The Chairs Are Where The People Go
I like it when I can’t tell at a glance if it’s my book or my toddler’s book. (That’s thanks to the great art by Leanne Shapton on the cover.)
This was recommended to me by my friend Nicole Fenton. Here’s the story: Sheila Heti wanted to write a novel about her friend, Misha, but couldn’t really make it work, and besides, what she really liked was listening to him talk. So they made a list of topics together, Misha talked, and Sheila talked. This book is the result.
I wish more writers would go this route — just give us 170 pages of the stuff you’re really trying to say, you know? (I suddenly feel very David Shields-y.)
Some highlights, below.
Against virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake:
The idea that the point of art is to be impressive is — to me — incredibly distressing. Skill should be a means to an end, or it becomes like watching acrobatics, or being very tall… At a certain level, virtuosity has only one thing to say, and that is: Look at how good I am.
A lot of people are scared to be surprised, I find. And a lot of things I don’t like in prov come down to people’s attempts to avoid that surprise. But a real part of what it means to truly improvise is to really not know where you’re going, to really not know what you’re doing. There’s a feeling I associate with improvising which I think is a really thrilling feeling, which is the feeling of being at once very comfortable and yet having no idea what’s going to happen. That’s thrilling, and it’s a little mysterious, and there’s pleasure in feeling out of control. There’s a real joy in starting a sentence and not knowing how it’s going to finish.
On how experimental music eventually makes its way to pop:
[Missy Elliott’s] “Work It” is like this insane collage of incredibly abstract electronic noises, some of which would be considered really abrasive in other contexts. At various different moments, the vocal track is played backwards. But a song like “Work It” or any of a gazillion really interesting things happening now in dance music couldn’t have happened without twentieth-century experimental music. It’s as though “Work It” is the useful application of all those useless experiments. “Work It” is like those unbreakable dinner plates that got developed because of the space program.
How to ask a good question during a Q&A session:
The first thing I tell people that a good question has to be a question. I warn them that if they take a statement and try to raise the pitch of their voices at the end of their sentences, we won’t be tricked. I tell the audience that grammarians will agree that there’s no such thing as a two-part question. I tell people that if they think they have a two-part question, what they really have are two questions, and that they should just pick the better of the two.
On storytelling vs. conversation:
Being a conversationalist and telling wonderful stories aren’t the same thing. I mean, a story isn’t a conversation. It’s a monologue, a one-way thing. When you’re telling a story, you need to not be interrupted—and the story has to end up where you want it to end up. […] The best conversationalists are people who are hoping to end up somewhere they didn’t expect… It seems to me that the most pleasing thing you can find yourself saying in a conversation is something you haven’t said before.
And a funny take on “impostor syndrome”:
One possibility I think people often overlook is that there might be people who feel this way because they are impostors. There actually are people who hold impressive jobs or high positions who don’t merit them. […] It’s normal for us to feel insecure about our own real abilities or accomplishments, but it’s also the case that we’re kind of encouraged to lie about our abilities and successes. There is so much pressure on people to achieve, to become ever more accomplished and impressive, and that goes along with this encouragement to be a kind of salesman for yourself in a certain way. So what ends up happening is that a lot of people really are presenting a version of themselves that is false. In this case, the reason they have this unpleasant feeling of being an impostor is because they are one.
The book is front-loaded — I got a little sick of Misha towards the end, but, I have a feeling Misha probably gets a little sick of himself, too. (Don’t we all?) Most bad reviews call this book some form of “hipster navel-gazing,” but hell, that could describe Montaigne, too, you know? There’s some fun stuff in here.
Filed under: my reading year 2014