Perhaps the rivers of ink that have been expended discussing the nature of the ‘continuous’ over the centuries…have been wasted. Continuity is only a mathematical technique for approximating very finely grained things. The world is subtly discrete, not continuous. The good Lord has not drawn the world with continuous lines: with a light hand, he has sketched it in dots.
~Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time.
Some writers pay off, but sometimes only after time. Sometimes you have to read boring sentences to get to interesting places. Where the words begin to stack and certain meanings finally cave, pages suddenly layered, like magma, or sediment. Boring then exciting. A specific planet suddenly full of secret inner parts.
Except I hate that phrase, “pay off.” It feels so macho, superficial (how often the two surreptitiously meet). Is something valuable only when there’s opportunity for logging a profit and cashing in? Quantifiable and branded. Measurable. Time exists in units smaller than the machines of human invention can register. In other words, things exist beyond their measurability. Like women. So that time and continuity become metaphors, commonplace coping mechanisms. And certain metaphors disgust me. Assumptions, too: that something good must be good in every waking moment. Consistent, like money.
When I read Anna Kavan, I am not in love with every single story. But I am in love with what she is doing at all times, with the larger system of her, the relationship between part and whole. Plain language, repetition that shuffles in order to accrue meaning through a shifting context, images stark and bordered. I always realize what Anna Kavan is doing, what she is capable of doing, the farther I go.
And what do her stories do? They condense around the disillusionment of humanity. So stripped of all illusions of consistent goodness or safety that I begin to realize how every moment of living is a kind of hallucination, lodged precariously between mind and body, that fuzzy space where the two shall never meet, no matter how nice the adjoining sentence may be.
Anna Kavan’s stories take traditionally male-dominated spaces—e.g. drugs as literature—and flip them on their stereotyped heads. Drugs, for Kavan, become a metaphor, too. Yes: she lived her life on them, her prose just a few turns away from experimental personal essay, her lived experiences shaping and influencing what turned up on the page.
But drugs are also a coping method. Drugs are always a coping method. Drugs are a language. And language, too, helps one cope with the illusions of living, which is never permanent. It is good to have coping methods. If lucky, we live through the dark side of their worst consequences. Because sometimes I do things that are bad for myself to help me get through the day. I do things that I would refuse to explain to a discerning public eye. And I wouldn’t expect, not in this world at least, that my darkest and least popular moments could always justify something entertaining or beautiful.
Anna Kavan’s writing is neither. I am not on the edge of my seat when I read her; her sentences are not pretty. But they stack, and they insist, and they remind me of things I thought during previous sentences, and they sadden me, they make me sad about things that I often refuse to look at directly for fear of being sad when I see them. They make me sad and remind me to look. Uncomfortable, I know there are realities I am too often inclined to ignore, so much so that away and looking elsewhere become their own coping mechanisms, habits, ones that keep me always floating just above the ground, where responsibility hardens.
When I read Anna Kavan’s stories, I am reminded of the ground. Of mortality. Of hard choices made by good people, and of good art made by sad women. Unlikeable or not, it doesn’t matter.
Anna Kavan was also Anna Kavan: story and maker, character and woman, so many of them, in a world not made for too many, especially those who know the complicated relationship between vice and reception. There are many days when I feel that this world was not made for me, and this is the same world that was not made for Anna Kavan, though she survived in it for 67 years, longer than I have yet to, and this can be attributed to drugs or art or dismemberment of the ignorant soul, everything and nothing: she saw moments clearly and documented each despite or because of its haze. I confuse Anna Kavan the person with Anna Kavan the story, source with experience, and this is how I come to realize that everything I ever love will always be bigger than my regard for it.
Kavan’s work demands a feminist kind of reading, one that asks you to consider the life behind or after the words. There is a necessity to pointing, and I am done separating things (looking at you, male artists). Kavan’s work asks the reader to commit, to wholly dedicate your reading practices, so that you understand how plainness and deceleration, vulnerability and slow brutality all have something to give in this gratification obsessed world. To read like a feminist: to pay attention in numerous directions at once; to stick with the slow moments; to trust that the part, whichever part, does not represent the whole, how parts can be simultaneously different yet equally imperative; to care about the whole; to care about the parts, hidden and expecting your company. Waiting for you.
What does it mean to read like a feminist? You understand that words can be ugly, difficult, slow, repetitive, discrete, unclear, incohesive, self-deprecating. You read through difference, you value boring sentences, you understand the dynamic efforts of need: in order to get there, I must start here. You cannot serve the entrée before you’ve set the table for this wide audience, hungry and knocking at the door.
In my own life, I write the poem/the essay/the story, always so tempted to cut the beginning, to get to the snappy stuff sooner, or the infamous lack-of-a-better-word “point.” What does it mean to approach the point slowly, to get there through context—to acknowledge that context and circumstance, reasons and thoughts and the accumulation of different feelings might play a role in the very point being made? That experiences of value are sometimes achieved through inconsistent mood and discontinuous grunt, a slow tumbling of language. Women today are announcing their own bigger circumstances, making room for complexity and construction and need. Slow, careful women—slow feminism.
There are too many kinds of relevance in this world for any one person to relate to them all. A feminist method of reading is one that dedicates, that accepts the occasional lack of cohesion, that knows about masks and performances, that wants to see what’s on the other side, even when that means starting on the already othered side and ending up somewhere else entirely. The question of relevance becomes an irrelevant one. A feminist method of reading knows that as with science, so too with literature, and politics and family and words on a page: things are relative, and hardly ever consistent.
To read like a feminist is to give up expecting that anything will be obvious from the start. Habits are obvious. Feminism is neither. I revel in willful agency, in being in charge of the things I am in charge of: myself, my feelings, my experiences, choice after spontaneous choice. How could feminism ever truly become a habit? Not so long as I keep choosing my perspective, keep asking questions about its shape, keep working to better understand my own extant complicity, which maybe never quite goes away.
Habits are habits. Unthoughtful, automatic. To change your reading habits is to perhaps destroy the relationship between “reading” and “habit” and “you” in the first place. Slow, painful. Impersonal (out of body) in that hyper-personal sort of way. To read with intention, to seek out discomfort, difficult texts, new authors, boring authors, female authors, texts that won’t resonate automatically with the shape of your own life. To let go of the familiar comfort of routine and leave immediacy behind. Goodbye, Hollywood formulas. Goodbye, previously construed notion of a continuous god. The world is discontinuous and everywhere, says Julia, holding her bazooka and reaching down into the earth she sprang from, a little bored, a little boring. Reaching and reading through contradictions: you sit with them, keep them company, keep going. As if there must be something more than what’s directly in front of you. Everything might change, eventually. I hope it does.
Sarah Cook‘s recent prose has appeared in So to Speak, Cosmonauts Avenue, ASAP/J, Bright Lights Film Journal, and at freelancefeminist.com. She lives and writes on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, where she works with homeless young people and foster kids.