The Case for Clutter

I like clutter. I don’t know a lot of people who do, but those of us who like it (the clutteri) have a reason, and it’s not just because we’re messy and lazy. Clutter is a very specific thing, though. Messy is not cluttered. Clutter is just a little, of a certain genus of objects. Socks and dishes with crumbs on them do not clutter make.  Things like books and avocados and eyeglass cases are clutterable. A certain amount of unintimate clothing, like a wool toque or a sweater, is also sometimes quite pleasant.

I think the world was supposed to look sort of cluttered anyway. The continents arrayed over the oceans are not very tidy, and neither are the oceans themselves, with all that stuff in them. It is especially nice to be in a mixed forest, but even a forest made of nothing but pine is still a clutter of pine. And what about towns, those things people once made out of what they could yank out of the woods and the ground? At one point, those people’s bodies were the reference to the workable world. Things existed at a human scale and the human scale is cluttered. Go to Carcassonne, go to the old parts of Brooklyn, walk down to King and George streets right here in Toronto and look at the buildings. That’s some fine clutter.

One of the most satisfying things about living with other people is that sometimes, when no one else is about, you can be alone with hints of them. Say it’s a barette on a table. You see your wife walking past on her way to bed, taking it out, putting it down right where she’ll pick it up again tomorrow morning at 7 am.  Of course you don’t have the kinds of associations you’re looking for when, instead of the barette, you find a dirty sock on the table with a food wrapper stuffed into it. That doesn’t count as clutter.

A clutteri can usually keep his or her house reasonably cluttered without causing anguish to orderer spouses or guests. It is a very fine balance. However, I prefer it to the clean house, where everything is sorted. It makes me wonder if the person I’m visiting doesn’t really want me to get to know them. I know it must also be a courtesy, but at the same time, it makes it hard to believe that they actually live there. In some houses, it feels as if the rooms reset themselves whenever you leave them. In others, the books are sorted onto their shelves like little tombs. I can’t tell what you’re reading unless you leave your books out!  And what, no magnets of your travels on the fridge? Who are you people?

Now, if you are a person who likes clutter, there is a very poor chance that the person you live with is also a clutteri. Clutteries are only twenty per cent of the population. They tend to live in houses or flats.* It would be rare to find two people who like clutter living together. But it would probably be beautiful. I mean, a disaster. Clutter is, after all, a stage of entropy. Two clutteri living together have a 45% chance of appearing on a reality show. You have to be very careful.

If you’re a clutteri, it’s almost certain you live with an orderer. People who hate clutter just hate it. They can’t help it and there’s nothing wrong with it. Order has its uses. But sometimes you have to push back a little. You have to help them accept a judicious disorder. From time to time, salt your clutter lightly with some belongings of the orderer and you may be able to establish a slightly cluttered stasis. You leave something of theirs out and then say: “Your sweater draped over the chair gave me a sudden fond memory, a frisson you might say, a soupçon of something we once did together when you were wearing it.” (By the way, orderers will remember everything they were wearing on any given occasion, so if they weren’t wearing the sweater that night you’re remembering, you better start skating.)

That’s my case for clutter. I think the world is returning to clutter (and what are blogs if not digital clutter among the clutter of the internet?) and I just want to say that when they start giving out prizes for it, I was always on the side of clutter.

So I’m just going to leave this here for now.


* Apartment or condo buildings are too Miro-ish to get clutter into. And although all clutteries like Miro, his paintings exude a strange threat of order and you could never live in one.**

** Footnotes make fine clutter.

On Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

In June, Chinese artist’s Ai Wei Wei’s bail conditions were lifted one year after he’d been released from 81 days of detention. He can now travel within China, and he’s tweeting again, but he can’t travel outside of the country. The documentary based on his life and work has an ironic title, because the Chinese authorities did find a way to make Ai sorry. Near the end of the film, we see a broken and exhausted man being returned to his Beijing home, a once-garrulous man who now refuses to talk. Earlier in the film, we’d seen Ai sitting in the back of a cab gently stroking the hand of his little son, and there was no doubt in my mind that while in prison Ai was informed what the next wave of penalties would be if he ever stirred the shit again.

A year after those images were shot, his account of the lifting of his bail conditions was published in The Guardian. The language in his essay shows astonishing courage—he calls China “a monstrous machine”—and you have to wonder what fate the man is heading toward now.

The film is wonderful. Half satyr, half mad buddha, Ai is a force of nature and a man of incredible appetite. (And not just for food.) The movie is more tense than any of the Bourne films because Ai spends the entire film tempting the authorities to capture and/or kill him. The absurd machinations of the Chinese authorities trying to thwart this strange and wonderful man make Never Sorry as comic as some of Ai’s work, but it reminds you that you can put a smile on just about anything and obscure its real meaning. I don’t think Ai smiles once in the film, but a uniformed policeman on the steps of one of the courthouses  smiles warmly as he physically pushes Ai and his supporters away from the building. When  Ai found himself a guest of the government, you can only wonder how many times a day they smiled at him.

It’s a great thing to be born free and not have to struggle against anything but chance. Never Sorry inspires you to think of Ai and his supporters as courageous and daring and fearless, but they’re more than that. Each person you see in this movie could meet their fate as a sacrifice to an ideal, and every one of them has made of their life an artwork. 

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry. Do see it.

A Door in the River

Today is pub day!

A Door in the River is the third Hazel Micallef Mystery by Inger Ash Wolfe. Although the first two were written in a space of three years, the third book itself took almost three years to write and went through six drafts. It also had about nine titles, including Permission to LeaveMurder Plot, and Sparrow’s Grove. 

These books are about a fictional county in Ontario called Westmuir and concerns especially the town of Port Dundas. (One day soon, I’ll publish a map of Westmuir County on this site.) A Door in the River begins with the death of Henry Wiest, a citizen of Kehoe Glenn, which is about 30km south of Port Dundas. His body, however, is found at the back of a parking lot in Queesik Bay, an Indian reserve of the Mjikaning Nation. His death is ruled anaphylactic, the result of a bee sting. But when his grieving wife is attacked in her own house, Hazel and the Port Dundas Police know that there is a killer afoot, someone with a deadly grudge and a grievance of her own.

Why not stop in to your local bookstore and pick up a copy? Of course, you could always get it online, too.

Jack’s house

The image for this site is a photo I took at a place called “The Cutoff” near Tunica, Mississippi. I was looking for a house for a character in a book. He was a far-off-the-grid kind of guy and I wanted him to be somewhere almost not on the planet anymore.

The novel takes place in Toronto and in the American south. Jack Beifus is a “non-paying spouse” who’s scarpered to the middle of nowhere in the state of Mississippi in order to evade having to pay support to his ex-wife back in Toronto. I wanted him in some kind of shack or house in a field or a cabin in the woods. Then I was having breakfast one morning and got to talking with a Tunica local who told me to drive down to The Cutoff. It’s called The Cutoff because the Mississippi river was cut off in two places to form a standalone lake there. This lady told me there was a place in The Cutoff called Charlie’s Camp that I should go take a look at.

Charlie’s Camp was on the other side of the levee. You had to drive to the end of Fox Island Road and then go right up the levee and down the other side.  This was where you launched your boat, and there was some kind of ramshackle corner store and bar there too. Around it, on about an acre of land, were a collection of the strangest houses I’d ever seen. Most of them (including the store) were raised up on six-foot stilts. Obviously, it flooded here often enough to warrant living six feet in the air. There were about thirty houses here, on either side of the launch area. But not very many of them looked lived in. And there had been more houses as well, because there were the remnants of demolished buildings lying around.

I started to drive and take pictures. Then I realize I’m being followed. It’s a gargantuan man in a monster-truck size 4×4. He cuts me off on the main road and demands to know what I’m doing. I tell him I’m a novelist from Toronto. “The hell you are,” he says. He has a head the size of a Hallowe’en pumpkin, but it’s the colour of a butternut squash. I ask him if he’s doubting that I’m a novelist or that I’m from Toronto. “I don’t doubt you are, but what the hell are you doin aroun here?”

He turns out to be Charlie, the guy who owns the land Charlie’s Camp is on. When I succeed in charming him with my friendly, naive way, he tells me that he’s owned the land for fifty years and as recently as two years ago he had eighty-two tenants paying a hundred dollars a month to park their stilty houses on. But there was a massive, destructive flood in May of 2011 and the federal goverment wouldn’t let people go back to their houses for weeks. So many of them simply left. Now he had seventeen tenants and he was about to wrap up his business at The Cutoff. I told him I could be on my way, but if he didn’t mind, I wanted to take some pictures. He told me to make myself at home. Then I asked him if I could come back out when he wasn’t so busy and buy him a drink, and he said, “I’m never not busy. Got no time to talk.”

He drove off and then I found the house. Couldn’t have found a better house for Jack Beifus, nor a better image for life as a writer these days.