Around 1910, Vasily Kandinsky, the Russian artist, began a revolution in seeing by finishing the first abstract paintings in Europe, though the Navajo, the Chinese, and the Muslims had been making design art for centuries. It took a few years before he quit portraying mountains and horses’ heads and drew, instead, a phantasmagoria of floating and cellularly busy flat forms. The surprise was that Kandinsky’s subjectless swirls and smudges, lines and dots, said something, despite not representing recognizable images like peasants or churches. Voila, as he’d intended, form in itself was rapturously beautiful. As if the Western eye knew all along that a triangle and a splotch, when layered on canvas, would animate the space like geometric ballet. Why had we avoided the disjunctive so long in art?
Writers have been jealous ever since. We, too, have wanted to dispossess ourselves of subject, push the language arts beyond their referential-bound or plot-driven limits. (Joyce’s Ulysses is an enduring struggle, a crucifixion of sorts.) The disjunctive for writers is not easy: language cannot just unbridle itself of its associative or grammatical qualities. Noam Chomsky has shown us why with his rendition, “Colorless green ideas sleep fitfully.” It’s a prickishly logical sentence minus the sense, though the tension between its sound and syntax renders its poetic affability. How odd, how marvelous, that our grammar can convey such illogic allure.
One solution has been to fragment prose, a way to crack the narrative crystal. For twenty-first-century readers it’s a commonplace whether rendered in short, easily passable paragraphs, the accretive form (Maggie Nelson), or in the ever-changing, sentence-by-sentence pointillism, the aphoristic style (Emil Cioran). Most of the fragmentists hew to some form of narration. But new in the experimental nonfiction groove from Sarah Gorham’s redoubtable Sarabande Books is Riley Hanick’s Three Kinds of Motion. Hanick presents a daringly discontinuous narrative that’s tempest-tossed, its guy wires popping, a spectacle of self-subversion. A book very hard to limn.
No writer, save Gertrude Stein—a page performer whose hijinks I find unabsorbing, even trite—has pushed the epistemological question of abstraction in nonfiction as volatilely as Hanick has. His much-assembly-required tale features a sliced-up narrative, trumpeting the mashup aesthetic louder than anything I’ve read. It’s alternately brilliant, show-offy, nerve-wracking, a touch inebriated—and deserving of a long going-over if largely for those (of us) stalwarts who love to wrestle with the nonfictional, randomized mosaic.
Hanick’s three motions are the three subjects or conveyances he zigzags through and around: 1) Jackson Pollock’s very large painting, Mural (1943), commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim and hung in her home in New York, later given to the University of Iowa Art Museum where Hanick beholds it, beside 2) the typewritten scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road on tour and display at the same museum where Hanick also beholds it (I can’t quite figure if he was security, charged with guarding the painting or the scroll, or a writer-in-residence), and nearby to most of us, 3) the Interstate highway system, built during (and epitomizing) the Eisenhower administration, whose auto stream, according to an early traffic planner, is “an integral part of the American spirit—freedom of movement.” This trio—Pollock’s paintball forms stampeding across big canvases, Kerouac’s methedrine-fueled, single-paged autobiographical novel, and an America that runs across itself (away from and to itself) by car—triggers Hanick’s quixotic wanderlust.
Some parts of the book are straight-ahead, focused on the stars, Jack and Jack:
The work of the Beats occasioned famously negative reactions from older and more esteemed writers. Not writing but typing, Capote said of On the Road. Not writing but plumbing, Beckett said of Burroughs and the cut-up method. The value of a dismissal is its brevity, the ease of its acerbic click. Appears to have been painted with a broom, reads an early review of Pollock’s.
And, with dates like mileage markers, the highway theme keeps returning in its own broken bits:
1909. In late January the Automobil-Verkehrs-und-Übungsstrasse is founded in Berlin. A track consisting of two lanes, each either meters wide with a nine-meter median strip, was funded not by the government but almost exclusively by a combination of financial and racing organizations. Within three years they will begin the construction of a nearly ten-kilometer road that is significant for being completely devoid of intersections.
One attempt at tack here is to counter descriptions: the continent-wide monotony of the Interstate grid against the whirling dervish dancing of the Beats and the action painters. These subjects surprise each other continually and, at first, create momentum. But quickly the opposite happens. There’s a strange feeling of anti-momentum surging in. Hanick seems to grow tired of, even peevish with, the explanatory: he continually fragments the text and develops impressionistic and surreal bits. You can feel him insisting on this form. You can feel him foiling any accretion of plot, a method once Zenfully described by the minimalist composer Terry Riley: “One need not push ahead to create interest.” Hanick:
Doubts about getting anywhere as one way to remain at work. Enlisting the viscera another. Increase is a line relying on limit. Put otherwise: What would it mean to be so wrong that you could come to feel wrong enough? To be so lost into what you thought you were doing, so concentrated in your incomprehension, so nearly blind to your hand that no single thing that watches you will ever adequately appreciate your fear? Both Pollock and Kerouac chose a medium—the Novel, the Enormous Oil Painting—that had come to hold itself in the highest regard. This helped inform their particular desperations.
Thus, the massive double-lane, coming-and-going American roadway is nothing like a novel on a scroll or a picture painted on the floor. It is neither random nor organic: it is planned, solid, socially engineered, not individually executed. The road itself is the opposite of the life-in-flux of two notorious Jacks. This dichotomy between person and system and its resistance to mixing surprised me. I noticed sooner than later that Hanick’s not talking about cars as conduits; he’s writing an ode to concrete—as if the asphalt mimics Kerouac’s conveyor belt or Pollock’s slopping-it-on. Once I noted how much mutation there is in all this traversing and Pogo-sticking about, I couldn’t stuff the feathers back into the pillow. Motions in conflict (the title’s promise) never come together as a subject, a directive, a smithy. Purposeless purpose eludes him.
And yet the hyper-fragmentary form feels well suited for these freeway dashes. I just wish I could name, beyond the throw-of-the-dice arrangement, the end he seeks, beyond a mischievous performance. For instance, in the chapter “Slotted Mailbox, Telephone Pole,” Hanick begins by describing Pollock getting a job as a stonecutter in New York, “cleaning bird shit from a statue of Peter Cooper.” Next, he serves up the “time-gap experience,” about the eyes going blank, losing time, losing memory, and since nothing happens, the moment is unrecallable. When time and sense return, the subject “cannot name the thing it was wandering in.” This is like the “experience” of driving the Interstate.
Yes, but then Hanick gets loopy:
Because we are so quintessentially there and not as we glide in the eye of the highway, we are banal. . . . Thus, the highway is memory unstrung, the harbor lights appearing and immediately inconsequential. Teaching us how to be anxious and drifting at once, showing us a marbling of countercurrents. We go there to forge a thinking that is quick and lackadaisical, as impossible to touch as it is to set aside.
I get the gist but much here is slippery, vacuous. How do lights become inconsequential? If we have a time-gap, how are we “anxious and drifting”? (It’s actually a good descriptor of Hanick’s style.) “We go there . . . .” We do? Not if we don’t have to we don’t. “Quick and lackadaisical” thinking forges marbled countercurrents? I thought we were prone to space out. We can neither touch it nor set it aside? Huh? is the interjection I write in many a margin.
This chapter grinds on, pinging between oddity and longshot association: letters from imagined women (maybe Peggy Guggenheim, maybe wives or ex-wives) to “JK” and “Jack,” basted with erotic titter; more paean to pavement (measuring “a continent’s geological knowledge of itself” and revealing “a set of insights opened and remained among the unplanned consequences of the highway”); then more off-ramps: Pollock telling stories to Thomas Hart Benton’s son, Eisenhower’s churched Kansas family, Ike being talked into authorizing a coup in Guatemala; plus, a 1957 dedication ceremony in Wisconsin for I-94; and this: "Art may or may not be a word we need to endorse a pleasure that makes us feel complicated."
Yes, my list is plucked, petal-like, from this bouncy/rubbery chapter. But I hope the citations show Hanick’s collision aesthetic. That he’s baffling us (and himself) on purpose, perhaps. Its arbitrariness, its leaves-blown-by-the-leaf-blower-only-to-settle-back-to-another-nearby-random-shape. And that my mounting frustration occurs in the essay’s muddled middle (but where else could it go? not at the start and not at the end). Whereas the opening third of the book is so promisingly wild and coherent, I kept reading until I didn’t. I flagged. Then the fish, from its wiggling, fell off the hook.
In the home-stretch of the book, and much the blearier, I got re-attached to a congealing subject. The Iowa Museum of Art and its holdings, including Mural, were evacuated in a June 2008 Iowa River flood. (The only half-wet museum did not qualify for FEMA aid: It “was now a space that had failed to even be properly ruined.”) At last, some direction recurs. Using the memoirist’s “I,” Hanick tunnels into the museum staff’s discussion whether to sell Mural once it’s appraised at $140 million (one private offer comes in at $175 million). Their collective determination says no. Never sell. Instead, raise funds by sending the 8-foot-by-20-foot canvas on tour. Hanick’s participation with the present-day political/financial life of the painting pops awake what has so often been a desultory book, blunting favorably, if late in the game, his scissors-slicing style.
Hanick’s a discontented writer. Plus, there’s a sense of him sentencing us, his readers, to hard labor. (Any Twitter trends like #literatureastask or #literatureasexhaustion?) I find nothing sinister in his style. It’s something else. Because Hanick’s so enthralled with his bricolage—and despite my own eerie fascination with Pollock, the most Minotaurish of the abstractionists (after installing Mural in Guggenheim’s New York home, he celebrated by peeing into her fireplace)—I feel like a looky-loo, watching Hanick write, not unlike watching Pollock paint. John Updike once said, “Pollock painting is the subject of Pollock’s paintings.” Through it all, like an Interstate driver, I’m a passerby, ever rolling on and away.
What’s more, the book suffers from an inconsistent inconsistency. It should be obvious that consistency and inconsistency, one instead of the other, moves us down the road. But when the way forward is inconsistently inconsistent—extreme mood swings; passages of history or fact buddied up beside dizzyingly vague or flippant statements—there’s trouble. Consider another petal-pluck:
We would like most to be drizzled aluminum, to be useful and blind like a flashbulb. Expertly kept from ourselves and arriving into shining tatters by an anonymous fawning. When you’re telling that joke, don’t make it sound like a script. Spontaneity is the wish for perpetual departure. The rhythm of its dream is one and one and one and one.
What’s the puzzle this deviously splintering book was created for and written to solve?
Once this question appeared—and I was glad that Hanick lanced its boil—I left off the tale to think about the relative stability of prose narrative. Paintings and photographs are frozen in time; the question of movement, continuous or not, is moot. (Architecture may be solid but its three-dimensionality invites our participation.) Film like music moves by unfurling in its own set time. Prose, like baseball, is burdensomely slow. It’s supposed to be slow, which is why we judge good prose by the degree to which it agitates itself out of its doldrums—whether it culminates, whether it turns characters convincingly, whether its ideas dock in strange, new ports and stay awhile, whether it collects and expiates emotions.
Prose requires comradely devotion because we can’t read a bit and quit as we can poetry. Prose is like an aging relative who placed in a nursing home lives on for another ten years and whose long-term undying must be attended to. Prose asks us to forgive its staying over, beyond the weekend. Prose insists we—and its author—make a good-faith effort to stick around, to partner.
Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a longtime staff writer for the San Diego Reader, now its Critic-At-Large, and Book Reviews editor for River Teeth. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.