Tag Archives: fall 2010


René Backmann
translated by A. Kaiser
Picador ($12)

by Spencer Dew

Consider the village of Chiyah, where an Israeli-erected barrier “slices in between apartment buildings” and “loops around and through various religious properties (Christian monasteries, pilgrim hostels, churches, schools, and retirement homes),” cutting through “the landscape like a giant chain saw.” Here, as René Backmann describes it, “the wall separates Palestinians from Palestinians,” and “the only Israelis present in the vicinity are a few settlement families living in two old Palestinian homes,” a “‘wild’ settlement, called the Kidmat Zion . . . not on the list of official settlements published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics” yet still “protected by the Border Police detachment that has set up shop in the former Cliff Hotel.” One could imagine a whole book about Chiyah—a number of books, even—but Backmann does not linger on the particulars of this place or its populace.

A Wall in Palestine takes as its mission an investigation of the contested “security barrier” (or “annexation wall”) dividing Israel from the West Bank, and there is much ground to cover. Backmann wants to prompt his readers to ponder why “the length of this continuous obstacle was estimated at nearly 435 miles when the line that serves as the border between Israel and the West Bank is no longer than 202 miles.” For this purpose, he has included maps, from which one can see how the wall gobbles its way into the West Bank, bisects communities, and disregards the 1949 “Green Line” border. These maps, while shocking, are also somewhat lifeless; roads “forbidden or with restricted access for Palestinians” are marked, but it’s unclear if all roads are. No population data for towns or settlements is given, and there is no charting of past entrance points for terrorists. Standing alone, these maps can be read as objective fact or as a reflection of a specific ideology, but Backmann’s decision not to accompany them with direct commentary and explanation is troubling, as are the larger lacks, in his book—a lack of clear speaking when it comes to goals and a lack of detailed engagement with human particulars.

Backmann’s journalistic style tends toward dry narration; even in his quickly related interviews of architects and victims of the divider, there are few real glimpses of character or encapsulations of the human cost of the wall’s presence. There is a moment with a man who explains how his morning commute out of Jerusalem is only fifteen minutes while it takes him “two to three hours to get back home at the end of the day, because of checkpoint delays,” but Backmann speeds away from this rich and relatable anecdote to more facts and figures, which, while addressing the scale of the economic catastrophe wrought by the wall, don’t express it nearly as well. Likewise, Backmann interviews a shepherd whose ability to pasture his sheep was prevented by the erection of the barrier. “I sold a part of [the herd] to make a little money,” he says, “and slaughtered the others, one by one, to feed my family. May Allah punish the Israelis for what they do to us!” In two sentences we have poignancy and rage, the banal reality of oppression and a disquieting glimpse into the sort of religious fanaticism that fuels violence on both sides of the wall. But Backmann moves on; religion as a motivating force is of no concern for this book.

There is undoubtedly a larger goal here, but it is vaguely defined. “Can Barack Obama reopen the road to peace,” Backmann asks at the close of his book, at which point many readers will surely flip back to see if they missed the chapter where the conflict itself was explained. But Backmann, dealing with such a literally concrete manifestation of policy as the wall, remains abstract as to his conclusions and what he aims for his book to accomplish. “What if today’s security threat to Israel came not from the surrounding region, but also from the misguided decisions of its own leaders?” he asks. “Does Israel imperil its chances at peace and security by showing indifference to Palestinian human rights; by refusing to acknowledge or at least entertain the possibility that Palestinian anger springs from the legitimate desire for liberty; by assuming that all Palestinians are complicit with international terrorism; and by repeatedly casting irresponsible accusations of anti-Semitism at anyone who attempts to criticize Israeli policies and decisions?” As with the question about Obama, these mouthfuls seem shockingly unrelated to anything earlier in the book. We have heard neither accusations of Jew-hatred nor international terrorism. While we have heard about outbursts of “anger” (the 2001 Dolphinarium discotheque bombing is mentioned, in passing), there is nothing like a practical sense of what Palestinian “liberty” might look like—save for, I suppose, the absence of the wall.

I found it impossible to read Backmann’s book without comparing it to other works, comparisons not to Backmann’s advantage. A Wall in Palestine covers similar ground to Nida Sinnokrot’s engaging documentary “Palestine Blues,” pursuing similar questions about the curves and loops along the divider’s route—though Sinnokrot, carrying a camera into the orchards and up to the faces of the people affected, makes maps come alive, cry, sing. Backmann, attempting to contextualize this wall within what is often euphemistically neutered as “the situation,” ends his study with a chronology not of events “directly pertaining to the wall” (though these are noted with an asterisk), but of the modern state of Israel, beginning in 1896 with the publication of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State and ending in 2009, with Netanyahu’s rejection of a freeze on settlements. Again, some readers will see objective fact and others a narrative of bias, but, in any case, the book makes no other gesture toward such a scope of history. It can hold nothing, then, against Adina Hoffman’s portrait of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali and his milieu, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness. Hoffman expertly alternates between a wide-lens survey of the past and vivid engagement with the particularities of the people enduring this “situation,” both Israeli and Palestinian. Hoffman, for instance, would have spent enough time with that shepherd to parse out his idiosyncrasies and present him as a full person, located in history.

Ultimately, the book I thought of the most, as I plodded through Backmann’s pages of statistics on settlements or surveys of judicial decisions, was Philip Gourevitch’s masterful study of the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Gourevitch, like Hoffman, untangles the various strands that led to the present while, via self-examining narration, engaging in empathetic encounters with people involved in, or able to offer some insight on, the events he’s investigating. Backmann’s book remained distant, the reality obscured, which is deeply unfortunate for a book with such an urgent subject. Luckily, we have Sinnokrot’s film, but this is far from enough. Backmann’s shortcomings should jolt others into action, and the wearying way he skims over moments that should be given deep attention will, at the very least, prompt readers to try to imagine all that Backmann does not offer. Consider this fact that he relays:

For security reasons, Palestinian vehicles are no longer allowed to enter Israel, except for humanitarian purposes. It is now impossible for a resident of Bethlehem, for example, to drive to Jerusalem, fill her car up with goods, and drive back. Drivers from the West Bank must leave their cars in the terminal parking lot, cross the terminal by foot—if they have a permit—and, on the other side, take one of the new buses from there into the city. The ticket costs 1.5 shekels. The bus drivers, carefully chosen and trained by Israeli security services, are responsible for verifying that their passengers have the required permits, and will lose their license should they make any error.

Hoffman or Gourevitch would have given us that woman from Bethlehem, and given us that driver, too, made us feel what that 1.5 shekel could cost and have some sense of the experience of that walk and that ride. Backmann, in his presentation, raises question after question. The very mention of special security training for bus drivers deserves some detailed follow-up, but A Wall in Palestine has no time for such texture, such realistic consideration; its author moves too quickly, on too broad a survey of his topic, in a quest for far too vague a peace.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Christopher Finch
Prestel USA ($23)

by Mason Riddle

It is hard not to know who Chuck Close is. From his recent appearance on The Colbert Report to the New Yorker ad in which he is clothed in a black leather jacket and the “artist edition” Philip Glass T-shirt he designed for Gap, Close has accrued a media persona that soars way above the conventional notion of visual artist as celebrity. Authored by his longtime friend and colleague Christopher Finch,Chuck Close: Life attempts to grasp the magnitude and sheer force of the artist’s aesthetic and humanitarian reach, with mixed results.

For the uninitiated, Close revolutionized the sleepy genre of portraiture, transforming it from a passive to a dynamic act of seeing for both the viewer and the maker. Beginning with his first, staggeringly monumental, black and white Big Self-Portrait from 1968—acquired soon thereafter by the Walker Art Center, where Finch was then a curator—Close’s portraits, including those of his wife Leslie, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, President Bill Clinton, and Brad Pitt, among others, have raised the barometric pressure of the human face to levels heretofore unknown. Close has depicted his “heads” in a variety of scales ranging from little more than six inches in height to just shy of ten feet, and through a variety of media—oil and acrylic on canvas, pastel, watercolor, print, daguerreotype, and jacquard tapestry.

Now 70, Close’s own visage—shaved head, salt and pepper goatee, and steady gaze behind round ever-present glasses—is still striking, and he continues to document it in one form or another. That Close moves through his daily life in a wheelchair due to a traumatic physical Event (capitalized by the artist) in December 1988, which tragically left him a partial quadriplegic, has only intensified his drive to make art, his humanity, and his will to evolve and succeed.

Life is divided into three sections: Close’s early life in the state of Washington, BFA and MFA from Yale, and teaching career at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; his subsequent time in New York City, from the Soho struggles of the mid-1960s to his burgeoning success in the 1980s; and the post-Event years, in which the artist has had to recreate his life and make art under an entirely new set of rules. In each section, however, the reader all but tanks in a tsunami of information. While some of it is certainly necessary, do we really need to know so much detail about grandparents and aunts and uncles? That Close had a number of serious physical ailments since he was a child is useful context, but after a few rundowns we get the idea that he had the will to overcome them in creative ways. It’s also brought up more than once that after his 48-year-old father died when he was twelve, his supportive but controlling mother made him sleep with her in the same bed; perhaps curious, it leads to little else later in the book. And following Close’s tragic Event, Finch reminds us unrelentingly how difficult it is to be a partial quadriplegic, and the great toll it took on Close, his wife Leslie, and their daily routine.

Finch is also prone to interpreting or analyzing a situation with “might have” or “may have” to the point of reader frustration. For example, of the separation and divorce of Leslie and Chuck Close in 2009-10, Finch writes: “In retrospect, it seems that extreme contrasts in personality might eventually have placed a severe strain on the marriage even without the unthinkable complications imposed on the situation by Chuck’s disability. That possibility would have been easier to deal with because it would not have been weighted with all of the feelings of guilt and bad faith that ultimately followed the cataclysm.”

Finch’s knowledgeable discussion of Close’s various styles, materials, and process is enlightening, but his frequently lengthy descriptions are underserved by the relative lack of images (although a companion volume titled Chuck Close: Work is available from the same publisher). The book succeeds most as a social history of the early years of New York’s downtown art scene, and in putting Close at the center of its transformation—the reader truly gets a sense of its maturation from the mid-1960s to the present day. Ultimately, however, Chuck Close: Life suggests that personal, decades-old friends may not make the best biographers.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Edited by Stephen Fredman and Steve McCaffery
University of Iowa Press ($39.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Robert Creeley held a privileged and problematic role in American poetry, and his death marks the end of a critical stage in its development. As Stephen Fredman and Steve McCaffery’s Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Life and Work makes clear, Creeley bridges Modernism with Postmodernism: grounded in his early passion for D. H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound, Creeley held a central place at the heart of various mid-century poetry communities, including Black Mountain College, the second generation New York School/northern California nexus of the 1960s and ’70s, and the beginnings of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school. Throughout Creeley’s work, his concern is always to be there in the writing and the living, merging them into a single take, and to expand upon how one goes about knowing, engaging, and getting on with it: continually facing the present act of writing without predetermination or anticipation of the finished poem.

Form, Power, and Person marks the occasion of a SUNY Buffalo conference in October 2006, a year and a half after the poet’s death, where versions of these essays were first presented. Sudden, wintry environmental conditions nearly forced a complete last minute cancellation, and “participants spontaneously shifted panels from the unreachable north campus to a conference room at the hotel,” shrinking the audience to mostly one of fellow presenters—which makes this publication all the more a blessing. This collection provides a range of fittingly varied critical approaches, though the emphasis throughout is on the poems, with little to no attention given to the numerous essays, reviews, stories, or other work; however, there is a substantial focus on connecting the poems to various practices of Creeley’s living as evidenced in his interviews, correspondence, and teaching.

Although this is a particularly academic grouping, the broad range and style of writing hardly ever makes for dry reading. In his introduction, Stephen Fredman remarks that, “One of the hallmarks of [Creeley’s] writing and conversation alike was a personal vocabulary and syntax” and further observes how “Creeley’s nakedness is most conspicuously displayed in his intimate relationship with words.”Fittingly, included here are valuable engagements with Creeley’s early years of conflict over his identity as a man and husband, friend and lover. Michael Davidson takes up careful consideration of Creeley’s poem “The Finger,” making connections evident with the masculine rage Rachel Blau DuPlessis explores in her treatment of the complex layers of Creeley’s obsession and appraisal of “hole” imagery, from his own childhood loss of his left eye to the occurrences of vaginal and rectal references.

Marjorie Perloff offers an acute reckoning of the, dull negative commentaries churned out on Creeley throughout the ’60s and ’70s—which leads into a close reading of Creeley’s “The Rain” in relation to Williams, Robert Lowell, and Apollinaire, as well as brief consideration of Creeley as a non-Concrete poet via Augusto de Campos. Both Charles Altieri and Alan Golding pursue distinctive critical discussions of specifics of Creeley’s poetic sequences of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Peter Middleton gives a personal remembrance of his time as a student of Creeley’s in Buffalo during the fall of 1977, which he manages to lead into useful consideration of Creeley’s particular tactic of sharing with the class his own poetic meandering thought in monologue musing during any particular week. While it’s interesting to hear that assigned texts included Charles Olson’s The Special View of History, Robert Duncan’s The Truth & Life of Myth, and Duncan McNaughton’s Sumeriana, it is more interesting to hear that Creeley

did not teach Olson’s work, for the talk was not, as most professors would have offered, about authors and texts . . . the lecture appeared at first to meander around what one might loosely call epistemological (he himself avoided all such jargon) questions, which Creeley carefully traced out, following one lead and then another as the sequences of thought reached a conclusion only to point out a new trail, or come to a dead end that necessitated starting over.

Middleton’s residual excitement throughout is infecting:

The overriding emphasis in these classes was on the “authority of information” we should look for in poetry . . . no existing knowledge carried such authority. Even the authority of his own discourse should not be taken for granted. His performative teaching continually demonstrated right in front of us the importance of the practice of learning and writing which informed his poetry, in the hope that we would learn to emulate the rigors of such inquiry in our own research and possibly our own poetics, rather than file his utterances as facts.

Benjamin Friedlander’s adept discussion of Creeley’s writing as experience takes account of how poems, for Creeley, are based in living moments: “consider ‘The Act of Love,’ a poem in which Creeley tries to work out what it might mean to perform love—not the physical act of making love but the experiential act we call being in love.” As so often is the case in Creeley’s poems, it is the exercise of thought which informs the poem. Peter Quartermain explores the question of what makes a “political poem” for Creeley, emerging after a thorough consideration to the realization that Creeley’s poems “engage the reader in immediacy of apprehension and thought” and that as Creeley himself said, “Language is a political act.”

In his later poems celebrating memories of past friendships, Creeley continued living the writing, as Libbie Rifkin’s opening reference to “for Mitch” in her essay on Creeley’s friendship with Denise Levertov attests: “a poem of great regret, both for the general fact of surviving, as he put it in another poem, ‘the continuing, echoing deaths’ of so many good friends, and, more painfully and particularly, for not having been a good friend.” Such memorial poems, “reflect . . . distance, but they also suggest something of the tone of the relationship at . . . periods of real significance.” Creeley engages with the past, present, and future by re-living the past through the writing and allowing his own feelings and understanding of the relationship to unfold within it.

This collection offers opportunity for understanding Creeley’s “growth” evidenced in his poetry from the ’50s onward, providing an entry point for the uninitiated as well as offering much for the familiar student and scholar. The majority of writings presented are not available elsewhere, and the few that are have been revised. It remains fascinating how many sides to Creeley are to be found in his poetry, interviews, and correspondence. The poet never turns the same ear in the same manner twice.

Despite various criticisms during periodic changes in his work, Creeley never wrote the same poem—except, in his own words, to “find [him]self saved, in words.” This collection stands as testament to the lasting value the work shall continue to hold for readers: drawing them in, only perhaps later to repel them, and then draw them in again. By turns, Creeley’s work is playful, bothersome, loving, proverbial, probing, offensive, mad, inspiring, and tyrannical. Above all, it offers evidence of a wisdom-fool who arrives at no definite answers in pursuit of profound questions throughout his life.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Erik Anderson
Otis Books/Seismicity Editions ($12.95)

by Paula Koneazny

In his preface, Erik Anderson describes The Poetics of Trespass as a twofold project of walking and writing: “Over several weeks during February and March of 2007, I walked out the letters of the word ‘pastoral’ across a span of twenty blocks in central Denver, using my apartment as the epicenter. These are the pictures of those tracings.” In writing upon his city’s streets, sidewalks, alleys, and open spaces, he is, in part, quoting Paul Auster’s City of Glass, in which a writer of detective fiction discovers that a man he has been hired to trail is walking the streets of Manhattan in a pattern that spells out Tower of Babel. Anderson here records his own, analogous “attempt to inscribe language into a non-linguistic space.”

In choosing the word pastoral for his inscription, the author expresses his desire to return the country to the city, to trace curves where experience is usually constrained by right angles. However, just as pastoral poetry describes a romanticized ideal rather than a more complicated reality, Anderson realizes that dualistic terms such as urban and rural, pristine and scarred, symmetrical and asymmetrical may mean little to nothing at all, since “the city can’t help but revert to the country—corners to curves—even as the country is transformed into the city.”

Anderson often begins a day’s walk by cataloging the cast-off objects or people that he encounters. Such urban accounting brings to mind Brenda Coultas’s The Bowery Project, in which she observes and records “activities that occurred and . . . objects that appeared on a brief section of the Bowery between Second Street and Houston.” Both poets make use of their respective cities, reclaiming them as civic space, in the sense of space utilized by citizens. While “trespassing,” Anderson encounters obstacles: streets and sidewalks laid out in a grid that make tracing an o or a cursive a difficult; urban neighborhoods that present dangers for pedestrians, as he learns when he is mugged “near the corner of 9th and Washington . . . walking unsuspectingly along a hedge.”

Writing by walking is an ephemeral, if not entirely hidden, activity. In this respect it is akin to the land art, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Dennis Oppenheim’s Cancelled Crop, that Anderson discusses in conjunction with much larger and more enduring transformations of landscape: the redesign of the streets of Paris during the 19th century, the construction-by-reconstruction of Central Park in New York when “the hills the city’s fathers had previously flattened” were rebuilt, and an immense island-building development underway in Dubai. In fact, one can view Denver itself as a gigantic installation comprising many smaller compositions, both transient and semi-permanent, within its borders.

In addition to the layout and architecture of cities, Anderson muses about paintings he recalls, including Tintoretto’s The Rape of Helen and two paintings on exhibit in a small museum gallery devoted to “The Scholar’s Tradition” of Asian Art. Accident plays a role in his selections: he doesn’t choose to look at the painting “Mountain Landscape” for aesthetic reasons; it just happens to be hanging on the wall opposite the only chairs in the gallery. Similarly, getting mugged and visiting the emergency room aren’t part of Anderson’s plan. Nevertheless, The Poetics of Trespass ends up including a photograph of the exact spot where he was attacked while tracing the letter O.

Walking as a form of writing practice has a long tradition. Prose writing by poets does as well. Nevertheless, the shift to prose causes Anderson some anxiety: “I’m not certain what it says about me as a poet that I am only able to take long walks, write in a meandering prose, or sit in abandoned galleries staring at forgotten paintings. I worry that I am no longer a poet. I feel the poem has gone dead in me, and that this work, obsessed with poetry, is as close to a poem as I can come.” That said, Anderson sometimes achieves in his prose the kind of compression associated with poetry. For example, when he remarks, while looking up at Denver’s version of the World Trade Center, that the “bank logo at the top of one of the towers reflects in the glass of the other,” he opens up his poetics to a discourse about politics and socio-economics. That discourse, although not in the book, is suggested by the image.

“The Neighbor,” a series of prose poems or short-short essays in which the author reflects upon two movies, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love and its sequel, 2047, closes out the book. In this section, the author continues to think about cities, neighborhoods, art and the constraints built and legislated into civic space. Functioning as an addendum or coda, it relates The Poetics of Trespass, with its references to Martin Heidegger’s house of Being, to that same philosopher’s notion of man as the neighbor of being. Although not absolutely necessary for Erik Anderson’s book to feel complete, “The Neighbor” adds some tangential yet intriguing discussion to what still would be a fascinating but slimmer volume without it.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Bill Clegg
Little, Brown ($23.99)

by Scott F. Parker

In the urgent, present-tense prose by now standard for addiction memoirs, Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man recounts a prodigious attempt at self-destruction followed by his eventual recovery. It’s a familiar narrative, and one that necessarily undermines any suspense; the fact of the book’s existence evinces Clegg’s rehabilitation. The guaranteed redemption explains some of this sub-genre’s popularity, but there’s also the attraction of peeking into a world of unfamiliarity—in this case, the world of crack cocaine.

Opening his story in medias res, Clegg eagerly reveals the desperation of crack-addiction: “I can’t leave and there isn’t enough.” He’s six days into the month-long binge that is the book’s central story. During this binge he will blow, or rather burn, through a small beach’s worth of crack rocks and many thousands of dollars—paying for, in addition to drugs, all sorts of vodka, hotel rooms, and airfare he won’t use. It’s a committed attempt at self-destruction, and one of the author’s triumphs is to cop to the intentionality of this obliterating urge rather than present his addiction as simply a case of pursuing pleasure too far.

Clegg doesn’t feel compelled to offer a cause for his drug abuse, but in alternating chapters he does interrupt the story of his demise with flashbacks from his childhood. Until about halfway through the book when the flashbacks begin to coalesce into a real background and the narrator into a real character,Portrait relies on the immediacy of its language and crack-hit-length blocks of prose. The book comprises hundreds of compact scenes separated by white space, a strategy evocative of how memory works and reminiscent of Nick Flynn’s memoirs. These short passages have a tendency to reach for punchy endings that keep the reader moving on to the next one, and they occasionally get melodramatic. Take for example these lasts lines, all from the first chapter: “It’s daybreak and the dealers have turned off their phones”; “stems are destroyed”; “by some unwanted miracle my heart hasn’t stopped.”

It’s a relief in Portrait’s second half when Clegg stops trying so hard to impress the reader—as the tone cools it becomes easier to care about the narrator—but the reader never gets behind him all the way, because there just isn’t much there to get behind. Clegg fails to present a thoughtful guide through his drug-addiction. Instead, he leaves us with his drug-addicted former self for the majority of the book.

Here’s Clegg in reference to holding hands with his boyfriend, Noah, while having sex with a prostitute: “And I will remember how convinced I was that night—as I had been every night with him before—that knowing what he knew, seeing what he’d seen, putting up with what he chose to put up with, he was the only one who ever could. The question I never asked was why.” Why is indeed a good question that, as it goes unanswered, reveals the book’s biggest flaws. We know next to nothing about Noah, in fact, the central person in the narrator’s life. Late in the book, when Clegg writes, “He seems less like a person and more like a figment from a dream I once had, some nocturnal wonder I cannot revive after sleep, only remember,” all the reader can do is agree.

Clegg’s failure to think about why Noah put up with him is indicative of the book as a whole, which contains almost no reflection from the narrator. This style, seemingly motivated by the Hemingway iceberg principle, may work nicely in fiction but it doesn’t tend to suit memoir very well, and leaves this book feeling somewhat vapid. Lyrical and descriptive as Clegg’s writing can be, his reluctance to make sense of Portrait’s events reduces its reach.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Georges Perec
translated by Marc Lowenthal
Wakefield Press ($12.95)

by Kevin Carollo

to see not just the rips, but the fabric (but how to see the fabric if it is only the rips that make it visible: no one ever sees buses pass by unless they’re waiting for one, or unless they’re waiting for someone to come off of one . . .)

The city is where we are most together and apart together. In An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, the most banal objects or quotidian trajectories become marvelous moments of anonymous being. This is perhaps what Georges Perec and his fellow Oulipo practitioners inherited from the Surrealists—the belief in the resonant meanings of everyday language and life. The marvelous is found in the dynamic intersection of language and the material world, or the “hundreds of simultaneous actions, micro-events, each one of which necessitates postures, movements, specific expenditures of energy.” The initial clinical tone of the text soon makes way for the delectably poetic nature of An Attempt. By observing the intricate “fabric” of one urban intersection, Perec creates a strikingly beautiful poem out of the everyday, observed world.

The poetic potential of this particular experiment should be noted at the outset. Criticism of Oulipo, or the “Workshop of Potential Literature,” necessarily tends to focus on the scientific or “experimental” nature of the group. Perec himself is, after all, perhaps best known for A Void (La Disparition), a 300-page novel about disappearance written entirely without the letter “e” (or, alternatively, as author of the world’s longest palindrome). The end result of An Attempt suggests quite a dramatic kind of epiphanic potentiality imminent in all people, places, and things—and yet this somehow occurs in the humble, understated way of the everyday. Little haikus creep more than leap out of the text:

People stumble. Micro-accidents.
A 96 passes by. A 70 passes by.
It is twenty after one.

Here, Perec is ostensibly just listing everything he can observe, but it reads more like a profound insight into the nature of existence—people are micro-accidents, aren’t they? And, though Perec is merely noting the passing buses and time of day, their ritual and predictable trajectories make one think about how they reflect our banal and “infraordinary” lives. An elision of metaphysical boundaries also occurs between the humans and pigeons of the square: “The pigeons at my feet have a fixed stare. So do the people looking at them.” This observation sets up another nice haiku:

All the pigeons settle on the plaza.
The lights turn red (they do this often)
Scouts (same ones) pass by the church again

Perec chooses a decidedly local focus in both space and time for his experiment—the Place Saint-Sulpiceduring a weekend in October 1974—but in so doing he strikes a chord of universality in the urgent and ephemeral course and commerce of urban experience. He soon realizes his attempt to somehow exhaust this place by describing it is doomed to delightful failure; exhaustion implies a completion or mastery that both the place and writing resist. In his cogent afterword, translator Marc Lowenthal calls the project a “noble exercise in futility.” Nor does it seem that Perec ultimately cares to be objective about the objects he observes. One day he obsessively records the passing of buses, the next day he’s “lost all interest in them.” Are they the same buses? That is for you to decide. Meanwhile, this beautiful little tome of urban motion and “Ghostliness” from the past is truly haunting.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Tricia Rayburn
EgmontUSA ($17.99)

by Carrie Mercer

Justine Sands is always ready for adventure—fearless, even. It's one of the qualities her sister Vanessa loves about her. Then Justine turns up dead, drowned in a freak weather event, in “currents so strong, Triton himself, the Greek god of the sea that could turn the waves up and down with one blow into his conch shell, wouldn't have been able to hold his own.” A terrible accident, everyone says. But Vanessa is determined to find out what really happened. She knows something is off, even before she starts hearing her dead sister's voice inside her head.

Siren, Tricia Rayburn's first young adult novel, is a tricky proposition. A realistic story with just a smidgen of fantasy, Siren plays with the suspension of disbelief every reader enters into when she reads a work of fiction. Here, the main character struggles throughout with a suspension of her own disbelief in order to find the truth. So the question becomes, does Vanessa's struggle to understand her world in a different way ring true with the reader? The struggle is a perfect metaphor for coming of age, which is what makes it work so well (and why we see this device so often in YA novels).

Vanessa's investigation starts with Simon and Caleb Carmichael, a fixture of the girls’ summers. Caleb was with Justine just before she died, and now he's disappeared. So Vanessa teams up with Simon to find Caleb, a hunt that proves stranger and more dangerous than either of them expected, changing their easy-going friendship into something deeper. Rayburn is adept at conveying the conflicted emotions Vanessa experiences from this change, especially in the middle of her grief over the loss of Justine.

Like those “meddling kids” in Scooby-Doo, Vanessa and Simon start nosing around town asking people questions they don't want to answer, including a crazy old man who holds the key to part of the mystery. It's a compelling read, as Rayburn's pacing is spot-on, moving between the adventure of the mystery, the excitement of first love, and the grief over a death in the family. The plot thickens deliciously as Rayburn adds layers, expanding the mystery beyond Justine's death into several similar deaths, both recent and historical. She also complicates the mystery of Justine as Vanessa finds out that her sister, who she thought she knew so well, was keeping secrets from her.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Siren is its rich plotting: the story is unpredictable, with no sudden reveal at the end to tie all the pieces together. Instead, there are several points at which the reader's curiosity is satisfied, and even more than one climax; when Simon and Vanessa finally rescue Caleb after a harrowing chase and a battle of wills, we're only halfway through the book. Unfortunately, Rayburn's propulsive plotting only moves forward; the few scenes where she skips time and then tries to reveal what happened by looking back are confusing. Still, Siren is an enjoyable read that leaves us hoping there's more to come.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

THE LIGHT CLUB: On Paul Scheerbart’s The Light Club of Batavia

Josiah McElheny
University of Chicago Press ($25)

by W. C. Bamberger

A German expressionist writer and critic, and a well-known theorist of the use of glass in architecture, Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915) authored mostly light-hearted, vaguely astral caprices that were favorites of Walter Benjamin and the Gestalt psychologist and writer Salomo Friedlaender, among others. His short vignette “The Light Club of Batavia,” originally published in German in 1912 and translated here for the first time, concerns a group of rich eccentrics who hatch a plan to create a dazzling, light-saturated underground environment—a spa for “bathing in light”—in an abandoned mine. There is as much digression as there is plot; the charm of Scheerbart’s writings (others of which detail politics on the moon and travels in a dirigible) is created by way of the novelty of invention and glittering beauty of the details, glimpsed in lines like “In my opinion, we all suffer from light addiction. It is the most modern of diseases.”

Sculptor and performance artist Josiah McElheny’s interest in the use of glass in sculpture led him to Scheerbart’s work, and he enlisted a number of collaborators in the creation of this chimerical book. In his introduction, McElheny sketches Scheerbart’s life and offers a synopsis of the work. This synopsis extrapolates a great deal from what is actually present, finding profundity in the slightest of the cast’s asides. But McElheny’s purpose isn’t simply to present the text as he found it—he wishes, rather, to use it as the hub of a series of extrapolations and ruminations, to explore how many facets can be found by turning Scheerbart’s text and ideas to various angles. The Light Club thus prints the original text, as well as a translation by Wilhelm Werthern; a poem by Gregg Bordowitz and Ulrike Mueller that thinks its way through the themes and scenes of the story without always referring to it; a reinvention of the story as a play by Andrea Geyer; a more modern-styled short story by McElheny, which treats Scheerbart’s text as a tale to be retold at a bar; blurred black and white photographs; and two further critical essays by George Hecht and Branden W. Joseph—all in less than 100 pages.

The book as a whole is similar in effect to some works by George Perec, or even Ron Padgett’s Among the Blacks—it presents pieces of text that act as shifting views, or as different “lights” shone on the same subject. If the reader wants conclusions, he or she has to draw them. Scheerbart’s wispy text is offered up in this heightened setting McElheny has created for it like a tiny diamond in a complex ring.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Atiq Rahimi
translated by Polly McLean
Other Press ($16.95)

by Brooke Horvath

Afghanistan is the graveyard not only of empires but of countless Afghan war victims, tens of thousands of whom have died in the internecine struggle for power that commenced upon the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989. It is in the midst of such fratricidal conflict that Atiq Rahimi—an Afghan writer and filmmaker who fled Afghanistan in 1984 and now lives in Paris—has set his fourth novel,The Patience Stone, winner of the 2008 Prix Goncourt.

As the novel opens, an unnamed woman is tending her comatose husband, shot not by a rival faction but by one of his comrades during a squabble. Beyond the window, its curtains “patterned with migrating birds frozen mid-flight,” the fight goes on amid daily life “somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere.” The woman, mother of two small girls, attends the intravenous feeding tube and prays, peeks out the window or runs errands, feeds her girls and talks to her unhearing husband. Day follows day, each filled with anxious tedium, horror, and haplessness: the old woman next door wanders the rubble muttering crazed nonsense after finding her son and husband beheaded; patrols pass, and gunfire briefly shatters the silence; soldiers climb through the window to threaten and insult, the woman lying that she is a prostitute to avoid being raped; one of the soldiers returns to pay her to lose his virginity. Meanwhile, the husband lies unmoving, unresponsive, all appeals to Allah unavailing, and the woman, between tasks, sits and reflects, awash in dreams, memories, and confessions.

It is the sharing of her secrets with her husband—the woman’s first opportunity to speak her mind to him despite ten years of marriage—that constitutes the soul of this novel. As her husband lies there—his mouth “half-open,” his expression “strangely mocking”—he becomes her “patience stone,” a magical stone to which, according to legend, one can “confess everything in your heart, everything you don’t dare tell anyone . . . until one fine day it explodes.” As the days pass, these revelations become increasingly intimate, uncensored, and confrontational:

She moves toward the man’s mouth. “I have never kissed you.” She kisses him. “The first time I went to kiss you on the lips, you pushed me away. I wanted it to be like in those Indian films. Perhaps you were scared—is that it?” she asks, looking amused. “Yes. You were scared because you didn’t know how to kiss a girl.” Her lips brush against the bushy beard. “Now I can do anything I want with you!”

Yet tenderness is never absent, for this woman understands that her husband, so brutal and domineering, has been himself a victim of a culture that has warped him, made him unfit for love. She speaks to him of his sexual clumsiness, his “empty presence,” his inability to share himself. She comes to see men’s violence as a form of cowardice, agreeing with something she recalls her aunt, the family’s black sheep, once saying: “those who don’t know how to make love, make war.” Near the novel’s close, she laughs dully and whispers, “when it’s hard to be a woman, it becomes hard to be a man, too!”

The woman’s story, told in bits and pieces, offers then a critique of Afghan sexual/social relations; Khaled Hosseini, author of the acclaimed bestseller The Kite Runner, praises The Patience Stone in his introduction to the book for “giving voice to those who, as the fable goes, suffer the most and cry out the least.” The irony, of course, is that the voiceless Afghan woman here has been given voice by a male novelist. Still, The Patience Stone remains a courageous book, for “there is nothing more taboo,” as the French-Iranian journalist Lila Azam Zanganeh puts it, “than talking about an Afghan woman’s body and her sexuality.”

Beyond sexual politics and social critique, and beyond the realistic if impressionistic sketches of a city wracked by indiscriminate bloodshed, what is of equal interest is the novel’s psychology of survival, the woman’s internal search for salvific truths to replace the deadening lies by which she has habitually lived. As Rahimi’s heroine reasons, “If all religion is to do with revelation, the revelation of a truth, then, mysang-e saboor [my patience stone], our story is a religion too!” In this respect, The Patience Stone may remind some readers of the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light, which concerns the endurance of a man buried for more than twenty years in a lightless, vermin-ridden cell of a Moroccan prison. In both novels, the ability to endure turns on a refusal to abandon oneself coupled with a need to understand that self more fully.

Or perhaps the more appropriate comparison is to Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights. Both women, after all, are telling stories to save their lives and in the process hope to save their one-man audience. “Look, it’s been three weeks now that you’ve been living with a bullet in your neck,” the woman tells her husband. “That’s totally unheard of! No one can believe it, no one! You don’t eat, you don’t drink, and yet you’re still here! It’s a miracle. A miracle for me, and thanks to me. Your breath hangs on the telling of my secrets. . . . Don’t worry, there is no end to my secrets.” The message ought to be clear: stories can save us. To paraphrase the American poet William Carlos Williams, people die miserably every day for lack of such stories.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


David Mitchell
Random House ($26)

by Ed Taylor

David Mitchell couldn’t be hotter. He surfs to the literary beach onThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet riding a tidal wave of acclaim and attention; at only forty-one, he is routinely compared by critics to giants such as Dickens, Tolstoy, and Pynchon. Mitchell seems a good soul in addition to a Promethean talent, based on a July 2010 profile in the New York Times Magazine. So a reader opens this handsome book featuring a woodblock cover illustration by revered 18th-century Japanese artist Hiroshige with, for better or worse, some expectations.

Is it “good”? Yes, unequivocably. Is it flawed? Yes, unequivocably. Does it raise distracting questions about itself outside of the world of its story? Yes.

Mitchell’s career-announcing book was The Cloud Atlas, a startling formal experiment with heart that managed to be about being human and also about the novel—a stylistic coup challenging and brilliantly playing with aesthetic conventions of both literature and art in productive, profound ways. The Thousand Autumns, by contrast, is a conventional historical novel, set in Nagasaki, Japan, from 1799 to 1817. Mitchell does indeed demonstrate Tolstoyan reach in creating a kind of Colonial Nagasaki akin to Colonial Williamsburg, a world so deeply imagined you can walk around in it.

The book’s axis is Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch East India Company clerk of intelligence and modesty and incorruptible morality, and his sailing to Dejima, an artificial island built off the coast of Nagasaki on which early European merchants were in essence quarantined so they could trade with Japan but not profane it by actually entering the country. (The island is currently being restored in Nagasaki to create an actual Colonial Nagasaki Historic Experience.) Only one trading ship a year was allowed by the Japanese to land, so service on Dejima was a test of will and the ability to triumph over cutthroat business dealings, disease, boredom, typhoons, earthquakes, and bad luck. Jacob takes this arduous five-year posting in order to make his fortune and return to the Netherlands to marry his true love Geertje, whose father disapproved of the well educated and morally upright but poor Jacob.

Jacob’s story is complex and wrenching, and related in the present tense; we are always (not just in Jacob’s sections) in the moment. And momentous things happen in this story—there is war (the clash of empires being a Big Theme here), and betrayal, and extensive cruelty, and, getting to one of the puzzling bits, a climactically sinister religious retreat. However, the author chooses to have much of the action in the story reported, via characters—at times related through “conversation” that reads more like exposition, a no-no taught in Novel Writing 101—and dialogue that others have pointed out is historically inaccurate. Regardless of historical inaccuracy (not necessarily a deal-breaker), more troublingly they often sound like characters in a book.

As a result the ornately wrought, careful observation is fully present for the reader, but feels at best like a neutral surface, and on occasion even disjunctive. There is deep emotion here, and life and death, and pain and joy and love, and the clash of cultures: all beautifully handled at the sentence level, but kept, perhaps too often, at the arms’ length distance of a museum’s objets.

While the writing is exquisite and the imagination Olympian, this is a novel that on occasion feels worked to within an inch of its life. This burnishing and stylistic self-awareness reach their apex near the book’s climax, in a narrative soliloquy in which a Japanese magistrate contemplates life as he faces his own death. “Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells.” What follows is a full page of intensely observed life that rhymes (a technique used nowhere else in the book—so the choice here raises questions). Is this brilliant, innovative style enriching an experience of the world, or self-conscious ornamentation that actually works against the content? (For what it’s worth: rhyme is grammatically difficult and uncommon in the Japanese language.)

Another conundrum is the previously mentioned sinister religious shrine, a mystery that slowly unfolds within what is essentially a story of yearning and unrequited love: Jacob falls for Orito, a disfigured Japanese midwife bravely studying, against all odds of both Japanese and European cultures, medicine. Orito is the link between West and East, and Jacob’s past and future, and between the parallel stories of Dejima and of Mount Shiranui Shrine, a mysterious mountain castle ruled by a powerful Lord Abbot and accessible to no one. Shiranui becomes increasingly gothic, as Orito the midwife is “traded” to the Abbot to pay family debts and taken by force to the mountain shrine, to what end no one knows.

The spooky cult of the shrine and its secret “12 Creeds” present a curious tonal shift from the close-grained quotidian life of Dejima and Nagasaki. Further complicating things is that as secrets are revealed, the Lord Abbot who sits like a spider at the center of the plot web begins to sound like Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon” movie serials of the 1930s. “Why do you mortal gnats suppose that your incredulity matters?” and “If you knew, Shiroyama, you horsefly, what you’ve done . . .” and “The creeds work, you human termite! Oil of souls works!” This “oil of souls” and how it is made is the mountain’s darkest secret, and this secret itself is also something, surprisingly, verging on melodrama.

The novel’s resolves, post-Shiranui, elegiacally and autumnally and beautifully. Mitchell is brilliant, and the fictive world here generally lives and breathes in ways that lesser mortals can only envy. You can indeed enjoy a prodigious talent here—if you can, to adapt a Buddhist concept, read with a light touch.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010