looking

Once when I read the funnies
I took my little magnifying glass
and looked too close.

Forms became colors and colors
were just arrays of dots
and between the dots I saw the rough bleak
storyless legend of the pulp paper
empty as the winter moon

and dreaded it.
I had looked right through,
when I wanted a universe
that sustains
looker and looking and the seen
forever, detail after detail
never ending. And all I had found
was between. But between
had its own song:
Find it in the space between—

it is just as empty as it seems
but this blankness is your mother.

(Robert Kelly, from Under Words.)

the truth about the opium lady

YOUNG

I knew an opium lady while I was a student at the University of Chicago, and with whom I spent much time, reading aloud the works of Shakespeare. That is how I worked my way through school.

INTERVIEWER

Who was she?

YOUNG

She had been under opium for about fifteen or twenty years and had not walked for at least ten years. She was one of the original patronesses of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, and of Jane Addams’s Hull-House. She was also a friend of Thornton Wilder, Harriet Monroe, and many of the other intellectuals of that day. I was with her during her opium dreams. I was with her when the golden bird, who was the spirit of Heroclitus, perched upon the bedpost. I was literally with her when she had a long conversation with the head of John the Baptist.

INTERVIEWER

After decapitation?

YOUNG

After decapitation. I was also there when she spoke with a little rabbit. I was with her when she entertained an imaginary elephant, and when blue fish would be floating over her bed. I began to write my novel quite unexpectedly. I had planned to write a biography of Toulouse L’Ouverture [sic], the Haitian rebel, but my publisher wanted me to write a novel . . . she was the most fabulous, single person I had ever known. I was interested in her for her dreams and her beautiful personality and surroundings.

INTERVIEWER

And the problems of opium addiction?

YOUNG

No. The doctors in her household were always rushing about with Elizabeth Barrett Browning letters to try to explain this beautiful opium lady who was their patient. She was like an Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whom, of course, I had read, along with DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I had read Coleridge, too.

INTERVIEWER

So that you would understand her?

YOUNG

No. All this was in my background before I ever arrived. Her house was just right for a young poet. There couldn’t have been a better place. I was offered opium every evening. But I always said, “No, thanks,” and for that reason, she used to call me the “prosaic sprite,” because I didn’t need drugs to dream. I stayed with her most of the time. I was offered the bed in which Edna St. Vincent Millay had slept, when she was a visitor in Chicago, and the idea of sleeping in Millay’s bed—it would mean nothing to me now, but at that age . . . it seemed to be the most marvelous thing that could ever happen to any young person. On the opium lady’s bedside was a silver drinking cup which had belonged to John Keats, a little mosaic Persian letter set, and a beautiful bird with a sea shell. I have these things at my bedside now. Her daughter gave them to me when she died.

INTERVIEWER

You did not enter the opium lady’s dreams?

YOUNG

I do not think she dreamed about people. She dreamed about mandarins and human-sized blackbirds standing in the hallways, or invisible elephants. Adlai Stevenson—he may have known her, by the way—talked about the invisible elephant when he was running for office. I don’t know if he ever got a letter I wrote him, telling him about the invisible elephant in the opium lady’s dreams. He had the same idea: that the thing you think is not there may be there.

(Marguerite Young interviewed by Charles Ruas, Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction No. 66”.)

renee gladman, “event factory”

Renee Gladman
Event Factory
(Dorothy, a publishing project, 2010)


It’s hard to know what to make of Event Factory, a short novel that’s the first offering from Danielle Dutton’s Dororthy, a publishing project. The book starts off with an epigraph from Samuel Beckett’s posthumous narrative “The Calmative,” which might offer a clue where Renee Gladman is coming from. Another clue comes in the thanks at the end of the book, which end “and most especially to Samuel R. Delany, for Dhalgren.” Event Factory might be seen as somewhere between Beckett and Delany (the later Delany, of Dhalgren and the Nevèrÿon books).

While Gladman’s book might be read as science fiction, there are none of the usual signifiers of science fiction: no novelties, no space ships, everything taking place in a universe that seems to be our own. Except that it’s not: the first sentence announces “From the sky there was no sign of Ravicka.” Ravicka is, we’ll learn, a city: the reader knows of no city named Ravicka, but might suspend disbelief even for fiction that is not science fiction – has any city ever been more prosaic than Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith in the state of Winnemac? But a sentence later we find this:

The city was large, yellow, and tender.

City refers, presumably, to Ravicka – although three sentences into the book, this isn’t entirely clear to the reader: “Ravicka” could have been any geographical object that can be seen from the sky. Attaching a proper name to it that isn’t a proper name that we know signals that we are outside of our usual space: but how far outside? A city can easily be large: there’s no problem there. Yellow gives pause: this isn’t one of the colors that a city is usually described at. It’s easy to imagine a gray city. A yellow city could conceivably be some sort of tourist destination – walls painted yellow in the way that Marrakech is sometimes called a red city. But the word yellow is functioning differently than large: we’ve stepped, to some degree, into the metaphorical, because, presumably, the city is not entirely yellow, only parts of it is. Or maybe it is: an emerald city suggests fantasy. In science fiction, Delany notes somewhere, there’s a looseness of language: what’s usually seen as metaphor could conceivably be entirely descriptive inside the mode of science fiction. Tender, the third adjective, pushes us in this direction. Even if a city can be yellow, how can it be tender? This adjective, of course, points us to Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons pointed out the possibilities of using words in ways they weren’t intended. (Certainly someone must have by now suggested a science fictional reading of that book?)

Science fiction is inevitably disappointing to me because you often get an opening paragraph like this: one where you can’t understand how the words fit together, which is then defused: over the course of the narrative, you learn exactly what those words mean and why they’re being used in the sense that they are. A second reading is inevitably very different from the first, because the reader has already learned how to read the book. (Perhaps this is why one finds so many trilogies in science fiction?) Event Factory does not work this way. By a second time through – I have now read this book three times, which isn’t that much of an accomplishment, as it’s not very long – this paragraph does not make any more sense. Estrangement is continual in this book. While the proper nouns at the start seem recognizable – there are characters named Simon and Mrs. Madeline Savoy and Timothy; there’s a 32 bus; Simon sings from the Gospels, which could conceivably be the Gospels we know – but soon we find characters named Zàoter Limici, Ulchi Managua, and Dar which might almost be recognizable. (Diacritical marks, as in Delany’s Nevèrÿon, function as a signifier of difference: we look at a name on the page like “Zàoter” and realize that we have no idea how it might be spoken aloud, only that its a is almost certainly not our a.) As the book progresses, recognizable proper nouns almost disappear entirely. It comes as almost physical relief when Kecia Washington reappears toward the end of the book.

What does happen in this book? The narrator, a linguist, goes to the city of Ravicka for reasons left unclear. The air of the city appears to be yellow, though it’s hard to be sure about this, and what exactly this means: perhaps its only smog, maybe its something more fantastical. People seem to be leaving or to have left the city, though why and where they’ve gone is left unclear. The narrator speaks Ravic, the language of the city; she seems to understand the gestural components of communication in Ravicka, which are many. But she still seems to be on the outside of something, mirroring the position of the reader with the book. Because there are the signifiers of science fiction, we keep expecting that something might be explained that will make everything snap into place or to explicate what the ground rules are; perhaps the narrator is expecting the same thing, but it never does. The effect is of taking a long trip in a country that you don’t understand as well as you’d hoped. Again and again there’s the sense of linguistic breakdown:

The woman interrupted, “Yes. We know all of that,” and nodded compassionately. Then continued, more upbeat, “My name is (then gave a puff of air). Will you come with me?”
     And that was what I had feared: she was not Ravickian and, what was worse, she used air instead of hard sound for speech. (pp. 56–7)

There’s more than a hint of metafiction scattered through this book (on the next page, they eat what seems to be “shredded paper, which seemed to have been stewed in various dark and spicy sauces”): one wonders if “hard sound” could mean written or printed letters, since we already know that the air of Ravicka is not quite the same as the air we know. Or we might read this passage as the narrator having become estranged from language: that spoken language turns into only “a puff of air”. This is left unresolved: perhaps it’s both at once.

This book feels like Dhalgren might if that book were more linguistically turned in on itself. There’s the same sense of inscrutability: I think that’s a lot of why I like Dhalgren, and that largely works here as well. Event Factory is supposed to be the first book of a trilogy; I’ll be interested to see where Renee Gladman goes.

the problem of new york

“More disturbing than the well-known situation of commercial publishing is the possibility that the cost of living in New York discourages resident novelists from risking lengthy, time-consuming projects. The future of intellectually and aesthetically ambitious fiction is a huge and complex subject involving conglomerate publishing, new media, text technology, literary education, and literacy itself. That future is global, but I’ve come to believe that New York may well be the representative leading – and double – edge. New York nourishes home-grown writers such as Lethem and Whitehead, attracts writers from abroad such as O’Neill and McCann, and honors its elder, DeLillo. New York offers the eight million stories of the naked city and makes a few writers millions, but I fear that New York also tamps down novelists’ aesthetic ambitions, turns them into careerists of modest, consumable art – not minimalism or maximalism but medianism – that will allow them to continue publishing in and maybe living in Cosmopolis.”

(Tom LeClair, “Going Up, Falling Down”, EBR)

april 11–april 20

Books

Films

  • Tales from the Gimli Hospital, directed by Guy Maddin
  • The Dead Father, dir. Guy Maddin
  • Even – As You and I, dir. Roger Barlow, Harry Hay & LeRoy Robbins
  • Canyon Passage, dir. Jacques Tourneur
  • Fashions of 1934, dir. William Dieterle
  • Roman Scandals, dir. Frank Tuttle
  • The Kid from Spain, dir. Leo McCarey

Exhibits

  • “Martin Kippenberger: Eggman II,” Skarstedt Gallery
  • “Günther Uecker: The Early Years,” L & M Arts
  • “Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern: From Barefoot Profit to Avant-Garde Artist,” Michael Werner Gallery
  • “Malevich and the American Legacy,” Gagosian
  • “Touched: A Space of Relations,” Bitforms Gallery
  • “Chris Marker: Passengers,” Peter Blum Soho
  • “Cosima von Bonin: The Juxtaposition of Nothings,” Friedrich Petzel
  • “Hermann Nitsch: Die Apotheke/The Pharmacy,” Leo Koenig
  • “Rirkrit Tiravanija: Fear Eats the Soul,” Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

daniel hernandez, “down & delirious in mexico city” / sharifa rhodes-pitts, “harlem is nowhere”

Daniel Hernandez
Down & Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century
(Scribner, 2011)

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
(Little, Brown, 2011)


Two books this time, one that I’ve taken a very long time to read – I started Harlem Is Nowhere in February if not sooner – and one which just arrived and I read quickly. These books are superficially similar in that they consist of essays about a place – a neighborhood in the case of Harlem Is Nowhere, a nebulously defined city in Down & Delirious in Mexico City – but they’re different in tone and effect. The form is familiar enough, if possibly dangerous: Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City might be a useful example. Reading that book a few years ago, I found myself realizing that I’d find the book immensely fake if it presumed to tell the story of New York rather than of Bombay. The idea of making a city fit into a book is inherently problematic, as tempting as it might seem.

Maybe it’s easiest to talk about Down & Delirious first. Hernandez’s book is both helped and hurt by the existence for David Lida’s First Stop in the New World, from a few years ago; Lida’s book presents a well-written introduction to various facets of Mexico City for an American audience that doesn’t tend to think about Mexico City at all. Lida’s book is cited numerous times in the notes to Down & Delirious; one has the sense that Lida paved the way, and gave Hernandez the freedom to not write about many aspects of the city. Lida’s perspective is perhaps easier for the average reader to related to: he’s an Anglo who moved to Mexico City. Hernandez was born into an assimilated family in San Diego of Mexican descent; though he visits Mexico City for the first time as an adult, it’s easier for him to slide into the youth culture there. This is the real subject of Hernandez’s book: it’s a good one, and he arrives at the right time to chronicle it. The book founders a bit when he tries to draw larger conclusions about Mexico City, simply because it is so vast, and he’s consciously only dealing with a circumscribed part of it. Lida’s book – more considered, running the risk of being impossibly broad – is almost certainly a better introduction to the city for a general audience.

That said: Hernandez’s book is very pleasant to read. His prose conveys how vibrant the city is right now: for all its flaws, Mexico City seems much more alive, more full of possibility, more creative, than New York does right now. It’s a city full of strange wonders, and Hernandez has a great deal of fun tracking them down. His account of the Mexican emo riots of 2008, or example, carefully and empathetically takes apart what seems to be a ridiculous subject, finding in it a great deal of interest. He backs off, however, when the subject threatens to overflow the essay form: the homophobia he detects at the heart of the story isn’t interrogated at length.

Maybe that’s a problem with the form of this book. There was a recent piece by Paul Maliszewski that expertly anatomized the problem with magazine-writing as it currently exists in American literary culture. These are problems that bother me; the pieces of this book feel, to me, too much like magazine pieces, and while they’re good at that, I keep feeling like there could be something more made from them. Hernandez bounces from encounter to encounter; each piece more or less stands alone, though there are, of course, some common threads that carry through the book. This makes the book easy to digest; but it almost makes it too easy to digest. The last chapter, in which Hernandez attempts to build up to a resolution, falls flat, in part because his distributed form works against him.

Harlem Is Nowhere is by contrast a book more turned in on itself. It’s a record not so much of a neighborhood as it is of an encounter with a neighborhood’s extensively documented history. This isn’t to suggest that Hernandez’s book isn’t well-read: a tremendous amount has been written about Mexico City, and his copious notes document his reading. His reading, however, seems instrumental, something to be used as a means to an end; in other words, research. For Rhodes-Pitts, there’s the sense that Harlem exists to end in a book: it always has, but what that book is has changed over time. Where Hernandez talks almost exclusively with young people, Rhodes-Pitts seems to only talk with the old.

Harlem Is Nowhere makes it clear early on that it doesn’t pretend to be a definitive history: it’s more the record of an engagement with a neighborhood, wrestling with the problem of a sense of place in the manner of Geoff Dyer. It’s a considerably more pessimistic book that Down & Delirious: Rhodes-Pitts is writing about Harlem, buy she might be writing about the terminally bourgeois state of New York City in general. Rhodes-Pitts frames the book with problems of real estate: from present-day developer schemes to gentrify and destroy Harlem to the older black arguments (from Marcus Garvey on) tying cultural autonomy to land ownership.

Rhodes-Pitts is a cagey presence in her book: born in Texas, she moves to Harlem and looks intently at it, trying to map what she sees to what she’s read. She’s constantly being buttonholed by those who would be her elders, people who have ideas for her and her book, ideas that she questions more often than not. The stories she’s told often don’t hold up when subjected to scrutiny; but the same is often true of the books she reads.

There’s maybe a quiet echo of Don Quixote to her project: everybody knows that Harlem, like chivalry, is, if not gone, at least in a bad way by the time she gets to them, but maybe her book will get it right. She spends a great deal of time in libraries, attempting to square what’s outside with what’s inside: she moves from the book to the street to the book, sometimes more immediately, as when she is accosted in libraries by old people with their own theories. She’s good at listening; she’s good at digging up stories.

But this is, finally, an elegiac book, focused squarely on the past, with it’s corollary, how the past informs the present. One wishes the present could do a better job of speaking for itself; but this isn’t Rhodes-Pitts’s fault. She’s made a beautiful book out of it.

april 1–april 10

Books

Films

  • Anatomy of a Murder, directed by Otto Preminger
  • Safety Last!, dir. Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor
  • Hospital Fragment, dir. Guy Maddin
  • Sweetgrass, dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor
  • Trick Baby, dir. Larry Yust
  • Homebodies, dir. Larry Yust
  • Месть кинематографического оператора (The Cameraman’s Revenge), dir. Ladislas Starevich
  • Владислàв Алексàндрович Старèвич (The Insect’s Christmas), dir. Ladislas Starevich
  • La Voix du rossignol (Voice of the Nightingale), dir. Ladislas Starevich
  • Les Grenouilles qui demandent un roi (Frogland), dir. Ladislas Starevich
  • Fétiche Mascotte (The Mascot), dir. Ladislas Starevich
  • Carrousel Boréal (Winter Carousel), dir. Ladislas Starevich

Exhibits

  • “Sergej Jensen,” MoMA PS1
  • “Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and Lugt Collections,” Frick
  • “Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century,” Met

jacques sternberg, “sexualis ’95”

Jacques Sternberg
Sexualis ’95
(trans. Blair Lowell)
(Berkeley Medallion, 1967)


This is a poorly presented book, originally published in French in 1965 with the rather different title Toi, ma nuit. Somewhere along the line it acquired the present English title and cover – the back cover copy suggests that someone skimmed the first three pages, grabbed the first three titillating passages that could be found, and called it done. (I’m inclined not to blame the translator, who also seems to have had a workman-like career later in life, publishing translations of Voltaire, Flaubert, Dumas, Rostand, and Rousseau; in the 1960s, he seems to have been translating Emanuelle and Sade for Grove Press.) It can’t really be said that this ended the career of Jacques Sternberg in the United States – Future Without Future would come out in 1974 to little effect – but this couldn’t have helped. Though the cover promises trash, the reader is more likely to end up confused. There’s a certain similarity to the two French detective novels that John Ashbery translated under the name Jonas Berry: it’s difficult to imagine, at this point in time, who the intended audience for these sorts of books would have been, but it seems almost certain that these books weren’t doing a good job pleasing that audience.

This is not to say that this is a particularly good book: I don’t know if I’m willing to make that argument, though maybe someone might. The last book of Sternberg’s I read reminded me of Houellebecq; this one seems to anticipate him almost entirely. Sexualis ’95 is essentially a one-joke book, which would probably have worked better as a long short story. Thirty years in the future, after a nuclear war in 1975, humanity’s problems have largely solved by the wholesale adoption of free love. Sternberg’s protagonist seems to have wandered in from a Camus novel – later he will explain The Myth of Sisyphus to a similarly bored interlocutor – and finds himself, of course, utterly and completely bored with the world and the easy sexuality on offer. Though the protagonist is relatively successful in advertising – the problems of advertising in such a world can be imagined – he retreats to his books and records of the past.

It’s all a question of a certain quality of anxiety. Prewar anxiety was of better quality, richer in resonances and repercussions. There was something awesome and poignant about it. Our anxiety is as great as our parents’ was, but while our constant efforts to escape from it by noise, wild exaggeration, organized insanity and unremitting pleasure may seem spectacular, they’re more irritating than moving. Especially when that artificial frenzy breaks out of the framework of advertising, leisure and work and overflows into writing, music and films, sweeping everything away in an inarticulate howl that has neither charm nor precise meaning. Our world is so afraid that it doesn’t dare to look at its fear, talk about it or dissect it. It merely stifles it under tons of shouting, hectic rhythms, garish colors and brutal images. (pp. 14–15)

Occasionally this book makes one imagine that you’re reading a Tom Wolfe or Ross Douthat description of what the depraved youth at college are up to; the argument could be made that the same conservative impulse is at work here. In the next paragraph, the protagonist mentions Lovecraft as one of the old-fashioned writers that he turns back to (with Kafka, Beckett, Faulkner, and Céline): and it might be Lovecraft’s misoneism that’s the guiding spirit here. The protagonist is bored and vaguely unhappy for the first half of the book. Not much of note happens here: mostly we’re presented with a world, seen cartoonishly from a male perspective. Women are always available for male pleasure; they are a commodity like any other under capitalism, and it’s not by accident that the protagonist is in advertising, seeking to artificially raise desire in the public. He’s more than aware of the artifice of the job; but this is an existential condition, one that can’t be escaped. His awareness of art does nothing: he can quote Mallarmé to others on a shoot, but no one understands what he’s talking about.

Things take a turn in the second half of the book when the protagonist predictably falls in love. The object of his affections in a woman without desire: the child-like Michèle doesn’t want anything, and for this reason the protagonist wants her. There’s more than a whiff of the amour fou of Breton’s Nadja here, probably on purpose. The protagonist loses Michèle, suffers, and finally finds her again. This is partially played as broad comedy: the protagonist is suffering from the otherwise unknown condition of being in love, and, being of his time, he doesn’t know what to do. Sternberg is writing recognizably in the libertine tradition: the condition of desire is that it cannot be fulfilled.

This book takes a weird turn at the last possible minute, when the reader starts wondering exactly how Sternberg is going to extricate himself from his story, which has devolved into a road movie scripted by Breton: the protagonist and his unconsummated (and unconsummatable) love are on a train headed to a southern town neither of them has been to. Michèle announces that the train is going to be derailed in two miles; then that the train is going to be derailed in one mile. The final paragraph, italicized, is in the third person of a news report; it explains that the train did, in fact, derail and that everyone aboard was killed, including one unidentifiable woman. There also a gratuitous-seeming mention of alien arrival, who have not been mentioned previously in the novel: the implication might be that Michèle is an alien because she doesn’t want anything, but this seems forced.

This is an odd book: it’s not really a good book, and it seems like it could be charged with being flat-out misogynist if there weren’t the distinct possibility that this is all an enormous joke, maybe one lost in translation. But one does wish that more of Sternberg’s work were available in English: it’s hard to think of anyone quite like him.

louis lüthi, “on the self-reflexive page”

Louis Lüthi
On the Self-Reflexive Page
(Roma Publications, 2010)


Louis Lüthi sent me a copy of his book: it’s always a pleasant surprise to find a package in the mailbox from Amsterdam. Opening it, I immediately felt guilty for the pile of unread copies of Dot Dot Dot sitting on my to-be-read pile: I’m not sure why – and I should interrogate myself about this – but after a certain point, I stopped reading issues of that magazine, one of the last magazines that felt absolutely necessary to me, as soon as they arrived. And so I missed the original publication of Louis Lüthi’s essays on books that use the page in non-traditional ways, which is a shame. Or maybe not: when this would have come out, I was feeling burnt out when it came to thinking about the form of the book; now there’s more space, and I can give this the thought it deserves.

The cover (and back cover) should be immediately recognizable: the marbled pages from Tristram Shandy, which I suddenly realized I’d never seen in color, only grayscale reproductions; one forgets, as well, that the marbled page is actually two marbled pages, a marbled leaf. (With more money & space than I have, a complete collection of editions of that book would be a fine thing to assemble and exhibit: some aspiring Alÿs should get on that project.) The interior of Lüthi’s book consists of first 118 full-page reproductions of other book pages, then an extended essay about what those pages signify, followed by notes and a bibliography. The reproductions of pages have been divided into Black Pages, Blank Pages, Drawing Pages, Photography Pages, Text Pages, Number Pages, and Punctuation Pages. Lüthi’s book is an attempt to create a taxonomy for how non-textual pages function in fiction; his sections on Black Pages, Blank Pages, and Drawing Pages naturally start with the black pages, blank pages, and marbled pages that Sterne uses.

Flipping through the illustrations, one recognizes old friends: Gass is here, as is Perec, Zo’s illustrations to Roussel, Alasdair Gray, B. S. Johnson, Sebald, John Barth. Broodthaers’s crossed-out Mallarmé is here, though it stands out a bit: most of Lüthi’s other examples are more clearly pages of fiction. Rousse is another outlier (as he always is), as are Dieter Roth (here telling stories), two of Aram Saroyan’s visible poems, and the map of the ocean from The Hunting of the Snark, also included in Perec’s stripped-down reproduction (from, it should be noted, one of his non-fiction excursions). There are also pages from more recent writers: Douglas Coupland, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Salvador Plascencia, Lorrie Moore, Steven Hall. It’s a useful anthology: while a number of histories of visual poetry or text-based visual art are available, it’s harder for me to think of a compilation of fiction that uses visual devices.

Lüthi’s essay considers how these pages are used in the text. Here, his consideration starts with Nabokov and Cortázar: this is a sensible move. Both of these writers might be seen as being in this tradition, but not completely of it; both have characters who suggest a textual device rather than directly presenting it to the reader. Humbert Humbert instructs his printer to fill the page with Lolita’s name; a page of Morelli’s work filled with a single sentence is described in Hopscotch. (Cortázar’s strategies might not be as non-textual as Lüthi suggests: the chapter in Hopscotch where lines are interleaved is not included here, nor is the use of illustration in his non-fiction considered.) There’s a remove from the strategy that Sterne followed here, of course: but conversely, the work of Nabokov and Cortézar can be seen as completely fictional, not breaking into the visual.

There’s a peril that comes with showing and not telling which feels familiar to me: the young expositors of playing-with-the-page (Jonathan Safran Foer, Reif Larsen, Dave Eggers, etc.) are not, for the most part, creating books that felt the need to engage with in any substantive way. I do periodically go to the bookstore, pick up these books which I know I should be interested in – they’re quite visibly coming from a heritage I’m interested in – and put them down, not quite seeing what’s interesting in them. (This isn’t simply a problem with younger writers: I have the same problem with Danielewski and much of B. S. Johnson’s page-based experimentations, though I’ll give House Mother Normal and The Unfortunates – neither mentioned here – a pass.) Why do I react positively to (generally older) visual poetry, or to Alasdair Gray or William Gass, but not to something like Foer’s Humumented edition of Bruno Schulz? Fear of gimmickry? Perhaps its the sense that the visual is there something that’s simply been roped into the service of fiction, rather than something that’s interested in exploring the space between forms. Or maybe it’s a problem with seeming played-out, not experimental enough. There’s a useful passage in “Blank Pages” (the essay portion of this book is not paginated):

But a blank page in 21st-century literature cannot be the same thing as a blank page in the 20th century, much less one in the 18th; time erodes originality and alters meaning, and what was considered a tabula rasa a century ago could not be regarded as facile legerdemain.

This is a position akin to that taken in a passage in Umberto Eco’s The Open Work where Eco discusses Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, a book-in-a-box where every page gets its own leaf, astonishingly translated into English and published in the late 1960s:

I recently came across Composition No. 1, by Max [sic] Saporta. A brief look at the book was enough to tell me what its mechanism was, and what vision of life (and obviously, what vision of literature) it proposed, after which I did not feel the slightest desire to read even one of its loose pages, despite its promise to yield a different story every time it was shuffled. To me, the book had exhausted all its possible reading in the very enunciation of its constructive idea. Some of its pages might have been intensely “beautiful,” but, given the purpose of the book, that would have been a mere accident. Its only validity as an artistic event lay in its construction, its conception as a book that would tell not one but all the stories that could be told, albeit according to the directions (admittedly few) of an author.

What the stories could tell was secondary and no longer interesting. Unfortunately, the constructive idea was hardly more intriguing, since it was merely a far-fetched variation on an exploit that had already been realized, and with much more vigor, by contemporary narrative. As a result, Saporta’s was only an extreme case, and remarkable only for that reason. (trans. Anna Cancogni, p. 170)

Eco’s right here, I think; but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he turns up in Lüthi’s book with a page from Foucault’s Pendulum, ostensibly a record of a computer printout of the 720 possible names of God.

Reading this book, I found my thoughts returning to Susan Howe’s poetry: That This, which I should still write about, and The Midnight, her volume which considers the interleaf. Howe’s work is intensely visual: but it also springs from the history of the visual, the history of American letters and the documents that compose it being one of her primary concerns. Howe’s work feels astonishingly powerful to me, as vibrant of that of anyone working today. Here’s text from the beginning of The Midnight from the space where an epigraph would go: it faces a mirrored facsimile of the interleaf covering the title page of The Master of Ballantrae, a subject of that book:

There was a time when bookbinders placed a tissue interleaf between frontispiece and title page in order to prevent illustration and text from rubbing together. Although a sign is understood to be consubstantial with the thing or being it represents, word and picture are essentially rivals. The transitional space between image and scripture is often a zone of contention. Here we must separate. Even printers and binders drift apart.. Tissue paper for wrapping or folding can also be used for tracing. Mist-like transience. Listen, quick rustling. If a piece of sentence left unfinished can act as witness to a question proposed by a suspected ending, the other side is what will happen. Stage snow. Pantomime.

“Give me a sheet.