A Likeness of Wings

This year, I did not publish very much. In fact, I’m pretty sure I only wrote the one essay. The essay on the epistemology of hands, which has found a very good home at Adult, has been stewing in me ever since I did a university project on Alfred Steiglitz’s photography some five years ago. I did not realise quite how much I needed to get it written. I am surprised it got written. I still feel a faint jolt of shock–the ever reliable jolt–when I see it floating about on the web, perhaps being read, perhaps not. My disconnect with the published word, pushed out into the world, hardening into fact, is always deep.

There is still more to be said on hands. There is, one hopes, more time.


My reading and writing habits changed heavily over the past year. I’m not sure when and how, of course; as is the case with these things, you only notice at the moment of reckoning. I am not complaining. All I know is that outside of work purposes, I appear to have read more of what I want to read, which may overlap occasionally with but is still different from what I think I need to, or should read in the moment. I stopped trying to keep up with new books, although I read them unapologetically when I thought I needed to (and could afford to, we could do with acknowledging this more). I read a lot of British women: Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, Nicola Barker, Kamila Shamsie, Sarah Kane, Agatha Christie. I enjoyed: Jenny Zhang, Zora Neale Hurston, Edith Wharton, Anne Carson, Alice Munro and Toni Morrison. Some of these are staples; it would be fair to say I did more re-reading than fresh reading.

I did not read many men. It is worth mentioning that I returned to James Baldwin and, to my utter chagrin, James Salter. They both write beautifully, but they are also very, very different writers, and sometimes I am disconcerted at how I could possibly like them both–or rather, how I could possibly justify liking the latter in the face of the former; although they are not directly opposed, Salter is so white. You couldn’t mistake it. I read a lot of Walter Benjamin for work, or rather, I ensured I could read him into work, and I am so glad I made that happen–I have grown into Benjamin, particularly his essays in One-Way Street and Illuminations, and the pleasure has skidded across days, even months. I binge-watched Jessica Jones like everyone else, and am still not over it, and do not want to be–but that is a separate essay, I think.

Writing from this year that I enjoyed to the fullest and even re-read, in parts: Jenny Offill, Durga-Chew Bose, Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alexandra Kleeman and Elena Ferrante.  I mention them because of all the reading I did, their work springs to mind, which is a sort of sly test in itself, I suppose; those whose words, against all odds, press on the walls of your mind. I leave here extracts of works from two of these writers. From Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second of the Neapolitan Quartet:

My friend tugged her husband’s arm with both hands. She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched it from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow. Ah yes, she would have done it, and at the idea my heart pounded furiously, my throat became dry. Then she would have dug out the eyes of both men, she would have torn the flesh from the bones of their faces, she would have bitten them. Yes, yes, I felt that I wanted that, I wanted it to happen. An end of love and of that intolerable celebration, no embraces in a bed in Amalfi. Immediately shatter everything and every person in the neighbourhood, tear them to pieces, Lila and I, go and live far away, lightheartedly descending together all the steps of humiliation, alone, in unknown cities. It seemed to me the just conclusion to that day. If nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately.

I have written about the quartet before, and will not say much more, only that I barely read fiction to affirm what I already know, or suspect, or at least I try not to, but the Neapolitan novels–because of world views crystallised to a sharp edge like this, both in style and thought–have affirmed in abundance a way of being with myself and feminist politics that I did not think I would be so grateful for. Life has been easier after reading Ferrante, even as circumstances themselves have become trickier, but the aftermath of the quartet is not so much a warm glow of undiminished selfhood as much as a dented armour of willingness to recognise and hold fort in one’s own way against the rabid unthinkingness of kyriarchy. There is also a tangible need to do more. This is a bonus of fiction, I tell you: one does not read to seek this, but now I think, why not?

Not coincidentally, then, I hugely admired Chew-Bose’s essay on Gus van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For. Two extracts I can’t stop thinking about:

At To Die For’s Cannes photocall, where the film was screening out of competition and ahead of its fall release, one picture in particular of Van Sant and Kidman comes to mind. I’ve always loved how directors appear unlikely-paired when standing next to their leads. How mutual respect between two people can, on occasion, look terribly awkward. Pasted together like a collage. While it’s usually a matter of height, clothes, gloss, grooming, there is, too, that quality movie stars possess: their very own aspect ratio. Luster sourced from some place secret. An exclusive deal with the elements.


In Joyce Maynard’s novel, Suzanne’s childhood dance teacher makes a point of noting that Suzanne had no rhythm growing up, characterizing her as a technician more so than a dancer: “Every step executed just right.” Harmless enough. However, when it comes to women who outrival, “execution” and “equipment” are terms that frequently crop up in an attempt to undermine. Precision is, in turn, code for not being a natural, yet that hard work is celebrated so long as it’s served seamlessly. More so, calling a young woman a perfectionist is sometimes backhanded praise, and accomplishments are provisional and contingent on one recurring phrase, popular in childhood and used, for example, by Suzanne’s mother: If she sets her mind to it.The idea being that if she focuses really hard and becomes, essentially, a human funnel of energy, wit, and emphasis, nothing is impossible.

The first extract I cite here because the glamour of her writing rivals in its attention and glitter, for me, the photograph she’s talking about. The second: again, that glimpse of women serving up a palatable form of labour, revealingly feminised in its utter defeminisation. It’s a quiet nod to the pitfalls of Lean-In feminism, which sits well with WASP-ish patriarchy’s code of ethics.

I want to round this year up with a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which I am re-reading to undo knots that have emerged in my reading of her work. I am not sure why. This is a passage I can’t stop thinking about:

There were graves in Gilead with his name written out on them, and there was no one anywhere alive or dead with her name, since the first one belonged to the sister she never saw of a woman she barely remembered and the second one was just a mistake. Her name had the likeness of a name. She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it. She lived in the likeness of a house, with walls and a roof and a door that kept nothing in and nothing out. And when Doll took her up and swept her away, she had felt a likeness of wings.

A likeness of wings: I felt it in flashes, all year, sometimes because of reading or writing, sometimes because of people and places, in place, sometimes because the sea stretched out for miles and I could scarcely believe, in anything, and sometimes because the light in the room would be just right and the lifting was proof of life, of joy, in a way little else could be. Happy 2016.