Suburban flaneuse set loose: El Cerrito by Noor Al Samarrai

Sometimes there is a remarkable serendipity in the way books come into our lives, perhaps at the right time, the right place or in the right company. I tucked Noor Al Samarrai’s El Cerrito into my bag as I headed to San Francisco last month. As a rambling poetic odyssey that slips in and out of the Bay Area, especially in its earlier—chapters? poems?—let’s say episodes, there was a certain geographic kismet in this selection. But even more surprising was the way this small, spare experimental volume paired so neatly with my other read throughout the same period—Esther Kinsky’s multi-layered, evocative novel, River.

On the surface, this might seem an unlikely confluence. Kinsky is only a few years older than I am whereas Al Samarrai is my daughter’s age (born in 1992). But I was swept away by both works which, at times, seemed to echo and reverberate against one another. Both women are poets and both gravitate toward a lyrical appreciation of the ordinary, everyday elements of their surroundings, at home and abroad. Both Al Samarrai and Kinsky, via her narrator, are restless wanderers, although the latter is a loner while the former typically travels with friends. They take regular excursions through familiar environments close to home—the suburban fringes of the San Francisco Bay Area and London respectively—and pilgrimages afar. Both take photographs. And both offer a thoughtful, often quirky, take on the world and what it means to be alive in it.

El Cerrito, from the inexhaustibly original indie press Inside the Castle, is a pocket-sized volume, designed with a lot of open space. What began with a couple of shorter, more confined excursions through the town of El Cerrito, California in 2012 and 2013, was expanded, over time, to encompass a broader area, within California and abroad, reaching into Sweden, Lebanon, Bosnia, Turkey and beyond to finally wind to a close in North Berkely. The journey is not exactly chronological, nor is it heavily orchestrated or forced. There is a casual, curious, yet introspective feel to the entries which are themselves generously footnoted with historical, biographical, literary, and linguistic references. Combined with occasional black and white photographs, these poetic musings become geographically defined intertextual weavings with layers of meaning that can be wrapped and unwrapped along the way.

Al Samarrai is a contemporary suburban flaneuse, another commonality she shares with Kinsky’s narrator. Both are drawn to those liminal spaces where the suburban meets natural environments. A series of poems trace repeated visits over several years to an area christened TEPCO beach for the fragments from a long since destroyed porcelain factory littering a stretch of waterfront. Sometimes it appears elusive, impossible to relocate. On the poet’s last visit, in 2016, the romance is gone:

Love wasn’t there.
May as well have been alone.
This place in my language: a kanji symbol
to tell someone you’re special,
dear to me. Meaning instilled
by visits spanning a season.
A season drawn out
into years, coated
in alternate weathers.

Connecting to others turned me inward, ultimately
an appreciation of beauty’s just not enough.

For me, one of the most illuminating qualities of El Cerrito, comes from the insights afforded by Al Samarrai’s Muslim-American background. A US-born child of immigrants who grows up to discover The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in grade school, her assured comfort in the country of her birth is altered at an early age:

One of the first few days of fourth grade was September 11, 2001. Mama touched my elbow before I clambered from her car that morning. Don’t tell anyone you’re Iraqi, okay? I didn’t understand why anyone would ask where I was from. What am I supposed to say? Tell them you’re Lebanese. Nodded empty assent.

that day, green knit jacket,
tag “MADE IN IRAQ”
scratched at my neck.

Sprinkled throughout this book are references to Arabic expressions and traditional foods. Her visits to Bosnia and Turkey in particular are enriched with footnotes that add interesting historical and cultural background. She carries a singular fascination with cemeteries and burial practices on her wanderings at home and abroad, and yet there is a youthful spirit and sense of adventure that speaks to equal measures of innocence and irreverence. Early episodes bring in friends, social gatherings, and love affairs, all tinged with the aroma of late adolescence, spiked with a thoughtful undertone that, at least for me as an older reader, brings back memories of the slow, sobering transition toward adulthood that takes place as you venture further from home in your early twenties. You think you are grown up.

And then you grow up some more.

The night we left there was a pink moon on a dusky turquoise sky, verging into purple (could I carry these colors in a suitcase?). At a Syrian-owned restaurant near the bus station, they gave us free hummus, salad, baklava. We gave our bread to beggars, and were given more. Nalini said it was because I spoke Arabic, but they didn’t seem to recognize me as an Arab. Or maybe true recognition’s casual. I didn’t then recognize the extent of the refugee crisis,* really, though I would come to that little by little, and then in deep gasps.

On the bus we were shushed for speaking loudly, giggled and felt very American.

.                    —“Road to Ephesus”

There is something slightly haphazard to the way El Cerrito unfolds. A series of geographically or thematically linked entries will be set apart by episodes that seem to fit nowhere. Brief reflections, set in a country or location that is never mentioned again, appear like random notes or a postcard tucked in here and there. This creates the effect of a book that happens as you open it. You can read it end to end, but you don’t have to. The empty pages invite a little doodling or random thoughts along the way. Because the greatest gift of a book like this—and this can be said equally of a longer, more complex and yet not entirely dissimilar work like River—is that it invites you to take note of your own environment, the people you meet, and the places you visit, and how they change and change you, over time.

* This was September, 2015. By August, 2015, the number of asylum seeks crossing into Europe illegally through Greece and Turkey had more than quintupled since 2014 according to a study by the European Stability Initiative.

Some measure of an innovative response to Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature

So I’m sitting here at looking at my copy of Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature and feeling sick when I think about whether or not I can, or should, write about it. Which makes it sound like I did not enjoy the book. Or that it is not worth reading. I did. And it is.

But, can I talk about the way it also twists me up inside? That a book that I should connect with on a level beyond the written word leaves me wondering if there is a space for me? On the back cover (which on my copy is terribly warped after a fall on snow-covered ice landed me with a concussion) editor Isabel Waidner is quoted:

If there were a literary avant-garde that were relevant now, it would be what the queers and their allies are doing, at the intersections, across disciplines. This avant-garde would be inclusive, racially and culturally diverse, migrants galore, predominately but not exclusively working-class, transdisciplinary, (gender)queer and politically clued up (left).

I like the sound of this. But is this what the queers and their allies are doing? Possibly. I am the ineptest (gosh I didn’t even know “ineptest” was a word, but Word suggested it and I kind of like it) queer writer ever because, off the page, queer is the loneliest reality I’ve ever known, and the many queer writers included here seem to have lives in which their queerness is essential, not accidental. And that makes me feel as alienated as my real life adventures in queer spaces do. I’m awfully pasty white and ordinary, and although my mother’s family were, at one time, potato famine refugees from Ireland, and I was not born in the country where I live, I am a migrant on an axis other than the here-to-there displacement in space. The only true migration I have ever made—the one that I am always making—is the one from female to male.

And I am not even certain how to think about “working class.” If it’s about wage-labour, a blue- and pink- collar, and sometimes white collar existence, then for the exception of about one decade of my life, I’m your man. But I’ve always preferred to think of myself as under-employed, as if the status was temporary, collarless. Over-educated. Just barely keeping my head above poverty level. You know: What are you going to do with an arts degree? Or two? When things are good where I live, blue collar workers can haul in six-figure incomes. Classless, misfit, my work-life fits into no definable category.

At 57, I’m not even under-employed any more. I’m not employed at all. And too old to start over. (Which leads me to wonder, while we’re being all diverse and intersectional, where disability lies in this re-invigorated literary avant-garde.)

But, enough wound-nursing and equivocating. Back to the task at hand.

I do love the idea of literature that is innovative, experimental, and breaks boundaries especially in my arena, that of the essay/memoir. And, did I mention that nowhere in Isabel’s detailed and entertaining introduction (check it out, if you want, at 3:AM) does that over-used term “genre-bending” appear? The writing she invites the reader to envision, “itself must transgress the various structures through which the avant-garde literary canon has perpetuated itself and its exclusiveness.” Okay, now we’re talking. She goes on to say:

To reiterate, the writing needs to work across various systems of oppression (intersectionality), across formal distinction (prose and poetry, critical and creative, and the various genres), and across disciplines. Same goes for publishing, editing, reading, referencing and designing curricula. Change literature (or what is defined as such) and the discipline will diversify. Diversify the discipline and the literature itself will change. Liberating the canon depends on inclusion and formal innovation in equal measures. The two are interrelated.

And the question then becomes: Just how liberated is this canon? How much of a meaningful advancement have we made toward this ambitious goal by the selections gathered in this anthology?

Honestly, I am not so sure. (Maybe I am.)

I already tend to read a fair amount of innovative literature, and have admitted to a hunger for work that pushes the confines of literary style and form, so the more experimental pieces really, uh, turn me on. The contributions from Mojilsola Abedayo, Joanna Walsh, Isabel Waidner, Timothy Thornton, Mira Mattar, Nisha Ramayyar, Richard Brammer (cheating I skipped this having already the entire book from whence it came) and Nat Raha were, for me, standouts. The most explicitly trans pieces were my least favourite, pushing subject more than form, but as an idiosyncratic, fickle reader—a body dysmorphic, ex-gender dysphoric soul—I am looking for a transvant-garde that speaks to trans in a way that would make me say “HELL, YES.”

This canon still needs to be loosened a little further, I suppose. Or rather, the liberation is just starting.

This book could be considered a primer. An Anglophone primer. An anthology of primarily UK based writers with a few US contributors tossed in for good measure. How about round two? With a glance to Canada (where I am), Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and desi (South Asian and diaspora) writers.

Ah, one can dream. But if this book can exist, anything is possible.

So, there you have it. I have written about Liberating the Canon without really writing about any of the varied pieces contained within. You’ll have to read it, if you dare. Or desire. Or are simply curious.

It’s worth the risk.

Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature, edited by Isabel Waidner is available from your friends at Dostoyevsky Wannabe.  To be printed at your pleasure, and obtained through a distributor like that place that starts with A.

To sing the song unsung: A personal answer to Singed by Daniela Cascella

The voice soundless and then, records unheard, song unsung, voice also unsung
dipped enshrouded ensheathed enlandscaped tongueless tongueless tied no story no record.

Daniela Cascella is a literary ecstatic. She engages with the word—written, spoken, sung, depicted—at an essential point of being, at that place where the spirit, soul, or daimon resides.

She listens into the silences, to the whispers and echoes, to the frayed edges of meaning. As a native Italian who writes in English, she attends to the spaces between languages, bending and folding her adopted tongue to affect fractured layers of intent. To open yourself to reading her is to be challenged to read and write with a new sensitivity to sound, voice and significance.

If I sound like an enthusiast, I am. Daniela (if this was a review rather than an answer I would refer to her by her last name—I will honour her instead, as Brazil honours Clarice) has been a vital friend and mentor over the past year and half since I first came to know her. As an essayist, my primary goal is to reach toward an articulation of the ineffable, to give voice to an existence, not between languages, but between gendered experience in a way that gets closer to an expression of being as I understand it than the common dialogue surrounding trans identity allows. I have no idea if that is an attainable goal, but Daniela’s essays and meditations thrill, inspire and ignite me.

Inspire and ignite me.

Ignite.

Her latest book, Singed, takes its title from permutations of sing: sing, singed, sung. It opens with the account of a fire. A few months ago the room at the top of our house caught fire. A large number of books and cds were lost to the flames. I first read of these burned books from a PDF of the text. I responded with horror; I felt wrenched with every title. Returning to this accounting on the printed page a few weeks later, I sensed an exaltation, a calling forth, a rising to a challenge, a refrain to be reclaimed amidst the losses. And that is what Singed is. As Daniela sifts through the ashes and embers, sings through the ashes and embers, she calls forward precious voices—Clarice Lispector, Teresa of Ávila, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Elfriede Jelinek, Marlene van Niekerk, Isak Dinesen, Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann and more—chanelling their words and their attempts to speak to otherness. Hers is a reading as inhabiting the spaces between words.  The observations she makes and questions she asks, hang in the air, inviting her reader to ponder the unspeakable and challenge the constraints placed on how we’ve been taught to read and to write.

Woven through her literary explorations, are reflections on music and art. These excursions help frame, and reframe, a multi-dimensional engagement with the written word. Hearing, seeing, and speaking are essential activities, as are silence, emptiness, and unfinished forms. A sigh, for example, Clarice’s in particular, which Cascella (at this moment, this feels like a review) first encounters listening to Lispector’s last recorded interview, inspires an intuitive and rhythmic engagement with the works of other writers, a series of echo and dub sessions on the page. The experience of reading and writing a review of Marlene van Niekerk’s The Swan Whisperer, a short tale in which a young student loses himself in his endeavour to transcribe the language of swans, leaves her spellbound, speechless and wordless, unable to write for months. Of that interlude she says:

Today I know that the silence I experienced was a deep working of the stuff that makes writing be. It was the encounter with the substance that eludes you and that causes such physical turmoil when you grasp it in other words, in words you read in a poem or hear in a song, and you recognize their subject as yours.

And the connections she draws when writing across languages are illuminating, especially for those of us who are unilingual. In an essay about Fleur Jaeggy’s as yet untranslated novel, Le statue d’acqua, Cascella writes:

Where did the spirit of the world hide that night its reservoir of dreamers?

The porous blank portions between the words in The Water Statues soak up Jaeggy’s discomfortable writing. They enfold the space of space, or as Gass wrote of Rilke’s Innerweltraum, the space made by Being’s breathing… Not just the space we call consciousness, but the space where we retire in order to avoid a feeling… These spaces are always palpable as though space were smoke, or the mountains of the heart where the last of the hamlet of feeling may be discerned. The blank spaces host echoes, speech where speech ends, the voices of ancestors. Jaeggy herself has acknowledged, in discussing herself hearing writing in between German and Italian, that German is the language of her dreams…

Voices and echoes, and echoes of voices.

Repetition of a refrain.

Call and answer.

If reading Daniela Cascella’s work—including her earlier books, En Abîme and F.M.R.L.— has nurtured in me an alertness to sound in language and imagery, and an awareness of voice, more explicitly a desire to voice what is known without words, Daniela, as a friend and fellow writer, has personally encouraged me to incorporate more photographs (or a photographic sensibility?) into the presentation of my writing—a process I am still just beginning to explore.

But take this image:

July, 2015, mid-winter in Cape Town. This is the Company’s Garden, with the iconic façade of Table Mountain looming in the background. On that white columned building in the distance, if you could see it, is a poster advertising William Kentridge’s multi-media installation, The Refusal of Time. That is the South African National Gallery and this is my last full day in the city. I made my way through the gallery in near isolation and as I passed into the room containing the Kentridge exhibit, the recorded rhythms of metronomes and bellows were triggered and seemed, in the moment, to be contained within this dark space where I experienced the entire presentation alone, surrounded by noise and images, free to wander and absorb the full sensory explosion unhindered. Later, as I explored the rest of the gallery, I realized that the sounds and rhythms of the exhibit resounded and echoed through the entire building, enhancing my sensory appreciation of every photograph, painting and artwork I saw. I cannot think back on that visit to the gallery without hearing and feeling, the steady cadence, the heartbeat, of The Refusal of Time.

But that’s not all, and this where I answer Daniela Cascella and Singed. When we first connected, we shared our mutual appreciation of Marlene van Niekerk—The Swan Whisperer and her monumental novel, Agaat. It is a trace of the latter work I carried with me during my stay in Cape Town. Every time I came into the bowl from my B&B in Sea Point and saw Table Mountain stretching out before me, I could not help but hear the awed voice of the young Agaat after a trip to the cape with her mistress: “I saw Table Mountain.”

I saw Table Mountain.

 That young girl’s voice echoed in my head. Agaat’s voice became my voice. The voice of a past part of myself.

I saw Table Mountain.

 That afternoon, I sat in the café in the Garden, with Kentridge’s metronomes and Agaat’s wonder punctuating every breath, and started to write. I was, I believed, at the beginning of a process of writing my way back through the year that had just passed, from the breaking point of a serious manic episode to the renewal of a sense of self identity and an clear understanding of the unfinished business of being differently gendered in the world. A neat, circular journey  that would, in the writing, lead to healing.

As if.

Life (and death) still held lessons I could not, in that moment, anticipate.

Today, the pen still hesitates on the page. Small forays have been made, but I am only beginning to learn to listen to the voices I am trying to transcribe, the voices of the selves I am and used to be—girl, woman, man.

Somewhere, in the distance, I am calling back the beat of the metronome and a child’s voice: I saw Table Mountain. That child is me. In Cape Town I believed I could rewind time, solstice to solstice, one year back to the day I left my job,  and move on from there.

No.

I need to go back farther. Back into my past and listen for that child’s voice, the child who had a feeling, but no words to express it. To gather what one can know in absence of language, to salvage words from the margins of memories. Attend to that distant silence.

So much has passed in the two and a half years since I took this photograph. I almost died, then both of my parents faded rapidly and were suddenly gone, and the friend who drew me to South Africa committed suicide.

Just when I thought I was ready to write, my life caught fire and burned for over a year. Now it is time to sift through the ashes and embers, re-enter the remembering, and embrace the discomfortable, pen to paper.

Singed by Daniela Cascella is published by Equus Press.

Long nights have no stories: Plats by John Trefry

Few books keep me awake at night. Few books invade my dreams. Plats did both.

But then, few books are like Plats.

First, things first. The author, John Trefry, is a friend of mine. We’ve gone head to head reviewing the same titles for different venues, we’ve talked about writing, and I’ve floated a project I have in mind inspired, in part, by his first book, Thy Decay Thou Seest By Thy Desire, by him for his feedback and guidance. We have never met, but at his suggestion, I read Michel Butor’s Mobile earlier this year. However, we have never discussed Plats at any length.

We’ll talk about it as soon as I publish this piece.

Butor’s influence can be found in the pages of this novel, but where Mobile is borne of a road trip across America in the late 1950s—open spaces, small towns, Howard Johnsons—Plats is dreamy claustrophobia. The darkness, the light, the textures—skies, water, sand, carpet, paint, asphalt—suffocate, soak, dissolve, and distort streets, hallways, furniture, bodies. Time is measured in a series of anchorless reference points that heighten the sense that everything is happening at once in a continuous existential flux and flow.

Think Mobile filtered through the late Beckett of Company and Ill Seen Ill Said, pulled into 21st century and re-invented in Trefry’s architect’s imagination.

Plats is a novel of sanitized urban decay, it exists in a space that blurs the experiential lines between deserts, ocean, streets, apartment towers, and generic office environments. It inhabits the modern American city, the tidal city, the anonymous city. Plats is a novel of Los Angeles.

The glass is very cold and damp. The hollow beyond is sealed, excised, solitary. Its refusal is total, it refuses the city, warm sun. It refuses you because it is not there. Rooms do not reappear. They are there to be filled with emptiness and reflections. These are empty cells where you put the apartments, the dust of age and sleep. They have yet to be forgotten.

Plats is non-narrative, language driven, and constrained. The rhythm and structure is precise—each page contains exactly three paragraphs of eleven lines each. The imagery and energy of the paragraphs fluctuates, holding to patterns that gradually shift throughout the course of the 156 pages. The characters, the women that populate this novel—“I,” “she”, and “you”—have a disassociated relationship with one another. They embody a femaleness in dress, hair, stockings, shoes, but are remarkably sexless. And it is never really clear whether they are three distinct entities or aspects of one fractured whole. They interact abstractly, repel, reflect and absorb one another. Their bodies are loosely inhabited, articulated, disjointed, atomized as is the city that encases and envelopes them.

A word spreads across you, a characterization or clue settles into the gentle stupor of your creation. The years that have led up to your limp entrance and disassociated gaze were filled with unspoken projections I have forgotten. I casually entered into awkward silences with you in my mind and then interrupted them with cascades of trinkets washing through my apartment. You were the sand and the water, you were lost, now you have me, you have what is mine, you need it, I no longer do. There is no story in the words. They are characters that erase themselves by happening and being recognized. When they become real, shared between us, a little bit of me is let loose, a view, a movement, a lost hope, it could be in you, settling on your skin, it could be lost in the room, amongst the detritus.

In this kind of literary environment, the reader sets the terms of engagement. One can drift across the text, engage and disengage, listen to the language, watch the flickering scenes pass. If there is meaning to be discerned, it will be dependent on the experiential context that an individual brings to the reading.

Not the other way around.

Plats is essentially an extended prose poem. The language is eerie, strange, intoxicating. From time to time I would stop and read a few pages aloud, just to hear the words unfold. I would notice images repeating: rinds, splayed limbs, chair legs, floral prints, shoulder blades, and my favourite: pleats.

Plats places pleats in places you never pictured pleated beyond curtains and skirts smoothed against the thigh: “pleats of moonlight,” “pleats of a dreamt dawn in waves,” “pleats of indoor night.”

If there is an intention in this book, apart from the conceits that govern its design, it can be met as an attempt to invite the reader/observer into an experience that emulates the disordered, depersonalization, and de-realization associated with schizophrenia. Read that way, it is granted a defined frightening, disorienting beauty. I would suggest that as one possible, but not prescribed, approach. It can be understood as a kind of contemporary metaphysics, a meditation on the quotidian tedium of urban existence—disembodiment as a coping mechanism—where the expanses of desert and ocean are reduced to an idea that drifts through the porous cocoon of concrete towers. The hallways breathe, alleys pulse and the city and its inhabitants are locked in a symbiotic relationship.

Or it can be encountered as something else altogether. That is the true magic of Plats. My own experience was decidedly idiosyncratic, running on several levels at once.

But I’ll talk to John about that.

Plats is published by Inside the Castle

 

Experimental road trip: Mobile by Michel Butor

Freedomland prospectus:
“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! . . .”

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.

mobileSubtitled “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:

The sea,

                    oysters,

razor clams,

                    mussels,

littleneck clams,

                    Washington clams

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.

hojo

Mobile is translated by Richard Howard and published by Dalkey Archive Press with a fascinating introduction by John D’Agata.

Unanswerable questions: On Wing by Róbert Gál

“That which we let come in and that which we never allow to enter. The flood of words. The word, like smoke. Always too late. Always already different. The word as a question, not to be posed, the word as an answer, not even given. The word as the only possible testimony, always unquestioned. The fracture, unable to be prepared, always ready to speak out. The fracture of the heart that, cut out of itself, still feels.”

Billed as fiction, On Wing by the Slovak poet-philosopher Róbert Gál eschews all the common precepts of narrative story telling. You might say that this slim volume delights in turning language and ideas inside out, offering a parade of aphorisms, queries, dreams and anecdotes. It might sound disorienting, and if you are looking to impose your preconceptions or to demand an objective truth, you may well be frustrated. Or worse. But I would argue that you don’t want to enter this work as a blank slate. You want to enter it with an openness, and a willingness to be engaged.

gal_on-wingConsider this. The avant-garde musician and composer John Zorn makes a cameo in a dream segment within the first few pages of the book. Gál revisits Zorn at the end. On Wing reads like an improvisation, an exploration of recurring motifs and themes: memory, pain, death, love, identity, faith and all the idiosyncrasies of living. Grounded through stories and recollections he rolls over ideas with an immediacy and recognizable humanity. The aphorisms, the rhetorical questions, and creative reconstructions of language weave in and out of the text; holding their own at times like extended jazz solos.

The attentive reader has to pay close attention. Marvel at the inventive word play:

“Nirvanization.
Sorting out the sporadic.
Undeception.
The transparency of sorrow.
Unexbirthed.”

Wonderful. I want those words.

But you might wonder, does this work? I will confess that I am intrigued by experimental writing, I am interested in exploring the ways that ideas can be entertained outside the traditional narrative. But for a fragmentary exercise such as this one to work, there needs to be an intrinsic continuity, even if, on the surface, there seems to be certain randomness. Humanity and restraint are important, the work must say something about life; raising questions, but not pretending to have the answers. I don’t want a writer, even in more conventional literature, to give me answers. Life doesn’t work that way.

“He: A living question mark, a question mark so full of life as a question can be. The question of who could draw no breath, the question with each suppressed tendency to breathe out. The question to an answer which yields no answer to a question. The question to a question that doesn’t answer, even when it does.

Being asked what he was doing, he answered that he had no time.

Spontaneous obligation.

For everything he is grasping for (as a drowning man) constitutes a breakthrough in his life.

Prior to that which was and after that which shall be.

Empathology.”

Reading On Wing is a singular experience. And unique, I would imagine, to every reader. One reviewer I read seemed to make much of an apparent preoccupation with suffering, anguish, pain. I did not read that book. I was especially drawn to the questions about questions, the musings about memory. Gál presents a humble, somewhat neurotic contemplation of those unanswerable questions of life creating an intimacy with the reader. I thought he was being a little lyrical about death and my marginalia bear me out. But then, less than two months ago I very nearly died. With distance I may feel different.

Somehow words seem to fall short when I try to capture the experience of reading this book. The blurb on the back describes a “restless, searching, ‘improvisational‘ prose whose techniques reflect those of Bernhard, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard”. But if that sounds heavy, fear not. This is a pocket sized book of 109 pages. 109 pages of of ideas, humour and wisdom.

Translated by Mark Kanak, I must make a comment about the translation. I don’t know anything about Slovak, but this is a work that frequently relies heavily on word play and tautological statements, not to mention the re-envisioned words that occur in the text. I could not help but wonder how much the process of translation may have altered the intent or effect of the original. One does not have the sense that this is a translated work, it flows so smoothly. Much of the subject matter is intended to strike a note of universality, presumably in the narrative pieces as well as in the more philosophical elements, and that may contribute to this effect. I don’t know. Maybe that is another one of those questions that is not meant to be answered.

Róbert Gál was born in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1968. He spent time in New York and Jerusalem before settling in Prague. On Wing is published by Dalkey Archive Press.

The Absent Therapist or listen now, can you hear the voices…

“ When I was a child I didn’t have an identity and I didn’t want one. I was neither boy nor girl, male nor female. I was just a pair of eyes, a nose, some ears. Receiving the world, the brilliant blue sky, people talking above me.”
                                         Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist

Oh yes I thought, but then they gave me a designation and it made no sense.

A-ha moments like this surfaced throughout my engagement with the slim volume that is Will Eaves’ brilliant The Absent Therapist. Deceptively simple, the fragmented pieces that form this most unusual, experimental, but achingly human novella are carefully crafted and finely polished moments in time.

20797992Described on the cover as a “miniature but infinite novel”, I found myself returning over and over to my favourite strands and marking them in the margins. Although some fragments appear to be linked or feature the same characters or themes, the overall experience is akin to floating through the ether, engaging momentarily with the thoughts, frustrations, memories, and conversations – internal or external – that swirl through the mind. Your mind. The minds of others.

At times reflective and philosophical, at times obscure, at times laugh out loud funny (“I went to the Spanking Club once…”) these little pieces reminded me of the snippets of the stories we tell ourselves and others as we knit together and make sense of our lives. As we engage our own absent therapist.

I had heard of this book, and am familiar with the author’s more conventional work, but when I saw it appear on a couple of the “best of 2014” lists of reviewers I particularly respect, I became desperate to get my hands on it. Not an easy feat since it is not available here in Canada (even though as readers we spend time on the west coast and Vancouver on this little journey of fragments). I ordered it from the UK and coincidentally it arrived earlier this week as I was out on my way to my very present and vital therapist.

Rarely has such slight book offered so much, this is a company of voices to which the sensitive reader can return again and again. Relate to the lonely, commiserate with the angry, recognize the nostalgia expressed. Marvel at the philosophical musings, those poetic moments we strive to find meaning and guidance in, but that too frequently pass and get lost under the crush of everyday life. I would even dare the same reader to not mark favourites in the margin.

“ The balm of consolation is too strong for some. Its most powerful ingredient is not the emollient lie that time heals, but the more astringent perception that whether we heal or not, the wound was deep and real and ours.”

Indeed.