Category Archives: Literary Commentary

Postings in the Literary Commentary Blog roll.

Louisiana Studies: An Excavation in Prose and Poetry

On September 12th, I’ll be giving a reading on a panel at the 7th Annual Lousiana Studies Conference in Natchitoches, Lousiana. Here, have a look. I’ll return later to share a bit….

What To Bury, Where To Bury It is a hybrid creative nonfiction piece in prose, poetry, and essay. Working within themes of both the underneath and liminality, this presentation is an excerpt from a full-length work. A reflection on the correlation between what we as a human community bury of and within ourSelves and what we bury of our common history, this piece makes an argument for fearless illumination.

The slave history of the southern United States, while well-elaborated in discussion, remains a place, rich in metaphor, of hidden and buried tangible manifestation of that past. This piece draws from fairly recent endeavors in Louisiana (The Whitney Plantation) and Tennessee (The Hermitage) to engage in a public  “unburying” of the slave history that resides under the well-preserved Big House opulence. It addresses as well the question of the individual standing before the troubling realities of history and drawing from them a sense of being situated, for better or worse, within the broader human community.

April Thoughts on Writing with Chaos and Intentionality

 

It’s pretty hard for me to turn off my thoughts. I am always processing, always noticing; thinking half the time in metaphor; connecting elusive dots, filing things away for later. Like a cartoon, I see in my mind a book and a pen, writing everything down by itself, no hand attached; just as in earlier times, when I was more active in music than Creative Writing, what I saw was a piano, the keys moving and song singing itself in the air, unattached to a body, or voice, or human anchor. It has always been like that. A lifetime of artistic extra-sensitivity and perception can be a little traumatic. There are people who think it’s some kind of whimsical,  frivolous thing, but in reality, there is a definite traumatic element.

I find that mindfulness practice and meditation help corral those rather helpless aspects of relentless creative impulse. Journaling, when I set aside the time for it, is a restful place of intentionality, of connecting to the routines that ground a life. When I think of the influence of some of my recent reading in hybrid poetics, hybrid texts, it is the ones with a kind of order, presented in small and deliberate bites, that give me the sense of grounding and intentionality toward which this moment of my life is oriented. Sometimes it is or has been the chaos of texts that calls me (chaos like in The Book of Jon, like Bluets, but not now; especially after reading Kazim Ali’s book Fasting for Ramadan, (and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, replete with intentionality, while also an exercise in outrage). Sometimes I focus on the freedom, the whimsy, the unexpected, but presently it is the small, controlled steps and the intentionality that form the place where I want to spend my writing time.

When I step back from the writing I am doing these days – I’ve been working a lot in hybrid based in creative nonfiction  – I would like it to have a sense of process and deliberate small steps, advancing in the smallness of moments to connect them to each other.

There is a mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park called Mt. LeConte. At the top of the mountain is the highest lodge in the eastern United States. I have never been able to go there because I am afraid of several passages on the trail to the top which involve walking plastered against the mountainside while gripping a rope to stay steady. The trail is terribly narrow. If you fall, you will surely plummet to your death far below. As dramatic as this sounds, thousands of families with small children hike up to the lodge every year to stay overnight and enjoy the experience. I guess in the physical realm of life I am not a daredevil. Yet sometimes when I write to take up the tasks of carrying on, I climb a little bit of Mt. LeConte. It requires the smallest and most deliberate steps when I reach those narrow passages.

I haven’t approached that kind of work in my current undertakings, but I strive to move intentionally like that. What I have loved about several of the insiring booksof these last months is that while they are somehow methodical, while strategy or intentionality or routine can be felt in their pages, they are still surprising and new.

What I wish for myself and for all those who visit me here is precisely that: that our intentionality brings us what we seek, but also springs a few surprises upon us.

Snippets on Reading and Writing, #1

As both a reader and a writer, it is what lies beneath that calls me. The sub of subtext, you might say. But I don’t like to think about it. I like to discover it by feel, again, both as reader and writer. As a reader, when a writer’s consciousness of his or her own subtext is clear to me, I am disappointed. As a writer, an initial or early awareness of my own subtext (through the first draft or two, that is) can easily kill my desire to write what I’m working on. As a human being, what I seek is understanding, discovery, dawning, pulling together the preternatural/psychic/beyond-my-grasp puzzle, so a too-soon or too-obvious or too-deliberate or too-self-conscious display of subtext, a large insinuation seems to rob me of what I most desire in a work, either as one who partakes of or one who creates that work, which is to feel it, little by little, creeping along until it is finally here in my hands, though still threatening elusiveness.

Second or third time through, though, it’s a whole different story. Hit me over the head with the second time, if you must.

Eleni and Jon

 

“None of these stories will stitch up into a seamless blanket to cover this family’s tracks. In this story, all the fissures show, they bulge scarlike, they come apart at the seams or they were never sewn up in the first place.” – Eleni Sikelianos, The Book of Jon

Sometimes running off without the baby saves the baby.

Born

She keeps waking up

with the same revelation,

like it’s new, every morning:

taggedat birth. Father

 

held this latest baby in

its blanket, traced

radiating circles alternating

beige and blue

and red

 

onto its forehead with

his pointer finger.

the finger hairy at

the knuckles bending only

slightly, its tiny

Mediterranean curls.

 

Adorable.

Adored by women. and his wife.

the whole

of possibility still ahead.

 

but this baby,

small and last in line,

all mapped out now, circles

in beige and blue

and red.

 

It’s on the second anniversary of the death of my father that I am reading The Book of Jon, a memoir of Eleni Sikelianos. Rather it is something of a memoir of her father. Recollection is not fully available to her. It is as if also retold and relocated from others on his map. And conjured, too. The intersection of Eleni the daughter and Jon the father, but more the father, as is so often true in the world, in their world, in human history. I cannot say it too many times, but I can say it again differently: Our common human history – our is we is all of us everywhere – so often privileges the father over the daughter, as if there were actually no intersection.

Eleni Sikelianos is mining. Where she seeks any shade of gemstones, assuming, perhaps, they will be few and far between and buried in pain or numbness or a portion of love that had escaped, she sometimes finds only asbestos. Waste. And worse. None of us knows if waste can be an acceptable answer. If there is any use for it. If it is acceptable.

                   Acceptable: a common reference yet a low aspiration.

There are fathers who shine on the surface, no matter what’s beneath, but hers is not that kind. Hers, this man Jon, has spent some years, and certainly his later years, as a homeless drug addict who stoops to whatever lows his survival might require. Scraping the bottom. I’ve heard it called being a bottom-feeder. Or a lowlife. He’s not hiding anything, though, not trying to cover up any of it, the downward spiral. It’s there in his black teeth. If there’s a way to respect an overt lowlife, it is for the former rather than the latter aspect. It’s what you see is what you get. Talent, a legacy of brilliance, thrown to the dogs. At least he wasn’t pretending the entire time. From here, where I reside, it seems better when the world can see it. No one’s pulling the wool over your eyes. Pretending you’re the only one who thinks so. Who has reason to think so. From the end of the line, it’s easy to observe what is happening all up and down in front of you. Excluded from the fray. The benefit of exclusion, though perhaps not so with only partial exclusion.

So when Sekelianos writes, “None of these stories will stitch up into a seamless blanket to cover this family’s tracks. In this story, all the fissures show, they bulge scarlike, they come apart at the seams or they were never sewn up in the first place,” I might say – might ask – a different thing. Because what if they do? Stitch up. Cover. What if the stories of your family aren’t told truly? What if the details are correct but the intent is disguised? What if they do stitch up seamlessly and are used to cover the tracks? What it they’re cut from a small, veiny slice of rancid underbelly but are sewn cleanly into a blanket which covers the family’s tracks completely? If the fissures don’t show, if you can’t smell the rot through the bleach and none of the blanket comes discernibly apart at the seams?

Only now after reclimbing the same alps many times over years, plummeting down and starting over each time, to someday, I hope, look down, look back and see what was really there – the Highland view of the family – have I come to place the most true significance on intent. If we look at the people who are the outcomes, at the people formed of the materials mined from the cave of the nuclear family, intent has more weight than real-time action. A hierarchy of applied intent in the family mythology appears like this on the screen in my mind:

apathy

hurtful lack of intent

intent lacking awareness

unintentional intent nevertheless perceived and continued by its owner

selective intent

hierarchically targeted intent

precisely targeted intent

applied and magnified harmful intent

That is why, of course, sometimes running off without the baby saves the baby.

Bechdel again.

 

Bechdel again. Hybridity and Psychological Intensiveness In and Around the Graphic Memoir Are You My Mother?

It took far longer for me to read and process this text by Alison Bechdel than it did the previous one, Fun Home. Perhaps I could say it is because of my traveling, because I don’t have a Thursday evening class during which I’ll be discussing it with my fellow students before turning it in. While these may have some bearing on the length of time I spent with the text, the larger factors seem to me to be, in the first place, that I found vastly different purposes for pondering each time I dug in (which did affect my concentration a bit) and, secondly, while I found Fun Home more accessible and, well, more…fun, in fact. Are You My Mother? is relevant to my present concerns as a writer almost to the point of excess.

As in Fun Home, Bechdel’s technique of circling back, revisiting in light of newly-introduced occurrences and elucidating through this revisiting is powerful and effective and unique. As a reader, I felt a sense of completeness with each section, yet threads from previous ‘sections’ (pieces within chapters, that is) are pulled in – more of an effect of reweaving than of simply weaving this text. And even though it diverges from the earlier book in atmosphere, I cannot imagine reading this before or without having read Fun Home. I did try to trick myself into thinking of it outside the light of that previous book, but it didn’t work. And it’s true, it almost never works to trick myself into reading something as if it existed in isolation or without prior knowing.  I think perhaps Bechdel makes it difficult to do so in any case, so requiring of special concentration is her method, her personal reflection combined with academic intensity, with the aforementioned circling back as well.

An intensive employment of psychology – Bechdel’s constant citation and use of Freud, of Winnicott, of Woolf and of Miller – seems by nature quite academic. Yet looking through her lens here, what could be more personal than psychology? To take an exploration of narcissistic parenting, its mark upon subsequent generations, an analysis of the effects of parental objectification of children, and to turn this microscope back upon herself is an act by Bechdel of fearless vulnerability, I think.

Beyond a doubt, Bechdel shows us that the system of her family-of-origin was a narcissistic one. The person raised in the web of such a family faces a double bind in life which is very much in play for a writer (and Bechdel is in ample company, as a surprisingly large number of writers come from these families). The double bind is that people with narcissistic parents are aware that these parents – their parents – are overly focused on their own perceived needs above those of the children. They sense that this is wrong and possess a covert understanding that their needs are not being met, and, often, that this is harmful to them and they must get away (as in Bechdel’s leaving home, mentioned but not dwelled upon) and recover. Yet in order to emancipate themselves, they, too, need to apply what can seem like excessive focus on themselves, for clarity, for understanding, for untangling, for remaking.  Thus to carry out the very thing required to change their circumstances, and especially the aftermath (the toll on the Self), they must in a sense commit the same “crime.” Though it can feel wrong to the adult child, in her case, it isn’t, of course, as it isn’t a focusing on oneself instead of on one’s offspring and responsibility. And it isn’t a manipulation or objectification of someone else, either, but a focus on oneself for the purpose of diffusing and finally knowing.

Even though no one is actually harmed by this inward focus – in this case, in fact, Bechdel’s self-analysis is illuminating, forgiving towards herself and ultimately her mother, and on top of that, an artistic offering to a broader community – it feels, as I said, like narcissistic activity to the person in recovery. I think we can see that illuminated in this text as Bechdel, in analysis (in the sections depicting her experiences in analysis), displays a tremendous amount not only of self-doubt but also self-loathing. She questions her very right to create the work that is her key to emancipation. Thankfully, she also questions that questioning. That is a large part of the work undertaken in this hybrid text and is, perhaps, addressed so well because of the hybridity in the approach.

Recently an acquaintance of mine complained to me and a mutual friend about “people who spend all their time contemplating the fuzz in their own navels.” I had heard her say this many times about many people in her world, but this time, it appears she was covertly directing this remark at us, as the mutual friend, a writer, had just been earnestly asking me about my work this semester and comparing it to her own. On and on the complainer went, holding forth on her thinly-veiled criticism that instead of writing or talking about yourself and your experiences, you should go out and meet people to discuss politics and social conditions with, and they should be people who are actually doing something rather than just talking about it. I have always detested the expression “contemplating the fuzz in your own navel” and especially its frequent use as a tool for causing shame and destabilizing and devaluing people. Ignoring for the moment the offensiveness of dismissing people’s real life issues as nothing more than fuzz, few are those who have no proverbial fuzz in their navels to contemplate in order to grasp an understanding of their place in the world, a world comprised of nations full of other people with their own struggles to live, survive and understand. Not fuzz. Fuzz in the navel is the accusation of the insecure narcissist, and it becomes the worry of others in the system. How in the world can you be a writer (or an artist of any medium) without substantial time spent in contemplation of your life circumstances and how they situate you within the broader world? It seems to me a ridiculous charge! Without such pursuits, all or nearly all literature, film, music, theater and visual art would cease to exit.

Bechdel investigates the unmet childhood needs that have extended into her adult life and formed obstacles to that very work of writing, in addition to pieces about the world as she knows it (her long-term comic strip about lesbians, for example), works that are about surviving that family system, and furthermore, being of that system. About being her mother’s daughter. Unlike those who criticize this kind of work, Bechdel is extraordinarily just and compassionate in her contemplation. She allows and elucidates that the cause of the inadequate and hurtful parenting was that her mother did not have her own needs met. She acknowledges the way this shapes and alters a personality and chips away at selfhood. She acknowledges the generational passing-on of the problem. She acknowledges her mother’s humanity. She allows, too, that her mother gave her a way out, and in so doing, gives her mother a way out as well. What distinguishes Bechdel from her mother most is the way she can reach around her own heartache to offer a very public empathy for the source of much of that heartache…which is, the very thing that distinguishes the healthy-at-heart from the personality-disordered in the system.

How, then, does the hybrid approach of this text help secure that it is the inherent right of this writer to write her own concerns? Certainly if Bechdel were merely contemplating her fuzz, she would still have the “right” to do so…but perhaps no one would care all that much and there would be no New York Times bestselling book from it. It is the way she utilizes, as in her previous book Fun Home, the works of writers, questioners and established voices in the fields of psychology and human development to illustrate the patterns of her own experience, supporting them with revelations about the lives of these sources themselves; it is the way she provides a visual revelation beyond the words. For example, one smiling babyhood photo of herself with the other three in a series which paint, together, a very different picture of her father as parent, of her response when he appears on the scene.  I mentioned earlier the technique of reweaving and circling back that occurs throughout the text. The reader experiences how weighty each seemingly small occurrence is in the scope of Bechdel’s  (and therefore anyone’s) trajectory; how all of our childhoods circle back and are rewoven into each new phase or experience or endeavor; how cumulative is the disowning effect of a moment’s choice on the part of a parent, for example, to tell one child she’s too old to be kissed goodnight anymore after this child has just seen that same parent lavish love and affection upon the younger siblings.

The hybridity in this text offers more pairs of eyes, a greater breadth of concern for the effects of these moments on a life. It offers a greater breadth of tools for digging, unearthing, scraping clean, searching for clues and for evidence toward an ultimate form of emancipation. Bechdel reminds me that I have always (or at least often) felt that one medium, one genre just isn’t enough to root out the truth and observe all its angles; one or two of the senses just isn’t enough for the full expression and perception required for personal growth and for a public offering coming out of that growth. For me, well, I can’t draw at all skillfully, but I can make music, and that came before writing any prose or poetry. When I now undertake creative writing, it always has music or sound and a look to it in my head. When, in the writing, I am remembering a moment to write about, what I remember is its sensory aspect. Sometimes that is all I remember until I am mostly through the writing, and other things appear that I didn’t know I remembered. That is the reason for a lot of my concerns about the requirements of truth and accuracy in creative nonfiction. Some of the best things may contain inaccuracies, which I used to agonize over.

It took quite a while to notice that Bechdel, the older sister to two boys who, as she tells it, received far more love and attention and subjective recognition than she did, scarcely mentions these brothers in this particular book beyond one key scene (the bedtime kiss). I can’t help but ponder this from two perspectives, the first being whether Bechdel herself gives minimal thought to these brothers as important to her life and story or, secondly, whether she makes the choice to avoid excess and obstacle to the aim of her book. Is it a book solely about the mother-daughter relationship? Can that relationship largely exclude the siblings in the mix? I’d like to know if Bechdel intentionally avoids outing her brothers in terms of any sort of precariousness in their relationship and how they regard her work, whether they are all close, whether they feel hurt by her work or are supportive. I want to know this in relation to my own questions about some of my siblings, about my fear of outing them despite my own sense of wanting freedom to tell my own story in my own way, despite perhaps considerable pain I’ve received for regarding them through much of my life as some kind of authority, as I was taught, since they are older, no matter how absurd that becomes in adult life. I wonder about Alison Bechdel. So I look up the brothers.

Among other things, I find a lot of affirmation for the tasks I have set out for myself. And besides this, I find that the earlier book, Fun Home, has expanded its hybridity in ways similar to what I myself envisioned for the future of my own project, Edge: a novella in short stories, poetry and music and other projects I’ve been contemplating for the near future. What I discover is Fun Home: The Musical. So I end this excursion with a tremendous longing to see this now-past production. I’ll keep my radar on for its return to the stage. You never know.

 

Fun Home, Not-much-fun Home

 

Fun Home, Not-much-fun Home: Bechdel, Satrapi, Barry and The Graphic Novel and Memoir

Nearing the end of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel and memoir Fun Home, I wondered what it would be like to read the entire text without the drawings. The dark humor, the straightforward yet complex prose was clearly a masterful brew. I found myself drawing exuberant little stars – my substitute for highlighting – in a great many places on each page. This author’s particular blend seems both to draw the reader inside her deepest perceptions and, simultaneously, keep a safe, buffering distance. I wondered if it is the wry prose, the wry voice that achieves this or if that simultaneous distance and inclusion is achieved precisely through the use of both art forms together. The title of the work, Fun Home on its own, without its subtitle A Family Tragicomic (the one and only thing I dislike about the whole project) and without the cover drawing, stands quite strong. Just those two words comprise several layers of pain, humor, irony. Alone they beckon and captivate. Alone they make me laugh.

It is the use of cartoon that permits the almost adolescent-feeling or raw, streetwise way of telling while it is the use of sophisticated vocabulary, literary knowledge and articulate phrasing that permits the psychological consideration of Bechdel and her parents. What would it be like to separate them? Would the prose, apart from the drawings, hold enough water? I decided to try.

In fact the experiment would have worked better if I had done this from the start, because, having read the text and viewed and read the drawings together the first time, it was fairly difficult to take the text on its own the second. I already knew. Could not ignore what was in there as if I didn’t. Ultimately I ascertained that the text would certainly need filling in or fleshing out (which is not at all the same as development) without the supporting drawings, yet the text was almost  – not quite – a self-sufficient possibility. A different sort of project, but possible. Not so for the drawings. Supporting seems a very fitting word for the drawings; enriching and humor-infusing as well. I come away from the experiment completely skeptical that such a lengthy tale could be told with just the drawings. I know, this skepticism comes from someone who works with words and language or music as my own primary art form, and hybrid works my emphasis toward the future. Therefore it may be that it is harder for me to envision, while a visual or graphic artist could possibly interject here a clear idea or proposal of how to do that very thing. I remain skeptical.

Another consideration for me as a reader is that graphic novels are a personal challenge. My learning style and brain type require a strong measure of visual organization, a level of order on the page for full absorption, processing and contemplation. Off the page that is not such a challenge; that is; in music or other art forms or experiences. Viewing Bechdel’s work through that lens, as compared to Lynda Barry, for example,  I was relieved that Bechdel is not difficult to follow. Even though she takes up a particular topic and moves forward somewhat chronologically, she goes back in time to take up each new topic, usually chapter-wise. This was so skillfully ordered and the language had such a logic to it that there was none of the sense of being “scattered” that I have seen in other works of this genre.

Speaking of other works of the genre, I feel in Fun Home a significant departure from Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis books, another notable, highly-effective, artful example of the graphic novel and memoir. They differ in many ways, not the least of which is the emotional approach. Satrapi seems largely to allow the events to speak for themselves. She comes across as adored, loving, and adorable. Her family suffered the most from circumstance, not psychological tumultuousness and affective insufficiency. Not so Bechdel’s life, Bechdel’s childhood and adolescence, Bechdel’s family. Satrapi’s tale orients us toward a global critique, a critique of governments, policies, politics and their impact on individuals and families. Bechdel’s work orients us toward a critique of parents (and families) who inflict their own unresolved pain on their children. In fact we could look at her story from the perspective of how homophobia in general destroys family, thus a critique of society (and certainly that is not absent from Fun Home), but in Bechdel’s work, we are seeing how the parents destroy family, or at least individual children. We don’t walk away saying, “Oh, if only Bruce had been accepted as a gay man in his community, poor guy.” Neither does Bechdel ask us to completely write him off as a human being. It is a huge offering that she makes towards him in the very last frame. If we didn’t know it before, she informs us that a harmful parent is not so one-dimensional as to be easily sorted onto an all-encompassing pile of badness. In that sense, Bechdel’s world is not as black-and-white as its actual medium.

Closer to Bechdel’s approach but not as directly critical of her parents is the work of Lynda Barry, especially through her character Marlys and Marlys’s family members. Barry is not as angry, does not eviscerate any relatives or parents. Perhaps this is partly because no one, as far as I recall reading, in her immediate family, no one with authority, publically did anything so brutal as committing suicide or directing abusive behavior towards Barry’s character. Perhaps it is because she presents most of her work (which is at least loosely autobiographical) as fiction while Bechdel is unashamedly autobiographical.  Or perhaps it is that Barry uses the childlike perceptions and voice of, well, an actual child throughout the work. Marlys just reports. Even in works like 100 Demons, Barry doesn’t really tell us whose inner demons she is revealing – are they hers or those of Marlys or another of her frequent characters? In the end, considering these three graphic novelists (all of whom are, in fact, autobiographical in their projects), even though I think it is all of these things that soften the voices of Satrapi and Barry and sharpen the verbal knives, however humorous and lovely, of Bechdel, they feel alike in ways far beyond genre and far beyond gender as well.

 

Is She or Isn’t She?

Pondering Just About Everything in Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher, As Likely She Would Have Us Do

There was…something…so I scoured the internet. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to be one of those celebrity gossip-reading people spending her time searching for the intimate details of some {choose one from the following list: actor, musician, Fox News anchorwoman, model, talk show host, recording artist, novelist}’s life. And it wasn’t because of the Rushdie connection, which I hadn’t even realized or recalled at first. Until my friend F. asked what I was reading for my current work, and I said, “Marianne Wiggins’ Shadow Catcher,” and she responded, “Marianne Wiggins!…Wiggins…who was married to Rushdie?” and I said, “Ohhhhhh…..ding. ding! That Marianne Wiggins!” But no. It really wasn’t that. Was it, then, my wondering about certain details regarding author Wiggins’ father…and sister? I admit to being a person overly preoccupied with everyone’s father and everyone’s sisters. But it wasn’t that either.

I think it was the irrepressible urge that came over me to pour Wiggins and her book through a fact-or-fiction sieve, to isolate the yolk, and not because I feel that the egg white and the egg yolk must necessarily be made into separate omelettes. Clearly I don’t feel that. I am definitely of the all-in-one, mix-it-up together-omelette variety. In large part my interest was in the legitimacy of reinterpreting or restating conversations and reinventing real-life relationships to suit a story. In part it was in understanding whether Wiggins just boldly dared to lend her name and the names of family members to fictional or half-fictional characters (or fictionalized representations of real people). And the only reason I would care if that is…well, acceptable for a writer to do, given the rigid specifications of certain publications in the field of cnf – otherwise I only care about the book in question and whether I enjoy it or find it somehow meaningful – is that I want to know if I can do that, too. Can I make up a character named Nina Adel who is just like me in name and basic details but isn’t actually me just so I can make a relative meaner or an authority figure crazier than they actually are or were? Can I commit the misdeed of exaggeration for the sake of illumination?

Whatever the reason or justification, I scoured the internet to discover whether Wiggins was exaggerating or inventing or twisting or, perhaps, engaging in absolute truth-telling from inside the subjectivity of her own perspective. What I found was a series of articles by reviewers who all claimed not to care whether Wiggins had invented another Marianne Wiggins or even half of one. “Who cares, really,” these reviewers said, and at length, “what the true story is or was, when the writing and storytelling is so masterful?” But I don’t believe them. I don’t think they really were not-curious because life has taught me that a question – whatever question – is only mentioned by those to whom it has occurred, just as accusations (especially convoluted ones) are mostly made by those who have themselves done whatever it is they are accusing someone of having done. The two things are very similar. Just as I am, in this reflection, more or less making the assertion that the reviewers were chomping at the bit just because I was. Chomping at the bit to know how much of this novel was Marianne the Writer and how much was merely Marianne the Character and whether Curtis was who he was and did what he did because of society’s restrictions on his sexuality or because he was a user and a deceiver or because Marianne the writer engaged her imagination as a writer does. Or all of that in some measure.

That is, I have a feeling that these multiple reviewers cared or were curious and said they didn’t or weren’t. How could a writer and reviewer be lacking in curiosity, and about such a grand proposition at that? In fact it seems that it is the very nature of the genre to inspire such questions and it is, of course, also inherent in the job of the reviewer to ponder and dig.

Recently I attended readings by Lorrie Moore and Susan Minot and Karen Joy Fowler. Two separate readings. All of these authors were or are touring to promote current works of fiction. The works were identified very specifically as fiction (as all three are considered fiction writers, so no surprises there). All three, as well, told the story of the truths behind their works of fiction. Each situated her current work at a different place on the cnf-to-fiction prose-writing spectrum, though none crossed over to outright nonfiction at all. While Moore and Minot spent most of their time reading from their work, the opposite was true of Fowler, who talked at length about the substantial connections between her life and her book. And all I could do was keep wondering, given those connections and author similarities, how successfully Moore and Fowler dreamed (as Minot’s book was another thing altogether, a situation far removed, apparently from her own life, yet eerily preceding a recent similar event as if a premonition) a completely different person out of their own very real selves in those works (novel and short story, respectively). What they had to cut away from themselves, what they had to tack on, to remold. Which of course took me back to Wiggins, who may have done a bit of the opposite, making a not-Wiggins and calling her a Wiggins, to some undisclosed and perplexing extent.

Earlier in this reflection, I said, “I want to know if I can do that, too. Can I make up a character named Nina Adel who is just like me in name and basic details but isn’t actually me just so I can make a relative meaner or an authority figure crazier than they actually are or were? Can I commit the misdeed of exaggeration for the sake of illumination?” I struggle with this for a number of reasons. One of these is that the decision whether to privilege the truth or the story comes up rather frequently. It seems that the decision to privilege the story could be followed by a wild flight in the opposite direction of the truth. This would then be clearer – a piece that is very lightly based on reality or inspired by reality (I see these words a lot with regard to film and fiction) which seems more acceptable to the reading and viewing public.

Personally I am not interested in a wild flight from the truth. I’m interested in the exact opposite. In my life I have lived in the direct flight path of harmful untruth. Even a useful mistelling of word or deed, presented for purposes of illumination, is hard for me to put forth in my writing. The particular world I often try to illuminate is especially challenging in this regard. It looks very different on the inside than its beautiful outside would let on, much as a pretty peach skin can be deceptive regarding its mealy contents. It rings true to me that people tend to prefer to believe the pretty exteriors they encounter. To acknowledge that many people are not at all who they say they are, as Wiggins so expertly addresses in her novel, is upsetting and unsettling and hard to live with. If we didn’t customarily believe that people are who they say they are, relationships would become impossible, living in community would be impossible, existing within any social structure would be impossible. This seems normal to me. However, because people are so accustomed to taking others at face value, when it is pathology or deception that lies beneath the surface, it becomes a difficulty for the nonfiction storyteller, as perhaps great drama or strong backlighting or intensive measures towards unmasking are necessary. Sometimes a tiny truth about motive completely changes the overarching meaning of what may seem like a kind or generous or possibly just benign act. If you are not privy to the true motive or driving force or ultimate intent of the actor, an assumption of normalcy will continue to mask actual harm or harmful intent or unhealthy, longstanding patterns of behavior.

I am in awe of writers like this who succeed at revealing that tiny morsel or motive, especially without taking intensive measures to do so, and thus allow the truth to come slowly up to the surface on its own, or allow the reader to have a either a sudden or slow, undramatic moment of revelation. A moment of quiet understanding. There are places in The Shadow Catcher where Wiggins manages to retell the entire story (this happens separately with all of the major stories contained within the novel) in just one sentence. Maybe two.  And that is one of my fascinations. How to get there more discreetly. Less awkwardly. Without (much) excess.

All of this, however, is a departure from a little urge to address the lengthy passage near the front of the novel that is certainly amongst the most thrilling place-based pieces of writing that I ever recall reading. Wiggins describes her impending-late-arrival journey to a meeting about a film version of the novel we are presumably about to read. In just a few pages, she turns the drive to the appointment into an engaging connection to the geography not only of the San Fernando Valley (the location of the drive) but to the seismic and geological history of the West…which will come back to us later in the novel. It is such a gorgeous geological exploration in the moment regardless of that. Truly thrilling. And another aspect of this which sets up some of what’s to come very beautifully is the voice of humorous cynicism that gives us a breather every time it returns after painful moments in the novel. Wiggins mostly pulls it off perfectly and without waving a big sign that says, “Hey, readers, this is your moment to take a break and chuckle!” I noticed, however, several moments when she broke into a language – the character Marianne’s language – that felt a bit pedestrian compared to the entire rest of the novel. But I didn’t mind that, really. I sometimes need to be reminded that even in the best of all works, nobody’s perfect, and that’s okay. John Hiatt, who is one of my favorite songwriters and has been for many years, wrote a song for his daughter which contained the lyric “She is beautiful, she is small, she don’t wanna play basketball,” and it took me about five years of heavy listening to stop saying, “Uggghhhh. How could he write something so clumsy and stupid in the midst of such an otherwise deep and gorgeous collection of songs?” But now I get it. I may not have liked the way he chose to lighten up, but it probably made somebody laugh as much as it made me cringe.  And…yes, nobody’s perfect, and perfection, in any case, is relative.

Finally, I want to say that the passage I referred to here on the geology and geography of the San Fernando Valley (and entire West Coast) is one I will return to many times – and please, you should, too. You won’t regret it! It’s noteworthy not only for its beautiful language and the special set-up of the novel but also because it is a wonderful example of paving the way early in a creative work to establish opportunities for hybridity later in the work. Oh, and..well, it made me happy to read it.

The Real Curtis Follows The Imagined

Rekdal Follows Wiggins, The Real Curtis Follows The Imagined

It turns out that Paisley Rekdal’s Intimate really ought to follow Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher rather than the other way around. This was a happy coincidence for me. The painful complexity of fathers and male privilege are powerful currents through both of these texts. White male privilege, both overt and subliminal, quite specifically, is a definite commonality. If you read one of these books, you should also read the other. Reading Shadow Catcher first grounds the aspect of Edward Curtis’ story, a background which allows the reader greater focus on Alexander Upshaw in Intimate; on the dismissive disconnect as well, the abyss separating Curtis and Upshaw, the true nature of which Upshaw was well aware of and Curtis fairly oblivious.

Paisley Rekdal frankly reveals racism and historical racist policy toward indigenous America, a familiar topic yet with a new and refreshing method. In this she also brings her racially mixed heritage and its accompanying societally-wrought issues and import into the spotlight.

All of this – all of these issues and themes – are situated firmly amongst my own interests as a reader, writer, thinker and human being. Yet I found myself very slow to love the book. I found the writing precise and beautiful, found each section well-crafted, recognized the text as interesting, but I was more than halfway through before I really wanted to read it, and the reasons why are the aspect that I want to unpack and explore. I always want to love a book like this; a book not only recommended by someone whose previous selections have not failed me as a reader and ponderer, but one which intelligently approaches a topic I care about; by a writer who can, in short, really write. Because of this, I hesitate to cast any sort of negative eye upon such a book. In fact, it is really difficult for me to do so. I’m afraid to complain!

But I want to learn from this reading and from this writer, so I am asking myself to be honest about what is bothering me. First and possibly foremost, it takes a very long time before the idea of Rekdal’s story and Upshaw and Curtis’ stories inhabiting the same text feels right. My experience of more or less the first half of the book was that it felt like I was reading two books at once, going back and forth too quickly between one book and the other without a sense of present or impending unity. In retrospect I understand the trajectory laid out by Rekdal, yet it never completely gelled for me. The way she brought in her father’s perusal of the Curtis book (followed by her own perusal of the same) seemed random at first and too much related to an agenda later. While I ultimately enjoyed the project as individual bits, I never felt a sense of the whole project having integrated. In fact, I didn’t like the poems about the photos, for the most part – I actually had the thought, “I know I should care, but…” –  and despite the fact that I love hybrid works and the idea of combining prose, poetry, visual art, and music, this particular text wasn’t, for me as a reader, cohesive. In other words, the individual elements were related but not successfully unified enough.  I would have liked Rekdal to have elaborated more thoroughly the through-line between her own cultural and ethnic no-man’s-land identity and Upshaw’s liminality. Certainly both were quite compelling on their own and can easily coexist in the same work, but there was a gap in history between them here. In other words, despite what I know about racism in America, what I felt was that Upshaw is gone and lost to the tragedy of racism and cultural genocide, but she Rekdal is here and now and teaching and writing (and addressing that same issue as it pertains to her selfhood) and in that she has an advantage. I don’t want to come away from this topic feeling like his experience (Upshaw representing here all of indigenous America) trumps hers (Rekdal representing, it would seem, racially-mixed-and-therefore-oppressed America) which is a terribly minimizing thought or feeling. I dislike it that I felt set up to compare them, which is a thing I don’t even believe in.  I don’t believe that one person or one community’s experience “trumps” another’s. I realize that I am particularly sensitive to this issue, as such discussions constituted the fabric of my parents’ teaching and have always been with me; but since racism, liminality and cultural genocide sit amongst the overarching issues in this text, I don’t think it’s just me thinking what I’m thinking, or more correctly, feeling what I’m feeling – an important distinction. But maybe I am wrong, and what they (whoever they are) are thinking is that it is about…photography. The role of photography in illuminating identity. And it is, in fact, about that. Probably more than the other issues I’ve discussed here, but that is right up-front and visible and easily discerned.

I want to reiterate here that by the middle of the book, I was in.  The problem, I think, isn’t that it never works, but that, due to the issues explored here already, it took so long to get there, and when I finished, I remembered that. The problem is that I said to myself, “Well, yeah, in the end, it turned out to be an interesting and worthwhile book.” That I remembered the first half as a kind of a chore and that I singled out the poems as something I didn’t like reading. *Disclosure: I am not a fan of ekphrastic poetry in general, so this may not even be specific to Rekdal’s poetry.

If I consider it in light of what I am working with in my own hybrid propositions, this text stirs up a great worry about being up to the challenge of creating cohesive hybrid pieces. Not that I won’t do it, but it scares me a little. I remember reading a book, when I was very young, from my sisters’ book stash – I think it was Up the Down Staircase – in which letters and notes are used to illuminate life and relationships within a high school, including a love letter from a student to a teacher which was handed back corrected in red pen for grammar and such, and the student subsequently commits suicide. Though I’ve never revisited the book (and so may be incorrect in this description), what I have always remembered from that long-ago reading was that the use of something different than the narrative was exciting…enchanting. It was something I thought about over and over for years. The sense of the creation of hybrid works as a puzzle has excited me ever since. I feel compelled both as an artist and as a general human being to look at issues and ideas through many different lenses, saying as I go, “No, no, that’s not completely it, how about this? No? Not that either? Well, let’s try this, do you see now?” And I see this in Rekdal’s book, but I wasn’t with her all the way – it was easy to stop to make Spirograph designs with my son or walk my little hound in the woods. What I want is that when what I am saying is only partially exposed, and I have to offer up another medium or a piece of another genre to get at it better, the reader will say to his or her own child, “Hey, not now, kid, give me twenty more minutes and then I’ll make designs with you, I promise!” and what’s more, the reader’s little hound will have to go chew on a bone or something.

For me, in short, Paisley Rekdal’s book Intimate is like a unique and fantastic dress with some un-hemmed edges and a bunch of threads hanging out of the seams. Perhaps the fabric of the bodice or the sleeves are not quite attached in a way that falls right, even though they are a nice part of the design. I love those sleeves and that bodice, could we just tweak the way they’re attached, maybe?

With all of that, however, it nearly kills me that I was not on campus or even in town when, not long ago, Paisley Rekdal gave a talk.  Someday, I swear, I am going to be in the right place at the right time.