Jul 14, 2010

Artifacts as Book? Anne Carson’s “Nox,” review: newyorker.com

Check out Meghan O'Rourke's review of Anne Carson's new book, Nox, in which Carson mediates on mourning through a notebook she kept following the death of her estranged brother:

“Nox” is as much an artifact as a piece of writing. The contents arrive not between two covers but in a box about the size of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Inside is an accordion-style, full-color reproduction of the notebook, which incorporates pasted-in photographs, poems, collages, paintings, and a letter Michael once wrote home, along with fragments typed by Carson. The reproduction has been done painstakingly, and conjures up an almost tactile sense of the handmade original. A mourner is always searching for traces of the lost one, and traces of that scrapbook’s physicality—bits of handwriting, stamps, stains—add testimonial force: this person existed.

The 3-dimensional quality of the text
(click on the image to see more views of the book)

Carson's book, O'Rourke writes, is about mourning: Why do we do it? What good is it? Where does this impulse even come from? It seems that maybe "reading" Carson's "book" might be a great exercise for a civilization that currently seems so numbed by a seemingly never-ending cycle of war, natural disaster, eco-disaster and scandal that we just don't know how to respond. Should we mourn? Should we soldier on as though none of this is happening?

The mourning process for Carson comes not just through sifting through notes, photos of her brother and the rare letter from him, but through the translation of a Catallus elegy (Carson is a classicist as well as a poet). For Carson translation is, as O'Rourke puts it, about "retrieval" and "renaming."

Carson's "book" has come at the exact right moment for me because I've been thinking about how I could include the memo/story my grandfather wrote (see my previous two posts) into the book I'm writing. I take lots of notes when I read, and I don't throw anything away, so I have dozens of yellow legal pads and composition notebooks that are jammed full of ticket stubs, bar napkins, and scraps of paper with notes on them. I've been thinking about how all of these things might be arranged/presented to a reader--not all of them, of course, just the stuff that is pertinent to my project, like the lengthy handwritten transcript I took of a Jean Luc Godard film in grad school, and which is the basis for another chapter I'm working on. (I'll scan the transcript and put it up here for you to see--it's very Unabomber looking and gives great insight into my mental state in my last year of grad school.

As a college English major in the mid-nineties it was cool to go around quoting Eliot "we gather these fragments against our ruin"--at least I thought it was cool. Eliot's Modernist lament for tradition lost struck me as noble and profound. Nowadays, there's nothing noble about gathering fragments, it's just what you do all day long. There's no "ruin" that we're looking to stave off because as a culture (civilization?) we have come to accept that there is no capital "T" truth, or capital "T" tradition, it was always already just a bunch of fragments that had been smashed together and made to agree by dint of some patriarchal will to impose order.

I'm on a BIG tangent here--"skylarking," my 6th grade teacher Mr. Garner would say--but I think there's a way that a project like Carson's doesn't lead to some post-modern despair for how truly impossible it is to truly know anyone or anything. (Do people even despair anymore? Despair seems to be as passe these days as Tradition and Truth.) Instead, I think seeing book as artifact, or artifacts as book, returns us to an ancient frame of mind, a mind that might help us to see that the world and our experience in it has not really changed that much. Technology has certainly altered the ways in which we are able to search/ seek out truth, tradition, connection, happiness, etc., etc., but technology and scientific discovery have not so radically changed the human condition that we no longer yearn for these things at all.

Perhaps Carson's "book" is a necessary return to basics. After all, what is writing if not translation--finding the words that correspond, that vocalize the tangle of thought and feeling deep within us. Gathering the fragments of the world before us and trying to retrieve some meaning from them is an ancient and important practice, truth notwithstanding, because it creates in us a space for reflection--a place that is not reachable by search engine. This seems like very good thing because it asserts our independence from the machines and media that we seem so dependent on to help articulate what we're feeling.

Jul 10, 2010

The Barber of Peru (a draft submitted for your comments/suggestions)

As promised, here is an excerpt of a draft of an essay I'm writing that reflects on the short story/memo my grandfather, Gerald Griffith, wrote titled "An Evening In Geneva, Indiana." My grandfather always dreamed of being a writer, but he spent his entire life working for the railroad. Check out his story here.

I've decided to try out some funky document design elements for this essay, because I think the subject (as hopefully becomes clear in the essay) lends itself to messing with the field of the page.

I would love to hear comments, suggestions and complaints about this, since I'm really sleep deprived right now and could be having delusions of grandeur. So, it might be WAY too indulgent, or it might be just what the essay calls for. But bear in mind that it is only an excerpt of a draft.

Jul 6, 2010

An Evening in Geneva, Indiana

I've just uploaded a pdf (see above image) of a handwritten short story my grandfather wrote in 1968--well, it's not actually a short story, it seems to be more of a hybrid, a literary memo he wrote to pass the time while waiting to interview a man who had made what the railroad believed to be a dubious injury claim (my grandfather was a claims agent).

Whatever it is, check it out by clicking on the "An Evening in Geneva, Indiana" tab in the right column, or here if you're lazy.

I'm in the process of finishing a draft of an essay inspired by this story/memo titled "The Barber of Peru," as in Peru, IN, where my grandfather grew up. The title is a phrase that Groucho Marx coined during the writing of the 1931 Marx Brothers movie Monkey Business. According Turner Classic Movies' entry on Monkey Business, Marx coined the term as a way of explaining his problem with the script written by noted New Yorker writer S.J. Perelman:

Throughout Groucho complained that Perelman's writing was too literary. When he rejected a reference to the operetta The Student Prince, his comment was, "The trouble is that the barber in Peru won't get it," referring to the small town of Peru, Indiana.

Here's some Monkey Business for your viewing pleasure:

Jul 5, 2010

Reflecting on Google maps experiment and what's next

I spent most of the weekend tinkering with the Google map companion to "Underworld," and I feel like I now have a better sense of the possibilities and limitations of the application for writers.

Possibilities: 1.) Google maps can be set up so that anyone can edit your map. I'm considering doing this with the "Underworld" map to see what locals and perhaps people who knew the murder victims might add. 2.) The Google Earth view of the map is mind blowing, especially on my iPad because the text from all of the map points floats like a word cloud over the city. The effect is that the city appears written on; that stories are embedded into the landscape. I like this idea and hope to riff on it more in future experiments. 3.) You can follow a map's RSS feed, so that any time the map is updated a new post is sent to your RSS reader. As my friend Wendy Sumner-Winter commented the other day, she liked the idea of a constantly evolving, constantly growing essay.

Limitations: 1.) The text boxes have limited space, so that rules out actually cutting and pasting the whole essay into the map point windows, which leads to 2.) What to write in these little boxes. Should I paste excerpts from the essay itself, or should this info be purely supplementary, bonus material?

One thing is for sure, the shareability of the medium helped make it very easy for my Facebook friends to recommend it to others. In fact, since the map and pdf of the essay went up on July 1st, the map has received 663 visits. 500 people have viewed the pdf of my essay, while 148 actually took time to read it.

Below are screenshots of the statistics windows on the Issuu site, which hosts your pdfs for free and connects you to a large network of artists, business people and publishers also sharing their work via Issuu.
The most interesting (and possibly concerning) stat is the second, which shows that only 28 people read the last two pages of the essay, compared to the high 80s for the first few pages. I'm hoping this has to do with people preferring not to read long documents on a computer screen and not that pages 6 and 7 suck.

But while knowing how many views you get is cool and all, I think this is just the beginning. The logical extension of this experiment is to embed the Google map info into the essay itself. Issuu gives you the html coding to do this sort of thing, but you have to use a program like InDesign or Quark, so I guess I'll be learning InDesign this week--or at least enough to be dangerous.

Tomorrow I'll be putting up the next essay from my book-in-progress. This one is titled "The Barber of Peru," and is still in draft form. The central feature will be the original handwritten manuscript of a short story my grandfather wrote.

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, complaints.

Fecundity: My latest post over at IMAGE's Good Letters

Check out my latest post over at IMAGE's Good Letters blog. This is one is inspired by 5 am walks with 7 week old Alexander Day, re-reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and a site-specific performance of Hamlet performed by Sweet Briar's theater-troupe-in-residence, Endstation Theatre Company.

Here's a taste of that post:

Our habit is to next make a loop around the back of the barn where there is a rutted lane for farm vehicles and a couple old storage sheds. A visiting theater troupe is using this as the stage for an out-door performance of Hamlet. At night, standing on our porch, we can hear them rehearsing. The startled, incredulous voice of Hamlet himself rises above the low mumble of the other actors.

The desire to walk through their set is triggered by an odd impulse, one I don’t quite understand, but I think what I’m looking for are signs of transformation, some signs that the landscape is being altered by the troupe in preparation for the performance.

Each morning, as Alex and I walk through this narrow lane I am comparing what I see before me to the morning before. One morning I noticed a bench I hadn’t before. The next, noticing nothing different in the lane, I opened an old door rotting on its hinges to find a crutch and a medieval-looking wooden rake. Just yesterday I noticed several halogen lamps had been discretely installed under the eaves. Slowly, I am watching the stage being set.

Jul 4, 2010

The Future of Writing?

I'm coming into the homestretch on my book of essays, Pyramid Scheme: Making Art and Being Broke in America--I have three chapters left to write, and I have rough sketches of all three. So, I've begun thinking about how to start generating interest in the book. I thought about using a combo of facebook and blog posts, along with a merciless Twitter bombardment, but I figured that wouldn't really do any good unless I have something to actually show off. This is when Richard Nash came to mind.

Richard is the former head of Soft Skull Press, who published my first book, A Good War is Hard to Find who has since moved on to start his own publishing concern, Cursor, which is launching very soon. Richard has been in the press for the last several months talking up Cursor (check out this article in the Utne Reader on what exactly he's up to). Long story short, Cursor, will not just publish books, it will be an on-line social networking platform for readers and writers to meet, build relationships, and collaborate. From what I understand, the publishing process will be on display, allowing readers to see drafts of books while still in manuscript form. Readers will have behind-the-scenes access to writers, as Cursor writers will blog and field questions from readers, making the relationship between reader and writer one with some give and take. And Cursor won't just publish paper bound books, but will release limited edition art pressings of all their titles followed by an e-edition.

Thinking about Richard and the potential of a more social publication process, I was inspired this week to begin offering excerpts (and some full-text) of my new book on my blog, along with interactive maps of the locales detailed in the chapters.

The first chapter of the book, "Underworld," which appeared in the fall issue of The Normal School, reflects on how the murder of four homeless men four blocks from our apartment in South Bend, Indiana affected me and my family. The map contains photographs of the crime scene and surrounding area that I took in the days after the bodies were found. In the three days since I put "Underworld" and the map up I've received over 500 views (Google keeps track of this), and over 100 people have read my essay, which I know because Issuu, the snazzy free pdf publishing site, gathers statistics on how many people have read your publication. It even tracks how many pages visitors read.

Click on the "Underworld" tab in right hand column to take a look. Click on the map points to see photos and find links to info about the crime. You can even click the "more" at the bottom of the pop-up window and see the "street view" of the area, which adds a whole other virtual dimension to the essay.

So, read the essay, check out the map and tell me if you think it adds anything to the reading experience. And stay tuned for more chapters.

View Map to "Underworld" in a larger map