I have an idea for Essay Daily--as indicated by the subject line of this message.
Do you want to do a Q&A with me about Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby? I'm almost done with it and have some thoughts but also I want to know what you think. That's semi-novel, right? Interviewing each other about someone else's book?
I'm sitting in on a class observation at the moment for one of our MFA's nonfiction workshops at the moment, where the class is discussing your essay "Superfluidity". That’s kind of like a seam in itself, isn’t it? You on one side of this asynchronous communication channel and your work being discussed in absentia on the other, with, I suppose, my attention being the thing that elides the two.
I like the idea of doing some kind of mutual interview about the book. Another one of our MFA students, Kati Standefer, did a lovely reverse engineering of the structure of the book in my collections class (which is what we were doing in there: looking at the structure of collections), and I've been trying to write something about The Faraway Nearby and Phillip Lopate's newest book (Portrait Inside My Head) for a little while that has to do something with distance, how each book controls and elides distance. I seem to be using “elides” a lot these days. I really do love that word. We could do this over the next whatever, and then actually schedule it to run as part of our advent calendar, maybe? [Note: we obviously did not get around to this. —Eds]
How did the reverse engineering go on the Solnit book? That's one place I want to start. I guess I'll start with my first thought. I think we can just run an email thread and then shiny it up if we need to. I like the advent idea.
My first thought is this--You and I both just finished projects that collected very short essays. In your case, the library card catalog was the organizing principle. In mine, it was the word "micro." In Solnit's Faraway Nearby the structure of the book is pretty seamless. The chapters are roughly 20 pages long--normal "I-am-a-cohesive-narrative" chapter length. She doesn't use white space to predict a turn. The book is presented as a unified treatise but although she dips a few times into some of the themes, the book, if you pull it apart into its constituent segments, would be a book more fragmented that either of ours. Essays about apricots, Frankenstein, Iceland, Buddhism, snow, the color white, her friend's cancer, her friend's baby, her mother's distance, the body, sex accumulate--but do they accrete?
2nd part of question: Is the ticker tape that runs along the bottom, although disjointed from the main text, the more cohesive of the two parts?
I've been thinking a lot about very short essays, as you know, both in terms of your project and my own (I'd qualify this by saying, though, that library catalog cards really aren't what I'm going for with that--the cards I'm writing are 6x9s and I put them in books; though maybe I should have been thinking catalog cards more often), and shortness in general. There's that Patricia Vigderman essay collection I wrote about here on Essay Daily (though they're not all shorties). Aurelie Sheehan has a new short-short fiction collection that just dropped. Lucy Corin's new book consists of about 70% short shorts. So it's on my mind. Alison Deming has a new one of pretty short essays too forthcoming next fall I think. I'm not sure what's up with that all, actually.
I'm interested in talking about the ticker tape first, perhaps, since it's a more obvious formal intervention than the other stuff going on in the book (the mirroring, if you want to call it that, or the nesting, the pairing anyhow of sets of essays, made particularly obvious in the ToC). It also asks more of us as readers, because it's so obvious. We can't look at a page or a spread without being aware there's this thing going on that we can read, sort of, dipping into, but that's basically unreadable as part of our main text experience, right? That is, if we want to really read it, we need to just read that the whole way through, blowing through the book. At least I found it unreadable as part of the main text (though the eye does pick up some language), and ended up having to read it as a kind of coda to the book.
I have a couple questions about that: 1> does that feature pay off in enough pleasure/interest to make it worth the disruption of our reading experience as we read the main text? 2> is its addition to the other innovations (the pairings/ echoes/ mirrors) too much for the text to bear?
Here I'm betraying the way I think about formal innovation, in terms of frustration versus pleasure, or how much a feature makes us work (or what work it asks a reader to do), versus how it rewards that work. And I'm also suggesting a principle of formal experimentation that I think about a lot: combining formal experiments raises the difficulty (if also the ambition) of the text exponentially--not linearly. That is, reading a book with one weird/fun formal thing (like Adam Thirlwell's Kapow!) requires us to learn how to do this one sort of work, and it does it a lot and in different ways. But doing that AND asking us to also figure out this other formal component increases the difficulty (and requisite payoff) at least 4x, not 2x.
Okay, I have another question about that ticker tape feature (I'm not sure it's accurate to call it ticker tape, actually, but that's what came to mind to me first too. That or the news crawl at the bottom of cable channels.), which is, how does it ask us to think about the book as an object? And is that thinking related to what goes on in that essay?
Maybe we can come back to the first question--of its seamlessness (which I also perceived: it's certainly one of her best tricks) a bit later?
The ticker tape, which is what I also call the crawl on the bottom of the news, in this case seems to be one of co-engineering. The content of the tape is mostly absorbed with the symbiotic and sometimes parasitic relationships. Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds. The yucca plant pollinated by moths. Those moths whose larva feeds on the Yucca. There are moths that live underground feeding on the roots of wallaby grass. Happiness, sorrow. Mothers daughters. Each feeding on each other or each feeding each other. They are like stories. In the ticker tape, she references Apuleius's Golden Ass, stories tucked inside other stories, a kind of Arabian Nights. At the end of the 'big text," she tells a story about a modern-day Scheherazade. You can't read them simultaneously but you can read the bottom as little cilia on the ocean floor, taking nutrients from the big washing above them. And the oceanic text, trolling the cilia for little bites of story to grow big upon. In the ticker tape, she writes, "Moths drink the tears. The word for teardrinkers is lachryphagous, and for the eater of human flesh it is anthropophagous, and the rest of us feed on sorrow all the time." There are at least three stories in there. She unpacks them, metaphorically at least, in the big text. I wonder more at the write-ability rather than the readability. To keep track, to keep going, she uses the scrolling underground as a kind of food. The one text, like the yucca and the moth, couldn't survive without the other.
In Jenny Boully's not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them deploys a similar two-text strategy. The over-ground, where one version of the Peter Pan story goes, another underground, where the more rooty, fluid-ridden, desperate story goes. Boully's book does not seem co-generative in the way that Solnit's is. Boully's book seems interested in disrupting--disrupting the narrative, the myth, the fairytale, the innocent non-sexual reading of the book, so you can read them concurrently. The narrative isn't particularly seamless in either the top or the bottom text, so it's easy to stop and read the bottom or the top. Solnit's big text reads seamlessly. To read the underlying text is to go back to the beginning to see the seeds of this book. How it got made.
I like where you're thinking about the idea of food--what feeds the essay/ist, what keeps it going? That's an important question, and in terms of Solnit, I can certainly see how the ticker tape text works as a food source for the other essays. I'd be very curious as to whether it was used that way in its composition. I suppose it's probably secondary how it worked for the writer (though maybe primary on Essay Daily, where we're hosting this conversation, since it's really a resource for essayists more than anything else) to what work it does for the reader.
For a paired set of texts I feel you with Jenny's book (she's coming here next week to read so I'll hope to ask her some questions about how she dealt with the two texts at once, and how they were generative or not (I don't remember reading any interviews where she talked about it, and I've read a lot of her interviews recently). I'm thinking instead of Wayne Koestenbaum's Hotel Theory, which I don't know if you've read or not. It consists of two separate texts cohabiting, one running verso and one running recto continuously throughout the book. One's a kind of trashy novel featuring celebrities in hotels, and the other's a series of meditations/essays on hotels, hotels being the space where the two interact (and a space for separate, somewhat anonymized, unrelated, compartmentalized interactions in general, that being the appeal of hotels). It's been a while since I reread that book, but I remember the two not having too many moments of correspondence. I don't know if those moments of correspondence or resonance that I noticed were intentional (a la I want to ensure we see an image occur on both sides of the spread) or if they were coincidental (though perhaps seeded by revising and composing both texts at the same time and having some similar considerations in mind seeding both—and this is a real big aside here, but I'd also be interested in having a conversation about how writers working on two (or more) big projects at once (perhaps in different genres, probably in different genres) manage the cross-echoes and cross-pollination that happens with that kind of double thinking/double composition. That's kind of like how one book can seed another or how an essay can seed another, even if done sequentially, since it's not like we use up all our material for a given book when we write that book.
There's something here I feel we're getting at about how component parts work in a text, whether or not they shows their seams in the final version. Certainly Solnit shows her seams in the ToC with the structure she sets up both in the pairings, or maybe we want to call them nestings. How we think about them seems important, because a split doll metaphor leads us to something more like Cloud Atlas and the pairings (or maybe mirrorings, since two of the chapters/essays are themselves called "Mirrors") get us somewhere else, don't they? The visual presentation of the ToC itself makes an argument, since each essay/chapter is tabbed in from the previous one until it reaches 7. Knot and then tabs back out, so it's more like an arc—maybe more like a journey, a metaphor that's maybe too obvious to talk about since the book consists substantially of a series of journeys (but then what book doesn't?). I confess that I still am not sure what to make of the visual presentation in the table of contents. The pairing's already obvious with the title pairs.
My experience of the book itself is one of an evident seamlessness, as it often is with her work. Often the prose feels so thought-through, so lived in, and so polished that I feel at a great distance from her sentences. It's a very pleasurable effect, reading them, and not dissimilar to ASMR (do you know about this? the autonomous sensory meridian response, which I am susceptible to—I've been thinking about this a lot lately, but again, maybe too tangential for this space? but then this is freaking Essay Daily and what are we up for if not tangents?). I was working on an essay talking about both The Faraway Nearby and Phillip Lopate's Portrait Inside My Head, two essay collections that I enjoyed very much that also feel very far apart to me, thinking specifically about seams: how Solnit's work to me feels seamless, and Lopate's all about showing the seams (his argument that the thing holding the essay collection is the I in all its variousness). I mean here the seams in the I, maybe not the seams between the paragraphs.
I've also had Boully on the brain, since so much of her work seems to me to be about the seam (whether The Body, footnotes to an absent text, The Book of Beginnings and Endings with its emphasis on seam, or not merely). All of them disrupt, I think, our reading processes, and gather a lot of their energy from that disruption. Thinking here of her essay on being I don't think that Solnit is interested (at least in her pairings or seedings) in disrupting, though I found the ticker tape text to be disruptive, whether or not that was her intention. Even in "A Short Essay on Being" she's disruptive, or later asserting a disruption (even as she wouldn't have done so—in the Thai way, she'd tell us—in the moment). [See also my little riff on Boully’s work as an introduction to the Hybrid Series she read as part of here at Arizona recently. —Ander, after the fact of this co-interview.]
I thought at first that the table of contents made an image of a flock of geese, a group of birds in formation making in-roads in the shape of a V. But then, as I typed the first sentences of each of Solnit’s paragraphs in the first “Breath” chapter, I realized better what the image suggests: that of an icebreaker, cutting through the white landscape of the page.
Solnit’s landscapes are the vast, blank expanses, the big subjects (loss, grief, preservation, art, death) into which Solnit plows with her sharp paragraphs. Those paragraphs do not hang together. They veer, turn, cut. In that one chapter, called “Breath,” she moves from Marquis de Sade, story theory, bodies, decay, cooking machines, canning, back to apricots, paintings, The Netherlands, museums, the painter Abraham van Beyeren, a seventeenth century Protestant preacher, another painter named David Bailly, a contemporary of the apricot painter Jacob van Hulsdonck, bubbles, vanitas, biopsies, cancer, apricot as metaphor, “The real story of your life is always all the way from birth to death,” and they only come to you in the shape of images, returning to vanitas. “All of the images they make of you are vanitas images.”
Death is like a story or death is like an apple or mother’s are like apricots, always in decay. If each chapter, each section, even each paragraph is a veer, a “v” cutting into the great unknown white, then there’s going to be some friction. As the stories rub against each other, they begin to create heat. Solnit rubs Frankenstein against Buddhism, Marquis de Sade against breast cancer. Perhaps then, the scroll at the bottom is more of a rope, something less to hang onto for explanation than to slide down, burning your hands. Apparent seamlessness made by making you climb the seams.
So the variousness in subject, and the quick shifts from idea to idea in The Faraway Nearby, create heat. I definitely feel that. That heat’s the action of the essayist mind working, placing tectonic plate by tectonic plate, and we feel something coming up in the seams between, in their adjacency (on the paragraph to paragraph, line of argument to line of argument level, and not just between the separate essays, or between the main text and the crawling text). Maybe that’s why I love a thoughtful collection more than the apparent seamlessness of the book-length essay, for the opportunities to create or let through these types of heat.
There’s a quote from Lopate’s “In Defense of the Miscellaneous Essay Collection” which opens his most recent miscellaneous essay collection: “the personal essay is uniquely suited to expose this continuous bumping up against limits, against the borders of the self—which is one good reason I cling to it.” This essay is itself a revision of an essay originally published in River Teeth in 2010, then called “In Defense of the Essay Collection,” and I'm a little curious about the addition of "miscellaneous," which seems implied to Lopate in "essay collection," but maybe his editor preferred it? It’s a nice move to use it to front-end Portrait Inside My Head, since it offers its own theory of mind and essay and then the book goes on to perform it. That bumping that we see and feel and experience in Lopate is different than the bumping we get in Solnit, I think. Solnit’s bumping is filtered through what I read as a relatively continuous and constant voice and sensibility, even as it moves from subject to subject, timeframe to timeframe. Lopate’s bumping is much more overt: “I persist in putting forth a collection that will include my musings on movies, literature, friendship, sex, urban history, city form, and the nail parings of daily life, so that the reader can enjoy the fluent play of a single consciousness, a sensibility flowing through disparate subject matters.” And Portrait offers us exactly this, except that the sensibility seems to me to vary pretty significantly from essay to essay, and this is something that Lopate makes a feature, not a flaw. It may be the same brain we see throughout the book, but Lopate leaves the edges in between one mood and another, one state of mind and another, and it feels quite craggy moving from essay to essay, and within an individual essay (there are 28 of them) it’s more continuous. So it’s like we’re stepping from big tectonic plate to big tectonic plate, but the plates are stable on their own. In Solnit, there are only thirteen, and all but one are paired with another, and it seems to me that the sensibility in each essay is pretty much continuous with the others (and feels to me more distant than in Lopate), but within the essays she’s jumping constantly between plates. I’m not so sure I’m committed to my plate tectonics metaphor here, particularly since both books feel fluid (and explicitly invoke fluidity as a way of thinking about what they do—and also use “fluid” multiple times in the text itself; Lopate: 5, Solnit: 4, if you’re keeping track; thanks, Amazon Search Inside the Book; thanks, future!).
I guess what I’m interested in here is not just the obvious form and the way it manifests itself on the page (the visual look of Solnit), but the way in which the method of movement in the text (a kind of form, right?) is related to the mind at work, and, to quote Lopate again, “the shagginess of the essay, its discontinuous forms of consciousness.”
What you say about distance intrigues me. Perhaps that is one way to appear seamless--if you hold your mother-story (and "mother" story) at arms length, you hold your Frankenstein story there, your moth story, your breast cancer story, your Buddhist story, your San Francisco story, then the transitions don't seem so much like jump cuts as links in a chain. I spend so much time with my students on the reason to zoom in, create a scene, and the reason to zoom out, have a point, claim a meaning, that I haven't fully investigated the advantages of never zooming. Perhaps Solnit's a purely literary model, shaped not at all by film or internet. We have so many multimedia skills in our writing capacity that one we may disregard too quickly is the textual strategy of maintaining objectivity. When Solnit looks at her relationship to her mother, she does it with the same critical skill she looks at Frankenstein.
The micro book I'm working on makes the opposite claim: we are all internets now. We all make movies. We might as well jump cut from one long text to a short one and back again, threatening text's signature linearity. Maybe that's what Solnit's ticker tape finally argues--that texts run forward through time. Time doesn't stop, why should the words?
ANDER MONSON is the author of a number of paraphernalia including a website, a decoder wheel, several chapbooks, as well as six books, including the forthcoming Letter to a Future Lover (Graywolf Press, 2015). He lives in Tucson where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arizona and edits the journal DIAGRAM and the New Michigan Press.
NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and associate professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.