At first it was exciting to read a book that mirrored my thoughts and observations of contemporary society’s horrors, but then it was boring to read a book that mirrored my thoughts and observations of contemporary society’s horrors. Extra stars because I’m nostalgic for New York and Berlin.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel took me on an incredible journey through Alexander Chee’s life, dotted with rose gardens, cater-waiter gigs, AIDS activism, pedagogy, and more. As the book shifts from Bildungsroman to Künstlerroman, its subject (Chee) likewise grows from a Wunderkind to the mature author and teacher he is today– Chee first recognizes his own unique beauty and talent (he is a Leo), harnesses it, then learns to foster similar qualities in others. I appreciated a certain sense of cyclicality: while in the beginning of the book Chee occasionally recounts his experiences as an ingénue courting older men, by the end he details his romantic relationship with a former student. And of course, his lifelong investigation of power dynamics, whether it be between mentor and mentee, master and servant, editor and author, queer and straight, native and foreign, and more, prevails throughout.
A few favorites! I first became acquainted with Chee’s writing through his essay “Girl,” which I initially found in Guernica Mag during a writing workshop my freshman year of college– it was the first piece of literature I’ve ever read that mirrored my own experience navigating the public road as a mixed-race femme and inspired me to write my own memoir on the subject, to the delight of my instructor (who was, for better or worse, the first of many white women in my life to insist I write about my “cultural experiences” at any cost). It was moving to revisit this essay, six (!) years later.
“My Parade” accomplishes the acrobatic feat of following Chee’s relationship to creative writing MFAs as he flips between skepticism, to cynicism, to aspiration, to participation, to championship. This was intriguing and cathartic to read, as someone currently in the process of applying to graduate school (a.k.a. in the aspirational stage). (bonus note for fellow dramaturgs: the element of katharsis, as it features in Aristotle’s Poetics, comes up in the later essay “The Autobiography of My Novel”)
I used to have my own apartment, until COVID-19 convinced me to drive up the California coast to hunker down with my parents. Now I live vicariously through other people’s accounts of their independent-living 20s, one of my favorites being “The Rosary.” Reader, I have never wanted to tend a garden more than while reading how Chee fed a vile-smelling seaweed tea to own bed of roses in a Brooklyn backyard, or how he defended them against malicious pests via nail polish. In these “unprecedented times”, many have turned to the domestic arts– my activity of choice has been daydreaming about the day I have my own garden plot all to myself (yes, I know, daydreaming about a domestic art does not equal actually doing it… humor me) so that I can foster my own little biome. I’m forever thankful for Alexander Chee for documenting his experience creating his own instance of beauty, tucked away in his corner of Brooklyn.
Ocean Vuong said it best in his blurb: “This book makes me feel possible.” My background differs greatly from Chee’s, yet I feel a certain kinship in how we contend with our hyphenate Asian identities, insecurities, and traumas. In reading How to Write an Autobiographical Novel I experienced many flashes of recognition usually reserved for Sophocles, Shakespeare, or the Bible– except instead of identifying with the so-called universal experiences of the classics, I was sensing something specific and intimate. Sometimes I feel impossible, contradictory, my identities and aspirations chasing each other in circles while the future closes in on me. But indeed, through Alexander Chee’s writing, I see that I am, in fact, possible, and there is a way forward. Five stars for Alexander! View all my reviews
Madame Bovary captured my heart and mind as I followed the titular Emma Bovary navigate the pitfalls of her bourgeois aspirations, wrestling with psychosexual forces as well as that of the marketplace. Displaying signs of emotional instability from youth (BPD, I thought? Indeed, Jules de Gaultier coined the “Madame Bovary syndrome” to describe how Emma’s psychology manifests in real life individuals in his 1892 essay “Le Bovarysme, la psychologie dans l’œuvre de Flaubert” (which I confess I have not yet read)) as well as a normal desire to live beyond her provincial means, Emma was an easy character for me to sympathize with, personally. I would not condone or even excuse her cheating or lies, but I understand the forces that brought her to such behavior.
It is not a crime to have an addictive personality, difficult emotions, romantic ideations, or to be a lover of fine merchandise and the arts– the issue lies in Emma’s status as a woman in the provinces of the early-mid 1800s France (the book is estimated to take place between 1827 and and 1846, an era marked by the rule of Louis Philippe I and a newly bourgeoning middle class) which compromises her access to, and in turn glorifies, certain tools of self-actualization. She possesses what is, in my opinion, a healthy instinct towards a stimulating and well-examined life, a desire that is enhanced by her milieu‘s literary and commercial preoccupations (see the aforementioned economic shifts on the cusp of an industrializing France) but thwarted by the fact that she is a woman. Unable to pursue (or even conceive of?) intellectual productivity for herself, Emma’s ambitions are displaced onto the men with whom she forms attachments. When these intense relationships, notably with her ineffectual husband Charles among others, unavoidably disappoint, her distress manifests as material obsession and she is thus doubly ruined, financially and emotionally. Emma’s impulses are sublimated into addictive patterns of attachment and consumption, leading to her ruin.
I had a major soft spot for the character of Homais, a local pharmacist who, in my mind, acted simultaneously as Emma’s counterpart and her foil. To me, Homais represented what Emma could have been were she born a man– he is similarly ambitious, pursuing respect and notoriety exactly as Emma wished her husband (and I’d say herself) would, enjoys and advocates for the arts, and runs a tight household. He has some of my favorite speeches in the book:
I worship God, I assure you! I believe in a Supreme Being, a Creator. Whoever he is– and what difference does it make?–he put us here on earth to fulfill our duties as citizens and parents. But I don’t have to go into church and kiss silver platters and hand over my money to fatten up a lot of rascals that eat better than you and I! To him, one can do a full honor in a forest, a field– or merely by gazing up at the ethereal vault, like the ancients. My God is the God of Socrates, of Franklin, of Voltaire, of Béranger! My credo is the credo of Rousseau! I adhere to the immortal principles of ’89! I have no use for the kind of God who goes walking in his garden with a stick, sends his friends to live in the bellies of whales, gives up the ghost with a groan and then comes back to life three days later! Those things aren’t only absurd in themselves, Madame– they’re completely opposed to all physical laws.
Homais also makes for very fruitful comedic relief– many characters go out of their way to avoid his hilariously pompous speeches or simply tell him to shut it, and as you might imagine from this passage he has some pithy and entertaining tête-à-têtes with the local priest.
One of the great tragedies of the novel is that Emma never appreciated poor Charles, her husband. I understand his failures– he is portrayed as utterly unromantic, second-rate, and incredibly dull– but Charles did have pure intentions to love her, defend her, and provide for her. He is clearly marked for failure from the start, but I found him to be a totally sympathetic character and was touched by his dedication and encouragement towards Emma.
I would advise any reader to pay special attention and sympathy to those beloved characters of mine (Homais and Charles), as well as look out for other interesting themes such as the meta-narrative of realism vs romanticism, the hegemony and fracturing of nuclear families, and tensions between the urban/suburban/pastoral/domestic sublimes.
Madame Bovary is a bit of a cautionary tale. After reading it, I feel much more aware of how certain materialistic media and ideologies can affect my life for the worse– taking aspirational Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards with a grain of salt. I am thankful that I have the privileges of being able to write, to travel, to make and consume art… and as for the privileges I lack, I try to process that distress in a healthy and proactive way rather than fall into Gaultier’s Bovarysme. I feel very close to Emma now, and wish that she could be alive today to enjoy the readily accessible archives of art and literature afforded by the Information Age, and might have found solace in its interconnectivity. I think she would have liked Goodreads, don’t you?