Monday, May 13, 2013

Paul Lisicky on The Fugue, Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother, DFW, and the Resistance to the One Thing

1. Rainy night, windy night. Subway Platform, A Train, 59th Street, Columbus Circle. Four bearded young men huddle by the turnstiles, lift their horns and begin to play Bach. Four melodies, four tones fill the tunnel at once. My eye fix on the tracks, on the junk down there. A little rat runs through the junk. Like everyone else on the platform, I pretend I’m not a struck tuning fork. That’s what the city exacts of us. We’re already dreaming into the thing we’re on the way to: workout, hookup, business deal, drink, dinner, that meeting with an editor. And yet something important is going on here. I know it, I suspect the men and women beside me know it. It’s our secret. This isn’t just music, but a village. Four voices in conversation, mimicking, talking back to one another. Sometimes in sync, sometimes in argument. I think there is something beautiful moving among them, between them. The sounds lean into one another. They lift us above the trash. The one light of my train is coming up the tunnel. Soon the village will be taken down into the noise of it, but that’s all right: that’s a part of the pact. Perhaps the playing (and listening) wouldn’t be so animated if there weren’t some shared awareness of interruption. And then it occurs to me: this might not just be a village we’re listening to but something nearer, inside us. It’s the sound of consciousness, the song of the human brain thinking four different things at once.

2. Simultaneity: the dream of getting that on the page. The composer has counterpoint. Or more typically: harmony. In pop music, bass line, drum, keyboard, vocal, etc. Many layers in the simplest piece of music, but in writing? One voice at a time, the tyranny of the singular. Not that words aren’t freighted with multiple associations, not that we don’t have puns, rhymes. But how does one begin to write consciousness on the page? Virginia Woolf made use of parentheses. David Foster Wallace tried the foot note. As D.T. Max says, the foot note was D.F.W.’s way to capture “all the caveats, micro-thoughts, meta-moments, of [the] hyperactive mind.” But all that leaping about, all those gaps in time between taking in the primary text and its subordinates. It doesn’t exactly happen with the grace of the fugue, even if there is something oddly stimulating about being wrenched back and forth between two tracks. It’s a little like being in the hands of a taxing trainer, who tells you to do ten lunges, ten chin ups, ten lunges again.

3. On pages 22-23 of Alison Bechdel’s book-length graphic essay Are You My Mother we have tables of romantic attachments, tables of therapists. A drawing of a young mother inside a circle, cigarette poised between fingertips. Boxed interpretations of D.W. Winnicott’s theories of the mother-infant relationship. A graphic representation of an exchange between the speaker and her therapist. Graphics at some (comic) odds with the fraught content of the exchange. A boxed statement concerning the “involuntary torrent of words and images” that came to Virginia Woolf in the writing of Mrs. Dalloway. Somehow these two pages manage to be orderly, meaningful, orchestrated. We’re given space to process this material. But graphics set their own terms, and we’re once again shunted back to the limitations of mere words.

4. ANONYMOUS: “A fugue is a piece of music in which the voices come in one after another and the audience go out one after another.”

5. MICHEL FOUCAULT, Of Other Spaces, 1967: “The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the side-by-side, of the dispersed...of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.”

6. I have a short attention span. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like an idiot, but I’ll risk it anyway. By that I mean a sensitivity to too-much-ness. The door swings open; too much light comes in with that flood. My eyes hurt. My brain aches. I need to pull the door closed before I can open it up again. Open-close-open-close-open: that’s the story of perception to me. Which is another way of saying the story of reading, writing.
     But that’s only half of what I’m struggling to say. I think my resistance might be to the One Thing. In my imagination the One Thing can loom like a Giant telling me to think this way, not that. The Giant prevents multiple viewpoints, The Giant ignores the fact that there are other truths, other colors, other sexualities: in-betweenness, paradox, ambivalence. The Giant can only see what’s in front of him. I need to look to the left and right of the Giant’s big feet. I need the village. I need the space between oncoming trains in order to hear the music in the tunnel.

7. No surprise we perceive in short bursts given the flood that’s coming toward us: 30 percent more information than 30 years ago. DFW anticipated it himself, from years back, when he talked of footnotes: “They might make the primary text an easier read while...[mimicking] the information flood and data-triage I expect would be an even bigger part of US life fifteen years hence.”

8. My best friend has brain cancer. My mother has dementia. Though they are decades apart in age, they share some of the same symptoms at the end, a loss of tact, a tendency to mash one layer of time into the next. They die within weeks of each other, one at the beginning of the summer, one at the end. The deaths of our beloveds are to be expected in every life, but I’m stunned by these losses, especially by the loss of my friend, who is unexpectedly easier to miss than my mom, who was gone long ago. In the months after her death, I start to write a book about her. She would love a book about her--a love song of sorts--even though it feels like hell to do it. I don’t want to say my friend is dead, I don’t want to say: the world is dangerous, brutal now, ugly. I want to write about joy. I try my best to represent my friend in emblems--”moments of being,” as Virginia Woolf would call them-- but the emblems aren’t enough. They’re not the whole story. The whole story is: a climate out of whack, rising water, a tsunami, an uncapped oil well slopping beaches, mangroves. Dolphins dead in the marshes. What’s outside the body is also inside, which is why the book must move back and forth between two tracks. The structure doesn’t quite resound with the simultaneity of the horn players but I’m once again dealing with the fact that words aren’t wind.

9. MICHAEL HAMMER, What’s in a Name... Fugue: “In a few seconds, this voice will be joined by a second voice, imitating it, at what we call a fifth higher....Now, it is one of the secrets of fugue writing that you have to know the best way to bring in that second voice--exactly as the first, or by ‘fudging’ it a little. There are rules for that, too. Then, after a brief bit of ‘connective tissue’ we arrive back in the original key, and a third voice enters, again with the subject. If there are four, or five, voices (Bach once wrote one with six!) the same thing happens with their entrances, alternating between the original notes and five notes up from the first. The whole section is called the subject area. During the arrival of the additional voices, the old ones keep on ‘singing’ but they do not have to keep to any particular tunes, because the newly arrived ones are not going to keep imitating them. It is only the subject that is important....When all the voice entrancing has been accomplished, they all begin to dance around according to the inspiration of the composer. This more optional section is usually referred to as an episode, as in ‘I’m having an episode, and if you don’t go away I may have another one.’”

10. What else could I do? If I had a stack of transparencies I’d print one passage per page, hold them up to the light, so you could see each text burning into the next.


Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and Unbuilt Projects. His work has appeared in The Awl, Fence, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Tin House, Unstuck, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction and nonfiction in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden. A new nonfiction book, The Narrow Door, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2014.

1 comment:

  1. There is something very comforting about the structure of this piece, coming back to the train tracks, even though they are launching out in different directions. I love the way you weave about but steadily and how the eruption of noise, though disconcerting, is just what we need to really feel that moment. I am learning a lot about essay through this piece. Beautiful.