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Review
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Reading

Crushing and reading Socialist Realism

Crushing season refuses to end as I refuse to die – Tiana Reid

It’s winter 2019, and I’m lying in a park with a close friend. We’re talking about what it means to live given the climate catastrophe and how we both deal with the impossibility that feels like the future. We reach an impasse. Both of us have vastly different ways of navigating the anxiety and grief this invokes, and we’re struggling to understand each other’s coping mechanisms. They say, the world is ending and we’re all going to die, and cling to micro-moments in the here and now. I cling to the possibility that there’s something else, something better here, something different coming. They’re worried that the future will disappoint me. They ask: but what is it that’s coming? How is that any different from blind faith? I choke up, am wordless. I don’t have the answers.

It’s not their fault, but these two questions spin me into a period of depression. It’s the fairly predictable, garden-variety stuff: my body has ossified into melancholy, I am a fatigued and withdrawn husk, the world feels un-enchanting, etcetera. Depression, as my friend as my friend Mark Bosch writes, ‘is everywhere, in so many of our loved ones’. And yet, ‘we are all, at once, alone, because ecodepression foreshortens our sense of connection to others and to place and time’ – so much so that, sometimes, the future itself feels foreclosed.

Early one Saturday morning I drag myself out of bed and walk through the city. I open Twitter and someone has posted an excerpt of a book:

Maynard excerpt

The excerpt is from Socialist Realism (Coffee House Press, 2019), a book-length essay by Singaporean-born and Oakland-based writer-poet Trisha Low. The essay oscillates between personal memories, films, art criticism, protests, scholarly texts, family histories, ending relationships, new loves, and dream sequences. I’d read Low’s previous book before, The Compleat Purge. It’s a repetitive collection of the (fictionalised) suicide notes and the last will and testament of a teenage girl. Through this book, Low transforms the genre of confessional poetry by mangling the very order through which the ‘teenage girl’ emerges as a legible or ‘authentic’ subject position.

After finding the screenshot on Twitter, I obsessively collect any excerpts or quotes of Socialist Realism that have been posted online, and meticulously arrange this handful of breadcrumbs into a document on my computer. In my depressive state this bizarre ritual – collecting the fragments of a book I’ve never read – feels like the only thing I can do.

Crushes are often reduced to a matter of personal infatuation, but slowly I begin to realise that I have a crush on this book. Everything else feels like drudgery, but it demands my libidinal energy. My body is consumed by the possibility of reading it. The ‘absorptive intensity and persistent survival’ demanded by crushing, to quote Tiana Reid, ‘might help us work through the rhythms of rapture and loss’. And, like most crushes, this one is stubborn and unreciprocated: ‘you want it because you don’t “have” it’, says Reid. The book is off limits, at least for now. It won’t be published for another few months.

Crushes and reading are often spoken about as forms of interiority and escapism – as anti-social modes that sever us from the ‘real’ world. But, reading can also be an act that extends ‘ourselves into the world and to the forming and care for the collectivities that we will need to survive this world’ (Jordy Rosenberg). Moreover, an all-consuming crush can ‘set up the conditions for serious thought, total action’ (Astrid Lorange). Texts can pulse with dreams and desires that leak outwards, into our bodies, into the world. It would be wrong to imagine structural change could be enacted through either, but both crushing and reading can play a modest role in the re-enchantment of the everyday. Both can produce a feeling of possibility or at least, as Low writes, ‘give us some belief that we are sharing in something that is happening, whether internal or external’.

Reading Socialist Realism is like falling into a dream. The book is written in the first-person present tense, without any chapter breaks or signposting, and jump-cuts between paragraphs constantly shift you into different rooms and times with urgency. ‘It’s years ago, and I am a sickly, chubby child’, ‘I’m in Freud’s old office’, ‘It’s what, 2002? I’m still in Singapore? Have I left?’, ‘I manage to leave the house. I’m on the train, going somewhere’, ‘I’m back. I’m in the gag’, ‘Here’s a parable. I’m in church with my mother’. Low huffs poppers in the audience of the One Direction documentary, which mutates into the revolutionary potency of teen hysteria, which becomes the anti-reform logic of death fasting protests, which morphs into the possibility of a destroyed State. This approach to essay writing extends the minutiae of Low’s life out into an expansive field of social and political relations. In this way, Socialist Realism continues the storytelling practices of the New Narrative experimental literary movement, which emerged in the 1970s in San Francisco. New Narrative, as Rob Halpern writes, is underpinned by an ethos for ‘restoring us to relation – to one another (friendship: you and me), to the group (community: us), to global disasters under late capitalism (history), and to the shared hope for another future’. Here, the smallness of one’s body and emotional life occupies a critical place in the world.

As Low moves between Singapore and California in a constant search for an impossible home, she navigates a number of questions: how do we struggle for better worlds, given the crippling sense of futility we are so often beset by? How do we resist the rendering of our identities and politics into straightforward and easily digestible (subject) positions?  How are our politics reconciled with our sometimes-contradictory desires? About these questions, Eve Tuck once wrote: ‘we can desire to be critically conscious and desire the new Jordans, even if those desires are conflicting’. The strength of Socialist Realism is that it makes room for complex personhood, for the differences that are all too often subsumed under identity categories (like queer), for the contradictions implicit within our desires, for the fact that some dreams (like the American Dream, or settler-invaders’ quest for home on stolen land) are violent traps, while others are openings (and some are both).

While Low is preoccupied with a desire for better futures (like the affective intensity demanded by burn-the-banks communism or queer utopianism), she doesn’t shirk the messy and often abject reality that is staying in the present: how hard it can feel to wade through time, how little things happen (and pile up), how life just passes. We see wet pillows and snot leak from her nose as she dissolves into a ‘puddle of misery and filth’. We hear a disembodied voice at a suicide hotline saying, it just seems like you’re really depressed, honey. We see self-inflicted wounds on her arms, covered up by Hello Kitty Band-Aids. On Twitter, she says: ‘this book is for everyone who wants to do better for their people despite the futility of it all. Sometimes part of doing better is about knowing sadness together’.

Towards the end of Socialist Realism, Low attends an S-M water-boarding workshop, where she watches a demonstrator gasp for air under a drenched cloth. She writes: ‘what’s sexy about masochism is nothing to feel safe about or good about’. In an erotic context, giving into pain, physical exhaustion and a total lack of control is ‘about acknowledging our lack of choices in the face of power, about recognizing our ultimate helplessness. It’s about defying it nonetheless’. Masochism becomes metonymic for struggling in spite of the futility, in spite of the knowledge that racial capitalism often ends up absorbing any small gestures or large actions of opposition. As Low writes, ‘we like to think that doubt and questioning are crucial to finding one’s faith, but it’s our blinder belief that’s the basis of any action. It’s belief that’s the fragile lynchpin of any resistance’. I think this is what she means by ‘socialist realism’– remaining dedicated to political struggle and desire, without romanticising or sentimentalising either. Because we’re stuck here, blind faith has to be part of this. I’m reminded of the questions my friend asked me a few months earlier in the park: but what is it that’s coming? How is that any different from blind faith? At the very least, reading Socialist Realism gives us the license to submit to the impossibility of answering these questions. And, perhaps more modestly, I was just really fucking sad a few months ago and this book kept me going.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Stella Maynard is a library rat who lives and writes on unceded Gadigal land. Their work has been published at GaussPDF, The Lifted Brow, Running Dog and the Sydney Environmental Institute, among others.

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