New Tricks: on extinction and not finishing things

Some day (soon, hopefully) I’ll get better at updating again. It’s been tough to remember that regardless of whether or not anything I have to say is “important” or “worthwhile” … This is my own damn blog and my own damn website and I can say whatever I want.

Yesterday I had to make a very difficult and unfamiliar decision: I deliberately chose to stop reading the book I had been (trying) to read. Generally any book which gets shunted into the “unfinished” pile is there as a result of my tendency to get distracted, so it’s theoretically “In Progress” rather than “Abandoned”. However, this time, I got the book out of the library, so I can’t just quietly leave it lying around while I get back to something else and “accidentally” “forget” about it. It has to return to the library before the end of the month.

I rarely actually abandon a book after I’ve started it. It’s a mix of things: a sense of obligation to the author, to the book, to the story, to my integrity as a critic, as a well-rounded human being, and so on. I feel that “I’m not enjoying it” is an insufficient excuse or explanation for leaving something unfinished or undone. Maybe because not all things are meant to be “enjoyed,” maybe because there’s something wrong with me and unless I can say (and providing supporting evidence) that something is causing me actual harm, I consider any other negative emotion insufficient justification to “give up” or “throw in the towel.”

But it seems that I need to reexamine my categories. I’ll read a book that I really hate all the way through to the end. Perhaps because it’s totally engaging to hate something. I tell myself that it’s because I’m trying to give the author the chance, the opportunity, to turn it around; I don’t want to hate something because I didn’t see it all the way through to the end, where it justified itself. All too often I see reviews or comments about movies or books that I really enjoyed where the person says “I gave up half-way through” and I think to myself, “What authority have you, then, to pass judgement on this work?”

In art we are given the chance to do that which is impossible in life: we can see the story in its totality, and we can judge it, weigh its heart against a feather after all is said and done and decide whether or not the story is true and good, or whether its heavy with malice. It is, no doubt, telling that I view the art critic as having the same responsibilities as the moral philosopher. But stories make up the world, and we must do everything we can to understand what our stories really say and do in the world, how else are we supposed to do the work of telling and learning and repeating responsible stories about ourselves and about history if we haven’t done the work in the laboratory of fiction?

The truth is, however, that Jeff Vandermeer’s Hummingbird Salamander was getting in the way. I was toting it around because I felt that obligation to see the journey through, and yet… My current excuse is that I do believe that it is a thriller (if the blurbs on the back are to be believed) rather than almost any other genre, which is one which has never really gotten its hooks in me. It’s always nice to encounter the exceptions to the rule: the book, the movie, the song which proves that there can be an instantiation of a given genre or style which does, actually, appeal to you. Unfortunately for me, we do not seem to have managed that in this particular instance.

Moreover, there is a degree to which the book’s particular subject matter—species extinction in the Anthropocene, and the ravages of humanity upon the natural world—illustrated as they are—through a person who is becoming aware of them intimately, for the first time, rather than merely a theoretical fact about life—is not a lesson I need, nor which I can sustain for the length of a novel. I don’t know if it’s the result of what a psych evaluation some time ago described as “features of OCD?” but I walk the knife’s edge of pervasive anxiety about my impact on the world. A few too many classes in university about the politics of food and its production and I have at many times felt the noose around my neck tighten as I think of all the ways my entire existence is predicated on the exploitation and destruction of every living thing on this planet. (See: I told you I would need to provide evidence of harm to justify putting the book down.)

I did a report about salmon in my seventh grade science class. I still find myself asking if salmon I purchase has been farmed, and if so which ocean it was farmed in. We only farm Atlantic salmon, which all belong to one species, however, people also farm Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean, and it is quite common for them to break containment and end up breeding with the locals, which has had a significant impact on the biodiversity among Pacific salmon, of which there are seven separate species. (And from my junior year in college, I think the less we say about feeding farmed fish corn because we overproduce it and as a result have decided to use it for literally everything the better.)

A book which wants me to care about its protagonist’s inability to be a responsible steward of her interpersonal relationships (she cheats on her husband), while we’re discussing the extinction of entire life forms might be asking for a greater range of feeling than I am capable of maintaining in a single context. She may be able to contain multitudes, but unfortunately, when it comes to the unimaginable scale of human and animal and ecological suffering which we face as we look into the future, I have room only for impotent rage, unbearable grief, and an overwhelming, gibbering terror.

Rats on a sinking ship made out of rats, crewed by rats.

All this to say: I think we owe it to others to give them space to say their piece and to listen and pay attention all the way through, but I’m learning that maybe I’m allowed to give myself space, and not-do things for the simple reason of “not wanting to,” which still feels very new.

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