Mar 062011
 




Kim Aubrey has already contributed a “What it’s like living here” from Toronto just as she was about to move to Saskatoon. This new piece actually seems better than the first, denser, more pressured, more engaged, even as it struggles with engagement, with the new, alien place. It’s fascinating to read the two together. But, of course, I also like this piece for the use it makes of my short story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon,” which is, yes, based on a true story. I did run out onto the ice to help rescue a blind man and his companion dog. But in real life we actually managed to save the dog (in the story, it dies); I brought the dog to my girlfriend’s apartment to dry it off and warm it up; it knocked over the Christmas tree and ate two of the presents and then attacked the policeman when he came to take it into custody. No doubt this will distract you from Kim’s essay. Ignore me. I had a very interesting time living in Saskatoon—but this is Kim’s story.

dg

What It’s Like Living Here

By Kim Aubrey

You ask what it’s like living here and whether I have read your story, “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon.” I read it last week, swearing out loud, “Shit, that’s a good story.” I’ve taken to talking to myself because I don’t know anyone here, except for my husband, Joseph, who’s at work all day. My experience of the place is limited, tentative, and your story has already begun to color how I view it. I’ve been planning to visit the Mendel Art Gallery, and now when I go, your narrator’s account of Mendel keeping his art collection in his slaughterhouse may conjure the sight and smell of blood.

“There seem to be so few people”*

You feel strange here. If the place you live shapes you, molds you in ways you don’t realize, subtly and slowly, Saskatoon has yet to work its magic. You’ve only been here for seven weeks in total, interrupted by a return to Toronto for the holidays and to New Hampshire to stay with your mother while she had a hysterectomy. You make yourself go out some afternoons, no matter how cold it is. Other days you stay at your desk, working on projects, answering e-mails. Or you ring your daughters in Toronto, consoling yourself that they are only a phone call away.

On those days that you make it outside, you walk the two blocks across three snow-packed streets to the South Saskatchewan river, where you can either follow the sidewalk and view the open and closed waters from above, or climb down the slippery hill to the Meewasin walking trail which stretches along both sides of the river. You could cross over to the west side on one of the bridges, but you are waiting for milder weather before venturing across on foot. Here on the east side, the surface of the river is frozen and seems like an extension of the trail, but beyond and under the ice, the river flows swiftly north to Lake Winnipeg.

“Beneath me the unfrozen parts of the river smoke and boil”

Corner Grocer

Outside, it’s minus thirty, but you kick off the covers three or four times a night, pull them back on. Your body’s thermostat is wonky. Heat blazes through you, a trial by fire, something being forged. Your period is late again. Maybe it won’t come. That doesn’t mean what it meant twenty or thirty years ago. It means the opposite now, your power to make a baby dwindling, some other power replacing it. The force of this heat kindles you even in the frozen depth of a Saskatchewan winter.

You hurry inside from a walk. Your knees and the tops of your thighs sting as the warmth floods back into them. You neglected to wear snow pants or long johns, or to wrap your scarf around your face, because you relish the bite of cold, the uncompromising crispness, hoping it will eat a clear path through your befuddled mind. You wonder how you’ll manage to make this prairie snowscape feel like home. When you first moved to Canada, your daughters helped to ground you, to root you in Toronto where you’d landed. What can root you now? You’re hoping the cold can tell you, or the tension between cold and warmth, desire and paralysis.

You gaze at the painting on your bedroom wall—an enormous hyper-real hibiscus. The yellow stalk of its sex casts a cool blue shadow against the lush red petals. When you were a kid in Bermuda, you used to strip the petals from the stalk to find the sticky heart of the flower, its hidden juiciness. You and your brothers would fix the small white cone to the tips of your noses to see how long it would take before the flower’s heart fell off.

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Mar 052011
 

 

Here is a twisted, black comic reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which, yes, is already a twisted, black comic reversal story. So that “Gregor,” by the wonderful Catalan author Quim Monzó is a double dose of twisted and black, or maybe twisted and black squared. This story is from Monzó’s collection Guadalajara, translated into English by Peter Bush, and forthcoming this summer from Open Letter Books. Watch for the book—it’s amazing. Like “Gregor,” many of the stories work on the principles of literary reference and inversion: Ulysses gets trapped inside the Trojan Horse, Robin Hood steals so much that the rich are impoverished and the poor become wealthy, a famous prophet can’t remember any prophecies. Monzó’s influences are often postmodern (Coover, Barthelme, etc.) or surrealist (Raymond Queneau). He was born in Barcelona in 1952. He has been awarded the National Award, the City of Barcelona Award, the Prudenci Bertrana Award, the El Temps Award, the Lletra d’Or Prize for the best book of the year, and the Catalan Writers’ Award; he has been awarded Serra d’Or magazine’s prestigious Critics’ Award four times. He has also translated numerous authors into Catalan, including Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway.

dg

 

Gregor

By Quim Monzó

(Translated by Peter Bush)

 

When the beetle emerged from his larval state one morning, he found he had been transformed into a fat boy. He was lying on his back, which was surprisingly soft and vulnerable, and if he raised his head slightly, he could see his pale, swollen belly. His extremities had been drastically reduced in number, and the few he could feel (he counted four eventually) were painfully tender and fleshy and so thick and heavy he couldn’t possibly move them around.

What had happened? The room seemed really tiny and the smell much less mildewy than before. There were hooks on the wall to hang a broom and mop on. In one corner, two buckets. Along another wall, a shelf with sacks, boxes, pots, a vacuum cleaner, and, propped against that, the ironing board. How small all those things seemed now—he’d hardly been able to take them in at a glance before. He moved his head. He tried twisting to the right, but his gigantic body weighed too much and he couldn’t. He tried a second time, and a third. In the end he was so exhausted that he was forced to rest.

He opened his eyes again in dismay. What about his family? He twisted his head to the left and saw them, an unimaginable distance away, motionless, observing him, in horror and in fear. He was sorry they felt frightened: if at all possible, he would have apologized for the distress he was causing. Every fresh attempt he made to budge and move towards them was more grotesque. He found it particularly difficult to drag himself along on his back. His instinct told him that if he twisted on to his front he might find it easier to move; although with only four (very stiff) extremities, he didn’t see how he could possibly travel very far. Fortunately, he couldn’t hear any noise and that suggested no humans were about. The room had one window and one door. He heard raindrops splashing on the zinc window sill. He hesitated, unsure whether to head towards the door or the window before finally deciding on the window—from there he could see exactly where he was, although he didn’t know what good that would do him. He tried to twist around with all his might. He had some strength, but it was evident he didn’t know how to channel it, and each movement he made was disconnected, aimless, and unrelated to any other. When he’d learned to use his extremities, things would improve considerably, and he would be able to leave with his family in tow. He suddenly realized that he was thinking, and that flash of insight made him wonder if he’d ever thought in his previous incarnation. He was inclined to think he had, but very feebly compared to his present potential.

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Mar 042011
 

What it’s like living here

by John Proctor

Every Monday and Thursday during the school year, I get up at 4:30 and commute via subway from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal, the Metro North commuter train from Grand Central to White Plains, and the Bee-Line bus from White Plains to Purchase, New York, where I teach at Manhattanville College. Having a wife and child while  trying to maintain my pre-offspring reading and writing schedule can be difficult, and the train gives me a chunk of mostly unaccosted reading and writing time. Also, I’ve found that I’m rarely so aware – of my thoughts, of my surroundings – as I am at 5:00 in the morning in a moving vehicle that I don’t have to steer.

For the first time since I moved to New York City in 2000, I live in a neighborhood – Park Slope – that rarely makes me feel physically unsafe. It’s a popular site for movie shoots that want an “old Brooklyn” feel, but the only hint of crime that I’ve experienced are break-ins of my car if I leave it unlocked.

Park Slope, in the springtime

No matter the time of year, whether the waning days of summer at the start of the school year or the dark heart of winter when the second semester is just getting underway, I exit our three-story brick apartment building into a near-total darkness, broken up every 50 feet or so with the dim yellow arcs of streetlamps. Our block is mostly old three-story linoleum-sided buildings, with a sprinkling of ultra-modern condos that sit half-empty, waiting for the housing market to recover. We hope the market stays bad forever, so we’ll always have streetside parking. Some blocks near ours have actual gaslight lamps. These lamps seem to be in keeping with the “historic district” designation that Park Slope shares with Beacon Hill in Boston and New Orleans’ French Quarter.

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Mar 042011
 

Spain has a surprisingly extensive network of Canadian studies departments, a fact that astonished me when I stumbled upon a conference program reference to this essay about my novel Elle. I tracked down the author, wrote him an email, and asked to see a copy of the paper. This was years ago. Pedro and I became email friends. He arranged for me to be invited to a conference at the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands where I met a crowd of fascinating scholars and lived in an old hotel on a beautiful windswept square in the centre of the city (which is a UNESCO heritage site). The volcanic mountain at the centre of the island was shrouded in mist the whole time I was there. I was introduced to drinks the names of which (as well as the contents) are unfortunately lost to memory. (DG is a notoriously bad traveler.) I love this paper about Elle. I love the magical message loops–someone in Spain was decoding Elle as, simultaneously, I was decoding Don Quixote and writing The Enamoured Knight. I have no idea why there is this connection with Spain. It’s mysterious. Pedro Carmona-Rodríguez is an affable, acute, and sapient scholar, a terrific reader of my work. He teaches English, Theoretical Discourses, and Anglo-American Literatures  at Universidad de La Laguna /UNED in the Canary Islands. His area of research is contemporary Canadian literature with an emphasis on gender and postcolonialism, the two entwined. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Annual meeting of the Spanish Association for Anglo-American Studies (AEDEAN) at the University of Huelva (Spain) in December, 2006. (For an earlier essay on Elle published in Numéro Cinq, see Westra & Westra, Douglas Glover’s Elle: A Menippean Satire.)

dg

I Am a Landscape of Desire: Gender, Genre and the Deconstruction of the Textuality of Empire in Douglas Glover’s Elle

By Pedro M. Carmona Rodríguez


Douglas Glover’s novel, Elle, engages issues of control and its refusal, which are part and parcel of any document that intertextually appropriates and interrogates the imperial text. Through its historical research, the novel shows how the dynamics to expose the functioning of empire is increasingly concerned with examining the extent to which contemporary views are inflected by colonialism. As Tiffin and Lawson argue, “[i]mperial textuality appropriates, distorts, erases, but it also contains” (1994: 6), being this containment a more or less covert tendency to silence any contesting narrative. Glover’s Elle reflects how a female wayward gender construction turns into a counter narrative of the imperialist zeal of settlement and reproduction of the same in the seemingly empty land of the other. Woman and land are here interrelated entities, since biological reproduction and the reproduction of the incoming civilisation are, therefore, parallel acts of colonialist impregnation.

Anne McClintock’s suggestion that imperialism and its deconstruction requires a theory of gender power unveils the mechanisms whereby gender and sexuality lead us into a new dimension of colonial mimicry (1995: 6). This paper is concerned with the ways in which a wayward gender configuration parallels the generic instability of the document produced by the novel’s heroine. On the one hand, Elle’s views on space, race, gender, sex or Native myths challenge the mirror of the Eurocentric technologies of representation, and their vehicular means, the travel account, to inhabit on the other side. On the other, an atypical gender inscription manufactures a peripheral location for her subject. In the meantime, the Canadian periphery, in several senses, is hailed as the stance to threat the colonialist centred textuality. Elle’s autobiographical document unwrites the marginalisation that colonialism and patriarchy have firmly elaborated for her and the Canadian space.

When the novel opens its main narrative line, its then anonymous female protagonist, a replica of the 16th century historical Marguerite de Roberval, the French woman abandoned in the St. Lawrence River’s firth during Jacques Cartier’s third Canadian expedition, is on top of a man whose penis she maintains erected as tied by a rope, while her lover, Richard, is about to throw up out of sea sickness. When the novel is about to end, in turn, the same protagonist has just murdered Monsieur de Roberval, the agent of her dereliction, in the guise of a Canadian she-bear.[2] While it seems evident that passivity and activity struggle for preponderance in Elle’s story, her act of writing back from Canada gains for her an upper hand in her fight with the vectors of imperialism and patriarchy: on the one hand, she overtly defies the humanist subject in underlining her gender, and, on the other, that same gender diminishes the relevance of the European colonialist patriarchy.

Being a literal defiance for the systems upholding the enterprise of settlement and reproduction of the French in Canada, Elle is left behind the expedition to which she belongs. Her rendition of that abandonment is transformed into a vitriolic critique of the colonialist mentality (see Hernáez Lerena, 2007; 2009). The creation of subjectivity produced by her memoir interweaves race, gender and sexuality, three elements that turn colonialism upside down. However, Elle promptly claims that “I must be the first French woman to set foot in this world, the first of the General expedition to land, the first colonist in Canada” (Glover, 2003: 37). From the opening of her text, she reveals herself as being between the colonialist and the colonised. Whereas her European origin includes her within the former group, her position as writer and story-teller endows her with the authority of the historian, and illustrates that of so many white women in the New World, who “[…] were not the hapless onlookers of empire, but were ambiguously complicit both as colonisers and colonised, privileged and restricted, acted upon and acting” (McClintock, 1995: 6). As part of that appropriated agency, Elle launches demolishing critiques, and, once, they have targeted their aim, recedes to deny her own relevance as writer and subject. Pragmatically speaking, however, the objective has already being achieved, namely, that of undermining the basis of dominance and establishing firmly a counter-narrative. Thus, she frequently makes speeches like,

I am a headstrong girl, shallow and frivolous, born to a little land in the provinces but never meant to take part in the so-called great events of my time even if I have wanted to. Instead, I wanted to read books and make love, which only made me an object of lust or ridicule and bound me to the periphery, the social outlands, to Canada. Aguyase. […] I have founded an unofficial colony in an unofficial Canada. […] Unfortunately, no one knows this, which is the nature of unofficial non-histories (and anti-quests). (Glover, 2003: 149)

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Mar 032011
 

Poster by Ginger Anne London

On Thursday evening, my brother and I sat in the clammy bedroom of his Latham, NY apartment and mulled over the final edits of Wings Over Arda: The First Age, which had in the last six months undergone an assiduous metamorphosis from a disconnected reel of raw footage to a coherent, colorful, mellifluous chunk of mostly-edited data.  The sound effects had all been dropped in, the music had been finalized (as of the previous night), and the color grading had been completed after hours of sedentary work.  The film was to have a private premiere (with invited guests, friends and family of the cast) in two days.  Travel plans had been made by cast members and family in Manhattan, Boston and Rochester.  36 gigabytes worth of special effects, which would need compression to 1.5 or so, had yet to be delivered to us.  Philip sat on the phone with Jack, our special effects expert and camera operator, uttering intermittent “Oh”s and “yeah”s as my chest did cartwheels.  “There’s no way I’m rescheduling the premiere again,” I thought.  It turned out Jack’s computer had taken longer than expected to export the effects.  He came through, like I knew he would, but by the time the effects were done and the film exported in its entirety, we had about twelve hours to figure out how we were going to show it.  The DVD-making process, for whatever reason, failed.

While getting dinner with cast members/musicians, less than two hours before the film was to premiere, I received a call from my brother, and there came the first time I’ve ever answered my cell phone in a restaurant.  It was just like I’d imagined: the dismayed stares from the wait staff, the attempts of my companions to shield their faces, all of it.  The call itself lasted roughly nine seconds.  My brother had only one sentence for me, a sentence which came out as a single word: “GotthemovieworkingbutSeedwon’tworkgottafigureitoutseeya.”  Seed is my brother’s short film, which was set to screen before Wings.

I arrived at the Key Auditorium with friends at my heels and half the cast already present.  The congratulations began and I made sure my handshakes and hugs were firm, despite not knowing whether our planned double-feature would even be happening.  When I finally entered the theatre, a still frame from Seed‘s Gung-Fu action finale was spread across the screen, and my brother worked away on his Mac computer, which he’d MacGuyver’d to the theatre’s projector system.  Deep breaths were taken by all.  Anna and Laura, who had come with me to dinner, took turns laying hands on my shoulders and insisting that I’d been worrying about nothing.  The cartwheels inside wouldn’t stop, however, until the end credits rolled.

The initial response to the premiere-version of the film was what I’d hoped for.  Nearly the entire cast was able to attend.  Audience members who knew the source material expressed support of my adaptation, and those who had never even heard of it claimed they were able to follow the story with no trouble.  My father even breached his usual 9PM bedtime to attend.

It wasn’t until midway through the laughter-coated cast party, during which we watched the behind-the-scenes featurettes I edited together, that I realized what this project really was.  Amid my sadness about such a fun, thought-consuming project reaching its inevitable end, I forgot to look around the room.  Once I did, I realized that more than half of the attendees, now some of my closest friends, had been strangers to me a year earlier.  Working on this film did more for me (and hopefully others) than I ever anticipated.  As I move into the DVD-burning process and flirt with the idea of film festivals, I can only hope the adventure will continue.

Thanks to DG for letting me host the film diary here.

Click here to see Tolkien Gateway’s article on the film

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Mar 032011
 

 

Science is in a strange predicament these days.  Political rhetoric for math and science funding abounds, but creationism, in some corners, has equal footing with evolution.  Science is set forth as the savior of the nation: we will innovate our way out of this recession, our ingenuity is our greatest asset.  But from the same mouths come cuts in funding for basic research, or else strings attached.  Such fact-centrism unfortunately sets science at odds with the arts, which are being cut even more deeply.

In 1959 British novelist-scientist C.P. Snow called this dichotomy “The Two Cultures,” a phrase Loren Eiseley references in “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” which appeared in The American Scholar in 1964.  In his essay Eiseley, himself an anthropologist, distills his core belief:

It is because these two types of creation—the artistic and the scientific—have sprung from the same being and have their points of contact even in division, that I have the temerity to assert that, in a sense, the “two cultures” are an illusion, that they are a product of unreasoning fear, professionalism, and misunderstanding.

That theme—that science and art are born of the same mind and are therefore inseparable—permeates Eiseley’s writing and reverberates today.  Eiseley was one of the earliest practitioners of, shall we say, philosophical science writing.  He didn’t just examine the natural world and illuminate it in layperson’s terms, he considered the symbolism in scientific happenstance, and he ruminated on our true human place in the galactic flotsam.

The culmination of his career is The Star Thrower, a compendium published a year after his death in 1977.  Eiseley organized much of the book himself, drawing from magazine articles; unpublished essays and lectures; and his previous books, including The Immense Journey (1957), The Firmament of Time (1960), and The Unexpected Universe (1969).  The publication timeframe of those three major books puts Eiseley at the heart of the mid-century environmental discussion, right alongside Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, and the other writers to be profiled in this series.  What makes Eiseley’s work unique among this group is his struggle with science.  He asks continuously whether is it all right for him, as a distinguished anthropological scientist, to feel.

The titular essay in Eiseley’s posthumous collection was originally published in The Unexpected Universe.  In it, he walks along a beach and comes upon a man throwing stranded starfish back into the ocean, an act Eiseley first sees as futile.  In the essay, he recalls the writings of G.K. Chesterton and Goethe; considers Darwin; and remembers the Biblical injunction “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.”  But, he writes:

I do love the world…. I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again…. I love the lost ones, the failures of the world. [This is] like the renunciation of my scientific heritage.

The next day he joins the man on the beach in lofting starfish to the waves.  If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of “The Parable of the Starfish,” which took off in the 1980s and likely originated with Eiseley’s essay.  But while the parable’s moral is about making a difference in the world, Eiseley’s story is more complex.  As a scientist, he knows he should have no compassion for those starfish, he should not anthropomorphize them into beings that care whether they live or die. But he does.  “It was as though,” he writes, “at some point the supernatural had touched hesitantly, for an instant, upon the natural.”

That self-given permission to feel, in the context of scientific observation, allows Eiseley’s work to glide through long pages of evolutionary theory and the history of philosophy, then return to personal moments in nature: Eiseley rescuing, somewhat humorously, a snake and a desert hen, which had entangled themselves in an inadvertent death-struggle; Eiseley being joined for lunch beneath a dock by a muskrat; Eiseley wrestling playfully with a young fox, as if it were a puppy. And he lets himself edge toward fiction.  The previously (until The Star Thrower) unpublished “Dance of the Frogs” and “The Fifth Planet” have a touch of the mystical. The former features a scientist skipping along a road in the presence of barely seen giant frogs; the latter tells of an amateur meteorite hunter obsessively seeking fossils of extraterrestrial life.  These remind me a lot of Barry Lopez’s fiction: in particular Desert Notes (1976, one year before The Star Thrower) and Winter Count (1981)

This mixture of science and art also gives birth to an exciting and varied language.  In one place (noticing a resemblance between eroded rock and the human brain) Eiseley trots out this tortured staccato:

The human brain contains the fossil memories of the past—buried but not extinguished moments—just as this more formidable replica contained, deep in its inner stratigraphic convolutions, earth’s past in the shape of horned titanotheres and stalking dirk-toothed cats.

And elsewhere, on the same general topic of human-nature correspondence, he keeps it simple:

For example, I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider.

So where does Eiseley sit in the pantheon of Eco-Lit?  He’s an outlier, his name not often said in the same breath as Edward Hoagland’s or Carson’s.  But The Immense Journey sold a million copies, making it an early anchor, just after Carson’s and Joseph Wood Krutch’s initial works and before Abbey and Wendell Berry.  His work is perhaps less accessible than the others, prone to long probing philosophical passages that smack more of Ivory Tower than beachcomber.  But always, just when he’s gone almost too deep into the mind, Eiseley, with the subtlest of transitions, lifts from his own experience an unforgettable tangible moment, rich with sensory detail.

Eiseley could be considered an unwitting instigator of what John Brockman calls “The Third Culture:” scientists that are also literary giants.  This is a hot subject today.  The Best American Science and Nature Writing is in its 11th installment. Brian Greene (Mr. String Theory) regularly publishes physics books for the masses (he’s got one on the NY Times Bestseller list right now).  Neil deGrasse Tyson has brought the stars down to earth with provocative titles like Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries.  Mike Brown’s recent How I Killed Pluto interweaves the story of the ninth planet’s demotion with Brown’s own infant daughter’s first years.

I read The Immense Journey in college, while studying landscape architecture and also, for fun, taking courses in anthropology, cooking, raquetball, and nature writing.  Back then Eiseley went over my head, but I picked up The Star Thrower this winter.  I was reminded of an experience from a year ago.

Last March, during yet another cold weekend when I wished the long northwoods winter would just be over already, I took my toddler son to the zoo and lifted him up so he could reach into the tidepool exhibit and touch starfish and anemones.  Ethan was utterly gleeful, maybe about the strange salty water, maybe about the leathery skin of the starfish, maybe about the way the anemone tentacles stuck to his fingers like tape, but certainly about nature.  There was no scientific inquiry there, only feel. That’s what we are born with.

Science can either make us forget how to feel, or can augment our ability to feel by adding in the details, broadening connections to other things, creating excitement at the unusual.  Art and knowledge, science and literature: Eiseley’s message is to keep both vital.

Proceed to the next essay,  on Edward Abbey—the provocateur, or return to the Table of Contents.

— Adam Regn Arvidson

Mar 022011
 

Artist Paula Swisher (photo by Andrew Huth)

 

The Quirky Bird Art of Paula Swisher

text by Anna Maria Johnson, bird imagery by Paula Swisher



I was privileged to meet Paula Swisher in 1997 while she and I were both studying art at Houghton College in rural western New York.  Many late nights, we stayed up painting, drawing, and sharing our life stories.  Paula is probably the hardest-working visual artist that I’ve met, and in the past decade or so, has created a rich and wide-ranging body of work in a variety of media–painting, drawing, graphic design, web design, and most recently, interactive media.

In light of recent NC community posts about the relationship between text and images, notably Wendy Voorsanger’s “An Exploration of Poem Painting,” I thought it would be appropriate to share some of Paula’s images which she painted directly onto the pages of discarded business textbooks.  Many of her images are direct responses to the pre-existing graphs and phrases from these textbooks, but she re-interprets the business-speak through the lens of her personal experiences to say something entirely new and different.

For instance, Paula Swisher began this particular bird-and-text series during an extended bout of unemployment.

"Unemployment"

“Unemployment”

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Mar 022011
 


 

Deforming Forms: Outlier Short Stories and How They Work

By: Richard Farrell

 

I once spent an entire day at The Art Institute of Chicago, wandering alone for hours through the vast museum.  I began in a gallery filled with artifacts from ancient civilizations and moved chronologically through the collection, passing the pharaohs’ coffins from ancient Egypt, the shards of classical Greece, the religious art of late antiquity, the medieval tapestries, and the Renaissance sculptures.  I marveled at the massive rooms filled with Impressionist paintings, and eventually ended the day in galleries filled with the strange pieces of ‘modern art’, the often abstract objects, difficult to categorize or comprehend.  I never studied art or art history in school—Annapolis tended to ignore the humanities in favor of the art of war—so what I knew of art came mostly from pop culture.  I recognized the famous Seurat painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte because I had seen it in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Though embarrassed by my ignorance, I began to experience a visceral understanding of the progression of styles as I moved through the collection.  I became aware that these shifting styles related to one another, that classical forms evolved slowly into more modern, abstract expressions. Standing in front of a Kandinsky painting, with its strange geometric shapes, or a Jackson Pollock painting, with its seemingly chaotic splashes of colors, felt very different than standing in front of a painting by Pissarro.  Yet the essence of what I experienced felt connected.   I kept asking myself the question: What makes something a work of art?

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Modern abstract art had always seemed inaccessible before this experience.  I was guilty of appreciating works of art for little more than what Douglas Glover calls “the resemblance they bear to old dead people in funny clothes.” (Notes Home from A Prodigal Son)

Standing in the modern gallery that day in Chicago, I learned that the formal aspects of art accomplish more than recreating a sense of reality.  Though I saw connections to historical forms and styles, I had no context for the experience, no intellectual background to support my emotional reaction.  This glaring hole in my intellect (one of many) has continued to gnaw at me ever since.

As I’ve begun to study writing more seriously, my interest has focused on the aesthetic principles that make a story or a novel work.  And just like in the museum, there is a vast continuum of story-types, stories which refuse to follow traditional models.   I’m particularly fascinated by stories which stretch the boundaries of storytelling.  Call them experimental, avant-garde, or ‘outliers,’ but some stories refuse to follow long-standing techniques.  I should say up front that I enjoy stories in the realist tradition.  I enjoy writing that creates a strong sense of verisimilitude and stories that rely on conventional devices.  Well-made, conventional stories are the stories I most often read and try to emulate when I write, but I have to admit, I’ve never asked myself why.  The premise goes unquestioned.  And not questioning convention can lead to bland, unthinking products.  By exploring the unconventional, the outlier in short story form, I hope to arrive at a deeper appreciation of story architecture in all its varied forms, conventional and otherwise.  I hope the following pages will help re-envision the idea of a story and expand the boundaries about what makes a story.


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Mar 012011
 

David Levithan’s Argot of Arousal,

A review by Darryl Whetter

 

The Lover’s Dictionary
David Levithan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 9780374193683

Frontispiece, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Colburn and Bentley, London 1831

Mary Shelley and her progeny know that novels need more than just bone, muscle and skin; they also require that elusive spark of life. David Levithan’s interesting but patchy novel The Lover’s Dictionary definitely isn’t another atrophied non-story du jour. In places, the skin of prose also glows with ruddy life. Its familiar but relevant romantic trajectory gives it a strong, able skeleton with cheekbones of infatuation, flirting hands and a breadth of shoulder willing to take the weight of romantic cohabitation. Despite these strengths, however, the novel’s dictionary structure leaves the body of this story unfinished, as if constructed during fitful labour shortages. Between the islands of gleaming flesh, too much glaring white bone is left exposed to the air.

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