Too Much and Not the Mood: Essays by Durga Chew-Bose
FSG Originals, 240 pages
By Simone Grace Seol
Too Much and Not the Mood, by Durga Chew-Bose, is one of the most anticipated paperbacks of 2017. The book is a collection of essays, whose title comes from the last words of Virginia Woolf's A Writer’s Diary. Aspiring toward Woolf's roaming introspection, Chew-Bose relays episodes of her New York life, puppy love, adult heartbreak, and the pain of one's parents’ separation. These motifs are explored in stream-of-consciousness musings full of tender noticing.
You will enjoy these essays if you take on the sense of a youthful flâneuse, ambling unhurriedly along the inner landscape of a sensitive and creative woman. This is no linear journey to a destination; if you are looking for tightly constructed narrative or a classical fealty to structure, you will be disappointed.
Instead, Chew-Bose is a rapacious chronicler of the self. Some will call it navel-gazing by a self-indulgent millennial. I say, let them! Roughly the same age as Chew-Bose, I have grown tired of fighting the same charge leveled against myself; it only makes me look defensive, which is apparently another hallmark of a millennial. We can't win. If your parents' generation had swindled you out of job security and home-buying prospects, you'd want to find comfort in smart phones and artisanal bacon, too. So, if you have some time and are in the mood to hear a fresh and formidable talent feel her way through writerly impulses, hop on board.
The author moves our imagination along as her attention lingers and shifts from one understated moment to another, climbing up the stairs, daydreaming in a rickshaw, memorizing the cover of Edward Said's Orientalism as a child in a Canadian-Indian home. At her best, Chew-Bose is inspiringly observant about the minutiae of life and invites the reader to experience them, as she did, with all five of our senses turned on. The effect is often delightful and jauntily evocative. As she recalls the details of a painting from childhood, for instance, she identifies a color in the foreground as “that pureed Breugel red — like tomato soup from a can.”
Chew-Bose can also be hilariously astute, calling out what I suspect must be a shamefully slack, millennial tendency: "Friends of mine have relinquished their desks and write instead from the comfort of their beds. Not in bed. From bed. Like sea otters floating on their backs, double-chinned and banging their front paws on a keyboard." I grimace, even as I laugh, wondering how exactly she has managed to capture what I imagine I must look like during most of my own writing hours, feeling relief that I'm not the only one.
Chew-Bose paints with a modernist poet’s brush, expressionistic and enjoyably opaque at times. In the essay "Hart Museum," she muses about the nature of incompleteness: "A failure to carry out is perhaps no failure at all, but rather a minced metric of splendor," she writes. Such a turn of phrase aspires to Hart Crane's logic of metaphor, that authoritative appeal to lyrical force. She is clearly a lover, even a collector, of words. Her prose is peppered with finds like "barometric" love and a “gulch of worry.” Her proneness to Latinate flourish, however, sometimes results in clunky ambiguity. For instance, the phrase “sonically earnest sound" made me stop and wonder if sound can be earnest in any other way.
The author has been lauded as an astute commentator on identity and culture. Being another daughter of immigrants, I read with interest her passages on growing up bicultural as a visibly obvious “other.” She recalls how her darker complexion invites unsolicited “sartorial shoulds” — for instance, remarks on what color would go well with her skin (pale colors, according to them) when such a frame was foreign to her self-conception and clashed with her natural preference (black). I felt somewhat personally vindicated when she said she went on wearing black. I have similar tales of irritation, of course. I remember my white peers trying to match me up with the other Korean boy in the class, genuinely thinking that they were doing me a favor, oblivious to the shocking banality of my amorous antenna. My secret crush had been on the blond boy with floppy hair like Leonardo DiCaprio's. (Titanic had been all the rage.) Chew-Bose paints a compelling portrait of this nagging sense of difference from one’s peers, paired with the particular thorniness of burgeoning female sexuality.
At the same time, I wonder for her, as I wonder for myself, how much of that uneasiness, that sense of clumsy alienation, is due to our respective Bengali-ness or Korean-ness, and how much due to the simple condition of being human. Even the very white and male Jean-Paul Sartre observed that "hell is other people." I wonder if our sense of uncomfortable difference --- what a mentor once termed "outsider syndrome" --- may be, ironically, one of the most universal and unremarkable things about us, if it so happens that the breezy sense of belonging is equally illusory to the popular blonde girl as it is to us.
I found myself wishing that Chew-Bose, with her abundant gifts of noticing and word-weaving, had worked toward greater thematic heft so that the essays don't read like a dozen blog posts -- promising though they may be individually -- edited together. I craved a thread of coherence, a gesture toward things of importance outside of oneself, even while appreciating the assured leisureliness of a keen gaze turned inward.
The most memorable passages of the book are those that place the author in generational history, tender friendships, or concrete events — in other words, ones relating to the larger, recognizable world. A born writer, she can tell a story with quick rhythm, psychological acuity and poetic flair; I am certain she will continue to deepen her creative attention. I look forward to keeping up with what she produces in the years to come.