Hélène Cixous Region: Western Philosophy. School: French feminism. Main interests: Literary criticism. [...] "She has published over 70 works; her fiction, dramatic writing and poetry, however, are not often read in English" -- Wikipedia
Oh but people! But but but but... people! Wake up! Don't let your lethargic willingness to give in to the maddening inertia of air conditioned rooms filled with post-structuralist slack-jawed graduate students blind you to the fucking truth, man! For we have here one of the greatest (still living!) writers of fiction/fact/creative nonfiction/poetry/poetic essay (whatever this book happens to be, I don't even know). Maybe her academic theoretical work is great also. I have no idea. I've only read this one book. But whatever your thoughts on that are, don't pigeonhole her as an academic or theoretician, because this book is so much more, it's a writer's book, and everything I look for in the best of my reading experience: warmth, humor, sensuality, language, poetry, philosophy, inventiveness, playfulness, emotion, messiness, unruliness, surprise, craziness.
"The word mum still fascinates us, it's a gem, as if we had kept a milk tooth. This can only be said in all modesty. I myself say mum to my son or daughter and we murmur Rimbaud in amongst the broom flowers between fables and seas."
What is this book about? Well, I don't really know. It's about so many things. But on some very concrete level it's about Hélène Cixous opening up a box that she finds in her cupboard. Which I guess goes to show that a great writer can write about anything and make it great. This was not an easy read, but it was so pleasurable that I didn't mind re-reading many passages over again to understand them. Also, I'm sure my understanding is only partial: she alludes to so many other works, as well as personal things that I feel like I'm not even supposed to know.
There is none more cast out by happiness than he who discovers its doorway. On the one hand the subject surpasses the teller. On the other the teller snuffs out the subject upon which he breathes. And yet how can one not want to be surpassed?
I am not saying this book is poetic. Because even though it is, it is also not. Not in that typical lyrical way. It is very down to earth and personal, I just mean that she has a very particular way of saying things that makes me have to constantly catch my breath.
"For me, theory does not come before, to inspire, it does not precede, does not dictate, but rather it is a consequence of my text, which is at its origin philosophico-poetical, and it is a consequence in the form of compromise or urgent necessity. [...] Never has a theory inspired my poetic texts. It is my poetic text that sits down from time to time on a bench or else at a café table - that's what I am in the process of doing at this moment by the way - to make itself heard in univocal, more immediately audible terms. In other words, it is always a last resort for me." -- an interview
I was not surprised when I read that quote. I get the sense even from this non-theory book that she writes in order to think instead of the other way around. For this reason, even though there are many ideas in this book, I would not lump it in with other idea books. Even novels of ideas (like that excellent Mosley book I just finished) seem more like an explication of an already fully formed vision. Whereas for Cixous, the vision is always formed in the writing. The struggle to say what she means is also the meaning of what she says.
This creates a deeply maddening, sometimes repetitive, highly entertaining and insightful struggle as you're reading it. It doesn't hurt that her style, on the sentence to sentence level, is also messy, full of clauses, sometimes ungrammatical, with made up words or words jammed together in playful ways. It's like one big brainstorm of words. It's wonderful, and it's confusing, but it actually makes sense, it's actually crystal clear and enlightening when you follow her thought.
The Serpent Oblivion devours my lions one after the other. Sated. What's left is the Serpent full of lions. When will the Serpent's Serpent come? At the end of death when the dead are dead, says Poe to Baudelaire, the teeth are left. As soon as you are foolhardy enough to think of them, they rise up and bite.
One last note. Please read/re-read these Poe stories before you read this book, as they are referenced at times in minute detail:
It is 10 years since 9/11 and poetry doesn't matter. But this here is to revive my heart to the common palpitations of dance music, to the crowd who s...moreIt is 10 years since 9/11 and poetry doesn't matter. But this here is to revive my heart to the common palpitations of dance music, to the crowd who sweats my sweat. This is the only poetry book that makes me feel like OK here's a something that actually reflects what it feels like to be half alive in this inexpressibly sad as fuck powerless paralysis of a 2012 where we pretend things matter but they don't they're just fucking status updates! Wow oh god OK this book makes me sad, or rather it just puts me back in touch with why I've been sad without knowing it for ten years, and I can't even say why I just now read it over my lunch break (it's short, read it now, it's free too, download it here) and you know how sometimes, very rarely, you read something that expresses basically everything that is the zeitgeist of what's going on in the moment in the world but nobody talks about it because it is so all-encompassing that nobody can see it enough to express it? Read this fucking book now!(less)
There is not. It is quiet In the room the plastic house is orange, glowing orange. Sonia says, "Daddy this pillow is not cold enough." It sounds like enush. Daddy there is not. In the quiet.
Dan Thomas-Glass has fallen in that gap between child and child. Something is afresh not there, re etches a future looking back at himself where are clouds which are in the sky, he notes, but this is this. This Sonia and this Kate whom he pre eulogizes the present already a long-ago memory. Lives cast like those shadows in the playground overlapping one on one, and the parts that do not match where do they go? Where does the sweetness go once done? A sea of plastic awaits like the eye of some harm.
Let us wish: for the beach- iest Sundays before burnt skin draws us under, in the shadow of redwood trees a respite we conspire to hold tight, in the shadow of vowel shifts as language invaded language on islands in undifferentiated moments called history then particular for individuals living it--Oh I guess we are no different, if you ask sweet, little larks who flit from branch to branch as evening deepens.
I’m a little overwhelmed. After finishing this, I just can’t see it as clearly as while I was in the middle of reading it. Because after finishing it,...moreI’m a little overwhelmed. After finishing this, I just can’t see it as clearly as while I was in the middle of reading it. Because after finishing it, all I can focus on is the ending, but the book is so much more than that. Yes it is a unified work and it is saying big things, but I love the small things he does as much as the big things. The book is as much about these small things = slapslap, chinning, Harpo Progression, hyperscoot, I’m-Ticking, ‘Tch’ = there is an obsession with, or an understanding of, gestural communication but also signficance of gestural motions outside of the goal of communication alone. There’s also a particular vocabulary = trickle, snat, emotionalize, Slokum Dies Friday, darkers, the robots, Desormiate, chomsky, pennygun, Arrangement, damage, Ulpan = a grandiose kind of language-making in which everything is internalized, nicknamed, externalized, passed-on, becomes myth-like. People’s names too = Main Man, Janitor, Asparagus, Brooklyn, Call-Me-Sandy. The book creates an internal logic, an environment where everything in it makes its own particular sense, and is driven by a most unique voice, a voice that gets in your head and even made me dream things in that same voice, a voice of one who is constantly thinking and re-thinking, obsessed with logic in the big things (including scriptural and moral ideas, example = lying to God, and how God is complicit in your lying, etc.) as well as the smallest of small, seemingly irrelevant things (= why simple slapslap was inferior to normal slapslap... ) logic which becomes illogical because it has so much faith in its own logic, that logic is possible, that the world can be logic-ed out. Those are the little things. And I loved those little things, the particular world of the book that was so real (Levin GETS it = this is just like childhood, in a certain way) and often funny, alive, entertaining, engaging, and intellectual. The humor is very odd, sometimes I don’t even know why it is funny as in this passage that totally cracked me up:
Maybe take away the Shovers’ semi-private-club status? But then they’d meet at recess, wholly private, with impunity. Ban scarves in the classroom? What about cold kids? - p241
The book is as much about these little things as the big themes that will get over-focused on. The character’s, too, were so real, though they all spoke Gurion-speak: even the ones not like him at all have a particular him-ness (maybe because he’s narrating). At the same time, the characters are easily distinguishable, and have very strong distinct personalities of their own. Interesting paradox.
I liked eggs soft-boiled, but in the morning couldn’t prep them, not if I wanted to put them in my stomach. Those insect-like screams emitted by the shell when you pried its fragments from that film they clung to--the mastication of wet chicken sounded musical by comparison. p.773
What of the big things? What is the book saying? I have no idea. Something about terrorism? Something about God/belief? Was it about verbosity/iniquity? About verbose boys who are too smart for their own good? About the institutional aspect of education? Modern technology? The modern world’s tolerance for divergent thought, or true uniqueness? I don’t know but I know by the end I knew it was about something but maybe also about multiple things or maybe about something in a way that it wasn’t totally about it, otherwise it would be a shallow one-dimensional work anyway. By the end, I wasn’t even sure what was happening sometimes. The last hundred pages totally devastated me, and I shall put a SPOILER warning here (though if you pay attention to the very beginning, none of this will really be a surprise, but who will remember the beginning after 1000+ pages? The shocking-ness of the ending is that everything was built up so carefully and logically that it doesn’t seem like violence (though talked about and even performed in small doses, but TRUE violence, TRUE irrevocable violence of the death-sort seemed beyond the scope of possible outcomes, however much foreshadowed, until it comes) seemed unimaginable at least to me, as I was able to imagine the rest of the story so fully: not unimaginable as in unbelievable, but believable, totally believable, yet completely shocking and really really fucken sad. The Gurionic War passage, the 100+ pages or so of it near the end anyway, was such a dizzying array of action, and of action that made me want to turn away from it, because I had so invested in these characters and I could see now the inevitable damage and I did not want to see it happen I did not want to know that it was going to happen even though I knew and I knew that I knew. What use was it?
Then, also, the book is so detail oriented that I feel like I can dissect every bit of it for meaning, almost, yes, like scripture. What is the meaning of Gurion’s own words never having “quote” marks around it... except near the end when he speaks to the soldiers = “There is damage,” I said to the thousand soldiers. What does that mean, or was that just a slip up where he forgot to not quote? I refuse to believe that this would escape him. What does it mean that the whole book is written by future-Gurion, who remembers these events... So the book leaves you hanging at the end, not knowing what version of Gurion comes out of this experience, we only know past-Gurion and past-Gurion as described (or mis-represented?) in the head of future-Gurion, but we know also (or more accurately, we can imply also) that future-Gurion is relatively unchanged, still belief-heavy in that he finished this huge book, in that he believed in it that much and did not allow the tragedy of the events to cause in him doubt, depression, etc. (like it would have if I were Gurion but then again I would not be Gurion nor would I ever want to be), or if he did allow that (he did mention something about suicide in the very ambiguous Coda), that he was somehow able to overcome it. But how was he able to overcome it, what were his thoughts on all these events? What was the meaning of the miracle? Does it vindicate anything? What about in “Commentary on Commentaries” chapter where he hints at things about Main Man being somehow more involved than he ended up being at the end:
So even though, on reflection, Main Man’s weird utterances seem to have been obliquely prophetic--and maybe they were--there was no good reason to believe they were prophetic at the time.
And what to say now? How to end this review? It would be unfair to not mention the book’s flaws. The ‘damage’ at the end, though obligatory, became dull to read after a while. I can only take so much straight action and so much of this book was an alternation between action and thought whereas the last 200 pages or so were almost entirely action in a way that seemed... a bit meaningless. What does it matter what happened, as much as it matters that it happened and that we know something happened, and are able to reflect on the end result of what happened. The specifics seem superfluous = who was standing where, doing what to whom etc. This is a gripe on my part, even though I know it is probably necessary to have that action described in detail, to keep consistency with the character of Gurion feeling overly important about these events. Also, little things with characters, like how Eliyahu seemed to suddenly change personalities, becoming more susceptible to violence, even inviting it, perhaps I missed what brought this on. Also, the ending which affected me deeply, but I’m not sure what to think about it at all, and feel a vague sense of disappointment at the same time. Also, the voice which is captivating in its endless logical digressions became slightly tiresome at around page 635. There are probably more, but really it does not matter. The book has flaws but the book is a triumph also. It is a dizzying experience and I don’t know what to think about it, and that makes me want to think about it all the more. (less)
A charming chapbook and a charming concept. Bernadette Mayer writes a poem for each one of the Helens who live in the town of Troy, NY. The poems rang...moreA charming chapbook and a charming concept. Bernadette Mayer writes a poem for each one of the Helens who live in the town of Troy, NY. The poems range from formal whimsy to experimental. Each poem is accompanied by a photo of said Helen in her natural environment. This book made me smile. I loved the poems where she uses the voice of the Helen she is portraying, you really get a sense of these women and the little town they live in. Playfulness abounds.(less)
The history of information theory is a history of increasing abstraction. To the point where the meaning of information becomes irrelevant. To the poi...moreThe history of information theory is a history of increasing abstraction. To the point where the meaning of information becomes irrelevant. To the point where the universe itself can be seen as a giant computer, and each of our choices, thoughts, movements become like states in the machine. I loved reading about the African drummers who communicated over long
distances via a tonal drum language with built in redundancy. I loved reading about Babbage and his calculating machine, and to think about it as a kind of steam-punk calculator fantasy world of the future. I loved reading about people decrying the telegraph and the telephone as technologies that will ruin humanity. And to read about the shortening of telegraph messages to save time and money, with phrases like wyegfef which stands for 'will you exchange gold for eastern funds?' which is interesting because here we are in 2012
coming full circle, a form of regression maybe, by using codes like ROFLOL and BRB in our chatboxes and cellphones. And also that the telegraph reminds me a bit of twitter in its shortness. I didn't love reading about Godel and Turing and Shannon, but only because I've read so much about them already in other books just like this one, but it was still interesting enough. I liked reading about genes and the gene code ok, but I really loved reading about quantum computers because I knew next to nothing about them. Something I never thought about before is how a message sent using a quantum computer cannot be intercepted or wiretapped because of Heisenberg's principle
which says that you can't look at a quantum particle without effecting it, so in effect the intercepter cannot go undetected! This blew my mind. I loved reading the more philosophical chapters about how we have too much information for us to ever process, and how we must now deal with it. I loved reading about the library of babel and borges of course, how could I not? I loved thinking about how we have too much information and how everything is documented. "It did not occur to Sophocle's audiences that it would be sad for his plays to be lost; they enjoyed the show". I thought about that and I thought
about how every performance, ceremony, or event that I've been to in the last year or so has been recorded on video (and probably up on YouTube already) and how or whether that took away from the experience, whether knowing something will be archived later makes you pay attention less now, or is it a form of insurance, a kind of just-in-case, which then made me wonder how many times I (or anyone) will ever go and watch those videos again. I thought about the last chapters and how Google and other search engines are our only means of not being completely lost in meaningless data and then I thought about how much power the role of a search engine is, to make sense of the information is also to hold all the power, to control the information, to control what information people see or don't see. I'm looking forward to the sequel.(less)
For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too. I noticed the way people dressed, the way they treated their lovers — in everyone, there was something to envy. You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it. But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose? How can you say, I’d rather be responsible like Misha than irresponsible like Margaux. Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux. How could I know which would look best on me?
Smart, funny, disgusting, insightful, this is a self-help book for people who don’t believe there are easy answers, or even any answers at all. When I first read the excerpts of this book, I thought where has this book been all my life? These are the questions I’ve been asking myself since forever!!! I’m surprised this exact book hasn’t been written before, so obvious are the questions asked that it seems oddly new. Perhaps because everyone asks themselves these questions and everyone also thinks ‘Nobody else asks these questions. Everybody else already knows the answers, everybody has their shit together and has figured this all out’. Or perhaps, like me, the questioner also lives with the fear that they are asking the wrong questions all along. What if all this time I’ve been missing the point entirely?
Questions like how should a person be? How do you be someone, secure in your selfhood? Also, should you stick with something even though it’s hard? Should you give up? Should you change that hardness into something that comes easily to you? Should you just be yourself? What does it mean to be yourself? Should everything be a lesson on how to become yourself? To what lengths, self improvement? What is the value of greatness versus the price of greatness? What is beauty and is it better than ugliness? How do we appear to ourselves and to others? Even when we are at our ugliest, is there still a beauty there? Are we just an object, reduceable to aesthetic value? Where should we find the answers to these questions, in others or in the self?
Then just as you think no answers are coming, they do come, genuine answers that aren’t meant to be generalized or widely applied. Not big Hollywood aha! moments, but tiny little semi-satisfactory resolutions. And the very ending of the book is really good in that it avoids hammering anything home but at the same time captures a little something ineffable. It was spectacular precisely because it was perfectly un-spectacular. I asked myself ‘how did she come up with that ending?’
In that moment, I wanted so much for someone to say of me: She is the most consistent person you have ever known. Even at home, she never changes! p.49
This book is not available in the USA yet, but you can order it from Canada.(less)
To be a valley Find a hill And lie down at its feet.
These are easy logics. They sound good but are they true? That's part of the fun of readin...more
To be a valley Find a hill And lie down at its feet.
These are easy logics. They sound good but are they true? That's part of the fun of reading this book. The middle section is the most fun, full of short poems on every subject, reminding me sometimes of haikus and sometimes of aphorisms. Lots of quick humor. Based on this section, I think Suzanne would be great at Free Poems.
Of course, it goes beyond that, and there is more depth to it than my description suggests. She's preoccupied with time and relativity and perspective. Also: the end of the world, or the world without humans. The speaker of these poems is a little sad, a little mocking, a little cynical. She often brings scientific or mathematical subjects to life through vivid metaphors.
To be a cloud Find a hill And swallow it.
ON LAST LINES
The last line should strike like a lover's complaint. You should never see it coming. And you should never hear the end of it.
ON RIDING BACKWARDS ON TRAINS
Through the red hills and over green dells The shock of it shakes from you Endless farewells.
There goes a fountain. There goes a goat. Back to the future Heart in your throat.
It never hurts immediately, father. Or son. Or holy spirit. As I was in the beginning, nests and shells, and ever shall be. World, still hidden, Amen.
I'm friends with Sarah, so I have had time to know her through both poems and life. I used to think her poems were difficult, but her voice has only grown deeper with time, by which I mean the time I have had to read more and more of her poems has made that difficulty almost irrelevant. Now, her poems make a very immediate sense to me, in the way that poems are meant to do. Poems filled with her intimate language, her intuitive leaps, and her ear for music and odd rhythms. This book in particular is often about the experience of pregnancy and motherhood, but you won't find the familiar motherhood cliches here. Because Sarah pays attention. Her experience is one of hushed silence, a reverence that includes the irreverent, the erotic, and the small sillinesses of private musing. I really loved this book.
Palace, cathedral: the thickening light in the heart of the house.
Tiny bug buried below the rock
or drawn like the moth
toward light? Little daemon. Unfaithful part of the house. What is the first thing
the house took. Upright spirit, pound the floors,
pound the hearth, and who would save the house.
Who would kill the house
with a whisper inside the house. The slow and the detailed thickening at the house. The house thickening
and the heat
thickening to ornate the house. Heat thickens deep to the house. Heat that would snarl the cathedral,
heat would wilderness
the steeple. Heat would break and rebuild the whole hell, that held house. (less)
is no there there, Gertrude Stein famously wrote in 1937, a sentence that loops back on itself in order to question its own grammar. Maybe what s...moreTHERE
is no there there, Gertrude Stein famously wrote in 1937, a sentence that loops back on itself in order to question its own grammar. Maybe what she meant was that the first there has no antecedent. But the sentence also pushes out, questions the world, questions the idea of a place in time, a time in place, that exists only because it is not here, relatively speaking.
This novel has a similar trajectory. Broken down into four sections titled There, But, For, and The, it tells an abstract story that questions the meaning of those words. Which may seem slight at first (Duh!), except it's not. Like the puns that the child Brooke is obsessed with, the book convinces us that semantics matter, words matter. And what seems an unlikely story about a man who's locked himself into a room is really a story about how we label our world. Which is really a story about how we think about the world. Which is really about if we can even think about the world (or know it).
Because a pun is basically a mislabelling that creates pleasure. A misnomer. And this book has many. Brooke becomes broke. Miles becomes Milo. Gen becomes Jan. Anna Hardie becomes Anna K. And like a good pun, this book is playful and gives pleasure. It is funny,
not in a ha-ha way. More in an aha way. There is always a but, isn't there? Actually there are many buts. Time and place, memory, history, a rhyme that jogs the memory into thinking of a time and place (where a man jogs in place, or does he ride in place, on an exercise bike?), the ostensible seemingness of things versus The Fact Is of things, these were all seamlessly (seemlessly?) weaved into the prose with great skill. But
then there were things that made me roll my eyes: cell phones, CCTVs, surveillance cameras, microdrones, celebrity culture, internet porn were all conspicuously annoying in the story. Yes, these are important things to think about, but do we really need to be reminded of the obvious (Duh!)? Come to think of it, have any of these things ever made it into a novel that wasn't trying to show me the shallowness of modern life? I felt like Don DeLillo was breathing down my back. And
though I loved the first two sections, the last two felt weaker, in the voice of the elderly Mrs. Young and the young girl(y) Brooke ("broke") Bayoude. Brooke was tolerable, adorable even, when she would only be precociously naive about something during a tense dinner conversation. But being entirely in her head by the last section was too much for me. I got annoyed. But
I do like the idea of them. Maybe Smith is suggesting that when our collective language breaks down, when we can't name things as they are anymore but only as they seem, when language is "broken", that somehow it is most alive, and most alive to those who themselves are "broken", or superfluous to society, the very old and the very young. Because language, in the normal world, is
something: a purpose. Communication or business or banter. And when it is functioning it is functional and boring. Like a machine. You're either for us or against us. Zeroes and/or ones.
Old Mrs. Young couldn't talk at first. But when she was finally able to, the words that came out of her resembled involuntary movements she couldn't control. Like her bladder. Animal utterances. Muscle memory. Phrases she knew but didn't mean to say. Like a bird who repeats things that she doesn't understand. But her age is an asset. "The leaving of life, when it came, might well be accompanied by a different seeing" (p. 142). And Brooke, the child, on the other hand, who is yet to find language functional
is also accompanied by a different seeing. She sees words strangely, as a tiger cub does when batting around its first prey rather than eating it. She's curious about language, about the way it works and still fresh to its odd pun-like qualities. Here is where language belongs. Something about history and the long stretched canvas of language that is best kept by the young and the old, the ones who don't matter as much in society, the overlooked ones, the the.
Thus language is made new again through puns and cleverness. You get a sense that if Brooke never completely grows up, but grows older, she could become Ali Smith and write an incredibly clever book like this. The way the storylines connect, the way the wordplay resonates between the sections and the themes, pretty much everything about this novel was clever. But in its examination of words, the novel also examines itself, and the topic of cleverness: what is cleverness for? No doubt a pre-emptive strike against those would-be critics on Goodreads:
Then she asked Mr. Garth did he really think there wasn't anything wrong with being cleverest. Top of Mount Cleverest, Mr. Garth said. Brooke laughed. Then Mr. Garth said slowly: the fact is, that at the top of any mountain you'll feel a bit dizzy because of the air up there. Cleverness is great. It's a really good thing, when you have it. And when you know how to use your cleverness, it's not that you're the cleverest any more, or are doing it to be cleverer than anyone else like it's a competition. No. Instead of being the cleverest, the thing to do is become a cleverist.
i.e. the becomes a, from a specificity to a generality, we lose ourselves in the collective. Cleverness matters only in this regard: to connect. Empathy with the disenfranchised. There but for the grace of God go I.
What kind of ending is that? The lack of an ending. The lack of anything, but a reference to a reference. The part left out of headlines, because it's implied. Area Man Reads Book Writes Review. The part left out is the only part that remains, for Stevens. When you eat an apple, you throw away the core. Man On Dump. No headline has the word the in it, i.e. There is no the there.
Similarly There But For The has a part missing. There But For The WHAT? I want to ask. But the answer would be Exactly! What's missing is the subject of the book, the whole point of it. We're not there at all because we're missing what we're missing, so we're here. The book wouldn't exist if not for the missing ____ at the end of the The.
So the book is about this missing piece, the story without a core, the center will not hold. And by the end of it we've whipped up a lot of cream without anything to put it on. All the pieces connect, but the reader still feels empty, there is no comforting explanation for the mysteries that haunt us (and that's the point). Does it matter? Does it make it less enjoyable? (My answer is no, but your Milo may vary.) We keep waiting for the revelation. The moment of understanding, of purpose. Of of course. Obviously. Of The Duh.(less)
Heather is playing 'house' in this book. I don't mean to imply the domesticity, but the pretend, the imagination, the whimsiness, and the playing of r...moreHeather is playing 'house' in this book. I don't mean to imply the domesticity, but the pretend, the imagination, the whimsiness, and the playing of roles. Often, like an only child, Heather has to play all the roles herself.
Half-Hedgehog Half-Man talk to me I said okay said the tree and it twinkled not like that I said I already know that talk to me about something new you monster it said that was a little better could we try this I said from a different perspective so we swapped places I was still the monster this would be easier if you could see the video in the video there are all these owls like bang bang bang all over the tree which I was now only that might be clearer in writing because I was also still myself half-hedgehog half-man and that could be hard to communicate visually and also my man-jaw was glass
My Enemy I have a new enemy he is so good-looking here is a photograph of him in the snow he is in the snow and so is the photo I put it there because I hate him and because it is always snowing in the photograph my enemy is acting like there are no neighbors but there are always neighbors they just might be far away he is 100% evil and good-looking he looks good in his parka in the snow if you asked he would call it a helmet all he ever does is lie he does not breathe or move or glow he is not that kind of man it is not that kind of snow
Some of these poems work better than others. And it could just be me, but some of the humor is too clever here (on the page), though she makes it work so well when she reads it. (less)
A little too 'project'-ey for my taste; that project being 'the soul' in this case; not that there aren't really...more
Mysteries and corn stand side by side.
A little too 'project'-ey for my taste; that project being 'the soul' in this case; not that there aren't really great parts in there as well (esp. loved Mutability Chorus on p82). I didn't like when he related the body/soul thing to writing/literature. It seemed a bit too myopic.
The terrible thing about being a writer is that it is what I wanted.
About a week ago, I read Maira Kalman's other book The Principles of Uncertainty and loved it. It is full of charming joyful paintings, paintings of all manner of things/couches/hairstyles/hats, lists and photos of people's backs, etc. All strung together in the loosest wandering free-form way possible, which is part of the charm. Afterwards, I read online about her newest book 'And the Pursuit of Happiness':
Inspired by the 2008 elections, artist Maira Kalman set out across these great states with pen and paper in hand to explore facets of American democracy that many Americans only contemplate on the Fourth of July.
So what I expected was this: Maira stops in rest areas and gas stations, painting weird southern ephemera, philosophizes about the South and our history of slavery, suddenly she spots a duck-shaped hat and goes berserk and paints 20 pages straight of this same hat from different angles! Then she gets sidetracked and starts talking about the variety of trees beside the highway, then she follows an old abandoned train track to see where it goes, meets some hillbillies and talks with them about 'America', shoots a few deer, paints them, hitchhikes with a single mom in her yellow Honda civic hatchback to California while painting exquisite reproductions of her right ear as seen from the passenger seat, then paints some lean-tos in Nevada, paints the interior of several houses where she stayed on the floor on her epic roadtrip across the country, people-watches in a mall, paints a well manicured poodle, paints someone's sequined shoes, wonders to herself "Could the meaning of America be sequined shoes?" and there you have it THE END!
Instead, I got: Maira, filled with optimism after Barack Obama's inauguration, decides to write a book about the beginnings of this country. She doesn't do much travelling (though she does some) or meeting of regular people. Instead, she dives into history books and history museums... OK, already not as exciting a concept to me as what I had imagined... but let's give it a shot anyway.
Most of this information is common knowledge about our forefathers. History that seems to brush the surface, history that seems like myth (i.e. what they want you to believe happened). The book is filled with paintings, but most of them are paintings of oil paintings of dead white men. These paintings lack the kind of verve and observation of the paintings in her other book... Because in her paintings of regular people, you can tell by the way she paints them how she feels exactly about this person's nose, or how much she loves this woman's hair, or how the squirrelly quality of that man on the street comes out in full color. Here, we have reproductions that seem stale by comparison. I find posed oil portraits so boring, and though she tried her best, she was basically just reproducing them in this book, without adding much of her own character or interpretation into the mix (there are exceptions, of course).
Later, when she shows real people (like the kids involved in the organic farms) she opts to show photographs of them instead of paintings. Why she decided to paint oil reproductions of Thomas Jefferson while photographing the kids is a mystery to me. It seems like the opposite choice would've produced much better results, with more room for interpretation. We've all seen Thomas Jefferson a million times, in that same pose!
Then, instead of traveling to the little known spots to discover the spirit of what America is now, she goes straight to Washington D.C. What follows are portraits of government workers and congresspeople, sitting in their offices, in their business suits. All pretty boring to me. What's more, it's not like she gets below the surface of who these people are. Example: on one page we see a painting of a woman against a yellow background and the words say "I meet Haeda Mihaltses, the director of the office of intergovernmental affairs." Then the very next page, she tells you of some other people she met. OK... so what's the point of introducing the reader to Haeda Mihaltses for a page if it's not going to be followed up by anything? Who cares? She's some director or other, I didn't need to know that!
I know I've been focusing on the negatives so far, but that is because I was so disappointed. I wanted so much more from this. I don't want to mislead you though: there is a lot of good stuff in here as well. It's just spaced further apart. There is still a number of humorous, witty, quirky things sprinkled throughout. But if you've never read Maira Kalman before, DEFINITELY read The Principles of Uncertainty first, instead of this book!
Also: I found the first half of the book to be much better, visually; it felt like she stopped trying in the last half. Her brushstrokes were less subtle and the detail seemed to go away. (less)
"History can be at once concrete and indecipherable. Historian can be a storydog that roams around Asia Minor collecting bits of muteness like burrs in its hide. Note that the word mute is regarded by linguists as an onomatopoeic formation referring not to silence but to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding."
Good, but not on par with her other stuff, but it's also a very different kind of book. There is something unsatisfying to it that is probably on purpose, given the subject matter and how she probably couldn't find any resolution from it either. The presentation is amazing and gives this book an automatic extra star. If you didn't know already, it's an accordion book. I laid it out on my kitchen table like a sacred veil to be draped on the dead.(less)
I think she's really good at writing about intimacy. Other things she's not as good at. But there were some truly magical moments in the first 100 pag...moreI think she's really good at writing about intimacy. Other things she's not as good at. But there were some truly magical moments in the first 100 pages or so. That said, there is something of this personal myth-making that makes me uneasy... it is both sincere and totally constructed at the same time. Something about how she retro-actively makes everything seem so fated, with all the right coincidences and people coming in at the right times (makes for a great story though).
So many things are romanticized here, not just the love story, which would be obvious, but also the art scene, New York City at that time, the Chelsea Hotel, and the many artists that came and went. This isn't really a complaint, since that is the reason most of us are reading this book to begin with, me included, i.e. we want our romantic notions reaffirmed.
It also satisfied my voyeuristic side to read about what books she was reading/music she was listening to/films she was watching at different stages of her life. Probably if a book were published of interesting people and what media they've consumed at different stages of life, that would be endlessly interesting to me.(less)
Update 2/16/2012: Wow I just read this Slate article about John D'Agata and his fact checker. Apparently they had heated debates over whether facts ma...moreUpdate 2/16/2012: Wow I just read this Slate article about John D'Agata and his fact checker. Apparently they had heated debates over whether facts matter. D'Agata throws the word 'art' around like some trump-card and was generally acting like an asshole. I don't disagree with his point: facts can be changed in the service of art. However, I don't think D'Agata can justify that what he wrote is art! I read the essay in question (it's actually the last chapter of this here book) and I would say that he didn't change facts in the service of art, but in the service of sensationalism! Besides, his writing style is atrocious. I have no problem with other artists fudging the truth, when they are actually making good art: Ryszard Kapuściński, Geoff Dyer, Gontran de Poncis, etc. Or filmmakers: Herzog, Erroll Morris, Kiarostami, etc. But a hack job like D'Agata? Give me a break! Sorry for the rant, but this article just pissed me off.
Original Review: John D'Agata is no writer. He may be smart and he may have his eye on the pulse of new innovative writing and he may even be able to talk intelligently about it, but he is no writer. There is a simple explanation for this. John D'Agata has no ear for language.
At this point, you may be flabbergasted. You may be wondering "but Jimmy, how can you say that about someone who is admired by Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, David Ulin and many other innovative trendsetting writers?" Easy, they are wrong. It is easy to be caught up in a provocative subject, presented in an innovative new way.
But the sentences! The words! Even the most fact-driven boring newspaper writer should have an ear for language, a sense of how to create rhythm and sounds for a desired effect. Or for the opposite of that effect, to shatter rhythm and sound in an attempt to undermine poetry. But here there is no sustained strategy in either direction. Each sentence clunks against my ear, each syllable losing flight in the dead air.
In a book not so much about a mountain, but about a form (the form of a mountain? the form of language?) you would think John D'Agata would try to pay some attention to his words, sentences, paragraphs. This is all the more heinous given that John D'Agata is supposed to be the artful essay writer, as opposed to the un-artful essay writers who care too much about subject matter and not enough about 'style'. And yet, I will take many other essay writers concerned about subject matter over John D'Agata. At least most of them have no pretensions of literary value. And some of them can actually write a good sentence.
John D'Agata's sentences, when they are short and declarative are transparent in the way they are trying to build momentum. And yet no momentum is built. The air goes straight out. The rhythm is decidedly off, and the details are trite, even predictable. There is a particular art to writing a good list, of the predictable vs. the unpredictable, the length and rhythm and sound of the words. John D'Agata does not know anything about this art.
When his sentences are long, they end up tripping all over themselves. You have a sense that John D’Agata has no idea why he is writing a long sentence over a short sentence or vice versa. You have a sense that he is just throwing “style” on the page when he has no idea what it is, or how it works. And yet I would also argue that this book is completely style-less. Style must exist organically. What we have here is an attempt to write an unconventional essay. But what's evident is that John D’Agata doesn’t have that much to say. So he inflates the pages with words, with lists of words that may have associative ties to the subject at hand, in the hopes of hitting an emotional register or two. This strategy might be bearable if John D’Agata could write.
Dare I say the word “sloppy”? Yes, there is something sloppy in this mess of a book. I was expecting so much from it because the subject matter was so interesting. Yet John D’Agata manages to take this premise and make it mind numbingly boring, brushing over its surface with his obvious observations. His writing approaches the superficiality of the city of Las Vegas itself. His attempts to relate it back to his life, his mother, the suicide victim, etc. were just that: attempts. I could only feel the excruciating effort in these attempts, not an opening up to the possibility of discovery through language but a feeling of closed-up-ness. There is no excitement, no depth, and no connection to any of the characters or even to the writer’s own voice at all.
Just for the record, I have nothing against the new essay or the blending of personal and historical, fact and fiction, etc. In fact, I have been reading an anthology that John D'Agata himself edited: The Next American Essay. And I really like some of the pieces so far (Joan Didion's piece in the book does something similar to what John D'Agata is trying to do here, but much more effectively). I even have a shelf of poetic essays. So what I object to is not the form, but how it is executed.(less)