Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Maggie Nelson and the Book-Length Essay

So I am reading Maggie Nelson's Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), which has been mentioned at least three times in conversations over the last two weeks, which usually means that I go ahead and order it, amazon-prime-style, which is like cobra style, only more expensive and probably detrimental to independent bookstores. Still: I like convenience. I like progress. I very much like speed. Indeed I seem to have ordered this book twice so I am lending the second copy to one of my thesis students who might find it (particularly its structure) useful as she thinks about ordering and structuring her own book (which is a very different project).

If you haven't read it, it's a shortish (though dense and beautiful) book-length essay loosely circling around lavish and varied descriptions of various blues, or instances of the color blue, or things that reference the color blue, as well as (you guessed it), the author's emotional and physical states and the ways in which she interacts with the world. That's reductive like any lame description of a piece of art that resists being encapsulated in description, but that's a capsule of it. Structured as 240 numbered sections/strophes/paragraphs, it moves via meander, returning periodically to these ideas. This prose is obviously written by a poet, which I like. (Actually I have been recently thinking that everyone should be trained in poetry before they are allowed to write anything else at all.) I won't speak to the whole yet, because I'm trying to move slowly, but the headspace that it creates is quite lovely.

The structure--240 separate short sections, and importantly, numbered consecutively--keeps it tethered down even as individual sections start to unhinge. It's important that the sections tend to circle back to the same ideas, enlarging and expanding on them as they go. It's essentially a meditation, which keeps the brain front and center, rendering it as essay. And there's world here, not just self (though self is explored too: the book is plenty revealing and naked-seeming when it has to about the nature of desire):
68. After building his bower, the satin bowerbird makes a stage nearby out of shiny yellow grass, upon which he will sing and dance for passing females. Experienced builders and performers can attract up to thirty-three females to fuck per season if they put on a good enough show, have built up enough good blue in their bower, and have the contrast with the yellow straw down right. Less experienced builders sometimes don't attract any females at all. Each female mates only once. She incubates the eggs alone. 
69. When I see photos of these blue bowers, I feel so much desire that I wonder if I might have been born into the wrong species.
I could pretty much quote any two consecutive sections from the book, but this gives you a sense of what's happening easily enough.

The headspace is the important part: the mood varies from section to section, but within the same voice. There is a sort of narrative (a lover lost) as the book essays forth.

While not fancy, structure and voice are what makes this book hold together for this reader so far.

In a meaningful coincidence, my place in the book is marked by this:

And yes, I do own the CD single for this. I have been listening to it lately for an essay I'm working on.


  1. Looking forward to reading this (my broke ass is waiting on a library copy), but it seems like an interesting project.

  2. Sounds like an interesting read. I've been thinking much about D'Agata's book, and the idea of a book-length essay that was brought up in that string of posts (I would have posted there, but, you know, this post was on top now and I felt too lazy to scroll down.)

    A, you referenced being able to read the book (or at least the sections, or subsections) in one sitting. I imagine that's a reference to Poe's single-effect, short story writing rule of measure. Which got me thinking: is an essay comparable to a short story in length, by definition of form? We have short-shorts, micro-fiction and non-, short stories and essays, novellas and long essays, and ... in my mind, books come next. Collections are different that books, and novels equal books (in most instances I can think of). So is the book-length essay a misnomer? Aren't we discussing an extended meditation when we discuss About a Mountain? Or a novessay? (Holy shit! Can I copyright that word now?)

    Don't get me wrong, AAM was a fantastic read. Compelling, fascinating. Thoroughly enjoyed the footnotes. I'm still trying to divorce my experience of hearing D'Agata read it to a bunch of stodgy old English lit folks...which, as stated earlier, rocked my world. But I question the term book-length essay. Not that it's not true. It's just sorta paradoxical, I guess, like a micro-novella would be.

  3. Interesting. To me the essay says sprawl, like Western cities. But I see the idea of one-sitting devourability too.

  4. For what it's worth, I demolished this book in an afternoon (I kept trying to slow myself down, but I became infatuated)

    In any case, how do you see the numbering working as an organizational structure? How different would it be if the sections were separated by white space or a ~?

  5. I read numbered sections very differently than space-breaked or glyphed off sections. The numbering creates a clearer sense of linear progression, for one, even if it's ultimately illusory (these definitely /do/ build on one another, though it's not purely chronological, thankfully). But, as we read, the numbers keep increasing. Which creates a sense of intentionality. (It would actually be interesting to see some skipped, or occasional dwindling or something.)

    And for this reader at least numbering lots of short sections in essay or poem separates the sections even further from each other, more than they would if the pieces were just separated by space breaks. Though having so many of them (rather than, say, 6 or 7) takes away from the feeling that each is a separate movement of the poem.

    You may also have noticed there's some Michigan in this Nelson (not as much in this book, but in her two others: Jane, The Red Parts.