On Art and Intimacy: An Interview with Larissa Pham

Larissa Pham’s Pop Song is at once a meditation on a wide ranging list of artists ranging from Peter Hujar to Agnes Martin and also a personal narrative of love, trauma and healing. What makes Pham’s book so special, though, is how she shows the tangle between “art and intimacy,” how the two are not separate, allowing the various parts of the book to bleed into each other to a resonant end. I read the book for the first time in the fall and found myself in the predicament of enthusiastically recommending a book to many friends that wouldn’t be out for many months. I recommended the book for the originality of Pham’s voice, her careful writing on art, the unexpected places she goes and the possibilities opened up for thinking about both life and art. Now it is almost May, the book is finally out and I am still recommending it with just as much enthusiasm. This is one of those books I know I will be reading and rereading for a long time. I hope you do too. Pham was kind enough to answer some questions about the book.

One of the many special elements in Pop Song is the attention played to artistic and material process, particularly in photography. I wondered if you could speak to how your writing on art is shaped by an attention to practice and process?

This is such a wonderful question, thank you for asking. To be honest, when I think about my creative life, I identify as a failed painter. Or perhaps just a bad painter. I spent a lot of my early life thinking I would be an artist, but that's not really how my life worked out, and now I'm a writer, which is a different thing. But I still have all this material, tangible experience with the tools of art-making, and I have a great love for those processes. When I look at the world, I still think in terms of paint—strokes, thickness, value. Before I got my short-lived studio in Sunset Park, I was dreaming in brushstrokes. Aside from being really useful as metaphors, knowledge of how things are physically made feels fundamental to understanding and appreciating visual art, too. I like sharing that with a reader if I can. And I think there is absolutely a degree of vicarious enjoyment or fantasy here—in utilizing the terminology and referent of paint through words, I'm able to write painting (as an action) far better than I could ever paint it. 

What would be an artwork, song, or writer you would connect to the spirit of Pop Song that isn’t in the book?

This is such a hard question! There's so much that could relate and this text feels like a snapshot of a moment, not a grand unified theory. I'm not sure how I managed to write it without actually mentioning Mitski. I would have liked to write about Richard Siken a bit more. The imagery in Wong Kar-Wai films and the replication and fetishization of that imagery. I also had a whole chapter about the sublime that we cut, for good reason, but I would like to mention it and place it and dialogue with the paintings of Anoka Faruqee, who has written very eloquently about the sublime.

I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you chose what artwork and artists to include in the book? Specifically, I was interested in your inclusion of the two remarkable and under-discussed photographers Peter Hujar and Roy DeCarava?

Some of it is rooted in nothing other than coincidence—where I was when I saw something. I wouldn't have written about Bourgeois except I saw her show in Shanghai, and so seeing her work became part of my experience of loneliness there. It would have been a different essay if I'd gone to Shanghai a year earlier and seen the Dutch Masters show at the Long Museum, for example. I probably wouldn't have written about that show. 

With Hujar, I'd seen his work at the Morgan a couple years ago and it had left a really strong impression on my heart. The range of it, but also his perceptiveness and sensitivity. Thinking about the kind of portraiture I was, consciously or unconsciously, evoking in my own, it seemed really natural to talk about Hujar's work; this was also reinforced by the way he was said to have spoken about his own method, especially the reclining portraits. With DeCarava, my friend Elle mentioned his work in a conversation we had some time ago. I hadn't been familiar with his work at all, but when I looked it up, I just fell in love. I really wanted to write about the interior, and since Nan Goldin's work is so heavily featured in "Body of Work," it felt really apt to bring DeCarava's work into "Camera Roll." Both Hujar and DeCarava worked in black and white, so that feels relevant, too. And of course, bringing them into dialogue with the writing also informed the ultimate shape of the text. 

It's happened that I've wanted to write about an artist or piece of art and had a thesis in mind about how it would relate to some other part of the essay. But so often I start doing research, or looking more into the work, and I realize that what the art is saying is completely different from the point I wanted to make. So then I have to listen to the art, and the artist, and try to hear what they're saying.

Who have been some writers who have been models in how you approach writing about art?

I love the way Trisha Low writes about art in Socialist Realism, because you don't expect it to be about art, but of course the whole book is about art and making art as a political person. Her descriptions of art are really visceral and sometimes a bit shocking. I really admire the way Kate Zambreno drops history and references into her texts and expects you to be able to catch up. Olivia Laing's The Lonely City was absolutely a touchstone for me in terms of thinking about integrating biography with essay. I really loved reading Teju Cole on Caravaggio. And more recently, thinking about criticism more broadly, I've really appreciated the work of Namwali Serpell.

The book is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is the way you describe relating to running, place and travel. I wonder if your relation to these things has changed since this year of global pandemic?

It absolutely has! I wrote most of the book while in quarantine—in serious quarantine, as I turned it in before summer started and the numbers had gone down enough in NYC to go to a park or something. I miss movement desperately. I had a very carefree attitude toward travel in the past, and I miss seeing new places and allowing myself to be porous to those places. But I expect I will have a much more serious, even sober relationship to movement in the future.

Your writing on trauma as well as healing in Pop Song is deeply resonant. I wonder if you could speak on this and maybe on the powerful passage in which you write on the need for “moving forward, into the present, into the new.”

It's funny, as I didn't think I was writing a book about trauma. I thought I was writing a book about love. But then I finished writing "Body of Work" and went into revising "Haunted" from an earlier draft, and it hit me, oops, I'm writing a book about trauma. But for me, as it might be for a lot of people, love and trauma are so intertwined. To love well, and this includes loving ourselves and believing ourselves worthy of love, we do confront our own trauma. And it's so often in being loved rightly that our trauma resurfaces, looking for an outlet, and we have to tell ourselves that things have changed. That's a learning process. So, in wanting to write about love, writing about trauma and the effects of that trauma became inescapable.

It felt important to me that I was true to the self both before and "after," if there can be said to be an after. "Body of Work" was so hard to write. It's just pain, pain, pain, it's like a shutter banging. But I wanted to be honest to that. And it felt just as important to carve a path out of that pain, and illuminate that path, however imperfect. I think we often feel a need to talk about our traumas; it can be very cathartic, but it can also turn into a cycle of its own. I wanted to try to offer a way out of that in this text, which relates to that sentence, moving into the present. I don't consider myself particularly "healed" or "enlightened." But I think there is some use in identifying that pain is real, saying you're hurt, and then acknowledging that you don't have to remain a hurt person—you don't have to identify with your pain.

What was most challenging or unexpected in writing Pop Song?

As I mentioned earlier, writing "Body of Work" was really difficult. So was writing "Haunted." It was enjoyably so, in retrospect, but that kind of reflection is hard! I spent a lot of the writing process going all the way to the end of myself and staring at the back wall of my soul. Plunging, plunging, trying to be honest to how it felt. It was gutting, but it wasn't painful, ultimately, because I think it's what the text needed.

What was most joyful in writing Pop Song? 

Everything!!! Writing it was the hardest six months of my life. It was horrible and every day I woke up and sat on the couch, because after pandemic hit my house turned into a coworking space and my desk faced everyone and I can't write while someone might see my screen, and I hunched over with bad posture and gazed into my heart. But that I had the freedom and the support to do that, and that I could write whatever I wanted, that I had an editor, Jonathan Lee, who trusted in my voice and instincts and let me riff and be weird and flex and never pressured me about marketing or being legible to a wide audience... that meant everything to me. Everything in that book, I wanted it to be there. I had so much joy writing it.

On Going Out

R. Michael Kelley, Photograph of Chuck Arnett's Tool Box Mural (1975)

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin. 306 pages. Little, Brown & Company.

What does being out mean now that we are in for what can seem like an endless perpetuity? Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar offers something like a eulogy for gay bars, those spaces of exploration where many went out in the search for a queer life. Writing before COVID-19 radically restructured our forms of social life even further, Atherton Lin already is focused in a past tense on “why we went out.” Atherton Lin’s book is a hybrid and particular, a personal accounting of the bars he inhabited in San Francisco, London and LA alongside a wider researched history of these spaces and communities. What proved especially riveting for me were the more extensive histories Atherton Lin researches and describes. Late in the book while attending a fundraiser at a gay bar for Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (a slightly altered resurrection of a prior activist slogan), Atherton Lin’s longtime partner, who he names only as his “Famous Blue Raincoat,” picks up a T-Shirt which reads NOT GAY AS IN HAPPY, QUEER AS IN FUCK YOUR BORDERS. Atherton Lin writes, “the slogan reclaims gay as a form of queer (one that can still be about, as Famous put it, outrage, activism, organizing.)” This moment shows in micro some of the ultimate ambitions of the book: finding ways for thinking about and being invested in what gay identity offers in our current moment and connecting this identification to outrage, activism and organizing. What is significant in Atherton Lin’s book, to me, is his writing in the present day to past gay identities, including his own, not holding on but seeing change as central.

The image at the top of this review comes from Atherton Lin’s San Francisco chapter, when he writes about a demolished leather bar. The author writes, “when the Tool Box was torn down for redevelopment in 1975, its murals remained. This is a very San Francisco story: the weatherman wall stood exposed, some reckon, for another couple of years—near a freeway ramp bringing drivers into the city.” This strange role of the mural, between presence and absence, endurance and destruction, perhaps encompasses the discussion of gay bars here—part of the landscape of Atherton Lin’s life, both past and present. I thought of how many social spaces, DJ nights and queer events popped up on Zoom in our perpetual lockdown—perhaps like the demolished Tool Box, despite all the changes of our landscape, a desire for queer community still remains. “I was preoccupied with the relationship between people and places, and noticed the realms I inhabited were conspicuously mortal…This was my domain: I loitered in the fading away,” writes Atherton Lin. This mural shows us the fade, both how present and past the Tool Box remained as it turned into landscape. By recognizing this sense of loss and shifting as continually central to gay and queer identities, perhaps new things can be opened. “Identity is articulated through the spaces we occupy but both are constantly changing,” he writes. Gay Bar asks the reader to look back at some of these shifts and, in the author’s words, to try history on.

On Tenderness

A Review of "An Excess of Quiet: Selected Sketches by Gustavo Ojeda, 1979–1989"

An Excess of Quiet: Selected Sketches by Gustavo Ojeda, 1979–1989. Edited by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué and Erich Kessel Jr. Introduction by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué. Soberscove Press. 240 pages

“A political art, let it be/tenderness…” This first line from Amiri Baraka’s poem A Short Speech To My Friends, first encountered on Instagram (via poet Anne Boyer) and then in the pages of Kevin Young’s significant new volume African American Poetry, changes something for me and is a line I hold onto. Tenderness operates here as the political power of the minor, the intimate, the im/possibility of being together. I have not figured out what it is exactly that impacts me so deeply reading this, only that I hear this line over and over again as our moment of crisis continues. I wonder also if this political art of tenderness is part of what makes the recently published sketchbook An Excess of Quiet by Gustavo Ojeda, edited by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué and Erich Kessel Jr so resonant. The sketchbook is somewhat like the journal: seeing how someone else sees the world and what they observe. Ojeda’s sketches are quiet, lines in a longer poem observing the simultaneous isolation and connection in a city, namely New York. Ojeda-Sagué and Kessel Jr structure the book in three sequences of sketches. In the first sequence, Ojeda focuses on subjects he observed on subways looking away, eyes closed, in their own world. Many are asleep, that most private state. The tenderness comes through Ojeda’s focus on observing and letting his subjects be somewhat opaque and elusive. Ojeda’s look doesn’t feel voyeuristic so much as a hoped for coexistence: recognizing how much every person is their own universe. The figures are largely shown alone but in every one of these drawings there is some hope or possibility of connection: within the subway car, Ojeda and those he sketches can be together in their solitudes.

Baraka’s poem continues “low strings the fingers/touch, or the width of autumn/climbing wider avenues, among the virtue and dignity of knowing what city you’re in…/I address/the society/the image/of common utopia.” Fingers touching become the movement of trees, autumn leaves falling and city space: here human connection is intimately related to being rooted and to creating a better society. This movement from the human to the city seems to be the sound of the low strings of Ojeda’s sketches as sequenced by Ojeda-Sagué and Kessel Jr. The second sequence shows various bodies more fully, frequently as carefully observed nudes, and how they inhabit space. The third sequence is largely absent of bodies and composed of city landscapes in fragment. Ojeda-Sagué writes in his riveting introduction, “much like the paintings, the sketches are deeply invested in silence, but ecstatic in their quietness.” This mix of silence and ecstatic feeling is perhaps endemic to many queer archives, negotiating not simple visibility but something more complex. Looking at Ojeda’s work, one is struck by how cities themselves form and are formed by bodies: Ojeda’s dark, hazy and sometimes sublime cityscapes surely speak to a queer longing for connection, a sense of place and utopia as opened by Baraka. Looking at these sketches perhaps helps us to understand how peopled and full of longing Ojeda’s empty cityscape paintings (the most known segment of his practice) truly are.

Ojeda died of HIV/AIDS-related complications in 1989, at almost age 31. The gift of this volume and the focus on this “minor” work is the opening it provides into more fully understanding the artist’s complex sensibility. Ojeda-Sagué also writes, “…I argue that Gustavo’s position is an instance of aesthetic ideals held by a person within a sociopolitical context, a gay Cuban exile living in New York’s East Village who found the painting of a particular street corner or the sketch of a sleeping face a necessary, and perhaps provocative, blend of mundane and otherworldly.” A lot of the work which seems to receive attention in queer art history is, in all kinds of senses, loud. It is interesting to think what political and social power there might be in looking to different archives, in listening to silence and quietness, and in moving toward tenderness.

Further Reading: I recommend The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, another way of looking at New York, loneliness, queerness and art. As well, in conceiving a political queer move to the utopian, I would turn to Cruising Utopia by José Esteban Muñoz.

On These Violent Delights: An Interview with Micah Nemerever

One of my favorite recent novels was These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever. The book tells the story about the dependent relationship between Paul and Julian, two college students in Pittsburgh, and how they end up committing a shocking act of violence. These Violent Delights is a page turning thriller, which held this reader captivated for every one of its 450 pages. More than that, though, the book is striking for how Nemerever manages to bring us almost claustrophobically close to these two protagonists and their particular sometimes all consuming love for each other. Late in the book, Nemerever writes that “all they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.” It’s a remarkably assured and powerful first novel. I was happy to have the chance to talk with Nemerever about the book.

GC: In an early scene in the book, Paul says to Julian that “beautiful things are supposed to hurt,” a line that echoed for me through my reading of the rest of the novel. I wondered if you could talk a bit about the connection between beauty, pain and violence within These Violent Delights?

MN: There are a few of dramatic, sweeping aphorisms in the book that I actually agree with, and this line of Paul’s is one of them. My own taste in art and literature skews Romantic. I love art that is emotional and chaotic, encapsulating the pain of being unable to gain control no matter how much rationality you try to exert. I think art should be challenging, and I want the challenge to go to the heart as much as the brain. I love art that is visceral and disturbing, rooted in the frailty of the body and the smallness of human being—that alludes to the unspeakable things we do to each other in the name of an impossible control.

It’s an old-fashioned outlook, I think, and I decided to embrace it with These Violent Delights, because I wanted the book itself to be an old-fashioned story about moral grappling and the limits of rationality. I wanted the book to hurt to read, just as the story itself is about trauma and violence. The protagonists want to believe they are rational and unfettered in a way that makes them superior to other people, but they’re consumed by their fury and pain and insecurity—it leads them into a moral spiral that is fueled by their inescapable human irrationality. Their pursuit of beautiful, perfect reason leads them to violence. They believe beautiful things are supposed to hurt; they just don’t realize that this beauty they are trying to create is going to hurt them.

Another element I love in the book is the directness with which you portray Paul and Julian’s relationship, where in other earlier similar thrillers, it might have been relegated to subtext or implication. What gaps in queer fiction or representation were you aiming to speak to? What other books were you most in dialogue with?

I definitely feel like queer men’s relationships in particular are left to subtext, if they appear at all—or else they’re elided and kept vague, as in The Secret History. (I’ll always love the gay sex scene rendered in a single sentence: “Matters progressed.”)

Patricia Highsmith was this book’s most significant predecessor in terms of depicting obsessive male homoeroticism, but because she was writing in the middle of the century, the queerness in her crime fiction is implicit. And I’ve found that most contemporary novels about destructive folies-à-deux are about the bonds between young women, and those are very rarely explicitly queer either—many of these books are fantastic, and I’m so happy to be in dialogue with them, but they’re ultimately exploring different themes than I sought to examine myself.

I wanted to tell a story about how this kind of unhealthy romantic friendship interacts with male queerness and the expectations of masculinity. Teenage boys’ pain wears its violence closer to the surface, and both Paul and Julian expend incredible emotional energy sublimating their vulnerability into rage. How does this interact with the unavoidable vulnerability of being so obsessively in love—of simultaneously wanting and wanting to be in a way that feels as if you’re missing a layer of skin? How do young men push each other, egg each other on, try to impress one another? I’ve realized over the years just how inextricable this story is from toxic masculinity, which was especially interesting to me because neither of these characters is conventionally masculine, and both chafe against heteronormativity in different ways. But they’ve still absorbed that sense that anger is the only way to protect themselves—even and especially from each other.

As well as being a queer novel, These Violent Delights is a profoundly Jewish book (in my reading at least). Paul and Julian are both very different Jewish characters: Paul from an observant family and Julian from a family which aims to hide their Jewish origins. Paul’s particular struggles with morality and ethics, which lead to the questionable action he and Julian take, comes partly from the still active memory of the Holocaust which haunts the book. I wondered if you could speak a bit to this side of the book and the historical moment it is set which I haven’t seen as discussed?

Thank you so much for asking this question—Jewish identity is a key theme of the book for me, and the choice of time and place was absolutely deliberate. The 1970s setting presented some interesting complexity to the Jewish-American experience that I was really keen to explore.

As you said, the Holocaust casts a long shadow over the book, and Paul in particular is just one generation removed from his father’s trauma as a refugee. And there was an interesting tension within Paul’s family that I always had at the back of my mind, though it never makes it explicitly onto the page—a dissonance between Paul’s father’s experiences as a refugee and immigrant, and the fact that the rest of Paul’s family was fully established in America before the war and experienced the trauma of the Holocaust at a narrow half-step of remove. Paul’s maternal family believes in America, even trusts it to some degree, in a way that Paul himself doesn’t and can’t. He’s in a position to see American atrocities (the Tuskegee experiment, the My Lai massacre) not just as a moral outrage, but as a reflection of the parts of human nature that destroyed his father’s family. It feels like a locus of Paul’s alienation from his family—they have an idealism that he cannot access, and wouldn’t want to if he could.

And the 1970s were an interesting time to be a Jew in America for other reasons. I’ve always been fascinated by the way whiteness functions for Ashkenazi Jews—there is a sort of provisional, context-dependent whiteness that white gentiles will afford you at some times, but there are other times that you are clearly not viewed as white. This ambiguity was just beginning to arise in the middle of the century, because before the war there was no question in America that Jews weren’t white. The fact that Julian’s family can even try to assimilate into elite WASP culture is specific to that historical moment, but so is the fact that they have to. They access whiteness by appropriating it, performing it, rather than because it was given to them by default. And then Paul comes into their milieu as an unassimilated, unapologetically working class Jew, and he gets a birds’-eye view of how the white elite would see Julian’s family if they let their guard down for a second.

Paul doesn’t think of himself as white in general, I think, which is obviously an incomplete view. Even away from that jaunt into Chesapeake preppie hell, he spends a lot of time making vigilant mental notes on white gentiles’ appearances and attitudes, assessing them as potential threats the way an outsider does. He sees that aspect of his relationship to the white majority. What he doesn’t see, and can’t see, is the moments that he is afforded whiteness. There’s a scene about midway through the book in which he’s pulled over by a white police officer and manages to talk his way out of it, and Paul thinks of this moment as an unusual display of social adeptness on his part—it never occurs to him that, Jewish or not, in the glow of a police officer’s flashlight he gets to be white. He gets to be harmless. And he has no idea that’s what’s happening.

These Violent Delights, as well as being incredibly specific, also felt very universal in its evocation of deep feelings of shame and anxiety in the character of Paul. I was wondering how it was to write within that character and intensity of emotion?

Paul was both cathartic to write and deeply exhausting. I had to take a lot of breaks to recharge emotionally, because his feelings are in overdrive every second of his life and almost all of them are agonizing. I went through brief stretches of resenting him a little bit, as if he were a clingy friend who called me at all hours of the night to use me as free therapy—I never stopped loving him, in the way one must love one’s protagonist, but sometimes writing him felt like excising some vital organ inside me. And the book is so embedded in his ideas and fears and self-deceptions that it feels like a crucible, even to me.

There are just two passages in the book that aren’t from Paul’s perspective, and even those I sometimes interpret as actually being from his point of view—his imagining what might be going on in this other character’s head. It can be read either way, but that idea is something that was always at the back of my mind. How deeply Paul feels other people’s emotions, and yet how little that does to push him toward compassion. Even if you take the point of view at face value, these passages are anchored in Paul’s emotional intensity. It’s relentless.

I was interested how you went from writing an MA in Art History to such an immersive work of fiction? What was similar in academic writing and fiction writing? What was different?

I’m always joking that writing my MA thesis was my training as a writer, because I was too contrary to get an MFA like a normal person. They are indeed very different kinds of writing, and before I went to grad school I never would have seen a commonality between them. Fiction writing has always been an affective process for me, mostly instinct-driven, and for a long time I didn’t really analyze my artistic choices at all. I was working on a (very bad) early draft of These Violent Delights when I began grad school, and I believed they were completely separate skill sets.

But I learned quickly that with longform writing in particular, my bad habits were the same between academic and fiction writing. I tended to frontload information, or wander away from the point for several pages to provide unnecessary context just because I thought was interesting, or tie my sentences into knots trying to fit as much meaning into them as possible. My thesis advisor trained me out of these bad habits. I learned how to parcel out information gradually over a long piece while keeping the focus tight, and to trust the reader to make inferences rather than feeling I needed to make everything explicit upfront. My fiction writing got better quite naturally alongside my academic writing, and I learned how important it was to consciously evaluate what I was doing rather than put all my trust in the muses.

The fact that I learned to write in academia probably accounts for why I’m hyper-analytical and exacting in a way that other writers apparently aren’t (and frankly shouldn’t be, if my blood pressure is anything to go by)—but it works for me, and I don’t regret it for a second. And I’m pretty sure I’ll get at least two good romans-à-clef out of that stint in the hallowed halls, so it was a good time investment, I think.

What would be a piece of artwork you would connect to the book?

Early on in writing the book, I visited the Harvard Art Museum and saw a print of Leonard Baskin’s Hydrogen Man. It absolutely gutted me—I remember standing there for twenty minutes just taking it in, this raw primal scream of an image. It’s a large piece, the figure not much smaller than life size, so there’s no retreating from it. It feels like all the trauma of the twentieth century rendered on a single, shattered human body.

My main reaction to this piece was intensely personal, but it also influenced TVD in interesting ways. It resonated so deeply with the book’s pervasive rage and despair about what the twentieth century became. (It is also the kind of art Paul would love, though not the kind he would make.) It’s a work born of the same world that the characters can’t bear and can’t escape.

Is there a baked good you would recommend for while reading your book?

Oh god, something comforting, probably—and Jewish, just to do the thing properly. Let’s go with knishes by the truckload, so that you can eat your feelings.

Summer Reading

"Heaven" by Emerson Whitney and "Catherine House" by Elisabeth Thomas

This newsletter has been unusually quiet this July. I have been moving to Madison, WI for graduate school. As the Covid19 pandemic continues, it has been a good time for reading for me. I will be back to full posts next months but in the meantime wanted to briefly share two books that have kept me company recently and which I highly recommend. For more summer reading recommendations, I set up a Bookshop page.

Heaven by Emerson Whitney: Whitney’s book, largely focused on the author’s childhood, asks rare and challenging questions about trauma, queerness, and the nature of self and identity while never sacrificing a sense of precision and beauty in language. A paragraph I love which shows Whitney’s shifts of register: “I don’t particularly like how I look, but this doesn’t constitute anything. My thighs meet in a way I find totally objectionable, like a heart with the point as my ankles, though I am satisfied with myself sometimes, and know what beauty feels like when it crosses me, subtle, like folding a quilt.” This paragraph moves from the specific to a moment of what seems like a lift to something wider: it has a remarkable sense of the slow release of breath. Another incredible three lines that do something similar:

I wrote a poem abut pain.

I wrote three poems about pain.

I turned them into one poem about clouds.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas: It feels surprising that the most transporting book I read in this surreal summer was about being trapped “in the house.” The house more specifically is Catherine House, an elite boarding university with a dark secret. What makes the book remarkable again is Thomas’ many changes of register: between suspense and a surprising romanticism. I would say more but so much of the enjoyment of the book was being surprised by what unfolds. An unusually strong debut novel.

Me on my first post-Covid19 bookstore visit, to Type Books in Toronto.

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