Trisha Low’s Socialist Realism – out this August from Coffee House Press in the US – is a book-length essay about the author’s move to Northern California. In part, of course, her relocation is geographic: from Singapore to British boarding school, from New York to the Bay Area. But the book is equally interested in shifting commitments: from filial piety to would-be self-realization, from former homes to the struggle to build new ones. It opens with a scene from the remarriage comedy Adam’s Rib (1949), in which Doris (Judy Holliday) becomes ‘very hungry’ after buying a gun to shoot her cheating husband and his lover. Doris eats two burgers and a pie, but she is still unsatisfied. Like most of the stories in Socialist Realism, this one isn’t interpreted so much as unravelled to produce narrative threads: we move, without transition, from Doris’s dinner to ‘the promise of California as a land of abstract and eternal desire’. The book’s attitude towards place is that of a woman scorned.
To describe this opening as apt is to adopt Low’s own style. In separate sections, she uses the word ‘apt’ to describe both the phrase ‘la petite mort’ and the etymologically implied impossibility of utopia (no place); she often encounters art, language or situations that she deems ‘uncanny’ – strangely familiar or otherwise apropos. Aptness, in Socialist Realism, becomes a synonym for two senses of ‘realist’: capturing something as it truly is (realist art) and capturing the limits of hope (realist politics). The book adopts a conceptual measure of realism, in which everything Low encounters is considered in terms of its ability to represent another experience without collapsing difference. Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) accurately depicts aesthetic refusal; the French new wave is ‘simultaneously too little and too much like real life’. Low takes the same uneasy stock of her own memories, remaining sceptical of the generic expectations of self-discovery.
The book’s primary concerns, though, are critical, not memoirist: Low asks whether art has a purpose beyond representation, and if there’s any point in political struggle. Both questions find resolution in an openness to pain: ‘Masochism is not about being able to struggle correctly. It’s about choosing to do it anyway.’ Art, at least, is better at representing impossibility. Low’s orderliness is not that of generic self-help, but of an at-hand drawer of Hello Kitty Band-Aids, set aside for self-inflicted cuts.
The narrative of Socialist Realism operates paratactically, listing memories of grandparents alongside art-critical accounts of Sophie Calle’s exhibits or Svetlana Boym’s writing on nostalgia. Shifts are noted by section breaks (there are no chapter markings) and she writes mostly in the first-person present tense. Time markers offer progressive change, a promise undercut by recursion: one moment, ‘It’s a Monday in late 2016’; the next, she is 13 and accepting the embarrassing rescue of Christianity. But one site of implied character development is the form of the book itself, with the narrator trying on the personal essay for size. Early on, Low looks back at a past so distant that it happened to a third person: ‘The story is simple enough. She moves to New York for Art.’ There, she cavorts with poets who think they’re above storytelling: ‘Only they know how to carry the promise of a contentless genre to its logical conclusion. […] They believe the types of writing they’re doing have never been done before. She believes it too.’
In an account of her first reading from the book’s manuscript, an audience member ‘points out that, just a year ago, they were convinced I was against the very aesthetic with which I’m currently engaged’. Low rejects this assessment. In a kind of masochistic free indirect discourse, she first takes on the listener’s position – ‘Back then, I turned out identity markers with ambivalence. I was cold. This time, I told an alluring origin story. Correctly, I hit an exotic note of warmth.’ – only to then shrug it off. ‘I have never hidden or flaunted my Asianness,’ she writes. ‘It is a fixed symbol. It is just my life.’ She explains the constrained ‘realisms’ that writers of colour are afforded, angry that readers now receive her stoic accounts of visiting family in Hong Kong as more ‘vulnerable’ than the writing in her first book, The Compleat Purge (2013), which included a variety of suicide notes.
Later in the essay, Low relays a pastor’s reliance on parables, a form he finds ‘counterintuitive’ because they do not convert the faithless: ‘A parable can only be truly understood by an actual believer.’ Socialist Realism might itself be a parable, in that it dares the reader to interpret it too literally – mistaking the showing of a wound for vulnerability, or uncertainty about political or artistic effects for a lack of commitment – but I count myself among the believers. It ends in an apocalyptic dream, followed by a homily. In Low’s telling, struggle, futility, hunger and love have something in common: they are not unrealistic.
Main image: Trisha Low, Socialist Realism, 2019, cover detail. Courtesy: Coffee House Press, Minneapolis
First published in Issue 204