Tag Archives: fall 2001

The Procedure

Harry Mulisch
translated by Paul Vincent
Viking ($24.95)

by Jason Picone

Many contemporary novelists attempt to inform their fiction with science and philosophy, but few succeed as completely as the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch. Without ever being heavy-handed or smart-alecky, his new novel manages to integrate chemistry, Jewish mysticism, and the Pygmalion myth in a beguiling and enrapturing tale of modern man.

Mulisch's fourth novel to appear in English, The Procedure begins with a close reading of the book of Genesis, an investigation that leads the narrator to observe that God formed "man of the dust and of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." This account of the creation of man fuels the idea of the golem, a Jewish myth that Mulisch updates through his retelling of a late, 16th-century event.

Charged by the Holy Roman Emperor to animate a creature composed of earth, Rabbi Jehudah Low reluctantly applies himself to the Jewish Book of Creation, which details the procedure for creating a golem. The Rabbi's initial resistance slowly gives way to excitement, as he wonders if his experiment might truly succeed. Ultimately, the unexpected outcome of Low's labor serves not only as a warning to those who would attempt to play God, but also as a testament to life's essentially unpredictable nature.

The novel's protagonist, Victor Werker, is a present-day Dutch chemist who has managed to create a simple organism (called the eobiont) from inorganic origins, a process that mimics both God's birthing of man and Low's animation of the golem. While Werker is an unqualified professional success, it's ironic that he can create life in the laboratory, but not in the conventional manner with Clara, the woman he loves; their daughter emerged from the womb stillborn, a traumatic event that separated the lovers. In addition to these personal disappointments, Werker must also weather threats from religious sources, which allege that his experiments are trying to displace God.

Though The Procedure is a cautionary tale about the dangers of overwhelming pride, under close consideration (the novel's epigraph is "So cleverly did his art conceal its art"), another possible reading emerges. As well as resembling Low, Werker also bears an uncomfortable similarity to a golem, a metaphor suggested by Mulisch's earlier observation that if Adam was a golem, all of humanity might be as well.

A man who knows the dead better than the living, Werker addresses his letters to his daughter instead of Clara, because he is more comfortable communicating through a stillborn medium than directly to a loved one. Even the partner with whom he made the eobiont has deserted him, a mutual accusation of treachery filling the void between them. Werker is occasionally moved to action by a buzzing in his chest, but it's not his heart that animates him, it's the vibration of a cell phone that he keeps in the front pocket of his shirt. The chemist's overly logical investigation of the novel's final puzzle limits his ability to find a solution; he has information that a crime will occur, but his innate inflexibility compromises his ability to prevent it.

After Mulisch's previous novel, the lap-breaking and mind-boggling The Discovery of Heaven, fans of the Dutch writer might be disappointed that The Procedure is only 230 pages, but rest assured that all the genius, wit, and humanity of his opus is amply on display in the slender new work. The Procedure reminds us that no matter how man chooses to order his existence, there is no simple set of instructions to follow; in order to feel truly alive, man must carve his life from life

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

The Center of Things

Jenny McPhee
Doubleday ($22.95)

by Rumaan Alam

Who's more suited to a life of movie stardom than the children of movie stars? Reared in the glow of public affection and flash bulbs, they're poised from birth to parlay their unique luster, whether culturally endowed or genetically inherited, into a career on screen. Thus Anjelica Huston and Carrie Fisher, Sofia Coppola and Angelina Jolie, Scott Caan and Gwyneth Paltrow, the Redgraves and Barrymores. The scions of artists sometimes become artists, as in the case of Kiki Smith; the progeny of poets sometimes become poets, as in the case of Frieda Hughes (daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath); the offspring of musicians sometimes turn to music, as did Jakob Dylan and Sean Lennon. But who among us doesn't doubt the mettle of these second generation artists? Who isn't convinced that were it not for that famous surname and the whole coterie of agents, producers and curators indebted to those parents, their poems, paintings, films and the songs would never see the light of day?

That said, it may come as a surprise to some that The Center of Things, a first novel by Jenny McPhee—daughter of the legendary essayist John McPhee and sister to the equally literary Martha and Laura—is an intelligent and rewarding read. It's neither a transparent, garishly autobiographical novel about the daughter of a writer nor an insipid quasi-literary tale of sex and the single girl. Rather, it's a witty book that uses physics as a metaphor for the chaos of life and love. Critics generally go easy on first time novelists, but most writers would crumble under the scrutiny that being born of such a well-known parent inevitably invites. McPhee weathers it quite nicely, even surviving comparisons to her father's oeuvre.

 Marie Brown, the endearingly eccentric protagonist of The Center of Things, is too tall and too intelligent. She's a hard working researcher and reporter at the Gotham City Star, a lurid evening tabloid. She's deaf in one ear. She's 39. She's chronically early for appointments, and chalks this trait up to a fear of abandonment. McPhee wastes no time filling in Marie's outline, feeding us this information early in the book to diffuse the sense that this is another single-girl-in-the-big-city book.

What really sets Marie apart from her contemporaries is her academic background, an unusual trait in a female character, and almost without precedent in as breezy and fun a book as this one. Fifteen years earlier, while a graduate student, she took a seminar on the relationship between quantum mechanics and reality. Working toward her degree in the philosophy of science, Marie became captivated by quantum theory, the idea that the act of observing elementary particles influences their behavior. Her work on this paper, her struggle to grasp this unknowable subject, is her priority in life.

Of course, the novel itself is, ultimately, a text on this abstract, complex idea. It probably wouldn't bother most readers if McPhee got her facts straight, but she handles the terms and concepts of physics with all the confidence of an expert. She writes as lucidly on this subject as her father writes on geology or any of the arcane subjects generally uninteresting to the uninitiated that he makes come alive on paper, his great gift. Truly, his daughter has inherited that ability, or her father has instilled it in her.

The catalyst for the whirlwind plot of The Center of Things is the glamorous film siren Nora Mars, as enigmatic a presence as Pynchon's V., known only to us readers through the epigrams from her films with which McPhee has liberally (perhaps too liberally) peppered the narrative. As the novel opens, Mars is lying in a coma. It's an auspicious moment for Marie's career. Mars was one of her great childhood heroines; the aforementioned epigrams are a central part of Marie's youth, comprising a game she played with her brother Michael, from whom she is estranged as an adult, in which they swapped dialogue from Mars' filmography.

Part of Marie's duties at the Star is keeping the advance obituary file, but when Nora Mars falls ill, Marie convinces her waspy, cartoonish editor Miles Brewster, the character least developed in the book's small cast, to let her write the obituary itself. It's a big step up from her usual duties, which include ghost writing for her less talented, lout of a boyfriend named Ned Brilliant, a dashing reporter at the paper. Though driven by a love for Mars and all that movie stars represent, Marie eventually uncovers the tawdry story behind her idol's life.

Marie meets with Mars' young ex-husband Rex Mars (Nora, in a delightful touch, required all of her myriad husbands to take her last name), and learns that his relationship to the actress might be far more complicated than most people know. A visit to Nora's sister turns up similarly irresistible material. Marie the tabloid reporter has struck gold, and the hitherto unknown truth about Nora Mars' life is Marie's ticket to stardom. The famous, we see, are the elementary particles in the universe of Marie and her tabloid job. And Marie, the scientist-cum-observer, alters the results of her observation as she writes, becoming involved in the whole brouhaha.

So what's the reality of Mars' life? It doesn't ruin any of the plot's surprises to say that it's a chaotic, squalid tale of embittered siblings and foiled loves. In fact, it's not unlike Marie's life. Marie's estrangement from her brother Michael is deeply felt. Though the reason for the rift between them is actually a bit predictable (I won't give it away here, don't fear), the characters are fully enough realized to lift the estrangement above the conventional and make it poignant. And in keeping with the metaphor McPhee has established—that the behavior of particles is influenced by their observation—Marie has an active role in the Mars family scandal and learns a few things about her own family troubles.

Though her love life is less operatic than Nora Mars', Marie's precarious romantic position is also part of the equation. Her affair with Brilliant has gone sour, though they are still colleagues and eventually competitors. But her true romantic partner is the delightfully bizarre Marco, a "freelance intellectual" she meets during one of her many trips to the Library of Science, Industry and Business, where she goes to tackle the Sisyphean task of finishing her dissertation. Again, McPhee employs the metaphors of physics to chart everything that is happening around Marie, skillfully exploring the theories of chaos that sound so intimidating to the uninitiated.

The Center of Things has a strange resolution. McPhee's strategy recalls the experiments of Lorrie Moore's underrated novel Anagrams: there seem to exist simultaneously several different plots, all of them at odds with one another. This novel, which starts out seeming like a dressed-up beach read, turns out to be about more than romantic intrigue, more even than theoretical physics. It's not a bad conceit, but the end of the book demands a close reading, and readers may feel they're missing something. But it's an admirable feat; the author achieves the momentum of a thriller with the material of something altogether more whimsical.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

The Impossibly

Laird Hunt
Coffee House Press ($23.95)

by Kelly Everding

In an essay on Robbe-Grillet's fiction, Roland Barthes writes: "'The human condition,' Heidegger has said, ‘is to be there.' Robbe-Grillet himself has quoted this remark apropos of Waiting for Godot, and it applies no less to his own objects, of which the chief condition, too, is to be there." Stripped of some "something," the object can just exist without any meaning projected onto it by the writer. As I attempt to ascertain Laird Hunt's The Impossibly, I turn to my warehouse of evidence—books that share similar sensibilities and techniques. So upon reading the first paragraph, having to do with the purchase of a stapler, I'm reminded of Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers. Further, as I read the twisting plot (it never unfolds), I think of the avant-noir of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Others come to mind: Kafka's "The Trial" and, of course, the aforementioned Waiting for Godot. A definite flavor is suggested: intrigue and absurdity with a dash of existentialism. Dark humor and occasional slapstick accentuate the absurdity and make this pathetic protagonist, albeit a murderer, loveable.

Let me begin again. As Hunt's protagonist relates, "beginnings were quite extraordinary things, there being nothing and then there being something, a prelude and an aftermath . . . many beginnings were a positive morass of the unlikely, the bizarre, the insignificant but intriguingly odd, the innocently calamitous, the highly charged mundane." The novel's beginning is mundane enough: the hero helps a woman find a word for an object and later falls in love with her. However this sort of mundanity can't be trusted in the world Hunt has created in The Impossibly. Our hero is a nameless operative working for a nameless organization in a nameless city. Just about everyone seems to be working for this "organization"—everyone is involved in one intrigue or another in a part-time capacity—so the whole society is complicit in the reign of violence and uncertainty that pervades the culture. When he receives an assignment which he does not complete, he is subjected to the violence he himself had perpetrated. "In picking me for the assignment, the boss hadn't counted on what might become the ramifications of my having fallen in love."

The intensified atmosphere of this world finds expression in the language where contradictions, corrections, fragmented messages, and holes in the story reveal the deep-seated psychological break incipient in the protagonist. Unable to trust his own perceptions, or perhaps bowing to the impossibility of true certainty in any occasion, he often takes back what he just said. For instance: "it was the best time of all, though not really. Never really"; or "Perhaps there was a hint, in my mind, of something sinister about her. Perhaps it was because there was no hint of something sinister about her, ever, and yet she was." The protagonist, in relating events, chooses not to divulge the true nature of conversations or any actual information—instead we are left with a skeleton of events, just body signals and insinuations. Love especially suffers a lack of expression, maybe because it is so rare: "We had not yet developed a vocabulary that could accommodate, in this line, any kind of elaboration." The reader must fill in the holes and become the necessary detective of the story, in effect, piecing together evidence and stray references to partial descriptions of horrendous acts—blood, the smell of burning flesh, screams.

The reader receives hints of atrocities and acts of murder, but there is no objective laid out, no reason or goal of these operations. It's just the way it is. Yet although there is no objective to the violence, there are many objects that make up the world Hunt has created, mundane objects that take on sinister meanings or are used for sinister deeds. (I will personally never look at a feather duster in the same way again.) The objects seem to carry more significance because of their mundanity, as opposed to the human-designed horror witnessed everyday in the city—like the box carried around by the soldier in Robbe-Grillet's In the Labyrinth or the fixation on erasers in The Erasers. Objects are immediate things that take on symbolic meaning whether we want them to or not. We fetishize them and derive comfort from them, from their familiarity, from their nostalgic emanations, especially in times of uncertainty. Hunt not only fetishizes the objects, he fetishizes the names we give them—names which take on their own kind of beauty. However, as the hero's girlfriend explains, "it is not the fact of the objects or the fact of the words, really, it is the fact of establishing the correct establishments on which to place them, that is all. Each combined expression can mean one of these, she said, i.e., what, how large, what kind, related to what, where, when, how placed, in what state, acting or suffering." The protagonist himself is enamored of the "realia" his job requires—yet these objects, harmless in themselves, are employed in horrible acts by human beings. It is the mind that establishes relationships that result in suffering or happiness. Ultimately, the objects we love are projections of who we are. "I was told once in a big bed in the countryside by the woman I loved that what made it always so difficult, all of it, was being an interior in a world of exteriors."

And that brings me to memory, the mind's lackey, which really sets the narrative of this story apart from others. Although the general arc of the novel is chronological, following the life of the hero, his falling in love, his loss of that love, his immersion in the doings of the "organization" and finally his "disaffirmation" from that organization, within the telling of the story time is jumbled and stutters and skips around. Stories will generate other stories told to or remembered by the hero. This interruptive narrative seems to be an accurate map of the human mind trying to make sense of the world, trying to create or establish relationships and meaning from the myriad events we are subjected to in our lifetimes, but the failure of memory to record these events accurately becomes a source of distress:

But perhaps I am misremembering and am subconsciously overlaying what it is I remember now onto what it was I remembered then. In fact, when I was still in the process, some years ago, of actively learning, or of actively acquiring knowledge, I once read that this overlaying process was not possible, I do not say difficult, I say not possible to avoid.

And again, later in the novel, the hero admits:

In fact, given my condition at the time and my condition now, not to mention the considerable interval, it would be irresponsible not to admit the possibility that these memories were inaccurate, i.e., that they did not substantially adhere to the real, or at least to some satisfactory approximation thereof.

We are subjected to the hero's selective memory of what he may or may not have heard, heightening the sense of uncertainty or unreality. Dreams assert their influence as well and become as significant in the uncovering of the mystery as any investigation, and often we do not know if we are witnessing reality or dream. Ultimately, the hero is a pawn in this world, manipulated by the devilish machinations of the organization who are alternately his friends and enemies—often within the same sentence—depending on his compliance with their requests One of the fragmentary covert messages from his boss lays out the threat quite nicely: "Dear Sir, Do not, under any circumstances." In this existential universe, love is a liability, but the hero holds onto his illusion of love into his old age and retirement, even after taking on a new investigation that will lead to information he would rather not know. Does love ultimately redeem him? Or is he doomed to repeat the horrible crimes he committed under the aegis of higher powers? Perhaps a little of both as he moves from one stage of his life to the next: from young love, to fat middle age, to gaunt old age and reconciliation with his own death, and beyond to the next life where love lifts him up beyond the scope of any investigation.

The Impossibly, Laird Hunt's first novel, is a challenging and inventive work, alternately chilling and humorous, that breaks new ground in the world of speculative fiction. Diffuse with noir tropes stripped of their origins, it leaves the reader with a map of the complicit mind trying to deal with perversity and adversity in a violent world.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

Yonder Stands Your Orphan

Barry Hannah
Atlantic Monthly Press ($24)

by Brian Beatty

What an earnest fool I used to be. During my undergraduate and graduate school days, as I presumed to be studying the art and the craft of creative writing, I somehow convinced myself there was just one way to write serious literary fiction: the crazed way Barry Hannah seemed to do it.

The conspicuous lust and violence of Hannah's fiction lured me early. As time passed I learned to appreciate the splendor of his sentences. For my money, nobody spoke the confounded tongue of the late twentieth century better than Hannah: his desperate, doomed characters lived and spoke true poetry. The novels and short story collections of all other writers I measured against my favorite of his books. I rated the short stories of my peers in workshops against them, too. And I hardly spared myself. My own fledgling fiction attempts often resulted from laborious exercises such as retyping Hannah stories from beginning to end to better imagine how he did it.

A genuine zealot, I championed even Hannah's slim, inconsequential books (the autobiographical Hey Jack! and Captain Maximus and Boomerang) to anybody with ears, including my graying literature professors (dullards and prudes who didn't read Americans or literature written after the nineteenth century). I even mailed Hannah a short story I had written–in hopes of great praise, I suppose. My hero returned my story in the SASE I'd provided with considerable edits and notes, including a suggestion that I check out Beckett and Joyce—"for variety." I don't recall if I confessed in the letter I sent along with my manuscript how I had read and reread his books until I could recite lengthy passages from memory, or if I'd mentioned how I maintained an extensive Hannah archive, though it was basically just a manila file folder stuffed with stapled photocopies: his early student publications; magazine and literary journal interviews; and reviews, good and bad, for all of his books.

More likely, my obsession revealed itself in the vaguely familiar rhythms of my mediocre prose.

Eventually, the summer after graduate school, I was rescued at a writing conference. I was there to study with fiction writer and magazine journalist Bob Shacochis, a student from Hannah's tenure as a professor at Iowa, it turned out. The afternoon my story was up for critique, Shacochis kept his opinions to himself until my peers were done with their criticisms and the table was quiet. Even then he didn't say a word. He simply pushed his copy of my story back across the table at me with a single written note: "One Barry Hannah is enough." His criticism could not have been truer or more obvious. At long last I was forced to admit that there wasn't much call for literary impersonation, regardless how flattering.

So I quit prose fiction for easier work. Hannah, on the other hand, never quit—not even after a book or three that insinuated he was possibly imitating himself. Instead, he wrote through his apparent (not so) dry period, and survived to defy his critics. In fact, his steady, respectable return to form could be a model for many more literary authors than it would be polite to list.

The first suggestion that readers had not seen the last of Hannah was 1993's Bats Out of Hell. A collection of new stories and rewritten chapters salvaged from his lesser novels, the book was surly and mean—and probably Hannah's best since the widely acclaimed Airships. High Lonesome, a small batch of stories in which a more expansive, more mature narrative voice replaced both the Hendrix-inspired prose riffs of Hannah at his best and the clipped drawl of his dim period, appeared in 1997. This new voice worked better in some of the book's stories than others, but more importantly it revealed that Hannah was not content repeating the accomplishments of his earlier work.

Yonder Stands Your Orphan, Hannah's new novel, is his first since Never Die, his elliptical and unfulfilling Wild West novel. It's also, very likely, someone's idea of a Faulkner book (though probably neither Hannah's nor Faulkner's). Set in a secluded lake resort town populated by complicated Southern folks experiencing a wide variety of emotional and psychic hurts, the book catches up with characters and relationships reprised from Bats Out of Hell's opening story, "High-Water Railers." But unlike Hannah's expansion of a short story into the slim novel The Tennis Handsome, this book doesn't bother recycling much of the original story's plot or tone. Everything about this novel is darker and sadder than Hannah's previous work.

Probably saddest of all is Man Mortimer, the smalltime pimp and car rental tycoon whose descent into madness visits treachery upon an entire town. Each of the book's remaining characters (and there are many) exists in relation to Mortimer, but suffers a terrible secret or past, too. Hannah leaves the reader to wonder how exactly these people keep from drowning themselves just to be done with their many miseries. While other novelists orchestrate action to progress their narrative, Hannah forgoes strict plotting in favor of humming, electric sentences. As always with his work, wretched, startling lives are revealed every time his characters open their mouths to speak what's troubling their hearts.

It's a redundant comparison to make, but Hannah is more like Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor in Yonder Stands Your Orphan than he has been in any book yet. But he resembles Bob Dylan a little, too. Like Dylan, whose "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" provides this novel's title, Hannah continues reinventing his song and dance, proving what age and life experience almost always have over youth, ambition and envy. This, coincidentally, is the realization that evades Man Mortimer but not the fortunate survivors found in Hannah's most vividly imagined fiction since his stunning debut. Some dumb coincidence? That would handy, but a fib. And if Orphan is tough going for long stretches at a time—Hannah's moral compass spins in wild arcs that defy even the slimmest light between the pages—the rewards include authentic literary art and a folk wisdom that is as valuable as it is simple and true.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

The Metaphysics of Gerrit Lansing

by Robert Baker

Growing directly out of the complex music of Gerrit Lansing's poetry is a metaphysical doctrine of considerable sophistication. But unlike many systems, Lansing's demands the full participation of the world-creating power of the imagination. Lansing's belief in the ultimate power of the imagination, however, raises some interesting questions regarding the status of reality, particularly the reality of the natural world. To what extent is the "not me" of nature a product of imaginative creation? Is it possible to separate the experiencing of the natural world from the capacity to create experience through the power of the creative imagination?

The question of the relation of the creative mind to the natural world is central to Emerson's essay Nature. For Emerson, nature is a teacher of spiritual truths whose objective existence is uncertain at best. "Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and venerable to me. Be it what it may, it is ideal to me, so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses." In his view, the universe as we know it is "the externisation of the soul." It exists primarily to provide an opportunity for self knowledge through creative world building: "Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world." However, Emerson also defines nature as "all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME." In "The Poet" imagination is a "very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees." This implies an imaginative identification with an object beyond the self. Through the use of the imagination it is possible to achieve a kind of correspondence to nature that can "restore" both humanity and nature to their "original and eternal beauty."

Lansing, a careful reader and interpreter of Emerson, shares his rich ambiguity as to the exact "location" of nature relative to the human mind. His writing also exhibits the tension between seeking a kind of imaginative, salutary and restorative correspondence to an independently existing natural world and seeking in the world an externalized version of our own realized creative imagination and will. Section IV of Lansing's long poem The Soluble Forest offers an imagined glimpse at the "root" of perception and this root's connection to the creative acts of writing and ritual (write and rite). "From zero jumps two, two being how something is apprehended. Only a stone's throw from writing to root. The rite of winter is the root of spring." Separation is a primary quality of apprehension, "as things emerge from the void of no-thing." But the imagination, through the act of writing and rooting, also provides a route, "a way and the map of a way." The creative imagination roots/routes our way to the world of things. For Lansing there is no fundamental unity underlying our separation from nature, but writing and rooting/routing anchor a void of no-thing to a human mapping.

A particular mapping, however, can outlive its use and become rigidified and stifling, as we see in Lansing's major work on nature "In Erasmus Darwin's Generous Light." Echoing Blake, Lansing berates the priesthood of the "social web" by viewing it through the eyes of Erasmus Darwin: "He saw how joys were trampled in the priests' black rounds / twisted by quibbles / of ministers and schools / knotted secure." The "worship of document" seals off humanity from a direct experience of nature, even as the "reductionists" mount an attack on "within." For Lansing the experience of nature and the experience of "within" are inseparable; as Lansing puts it in "Stanzas Of Hyparxis, "How far out you go / it is within." In "Erasmus Darwin's Generous Light" unmediated contact with nature is demanded in concert with a proclamation of the infinite nature of within: "within within / all & everything." Here is Emerson's rich ambiguity. Salutary contact with nature is immediate, but ultimately that contact takes place within; it is a product of the creative imagination and cannot be acquired through the filter of document and fossilized text. The imagination must generate fresh roots/routes through nature or come to see nature as "nothing but pages."

For Lansing, nature too exhibits the qualities of creative imagination. In section IV of The Soluble Forest, we find "the crown of a tree flourishes the idea of its root." The most intimate contact with nature is like that between lovers, as in "Perianth": "By far the best farmers / lovers are / whose bodies glisten in the light they make." By the end of this poem the language becomes explicitly sexual. The word "perianth" is used, the speaker informs us, "to remind me of the floral unity of love." To meet nature on its own erotic terms is orgasmic: "we double on ourselves the world / when our bodies shoot / and the heavens open." In terms of Lansing's doctrine of nature, it makes no sense to ask if this encounter is real or entirely subjective. What counts is that humans encounter nature "in the light they make," and that we "double on ourselves the world." The "two," having emerged from "the void of no-thing" find their nexus in the creative imagination. In "The Castle of Flowering Birds," we encounter a group of birds "dumb with feeling." The observation of these birds leads the speaker to an encounter with the passionate soul of nature:

The company of love,
Safe in the garden that is themselves,
More ghost than garden, more brute than bird,
Acclaim the throbbing animal,
The beastly petals green with blood.

The birds are in the "garden that is themselves" and that is more "ghost" than garden. Yet the speaker has access to their world through the power of his imagination to the extent that we cannot help but sense a strong note of affirmation in the last two lines. We are all "throbbing animals" encountering each other and the world on the plane of the imagination, but the encounter is no less intense because of this.

Lansing's view of the interrelations between nature and the imagination is also much like the views inherent in the Magick of Aleister Crowley. For Crowley the universe is ultimately subject to the powers of humanity. "Man is capable of being, and using, anything which he perceives; for everything that he perceives is in a certain sense a part of his being. He may thus subjugate the whole Universe of which he is conscious to his individual Will." In Lansing's poetry there are moments when nature seems to offer to consciousness a power that is on the very brink of the unattainable. For example, the speaker of "In Northern Earth," meditating on nature in a graveyard, states the following:

Dissolve, coagulate, the chemists say:
but the first darkness blinds the human eyes
that climb the ladder of the visionary spinal chord to issue in
the thousand-petalled sun.

It is possible for human consciousness to "climb" the "visionary spinal chord" to the "thousand-petalled sun." (The allusions here are to Kundalini yoga, a form of yoga heavily reliant on intensive use of the creative imagination.) The ascent of the "ladder" is in no way guaranteed and must be wrested from a nature that normally "dissolves" consciousness at death, and "darkness blinds the human eyes" of even the most accomplished "climber." The struggling mage must conquer nature to win the final visionary state. This is also the case in one of Lansing's best known poems, "The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward." In this poem those who bury the dead "must from the grave / establish a habit." In order to "rise again," the dead are buried "in fetal position / knees pulled up to chin." What is interesting is that the motion of rising is opposite to the movement of the "Heavenly Tree." The quest for any type of immortality must be won from nature through a kind of ritual, or rite.

The writing/riting of poetry is for Lansing a testing of the human imagination against the creative and destructive powers of nature and the universe. It is the most serious of games and should only be played by those who would risk everything, but for those, there are worlds to gain. As we hear in "The Cutting of the Lotus," in the depths of nature "water and mud are not separated." There is a god there whose utterance is the creation of his own light: "The words tumbled from all the mouths of the god at once. He rubs himself with his utterance. He shines." This god is a poet.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

An Interview with Jalal Toufic

by Aaron Kunin

Most things that are strange are actually strange in a fairly predictable way—e.g., "You're different from me, but I understand you completely; I know exactly what you're going to say." Jalal Toufic, who is, in his own description, "a writer, film theorist, and video artist," writes books that really are different from anything else I've encountered. To say, for example, that they're about film or dance would distort the way in which they're engaged with—or obsessed with—these subjects. To say that they're about politics or psychology would require forgetting their fundamental disengagement from politics as it is usually practiced, and from conventional accounts of consciousness. To say that they're autobiographical would be missing the point: they're about death and undeath as well as life. Toufic's books include Distracted (Station Hill, 1991), (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film (Station Hill, 1993), Over-Sensitivity (Sun and Moon, 1996), and the recent Forthcoming (Atelos, 2000). His video and installation works include Credits Included: A Video in Red and Green and Radical Closure Artist with Bandaged Sense Organ. He lives in Beirut.

The following interview was conducted by email between February and May 2001. Generically quite various, it includes letters, scenarios, and short essays. There's frequently a distinct contrast between my somewhat pedestrian questions and Toufic's extravagant responses; at one point, he uses one of my questions as the answer to another question. Rather than a detached commentary or conventional profile, the interview is here conceived as an extension of Toufic's writing.

—Aaron Kunin

Aaron Benjamin Kunin: How would you characterize your writing formally? You frequently cite Nietzsche as a model "laconic" writer, but "laconic" suggests a limited formal range, whereas your recent books include dialogues, scenarios, texts for installations, essays, and letters, as well as aphorisms. Do you consider all of these to be laconic forms in the same sense?

Jalal Toufic: At one level, every fine work of art or literature is laconic: it is because an artwork is the densest manner of rendering and conveying something that it cannot be properly viewed in terms of a message—if a reader insists on speaking of the message of an artwork or of a literary work, he or she should consider it to be the latter as a whole. At another level are laconic-only-artworks and literary works that effect in their readers or viewers an absence of the interior monologue with its associations.

AK: I'm particularly interested in the way you use letters…

Two of the joyous events of my life were related to letters. I remember a period of about three months during the writing of (Vampires) when the most that I would say during the day would be something along the lines of: "Two eggs over-easy, French fries and a coffee.… The check, please." My increasingly harsh solitude was leading me into a deadpan disposition to dullness (for a considerable while the working title of my third book was Makes Jack a Dull Boy). It was in this context that on arriving home on 25 March 1993, I found a letter from one of my favorite contemporary writers, essayists and theater artists, Richard Foreman, in which he wrote to the author of a book, Distracted (1991), that was then (and still is) unreviewed and of which one could find only four or five copies in the Chicago metropolitan area: "I glanced at it [your book]—and literally couldn't put it down. I find it an amazing book—and I am not easily amazed. I can think of nothing book-like emerging in the U.S. literary scene for many years that seems to come from a consciousness so totally unique, rigorous, ‘unfathomable' in the best, most potent sense—and yet gripping in a dramatic and engaging way. I'm truly knocked out." I felt I had received the letter through telepathy so distant and disconnected from the world did I feel during that period. Shortly after, I received a fan letter from one of my favorite contemporary musicians, John Zorn. This time, I did not feel I was receiving the letter telepathically.

A fan letter presupposes the solitude of the addressee—even a fan letter to someone idolized by millions. Any star who opens a fan letter, unless he or she is totally insensitive, must feel at least momentarily solitary.

AK: You sometimes address people who may not necessarily be there to receive the communication, such as the model Christy Turlington. Why, in these cases, is it important that the letter actually be sent? Or, to put it another way, what is the role of the recipient?

JT: I can now better appreciate the resistance of people to well-written letters: there is actually an intrusion in these publishable letters though less from the reader in general, than from the untimely collaborator.

AK: The letters invariably open conventionally (date, location, salutation) but do not close conventionally: there's no signatory, which sometimes makes the ending difficult to detect; I find myself reading the following pages of the book as a continuation of lines already traced in the preceding letter. Why is aperture strongly signaled and not closure?

JT: "We are perfect for each other. You are young enough not to have read many books; I am an old enough writer to have been forgetting for years now what I learned in books, art, and films. Gone is my erudition and much of my vocabulary. I presently gravitate towards a few films and a few words, like cadaver." What he was saying was misleading, a form of seduction: they would have fit better together when he was more erudite.

Sara, Beirut

J'ai découvert aujourd'hui vos sites. C'était une belle surprise. MERCI beaucoup d'y avoir pensé. Ils sont intéressants.

Je dois d'abord m'excuser de ne pas vous avoir appelé l'autre jour comme je l'avais promis; quelque chose de désagréable est arrivé: j'ai perdu votre numéro de téléphone. Pour le retrouver, c'est simple, il me suffisait d'appeler Monique. Je l'ai appelée. Elle ne me l'a pas donné. Là, je serai de nouveau en contact avec vous, seulement si vous avez la gentillesse de m'envoyer votre numéro pour que je vous appelle--sinon…

Eh vous barbare, beau sultan, ami du Coeur et du malheur... comment va votre belle allure de fakir cireur? Ça serait sympa qu'on s'écrive de temps en temps.

Allez, je vous laisse de la plume mais non du Coeur.

Sara's college schedule: Monday: till noon; Tuesday: till 3; Wednesday: till 2; Thursday: till 4; Friday: till 2.

Jalal Toufic, Naqqâsh, Lebanon
Sara, Beirut:
When she was away from him, he, naturally, missed her. Nonetheless, he intuitively did not ask her to write letters to him. But one day he received one. He felt happy. But he soon became aware, having reread her witty letter several times and desiring to receive a second one then and there, that the letters, while at first a way to minimize missing the beloved, were opening another occasion and avenue for missing. He now missed her presence but also her letters; meeting her in person did not end the latter kind of missing. While waiting for her one day in a café, he wished that she would show up with a new letter and that on characteristically going to the restroom to place water on her hair—"to feel energized"—she would hand it to him to read. "Write to me!" Can this request be satisfied when, however much its addressee writes, the lover will insist that the beloved should have written more, or in such a dense manner that the letter's absorption would take not one or two readings but scores of them? Have Christians been rereading the epistles of St. Paul again and again, for many centuries, not necessarily because these letters demand so much perusal in order to be fathomed but because they love St. Paul? When a letter is reduced to inscribing the addressee's name and complaints about the infrequency and shortness of his or her letters, we can be sure that the correspondent has reached the proper state of love.

Did he, naturally, stop missing her when she was with him? "I miss you even when you are with me" (wahishnî winta ‘usâd ‘înî, as an Umm Kulthûm love song says). Is this not the unnatural but paradigmatic situation when with the vampire, who is there with her victim and not there—as shown by the absence of her image in the mirror at the same location? Is it at all surprising that so many of the vampire's victims fall in love with her?

Thursday, 4/12/2001
I just called Sara. She cannot meet me today. She is behind in her studies. We are to meet on Sunday.

Sunday, 4/15/2001
I just spoke to Sara on the phone. She has exams. She cannot meet me till next Friday.

Jalal Toufic, Naqqâsh
Sara, Beirut
Fortunately, I've been getting much better at waiting these last few years, probably as a result of my renewed keen interest in Duodeciman Shi'ites, this hermeneutical sect still awaiting a messiah whose occultation started over a millennium ago.

AK: Maybe the most striking stylistic feature of your earlier books has been the use of parenthesis: the sentence expands both from within (parenthesis, and parenthesis within parenthesis, and so on) and from without (footnotes). (In this respect Nietzsche seems less useful as a model: your punctuation mark is the parenthesis, whereas his is the dash.) This tendency seems somewhat muted in Forthcoming, which nonetheless identifies, in a footnote, "discontinuity, whether stylistic or thematic" as a recurrent effect in your writing. What accounts for the change in style?

JT: At one level, there has been a break between Distracted and (Vampires), since I died before dying in the interval between finishing the first and starting the second. At another level, and given that style is the renewed variation of the same, whether motif, figure, etc., there has been no change of style between my books. For example, and as Forthcoming mentions, "discontinuity, whether stylistic or thematic, is encountered throughout my work. In Distracted, aphorisms separated by blanks [as well as aphoristic dashes and, in the first edition, parentheses within parenthesis within parenthesis]. In (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film, the tunneling of the undead and the specific blanks that stop this tunneling, producing a freezing; the over-turns; and the empty space-time sections of the labyrinth, which produce lapses. In Over-Sensitivity, the irruptions in radical closures, and the empty space-time to the other side of the threshold that dance crosses. And here [in Forthcoming], the atomistic temporality of Islam." Discontinuity is encountered throughout my work also in the form of the untimely end: in Distracted, in the manner of the youthful passionate impatience for suicide; in (Vampires), in the manner of the detachment of sacrificial interruption (the yogic sacrifice of the fruit of the action); and in Forthcoming, in the manner of both the messianic end of the world and the renewed creation of the occasionalist atomistic universe of the Ash'arite Moslem theologians and the Sufi Ibn al-'Arabî.

I dislike relative breaks; they can be eschewed either by constant embedding or else by atomistic or aphoristic absolute breaks.

Nietzsche writes: "To say in ten sentences what everyone says in a book…" One can accomplish this objective in a monadic manner. The ten sentences would then have plicated in them (in the form of parentheses within parentheses within parenthesis) or inserted in them (in the form of footnotes—but one would then have to have footnotes within footnotes, which is inelegant) a whole book or even a world. The paradigmatic limit is a monad where the world is plicated or inserted. Interpretation would then be a monadic unfolding: to see a world in less than a grain of sand, in a monad. And that indeed is made explicit in Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, where he writes in the preface: "I have offered in the third essay of the present book an example of what I regard as ‘exegesis' in such a case—an aphorism is prefixed to this essay, the essay itself is a commentary on it." So the third essay is the exegesis of "Unconcerned, mocking, violent—thus wisdom wants us; she is a woman and always loves only a warrior (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)." Thus Nietzsche's book can be considered to consist of ten sentences, the rest being the exegetical unfolding of these.

AK: On the level of the sentence, too, closure and aperture appear to be special problems: it's easy enough to enter the parenthesis but it's often quite difficult to find a way out. What effects do you imagine these sentences having on your readers? Do you envision a reader capable of connecting the end of the parenthesis to its beginning, or do you assume that the technology of the sentence will to some extent outstrip the reader's capacity to enjoy it?

JT: If on reaching a parenthesis that at long last closes many intervening ones, the reader cannot remember the beginning of the sentence whose continuation he now faces, he will experience being slower than oneself. Such a structure of writing is thus partly an apprenticeship in that offbeat state of speed.

AK: Somewhere in Distracted (I note that it's sometimes difficult to locate remembered passages in your books) you disclaim any interest in stream-of-consciousness writing. Does your writing present consciousness as something other than a stream (as, say, a series of interruptions)? Or do you not conceive of your writing as presenting an image of consciousness at all?

Another stylistic effect: the laconic "no." What kind of answer is "no"?

The copyright notice to Distracted says: "The whole of this book or any parts of it can be created by others and hence may be produced by them without permission from the author and the publisher. No part of this book may be paraphrased in any form or by any means." Your other books seem to conceive intellectual property somewhat differently: part of the task of the footnotes, it seems, is to provide elaborate documentation for references to other books (including your own). Moreover, in Over-Sensitivity, Werner Herzog is called "dishonest" for failing to credit Iraq as the producer of Lessons of Darkness, his film documenting oil fires in Kuwait; in Forthcoming you suggest that, in the case of a quotation that irrupts ahistorically within a radical closure, it would be irrelevant to give information about the source. What, for you, is the value of citation?

JT: The resort to citation in my books indicates either that I did not receive the unquestionable line or paragraph at the end of a perforation of a wall (Distracted); or that I was not the untimely collaborator of the writer I am quoting, that he or she wrote it at the price possibly of his or her madness, that realm where he or she is "alone with the alone," the double, and with the (diegetic) voices(-over). I would not use quotation were my work to become a radical closure in which what seems to be sentences or figures from the work of other writers or artists irrupts (despite the remarkable similarity of Toba Khedoori's Untitled [railing], 1996, to one of the panels of Magritte's diptych The Disguised Symbol, one should not hastily consider it in terms of influence or imitation or appropriation or citation, since both Magritte and Khedoori are radical closure artists; it would be more accurate to think that the former painting irrupted from the black of the terrace panel in Magritte's diptych—one day another specimen of that Magritte painting may irrupt in the white of Khedoori's painting).

AK: When you cite yourself—when you refer to earlier books or when you refer, inside a book, to another passage in the same book—is that an expression of continuity (demonstrating that you've always been saying the same thing) or discontinuity (you refuse to take responsibility for something said elsewhere, because you're not the same person—as you say, "unique, and thus irreplaceable, that which cannot be replaced even by himself/herself")?

JT: If I sometimes quote myself, it is because I have a loathing of paraphrasing—even myself. In terms of the relation between my various books, the crucial issue is less whether the person who wrote them has changed in the meanwhile, as whether in the writing of a certain book the author's concern was to establish a universe or to break it up and disperse it (émietter l'univers, as Nietzsche says). While the latter was the crucial thing for me in (Vampires), what was important to me in Over-Sensitivity and Forthcoming was producing a universe that, as Philip K. Dick puts it, doesn't fall apart two days later.

AK: It always startles me to see you offer corrections of existing artworks and past historical events; these corrections are sometimes done in the mode of obligation (Saddam "should have" appeared on TV dressed as Hitler), less frequently in the mode of chance (it "would have been felicitous…"). What authorizes these corrections?

JT: I sometimes feel that the writer or artist either did not heed his or her untimely collaborator (in this case, myself); or else that he or she tampered with or paraphrased the unquestionable that he or she received at the end of a perforation of a wall. In such cases, it would have been felicitous…

AK: In several places in Forthcoming, you describe yourself as "afraid," "surprised," "anxious" on discovering any confirmation of what you've written. Why is this possibility so troubling? How do you feel, on the other hand, about the possibility that you could be mistaken? (Is that possibility addressed in your writing on portraiture?)

JT: Why was it of such importance to me to publish (Vampires), when it was actually basically addressed to the dead, specifically to my amnesiac version in the undeath realm? It was to a considerable degree so that the few living authors whose writings mattered to me would show me how erroneous my scary ideas were, prove to me that they are fancy notions, making it easier for me to dismiss them. What genuine thinker has not been apprehensive that at least some of his alarming ideas prove right? Instead the book was, as usually happens in such cases, for the most part and for a long time overlooked. There is also the circumstance that whenever one's out of this world concepts appear in the world, one has the apprehension of an imminent psychosis (Lacan's formula for psychosis: "What is foreclosed from the Symbolic returns in the Real").

That is the Question
In the diegesis of Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, 1942, the Polish actor Josef Tura is each time interrupted by the disruptive departure of an audience member at the moment when he declaims on stage Hamlet's "to be, or not to be—that is the question." We quickly discover that this line that begins Hamlet's soliloquy is the coded signal for the pilot infatuated with Tura's wife to meet her backstage. But maybe the more basic reason Tura is recurrently interrupted at that point is that "to be, or not to be" is not the question; the question is rather the one that theater artist Romeo Castellucci poses in and apropos of his Amleto, 1992: to be and not to be. Indeed soon enough Tura, who is now impersonating the Nazi collaborator Professor Alexander Siletsky, is ushered by the Gestapo into a room where the corpse of the "real," murdered spy Siletsky is seated: Tura is thus intimately implicated in a situation where someone is in both states of being and non-being, is and is not.

Out of the Question
A man enters the hall of a hotel, sits at a table, and begins filling the different blank spaces in a form. First name: Safa; age: 27; hair color: brown; eye color: brown; height: 5 feet 7 inches; distinguishing marks: scar on right palm… At the reception desk, a waiter is speaking on the phone: "Can you please give more specifications? … Thank you." The waiter places the receiver on the desk and moves to the entrance of the large hall and surveys its occupants. There are only four men there. Although the man filling the form is clearly busy, the waiter heads towards him and asks him: "Excuse me, are you Sam?" On getting an irritated "No," he goes to the other corner of the large hall and asks the man sitting there, who is in the midst of a heated conversation and who is physically very unlike the first man—the two could not possibly answer to the same description the waiter received on the phone; indeed the man addressed by the conversing person is more physically similar to the one filling the forms: "Are you Sam?" He gets a negative response.

A few days later, Safa gives an attractive woman a dress as a gift. He is unaware that she is the lover of the other, older man who was questioned whether he's Sam. He worries that the dress may not be her size and thus not become fully hers. On meeting her the following day, and before he can ask her whether it is the right size, she says: "I don't want to lead you on; I have a lover. So, please accept your gift back." Nothing could have better indicated to him that that dress was already irrevocably hers; instantly it changed from being possibly not hers because the wrong size to being totally hers, since being a gift to her it would be totally useless and somewhat obscene if returned. He refuses to take it back. When they meet accidentally a few days later, she apologizes. A week later, when she shows up the first time at his hotel room, she is wearing it. He is very pleased to see that it is the right size. "You wonder if asking me to give you my Mondays and Wednesdays is too much to ask. Yes it is too much to ask because it is too little to ask—since you are not asking for everyday, or every other day, of the week." She takes off the dress saying: "I ran from place to place all morning in this humid weather. I am going to take a shower. Can I borrow one of your shirts?" When she comes out of the bathroom, the shirt reaches down to her knees. She looks charming in it. "What initially attracted me, a writer, to you is your name. The first time I heard it was two weeks ago. I had just been asked whether my name is Sam, when I saw this man come in the room and yell your name; at which point I saw you come out of the phone booth and join him. You may not know this: he is a counterfeiter of paintings. One day he may ask you to assist him in his work."

— So you had never before heard of anyone called Page!
— No, being a foreigner.
— Even so! How long have you been in this country?
— Five years.
— How old are you?
— 27.
—You're young.
— With some people, age is better counted in terms of the number of years separating them from death—so I might be very old.
— Like how old?

The two dissimilar men who were asked whether they were Sam, becoming doubles, embark on separate journeys to try to reach the acquaintances and documents that would redifferentiate them (the 27-year old man, who thinks that because he is suicidal he is older than his passport age, ends up that same year not being 27 because he turns into the double of someone in his late thirties). One of the two encounters a series of obstacles that prevents him from reaching his destination: his car breaks down during the trip; he hitchhikes a ride, but following a series of unexpected misfortunes, the driver, suspecting his companion of being a jinx, rudely ejects him by the roadside. The other reaches his destinations, but either these have been destroyed: the small hospital where his wounded palm was sutured had burned down; or the persons he questions, for instance the doctor-acquaintance who did the suture, have for some reason been affected with amnesia.

Some time later, the two doubles visit Page in prison. Her hair has been cut very short. One of the two men begins crying, repeating: "You look so different!" Hearing a guard yell that the visit time is over, she instinctively stretches her hand to caress them. A shiver goes through her as her hand touches instead the cold surface of the separating prison glass. The other man quickly finishes scribbling a few words on a piece of paper and holds it against the glass while grabbing the crying man's arm to lead him out. She espies: "Holding his hand, I am feeling exactly like you do as you move your hand over the glass." A shiver passes through her.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001