Friday, December 16, 2016

12/16: Lawrence Lenhart, Parasitic Meme Transfusion and the Biography of “You” Through “Us”


For extra income, mom typed her boss’s chicken-scratch memoirs: a chronology of his greatness, his executive legacy. After dinner, she read excerpts to us aloud. We clucked at his hubris. The humblebragging, peacocking, laurel-sitting, nimbus-straightening hubris. This was not memoir; it was autohagiography.

Mom was encouraged to make substantive changes too, to intervene on Fosler’s behalf if the prose was unclear, the story half-baked, the conclusions not staggering enough. No red flags back then. This boss-man memoir whose every page was typed and kneaded by a bargain secretary was clearly for the sake of posterity, just something for the grandkids to read.

It was fun to annotate over mom’s shoulder. Often scatological, we swapped all his superlatives for excrement. He and his wife had not a marvelous evening among philanthropists, but a dingleberry evening among fartfaces. It was our very own rendition of “The Aristocrats.” Paranoid that she’d left the offending word in place, she read the memoir aloud, twice, before submitting it to him. Before Frank, before Angelou, before Wiesel, and way before Patti Smith, the first memoir I ever “read” (or heard read) was Fosler’s.

Fuck that guy. I’d rather praise mom for the velocity of her typing. You could tell she was a professional secretary because of the way she sat upright at the desk and never, ever looked at the keyboard. Her extra income invariably found its way into my hands. With it, I’d buy gut-loaded crickets (for my dragon) and matinee movie tickets (for me and my middle school girlfriend). I must have seen Moulin Rouge! six times that summer.


After watching a biopic, I seek out interviews with the lead actor. What methods have enabled these transformations? Many mention forfeiture. “I had to unlearn my dance style,” Jennifer Lopez says, “and learn hers.” Even though she and Selena Quintanilla-Pérez both share Latin rhythm, Lopez had to be sure “to not let Jennifer come up and to let Selena come out.” There’s adoption too as when Natalie Portman adopts Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s phonic tics: “I really watched and listened to the tapes of the original White House tour over and over and over again… to even figure out like where she stumbled on words or where she took a breath.” Jaoquin Phoenix opted out of transference when playing Johnny Cash, refusing to draw on personal memories because he claims it’s confusing. “It’s very difficult for me to be reminded of myself,” Phoenix said to CNN. “From the very beginning when I start working on a character it’s to create their experience and their history… I can’t contain both things.”


Enter Chaulky White. This overview of the book object, 'SSES" 'SSES" "SSEY'(Calamari Archive, Ink., 2015), comes from the author’s’[1] site:
'SSES" 'SSES" "SSEY' is a book object that is based/ extrapolates on an MFA thesis Kevin White wrote in 1990 entitled 'SSES" 'SSES" wherein he recapitulated Joyce’s Ulysses’ recapitulation of Homer's Odyssey to a trip he took across Asia in search of his father (who committed suicide in 1982). 'SSES" 'SSES" "SSEY' takes this recapitulation 1 step further, folding in his journals, unpublished stories + artwork he made before himself dying of a heroin overdose in 1997. The super-scripted "SSEY' represents his brother Derek's editorial role in compiling the book—in belatedly finishing the Telemachean pursuit, searching recursively for his brother searching in parallel for their father. Chaulky is the pen name given to their combined effort.
The surviving brother-cum-editor of this book [Derek] mentions in a footnote that “a part of Kevin (upon his death) transferred to [him] like some parasitic meme transfusion (or vice-versa).” It’s the vice-versa-ness that enigmatizes this book. Because Chaulky White is a three-legged composite of the brothers White, this book evades categorization. It can’t be biography what with the majority of the book’s content having been generated by the biographical subject. Nor is it exclusively auto- (think Kurt Cobain’s Journals) since the editor freely, virtuosically cuts in to make note of the provenance of a photo, perhaps captioning it, contextualizing it, even speculating on its patina, endlessly layering, gesturing, conjecturing. Chaulky is not some vapid documentarian performing joyless sense-making against a brother’s ambitious thesis and untimely death. Instead, 'SSES" 'SSES" "SSEY' is topsy-turvy biographical collage.


Jesus excluded, Abraham Lincoln is the most written-about biographical figure in history. In 2012, historians literalized Lincoln’s status as a “towering figure” by collaborating on a 34-foot tower made entirely of books about Lincoln. When considering this bibliophallus, one must ask the question: Why so many books on Lincoln? Is it because, in a sea of 15,000 titles, there’s less pressure to write something “definitive”? Or is it because, as Daniel Day Lewis puts it, “when you begin to approach [Lincoln], he almost instantly becomes welcoming and accessible, the way he was in life.” In The New York Times interview, Lewis is characteristically coy when it comes to talking about his method acting:
There’s a tendency now to deconstruct and analyze everything… and I think that’s a self-defeating part of the enterprise… I need to believe that there is a cohesive mystery that ties all these things together, and I try not to separate them.
Conventional biography, from bio- (life) and -graphia (writing), is a genre that celebrates life for life’s sake. It moves in the direction of the life—linearly, and if appropriate, arc-wise. If acting is among the most robust forms of storytelling, then we must acknowledge method actors cast in biopics for what they really are: thespian biographers.


There are inherent risks to being a biographer in thrall to their subject. In the case of Chaulky White, Derek is subsumed by his subject. He goes underwater for a look-see, and becomes the current. Or in the case of Kelcey Parker Ervick’s The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová (Rose Metal Press, 2016)—a compendium of correspondences, fairy tales, postcards, and other ephemera—Ervick gets so near to the “Mother of Czech Prose,” she begins writing letters to her. On the other side of this séance, Němcová waits with a letter opener. The biography enters the dimension of the paranormal. We wait to see if Němcová will write back.


In the Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association (2010), Nancy Gershman and Jenna Baddeley describe the visual componentry of a Healing Dreamscape. It is a “hybrid object: a photomontage populated with people, scenery, and objects from the griever’s personal life that hold positive connotations for them. It integrates disparate images into a whole, meshing fantasy, reality, past, present, and future.” This description is reminiscent of Guy Peelaert and Nik Cohn’s photomontages from 20th-Century Dreams, or just dreams themselves. The Healing Dreamscape is a form of what we’ve been calling, with paradoxical vim: speculative nonfiction.

Kevin White’s MFA thesis and Božena Němcová’s writings traffic in phantasmagoria to begin with. White’s MFA thesis begins something like this: “After summoning the wooing muses, Telemachus the artist fires up his [illegible] + finds hisself hovering over an actor playing hisself (in turn flying over our childhood home).” Němcová’s “It is Sad in the Garden!”, excerpted in Ervick’s biography of the Czech writer, refers to an “enchantingly beautiful apparition, the nymphlike maiden [who] smiles at her.’ To build a Healing Dreamscape from this source material only elevates the native haze. Derek White and Kelcey Parker Ervick (the bereaved, respectively) insinuate themselves into the story by honoring the sensibilities of the deceased through collage.


In a recent issue of New England Review, Vincent Czyz wrote an essay entitled “Collage and the Secret Adventures of Order.” In it, he talks about dérive (“literally, drift”), which the Situationist International Anthology describes as “a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances.” When we encounter collage, with its muddled linearity—a pinball machine with “constant currents, fixed points and vortex which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones,” our vision (and therefore, cognition) drifts with the current of the page, fixating or averting depending on the collagist’s compositional strategies.

When a person’s material life is on the page in this manner—passport, visa, journal entry, painting, schematic, photograph, private correspondence, etc.—it’s not that person, but the assembler we’re examining, the way they’ve enabled artifacts to fall into sympathy with one another (Ducornet’s phrase). We’re processing the mosaic whole, and not merely (/not ever:) the elemental. “We follow a constellation of ideas, associations, or relevant images,” Czyz says. “Collage entails growth, accretion, chance, asymmetry, intuition, and of course the unconscious, [an] assemblage [which] hints at an undercurrent, a subterranean tendency—as iron filings reveal the contours and intangible ribs of a magnetic field.”

Biographical collage is the point at which life for life’s sake is transformed into something else entirely. Vivian, from Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying,” claims bad art imitates life and nature, elevating the natural into an ideal. Here, I think of the boss-man’s memoir: the perfect life he thought he had led. Vivian advocates instead for a life that imitates art, translating nature into “artistic conventions.” Her third doctrine is contrarian, a bit misanthropic: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Czyz, in his obsessing over the “geodesic lines” of a seashell (the implicit force field in its patterning) would likely agree with Vivian that:
What art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out.

“Dear Božena,” Ervick writes to the shrouded iconoclast. Kundera, Kafka, and Rilke have reserved their places in the central European canon, and Němcová too, but this biography of the latter is overdue. “Dear B.,” “Dear B.,” “Dear B.,” Ervick writes and writes into the void, a one-sided address, making up for too much silence. “You were a writer­—spisovatelka—and a bestseller,” Ervick informs Němcová in retrospect. “But you were a bestseller too late.” Ervick wants literary justice for Němcová: better late than never. She calls attention to the lateness by anachronizing Němcová. Ervick stands among hundreds of Czechs at a Springsteen concert, all of them shouting in ironic unity, “I was born in the U-S-A!” Němcová died in Prague, 122 years before the song was released, before the Boss’s sentiment was unleashed. Němcová is Ervick’s little secret writ large in the compilation of this biography.
Your husband, whom no one remembers, once told you: 'No one will ever remember you.'

I finally got it: a Czech typewriter… I typed your name over and over, accents and all.

Every quadrant of every page of 'SSES" 'SSES" "SSEY' is its own palimpsest. One navigates through the book like one might a hoarder’s house—small-stepped, swivel-necked. In the event of blank space, Chaulky fills it, writes: “BLANK SPACE.” Or he recapitulates the previous pages. There are letters to grandparents, refrigerator art, fine art, and data entries that would make Georges Perec squeal. There’s even, in a brief blip of adolescent braggadocio, a bowling score sheet from Valley Lanes; Derek, with his double turkey, beat out Kevin and their buddies. Derek warns his readers early on:
while i (Derek) myself do not make a habit of xpository writing, i feel in this case it is somewhat necessary in order to understand Kevin’s otherwise abstract texts + images. At least thru our college years, my brother-½ was always the right-brained artist (in fact he was left-handed), while i was the left-brained + right-handed <<scientist>>1 (tho more recently i’ve become ambidextrous)
After a few ground rules, the book accretes into fragments from Kevin’s thesis and journal, these two bodies of text always buttressed by other text-based accouterment. On page 165, we learn about Derek’s initial reaction to Kevin’s thesis. Writing with his left hand (because a stonefish bit his right (see ambidextrous above)), Derek scribbles back to his brother that the thesis is “very unaccessible [sic] (And I’m your own brother).” This letter, written 24 years before the publication of 'SSES" 'SSES" "SSEY', shares little of the editorial gusto evidenced in the current iteration of the book.


By collaborating with their biographical subjects—whether by photocopying, corresponding, compiling, or editorializing—Kelcey Parker Ervick and Chaulky White opt to anatomize, not singularize, the life story. Through the nonlinear property of collage, these books time travel and hack into the very mindscapes that inspired them.


On rare occasions, for promotional purposes, an actor will interview with the biographical figure they’ve just portrayed. For example, Rolling Stone’s interview with John Cusack and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson:
Sitting beside Wilson, Cusack turns to the singer: ‘It had to be eerie, to see us dressed like you.’ Wilson nods. "It was like going back to the past and the present both."

Lawrence Lenhart studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh and holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His essay collection, The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage, was published in 2016 (Outpost19). His prose appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner,, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He is a professor of fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor at DIAGRAM.

[1] It’s hard to say, really, if Chaulky is a singular or plural possessive.

1 comment:

  1. "What art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out." Actually, no, I would not agree with that. Nor do I think the essay supports that assertion. In a proverbial nutshell, the essay agrees with A. Pope: "All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee; All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see." That might be putting it a bit strongly (I think there's plenty of wiggle room), but the essay was about how hidden/unseen orders surface (or how we might perceive X or Y as the surfacing of an unseen order). While I don't think you mischaracterized my position or my essay, and I'm grateful that you read it--even more so that you found something in it worth quoting--I wanted to clarify that. Thanks for your thoughts here.