Bubble Memory: “I Remember” by Joe Brainard and Georges Perec

“There was plenty of time to remember things, and perhaps most importantly, there was more time to misremember things. We had the opportunity to naval gaze and imagine what could have been. The time locked in our rooms was a chance to pretend that life had been something different, before we remembered what our lives had really been like.” (From an unpublished story, written in April, 2020.)

Memory has the unnerving ability to seem absolutely certain at the same time that it is fallible. Even after years of playing postmodernist games, there is a certain instinct to trust the narrator of a piece; to believe that what we are hearing is true. If anything, the mere appearance of something in print bestows an air of legitimacy and authenticity. This can be used as both an integral part of satirical effects, or a sort of dark magic in the wrong hands. To engage meaningfully with a text, we have to be willing to be open in as much as we are willing to raise our suspicions. How much trust are we to give our memories or the memories of other people as a foundation for documenting our lives?

Joe Brainard’s experimental memoir, I Remember, collects a series of paragraphs, each of which begins with “I Remember…” and each of which presents a specific memory. In this way, Brainard operates in the tradition of Gertrude Stein, with the force of repetition baring the constraints of a mantra or rosary. There is also a hat-toss to the surrealist concept of a text that could be created as if painted by number—a formula for artistic production, made for humankind in the assembly age, to be given a thought and be asked to complete it.

I remember pillow fights.

I remember being surprised at how yellow and how red autumn really is.

I remember chain letters.

I remember Peter Pan collars.

I remember mistletoe.

I remember Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (so sad) in Meet Me in St. Louis.

I remember Judy Garland’s red shoes in The Wizard of Oz.

 I remember Christmas tree lights reflected on the ceiling.

 I remember Christmas cards arriving from people my parents forgot to send Christmas cards to.

Brainard (49)

These are just a sample, seasonally appropriate, from page 49. Within this selection, we see the mixing of a personal experience (Christmas tree lights reflected on the ceiling and cards arriving from people Bainard’s parents forgot to send cards to) and a larger, cultural memory (Judy Garland). What intrigues in the rereading of I Remember is the way that the listed memories bounce off of each other, sometimes forming a clear connective sequence around a theme—food, sex, religion, the movies—or seeming sometimes to shift focus without a clear connecting path between them.

Brainard’s memory is explicitly tied into cultural memory, not only that of his own association with the New York School, but also from the media-centric culture of his youth—movie stars especially. If you want to search for name-dropping, you can find the famous acquaintances referred to here. I admit my own eyes opening a little wider as I tracked down the appearances of Frank O’Hara and the movie star that I always associate with the unfortunate poet. (“Lana Turner has Collapsed!”, poor dear.) “I remember that Lana Turner was discovered sipping a soda in a drugstore” (59).  But this is only the partial, tabloid truth, a false memory, or rather a memory of falseness, tied to a publicity story fed to fan magazines and newspapers during the height of Hollywood’s power to transform an actor’s life story. In spite of this, the romantic notion of the story is itself a drug, a machination of a publicity machine that liked to place the impossibly beautiful halfway in our reach. Lana Turner was once a girl like you. We remember truths just as easily as we remember illusions. There are moments in which we have to choose whether to continue believing in a given illusion or received truth and choosing to find a new truth, a new story. The memory of the false story can remain as a kind of trivia.

Frank O’Hara
Lana Turner

The memory of Lana Turner, along with the aforementioned Judy Garland, brings a small point that is worth noting. Elements of I Remember, along with other works by Brainard, often refer to the coded culture of queer icons, particularly the use of “Golden Era” Hollywood (as well as other pop culture materials) in conjunction with a camp sensibility. Brainard’s perspective as a gay man is inherently tied to his memories of sexuality and his experience of culture. At the same time, anyone of his generation, queer or not, would have seen Judy Garland, either in a film or on television or on the radio, and would most likely have experienced her impact on the culture as a star figure. In this way, the presentation of this memory is a hand reaching out to both the straight audience and the queer audience, a place of common ground as much as double-meaning. In this sense, the construction of I Remember is itself in a sense camp, operating on multiple levels of meaning; yet operating in a seemingly straightforward and unironic way. The text is itself able to step away from this same camp sensation by virtue of its willingness to detail the explicit physical and emotional details of the author’s desires and memories of desire.

It is easy to create one’s own structured memories by following Brainard’s pattern. I don’t know the extent to which Brainard revised and reworked his sentences (though it had to have happened, given that I Remember is in fact a gathering of several smaller published series based around the “I Remember” theme). In works such as this, the personal reflections of the author almost imply the opportunity to remember—to become an active participant in the making of the text, or to respond (either seriously or as parody) by creating a text revising the original question. What follows is roughly an unedited page of what came to mind when I started to piece things together:

                I remember convincing my father that oatmeal cookies with icing were fewer calories than same cookies without icing. (And they were, according to the package!)

                I remember vending machines in a coin-operated laundry mat next to the local library where my parents would drop me off for an afternoon once a week. I would promise not to leave the library and then sneak over to the laundry matt to get a treat with coins I gathered through the week.

                I remember that the vending machine was broken more often than not and wouldn’t give me my change back.

                I remember putting a piece of pumpkin bread into the microwave too long and a cloud of smoke that looked like sulfur covered my face when I opened the door.

                I remember my first consenting experience with a man was with a man whose name I can’t remember.

                I remember trying oysters for the first time with my best friend, who was obsessed with them, and the champagne we ordered, and the way we compared notes about what oysters were said to taste like and how that idea did or did not meet expectations.

                I remember throwing up at a hookah bar because I had bronchitis but had gone along to support my then-boyfriend at open mic night. The smoke had come into my eyes, ears, nose, and throat. I suddenly stopped breathing and my words were replaced by sickness as I ran to the bathroom and desperately tried to clean myself up.

                I remember that he kept playing as I was sick and I remember that he didn’t ask if I was okay and I remember that he didn’t understand why I didn’t want to kiss him after.

                I remember my brother biting my hand because I was brushing his hair too aggressively.

                I remember being in a glass elevator in Georgia the year that the Olympic bombing happened.

                I remember Razzles. And Mallow Cups. And Pecan Spinwheels kept in the freezer until they turned into rocks.

Brainard’s text becomes a perpetual writing prompt—creating a series of potentially endless revisionary, remixed, and extended works employing the formula. The writer Georges Perec did just that, in a book that, more than An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, speaks to the documenting of place and time: not just three days in a series of cafes across from a fountain, but a lifetime in fragmentary bursts of symbols.

“This cultural resistance to translation is more obvious in what may be Perec’s most untranslatable book, Je me souviens (I Remember), a collection of brief remembrances of things and people that are indecipherable to anyone not French and not of his generation.”

–Footnote from Translator’s Afterword to An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Marc Lowenthal.

What does this say about how personal a work can be? Can a work develop a language that is so much “inside baseball” that the attempt to translate it to another language and another time might go beyond the usual difficulties of translation that the reader must be welcomed into the world of the writer, as if a blueprint was needed to understand even what the context of a work meant, much less the content of a work? One of the authors of the collective known as Wu Ming also happens to be one of the primary translators of Stephen King’s novels into Italian. I once read an interview with this Ming member, saying that one of the difficulties of translating Stephen King was the use of brand names in his work—it’s not just cigarettes, they smoke Pall Malls. It’s not just candy, it’s a Mars Bar. These things are a shorthand to the American reader, something that we can swap the specific name brand for the generic concept of a piece of candy or a cigarette, that do not translate well across land, language, and time. I think of the domestic novels that I read in college that would make reference to a particular cleaning product—clearly referenced as a joke—and hoping for the footnote that would give me something to latch onto. This reference, this memory, did not translate into my own. Having grown up in a different America than Joe Brainard, it is amazing how infrequently I had to make a gesture towards the footnote, when something would pass me by completely. These works are specific to his time and place (and his remarks about women and non-white people are evidence of the passive, generational prejudice that eventually kills us all); yet I can identify with the memories of a man who died before I was born.

In Perec’s hands, “I remember” becomes a sort of challenge, reflecting the way in which these memories, as a whole, can only belong to one person in total—Georges Perec. There will be overlaps and moments of parallel between author and reader, but the sum of the parts can only be collected in Perec’s notation of these memories. In Perec, we see how culture can become a gap in the sympathy of our memories. Indeed, it is much more difficult to find an appropriate sample from this work, as the entries form a series of declarations that are so specific as if to be without meaning to an outsider.

I remember an aperitif that was called “le Bonal.”

I remember “Prosper youp-la-boum.”

I remember the third-class carriages on trains.

I remember that in Merrily We Live, there are two dogs, one called “Get out of it,” the other “You too.”

I remember that Jean Gabin, before the war, had a contract stipulating that he had to die at the end of each film.

 I remember the Yves Klein exhibition, at the Gallery Allendy, Rue de l’Assoption.

Perec (42)

It is when a remark such as “I remember the murder of Sharon Tate” appears that the reader feels something to latch onto. Words and suggestions appear that a reader may understand in part but may not put into the correct context. Within the specificity of memory, there are also moments where Perec allows for the limitations of memory and the idiosyncrasies of personal reflection to take forefront of the text, recalling the ways memory can be shaped and reshaped, to admit to the absence at hand. “I remember the radio programs (Comme il vous plaira) presented by Jean-Pierre Morphée and ?” (76). The work concludes with an invitation to the reader to create their own list of “I Remembers” inspired by Perec’s example.

The volume composed by Perec includes a substantial index, with references, corrections, explanations, photographs, and suggestions of the work’s relationship to the cosmology of Perec’s other writings. The value of the work, especially when read immediately after Brainard’s, is two-fold. It calls into question the reliability of a world created by the declarative voice of a narrator. It also reflects the cracks in an assumed common ground and collective experience brought by a reader to the text. At heart, the formula for structured memory provided by the simple phrase, “I Remember,” opens the door each time to a deeply personal, radically different experience of memory, truth, and time.

Reprint: Breaking Childhood Illusions: A Personal Narrative

An Introduction

Early this morning, I discovered that Roadside America, one of the largest interior train displays in the country, was officially closing after 85 years of operation. In the age of quarantine, the business could no longer survive, after holding on for several years in hopes of new ownership. The materials, I was told, would be auctioned off, piece by piece. This forced a return to an essay I wrote a few years back on the experience of revisiting Roadside America. It turned out that this would be the last time that I was able to visit–although I did not know that at the time. It has always existed for me in a weird vacuum of nostalgia: something that was old before my time, something that seemed so distant and unusual as I tried to explain it to my partner. Visiting Roadside America was, in many ways, like streaming a silent movie on a tablet–you were experiencing an event in a context the creator never could have envisioned. In describing Roadside America, I often think about the Night Pageant, mentioned in the following essay. I maintain conflicted feelings about it. On the one hand, this display influenced my own practice of using cultural memory in art, the use of collage, projection, and contrast, and an interest in the progression of time. On the other hand, it perpetuated an unquestioned, unthinking idea of cohabitating nationalism and religious traditionalism that is responsible for so much of the present chaos in the United States. The memory represents both a simpler time and an uninformed time–explicit spectacle and implicit ideology. My feelings remain complicated; they probably always will. I suppose that the goal of revising these memories and engaging once more with childhood institutions is to see what new meaning and new purpose can be found alongside the meanings and purposes we were too little to understand.

Breaking Childhood Illusions: A Personal Narrative

Holga: […] I didn’t know. And now I don’t know how I could not have known.
-Arthur Miller, After the Fall (15)

“Just don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.
You’ve heard it now.”
-Thomas King, The Truth about Stories (167)

A few years ago, another student I was sharing a house with asked if I could drive her out to Hershey so she could visit her friend. Being an undergraduate, I actually had some free time; so I said yes. I had taken the drive many times—a girlfriend of mine had lived out there—and family car trips had occasionally ventured that far from home in search of antique markets, fun little tourist traps and amusement parks. We bought some Peach Rings, bottles of water and cans of soda, and set out.

We stopped at one of the largest indoor train sets in the country, Roadside America. The signs outside the building, which were weather-beaten when I was a child, had been repainted since I had last been there, but they were already showing signs of organic wear and tear. The interior of the main building looked as though it had not been touched since the 1970s, except for the few stray traces of technology which had clawed their way inside from pure necessity. We paid our entrance fee to go look at the train display, and walked through the thick, velvet curtain just in time for the “night pageant”—a production of patriotic songs and lighting effects which cast the entire room into darkness and created an eerily beautiful display of hundreds of miniature homes lit up from the inside as trains rush past. The production ended as the lights recreated a sunrise over the display, and Kate Smith even sang “God Bless America.”

The last time I had been there, in the days after 9/11, it seemed as if this retro-patriotic effect had been designed just for that moment. Now, lacking any subtlety, it seems almost comical.

As the lights came up, I saw something which I had completely forgotten about. There was a display of a western scene to the right of where we were sitting. The scene varied in scale, from small models which were the size of everything we’d been looking at below to two large Indians looming over everyone, looking out into the distance at the American flag and Statue of Liberty at the other end of the room. If I were a more talented child, I think I would have created a story about this man as a great spirit who looked out over everything below—a spirit of the first people in this land, looking for his decedents, and looking on at those of us who came over without permission. But I wasn’t that kind of talented child, and in fact the western scene used to scare me. The reason that I did not remember it from when I was younger was that I had avoided really looking at it before. Like a fear of heights had kept me from looking over the railing in the elevated mountain-scape section of the tour, the fear of the unknown had kept me from looking at this display. I will admit to having been cowardly child, frequently afraid of what was different. Perhaps this was because I was afraid of what was different growing inside of me—a growing knowledge of my own queerness in a heterosexual culture. Sensing this difference, I pushed away from the differences of other people instead of finding common ground and reaching out to them.

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Now I looked at the two figures of “Indians” staring out at me, one on each side. They were covered in tracks of war paint and dark as coffee beans. Below the one, a battle of the Wild West erupted; below the other, a pueblo untouched by white settlers. Given that the model town on display below us was supposed to represent any small town, but specifically Pennsylvania’s small towns, it seemed so odd and out of place. Of course, there had been Indigenous people in this part of the country, and there still are. There’s even a small pamphlet about the Hochstetler massacre on sale in the gift shop for those who don’t understand the dangers of indigenous folk.

When I grew up in Bethlehem, there was a house on the side of a mountain with a cement patio in the back that had the statue of a young Native American girl looking out over the Lehigh Valley. We called it the Pocahontas statue because Pocahontas was the only female “Indian” we ever thought of and because she was pretty. (Sacajawea was not yet coined into our consciousness.) She looked out from her perch and waved to those who came and left the Valley. “Wave to Pocahontas,” my mother would say, and my brother and I would make a rudimentary gesture of what we thought would be some kind of Indian hello and goodbye. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized she wasn’t waving—her hand had broken off, and so the wave was cut off in a grey stump.

I listened to old radio shows on cassette tapes bought in thrift stores, comic book shops and the gift store of the Cracker Barrel restaurant. Until I was a teenager, there was no cable in our house, and the Internet existed only as something I used the library computer for when I couldn’t find a book. Tonto and Lone Ranger were childhood playthings, imaginary worlds, alongside the Shadow and his orientalist mystical spectacular. Because they existed in my mind instead of a visual field, the fear I felt soon abated. These stories spent so much of their time cultivating the mystique of the “other,” the outsider, the person from a place cut-off from the rest of us. And with that isolation and that “other”-ness came great powers that few could access without giving a kind of respect and deference to the “other.” This does not, however, negate the constant problems of the savage myths perpetuated by these same radio dramas.

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I am writing about these things that have seated themselves at the very edge of my memory because they have moved from the edges slowly inward in my consciousness over the last seven weeks. I am writing about these things because I need to find a way of explaining what I have seen and what kind of baggage I have brought into this journey with me. This was, in many respects, a part of my childhood—just as it was a piece of many childhoods before mine, especially for American boys. To my knowledge, I have no indigenous heritage, not even in an apocryphal manner of the “Indian Grandmother” myth that Deloria wrote about in Custer Died for Your Sins. I feel that I should have stated this from the beginning to clarify my own position here.

Being white, I feel that there is only so much that I can say in regard to these issues. I must acknowledge, as must all people who exist outside of these cultures and experiences, that there is only a certain point to which I can speak. After that point, I must turn it over to the writers and activists themselves. I can magnify their voices, I can amplify the radius of their message by sharing it, reblogging it, buying copies of their pamphlets and books and giving them to friends, distributing their poems. I cannot speak for them though. To do so is to contribute to their erasure and silencing, albeit in a way which is not directly reigning violence against their experiences.

My relationship with this subject can make me uncomfortable. It should.

In all of these representations, I see that the Indigenous people are cut off—sometimes quite literally—from giving full expression to their voice, their culture, their needs. Even when it’s glorified, they’re limited—they can’t move or speak or be humans. Not just yet.

I hope in writing about this, I’ve called up some images from the past for you as well, and in doing so that you become aware of the ways that these images bled into our worlds. In reading these Indigenous writers I realize that I need to account for my own background and the ways in which I contributed to these stereotypes—even if I did it in innocence. I didn’t realize then, but I do now. The illusion is broken, and I will never put it back together.

This essay was originally published at Indigenous Ambiguities on February 28th, 2016. The original essay can be found at this link.

The Dear Loneliness Project in 12 Pieces

A MEMORIAL TO 2020

1.

We are writing the longest letter in the world to fight loneliness. And we need your help.

 

Screenshot (60)

 

2.

“I found an old school notebook, still half-empty. And so I wrote you a letter.”

 

3.

Loneliness has long been deemed an epidemic in our society, yet relatively little attention has been bestowed it in research. As part of an artistic installation, we seek to create the world’s longest letter by compiling entries written by individuals like you about your frustrations, hopes, and experiences with isolation–connecting lonely people through art in the process.

 

4.

“There were moments when I could feel my hope for the future bloom like a firework and shine through the evening. A firework does not last, however. I got used to the quiet–or rather, I got used to the sounds I would usually tune out. In March, I saw my neighborhood in daylight on a weekday for the first time in months. I promised I would keep a diary. I wrote to you instead.”

 

5.

With your permission, your letters will be archived as both a record of the COVID-19 era and a crucial source of academic data for a poorly understood phenomenon.

 

6.

“I saw other neighborhoods sing from their windows I saw a neighborhood of one sing “Moon River.” Both made me think of you. Both made me cry.”

 

7.

And yes, we will be breaking the Guinness World Record letter length of 290 meters–three football fields or almost 1,000 sheets of A4 paper–together.

 

8.

“I guess I’m telling you this because it is easier than telling you directly how it feels. At once to be by myself is to feel as though nothing stands in my way. Soon after, I feel like the bowl that cracked and then split in half maybe a week after everything stopped–still the same pattern, no longer holding together.”

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9.

8 years of life expectancy are lost as the direct impact of loneliness. 54% of Americans say they feel that no one knows them well. 49% of Britons age 65+ consider their TV or their pet their main source of company. 

 

10.

When we think of our experience of time, time moves slower when we are alone. There were days that I became more conscious of time because I wasted it. I spent a great deal of time not writing and not working. When we are alone, it becomes much easier to procrastinate. I delayed writing my letter. Not because I didn’t know what I’d say, but because there seemed not enough time to say it. By the time I wrote my letter, quarantine (or at least the first real quarantine of my life) was over and I was working again. I had to reflect and recreate the feeling of apart-ness I felt. I wrote to loneliness the way I wrote to many people—friends, collaborators, my lover. I see no point in writing a letter if not to be honest in my feelings or to discuss something previously unexplored—to expand on a remark in class or something said during a phone call. I wrote and spoke more than usual because this was the time, in some ways, to have the conversations I’d been putting off.

Loneliness has no postal address; it’s a fairly universal state. So what better way to address it than to speak to the world? When we speak to loneliness, we are speaking to a deep part of ourselves. Perhaps we experience it because we look into ourselves and find something lacking, or perhaps we find something we want to share and no one to share it with. Loneliness is a place of no-place, a heart without a center, moving on without walls.

 

11.

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The Vision: A room covered in over 1,000 feet of handwritten and scanned letters about loneliness, with the ceiling and floor covered in large mirrors that create the illusion of letters on loneliness stretching into eternity.

 

12.

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*

Sources: Italicized text taken from the Dear Loneliness Project website. Text in quotation marks is taken from my submission to the project, which was cataloged as entry number 85. Non-italicized text and text outside of quotation marks is original to this piece.

A Few Words on Perec

If Paris, A Poem, is a modernist representation of the French city at the height of early modernism, Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is its postmodern sibling. Less ornate and reflexively flashy, this small work presents three days in Paris, documented by a narrator-observer trying to remain neutral as he describes the world around him. Observations come and go; collections of detail that would be window-dressing in a novel become the whole of the text: the list of busses repeats itself as they circle through their journeys (though frequently, our observer notes, not quite on schedule), brand names on bags, interesting hats and those nameless people sheltered under them walk back and forth as the observer picks up and drops the pattern of the day. The observer-narrator occupies the realm of the spy in real life, or a more realistic detective story—seeing the changes of the neighborhood; picking up on the pattern of a day without explosions or grand events. What makes these notes intriguing is that nothing happens on these days. These notes represent a foundation for a fiction that never quite emerges.

My intention in the pages that follow was to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance. What happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds. (Perec, 3).

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Perec et Chat

Whether or not Perec succeeded in his text comes down to intention. Is just observing enough or does it need to form a narrative—or at least some structure through which a reader can find connection between one piece and another? Is this connection necessary for meaning? Or art? Wayne Koestenbaum writes in his new book, Figure it Out, “These notes won’t be literature until I shape, frame, or contextualize their stammering” (43). With what level of intervention do notes become a publishable text? This is a fundamental question of the writing life—the development need of the author moving from notation to creation. Perec’s text forces these questions, which do not often register in the mind of the reader. We are used to seeing the filled-in text, the created and redesigned “room” of a work. To take Perec at his word, we can believe that we are seeing the raw ability, the raw material of a text. Consider the notebooks of another writer, the materials that became Death in Venice, for example. These are the elements to be built upon, the grain of a story, but they are not the story itself. Or Mann’s memoir on the writing of his Doctor Faustus, The Story of a Novel, in which the author gives an accounting of the writing of the work that many considered a crowning masterwork in a lifetime of masterworks. In this way, my friend and I have argued over The Original of Laura, or Nabokov’s recently published dream journal, or—to continue in another way with the same author—the proto-Lolita stories published after Nabokov’s death. In what way do these qualify (or fail to qualify) as texts? Does the fact that they are published and carry the name of the author make them texts instead of notes?

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The word “raw” keeps entering my thoughts. This is not because I am writing this at a kitchen counter with the elements of my dinner lined up beside me, or because I keep thinking of intent as something that “cooks” the notes into a text, boils it down or bakes it until it rises. Or that I am wondering about the period that follows after cooking but before the text is consumed by the reader. I genuinely struggle with the idea that something is done, in that the spirit of revision—to cook it down a little while longer, to add another spice—is always there, sometimes to my detriment. I have been writing these notes since March, at this kitchen counter that looks out on a well-traveled street, where, the weekend before the Fourth of July, three cars are parked in an accidental pattern of red, white, and blue. I am distracted by a Mister Softee ice cream truck coasting up to the red traffic light as a reminder that (theoretically) quarantine is relaxed and we can pretend things are normal in the city. I think it would be naïve to suggest that this context has nothing to do with my thinking; just as it would be true to say that it means everything.

It makes sense that this reader could lose themselves in contrasting the experience of reading Mirrlees and Perec. Mirrlees has movement, a journey through the city; Perec is static—at first look. The narrator-observer has a space, but he doesn’t stay anchored. He moves about in the limitations he has set for himself like leopard in a cage. These movements can seem so small as to be unnoticeable as a reader glides through the pages of this short volume. After a morning and early afternoon, the mid-afternoon observer breaks from the fragmented document of the day’s work. This is the first time that the observer-narrator moves into a conscious acknowledgement of narration and the place of the narrating voice; an interior self, explaining the existence of his work. Consciously or not, the narration of the observer seems to come from Philip Marlowe, or the now-forgotten American radio drama about an insurance investigator, Johnny Dollar, whose case files were recounted as an expense account. The details are reported with unsentimental importance.

Later on, I went to the Tabac Saint-Sulpice. I went up to the second floor, a sad room, rather cold, occupied only by a quintet of bridge players, four of whom were in the middle of playing three clubs. I went back down and installed myself at the table I had occupied this morning. I ate a pair of sausages and drank a glass of Bourgueil. (18)

These details mark the beginning of a new phase in the work, one in which the narrator-observer calls attention to himself and speaks the declarative I. No longer is there the feeling, as David Foster Wallace put it, of being a giant, revolving eyeball in the center of things, trying to see and record as much as possible. The five paragraphs that follow speak to the continuation of this mode of narration. Just as soon as we begin to find the rhythm of this detective-novel prose, we return to the fragmented, one-line style of the earlier notes. At this point, I thought of a fiction editor once writing “Details! Details! Details!” on a friend’s short story, which they had gone out of their way to make as minimalist and spare as they could. It seems as though these notes are the little details—the references left out of other works. (Just as Perec wrote a novel in which there was no “E,” he also wrote a tale in which “E” was the only vowel. Waste not, want not.)

The interruption of “(fatigue)” on page 24 recalls the fact of the narrator-observer, particularly that the “(fatigue)” seems to signify the potential for absence and the force of authorial/editorial direction. That is to say, the note-taking in and of itself is no longer enough. A break occurs as the mind is worn down by the details of recording details. Breezy as the text may seem in its accounting, the act of observing, noting, observing again and placing down is exhausting. Like keeping a diary as a New Year’s Resolution, it seems as if the experiment could end here in a loss of attention. The narrator-observer rallies on, even though one can sense each section growing slightly shorter as the narrator-observer balances between what has already been noted (and can be noted again) and what has not been noted before.

When the details of the text start to add up, there is a realization that this third day is a national holiday. It seems as if this accounting of the details would add up to the event or spectacle of a holiday. When the holiday occurs on the third day, it is almost pointless and uninteresting by comparison to the odd details collected in the lead-up. There is the possibility that this has something with that lingering “(fatigue)” described by the author. The enthusiasm of the first day is waning, and this is the shortest section of the text. This is not meant as a criticism. Just as the focus on the text is on “that which has no importance,” it makes sense that the text would begin to fade out in the face of a disruption. Yet, at the same time, the fact that the holiday seems not to change too much what is noted seems to speak to larger issues about the way we experience life.

From the Translator’s Afterword:

An American sitting in the same cafés that Perec haunts in this short work, moreover, would undoubtably take note of very different details of his or her surroundings. Reading through Perec’s Attempt makes one realize the degree to which our perception of the world is formulated through categories, genres, and classifications, many of them specific to the cultures we come from. What remains outside these categories, going by this Attempt, seems to be sparce indeed. For all we know, these are in fact automatons walking about the place Saint-Sulpice—the items everyone holds in their hands seem almost to have more presence than the people holding them. (52)

To have read this text three times in quarantine was to have a security blanket of sorts. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is a connection to life in a city beyond incident, before the world stood still. And yet, it’s also a text about a place in Paris that continues on, just as it continued on after the destruction of World War II, just as it was a city of revolutions and survived those revolutions. The world has stood still before, just as Perec’s narrator-observer theoretically stands still.

 

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A 3D view of the Fountaine Saint-Sulpice taken from Google Maps

It was as I was writing the above remarks that I began to wonder how the landscape had changed. Would I be able to recognize the “exhausted” landscape of Perec’s notes by using them as a map? What was my conception of the place without actually getting to see it? The European Union was getting ready to ban Americans from entering its borders due to COVID-19 concerns, and I have a job and don’t have money enough to jet-set to Paris. And so I looked at Google Maps. I saw, in three dimensions, the fountain sketched out by Perec, completed in 1848. I saw the café at which Perec locates himself (not Les Deux Magots, the home away from home for writers of the generation before Perec’s) in a street-view photograph. Because of a fair or some other event going on when the pictures of the café were taken, I couldn’t see a view of the fountain from the relative position of the café tables. Judging from the photos I saw, it still looks like a well-traveled area, with someone always coming and going as other people look, see, notice, or perhaps, pretend not to notice.

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Cafe de la Maire in 2019, taken from Google Maps Streetview

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The Fountaine is hidden behind the white tents, obscured to the patrons of Cafe de la Maire in 2019. Image taken from Google Maps Streetview.

The Book of Monelle by Marcel Schwob

Recently I recorded an excerpt from The Book of Monelle by Marcel Schwob early last week and I have uploaded it to YouTube with some improvised music in the background. As with most things, it’s best experienced with headphones.

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I chose this section of the book because I truly enjoyed Schwob’s work and can see its influences across so many other works, especially those of Jean Cocteau. This little fable about two girls—one of whom lives in a mirror—is my personal favorite from the book, which is an astonishing collection of perverse fairy tales. Schwob went on to have a major influence on many surrealists and Dadaists and all sorts of -ist artists.

You can listen to it below.

Thoughts on Paris: A Poem by Hope Mirrlees

Falling after Appolinaire; before cummings [sic] and Eliot, Hope Mirrlees represents the tale of a particular kind of Modernist writer. There should be much more attention given to her works after Faber’s republication of her 1920 masterful poetic experimentation, Paris: A Poem, for its 100th anniversary this past week.

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The first edition of Paris: A Poem by Hope Mirrlees (Image from the British Library)

Mirrlees is one of the many Modernist writers overshadowed and “lost” between one generation and another. Most of her work is out of print and hard to come by, even in specialized collections. (Even the biography Hope-in-the-Mist by Michael Swanwick is out of print and almost impossible to come by.) She is not included in almost any anthology of Modernist poetry—not even anthologies focused solely on women writers of the period. When one of her novels was reprinted in a series of fantasy rediscoveries by Lin Carter, he stated that the publisher could find no proof that the author was still living. Like Jean Rhys, she was still alive, off the radar; unlike Rhys, she was deeply unamused and did not enjoy the level of resurgence. Apart from Lud-in-the-Mist, no lost novels came back in print and no new novels were led by the hand to completion. A small volume of poetry, Moods and Tensions, arrived in 1976. Mirrlees died in 1978.

Like most modern readers, I came to Mirrlees through her association with Virginia Woolf. In addition to her career as a writer, Woolf and her husband, Leonard, were commercial publishers and creators of the Hogarth Press. Woolf read manuscripts and set type for the publications—work Leonard believed would be therapeutic for her. (He was unable to set type due to a hand tremor.) One of the reasons the Woolfs turned down the chance to publish Joyce’s Ulysses was the difficulty of printing the book.  (Virginia also expressed her reservations about the quality of the book). Woolf typeset both Paris: A Poem and the first UK edition of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the early years of the press.

Mirrlees represents for me as well the value of digital archives in modern research. In the early days of the Google Books digitalization efforts (before I read Ursula K Le Guin’s open letter) I found a middling PDF copy of the text, scanned in from a university collection. At the time, this was the only ready way to access the poem. This was, for a time, the only way of accessing so many texts I would later study—Carl Van Vechten’s music criticism and essays, Gertrude Stein’s operas and cyclical poems, the first versions Marianne Moore’s work: gilded and ornate before the editorial scissors came out, Victorian pulp and early African American writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. If one lived in the suburban Waste Land and there were only limited libraries nearby, these scans opened up new possibilities otherwise denied. There was the thrill of excavation, of finding and interpreting a new tongue in engaging with these works for the first time.

The poem presents its sensibilities from the start: “I want a holophrase.” Moving from such a term—the declaration of an idea in a single word (ie: “Bed” for “I want to go to bed”)—the poem represents a day in a city as a single work, much as Joyce or William Carlos Williams would attempt in coming decades. Associations on the holophrase abound, from the holograph—a document entirely in the author’s own hand, both a term and an object the literary Mirrlees would be familiar with—to the hollow-phrase, where there is a distillation and accounting of words and their meanings. (Thinking as well of the phrase to come in another Eliot work: The Hollow Men.) The writer of the poem sends forth a melody of images and sounds; a conjunction of people and statues, as if witnessed on speeding transit. We would see, later, the incorporation of advertisements (what else has more hollow phrases and holophrases at the same time?) placed against literary references, the making of scrap into the foundation of a monument, like an outsider artwork.

I am reminded of a remark recorded in Some Contemporary Novelists (Women) by R. Brimley Johnson (1920), one of the few works referencing Mirrlees at length:

“Life,” says Miss Mirrlees, “is like a blind and limitless expanse of sky, for ever dividing into tiny drops of circumstances that rain down, thick and fast, on the just and unjust alike. Art is like the dauntless, plastic force that builds up stubborn, amorphous substance cell by cell, into the frail geometry of a shell.” (213)

These remarks were made in conjunction with her first novel, Madeline: One of Love’s Jansenists, published the year before Paris. I keep these words in mind as I follow along in the poem and its interpretations.

Moving through Paris, having made the way through the Metro, our speaker-guide tours through the Louvre. There is a litany of masterworks, an abbreviated catalog:

In the Louvre

The Pieta of Avignon,

L’Olympe,

Giles,

Mantegna’s Seven Deadly Sins,

The Chardins

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Minerva Chasing the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, which Julia Briggs identifies as the painting referenced as Mantegna’s Seven Deadly Sins by Mirrlees in her Notes on Paris: A Poem, published in Collected Poems, edited by Sandeep Parmar

Noticeably absent in the list is, of course, the Mona Lisa—arguably the imagistic holophrase of the museum for most, if not the representation of fine art more generally in popular consciousness. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen. It was returned in 1914 and went from being a painting hanging on the wall (albeit a respected one) to becoming the highly guarded, highly mythologized image we associate with it. (“LA “JOCONDE” EST RETROUBEEE” the headline of Le Petit Parisien declared.) The theft, removal, or destruction of the Mona Lisa was, after all, a commonplace idea among the more radicalized modernists and several Dadaists and Surrealists (including Apollinaire) were interviewed in conjunction with the theft. Consider too the variations on rewriting and reworking the image, including Marcel Duchamp’s L. H. O. O. Q. of 1919, drawing a moustache on the image, perhaps the most recognizable of the vandalized reconfigurations of the Da Vinci image. Mirrlees’s poem is, by this absence of reference, both working in tandem with the artistic sentiment of wanting to destroy the past while at the same time calling constant reference to it.

From Vanished Smile by R. A. Scotti:

“When the Mona Lisa slipped out of her frames, she seemed to change from a missing masterpiece to a missing person. She came alive in the popular imagination. The public felt her loss as emotionally as an abduction or a kidnapping. Captivated by her mystery and romance, crowds gathered outside the Louvre each day, awaiting word from the prisonlike fortress that had failed to keep her safe.” (40)

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Of course, no artwork is forever safe. It has an upkeep; it has to be retouched and met with again and again to fight off the decay of time. This is just to keep the object itself, not to mention the difficulty of maintaining the object’s safety. Returning to Mirrlees’s vision, we can pick up the theme of the disappearance-over-time, the movement of the poem’s narrator away from these locations and associations:

The Louvre is melting into mist

It will soon be transparent

And through it will glimmer the mysterious island

gardens of the Place du Carrousel. (14)

And on the next page another signifier of Paris is removed from glory, turned into a hollow representation:

The Eiffel Tower is two dimensional

Etched on thick white paper (15)

Against the sky and the natural world, the structure (then the largest man-made structure in the world) becomes a sketch, just as images turn in memory from full movies into flashes; snips of the past to reassemble. Man, the future, the plastic world holds only as the “frail shell” described by Mirrlees. Even in moments of glory, as Mirrlees would probably qualify the Louvre, there are to be found the most unfortunate things:

But behind the ramparts of the Louvre

Freud has dredged the river and, grinning horribly,

waves his garbage in a glare of electricity. (21)

(I keep thinking of the small world of Bloomsbury. A literary scene, just like the later music scenes of the 1970s and 1980s, is so small when you view it through time!) Freud was being published by the Hogarth press in editions by James Stratchy, relative of Lytton Stratchey, biographer, who was once engaged to Virginia Woolf. The view of Freud as dredging up nastiness recalls the vulgarity saddled upon him by H. P. Lovecraft in letters. The undercurrent, the repressed, the darkness under the surface, becomes dredged up and put on display in the second sun of the electric light, the perpetual noon harnessed to make the modern world.

I believe that there is a more explicit representation of the two-dimensionality in the Eiffel Tower in the narrow strip falling through two pages like Alice down the rabbit hole: “Thereisnolilyofthevalley.” Spelled out one letter at a time, this cumulative effect of letters building into language reworks and plays with the linear experience of words—learning them, seeing and knowing them, expecting them to run one way and find them running in another direction. In the same way, there were the earlier pronouncements of the run-together “Messieuretdames” of men and women as a single phrase. Through everything, there is the meeting point of the beautiful and the grotesque, the crash of sound on paper. I am reminded of my favorite piece of Modernist correspondence I’ve ever come across, a letter from Dorothy Richardson to Bryher estimated to be from around 1924. The letter includes many typographical marks that suggests the author was less than sober at the time of composition; yet I wonder if perhaps these mistakes in spelling and spacing so that “literary style will change completely” led to actual changes in the way writing was written, as Stein might phrase it.

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A Letter from Dorothy Richardson to Bryher, available through Dorothy Richardson: An Online Exhibition

And Mirrlees did change her literary style. One of the recurrent remarks, borne out by reading her later work, is that nothing she wrote followed in the stylistic footsteps of Paris, just as she never wrote another novel after Lud-in-the-Mist, and just as she published one biography before her death. Like Djuna Barnes, she turned to the world of poetry and published less and less. Unlike Barnes, she had money enough to keep her in comfort for the rest of her life.

She went back to older forms of poetry and writing in a style removing itself more from Modernist experimentation. As time progresses, it becomes harder to find information about her. While nothing else in Mirrlees resembles the structure and form of Paris: A Poem, there are moments where one can see the glint of connections—themes flashing in the sunlight.

And in my ears the eerie voice still sings.

Then under the electric light

I saw a sallow vitreous heap

Of sodden, trodden, frost-nipped willow leaves…

Or were they just an insect’s fallen wings?

(from “Et in Arcadia Ego,”)

Or in her exploration of listening in and overhearing from her essay, “Listening in to the Past”

Do you like listening in? No. But I am very fond of a kaleidoscope. Indeed, it surprises me that this taste is not universal, for a kaleidoscope is the prettiest toy ever invented, and the most entertaining of all the thieves of time. It is a beautiful word, too, and sounds like the name of one of the Muses. However, I do not think the toy was known to the Greeks. If it had been, Plato would surely have founded upon it a cosmographical myth.

In Collected Poems, the editor, Sandeep Parmar does a wonderful job scraping together the kaleidoscope of the author’s life, giving due respect to an author who seems to have constantly stepped away from public view. (I have heard that Parmar is at work on a full biography of Mirrlees and I cannot wait to read it.) A conversion to Catholicism forced a move in her poetic style—leading to her refusal to allow Paris: A Poem to be reprinted in the 1940s over content she now viewed as blasphemous. (These passages would be changed or removed altogether when she allowed a republication of the work in an academic journal at the end of her life.) Her close—some rumor romantic, some label merely intense—relationship with classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison, and Harrison’s death nearly fifty years before Mirrlees’ own, might explain the move to more traditional forms and the move of classical themes, works, and references to the forefront of the poetry.

I began these thoughts by saying that Mirrlees represents a particular kind of Modernist writer—a woman who creates something astonishing and interesting who disappears. But more than this, she is a writer who changes gears, who finds different voices. When I have read people who are dismissive of her work (and there are quite a few up until the last decade or so), I think about the program set out in Joanna Russ’s fantastic exploration of misogyny in criticism, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, particularly the belittling tone that the woman writer only managed to create one good work. (This is an extremely common remark made against Mirrlees.) There is, I am certain, more to be found in the few works that are available to us now, and yet more to discover in the works out-of-hand.

Dec. 2019-May 2020

So What Are You Doing?

 

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There’s a lot of pressure on at moments like this to account for and justify the use of time. Since so many of us are either working from home or not working at all, describing the ways we pass our days takes on new meaning. I remember the second week that I was working from home: I was still waking up at five in the morning, I was still making coffee first thing, I was still checking email every ten or twenty minutes throughout the day. Even though I did not have to make the commute, I was still acting as though I did. It wasn’t until the second week that I felt fatigue set in and I wondered what I was expecting to happen. Shorting myself on sleep had become such a habit that even when it wasn’t necessary I still forced myself to keep up the old routine. This was no longer a time of business as usual.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time and the way that the days pass quickly when the sun is out and the way the days slow down when there are clouds. I’ve been thinking about the little notebook that I have next to my laptop where I’ve been recording what I’ve been doing with my time working from home. I’ve been thinking about the canvas bag filled with print-out drafts of projects that I haven’t looked at yet. I’ve been thinking about the time it takes to sleep through the night and the time it takes to drive from A to B, and how that time mirrors the interim between waking and sleeping. I’ve been thinking about faces and trying to remember and describe the faces that I would see everyday at the library, especially the faces of the many people experiencing homelessness and poverty. I’ve been thinking about how time passes when you have nowhere to go, especially when the one place you had is now closed to you. I’ve been thinking about the people I would see whose names I don’t remember.

I have projects to work on, both as a librarian and as a writer. I have dishes to clean and soups to cook and cats to feed. I have emails to answer. (The emails are the one thing that never stops.) Days on the calendar seem to have lost specificity. We usually experience time as a progression of days, weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries (if we live long enough). Breaking things down into the day to day has helped with managing stress but it has also led to difficulty imagining what comes next. What will summer look like? Much less fall? And another winter–the time of year when I usually become ill anyway. I think a lot about how seasons change by increments that I can see out of my window in a way that I have not experienced before, if only because I have never been able to look out of my kitchen window in the daytime, during the work week. Everything that I notice as something new comes with an unfortunate realization: what I am witnessing for the first time is only available to me because of the disruption going on in the world.

The phrase “I’ve been meaning to…” has come out of my mouth more often than I thought it would. Books that I’ve been meaning to read have gathered themselves in impressive piles around my desk and, slowly, they’re actually being addressed. I find myself less inclined to make excuses or think about getting to something at some (intentionally vague) later date. If not now, when? is a pretty frequent thought. If anything has surprised me, I think that it’s the fact that we all seem to be inhabiting the same mind-space as Lucy Ellmann’s narrator in Ducks, Newburyport (which I’ll admit I’ve been meaning to read to completion as I’ve enjoyed all the other works of hers I’ve encountered). This has forced an engagement with the voice in the head, the documentary narrator we put over our processing of our conscious experience. It has also forced an acknowledgement of the unconscious self and the feelings that are usually bottled in by travel, office work, and the face to face. I’m sure that most of us who have animals in our kinship network have been talking to these animals far more than usual.

Between emails this morning I read a recent interview with Lydia Davis, the wonderful writer/translator, and thought about the use of words, specifically the right word, at this moment. If not now, when? There’s the much-retold story about Mark Twain looking out at an audience (I imagine with cigar ready to ash at just the right moment) saying, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Reading Davis always brings a new level of awareness to my own reading and writing, forcing me to address problems and ideas I had not been previously aware of. (For example, thinking about how I’m writing this right now, I’m conscious of the number of times that I’ve used the letter “I” to place myself as writer and speaker, and the awareness of being yet another “I” addressing a mythic, nebulous reader or readership.) There’s a technical mastery to the craft in her work that astonishes me precisely because you don’t need to be looking for the technique in order to enjoy it. More than anything, I suppose that this moment I’m looking for the right words to explain this time, to explain what I’m doing in this time, and to explain how everything and nothing can be happening at the same time.

Being Drella: Drag, Social Anxiety, Love Songs

By 2017 I had been performing in drag for seven years. I performed a few times a year, usually at fundraisers. Like so many other young people, I used drag as a safe space to experiment with my gender identity and sexuality–both of which are still complicated. I created a character called “Madame Alexis,” named, of course, after the fabulous bitch of the Dynasty soap opera.

Alexis was my feminine side, a path I could travel down when I needed to escape the identity of maleness that most people acknowledged. She was the cabaret girl side of my life; the entertainer putting on a show. She was a mask and a good one. “I look in the mirror and can’t see my face looking back at me,” I wrote in an essay for my WGS class. Alexis was a piece of me, but I began to feel that even though Alexis was and is important, she was pushing me into the same situation as my day-to-day life as James. There was a social acknowledgement of my male self in my daily life. There was the social acknowledgement of my female self as Alexis when she would appear in drag shows, cabarets, fundraisers, happenings, and the odd drunken party.

It was in the aftermath of the death of David Bowie that I began to feel as if Alexis wasn’t enough. I wanted to pay tribute, but I wanted to be rawer, to be stripped down, to tone down the makeup, to show an inner self to the world. I thought about the Andy Warhol-style wig that I had bought earlier that year, the Patti Smith tie, the black hat, heels, and corduroy trousers. “Drella” was the pet name Lou Reed and John Cale had invented for Warhol, a combination of Dracula and Cinderella. The contrast between darkness and light was exactly right in the moment and I claimed that name as my own. I pieced myself together as a kind of meld of the masculine and the feminine. And what better way to say I love you to our favorite sexual alien than “Life on Mars?”

I have never been comfortable performing in public, either as a speaker or singer. I use the makeup and costume of flashy outfits, wigs, makeup, not only to grab the attentions of the curious but also to feel more like a performer. If I look and feel like a performer I feel more assured of myself. Criticism is less real. It wasn’t me that someone was hissing at, it was the character. For those who think that I’ve been a confident or self-assured person, I assure you that what you witnessed was a lot of stage craft. The night that I played Drella for the first time was also the first time I have ever come close to performing as myself, in my own style, in my own voice.

At this moment, I’m quarantined in my apartment along with many other people my age. I decided that if I was going to survive, I was going to have to push myself in a different way, to challenge myself to put something new out into the world. We all feel vulnerable and scared, so why not try expressing that in a different way?

“Surrender” was originally recorded by the band Suicide in the 1980s. I had been listening to the song on repeat for a week or so before everything started to collapse. I thought to myself that this was what falling in love feels like–vulnerable, somewhat uncertain, but being willing to give yourself over to someone. I recorded the song in one day, the vocals in one take each, on GarageBand on my tablet. My red wig came out from its hiding place in the sock drawer, and I took the cover photo as I assembled the last minor edits. There are things about the song that I want to redo, and perhaps I’ll record a second, neater version of it. But we’re all feeling a little rough around the edges, so in a way, I think this fits.

I can’t tell when or if I’ll ever record or perform as Drella again. These things take time and the right movement of the spirit. This is a space and a moment where I feel willing to take the risk.

The Best Books I Read in 2019

This past year I tried to break away from what I’d been reading; while there are a few authors who are old favorites on this list, most of the works listed here came across my way by total chance. I’ll probably be working on a few pieces about my top favorites, but any of these books should be considered as very rewarding and entertaining works. The featured image is of The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art by Matthew Kirkpatrick because I think of all the novels that I read this year, this was the most consistently entertaining and experimental and I’ve thought about it almost every day since I read it, especially when I walk into a museum space. (This could also be said for House of Leaves, but many more people have read House of Leaves already.)

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The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager

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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

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A Bigger Picture by David Hockney

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

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Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach by Roshanak Kheshti

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Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

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Empty Chairs by Liu Xia

The Left Bank Gang, The Last Musketeer, O Josephine!, and I Killed Adolf Hitler by Jason

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Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

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In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Book of Hours by Kevin Young

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The Last of the Duchess by Lady Caroline Blackwood

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Full Moon of Women: 29 Word Portraits of Notable Women from Different Times & Places + 1 Void of Course by Ursule Molinaro

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House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski

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Why Art? by Eleanor Davis

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Aug 9 – Fog by Kathryn Scanlan

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Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra

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The Ambrose J and Vivian T Segrave Museum of 20th Century American Art by Matthew Kirkpatrick

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The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan

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Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

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Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

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1919 by Eve L Ewing

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They Can’t Kill us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

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Invasive Species by Marwa Helal

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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

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Who Killed my Father? by Edouard Louis

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Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

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Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

Tell me How it Ends and The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

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Microfictions by Ana Maria Shua

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Blind Spot by Teju Cole

Associations: I Dated Graham Greene by Lucy Ellmann

I was in a North Carolina Bookstore when I saw a thin pamphlet sticking out between two thicker volumes. Simple stitching, a black thread down the center. I Dated Graham GreeneLucy Ellmann centered on my attentions as I had been waiting—waiting—on a copy of Ducks, Newburyport (the title like a lost Marx Brothers routine) to make its way into my hands. No bookstore I had gone to had it in stock, and it seemed none would carry the volume unless it won the Booker. (This changed of course when it jumped to the shortlist, with no one wanting to repeat the delay of last year’s Milkman into American reader’s hands.) It seemed fitting to find this small book about the author’s life in bookstores by chance, published for Independent Bookstore Day. It also seemed fitting to spend a moment on the author’s shorter work, given that the first comment often made by reviewers is the massive page count of Ducks, Newburyport.

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Much of the criticism (in the sense of both analysis and the discussion of faults) I’d read of Ellmann’s work strikes me as short-sighted—a hot take cribbed from the same Cliff’s Notes. Instead of seeing how others categorize her, here we see a glimpse into how an author sees herself through the lens of what should be a natural partner in her profession: a bookstore. Instead, the author pushes expectations to the side: “Bookstores scare me. So do books.” What follows is a 16 page analysis of the difference between the Platonic ideal of a bookstore and the reality of the physical space itself. Ellmann lists—bullet-point style—the many faults that can stress out the bookstore visitor, from “Amnesia, trying to remember all the books I meant to seek out” to “Geriatric affronts, when they don’t have the children’s books I remember.”

Through the text, Ellmann crafts the titles of books into the structure of her narrative. The Collector. Some of these are surface-level connections, while others suggest something deeper—an ironic meaning that can be understood only if you’ve read the reference. One can pull the list of books like yarn from a sweater to make the syllabus of a personal and sentimental education, gathering texts in the haphazard way of a lifetime’s reading material. Passionate Minds. These are moments that shape the text into the realm of prose-poetry:

Shakespeare & Co. in Paris—I sat on a couch there one summer when I was about twenty, waiting to be picked up by some literary type. A Sentimental Journey. Nothing happened. This surprised me, but I think I only sat there about ten minutes. Maybe it takes an hour.

There is something in these moments reminiscent of Gertrude Stein (let’s skip the ever-present Joyce references—even if Shakespeare & Co. does seem to invite them). The text is made of small sections—ideas, memories, moments, feelings, provocations, the ubiquitous and the unique—circling and adding to each other. The style of Ducks, Newburyport is visible here as it is in Ellmann’s other works: the humor, the lists, and the sense that all of these items counted out before you are what go into the making of a life. All of these pieces of Ellmann’s text work towards a joke, towards the boom-crash of the drum and cymbals of Portnoy’s Complaint (referenced on page 11). It is here that the movement of the essay moves beyond the cheap laugh of Philip Roth into the humor of Anne Carson—to make multiple layers of meaning gather together in a reflection of both the writer and the reader.

Walking through the language of Ellmann’s works as I make my way through Mimi, her previous novel and the only other one easily available in America, I could see how other readers make the obvious connection between her father’s work and her own. (Her father makes a fleeting cameo in the essay.) I picked up a copy of Thinking About Women by Mary Ellmann (the author’s mother, born in Newburyport) and saw a very different direction. The lists, the experimental structure, and above all they playfulness of the text exists there too. That it seems the Ellmann family has given English letters so much of substance is remarkable. Discovering Lucy Ellmann’s work, wandering through a bookshop, has brought one of the rarest delights into my reading life—an experimenter who can be a storyteller of equal power. The Divine Comedy.