La maladie de la mort

In addition to an arbitrary percentage of Swedish reading, my annual reading goal also includes four books in French, lest those hours spent in French class go totally to waste. And just to drive home the point that I actually do have chill, this year was the first time since I introduced the goal that I actually met it.

By the skin of my teeth, with a Marguerite Duras novella at the buzzer, but nonetheless I met it! Merry Christmas to me.

La maladie de la mort (The Malady of Death, English translation available at the Internet Archive, also a worthy cause to donate to!) describes the brief relationship between an unnamed man (told in second person, so always just “vous”) and an unnamed woman he pays for sex-and-also-more. The man wants to experience love for once in his life, and the conditions of this transaction suggest what he thinks love is, or ought to be:

You say she mustn’t speak, like the women of her ancestors, must yield completely to you and your will, be entirely submissive like peasant women in the barns after the harvest when they’re exhausted and let the men come to them while they’re asleep. So that you may gradually get used to that shape moulding itself to yours, at your mercy as nuns are at God’s.

The woman denies being a prostitute, but still agrees to the deal, and over the course of their seaside hotel tryst she reads him for filth. Or, not filth exactly, but she’s able to name the character flaw within him that he’s never quite able to define. Whence the title of the work derives: she tells him that he is touched by the malady of death.

A lot about this situation is reminiscent of a chapter out of Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net, a book that is somehow nearly a decade old? Imagine a pre-Trump examination of 4chan. A simpler time. (As an aside, I was disappointed in The Dark Net because I thought it would be an examination of the actual Dark Net, meaning the stuff that happens online beyond the crawlable purview of search engines. It was actually about all of the antisocial but still highly Googlable behavior I was already aware of because I had a misspent, Terminally Online youth: pro-ana/pro-mia, suicide clubs, relentless online bullying campaigns, etc.)

One of the few things in The Dark Net that was actually of interest to me was the chapter on cam girls, maybe because I have limited (read as: zero) experience in that arena. The overwhelming consensus from the interviews that Bartlett conducted was that the best paying and most loyal customers for a cam girl often wanted, more than whatever explicit sexual experience, something that feminist theory would call “emotional labor” and that the cam girls called “the girlfriend experience.” This particular class of customer just wanted a space with another human being to give vent to their anxieties, blow off steam, maybe exhibit a level of vulnerability, and just overall to be seen—this on greater or equal footing than just sexual gratification.

The same dynamic seems to play out in La maladie de la mort. The man believes that what he’s missing is sex, he sets out terms and conditions that are built on that assumption, and as the relationship progresses (over a few days? weeks? the timeline is a bit muddy) the woman engages in a bit of psychological judo and by the end the man seems to realize…love wasn’t what he thought it was? He is inherently unloveable?

All you remember of the whole affair are certain words she said in her sleep, the ones that tell you what’s wrong with you: the malady of death.

Soon you give up, don’t look for her anymore, either in the town or at night or in the daytime.

Even so you have managed to live that love in the only way possible for you. Losing it before it happened.

Or he’s gay? (I missed the gay subtext in French and in English alike. Sometimes I’m not gifted at close reading.) Which then makes the extreme violence of the man’s initial terms for the relationship something on par with, say, Phil’s emotional abuse and psychological torture of Rose Gordon in The Power of the Dog. How aware either of these men are about their natural proclivities, or how they feel about them, is up for discussion.

Duras wrote in a variety of mediums, no stranger to film or stage, so it’s not surprising that her afterword on this very short piece is a reflection on how she would stage it as a play. Nor is it surprising that people have done exactly that!


Appropriately enough, this review of an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick will go up while I’m en route to Austin!

A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace were some of the best sci-fi I read in…whatever year it was. So when a new novella from Arkady Martine was announced, I immediately suggested it to the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club.

Rose/House is a completely different beast from the Teixcalaanli books. Rather than the far-flung reaches of space, we’re on Earth in a relatively near future. A world-famous architect who incorporated AI into all of his creations has recently died in the last and best of his houses, Rose House. In accordance with his will, the only visitor allowed in the house is his archivist and former student Selene—and since the Rose House AI takes this protocol extremely seriously, it’s more than a little concerning when the AI calls the police to report the presence of a dead body inside the house. Selene is therefore flown in as a person of interest, not to mention that investigating officer Martinez has no other way of accessing her John Doe.

Some novels should be short stories; some short stories should be novels. Or I’m not sure what this should be. There’s a lot that’s implied that requires reading between the lines—something I’ve never been good at as a reader. The solution to the mystery also feels like a cheap trick, and the hint to a later plot twist was so heavily telegraphed earlier on that it feels unsatisfying.

A comparison naturally arises to Six Wakes (sci-fi locked room whodunnit) and on the plus side, this was a much quicker read and therefore all the more enjoyable for not wearing out its welcome. Nonetheless, Rose/House doesn’t live up to the impossibly high bar Martine set up in the Teixcalaanli novels; I would have been hard pressed to name her as the author if I hadn’t known going in. I don’t know that I necessarily want more Teixcalaanli novels from Martine—it’s always something of a tragedy, I think, when a character’s or series’ popularity essentially forces their author to continue along a track they’d much rather abandon—but the brand of noir in Rose/House doesn’t seem like her strong point.

Weasels in the Attic

All told I’m in three different book clubs, to whom I have varying levels of allegiance. At one end of the spectrum there’s the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, to which I am more or less firmly committed and which accounts for around 25% of my annual book consumption. One step below that is the neighborhood dinner and book club, which I abstain from attending during The Season at work, but whose selections I often read on my own because I’m otherwise not plugged in to new, or at least recent, Swedish releases. At the other end of the spectrum is the ultra casual “buddy read” group in one of my Discord servers, which I usually ignore unless I’ve already read the book. Such was the case with Light From Uncommon Stars, which was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick for November and then a Discord buddy read for December, meaning this was the rare occasion I was part of the Discord book chat and witness to the process of selecting the next buddy ready book.

That was a long preamble to say, “I read Hiroko Oyamada’s Weasels in the Attic because it was a book club read for a book club I don’t normally attend.”

I also read it because it was short, because as a translator I appreciate reading works in translation, and because it sounded intriguing. It’s hard, even, to decide between classing it as a novella or as a short story collection. We have the same characters throughout, all riffing on the theme of indifference, or even antipathy, towards parenthood, but their only common thread is the same narrator. Each story? chapter? on its own feels a bit unearthly: deliberately flat and almost imagist, where the point isn’t a clever plot or character development but just the mood of the scene.

The word “sinister” comes up in different reviews of the book, but maybe a better word would be “uneasy.” You get that horror movie knot in your stomach, but the other shoe never drops. The narrator’s friends, Urabe and Saiki don’t come across as great husbands, or even decent men, but the narrative doesn’t stick around long enough to confirm or deny those allegations. It’s possible that the young, vulnerable girl Urabe caught eating his stock of fish food is now his wife, but then again, maybe she isn’t. We don’t find out either way. Both of them boss their (significantly) younger wives around and do very little to help in entertaining their guests, but things fail to rise about the level of the inconsiderate to demeaning or abusive. Likewise, the infants in the story are not particularly cuddly or even robust creatures, and in the stories where they appear you have the sense that they’re not going to survive until the end of the chapter (but they do).

If great art, according to Aristotle, is supposed to elicit some sense of catharsis in its audience, then he would have hated this book. (We’ll pretend for a minute that he would have understood the context of modern suburban Japan.) Oyamada shows you a few uncomfortable scenes and then leaves. The result is unsettling.

Did I like it? Hard to say. But it’s so short and goes so quickly—I read it cover to cover before I rolled out of bed one Saturday morning—that I’m not mad I read it, either.