11 May 2006
levine, tomasula, ourednik
Ted's discussion of Spuyten Duyvil reminded me about something concerning a change in—or at least addition to—my own reading habits: lately I'm as likely to read by press as by author. I know chances are I can trust a book from, say, Coffee House, Chiasmus, or Wordcraft, and so I'll visit their sites for suggestions if the stack on my nightstand starts dwindling.
Three have delighted me over the last few weeks. First is Stacey Levine's novel Frances Johnson (Clearcut, 2006). It seems an exception to Ted's point about current innovative fiction being in some senses modernism's progeny, although in some strange ways Kafka's ghost does seem to be inhabiting a few of its stairwells. Imagine an episode of Twin Peaks, only on the page, and you'll have some idea of the slightly off-kilter otherness of the world Levine creates . The title character, an eccentric single woman in her late thirties, rides her bike furiously through a Florida town called Munson on whose outskirts a volcano, Sharla, fumes. A strange growth that looks like a cauliflower appears on Frances's thigh. The town doctor longs for a certain kind of chicken-beak oil for a remedy he's working on that will, it seems, cure everything. And when the quirky citizens talk to each other, their diction is as stilted, as vaguely unnerving, as the narrative universe they inhabit. Just as Frances clearly wants nothing so much as to leave Munson behind, Levine clearly wants nothing so much as to gently, ironically disrupt and leave behind the assumptions of realism's predictable plots, characters, and discourse. Why her work hasn't received more attention thus far is beyond me.
Next is Steve Tomasula's ambitious novel The Book of Portraiture (FC2, 2006), which does indeed engage with modernism's investigation of narrative fracture and what postmodern self-proclaimed surfictionist Sukenick once referred to as "the technological reality of the page," although it pushes those investigations much farther than did any modernist who comes to mind, and although its thematics land us a long way from, say, Joyce's or Stein's cornerstones. Tomasula explores nothing less than the history of representation, telling five vaguely interrelated stories—that of a desert nomad discovering the use and abuse of an alphabet; the Renaissance artist Diego de Velàzquez's struggle to rise to power in the Spanish court by means of his paintings; a psychoanalyst delving into, as it were, the x-ray portrait of himself he projects within a female patient; a group of contemporary digital manipulators caught in a complex (and often wonderfully funny) conspiracy (of sorts) in a universe of simulation and mediation; and, finally, a postmodern female artist whose oils are strands of DNA. What, Tomasula's fiction asks, does it mean to re-present "reality"? What is the nature and what are the limits of such an act, as it moves from sand to canvas to screen to inside our very cells? Embracing the idea of the book itself as wildly gorgeous art object, the text evinces colored pages, beautiful sketches, advertisements, photographs, experiments in layout and typography, and much more. One might imagine the whole, given my description, too cerebral by half, but that's far from the case. Several of the passages—one, for instance, involving the possible drowning of a little girl and her father's panicked attempts to locate her on a beach in the Middle East—are emotionally rich and rare. I can't say enough about it.
Finally, there is Patrik Ourednik's extraordinary un-novel Europeana (Dalkey Archive, 2005). Brian Evenson focused on it in a paper on post-genre writing he delivered at the &NOW conference Ted mentioned below. Since I hadn't heard of it before then, I picked it up. An alluringly unusual avant-historiography, Europeana recounts an absurdist's absurd (if all-too-true) history of Europe in a mere 122 pages by limning in childlike paratactic prose a wealth of atrocities, discoveries, movements, goofy facts, and goofier theories, all from a quirky bird's-eye perspective. The opening two sentences are emblematic of what follows: "The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans." Ourednik, a Czech who has lived in France since 1984, has invented a new form: the encyclopedic prose-poem built on painfully funny, painfully accurate non-sequiturs. Read it, read it, read it.
What these novels suggest to me is what's marvelous about alternative presses that bring out alternative prose: a wide variety of experimentalisms working within and against a wide variety of historico-aesthetic continuities and ruptures for a wide variety of reasons.