Kim Gek Lin Short has written a beguiling and entirely enthralling collection of related prose poems; it is so unusual and provocative in its subtle oddities that I wonder how aware she is of what she’s done. This is always a good sign. It is what you think when you read a story by George Saunders, or see a film by David Lynch, or flip through a comic by R. Crumb: how did this person know he could do this? And how did he summon the courage, or merely the unconcern, to trust that others would not dismiss their work for whatever it first, and less interestingly, appears to be?
The collection, released by the exceptional Tarpaulin Sky, is entitled The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits. It is composed of three distinct parts; the first, upon first reading, may seem the most conventional: it sets up the narrative, even as it watches it spin delirious circles around itself, upsetting its own logic; the second upends this somewhat as it allows the reader to delve into the mysteriously edited and footnoted datebook – a datebook that gives the collection the first half of its title – by one of the two protagonists, Harlan; and the third compiles “selections” from the datebook of the other protagonist, Toland. These component sections add up to nothing cohesive or in any rational sense coherent, although one should not be surprised to find one’s heart aching with the progression of each: an internal logic – of the kind that makes distinct emotions seem urgently connected, of the kind that can make one feel manically persuaded without quite understanding why – makes the initially loose weave of these disparate parts increasingly tighten, and with each constriction, even as the relationships between its characters become more fluid and less comprehensible, a breathtaking sadness takes hold of the work.
This reaction came as an utter surprise to me. The first thing that struck me upon beginning The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits was how bad the writing was; this is because I didn’t yet know what Short was up to. I still don’t, perhaps – but what is clear is that the essence of her writing exists far beyond the immediacy of her prose, so far beyond technique and style that to say that The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits is more than the sum of its parts would be an utter trivialization – The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits is something entirely different than the sum of its parts; the two don’t seem to operate on the same planet as each other. The only problem with the work is its title, much in that it runs counter to the work's cumulative essence: The Bugging Watch refers to the second of its three sections, while Other Exhibits refers to the first, and perhaps the third; it is unusually literal for the work – the title is literally the sum of its parts, or at least two of them; the work is anything but, neither quite more nor less – and it creates an artificial disunion around a work that feels otherwise authentically disunified.
To return to the "badness" of the writing, as it initially struck me: the prose reads as if it were in literal translation from a syntactically erratic language, moving direct and indirect objects around their respective verbs with tireless and inconstant abandon. This initially read to me as the somewhat embarrassing result of an equation that marshaled poetry to a realm of willful obliqueness; each misplaced modifier and tangled predicate seemed to me only a result of this obscurantist approach. But as the emotional and ontological states of the characters withdrew from their initial state of clarity – beneath the obscured prose of the first section lay a perfectly comprehensible narrative; the characters seemed to live in a near-mythical place of folkloric invention and pure, ready emotions that, in all but their descriptive thrust, remained largely foreign to my comprehension; the reader is made plainly aware of how much and how often they feel great, consequential things, but I was unable, at this early point in the work, to quite feel anything with the characters: their ready emotions were not communicated through empathic prose; rather, the depth of these feelings, in response to encounters and realizations of obtuse and unarticulated meaning, is made apparent solely through the evident import the characters give them – this approach increasingly made sense; indeed, it is what makes the book so worthwhile and notable. It is also what makes it so brave: one could easily dismiss the work on the basis of its tiresome prose antics, but it is precisely through these that it expands into the unique, ethereal work that it is.
As the work proceeds, its world expands; soon we are introduced to a director, followed by Toland’s father and then her mother. In its final pages, the words “smurflike” and “Superman” appear; nowhere previously in the collection did it seem that Smurfs or Superman had any room to exist. It is in Short’s ingenious hands that these aberrations, rather than merely betraying the previously established – if amorphous – form and world of the collection, instead illuminate the profound incomprehensibility of human and emotional interactions. The first part of the work seemed to establish a place entirely distinct from what we may believe to be a world relatable to one's own; it seemed an affected fairy tale, something like Grimm Brothers fan fiction. As the collection progresses, it is not merely references to Denver and 1412 Humboldt Street – a GoogleMapable place; one wonders what significance it has to Short – that make this world more recognizable – Denver and 1412 Humboldt Street don’t need any professed, observable “reality” in order to exist, after all – it is the increasing and increasingly incomprehensible expansiveness of the world. Even as we are dealing in rebirths and multiple existences, and even as its characters take on animal-, bug-, and doll-like characteristics, this becomes a most familiar place, one that is nonetheless immensely difficult to articulate: it is the world as we strive to understand it and make it understood; it is how we try to understand ourselves and those we love, and how we think we will be happy. With each new character, with each new unexpected word choice, the world becomes larger and infinitely more lonely; it becomes a world not of fairy tales but of people, and little is more incomprehensible and unknown, and full of love, yearning, and sadness, than the innermost thoughts and desires of people.
The image used for this post is a detail of the cover art for The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits, by Daniel Rhodes.