“Excitement! Adventure! Education!
Cross the centuries from Colonial New England to the pioneer West, from the Mexican border towns to the Great Lakes ports, from Cape Canaveral to the Northwest Passage! Chug the picturesque Old West on an early iron horse, explore the Northwest in a fur trapper’s canoe, soar 70 feet above the earth in a mine oar bucket . . . tour through America’s waterways and wilderness on the most thrilling new rides ever designed!
Over forty authentic themes to make history live again at Freedomland! . . .”
As I write this, the 45th President of the United States has been in office for just over two weeks. Watching the country of my birth from north of the 49th parallel where I have lived since I was three years old, it does feel as if one has wandered into the freak show tent at the Circus-at-the-End-of-the-World. Reading Michel Butor’s Mobile at this moment in American history, frames much of what we are currently watching unfold from an eerie perspective. When the French avant-garde writer was travelling the newly connected highways of America in 1959, he could not have known how very timely all the pieces of information he was gathering, fragmenting, and reconstructing into this ambitious experimental work would still seem more than half a century on. Or perhaps he did. In much of today’s rhetoric, it sounds as if there is a desire to return to some ideal USA, but if Mobile is any indication, that ideal never existed. It is a myth, like the many myths celebrated and reproduced at the grand, but very short-lived, Freedomland Amusement Park.
Subtitled “A novel” in the Dalkey Archives edition I read, the original subtitle offers a more accurate indication of the project at hand: Study for a Representation of the United States. Butor draws from a wide range of materials to create, or allow for the creation of, a representational framework for looking at America. He incorporates substantial excerpts from the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, reports from the Salem witch trials, traditional and treaty records from Native American history, newspaper accounts of the 1893 World’s Fair and more, but one cannot emerge from this journey without an appreciation of an expansive land, rich in history, natural beauty, and diversity.
As eclectic and idiosyncratic as the nation he is attempting to capture, Mobile reads more like a poem than any manner of traditional textual prose. Even the larger textual pieces are broken up and juxtaposed against other materials including an extensive collection of place names, signs, facts, ethnic newspaper and radio programming, travel boards, catalogue descriptions, Audubon bird portraits, and Howard Johnson ice cream flavours. There is a rhythm and an awareness of pattern that binds the work together within a strict overarching structure. He follows an alphabetic rather than geographic guideline from state to state, plays up the seemingly endless recurrence of place names, and links sections across time zones:
A white Oldsmobile driven by a young, tanned white man in a pineapple-colored shirt with coffee polka dots (55 miles), “How much longer? Two hours?”—Dead Indian and China Hat Mountains.
The sparkling snow.
SPRINGFIELD. . . . and three o’clock in
SPRINGFIELD, Mountain Time, on the desert plain of the Snake River,
near the lava fields,
WELCOME TO ILLINOIS
already four in
SPRINGFIELD, Central Time, where you can order black-currant ice
cream in the Howard Johnson Restaurant.
The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
“The New York World,” April 9, 1893:
“Ward McAllister has given careful attention to the question of how New York society will be treated in Chicago during the World’s Fair. He is disposed to think that fashionable persons in this city need not fear anything but the best treatments at the hands of Chicagoans . . .”
Quoted by John Szarkowski: “The Idea of Louis Sullivan.”
The trains coming from New York.
The trains leaving for San Francisco.
Dedicated to Jackson Pollock, Mobile is often described as an unclassifiable work. It is clearly not a study in the formal sense of the word, though by standing back from the flow of fragments, a picture of the country emerges in the patchwork text. There is the sense that Butor harvested this wide range of sources and arranged them to allow the rhythm and flow of language paint a colourful portrait of the United States. It feels dynamic, natural, even when it is the intentional cleverness and humour that catches your eye. But then, it is this same playfulness that makes Mobile such a wonderfully fun read. I especialy enjoyed his use of catalogue listings, as in this pairing of an advertisement for paint-by-number kits with the description of a set of panties:
“…With this set you receive two Rembrandt water-colors. Panels in pairs, 40 oil-colors in vacuum-sealed glass jars, four superior quality, washable brushes. Net weight: six pounds. . . .”
Or, through Sears, Roebuck & Co., and assortment of seven knitted nylon or rayon panites artistically embroidered with the days of the week:
“. . . Choose from
– white for Sunday,
– The Last Supper, with The Sermon on the Mount,
– yellow for Monday,
– Autumn Landscape, with The End of the Day,
– blue for Tuesday,
– Sunset at Sea, with Homecoming,
– pink for Wednesday,
– Thoroughbred, with The Foxhunt,
– white for Thursday,
– Scenes from Swan Lake, ballet,
– green for Friday,
– Venus and Adonis.”
– black for Saturday,
“please include hip measurements,”
This book is not, of course, all light and fun. There are deeply disturbing passages. Segregation is still a reality in many regions (“For whites only”), and the selections from Thomas Jefferson’s writing on the intrinsic inferiority of the black and red races are uncomfortable to read. In the light of the current concern about migrants, the ethnic and cultural diversity captured on Butor’s travels are telling (The Arabs who read “As-Sameer,” The Armenians who read Gochtnag,” The Chinese who read “China Tribune.”) Yet it is all bound together through the repetition of place names from state to state, and the famed ice cream selection at that classic highway stalwart of the era, Howard Johnsons. In the end, filtered through the lens of an outsider, Mobile succeeds in tracing a fractured songline across the heartland of America.
Mobile is translated by Richard Howard and published by Dalkey Archive Press with a fascinating introduction by John D’Agata.