Posts Tagged ‘literature’

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Uta Barth’s Distrust of Narrative/Cause and Effect

April 10, 2009

Writing is most alive when directly engaged in the experience—as a cartography of an encounter or inner space. Recently I stumbled across an interview with photographer Uta Barth where she was asked why narrative annoyed her. Barth’s response captures a lot of what I’ve been thinking:

Narrative holds out for a certain inevitability, it places deep faith in cause and effect. Narrative is about reconstructing a chain of meaningful events based on a known outcome. I’m curious about visual art that’s about the visual. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is the title of Robert Irwin’s biography. Originally, it was a line in a Zen text. Narrative in art makes us think about all sorts of interesting things, but it derails the engagement with a visual experience.

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Martin’s Branwell

September 10, 2008

Douglas A. Martin’s Branwell is a novel that bleeds the line between novel and historical fact. It’s written in a style that traces the tragic story of Branwell Brontë and composites it through the lives of those involved, from golden child and hope of the family to drunken dissolute, all while the politics of family allegiance drift and Branwell falls further into oblivion. This hallucinatory narrative shifts back and forth, switches tense, shows us one reading only to challenge it later, and ultimately unfolds a tale embroidered of speculation, suspicion, and earnest confession, where one is never certain of the absolute truths.

The novel feels invitingly Nineteenth Century, a lost Jane Eyre, yet contemporary and pluralistic. Like Victorian novels it follows the main character from early childhood until death, but here the voice is many blended perspectives. The result is a dream or hallucination that feels true and harvested from the period. I’ve always had a soft spot for old British novels like Jude the Obscure, Mill on the Floss, or even Moll Flanders. This has the same sense of inevitable doom, with damp decayed surfaces, but the success of Branwell is that it doesn’t mimic these other works. It’s not a copy of style, but something hybrid and new hewn out of the pieces of something else, halfway between poetry, biopic, and a novel.

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Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy

August 17, 2008

After reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, it’s apparent why his writing is so closely aligned with visual art, as his approach embodies a sort of object based conceptualist mise-en-scène. The reader is bound meticulously to the cataloguing and scrutinizing of objects in rooms and nurtures a relational system based on distance, proximity, and difference.

Jealousy is a compulsive observation of interactions between the implied narrator/character’s wife A… and a neighbor Franck. The novel is set on a banana plantation and documents the narrator’s growing suspicion that A… and Franck are having an affair. The language focuses on extreme surface, chronicling objects, proximity of things, and disembodied individuals treated as bits and pieces; relational. All is static, purgatorial, and repetitive in this world; change and growth come through revisiting the flood of surfaces and exterior observations. What is different? What changed in how the narrator decodes the tableau of objects as he seeks to confirm his suspicions? A slightly damaged and subjective empiricism is at work here. Sitting on the veranda the narrator observes:

A…’s arms, a little less distinct than her neighbor’s because of the color—though light—of the material of her dress, are also lying on the elbow-rests of her chair. The four hands are lying in a row, motionless. The space between A…’s left hand and Franck’s right hand is approximately two inches. The shrill cry of some nocturnal carnivore, sharp and short, echoes again toward the bottom of the valley, at an unspecified distance. (49)

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Holden Caulfield

April 30, 2008

J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye is a difficult piece to write about well, and even harder to write something original about. The story is set as a flashback and takes place over three days in which the protagonist Holden Caulfield is expelled from boarding school, decides to leave early and returns to New York to stay in a hotel, while becoming progressively disillusioned about societal roles and expectations. Through this he becomes increasingly unhinged by the events around him and suffers from a mental breakdown. The plot takes on a tangential feel as one event triggers another digression on Caulfield’s path from prep school to emotional collapse, but the structure is deceptively concise and directed while appearing lateral.

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Chromophobia and the Illusion of White

April 11, 2008

In Chromophobia, the central argument of artist and writer David Batchelor is that a societal fear of corruption or contamination through color permeates Western culture. Opening with the example of a visit to a fetishized ultra-white modernist house, he concisely sets up the idea of a dominatingly oppressive whiteness.

This great white interior was empty even when it was full, because most of what was in it didn’t belong in it and would soon be purged from it. This was people, mainly, and what they brought with them. Inside this great white interior, few things looked settled, and even fewer looked at home, and those that did look settled also looked like they had been prepared: approved, trained, disciplined, marshaled. Those things that looked at home looked like they had already been purged from within. In a nutshell: those things that stayed had themselves been made either quite white, quite black or quite grey. This world was entirely purged of color. (11)

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After the Quake

April 10, 2008

Each of the six stories in Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake is set against the backdrop of the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan. The stories deal with tragedy, loss, and trauma, and are permeated with a sense of mystical undercurrents and the absurd. In nearly all, there is a symbolic mirroring that threads through each story in the form of nature and wild animals. Stories feature reoccurring animals both in their wild natural form and as anthropomorphized characters. The stories explore the psychological trauma when the world and nature unexpectedly do not behave how society thinks it ought: when marriages fall apart, a parent finds a new partner, or we grow old. These smaller quakes mirror the larger event exemplified in the Kobe quake. Satsuki’s driver in Thailand said it best.

“Strange and mysterious things, though, aren’t they—earthquakes? We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. We even talk about people being ‘down to earth’ or having their feet firmly planted on the ground. But suddenly one day we see that isn’t true. The earth, the boulders, that are supposed to be so solid, all of a sudden turn as mushy as liquid. (76)

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Air Guitar

April 10, 2008

Air Guitar is a collection of Dave Hickey’s essays ranging from popular and forgotten music, cartoons, mass culture, Donald Judd, Siegfried and Roy, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and even the world’s largest rhinestone. Hickey has a way of treating the subjects of art and culture as anecdotes to his personal stories. Each essay slips easily between its professed subject matter and into Hickey’s personal reminiscences that instead of derailing the topic, transform the subject into something larger than the sum of its parts.

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Weschler’s Robert Irwin

February 8, 2008

Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is a chronicling of the life and work of Southern California based artist Robert Irwin written by Lawrence Weschler. The work documents the evolution of Irwin’s early work as it congealed into Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950s on through to his later Conceptual work in the 1970s. Honed from extensive interviews with the artist, Weschler gets inside of the artists head, exploring interior motivation and contextualizing the work and evolution of ideas into the fabric of Irwin’s daily life. Weschler’s writing so fully inhabits Irwin’s work that at certain points I half expected to discover I was reading some sort of Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, where I would later discover Irwin had in fact written the biography himself as some statement on artist’s presence. Obviously this is just my fancy, but it illustrates the author’s ability to connect his prose with the ideas the artist was discussing and illuminate the process. The work glides seamlessly through the artist’s words and ideas, so that one is almost unaware of the synthesis of multiple interviews and source material taking place. It reads smooth almost like a novel, even in chapters that were more theory based.

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Hawthorne and Home

February 3, 2008

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance is fictionalized account of the author’s stay at Brook Farm in 1841. It is an amazing source of information about utopian experiments, and fits nicely with my research on Home, Washington. It gives an insightful window into social attitudes and the culture of this living environment during the period. Overall the narrator in the novel is skeptical of these endeavors, but it is a great source for research on the utopian drive and a richly dramatic tale that illustrates an individual’s inability to escape the past.

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

November 27, 2007

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a collaborative project between writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans that combined elements of essay, portrait, poem, and engaged journalism. This hybrid work grew out of a commissioned magazine article exploring conditions of poor white sharecroppers in the South, but the article was never realized in the original form and instead grew into the volume Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The work primarily focused on the lives and living conditions of three sharecropper families: the Gudgers, Ricketts, and Woods. At play is an interesting mix of observed detail and intimate storytelling combined with outsider examinations. One section may be objective exterior overview only to be followed up with privileged interior observation concerning the intimate details of a specific day or individual’s life. The work adeptly bounces from interior to exterior vantage points to create a profound understanding of the people involved. In style it is like transcribing the soul’s sense while speaking to the hardships of a particular way of life; mirroring larger societal issues during Roosevelt’s New Deal era.

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