My wife and I woke after noon this Sunday. Made New Orleans coffee. Set a French fry omelet to puff in the oven. Sat in our easy chairs, the hard winter creeping through the windowcracks—the ghosts of all who’ve fallen through thin ice. And read. She: The Missouri Review, Me: The Iowa Review, tattooing ourselves further into the flesh of delicious nerdhood. I started the best essay I’ve read so far this year. I take comfort in the fact that John D’Agata loved it too. Because I like John D’Agata. And I like affirmation from people I like. On page 21 of The Iowa Review 39:3 lurks Karen Hays’ “Dear Martlet,” another essay that reminds us of the genre’s capabilities and, dare I say, ultraviolet bounds. The essay does nothing short of providing us with, in the language of spent rhetorical flourish (because nothing else will work, really), new ways of seeing. Whether viewing the world, damn-near literally, through the eyes of an infant or bee, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about this piece as I read it. It was an immediate love affair, requiring no digestion, through digestion only works in its favor. I kept interrupting my wife’s reading, to recite paragraphs of Hays’ piece aloud. Soon, my wife was hooked, and I couldn’t stop reading aloud until the piece was finished. Then, I took a shower and felt, well, reborn.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
I wanted to say a little about John D’Agata’s new book, About a Mountain, even though it wasn’t published as an essay in a literary magazine, to me, it is still an essay albeit one in book-length form. What makes it still an essay is the way it accumulates information after focusing intently on one laser-fine point. The way About a Mountain accumulates and asserts its topics parallels the topics themselves. So when D’Agata begins About a Mountain by describing Las Vegas’s centennial celebration, he is laying out the formal strategy for the whole book and subtly tucking in the issues the book will address. From this narrow focus, D’Agata lays the groundwork for the rest of the text: the population explosion of Las Vegas, the high-concentration of freaks in Las Vegas, the multitude of Elvis’s. From a single instance, 2005 at a parade for Vegas’s centennial celebration, D’Agata touches on all the subjects the book will address. Take for example the multitude of cash stores the parade passes: “We marched past Kostner’s Cash, and we marched past Super Cash, and we marched past Gambler’s Pawn and Loan and then an empty lot” (12). The issues addressed by the whole book emerges from these first pages examples. Things will explode here. Things will proliferate. The mold of Las Vegas had been cast long ago and time will accumulate enough neon, enough Elvises, enough cash, enough waste, to fulfill that mold.
Proliferation, explosion, exponential growth. Each of these are words to be ascribed to what appears to be D’Agata’s primary subject: Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste. Half-lives and millennia and the semiotics of language and the multitude of things that go wrong serve to parallel those first few pages’ promise. The essay, unlike other forms of nonfiction, creates from its first images, scenes and words choices the path and exertions of the text as a whole. Said more simply, the essay makes a metaphor of itself early on and, through that metaphor, guides the reader on how to read the essay.
So it makes sense that the idea of proliferation, desert-craziness, populations, the multitude of cash stores act early on as a metaphor for what D’Agata’s primary subject seems to be: nuclear waste storage. And so, when one learns on CNN that the whole Yucca Mountain as storage site has been quietly scuttled thanks to a deal between Obama and Harry Reid, you wonder, does this hurt the topicality of D’Agata’s book?
Since the problem of nuclear waste storage doesn’t go away with Obama’s signature, I’d argue no. But I’d also argue no based on the argument that the essay’s larger subject is about proliferation, form, explosion, and exponential growth and while this does work nicely with the issues surrounding nuclear waste, it also parallels nicely with what I think is D’Agata’s larger project: to understand how language does or doesn’t work. Language is meant to communicate, he argues, but language proliferates, explodes, dies outside our control. Therefore, when D’Agata investigates how we’ll create a sign that will tell our future selves—no, don’t go here into this mountain full of waste, he’s really talking about how language, like population growth, like nuclear waste, changes, and even escapes us, without our being able to predict or manage that change or escape.
The essay works then, like a Matroyshka doll with a set of images and scenes that repeat themselves, in larger and broader contexts. So from that straightforward centennial celebration scene at the beginning, to the descriptions of Vegas’ exponential growth, to the politics of nuclear waste storage, to the problems of scientific authority, to the nature of language, we finally arrive at the to the particular-to-Vegas, proliferating, political, scientific and language-failures attendant to suicides. D’Agata never abandons his formal essay project about proliferation, explosion, and exponential growth and it’s subject is as explosive, proliferate and expounding as the nuclear waste that becomes just one of the many subjects D’Agata juggles.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
I don't think I've read anything by Lisicky that I didn't immediately like. Also, he's a total dreamboat. And I was feeling this essay, getting in the groove of it, when I got to the penultimate paragraph, which includes this:
"Maybe that’s what my father already knew back then. And maybe that’s why he brought it up at the dinner table thirty years later, though I’d forgotten it, as I’d forgotten many things by then. His eyes looked through me, past me. He spoke as if that memory were just one more thing he’d been wearing around his neck..."
Ok, yeah, sure, it's beautifully rendered, just like the rest of the essay. And it's meaningful and poignant and appropriate. But is anyone else tired of (narrative, personal) essays that bring up memory and forgetting? Especially at important or climactic moments? I understand that essays lend themselves to considerations of memory, but when an essay goes in that direction I get turned off, bored. If only because so many essays feel the need to scratch that itch, as though it hasn't been scratched already, probably by that same author, in that same collection/issue, whatever. It's starting to feel like an empty gesture.
Anyone else getting tired of this? Am I just being bitchy? Maybe a better question, are there some recent essays that bring memory to the forefront in a new way?
Monday, January 25, 2010
The way they use design varies pretty substantially from piece to piece, and designer to designer, and I'm sure that each of their designers thinks about the function of design differently.
To the new issue, though: two essays deserve some of our time. Stephan Clark's "My Year of European Underwear" is hilarious and worth the read, though if you're squeamish about testicle-related trauma you may want to skip it (but I hope you won't, since it's worth the ride). That's not the one I'm talking about here. Like the essay, its design is pretty straightforward.
Another, "Real Men Don't Cry," by Sarah Klenbort, is almost unreadable (and not in a constructive or interesting way) through its design. Klenbort's essay takes what seems at first like a fairly tired idea, that of gender stereotypes and idealizations, and the double standard pretty much all of us apply with regard to gender, though some of us try to work against that. It's 23 segments (cool), each a strand in the braid of the essay (cool). Some are facts about the incidence of violence (both the acceptable kind--football, say--and the unacceptable kind--murder, say, or dogfighting) in Western culture. Some are more personal, as you'd expect. The literary history it brings to the table is its best note, talking Shakespeare and Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus and working the essay into an argument that is actually fairly surprising in the end.
But the design here is tough to take. The essay's segments are numbered to begin with, so the decision to assign different fonts (at least four different fonts are deployed in this essay, maybe more, some serif, some not), italics, small caps, changing font sizes, all caps, bold, underlining--all of this what we would refer to in my grad school workshops as typographical trickery (sometimes as "cheating," which always struck me as bogus)--is herein bogus. I suppose the idea behind this was to render each individual strand more obviously in the greater whole of the essay.
Which is entirely unnecessary. The reader is smart enough to tell "3. The average American child watches 200,000 acts of violence and 1,600 murders on television by the age of eighteen" from "7. When I was six months pregnant..." without having to render the first as all-small caps, underlined, in a smaller, sans serif font (whereas 7 is rendered in more traditional prose typography). It doesn't add anything at all. Worse, it condescends and obscures.
Let me be clear: I'm all for writers using the tools at their disposal (design, desktop publishing, those buttons in the corner of the Microsoft Word screen, etc.) to make meaning more elegant, beautiful, violent, interesting, or clear.
Yet the familiar objection to using typography to signify something as simple as denoting who's speaking, or someone shouting, or whatever is valid because ideally we're using design to achieve an effect because it is the simplest, most elegant, best way to meaning, not because it's the easiest way, even if it's kind of clunky and obtrusive, and maybe we could do it better via the craft of our sentences. (And let's admit it: we all need to work on our sentences.)
And there is certainly a value in limiting the ability of writers to deploy the tools of typography to turn in a beautifully-designed and typeset page that mimics the look and authority of the printed page, thus copping a faux authority that can short-circuit some of our abilities to read the words and not just how the words look. We want to be able to tear each others' work up if we can, to tear our own work up, so we don't settle for the draft that looked pretty on the page in that sweet new font we're in love with.
But the design of Klenbort's essay serves nothing, and certainly not the writer's words. At first glance it looks cool and complicated from a typographical standpoint (though those two things are not always equivalent), but in reading, it serves to flatten the tonal shifts from one strand to another, to make things obvious, so obvious for the reader. This reader reads it as pandering, and it made me much more likely to take issue with Klenbort's prose which, like her argument, is actually pretty good when you're not bitching about the design (which is almost impossible for me to do).
On the flipside, April Freely's essay ("Garden Valley") supplement to the issue (the issue has three separately-bound and -packaged supplements) is a lovely example of an effective and subdued design that flatters the essay. Freely's essay is laid out landscape on the page in two columns. Text runs concurrently down the pages which are all attached, accordion-style, so that you could stretch the whole thing out on a wall and just read down, scroll-style. This buttresses the natural design of the actual writing (provided that this was how the essay was written, which I have to imagine must have been the case) and strips almost everything else away. The essay is typeset in a small serif font (same font), left column right-justified and right column left-justified, with a stroke down the middle to separate the two.
The essay is occasionally oblique, elliptical; it's not totally clear how you're meant to read it (like a regular page, left to right, then start left again? or a few lines left then a few lines right). I don't mind that kind of thing. There are a number of places where we get some nice crossovers, which is what you'd want out of a piece like this, though they don't always connect obviously, which creates an unbalancing effect which I find frustrating, but not so much that it takes me out of the essay. It's about the space between black english vernacular and "correct english" as well as the space/divide between oral and written, between at least two different kinds of spaces and within those space ("I mean I can feel the space between each syllable" ... "The words were separable and this was essential"). Obviously the essay goes pretty poetic, since it's mostly paired (or not) strophes rather than paragraphs. And it breaks up in places and is generally quite lovely and lyric and formal.
The enclosing folder is doing something else, maybe connecting to one of the other supplements. I'm not totally sure about that yet, but it's not particularly distracting.
And one of the luxe features (Ninth Letter loves its luxe features) of this design is that the essay is letterpressed. Black on white, yes. The stroke down the center isn't printed with ink; it's just blank but imprinted. Also a nice touch. And the letterpress suggests the divide between oral and print even more dramatically, the space between these authorities. It also looks (and feels) cool. Here the design serves writing, serves meaning, which is what design ought to do, whether it's in the hands of designers or writers.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Friday, January 22, 2010
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
At the least I plan on listing the apparent essay content of the many literary magazines that come across my desk. I'd like if y'all would do the same here. Then if you'd like to talk about an issue, a journal, or an essay (or a trend in essaying) that you're hot and bothered by, this would be a good space for that (along with things like Brevity's blog (on the sidebar) which is a fellow traveler here).
If you'd like Essay Daily to track and write about a magazine you're involved in, please add us to your subscription list:
EssayDaily c/o Ander Monson
University of Arizona, ML 445,
1423 E. University, PO Box 210067
Tucson AZ 85721
"The dead bird that was in my freezer until recently didn't technically die from colliding with a window."
then into the past, the context for the essay and the author's admittedly odd (to us) interest in the subject:
"My father is a bryologist, a collector of mosses, and my mother was the daughter of a bryologist, so the impulse to accumulate things for any kind of study or measurement was not discouraged during my childhood."
What I love about this essay is that it goes from odd to odder. We are in a world populated by bryologists, by taxidermists, in which a lot of strange things can happen quickly, and which nothing seems strange while it's happening (key technique).
The essay goes on to recount a conversation with the writer's brother in which he, when hearing about the dead bird in the freezer, gets giddy about the possibility of getting the bird stuffed. The essay then extends to a set of longer interactions with taxidermists, the legal trouble with getting a migratory bird stuffed (hint: it's illegal), the author's volunteering with the Audobon Society's Project Safe Flight team to go help them collect dead birds, more conversations with hunters and taxidermists, a discussion of the process of gutting and stuffing birds, ending up with a great scene visiting Cornell University's Museum of Vertebrates. The subject matter and devotion to that subject matter is partly what makes this thing, er, fly, along with the solid sentencing throughout.
This is my favorite essay in this particular issue of Fourth Genre, which is on the whole a nice diversion from the previous aesthetic direction of the journal. I can't imagine Jenny Boully's essay, for instance, appearing in Fourth Genre until the editorial mantle recently shifted to Marcia Aldrich. I'm glad for this. This is a good piece, both Jenny's and Sarah's, and a little more expansive view of nonfiction on the whole. The issue in general is solid, but this one's my favorite of the bunch (close second: Jenny Boully's; there's also a good review of Jenny Boully's essaywork which is worth the read, both review and her work, if you're unfamiliar).
Heather Sellers, "Becoming a Mouth"
Sara Crosby, "The Black and White"
Ander Monson, "Geas"
Donna Steiner, "Elements of the Wind"
Gladys Haunton, "Privy Council: Revelations in an Outdoor Toilet"
Maggie McKnight, "Mother's Day"
Lisa K. Buchanan, "Rules for the Clinic Escort"
David Torrey Peters, "The Dressing Room"
Jenny Boully, "from NOT MERELY BECAUSE OF THE UNKNOWN THAT WAS STALKING TOWARDS THEM"
Joy Castro, "Grip"
Tom Whalen, "Carlier and Kayerts"
Catherine Taylor, "Duffer's Drift"
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, "Reality Tour"
Chris Abani, "Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other"
Kelle Groom, "from CITY OF SHOES"
Arielle Greenberg & Rachel Zucker, "from HOME/BIRTH"
Yelizaveta P. Renfro, "Translation Perevod"
Ander Monson, "If I Had a Heart I'd Die In It: Writing the Midwest"
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, "Ash"; "Brotherhood"; "Wreath"
Marcia Aldrich, "The Mother Essay"
Patrick Madden, "Where Am I Now?"
Chawawn Kelley, "International Geophysical Year"
Brian Teare, "On Prose"
Katie Hae Leo, "Going Back: a Story in Letters"
Sima Rabinowitz, "Bread/Bred in Concordance"
Dinah Lenney, "In the Frame"
Cheryl Strayed, "Kestrel Avenue"