Tag Archives: fall 2002

Soutine Impacted: an essay-review

by Clayton Eshleman

The Impact of Chaim Soutine

I saw my first Soutine in 1963 in the Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan. It is now identified as "Hanging Duck," painted around 1925. Seeing this "thing" was so riveting that I remember nothing else in the museum. It was a hybrid fusion, at once a flayed man hung from a pulpy wrist and flailing, with gorgeous white wings attached to his leg stumps, and a gem-like putrescent bird, hung by one leg, in an underworld filled with bird-beaked monsters and zooming gushes of blood-colored and sky-blue paint. For the 40 years since, I have kept Soutine's art in heart and mind.

In 1993, Maurice Tuchman, Esti Dunow, and Klaus Perls edited Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) Catalogue Raisonné (Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Cologne), a boxed, two-volume collection of 780 pages. A magnificent advance on all Soutine books and catalogues up to then, it included newly-discovered paintings (and rejected some mediocre pieces as fakes, which had been used over the years to criticize Soutine's standing). I celebrated devouring this collection by writing a 22-page poem, "Soutine's Lapis," which is in my book From Scratch (Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, 1998).

Now Tuchman and Dunow have assembled The Impact of Chaim Soutine (Hatje Cantz, Cologne, 2002, $45), a 168-page book based on a 2001 exhibition at the Galerie Gmurzynska, also in Cologne. Its purpose is to deliver visual and verbal proof that Soutine significantly influenced "some of the most influential artists of the second half of the twentieth century"-in particular, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Jean Dubuffet. The book has only a dozen or so pages of text (some of which contain a Soutine chronology), and is mainly filled with statements by artists and art historians juxtaposed with five de Koonings, three Bacons, four Pollacks, seven Dubuffets, and 66 Soutines (eight of which are recently discovered). The somewhat melodramatic and forced format is underscored by the back cover art: the four quarters of a grotesque face are each details from paintings by Soutine, Bacon, Dubuffet, and de Kooning.

In "Another Way of Seeing," an essay in the March 2002 issue of Harper's magazine, John Berger writes: "More directly than any other art, painting is an affirmation of the existent, of the physical world into which mankind has been thrown." Later in the essay, we find the following paragraph:

Soutine was among the great painters of the twentieth century. It has taken fifty years for this to become clear, because his art was both traditional and uncouth, and this mixture offended all fashionable tastes. It was as if his painting had a heavy broken accent and so was considered inarticulate: at best exotic and at worst barbarian. Now his devotion to the existent becomes more and more exemplary. Few other painters have revealed more graphically than he the collaboration, implicit in the act of painting, between model and painter. The poplars, the carcasses, the children's faces on Soutine's canvases clung to his brush.

Soutine always worked from a model, whether it was a bunch of houses in a hillscape, a beef carcass, or a human being. Like Caravaggio, he never drew. His "existents"—especially while he was in Céret, France (1919-1922)—besides being his focus are also projection-spooked. Whatever Soutine looked at there seems to have pulled wads of childhood nightmare out of him. His Céret landscapes are not only in earthquake rumba mode, but pixilated with a very personal, anthropomorphic hysteria. Houses often have grotesque expressions-something between a house and a terrified human face. Some houses even twist into humanesque shapes—they cower in clumps like frightened children or crawl up onto the "backs" of their neighbors.

Céret is strangely enough Soutine's extreme point. Had he been willing to abandon his "existents," he might have become an abstract expressionist. But he recoiled from his work at Céret (later destroying a significant amount of it), and his post-Céret painting (1923-43) is a kind of crab-wise retreat into traditional painting. To put it this way is a little misleading because some of the later portraits, the beef carcasses, most of the hanging fowl, the ray fish, and some of the last landscapes at Civry and Champigny are wonderful, bold achievements—yet none are as audacious or as intuitively fearless as the Céret work. It is as if John Coltrane played free form jazz as a young musician and then, after a few years, improvised off standards for the rest of his life.

Berger mentions that Soutine was traditional and uncouth. He was also adroit and clumsy. With portraits, he seems to have locked libido-wise onto certain parts of the sitter environment, and to have dismissed others. Faces and bodily postures can be uncanny, but backgrounds are often muddy messes, and hands can be almost comical. Tuchman and Dunow blow up two hand details in Impact—out of respect, I suspect. The fingers look like careless swipes or like deranged worms attempting to take off. These dualities are part of Soutine's essence. A more physically-driven painter than even Pollack, he seems to have worked in a frenzied, semi-trance, attached to his "existent" like certain American Indian initiates were attached to hooks through their chests to the "sun." When Soutine is "on," he produces paintings that are peristaltic, semi-metamorphic, absurd, brilliant, poignant, and unforgettable.

We must now briefly look at how effectively the authors have demonstrated Soutine's influence. Painters who are simply the sum of their influences are easy to deal with in this regard, but why bother if they have nothing of their own to offer. Specific influence is much more difficult to determine in the cases of painters who have made use of many predecessors, all of whom are blended in with their own originality. The four painters said to be impacted by Soutine are, with the possible exception of Dubuffet, major 20th-century figures whose best work is absolutely their own. In juxtaposing their paintings with those of Soutine, one almost needs an Artaudian nerve scale to determine the extent of Soutine's presence.

De Kooning openly, and incisively, acknowledged his admiration for Soutine, calling him, in 1977, his "favorite artist." De Kooning's "Woman as Landscape (1954-1955)," while not indicating any model, is filled with impulsive, Céret-like moves. The crazed, cartoonish smile in red, smeared where "her" genitals might be, is very much in the spirit of the 1920 Soutine. Another de Kooning here—"Woman, Sag Harbor (1964)"—is reproduced facing a 1923 "Street at Cagnes" by Soutine, whose undulant vertical yellow street is also a headless female body in profile. But outside of the "woman" patterned work, I don't find much of Soutine in de Kooning's paintings. They have no "existent" in any sense outside of de Kooning's own self-seeking, which increases in vacuity and aimlessness as he ages. There is a drift in de Kooning that is unimaginable with Soutine.

The late British art historian and Bacon-conversationalist David Sylvester is quoted to the effect that Soutine's paintings had "a crucial influence on Bacon's work between 1956 and, say, 1957—as they had on de Kooning's from 1951." I take it Sylvester had in mind the series of Van Gogh portraits, or such paintings as "Man Carrying a Child," or "Study for the Nurse in the film Battleship Potempkin," or "Study for Figure IV," all of which were done in these years. Yet none appear in Impact; instead, we are shown paintings from 1962, 1965, and 1978. Since Sylvester knew Bacon's work as well as anyone, probably better, recording over a hundred pages of interviews with him between 1962 and 1974, it seems to me that one should begin with his proposal and work out from there.

Bacon's portraits are significantly beholden to Soutine's, even though their distortions are more bravura gesturings than anatomical warpings. His decadent statement—"I wanted to paint the scream more than the horror"—is presented twice in Impact (as are some other quotations). The first time it is printed in bright-red oversized type on a page otherwise blank facing an opened-up, flayed Soutine rabbit: no relationship to a scream. The appropriate Soutine to juxtapose with Bacon's statement (obviously referring to the famous Munch "The Scream") is on page 99: "Side of Beef," which can be read as a flayed man in profile, head arched back, mouth gaping, screaming. The failure to find appropriate paintings to back up quotations is a problem throughout the book.

Jackson Pollock is more enigmatic than de Kooning and Bacon as one presumed to be influenced by Soutine. Pollock's early influences are well-known (Benton, Beckmann, Orozco, Picasso). Soutine is not among them. Impact reproduces 4 Pollocks: "Head with Polygons (1938-1941)," "Eyes in the Heat (1946)," "Full Fathom Five (1947)," and "Scent (1955)." There are a few paintings from the 1930s, such as "The Flame" and "Composition with Figures and Banners" (both dated 1934-38), that suggest Pollock had looked at the Céret paintings. However, "Head with Polygons" is not one of these, and its inclusion, in this context, is puzzling. It is presented twice, as a matter of fact, the first time turned at a 45º angle (perhaps to make some point that evades me).

From 1946 on, Pollock's work is relentlessly abstract. On page 67 the art historian William Seitz is quoted. He writes that Pollock pushed "values inherent in Van Gogh and Soutine to an ultimate conclusion." I have already mentioned that in Céret Soutine stood on a precipice beyond which was some form of abstract expressionism. But he did not make that leap, for to have done so would have meant giving up his "models," his grip on reality. Pollock never appears to have used a model (although there is one very early self-portrait), and his movement from the old to the new is the opposite of Soutine's. From my point of view, the fluffy white disintegrating patterns of the late "Scent" (which Frank O'Hara wrote was painted in homage to Soutine) have nothing to do with the essence of Soutine's work.

On page 28, the authors compare Soutine's excessive demands on his models to Pollock's painterly immersion. It seems like an irrelevant comparison.

Dubuffet, as is well known, came into painting at mid-life inspired by "art brut," and created a kind of sophisticated "primitivism" that is childlike often, and humorous. To me he seems closer to Jean Michel Basquiat than to Soutine. Unlike Soutine, Dubuffet seems to approach the making of art from a dadaist contempt for artistry and tradition. His world is one of mythic smears, melting geometric patterns, and the banal aswarm with itself.

On page 40, one reads: "The raw power of Dubuffet's early Corps de dame series... may have been prompted indeed by the fleshy meat paintings that Dubuffet knew (as the artist stated to Maurice Tuchman in 1968)." Since Tuchman is one of the authors of Impact, why does he present information in this form? If Dubuffet made such a statement, why is he not quoted? If such a statement has been previously published, why is it not cited?

The book design of Impact leaves a lot to be desired. No sources are given for quotations. There are ten photographs of the artists in the book by themselves or in their studios. All appear to have messy studios—does this ally them to the supposedly untidy Soutine? For contemporary relevance, I guess, the painter R. B. Kitaj is quoted to the effect that he attempted to draw Soutine's one painting of a nude. Facing the quote is a reproduction of "Female Nude (1933)," a sad and moving painting that is completely consistent with everything w know about Soutine (and it is utterly different than the de Kooning "women"). Since the Kitaj quote does not contribute to the book's thesis, how explain its presence? The Soutine nude needs no justification for inclusion. Finally, the "open-ended juxtaposition" format is, in my opinion, much less effective than including an extended analytical essay or two. However, I think Tuchman and Dunow would be hard pressed to make a convincing argument for significant influence in these four cases.

I don't think either of these approaches is the proper one if the goal is to gain Soutine a wider audience and increased status in the art world. Such a goal should be based on his uniqueness, on what is inimitable in his painting, on what sets him forth as one whose body of work makes a statement that is not subservient to any other painter. This is the Soutine that I "met" in Kurashiki, a Soutine capable of grasping the impact of common things and common people like no other 20th-century artist. This is the Soutine whose conflicted "existent" give and take is immune to all imaginal appropriations.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Yes Yoko Ono

AYes Yoko Onolexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks
Japan Society / Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ($39.95)

by Gary Gach

Trying to pin down Yoko Ono can be like infiltrating North Korea using Boy Scouts for Phalangists. To some, she stole John Lennon away from the Beatles (a stereotypical, entrenched definition of women in terms of men). For others, she's a central figure of 20th-century art(s), a child of Duchamp (who walked away from art to play chess.) The lineage comes to the fore in her white chess piece: two chairs, a table, board, squares, and pieces all in white. Think about it: The more you advance your pieces ahead into your opponent's field, how do you know who's who?

Ono calls this instance of zen vaudeville Play It By Trust. Besides a set for two people, "Yes" exhibits a larger version, with a row of ten white chess sets on a conference table. The bigger version asks us to imagine which heads of state, religious leaders, captains of industry, pop superstars, family and friends might gather at such a summit. The operative word is imagine. Here's an art of the conceptual rather than the retinal, yet that can also make us see.

While you may not catch the exhibition itself, this interactive catalogue makes the work all the more conceptual—which is part of the process. Interactive here can mean it's happening in your mind. Early in her career, Ono worked in a form we now call instructional (or, as she says, "instructural"); for example, in 1955 she created a piece entitled One: "Light a match and watch it." Interestingly, the piece consists of both the instruction and any performance of it.

Any performance plays off a balance between audience and actor, so at some level, all reviews are performative and conceptual: as Zuni tribal elder Joseph Peynetsa told anthropologist Dennis Tedlock, "If someone tells you a story, you can just imagine it." Consider your own imagination as I describe Corner Painting. The catalogue shows a blank canvas in a gold frame, angled to fit within a corner. By asking us to change our position, this art doesn't necessarily change our life, but changes how we view it.

This may seem facile, but as Thelonious Monk said, "Simple ain't easy." Witness Ono's billboard art—an attempt to free commercial art from its nexus of commodities, cash, and craving—such as the famous billboard of 1969, revived for the travelling show, advertising WAR IS OVER (if you want it): no less timely today in its warning that violence can be internalized, and in its invitation to liberation therefrom.

If an "art book" format for all this is conceptual, it's also persistently sculptural (engaging the reader bodily with its heft), multimedia (mixing photos and stills, captions and text, plus a CD of Ono's visceral vocalise), and mind—opening-we draw a new world just by turning a page. There's an echo again of Duchamp, who created a portable museum of miniatures and photos of his work in a suitcase.

Yoko Ono - LadderCeiling Painting (YES Painting)
Yoko Ono, 1966
Text on paper, glass, metal frame, metal chain, painting ladder
Collection of the artist
Photo by Oded Lobl

There might be a certain irony in noting Ono's progression from sheer ephemerality to tactile and utter thingness—a conceptual artist who now works in bronze. But even at its most solid, her work is never quite what it seems. A more interesting avenue of interpretation is how her work has only grown in meaning as it's recontextualized through historical change.

It's worth noting, too, how "Yes" makes an ideal sequel to Alexandra Munroe's previous exhibition/catalogue, Scream Against the Sky. Titled after a work by Ono, it was a seminal survey of the avant-garde emerging out of the postwar rubble of Japan-action art, bizarre media, conceptual art, butoh, etc. If America was destined for Modernity, then Postmodernity seemed Japan's fate—though it took half a century to take such stock of our former opponent. It's perfect then for Munroe (adroitly assisted by Fluxus curator John Hendricks) to focus on Ono after forty-years work.

While the exhibitions unfold with the invisible logic of poetry, the catalogue reflects its own rigor. Munroe begins with an incisive, insightful survey that furnishes a framework necessarily pliant and permeable, as no life is ever as orderly and logical as any chronological display. It ends with 30 pages of Ono's texts, plus a chronology and bibliography. In between, the book is organized by categories: scores and instructions, early objects, events and performances, advertisements, films and video, music, and current projects-a strategy inevitably provisional given the hybrid nature inherent in so much of Ono's work (East/West, old/new, nature/artifice, idea/thing, etc.).

Rilke once complained that avant-garde arts "copulate and copulate but never conceive." What might he have thought of Ono's conceptions (or of today's world)? Faced with art's branching into myriad byways—many quite arcane, incoherent, and doomful—plus current prospects of a war that doesn't look likely to be won in our lifetimes, it's a tonic to immerse ourselves in the positivity, universality, and radical vision of Ono's art. Yes limns a classical avant-garde, no paradox: love is all there is.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

The Far Side of Nowhere

Nelson Bond
Arkham House ($34.95)

by Alan Deniro

Perhaps there are two types of writers in the world: those who write for the now and those who create for posterity—paraphrasing Baudelaire, the times imprinted on the senses instead of time. Nelson Bond clearly falls in the former category. The Far Side of Nowhere is a generous collection of 29 stories mostly written in the 1930s through '50s, an era in which short fiction ruled the roost of an increasingly literate population searching for entertainment in print. And they received it in Bond's work. Although many of the stories collected here could be lumped into "science fiction and fantasy," Bond's writing creates touchstones with earlier traditions of the American fantastic, in much the same way that Ray Bradbury's does.

In reviewing a book of this kind, however, one must ask: What can be taken from these words when they are stripped away from the confines of nostalgia? What is the lasting effect of these stories when some of the elements of plot, theme, and diction are dated?

The answers lie, I think, in those times when the cauldron of fantastic literature in America was bubbling over in transmutative fashion. Though he published in science fiction magazines (as well as more general magazines like the long-defunct Blue Book), Bond himself said that he never saw himself as a science fiction writer as much as a fantasist. The stories neither seem particularly interested in scientific explication, or "hardware" as he calls it—many of the earliest American science fiction magazines had more to do with the propagation of scientific progress rather than the rigor of narrative techniques—nor does his work seem readily influenced by the European giants of science fiction such as Verne and Wells. What's interesting in Bond's work is how he took the paraliterary machinations of early science fiction—space travel, time travel, aliens, and so on—and wedded them to quintessentially American modes of fiction, hearkening back to Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe, as well as the folklore and tall tales that have percolated throughout the years. This combination, coupled with a sprightly style, would for sixty-odd years and counting provide a crucial counterpoint to the more technocratic and clinical leanings of the field.

Bond's role in this shaping of inter- and intra-genre traits has often been overlooked, perhaps because the tone of his writing could be seen as "slick," moving with too easy a gait. He explores in his stories, in perspicacious fashion, nearly every nook and cranny of modern fabulist storytelling that would later, through extensive clumsy use, become cliché. For example, the post-apocalyptic journey in "Magic City"—with its passing references to the Ancient Ones and its landscape of burnt-out 20th-century architectural landmarks—would later find its way into everything from the trashiest dime novel to classics like John Crowley's Engine Summer and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Bond, though he wasn't alone in this, certainly did more than his share to trigger that meme, which subsequent writers would tweak and hone. It will take some re-orientation on the reader's part to realize that, though these tropes have been beaten to death, it was once not so. We are dealing with pre-workshop times here, before rough edges of a clearly delineated narrative were smoothed over, with voices honed to consistency and plots tied with bows.

This is not to say that these stories are merely unsophisticated artifacts of an earlier, "simpler" era—and none of Bond's stories, even when they try too hard to gain the reader's affection, could be called unreadable. What makes these stories alluring, even when their slickness seems more like rust? Perhaps it's that the innovations come less from smooth surfaces and more from the rust itself. With no small degree of subtlety, many of these stories exhibit a trickiness that goes beyond the mere trick ending (although The Far Side of Nowhere has many of these). The playful conceits often conceal unsettling undercurrents, as in one of the best stories in the collection, "Pawns of Tomorrow," a chess story that evokes Calvino's "Tarot as Story Generator" in The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Above all, Bond doesn't take himself too seriously—a noteworthy accomplishment considering his prodigious talent.

There is a glorious tradition in American letters of writers who, if dogged enough, were once able to make a living on short fiction alone. And so they wrote. The creation of an aesthetic, a larger vision, only came haltingly, on the fly—if at all. But if a writer, like Bond, was both fast and a consummate craftsperson, then the rift between high and low fiction, the populist and the erudite, could be more readily closed.

Upon final inspection of this compendium of stories, it may be said that Bond's writing is a missing evolutionary link—one of them, at least—between Mark Twain and Philip K. Dick, all sharing in strange fabulism, omnivorous range, and absurdist, wisecracking humor. Nelson Bond gives us stories that are more like broadsheets from a bygone era, with the ink still warm on the non-acid free paper. A time when Redbook could publish, with a straight face, a story entitled "Herman and the Mermaid" (July 1943); Esquire could run supernatural/angler flash fiction ("The Battle of Blue Trout Basin," 1937); and a writer could make a living sending short stories to magazines like Fantastic Universe. A time before boundaries between genres became rigid and codified, before it became harder to cross from one side to the other than to escape from Alcatraz. Filled with a knowing, clever grace, Bond's writing is timeless precisely because it is from his time.

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The Height and Depth of Everything

KaThe Height and Depth of Everything by Katherine Haaketherine Haake
University of Nevada Press ($17)

by Sheila Squillante

In "Arrow Math," the opening story of Katherine Haake's The Height and Depth of Everything, the narrator tells us she is "big these days on frameworks, any kind of structure, the smallest degree of order by which to contain the chaos that has taken over." Thus does Haake draw a blueprint for how to read and understand her engaging experimental fiction, which challenges the primacy of elements like plot and character by asserting the importance of form and structure.

This is delightfully evident in the book's closing story, "This Is Geology to Us"; its quirky and unstable narrative, punctuated with one-sentence italicized paragraphs, is further complicated when the narrator tells us "I have taught for seven years and am a tenured professor at Cal State Northridge." As noted on the book's jacket, Haake herself also teaches at Cal State Northridge. Is this her story? Possibly. Is this fiction? Non-fiction? Meta-fiction? Yes.

Haake announces early on that she finds genre boundaries frustrating. A character in "Arrow Math" discussing her feelings about poetry, confesses she "find[s] poetry more difficult, disturbing, and cryptic than math." She goes on to describe a poetry reading in which the poet speaks about the use of parentheses, about "what happens when they don't close, how serene and seductive they can be." Haake here aligns herself with poets such as Lyn Hejinian, who argues that the notion of closure—both syntactical and thematic—works to limit the possibilities in creative writing. In her essay "The Rejection of Closure," Hejinian suggests that "whatever the pleasures, in a fundamental way closure is a fiction." Conflict does not always resolve itself, Hejinian says; sometimes, it keeps opening up to new, surprising, even more complicating situations.

Haake's stories, too, set in the harsh and uncertain landscapes of the Western states, work against easy resolution. Her characters struggle through blizzards, earthquakes, desert heat and volcanic eruption, while trying to make sense of their lives. In "A Small Measure of Safety," Nellie "is amazed and secretly pleased by the wind—its brutality, its constancy, its wild pitch and shrug," and knows that if it were to stop, she might catch the sound of her and her husband's hearts "thrumming." But it doesn't stop. Like the natural occurrences in her stories, Haake disallows the comfort of closure. We may never know the answers, she suggests; that's just the way life works.

Readers who seek the predictability of the narrative arc or an idealized vision of the difficult life won't find such gestures here. Like Haake's character Penelope in "The Woman in the Water," who "could never bear the finality of the straight line," these stories offer contradiction and possibility; they leave us disordered and questioning, always balanced on "the precipice of change."

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GMartylove by Gary Watermanary Waterman
Dewi Lewis Publishing ($13.95)

by Jessica Hoffmann


Marty Moreno, erstwhile king of the sappy-sexy-love-song corner of pop music, is burning through a two million dollar advance and his last shreds of self-respect in a Malibu mansion full of out-of-date costumes, fan mail, and assorted abusable substances. While Marty sinks, Jane Miller ascends: elaborate fantasies featuring a glistening and long-haired Marty Moreno wing her up and away from an unsatisfying marriage to a British corporate automaton. Hollywood and suburban London, Marty Moreno and Jane Miller, meet in the mail, in the movies, in the stories these particular desperates tell themselves in order to (half-consciously) live.

The supporting cast includes one red-faced and slack-bellied lackey, one short (read: Napoleon-esque) record-company exec, one routine-loving middle-aged husband, an Austrian shrink-to-the-stars who's still talking about a long-ago plagiarism suit he filed against his former mentor (guess who), and a temp receptionist who appears—large-breasted, miniskirted, and serving coffee—in Husband Miller's office just, as they sing in the standards, in time.

Most of the action takes place in Malibu, Hollywood, and a London suburb, with an extravagant climax—think colored lights, cheering-and-sobbing extras, and some gun action—in Las Vegas.

And Method

This novel's syncretic structure is ambitious. Martylove is told in letters, diary entries, screenplays, song lyrics, and fan-mag celebrity factsheets. The quick shifts between these modes make Martylove a quick read, and this speed effectively conveys the frenzy of desperation and the superficiality of fantasy—its falseness, its shallowness, its, um, TV-ness.

It's a rapid-fire narrative full of jump cuts and quick takes, and reading it feels, ultimately, not unlike watching two hours of television, particularly of the True Hollywood Story or "women's channel" real-life-honeymoon variety. This is not because the author's a fantasy maker himself—in fact, his palpable dislike of his romance-submerged characters leaves little room for the reader to enter into any kind of romance with, about, or inspired by them—but because he's chosen to put most of his narrative in the hands of his desperate dreamers.

We get Jane Miller via Jane Miller's love letters (aka fan mail) to Marty, as well as via drafts of her autobiography and screenplay. But Jane Miller, caricature of the bored housewife, does not happen to be a good writer. She'd probably earn a great living working for the aforementioned women's channel or any number of fan-mags, but great literature does not Jane Miller make. And when Marty's minder, Lance, rewrites his life as a screenplay, it's a B movie, no Mamet-influenced masterpiece. So, though Waterman does these caricatures well, page upon page of romance-novel or B-movie writing is, well, page upon page of romance-novel or B-movie writing.

When Waterman decides to let a real writer do the storytelling, he proves he's no Jane- or Lance-like hack. Suddenly, amidst the melodramatic and often periphrastic shallows of his characters' narratives ("fantasy and reality have finally and forever wed each other in the sight of Jane"; "Jane was in the bath. The water was cold, but Marty was hot!"), Waterman lets a "morning unfold in a blaze of sputtering activity," presents a moon "shining dumb-facedly," and charms with transitions that are both elegant and amusing: "Meanwhile, in Jane's head: . . ." Unfortunately, those moments are occasional glints on a surface that's otherwise dulled by perhaps-too-accurate representations of some notoriously cliché-heavy and insight-bereft genres.

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VMelymbrosia by Virginia Woolfirginia Woolf
Edited with an introduction by Louise DeSalvo
Cleis Press ($24.95)

by Charisse Gendron

In the 1980s, scholar Louise DeSalvo's book Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work almost single-handedly reoriented the direction of Woolf studies in America. DeSalvo's discovery in Woolf's writings of motifs common to the stories of incest survivors struck a chord with many. While Woolf's posthumous memoirs, Moments of Being (1976), related a handful of sexual improprieties on the part of her half-brothers, DeSalvo went on to assert that "abuse or sexual violence" infected virtually every relationship among the ten members of the Stephen household. Yet DeSalvo's interpretations often relied on salubrious implication. By encouraging constant slippage between "abuse," including verbal bullying and emotional exploitation, and "sexual violence," she discredits her argument that incest is not an isolated event, but a family pattern.

Even more disappointing in DeSalvo's expose is her misreading of Woolf's own words—not the accounts of her abuse, which have never been contested, but her description of unrelated experiences (though to DeSalvo, none of Woolf's experiences is unrelated to her abuse). One of the most beautiful passages in Moments of Being, from which one can trace the evolution of Woolf's fascination with rhythm as the source of literary language, reads:

If my life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind... It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and of feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive... the feeling, as I describe it sometimes to myself, of lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi-transparent yellow."

But DeSalvo is uninterested in Woolf as a writer except as the writing explicates sexual abuse. She says of this passage:

The fact of her own simple survival is what she remembers as having given her the purest ecstasy that she has known as a child. Her existence had been threatened from the very first days of her life. That moment of rapture was such an intense feeling for her, precisely because the more usual feeling for her, the 'normal' way that she experienced life as a child was 'the feeling... of lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi-transparent yellow'... Children who have spent their lives in a state of chronic depression report precisely what Woolf describes.

Does DeSalvo not notice that Woolf's youthful ecstasy is not in opposition to but identical with feeling as if she is inside a grape—regardless of how depressing others might find that situation?

In spite of her imprecision, DeSalvo's impact has been considerable. At a major Virginia Woolf conference in the mid-nineties, participants wrangled over Woolf's biography: Whom did she love more, Leonard Woolf or Vita Sackville-West? Participants interested in formal aspects of Woolf's writing found no forum for discussion—as if her formal experimentation did not itself create a "women's language" to undermine hierarchical discourse. DeSalvo herself was supposed to appear at this conference, but she cancelled; a scholar known for her benevolence chalked it up to shin splints, saying "I've told her not to walk around New York in leather soled shoes!"

Shin splints may have spared DeSalvo a trip to the Midwest, but they have not slowed her industry. Her most recent production is Melymbrosia, an early version of Woolf's first published novel, The Voyage Out (1915). Actually, DeSalvo first published her reconstruction of Melymbrosia in 1982; now she has published it again with a new introduction. She claims that Melymbrosia is "a bolder rendering" of The Voyage Out, which Woolf declined to publish for fear that its treatment of sexual abuse, sexism, classism, and imperialism would attract censure.

Insofar as the two versions are different, Melymbrosia is more pointed than The Voyage Out, in ways that might support DeSalvo's thesis. For instance, when Melymbrosia's Helen Ambrose looks at her sleeping niece, Rachel Vinrace, she feels pity "Because you have suffered something in secret, and will have to suffer more." This line, possibly referring to child abuse, is not in The Voyage Out. Again, when Rachel has a repulsive nightmare after being kissed by a married man, Helen says, "No, I can't remember ever feeling that," suggesting that the dream signals a psychological disturbance related to sexual trauma. In The Voyage Out Helen thinks only that she is "really at a loss what to say," ascribing the dream to a mere sexual innocence that she does not feel it is her place to dispel. And in Melymbrosia, Rachel actually tells her friend Terence, to whom she will become engaged, that fear of men has been her first emotion, citing her father's bullying of her mother over money. For this passage, The Voyage Out substitutes a more abstract discussion of women's rights.

The two versions contain a few more discrepancies of this nature, and The Voyage Out adds several new transitional passages. The plots remain the same—there is no cowardly second ending rescuing Rachel from death by fever to disprove that she "is utterly unfit emotionally and intellectually to make her way through life because of her childhood," as DeSalvo describes her. Still, no one (not even DeSalvo) knows for sure whether Woolf envisioned Rachel as merely a victim of Victorian male tyranny or as an incest survivor who dies because, symbolically if not literally, incest kills.

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Girl Imagined by Chance

9781573661034Lance Olsen
FC2 ($13.95)

by Rochelle Ratner

Far too little literature has focused on couples who consciously elect to remain childless. Until the 1990s, the subject was basically taboo, in conversation as well as the printed word. Or, especially when a male writer approached the subject, as Edward Albee did in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the more recent The Play About the Baby, we are introduced to characters that might best be described as dysfunctional, with a power-play at the center of the drama.

The couple portrayed in Girl Imagined by Chance is precisely the opposite, so anxious to please each other, taking such delight in the time they spend together, that readers might well wish their own marriages were equally stable. That caring applies to the extended family as well, particularly between Andi and her grandmother. Now, at age 89, what Grannam wants most in life is a great-grandchild. What Grannam doesn't know is that not only does Andi (which also happens to be the name of Olsen's wife) not want children, but she's gone through surgery to be sure pregnancy doesn't happen by accident. So when Andi and her husband, the novel's narrator, move to Idaho, about as far away from New Jersey as they can get, they see no harm in telling the old woman she's pregnant. And before long are telling other friends back east as well.

The moment Andi announces she's pregnant, Grannam sends a check. Then another check. The couple decides to start a college fund, and in return, they send pictures of the sonogram (downloaded from a website). Looking further on the web, they learn what is to be expected during pregnancy, and Andi develops her own variations on cravings, cramps and nausea. They shop for baby furniture. They drive to the hospital in the middle of the night when Andi goes into labor. They send pictures of the baby (baby pictures of Andi, put through various photo programs, and of course Grannam remarks on the strong likeness). They drive to the mall and study how toddlers think and act, so they can give accurate reports. Not only do they plan a visit with the baby, they actually purchase plane tickets.

At its most simplistic level, Girl Imagined by Chance is a fast-paced, hysterical sitcom for thinking readers. Especially during the first half of the book (or before things really get out of hand), I found myself laughing out loud. Particularly memorable is the couple's conversation while at a suburban movie theater, watching "a lightweight spoof about the wacky adorable things kids do":

I don't want something forming inside me that literally makes me sick day after day. Sciatica. Vomiting. The unstoppable need to urinate.
She helped herself to a handful of your popcorn.
Constipation, she added. Varicose veins.
The young couple behind you shushed you.
Andi turned in her seat and shushed them back.

This conversation goes on for nearly three pages; the couple behind them finally moves their seat, and Andi realizes the woman's pregnant.

Olsen is a master at incorporating everyday mundanities into his narrative. We see his characters chopping wood, painting the house, shopping and cooking, all of which adds to the book's grounding in reality, creating an atmosphere of familiarity that encourages readers to join in the fun. A more traditional writer would probably end here, and the resulting novel would be not only enjoyable, it could be made into a film.

But Olsen is anything but traditional, and here is where his intelligence—not to mention his rooting in cyberpunk, metafiction, and the like—comes into play. This is, as much as anything else, a book about the image of reality. An epigraph proudly quotes a Minolta ad: "It's hard to tell where you leave off and the camera begins." We see him doctoring photos (there are photos prefacing the chapters), and Andi is a photographer. He tosses in reflective and theoretical comments by Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams, Roland Barthes, Eadweard Muybridge, and others. He encapsulates the history of photography. He repeats himself. Even Andi's selection of the name "Genia" for their daughter has its roots in philosophy. "As in phototogenic? you ask?" Then the next day the conversation continues:

Your body teaches you a little more every day.
There's a small genie in it, too, you point out after a while.
And, says Andi, the tiniest hint of genesis.
Huh, you say. Sure. And genes, too, of course. Don't forget genes. Nothing overstated, mind you, nothing overdone.

Eventually, language and concept take over, temporarily blotting out Genia's antics and the efforts of her stressed-out parents to control her. Here some readers may find themselves unnerved that the book has shifted gears, as many demand a continuous plot no matter how fascinating the language. But the beauty of this book is that, despite a place in the middle where the need to create and then destroy this baby bogs down, it works on both levels. And then some.

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MiSummerland by Michael Chabonchael Chabon
Hyperion ($22.95)

by Stephen E. Abbott

Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, though noticeably constrained by youthful inexperience and the gimcrackery of MFA rote, nonetheless held enfolded within its pages the flicker of something wonderful yet to be. Wonderboys, Chabon's second novel, born out of a five-and-a-half-year effort writing a never-published, over 1,000-page tome called Fountain City, is a hilarious and mournful hosanna to this failure. At once a lamentation of lost youth and idealisms and a paean to his own ripening as a writer and as a man, the book displayed a rare delicacy of language, a profound intelligence, and an intuitive gift for effortless humor and sincere emotion. Then, with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—which is indeed brilliant, epic, beautiful, and heartbreaking—Chabon brought home the Pulitzer and established his reputation as one of the best writers anywhere.

Summerland is Chabon's first children's book, and it is crafted with undeniable charm and a deep reverence for the conventions of the form. It is the familiar story of an awkward and outcast young boy, Ethan Feld, who, when forced by necessity and altered by circumstances, awakens into an unlikely hero. Feld, the "worst baseball player in the history of Clam Island, Washington," is recruited by Chiron Brown, a nine fingered, ex-Negro League ballplayer turned pan-dimensional scout specializing in the finding and training of champions. It turns out that Feld is needed to save the universe from the scheming of Coyote, the original folkloric trickster himself, who has devised a scheme to hasten the end of the world. Prematurely forced into heroic service, the pubescent Feld is flung into an alternate dimension governed by Native American mythology and the rules and regs of baseball to lead a rag-tag assortment of mediocre ballplayers against some of the universe's toughest teams. In this race to the bottom of the final inning, Feld must save his captive father and thwart Coyote's attempt to poison the Tree of Life.

A consciously constructed pastiche, Summerland is an assemblage of numerous far-flung odds and ends of Americana. Incorporating everything from sasquatch to baseball to Paul Bunyan to feathered Indians, Chabon has steeped his tale in our country's collective mythologies. In the end, however, the result is more maceration than distillation. What is so out of keeping here is that the first half of the book works marvelously, establishing a rich setting and an array of complex characters that are trademark Chabon, seemingly presaging even better things to come. As anyone who once played little league and sucked at it can verify, Chabon nails the feeling of hopeless deep-right, daisy-picking alienation that casts a pall over an otherwise sunny summer day. But as the story unfolds a strange kind of entropy takes hold; the plot moves quicker and quicker, all the while getting thinner and more scattered until it begins to resemble something approximating a big-budget blockbuster: several big, showy things happen all in a row, but without the depth or vision of the earlier pages.

Oscar Wilde once said, "Miracles always happen. That is why one cannot believe in them," and he might have been speaking of Summerland. Beyond the suspiciously providential plot (whenever a character gets in a pinch some improbable magic or escape route is conveniently introduced), the book culminates in a Deus ex Machina to end all Deus ex Machinas. The result is that many threads are left dangling. For example, Chabon establishes a binary theme wherein the apocalypse being played out in one dimension is mirrored by the destructive practices of a real estate developer, TransForm Properties, on the pristine shoreline of Clam Island. The dénouement of this subplot is given in a mere three sentences: "The bulldozers were gone, the earthmovers and backhoes, all the warning signs that had been thrown up by the minions of TransForm Properties. But that was not all. The birch trees had grown back, to very nearly their former stature, or else they had simply been replaced, in the flood of healing." Although such neat endings are often dark and ironic commentaries on human frailty and expectations, this does not appear to be the intention here. And after having introduced environmental themes as serious as pollution and over-development—realities, mind you, with potentially disastrous consequences for future generations—it seems irresponsible to leave children with the expectation that such difficulties can be readily averted by the unlikelihood of story-book miracles. Certainly, maintaining a sense of awe and mystery is essential, but when magic and miracles are too easily happened upon, little of lasting worth can remain. To Chabon's credit, the story is captivating, and there are many deft maneuvers and tight twists of plot as well as a genuine effort not to write down to his younger audience, but the overall picture hangs too crookedly, marring its effect.

Perhaps Summerland should have been written as three books, for it seems too rushed, too small, as if it were a diversion or a side effort and not the main project. Still, the reader cannot help but delight in the disarming coziness and straightforward beauty of Chabon's writing. What's there on the page is great stuff, but without the scope or fullness of a Narnia or Middle Earth, or even of Kavalier and Clay's New York. As it goes along what's missing from Summerland begins to assert itself, to slowly creep its way into the tale, until you cannot help but wonder what might have been—those saddest words of tongue or pen.

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Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee

Dream of a Robot Dancing Bee by James TateJames Tate
Verse Press ($23)

by Melissa Maerz

Beep: The word worries the electrical engineer. Lately, whenever he greets his coworker Skip, the latter man greets him with the onomatopoeic outburst. Never how are you? or good morning or even just a nice little hello. It's beep-or sometimes zow, or when things are really bad, mutti-mutti-mutti-mutt-mutt. The two men will be sitting together, drinking beers, relaxing, playing croquet, or talking about Skip's kids, when a Tourretic yawp spontaneously erupts from his lips. These moments make the engineer think too much. Are the children beepers, too? Do miniscule insect-angels prattle about in Skip's head? And if so, why can't the engineer hear them? Such thoughts trouble him. "These are dangerous times," he thinks. And then, as if this is not a satisfactory explanation, he himself lets out a honk.

Honk: The word exhilarates James Tate, author of the short story "Beep." For Tate, honk is the reveille of our times, a signifier of modern life's complete disconnect. In his collection Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee, every short story honks: None of the characters speak the same language, and some of the characters simply can't speak at all. In "Hedges, By Sam D'Amico," a lifelong plant expert can't bring himself to write so much as a paragraph about the titular shrubs. "Our Country Cousins" finds an urban man struggling to describe Tofutti to his niece. The nervous husband of "Raven of Dawn," who plans on leaving his wife, can only express his guilt by staring into the hole in his backyard. It's a predicament that, appropriately, Tate leaves largely unexplained, save for a single statement by the engineer in "Beep": "I was on the verge of being afraid," he admits, "because the continuity of any conversation could break down at any moment into nonsensical animal noises, which is not really fair to the animal world. Skip's voice was sand in the gears of life, grating and, ultimately, destroying the machine by which we live-making sense, cause and response irrelevant."

To a certain degree, Tate, too, has broken down the hermeneutic apparatus he's established for himself. Best known for his numerous books of surreal poetry—including Worshipful Company of Fletchers, which won a National Book Award in 1997, and 1991's Pulitzer Prize-winning Selected Poems—he has, in the past, refused any attempt to demonstrate his ideas plainly. Through the image, say, of a human head transformed into a multi-limbed pumpkin ("50 Views of Tokyo"), or a depiction of a society in which religious leaders are selected according to who throws up ("How the Pope is Chosen"), Tate made his fantastically absurdist visions vividly clear. But in Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee, his first foray into short story writing, he chooses a voice closer to that of Raymond Carver or John Cheever than to Ionesco or Baudelaire. Consequently, he turns the model he's created for his poetry on its pumpkin head.

It's no small task to explain the surrealism of everyday life in easily recognizable terms, but Tate still manages to embody the daily grind's bizarre qualities within his every word. He hints that the pleasure of communication lies not only in his readers' ability to interpret his stories, but also in their enjoyment of his words' organic sounds—the poetry in his prose. One of Tate's protagonists, a Senator who can't decide why his life isn't what it could be, finds his two main obstacles in gibberish—"mush/not mush"—which he repeats to himself. The words are glorious abstractions of real life problems, as are Tate's stories. And that's what draws us to them. We may find the messy relationships and personal shortfalls detailed in Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee to be the stuff of everyday life, but Tate's language makes each of them hyper-real. Though we may not quite understand a narrator's epiphany when phrased as "my husband is the raven of dawn," we can understand her (and Tate's) quest to make meaning out of nonsense—perhaps ultimately the very point of "everyday life." Tate details such simultaneously obscure and lucid moments eloquently, almost expertly—and for that we can only say beep. Beep, honk.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Consider the Eel

RConsider the Eel by Richard Schweidichard Schweid
University of North Carolina Press ($24.95)

by Allison Slavick

Pity the poor American who shuns the eel as a savory meal or snack. Eels—both the adults, which may be fried, boiled, or smoked or prepared in a mish-mash of other regional dishes, and the immature elver stage—are enjoyed throughout Europe and Asia where two billion dollars are spent on them annually. Historically, many have weighed in on the subject: Aristotle, Juvenal, Samuel Pepys, and Thoreau all had opinions about eels. Günter Grass included eels in The Tin Drum, in a scene in which a horse's head is used as bait—eels apparently being frequently found on drowned corpses.

All eels of the American and European freshwater species originate in the Sargasso Sea, and the Japanese species begins its life similarly in the Pacific. The tiny larvae make their way on ocean currents (it takes one to three years) to freshwater rivers where they transform into the bottom-dwelling eels that you're thinking of right now. After 20 years or so they return to the ocean to mate and die. Not much more is known about the natural history of eels. Adults have never been captured in the open ocean, and though they can be raised in captivity from their larval stage, they have never mated in captivity—indeed, they have never been observed mating in the wild.

The mystery and intrigue of eels is brought to life in the non-linear, picturesque stories of Consider the Eel. A kind of eel subculture exists in the rural estuaries of North Carolina, where "watermen" (the people who fish for eels) and eel distributors wouldn't allow an eel to touch their lips, but make a tidy living from shipping live eels to Europe and Asia. We learn that in northern Spain eels are intertwined with the lives of Basque separatists, who pay upwards of $60 a serving for a tasty bowl of the transparent elvers. In northern Ireland, where elvers costs $150 a pound, a fisherman's cooperative assists the elvers in the 26-mile journey upstream by trapping them and transporting them in a live-haul tank mounted on a truck. They are released in Lough Neagh, one of the five largest lakes in Europe, and home of the tastiest eel in Europe. This tastiness is attributed to the eels's primary diet of mayflies.

Most of the people who have eels in their lives—the people who fish for them, export them, sell them at fish markets and cook them—have been doing so for decades and provide charming (but not romanticized) glimpses and friendly asides of old world concerns. Richard Schweid has written a delicious stew of images, history, biology, and natural history of an animal that most of us haven't considered. Historical recipes, a bibliography, and a helpful index complete the package.

In the U.S., eel may be found occasionally on the menu of a Chinese restaurant, in sushi or as a bouillabaisse in French restaurants. Pollution and overfishing are contributing to the demise of eel and European and Asian markets are relying more and more on U.S. exports. Try some before it's too late.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002