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This Month is Lit: Hotels of North America, Hotel, Killing and Dying, Drawing Blood
No Brow by Jaime Chu
This Month is Lit: Hotels of North America, Hotel, Killing and Dying, Drawing Blood
In review: Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America, Johanna Walsh’s Hotel, Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine, and Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood
Hotels of North America, Rick Moody
Hotel, Johanna Walsh
During a game of Truth or Dare at a party recently, I drew from a tray of paper slips the question “what is your best memory?” My tendency to evade questions about the past on the spot aside, I suddenly turned tongue-tied for a different reason: What, exactly, does “the best memory” mean? It is fair to hear the question as “what is the best thing that had happened to you?”, but that might be a symptom of taking too much of language for granted. What about the merit of the memory itself? Does a “good” memory mean one that is particularly good at doing its job – one that fills in the most factually complete picture – or one that has a particularly stubborn or welcoming presence? Or, I suspect, in the context of a parlor game, one that makes the most entertaining story?
How do you rank, sort, shelf, quantify, qualify, review, judge a memory or experience of something?
The word for someone who relies solely on memory for an identity is sentimentalist. The last time that was fashionable might have been during the 18th century, around the time Henry Mackenzie published A Man of Feeling, which consists of fragments rescued from the remains of a manuscript by the titular “man of feeling,” edited by the narrator. Rick Moody’s latest Hotels of North America (Little, Brown) brings back to mind the endearing and lonely figure. The novel is a collection of the online hotel reviews by a disappeared Reginald “Reggie” Edward Morse, but its novelty lies less in the fiction-non-fiction ambiguity than in the way Reggie’s meandering and confessional entries reroute the possibilities of the act of reviewing.
There is nothing to recommend about identifying with Reggie, a middle-aged, pudgy, socially pathetic but earnestly enterprising motivational speaker whose divorce and career have thrown him on the road. He is George Clooney in Up in the Air with none of the slickness and all of the insights about Middle America. He speaks with a tendency towards an isolating technical exactness. In the amateur pursuit of reviewing the hotels across America for a travel website – hotel as a blanket term for places he has spent the night that is not-home, which includes motels, bed-and-breakfasts, overnight parking lots, and a three-day lease at a closed hardware store – his writing becomes his memoir. His reviews of the hotels become a review of his life. By a stroke of formal coincidence or genius, it is in the obdurate star rating device that lurks the empathetic core of book: the average 2.5-star rating of Reggie’s hotel experiences translates to the average of Reggie’s 2.5-star rating of his own life. Imagine, at the end of your life, giving yourself a 2.5 star rating.
By the same metric, the writer Joanna Walsh had ended up as a seasonal hotel reviewer because she could no longer stomach a 2.5-star (or less) marriage. Walsh’s Hotel (Bloomsbury) and the hotels of North America are the difference between your Taurus friend’s and your Libra friend’s idea of a birthday party (Rick Moody is, in fact, a Libra), albeit both books could be alternatively subtitled Reviews not about Hotels, after Victor Shklovsky’s esoteric, epistolary Zoo or Letters Not about Love. Shklovsky's influence on Walsh is unsurprising, given earlier in the year, Walsh has published a limited edition short story, “Shklovsky's Zoo,” based on her inability to find and read a copy of Zoo during a residency. (Perhaps part of me had wanted to write about Hotel because of my inability to find and read “Shklovsky's Zoo.”)
And so to borrow the Russian formalist writer Yury Tynyanov’s review of Zoo to describe Walsh’s brilliant little book (with the caveat that Hotel is not “fictional”): “The book is interesting in that a single emotional core provides the basis for a novel, and a feuilleton, and a scholarly paper. We are not accustomed to reading a novel which is at the same time a scholarly paper. We are not accustomed to scholarship and art. Only in certain instances – very few at that – have these areas overlapped.”
Following the dissolution of her marriage, Walsh’s instinct was to pack up and put as much distance between herself and her former home as possible. Like Freud’s famous hysterical patient Dora, a recurring character here, Walsh has been stricken by aphonia when she lost her voice in her marriage. But the metaphor stops there. If there is a grand unified theory of the 21st century hotel, it is the opening essay, which is really a glorious overture Walsh could hum in perfect pitch: “How am I in a hotel? Although enraged, I whisper. I will enthuse when required.”
Still, bearing a gift for aphorisms doesn’t mean Walsh makes it effortless for an outsider to penetrate her world of minimalist texture and cerebral fortitude. Walsh is more interested in building a fortress around her emotional core than illuminating it with a story with a heroine. There is rigor in this book-length conversation among herself, philosophers, writers, actors, and directors, but there is also wonder. Reading Walsh has a certain child’s pleasure of being let loose in a new terrain to press buttons, open room doors, and dig through cabinet drawers without supervision. In one room, a two-act play in which Dora fires Freud as her doctor and the misbehaving guests in Edmund Goulding's Grand Hotel reenact their farce; in one drawer, a series of postcards with vignettes of Walsh’s marriage.
There is also an indispensable coldness – not in tone, but in temperature – in Walsh’s fragmentary meditation and theorization on marriage as a home unspooled, on work, on servitude, on privacy, on a woman’s voice, on desire, on ennui, and on the hotel, with its stifling rituals and expectations, as a clinical, alien language that attempts to approximate home but is nonetheless, at best, a parasite on the concept of home. Anticipation for the glamour of luxury hotel room-hopping wilts to become a sobering recognition of distance – of the unheimlich – as a requirement to see, understand, and even come to terms with the familiar. Even if the sterile and commercial hotel is an extreme and privileged way to achieve this (“It is a luxury not to think about family”), this paradox of distance is the vital dilemma in being a spouse, a reviewer, and a writer.
Hotel-living is an easy target for punch lines that begin with “There are two kinds of people in the world ...” You could say there is a subgenre of people who gravitate towards literature about hotels with a near-fetish. (Other metadata: “transit,” “airport,” “passport,” “letters from X,” “the X years.”) Perhaps it is because they only make sense to themselves when positioned behind a misunderstood aloofness, compulsive detachment, and a reflex to escape. Perhaps because the world from this view is framed by the extremes of illness (here) and cure (not-here), where one sane way to exist is, as Reggie and Walsh have tested, to be in constant flux and shuffle between the two. The camaraderie between this odd pair of the sentimental everyman and contemporary woman intellectual is not only in renouncing the hotel as destination, but also in reimagining it as method.
We call those who review memory for a living “memoirists.” But now, I suppose, reviewing memory for a living is a paraphrase of a certain writerly impulse as an endless reconsideration and review of the fiction in facts, the truth in fiction, or the truth in spite of the facts. The allure of the review has a similar impulse to provoke the vanishing point: a good review, like a good story, encourages the universal in the specific – a bad review is often a surrender to generalization or indulgence in the wrong specifics. The essential task is to place experience on a spectrum of discernible standards. A book editor recently told me: the truth is, the success of their imprint has to do with how it treats every book it publishes as a gift book. Arbitrary but not abstract, it strikes me as both an ideal and practical guideline for a review: Whose needs would this hotel serve best? Who would you give this book to? Who are you if you are not happy with where you are or what you have?
Jessie, my best friend who lives twelve hours away by bus in Toronto, and I are staying at the Michelberger Hotel when we go to Berlin for Thanksgiving. In a way, I have already begun writing the review, starting with Jessie’s realization that the shower room wall is glass (something we noticed German hotels take great pride in offering as a perk) and that the hotel website describes their rooms based on how in love you are as a couple: Cosy for the verliebte; Loft for those who want a bit more space.
Killing and Dying, Adrian Tomine
Drawing Blood, Molly Crabapple
Killing and Dying (Drawn and Quarterly), a collection of six graphic short stories, is meant to pull at your own personal feelings and experiences in ways that you might have not expected from graphic novels. Woven throughout the stories are universal themes of success, failure and the disconnect one often experiences in understanding and misunderstanding other people. The titular story, “Killing and Dying,” most memorably relays the experiences common among twentysomethings, as a young woman details the journey about her sudden aspiration to become a stand-up comedian and, along the way, the range of encouragement and discouragement from family members and other involved. Tomine has been making comics since he was sixteen; Killing and Dying is yet another excellent example of Tomine’s ability to capture the defining trials and tribulations of living and existing in the 21st century, as well as emotional complexities that would be otherwise difficult to convey through words.
—Sofia Luu, Mask contributor
New York holds onto nothing and the people in it to everything; that’s why every story about the city is a eulogy. Between Juliana Spahr’s The Transformations, Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls, and now Molly Crabapple’s debut memoir Drawing Blood (Harper), it was hard to keep straight which book held which story of being poor and becoming in which no-longer-existent New York. Crabapple’s, anchored between 9/11 and Occupy Wall Street, is an illustrated account of Crabapple’s early years as a working artist. Crabapple has a gift for evoking the guttersnipe glamour of her own life. Her prose cuts and gilds; she draws her universe lush and swirling. Importantly, Crabapple never lets the hustle of being a young artist fade into the background. Every day in her early twenties, she’d “wake up, draw all morning while speaking to [her] mother, pose in the afternoon on some guy’s fire escape, then throw [her] G-string in a shopping bag and take the train to the Lower East Side, to squirm through a song at the Starshine Burlesque.” Crabapple eventually makes enough money to end her career as a “professional naked girl,” but she writes of being a professional artist with the same attention to physicality and to work. Of the mural she created in a London nightclub, she writes: “The construction workers and Melissa and I were all skilled craftspeople. They built the walls … I scrubbed pigment into their walls until pictures emerged. We all had dirty nails and aching backs.” These layered acknowledgements of labor (she sees you, sex worker, and you, wall-builder, and you, working artist) read like raised fists.
—Rachel Allen, Mask contributor