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[OCTOBER 2022.]

“You broke my will / oh what a thrill” was somehow rattling in my head a day before the obituary came out. I don’t know why, I didn’t have anyone in mind.

Arguing with the insurance company is not edifying. The best I can say is, it confirms some priors about the force needed to get through the world, day in day out.

Guy from Eritrea talking to a woman and child just arrived from China, all of them in functional English, another day in front of the branch library. He knows “nihao” and she compliments him on it.

You have to get comfortable saying Mass in a half-built cathedral.

Riding the e-bike uphill is like dreaming of flight in childhood; riding downhill you’re Icarus. Zipping down O’Shaughnessy from Twin Peaks to Glen Park I was keeping pace with traffic, which is to say, thirty miles an hour in a school of two-ton cars unable to stop on a dime, and it was revealed to me that if I hit an obstacle at the wrong angle a polycarbonate helmet wasn’t going to save my neck. And still the word that went through my head was “freedom.” Let us be clear, freedom can be pretty dumb.

Arthur Lee responds in my head, "We're all normal..."

Thirty blocks down Geary, short ones. Sushi, churches, nail salons, guy arguing with the police in an Irish accent. Forced myself to keep unmasked, an experiment: nothing happened.

They were playing Pink Flag at the wine bar. I told the server I hadn’t heard it in a while, and he asked me what I was reading. I handed over The Story of the Stone, volume three, and explained the deal. He said he’d check it out.

After Pink Flag it was London Calling. Going for an era there, aren’t we. That's how it was, freer and lonelier. I hadn’t wanted to go on that way.

Green Apple Books with a glass of rosso in me. J. had said, you're a woman writer now, you should think through what that’s going to mean to you. Eyes on the shelves. Hello Adrienne Rich, hello Annie Ernaux, Maggie Nelson. “You’re a woman writer” says something that is trivially true, and then things that are less trivial. It’s occult why anyone would turn away from the common world to spend years building word castles—you never get a good look at the engine behind it—but in my case it had something to do with an incongruity between the common world and the felt world, and now that the relation between those worlds is changing (and on course to change further) the working of the engine is changing also. More than that I don’t know. I haven’t gone this long without writing since—well, not ever.

Three more weeks with the face—I was going to say, that I was born with, but I wasn’t at all, that’s the whole thing. J. encouraged me to get away for some thinking on my own, so I took my pretty new blue e-bike over to the city and met a dark riddle in the BART elevator at Powell Street. Every time the doors slid open there was someone new sitting inside on a folding chair, as if in Kafka, bellowing for us to come in, there was no point in waiting around. But the bike and I were a tight fit so I waited until the doors slid open on the same man twice in succession and he apologized for having yelled earlier, it was just the day he was having. He had a clipboard: did he work here? He was talking about overtime pay with another man standing next to him, a new resident in the elevator, punctuated with sorry ma’am, sorry ma’am, to me. At the end of the ride I wheeled my bike out and the seated man said, look at me, I didn’t even say goodbye, you have a good day, and mimed kissing his own hand. I do get the ma’am treatment with the mask on. It will be something if this surgery causes it to happen with the mask off.

Riding the bike down Market felt delicious, like something that shouldn’t be allowed even with the lane marked green underneath me. Due west on Golden Gate, the power assist vanished the hills like a dream, and as J. always says the Outer Sunset and Richmond are like a dream anyway, weird sun and fog and the quiet blocks that go on repeating longer than seems possible.

Couple of dharma talks online. Impermanence, aging, apt stuff. I think Dogen’s concept of time would help if I understood that concept better. Coyotebush in full plume at Land’s End, shedding afternoon gold everywhere. “We are enlightened in the midst of birth and death.” A hawk poised still in the wind.

Rabih Alameddine, The Wrong End of the Telescope

This is an award-winning novel about the 2010s Syrian refugee crisis, set among aid workers on the isle of Lesbos and told by Mina, a narrator of the same diasporic background (Lebanese-American) and generation (post-Nakba) as the author. If you have heard anything about this book, you will have heard about the two traits that Mina does not share with her creator: first, she is a doctor, and second, she is a transgender woman.

Both in and out of the book, Alameddine has been very open about his difficulties in writing it. During the worst of the crisis he traveled to Lesbos with a vague intention of volunteering aid, and found himself staring into the usual moral abyss of the notebook-carrying cosmopolitan: suffering was all around him, he was powerless to alleviate it, and his natural impulse, to make a literary project of what he saw, seemed fatally exploitative. Ironic autofictional layering couldn’t finesse the tangle. He was on the verge of abandoning the whole effort when, as he tells it, the figure of Mina appeared to him and showed a way out. In the completed manuscript she is not only an agent of compassion and wisdom, dispensing physical and spiritual relief to every soul she encounters, she also sits in judgment over the author himself, skewering him in the second person as he cowers incapacitated in a motel room, unable to carry out his self-appointed errand or to imagine any errand of greater worth.

Once the author has shown up he proves hard to dislodge. As the book goes on the author, who continues to be addressed as "you,” comes to overshadow both the “I” of Mina and the refugees who pass in and out of her care like faces in a gallery. Mina’s relation to the author is never exactly explained; we have to take her epistemic privilege for granted. Yet it is the author’s childhood, the author’s immigration to the United States, the author’s experience of 1980s gay culture that land with the force of reality. Mina’s own past experiences are more cursory and removed, with an air of best guesses. Apart from her relationship to her brother, which is touching and deeply felt, the scene that is most uniquely her own is, unfortunately, the worst scene in the book: a frankly preposterous episode involving an orangutan. At this point, if the question hasn’t come up already, we are bound to ask: what is Mina doing here? Why is she transgender? What is her necessary function that the author couldn’t fill on his own?

It’s of course familiar duty for trans characters to be put to work as devices, either allegorizing an imagined social sickness (through-line from Myra Breckinridge to all those damn horror movies) or standing in as maximally abject victims (Poor Tony in Infinite Jest). Alameddine is doing something subtler and better intentioned. Mina is himself and not himself; she starts out with a Lebanese boyhood like his own and ends up with an American womanhood that he doesn’t share, and the thinness of that womanhood on the page is our clue that we are still dealing with a device of some kind. Mina’s doubleness, I think, shows up the contradictory work that Alameddine needs his fiction to perform, to be real and unreal at once. As a doctor she does the practical good that the writer can’t, and as a fictional echo of the self she redeems what might have been a gauchely exploitative crisis memoir. Because she is like him, we trust the project; because she is not him, she can engage with the refugees as he can’t, and resolve their varied stories in ways that are far too neat for nonfiction—many of these anecdotes must have roots in reality, but outside a novel we'd never believe them. We are meant to end up feeling that Mina’s good work casts back over the fiction itself, that perhaps it’s enough after all to put words on the page, perhaps even that once the allegory is decoded, the male author will turn out to have been a healer in his own way.

The ignoble art of fiction has to be carried out in disguise, and at its most extravagant asks us to speak a foreign language as if we were natives. How foreign is too foreign? It depends on who’s listening, maybe. On who, when you inevitably slip up, will smile in understanding. My intentions were good. I had a tight spot to get out of.

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