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Durga Chew-Bose’s taxonomy of self: A review of Too Much and Not the Mood

By Rebecca Schuh.

A review of Too Much and Not the Mood

Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood: Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)

As I read Too Much and Not the Mood, the first essay collection by Canadian writer Durga Chew-Bose, a scene began to form in my mind: a shabby room with paint peeling off the windowsill and threadbare curtains, mattresses with no box springs on the floor, tapestries stained by the sunlight, young women lying on the bed with limbs falling to the floor, bodies overlapping one another. They’re taking notes on Sontag and Barthes and Bishop, and one of them is paging through Too Much and Not the Mood. She quiets the room and reads a line aloud, then writes it on her arm in turquoise sharpie while the others look on:

On the rare occasion my subconscious welds, language has a gift, I’ve learned, for humiliating those luminous random acts of creative flash into impossible to secure hobbling duds. The best ideas outrun me. That’s why I write.

This imaginary woman has found her muse in Chew-Bose, or, as Maggie Nelson puts it, “one of the many-gendered mothers of [her] heart.” Too Much and Not the Mood is the ideal text for women working to forge their own artistic path.

Perhaps the imaginary students are reading this book close to graduation, and Chew-Bose is instilling that perennial undergraduate itch to move to New York City. Though the common literary landmarks of the city are missing—it’s not particularly obvious what neighbourhood Chew-Bose lives in—that only serves to heighten the mystique of the New York she presents, a private world amidst the most public city in the country. Her depiction of New York is testament to the city as microcosm, a place that is simultaneously mythical and liveable because it contains billions of private universes. Chew-Bose describes first becoming fascinated with New York in ‘Heart Museum’, the essay that begins the book:

Still now, on those hot summer days when the sun lacquers Manhattan storefronts into something aureate and amber-rich, when the air is impenetrable, blistered, and rank, and when brick tenements on Ludlow evoke whatever decade speak to your nostalgia, my brother’s copy of Paul’s Boutique comes to mind. What I perceived back then in it’s cover art was the possibility of New York, New York: a city so in possession of itself that I fathomed an entire kingdom in those five-by-five inches.

Her depiction of New York is a tender one, drawing attention to what most fail to notice: “Like a couple fighting for blocks, gesticulating crosstown and finally Cold Warring on the Hudson. Like Eastern Parkway on Labor Day; like Cafe Edison and Kim’s before they were gone; like bodega cats and a bacon, egg, and cheese—a woman grooming on her subway commute is a New York institution.”

Though Chew-Bose manages to make even watching a stranger’s window from a street corner sound like part of the glamour of the city, the aspect of New York that she presents as the most alluring is as a place that has provided fertile ground for the growth of her friendships with the women she’s met here. Chew-Bose depicts friendship as a space that you inhabit, a self carved cave of one on one intimacy that must be cared for and nurtured.

Her depictions of her friendships reminded me of Joseph Cornell’s aviary boxes; discreet works of art within the larger narrative. The well chosen details exude tenderness: “At first glance, my friend Sarah is a Cy Twombly; her favorite painter. She speaks in scratches, keeps dead flowers for weeks.” “Who, like my friend Jenny specifically, are hot. Who don’t need anyone—including me right now—to depict why. Proximity to hotness can feel like a link to the universe. Your hot friend on a balmy summer night telling you about some good news in her life is—how do I put this without sounding absurd? It’s barometric. It’s love and someone you love’s power growing, and it’s watching the elements cater to a woman who exudes.” Of her friend Doreen’s laugh she writes: “how living and the opposite of halfhearted it is.” These details show us someone who understands that the casual intimacy of friendship is as rare and as valuable, if not more so, than the intimacy of romantic relationships. She notices and holds dear what others casually disregard, and the beauty of these moments is an argument in and of itself for the elevation of friendship in art.

Durga Chew-Bose

Chew-Bose brings her careful analytic eye not just to the women in her life, but to how women operate in society as a whole. She writes: “To this day, watching a woman mindlessly tend to one thing while doing something else absorbs me.” The ability of women to effectively multitask is often referenced jokingly in popular culture and social situations, but Chew-Bose brings a microscope to the tendency. Women are effective multitaskers because they must be—we are always watching for our safety whilst accomplishing day to day tasks, keeping an eye out for our friends at a party while engaging in a lively conversation. It is not just an effective way to manage time, it is a carefully honed protection mechanism against a dangerous world.

In her writing for various web outlets, she’s shown passion for the discourse between female artists, and she brings this fascination to her essays. When in a state of writer’s block, she pens letters to artists and films: “Responding to an artist’s work as if it were a missive. Love letters, generally. Essays that do not concern these directors’ works but are addressed to them—in spirit, tone, wash—because these directors have, over time, caused me to bend into shape images that were long hibernating.” She creates her own form of classification: in a pages-long divergence on “nook people”, Chew-Bose invites us into an intimacy shared with a friend  wherein they describe each other as “those of us who seek corners and bays in order to redeploy our hearts and not break the mood. Those who retreat in order to cubicle our flame. Who collect sea glass. Who value a deep pants pocket. Who are our own understudies and may as well have shadowboxes for brains.” Perhaps I’ll never know if I am simply a fellow nook-person, or if this description feels equally apt to anyone who reads it because Chew-Bose elucidates the tendencies so well.

In contrast to her affection for the women she describes, Chew-Bose makes only discreet and oblique references to a former lover, identifying him by nothing more than the commonalities we find among the experience of working to forget someone with whom we were immensely familiar. He has not earned himself a starring role in the slow rolling film reel of Chew-Bose’s memory—that is reserved for the women.

Throughout Chew-Bose’s simultaneously meandering and purposeful illustrations of the people she loves, I continued to think of the Van Gogh quote: “I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” Though the book invokes film, art, literature and music, it is most of all an homage to the art of knowing others. Chew-Bose understands: not every artist is the monolith who sequesters themselves in a cylinder of solitude to “fulfill their artistic potential”. Most of us need other humans: not constantly, not overwhelmingly, but in concert with our solitude. Her musings on the links between writing and knowing others underscore their mutual importance, and the fact that knowing and recognising people well are similar skills to the art of writing. “Because writing is a grunt, and when it’s good, writing is body language. It’s a woman narrowing her eyes to express incredulity.” This is writing as physicality, it is writing as action, but most of all, it is writing as living.

The book’s longest piece, ‘Heart Museum’, contains both its richest observational gems as well as its most obvious capitulation to form. The central metaphor of the essay—that our hearts continue beating during both the most mundane and ecstatic moments of our lives—ends up feeling like an unnecessary crutch, like a visible graphite undersketch of an oil painting. It houses the far more tantalising observations Chew-Bose makes about humanity, while also occasionally distracting from them.

In ‘Part of a Greater Pattern’ and ‘Tan Lines’, Chew-Bose explores under-examined norms through a personal lens: for example, the casually toxic way her peers have referred to their summer tans using Chew-Bose’s skin colour as a reference point. What emerges is an untold cultural history, the stories that the white male canon has deemed outside their purview. But in Chew-Bose’s careful hands, the stories make us question what we’ve come to consider as vital and trivial.

What becomes clear is that Chew-Bose is less concerned with making overt statements than observing the world through her own refracted light, and the book is that much stronger for it. She made her name in writing for the internet, but her work contains none of the proclamation heavy prose characterising much of “net writing”. Her meandering essays made me want to shy away from the conclusion-driven, personal journalism that the internet has so ardently embraced for a more leisurely walk through a mind that invites communion. It’s not that Chew-Bose’s pieces are so far outside conventional form, rather that they do not dally with where they reside on that spectrum. Her pieces are both intellectual and sentimental, but her intellectualism is not impenetrable and her nostalgia is not syrupy. Formally, they are not excessively experimental, rather they lovingly inhabit the spaces they create without anxiety over the shapes they’ve taken. Though Chew-Bose’s work has drawn frequent comparisons to Maggie Nelson, she’s tilling her own pasture in the landscape of female hybrid essayists, with respect to those who came before her, rather than assuming her place in a constellation of Nelson disciples. While Nelson’s work is more overtly theoretical, Chew-Bose reads less as social theory and more as artful self-taxonomy. One is not better than the other, both are necessary facets of the emerging women’s hybrid canon.

Another modern nonfiction queen Chew-Bose’s work has drawn comparisons to is Joan Didion. Though Chew-Bose has resisted them, the similarities are worth exploring. Like Didion, she exhibits a similar fascination with images that obsess and haunt, along with interrogating the desire to write it all down. Though Didion in recent years has become something of a cliché of the artful personal writing class, it’s worth remembering that, twenty years ago, she too was a cultural critic whose writing didn’t adhere to the accepted scriptures of journalism. Taken as a collection, the essays become a map of the intricacies of Chew-Bose’s mind. She names and classifies the small human interactions that we all know but rarely speak of, she draws attention to the details from the past that most people forget as soon as they’re out of eye or earshot. While I emphatically loved reading Chew-Bose’s prose, I know I’d also be endlessly fascinated to view a museum exhibit she curated: the images that obsess her betray a keen sense of aesthetics. In this way, I see her intersecting with the work of Siri Hustvedt, a writer whose mind is consistently grappling with the aesthetic.

The careful astonishment at the everyday as expressed by Chew-Bose is perhaps the most authentic expression of wonder. It’s what makes this volume of essays stand apart from much cultural journalism: what Chew-Bose notices is the magic in the minuscule, the things that make you question why you haven’t noticed them all along. The way she describes these small moments of wonder is so unique, such a personalised turn of phrase, that I began to refer to them as “Chew-Boseisms”:

For a girl so awol, my insides were a microcosm of raw materials.

Honeydew was a drag.

Based on how she spoke, I decided she had a fondness for long-haired cats.

I find myself deeply hostile, even, toward the word ‘activity’.

Chew-Bose’s essays exhibit the fruits to be found when a young woman has squarely found her voice. Again and again throughout the collection, Chew-Bose refers to herself, slightly melancholically, as someone who is slow to recover from life’s slights, who finds it hard to move on from memories both lovely and painful. Though Chew-Bose frames this as a negative trait, as the instances of her lingering on memories build, the connection between them and the fabric of the book becomes obvious, inextricable. If she were not someone who is attached to her memories by a strong sinewy fibre, she would not be the woman capable of writing this rich and lush volume.


Becca Schuh

Rebecca Schuh is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts and literary criticism has recently been published in Bookforum and the Village Voice. She is working on a book about alternative education and intimacy, based on her time at the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies. Twitter: @TamingofdeSchuh

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 25th, 2017.