Friday, August 28, 2020

Syntax Club: "XL.-XLIII. Photographs: Origin of Time; Jeats; The Meek; I am a Beast"

 Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

As any Syntax Club readers may have noticed, I've been away from the project for a bit due to being repeatedly, violently unseated from the saddle of "responsible, organized, productive life" by an opponent known as "attempting to provide remote instruction to high school students during a pandemic". We only have a few sections left--keep an eye out for those over the next week.

Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


Geryon takes a series of photographs: one of four people sitting at a table, one of his pant leg, one of a couple of burros, one of a cooked guinea pig arranged on a platter; while up in the mountains of Huaraz Geryon gets incredibly high and experiences a profound sense of isolation & a desire for intimacy; while traversing the mountainous region Geryon also experiences a good deal of hemorrhoid pain; after a brief interaction with the military police the whole crew is invited over to the soldier's bunkhouse for lunch, where they learn that the nearby volcano is active & hear a folktale about bakers using magma as fire for their ovens.


Volcanoes! Finally! Are we to the point where some of that stuff starts to resolve?

Almost, my friends! We will see Geryon and a volcano together up close and personal very soon.

Is Geryon a good photographer?

Hard to tell from the information available, but it seems to me like he has at least some talent for the discipline.

Should we read the "Photograph:..." sections as snapshots? How does these sections or moments vary from the ones that were thematically titled ("Justice") or more narratively driven ("Sex Question")?

These final sections are more charged than many of the previous ones--their density, their luminosity, their thematic implications start to skyrocket as we get closer to the novel's end, so there's probably a value in thinking of them as literary photographs in a way that the earlier sections maybe weren't. Carson also plays around with the "Photographs:..." device a little bit though, as we will see in a few days when we finish out the novel.


It is a photograph of four people sitting around a table with hands in front of them. (136)

In this, the final stretch of the novel-in-verse, we get to see more of Geryon in action as a photographer--though interestingly, we spend almost no time watching him directly engage in the process of photography. Rather, 6 out of the final 7 sections start by giving us a photograph's title & a short description before leaping into a scene around or adjacent to the creation of the photograph. There's a willful flatness to the way each is introduced: it is a photograph of..., and there's some interesting movement going on (should we read these moments of Geryon's life as photos, as snapshots?). The sections addressed in today's post seem straightforwardly to reference literal photographs the character took, but that relationship gets a little more complicated as we move forward. It's an interesting parallel sequence in part because of how Carson plays around with the implications of the structure.

& I also love the strangeness of position at work: around a table with hands in front of them, not their hands but just hands. Strangeness makes sense, of course, given that Geryon was extremely high for this sequence.

Coldness was planing the sides off his vision leaving a narrow canal down which
the shock--Geryon sat
on the floor suddenly. (136)

Two things I noticed: first, the classic use of the em-dash for an abrupt or sudden break in the relationship between syntax and psychology (a relationship we might sometimes take for granted, living in an environment in which a kind of close, psychologically-embedded 3rd person narration is standard, normal, familiar, default). We get a syntactical replication of sides planing off and vision narrowing down through the absence of punctuation (no comma joining vision and leaving) while the sheer length of the line draws us deeper down, deeper into that same canal--but then the sudden, abrupt movement (tacked on with the dash) shocks us out and back to a more distant viewpoint.

Secondly, the abstracted agency of coldness is a fascinating choice; Carson nominalizes the adjective cold as coldness (the more rarefied, theoretical framing for the sensation, maybe) rather than rendering it as the cold which was planing the sides off his vision. Would be interesting to see somebody with more linguistic chops than me do a kind of miniature corpus analysis on how she plays with and slides around categories (adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives, possessives turned into adjectives, etc etc etc).

I am too naked,
he thought. This thought seemed profound.
And I want to be in love with someone. This too fell on him deeply. (136)

A very amusing sequence of register shifts here, alternating between direct reports of Geryon's expansive, celestial, very very high internal monologue and a narrative position both empathetic, understanding, and a little wry about the profound nature of those deep thoughts.

Wrongness came like a lone finger
chopping through the room and he ducked. (136)

Wrongness is another interesting abstraction, equally active and menacing as the coldness we saw above. I love the rhythm and pace of the two actions, and how that manifests syntactically. The feeling of wrongness (mostly like pot-driven anxiety or dread, at least in part) is rendered through a full, fleshy clause with a prepositional phrase and a simile embedded within--it draws out the sentence and with it the sensation itself. But then the actual physical action is short, simple, sudden: just a pronoun and a verb. I imagine this is a nice encapsulation of the experience our stoned mythic protagonist is having.

Each time the car bounces him up and down Geryon utters a little red cry. (137)
Geryon's hot apple icepicks
all the way up his anus to his spine. (137)

Geryon's hemorrhoids are an amusing detail for sure, but I also love the strangeness of the description to these two bits. Red cry swiftly reminds us that we're dealing with a mythic subject who has previously been established as ontologically co-extensive (at least in part) with a particular adjective, but there's an endearing pathos to this mythic dimension coming up again in the context of his searing hemorrhoids.

A few lines later we get hot apple icepicks all the way up his anus to his spine, which is another example of Carson's talent for odd-yet-exact description (inflamed rectal veins as a hot apple is frankly an amazing conceit). Icepicks is also an interesting move in that it takes an object and converts it into a verb which is used metaphorically to describe something relatively far removed from the original object's intended action (it would be more boring if something were to icepick all the way up a glacier, yeah? but as a metaphor for hemorrhoids--now we're talking!).
A greasy grin passes around the soldiers. (139)

Struck here by the use of passes around to in reference to a single grin. Of course, all of the soldiers are breaking out into grins more or less at once, as a collective, but Carson chooses to render the visual experience of that as a single thing being shared collectively. An interesting way of emphasizing how a collective or group can operate in some ways as a single beast.

In the cooling left eye of the guinea pig
they all stand reflected
pulling out their chairs and shaking hands. The eye empties. (140)

We've seen this type of reflected shot before, during a memory of Geryon coming home from a high school dance and cleaning up the kitchen while eyeing himself in the kettle. The heavy emphasis on eye here recalls that as well as all the photography stuff (a lens is a kind of eye, after all), but that last line where the eye empties is also setting us up for some action later down the road.



Take a noun, preferably an object or tool, and turn it into a verb (see: icepick becoming icepicks). Use it in a context (metaphoric, most likely) far removed from the original contexts of the object (see: the things icepicking are hemorrhoids).

Screwing with Communal Actions

Re-cast individual behavior in a group such that the individual behavior achieves a kind of collective quality (see: rather than the soldiers individually grinning a grin passed around the group).

Wry Register Shifts

Alternate between sentences reporting thoughts (your own, somebody else's, an imaginary interlocutors, whatever you like) and sentences with essayistic or narrative commentary on those thoughts (see: that sequence where Geryon is stoned and feeling things deeply and in a profound way).

Adjective, Noun, and -ness

When describing a force that can exist in either adjective or noun form (see: cold as adjective versus the cold, dark as adjective verse the dark) substitute in a nominalized form ending in -ness (coldness, darkness, etc) and see how that changes the sense of the passage.


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Syntax Club: "XXXVIII. Car"; "XXXIX. Huaraz"

 Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

As any Syntax Club readers may have noticed, I've been away from the project for a bit due to being repeatedly, violently unseated from the saddle of "responsible, organized, productive life" by an opponent known as "attempting to provide remote instruction to high school students during a pandemic". We only have a few sections left--keep an eye out for those over the next week.

Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


Geryon and crew head off from Lima to visit Huaraz in the high Andes; Geryon spends most of the ride engrossed with the edge of Herakles' face, engrossed in the cloud of familiar distance between them; once ensconced in the mountains the boys find themselves struck by the sharp relations of their new elevation; Geryon fears that he may be disappearing but that the photographs were worth it, at least in part because raising a camera to one's face has effects no one can calculate in advance.


The relationship between Geryon and Herakles seems both intense, overwhelming, perma-bonded and also insubstantial, clouded, ephemeral. What's the relationship between intimacy and distance at work here? And does that relate to our central photography metaphors?

Carson has a book on eros as a kind of absence, or gap, or lack (hence why it is so frequently cast as a bittersweet, driving force in classical works). I suspect something similar is at work here: Geryon is undeniably latched on to this boy, like it or not, but the cloud between them (which Geryon is aware he shouldn't return to) is a kind of abyss or gulf: not diveable, not navigable, not resolvable. Interesting too that here Geryon is focused in this section on edges and relations, which suggests a certain lack of interpersonal connection, or continuity, or something maybe.

Is all this volcano stuff going to resolve into something more concrete eventually? It's kind of hard to keep track of all the balls Carson throws in the air, especially while we also attempt some kind of essayistic-something.

The increasingly frequent (almost annoyingly so) volcano conceits do start to resolve very soon, I promise!

Geryon was in the back seat watching the edge of Herakles' face. (131)

A beautifully effective line which captures the relative emotional position of Geryon in physical terms: behind the object of his desire, watching it but unable to be watched in turn, lingering around the edge. Though now that I think on it more it strikes me that faces don't actually have firm edges per se--more of a folding in, not a clear and sharp boundary demarcation. 

He had dreamed of thorns. A forest of huge blackish-brown thorn trees
where creatures that looked
like young dinosaurs (yet they were strangely lovely) went crashing
through underbrush and tore
their hides which bell behind them in long red strips. (131)

Tons of fast, energetic movement to this dream sequence. The initial object of focus is set up in clear, simple, colorful language which gives way to agents within it (the dino-like creatures), we get a brief interlude or intrusion from a voice (Carson's? Geryon's? the ghost of Stesichoros'?) pointing out how lovely the creatures are before they rip themselves apart and render themselves only as smatterings of color, as long red strips--which brings us back to the initial focus, the thorns.

Geryon watched children in spotless uniforms with pointy white collars
emerge from the cardboard houses
and make their way along the edge of the highways laughing jumping holding
their bookbags high. Then Lima ended. (132)

Alternating syntax length (long->short) made all the more intense by the asyndeton which gives us a single stream of verbs: laughing jumping holding their bookbags high. The effect is set up to mirror Geryon's gaze in the backseat, plowing by all these faces before they plunge out of the city.

Even when they were lovers
he had never known what Herakles was thinking. Once in a while he would say
Penny for your thoughts!
and it always turned out to be some odd thing like a bumper sticker or a dish
he'd eaten in a Chinese restaurant years ago.
What Geryon was thinking Herakles never asked. In the space between them
developed a dangerous cloud. (132)

In addition to the characterization being amusing, there's a strong but subtle parallelism at work here: Geryon had never known while Herakles had never asked what the other was thinking. The seeming vacuity or flatness of Herakles' responses (bumper sticker, Chinese food) is framed by a parallel structure emphasizing the disparity of their positions. Interestingly, the movement of this jumps backwards quite suddenly, giving us a broader view: what lies between them is not just vacuous but dangerous--some kind of cloud.

It seemed
that darkness had descended but then the car rounded a curve and the sky
rushed open before them--
bowl of gold where the last moments of sunset were exploding--then another curve
and blackness snuffed out all. (133)

Dropping in a particularly lush piece of description (bowl of gold) via em-dashes at precisely the moment a character would have observed or experience the thing being described is a neat way of working in some imagery.

It is very high. The altitude will set your heart humping. The town is held in a ring
of bare sandrock mountains
but to the north rises one sudden angular fist of total snow. (134)

Sudden angular fist of total snow deserves praise for its richness, its imaginative easiness, but also the unexpected movement of its internal logic. Also: has our you returned to the text now?

It rises in sharp relations
of light towards the first of snow. (134)

Sharp relations of light is lovely in three ways: it provides an excellent visual image of the street; it recalls and reinforces the language of photography, the discipline practiced by our artist-protagonist; and it also reinforces the shape and tenor of the romantic & sexual pairing (now more of a triad, maybe).

I am disappearing, he thought
but the photographs were worth it.
A volcano is not a mountain like others. Raising a camera to one's face has effects
no one can calculate in advance. (135)

A lot of essaystic movement here, mostly a function of the pivot to metaphor and aphorism in the last two lines. We start with a character reflecting on a situation and then step back to a narrating (or essaying) position which provides simple, understated fact (a volcano is not a mountain like others) and uses that as a springboard for an aphoristic gesture (raising a camera--though we're talking about more than just literal camera here, aren't we?).


Dash Embedding

Append or embed a particular intense or lush moment of imagery into the middle of a sentence via em-dashes (see: the bowl of gold as they are driving).

Parallel Positions

Highlight a contrast in the positions (intellectual, emotional, discursive, whatever) of two or more subjects through a parallel structure (see: Geryon had never known while Herakles had never asked).

Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Dear Me: Not a Letter to Kim Adrian by Dorian Rolston

[See also our upcoming Essay Daily salon event with Kim Adrian on 8/31/20!]

The latest book from Kim Adrian, Dear Knausgaard, reminded me of why I love the epistolary mode—so much so that I initially considered writing her a letter, then thought better of it.
     It’s risky. You’d be here, as readers, looking over my shoulder as I write, while simultaneously opening up the envelope as the intended recipient, both feeling how I agonize over how my words will be received and receiving them. It’s only worth the price of admission if the voyeuristic thrill (No, don’t say that…) isn’t compromised by identifying, in part, as the addressed (How could you say that to me…), and yet it’s nearly impossible for us to be held in suspense and shocked at the same time. That, anyway, is the special pleasure of belles-lettres, if done right, a to/from frisson that makes you want to cry out in French! Dear reader, how I wish I could have satisfied! If, as Barthes says, in one of the many well-timed interjections throughout Adrian’s book, “For some perverts the sentence is a body” (his emphasis), then a sentence meant for someone—some body—else is a perversion that, well, pardon my French.
     Of course, we know she’s not actually going to send the letters to the Knausgaard residence, where for some reason I imagine them being ever-so-carefully parted by sterling silver letter opener. That would be a violation of the epistolary essay sub-genre, what Lopate calls “essays in disguise,” which going back to Seneca the Younger “were probably intended from the start for publication rather than for their ostensible recipient.” But Adrian finds a way around this problem of unreality, in a postscript to her letter of March 11, 2019, allowing us to suspend disbelief nonetheless: 

P.S. It’s fun pretending I’m writing you letters. But obviously these are not really letters--not entirely, not exclusively. They are also sections of a book. And recently I find myself worrying that you, Knausgaard, might someday find occasion to read this book, and that possibility is beginning to make me nervous. 

Indeed, it’s the professional hazard of any method actor, a commitment to character so strong you eventually can’t tell the difference between character and actor, who you are and who you appear to be. The single person/a, “Knausgaard,” fits perfectly with the man in question, whose hyperrealism is what makes My Struggle an unbelievable story actually worth suing him over. If Adrian is a little uneasy about that blurring, it’s only for our benefit: allowing us to see the mere prop (the letters) as the bonafide object (the book).
     More, this gets to the heart of what books are and are about: readers and writers in relationship (the other three Rs?). In Somebody Telling Somebody Else, James Phelan argues that most all great literature has an aspect of being written by the reader, whose reactions to the text, as anticipated by the writer, shape the text itself. He calls this a “crossover effect,” and basically, as I understand it, the implication is that a writer’s attempt during composition to enter into the experience of the reader allows the reader, albeit imaginatively (no astral projection required), to cross over into the text, such that what they eventually end up reading is, in part, a product of what they hoped (or feared) they would. Perhaps your hopes (or fears, I hope) are unmet in this very review; that doesn’t mean I haven’t been straining to hear your voice in every keystroke. That every book isn’t also a letter to its reader.
     The 2017 entry in the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative series, co-edited by Phelan himself, was pushed into my hands by another editor for review, though I never got around to it. Like an unopened letter from a former lover, it’s been sitting on my shelf, enclosing contents I dread but can’t seem to let go of. I’m glad I didn’t get rid of it in the recent move, as I did My Struggle (vols. 1 & 2), which I found intimidating (perhaps for the very “rugged, Christ-like features” Adrian laments on every cover). Now, taking a peek at the back, I see the blurb touting the crossover theory as it applies to everyone from Joan (Didion) to Jane (Austen) to John (O’Hara) to Joseph (Conrad). Wondering if it’s just a hard-J thing, I flip to page 33, more or less at random, where James (Phelan) explains emphatically: “the implied author relies (consciously or intuitively) on the authorial audience’s unfolding responses to the narrative progression as he or she constructs new parts of the text.” 
     And if all that sounds too complicated, and there’s much else Aristotelian poetics-wise besides (I couldn’t help but look), let’s turn back to Adrian to see that theory in action, played out. As her epigraph from Knausgaard himself states: “Between the selfless writer and the selfless reader, literature is shaped.”
     Confession: after reading the first “Dear Mr. Knausgaard,” of February 20, 2019, I skipped ahead to see how long he’d remain a “Mr.” I felt like a Peeping Tom, in the already somewhat illicit PDF of an Advance Review Copy. Squinting and scrolling, scrolling and squinting at the thumbnails in my sidebar window, I searched for the missing title, the naked name. As Barthes (again) says, “As soon as I name, I am named,” and maybe I wanted to be similarly undressed in the addressing. Apparently that’s one way the voyeur satisfies himself, according to the so-called lovemap theory, by mapping his ideal amorous encounter onto the other at an impossible distance, creating intimacy (presumably) through remoteness.
     Not three weeks later (that March 11 letter again):

It was starting to feel a little coy, my calling you “Mr. Knausgaard.” But it’s a tricky question. What should I call you? I’ve settled, for the moment, on “Knausgaard,” since that’s how I refer to you in conversation. Though to tell the truth I’m not a hundred percent sure what I actually mean when I say “you” in these missives. 

Though it may’ve been popularized by The Who, in that hit single of 1978 inspired by a drunken run-in with a cop (“Who the fuck are you?”), the question is particularly fraught in an epistolary context. As the fifth-generation Posts explain on the institute website, where Emily’s etiquette (and evidently a family dynasty of decorum) is maintained, whether “you’re writing to someone you’ve never met face to face [sic]” or “if you’ve only spoken with the person over the phone” makes a huge difference. No doubt, both of these things could be true of one and the same interlocutor, as it’s quite possible, even likely, you’ve never met the person you’re on the phone with--especially during COVID, when such are the people we only ever meet. But would you then be writing them a letter? (Tell me who are you, because I really wanna know…) Writing to anyone, especially someone—some body—you don’t know all that well, is a delicate matter. Perhaps these are letters, not unlike Adrian’s own, that might belong on the Posts’ list of “Letters Best Left Unwritten,'' somewhere between the “Woe-is-me” and “Gossip.”
     Such were my own reservations, anyway, about responding to her in kind, my own “Dear Adrian” to Adrian--whose response to Knausgaard was, already, a response to a response, if we buy the crossover theory saying that even such a solipsistic masterpiece as My Struggle responds to what the reader wants. That, coupled with the fact that I’d met Adrian under almost identical circumstances to her meeting Knausgaard, setting up a pretty untenable rhetorical situation…
     We were at the NonfictioNOW conference in Phoenix, 2018 (she’d met Knausgaard at the 2017 in Reykjavik). Adrian was on a panel called “Writing the Hermit Crab Essay,” which I was eager to see. I knew about borrowed forms and about the lowly hermit crab as metaphor for the essayist (homeless, but cunning), having once been witness to an essayist quite literally dragging himself with one arm sideways across the ground, by way of demonstrating his method. Not that I wouldn’t have paid good money to see that show again, but I was really there to see Adrian.
     I was a big fan. Though I hadn’t read The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, which had just come out, I was already in love with the abecedary-sounding form. (The very building blocks of our language, borrowed!) And though I didn’t have my copy of Sock with me, which it only then occurred to me to have her sign, I remembered that it now belonged to an ex who knits, which made me feel faintly positive about that former relationship--if only by association with Adrian, which, if nothing else, made me an even bigger fan. So when I saw her at the coffee station I took my chances.
     The panel was about to start. I was growing increasingly anxious, not only about potentially meeting Adrian but about holding her up--no less, en route to the very panel I was there to see her on. The details from here on are a little fuzzy, perhaps a function of some trauma-blocking mechanism in my brain, which saves me from crippling lifelong embarrassment (and thankfully kicks in every time I write). I doubt that I genuinely needed to refill my coffee, as I seem to remember letting out a stream of brown liquid from the dispenser that splashed over the brim, mildly scalding. Now jittery with nerves and caffeine, and clutching my cup with a burning death grip, I blurted out the only thing I could think of, which happened to be what was on her nametag but in the form of a question: “Kim Adrian?”
     A spectacular Who-like riff playing in my head (Who, who, who, who?) on the subject of personal identity notwithstanding, I was at a loss as to even what to call her. And if it was this awkward in person, imagine the letter (August 3):

It’s very difficult, as I’ve mentioned, to keep you, Karl Ove Knausgaard, the world-famous author, separate from you, my imaginary friend KOK, separate from you, whoever you are, I mean the person behind the persona, the one I suspect I wouldn’t like too much, the one I think I wouldn’t trust.

“KOK,” to point out the obvious, is just Karl Ove Knausgaard’s initials, an acronym of the man (a mancronym). As such, I originally mispronounced it “cock,” instead of “coke,” Adrian’s actual way of saying it. I don’t know what this says about me; looking back through the early letters for signs of being sexually primed, I can’t find any, unless you count her calling him “Sebald with sex appeal” sexual priming. Perhaps it’s just an undercurrent I picked up on, like with the woman sitting next to Adrian in that packed auditorium in Reykjavik who couldn’t help “pressing her left thigh against my right thigh,” though even here Adrian couldn’t be sure “if it was sexual, or maybe passive-aggressive, or perhaps completely unintentional.”
     And I had some baggage in this Dept. of Writing Writers. Once, in grad school, I sent Albert Goldbarth a postcard. Goldbarth is a notorious luddite and doesn’t own a computer, and though he has an email address he never checks it (making the contents of which the stuff of essayistic lore). I was told that he always responds to a postcard, or to most handwritten correspondence anyway, and so I wasn’t prepared to be, apparently, the only one not to get a response. Now it occurs to me why this might have been.
     The postcard was a photograph I took, meant as glossy homage to his recent Adventures of Form and Content. That dos-a-dos binding, harkening back to the bygone era of Ace Doubles, suggesting something of a Mobius strip, where no matter which end you started with you always ended up in the middle, bending all tenses into the present--that was what I hoped to pay homage to with my polaroid. But taken as it was on my Holga 135, an ’80s point-and-shoot capable of more or less artsy smears of things, this blurred-out 3x5 definitely left some room for interpretation.
     Half aglow, half in shadow, the rendering (such as it was) was of a light fixture I’d accidentally snapped. That shadow may have been my finger over the lens. Nonetheless, the dark/light duality captured, for me, something of the two-faced nature in all of us, inherent in all things, or at least in Goldbarth’s Adventures. Though it’s also possible to sexualize the image: yin-yanged, with very unclear boundaries, I wouldn’t blame Goldbarth for taking offense at what may appear a crazed fan’s obscene gesture, not-so-subtly toward what he refers to as a book “69’d.” All of which to say, I was done with writing writers.

Like the actor who demurs, “Now enough about me—I want to know what you think of me,” this review can’t keep the book under review in view, only its reviewer. By way of comparison (and more to the point), consider Adrian’s first impression of Knausgaard, recalled with no fuzziness whatsoever, aside from polite mention of a potentially faulty memory that, in effect, lends her even greater credibility (March 5):

You were introduced, at some length by, if I remember correctly, the Norwegian ambassador to Iceland, who called you by your full name, which sounded so great--the “Karl” smashing into the “Ove,” and the “Knausgaard” nothing at all the way I say it, with my American accent, but a weird mash-up of angular and singsong sounds. You then hulked up to the podium, all six-foot whatever of you...

That verb, “to hulk,” gets me every time. Muscular yet tender, it describes the lumbering gait of “all six-foot whatever of you” with an appreciation for how things actually look at a distance, not with that voyeuristic hunger of mine above but only an open gaze, open to what is. As if to be in audience were already to be close to him, Adrian sees the interrelationship of fans and the famous. All I can get close to—then, at the coffee station in Phoenix, as now—is myself. Dear me.
     It may be in keeping with the spirit of the AFTERWORDS series of which it is a part, “reinventing literary criticism,” according to the Fiction Advocate website, “by opening it up.” But it’s precisely for this reason I can’t pin it down, this spirit I can’t find any prior evidence of. If she’s borrowing a form, Adrian returns it, so far as I can tell, utterly unrecognizable, either dissolved or reinvented in that fancy Benjaminian sense. Even Benjamin himself is defamiliarized in the text, as his quote about boredom and “the dream bird” is the first she acknowledges, as if pulling him through an invisible curtain all other canonical figures (Barthes, Proust, etc.) remain behind (April 16):

As is the case with so many of Benjamin’s more eccentric assertions, this one seems to mean many things at once. I bring it up now because one of those things applies to My Struggle, in the sense that there are hundreds of pages in your novel--maybe even the majority of pages--in which the prose can accurately be described as boring in precisely this way: a procreative way. I mean, plodding as it is, something comes alive.

I suppose this brings me, then, to my thesis for this review, which Adrian herself unknowingly supplied: plodding as it is, something comes alive. In a series of unsent letters that the writer knew from the start she’d never send, more of a procedural than anything else, Adrian somehow manages to make this plodding come alive, hatch the experience egg of her dream bird. I don’t know how she does it.
     Emerson couldn’t do it, except on accident. In his July 21, 1855 letter to Whitman, in response to Leaves of Grass (or, more Knausgaardian, My Celebration), Emerson offers a stiff “Dear Sir” to the author of the work he considers nothing less than “the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that American has yet contributed.” (And no complimentary close, not even a mere “Sincerely”? What would the Posts say!) Only when he then saw his own words emblazoned on the spine of the next edition, in gold lettering capitalized as if a subtitle, did things come alive: “I Greet You at the Beginning of A Great Career.” Thus was born--hatched--the first book blurb, entirely through no fault of his own.
     Or Rilke: in his letter of February 17, 1903, the first of ten to the young Mr. Cappus, an officer cadet having second thoughts about his chosen profession (the old pen vs. sword chestnut). Though Letters to a Young Poet, like that to a young Whitman, wasn’t intended for publication, you can’t help but think the author saw it coming. “Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism” might as well be every critic’s mantra (just as Beckett’s “Fail better!” became the rally cry for the business world), and on some level we hear him speaking through Mr. Cappus to all of us. How else to explain the curious typographical “error,” in my Stephen Mitchell translation (sans publisher, San Bernardino, CA), of a space between “unsay” and “able”? An unsayable so spaced, so shot through with light, it enacts its own meaning? Unsay able!
     Perhaps it’s just the “happy accidents” Bob Ross made famous that we’re after. Note that we have a hand in them, as surely as Ross has a hand in making little trees happy. Here, take a look at the bottom of page 143, right after Adrian’s discussion of—or interrupting, rather—Knausgaard’s book-length essay on Hitler, in Book 6. Apropos nothing but the end of her book, of Knausgaard’s, of material to work with, an accident happens, as much to Adrian as it is a function of her attempt to make anything else at all happen (July 13):

Just now (this is neither here nor there: I only thought you might be interested) there’s a rabbit in our backyard stretched out in the overgrown grass beneath a dark green plastic stool, the top of which has faded from years of sun exposure.

I won’t bother to copy out the glorious rest; that’s yours to discover. Suffice it to say there’s an echo of Dickinson, who once saw a bird similarly--both tiny, irrepressible creatures taking a drink or a nibble from nearby grass (“easily within reach” and “convenient,” respectively), both shining brilliantly upon their departure from the page (“actually incandescent” and “off Banks of Noon”). Both a dream—bird, rabbit--hatching some boredom-induced revelation, making the familiar alien. “Because underneath all those ordinary scenes of your sort of ordinary life,” Adrian says, there’s something else: “some kind of flexible metaphysical web.”
     An old poetry professor of mine used to call these moments, with something of a smirk, “Your lizard brain sneaking up on you.” She used to sit on an exercise ball in her barely moved-into office, a haphazard setup so unlivable I wonder if I didn’t dream it, and bounce as I read, bouncing till I said something only she knows what worth. Then, still. In pencil she’d draw a faint, tremulous circle around the word, the webby word, worlded. Though I don’t know what, if anything, she’d circle this August 24, 2020, the book’s release date, I can’t help but suspect it’s something similarly out of the corner of my eye—there, that dragonfly. See it’s on the tip of that branch, an old poplar, blown back by the wind only to regain its balance to the uproarious applause of leaves.

Monday, August 17, 2020

You Can Spot it by the Way its Surface Quivers and Shines: Rachel Marston on Shena McAuliffe's Gas, Light, Electricity

“You can spot it by the way its surface quivers and shines, but usually you don’t notice until you step on it and it gives way beneath you.” So Shena McAuliffe describes quicksand early in her essay collection Gas, Light, Electricity. The description also serves to illuminate thematic and formal concerns at the heart of her collection, essays that pierce the ripe heart of loss and carefully examine how the stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them may prove as unstable as quicksand.
     The long first essay, “Endnotes to a Seizure,” traces the dissolution of the narrator’s relationship through her partner’s affair and meditations on seizures and illness, occasioned by the relationship’s end and a hiking trip with friends. The narrative moves forward and back in time, starting with the revelation of the affair, the narrator waiting for the you of the beloved to return home to their shared apartment. The essay then shifts by two months to “Escalante Canyon, in Southern Utah, where the river made the best trail, running between red rock walls and sky,” where the narrator explores the landscape of her new state and begins to reflect on her loss. On the drive back to Salt Lake, the narrator and her friends encounter of a man having a seizure in a fast food restaurant. This encounter awakens the narrator’s sympathy, but also her careful attention to language and how it shapes the world. The word seizure is taken up in its multiple meanings, (to seize as in the act of having a seizure but also to have something taken from you) and explored in its many metaphorical possibilities.
     At times, the connection between the memoir and the seizure sections feels tenuous, an act, perhaps, of narrative evasion, but this is deliberate. These sections, full of research about seizures and other kinds of illness, like the early diagnosis of female hysteria, are a way for the narrator and the reader to find respite from the terrible knowledge of betrayal, to mimic the gaps in knowing that the narrator experiences, while weaving a rich tapestry of understanding. These sections demonstrate how the narrator’s unquenchable thirst for knowing and for language, for finding alternate ways of making sense of this betrayal, are not just part of the story, but the story itself. McAuliffe writes (italics in the original), “This is not the story I want (to write, to own, to inhabit)” (13). This assertion, early in the collection, reaffirms the narrator’s (and our) need to construct and reconstruct the stories of our lives and those around us. She continues to describe what the narrative should include to make it more effective as a story, such as more description of the landscape or the friendship among the three women hiking. The narrator then writes, “But not this rolling around of language and definition. The musing and sorting. These tumbled bits.”
     McAuliffe knows, in this assertion, that the “tumbled bits” are at the heart of this essay and the collection, but also acknowledges the narrator’s and the reader’s desire for narrative certainty and simplicity. The narrator wants a way to say, this, this here, that is the story. But in the narrator’s questioning, in this essay and the others, McAuliffe shows that only in digression, that only through multiple paths, the play inherent in the meaning of words, can we really begin to understand this world.
     The language of the collection is lyrical, finely attuned to image, but always in service of helping us see more closely, even in the exposure of images impossibilities of conveying idea. But the care in evoking the sensory world highlights the energy created in the gaps of language, meaning, and experience, such as in the description of Emory Blagdon, from “The Healing Machine,” as he searches for healing properties in the world around him: “He considered the sensitivity of a piece of pie, the crust separated from itself, the juices rising . . . . in everything a sensate buzz” (54). McAuliffe imbues each essay with a “sensate buzz” asking us to taste with the narrator the raspberry gleaned on a walk (“As a Bitch Paces Round Her Tender Whelps…”), understand the texture of a head scarred by a scalping (“This Human Skin”), and to visualize elements used to divine the future, as in the opening of “By Soot, By Flour, By Beetle Track”: 

In stars. In flour. In clouds. In palms. In the bend of a myrtle branch. We squint to glimpse the future. We read and misread. We swallow the tea and study the leaves at the bottom of the cup. If the cheese coagulates just so the marriage will fall apart, but what difference does it make if there is nothing we can do to stop it? And if we foresee it, will we not make it so? (137)

Each of these lyrical moments spreads forth its roots, inviting the reader into the branching out, each image a possible trajectory. In this way, McAuliffe is akin to the early naturalists, cataloging and recording the world for us to see and examine carefully. Her delight in research, whether from the collection of facts to integrating footnotes, is carefully transmitted to the reader. Whether through information on types of poison, Marceline Jones and the story of Jonestown, artisanal wells and rust belt urban blight, or the history of neon and light, McAuliffe reminds us that what we know as fact is rarely objective or complete. In this way, her work exemplifies Deleuze and Guattari’s exploration of rhizomatic structures which “shatter the linear unity of the word, even of language, only to posit a cyclic unity of the sentence, text, or knowledge.” Each essay demonstrates how our understanding of any subject is shaped by our relationship to it in time, space, and memory.
     McAuliffe’s essays revel in the possibilities of multiple narrative threads and (re)imagining both present and past, but with (in this post-fact age) careful acknowledgement of what is imagined, what is to be questioned, and when the narrator is not to be trusted. In the source note at the end of “The Healing Machine,” McAuliffe writes, “I am an unreliable source, making various assumptions and projections, imagining scenes and conversations based on small factual details” (60). And in the final essay of the collection, “Of Gas, Light, and Electricity,” also in a footnote, she queries, “So how can I revise this (hi)story for accuracy?” (210). She invites us to embrace the uncertainty, the fragile state of the in-between, and in so doing find a space where, like “[i]n these fleeting minutes between night and day, everything is magical” (219). 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Syntax Club: "XXXVI. Roof"; "XXXVII. Eyewitnesses"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

As any Syntax Club readers may have noticed, I've been away from the project for a bit due to being repeatedly, violently unseated from the saddle of "responsible, organized, productive life" by an opponent known as "attempting to provide remote instruction to high school students during a pandemic". Things are settling down a bit, so let's see if we can't close this thing out in the next week or two.

Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


The boys have arrived in Lima, which Geryon finds at various times soiled, white, dull, and red (his experience of the city is both a little empty and a little oppressive); the boys hang out on a rooftop where Ancash's mom lives with her small pot operation; Geryon continues to find himself smitten by Herakles, especially when he eats mangoes while shirtless; Herakles attempts to leverage this attraction a little bit, but Ancash directly shuts down an performative attempt to escalate the tension in this triangle; Ancash sees Geryon's wings for the first time and tells Geryon that he may be related to a local legend involving volcanoes, wings, immortality, and eyewitnesses--ones who went and saw and came back.


We've talked a bit previously about the relationship between adjective and mood--how does place fit into this?

Given that each destination, so to speak, in this work has a significant vibe/ambiance (the faux-Canadian hometown of Geryon doesn't feel like the volcanic island of Hades which doesn't feel like Buenos Aires which definitely does not feel like our current destination, Lima) it seems reasonable that we could extend some of the thinking about mood (the thing which makes us aware of our being-in-the-world, the point of rupture, to point where an adjective latches) to location as well (especially given that several of the places, Lima in particular, have strong color associations).

What's up with all this volcano stuff--Geryon is immortal? He's from a volcano? Huh?

The myth Ancash relates about the eyewitnesses will never be quite totally "resolved" in a straightforward literal sense (but if you were expecting that I have no idea how you have made it this far into this book/project without screaming). The most relevant bits to think about, maybe: the relationship between myth and immortality (Geryon exists for us as a myth, obviously, but this is the first time he has been seen as a mythic figure in his own world, maybe); the act of regarding and what that means as an eyewitness, one who went and saw and came back; this is maybe a good time to flip back to the Dickinson poem which opens the novel-in-verse, actually.

A soiled white Saturday morning in Lima. (120)

Soiled is my point of interest here. One the simplest level it works to indicate the particular type of white that the Saturday morning is: dirty. This sense ratchets up a few notches if you consider soiled and white as coordinate adjectives applying independently to Saturday--not just a dirtied white, but dirty in itself--dirty laundry, maybe.

Ancash's mother had the roof divided into living,
sleeping and horticultural areas. (120)

There's something mildly amusing about the way the list is closed out with horticultural rather than, say, gardening, which would be the obvious parallel.

under the dull red winter stars of Lima. (121)

Lima seems a much more ambiguous, at times malevolent place to Geryon. Here I am especially fond of the little unexpected thrill one gets when seeing the adjectives dull and red being applied to winter of all things.

Juice ran down his face and onto his bare chest. Geryon watched a drop of sun
slide past Herakles' nipple and over his belly
and vanish into the top of his jeans. (122)

Two noteworthy things here: the capacity of polysyndeton (deliberate over-use of conjunctions) to mimic the gaze of our protagonist as he watches fruit juice run down the shirtless torso of his lover(?) and into the band of his jeans. Geryon is watching it move past the nipple down the chest into the pants, and each sequence in that is yoked on with an additional and, mirroring the slow, tense gaze of Geryon's drifting downwards towards Herakles' crotch.

But I also love how Geryon internalizes the language Herakles had previously used to describe the fruit--like eating the sun--as he stares, solitary and struck.

Saturday went whitely on. (125)

A lovely use of a deliberately opaque, resolvable adverb.

Down alleyways where stinging sea fog
hung in clots over the cobblestones. (125)

I have frequently heard alliteration maligned in workshops (variably as pedestrian, heavy-handed, juvenile, all of the above), but Carson uses it well, often in pairs. Consider here, how stinging sea fog is separated from clots it forms over the cobblestones by the verb hung. Two pairs of alliteration describing the same thing, the fog (S&S and C&C) with a verb as hinge (so maybe SS:CC).

The Pacific at night is red
and gives off a soot of desire (130).

Soot of desire is excellent in that it feels natural on the tongue & obvious to the mind despite being a rather arbitrary abstraction or projection. Somebody who cared more about realism (i.e., not me) might have something to say about the pathetic fallacy or whatever here.


Coordinate Adjectives & Multiple Meanings

Pair two or more adjectives in a way where they can be read either as coordinate adjectives or not while still contributing to the same general mood or description. See: how soiled white Saturday can refer either to a particular shade of white, to Saturday being both soiled and white, or both.

Physicality & Moods

Attribute to a physical thing an outpouring or expression of a mood which it could not literally have. See: the Pacific giving of a soot of desire. Avoid minimizing or evading the absurdity or abstraction or fabulist vibe this creates, and instead run with said vibe and see what you can get out of it.


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Join us for our first Essay Daily Salon

Friends, I'm inviting you to the first Essay Daily salon, August 31 at 7pm Eastern (4pm AZ time) featuring:

— Kim Adrian, author of The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet: a Memoir, Sock (Object Lessons series), and Dear Knausgaard, and editor of Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms.

— and Stephanie Reents, author of I Meant to Kill Ye and The Kissing List. 

We'll be talking to both writers live on zoom about their new books for the Fiction Advocate Afterwords series, which the press describes as:

reinventing literary criticism by opening it up to new voices, hybrid forms, and tons of creativity. If you believe in literature about literature, then join us by reading the AFTERWORDS series. In these short, collectible volumes, acclaimed writers explore iconic books in surprising ways.

RSVP here for the zoom link.

So far I've only read two of the nine books in the series. I've enjoyed both a great deal in part for the way they perform a shared intimacy, one that feels rare and needed at the moment: here's what it's like to be reading Kim Adrian reading My Struggle. Here's what it's like to be Stephanie Reents reading Blood Meridian. These are both great books—and nicely compact ones, much shorter than the books they are responding to, which may be part of their appeal to me. Both are also love letters to and critiques of their subjects. Both are fascinating reads. 

With A Public Space's public readalongs going on now, and with Ig Publishing's Bookmarked series, in which writers write back to books (most recently Sven Birkerts has a book coming out about Nabokov's Speak, Memory), it feels like this is a great time to engage in this kind of conversation, so we're going to do it.

This salon is free, and open to anyone. We'll do more of them this fall if this one goes well. We'll record it and post a link to it later, and we also plan on transcribing it and publishing an expanded version on Essay Daily this fall. So come on down and talk about talking about books. 

If you read one or both books beforehand, all the better. The conversation—and your life—will be richer for it. And maybe this is a kind of project you'll want to take on: what book would you write back to?

& as one more reminder, RSVP here for the zoom link.

We'll be doing these periodically, so zoom on over to the Salon Series page for more info.