Review of In Praise of Nothing by Eric LeMay

The first choice to be made about Eric LeMay’s new book, In Praise of Nothing: Essays, Memoir, and Experiments (Emergency Press, 2014), is how to read it. This is perhaps a self-evident enough process but also something we could pay more attention to. LeMay knows this and calls attention to it; he trains his sense of play upon how or why an individual reads, the back and forth tension that’s created by the choices and navigations a mind must take when it meets a text. Visit the collection’s companion site for example and you will find not a description and overview of the book, with the requisite blurbs and stars and literary comparisons, but a questionnaire asking you what description and overview you are looking for, what literary comparisons you invite, and how many stars you’re interested in reading. After this, the site generates a response and thus a meta-version of the book based on your stated preferences. All in all, it makes me feel a little silly for having a Goodreads account. Which is all part of the joke. It’s in praise of nothing, of course, but it’s also in praise of in praise of nothing, which is also all part of the joke.

Within this joke (as within all good jokes) is contained an argument: writing, in particular writing the essay, is various and varied and ever-changing, and an essay’s forms depend on a good degree of whimsy and the structural capacity and restraints of the medium they’re delivered through. Before reading this collection, I was familiar primarily with LeMay’s work online and so was eager to see how his essays written for a digital format—written dependent on a digital form, in several cases in the forms of games—would translate to print. I was eager to see what choices would be made. And, naturally, when expecting a definite choice from an author, I was faced with having to make a choice myself.

LeMay’s collection of essays comes as both e-book and bound, printed book and while these both house the same essays, the shape and form and reading experience of those essays vary significantly between the two books. The titular essay, also the collection’s opener, can be read as an ebook, but also “read” or listened to via a video clip of the webcams the essay explores (with LeMay providing his own voiceover). And within the digital form, the essay includes links to the webcams which make up the subject of the essay and which tempt the reader to follow down the same perambulations and obsessions that the essay itself finds wanders.

And this maybe gets at one of the hearts (yes, plural, like a worm; shouldn’t smart writing always have more than one heart?) of LeMay’s prose: in the grand experiment of the essay, his work argues that there is no such thing as a control. These essays are as variegated and speckled with regards to one another (from webcams to Francis Bacon, from Gatean Degas to etymological viralization) as they are in their ability or interest in reinventing their various forms and iterations. Yet their segmentation also implies a connectivity, a concatenation (sometimes quite subtly—see how the notion of what constitutes a virus begins with Gatean Degas and then reoccurs three essays later in Viralization, an experiment of both the expansion and contraction of language; see as well how the idea of naming and anonymity reaches its climax with the aforementioned Degas but its ideas were first laid out several essays earlier in the excellent, standout Biography of the Nameless, a history of John and Jane Does).

A sense of humor and gentle self-deprecation runs throughout this collection as well. It’s paired with LeMay’s quick and humble intelligence, an intelligence that has no bones about being interested or making fun of its interest in the proverbial old and scholarly and dusty (see the Francis Bacon investigation and see Wynde, an essay written in Olde English, I believe). These investigations are couched in the argument that the old is constantly made new, that much of the experimentation or games or fun in terms of these essays’ content and form can be found in earlier, perhaps less sexy models. Much of this can be seen in condensed form in the collection’s final essay “The Lost Garden of Herman Haerlin,” which explores a now defunct insane asylum and garden built in Athens, Ohio in the 1870s by the German designer Herman Haerlin, a disciple of Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s a fascinating and intriguing if not fully realized essay—LeMay’s taken a series of photos of the present site of the now vanished asylum and spliced them in with black and white photographs of the institution so that there’s a patch of color in every black and white photograph and vice versa. It’s a copy and paste collage that embodies, concisely and cleverly, much of the work of the collection.

This collection of course also takes into consideration how we ourselves want to read. It is the first book, admittedly, I’ve ever read solely on a monitor. And there are, curmudgeon that I am, great and exclusive benefits to this digital format: perhaps most of all the opportunity to follow a mind’s mazes, its diversions and diversities, and still be able to surface for air. Consider LeMay’s piece entitled Resistible, a Comic Memoir about Comedy, a long yet also very contained and fragmented essay/memoir ten years in the making (LeMay acknowledges that he began it in 2002): each short segment of text (no more, I’d say than 300 words for many of them) features a video clip as a header that’s anywhere between a minute and 5 minutes in length. These clips, often old cartoons, ads, or excerpts from TV shows, are carefully researched and curated (in other words: dug up from God knows where, the beauty and mystery of research} and shade and highlight the concerns of the text. Yet as much as they parallel or deepen or approach the same subject matter overtly or tangentially, they never fully or directly correlate; they never exist on a 1:1 scale, which makes for a more associative and ultimately essayistic read.

What’s interesting about these pairings is that the text takes much less time to read than the video takes to watch. I’m left with this funny and unusual dichotomy: I can read faster than I watch, or rather the path through a text or essay is faster and more attention-grabbing if I only stick to the words. Perhaps not remarkable, but also not intuitive for me: the internet, the computer is where I go so often to watch the videos and clips that keep me from reading, that keep me procrastinating, and here I’m faced with just the opposite dilemma. The text engages and so now I find myself procrastinating by reading, in essence, what I would normally find myself too distracted to read. It’s an odd reversal. Yet it’s also a reversal that offers up options: we can of course “read” the essay without watching the videos or while having the videos on in the background as we devour the text. Similarly, I imagine we can “read” or watch the videos without reading the text and we’d have some sort of bizarrely correlative experience. We could do both, which to me the diligent reader, feels to be the true overlap of the Venn diagram and how the essay wants to be experienced (or essays really since the collection and dispersal of these video clips are their own sort of essay or variation or experimentation in their own right), although there’s nothing explicit anywhere telling us we have to do that. The rules here are subversions more so than strictures. Just as, for LeMay, the form of one’s self, the form of one’s shelf, are if not subversions, then at least up for debate. These essays are in praise of nothing as they are in praise of what many essays champion: the daily minutiae, the little moments, the bait and tackle that raise interest and complication upon reflection. But they also champion a different kind of nothing—one that’s an awareness of many many somethings, of the meanderings through an idea that eventually renders all those somethings, all those possibilities, into a new sort of nothing.

Eric LeMay is the winner of the Emergency Press International Book Contest. He is currently on the faculty of the writing program at Ohio University and serves as associate editor for New Ohio Review and web editor for Alimentum: The Literature of Food. He is the author of two other books, The One in The Many and Immortal Milk.

Tommy Mira y Lopez is the outgoing nonfiction editor of Sonora Review. New work of his can be found, or found soon, in CutBank, The Pinch, and Seneca Review.