Having spent the morning listening to Yngwie Malmsteen's first album, Rising Force (try "Now Your Ships Are Burned" or "As Above, So Below") on vinyl, I'm not completely sure why. Here it is in its many glories:
Well, it's advent, or it's almost advent (technically it begins tomorrow), and I assembled our artificial Christmas tree, bought from Target a decade ago, and now stored neatly in a giant plastic container, disassembled in color-coded piles of faux spruce. There's something pleasurable about the system and assembly, even as I seem to have messed up my wrists a bit with the repetitive turning and untwisting motion as I brought the fake wireframe limbs to a semblance of a tree. I found Rising Force on vinyl yesterday at the St. Vincent de Paul. My brother was apeshit for Yngwie Malmsteen when he was young. He was into all these guitar gods, and Malmsteen had the benefit of being Swedish, so maybe there's some ethnic favoritism there, since we Monsons are predisposed to our northern forebears. Too, this Malmsteen album is chockablock with classical motifs, and reminds me of my frozen childhood, and so these combined somehow seem Christmasy to me.
I'm not particularly into Christmas, and not religious, but I like advent. Well, I like form in general, and what is advent if not a form applied to count the days until Christmas. Days themselves are nothing if not a form. We wake, sleep, find sun, do things, repeat. And then there's the advent calendar that I find dear, a way to organize a series of bits of writing. It's been a while since we've been here on Essay Daily, it seems like, and we're going to be offering you an advent calendar of essayists writing about other essayists, one a day, until Christmas. Then there will be more to come in the new year.
If you're into advent calendars, too, check out DIAGRAM's advent calendar this year, too. Here's a link to the first one (which links to the other days as we progress).
Anyhow. We have lots of interesting writers who are going to be chiming in here this month and after, but since I only got around to this idea a couple days ago, no one signed up for the first couple days of advent. So I'll be here a ramblin' to fire up the engines.
Today I'd like to talk a bit about an essay by Cybele Knowles in the new issue of The Destroyer, hopefully while you're listening to Yngwie Malmsteen via Youtube. I heard her read it a couple years ago at Antigone Books in Tucson. I hadn't read her essays at all, though I like her stories (here's one I've published). It's hard to resist from the title ("I Think It's Great that You Want to Give Your Wife Orgasms"), and it's a personal immersion in her time working at a Tucson (I think I recognize the place, though it's unnamed) sex shop. The subject matter's weird enough to start us off, but it's not what really appeals to me about the essay, which is the way it quick-shifts between tones from the amusingly conversational ("I’m sorry, I can’t describe it better than that; it’s a small, rubbery vibrating pyramid, and you sit on it") to a lyric riff like "I sincerely want to help Snow White: she’s so pretty, and so sad about so many things—sad about her friends the dwarves and the lack of social acceptance they face due to their congenital stunting; sad about the speech-therapy kids she works with, and the discrimination they face due to their speech impediments; sad about the boyfriend who will never be her prince unless he shapes up in bed—so I think hard." The essay manages to be both comic and sad, always a killer mix, and becomes about connections, failed, missed, and otherwise.
The characters we meet (Snow White as Speech Pathology Student, a "midnight amphetamine queen making a mess of the racks we just finished straightening") offer a lot of the pleasure here, as you'd imagine, and, what's more, they're treated tenderly, and they win you over (well, they win our Cybele writer/persona/speaker over, proxy in any essay for us). It takes what's offered and obvious, the easy subjects for cultural critique: the "male masturbation aids...GLOW UR3 PUSSY, FUTUROTIC PUSSY N ASS, JJ’S INTIMATE PASSAGES, JESSE’S STROKER TRIO" but doesn't settle for laughs. Good essays never settle for laughs. Another essayist might have made this world more about fakeness and realness, the fiction of the I in essay, the ways in which we construct the self/avatar for readers, but I'm real glad she didn't. Instead it stays on the human, sad interactions with customers, a brief excursion into her own history, and, maybe more interestingly, this bit of interiority:
People say to me, “I could never talk to strangers about their sex lives.” I, on the other hand, sought out the proficiency. Why? I don’t know. What a crazy thing to want to do. I think maybe I wanted to connect with others about sex, but without any actual sex, and from an unfair position of power. However it happened, now that I talk to strangers about their sex lives, I think of it as my arcane power: the mastery of one small challenge in the huge, fractal, unbeatable test of life. The pursuit of arcane power rarely looks reasonable from the outside. Some people wrestle alligators. Some people die trying to climb Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world—which makes for an apt metaphor, because arcane power is a kind of summiting.I don't want to crush the essay into its component parts, since its goodness is its seamless assembly. You know it's made, an artificial thing—how can it not be?—but the important thing is that it feels real. You can put some lights on it and let it stand in for Christmas, or childhood, or love, or whatever else. Almost every homemade Malmsteen Youtube video is adorned with comments like "who the hell can dislike this" or "anyone woh doesn't like malmsteen can go f**k themselves!" I concur.
Ander Monson curates Essay Daily and is an essayist, fiction writer, and poet. Find him here if you're of the mind.