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.

Puerto Del Sol 48.1: A Display of “Lyric Muscle”

by  Nina Boutsikaris

I’m a fan of the tight, the gritty, the visceral. I fall to my knees for the kinds of juicy shocks to the heart that work quickly and quietly and leave me breathless. The winter issue of Puerto Del Sol had me on my knees.  Jennifer Buxton, Myronn Hardy, Steven Ramirez (on genocides against the Mexican people—women, immigrants, and otherwise), Shome Dasgupta, Sonya Huber, Lisa Estus (with a haunting look at childhood cruelties), Robin Lee Jordan, and several more, contribute lyric muscle to this 48th volume, which sings, spits, and stuns with brief and powerful work, testing our squeamish limits—as in Brenda Rankin’s “The Parameters of Flinching: A Tonometric Study”—and exploring themes of intimacy, regret, identity, and the things we hide or share in the dark of night.

2013-winter

In Matt Bell’s opening excerpt, “We Had Never Before Eaten Meat,” a man prepares for his wife’s pregnancy, “this best last chance of a child,” after a slew of tragic “lake-bound” losses. As he sinks into a deep and strange resentment for his wife and her unprecedented hunger for cooked flesh, Bell uses poetry to conjure the woods, the lake, and the moon to life, creating a shadowy, nightmarish world that is as familiar as it is utterly surreal.

Birth reappears, tragic again, in “House Call: 1936,” Dani Sandall’s heartbreaking prose poem. Sandall paints a doctor’s duty, the death he’s just left behind: “He has soaked the woman’s sorrow with ether-drenched rags now burning in fires of cedar bough as smoke slinks from the stone flue like drunken angels towards heaven’s floor.”

The late and wee hours are major players in this collection—as cloak, as fantasy, as sin in T Kira Madden’s tormented confessional “All the Parts You Shouldn’t Know,” and in Shome Dasgupta’s new raw anti-love story, “Went the Bite.” With scary skillful syntax Dasgupta sits in our ears. “Droop, droop, droop went the stars,” goes Dasgupta. “Bird, bird, bird, went the chop. Bottle, bottle, bottle went the pieces, and smoke, smoke, smoke went the ash. Pepper, Pepper, Pepper, went the red. Air, air, air went the quiet. Gums, gums, gums, went the teeth. … Heart, went the pound.” And we know precisely what he means.

Now in its 47th year, New Mexico State University’s “journal of new literature” continues to publish stellar, fresh voices. The collections editor-in-chief Carmen Giménez Smith and prose editor Lily Hoang curate are worth picking up, worth holding on to, worth sitting down for, preferably on your knees.

 


Nina Boutsikaris is a candidate in nonfiction writing at the University of Arizona. She serves on the nonfiction editorial board for Sonora Review. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Phoebe, Booth, and elsewhere.

Book Review: Animal Collection by Colin Winnette

Animal Collection – I grasp for words to describe it. It is modern. It is postmodern. It is fables. It is magical realism. It is Saundersesque. It is Carveresque. It is flash fiction. It is short stories… Let’s just say that Colin Winnette’s second book of fiction, a collection of 25 [insert genre/mode here], defies classification. Though I do think postmodern fables gets pretty near to the heart of it.

These stories tow the line between the real and the fantastic, but unlike traditional fables, they defy metaphoric interpretation. When the animals take human roles, they do so bearing realistic descriptions that obliterate simplicity: “The elephant was looking at me with those tiny, wet eyes and holding me against the wall with his flat, leathery feet.” The attention to detail defamiliarizes man and animal and leaves the reader open to new interpretations of the relationship between the two.

Winnette’s characters not only reverse roles, they share crippling anxieties: greed, indiscretion, loss of control, loss of self, ego centrism, abandonment, guilt, acquiescence. These characters build cages for themselves; they break out of cages only to find a hungering world awaits. Twice in this collection legs are eaten off—characters face physical and psychological immobility. This collection asks haunting questions, and does not always provide answers.

In a few of my favorite stories, the magical realism is nonexistent, understated, or exposed in ways you wouldn’t expect. In HUMMINGBIRD, a woman obsesses over a bird she believes will sequester the guilt of not raising her young son: “She imagined the hummingbird behind the curtain of her hand. It would cock its head. It would be a simple and lovely thing. It would not call her ‘selfish’ or ‘unfit.’” In MOTH, the character’s ambivalence toward nature is expressed in just four sentences.

One of the greatest strengths of this collection is the variation in syntax and—therefore—tone. When appropriate to the character, the punctuation is playful and the sentences are long and rambling. Other characters prefer clauses that are short, repetitive stabs. At times, the sentences are disjointed and chock full of sorrow: “There was chocolate later, where he’d been standing. A small bar in soft paper.” From the varied syntax, a host of individual voices emerge, and leave the page just as quickly, emblazing your memory with their deeply haunting tales.

The book itself, the actual physical object, handmade from recyclable materials by Spork Press, feels like something from your childhood. It feels like it will transport you to a magical place where you are carefree and safe. But it is not—it will not. In a recent interview with THEthe Poetry, Winnette carves out a few new categories for his work: “It’s a bestiary, an abecedarium, a zoo.” Whatever you call it, the collection is neither comfortable nor simplistic. In the end, these stories deny straightforward morality but impart wisdom all the same. And, as the character notes in ULYSSES BUTTERFLY, leave one feeling inexplicably happy at the strangeness of things.

Buy Animal Collection from Spork Press.

-Laura Miller

Review: Beth Alvarado’s Anthropologies

The beginning of Anthropologies feels like something you’ve remembered before—a frail mother recounts stories for a middle-aged daughter. But then, the daughter is 18, and she wears bell bottoms and a black tee shirt and argues with the mother about a boyfriend. The argument ends and it is Colorado in 1968, and the windows fog as a young girl dries dishes with a young mother, and suddenly you aren’t remembering—you are living in a world so specific and complete you can’t have passed through it before.

Beth Alvarado’s Anthropologies is a pile of perfectly ordered snapshots, so quickly and quietly stacked that soon the remembering becomes a world unto itself.   Alvarado is the daughter of Margaret, the niece of Dorothy, the younger sibling to a half-brother and half-sister born of a father who died in Saipan and a mother too early a widow. Margaret meets her second husband en route to a bridge game in Puget Sound, and Alvarado’s childhood ends when the family moves from Grand Junction to Tucson. “My father was a solitary man,” Alvarado says of her father. “How I hated him,” Aunt Dorothy says of her father, Alvarado’s grandfather.

So is the fabric of a family created, through memories stacked one on top of each other. Through the first section of Anthropologies, Notes on Silence, Alvarado remembers what she learned of her family as a child—the origins of the couple that would become her grandparents, become her parents, and the memories are associative, leaping from quiet deathbed memories to the bubbled promised of courtship.

While vivid, the moments in Notes on Silence, aptly titled, are quiet and dependant on Alvarado’s telling of them. It isn’t until the second section, Notes on Travel, that these moments begin to exist of their own agency—as experiences we inhabit ourselves rather than memories possessed by a narrator.  Notes on Travel begins as Alvarado meets Fernando, the man who will become her husband, but for now he’s just the waiter at an awkward formal dinner when she’s an awkward teenager. She’s 18, then, and travels to west Tucson, Hispanic Tucson, to live with Fernando and his family, and she could well have traveled to a different country.

She watches her mother-in-law pat tortillas on a stove. She takes an “old round green bus down South Sixth Avenue,” passing “the carniceria and the tortilleria and the storefronts painted bright yellow or orange or pink with blue letters and black wrought-iron bars over the windows, and the music of Spanish… all around.”  She absorbs the stories of this new landscape, with its thick layers of memory and history, and these stories alter her, change her own memories and her relationship to her own history. “I wanted to escape my parents’ life, to enter another country, but I hadn’t expected to find there barefoot children hopping from spot of shade to spot of shade as they followed their mother to the grocery,” she writes.

This world, the world between cultures, is the most firmly rooted in place—Tucson, in the 1970s and today—and it becomes, for me, the most vivid. Alvarado explores the intersection of Anglo and Hispanic cultures within this grounding, in relationships with new relatives, or thirty years into a marriage with Fernando, or quick experiences of a mixed-race son and daughter.

Anthropologies is sparse yet complete, a narrative forged out of fragments. The book explores memory and race and relationships, but after awhile, anthropologies is not just about this exploration—it is a memoir, after all, a story of a life, and Alvarado has funny friends and endearing moments. (“The fall picnic. We are standing in front of the salads. Cre-a-tive Wri-ting? the Japanese doctoral student in engineering asks me, spooning rice onto his paper plate, what is this? Cre-a-tive Wri-ting?”)

“Maybe my grandmother simply entered a room in another woman’s past and it felt like home,” writes Alvarado—and maybe that’s what she’s doing here, building rooms, and they start to feel like home.

For more on Beth and the book, check out yesterday’s interview with Beth Alvarado and please order the book, out now on University of Iowa Press.

Megan Kimble is noticeably more cheerful since she stopped commuting on the freeways of Los Angeles and started biking around Tucson. She runs, hikes, and loves breakfast and chocolate chip cookies.

Review of “I’m Still Here”

You can come to view I’m Still Here any number of ways. One is the way I viewed it: with little knowledge of the premise or the scandal or the reports about its legitimacy from entertainment news. You can view this film with tons of knowledge on the subject of Joaquin Phoenix, of his film career, of his friends and relatives, his dead brother, his famous brother-in-law who directed this thing, and of his career-breaking or making latest move—creating a rapping, homeless-dreadlock and beard growing, weight-gaining non-acting persona called “JP.”

You could view I’m Still Here with less knowledge than me, and you might even laugh the hardest. The movie shows all the key moments in the history of Joaquin’s short acting hiatus, so no background is needed.

Or you could be like the weird superfans who went to Joaquin’s second and last rapping performance, in Miami, included in this documentary. Those kids that showed up wearing fake beards and sunglasses got their fifteen minutes, however confusing their message ended up, behind each lens of Phoenix’s project.

If you see this movie and don’t get right away that it’s faked, you shouldn’t watch movies. But, somehow, I didn’t cringe (much–the P. Diddy part was pretty bad). In fact, the acting is brilliant. It’s really real. Like, what realist acting should be. It’s all totally outlandish that this would be filmed as reality, but it’s all believable as a story because it’s acted well.

One thing I like about I’m Still Here is that, even if it’s a hoax, it is a documentary*. It’s about fame and Hollywood and the way a celebrity is pampered until he is helpless and then thrown out once he’s unattractive (which, by the way, somehow, Phoenix still isn’t) and all the stuff we think about when we think about Marilyn’s and Kurt’s and Ruslana’s and Viveka’s and Daul’s deaths and Britney’s breakdown and Lindsay’s arrests.

The conception of this documentary tricked some, and it bored others, and it got cult-style attention from a select few. The thing is, this film is faked, and Casey Affleck said so, but amazingly, this film does not manipulate the way most documentaries that claim to be honest do.

Old people that have never heard of JP, YouTube channel hosts that follow his career’s Oscars and binges, hipsters that dress up and actually pay to see him fall off a stage again, other celebrities, and people like me, whatever that is, see this movie and learn something they already knew: Something about the industry chewing up and spitting out. Something about a young boy having a world of fantasy created for him, and unknowingly slipping over the edge of that world once he breaks some unspoken rules. Something about the one elephant in the room that dispelled all myth of JP by never being mentioned. Something as sad and deep-rooted as that death that stands for all those other deaths that haunts vaguely, but is easily ignored.

We all knew it all along. Everything. That Phoenix is a great actor, that celebrities buy drugs and women, that they talk shit about everyone and they pay people to pretend to be their friends. This movie probably isn’t going to change anything except for Phoenix’s own career, which is what would’ve have happened if he wasn’t faking his hip-hop leanings anyway. And every person who sees this film, who was afforded his or her own opinion on the subject beforehand, they’ll all leave with that same opinion, but with more enthusiasm. Because this movie is really entertaining. And—paradoxically—that’s what we’re told we want, and I’m okay with saying that I’m being told something that’s true.

I’m thinking about all of this in retrospect, of course. What I said right after seeing the movie is, I’m Still Here is fucking hilarious. The whole thing is funny. Phoenix is like Vincent Gallo if he smoked enough weed to turn into the guy that Zach Galifinakis always plays, if that guy was kind of retarded and a big rich bully. I mean he literally gets shit on. Pretty raw.

-N. Stagg

*I’m basing my interpretation of this idea on a list the great Barbara Cully recently made, which is based on Benjamin Woo’s article, “The Fourth Estate and the Ninth Art”, and others he appropriates:

Documentary

  1. Like journalism, a form of evidentiary representation–it exists as a record of people and events.
  2. It handles its evidence and its relationship to its evidentiary function differently from journalism.
  3. Documentary is “the creative treatment or interpretation of actuality” (Grierson quoted in Nichols)
  4. A clear distinction exists between “newsreel” and “documentary”(Stella Bruzzi)
  5. The function of documentary is to provide structure and meaning.
  6. The direct cinema movement proved that documentary’s driving ambition is to find a way of reproducing reality without bias or manipulation and that this pursuit is futile.
  7. While journalism has attempted to veil its workings in quasi-scientific objectivity, documentary has instead attempted to demonstrate that the truth represented by a recording becomes more truthful and more authentic as it displays the fact of its own recording.
  8. The juncture between reality and filmmaker is the heart of any documentary (it is reflexive).
  9. Documentary has both reflexive and performative modes.  Performative “constructs evidence where no documents exist” (Rabinowitz).  As in making visual evidence out of speech.