Reading, isolation and Amina Cain’s Indelicacy
A little over a week ago, a friend and I made a last-minute decision to temporarily pack up our lives, rent a car and drive to Nova Scotia to wait out the developing coronavirus pandemic with our loved ones. I quickly dropped off some perishable food to a friend, left my plants with my neighbour, and packed up my essentials—mostly clothing and books—with barely a second to stop and consider what I was taking.
When we made the decision to leave, I was in the middle of reading Amina Cain’s debut novel Indelicacy, recently published by new Penguin Random House Canada imprint Strange Light. Indelicacy tells the story of Vitória, a young woman who works as a cleaner at a museum and hopes for a time she can spend her days writing about artworks instead of dusting them. It’s a spare, beautiful story about becoming a writer and the various ways we construct identity through work and life. It’s also an incredibly insular book about the specific loneliness of reading and writing—even when Vitória spends time with others, Cain writes them at a distance, as if her reader is also stuck inside her protagonist’s mind.
Before picking up Indelicacy I’d just finished reading Ling Ma’s Severance—a haunting novel about life in the aftermath of a world-altering pandemic (sound familiar?)—and was looking for a book that felt a bit further removed from the world around me. But even in Indelicacy, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own circumstances and of the rapidly-changing world around me. As a writer myself, there were many moments I found myself relating to Vitória’s feelings of creative frustration and being misunderstood. And beyond her character, the book reminded me of the specific ways reading can bring us closer to the world: I felt how you can be at once enveloped in the world an author creates for you and completely present with your own thoughts.
A friend of mine has been thinking a lot about his own experience as a reader, and recently proposed that there might be two general experiences of reading: reading to bring yourself closer to the world, as an exercise of understanding, or reading to escape the world, as retreat. I’ve been thinking a lot about his question (and not just because of the uncanny parallels between my own reading choices and increasing unease in the world around us). I suggested to him that those two experiences might not be entirely distinct. Even in turning away from the world towards books, I thought, we discover something about ourselves, our feelings and our motivations; even that experience of escape bears the trace of what it attempts to leave behind.
I finished Indelicacy in a flurry my first day back in Nova Scotia. Near the end of the novel, Vitória reflects on her journey and slips between thinking about emergence in artworks and her own emergence as a person. Cain’s writing in this passage is particularly striking— as I soaked up every word, I found myself thinking about a similar slippage in my experience between reading and reader, between book and life:
“In every painting, someone or something emerges. I emerged here into the country. I emerged walking along these dull streets, close to my own mind and what I know of life. Close to my blind spots, my limitations as a person, the limits of what I can perceive, at least for now. I am deeply flawed.
The important thing is that I not harden, that I keep something open in myself, that I remember what it’s like to emerge at fourteen, twenty, and on and on In some ways unchanged, but in other ways so different” (132).
When I left Montreal I didn’t give myself time to think seriously about the books I would bring with me—I quickly scanned my apartment and took along whatever felt automatic and comforting, a mix of new releases and older favourites. As I look at those books now, stacked on a mostly-empty desk in my childhood bedroom, they strike me as an unlikely but fitting collection for our current time: each one speaks to similar ideas about reading, presence, and the various ways in which stories bring us closer to the world.
Here, then, are my #bookclubbluemet recommendations: five books to accompany you through the storm of the pandemic.
● Amina Cain – Indelicacy
● Alexander Chee – How To Write an Autobiographical Novel
● Ling Ma – Severance
● Lisa Robertson – The Baudelaire Fractal
● Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back