Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Here’s the rare “book off the TBR” win! Of course, Debt: The First 5,000 Years was a relevantly recent TBR addition that has not undergone the shameful, years-long limbo that other titles have, but any progress is progress.

If you look back at the non-fiction I read in 2022 (especially the non-fiction I read and enjoyed in 2022), you can see something of a common denominator:

A small collage of book covers that I rated 5/5 stars during the year.

Caliban and the WitchJakartametoden and Handels: Maktelitens Skola all go a very long way towards explaining how capitalism as we know it came to be and how its current norms and structure are maintained. Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2022 is reportage often aimed at critiquing those norms and structure and, if you want to stretch the conceit, ancient Rome is where we like to start the story of Europe, and it is Europe from which springs everything else the other selections touch on. (Temples of the Sky is the odd one out, a niche hobby read.)

Whether this trend is due to the natural progression of my interests, the years I’ve now spent absorbed in financial reports, the turbulent times we live in, or some other constellation of factors, who can say. Regardless, it continued straight away into 2022 with Debt.

I’m not lucid enough a thinker to provide a pat nutshell summary of my own, so I’ll lift the one on the book’s Archive.org page:

[Debt] explores the historical relationship of debt with social institutions such as barter, marriage, friendship, slavery, law, religion, war and government; in short, much of the fabric of human life in society. It draws on the history and anthropology of a number of civilizations, large and small, from the first known records of debt from Sumer, in 3500 BC until the present.

And then the one from the back of the book itself:

Before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors—which lives on in full force to this day.

So says anthropologist David Graeber in a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Renaissance Italy to Imperial China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong.

We are still fighting these battles today.

This is the best kind of nonfiction: written by a knowledgeable academic for a lay audience without insulting their intelligence or devolving into jargon and obscure terminology, with a heaping helping of works cited at the end.

In many ways, this is the less crackpot-y, more grounded and more academic answer to Sacred Economics, which I read a few years ago and which helped keep me oriented in Debt. A lot of what Eisenstein describes as “gifts” seems to overlap with what Graeber describes as the favors that, with the advent of currency, turn into debt. Neither of them mention each other, however. Both books came out in 2011*, so I’m not sure whether it’s Graeber or Eisenstein who should be referring to the other. (Graeber might have felt that Eisenstein wasn’t nearly academically rigorous enough to cite and too out-there to be worth engaging with otherwise, and I can’t say I would have blamed him.) They definitely draw from at least a few of the same sources, such as Marcel Mauss.

I expect I will end up re-reading it later in the year, as it’s so dense with information and argumentation that there’s no way you can absorb it all at once. (Maybe you can. I can’t.) For now, time to give my brain a bit of a break.

*I think. It’s hard to tell, precisely, with Sacred Economics beyond “before 2012.”

Orlando

As established in my StoryGraph Wrap-Up post, the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club is responsible for just about 25% or so of my reading every year. Here’s me getting a head start on the first meeting of 2023, finishing Virginia Woolf’s Orlando right at the end of 2022.

As this selection might imply, the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club applies a very generous definition of “science fiction.” This is only a good thing, in my opinion, because it keeps things fresh and varied. I have no complaints about Orlando being included and I think I even voted for it in our poll.

I just wish I could like Virginia Woolf.

I don’t understand what my problem is. I love Mrs Dalloway, enough that it’s one of the few books I’ve re-read in my life, but anything else I’ve ever attempted just leaves me cold. “Why aren’t you Mrs Dalloway?” I lament as I read, until I either finish the book (Orlando) or give up on it entirely (To the LighthouseA Room of One’s Own). Is it a disconnect of time? Culture? Class?  I’m reminded of my colleague’s complaint about Thomas Savage: “You love yourself too much, book.”

I won’t dispute Woolf’s place in the English canon, her role in feminist literature, or the esteemed reputation she enjoys today. My point isn’t that she’s Objectively Bad, Actually or Extremely Overrated (I save that hot take for Jane Austen!). I think she is, on balance, very well deserving of her posthumous success and reputation. I just lack the necessary receptors in my reading brain to actually enjoy her writing.

The Big Balloon (A Love Story)

I decided to get an early start on some classic New Year’s resolutions like decluttering and ending long-term toxic relationships by having an emergency gallbladder removal two days after Christmas!

Medical drawing of a gallbladder
This one does not spark joy!

It also left me with three and a half days of nothing to do but chip away at my ebook collection; I didn’t take my purse and its ever-present paperback with me to the ER, as I fully expected to return home the same day. Well, well, well. Fortunately my phone is a miniature library of obscure and half-forgotten ebooks and I could keep myself distracted in the long waits between ultrasounds and discussions with surgeons. Most of that time was spent with the back half of Rick Berlin’s The Big Balloon (A Love Story), which up to that point I’d been reading on my morning commute.

I’m not hip to the Boston art scene, I didn’t know who Rick Berlin was before I bought the book, I’d never heard of any of his musical projects. But he put out an ad for the book on one of my go-to podcasts and since the premise sounded unique, or at least interesting, I decided to give it a try. I feel that’s only worth mentioning because someone who’s either a fan of Berlin, or familiar with his artistic milieu, will probably have a different response to it than I did.

Out of every possible Pandemic Project or Pandemic Novel, The Big Balloon is maybe the only one I can imagine that will be at all tolerable to revisit in more normal times (if we ever have more normal times). Even though the book is the direct result of COVID-19, it’s never about COVID-19. The conceit is simply this: The Big Balloon is a collection photos of items around Berlin’s home and reflections, stories and reminisces related to each item. Each little essay is entirely self-contained, with no attempt to impose chronological or thematic order on the collection (aside from organizing it into chapters based on rooms). The result is like a literary version of a Cubist portrait, where different years of Berlin’s life and different aspects of himself are presented simultaneously—or as close to simultaneously as you can get in something you read. Something about using the limitations of lockdowns to open up a vast interior world, etc. etc.

The Big Balloon worked well for commute and hospital reading because each essay was never especially long, so I could dip in and out according to subway arrivals or morphine-addled focus. And that was precisely the intended effect:

There is no linear structure to this book. No over-arching narrative. Each entry is self-contained. One piece can relate to another, but it isn’t necessary to make that connection. The reader can pick it up, crack it open anywhere, read a section and put it down. The ‘chapters’ are just the rooms in my house.

It could be said that I chose this odd-ball format for bathroom reading. For those with short attention spans. On the other hand, much as I love the twists and turns of a full blown story, the Haiku simplicity of disparate entries exposes Berlin as if opening the paper window flaps of a Twelve Days Of Christmas holiday card in no particular order.

The highly personal nature of the material also, in a way, made up for the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have any visitors. I wasn’t exactly starved for social contact generally, between the two other patients sharing my room and chatting with the nurses doing their rounds, but that’s not the same as time with your nearest and dearest in the darkest, coldest days of the year. The next best thing was Berlin plunging right to the depths of his own psyche to share with me, and the rest of his readership:

The Big Balloon is super personal. Most art, at least the art I love best, is personal. From another’s truth one extrapolates one’s own echo, wisdom, embarrassment and laughter. That’s what I’d hope for you, dear reader. That you’d laugh or at least find something self-relevant in these independent passages of my peculiar life.

A creative not-so-little undertaking that makes me want to ask the same of my friends, or save up for a dry spell on the ol’ bloggo. “Choose ten things around your house and write an essay about each one of them.” Maybe make that an additional step in the KonMari method.

Happy New Year!

Light From Uncommon Stars

Unless you went to high school with me, you probably don’t know that I played the violin in orchestra.

Well, now you do, I guess?

I was never particularly good, let me be clear. It would be fair to say I was a perfectly mediocre violinist. Nonetheless I enjoyed orchestra and continued throughout my entire high school career, concert orchestra as well as pit orchestra. I don’t really think about the violin very often—usually only when I listen to a particular symphonic piece we performed, where my memory of it is more deeply embodied than with other music. Who knows, maybe my brain is still sending phantom signals to my lefthand fingers and bow arm.

Light From Uncommon Stars, on the other hand, made me think about the violin a lot.

Our heroine is Katrina Nguyen, a trans teenager and gifted violinist. Legendary violin instructor Shizuka Satomi hears Katrina playing in a park and decides to take her on as a student so she can complete her Faustian bargain with the demon Tremon Philippe and deliver Katrina’s soul to Hell. Alien refugee and spaceship captain Lan Tran has fled to Earth with her family and fallen in love with Shizuka after she visits the donut shop Tran runs as a cover operation for constructing a stargate.

Catch all that?

There is a lot going on in Light From Uncommon Stars, and while it’s at times a fun and dizzying combination of science fiction and demons from Hell and classical music, sometimes it’s a bit too much. Memories and flashbacks appear out of nowhere without adding anything to the story or its characters. Shizuka’s grand declamations and philosophical reflections about the power of musical performance are at once too long and too shallow to really ring true for me. All of this crowds out more interesting material for me, like Katrina’s genuinely insightful and touching reflection on gender identity through the metaphor of Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin.

Nor does Aoki flinch from at least gesturing at the more traumatic events of Katrina’s previous life, which don’t always blend well with the wacky feel-good sci-fi hijinks. There were moments where it hit something like anti-lagom (mogal?), exactly wrong instead of exactly right: what should be goofy space shit feels a bit out of place compared to what just happened in the last chapter; betrayal that would take a lot of time and therapy to work through in the real world is brushed aside almost immediately to get our wacky plot on the road.

But there are violins.

According to her author bio, Aoki is also a composer. This is hardly surprising given the countless musical references, including several to—of course—Paganini. (And yet, apparently Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill Sonata” was too on the nose for Aoki to use here? Missed opportunity, if you ask me.) I don’t know if Aoki is also a violinist, but whether it was lived experience or impeccable research, many of the violin-specific asides landed for me in an almost visceral way; the same embodied memory as when I hear a piece I performed in orchestra. “Does she need some tape on her fingerboard?” is one withering remark from the antagonist about Katrina’s inexpertise that made me cringe in shame: that controversial, or at least pedestrian, method was how I had been taught. Crappy rosin in plastic cases. Tuning forks. The way it feels to slide a wire mute over the bridge. Viola jokes. (Or, well, one viola joke. Which was mostly implied.) All of that was an absolute delight, to the point where I began to get a bit irritated when the book wasn’t talking about music. (Or food. Lots of food in this book. Her bio doesn’t mention it but I bet Aoki would call herself a foodie.)

Violins, however, are not enough. To put it bluntly, there was a lot in Light From Uncommon Stars that was simply not written for me. I don’t mean that because of the subject matter beyond my own lived experience (I’m not Asian, I’m not trans), but rather on a more “philosophy of reading” level.

Any conflict not immediately related to the relationships between Shizuka, Katrina, and Tran inevitably comes to a pat conclusion within a page or two. Minor villains are either destroyed immediately after their appearance (a racist storeowner drops dead of a heart attack half an hour after he disses Katrina’s violin; the emcee of a talent showcase who makes transphobic jokes at Katrina’s expense suffers a housefire), disappear entirely from the narrative (Katrina’s awful roommates), or are declared irredeemably toxic by Implied Word of God and summarily consigned by Katrina to the memory hole with no mourning or regret (Katrina’s parents). All of these had the potential to be the site of really thoughtful consideration and nuanced storytelling, but Aoki just sidesteps them, which then inspires the question of why include those conflicts or characters in the first place.

Everything neat and tidy, warm fuzzies and bear hugs for everybody.

I get why people want that in a book. I get in that mood sometimes, too. But I wasn’t in that mood when I picked up Light From Uncommon Stars so I had a hard time enjoying the book on those terms. Settling back into my violinist body, though? Even for just a couple of hours? That’s what I’m here for.

The Power of the Dog

While I think it’s important to try to chip away at a TBR, either through actually reading the books on it or constantly refining it and winnowing it down, I think it’s also important to stay open to truly random, out of left field suggestions.

The Power of the Dog was one such left field book—a coworker mentioned over beers that our mutual friend had given the book a strong recommendation but that he couldn’t stand it himself.

“You love yourself too much, book,” was his exact complaint.

But, same as with L’Élégance du hérisson or Pappan och havet, I get curious about the books that people I know are really enthusiastic about. The library had a copy and I had a trip up to the family farm over the weekend so plenty of time for reading.

Brothers Phil and George run a cattle ranch out west, after the retirement of their Boston born-and-bred parents to Salt Lake City. Phil and George are a study in contrasts; briefly put, Phil is something of a bully while George is amiable and softspoken. Their usual routine is thrown into disarray when George marries the widow Rose Gordon and brings her back to the ranch. Phil immediately writes Rose off as an opportunistic gold-digger, engaging in a campaign of psychological terrorism that drives her to drink and only ends with the arrival of Rose’s son from her previous marriage.

I’m not sure why I’d never heard of The Power of the Dog, or even why I didn’t know anything about Thomas Savage before now. At any rate, you can’t know what you don’t know (the “unknown unknowns”), which is why I make room for those left field, happenstance book recommendations. This was never one I would have picked on its own merits, given its grim subject matter. Even the first page is, frankly, a bit off-putting with its depiction of Phil castrating a calf. But sometimes it’s worth it to push through the discomfort and try something out of your usual habits, and so it was here—Savage’s prose is masterful, economical yet no less rich and nuanced in its expression. Assigning just a single chapter for close reading (here I’m thinking of the second chapter, the story of Rose’s first marriage) would be a great piece of instruction for any writing course.

This unexpected appreciation is why I’m deeply skeptical about, and resistant to, any algorithm-based attempt to recommend books to me. They’ll never bring the same kind of out-of-the-blue suggestion. True, sometimes your friends have kind of crappy taste (no greater betrayal in my reading life than when people whose taste I trusted unironically recommended A Song of Ice and Fire to me), but sometimes they break your gestalt and introduce you to something that sticks with you.

Short Stories, H. C. Schweikert

This was one of a couple short story anthologies that made their way from my Dede’s library to my parents’ house to my own bookshelves, for the simple reason that I’m a sucker for old books. This, especially, is a piece of family history to hold in my hands, with my Dede’s name and old Kensington address in neat, old-fashioned cursive in blue ink right on the flyleaf. I finally sat down to read it after a long stint with Swedish, when I could only muster enough brain for 1) something in English and 2) something short.

In a serendipitous turn of events, while I was reading this collection my sambo had taken to devouring old pulp magazines from the extensive collection at the Internet Archive—publications that were contemporaneous with this collection, and about which the editor (Harry Christian Schweikert, a prodigious anthologizer it seems) had this to say:

The pupils who will use this book are already confirmed short story readers, many of them, unfortunately, addicts of the popular and more sensational magazines. To condemn these magazines is worse than useless, especially if the teacher adopts a “high-brow” attitude. Pupils like nothing better than to shock the teacher. The situation is often complicated by the fact that many of these journals often contain good stories. Perhaps the best way is to ignore the magazines entirely at first. If the teacher is successful in stimulating genuine interest in the discussion of stories, the pupils will themselves dispose of the trashy magazines.

The second entertaining morsel about this collection is seeing how many of its featured authors are referred to in the present tense and whose death dates had not yet come to pass.

A table of contents in a short story anthology. The authors birth and dates are given, but several authors who have been long dead, such as Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle and James M. Barrie, lack death dates.

Since it’s a textbook, each story comes with an author biography, though as whole they’re more editorializing and nakedly subjective than anything I would have read in an English textbook in school. Discussion questions and “subjects for composition” also accompany each story, which make for a fun little peek into the English teaching of yesteryear. The same can be said for the actual selection of stories, a snapshot of prevailing tastes of the time. Several of the authors chosen were already well-established giants in 1925 (O. Henry, Anton Chekhov, Alexandre Dumas); others are familiar household names today that were still in their productive years (the above Sinclair Lewis et al.); still others were popular at the time of publication but later faded into obscurity (Joseph Hergesheimer or Frances Gilchrist Wood).

The vast majority of the stories were new to me, even if I knew around half of the authors. Is this another sign of changing times? Or am I just woefully ill-read when it comes to short stories? Hard to say. But the best part is how many new authors—especially women writing in the first half of the twentieth century—I can look up and enjoy for the first time.

L’Élégance du hérisson

The downside of reading in French is that it takes me so much longer than in either English or Swedish.

(It’s only a downside if a manic obsession with productivity drives you to stick to a particular reading schedule, I suppose, but that’s maybe a topic to take up another time, or in another context.)

An acquaintance recommended this (alongside Pappan och havet, actually) and I opted to read the French original because why not? The library had it, and I was behind on my French reading quota anyway.

(A manic obsession with self-improvement might drive me to set particular language quotas in my reading, I suppose, but that’s maybe a topic to take up another time, or in another context.)

It’s interesting to notice similarities in the books people enjoy and resonate with. Both Pappan och havet and L’Élégance du hérisson focus on how outcasts find genuine emotional and social connection with the people around them—though of course the personalities in Moomin Dalen are very different from those in Rive Gauche Paris. In Pappan och havet, our outsiders are Mårran and the fisherman; in L’Élégance du hérisson, they are Paloma, the precocious 12-year-old daughter of a respectable center-left politician, and Renée, the well-read and cultured concierge of Paloma’s posh apartment building. In Pappan och havet we have the Moomins bringing warmth and connection to both Mårran and the fisherman after they move in to the lighthouse; in L’Élégance du hérisson we have the genteel and kindly Kakuro Ozu who moves into an apartment after the death of its snobbish food critic owner.

With each passing year, it seems that the greatest benefit of my philosophy studies in college is being able to appreciate novels written by authors who also studied philosophy: David Foster Wallace, Lydia Sandgren, and now I suppose Muriel Barbery.

(This glib joke is actually unfair to the many excellent philosophy professors I had in my college career. In all seriousness, philosophy is a worthwhile course of study and it’s only because our minds have been poisoned by an excess of capitalism that the humanities seem like a waste of time.)

Did I only enjoy L’Élégance du hérisson because it made me feel like an elite smartypants? No, I don’t think so—I liked it on its own merits, or additional ones, maybe. There is always room in my heart for snarky, keenly observant children who hold nearly everyone around them in disdain, for example. But my French is still quite rusty, so I don’t know that I can quite comment on much more than that for now. The next thing is to read it again in Swedish (or English), then a third time in French, and see how much more I pick up.

(Does this sound like a laborious and joyless task? Possibly. But here, at least for a moment, I can put aside the capitalist obsession with numbers and figures and progress-at-all costs and take the time to linger over something just for the sake of enjoying it.)

Handels: Maktelitens skola

I have no end of studying to do for Kammarkollegiets Auktorisation exam, which means now was the perfect time to dig into a completely unrelated 500-page sociological tome on the Stockholm School of Economics (hereafter just “Handels”). Trust me, that’s actually 5D space chess levels of expert studying strategy. It has nothing to do with the fact that the cover caught my eye when I was in the library to pick up Kammarkollegiet study material.

The best kind of nonfiction books answer a question you would have normally never asked, and answer it so thoroughly that you’re left wondering why you would have never asked it to begin with. With Handels that question is, “Why do business schools exist?”

If you’d asked me that question a month ago I would have said something like, well I guess they’re just kind of a natural outgrowth of an already-established scholastic tradition. We add new fields of study all the time in other disciplines, after all. And then they spin off and form their own highly specialized institutions for any number of reasons, and that’s how we have Handels.

Mikael Holmqvist goes on a deep dive into the history of Handels, from the original motivations behind its establishment through the administrative decisions made throughout the century up to how it operates today. The short version of the argument that Holmqvist makes is that Handels, like other business schools at the time, was founded to lend an air of academic authority and social prestige to the growing business class in society and to the field of economics generally. This particular task now a fait accompli, Handels occupies a normative role in our neoliberal society: creating an “employable” pool of people for a specific industry by imbuing them with specific ideologies and personality traits that are compatible with neoliberal market values. News to me, but not to anyone who makes a career out of studying this sort of thing, I suppose. Similar arguments have been published by anglophone academics, including several books cited by Holmqvist (most notably Debra J. Schleef’s Managing Elites: Socialization in Law and Business Schools). I don’t know that there’s an English translation in the works for Handels; I don’t really know what the point would be? But on the other hand it appears that there’s an English version of Holmqvist’s previous work on the neighborhood of Djursholm so maybe there is some kind of niche demand for this kind of thing in English.

My tone sounds a bit “damned by faint praise,” though, and that’s not my intention. This was one of those books where I had to stop three or four times per chapter to send a quote to a friend, along with my own comments, in order to pick their own brain on the topic. (Deep appreciation to those friends for indulging me and my not-always-well-lit photos of walls of text.) Likewise, I found myself wishing there already was an English version that I could share with my policy nerd friends who can’t speak Swedish. (“Aren’t you a translator? Surely it wouldn’t be hard to toss off your own translation of a couple paragraphs?” The cobbler’s children has no shoes, my friend.)

If you can read Swedish, Handels is absolutely worth your time. If it comes out in English I’ll certainly be recommending it to a very particular subset of nerdy policy people that I hang out with. Until then there’s a very thorough works cited I can dig through to find the best and most interesting English equivalent.

Pappan och havet

My TBR keeps growing at an astonishing rate, and yet I keep getting distracted and reading just about anything else. Oops.

Pappan och havet came up in a conversation I was having last week about, among other things, re-reading books. I’m not much of a re-reader, but the person I was talking to mentioned that he liked to re-read Pappan och havet in the fall because it has a very autumnal vibe. “Dyster tillfredställande,” to be exact in the quote he cited from the book itself. Gloomy satisfaction. Such a strong reaction to a book will always pique my curiosity, and I hadn’t ever read a Moomin book before, anyway, so why not? Not like my TBR is going anywhere.

Once again, another review of a classic that needs no more reviews. It’s interesting, though, to see how children’s literature has evolved over time. Considering my past life as a teacher and private tutor to young people, I’ve stayed slightly more up to date on children’s and middle grade books than I might have otherwise; I think I have at least some authority on which I can make comparisons.

Putting aside the simplest picture books and early readers, the childhood reads that have stayed burned into my memory and part of my library have a certain ponderous quality to them. Of course it makes sense that I would keep, say, The Secret Garden and The Phantom Tollbooth in my library as I got older but eventually give away however many of the Animorphs and Babysitters Club books I’d accumulated. For one, there are practical considerations and limitations when it comes to housing never-ending series as opposed to single stand-alone volumes.

But there are also simply differences in their content, and I like to think I could sense those differences even at first reading (I was reading all of those books at about the same time, from ages 8 to 10). Don’t get me wrong: I definitely enjoyed every single Animorphs and Babysitters Club book I ever read. I was hardly a snob. But if a book had a ponderous or somewhat grown-up aura to it, I think it stuck with me extra much; I cared about it more. (Putting aside the ones that were like running up against a brick wall because they were perhaps a bit too grown-up for my brain, which also happened. I’ve already talked about how long it took me to really appreciate Ursula K. LeGuin here.)

Skimming through books to decide which ones would be appropriate birthday gifts to students, or to see what my students were excited about, I don’t think I ever found something with that same aura. The sense I got was less ponderous and more about distraction. Entertainment. Action. And this is probably a change that was happening even before I was born, considering that the aforementioned Animorphs and Babysitters Club novels of my youth also have the same distracting entertainment quality to them.

Of course, I’ve heard from more than one librarian that the children’s books that win the Big Serious Awards as decided by Adults are never the ones that are actually popular with children. Maybe a hypothetical lack of ponderous depth in children’s literature doesn’t actually matter and I’m just being grumpy.

All of this is to say that Pappan och havet has the same ponderous quality I would have enjoyed as young reader. I’m sad I missed out on it when I was the “right” age, but I’m glad I got to read it now.

Outline

Sometimes I read English books in Swedish translation out of personal (and I guess professional) curiosity. Is the experience any different? Will I pick up some new vocabulary, learn how to express a particular English sentiment that I still struggle with?

Other times I’m desperate to find any copy of a particular book and only Swedish is available, at which point the exercise is more pragmatic and akin to mental ambidexterity. (See The Jakarta Method.) Such was the case with Rachel Cusk’s Outline, or Konturer in Swedish. This was a selection for the local book club; by the time this post goes up, we’ll have already met for dinner and discussion. I needed a copy by a particular deadline and the Swedish was what was immediately available, so that’s what I went with.

The whole book plays out over just a few days. The narrator is a writer, Faye, an Englishwoman teaching a creative writing workshop in Athens. Most of the book consists of the stories other people tell her, presented in reported speech from Faye’s first-person perspective.

I also might have lied a little bit when I said I only read the Swedish because of availability. That is true, but I was also relieved to find out that the Swedish was more readily available because nothing about this book sounded appealing and because a friend whose taste I trust implicitly hated it. Yes, yes, let’s not judge a book by a cover, either literally or metaphorically, but silly to pretend I’m not influenced by other people’s opinions. Hence I was hoping that reading the Swedish would bypass everything my friend found tedious about the book and let me enjoy it regardless.

James Lasdun notes in his review in the Guardian that

…in funnelling all the characters’ stories through Faye’s very refined sensibility (there’s little direct speech), Cusk gives them all a certain high-polished sameness, at least at the purely verbal level. I can’t say that bothered me, but no doubt it will keep some readers from responding to the book as enthusiastically as I did.

And that is exactly what happened. All of these people had backgrounds not particularly different from each other (disappointed middle-aged parents, often divorcés), meaning that Cusk’s “high-polished sameness” made for extremely monotonous reading.

Outline also requires a huge suspension of disbelief that I’m frankly not willing to give a book if I’m not having a great time. People tell their entire life stories to strangers in the most unlikely environments: during flights, writing workshops, over dinner. These accounts are always eloquently and coherently presented in language that sounds like no conversation I’ve ever actually had with another human. Much is often given in reported speech or summarized by Faye, and when direct speech appears it doesn’t sound all that different from Faye’s own voice. The latter is maybe a fault with me—I no doubt still lack some nuance and sophistication in my ear for Swedish, so I might have missed the elegance of Rebecca Alsberg‘s translation in places—but it doesn’t make the actual structure of the book any less repetitive.

The only mildly interesting moment in the book comes in the last chapter, and I’m not sure if Cusk actually intended this to be self-reflexive commentary on the rest of the book or if she was just taken with the idea without realizing how it applied to what she was writing. On her last day in Athens, Faye runs into her replacement (they are staying in the same apartment provided by the hosting school), who tells Faye that she’s had the worst time trying to write since she was mugged. Instead of being able to properly write or read a story, she can only fixate on a one-word summary that essentially drains the narrative of all life. Her once-beloved Beckett, for example, she can now only think of as “meaninglessness.” This summarization fixation has also bled beyond literature and into real life, where she’s now facing a crisis of sorts after she realizes that her entire existence could be summarized merely as “Anne’s life.”

That’s all Outline is: a bunch of lives, summarized in more or less the same voice, with nothing interesting arising out of their interaction or juxtaposition. The comparison that comes to mind is Ten Women from Marcela Serrano (English translation by Beth Fowler). Both are a fairly disjointed collection of life stories anchored in the one person all of these people have in common, but at least in Ten Women the characters are from all walks of life (from a TV celebrity to an elderly sales clerk to a young computer science student) and each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective and in a different character’s voice. Moreover, their presentation together as a collection gives rise to a more coherent organizing principle than anything in Outline: we can see at once the huge gulfs in experience for all of these women, as well as the struggles they share, and the book functions as a fairly straightforward feminist critique of socio-economic conditions in Chile.

If there is any kind of organizing principle in Outline, it’s a much more banal and self-indulgent one: Faye is sad about her divorce. And since the book gives me no real reason to care that Faye is sad about her divorce, or to understand why it’s such a spectacular tragedy in the world of divorces, everything else collapses into a bunch of tedium.