Books of Consequence
Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. New York: Grove Press, 1958. Print.
Artaud writes in the preface to The Theater and Its Double: “If our life lacks brimstone, i.e., a constant magic, it is because we choose to observe our acts and lose ourselves in considerations of their imagined form instead of being impelled by their force.” I doubt I paused much over this phrase when I first read the book, but had an odd experience recently—eight years later—waking in the middle of the night and being compelled to sift this collection of manifestos from a shelf and scour the preface. Call it a burst of intuition—I’m not sure what it was, but I definitely alighted upon this phrase, which certainly helps me in the difficult task of piecing together an idea of what I feel to be the purpose of art.
Though this text is Artaud’s manifesto on the vile state of theater, he mentions prose-writing as well. What I latch on to the most are his heralding of “dense and active language”, as well as his unflinching dedication to the concept that the greatest instance of reality can be felt in unreality: “In Mexico…there is no art: things are made for use. And the world is in perpetual exaltation.”
Bolaño, Roberto. “Anne Moore’s Life.” Last Evenings on Earth. Trans. Chris Andrews. New York: New Directions, 2006. Print.
I was exposed to Bolaño in 2007, when his works were first starting to be translated into English. I remember sitting down in bed to read this story one afternoon because it was assigned to me, and by the time it was through an hour had passed and it felt like a minute and I was crying and uttering, Wow, Wow, Wow. To compress forty years of a woman’s life into a single story seems unfathomable; to make this compression feel hearty and expansive—awe entire. One element I particularly latched on to and continually remark upon in my mind is Bolaño’s insertion of a traumatic childhood memory at the beginning of the text, alongside eerie, random details about Anne Moore’s father; next propelling the reader to Anne at eighteen, referring sporadically through the text to the “dark shadow cast” by the event invoked at the introduction.
This manner of heavy-handed authorial control would normally make me wince and shy away, but because the narration is told from a man who Anne has allowed to read her many journals, it feels like a wholly innovative telling of the story of a life. I would write realism if I could do it like this.
Butler, Blake. There Is No Year. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
Blake is the microphone of our generation. He has given us all in this room license to rewrite apocalypse. He has given us all in this room license to scream LOOK THE INTERNET. He has given us all in this room license to bring our most outlandish recollections and fears and predictions to the page, to spar with them and give them either refuge or slime, likely both at once.
Carson, Anne Autobiography of Red : A Novel in Verse. New York: Knopf, 1998. Print.
I wrote my story “Anatomy of an Urge” right after I wept over reading this book. This merging of poetry and prose, the ambition of re-creating an ancient Greek myth, the complexity of Carson’s integration of an Emily Dickinson poem about a volcano into the scarred inner terrain of Geryon, a winged red monster-boy narrator living in a grueling home where there is abuse, and then more abuse in the arms of his male lover, Herakles; and then, at last, salvation in a trek through the Chilean Andes, unleashing Geryon’s creative imagination.
I had been thinking for a long time about writing truth in a journey to the southernmost tip of the earth; I wasn’t exactly sure why—I have always had a fascination with South America, and feel when I see pictures of Chile and Argentina and the Andes that I have been to these spots before, that they are the purest, most remote and pristine areas of the planet.
From a craft standpoint, I adored Carson’s placement of fragments of meaningful text at the start of each “chapter”—from heady aphorisms like “Up against another human being one’s own procedures take on definition,” to mundane action-movers, “Herakles and Geryon went to the video store.” The bridge of poetry and prose, myth and present, reality and unreality, past and future, man and monster, earth and sky, echoed through the duality of this marvelous genius of a work.
Carver, Raymond “Fat.” Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? McGraw-Hill, 1976. Print.
The man I have loved most in the world to this point though he is no longer in my life had this book lying out in a café and I took it and kept it until he left Chicago and me three years later. “Fat” includes a waitress recounting the story of serving a gigantic man who huffs politely and speaks in the royal “we” and orders everything on the menu. He reminds her of what it feels like for her boyfriend, the restaurant’s line cook, to be on top of her. She imagines impregnation, and thinks of the cruel things her boyfriend did to fat kids on the playground when he was young. The story is only four pages long and ends with the words: “It is August. My life is going to change. I can feel it.” The mind, the trigger, the dross, the “end”?
Carver is a hulk for me as I am sure he is for you; what can I say about him that hasn’t already been said? That he makes the white space on the page gristle the thrown and addled stone? That his devotion to pouring concrete is lustier than any conception I ever had of measured prayer? Carver makes resound crystalline the word as thing; somehow, he manages to force the entire world into a single image so it feels like he’s left nothing out though of course he has.
Derrida, Jacques Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Print.
Chapter 7 of this book, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” has haunted me for years, as has Freud’s entire philosophy on the interpretation of dreams. They work hand-in-hand in this chapter, which is a fragment of a lecture given by Derrida, in which he takes as his subject Freud’s notion of repression not just in speech, but in writing as well, buttressing Freud’s findings with twentieth-century advances in neurology: “The writing within speech. Hallucination as speech and hallucination as writing” (197); and just what exactly a text really is if it claims at times to represent the psyche.
To get at an understanding of the text meant to represent psyche, Derrida hearkens to Freud’s concept of memory deferring dangerous, painful cathexes that might “’ruin’ psychical organization…life protect[ing] itself by repetition, trace, différance (deferral).” There is a complicated explanation of deferral meaning something other than merely retarding a possibility, postponing an act, etc., which is instead différance: the essence of life, inasmuch as life is trace before Being may be determined as presence. Which is a complicated way of saying that every impression we have contains within it the possibility of repetition before that repetition happens for the first time. It is a non-origin which is originary, existing in the space between the memory that resists meaning and the type that does not.
What is mystifying and explosive about attempts to put unconscious dream-matter on the page, according to Derrida, moving beyond Freud, produces its own signifiers—making them no longer, properly speaking, signifiers. “In this sense, since the materiality of the signifier constitutes the idiom of every dream scene, dreams are untranslatable.”
The unconscious text is thus a weave of pure traces, differences in which meaning and force are united—a text nowhere present, consisting of archives which are always already transcriptions. Originary prints. “Everything begins with reproduction.” I have tried to contend with the unconscious text—its “timelessness” (a vulgar conception of time compared to the traditional one alone). These ideas have interested me a great deal in creating “Origin of Milk”—a conscious attempt at creating (reproducing) unconscious text.
In the dream, “pure words and pure things are…’theoretical fictions’ [acc. To Freud]..words tend to become things pure and simple.”
Hawkes, John Second Skin. New York: New Directions, 1963. Print.
This book was recommended to me as a study in what unflinching attention to detail looks like in literature. Truly, it blew my mind; I had never seen a book work the way Second Skin does. This was one of those readings that made me apprehend the smallness of my conception of “book”. Non-narrative, the language and character dense and multivalent enough to make such sorts of “requirements” feel trite. I don’t think I’ve been able to write any straight realism since I read this in early 2009, probably because I realized how much better it felt to read prose that screams.
Skipper, the lusty, enigmatic narrator, interweaves past and present to tell the story of his life: marked by pitiful loss and unsubstantiated joy. His voice is infectious confection, utterly lovable, his appreciation of the sensual lush and gratuitous, his love of people gluttonous: Cinnamon, I discovered when I was tossed up spent and half-naked on the invisible shore of our wandering island—old Ariel in sneakers, sprite surviving in bald-headed man of fair complexion—cinnamon, I found, comes to the hand like little thin brown pancakes of the small crisp leaves of a midget tobacco plant. And like Big Bertha who calls to me out of the black forest of her great ugly face I too am partial to cinnamon, am always crumpling a few of the brittle dusty leaves in my pockets, rubbing it gently onto the noses of my favorite cows. And what better than cinnamon for my simmering dreams?
Hulme, Keri The Bone People. New Zealand: Spiral collective, 1984. Print.
This book reads like an acid trip condoned by the ocean if the ocean were a female God
into wordplay. Hulme, a New Zealander Maori, began the book as a story; when, over the course of twelve years, it warped and grew into what it is, New Zealand publishers rejected it. Fortunately, Hulme had a kinship with the Spiral Collective publishing group, though once they began editing the novel in the early eighties, the author was not exactly easy to reach—Hulme’s home was five hundred miles from anywhere, no phone, so disallowing consensus on textual changes. This absence of editorial hand forms much of my enchantment with the novel—Hulme’s eccentricities emblazon in the welcome absence of careful proofreaders concerned with market gains.
The narrator is part Maori, part European, an artist estranged from her art due to painter’s block spawned by receiving an award. She lives in a remote castle-like home far out in the jutting New Zealand highlands, and spends her days in isolation: It was the hermitage, her glimmering retreat. No people invited, for what could they know of the secrets that crept and chilled and chuckled in the marrow of her bones? No need of people, because she was self-fulfilling, delighted with the pre-eminence of her art, and the future of her knowing hands.
Of course, this solitude must be intercepted for the story to resonate: a young Maori boy appears one evening at a turret window, in need of food and shelter; which leads Kerowin eventually to the boy’s father, the result being a brutal, multi-valent love affair between the alcoholic Joe and the detached, sexless Kerewin. The result is a plunderous journey of self and the inward breakdown that preludes healing.
I like the messiness of this book—the flotation device it is, teeming with holes, untied ends, whimsy, blocks of interiority that come across as disembodied text. This is not a book for a careful person, but one who appreciates expression for its own sake and on its own terms and as pure and remote as the landscape in which it pulses. The physical descriptions, particularly, of items that provide sustenance—bread, wine, honey, beer, whiskey, cigarettes, grass, spices, tinctures—are resolute enough to provide a sort of salve merely by being described. I like the idea of word-healing.
Mother Meera Mother Meera: Answers, Part I Dornburg-Thalheim, Germany, 1991. Print.
Mother Meera was born in 1960, in the village of Chandepalle in southern India. She is recognized among certain people, myself included, to be an incarnation of the force of the Divine Mother (Kali, the Virgin Mary, Isis, as examples). I have received Darshan (“blessing”) from her three times, and her presence has affected me profoundly.
This book is laid out as a series of questions, and Mother Meera’s subsequent answers. The most vast, childlike inquiries are contained within, and their calm simplicity have provided me a great refuge. What is offering? How does one develop aspiration? I include this book in this list because spiritual texts bear much resonance in my life, and the awareness of something beyond the material is always at work in my fiction. Also, I do find it important to impart a bit of guidance/wisdom upon one’s readers, though it is best done either in fable or without the reader realizing it.
Robinson, Marilynne Housekeeping New York: Picador, 1980. Print.
This is the book I re-read more than any other. I remember exact details of the weather on the day a friend recommended it to me, the depth of light in the bookstore where I bought it, how my breath pulses, shortened once I sat in my home and proceeded to read it slowly, so it lasted days and days. For the first time I
apprehended lush, holy prose describing honest characters in a novel. Every time I try to write about this book I have something new to say.
The prose undulates and pulses, rendered by Robinson in holy reverence. Contemplation and philosophizing occur via Robinson’s description of material objects.
Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.
The narrator is Ruth, a thirteen-year-old girl who has lost her mother to suicide and her grandmother to old age. She and her sister, Lucille, are placed by their worrisome, elderly great-aunts in the care of their granddaughter, the girls’ aunt Sylvie, who bears a physical resemblance to their deceased mother. Sylvie has spent much of her adult life on the road, living in train cars and stations. The girls feel her transience immediately, in her rarely removing her coat, tales of persons she met while drifting, leaving the house without saying where she is going, or when she plans to return.
The house is in the town of Fingerbone, a remote, waterlogged etch of earth overrun with floods and ravaging storms. Soon after Sylvie’s arrival, snow melts in obscene avalanche, spiriting away most of the town, its pets, its possessions, soaking their home in total though never uprooting it, as the girls’ grandfather had built it on high elevation. Throughout the flood, Sylvie and the girls wade through the house, taking refuge in an upstairs bedroom, from which Sylvie has a tendency to disappear. The girls seek after her in ochre pitch of churning liquid, summoning her with shouts and lit matches, their aunt an apparition who finally appears, without a sense of the fear she caused the girls.
Ruth’s allegiance with Sylvie thickens as Lucille becomes closer to her schoolteacher, who brings in the conscience of the town to intervene in the way Sylvie is keeping up housekeeping: unaware of the girls’ repeated school absences, leaving furniture outside to sit for weeks, failing to provide the girls tidy clothing and hygiene. When Lucille moves out of the house to live with her teacher, Ruth and Sylvie are reprimanded by the police, then escape Fingerbone to become drifters.
The book is ripe with contemplations on the nature of flow and containment, and how woman must claw and burn not to stagnate in the home. In Sylvie’s disinterest in housekeeping lies her essential expansiveness. The narrative communicates these points in the molting and bucking that Sylvie allows the house, her never turning on the lights, letting the window glass and the night beyond mingle and slur so one cannot be told from the other. What I learned from Housekeeping is that truth is best manifest in the physical destruction of a thing we take for granted, especially when prose blurs with poetry to bring on this destruction.