — often with an emphasis on the marginal and the tangential, the interior: that which is not seen; that which we call attention to and reshape, re-present in language, in essaying.
Language plays a critical role in Chew-Bose’s essays; language and the act of writing itself, which are both equally playful and profoundly serious. Writing is what gives access to “the second ply”: the ability to conjure an entire, fully fleshed-out person, from hearing her voice on the radio; to prefer the stories of secondary characters to that of the overarching narrative; to eschew plot for the “lingering glow.” Which is also to accept mystery and not knowing as that which opens rather than closes, even if it means writing through a sense of lingering fear at what might emerge, or the apprehension that this might in fact be nothing at all. Adjectives chafe pleasurably, like velvet rubbed the wrong way: “writing’s doubled-up glove” — “the candied tang of what’s imminent.” Verbs ricochet and turn in on themselves: “to come to just as tersely as death comes for”; “I worry that my recall is, in fact, some ramshackle excuse for recall.” Expression surprises convention by habitually using “I wonder” to invoke a state of awe as opposed to speculation. Seeming contradictions nestle into and undo each other: “fast tenderness”; “unsophisticated idolatry”; “brief devotion”; “warping joy.” Childhood disappointment becomes a force of nature: “The wind picked up as it does when no one is in possession of an appropriate response.”
Language is what allows for entire pages filled with running lists of metaphors structured by “Or” and “Even,” creating a sense of breathless energy whereby we end gleefully distant from where we began and it doesn’t occur to ask about trajectory because things link and overlap and pile up in metonymical chains: an image shifts into another image and another and another and a reminiscence and a color and a smell and a childhood vantage point and Al Pacino’s eyes in The Panic in Needle Park or a friend who resembles a painting or the particular pulse and timbre of James Baldwin’s voice. These episodes and their subtle connections implied in proximity organize thought through a writing that foregrounds method as meaning in itself: the essay, the attempt, the sally, the meander, the relentless collage grasps at that which escapes, digresses, cannot be contained. What we might call sensation, experience, texture, affinity. A hunch; a gut feeling; intuition. Constellations of meaning that press gently everywhere just under the surface. The logic of the imaginary.
Lists of words — like series of objects or events within a sequence — are relished as though each is an index that gives rise to an entire universe of potential correspondences. To-do lists are “Un-poems” that reveal the sketchy and intimate imprecisions of a person’s interior logic. The various media assigned to visual artwork summon a host of synesthetic emanations:
I find the plainness and economizing record of materials handled calming. Realistic yet not austere, because what corresponds — the words oil on canvas — has everything and nothing to do with what I’m looking at. The disconnect wakes me up. The words plywood, plaster, and twine are deadpan and even grim. Bronze is bodily and somehow lewd. Characterizing a video installation as having “sound” seems like, for whatever reason, a breakthrough. That a glass display case or teakwood base is principle to the piece feels hospitable. “Fabric collage” is pseudonymous.
So X summons Y; A glances sideways at B and C; D refuses E but will patiently indulge F. In spite of similarity and difference, ability to perform distinct functions, all are part of the same alphabet. Chew-Bose’s attention to language, and its attendant narrative structures, is incisive and democratic — a word can carry equal weight to an entire passage; the description of a seemingly insignificant object is as serious as a broken heart. The author’s interest in “miniature awakenings that, with any luck, open one up to love or let go of one’s servitude to external validation” recalls poet Frank O’Hara’s observation that “attention equals life or is its only evidence,” or William Klein’s New York photographs, in one of which a shard of bright red umbrella pierces the gray, gray city, snags the eye and demands that we look: look again, look harder, look closer, look more, look better. And in this, giddy infinitude; an embrace of the fragment as that which gives rise to the unexpected, the haphazard poetry of the marginal — an awareness that, as Chew-Bose writes, “a need for completeness can, off and on, squander cadence.”
In Too Much and Not the Mood, language is playful and liberating, a tool with which to investigate thought and expression. As such, it is also that which conditions and habituates. Sticks and stones, sure, but the truth is that words do hurt: they name, often wrongly; they confine with impoverished understanding; they present as if neutral so that when we feel unspoken to or for, we find ourselves scrambling to fit, to catch up, to speak this tongue which seems foreign, but is described as better, accurate, real; language assumes an audience that sees and hears and experiences, and so speaks in the same way.
“Growing up brown in mostly white circles means learning from a very young age that language is inured to prejudicial glitches,” writes Chew-Bose in “Tan Lines,” an essay that considers the casually insidious misunderstanding of the homonym of skin color.
I was, as most children are, innocent to the syntax of difference. How some obscure the act of othering with adulation. The luxury of privilege is so vast that praise is presumed to conceal bias.
As in, browns that look the same are not necessarily so (“I’m almost as brown as you […] We match […] You don’t even have to work for your tan”) — just like the concept of “choice” in reality varies wildly depending on access, and even though it is always “I” who is speaking or writing, the pronoun prepossesses with vast difference in entitlement.
An essayist’s voice is one of her most critical tools. To return to Woolf’s analysis of the essay form: “Never to be yourself and yet always — that is the problem.” Chew-Bose’s essays question not just the use, but the construction of the I — on the page and in real life, twined and tethered. “D As In” begins with what initially seems a slight inconvenience — silent acquiescence to a name that within most Western contexts is regularly misheard, misspelled, butchered, and reconstituted: Durgan, Jerga, Durva, Derik, Durgid — and builds into an incisive meditation on the ways in which our selves are fundamentally limited and constrained, grow into smaller shapes and forms based on what we infer, from external sources, to be our inherent worth. How high, how loud the voice, the I, is allowed to rise.
When I have a point to make, I’m tempted to sideline it or deceive myself of its ownership. To delight in anonymity. The way I see it, these admissions are everyday to anyone who was born accommodating — who’s read enough “I’s” in enough essays but has never seen “me” […] If you are someone whose first-self intrigues others, writing in the first person necessitates that you grow fascinated with yourself. The very desire to write it all down, to trust that my experience and what I might share of it has merit, is a foreign prerogative.
In “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin writes of language and identity:
The accumulated rock of ages deciphered itself as part of my inheritance — a part, mind you, not the totality — but in order to claim my birthright, of which my inheritance was but a shadow, it was necessary to challenge and claim the rock. Otherwise, the rock claimed me.
What does it mean to feel the need to earn our own particular subjectivity? How variously is this need based on gender, race, nationality, class — each with its particular internalizations, its stunted language that pains for more complete expression? What does it mean to assume you belong, are equal citizen and human of a place, only to be asked — in ways big and small — where you are from; which is not only to alienate, but also to imply you owe an explanation.
One of Chew-Bose’s most poignantly rendered experiences it that of the first-generation Canadian — the child of immigrants who faces the impossibility of being from here or there. “A remembrance of what’s impossible to remember. A sixth sense I’ve long guessed is special to those who are born with leftover matter ferrying them rearward,” she writes in the collection’s long first essay, “Heart Museum,” which introduces many themes that recur throughout. In the following piece, “Part of a Greater Pattern,” she recalls observing the ways in which, for her father, domestic mundanities like mowing the lawn or cleaning the pool:
eased the regret — that riotous, ill boding strain of regret — of having never permanently returned home home […] Nobody ever teaches you how to be a person torn-between. How to shape your breaths so as to accommodate both the solitude and the stampede.
Chew-Bose’s writing about her parents is not only about immigrant experience, but about parents in general — about aging, as a child, and recognizing the delicately squandered potential of knowing your parents as they were when you were young. This includes the realization that youth is not wasted on the young, but limited and differently oriented; that no child, no matter how sensitive or prodigious, truly sees their young parents until long after the fact — retrospective visions of those whose younger years we might now ourselves approach with acute and bittersweet trepidation.
It is at these junctures in life that certain questions press with more force because they help to negotiate our place within a larger picture. Does a writer express things in splinters and fragments because this is analogous to the experiences that shaped her? Or is she naturally inclined to see the world in glittering particles that can be caught and collected, cohere into a fata morgana on the distant horizon? From where do the propensities and affinities arise, and to whom do they belong? These questions speak to heritage and history, but they also angle keenly to the heart of agency and imagination. As in: How does a writer define what and why she sees in order to generate a new world that is made of repurposed parts, but belongs unequivocally to her? As in: This is a choice, a duty, an essay.
Critically, in Too Much and Not the Mood, looking back is not the only way to untangle subjectivity. Looking at is just as significant. Chew-Bose often writes about film, and her ability to set a scene is compelling — particularly with regard to women and how particular images, in still or in sequence, convey interior states; and how the analysis of an image serves as a touchstone for a writer’s inner “subliminal flight”:
There are days when I can’t push through my frustrations unless I write about Barbara Loden’s Wanda. To that last shot when the camera freezes on the wilt of her face. She is all at once unused but oh, so used up. Or very used to. Why is it that when a woman is occupied by the voice in her head, or the wear of her day, or the landscape that passes through her eyes like windows on a train, the world assumes she is up for grabs? A vacant stare does not mean vacancy. It’s the inverse of invitation, and yet.
Chew-Bose’s attention to women, privacy, inner life, joyful solitude, and the vulnerable desire that lies therein is not limited to her observations of filmic characters; but extends equally to the women in her life. Many passages of Too Much and Not the Mood are paeans to friendship, to the intimacy between women, who ardently behold and scrutinize each other’s slightest actions and belongings — the objects on a dressing table, a pear tendered as new year offering, a rusted stool carted across the country — if only to relish the privilege of being close enough to witness privacy. With a cinematographer’s eye, Chew-Bose stills time to detail and interpret minutiae, imagining the burnished interior states that might correspond. As Barthes writes in “Leaving the Movie Theatre,” of the reverie induced by seeing in a particular way, “it is because I am enclosed that I work and glow with all my desire.”
Films, women, family, friends, tan lines, names, the cadence of a voice, a gasp, a stolen fish, an anecdote about a friend’s mother, a portrait of a girl, the girl, any girl — the content of Too Much and Not the Mood is broad and diverse. As in the best essay collections the stories, scenes, insights, and observations are individual and specific; but they are also analogies for a certain kind of looking, spending time and attention, as well as bestowing care and devotion on the animate and the inanimate alike. It is a question of how to be and how to preserve, which is sometimes to push where it hurts, and to write through to the other side. “How unnecessarily held captive life would feel if I didn’t react,” essays Durga Chew-Bose. “If I wasn’t susceptive and quick to greet what awakens me […] Why give that up? The spoken dexterity […] The dicey irreparableness of being.”