Thursday, May 01, 2003

Another work in Raddle Moon 20 worth thinking more about is Robert Glück’s “The Visit,” a series of 12 prose meditations executed in – as well as on – a scrapbook purchased for “a dollar at an antique sale.” Each section accompanies a postcard of a scene in Japan, such as “THE GENERAL HEADQUARTERS OF THE ALLIED POWERS,” suggesting that it was produced initially during the occupation of that country by the U.S. et al after WW2. Maybe three or four pieces into these gorgeous & subtle works, I had an “aha” experience: this is the work that I had hoped W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn was going to be, but which I felt ultimately failed. And it made me think of the tension that exists between Sebald’s writing – or perhaps his writing as imagined by his advocates – and the collective project known now as New Narrative, a term I associate with Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Michael Amnasan, Camille Roy, Kathy Lou Schultz, Kevin Killian & others mostly (tho not exclusively) around San Francisco.*


Sebald, who was killed in an automobile accident in December 2001, was a German émigré to the United Kingdom whose novels became A Big Deal both in Britain & the U.S. just as he passed away. Some of his advocates were people whose literary judgment I trust – Gil Ott in particular – but a lot of it seemed to come from the same folks who pretend that Knopf is a serious publisher of poetry, for whom Sebald appears to have been a revelation of the possibility of plotless prose, something they could have discovered 80 years ago had they paid heed to Stein, Shklovsky & others. Reading Rings of Saturn after all the hype, I found myself wading in expecting a modern day Proust, only to discover that, at least in Michael Hulse’ translation, plotless prose was listless prose as well. It made me wonder why, for example, Sebald’s work has generally not been taken up in his native Germany & what the larger social dynamics behind his acceptance & even adulation in the U.S. & U.K. might imply.


Against that as a background, these twelve pieces by Glück are indeed a revelation. Both texts utilize images – Glück the twelve postcards against which (or perhaps around which) this work was conceived & executed, Sebald a series of illustrations – photographs, paintings, newspaper articles – some of which are discussed in some detail in the text. Glück’s use of imagery is consistently more challenging, as in the fourth section, above a postcard photograph of the resort town at Lake Ashi, seen from above (probably a photo taken from a helicopter out over the lake itself):


This photo documents our absence, but daydream, the amateur, recovers possibility:

   Today a child approached me on the dock. She was gap toothed and she held both hands out. I couldn’t tell if she was giving or asking. I split into red blue green sloppy registration. Sloppy registration and a lazy printer. This is quite a “modern” setting – even the distilled quaintness and low-tide flavors are modern if that means self-conscious. It smiled for the camera so often it couldn’t remember a normal expression, if normal means “not modern.”

   The breeze was salty, the scene itself typical of a rewrite. She wore a tiny indigo silk suit, that is, pants and jacket. I thought she probably came from a class above mine or at least a better department store. Beneath her lids Mr. Rabbit lifts his paw to strike. The amazed Fox raises his eyes and says, “—

   Stepchild, if she said a word it would be rampion. She was trying to assert a connection between us – I wondered if she was my daughter. She had the lean fingers and intricate ears some newborns have.


Rampion, a word one seldom sees apart from a menu. The piece works, in contrast with Sebald’s, precisely because there is no wastage. But it also works in contrast, say, to Chris Tysh’s “Disappearing Series,” precisely because the parts don’t fit neatly into a closed system. Each new detail opens a further vista. Nothing in the photograph implies the presence of an approaching child, yet that is the image that keeps the three final paragraphs of the piece from spinning out of orbit altogether. Yet the schema doesn’t restrict what occurs either. Thus, for example, the improbability of the word rampion, or the description of “intricate ears.” Even more jolting is the sudden naming of the addressee: Stepchild.


Glück even plays around with the question of representation a la Tysh in that second paragraph, but rather than turning back toward a set piece concerning referentiality, the question of the modernity in the camera’s elicited smile becomes the point of momentary focus.


In one way, “The Visit” replicates an experience that I’ve had with Glück’s work on several occasions – proceeding with a quietness that is completely disarming, it nonetheless surprises and expands my sense of what is possible. The other works in Raddle Moon offer an instructive contrast: all on the surface appear to be more transgressive, but I’m not convinced that any of them really are. Glück appears to have little or no interest in the flash or camp one associates, for example, with the plays of Kevin Killian or the sex tales of Dodie Bellamy. Yet the questions of identity surrounding the figure of the child in the piece above are no less charged, no more simple. It’s precisely Glück’s ability to demonstrate the range & depths available to a quieter register that first called into mind Sebald’s writing. Yet, unlike Rings of Saturn, there is nothing listless about Glück’s prose. If anything, it’s as exciting anything now being written.








* Some of the so-called New Formalists have adopted the appellation New Narrative as well. Neither term is accurate, although accuracy seems never to be much a value for those pre-romantics.